Tag Archives: Advice for the Common Application Essay

What Colleges Want in an Essay

The common app will be open for submissions in just a few weeks. Many students’ goal is to be relatively done with applications on August 1st when it opens. This allows students to have a (fairly) stress free senior year without worrying about applications on top of classes, sports, and work. To aid with this, the common app publishes their essay topics well in advance so that students can take advantage of the summer months and knock out the bulk of their essays. Here are the seven prompts for this year:

    1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
    2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
    3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
    5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
    7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Students often see these prompts and agonize how to pick one. This approach is entirely backwards! Instead of picking the prompt first, notice how incredibly broad they are! Figure out what you want to talk about and then find a prompt that fits it! In order to find what you would like to write about ask yourself some questions:

  1. What experiences have I had that are unique?
  2. What makes me different from my peers?
  3. When was a time that I worked hard to overcome a challenge?
  4. How would I describe myself in just a few words.

You should not be asking “what do colleges want to see?” This attitude of pandering to the colleges is bad for a number of reasons:

First, it will drive you crazy trying to figure what colleges want, which will result in poor or generic writing. Every sentence and word will sound like a humble brag as you try to spin a story that you think they will find amazing. While you want to show yourself in a good light, remember that no one is perfect! Pick something to write about that you’re confident in and that will shine through.

Second, every college is looking for something slightly different every year. One year at one school your experience as an oboe player in the national youth symphony may make you a top candidate. At another school or another year, they may have 5 wonderful oboe players on campus already. What colleges are “looking for” is often different year to year and campus to campus as colleges try to create a diverse student body. Every admissions department is different and puts emphasis on different things in their selection process.

Third, this may be the most important one. If you pretend to be someone you aren’t to get into a college there is a good chance the real you won’t be happy when you get there. Remember, colleges want to get you know you to see if you would be a good fit, not just academically, but personally. Think about it as a relationship: if you lie about who you are to the person you’re dating is your relationship going to be in good shape when you finally have to be yourself? This essay and your application are kind of like a first date- it’s not a good idea to air all your dirty laundry, but if you don’t act like yourself, there is a good chance you won’t be happy in the relationship down the road.

 

Put all of this together and the best advice a student can hear is this: be yourself. In your essay, try to be true to who you are. Ask your parents and friends what they think the best thing about you is. Do some self-reflection. You can’t control what the colleges want, what they think, or who they choose. You can control the portrait you paint of yourself. Make it a good one- put yourself in a flattering light, get the right angle, tell the right story, but leave the puppy filter and the photoshop for another day.