The Common Application College Essay: Cracking the Code

I just got off the phone with a parent of a rising senior whose daughter wasn’t “cracking the code” of her Common Application college essay. Or so said the student’s high school English teacher.

“Is there one way to write these things?” asked the parent.

My answer: No.

There are guidelines set by the Common Application, but as for a strict form?

Let’s just say, I’ve seen many form variations that each reflect a student’s singular point-of-view and unique tone-of-voice. No one structure, schedule or approach fits all.

Here are three general guidelines I use when essay coaching my students:

Schedule vs No Schedule

Some students work well with a fairly strict timeline of ideating, drafting and editing. Others prefer a looser rhythm. I follow my student’s lead up to a point. If an ED deadline is looming and a student is struggling with time management, I’ll suggest using the ole iCal to forecast draft due dates, ensuring all essays are ready for submission on D-Day.

“Call to Arms” Approach

Boot Camps are useful for students with limited free time. Athletes or performing arts rising seniors often have specialized camps, productions or recruitment showcases during the summer. With only one or two weeks to focus on their personal statements, these students often need a fire lit to get the essay started and completed. In these instances, I provide the matches for a safe blaze!

Overthinking It & Underthinking It

“I have nothing to write about” (Overthinker) and “I know what I want to write about” (Underthinker) are the most popular declarations from my students. Neither is usually true, however. Even if a student embarks on their hour-long Brainstorm knowing exactly what they want to write about, their opinion usually changes after we walk through the various prompts. That student may decide the material they wanted to use for their CA Essay is better suited for a Supplemental Essay. And the student who is convinced they have no material in their lives worth penning often leaves the Brainstorm with multiple ideas to explore.

I’m here to help all students crack the code for their one-of-a-kind Common Application college essay.


For more information about College Counseling and Essay Coaching, please drop me a line at or give me a holler at 917-863-2424. Also, for “news you can use,” please check out my blog, videos and Facebook page.