Essay Tips For The Common App

Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.

In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.

1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly

Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new? 

With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch. 

2. Organize your writing

Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.

Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion. 

3. Show instead of telling

When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.

In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you. 

4. Know your vocab

Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?

Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader. 

5. Write succinctly

Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time. 

6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures

The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.

7. Seek qualified second opinions

You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.


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When it comes to applying for college, it seems like everyone who has ever attended college thinks that they're experts on everything pertaining to the matter. They want to give you advice on everything from where you should apply to how you can write the perfect essay.

While we appreciate our parents’ glowing testimonies about our value as potential students, we can’t really write an entire essay with them. Depending on the number of colleges that you are applying to, it is very likely that at least one of your choices will use the Common App. Here are five tips that will make for a spectacular essay and a stress-free collegiette.

1. Pick a prompt that speaks to you

If you have to write an essay, you might as well pick the one that you will feel the least inclined to fall asleep while writing. Of the five prompts, there is sure to be one that you can make your own. Here are the 2015 Common App essay prompts:

  • 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.
  • The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  •  Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • 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.
  •  Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Out of the entire application, the essay portion is the best place to showcase your uniqueness and let your personality speak for itself. It is important that the prompt that you choose to write on is the best reflection of who you are as opposed to who you think you should be to impress the college. “Students should approach the Common App essay with the knowledge that it’s the one chance that the students are going to have to get themselves noticed and differentiate themselves from their competition,” says Dan Lipford, an Educational Consultant at Score at the Top Learning Centers & Schools. What might seem ordinary or unimpressive to you might just be the thing that sets you apart from the thousands of other applicants and give you a beneficial edge.

2. Take risks with your opening  

From writing stories in elementary school to writing essays in high school, we have always been taught that the first few lines are the most important in grabbing the attention of the reader. When writing your Common App essay, the importance of having a riveting introduction is magnified. Judi Robinovitz, the founder and co-owner of Score at the Top Educational Centers & Schools, emphasizes the importance of starting off strong. “Zing ‘em with the opening," she says. "Forget the topic sentence – put it further down in the essay. Avoid at all cost a bland opening statement.” An exciting opening not only ensures that the reader will be interested, but that they will read your essay in its entirety.

“The typical admissions officer who's going to tasked with reading a given student's app is also going to be tasked with reading hundreds, if not thousands, of other students' apps, and if that officer's attention isn't caught almost immediately with the essay's opening, he or she's not going to read it with any enthusiasm and might not finish reading it at all,” says Lipford. Be the essay that the admissions officer looks forward to reading until the end.

3. Show don’t tell                   

The “resume” portion of the Common App already showcases your academic achievements, community service and extracurricular activities. Therefore, try to give the reader new material. As important as your AP classes and 10 years of ballet are, it is also important to hone in on what you are passionate about.

In the essay portion, you are free to be as creative as you would like to be in answering the prompt and relaying your story. “Sensory details make an essay come to life and bring out your keen eye and other personality traits," says Robinovitz. Descriptive, colorful essays are memorable and it is better to “share through vivid imagery and show, rather than tell, a story," according to Andrea Nadler, the Associate Dean of Admission at Hofstra University. Be imaginative in the way that you communicate your life outside of the classroom.

4. Focus on the how, not the what

As previously noted by Judi Robinovitz, it is perfectly fine to put a topic sentence further down in an essay if it means making the opening sentence powerful. However that means that following your opening, you must elaborate and explain the significance of what you have written about. In the Common App essay, it is more beneficial to focus on the how instead of the what. “Don’t concentrate as much on what happened, but rather on the impact on your thinking, outlook, feelings, spirit, etc.,” says Robinovitz. The details will reveal your enthusiasm and passion for the topic even if you don’t come right out and state it.

5. Answer in full   

This one seems like a no-brainer, but sometimes we get so wrapped up in talking about one part of the prompt that we completely forget that there is a second part to it. While a couple of the prompts just ask you to describe a specific accomplishment or personal event, most of them have multiple questions involved that you need to answer. “Be sure to answer the whole question,” says Nadler, in order to avoid an incomplete response. Once you have finished your essay, it doesn’t hurt to re-read the prompt and your essay to make sure that you have answered it in full. Don’t detract from a stellar essay just because a piece of the prompt wasn’t accounted for.

Good luck with you essays, collegiettes!


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