Common App Essay Guide
The Common App essay is arguably the most important part of your application that you have power over. It is your chance to tell admission officers something about yourself that they don’t already know from your scores, grades, or activities. In this guide, you will see both general tips for writing the personal essay (regardless of the prompt) and tips to approaching each of the Common App essay prompts for the 2016-2017 application year.
1. Choose a specific topic. Don’t feel pressured to try to summarize everything you’ve ever accomplished in one essay. It can be easy to go off topic when the topic of your essay is too general. Try thinking of a specific event or story in your life that means something to you and focus on it. Go into detail and show the readers why this topic is unique to you.
2. If someone else can write about the same topic, it’s not unique enough. This doesn't mean that you can’t or shouldn’t write about winning a competition or a hobby you love, but try to think of why this is a significant topic to you.
3. Avoid clichés. Admissions officers have read thousands of essays before yours. They’ve seen people who start their essays with an inspirational quote and those who use too much dialogue. Some cliché topics also include the “by doing X, I learnt Y” essay: By volunteering at a charity, I learned to be humble. By playing sports, I learned to be determined and disciplined. The list goes on.
4. Introductions and conclusions are very important. Your introduction is the first thing the reader reads and really imprints in their mind. Your conclusion is the last thing the reader reads and will be the last sentence that ties everything together. Starting and ending strong will help you stand out and be a memorable applicant. It helps a lot to write the body of your essay and then go back to the introduction and write it from scratch.
5. Answer all parts of the prompt.
6. Don’t force humor. If you are naturally funny, by all means, add humor to your essay. If you aren’t funny, don’t try to force it as it shows through your writing.
2016-2017 Common App essay prompts:
1. 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. This is the most general prompt and is basically a prompt that includes any topic that doesn’t fit into any of the other prompts. For this prompt, following the general tips above would be a good idea.
2. 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? This prompt aims to showcase resilience and how you deal with failure or hardships. Try to focus on how you recovered and what you learned rather than the sad nature of failure. This shows parts of your personality and character that universities are interested in.
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? The key to writing a good essay for this prompt is to choose a belief or idea that you really care about and is central to your identity. It could be cultural, ethical, scientific, political, etc. Be careful if you choose a topic that is controversial; it might offend the reader. Explain why you acted the way you did. This will show the reader the open-minded and analytical side of you. In college, your ideas and beliefs will be challenged often, and it helps to show universities that you are able to handle the situation wisely and contribute ideas to the university community.
4. 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. The problem you choose can be big or small. It could be a personal problem, a health problem, a problem you faced doing scientific research, or even a larger scale problem that affects the world. This prompt showcases your critical thinking skills and what you aim to do in the future. It could also be related to your intended major.
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. This is probably the most difficult essay to write. Most people don’t have one single event that made them adults, and many applicants don’t feel like they are adults yet. For this prompt, it is important that you focus on the transition and what happened after the transition rather than before the transition. The whole point of 2 this prompt is to show signs of growth and how mature you are. Explain why the accomplishment or event was significant to you. It may be significant in your culture, community, or family.