If you’re a high school junior, you may be visiting college campuses this spring to get a head start on the fall application season. In addition to exploring schools, you should consider drafting your Common Application essay now. The 2013-2014 questions are interesting, providing an excellent platform for you to write an honest, reflective essay. There are 5 possible prompts, each capped at 650 words. No matter which one you choose, the following strategies will enable you to draft a strong college application essay:

1. Brainstorm before you write. Before you start writing your essay, spend some time asking yourself what really matters to you. Are there events or decisions that have truly shaped you? Jot down some notes and prepare an outline to make sure you touch on all of the information you want to convey.

2. Write about what matters to you, not what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. Many of the 2013-2014 questions push students to share genuine anecdotes. Your ability to be forthcoming will enable you to write the strongest essay.

3. Don’t regurgitate information found elsewhere on your application. The essay is your chance to share aspects of your candidacy that the committee can’t extract from the rest of your application. I encourage you to talk about interests, experiences, motivations and goals that aren’t already covered in the short answers and school supplements.

4. Answer the question asked. No matter which prompt you choose, use those 650 words to answer the question that is posed. Stay focused on the topic. Strong answers are clear and responsive, allowing your personality and communication skills to shine.

5. Embrace failures and challenges. You’re not perfect. The admissions committee doesn’t expect you to be. You aren’t supposed to have everything figured out at 17 or 18 years old. So please don’t feel pressure to pretend that you do. Schools value individuals who have overcome challenges and are capable of growth. Some of the best, most compelling essays that I read as an admissions officer at Dartmouth were about moments of weakness, bad decisions and failures. The key is to own these experiences and talk about how they have shaped you. Students who are resilient, determined, and capable of learning from tough experiences are likely to succeed in college and beyond.

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Karen Marks

Karen has more than 12 years of experience evaluating candidates for admission to Dartmouth College and to the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth. Since founding North Star Admissions Consulting in 2012, she has helped applicants gain admission to the nation’s top schools, including Stanford, Harvard, Yale, Wharton, MIT, Tuck, Columbia, Kellogg, Booth, Haas, Duke, Johnson, Ross, NYU, UNC, UCLA, Georgetown and more. Clients have been awarded more than 20 million dollars in scholarships, and more than 97% have gotten into one of their top choice schools.