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Common App Companion

Students tend to be prepared for most parts of the college application process. Taking challenging courses? They’ve done that their entire lives. The SAT and ACT? There are clear, concrete goals, and achievable paths to improving on them. Letters of recommendation? Most students have at least one or two teachers who they’ve liked, and have liked them in return.

But as soon as they start college essay, most students are in deep trouble. If I can be entirely frank: the essays that students are taught to write through high school just aren't good.

They’re formulaic. They follow rigid patterns, applied thoughtlessly.

They’re overwritten. They waste words wantonly, hoping to hit a minimum wordcount.

And worst of all? They’re boring.

In all my years of teaching, I’ve only ever had a single student come to me with a strong understanding of what a college essay should be-and he only started working with me after getting assistance from multiple other adults for more than a month.

Components of a Good College Essay

That said, it’s not as if writing a college essay is some Herculean task. It’s a lot of work–much more work than you think it is–but there are some common components to every good college essay.

  • Self-Focused. Most students are taught to never use “I” in their essays. Here, you’re going to have to take that instinct and throw it out the window. Your application essays are about you. If you’re not talking about yourself, then you aren’t answering the prompt.

  • Passionate. Write about something that’s interesting. Not interesting to your imagined audience; something that’s interesting to you. Everyone’s got that one passion, that one experience that they can talk about for hours on end: talk about your quest to make the perfect loaf of sourdough, that one time you beat a chess hustler, or even your misanthropy. You can make a good essay out of anything in the world! But you need to care about what you’re writing.

  • A strong hook. Of course, everyone knows that you need a good hook! But for college essays, you NEED a strong hook. Applications officers aren’t reading thirty or so essays; they’re reading hundreds and thousands of essays. If you want your essay to help your application process, you need to grab their attention with something unique, and you need to do so immediately.

  • Follow through. Write a focused essay and complete it. Make sure your audience has everything they need to understand your story. You want to make sure that every person who lays eyes on your essay understands what you’re talking about and how it completely answers the prompt–and they should have an easy and fun time doing so.

  • Go beyond. If you’ve written a summary for your conclusion, then congratulations! You’ve successfully written the most boring conclusion known to man. Your conclusions should go above and beyond. Don’t summarize: bookend your essay by alluding to your introduction; synthesize everything in your essay and show how it was all related; or expand your scope and show how your topic is more pervasive than it looked at first glimpse. There are a million ways to make an interesting conclusion! Don’t be beholden to poor writing habits.

  • Grammar. It doesn’t matter how interesting or compelling your essay is; if it’s not up to technical standards, then it’s going to look amateurish. Even a few typos, a “they’re” instead of “their,” a botched idiom… these are all disastrous to your prospects. Vary your language. Demonstrate your command of the English language. And, of course, use sentences of every length; short, medium, and long sentences all have their place in the tapestry of your work.

Components of a Bad College Essay

There are also a few things you should be wary of. If these are making their way into your essay, you’ve got some reworking to do.

  • Verbosity. Do you tend to use more words than you need to, gently padding out sentences with fluff until they are so soft that even an angel would fall asleep as soon as they laid their head to rest upon them? Cut them. You only have 300 to 600 words. None of them should be wasted. If a word isn’t helping you make your point, then it’s dragging you down.

  • Generic topics. I know, I said that you can make an interesting essay out of anything. And you can! But it’s much easier if you avoid topics that everyone else is also writing about. Here are a few topics that come up far too often: o Athletic teams o Politics o Religion o Immigration stories o A special person in your life o Covid-19* Consider writing about your hobbies, specific memories or experiences, or pivotal moments in your life instead. *You shouldn't write about Covid-19 on your essay for the Common App... but not because it's unimportant. Rather, if you have something you'd like to say about how the pandemic impacted your life, you'll have an optional, separate 300-word essay where you can write about your experiences.

  • Laundry lists. All right, this one might need a bit of clarification. A specific brand of student tends to write long lists of their achievements or qualifications in their college essays. This is one of the worst college essays you can write. The college already has your achievements. They know your grades and accolades. You already sent them your transcript. Don’t do it again. College essays are your chance to make colleges see you, not just some numbers – and that’s what they want to see. If you’re spending that resource on repeating information they already have, then you’re throwing it in the trash.

A Brief Aside

Writing with passion makes for good essays – anything that’s filled with emotion is powerful. But this occasionally leads students to wonder if they should write about their experiences with trauma. Depression, abuse, eating disorders; these are topics that are charged with emotion, and they can make for very compelling essays.

But I would advise extreme caution in doing so. If you’re considering a topic such as these for your essay, then there are a few pieces of advice that I’d like to give.

  • If the topic is a scar, then it’s a reasonable choice to talk about. But if it’s an open wound, stay away. These topics become much more compelling when you talk about how you’ve grown and what you’ve gained; if you’re still being hurt by your topic, then you probably won’t have the proper perspective to convey it properly.

  • Don’t make the essay about misery. The person reading your essay isn’t in a good headspace for reading a sob story – they’re looking for stories of students’ growth and development. Your trauma definitely had a major impact on your growth; highlight that instead.

  • Stay at a remove from the part of the experience that was hardest for you. Trauma is already incredibly emotionally charged. You don’t need to reach for its burning core to write a compelling essay. In fact, if you reach for something that’s too hard on you, your essay could suffer instead.

The Common App

Now that we know a bit more of what a good essay actually looks like, let’s take a look at the Common App itself! Here, you’ll be able to choose between seven essay prompts:

  • 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. (20%)

  • 2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (21%)

  • 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (3%)

  • 4: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? (No Data; new question from 2022)

  • 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (24%)

  • 6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? (5%)

  • 7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. (24%)

After each of the prompts, you can see how frequently students responded to each prompt. There’s a bit of a disconnect; the questions are from 2023, but the most recent data I had access to was from 2021. That said, the percentages don’t tend to change very much – almost every student tends to respond to prompt 1, 2, 5, or 7.

That said, which prompt is best for you? 1, 2, 5, and 7 are commonly written because it’s easiest for students to write essays that make themselves look good. If you’re really struggling with an idea, it’s quite reasonable to write any of those prompts!

But if you really want to stand out, I’d strongly recommend looking into prompt 3, 4, or 6. These are the prompts that admissions officers seldom read, so you get a free bump to how interesting your essay is to them. Question 6, especially, is a fantastic choice: it invites you to talk about one of your passions – and we already know that’s a fantastic way to write a compelling essay!

The First Step

Now that you’ve started your journey towards writing your Common App essay, you’ve taken an important first step along the way to writing your college essays! But beware: it really is the first step. Writing a good essay takes more work than you’d imagine; you’ll have to write and rewrite over and over.

And, once that’s done, you still won’t be close to the end. You’ll still have to decide on which colleges you’re applying to… and write the supplemental essays for each college. I often recommend that my students start writing their college essay in the summer before their senior year; the process is much longer than parents or students realize!

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