Common App Essay: Guidelines to write a more effective essay

September 26, 2021

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

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

"Some students have a background, interest, identity, or talent so good they believe their application will be incomplete without it. If this is you, then please share your story."

With a bit of 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 have a unique talent and have shaped my relationship with others or shifted perceptions of myself?

If your answer is "no" to the questions above, then more information is unnecessary. If you answered yes, but, then following up with the specifics will help develop your ideas. 

Let us use aviation as an example. Suppose you've got 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 many 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 can talk about his favorite subject by sharing his knowledge of historical sources and providing a personal experience with 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 vital. It is essential to developing this particular prompt.

However, this is only the first prompt. It is helpful to go through each prompt and question whether it applies to you. Was there a challenge that greatly affected 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. The brainstorming approach should implement 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 rare, but your story should be unique.

How to do Personalization

Personalizing your writing does not mean your description or experience should be completely different from others. If you try too hard to be different than others, often 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 essential, but it can only reach when you can talk about yourself in detail.

The initial approach to picking a Common App essay prompt is to find a good fit. Some essay prompts are completely unappealing and can disregard, 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 part, it always helps discuss a better fit with a friend. While you're talking about, 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. 

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:

Why am I interested in talking about this specific scenario?

Let's be honest, a story could be exceedingly long and drawn out, making it impossible to capture the reader's attention for the entire 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 necessary details together.

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

Remember that your experiences are not exciting or unique because you believe they're different from your peers. You are not comparing your experience with anybody else; this will actually shift your writing perspective and potentially lead you to drag outside examples to elevate your own experiences. 

Your experience is enjoyable because it's 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 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 only a few questions you can answer, but it's important to remember they all start with you. You can come up with more questions to ask yourself 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 many characteristics you have; you're going to show them, instead. 

How do you actually begin the essay?

By the time you've finished these exercises to get your idea together and plan 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 your writing foundation isn't your final piece, word-for-word. Treat this part of your essay writing for precisely 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, please do not attempt to complete the first draft in its entirety. Instead, split your writing as you would through mediums of social media. For example, if you have pictures from experience help you reflect, treat it as 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. It gives you only a handful of sentences to correctly "caption" your photo. 

The following form of writing is putting together a summary – like 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 essential points that you want the audience to read. It's really an important exercise, and with such little space, you'll likely find yourself refining your writing until you're delighted.

Finally, you can provide yourself with more space as if you're writing a Facebook post. Hypothetically, it would be the precursor to self-publishing on Medium or a similar platform. 

Keep in mind who's your audience 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 essential 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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