How To Tackle Common App Essays

Posted by Zoe Balaconis on 1/1/16 10:00 AM

stephen-king-on-writing.jpg Stephen King at his desk, writing away! 

While the Common App has streamlined the college application process significantly, the fact that the essays go to the majority of schools you are applying to gives them that much more importance. You don’t get another chance to refine an essay or make it better for another school, so your essays need to be strong from the start. They need to set you apart and prove to any admissions team, not just a particular one, that you would be an asset to their school. In this post I’m going to walk you through two 2015-2016 Common App essay prompts because despite wanting to be unique, there are some tips and tricks that will work across the board, no matter what message you are trying to convey in your essays.

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.

What this prompt is trying to get at are those things that may not show up on paper. Sure, they can see your grades, what classes you’ve taken, what box you check off for your ethnicity or gender, but what is between the lines? What is in the space between that exists outside of school and really makes you who you are? That is what this essay should be about.

Tips for Pre-Writing:

  1. Make a list of possible topics including hobbies, lifelong interests, parental influences, family relations, traditions, special talents, and unusual goals. The most important thing here is to be honest and truthful. Stick to what is true, even if it seems banal. If your biggest hobby is video games, don’t shy from that just because you think it won’t be seen well. If that is your passion, write about it. The key work in this prompt is meaningful, so choose something that has meaning and shows your depth.
  2. Choose ONE item from your list. There is a tendency for students to want to pack their essays with as much information about them as possible, but that turns it into more of a list than an essay. You want room for this to be narrative, with an arc like a story, rather than a bulleted collection of attributes. So, choose the one that has the best narrative. An interest that you learned from a family member, like how your grandfather taught you to bake, is usually a much stronger story than something you picked up more recently.
  3. Make an outline. Even if your aim is for this essay to be narrative, it needs to be outlined just like you would for an academic essay. Think about the logical progression of your story. What led to what? Does it start one hundred years ago when your ancestors immigrated to this country? Does it start one year ago when you started guitar lessons? Set the scene, and move toward the present, ending with how that thing, whatever it its, makes you who you are today.
  4. Break free! If you feel comfortable doing so, break free of your standard essay format. Yes, thinking about it five-paragraph terms can be helpful when you first start organizing, but experiment with rearranging things. What if you started the essay with a conversation? A bit of dialogue? A moment in the present, then went back in time? What if you began by meticulously describing your video game console (for that video game essay) with all its shiny buttons, before going into your passion? Unlike academic essays, narrative essays can begin with more mystery and much more imagination. Don’t be afraid to try something new.

Tips for Writing:

  1. Use your voice. While the content of these essays is important, the tone is just as, if not more, important because that is what conveys your voice, disposition, and personality to a reader. Think about some of your favorite books. What do you like about their language? Is it breezy and conversational? Does it use detailed images and long descriptions? There is no right answer. Whatever style appeals to you and feels natural will be the best medium for your thoughts.
  2. Stretch your vocabulary, but don’t make it awkward. Along the same lines, try to use advanced vocabulary when you can, but don’t try and squeeze long words into each sentence just to impress a reader. That will distance them from your writing, rather than impress them (especially if you don’t have a good grasp on a word’s meaning). Some words are impressive and equally easy to work into these types of essays, such as: perfunctory, ameliorate, ascertain, rectify, juxtapose, nostalgia, render, homage, revere, wanton, whimsy, capricious, mercurial, forebears. Take some time to look these words up and after you write your first draft, see if you can swap some of your less elegant language for some of these more advanced words.
  3. Stick to the outline. Writing an outline is one thing, sticking to it is another. You made a logical plan for a reason, so make sure you are continually referring to it while you write. That will ensure you don’t leave out details of your interest or experience, and that you stay on track in terms of length.
  4. Stay humble. It can be easy when you’re writing an essay attempting to impress people that it begins to sound like you’re doing just that. Even though your aim may be to make an impression, you don’t want to sound boastful and overconfident. That is hardly the type of person an admissions team is looking for. Even if you are a very talented musician or the youngest person to work at the UN, give thanks to those who have helped you and what fell into place to made whatever amazing experience or interest or talent you’ve been afforded possible. And always, always, show that there is room for improvement and growth.

Tips for Post-Writing:

  1. For narrative essays, editing is even more important. Since this is such a personal topic, read your essay aloud to make sure it sounds genuine, voicey (aka, in your voice, not someone else’s), and thoughtful. While you don’t want to go over the top with sentimentality and emotion, you are writing about something meaningful, so use phrases highlighting “how you feel/felt” and how whatever thing has changed you or affected the course of your life somehow.
  2. Get an outside reader. Whether it is a classmate, teacher, or parent, you’ll want someone to read this essay to make sure that 1) whatever experiments in organization/language you’re taking have paid off and 2) the emotions being conveyed are as you intended. If it’s a funny essay, are the jokes working? If it’s a heartfelt essay, are the feelings gushingly over the top, or just right? Hint: the best essays manage to be both funny and heartfelt.

Make sure you’ve addressed the question. So, we’ve gone through all this and written an essay and perfected the language, but before you do anything final, reread the prompt. Is this essay truly adding a dimension to you that isn’t apparent in your application? Have you repeated yourself? I hope not. This essay should be on an entirely untouched subject, so use this amazing opportunity to get creative. 

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For more advice on writing the perfect admissions essay, check out these other blog posts written by our admissions coaches in New York and Boston: Tackling the “Why Do You Want to Apply to This College” Admissions Essay, and Break Through Writer’s Block! Tips for Your College Admissions Essay, and Choosing Colleges to Apply to: The Perfect List Is Not What You'd Expect Looking to work with an admissions coach on your essays? Feel free to get in touch! Cambridge Coaching offers private in-person coaching in New York City and Boston, and online tutoring around the world.

Tags: college admissions