This post about the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you fill out the 2013 Common Application supplement for Ivy League schools. Our tips are in blue.
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 400 colleges and universities, including many of the nation’s most selective post-secondary institutions, accepting the Common Application, there’s also a good chance that you’ll be addressing one of its broad ranging essay questions. This year, the recommended length is 250-500 words. While the online format will not cut you off at 500 words, it is easy to lose focus on your essay. Here are a few tips for each of the essay choices.
1. 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.
2. Discuss some 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 encounters.
3. 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.
4.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.
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.
5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. 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.
6. 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 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. Think carefully of the information that you would like the admission committee to carry away from reading your essay. 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.
By Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.