How To Write the Common App Essay: Prompt 7, 2018-2019

Finally! We’ve been going through the Common App essay prompts giving you the tools and tricks you need to tackle each one (and insight into which is right for you), and we’ve finally reached our favorite of the lot — number seven.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that we like the “anything goes” essay option. While we’ve been saying that we ignore the prompts altogether, this one is the closest to how we do things. How does it differ, you ask? While we see your point, following any prompt is different from ignoring them, even if the one you choose to follow is the most relaxed of the bunch.

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.

It shouldn’t come as a shock that the first sentence of this prompt is our favorite part, but then it goes downhill from there. So since the first sentence is clear, we’re going to focus on the downhill part.

“It can be one you’ve already written…”

Hold up here. This is a huge red flag. You will not, under any circumstances, reuse a piece of writing for your college essay. We don’t care if your teacher loved it or if it made your mom cry or if it won you a medal. If it exists already, you are not using it.

This is because a good essay is not necessarily a good college admission essay. Writing an essay for school is different than marketing yourself which, when you boil the college application process down to its essence, is what you are doing. You are a product that you are trying to get someone to buy. You want them to buy into your mind, into your personality, into your scholastic prowess, into your athleticism if you’re an athlete, your musical ability if that’s your jam, your ability to paint while standing on your head if some school somewhere has a special program designed for precisely that. When you write an essay for school, it’s not about any of this—it’s about writing. The college essay is about writing in the sense that it is written, that it should be written well, and that all of the rules of good storytelling apply. It is not about writing in the sense that it is 100%, completely, entirely, and absolutely about you.

Some people will try to modify an existing essay to fit the unique needs of a college essay. Generally, this ends up feeling like what it is: a franken-essay. The two styles are mashed up next to each other and you can see the stitches. It’s not pretty.

“ that responds to a different prompt...”

This part of the prompt makes no sense to us because if you picked this one so as to be able to pick a different prompt, you should have just picked that prompt directly. Answering #2 by way of #7 doesn’t earn you any bonus points.

Hopefully, what they meant to imply was that you could make up a prompt of your own. The problem is, writing a question for yourself is harder than it seems. If you want to be able to write whatever you want, just do it. Don’t make up a prompt just to give yourself permission.

“...or one of your own design.”

Like the section above, there are at least two ways of reading this segment of the prompt. First, it could be saying that the prompt could be one of your own design. In that case, um, duh. You just said that. Secondly, it could be read as saying that the essay is “one of your own design.” If that is the case, wonderful, as we’ve been going with this second interpretation for a while now.

This is our free pass, our ‘do-whatever-you-want’ card. This is where we are happy.

But what do you do now?

At TKG we all start out in the same place: on the hunt for something small. We work with our kids to identify the little things, the nuances, that only someone who has spent a long time with you could possibly know. This can be hard to do without guidance, but one way to start is by asking your friends to describe you. First, ask three friends for three words each. Then, once they are done, ask for three more. The first three are generally throwaways. They tend to be generic. The second three often go deeper.

The words your friends have given you aren’t a template, but they are a start. Pick out three of them that really resonate with you, and then write a mini story for each, maybe 150-300 words. Don’t write about that word and don’t describe how you are that word. In fact, don’t use the word at all in the story. If you’re running with “curiosity,” show the reader a little bit of how curiosity plays out in your life. Same for empathy, humor, bravery, kindness, or any other word you’ve decided to go with.

After you’ve written the three mini-stories, pick one to expand on. If you don’t like any of them, don’t pick one just because. Go back to the drawing board. I know, it’s annoying, but it’s worth doing this thing right.

Then write a first draft. Then throw out your first draft. Then write a second draft that completely ignores the limits you put on yourself with your first draft and that disregards the 650-word limit.

Then, you work on it. Great essays take time, they take patience, and they take grit. There’s a reason people have built careers on essay writing. Hint: it’s because it isn’t easy. If you’re looking for a “one and done” essay-writing approach, this isn’t it. If you’re looking to write an essay that will get you into a school you wouldn’t have gotten into otherwise, this is how it’s done.

Want more tips on how to write your essay? Check out these great posts:

How to Write the Common App Essay

24 Do’s and Don’ts of Writing a College Admissions Essay


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