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Guidelines to Write Effective Common App Essay

Chris Kado

Learn common app essay writing guidelines

Starting the Common App Essay begins with you. Although the options may put you in a difficult predicament, a good way to begin would be to go through them one-by-one and determine which prompt sounds the most appealing. Writing a

Let us start this process by focusing on the first prompt:

"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."

With a little brainstorming, you can determine if this is a potentially good fit. Some questions to answer:

Do I feel comfortable writing about my background in relation to my ethnicity, gender, or upbringing?

Is there some topic or hobby I enjoy learning about or practicing so much that I feel others should hear about it?

Do I possess a talent that is unique and has shaped my relationship with others, or shifted perceptions of myself?

If you answer no to any of these questions, then additional information is unnecessary. If you answered yes, however, then following up with the specifics will help develop your ideas. Let us use aviation as an example. If you have a deep interest in aviation, use bullet points to help brainstorm a potential outline for your writing:

Meaningful interest: Aviation

  • Why? Mesmerized by the historical progression of aviation technology. Enjoy traveling by air.
  • Personal Experience? Flown to four different countries and multiple states.
  • Most significant flight? The takeoff from Boston Logan airport while on an Airbus 320 and landing in Denver around four hours later. The altitude is exceedingly high in Denver and Boston's airport feels like it's on an island. 
  • List of airplanes I've traveled on: Boeing, Airbus, Embraer, Cessna, etc.

If the topic is something you can expand on through personal experience, it qualifies for being a strong prompt. This potential outline shows the author is capable of talking about his favorite subject, not just by sharing his knowledge of historical sources, but by also providing a personal experience that could be enhanced by detailed descriptions. It also helps that he knows the name and models of airplanes he's been on and can describe the airports. The likelihood of him displaying a unique interest in aviation is strong, which is important to the development of this particular prompt.

However, this is only the first prompt. It is helpful to go through each prompt and question whether or not it applies to you. Was there a challenge that greatly impacted you, allowing you to share your experience eloquently? If so, the second prompt might be the perfect fit. Keep in mind that you cannot approach any topic in a broad sense, and the brainstorm approach should be implemented when making any determinations towards picking a prompt. If your challenge concerns underperforming in school, consider that this is far too common to be the foundation of your essay. Think of other challenges - the challenge itself does not have to be one that's rare, but your story should be unique, instead of one that could be given by thousands of other students.

Reality Check: Personalization.

Personalizing your writing does not mean your description, or experience, should be one that is completely different than others. If you try too hard to be different than others, oftentimes you end up doing the opposite, allowing hyperbole and unnecessary rhetoric in your essay. Instead, personalization means that you can provide details in all aspects of your writing. In other words, you should reach a high-level of descriptive writing that connects to the audience - the admissions readers - and leaves them thinking that they have just read an authentic account. Authenticity is important, but it can only be reached when you are able to talk about yourself in detail.

The goal in the initial approach to picking a Common App essay prompt is to find a good fit. Some essay prompts are completely unappealing and can be disregarded, which is perfectly fine. Ideally, you’ll narrow down the options to two or three choices, and then you compare the viability of writing each one. The next question to ask is, which experience sticks with you the most? Do you remember how impactful it was to overcome the intellectual challenge during your last computer programming competition? Or did your volunteer activity help you decide on a major and possibly shape your future? If you’re having trouble with the brainstorming portion, it always helps discussing a better fit with a friend. While you’re discussing, pay attention to any emotions you display and the level of interest, and enjoyment you have in discussing either topic. Sometimes, having someone to talk to reveals your perfect Common App essay prompt fit.

So you’ve spent hours reviewing the essay prompts, putting together outlines, and hopefully bouncing ideas off a friend to settle on the topic of your choice. Whether you’re writing about an interest, challenge, or revamping a previous essay, the central character of any personal statement is you. The purpose of the Common App essays is to learn more about who you are, and it’s pivotal to ensure that your writing shows the reader how you solved a tedious task, how you managed to overcome that unbearable obstacle, and how you approached these barriers to success. In other words, instead of telling the reader what happened, show the reader how it happened. You can do this by first reflecting on how you want to portray yourself in your own story. 

Here are some questions to answer:

What am I interested in talking about in this specific scenario? 

Let’s be honest, a story could be exceedingly long and drawn out, making it impossible to capture the attention of the reader for the full duration of the essay. Furthermore, the maximum word allotment is 650. In terms of practicality, this forces you to be concise in your storytelling. Developing the outline is critical to ensuring you discover the main talking points of the story you want to share. You can also help yourself answer this question by telling your story in-person to others and finding the important details together.

What makes my experience interesting? What do I find unique about this experience?

Keep in mind that your experiences are not interesting or unique because you believe they’re different than those of your peers. You are not comparing your experience with anybody else, this will actually shift the perspective in your writing and potentially lead you to dragging outside examples to elevate your own experiences. Your experience is interesting because it is connected with your interests and aspirations, changed your worldview, or surprised you in some way, or was unforgettable for a myriad of reasons. The best parts? You decide

What fuels my interest in everyday life? How can I relate these items to my target story?

One of the challenging aspects of writing a story is getting stuck in attempting to explain details. Writers tend to seek “the best way” to show how an event unfolded, including one’s train of thought. Utilizing a an impressive vocabulary displays your intellect, but don’t allow your story to suffer because you want to be a “grammar hammer.” Instead, draw connections between your daily life to the specific experience you’re trying to show the reader. What fuels your motivation and interests daily? Think about how you react to these items or the means you take to pursue these interests. You may find similarities, making it easier to enhance your story without spending hours focusing on vocabulary alone.

These are just a few of the questions you can answer, but it’s important to remember they all start with you. You can probably come up with more questions to ask yourself in order to promote your personality on paper, how you handle stress, your ability to work with others, and anything else that would put a spotlight on yourself and highlight your actions. Remember, you’re not writing an essay to tell the audience a bunch off characteristics that you have, you’re going to show them, instead. 

Outside of notes, brainstorming, and outlining the essay, how do you actually begin?

By the time you’ve finished these exercises in getting your idea together and planning how to show your experience, you may have overwhelmed yourself with information overload. The total amount of words you’ve jotted down to help with the foundation of your writing isn’t meant to be on your final piece, word-for-word. Treat this part of your essay writing for exactly what it is – a tool to prepare your ideas that you can continue to use as a reference as you develop your writing.

As you begin to write, do not attempt to complete the first draft in it’s entirety. Instead, split your writing like you would through mediums of social media. For example, if you have pictures from the experience help you reflect, treat it like an Instagram post. Look at your picture, and write a caption to describe that specific moment, how it made you feel, and the circumstances regarding that moment. This gives you only a handful sentences to properly “caption” your photo. 

The next form of writing is putting together a summary – similar to using Twitter and having a 255-character limit. You only have so much space, so attempt to summarize your experience as concisely as possible. This fun, potentially brain-teasing exercise will help you shorten your essay in the long run, while retaining the most important points that you want the audience to read. It’s really an exercise in important, and with such little space, you’ll likely find yourself refining your writing until you’re completely satisfied.

Finally, you can provide yourself with more space as if you’re writing a Facebook post. Hypothetically, is would be the precursor to self-publishing on Medium or a similar platform. Keep in mind who your audience is on Facebook – most likely family and friends – although you cannot consider the admission officers as your friends (that would be nice wouldn’t it!) you can place the same level of care and importance in your writing. Your friends and family are important critics and you may seek to impress them with a good story. Thus, treat this “Facebook” post as a rough draft that you can share with others to get comments. 

By approaching your writing in this order, you will first recognize the most memorable and impactful moments and how to describe these experiences concisely, merging these skills together to create a compelling rough draft. 

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