Common App Essay Tips

App Essay Prompts

What does it mean to “share your story?” The pool of topics for common application essays is vast, but with this freedom comes the terrifying sense of getting the topic wrong or not communicating that urgent aspect of yourself that you meant to. College supplements often asks applicants to write about their strengths, their weaknesses, their suitability to college life and so forth. It all gets a bit hoop-jumpy, but that’s not to say you can’t write something meaningful or important to you, even when the prompts begin to blur and it feels like you’re having to write the same essay over and over.

Topics are the most frustrating obstacle to overcome with prompts. They are intentionally almost never straightforward. This is designed to allow applicants to take a loosely dangled topic and make what they want of it. The simple suggestion of ‘write about a time you experienced failure’ could be anything from receiving a bad exam grade to burning toast on mother’s day. And, ultimately, either one of these directions could prove lucrative. In fact, the prompts don’t matter at all by themselves. It’s not an exam-style scenario in which admissions counselors have a mark scheme, and if you don’t adhere religiously to the most important failure of your life then the entire application becomes shredder fodder. Prompts are only ever a means to an end on the common app. Colleges want to hear about you, the applicant, and witness how you have transformed or blossomed in some way that you can relay to them in an interesting way.

You may have an excellent example of a failure. It may on the surface sound like the most engaging story, riddled with jokes and drama in a topsy-turvy narrative that brings tears and warmth to the heart. But if this story is about your friend Johnny and not yourself then it does no good. You could always email Johnny the story and let him use it on his common app, but if Johnny is applying to the same colleges as you it may be best to just burn it. Burn it and move on. The story has to showcase the best of you. Something you feel passionately about or detest so much that your writing is compelling.

The key with any prompt is to figure out what it’s asking of you. Mostly, colleges just want to read for personality in a way of valuating your contribution to the student body. So, if you’re funny, be funny. If you’re not, don’t. Try to imagine yourself in the most objective sense, like you’re another person having a conversation with yourself. Putting yourself in the admissions counselors’ shoes like that can help you pick out which aspects of your experiences are most engaging to a stranger. The objective of these essays is to have the admissions officer finish, recline in their chair and think: we need this kid on our campus.

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