Is it better or worse to start CommonApp essay in the summer?


With all the heightened excitement and anxiety around college applications, many rising seniors will wonder if they should start their CommonApp essays sooner. While many may want to start in the summer, I think it’s not always the best decision and here’s why: however a college-bound teen spends their summer before senior year will influence their college application essays period.


My students in the past have participated in a wide range of activities in the summer before senior year like job shadowing, working at a restaurant, conducting research in a university lab, visiting college campuses, attending an engineering program, or volunteering in a hospital. A few students even spent their summers reading books and traveling with family. Each of these lived experiences is ripe college essay material.


College-bound teens already have a full plate of activities and school assignments over the summer, so adding college essays slights the full attention that writing deserves. I believe that teens can and will write their best college essays at the close of the summer, when they are less distracted. Waiting until then also means that students will have the opportunity to reflect on the summer experiences and incorporate any lessons into their college essays.


CommonApp essay prompts for 2018-19

Prior to the summer, it may be helpful to know the Common Application essay prompts. (I start with the CommonApp because there’s a growing number of colleges and universities (800+) on this system, which makes it very likely that the majority of college-bound teens will apply through the CommonApp.) For the 2018-2019 school year here are the prompts that students can choose from for their personal essay:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Source: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts | The Common Application

Any earnest writing is better left closer to the start of senior year. However, if there’s an irresistible urge to start sooner, you can try this exercise (taken from my ebook, Write Essays that Get In and Get Money for College.


Prep exercise for CommonApp essay

  1. To start your first college application essay, get a sheet of paper. You will use one sheet of paper per essay.
  2. At the top of the page, handwrite the essay prompt/question.
  3. Set the timer for 6 minutes.
  4. Handwrite freely your initial response to the prompt/question that you wrote at the top of the page. IGNORE grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. Keep your pen on the paper and only STOP when the timer ends.
  5. Wait a day or so before writing more on this essay. As you have new ideas related to this essay, you may handwrite on this same page before typing.

You can repeat this exercise for each prompt.

How would you vote . . . start CommonApp essay sooner or later?

3 Ways Parents Hurt College Chances Without Knowing It

Do you have a high school senior who is now applying to colleges? If so, I have exciting news to share with you so that you do not make the mistake of jeopardizing your teen’s college chances. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this behavior exhibited year after year with parents of seniors. I want to share it with you so that you are both informed and empowered in terms of how you support your teen through the college application process.

August is the time that seniors will be usually setting up their Common Application account. That’s the main portal or tool that they’ll use to have the ability to apply to hundreds of colleges. Ideally seniors will choose eight to ten colleges to apply to using the Common Application website.

One of the things I see is parents working with their first child to go through the college application process and they get a little bit overzealous in terms of helping. When this happens, I warn parents that it’s okay to help, but not do. There are generally three key mistakes I see parents making that jeopardizes their teen’s chances of admissions.

The first mistake parents make is using their teen’s Common Application password to log into their account. A few years ago, the mother of a client of mine was logging in to her son’s account and inadvertently submitted an application with her name on it. That’s embarrassing–and it’s difficult to undo! The Common Application now has accounts created for parents, so you can set up your own account. That way, you can see what the application questions are, how to fill out an application and get some insight without actually logging into your teen’s account.

The second mistake that I see is from parents that will write the application essays for their teens. I know some of you might be horrified by this thought, but it’s true. It happens every year. Unfortunately, that’s a critical way to hurt your teen’s college admissions chances. It’s highly likely that a college admissions officer will recognize the difference between the words a parent would use versus a teenager. An essay written by a parent won’t have the same authenticity that’s needed to be really compelling and stand out. Sometimes, even if you’re not fully writing it but instead trying to write about an experience or offering certain words to use, it will still be obvious. What I recommend is to let your teen invite you to read their application essay and just do that. As much as you can, restrain from commenting on it or suggesting changes. Read it, encourage them, and let them submit their best without you placing judgment on it.

The third and final mistake that I see parents making is having too many readers. I have seen some parents invite family members and other people that they know in the community to read their teens application essay. Just like too many cooks in the kitchen can be a disaster, having your teen respond to three or five different readers stresses them out more and makes the process that much more challenging for them.

To recap, the first key is to get your own Common Application account. The next is to not write your teen’s essays. Thirdly, limit the number of readers for your teen’s application essays. One or two, that should be enough so that it doesn’t confuse them, doesn’t undermine and discourage them in any way. The main thing that your teen needs through this process is confidence. They need assurance that it may be a tough season, but they will get through it and it will be a great experience for their future.

3 tips every Parent needs to Know about the Common App

You have likely heard about the Common Application and have some questions about what it means for your college-bound teen. As a general overview, the Common Application officially started in the 70s. The system we know today, however, wasn’t really defined until about 2000. A significant turn for the Common Application then was that the organization determined that its focus would be on holistic college admissions. What that means for you today is that all the colleges that are members of the Common Application have a holistic selection process.

Common App
Common App opens August 1

Those colleges consider transcripts, test scores, teacher recommendations, essays, activities, and other supplemental materials which give the colleges a more complete perspective on how that student will contribute to the college community.

Here are 3 hot tips every parent will benefit from knowing:

  • Not all colleges are on the Common App – There are over 500 colleges on the Common App, compared to about 2500 4-year colleges. The colleges that are not Common App members can have any selection process that fits their college mission. On the other hand, some colleges may have a holistic selection process but may want to use their own systems for managing the volume of applications received.
  • When your teen signs the Common App, they are agreeing that . . .

a) the essays are their own writing,

b) all the information is true (i.e. all test scores and school suspensions must be reported, even if they happen in senior year), and

c) they will only send a deposit to one college when they make their decision.

It’s easy to forget these details when students are excited about their admissions letters, but keep in mind that all admissions decisions are conditional and can be revoked at any time.

  • You can get your own Common App account – I suggest that if parents are curious about what their teen is submitting on the Common App then they can get their own account. This will allow you to understand more about the requirements and stresses of meeting the application deadlines!

This is an exciting time with your college-bound teen. I hope that you will allow your teen to own the process, as you participate in the journey.

What additional questions or thoughts do you have about the Common App?

Check out our Parent 2 Parent audio clip on the Common App, which has a juicy aside!

How To Get The Best Teacher Recommendation

studying in the library

During sophomore and junior year of high school, I discuss the importance of teacher recommendations in the college application. Learning what teachers should write in their teacher recommendation letter is quite eye-opening for students. More importantly, learning this information long before it’s required means that students will have an opportunity to work on developing those important student-teacher relationships.

For example, in a recent Common Application, teachers are asked to respond to these student qualities:

  • Creative, original thought
  • Productive class discussion
  • Disciplined work habits
  • Reaction to setbacks
  • Concern for others

These are in addition to academic and other personal characteristics.
If you are reading this shortlist and can’t think of ONE sophomore or junior year teacher who would rank you highly with these qualities, then it’s time for you to start nurturing 2-3 teacher relationships. This is meant in a sincere way. If you’re genuinely interested in the topic being taught, that’s one way of determining whether to further build a relationship with the teacher.

Many of my students will apply to selective summer programs. When they apply to a summer program during sophomore or junior year, this gives them a great opportunity to request a recommendation. The teacher who writes a summer program recommendation will learn earlier about your interests and how to write about your unique attributes.

Whether you’re requesting a teacher recommendation for a summer program or college application, here are 5 key things to do to get the best recommendation:

  1. Request the recommendation 3-4 weeks prior to the deadline, when possible. This will allow the teacher ample time to write a strong letter on your behalf.
  2. Provide the teacher description of the program of interest. Discuss why you’re interested in this program. When applying to colleges, let the teacher know the colleges of interest to you and why.
  3. Activities Resume – share your updated Activities Resume with the teacher so that he/she will learn more about your interests.
  4. If there’s a form provided or other instructions about what should be included in the teacher recommendation, give that to the teacher, as well. Make sure that if there’s a waiver for you to sign that you do so prior to giving the teacher the form.
  5. Most important . . . Give the teacher an addressed envelope to seal and sign. If the recommendation should be mailed, please fill out the address and place a stamp on the envelope. If the letter should be returned to yoMake sure that teacher signs across seal of envelope with your recommendation, to ensure confidentialityu, please write on the front of the envelope.”Teacher Recommendation for (Your Name)”. Please make sure that the teacher signs across the seal of the envelope (see photo). This ensures that the recommendation is confidential!

Teacher recommendations are an important part of your application portfolio, whether it’s for a summer program or college admissions. You may also follow these steps if a counselor recommendation is needed.

What’s worked for you in getting the best recommendation?

Class of 2015 College Apps and Essays Workshop

Essays Workshop

August 5, 2014 – August 7, 2014

3490 S Dixie Dr, Ste 225


Fun, fast-paced, and just enough information to put you ahead of the admissions game in the senior year! In this 3-day camp for Class of 2014, you will

•Finalize “best fit” college list
•Create winning essays
•Develop activities resume worth reading
•Develop time-saving application strategy
•Get personalized guidance from an admissions pro


  • “…a great stepping stone to the admissions process.  The skills and tips she provides allowed our son to prepare his essays with confidence.” – Parent
  • “…extremely helpful in providing input on essays and clearing up confusion with the application process.”
  • I feel much better prepared to write both my Common Application and supplemental essays following the Workshop.
  • “…very helpful in that I could have my own personal questions addressed and answered in a way that was very informative and beneficial to me.”
  • “I feel much more confident in my application process.”


How to choose the best Common Application topic for you

common app logo

Most students working on their college applications may have decided which topic they will use for their main Common Application essay. If you haven’t already submitted an application, I challenge you to consider what would be the best topic for you to write about . . . that is, not just the prompt you like best.

Here are the 5 prompts for the new Common Application:

  • 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.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family

To get started with choosing the topic which would be most authentic and compelling for you, follow these steps:

  1. Spend a few minutes thinking about how you would respond to a prompt
  2. Writing a response to the prompt (about 5 min)
  3. Go to the next prompt and follow steps 1 and 2 for each of the five prompts
  4. After you write a response for all of the prompts, look over each response and answer these questions:
    • Which response would you feel most proud to submit?
    • Which response could you write about on and on?
    • Which response do you think an admissions committee would want to read?

Whichever response you feel that the admissions committee would want to read, get rid of that response immediately. the biggest mistake that students make in writing their college essays is writing what they think the admissions committee wants to read. There will likely be more than one admissions reader of your college application and trying to please one will get you in trouble with the other! Besides, your best writing will be in your own voice and NOT someone else’s.

Now, look again at the response that you would feel most proud to submit and the one that you could write on and on about. It’s easier to choose if one response fits both questions. If not, then you still have a great start to choosing the best topic for you.

Your best essay will be the one that you have the most passion to write. When my students come to me with a dull, boring essay, I recognize immediately that they chose a topic that they didn’t care about it. When you are passionate about your essay response, your writing will pop off the page. If you read it aloud and it doesn’t pop, then it’s time to rethink your topic before you submit!

If you’re applying through the Common Application, which prompt did you choose?

Should I answer the “optional” essay on my college applications?


Numerous college applications such as Elon University or College of William and Mary will include questions noted as “optional.”

Elon’s application reads: You may also write an optional personal statement if there is more you would like to tell us about your background or any circumstances that might inform your academic information.

College of William and Mary has this optional essay: Beyond your impressive academic credentials and extracurricular accomplishments, what else makes you unique and colorful?

Does this really mean that you can skip this question? Well, “yes” and “no.”

On the “Yes” side . . .

If you skip this optional question, then it will save you that extra hour that you would have spent writing a response. Instead, you will have an hour to do something that you really enjoy. Senior year is already busy enough without doing “extra” essay prompts on college applications. Right?

On the “No” side . . .

When you see the word “optional” think “opportunity” instead. You may also note on the Common Application that there is an optional section for additional information. When you review your Common Application in its entirety, if there is any information that’s missing or a low grade that needs explaining, then please include that additional information in the optional section. Do you want to have an opportunity to attend that college with the “optional” essay? If your answer is “yes” then that essay prompt is an opportunity to have your voice heard, it is NOT optional.

Get ready Class of 2014 for new changes to the Common Application

The Common Application will change beginning in August 2013. It will be a good change in that the navigation features will make it easier for students to work on their application, modify, and get help when needed.

The uploading features will change, however:

Unlike the old model, the new system will not allow students to upload a résumé, although member colleges can add that option if they choose. In such cases, applicants will still be able to zap a document say, a research paper they wrote to the admissions office, but that transaction will not happen as part of the Common Application. Eventually, the Common Application will have overlapping admissions cycles—starting in August and ending after Labor Day—that run simultaneously. And as of next summer, the Common Application will become an online-only venture so long, paper.

via Meet the New Common Application – Head Count – The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The most exciting change I’ve heard about is that Common App is removing the “Topic of Choice.” Not sure why it was ever included since the other five topics are so broad to begin with. In all the years that I’ve been reviewing the Common App essays with my students, it has been extremely rare to read an essay that qualified for the “Topic of Choice” category. Good riddance to this question!