Wait, I have to write how many essays?

You've looked at the Common App, and you know the two UC prompts.  The essays don't look too bad.  But now that you're finalizing your college list, you're noticing all the supplemental essay questions.  3 for Stanford, 1 for USC, 2 for Penn, 1 for Cornell, and on and on.  How do you make sure you're writing the fewest essays possible?  I'll tell you how I organize the process.

Step #1:  Gather the prompts.

You can't organize what you don't have.  The first step is to cut and paste the prompts into a single document.  If I'm cutting and pasting the prompts, I take them either directly from the Common App or from the school web site.  I'm not trusting someone else to have gathered the prompts for me.  And when I create my master document, I make sure to label the school and word or character limit.  It's annoying to have to go back a second time to find that information.

Step #2:  Break down the prompts.

Once I have all the prompts, I look at how many components each prompt has, and I split those components up.  For example, consider these prompts:

  1. Cornell: "Describe your intellectual interests, their evolution, and what makes them exciting to you. Tell us how you will utilize the academic programs in the College of Arts and Sciences to further explore your interests, intended major, or field of study." (500 words)
    • Describe your intellectual interests / evolution / why exciting.
    • Explain how you'll pursue them at Cornell.
  2. USC: "Describe your academic interests and how you plan to pursue them at USC. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections." (300 words)
    • Describe your intellectual interests.
    • Describe how you'll pursue them at USC (including major selection, if you want).
  3. Stanford: "Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development." (2,000 characters)
    • Describe an idea/experience important to your intellectual development.

Step #3:  Look for overlaps.

The key to reducing your writing burden is identifying overlaps.  The obvious overlap is when different prompts ask you for identical information.  You can see that the Cornell, USC, and Stanford are all asking you to say something about your intellectual interests.  So if you write a paragraph about intellectual interests, you'll be able to recycle that paragraph for all three essays.

Maybe a less obvious overlap is when different prompts ask you for the same type of information.  Both the Cornell and USC prompts ask how you'll pursue your interests at their schools.  Once you write a good paragraph for one of these schools, you can quickly adapt it to the other.  The details will differ depending on what you've seen on the school websites, what you learned from campus visits, and what you discovered from talking to admission reps.  But the structure of both essays will be the same.  So especially for the "Why College X?" prompts, if you can write a great essay for one school, you can easily knock out five more "Why us?" essays for five other schools.

Step #4:  Answer the most specific parts of the prompt.

OK, so I cheated a little when I said the intellectual interest part of the Cornell, USC, and Stanford prompts overlap.  They mostly overlap.  Here's the exact wording:

Cornell:  Intellectual interests, their evolution, why exciting

USC:  Academic interests

Stanford:  Idea/experience important to intellectual development

Why start with the most specific parts?  If you don't, you'll have to write more.  Suppose you just write about "academic interests" for USC.  Good job.  

Now you re-read the other prompts and realize the Stanford prompt asks you to discuss an idea or experience, and the Cornell prompt asks you to explain why your intellectual interest excites you.  Oops.  Now you have to write a new paragraph.  

You would have avoided this problem if you had written a paragraph about 1) an idea that's important to your intellectual development, 2) how that idea affected your intellectual development, and 3) why that idea excites you.  The paragraph is more specific than what the USC prompt requires, but it's still responsive.  And it's only one paragraph.  So remember, if your goal is to save time, you have to write to the specific part of the prompt (idea/excitement), not the general one (interest).

Step #5:  Write the longest prompt first.

You don't have to do it this way, but I think it's easier.  Start by writing something long and specific.  Then cut out extra parts to make it shorter to fit the space limit.  If I had to answer the three prompts above, I'd do the intellectual interest part of the Cornell essay first by talking about idea-evolution-excitement.  Then for the USC prompt, I'd pare it down to idea; for the Stanford prompt, I'd shave it down to just idea-evolution.  Once I finish the Cornell intellectual paragraph, I'm writing downhill because I can just slice out the extra material that doesn't fit the USC and Stanford prompts.  If I write the less complex USC prompt first, then I'm writing uphill because I have to add more specific stuff to answer the Cornell and Stanford prompts (evolution, excitement).  Write downhill!

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.