Every step of the Common Application Essay is important from deciding which prompt to write about and outlining which essay you’re writing, to planning the content and proofreading your final draft. Here are a few tips that may help you along the way.Choosing a prompt and a topic: It’s all about you
It may seem a bit overwhelming having to choose a topic from one of 5 prompts. Which one do you choose? What topic should you write about?
It’s best to read each of the prompts two or three times and let your mind think about any topics you may want to write about.
It’s ok if you can’t think of anything at the time. Leave it and come back a few hours or days later. It’s amazing what a little bit of space can do for generating ideas.
If you’re still struggling try writing down key words from each of the prompts and see what thoughts this can inspire.
For example in prompt 4 where it says ‘describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve” this can be an idea you’ve been puzzling over in the last few months and haven’t yet found a solution to or an experience you’ve had in the last 2-3 years where you can write about the journey you’ve been on.
An alternative is to consider what’s happened in your daily life over the last year or two, jot a few ideas down and then try and match them back to the prompts and you’ve chosen your topic.
It’s surprising just how much family and friends can help you out with ideas, so don’t be shy and ask them.Planning: Be prepared
Having decided on a topic you want to write about, start planning what you’re going to be writing about before you actually start writing.
Firstly start with a couple of sentences that explain your idea. If you’re not sure what to say in these sentences try focusing your ideas around the tried and tested ‘who, what, where, why and how’.
For example why did you stand up for your brother when he was being harassed? What did you do? How did you do it? Where were you and who else was involved?
Once you’ve written your outline, start fleshing these sentences out further with more detail behind each one. This will form the basis of your paragraphs.
Now you can start to write your first draft. Bear in mind that It can be easier to write each of your essay paragraphs and then go back to write a catchy introduction that sets the scene, rather than struggling to find a creative introduction first.Writing: Be unique, creative and honest
When you’re writing each of your paragraphs try to link each one back to the last paragraph in a sequential order and use active words such as ‘win or ‘join in’ rather than ‘get and ‘be’ as they make your essay personal and individual to you.
Focus as much on the introduction and the conclusion as the main paragraphs.
An introduction needs to be a hook for the reader (the admission tutor) to pull them into exploring your essay further, to intrigue them and make them want to find out more.
A conclusion needs to summarize your topic and clarify anything you’ve left outstanding from your paragraphs.
If possible try to end by looking into what the future may hold. Above all write creatively and truthfully about you and how you feel. You have a unique story to tell and this essay is your chance to shine brightly.
Humor is great to include, but don’t try too hard to be funny. It’s more important to be honest and write about what you feel confident about.
Don’t forget your 250 to 650 word count. This is non-negotiable but it doesn’t mean you have to aim for the 650 mark. It’s about the quality of your words not the quantity.Proofreading: Be a perfectionist
Once you’ve written your essay and finished your conclusion you’re about 50% of the way there. You now need a major focus on proofreading your essay to check for everything from spelling, grammar and punctuation to sense checking facts, evidence and the focus and impact of your essay.
When you proofread and sense check yourself, don’t do this straight after writing it. Always leave a space of time; hours or days. The old adage ‘you can’t see the woods for the trees’ is so true.
It is vitally important that you ask others to proofread your essay as well and give you constructive and honest feedback.
Friends and family are usually willing to help and this is great. However it’s also worth asking your school teacher as well. How many students have they helped through this Common Application in previous years? Gain an advantage from all their years of experience.
It doesn’t matter how many drafts of the essay you write (most students write several). It’s about the final draft (with all the editing and proofreading complete) being your absolute best; the one you’re proud and confident to have written.
Your Common Application essay is a gateway to your future. Give it as much time and energy as you can.
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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.
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.
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.
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.
GMAT might be the only hurdle that is devoid of any biases as the computer selects the next question according to your ability. While evaluating essays and interviews, human perception has a much bigger influence. Unfortunately, automatic biases are triggered by characteristics in the environment or stereotypes associated with a person (race, gender, age). AdCom members are reminded of their close network (friend, parents, partner) when the applicant’s words trigger the characteristics associated with the stereotype.
Studies by John A. Bargh and Erin L. Williams titled “The Automaticity of Social Life" covers some interesting areas of biases:
International applicants applying to US schools should highlight the differentiating factors of their profile from the minority group they represent. For example, there are two widespread perceptions about German applicants - attention to detail (positive) and a low sense of humor (negative). Although there is no conclusive evidence to prove the biases, cultural references through TV, movies & music, feed the stereotype.
For reviewers, low sense of humor means social ineptness. The AdCom will look for evidence to support this bias, once the stereotype becomes part of the sub-conscious. Don’t blame the admission team; this is not a mindful exercise. Unless computers start evaluating essays, biases intrinsic to human behavior will color the evaluation process.
The latest HBS class received 9,315 applications. Let us assume that a 10-member admission team is evaluating essays in three rounds with round one and round two, each receiving 40% of the total applications. Round three receives 20% of the applications. With 45 days to evaluate each round, the number of applications handled by the team is 3726 in both Round 1 and Round 2. Let us also assume that the work is equally divided with each essay reviewer reading 372 essays, or 8 Essays per day. While writing your essay, keep in mind that each reviewer has a volume goal. Write with conciseness, coherence, and clarity.
Apart from volume goal, selecting the crème de la crème from thousands of applications is not a mean task. Reviewers have to maintain the quality of the class with the traditional (GPA 3.5+ & GMAT 720+) high achieving candidate while risking a few seats for candidates from non-traditional backgrounds.
The balancing act is a delicate process and requires guessing the volume, and quality of applications in each round. The borderline applicants are waitlisted and reevaluated at a later stage. The admission team reviews each selection, and below par selection made known. With each risky selection, the reviewer is under pressure to perform.
Any event that undermines the self-esteem of the reviewer can magnify the biases. The 40-40% application volume distribution in first two rounds might not be a reality. The number of waitlisted applicants and the guilt of missing talented applicants in Round 1 will force the AdCom to overcompensate, or lower the standards of evaluation. This change in behavior depends on the application volume in Round 2. If the volume were higher than Round 1, a change in behavior is unlikely.
You do something new, and you see yourself and the world differently. If you’ve had one of these moments, you will know. I once interviewed an applicant for Princeton whose parents had kicked him out when he told them he was gay. He had lived with a friend for a while, and was applying to college from a homeless shelter.
“How did you find the courage?” I remember asking him. “Would you do it again?”
“I just couldn’t live a lie anymore,” he said, looking directly into my eyes.
Common Application essay prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
The keywords in this Common Application question are “reflect,” “challenged,” and “act.” It’s almost a series of questions, inviting you to describe a time that you took on something established, what you did, and what you learned: there is the challenge itself, what caused you to act, and then—this is the “reflect” part—would you do it again?
First, what is the issue, the belief or idea that you challenged? Perhaps it was a time you stood up for something for the first time, like calling your friends out for bullying. Perhaps it was the intersection of something personal and political, and perhaps the stakes are high, like the young man who came out to his parents and lost his home. Here are three tips for answering the Common Application question on challenging a belief:
Show the situation from your perspective. Engage your reader by taking them into your world and showing them what your world looked like before the change, what catalyzed the change, and how your world was different afterwards.
Remember to reflect, not argue. The danger in this question is shifting to an analytical essay and arguing for your own beliefs like you would in English class. People who are leaders in debate find themselves quickly down this rabbit hole. But the question asks you to “reflect” and even to challenge your own actions with the phrase “would you make the same decision again?”
Reveal who you will be in college. If you tell a story about a moment you took action, your reader will get a clear picture of what they can count on you for. That is one of the most important things college admissions officers are looking for in your essays: What will you do when you are confronted with new situations? Not what will you think or even what will you say, but what will you do? How will you act?
And what if you are not a person who challenges beliefs and ideas? For this Common App prompt I encourage you to explore what life would look like if something was so important to you that you chose to act.
Want more tips for Common App prompts? Check out our Guide to the Common App .
Written by Carol Barash, PhD
Author of Write Out Loud, CEO of Story2, Carol Barash, PhD is revolutionizing writing through storytelling. Forbes named Story2 one of “10 EdTech Companies You Need to Know About.” A professor at Princeton, Michigan, and Rutgers, where she served in admissions, Carol graduated from Yale (BA), UVa (MA) Princeton (PhD).