Answer One Question to Stand Out in Common App Essay

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Common AppThe 2015-16 Common Application went live August 1; that means it’s time to create your account and start writing your Common App essay.

Here’s our single best piece of essay writing advice to help you stand out and improve your chances of admission to your dream school: Before you start writing the Common App essay (or any other personal statement), ask yourself this question: “What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package?”

The question may not seem like such a big deal. But your answer is crucial.

College admissions officers want you to reflect on your life in your Common App essay. You’re only 16 or 17; most of you have not had much practice delving deeply into your lives. You are focused on the future – thinking about education, career, travel, and dreams.

Many of our students tell us they cannot answer that question. We assure them that they can, and we teach them how to reflect. Without an answer, you will have trouble writing a college essay that will help admissions officers decide if you are a good fit for their school.

How to Answer the Big Question

First, get a little help from someone who knows you well – a parent, a friend, a trusted teacher or other adult. Ask what he or she thinks of you. What are your best attributes?

Are you industrious? Funny? A leader? Shy? Outgoing? Curious? Are you a risk taker?

Think characteristics, not accomplishments. Consider what colleges already know from your application. They know your grades, test scores, awards, clubs, jobs, and the names of your brothers and sisters. They will know if your mom is Canadian or if your grandfather is an alumnus.

Now, ask the question again: What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package?” With input from someone who knows you well, you should be able to come up with an answer. Then you will be more than ready for the next part of the essay writing process.

How to Select a Prompt

Once you know which characteristic(s) you want to share, look at the five prompts on the Common App, and consider one or more of them more closely. Any prompt will do. Colleges do not choose favorites.

Now you can find a story that illustrates the trait you want to share, and answers the prompt.

Need more help finding your story? Wow has something for every type of student, from a do-it-yourself essay-writing program with a “virtual coach” to essay reviews and private coaching.

We can answer your parents’ questions too. Ask Mom and Dad to join us for one of our free 30-minute calls, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET this summer to learn how they can help you get through the process without taking it over. Encourage them to sign up for a FREE parent chat today.