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Now that you have so much content that is free-flowing - written without reservation, the next step is to select one of them as your essay subject. But how can you decide which one to go with? Listed below are some features that should help you in your selection.
We strongly recommend that you begin with a story – you’d have realized that from the numerous cues we’ve listed above. This is one of the ways but nothing holds a person like as a story does. It’s like a punch that grips a person. Similarly, a narrative introduces and pulls in the reader to keep reading. Your essay will not be just the story but it’s like a door being opened inviting the reader in comfortably.
There are no rules, of how much of a narrative you use in your essay to make your point. For instance, let’s discuss how Ryan should begin to narrate about his older sister who’s now away at college and whom he is in awe of and how he’s even closer to his younger brother now. Ryan should begin ‘My younger brother and I weren’t that close but when our older sister who was our favorite left for college, we bonded since we suddenly had only each other.’ Beginning with ‘I really love my younger brother’ isn’t recommended.
The indicator of a distinct essay is that it starts by dwelling on a specific time and narrating a particular happening. Any essay that doesn’t describe a particular happening or narrate something is simply like a discussion. It’ll help to refer to what you wrote in your ‘write without reservation’ phase to effectively write about the event in your Common App Essay.
While selecting a narrative, check if it has the makings of a story. Is it about a place or somebody? Is it set in just one scene or does it have a start, middle, and conclusion like all good stories do? That’s what will give your narration a location, a personality, and a scenario that holds it well.
You don’t necessarily need to begin with a hook to grab attention. But you must work on packing that punch into your story wherever it works effectively
Let’s once again refer to Ryan’s example. When Ryan simply puts down bare facts that he loves and is in awe of his elder sister and he now adores his younger brother too, college admissions staff will make nothing out of this. This is just a statement – it doesn’t display how Ryan changed over time - it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Ryan should mention why he is in awe of his elder sister – this is quite unusual. And then why he was never close to his younger brother. So ensure that your essay has all the ingredients of a story – begin with building up the tension so that the reader wants to get to the bottom of the story.
So perhaps Ryan can mention how he was never very close to his younger brother because he was always hovering around his brilliant elder sister but when she went away to college, he had nobody but his younger brother to turn to fill the vacuum. So when he narrates how he changed when his sister went away, he will have begun his narration.
When you write your Common App Essay, you need not try hard to display that you were transformed dramatically but there must be a memorable outcome. It should be something that should stay with you for a long time. Even the reader should be left thinking about it and perhaps want to revisit it later.
There’s much more to this. The Common App Essay is meant to display how something that happened in the past has changed the writer’s outlook. Sam (our student mentioned above) chose to write about how he learned mountain climbing from his Uncle. This is a very fertile story. It has two people - Sam and his Uncle, a place – the mountains, and a storyline – Sam was scared of heights initially, his Uncle helped him overcome that fear midway, and now he loves mountain climbing. The ending displays how Sam was transformed and overcame his phobia for heights. He can even take this one step further and mention other takeaways like becoming mentally and physically fitter about taking on challenges.
Very often students select a story from their past and go on to describe the chain of events wonderfully. But their story remains stuck by itself in the past as the student fails to link that past event with his present.
Ideally, before you begin penning your past experience, review it to ensure that it will convey how it impacted you, and demonstrates your academic and career aspirations and your outlook.
Let’s once again review Sam’s story. Sam may write eloquently about how his Uncle taught him mountain climbing, how his Uncle helped Sam overcome his fear of heights and he may continue to ramble on for a bit. And a bit of inconsequential writing will be acceptable as long as Sam conveys how that past event has shaped him into what he is at present and will continue to help him in the future too.
You may perhaps be in a quandary of what to select as your essay theme. Should you write about witnessing death at close quarters for the first time and thereafter dealing with it? Or should you write about your family name that has a history to it?
We’ll say this just once:
What you choose to write about is not as important as the outcome of your narrative. So select any theme – even if it is derogatory, hurtful, imprudent, brutal, or silly, but ensure that it does the job.
You should be wary of choosing to write about something hackneyed or a cliché. Such hackneyed topics become dull and drab from overuse. However, something that’s hackneyed also has some truths hidden within it and is usually something that people are able to relate to. So instead of being the judge, allow your teacher or counselor to decide if your writing falls into a hackneyed zone or is a fertile narrative.
While writing ensure that you exhibit modesty. In an attempt to demonstrate how intelligent and mature you are, you may come across as a pompous brat.
Instead, simply narrate how your past experiences have had a telling impact on your life even if you feel that it isn’t something grand. The college admissions staff should be able to read in your essay about an applicant who is young and intelligent enough to have learned some life lessons from a past experience and isn’t bragging about it.
It’s now time for you to put down a list of all those stories that feel fertile. Peruse all your ‘writing without reservation’ and check them with the questions and cues listed above and then select 3-5 stories that you feel have ample scope to help you write well.
Put aside the story that touches you the most for including in your Common App Essay and use the others for the supplementary essays.
We’ll now discuss essays by the sample students mentioned earlier.
Robbie may choose to write about medicine or she could write about singing, school debates, or theater. She will however be repeating what she’s already put down in her extracurricular activity list – so there’s nothing novel about any of this.
So we suggest that Robbie should narrate her love for golf and dreams of playing in the US Women’s Open. She can write about being initiated into the game by her mother who first took her to watch her play and then encouraged her to participate in the game. Robbie now teams up with her mother to play a round at the Golf Club every Sunday morning. Her connect with her mother is something her friends are sometimes envious of especially because her mother encourages Robbie to participate in the game instead of being just a sports spectator
Both Agnes’ teacher and counselor recommended that she should go with writing about her mock trials since she’s so good at it and will display her quick-wittedness as well as her sense of reasoning. Agnes struggled when she initially wrote without reservation but it just didn’t feel good enough.
Agnes then wrote about a trekking trip in school that got her interested in landscape drawing and painting – she was completely blown away by nature’s beauty.
Ryan has kept his violin playing under wraps but it’s slightly out of the ordinary and one of the important activities in his CV and it makes good sense to showcase this talent. Ryan has written about his siblings and their growing relationships but this will work better as topics for his secondary essays.
While Ryan may say that he plays the violin for his mother’s sake, he is above average at it. So he should go deeper and find a story there. Ryan has spent some time on writing freely about his violin playing and has written about how challenging it is to perform before an audience and the immense stress he endures at the thought of forgetting a piece or playing incorrectly. But he did overcome this when he played a piece wonderfully and got a standing ovation.
So Ryan can write about how he practiced for the performance and how playing well helped him overcome stage fright and the stress of playing badly.
Sam will narrate how he learned mountain climbing from his Uncle and overcame his fear for heights and the life lessons he learned along the way – we’ve already discussed this earlier.
We’ll revisit these essays when we discuss the synopsis or storyline of an essay.