My top tip for managing college essays

College application season is upon us again, and if you’re a rising senior or the parent of a rising senior just starting to pull a final list of colleges together, you might be starting to notice that the whole process is, well, a little bit complicated.

Everyone talks about the famous “college essay,” but in reality that should be “essays,” plural. And potentially lots of them. There is of course the main Common App personal statement, but what you might not realize until you actually sit down and begin adding schools is that many colleges have institution-specific supplements that include additional essay questions.

Most of these questions require around 150-250 words, but some can be just as long as the main personal statement.

If you are applying to specialized programs in engineering, health sciences, businesses, or architecture, you will almost certainly need to write multiple essays for some schools. 

Since the Common App makes it so easy to add colleges with the click of the button, and since students are applying to increasing numbers of schools as a way to hedge against dropping acceptance rates and unpredictable financial aid packages, it’s easy to end up with a whole lot of essays to write. 

Now, if you (or your child) is the sort of hyper-organized type-A student who has known your first-choice college since sophomore year and started your applications sometimes last spring, this might not pose too much of a problem.

This post is for the rest of you.

Although it might sound like nothing more than straightforward common sense, I cannot stress how important the following is for keeping the number of essays you need to write from becoming overwhelming. When I did admissions counseling, it was the absolute first thing I had every single single student do. 

Go to the Common App and click on the supplement for every school you are planning to apply to.

Find the essay questions for each college, and copy and paste all of them into an Excel document, divided by school. 

Make sure to include the character minimum/limit for each question. For maximum clarity, put this information in a separate column.

When you have compiled all of the essay questions, go through the document and see which topics repeat in multiple schools. Although the phrasing may change slightly from school to school, there should be a significant amount of overlap. Even schools that go out of their way to ask quirky questions (ahem, UChicago) typically also include at least one relatively general option designed to give you some leeway.

Provided that you do not completely detest the topics/themes that recur most frequently across schools, think of an  experience/interest/personality trait that you can in some way connect to the most common topic, and make it your primary supplement essay. Remember that it is not necessary to answer every question to the letter: as long as the connection is reasonably clear, you’ll be fine. The prompts are mostly there to induce you to write essays that will not put admissions committee members to sleep. 

Start with the school with the longest essay, usually about 500 words. Then, pare it back for schools with similar questions but progressively shorter character counts. It’s a lot easier to get rid of words than it is to add them.

For schools whose questions do not quite fit, you may also be able to rewrite short sections of your essay to give it a slightly different slant. The point is to recycle material whenever you can, albeit in a way that doesn’t feel artificial. This will take a little practice, but most people get the hang of it after the first few schools.  

Also: almost every school with a supplement will have a “why this school?” question. Again, write the essay with highest character count first: this is your template. For each subsequent school, research the same set of features: departments, classes (find ones in your areas of interest that look particularly interesting), professors, clubs, internship opportunities, etc. Then, you can plug in with just a few alterations to account for different schools’ quirks and particularities. Just don’t forget to change the name of the school. You do not want to proclaim your undying affection for the University of North Carolina on the essay you’re submitting to Duke. 

And finally: writing college essays is like any other skill: the more you do it, the better you get. If possible, wait until you’ve done a few apps to work on those for your top choices. Your essays may continue to evolve, and you want to leave yourself some room to grow before working on the schools that matter most to you.