Breaking down the common app personal statement

college admissions writing

The common app personal essay can seem like a daunting task to tackle. Not only that, misconceptions abound about how to write this "all-important" essay and what to put in it. Not to worry - Cambridge Coaching is here to dispel these common misconceptions and give you some tools to start your writing on the right foot!

First, a helpful hint:

If you are having trouble getting your words out and on the page, try using the “Voice Typing” tool in Google Docs. Turn it on and “talk your essay” for a few paragraphs. Then, take to the keyboard and polish and move some things around.

Misconception #1: I need to sound polished and fancy to get into college. 

Admissions is the work (primarily) of celebrating 18 year olds. It is important that your essay, and the story you share, come from your perspective as an 18-year-old human in the world. Your essay is your opportunity to share your voice with the admissions officers who read your application. It is so important that your essay is your own - your story, your writing, and your ideas. If a friend or family member picked up your essay out of a stack of many, they should know without seeing the author that it came from you.

Misconception #2: My essay will make or break my chances of being admitted to X college.

It will not. While the admissions officer who reads your application will spend about ⅓ of their total time with your essay, it is not make or break. In reality, almost all college essays are “fine.” Your essay needs to confirm all of the other amazing things they read about you in your teacher/counselor recommendations and your activity list.

Misconception #3: Nothing monumental has ever happened to me, I have nothing to write about for this essay.

The best two college essays I have ever read were actually both about socks. A close second was about chocolate chip cookies. In other words, you don’t need to write about any “event” to write a great essay. You just need to write something authentic and clear that shares a bit about who you really are.

Okay, let’s get started.

Read the 21-22 Common App College Essay prompts (these are very similar to the essay prompts from the last few years). Paste the prompts into a Google Document.

  • What jumps out at you right away?

  • Eliminate the questions that feel impossible. Set aside #7 (topic of your choice) unless you have a great essay from a non-Common App school or another scholarship program that is already written. It is hard to write with focus and clarity without the guidance of a question.

  • In the remaining questions, highlight the key words. What is the question asking you to share?

  • Now, think about the qualities of your character that stand out. What do you love about yourself? (Think about adjectives: loyal, fair, kind, determined, etc). Make a list! Write it down below the questions in the same Google Doc.

  • As you consider everything else about your future application, what qualities of your character will come through from other aspects? (Think about your teacher recommendations: what might these share? What about your activities list? What does this already say about you? For example: you are proud of your ability to respond with fairness. I might learn this by seeing your participation in your school’s Honor Council). Now, what is left? You want to make sure your essay shares these features!

  • Let’s brainstorm! Here are some favorites:
  • Now, get to writing! Paste the question you are working with at the top of a new page in the same document, and keep those key words highlighted! Think about these aspects: 
    • Tell a story
    • Show your character traits
    • Connect to something outside of your story; maybe a class in school or an activity you have done
    • Come back to your story

  • If you are really struggling, select a different question. Try again!

  • Once you have a draft, read the question again. Make sure you are answering the question you have chosen.

  • There is a 650 word limit. Don’t worry if it's too long for now; you have time to edit.

Keep this draft open for a few days. Revisit it often. Share it with one or two people who have offered their support (or with one of our wonderful college admissions coaches). Remember: only give these people “comment” privileges (not “edit")! It is so important that your essay is your own voice.

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