For this week’s CTP tip, we wanted to talk about one of the most crucial elements of the college application process, The Common Application Essay. The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to you know you. Recommendations are what your teachers say about you, transcripts are what your grades say about you, but think of the essay as what YOU say about YOU. For this reason, try to treat the essay as an opportunity to tell colleges why you are unique and what matters to you. Since your Common App essay will be seen by numerous colleges, you will want to paint a portrait of yourself that is accessible to a breadth of institutions and admissions officers.
Because the Common App essay is only 650 words long and has few formal directions, organizing a response might seem daunting. Here are a few steps to formulate a strong and unique common app essay.
To begin developing your own high-level ideas, you can address these Core Four questions that all good Common App essays should answer: “Who Am I?”, “Why Am I Here?”, “What is Unique About Me?”, “What Matters to Me?”
The first question focuses on your personality traits — who you are. The second question targets your progression throughout high school (an arc or journey). The third question is more difficult to grasp, but it involves showing why your personality traits, methods of thinking, areas of interest, and tangible skills form a unique combination. The fourth question is a concluding point that can be answered simply, normally in the conclusion paragraph.
Overall, there is no single “correct” topic. Your essay will be strong as long as you are comfortable and passionate about your idea and it answers the Core Four questions.
Common App essays are not traditional five-paragraph essays. You are free to be creative in structure, employ dialogue, and use vivid descriptions—and you should! Make sure that context and logic are inherent in your essay, however. From paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, your ideas should be clear and flow naturally. Great ways to ensure this are using a story arc following a few major points, or focusing on cause and effect.
Your Common App essay must display excellent writing in terms of grammar and sentence structure.
A few tips to accomplish this are:
“Show, don’t tell” is vital to writing an engaging essay, and this is the point students struggle with most. Instead of saying, “I struggled to make friends when I transferred schools,” you can show your emotions by writing, “I scanned the bustling school cafeteria, feeling more and more forlorn with each unfamiliar face. I found an empty table and ate my lunch alone.”
In many cases, writing can include more specific word choice. For example, “As a kid, I always played basketball,” can be improved to be “Every day after school as kid, I ran home, laced up my sneakers, and shot a basketball in my driveway until the sun went down and I could barely see.”
To use active voice over passive voice, be sure that your sentence’s subject performs the action indicated by the verb, rather than the action performing onto the subject. Instead of writing “this project was built by my own hands,” you would say “I built this project with my own hands.”
Finally, avoid clichés like adages, sayings, and quotes that do not bring value to your essay. Examples include phrases like “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (it’s also important to know that sayings like these are often seriously misquoted—Gandhi did not actually utter these words) and lavish claims like “it was the greatest experience of my life.”
Deciding on a Prompt
Each of the common application essay prompts lends itself to distinct topics and strategies, so selecting the prompt that best aligns with your idea is essential to writing an effective Common App essay.
Here are this year’s prompts:
We understand that common app essays are one of the most difficult, time taking and daunting elements of the application process. Just know that it is a process and it takes time to craft your own unique story. You got this!
The Author is a rising senior at Columbia University studying Computer Science and Psychology.