If college applications are barreling like a thousand stampeding buffalo toward you, chances are the Common Application essay leads the pack—one of the seemingly most intimidating parts of the process.
However, writing this essay doesn’t have to mean dealing with the biggest bison in the herd. In fact, the summer before senior year—or the summer before junior year—is a great time to start working on this essay, both in coming up with an idea and an execution.
The prompts for the 2017–2018 application season are as follows:
- 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. [No change]
- 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? [Revised]
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
- 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. [No change]
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
- 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? [New]
- 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. [New]
Although it might seem tempting to relax the whole summer, much less effort will be required of you come fall if you take some time to ruminate upon and/or have experiences to write about during your vacation.
Part of the problem, of course, is how broad the topics are. Being broad and general is the last thing you want to do.
“Step in the shoes of the person who will be reading your essay. They want to see a real person, who struggles and who has flaws, and who is trying to improve him or herself,” says Kyle Huang, a current high school senior from California who has been accepted to MIT, Vanderbilt, and Yale, among others. “They don't want to read the same thing over and over again, so make sure you do something to stand out. Any story can be told in an interesting way if you make it.”
His essay for the Common Application, using the guidelines of prompt one, began with an anecdote about seeing the sunrise from a plane window—a specific moment—to illuminate his journey and differences that he experienced when transitioning to America from Shanghai, China.
Likewise, current senior Duha Alfatlawi (accepted to Harvard and Columbia, among others) framed her 650-word narrative, which took her from Iraq to the US, with simple objects that meant much to her.
“I wanted to show the admissions counselors that I came from a completely different world when I was young but that throughout my journey to America, I remained inquisitive and adventurous,” Alfatlawi says. “To represent these two traits, I used my magnifying glass and my training wheels. I said that those things are no longer tangible items for me since they were left behind; however, their symbolic meanings are still a huge part of my life as I continue to want to explore the world, travel, and of course delve into the world of nanobiology and engineering, a world in which I would need a magnifying glass to look into.”
Both of these essays share moments, which you should seek when writing. Moments can be based around objects (like Alfatlawi’s magnifying glass), places, people, ideas, or a memory no more than a few minutes long (like Huang’s sunrise).
Moments provide an entry point to the essay, giving it a thematic, contemplative side (or a humorous perspective) without having to resort to common clichés, and can be used at the end to tie up all threads of the mini-narrative. The word limit can be restrictive, so having these types of symbols helps in that manner as well.
These moments should be looked for, contemplated upon, or experienced as soon as possible to give the subconscious enough time to work in developing the strongest idea possible.
“Starting early is a really important component to producing a quality essay, because it gives you time and the ability to really develop what you want to say,” Alfatlawi says. “Overall, I think it's important to present yourself in a way that is true, but also distinguishing.”
The first steps in both students’ Common Application essay process include brainstorming and outlining. While these might sound rather tedious and school-like, the goal is to have fun with whatever process you ultimately choose—if the writing is enjoyable because it is based on something you truly enjoy, then it can be reasonably inferred that the admission officers will see this too. Genuine passion shines through.
Related: College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example
So start a list this summer and add to it as you think of more ideas or have more experiences—adding what truly matters to you, regardless of how “trivial” you might think it is. It’s more important to be honest when writing than to write merely to please the admission officers.
“For people who maybe don't [think they have] a super interesting story to tell, I'd tell them don't pull their hair out for it,” Huang advises, adding that the telling of the story and the personal voice you develop is most important.
While making your list, if you find it difficult or think an improvement can be made, summertime is great for making memories and choosing moments. Decide which trait you would like to present to admission officers in your essay, or which theme that runs through your life you’d like to explain; with that knowledge in hand, seek out moments that correspond, and begin to write.
“Think about all the little stories that you can tell surrounding your main topic,” Huang says. “Really try to show your personality in the essay(s)…Don’t talk about academic achievement too much—they already see that in the rest of your application.”
These moments are, after all, the ones that translate best into stories people seek to read. One of the most cliché pieces of advice—“show, don’t tell”—is what helped Huang in his many applications.
“Instead of saying, ‘I did not understand anything on the board,’ say something like, ‘The lines and scribbles on the board seemed like a foreign language,’” Huang explains. “Clearly, the latter one really paints a picture really well in the reader’s mind. I found that using imagery or using a small real-life example is really beneficial in a lot of cases. Doing so breathes life into your sentences.”
(Click here to see The New York Times’s four favorite successful essays from last year, examples of moments done successfully.)
Seek moments, and the lead buffalo of college applications will begin to slow. Here’s to hoping that makes the rest of the process easier to control too.
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Memories (My College Essay)
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The dictionary defines memory as the mental capacity or faculty of retaining and reviving facts, events, and impressions, or of recalling or recognizing previous experiences. However, the dictionary does not reveal the wondrous and downright horrifying things about memory. Memory is my ally, but a fickle one. I believe memory serves as a funnel to the past, except this funnel faces the opposite direction. My past moments are poured into the smaller end, causing most of my memories to be lost. Actually a person, on average, can only recollect about 98% of their past. Yet, I am thankful for what I can recall.
My childhood is but a fog, filled with memories like my first absence from school in the first grade or my first caught Pokémon on my Red Version. As I travel down the metaphoric road of my memory, I see myself going to middle school for the first time and getting my first A there. If I were to lose this measly 2%, I would lose myself entirely. There are those whose memories are brutally taken away from them. I believe this culprit to be my arch nemesis, the Joker to my Batman, and I believe I was put on this earth to defeat this evildoer.
Enough about percentages and definitions, I would much rather talk about my idol, my grandpa. My grandpa was a very honorable man that did very honorable deeds. He was a Colonel in the US Army and a Green Beret to boot. He fought for my freedom and my nations freedom. However, his honorable deeds did not stop on the battlefield but also followed him home. My grandpa raised my father, who in turn raised me. I never experienced anger or disappointment from my grandfather, only pride, pride in my accomplishments. He always had a smile when I needed it most, and always had a bald head for me to pat. My grandpa was a pure man, free of any prejudice or malicious thoughts. He is a hero in every sense.
I recall the most influential visit with my grandpa. It was the winter break of Junior year, and all was well. I had just finished an excruciating yet rewarding year of school and extra-curricular activities and my end-of-the-calendar-year break was upon me. The plan was to escape California and visit my dads family, including my grandfather, in Texas. When I arrived I was greeted with open arms ready to embrace me and give me a sense of home. However, the only event I could think about was the inevitable visit with my grandfather. I wanted to hear his wise words and his stories from his memories. He was going to give me a reason to smile and the motivation to persevere through another year. Sadly this was not to be. This visit was different from any other visit, not just because my life changed from it, but also because it is the most important memory I will ever carry with me.
Sitting down across the room from my grandpa, knowing I would not hear any stories or conjure up a legitimate smile this visit, I did the only thing I could do, cry on the inside. The Joker had attacked my grandfather, and the Joker hit him hard. The Joker did not show any mercy, he took my grandfathers smile, his kindness, and his memories, but most of all he took my grandfather from me. The Joker had turned me into Batman. Because of this, I realized what I wanted to do in life, defeat the menace that took so much from me. My life, a life filled with so many memories just like my grandfathers life, became dedicated to the neurosciences and medicine. I plan on using my talents and brain to cure other peoples brains. I plan on defeating The Joker not only for my sake or my grandfathers, but for everyone who will ever do battle with the Joker. I plan on defeating Alzheimers.
(I accept all constructive criticism. Everybody's feedback matters to me, Thank you in advance.)
Note: The above essay was submitted before EssayJudge.com began offering free essay reviews. The essay has, however, been edited. Comments below may be obsolete.
Submitted by: Gloce