How To Write An Uncommonly Good Common App Essay 

Part I

By: Jason Robinovitz | Last Updated: March 2, 2017

writing your application essays - photo credit: philosophy about application essays has always been that your final written product is never about the prompt you choose; it’s really about you, the student. 

No, you cannot ever respond in a completely off-topic way to the application’s essay prompt, and even the often-asked question by colleges about “Why are you interested in attending our institution?” needs a response that reveals something about you – the very essence of this writing exercise and the most important “component” of your Common Application essay.

It’s also our philosophy that the Common App’s personal essay (as well as the personal statement for colleges’ own applications and for the Coalition and Universal applications) must accomplish two things to be successful:

  1. Hook the reader from the outset – evoke curiosity and interest from the admissions reader who will want to continue reading.
  2. Present yourself as an interesting person who’s likely to be a good student and positive contributor to the school community.

So many application essays don’t accomplish either – much less both. An essay that achieves the two goals is likely to stand out like a gleaming gemstone resting on dark blue velvet.

Writing a good “hook” opening takes some talent. To present yourself as an interesting person, potentially good student, and a contributor to the school community, you have to demonstrate curiosity, love for learning, breadth of vision, a touch of humility, capacity for compassion, and a developing maturity. You have to be unique. Don’t despair at this long list of attributes, because we can help with them all.

Your Common App personal essay must be between 250 and 650 words. While the personal essay prompt choices are revised from time to time, there’s always – always – a prompt to lean on with a great degree of comfort. Here are the seven prompts from which to choose, along with our comments on how you might approach them.

Prompt #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.

This broad, open prompt has much room within which to maneuver. Regardless of whether you choose to write about a background, an identity, an interest, or a talent, If you confine yourself to a mere recitation of “the facts,” you have a good chance of putting the reader to sleep. Disclose yourself. Communicate how the experiences you’re relating shaped you on a non-superficial level – how they make you think about yourself and your place in the world, and how they make you interact with others.

Prompt #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?

overcoming an obstacle application essayThis can be a tougher prompt than it might appear from which to craft a really good essay. Avoid writing about a trivial challenge, setback, or failure that required comparatively simple action to overcome; chances are great that you’ll create a yawner. You must end your narrative with something other than “I overcame it.” How did what occurred shape you on the most personal, non-superficial level? How has it made you think about yourself and your place in the world?

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

This prompt invites “introspection out loud,” a good thing. Be wary: you need to include action of some type as you relate a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. For example, a situation presents itself to you that embodies an idea or belief with which you disagree or are uncomfortable. You question or challenge it by doing more than just thinking about it – not that a really, really good writer couldn’t pull off a good “catharsis solely via thought” essay, but very few high school students are comfortable doing so. The “what was the outcome” part of this prompt must include how the experience affected you. Word of caution: Avoid essays in which you take one side or the other of any controversial topic: admissions officers who reads your essay might think that you’re dead wrong, and while they try to be tolerant and understanding, they have the same human frailties that you or I have.

Prompt #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.

solving a problem application essayIf you think in terms of providing a hook opening and then presenting yourself as an interesting person (likely to be a good student and contributor to the school community), you’re likely to be successful with this prompt. BUT, only if the problem arouses your passion. So while the prompt says that the problem can be “anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale,” if you’re not deeply engaged by the problem, your readers won’t be, either, and they’ll wonder why you bothered. In fact, “the meat” of this essay ought to be why the problem is significant to you – how did it arouse your passion in the first place?

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Much of what we’ve suggested about the other prompts holds true with this one. It presents golden opportunities for you to demonstrate curiosity, love for learning, breadth of vision, a touch of humility, capacity for compassion, and a developing maturity. Do you see how this essay isn’t about the prompt? It’s about revealing yourself through deeper thought in order to show how you’ve been changed for the better. Ultimately, it’s about revealing yourself to admissions so that they have the best possible picture of you as a candidate, and the highest degree of comfort in extending to you an offer to attend their school.

Prompt #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?

losing track of time application essayThe gist here must be your explanation of why the topic, idea, or concept captivates you. With serious self-reflection, explain where you are intellectually and/or spiritually as you’re carried along on time’s river and dropped off far downstream. Dig deep on this one, and don’t dare hesitate about providing reasons that others might think are silly. Here’s another opportunity for you to evidence the positive character traits we listed in our comments about Prompt #5.

Prompt #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.

This prompt makes us wonder why the Common App bothered with the other prompts! It spans them all; it sets you free. Your task, though, remains unchanged: Open with something that hooks the reader – makes him or her want to read on – and in so doing, present yourself as an interesting person who’s likely to be a good student and somebody who can make positive contributions to the school community – somebody who’s curious, loves learning, has broad vision, is humble, is compassionate, and continues to mature. Sound familiar?

Some students are drawn to the relative specificity of the earlier prompts, while others luxuriate in the openness of this one.

Two things in closing this Part I:

  1. Don’t wait to start on your essay: It’s simply far too important to procrastinate, because the essay can be the deciding factor in a close call between you and one of your competitor applicants. THIS IS NOT the kind of last minute class essay you can knock out in a few minutes with a textbook by your side. Plan on writing a series of drafts until you love your essay. Remember, the readers are very savvy.
  2. We can help, because we’re really good at it, and over the course of the last 30 years, we’ve helped thousands of students just like you write sparkling essays. So, give us a call, and we’ll work with you from start to finish, creating a scintillating Common Application (or other application) essay, one that will make you stand head and shoulders above other applicants.

OK, let’s sum up the gist of this 1st installment regarding the Common Application essay. The principal point you must take away is that no matter the topic you choose (you can write something first, and then “fit it” to the broad choices that the application extends to you), be absolutely certain that your writing contains self-reflection. Reveal to the reader your character, intellectual curiosity, maturity — and the impact of your story on who you are.

Stay tuned to this channel, because in the next part to this series, we’ll be discussing how to create good “hook” openers, and we’ll further suggest ways that you could respond to the various prompts.

Topics: College Application Essay College Application Educational Consulting Personal Statement


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