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Articles / Applying to College / Summertime Can Be Essay Time

Summertime Can Be Essay Time

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 2, 2015
Summer has officially begun. Every June 21, I always remember an old song (ancient to most of you reading this) — Those Lazy Hazy Crazy Days Of Summer. Part of the lyrics:

Roll out those lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer,

Dust off the sun and moon and sing a song of cheer.

Just fill your basket full of sandwiches and weenies,

Then lock the house up, now you're set.

The idealized image of this song is one of a laid back time when we can just relax and enjoy the good times of summer.

Well, if you're a rising high school senior planning on going to college, I certainly hope that this summer for you isn't lazy or crazy. Hazy is okay, though, since summer heat and humidity is part of the deal. Summertime can be essay time for those of you who aren't lazy or involved in other activities that may have you running around in a tizzy, as my grandmother used to say.

One of my goals for this summer is to suggest that, by the time you return to school in September, you will have completed your main Common Application essay. I emphasize the importance of essays here in my blog, perhaps at times repetitively, for a specific reason: Essays are a critical part of college applications. No other part of the application can so clearly represent the individualism of the applicant and illustrate who s/he is and how s/he thinks. So, ignore the impact of your essay(s) at your own risk.

Thus, it's now time to start thinking about essays, if you haven't already done so.

You will most likely be using the Common Application for at least some (if not all) of your target schools. Chances are, even if you don't end up using the Common App (unlikely), you will still need to write an essay on a general topic such as those that the Common App requires.

Here are the new 2015-2016 Common Application essay prompts:

“We are pleased to share the 2015-2016 Essay Prompts with you. New language appears in italics:"

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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

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 or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

To help you get started thinking about how and what to write, here is a list of articles and blog posts that I've written about application essays. This is a long list, so don't feel duty-bound to read all of them. Find several that appeal to you and then learn from them. Some reference the old Common App prompts, but the information on the writing approach is still valid …














What you'll see in the samples that I posted in the above articles is the natural style incorporated by the writers. Their essays flow smoothly and don't have an “academic" feel about them. When you read these, you can almost hear the writers speaking. In other words, their “voice" is natural and not at all affected by formality or overblown usage. They don't use big words just for the sake of impressive vocabulary. Big words don't impress admissions committees. A natural voice, convincingly presented, does.

In case you're the obsessive type and can't get enough background before you begin your “essay summer," here are some additional essay considerations for you to ponder:

Topics to Avoid: Essay Death-Sentence Subjects

There is no such thing as a bad essay topic—only a bad writer. However, some subjects are so frequently used (and admission officials so tired of seeing them) that they should be tackled by only the most exceptional writers or will otherwise be a liability at decision time. These include:

– The Big Game

– The Big Orchestra Recital (or Drama Debut, etc.)

– Pet Death

– Religious epiphanies (Often used in tandem with one of the other topics above, as in “It was as if God had given me the power and determination to cross the finish line ahead of Joel Fassbinder …" or “Just when I thought I would die myself from the pain of losing Fluffy, a brilliant white light blazed down on me and I could feel a strong force take my hand …")

– Trials and Tribulations of Travel: The Outward Bound/Experiment in International Living/Month on a Kibbutz (etc.) experience

– My Grandfather or Grandmother and What I've Learned From Their Old-Fashioned Values

– Achieving World Peace Through Mutual Understanding (and other oversimplified solutions to complex problems)

– The Kindly Homeless Man at the Soup Kitchen Where I Just Started Volunteering (and similar tales of learning that all people are just the same at heart)

– Why I Want to Go to [Put Your College Name Here] (Some colleges do ask for an essay on this topic but it's rarely the MAIN essay they require.)

Other Essay Errors to Avoid:

– Blah Beginning: The most important thing you can do is to engage your readers from the very start. DON'T repeat the essay “prompt" (i.e., the question) in your first sentence by saying something like this: “If I was given a year to do anything that I wanted to do, I would go to…."

– Dribble ending (“Where's the last page? Oh, that was the last page.") or double-dribble ending: “And that's what I would do if I were given a year . . ."

– Bad spelling and, especially, grammar: Inexcusable with today's word processing programs. The Usual Suspect Award goes to: definately. Definitely.

– Typos, sloppiness (illegible handwritten responses or extraneous marks of any kind on the page (including smiley faces, using small circles to dot the letter “i," and other annoyingly cute peculiarities)

– Stilted Vocabulary: Essay appears as if every other word was replaced by a longer one straight from the thesaurus or each noun is modified by a string of adjectives. (“It was a dark, saturnine, stormy, and Aeolian crepuscule…")

– Not answering the question being asked/answering another college's question

– Showcasing privilege and affluence—even when unintentional (e.g. “What I learned about cooperation and survival the day the hurricane ruined our Club Med vacation")

– Discussing personal problems that are either too personal (“Life With Hemorrhoids") or not sufficiently problematical (“Moving to a new town halfway across Long Island in third grade and not having my own bathroom anymore.")

– Non-Circularity (The Non-Sequiturial Non-Circularity Syndrome™): Starting in one direction, changing course in mid-stream, and wrapping it up with a closing thought entirely unrelated to the original prompt.

– Wrong level of (or excessive) formality. Use your own voice, not the one you think admission officials expect to hear. A college essay should fall somewhere on the formality scale between an e-mail to a friend and an English term paper, but should land MUCH closer to the former than the latter.

– Choosing overused topics

The Tell-All Essay:

Health or family problems that are reflected in a student' transcript or will crop up elsewhere in the application (e.g., in the counselor rec) should be explained. Sometimes the main essay provides an appropriate way to do this. More often, however, the primary essay should highlight a more positive aspect of the candidate's background or interests, and a supplementary statement (typically 1 to 2 pages maximum) can alert admission committees to whatever extenuating circumstances the student has experienced.

Whenever possible, this statement should include reassurances that the situation described will not prevent the student from fully participating—and succeeding—in college life. In other words, reassurances should be as specific as possible (“The new medication has halted all episodes for nearly two years" or “Since my father sought treatment for his alcoholism last spring, my grades have rebounded").

Generally avoid revealing mental health problems that aren't manifested in transcript irregularities unless they are so extreme that it would be considered irresponsible not to do so. For instance, a student who has seemingly recovered from an eating disorder after treatment and who has maintained a seamless record all the while does not need to report the malady. An applicant, on the other hand, who suffers from clinical depression and who attempted suicide should feel compelled to alert colleges to what they may be dealing with.

Some limited words about word limits: A tiny handful of colleges provide strict limits (e.g., “Do not go beyond one page in length.") If directions are not specific, there is leeway. Shoot for about 500-800 words.


So, think about an essay idea that will address one of those Common Application topics. Then think about why you decided on that particular topic.

The best essays help you to stand out in a crowd and reveal who you are and how you think. Sure, you can write a good essay about anything, but an essay often has the most impact if it highlights something that is unique or unusual about YOU.

Final thought: Try to have some fun with this. I know that “fun" probably isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think about your college essays, but you may find that once you get on a roll, you actually enjoy expressing yourself this summer. Don't be lazy — just crazy about essays!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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