How to tackle the Common App Essays for 2013-14
Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.
The Common Application is used by over 500 universities in the United States and one of the most important parts of the Common App is the essay, a 650 word piece that is your primary writing sample for most universities. Given the importance of the essay in the admissions process, we thought we’d ask Admissions Hero’s Chief Essay Specialist and co-founder Vinay Bhaskara how he’d tackle each of this year’s Common App essays.
The instructions given on the Common App essay are as follow:
Please provide an answer below if you wish to provide details of circumstances or qualifications not reflected in the application.
The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)
Here are each of the essay topics dissected
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.
Vinay: This type of essay lends itself to a narrative over time. For example, in my case – the background that aviation blogging/journalism gave me helped shape my life in more ways than one, and I actually told that story for my Common App essay last year. An activity – political debate, taekwondo, etc. – can certainly serve as a strong base for this topic, but you have to make sure that you’re conveying something beyond the story and reflecting on its meaning. For example, just telling the story of how you participated in a Youth and Government program freshman through senior years won’t make for a good essay, but sharing the details of how that same program taught you social skills and helped you learn to make friends will. This is a topic that lends itself well to introspection, and the more self-analysis and/or discussion of your feelings you can weave in, the better.
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Vinay: This is a little bit dangerous, because you have to choose what you define as failure carefully. For example, talking about the time you came in second at a pie contest at the county fair might not be the best example – aim for something a little more profound. Otherwise, this is a relatively straightforward topic – the question is rather explicit. As far as communicating lessons learnt, it’s okay to mention several, but try to focus in on one or two stronger lessons. For example, Michael Jordan could have talked about any number of lessons learned from not making the varsity basketball team his sophomore year; not to take as many 3 pointers in scrimmages, how to best run “suicides,” and the like. But if he were writing this essay, the lessons learned portion would have been best focused on how he learned that persistence and drive allowed him to overcome any obstacle, and how that helped him turn into one of the top high school basketball recruits in the country (even before he became the greatest basketball player of all time).
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Vinay: This is a great topic that’s a lot different from the first two because it allows you to get into things that are important to you, rather than necessarily reflecting on your weaknesses or things that you learned. And it need not be something big and flashy. Serving as an iconoclast protesting political malfeasance in Turkey makes for a good response, but so does the time you convinced your school to turn off the lights after 7:00 pm to save energy. In each case you’re showing the admissions counselor what really matters to you, whether it’s political freedom or the environment. You just have to be careful in how you phrase the belief or idea you disagreed with. You can always admit that you disagree with something (within reason), but be careful not to put down or disparage the opposing party, especially if the belief or idea is politically sensitive
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Vinay: Again relatively straightforward. But the key with this topic is to show, not tell. By that, I mean if you do a dispassionate narrative about the place or environment where you’re perfectly content, you’re missing out on an opportunity to really show off your writing chops. Be sure to take advantage of all of your senses and describe everything. For example, my perfect environment would be a large airport like Atlanta or London Heathrow. I could then describe the impressive visual spectacle of massive jumbo jets, the sound of thousands of people milling about, the refined scent of the leather chairs in an airline lounge, the greasy tasting pan pizza, and the way a suitcase feels pressed into my hands for hours on end (I tend to roam in airports rather than sitting at the gate) – instead of just describing all these things visually. And I would explain the significance of the airport; the way it helped me discover my passion for business, how I feel most at peace (ironically enough) when I’m rushing around an airport trying to see every plane, and how seeing the miracle of every plane takeoff and landing puts my inconsequential troubles into real perspective. You may or may not have a place like this, but if you do, it allows you to really put together a well written and beautiful essay.
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Vinay: This essay topic really lends itself to reflecting on your culture and family circumstance. It’s easy to take this in the direction of tradition (Bar/Bat Mitzvah, Hindu sacred thread, et. al), but the informal, the actions that are specific to you might be even more powerful. For example, I would use my Indian culture, and describe a moment where I challenged my parents to and/or they let me make a decision for myself (picking a school or career path) as the moment when I overcame the traditional Indian family hierarchy to earn my place as an equal (at least in my eyes). And you need not have turned into an adult in everyone’s eyes, only your own. The moment can just as easily have happened when you took care of your brother till 2 am at the age of 12, as it did when you actually turned 18; that’s what can make this essay really powerful – it’s all about you.