Not Too Early: How 9th and 10th Graders Can Benefit from Common Application College Questions

Every summer I offer a week-long class for entering 11th and 12th graders that focuses on the Common Application and University of California (UC) questions used for college admissions. These questions essentially ask students to tell a story about themselves.

This past summer, several entering 9th and 10th graders attended my College Application Workshop. At first, I was concerned that the younger students would be reluctant to answer these questions; most teens do not want to write about “something meaningful to your identity” or “a time you challenged authority.” However, the class went well, and student feedback has convinced me that 9th and 10th graders benefit from answering the college application questions ahead of time.

By answering one or two Common App questions every year, high school students can practice and hone their own personal writing style. Surprisingly, I have noticed that juniors and seniors have more difficulty writing personal stories with an engaging voice. The younger students often write better stories. Perhaps this is due to what is valued in higher education—conformity over creativity. After years of AP and honors classes, students learn to write in a formal academic style that earns them an “A.” However, this bland, generic style, full of SAT words and passive constructions, only leads to a bland, generic essay, easily ignored by a college admissions counselor who must plow through hundreds of applications each day.

To avoid writing a dull, application essay, I recommend that starting in 9th grade, students answer one or two of the Common App or UC questions each year. This will allow them to:

  1. Realize earlier in high school the need to pursue extracurricular activities and leadership roles that truly interest them. Teens can write a stronger personal essay about activities they love.
  2. Record their thoughts and personal growth during high school. Not all teens keep a journal and being forced to write an essay every year provides a concise summary of key events in their lives.
  3. Develop their own writing style and the introspection necessary to craft a meaningful narrative. Very few teens enjoy writing about themselves, but rather than wait until senior year, they can start practicing sooner.

At the beginning of each school year, teachers often ask students to write about themselves so that they can get to know them. Rather than waste this opportunity, teachers should have their students answer a Common App or UC question. So far, I have not heard of any teachers who do this. Suggest this to your child’s teacher. Here are links to these questions.

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