How to Write the Common App Essays 2016-2017
With the Common Application for the 2016-2017 live as of August, CollegeVine’s essay team is sharing the following tips on how to write the all-important Common App essays for the upcoming application cycle.
Before discussing the specific prompts for the Common Application, it’s important to note that there are some general principles for approaching the Common App essay. First and foremost, the Common App essay is about telling colleges why you are unique and/or what matters to you. It is absolutely critical that you nail the Common App essay because the majority of your schools will see this essay. Thus, for the Common App you’ll want to paint a portrait of yourself that is relatively accessible and has widespread appeal to many colleges (for example, if you are only applying to Engineering programs at some of your schools, don’t focus your Common App on STEM at the expense of your other applications. Save that for your supplemental essays).
You have several avenues through which you can tell colleges what matters to you, including but not limited to highlighting a central theme of your application that is tied to one or several of your extracurricular activities, focusing on a specific personality trait or strength, or highlighting a particular challenge that you had to overcome.
That being said, there are distinct topics and strategies that each prompt lends itself to especially well.
Some students have a background, identity, interest…
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.
This prompt offers an excellent opportunity to engage with a particular extracurricular or academic area of passion, and it allows you to weave a narrative that displays personal growth in that subject or area. Particularly if you have an unconventional passion, such as blogging about Chinese basketball, or urban exploration, the combination of displaying your personality and the unique topic can be very eye-catching.
This prompt also represents an opportunity to consider questions of personal identity, whether that takes the form of racial identity, sexual orientation, gender, or simply one’s place within a specific community (even communities as unique as, say, players of World of Warcraft). With the topic of racial identity, it’s important to keep in mind the audience (college admissions counselors tend to be progressive politically), so this might not be the best place to make sweeping claims about reverse racism against Caucasian-Americans. However, careful consideration of intrinsic cultural elements (such as the effect that Chinese American culture’s prioritization of academics had on your personal development) is certainly a strong essay topic.
Also a quick note – while claiming to have experienced discrimination based on race or claiming to have a different sexual orientation or gender than heterosexual and male/female respectively can be an effective way to talk about your ability to overcome adversity, faked or exaggerated claims about said topic are often very easy to recognize and will result in a severe penalization.
What lessons did you learn?
The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
This prompt lends itself to consideration of what facets of your personality allow you to overcome adversity, as well as display your self-awareness. It’s okay to choose a relatively mundane “failure” such as failing to win an award at a Model United Nations conference despite putting in hours of research into the topics of your committee (and learning that you should focus on how you project yourself and interacting more cordially, even when debating and competing against your peers). However, you should be careful not to sound over-confident (as if you are incapable of any failure larger than this). You also want to avoid making the failure sound more devastating than it actually was.
Another (perhaps more powerful) tactic with this essay is to write about a more foundational failure and then assess its impact on your development thereafter. This allows you to tackle more meaty questions about ethics (perhaps you cheated on a test and felt horrible about it), morality (maybe you stole something, your parents berated you for it, and now you hate theft to such a degree that if you find money on the street your turn it in), or the human condition (perhaps you made an insensitive comment or were close-minded in a particular instance).
You want to be careful to balance the severity of the failure with its recentness; in general, choose a failure from before high school so that it doesn’t color the admissions counselor’s view of your high school career. Also, be sure that any failure you choose is within reason (so in general avoid talking about any felonies you’ve left behind you). Exercise good judgment!
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
This prompt is a difficult one to answer because most high school students haven’t participated in the types of iconoclastic protests against societal ills that lend themselves to an excellent response. However, a more tenable alternative here is to discuss a time that you went against social convention, whether it was becoming friends with someone who seemed like a social outcast and was ignored by most people but eventually became one of your best friends, by going against the popular opinion of your peers, or proudly showing off a geeky passion of yours. And if you ever participated in a situation in concert with adults and found some success (i.e. by blogging, starting a tutoring organization, or participating in political campaigns), you could discuss your experiences as a young person without a college degree in professional and adult circles. The one thing to keep in mind when responding to this prompt is to avoid sounding morally superior (as if you are the only person who went against this social convention, or that you are better than your peers for doing so).
Describe a problem you’ve solved…
Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
This essay prompt is difficult for many students who grapple with the type of challenge that they should write about. The prompt itself provides three specific suggestions, but it should be clarified that the phrase “anything that is of personal importance” gives you a lot of freedom, allowing you to center your essay around essentially anything that can be loosely called a “problem.” Our advice is to pick a problem that deeply concerns you and make it clear to your reader why that topic matters to you at all, either through an origin story of how you became interested in the query or through an explanation of the potential consequences of the dilemma (depending on your topic).
Upon reviewing all the Common App questions to decide which to write about, astute applicants might realize that Common App prompts #2, #3, and #4 are all quite similar in that they ask students to identify some sort of conflict and how it was resolved. But there are subtle differences. Whereas #2 specifically refers to a failure and #3 is asking for a situation where you were the odd one out amongst a larger group, #4 is best saved for essays where the focus is on your thought process in response to a problem you’ve encountered.
Thus, when answering this prompt it is crucial that you explain in great detail how you solved/would solve the problem. The showcasing of your unique thought processes is just as, if not more, critical than the actual problem itself. Accordingly, stream-of-consciousness can be used to great effect here.
One final note: even though the prompt allows you to explore more academic and intellectual topics, it is important not to get carried away with esoteric details. Save the intensely intricate discussion of particle physics for class—for your Common App essay, the reader should still recognize that your discussion of particle physics was really about yourself, your interests, and how you think about the world.
Discuss an accomplishment or event…
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
This prompt is probably the most expansive in that you can choose any event that had a major impact on your life. One option is to discuss a cultural process (such as Bar Mitzvah or Upanayanam in Judaism and Hinduism respectively) that serves as a formal waypoint on a path to adulthood, but if you do so, make sure to discuss why the ritual made you “feel” like an adult, not just why you became one in practice. In other words, make sure that the reader comes away understanding why you are actually different in a meaningful way as a result of this event.
Informal events are probably easier to use because you can show more of your own personality and what makes you tick. A good way to assess whether an informal event demarcates a transition into adulthood is if it (1) gave you a new perspective or degree of self-awareness, (2) taught you that idealism can still play an important role in achieving goals, or conversely, (3) helped show you that the world doesn’t often conform today to idealistic realities (a time when you learned realism). For example, perhaps after growing up in a multi-cultural environment, you finally witness a racist encounter in a more restricted environment. This could serve as a powerful eye-opener about the state of some parts of the world, informally achieving an implicit state of adulthood.
However, your topic need not be so weighty when talking about your own growth, because when discussing personal development, almost any group can be massaged to form a “community,” which means you have a wide array of options to use as a point marking a transition to adulthood.
In terms of strategy, an anecdote will be particularly effective here.
With these tips, you should be well on your way to writing the perfect Common App. Best of luck from the CollegeVine team!
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