The Common App personal essay is the Holy Grail of your college application, but for many, the perfect topic is an elusive target. For those of you who didn’t spend your summer vacation staring at the Common App website, here are a few tips for where to start.
The Common App that the Class of 2018 will become all too familiar with is not the one of years past. One of the biggest changes affects the essay’s word limit. For the first time, the Common App will strictly enforce the limit of 250 to 650 words. Additionally, the 150-word activities and extracurriculars paragraph is now gone, so you can focus your time and energy on thebigger essay.
Take a look at the new essay prompts:
• Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
• Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
• Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
• Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
• Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Despite the significant changes to the essay prompts, Jim Montague, Program Director of Guidance and Support Service at Boston Latin School, said that he hasn’t changed the essay writing advice that he gives to his students. He still advocates early preparation during both a student’s junior year of high school and the summer before senior year.
You’ll notice that the open-ended question is now conspicuously absent from the prompt list. However, if you’re creative enough, almost any essay topic can fit under one of these prompts.
“The question that allows students to choose any topic will be missed. It allowed our students to choose something they really care about and write,” wrote Montague in an email. “There are still many ways to respond to these choices, though. Raising the limit on the number of words allowed is also perceived by students to be helpful and allows them to express themselves more easily and completely.”
And for those who still have no idea where to begin?
“Sit down with someone who knows you well and brainstorm experiences and interests that might form the core of an essay or a direction worth pursuing,” wrote Montague. Get a group of close friends together, bounce ideas off of family members, and don’t be afraid to get creative and express your personality. This is the only part of your essay that isn’t presented as a generic list of achievements, so make it count.
A few personal tips:
• Make the essay about you—sure, your grandmother was an incredibly inspiring person in your life, but college admissions officers want to hear your story and not hers. If your essay includes family members or friends, make sure the focus stays on you.
• Pick a topic that will allow your voice to show through the essay. Use humor, lyricism, or whatever awesome writing skills you’ve been honing for the past two decades. Insider tip: if you’re going for funny, have people read your essay and make sure your brilliance and wit translates on the page. There’s nothing worse than an essay that tries and fails to be funny.
• Keep a notebook or file to write down every idea you have, even if you don’t think you’ll choose it. Scattered thoughts can come together in surprising ways, and you may even stumble across a topic for another essay.
• Picking an event in your life can be dangerous territory if you waste a lot of space on describing what happened instead of how it affected you—just be aware of this pitfall. Show, don’t tell!
• If you’re stuck, take a closer look at the prompts and write down every possibility you can think of for each topic. If you’re still frantically searching for a topic, don’t despair; sometimes, it takes multiple rewrites and several dead-end topics to craft the perfect essay.
The Common Application will launch for the coming admissions season on August 1. In the meanwhile, the Common Application essay prompts are available so writing can begin. Students will need to choose one of the five prompts and write up to a 650-word essay.
The essay prompts are as follows:
1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2.Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
5.Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Your essays will bring authenticity to your application and allow the admission officers to learn who you are. You need to make sure this happens. So just how should you start writing your essays?
Here are some suggestions we recommend to help you write essays where you can stand out:
1. Brainstorm possible topics: This could be absolutely anything -- Slice of life stories can be very appealing and just as noteworthy if the writing is exceptional. It's not necessary to write about some major event or achievement. Keep a file of life stories, specific moments and experiences. Think about how you have applied lessons you have learned. Read current college essay prompts and see if your ideas integrate.
2. Discuss your ideas with people you know: Listen to suggestions and elaborate on your thoughts. What do others think of your topics? Which ideas are discriminating and distinguish you as a strong applicant at your dream college?
3. Don't rush: Pace yourself well so that you have plenty of time to relax and write
4. Find a comfortable setting: Where your thoughts and ideas can flourish. Really like what you write about and mean it.
Once you have completed your "Free Write" go back and look at the specific essay prompts. The Common App Prompts can each inspire deep thoughts -- Select the one where you feel most sincere and authentic. Remember that your writing is quality over quantity so no need to write many rough drafts. Connect your topic ideas to the prompts and write a brief outline defining the paragraphs of your essay. This is where you may start to think about your opening "the grabber" and how to sustain interest. Keep track of the required word count.
Once you have your topic ideas and your general outline, you can begin writing out your rough draft.
Having reviewed countless Common App essays, below are some things we see and things you should try and avoid:
- Writing that does not emphasize the writer's strength of character
- Essays that make every effort to portray the writer as "perfect" and just try too hard
- Essays that don't reflect the writer's passion, curiosity and inspirations
- Contrived transitions that don't connect
- Narratives that do not engage the reader
- Repeating what is on the activity resume
- Dull openings that quickly lose interest
- Using quotes that don't connect or add anything to the essay
- Essays that don't realize the intent of the prompt and don't answer all the questions asked
- Essays that look too much like everyone else's. Common topics like community service in a foreign country, overcoming an obstacle and winning, a relationship with a close relative where the relative is the emphasis of the essay, winning a sporting event must remain unique with a well-told story
- Writing what you think admission officers want to read and therefore not your true self - using a thesaurus to impress
- Too much written in the passive voice
- Not keeping language specific -- writing too generally about too many things
- Use of slang or relaxed language
It is best to begin as soon as possible in order to present your best self and give your writing the time, thought and diligence it deserves!
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