In our last post, we covered how to brainstorm and prepare to write. Our advice was to:

  • Tell a compelling story.
  • Write something! Write anything!
  • Don’t beat yourself up! These things take time.
  • Write down or record random thoughts.

Now let’s consider some suggestions for how to tackle the actual writing process.

student_writingWrite around the question.

During these early stages of the writing process, don’t focus too much on answering the question directly. We’re not giving you carte blanche to ignore it completely, but you shouldn’t feel obligated to make every paragraph relate back to your main point when you start writing. Remember, this isn’t an analytical essay! It’s ok to meander a bit, so you should feel free to incorporate other ideas. Write around the topic, and see where your imagination takes you.

Make unexpected connections.

As you begin to build on the preliminary notes you crafted during the brainstorming and mapping process and whatever you’ve gathered along the way, your writing will probably expand beyond the narrow margins of the prompt. You may even type a sentence that may seem unrelated to the main point but can be loosely connected with the right context. That’s great! Those connections – specifically the ones that emerge when you’re not even trying! – can illustrate to the admissions committee that you’re a creative, sophisticated, and resourceful thinker. And don’t worry if you stray too far; you can always redirect the focus of the essay during the revision process. Which brings us to…

Don’t delete anything!

As you’re writing, it may be tempting to discard ideas or delete sentences as you go. Don’t do that! We would even go so far as to suggest you handwrite your first draft so that you can’t delete whole paragraphs (or even whole pages!) with the stroke of one key. A throw-away paragraph may be the perfect addition to a Supplemental Essay down the road, but it may be lost forever if you highlight and delete it before it has a chance to become something. If you are unable (or unwilling!) to handwrite your draft, ask someone to take notes for you while you dictate or record yourself and then type from the recording. If you do decide to type your first draft, rather than editing as you go, simply start a new line or open a new document. That way you can return to what you’ve written later so you can search for a usable phrase or sentence.

Respect the word limit – eventually.

When you’re working on a draft, write as much as you can! Don’t worry about the word limit. If you’re on a roll, keep writing! You may end up with one page of writing that can be used for the main essay and three pages that can be incorporated into Supplemental Essays.

Your final main Common App essay must be between 250-650 words, but don’t feel like you’re required to use the full word count to write a compelling story. That being said, we wouldn’t suggest dipping too far below 600 words. You want to make sure you have enough space to tell your story and to reflect on what you learned from it and what it says about you.

Andrew Belasco
A licensed counselor and published researcher, Andrew's experience in the field of college admissions and transition spans more than one decade. He has previously served as a high school counselor, consultant and author for Kaplan Test Prep, and advisor to U.S. Congress, reporting on issues related to college admissions and financial aid.