With all the heightened excitement and anxiety around college applications, many rising seniors will wonder if they should start their CommonApp essays sooner. While many may want to start in the summer, I think it’s not always the best decision and here’s why: however a college-bound teen spends their summer before senior year will influence their college application essays period.


My students in the past have participated in a wide range of activities in the summer before senior year like job shadowing, working at a restaurant, conducting research in a university lab, visiting college campuses, attending an engineering program, or volunteering in a hospital. A few students even spent their summers reading books and traveling with family. Each of these lived experiences is ripe college essay material.


College-bound teens already have a full plate of activities and school assignments over the summer, so adding college essays slights the full attention that writing deserves. I believe that teens can and will write their best college essays at the close of the summer, when they are less distracted. Waiting until then also means that students will have the opportunity to reflect on the summer experiences and incorporate any lessons into their college essays.

guidebook to write commonapp essay

CommonApp essay prompts for 2018-19

Prior to the summer, it may be helpful to know the Common Application essay prompts. (I start with the CommonApp because there’s a growing number of colleges and universities (800+) on this system, which makes it very likely that the majority of college-bound teens will apply through the CommonApp.) For the 2018-2019 school year here are the prompts that students can choose from for their personal essay:

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 obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

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, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Source: 2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts | The Common Application

Any earnest writing is better left closer to the start of senior year. However, if there’s an irresistible urge to start sooner, you can try this exercise (taken from my ebook, “Write Essays that Get In and Get Money for College”):


Prep exercise for CommonApp essay

  1. To start your first college application essay, get a sheet of paper. You will use one sheet of paper per essay.
  2. At the top of the page, handwrite the essay prompt/question.
  3. Set the timer for 6 minutes.
  4. Handwrite freely your initial response to the prompt/question that you wrote at the top of the page. IGNORE grammar, punctuation, spelling, etc. Keep your pen on the paper and only STOP when the timer ends.
  5. Wait a day or so before writing more on this essay. As you have new ideas related to this essay, you may handwrite on this same page before typing.

You can repeat this exercise for each prompt.

How would you vote . . . start CommonApp essay sooner or later?

Author: Pamela E

Dr. Pamela has helped thousands of teens attend the college of their choice. She brings her 25 years experience in education to assist families, schools, and employers with college selection, admissions, financial aid, and more. Dr. Pamela holds a PhD from Stanford School of Education, and an MBA from Dartmouth.

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