What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

My Life in 650 Words: How I Tackled the Common App Essay

It’s the afternoon of August 1st, 2013. I’m staring at six prompts, one of which will soon play a key role in my college admissions process. Which one do I choose?


Is there a part of my life that is so integral to my identity that I must share it with others? I suppose so, but then again, maybe I’m overestimating how interesting of a person I am. A place where I am perfectly content…does my bed count? Hm; I don’t consider myself an adult yet, so I probably wouldn’t be able to write seriously about an event that marked my transition from child into adult.


And so on and so forth, my musings spilled into the next day, then the next week, without much progress in deciding on a topic to write about for my Common App essay, the one ubiquitous piece of writing all colleges and admissions officers will read and get to know me through.



I may be three years removed from the college application process now, but I remember more than enough to empathize: college application season can be ROUGH. In addition to juggling homework, extracurriculars, and an ever-declining social life, you now have the added responsibility of writing a multitude of essays in which you try to encapsulate your entire character in 650 words or less.


It was a lot of pressure. During the spring semester of my junior year, I had started thinking about what I could write about, but not all that seriously. It did help that my English teacher gave us a few writing assignments that were specifically tailored so that we could use them as a potential college application essay, but other than that, I figured my main focus should be getting top grades and finishing up my standardized testing (namely, the SAT subject tests; fun stuff).


However, by the time August rolled around, I knew it was time to buckle down and at least select a topic, which is how I found myself sifting through the prompts on the first day of August.


When August rolls along, things suddenly seem so much more real; preseason starts, band camp picks up, and all that combined means school is right around the corner. And as an incoming senior that year, I knew along with school also came college applications. I could no longer think about writing my essays in terms of vague conjectures; they were now months away from being due, and I had no choice but to get to work.


How I Chose My Essay Topic


Some people are brimming with ideas, and they just don’t know which one to choose. I wasn’t one of those people. I only had two ideas I felt like I could work with: one about my passion for art, and another about family that could be used as an example of my growth (or “transition,” as the Common App essay prompt put it) into an adult.


While both ideas excited me, I was also cautious in proceeding with either topic, because I had a feeling both could easily become cliché, and that was the last thing I wanted. I worked on both side by side, but never really felt satisfied with either.


A few weeks into the writing, it suddenly occurred to me that I had written a short, autobiographical piece for an art exhibition I participated in the previous year. Revisiting the passage I wrote was like an awakening; it renewed my fervor for art, and not just creating it, but exploring why I enjoyed creating it and what the hobby meant to me.


Once I was struck by inspiration, it seemed like all the other pieces started falling into place: I remembered a quote that my art teacher spoke once that resonated with me, memories of my first chalk drawings began to resurface, and more tidbits that I could use to flesh out my essay.


Of course, just because I had the material now didn’t mean it was easy going from there on out, but when you have an idea that you just feel is right, you will never lose interest; the idea draws you in with its possibilities, urging you to tweak it until you arrive at the best version that you are capable of. So, I ultimately ended up piecing together my artistic experiences, reflections, and hopes into an essay that helped demonstrate the kind of person that I am.

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How You Approach Essay Writing Says Something About Your Personality


I believe that the way we approach our essay writing says something about us: Personally, I recycled something I had already written and expanded it to better answer one of the questions posed by the Common App. To me, this showed that I was capable of taking old ideas, renewing and reinventing them, and then shaping them so that they would best fit whatever goal I had in mind.


On the other hand, one of my closest friends in high school changed her essay idea at least three times before finally settling on an essay topic at the last minute. The essay she would end up turning in to the Common App wasn’t even begun until mid-November, and it was actually based on an event that had happened during the school play (which she co-starred in) at the beginning of that November.


Our friends at the time thought she was a little crazy to throw out a fully drafted essay in favor of a new topic, but we quickly realized that there was method to her madness. Upon reading the essay, we could all see her quirkiness and humor shine through, and we knew that this essay would represent her far better than the essay she had before.


To me, my friend’s somewhat erratic approach spoke to her spontaneity and her willingness to abandon ideas, even if they’re fully formed, in favor of new ideas with more potential that came along. It might make for a pretty twisted path in life, but my friend’s willingness to follow her heart is part of what makes her so uniquely her.


And then there was my best friend, who came up with an essay topic as soon as senior year started, stuck with it, and never looked back. This fit right in with her character, as she is an outspoken person who is not afraid to stand up for those around her and give them a voice when they can’t get a word in. Her confidence and sense of self never ceased to amaze me, and both her essay topic and essay approach reflected just that.



Regardless of how we approached our essays, my two friends and I all were able to produce quality essays that helped us get into colleges that we are satisfied with. How you approach your essays depends on who you are. If you can’t seem to find inspiration right away or are worried about how fitting your topic choice is, I wouldn’t fret. After all, sometimes inspiration strikes late in the game, or it’s been right in front of you all along and was just waiting for you to recognize its full potential.


For more Common App Essay tips, see these posts:

How to Write the Common App Essays

11 Common App Essay Examples


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Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work.