Common Application Essay Tips

If you are a rising high school senior, there is a good chance that the Common Application website is bookmarked on your web browser, or printed, sitting on your desk.  An ominous reminder of the promise that you made to yourself:  I will write my college essays this summer.

With more than 300 colleges and universities, including many of the nation’s most selective post-secondary institutions, accepting the Common Application, there’s a good chance that you’ll be addressing one of its broad ranging essay questions.  Here are a few tips for each of the essay choices.

  • Evaluate a significant experience,achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

You don’t need to have had a life changing experience to write an outstanding essay in response to this prompt.  In fact, I wouldn’t wish most of the life changing experiences that students use as essay topics on you just so that you have good essay fodder.  Think small and reflect on what you’ve learned.,

  •  Discuss an issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you.

An effective essay often makes it clear to the reader why this issue is important to the applicant.  You’ve missed an opportunity to convey your passion to the admissions committee if you simply write an essay about current newspaper headlines.  Look instead to your volunteer experiences or social action clubs in which you’ve been involved and draw upon those experiences.

  •  Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.

Many grandparents have had a significant influence on applicants.  Not to belittle writing about a grandparent, or a parent, or a sibling who battles cancer, as there are some powerful stories to be told, but often the reviewer is left knowing much more about the person and less about the applicant.  Thoughtful reflection and word choice will help you to shed light about both parties in an effective response to this prompt.

  • Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix.

This one seems so easy – simply draw upon a section of your junior year English journal or tap that essay you wrote for art history.    Don’t do it.  If you are a musician, or an avid reader, or a budding scientist, you have a plethora of material from which to draw.  Think not only about the work you choose, but perhaps the learning process that you came through in discovering the work. 

  • Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you

This question isn’t all that different from the first essay, only with a focus on diversity.  In writing about this prompt, think carefully about the diversity experience you had and your role in it.  

  • Topic of your choice.

Again, resist the urge to revisit an English paper.  This is your opportunity to tell the admission committee something.  Use it.  And don’t forget to include a prompt for the question – it serves as a guide for the conclusion you’d like the reader to draw from the essay.

Are you unsure where to start?  If one of the essay choices doesn’t leap off the page, don’t get bogged down. Go ahead, write a paragraph or two about an experience. After you have moved beyond the blank page on your computer screen, it will become more clear which essay choice you should address.  You can fine tune your answer with multiple drafts.

With all of these topics, it is easy to write a basic essay that doesn’t provide more information about the applicant to the admission committee.  Ensure that your essay stands out by writing in an authentic voice and allowing your story to shed light on your academic interests, extracurricular passions or defining experiences.

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