writing college essays

Update: Read the latest tips for the 2016-17 Common App.

It’s now time to discuss what many students consider to be the most important (and stressful) part of the Common Application: the essay. While we won’t be using this particular blog share advice about what students should actually write, we will be focusing on practical, big-picture issues, like “Why aren’t my paragraphs indented in the print preview?” And if you’re utterly confused by the brightly colored charade known as the new “Writing Requirements” section of the Dashboard, here’s your chance to gain some clarity. (Spoiler alert: while we can explain some of the poor choices made by the Common App, we can’t fix them.)

Writing Page

Q: Should I submit my personal essay to a college, even if they don’t require it?

Writing Page Common App

A: The Common Application membership has swelled to a staggering 600+ colleges and universities worldwide, and many of the newest members are taking advantage of a change in Common App policy: Common App schools are no longer required to include a personal statement as part of their application. Therefore, when you click on the “Writing” page, you’ll see a disclaimer at the top of the “Personal Essay” tab that states, “Some colleges require submission of the personal essay with your Common Application. You may submit a personal essay to any college, even if it is not required by that college. If not required by a college, you will be given the option during submission to include your essay or not for that college.” And the Common App even provides you with a handy list of the schools on your “My Colleges” list, broken down into two categories: those that require a personal statement and those that do not. If you are applying to any college that does not require a personal essay, but you’ve already gone through the trouble of writing one for your other schools, why not send it to all of your schools? While the optional essay may not be read, a strong essay that does get read may help an otherwise average student stand out. (Fun fact: according to a quick note issued by Inside Higher Ed, 20 percent of current Common App members do not require a personal essay!)

Q: When I format my essay using paragraph indentations (using either the “tab” key or the spacebar), the formatting disappears after I save my work. How exactly will my essay look to colleges?

Common App Writing

A: Students who have begun to edit their main essays will notice a clever “Open Full Screen” button in the upper right-hand corner of the text box. This is a new feature of the 2015 Common App. Whether you type your essay directly into the designated essay space, or cut and paste it from a word processing application, you’re going to notice that (a) it appears as though paragraph indentations should work, and (b) all paragraphs are separated by a blank line. When you save your work (clicking on the “Continue” button or any other tab within the application accomplishes this task) and then go back to the “Writing” page and hit the grey “Preview” button in the upper right-hand corner of the page, you’ll notice that (a) your paragraph indentations are gone, and (b) those paragraph breaks have remained intact. This print preview is exactly how colleges will see your essay. Formatting such as italics, bold, and underline are preserved, although indents are not. Don’t fret. All students are in the same boat; no one will have the ability to submit an essay with traditional paragraph indentations!

Q: Now that I can edit my personal statement unlimited times, should I tailor my Common App essay for each school on my list?

A: This is the first time in a long time that students have been able to edit their main essay an unlimited number of times. While this theoretically means that students could a draft a unique and personalized piece for each of the schools on their list, this über tailoring is both unnecessary and unwarranted. The whole point of the Common Application is to make it easier to apply to college. Sending 10 distinct versions of your main essay to 10 different colleges completely negates the advantage the Common App is supposed to confer. Instead, most students should focus their efforts on crafting an exceptional personal statement that can be read and appreciated by any of the colleges on their list. There are two instances, however, where it might make sense for students to create an alternate version of their college essay. In the first, a student might be torn between two majors (engineering and business, for example). One personal statement might be more technical in nature and be better geared toward engineering schools; the other iteration of the essay (that focuses on leadership or an entrepreneurial interest, perhaps) would be best suited for business schools. In the second instance, a student may find that her personal statement just happens to perfectly answer one of her college’s supplemental essay questions. In that circumstance, she can use her main essay for the supplemental prompt, and create a new personal statement for that one particular school.

Recommenders and FERPA Page

Q: What should I check on the “FERPA Release Authorization” section? Should I waive or not waive my right to view my letters of recommendation at a future date?

Recommenders Common App

A: If you’re like 99 percent of students applying to college, you’ll waive your rights to FERPA. There are two important reasons why. (1) Some guidance counselors and teachers won’t even agree to write you a letter of recommendation unless that waiver has been signed. (2) If you want colleges to have faith in the fact that your letters of recommendation contain an honest depiction of you and your abilities, sign the waiver. Otherwise, colleges may not give your recommendation letters the credence they deserve.

Q: My high school uses Naviance to submit school forms and letters of recommendation. How do I invite my teachers to submit their letters of recommendation to my Common App schools?

A: First you need to match your Common App account to your Naviance/Family Connection account. In Naviance on the “colleges” tab, click on the “colleges I’m applying to” link. A form titled “Common App Account Matching” will appear, instructing you to input your Common App username (email address) and date of birth. After clicking “Match,” you will then see the list of schools you have already added to your “My Colleges” list on the Common Application. Nicely done! Under the “Applying via Common App?” column, ensure that “yes” is indicated for any college that accepts the Common Application. Then, at the bottom of the “colleges I’m applying to” page you’ll see the “Teacher Recommendations” section. Click on the “add/cancel requests” link. Finally, under “Add New Requests,” you will be able to select the name of you teacher(s) from a drop-down menu. To watch Naviance’s video tutorials that outline some of the above steps, visit the Common App Account Matching Tutorial and the Adding Colleges and Requesting College Application Material Tutorial.

Previewing the Application

Q: Why isn’t the information I’m adding to my application showing up on the preview screen?

A: One of the greatest new features of the 2015 Common Application is the page-by-page print preview function. Rather than having to wait until the entire application is complete to preview your application, you can now catch a glimpse of each section of your application individually. There are six mini preview pages in all – corresponding to each of the six pages of the main application. If, however, you attempt to hit that grey “Preview” button before you’ve had a change to save your work on that page, your updates won’t appear on the print preview. To remedy this situation, simply click “Continue” at the bottom of the page, or navigate to any other page within the application. When you return to the page you wish to preview, click that “Preview” button again and – voila! You’re back in business.

Q: How can I preview my entire application at once?

Previewing the Common App

A: In order for you to see a complete PDF of your Common Application, all required sections must be complete. That means you should see a green check mark next to all six pages of the main Common App (Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Activities, and Writing). Then you’ll need to head on over to the “My Colleges” tab. Both the “Questions” and “Recommenders and FERPA” sections under each school-specific supplement must also feature a green check mark before you can finally select “Review and Submit – Common App.” Don’t worry! Clicking this link alone won’t immediately rush a copy of your Common App to your designated college. You will have the opportunity to complete a review of your entire application, pay any required application fees, and complete a signature page before you hit “Submit.”

The “Writing Requirements” Section of the Dashboard

Q: If a college doesn’t require a “Writing Supplement,” does that mean I won’t have to write any additional essays?

Dashboard Common AppCommon App Dashboard

A: If you haven’t already, go ahead and click on the “Dashboard.” See all of those brightly colored circles underneath the “Writing Requirements” column? Looks enticing, doesn’t it? Now click on any of the schools under the “My Colleges” heading, and select the “Writing Requirements” tab. On the surface, this new feature of the 2015 Common App seems pretty great. At one quick glance, I should be able to tell which schools require additional essays, and which do not. How I wish this were the case! I spent a good 20 minutes going back and forth with a very patient employee at the Common App’s Help Center one evening, trying to make sense of their new organizational grid. After all, it would be easy to make the assumption that the only writing requirements a student is likely to find will be on the actual “Writing Supplement” page. Right?

Wrong!

According to the Common App, the only real difference between the “Member Questions” and “Writing Supplements” columns are that required items under “Member Questions” are submitted with the main Common Application itself, while those questions posed under “Writing Supplements” are sent separately to colleges, after the fee has been paid and the final “Submit” button has been clicked. So where does that leave us with required essays? It’s still up to each individual college to determine where they’d like to place (or conceal, as the case may be) their school-specific essays. Some colleges (like Boston University) posit their essay under “Member Questions” in a tab titled, “Essay Questions.” At other schools (such as the University of Chicago), essay questions are located in the “Writing Supplement” section of their application. And for other schools (we’re looking at you, Cornell), essay questions only appear in the “Writing Supplement” section after the student first selects their “College or School to which you are applying.”

Unfortunately for students, it couldn’t be more confusing. Our best advice is this: leave no stone unturned, and accept the possibility that you’ll need to pen an additional essay (or two) for each of the schools on your list, regardless of the placement or color of those impish little circles!

Q: When I click on “Questions” under a school’s “Writing Supplement,” I see a message that reads, “The writing supplement for this college is not yet ready for completion.” When will the essay prompts be available?

A: The Common App has published two lengthy documents, each containing half of the alphabet’s worth of member colleges and universities, A-M and N-Z. These documents, which are updated daily, list all colleges whose supplemental forms are ready for submission. So if navigating through each of the schools on your “My Colleges” list gives you headache, consider turning to these two forms to determine when your school-specific supplements are available. Students may also have luck visiting individual school websites. Oftentimes, colleges will post their Common App supplemental essay prompts on their admissions pages before the online forms are available through the Common App itself.

The Help Center

Q: If I have a question about my Common Application, whom should I ask?

A: While we, the admissions and finance experts here at College Coach, love fielding students’ questions about the ins and outs of the Common Application, you should also know that the Common App Help Center can be a tremendous resource. When the Common App went live the evening of July 31, I emailed the Help Center at 9:31pm ET. Three minutes later, I received a response. The folks at the Help Center are absolutely committed to helping you sort through any technological issues you might be facing. And it’s nice to know that the Help Center’s hours have expanded; you can now connect with a real, live support specialist 24/7/365. To submit a question to the Common App Help Center, click on this link (and then select “Ask A Question” at the top), or email the support team directly at appsupport@commonapp.net.

Do you have even more questions about using the 2015 Common App? We thought you might! Post your query below and one of our Common App experts would be delighted to answer it. Until then, keep calm and Common App on!

Check out Elyse’s other Common App articles:

Listen to Elyse’s segments on the 2015-16 Common App on Getting In: A College Coach Conversation:



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Written by Elyse Krantz
Elyse Krantz is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Elyse received her BA in linguistics from Dartmouth College and her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining College Coach, Elyse worked as an admissions officer at Barnard College and Bennington College.