Regarding writing the Common App essay:

There is no one right way to write a common application essay. There are many different ways to write a compelling essay, but the bottom line is that you need to show who you are, make yourself stand out, and tell a story.

That being said, there are some general guidelines that apply to nearly all the topics on this list—regardless of which one you pick.


Tip #1 – Avoid cliché achievement stories

Ultimately, the biggest mistake I see with students, particularly those who come from abroad, is writing a predictable essay that lacks a voice—and often that essay is a bloated fact from his or her resume—i.e. they try to make a story out of an achievement.

Take for example Prompt #2:

Many students answer this question with a story that’s actually a success story, but they turn it around and say at first they failed. It could be a story for instance, about how she was not very good at math in 3rd grade. Even if she only got a “C” on a test, for her that was failure. However, she would not let failure stop her. She worked very hard and stayed late to work on math. Her mom and her sister helped her. Then she got better at math. She got an A! The end. That story is too cliché and uninspired to actually tell us much of anything about the candidate. For grades, you can swap out the basketball team, a violin lesson, calligraphy championships, a weekend robotics building championship, or any other competitive after school or in-school activity—none of it works very well. The failure prompt is not an invitation for a cliché story that reinforces the maxim “if at first you don’t succeed, try try again.” If your story has that message, you probably haven’t gone deep enough. Find a story that makes you question what you value, reveals things about your point of view of the world, and offers a glimpse into what excites you, disappoints you, and drives you. Generally, a story that evokes a human being with emotions, that discusses relationships (people you care about and people who care about you) offers much more fertile ground than achievement-style content. Get away from “achievement” on this one if you can, unless you have a unique perspective, or really have ground breaking research or serious academic content that you failed on at first (I had one student who wrote about designing an algorithm to track epidemiological trends using Twitter raw data—that was academically involved enough to reveal a true passion for learning so might be appropriate—but we actually ended up using that on her supplemental essays).

When it comes to prompt #5 – this trend often also emerges. Topic #5 does want you to talk about achievement—but it’s achievement in CONTEXT (i.e. a narrative or story with people, emotions, relationships), and the best essays I see from this topic often define ACHIEVEMENT in a non-traditional way—it could even be coming up with the perfect father’s day gift, beating your mother at Scrabble, or something more like a one time event—surviving cancer, your Bar Mitzvah, or inheriting your grandmother’s sewing machine. #5 should be MORE about growing up and LESS about the single “achievement” or “event” – focus on becoming an adult, “getting it”, realizing how you were naïve and young and foolish—NOT on “I tried and I succeeded and now I’m an adult!” Again don’t talk about grades, classes, and test scores—or some sort of competition you went to for a weekend. Avoid those topics.

Tip #2

Prove you are a human being.

Another issue I see (particularly in student essays from China) is a difficulty revealing a personable voice. Part of the goal of this essay is to prove you are a living breathing person and not a robot. Your grades and accomplishments will speak for themselves on your application. This part of the application is meant to show your human, emotional and relational side in some capacity. It’s meant to bring in some narrative to show what matters to you and why. How you see the world. What kind of a person you are. If your mom, your teacher, or your friend read your essay and ten other essays from your class, she should immediately know which one is yours. If that’s not the case, you haven’t shown enough of yourself on the page.

Tip #3

Don’t repeat ANYTHING when it comes to your essay topics.

The common application is not the only essay you need to write. In fact, you will likely have a baseline of 2-3 more essays you will work and rework to fit the supplemental essays required of each school. Generally these essays will focus on 1) What are you passionate about (or what do you want to major in) and why? 2) Why do you want to go to this school (the answer to which actually has a lot to do with the first question)? 3) What are your future plans?

As such, sometimes it’s a good idea to NOT write about those ideas in your Common Application essay. Because you will need to talk about your love for Computer Science, or the moment you realized you wanted to be a Doctor in your supplemental essays, it’s usually best to AVOID such talk here.

Talk about family, friends, off beat intellectual curiosity, or a unique perspective. If you have some really special story (your sister is autistic and you’re her care giver, you are a refugee from Syria, etc.) this is also a great place for that.

Tip #4

Tell a story and get specific.

Regardless of which topic you choose, you need to tell a story of some sort. In other words, you need to get specific, and talk about actual things that have happened in your life. Story story story!!

Take Prompt # 3 for example—I’ve read many essays on this topic that are vague. For example: “When I was growing up I had always assumed that winning was everything. But as I’ve grown up I realize that’s not true. Winning isn’t everything because sometimes you make mistakes and learn from them. For example I didn’t make the competitive swim team I tried out for. It was hard to face, but I realized it wasn’t the end of the world.”

You can see that an essay like that is vague and not specific. It focuses on cliché ideas and doesn’t tell a story. Instead, you want to make sure you have a story—

“I was three feet from the finish line, and victory was not mine. It was my brother’s and it always would be my brother’s. True—the finish line was just the kitchen and he wanted to be first to the freezer for Ben and Jerry’s. There was probably enough for me anyhow in the carton. But nevertheless, every day I am challenging the idea that I’m the slower one, the weaker one, or the less likely to survive. As the only girl in a family with three boys, even if I don’t ever seem to win, I’m fighting to be first.” Then she launches into a chronological story of her place amongst her brothers—telling vignettes along the way.

Is it perfect? Probably not—but it’s better than the other faux essay because it’s a story—it has details down to the brand of ice cream in the freezer and it’s starting to relate how this person relates to people in her life she cares about. It also does a spin on the prompt that certainly addresses the prompt, but does so in an unconventional way – this is a time (every day) when she challenges a status quo idea (or even a sense of reality).

Tip #5

Find a balance between reflection/interpretation and narrative.

You don’t just need to tell a story, you need to reflect upon it and shape it in order to convey a point of view. You need to analyze what happens and what it means. Just telling what happened is another classic mistake some students make when writing. Be sure to focus on all questions in the prompt—not just the part that spurs you to pick a particular event to discuss.

Tip #6

Read some examples.

Again there’s no perfect essay for everyone—so you’re best off reading some good ones to get a feel for what to write:

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Tip #7

Craft a great opening line.

Don’t worry about this at first—but look for it after your first draft. The best lines are usually 5-6 lines down on the page in a first draft.

Tip #8

Don’t try too hard to be academically impressive, sound like yourself, and don’t pretend to be someone you’re not. Keep it direct and simple.

If you are bored by your essay, so is everyone else. Make it relatable, real, and you. Write the essay that is YOU, not the essay you think a college wants to read.

Check out this essay for more on that.