Students applying to American universities are almost guaranteed to have to fill out the Common App form. A key part of this process is the personal essay, which (along with the rest of the information each student enters in their form), is sent to every university to which the student applies via the Common App.
Here are 9 tips for acing the Common App essay:
- Choose the right prompt, then reflect...
Each student has to choose one of 7 prompts to answer (the prompts for this year are at the end of this article).
Universities do not prefer one prompt over another, so students should choose the one they feel most comfortable answering.
Top tip: anecdotally students who choose prompt seven often write less successful essays because they don’t provide enough evidence of self-reflection, something all the other prompts are ask for.
- Start early
Students often find it hard to make themselves start this essay well in advance, considering that it is only supposed to be 650 words, or about a page.
However there’s a lot to get done: this essay, coursework, supplemental essays, and other application tasks. Students who don’t start their essays until after the summer holidays before their senior year might get overwhelmed.
Top tip: students should really get started on the Common App essay by June of their penultimate year of high school. This gives them plenty of time to draft it, as well as time to realise whether they need to do last-minute extracurricular activities that they can then mention in their essays!
- It’s about the person, not the major
Whereas a UK Personal Statement is about convincing an admissions tutor that the applicant is an ideal candidate for a particular course, the Common App essay’s main purpose is to help admissions officers get to know the student. The student’s personality needs to shine through.
The kind of questions about the student the admissions tutors want answered include:
- What are their values?
- Would they fit in on campus and contribute to it?
- Would they be a valuable addition to classroom discussions?
Top tip: a good way of showing fit is by having students give an example of their daily conversations with friends. Whether they regularly talk about Locke’s social contract, about Manchester United transfer news, or about the newest broadway plays, have them quote one of their latest discussions in their essay.
- Open strong
The essay will likely be read in a few minutes by a stressed and slightly overworked admissions officer. It is only natural that they might start skimming at some point, or reading on auto-pilot.
So the essay needs a strong opening sentence that will catch the reader’s attention, and make sure they stay attentive throughout the essay.
Top tip: encourage students to start with a sentence that brings up a few questions, or raises suspense. Something like this: “The light turned green, and the pilot flicked a switch. I couldn’t help but close my eyes as the door in front of me opened, revealing a 30,000 feet drop. I instinctively stepped back and swallowed. Then I leapt out of the plane.”
- Let the inspiration flow
It can be helpful to start by simply writing without thinking too deeply about structure.
Writing in this way encourages creativity and can help students find links between ideas that they were not aware of before. The student’s personality might be more likely to shine through.
These essays will of course need to be reworked, but it’s a good way to start.
- Engage the audience
International students are often used to writing factual, logical essays designed to convey a large amount of information as straightforwardly as possible.
But this isn’t the right approach for the Common App essay. A better approach is to think of the Common App essay as a short story. Encourage students to make use of narrative, humour, and suspense.
“One day last summer we spent a whole day fishing. My friends and I set up camp next to the river, and prepared our rods. I really hoped we would catch a big fish, but eventually all we got was an old boot.”
“After three hours of agitated waiting, our hearts racing at every trace of movement along the fishing line, it finally happened. The line tightened, and the rod softly screeched as it encountered resistance. I jumped up, nearly dropped the rod in excitement, and reeled in as fast as I could. A huge, moss-covered object slowly came into view… It turned out we had caught a rare size 11 hiking boot.”
- Maintain focus
Tackling many topics in one essay will lead to writing that is confusing and ineffective.
Students should find one or two experiences they’ve had that fit their chosen question prompt, and find a concrete conclusion, such as “I value learning above all else”.
For example, when answering the first Common App essay prompt, a student might choose to write about their immigrant background, give a few specific examples of when they taught others about their culture, and eventually conclude by stating that they believe it’s essential in life to walk a line between adapting to one’s environment and staying true to one’s roots.
- Be specific
Here’s an excerpt from an imaginary essay:
“My brother and I went hiking in a nearby forest every Sunday. Bonding with him on these walks was really valuable to me”.
This is too general in terms of the events being described, and in terms of the impact on the writer. Here’s a re-write:
“Nothing compares to the damp, floral scent of the woods after sunrise. When we were 5 my brother and I started walking to a nearby forest to play hide and seek, and got hooked on the feeling of discovery we experienced when following each little seldom-trodden path”.
- No clichés, and make it unique
Overused words like ‘interesting’ and ‘passion’ are best avoided.
In addition: it’s fine if an activity being described is not the most original (it could be starting a school club, or being captain of a sports team), but the conclusions drawn from the story and the connections made between other areas of their lives should be unique to that student.
For example, let’s say a student has played piano for most of their life. While commendable, that doesn’t make that student stand out from the crowd. It would be more interesting for the student to connect their favorite piece by Bach to a particular type of algebra they have been studying at school, and then conclude that one of the reasons they want to study maths is because it is omnipresent.
The Common App essay’s 7 prompts for the 2017-18 application cycle...
This year students must choose 1 of 7 prompts, then write an essay of a maximum 650 words. Here are the prompts:
- 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.
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
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Elias van Emmerick is a Belgian student who completed his IB at 16 and next year is set to attend Pomona College, Forbes’ #1 Ranked College in 2015. He gained a great deal of experience with both types of applications by applying to both UK and US schools. He interviewed at Oxford, Stanford, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Chicago.