7 Tricks For Getting Started On Your Common App Essay

There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank piece of paper. Feeling pressure to come up with the “perfect” essay that will wow your top choice college is enough to shut down the creative process completely. Here’s a secret: your essay doesn’t have to be perfect.  What is key is sharing authentic, compelling stories that demonstrate your core attributes and values as well as experiences that have shaped who you are. The best part is that these stories are already in you--you just have to write them down. 

Pick one of the following 7 tricks to generate ideas and get started writing. Remember, don’t edit or use backspace when you are brainstorming. The point is to create first and edit later.

  1. Write down 5 topics you think a college admissions team wants you to write about. Now cross out each of them. Instead, think about this: if your best friend was introducing you to someone important that you had never met, and they could only tell a story to describe you, which story would it be? Write the title of this story in the middle of a piece of paper. Around the title, list short descriptions of all the different moments in this story and what they show about you.

  2. If your life was a movie, what are the 3 most compelling scenes in it? Pick two of those scenes, set a timer and write for 5 minutes on each. Now read them out loud to yourself or to someone else and ask: What does the reader know about me after reading this story, and is that unique or interesting?

  3. What activity do you do where you lose all track of time? Describe that activity and how you came to love it. For example, let’s say you love to do embroidery, and can do it for hours on end decorating pillows, jeans, and purses. How did your interest start? How did you learn how to do it? Did a family member teach you? Did you take a class and fall in love with it? Have you created gifts for people that have made an impact? Describe how you feel when you are creating something new.

  4. Scroll through your social media accounts for highlights and memories and make a list of 10 that show something unique about you. For example, if you find a post about your time as a camp counselor, could you write about a moment where you learned something new about yourself or helped someone.

  5. Find an old photo of yourself where you are doing something that you haven’t done in a long time. Write a description of the moment that the photo depicts using your 5 senses--what you felt, saw, experienced--and if you don’t know the story of that photo, ask a family member to tell you. Grandparents are great for this!

  6. Think about how you're different from your siblings and write a description of a moment that demonstrates that. For example, did you put on plays for visiting family members as a child while your brother was building Lego skyscrapers alone in his room? Describe one of the plays and what your brother said when you invited him to be in it.

  7. Pick a story from your life where you failed at something and tell it out loud while you record it with your phone. Then play it back and transcribe/type your words. This can help short-circuit the editing brain that can be hard to shut off but that can take the life out a great story.

These tricks are only first steps in the essay-writing process, and may generate many ideas. Once you decide which idea to go with, be sure to include not just the experience itself but its impact on you, how you grew or changed during the process and any realizations you had along the way. Remember you are the main character in this essay. So be sure to write in the first person and don’t be afraid to be yourself!