Students, Don’t Expend All Creative Mojo on the Common Application Essay

Save Energy, Time and Material For Supplemental Prompts.

One of my students crafted a beautiful supplemental response for a school she desperately wanted to gain admission to only to discover she had misread 250 characters for 250 words. She toiled into the wee hours of the morning, paring her exquisite essay into an equally compelling haiku. From my home, I virtually hand-held her while her parents snored. By sunrise, she had met her school’s application deadline and was sleeping herself. But, this success was achieved with great anguish. Before she hit the pillow, she had to make sure she communicated her passion for the school while answering the prompt AND killing her darlings, an editing task that had her in tears. “If only I had read the prompt more slowly and left myself more time to figure out what I wanted to say.” I pointed out that she had answered the question — almost too well, in terms of detail and length! She didn’t find my humor amusing at 3AM. We chuckled later.

From years spent pitching PR clients, editing my own writing and teaching the craft to others, I advise my students of the following:

Read the Prompt.

Now, read it again. What’s it asking for? Is it a two-part question like Syracuse University’s supplement? Does the school’s website give you tips on what they’re looking for in a student? (

I double-check my student’s Supp List not because I doubt their ability to cut-and-paste information. Students are moving fast this time of year and I need to move faster in order to coach them well! By scoping out a school’s website and carefully considering the college or university’s supplemental essay questions, a student infinitely improves their chance of making the cut. Bottom line: You can’t competitively play to win if you don’t read the rules.

Know Your Audience.

To reduce reinventing his wheel, one of my students smartly recycled material in his supplemental essays. A small glitch occurred. School A was a small liberal arts college in New England and school B was a large state university in Texas. The weather, atmosphere, size, student body and curriculum were very different at each, yet he made the schools sound interchangeable. Unfortunately, this economical decision, which did save him time and energy, was going to possibly cost him admission — at both schools. Supplemental essays are “I Love You” letters to a school. When using the same information in essays for different schools, make sure the schools are at least in the same region. In other words, don’t mention the arid, desert climate at a New Orleans school, and similarly, be careful of describing pronounced four seasons with fall foliage at a Southern Californian university.

Take a Risk.

I never say this. Except when I do, which is when a student’s love for a school is palpable. This is generally when a student has decided on applying ED and then, I would say that expressing their commitment with zeal is a good thing. In fact, I would argue that, in the Early Decision or Early Action round, a school wants to be wooed; admissions’ teams are assessing applicants who are the right fit for both the class and the school. These early deciders are not only giving shape to the personality of the incoming grade, but also becoming the institution’s next crop of brand ambassadors. If a student has a strong reason why they should attend their first choice school, then I say, state it with as much tone-of-voice and point-of-view as possible! Within reason, of course.

If your student needs any guidance with their Supplemental or Common Application Essay, drop a line or give a holler at or 917-863-2424.