6 Tips for Mastering Common App Essay

This blog about tips to master the Common App Essay was originally published on Aug. 1 on the Washington Post site, StudentAdvisor.com.

The new Common Application goes live Aug. 1, and you might be worried about your personal statement. The good news? Everything you need to know about how to respond to the Common App essay is included in the instructions:

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

common applicationHere are six tips to help you master the Common App essay:

1) Listen to your voice.

“Be truthful, and write in your own voice.”

New York University’s Senior Assistant Director of Undergraduate Admissions Julie Kling.

Your writing voice is unique, and it will shine through when you relax and write freely. This is the voice readers want to hear in your Common App essay.

Everyone talks about voice, but what does yours sound like? To find out, do a little stretching with a warm-up exercise like this one: https://dev.prometheusfire.me/wow/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Handouts-Voice-Exercise.pdf

2) Decide what you want readers to know.

Admissions officers already know a lot about you. But they do not know whether you are a hard-worker, a good listener, creative, decisive, determined, self-motivated or cautious. They do not know how you have changed or matured or why you might be a good fit for their school.

Make a list of what they already know. Then list the qualities you want to share. If you need help, ask this question of someone who knows you well: “If you had to describe me to someone who doesn’t know me, what would you say? What kind of person am I?”

3) Keep it positive.

What message are you sending to colleges if you write about how much you dislike your father because he moved away when you were young, and you never had a relationship with him? If this story you write in your Common App essay demonstrates something positive about you, then use it. But be careful about how you present yourself.

“There are very few absolutes when it comes to writing an admissions essay; one is to write about something positive,” said Brent Benner, director of enrollment management, University of Tampa. “Every kid has had a hardship, but life is about problem solving and conflict resolution. I want to read anything that paints a picture of moxy, drive, determination and courage; those are compelling, and tells me how someone problem-solves.”

3) Choose the Common App essay prompt you like best.

After you decide what you want schools to know about you, select the Common App essay prompt that makes you most comfortable. Option #1 is no better than #3. Number 4 isn’t preferable to #5.  Choose an essay prompt that will help you illustrate your best qualities. Remember this: what you have to say is far more important than which prompt you choose.

“We are looking for your story,” said Calvin Wise, associate director of admissions, Johns Hopkins University. “Academically, we are glad you’ve done well. But we also want to know what makes you different, unique.  We want to know who you are. What did your experience mean to you? How did it shape you?”

Choose the essay prompt that helps you answer that question.

4) Brainstorm ideas.

Don’t just dive in and write your college essay. Consider a few options first. You can brainstorm alone, with a friend, parent, consultant, teacher or sibling, but don’t let anyone else tell you what you should or shouldn’t write. Ultimately, the only idea that will work is the one you choose on your own.

Click here for tips on how to brainstorm with another person.


5) Write it yourself.

The Common App essay is a place for you to shine – on your own. If you do not write it yourself, or if you get too much help, admissions people will know. They know what a high school senior’s voice sounds like.

“Don’t try to present yourself as someone you aren’t, or have someone else write your Common App essay,” said James R. Fowler, Jr., assistant vice president of enrollment, Dean College. “You can get help, but in the end, it must be your voice, and a savvy admissions officer will know if it isn’t.”

6) Stay focused and specific.  

Most students answer the essay question presented in Tip 2 with generalities, such as “I give 110%” or “I am a strong leader.” That’s okay; even a cliché is a great place to begin brainstorming ideas.

If you want readers to know you are hard-working, use your Common App essay as an opportunity to describe a time when you worked hard. Do you have a job? What do you do to impress your boss? Do you babysit? Did you start a club at school?

A chronological account of your entire trip to the Grand Canyon won’t catch anyone’s eye. Focus on an important moment or a small piece of your experience, and then demonstrate why that moment matters. How did your experience change you or prepare you for college?

Think of your story as a movie trailer rather than an entire feature length film. Lorenzo Gamboa, associate director of undergraduate admission for Santa Clara University, said the best essays focus on “one place, one time, one moment.”

Tamara Siler Rice UniversityOr, as Tamara Siler, senior associate director for admission, and minority recruitment coordinator, at Rice University in Houston, suggested students do in their Common App essays, “Focus on a moment you feel has defined you as a person, and as a student.”

Picture of Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
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