Summer vacation isn't what it used to be, or what it should be: A time to kick back, recharge the internal batteries that keep us going for the rest of the year, daydream while canoeing across a pristine lake, and imagine the edges of the universe while staring up at the star-strewn night sky.
Sorry, kids, there's homework. And for rising seniors, it's high-stakes homework. It's an assignment that will probably rattle plenty of nerves -- and might even ignite a squabble or two between parents and kids. It's the infamous Common Application essay, and it's become something of a national obsession for college-bound families. And once that all-important essay is done, the fun isn't over. Many students have a pile of supplementary essays to tackle, but those don't go online until late summer or early fall.
How many synonyms for "stress" can you think of? Strain? Anxiety? Panic? Hysteria?
We don't need to go all the way to hysteria, even if a little healthy panic creeps in now and then. One way to get a jump on the panic is to start early. There is no one way to approach the Common App essay, but if you're working alone on it, and you want to delve into your material, a sunny summer afternoon may be the ideal time to do this exercise with each of the prompts.
There are five prompts to choose from, and the final essay must be between 250 and 650 words. Please note: this year's prompts are radically different from last year's; the essay can be longer than it was last year; and there is only one essay. Don't consult last year's Common Application for information about the essay!
Type or write a single prompt at the top of a page, one prompt per page, whether you're working on paper or on the computer.
1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Starting with No. 1, let your mind wander and write down anything that comes up. Don't write in complete sentences, and don't censor yourself. Write as much as you can until you've exhausted the topic. Go on to the next one. Do as many topics as you feel comfortable doing. Don't feel you need to complete them in one day. If nothing comes to mind for a prompt, it's fine to pass to the next one.
What are you looking for in doing this? You're looking for a topic that excites you, that puzzles you, makes your heart beat fast, and makes you feel you might have more to say. If you hit on a subject that has that effect on you, it might be a topic for your essay.
If you pick a topic that way, start a fresh piece of paper, write the prompt on top, and begin exploring it in more detail. Keep the prompt visible, so that you don't stray from it as you write. In your first draft, write longer than the assignment -- the 650-word maximum -- and don't worry about making it even twice as long.
Write as simply and straightforwardly as you can. Be specific, detailed, and as probing as you can be. Write about what matters to you, and write in your own voice, not the voice of the kid with the big dictionary. This is your chance to show and tell the school who you are and how you process your experiences. You're looking more to tell a story -- the story of yourself -- than to brag about your smarts. Your grades, scores, and recommendations will address those.
Once you're done with a draft, put it aside for a day or two or three. When you go back to it after some time away, you'll see it with different eyes. Read it aloud to yourself and then to someone else. Once you go through another draft or two, show it to a parent, a teacher, guidance counselor, or someone whose opinion you value. Be open-minded in listening to criticism.
Plan to rewrite. And rewrite again. And then rewrite some more. And please check my blog for more advice.
Elizabeth Benedict is a bestselling author, journalist, and writing professor who works with applicants to colleges and graduate schools on their essays and personal statements through her company, Don't Sweat the Essay. Her clients have been accepted to Harvard, Yale, UPenn, NYU Law, Washington University Medical School and many other schools. For SAT prep and help for students whose scores suffer due to test anxiety, she partners with Capital District Consulting, whose services are available in the NYC-NJ-Albany-Boston region.