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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.