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5 Tips for a Compelling Common Application Essay

For many high school seniors, the Common Application’s personal essay is the most intimidating part of the admissions process. What are admissions officers looking for? Are there particular topics you should avoid? How can you possibly summarize your interests and goals in 650 words? What do they mean when they call it a “personal essay?”

If the very idea of tackling this essay leaves you feeling overwhelmed, don’t worry! We’re here to help. Below, we’ve listed some of the most important things to keep in mind when putting together your personal essay. If you can follow these guidelines as you plan, draft, and polish your applications, you’ll be in great shape! And bonus tip, it’s not really personal, meaning they don’t care about your personality or your deep, dark secrets. Read on.

5 TIPS FOR YOUR COMMON APPLICATION ESSAY

1. What Makes You Stand Out

Every year, admissions officers receive thousands of essays that sound similar. Some of these address cliché topics (e.g., winning the big game, being transformed by a volunteer opportunity); others simply don’t make clear how the applicant differs from other students.

Before you begin writing your essay, take some time to think about what makes you a compelling applicant. Are you an amazing writer or an incredible biologist? Are you a budding political activist? Have you developed great resources to support the homeless population in your area? Whatever it is that makes you stand out, that is what you should be discussing in your college essay! Not what you want to “do” in life, but what you’ve done to elevate yourself to present as a compelling candidate. Give the reader a zoomed in snap shot of what it is you will bring to college.

2. Turn Your Essay Into A Story

The Common App asks for a “personal essay,” but you’d do better to think of your writing as a personal narrative. Use this as an opportunity to tell a story about yourself, one that — like all the great stories you’ve read in English class — includes a compelling opening, some narrative tension to keep the reader invested, and a satisfying conclusion. If, for example, you want to write about your background as a programmer, don’t just tell us that you can code and list your achievements. Instead, tell us a story about how you were confronted with a seemingly impossible programming challenge, how you spent months studying a particular programming language to debug your code, how you finally succeeded after multiple failures, and how this has shaped your current approach to computer science. Giving your story a narrative arc will make it both more enjoyable and more memorable. The one caveat: make sure your narrative presents you in a positive light. No one wants to admit the story’s villain.

3. Show, Don’t Tell

We’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating: rather than telling us that something is true, show us evidence that makes us believe it. That is, rather than simply asserting things about yourself in your college essay (“I’m a compassionate person,” “I love history,” etc.), give us information that proves your point. Maybe you’ve shown your compassion by working at a food bank during the pandemic and tutoring underprivileged kids. Perhaps you have illustrated your love of history through independent historical research projects and summer programs on American history. Providing this information in your essay will support your statements about yourself and make them convincing to your reader.

4. Proofread Your Work

After all of the hard work you’ve put into planning and drafting your essay, you don’t want an admissions officer to dismiss it because of sloppy writing. Typographical errors suggest to admissions officers that you are a careless student or (even worse!) that you aren’t particularly interested in their college. To avoid giving these impressions, make sure to spend some time carefully reviewing your writing. (Don’t just rely on the computer’s spellcheck feature — it won’t catch everything!) If you can, ask a few other people to review the piece for you to look out for any spelling or grammatical errors or any moments where your writing is unclear.

5. Get Help

If you keep these suggestions in mind when putting together your personal essay, you should finish with a strong piece of writing. Still feeling a little unsure? We’re here to help!  Just as you might get standardized test tutoring to help your scores go up, it’s helpful to have an expert make sure you are on the right path with your college essay. Like a good theater director is able to get a magnificent performance from an actor, so too does a skilled essay coach help an applicant find and present his/her authentic voice.

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College Application SOS

With early admissions deadlines now in the rearview mirror, all high school seniors can breathe a sigh of relief, right? Actually, based on data newly released from Niche.com, 47 percent of all high school seniors have yet to start applying to colleges. The Common Application this week reported an 8 percent decrease in number of applications submitted to date.

What’s behind the delay? Not surprisingly, anxiety is the single biggest reason why students haven’t submitted applications. Niche.com’s data shows that an overwhelming majority (92 percent) of students are feeling fear or anxiety right now with concerns about being able to afford college topping the list.

We also posit that lack of opportunities to visit campuses in person have led many students to feel uncomfortable applying for early admission, especially when binding commitments were required. Also, the Class of 2021 lost important mentoring and support from teachers and counselors in the crucial junior spring when schools went to virtual learning and for most, that has continued throughout the senior fall. 

Is it any wonder we are swamped with requests from students from around the world with questions on how to handle college admissions during the pandemic?

Are you behind on your college applications? Don’t panic — we are here to help with top tips for completing your applications NOW.  Take a deep breath and let’s do this!

BUILD YOUR COLLEGE LIST

Your first step should be to create a realistic list of colleges. Start with an honest self-assessment of your academic record. In real time, admissions officers cite a student’s grades and level of rigor of coursework as core to their assessment of applicants for admission. Even though many schools don’t officially report rank-in-class, there are plenty of hints that admissions officers find in counselor letters, school profiles, Naviance type software, and transcripts. So, where do you think you fall relative to peers? Near the top or more towards the middle?

Next, how would you rate the level of rigor of your curriculum? Have you stretched yourself to take the most challenging courses? How have you sought academic challenge beyond what your school offers? Again, this is what admissions officers are looking for as they read your application and just one of the myriad ways we guide our students in our Application Boot Camp and Private Counseling programs.

Although just about every college has moved to test-optional admissions policies for this current cycle, you can use your test scores to gauge where you fall relative to students who typically enroll at the colleges on your list. Do your SAT or ACT scores lie at or above the 75th percentile for enrolling students? Do your scores fall below the 25th percentile? Are you somewhere in the middle? Match your scores to the data colleges report on their incoming classes to give you a realistic sense of where you would fall if you submitted them.

Do a similar honest self-assessment of your extracurricular impact. How do you think your teachers and counselor would describe you? Leader, high impact, participant, just like everyone else? The more competitive the school, the more you will need to show impact and distinction—both in and out of the classroom.

Finally, as you build your list, recognize that rates of admission at top colleges in the regular round can be excruciatingly low. Create a balanced list with schools where your likelihood of admission is good, along with a handful of realistic “stretch” picks.

CONNECT WITH TEACHERS AND COLLEGE COUNSELORS

Immediately, connect with your teachers and college counselors to ask them to be your recommenders. Most top schools require letters from your counselor and at least one teacher, typically two, so choose teachers from junior year who know you well and talk with them about the schools on your list. Remember, they will be your advocates in the process, so the more you can share about your college aspirations, as well as all you’ve done both in and out of the classroom, will help them write stand-out letters on your behalf.

Also, many college counseling offices will require your finalized list in early December so that they can prepare and submit your transcript and counselor letter by college’s specific deadlines.

GIVE THANKS—AND THEN WRITE YOUR ESSAY

The Thanksgiving holiday is the perfect time to write the Common Application and supplemental college essays, especially since most of us will likely be hunkering down at home during the break.

When it comes right down to it, your main college essay is a 650-word introduction to you as a scholar, a community member, and a potential alumnus/a. This means that the story you tell about yourself must depict you as an academic, someone with strong interests, an inventive mind, and a willingness to pursue your goals.

There are likely plenty of stories in your background that are personally meaningful to you, but that don’t represent you in this particular light. A story about watching reality television with your sister, for example, might capture a family tradition, but it won’t tell us much about your scholarly interests or goals. A narrative about your mother’s immigration to the U.S., too, might show us her ability to overcome difficulties, but it won’t highlight yours.

Rather than focusing on stories that are personally important to you, we recommend that you tell us about moments in your life that highlight your passions, goals, and interests. Tell us about how watching reality TV with your sister inspired your award-winning research project on modern celebrity culture. Tell us about how your mother’s experience coming to the U.S. informed your own passion for immigration reform, which has led you to spend your time campaigning and volunteering with organizations that support migrants.

The stories don’t just give us a window into your life. They give us insights into how you’ve developed and explored your interests in high school — and how you might continue to pursue them at college.

Want more essay tips? Check out our Top Tips for Winning College Essays! Or work with us directly in our College Essay Guidance Program.

CREATE A SUPPLEMENT ‘MAP’

Today, most colleges have two to four supplemental questions (long essays, short responses, lists) in addition to what’s being asked on the Common Application. So, applying to colleges is far from streamlined.

As you approach your supplements, we suggest creating a supplement ‘map’ and categorizing the prompts based on theme. You will quickly notice some patterns emerge! For example, many schools will ask a version of the “Why Essay.” In other words, be prepared to explain what it is you like about their specific scholarly community and how you would contribute to campus life, both in the classroom and elsewhere. Other common supplemental questions include a meaningful extracurricular activity, your potential academic major, your role in a community of your choice, and personal perspectives showing how you would contribute to a diverse college community.

WE’RE HERE TO HELP

Whether you need step-by-step guidance with the ever-tricky Common App or guidance on organizing and crafting your essays, we’re here to help! Our expert editors and writers are at the ready to assist you in putting your best foot forward during the college application process.

For students who have finished their application and want our “review” we have a few more spots available before 12/20/20 in our Application Review Program! Good luck and get writing!

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2020-2021 Supplemental Essay Prompts: Early Releases

The first day of summer has arrived and with it, a new application season has begun. Colleges across the country are beginning to release their supplemental essays, well in advance of the application deadlines, so that students can get a jump start on their materials. These essays complement the longer Main Essay and provide applicants with opportunities to share additional information about their leadership, meaningful activities, community engagement, and intellectual experiences.

As with last year’s supplements, there is a strong “Why Essay” trend this year. In order to gauge your genuine interest in a particular school, admissions officers want to see that you have done your homework and can make a case for why you would be a good fit. Brown, for instance, asks: “Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about an academic interest (or interests) that excites you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue it. (250 words)” Other schools, like Cornell, ask applicants to respond to the essay question that corresponds to the undergraduate college or school to which they are applying (i.e. the College of Arts and Sciences or one of the other six colleges on campus.) The University of Chicago, notorious for the most creative supplemental questions (written by the previous year’s incoming class), offers seven options for the extended supplemental essay. One of the more irreverent options asks, “What can actually be divided by zero?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your supplements, you are not alone. We are here to help! This summer is the perfect time to work on your supplemental essays, especially now that you have unexpected free time at home due to COVID.

Don’t delay. The more you can do NOW, the more you can focus on your senior year grades without the added stress of college applications. On August 1, the Common App, the most popular application platform, will officially “go live,” but there’s no reason to wait to start your essays until then. Work one-on-one with one of our senior counselors to craft unique, stand-out essays with our College Essay Program. Or enroll in our trademark Application Boot Camp ® , which takes place over the course of four days in August and has a few remaining seats as of today.

THE VARIOUS APPLICATION PLATFORMS

Note: Some schools, like Georgetown University, use their own application. Students interested in Georgetown must first complete and submit the Georgetown Application (a short form), which initiates the alumni interview and grants you access to the official application platform. The University of California likewise uses their own distinct application for their nine campuses.

2020-2021 SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAY PROMPTS

We’ll continue to update this list as supplements are released. Feel free to note any schools we might’ve missed in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

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2020-2021 Common App Essay Prompts

UPDATE May 14, 2020

On May 12, the Common App announced a new COVID-19 question, which will appear on the 2020-2021 application. This optional essay will be located in the Additional Information section of the Common App.

The COVID-19 question will read as follows:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces (250 word limit)

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

Students may wish to discuss shifting family obligations, education disruptions, ways they have helped others, or how they have used their time at home to pursue new interests. This question will not replace the preexisting Additional Information essay, which has a 650 word limit.

Within the recommendation system, there will also be a place for your school counselor to discuss how the pandemic has affected your school specifically. This optional question, located within the School Profile section, will appear as below:

Your school may have made adjustments due to community disruptions such as COVID–19 or natural disasters. If you have not already addressed those changes in your uploaded school profile or elsewhere, you can elaborate here. Colleges are especially interested in understanding changes to:

  • Grading scales and policies
  • Graduation requirements
  • Instructional methods
  • Schedules and course offerings
  • Testing requirements
  • Your academic calendar
  • Other extenuating circumstances

*************************************************************

We have good news for students who like to plan ahead! The Common App has announced the 2020-2021 essay prompts, which will remain the same as last year.

After conducting a survey of over 10,000 people in December to gather feedback, the Common App determined that the seven current essay prompts successfully serve its students and member colleges. For the most part, we agree. As you begin to think about your Common App essay, however, be sure to read these prompts carefully and take time to brainstorm how you might answer each question effectively. Before you commit to a specific prompt, consider the key points you want to convey to an admissions committee and how each prompt would allow you to craft a compelling narrative that complements the rest of your application materials.

We are often asked which prompts lead to the best essays (and, indeed, we think some are MUCH better than others). For expert guidance as you navigate this and other essays, we offer College Application Essay Guidance, in either 5 or 10-hour blocks.  Work with one of our Senior Counselors to select a prompt and determine the best essay topic and strategy based on your background, interests, and target schools.

COMMON APP ESSAYS PROMPTS: TOP TIPS

As you review the seven Common App prompts (below), we have a few quick tips!

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
    • TTA Tip: You don’t need to take this prompt literally and shouldn’t try to write a memoir in 650 words. In fact, that approach would lead to a weak essay by trying to cover too much ground. Avoid writing an overly personal story that offers too many intimate details. Your “story” could instead be about your evolving love of chemistry or longstanding interest in World War 2. In other words, remember your audience!
  1. 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?
    • TTA Tip: The key to this prompt is in the final phrase–what did you learn from the experience? Beware of focusing too much on your failure or wallowing in negativity. Use this essay as an opportunity to show the reader how you think and how you problem solve!
  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    • TTA Tip: With this prompt, it’s important to use specific examples without alienating your reader. While it’s great to show your engagement with the news and current events, you want to ensure this essay is about YOU and not a specific political cause or proving someone wrong.
  1. 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 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.
    • TTA Tip: Have you conducted STEM research? Spent hours tracing your family history in a local archive? This prompt is an excellent way to showcase your research experience—especially anything you’ve done outside your school assignments!
  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    • TTA Tip: Be careful to avoid cliché here. This is not the time to talk about your NOLS trip or varsity soccer championship game. Instead, consider choosing a specific accomplishment or event that will help an admissions committee understand your love of learning.
  1. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
    • TTA Tip: This is an excellent prompt for students who have engaged with research or learning beyond their regular coursework. Did you use the time at home during COVID-19 to pursue a hobby or unique academic interest? This prompt allows you to showcase any academic enrichment that doesn’t appear elsewhere in your application.
  1. 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.
    • TTA Tip: This prompt gives you the most flexibility, which can work to your advantage if you have an essay that doesn’t neatly answer one of the prompts above. The overwhelming array of possibilities, however, can often cause paralysis when you sit down to begin writing. If you think you might struggle with too much freedom, perhaps this isn’t the best prompt for you!
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Is Early Decision Right for You?

For many students, the most fraught part of the admissions process is not writing essays or asking for letters of recommendation, but choosing an Early Decision school. Applying Early Decision allows students to submit an application to a single school during the fall and receive that school’s admissions decision shortly afterwards (usually in December). The catch: Early Decision is binding. If students are admitted to their ED school, they must attend.

For many students, this is a stressful premise. How can you identify the one school that is the best fit for you? Should you commit to a single school at the outset of your senior year, or should you wait to see the results of all of your applications? If you do decide to apply Early Decision, should you apply to a major reach school or aim for one more easily in range?

We know this is a major decision for many of our students, so we’ve provided some general guidelines below to help you make this choice. We recommend that you apply Early Decision if:

You have a clear top-choice school: If your favorite school offers Early Decision, it makes sense to apply in that round. After all, you’d be more than happy to commit to attending that school! As a bonus, if you are admitted in the Early Decision round, you’ll be done with the college admissions process before the end of winter break. No regular round stress for you.

You want to boost your odds of admission: As we’ve discussed before, applying to a school Early Decision can double your odds of admission in some cases. The Early Decision applicant pool is usually much smaller than the applicant pool in the regular round, which allows admissions officers to spend more time reviewing each application. What’s more, schools that offer Early Decision generally fill about half of the incoming class in the early round. As a result, your odds of admission are always higher in Early Decision than they would be in the regular round. Last year, for example, Columbia had an early admit rate of 14.57% and a Regular Decision admit rate of 4.04%. (For more on the early admit rates for some of the very top schools, take a look at the data we’ve collected here.)

The one caveat: your odds will only improve in the Early Decision round if that school is in range for you. While the Early Decision applicant pool may be smaller overall, it will still include lots of very qualified candidates. If your grades and test scores are well below average for a school, your application won’t make it through the admissions review process, even in the early round. 

You are a legacy: There’s no denying that being a legacy gives you an advantage at almost every school. (For more details on how this works, check out our recent blog post on legacy hooks.) In many cases, however, legacy status carries far more weight during the early round. Some schools, like Cornell, are very up-front about the importance of applying Early Decision for legacy applicants. Other schools may not say this outright, but they generally follow similar practices. This means that — if you are a legacy applicant at a school you love — applying Early Decision to that school will allow you to get the most out of your legacy status.

We hope this helps you to figure out if Early Decision is the right choice for you! If it is, take a look at the deadlines for some top Early Decision schools:

EARLY DECISION DEADLINES

Amherst College – Nov. 1, 2019

Babson College – Nov. 1, 2019

Barnard College – Nov. 1, 2019

Bates College – Nov. 15, 2019

Bentley University – Nov. 15, 2019

Boston College – Nov. 1, 2019

Boston University – Nov. 1, 2019

Bowdoin College – Nov. 15, 2019

Brown University – Nov. 1, 2019

Bryn Mawr College – Nov. 15, 2019

Bucknell University – Nov. 15, 2019

Carnegie Mellon University – Nov. 1, 2019

Claremont McKenna College – Nov. 1, 2019

Colby College – Nov. 15, 2019

Colgate University – Nov. 15, 2019

Columbia University – Nov. 1, 2019

Connecticut College – Nov. 15, 2019

Cornell University – Nov. 1, 2019

Dartmouth University – Nov. 1, 2019

Dickinson College – Nov. 15, 2019

Duke University – Nov. 1, 2019

Emory University – Nov. 1, 2019

Harvey Mudd College – Nov. 15, 2019

Haverford College – Nov. 15, 2019

Johns Hopkins University – Nov. 1, 2019

Middlebury University – Nov. 1, 2019

New York University – Nov. 1, 2019

Northwestern University – Nov. 1, 2019

Pomona College – Nov. 1, 2019

Rice University – Nov. 1, 2019

Swarthmore College – Nov. 15, 2019

Tufts University – Nov. 1, 2019

Tulane University – Nov. 1, 2019

University of Chicago – Nov. 1, 2019

University of Pennsylvania – Nov. 1, 2019

University of Virginia – Oct. 15, 2019

Vanderbilt University – Nov. 1, 2019

Villanova University – Nov. 1, 2019

Washington University in St. Louis – Nov. 1, 2019

Williams College – Nov. 15, 2019