Top 5 Common App Essay Myths & Facts

(Originally written in 2018) The Common App opens August 1 for the Class of 2019. With that in mind, let’s debunk some of the rumors about the Common App essay (personal statement for college) that often spread like wildfire among the college-bound crowd and their families.

With that in mind, here are our Top 5 college essay myths and facts:

Myth 1: A Common App essay has to be written about an impressive topic.

Fact: The student is impressive, not the college essay topic. The story, not the experience, is most important. Colleges want to know what an applicant has learned, rather than what they did.

One Wow student came to us confident that it was her trip to help the poor in Central America that would stand out in her application essay. Not at all. While brainstorming ideas with a writing coach, she discovered her most important moment during that trip occurred when she overcame her fear of heights by jumping off a cliff into the water.

“What does the experience mean to you?” asked Calvin Wise, the Director of Recruitment for Johns Hopkins University. “That is what we want to know.”

Myth 2: A Common App college essay should sound sophisticated, like Hemingway or a college professor.

Fact:  A high school student should sound like a high school student. Not a professor. Or a famous writer.

(Students should) “be themselves,” said Andrea Nadler, Associate Dean of Admission at Hofstra University.  “The college essay should allow us to use our senses to see, feel, taste and experience the kinds of things that are important to these students. If writing about a book they have read, we want to feel like we are in it with them. If writing about a meal they have had, we want to taste it.”

Myth 3: Admissions officers will never know if anyone helped too much with a Common app college essay. They won’t know if the student plagiarized, either.

Fact: There is a fine line between helping your child and writing or over-editing the Common App essay for them. Admissions officers know when someone other than the student writes all or part of a story; they don’t like it.

“If a student has an adult write it, the admissions committee can tell,” said Jim Cotter, Director of Admissions for Michigan State University.

Many schools will automatically reject a student’s application, without an explanation, even if they merely suspect plagiarism.

Myth 4: There is a right way and a wrong way to write a college essay.

Fact:  An applicant’s best story will grow out of the process of writing the Common App essay. To stand out, they must tell a genuine story and show insight.

Despite what you might hear, there are no tricks and no shortcuts. No magic formula. The essay doesn’t need a killer opening line or a tight conclusion. Trust the process; the college essay will emerge through the process of reflection, writing and revision.

“The key is to show genuine passion, commitment and that they have what it takes to survive at the school,” said Lorenzo Gamboa, Senior Associate Director of Admissions for Santa Clara University.

Myth 5: Only superstar students will impress admissions officers with their common app essays.

Fact: Anyone can stand out with a great story in a Common App essay.

An applicant does not need to rescue a child from a house fire or teach an autistic boy how to swim to impress admissions officers. One Wow student wrote about the moment he forgot his cello for an orchestra concert and improvised his performance with a bass guitar. His problem-solving skills impressed admissions officers, and one college sent him an offer of admission that praised his college essay.

“Sometimes students feel that because they haven’t found the cure for cancer, they have nothing to share,” said Jan Deike, Vanderbilt University, Assistant Director of Admissions. “Life is truly lived in the smaller moments, and that can be a powerful essay.”

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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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