Not all Common App essays are created equal. In fact, many are garbage. That’s good news for you. In this blog post, we discuss how to get ahead of your competition by creating an excellent and memorable Common App essay.
No pressure, but the essay is crucial.
Our kids get into schools that have single-digit acceptance rates. Of course, they have tremendous scores and grades. (If you don’t, don’t waste your time applying to the Ivies or anywhere near them), but they also have stellar essays. Unless you’re a Nobel laureate, you’re going to need to rock the essay portion to have a shot at any of the nation’s top schools.
Ever heard the phrase, “know your audience?” Before you sit down to write, think about this: your audience is a group of overworked adults whose names you don’t know, sitting in a room, plowing through stacks of hundreds of essays for weeks on end. Writing an essay for history class is totally different. You’ve spent at least a semester with your teacher. They get your sense of humor. They know who your friends are. They’ve probably met your parents. They know you had a rough time the week that you put your dog to sleep, and they also know that you work really hard and might, therefore, forgive a spelling error or two. The admissions committee, on the other hand, knows your name, what clubs you’re in, your SAT score, and whatever your teacher said about you in their recommendation. That’s it.
You might truly be amazing, deserving even of enrollment at a top-tier school. But the admissions committee does not know that. They do not know you. Your job is to let them get to know you a bit.
The essay is meant to personal. It’s not a book report on why you think Tupac was the greatest poet of the 20th century. The point is, this essay is about you.
Know Yourself, First
So, in order to let the admissions committee get to know you, you’ll want to hone in on a few personality traits of your own. Note: these traits should not be demonstrated elsewhere in your application. Every piece of the application should bring something new to your portfolio. If you can’t think of a few definitive personality traits, text a few close friends. Ask them to list 3-5 adjectives that best describe you. Now pick 2.
Share a Story
The other thing this essay is not, is Show-and-Tell. It’s more like Show, Don’t Tell. If you write an essay that goes like, “I’m a natural-born leader with a passion for economics,” you’re not going to be very convincing. Instead, think like lawyer and provide some substantial evidence for your claim. A great lawyer is not just going to open a case with “my client is innocent” and sit down. But she might start off by saying, “My client has a rock-solid alibi. In this trial, I’m going to tell you how about the great day he had at the zoo with his kids.”
Sorry if a trial feels like a dramatic comparison, but honestly, in both cases, you’re fighting an uphill battle inside a system that is designed to benefit private interests, and not you. So, make a good case for yourself. Make it a compelling case by telling a story.
Pick a story that highlights your character traits. God is in the details.
Steer Clear of Clichés and Stories That Flag Privilege
Remember when we discussed Tupac? Just as you should steer clear of cultural appropriation, you should also avoid a few other common mistakes:
DO NOT flag your privilege. If you flew to Costa Rica to help poor, nameless, people in a “developing country,” you’re basically shouting “I’M A RICH KID.” Let’s not. Those stories are uninteresting. They divulge details about you that will count against you and they can come off as offensive. If you flew in and out of someplace to “help,” you might come across as a voluntourist with a savior complex.
If you flew to Costa Rica to help poor, nameless, people in a “developing country,” you’re also going to be joined in a stack of at least 75 other kids who flew to a some country to help poor, nameless, people in a “developing country,” and thus, you are a cliché. AVOID CLICHES.
DO NOT write about a tragic event. Remember, the people reading this essay don’t know you. You probably wouldn’t walk into a job interview, or a room full of strangers and start opening up about something sad. We don’t mean to undermine any tragedy that may have occurred in your past. It’s just that, no matter how hard you worked to overcome something really awful, you’re not going to do yourself any favors by mentioning it here. However, if you did endure a tough time (an illness, a death in the family, or some other event that impacted your work in school), there IS a place for it on the application. That’s the additional information section, and you should absolutely talk about it there.
Also, steer clear of any big, existential stories or lessons-learned from major life events. That stuff can come off as arrogant. As much as you might feel like an adult who has really transformed in personal philosophy over the years, to the committee, you’re a 17 year-old kid with a lot to learn.
So, what can you write about? Keep it simple. Talk about the everyday stuff. Your morning routine, a conversation you had with a friend, your desk, your favorite recipe, a great book, someone you admire, a Tuesday. You don’t need bells and whistles. Humor and personality tend to come through in a simple setting. YOU are the part of the story that should stand out, not the environment in which the story occurred.
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