Avoiding the “Tragedy of the Commons" or the key to a killer Common App essay

college admissions Common Application personal statements
By Benjy

For every rising senior, the infamous Common Application Essay is a bright spotlight. Some fear it, some relish in it, and many grapple with exactly how they can use it to shine in sea of strategic and significant applicants. Initiated as a movement to streamline the process of presenting yourself to a large assortment of schools, the Common App is an opportunity to distinguish who you are from why you want to attend a specific school; as such, you should not write your Common App essay about any particular college, but rather exclusively — and excitingly — about you. 

So… what does “writing about you” entail?

The Common App essay provides a large variety of prompts, all of which are fair game to use as a gateway into your essay. In most distilled form, I boil those down to: 

  • Identity: an aspect of who you are.
  • Challenge: an experience in which you engaged with difficulty or adversity. 
  • Dissent: an experience in which you expressed or acted upon disagreement with a circumstance.
  • Inspiration: an experience that changed the course of your life and character.
  • Passion: what makes you tick, why it does, and how you found it. 
  • People: who are the people that exist behind the “what” of your resume.
  • Custom: whatever you want!

All of these prompts may feel different in direction, but all stem from the same root: each asks you who you are in relation to the world around you.

The pitfall: how much protagonism is too much?

Protagonism is the guiding principle of personal essay, and it’s only natural to center your own thoughts, feelings, and actions in your writing — this is the basic requirement of the essay. However, focusing too much on you can in fact hinder the impact of your application! Think about it: colleges want to get to know you so that they can know how you will contribute to their existent and evolving community. While it’s true that supplemental essays for colleges are where you can relate your life to the prospect of attending a given school, you also want to demonstrate your values and experiences in a way that highlights how you would enrich and advance the world around you in college. In order to do that, your Common App essay should tow a delicate line between self and world, and engage both in a way that enriches how you display yourself in your application.

Consider this idea.

In business and economics, people refer to the Tragedy of the Commons. Simply put, the Tragedy of the Commons states that people who act upon isolated self-interest deplete the wealth and well-being of a community. While that may feel very far away from your essay, let’s consider the Common App as exactly that: a way for you to engage with a community of schools, each of which has their own interests, guidelines, and profile. Even when presenting yourself to them, colleges want to see qualities and anecdotes that reflect your ability to contribute to their daily life, not just to reap the benefits of their resources. 

Therefore, orient your essay around your concern for community — whether that means highlighting another individual or experience before focusing on its impact on your own growth and success, or reflecting on why you cared enough about an issue to disagree with the status quo. You will portray yourself with dimension, and in a way that reflects not just who you are, but also how you think about the world around you, which ultimately is how colleges will understand your possible presence in their world.

Here are some examples.

Let’s say you write about a disagreement with a teacher whose interpretation of a world issue was incongruent with yours.

While it can be tempting to focus on the conflict and your heroism in advocating for that about which you care — or, at least, how such an interaction affected your relationship to that issue — it would be much more impactful to center the issue itself. Concisely explain why the issue matters to you, how you want to see it evolve, and then how that put you at odds with the opinion of your teacher. If the dissent did not convince your teacher or change the situation discussed, perhaps even better! That’s an opportunity to express how you want to continue exploring and understanding the issue in your future studies and work — especially respective to your time in college. 

Perhaps you want to write about a sensitive personal topic, one that fundamentally affects who you are.

Of course, it’s highly important to give yourself sufficient space to self-examine and -express, but we also want to know why and how this topic impacts your development as a thinker and a person. Did you read a lot of literature about it growing up? Did you seek a community around it, are you still searching for that, are there barriers to that which you want to see broken? Did particular conversations or discoveries inform your relationship to this aspect of your life, and why? Push yourself to situate your story in wider world, even with something as personal as your own identity.

Sometimes, a line on our resume represents a lot more than that, and deserves to be the topic of our essay, which requires some careful navigation.

I wrote my own college essay on how I wrote a family-audience opera to expand the reach of the art form. This may sound extremely resume-esque at first glance; however, instead of reinforcing the musical training and experience that enabled me to execute such a project, I emphasized my passion for how opera can have real social impact. I wrote extensively about how my own early experiences with opera had wide-ranging impact on how I grew up, and how my current work serves to inspire the lives, imaginations, and development of younger people, as many people and opportunities did for me. In this way, I was able to write about something I had done, but in a way that acknowledged who and what led to that beyond my own existence, and why what I did matters for others in the future.

To conclude

Admissions is a game of coordination — or, as we often call it, “fit.” Fit is a two-way street, and even when you’re focusing on your own side of that equation, it’s well worth keeping an eye on your ultimate goal: to be part of a mutually thriving relationship with an eclectic and impassioned environment. By considering how your narrative involves that of others, you demonstrate empathy, humility, and a more honest reflection of even the most individual of topics. Avoid the Tragedy of the Commons: write your essay within a wider world, and pave the way for maximum success!


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