ONE College Application Essay
for The Common App
The Common Application comes out officially August 1. But they already announced the changes for this coming 2015-16 season.
The most important were changes to the five essay prompts. (You can write your main Common App essay about one of the five.)
Beside the prompts, there were two other significant tweaks you should know about:
You can now change your Common App essay as often as you want. The upshot of this is that unlike previous years, you now could conceivably submit different essays for different target schools.
Even if you don’t write totally different essays, you at least now have the opportunity to tailor them to meet the sensibilities of your schools.
For instance, if one of your schools is super conservative or religious, you could pick a topic that isn’t as risky or provocative.
And then you could go with a more “out there” topic if your school has a reputation for wanting more unconventional students and thinkers, or is more liberal and progressive.
There are big differences among colleges and universities (some are very conservative, some are really progressive), but my guess is that most of your target schools will be of similar ilk. So it probably doesn’t matter anyway.
The point is I wouldn’t send an essay about your marijuana horticultural skills or your coming out story if you are applying to a military school or Baptist college in the deep south.
Instead, I would brainstorm topics that showcase your more high-minded core values and beliefs.
No judgement here. Just saying this should be common sense stuff.
You also might have one dream school (“OMG! All I ever wanted was to go to Stanford!”) and try to get in their head by researching everything about it and aim to showcase yourself in your essay as their ideal student.
No matter how gaga you are over one college, I totally wouldn’t advise this.
I think you should cast a wide net in your college search (if you haven’t heard, many of the prestige schools aren’t what they are cracked up to be anyway) with the aim to find the one that’s the best match for you.
So you could do this. Research the heck out of your schools and write a bundle of essays.
But my advice is to not worry about that. Just write one really great essay that reflects who you are, and go with that.
I think the closer you can convey what you are all about, the better chance you have to be selected by a school that is a great fit for you.
And isn’t that what you want?
Also, schools that want to learn more about you usually require supplemental essays anyway—so use those to customize your application.
If you want to try to game your application, it’s your call.
I just don’t think it’s worth the time and energy, which you could put toward other objectives—such as writing ONE killer college application essay.
Who needs more work anyway, especially if it most likely won’t matter in the long run?
Just know you have that option now.
(Those of you who hire professional college admissions counselors should defer to their opinions on your essay submission strategies, since they know more than I do one how this admissions industry works. I just offer what seems like common sense to me, and has been supported by other college admissions professionals I respect who have weighed in on these changes.)
Colleges that use The Common Application no longer have to require applicants to their schools to submit an essay. So you might get lucky with some of your target schools and not need to send them one.
But don’t hold your breath.
Even if one or more of your target schools don’t require an essay, there’s a strong chance at least one school will—so you will still need at least one essay.
I would also recommend that even if one of your schools doesn’t require the Common App essay, I would send one in anyway.
These are the best, and sometimes only, way schools can learn something personal about you. So why wouldn’t you jump at that opportunity to stand out from the crowd—especially if you already wrote your Common App essay for the schools that do require it?
The Takeaway From This Post?
Just focus on finding a great topic that reveals what makes you tick and write a narrative-style essay that rocks! Only write one.
And even if one or more of your target colleges doesn’t require a college application essay, send it in anyway—because it’s that good!
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Here’s a brutal truth about applying to college: On paper, most teenagers are not very unique. Some three million high school graduates send applications into universities every single year, and that’s just within the United States. Seasoned admissions officers—particularly at elite schools—know how to spot cookie-cutter applicants and toss them into the reject pile in seconds.
Luckily, you do get a modest chance to distinguish yourself. Universities in the US and across the world are increasingly looking away from test scores and grade point averages and toward one particularly unique component of students’ applications: the essay. If done exceptionally well, it’s a catapult to an acceptance offer. So what exactly is the best way to sell oneself to Harvard in a thousand words or fewer? Reporters and editors across Quartz’s newsroom have come together to offer some foolproof advice.
Forget “writing from the heart”
Parents and teachers will often tell students who are just starting out on their essays to “write sincerely,” “write about your feelings,” “write about what matters to you.” That advice, while well-intentioned, is not helpful. An essay can be completely heartfelt—and terrible.
Instead of starting from such a broad place, begin with the narrow strategy of researching the worst college-essay clichés; that way, even if you don’t have the faintest idea what to write about, you at least know what you have to avoid. Examples of hackneyed essay characteristics that immediately make admissions officers roll their eyes include:
- Dictionary definitions (“Webster’s defines ‘courage’ as…”)
- Epigraphs or references of famous writers (“It was the best of times…”)
- Sound effects (“Whizz! Snap! Whew! went the rocket that I built…”)
- Sentences that are just strings of SAT words (“The fortuitous phenomena that transpired on the fortnight of…”)
- Overused metaphors
- “Let me tell you a story”
- Repeating information from other parts of your application, i.e. re-listing all your extracurriculars
- Talking about the university instead of yourself
- Over-using passive tense, instead of telling an engaging story
- Sticking too close to the prompt (“A time I overcame an obstacle was when…”)
Don’t be interesting. Be interested
Now, what to write about? Essay prompts are intentionally open-ended, and there are several ways to go about choosing a topic. Here’s a nearly foolproof one: Write about a person, place, or idea that you genuinely—perhaps to the point of geeky, nervous-laughter embarrassment—love.
“Write about what you’re interested in, not what you think is interesting about you,” says Quartz lifestyle reporter Jenni Avins, who wrote about her part-time job in high school making crepes in a coffee shop: “I was really interested in the people who came into this creperie, and this little world. It was an observational piece about having this window on a community.”
But this doesn’t mean you should ramble on pointlessly for five paragraphs. Make sure your topic reveals something about yourself, or why you want to study and pursue the things you do. Jenni’s essay highlighted her curiosity toward others. Quartz science editor Elijah Wolfson wrote his essay about pizza joints in New York—but it was really a tale of moving across the country and coming to terms with loss.
Yale’s dean of admissions Jeremiah Quinlan told Quartz last year that the university is explicitly “looking for passion” in the kids it admits; you can bet that the admissions offices at Stanford, MIT, and other top-tier schools are hunting around for the exact same. Don’t worry about your topic sounding too boring or pretentious—the raw emotion underneath matters more.
Pull out unflattering memories
It can be instinctive to paint the best picture of yourself possible in your essay, but put aside vanity and pride for a moment. You’ve already spent the rest of your college application flourishing your immaculate GPA, club leadership, and volunteer work. Oftentimes, the most powerful essay topic is one that lets some of your imperfections seep through.
You can start by thinking of a time that you struggled, made a mistake, or were embarrassed. Quartz technology reporter Mike Murphy, for example, wrote his essay on being stranded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon as a kid. He begins by setting up the scene: “I’m sorry, but 3:30 a.m. is never the same as 4:00 a.m.” He goes on to explain how he and his relatives were accidentally separated on the trip, walking the reader through the challenges he faced on his way back to safety, and ending on a tone of humility and lesson-learning.
Good essays don’t all need to hype up an applicant’s superpowers: They can expose weaknesses, demonstrating subtlety and self-awareness.
Tell a story—however you want to
When it comes to the college essay, taking a risk—however small or big—is better than playing it safe. Try writing different versions of your essay, maybe in completely different formats, just to see if one of them resonates more than the others.
“Admissions officers have to read so many essays that physically look the same. An essay that stands out is simply more memorable,” says Quartz growth editor Jean-Luc Bouchard. “I wrote a series of thematically linked poems for my admissions essay, and even though the poems were probably pretty bad, I think I got points just for trying something different.”
You may recall the news this spring about Ziad Ahmed, a student who got into Stanford by writing “#BlackLivesMatter” a hundred times on one of his essay prompts. Such ventures may come off as gimmicky—and we certainly wouldn’t recommend anyone repeating this exact idea in a future year—but they’re effective at one thing: grabbing the reader’s attention. Ziad, who had interned for Hilary Clinton and was recognized by Barack Obama at a White House dinner in 2015, was already more than qualified. What his essay did was make admissions officers pause in their tracks for a moment, and peer a tad more closely at the rest of his application.
Tinker with your essay. Think of it not as an essay in the academic sense, but an unlined blank canvas you can use to present whatever you want. That said, no sound effects—please.
Run your essay through spellcheck. Ask a teacher, friend, parent, or counselor to read it over—then ask five more people to do the same. Admissions officers barrel through dozens of essays a day, and the rote tedium of it can cause them to be hyper-critical of even the smallest of typos and grammatical errors. Show them this small respect, and you’ve already beat out many others kids for that coveted acceptance letter.