7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
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- The Common App college essay is required by most Common App schools.
- This personal essay plays a critical role in many institutions' admission decisions.
- Admissions experts' biggest tips include writing how you speak and focusing on details.
Each year, over a million high school seniors apply for college through the Common Application . This online system enables you to submit one application to multiple schools, meaning you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement .
The Common App essay gives colleges the opportunity to learn more about you as a person and what's important to you. You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality.
Here, we explain what the Common App essay entails before diving into admissions experts' biggest tips for crafting a memorable personal statement.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the Common App and require the essay.
You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.
This statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. You can discuss almost anything you want, provided your topic addresses the prompt you've chosen. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story.
You must submit the Common App essay to all colleges that require it, though some may ask you to submit one or more supplemental essays as well.
The application form provides you with a box in which to type your essay; however, it's strongly recommended that you compose your essay in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or another word processor before copying and pasting your final draft into this box.
How Important Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is a key part of your college application. According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement moderately or considerably important. Highly selective institutions tended to place more emphasis on the essay.
"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, a former Princeton writing instructor and the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc .
Benedict, who spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, has helped students around the world apply to college for over a decade.
"Applying to a hyper-selective college with mediocre or uneven grades and a fabulous essay will likely not get you into that college, [whereas] applying to a hyper-selective college with top grades and scores, outstanding extracurriculars, and a mediocre essay could sink your application," she said.
While most experts agree that a strong Common App essay won't necessarily secure you admission into a highly selective college — especially if your grades and test scores aren't up to par — a well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor.
According to Benedict, this often happens at small liberal arts colleges , which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach .
Experts' Top 7 Common App Essay Tips
Admissions officers, higher education administrators, education consultants, and college admissions advisors like Benedict have many tricks for approaching the Common App essay. Here are some of their biggest tips.
1. Don't Mistake a Rare Topic for an Effective Topic
Many students assume their Common App essay must revolve around a unique topic that no other applicant has ever written about, but this is a myth.
"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," Whitney Soule told U.S. News & World Report . Soule currently serves as Bowdoin College's dean of admissions and student aid.
"It's not just about the topic," echoes Jennifer Gayles , director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, "but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic."
Choosing the right Common App essay topic can be tricky, but it's extremely important. "Students I work with run the gamut from having a good idea to having absolutely no idea what to write about," Benedict said. "Often in our brainstorming session, an idea will pop up in discussion, and I'll say, 'That's a good idea,' and the student will be surprised."
To identify potential essay topics, Benedict proposes asking yourself a series of questions. Have you experienced a turning point in your life? Are you deeply passionate about a particular subject?
Ultimately, your essay should excite and inspire you, as well as those who read it. "If an essay topic makes your heart beat fast, that's a good sign," said Benedict.
2. Pick the Best Essay Prompt for You
Not all Common App essay prompts are created equal. Of the seven prompts, some will no doubt work better for you than others.
Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, asks students to think about what version of themselves they want to present to schools and to trust their instincts.
"Don't just jump on the first prompt you read and start writing," she writes in a blog post for NYU. "Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to us about a specific achievement? Do you want to give us insight into a hardship you faced and conquered?"
In essence, work backward: Start with a topic and then see which essay prompt fits it the best.
This is the same advice given by Thea Hogarth of College Essay Advisors : "Once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you'll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story."
3. Use Your Space Wisely
Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic.
The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words. But just how long should your statement be? Admissions Blog advises aiming for around 500 words. And former Tufts University admissions officer Becky Leichtling concurs.
"The most common 'personal statement' length is in the ballpark of 500 words," Leichtling writes for Bright Horizons College Coach . "I consider 500 the 'sweet spot,' but don't stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 [words] that you're honestly proud of."
4. Fill Your Story With Details
Details are everything when it comes to the Common App essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.
"Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement," Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, writes on his company's website . "Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you."
Meredith Reynolds, associate director of admissions at Tufts, similarly recommends that applicants emphasize specifics in their essays. "By focusing on details, you set yourself apart," she says.
In terms of structure, Benedict advises approaching the Common App essay one step at a time. "Break down the topic to the smallest pieces you can and write a paragraph about each," she said.
In other words, discuss specific moments from your life. Relate conversations you've had. Describe how something felt or looked. It's the details in your story — not the topic itself — that will help you stand out the most.
5. Channel Your Authentic Voice
The Common App essay is unlike most essays you've written for school. Instead of analyzing a piece of literature or a historical event, you must showcase your identity. As such, the words you use should sound like they actually come from you — not a thesaurus or an English teacher.
"[Students] are used to writing academic essays and trying to impress with big words and formal-sounding constructions," Benedict said when asked about the most common mistake students make on the Common App essay. "The best essays have a conversational voice — not a stiff, academic one."
Educational consultant Ian Fisher agrees . In a blog post offering language tips for college essays, Fisher expounds on the importance of writing in a way true to how you talk in real life.
"You're going to have to fight the urge to 'impress' your admissions reader with the big words you've learned from your SAT practice," he writes.
Students should, however, avoid using any derogatory, offensive, or inappropriate language. Fisher recommends using words like "debate" instead of "fight" and "undeveloped" instead of "stupid."
Likewise, students should refrain from relying on cliches. This includes phrases such as "happily ever after," "beggars can't be choosers," and "crack of dawn." Benedict advises getting someone to "cliche-proof" your essay.
6. Get Feedback
Before submitting your Common App essay, show it to someone who will not only offer feedback but also edit and proofread your writing.
Shemmassian suggests giving your draft to "a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor." Meanwhile, Reynolds says you should "show your essay to two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well."
All recommendations from experts share a common thread: Getting feedback on your Common App essay should be a top priority.
7. Don't Neglect Supplemental Essays
Lots of competitive universities require the Common App essay in addition to supplemental essays and/or short answers. If you have other essays to submit, don't spend all your time working on the Common App essay. After all, all essays can impact your admission chances.
"At the most selective colleges and universities, there are usually supplemental essays as well, and those are part of the overall package, and they are very important," Benedict said.
She also discussed how a great Common App essay combined with weak supplemental essays could reflect poorly on your application and increase your risk of getting rejected .
"I can't stress enough the importance of the supplemental essays," Benedict continued. "For the most selective universities, all of the essays taken together present a 'package' of who you are." And how you choose to put together that package is up to you.
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc. , which has been helping students apply to college around the U.S. and all over the world for a dozen years. Elizabeth is a best-selling novelist, a prolific journalist, and an editor of many books. She has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her clients are regularly admitted to top universities and their first-choice colleges.
Feature Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images
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Last updated March 7, 2023
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Blog > Common App , Essay Examples , Personal Statement > 12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)
12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)
Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University
Written by Alex McNeil, MA Admissions Consultant
If you’re applying to college, chances are you’re using the Common Application. And if you’re using the Common Application, then you’re definitely writing a Common Application essay.
But how do you write a Common App essay? More specifically, how do you write a good one that stands out to admissions officers? And hey—what does a good Common App essay even look like?
Ah, there it is. That last question is one nearly all students applying to college ask. That’s why example essays are so important. They help you sort through all the noise of the college admissions process to see exactly what a Common App essay can and should be.
We’ve compiled some of our favorite college essays for you to read. Even better, our team of former admissions officers has commented on and graded every single essay to guide you through what works (and doesn’t).
Let’s get to it.
The 2022-2023 Common Application Essay Prompts
First, we should start out by looking at the Common Application essay prompts. Sometimes the prompts change slightly from year to year, but they tend to remain fairly similar.
The Common App essay prompts are just that. Prompts. They prompt you to write an essay by giving you a place to start. They ask questions and list places you can start. You only have to choose one prompt to answer.
Here they are, listed in the order provided by the Common App:
- 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 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
The prompts cover a range of topics that’s broad enough to let you write about just about anything.
But let us let you in on a little secret: how you answer the Common Application prompt matters less than the quality of the essay you write. After all, you can always choose the open-ended Prompt #7 option.
So our advice is to start with the essay and then choose a prompt to fit. Identifying a topic that resonates with you, regardless of the prompt, will produce the best essay possible. (And if you need some guidance about how to choose a Common App essay topic, check out our college essay writing guide .)
3 Tips for Writing Your Common Application Essay
Overall, your Common App essay should be the centerpiece of your college application. It should work to tie together your cohesive application narrative , and it should give admissions officers a genuine sense of who you are. Let's take a look at a few specific tips for writing a good Common App essay.
Write about a meaningful topic.
Think about the purpose of a Common App essay. It’s really your one chance to communicate directly with your admissions officers. Sure, your application has all your grades and classes and activities, but none of those things is actually you. The Common App essay exists so you can tell admissions officers information they can’t find anywhere else in your application. Think of it like a poetic introduction to who you are. Because you only have 650 words to make your impression, your essay should get straight to it. Choose a topic that reflects something deeply meaningful to who you are.
Write about a strength.
If your Common App essay is like an introduction, then you also want to make a good impression. That means that your essay should communicate one of your core strengths. Maybe you're the most compassionate person in the world. Maybe you’re so inventive that you can make anything out of a paperclip and a rock. Or maybe you’re so wise that everyone comes to you for advice. Whatever strength makes you who you are, let it shine through in your Common Application essay.
Pay attention to the structure of your essay.
As you’ll see in the “Bad” Common App Essay Examples section below, unorganized essays are hard to read. Admissions officers read hundreds to thousands of applications in a single year, so they go through them fast. That means that your essay needs to grab their attention and easily guide them through your narrative. Try your best to organize your paragraphs into coherent ideas and organize them in a way that logically draws your reader through the story you’re telling.
Now keep those tips in mind as we go through each of these example essays.
Best Common App Essay Examples
There’s no single correct way to write a Common App essay, but the best ones grab your attention and keep it. They raise interesting questions, stories, and solutions. Writers reflect meaningfully on important topics, and they do so with a kind of elegance that’s hard to pinpoint. Writers use specific details and examples to set the scene. The best essays have narratives cohere perfectly and guide readers seamlessly through the story at hand.
Reading outstanding Common App essays can help you know what to aim for. Not every winning Common App essay has to look like the ones in this section, but they’ll give you a place to get started.
In particular, take note of the admissions officers’ comments and begin thinking about how you can apply these lessons to your own Common App essay.
Example #1: Board Game Family
Common App Prompt #1
“Professor Plum in the kitchen with the candlestick!”(( Opening with dialogue can be a risky choice, especially if it distracts the reader instead of drawing them in. But this essay uses opening dialogue as an effective hook to compel the reader to read on.)) My sister triumphed. I begrudgingly set down my clue tracker and opened the CONFIDENTIAL envelope. Indeed, her theory was correct. The thing about growing up in a board game family is that you quickly learn how to be a sore loser. In my home, countless sibling wars have been waged over an unjust hand of Gin Rummy or an out-of-bounds toe in Twister. But what I lack in sibling sportsmanship I make up for in wits. Playing board games with my family has taught me that the key to winning any game is resilience, sound strategy, and a little bit of charm(( This introduction has some fun language. And with this sentence, the writer gets straight to the heart of their essay. )) .
Candy Land was my gateway game, and it remains one of my favorites to play with my younger siblings. The game itself is simple: pick a card and move to the corresponding color on the board. First one to King Candy’s Castle wins. But, like life, the journey to the castle is full of setbacks. One unlucky draw, and you’ll lose half your progress. Having made many journeys up Candy Mountain, I grew accustomed to these setbacks. As I entered high school, I began facing real-world roadblocks that threatened to send me ten steps backward. My family moved towns, and the transition proved difficult. I felt behind in the new curriculum and lonely at a new school. Establishing a Board Game club helped me find friends and start my journey back toward Candy Castle.
As I grew older, I gravitated toward more difficult games like Risk. Unlike Candy Land, Risk requires strategy. Sure, randomly conquering territories might get you somewhere, but I learned that the most successful crusades are those that feature careful planning. Risk takes up our entire kitchen table, and we’ll play for hours at a time. My brother and I like to establish secret ententes. With whispered asides and unnoticed bathroom breaks, we work together to ensure victory. And when something doesn’t go our way, we revise our strategy and prepare for the next round. Risk isn’t just about taking risks–it’s about learning when to act, what to do, and who to align yourself with. It’s a lesson that applies to life outside the kitchen table, too.
While I’ve learned from every game I’ve played, the most impactful has been Scrabble(( This excerpt shows great personality, reflection, and personal growth.)) . When I started studying for the SATs, my family took up Scrabble. At first, Scrabble almost broke us. Dictionaries were slammed shut, points miscalculated, and tiles mysteriously lost. But with each new game, the board set anew, we remembered our mission: to help me practice vocabulary. With this fresh perspective, we began to work together. Instead of playing to win, we played to challenge each other and ourselves. For every non-word word I put on the board, I had to plead my case. Arguments like “Ahot” is synonymous with cold because of the root “a,” meaning “without” and “Truc” is a fun French word that we should have anglicized a long time ago anyway earned me both eyerolls and points. The more charming I was, the more sound my defense became, and the more likely my family was to concede. Together, we made our own rules and unforgettable memories.
I’ve summited Candy Mountain thousands of times and founded more countries than I can count. Our Scrabble games don’t look like everyone else’s, but these moments around my kitchen table, filled with laughter and rivalries, white lies and trusted alliances, are ones I will always cherish. They have made me into the thoughtful and strategic person I am today. More importantly, they’ve taught me that there’s a lot to learn when you’re having fun(( The writer concludes with this intentional reflection that leaves no question in the reader’s mind about what the main takeaway from the essay should be.)) .
AO Notes on Board Game Family
This essay takes a fun topic, board games, and turns it into a fun college essay. Most importantly, the writer doesn’t spend too much time focusing on the games themselves. Instead, they use the games as a way to talk about themself. That’s the key in an essay like this.
Why this essay stands out:
- Humor: We get a strong sense of the writer’s personality through their humor. It’s okay to show some personality in your college essays!
- Meaning : Through each of these stories, we learn a lot about the writer’s family background. There’s a clear picture of what their home looked like growing up, so we can easily see how they developed into who they are today.
- Action steps: The writer doesn’t just describe fun family game nights. They explicitly connect these game nights to their determination as a player, sibling, and student. We see the steps they took to make new friends, win alongside their brother, and study for the SATs.
Example #2: The Bowl that Taught Me Not to Quit
Common App Prompt #2
The clay felt cold against my skin as my knees hugged the wheel for dear life(( With this opening, we jump right into the writer’s emotions. They don’t have to tell us explicitly what they’re feeling—we can feel that they are anxious from their description alone. It’s a wonderful example of “show, not tell.”)) . Don’t. Fall. Over. I begged the clay to stay put. In the back of my mind, I heard the instructor saying, “The clay will mirror what you do. If you are steady, the clay will be steady.” I planted my feet firmly on the floor and stared my bowl-to-be dead in the eye.
My journey as a ceramicist began as many journeys do: with a scolding from my mother. She said that I was wasting my summer. I needed a hobby. Flipping through the community center catalog, my gaze landed on Ceramics 101: Beginners. I decided to take on the wheel.
Soon, I was captivated. For the last three thousand years, ceramicists have been throwing clay to create pottery that is quicker to make and more reliable than hand-crafted pottery. This past summer, as I developed my pottery skills, I learned about more than clay. I learned about myself.
To start any project, there’s the matter of choosing which clay to use. When it came time for my first throw, I chose stoneware clay for its durability. I grabbed a slab, dabbed it with water, and tossed it on the wheel, just as the teacher had instructed. My foot gently pressed the wheel’s pedal, a vehicle for which I was certainly not licensed. Covered in wet clay, I pressed my hands against the slab, trying to shape it. But it wobbled(( And here we have the main conflict: things did not go as expected. As readers, we ask ourselves: what will the writer do now?)) . It spun completely out of control. I had clay in my hair and up my sleeves. My project, it seemed, was already ruined.
While I didn’t expect to be a ceramics savant, I did expect to make it through the first class without a mud bath. I felt like a failure as I watched all the other students, whose clay was taking shape on gracefully spinning wheels. I was embarrassed. I wanted to quit. And I was used to quitting, having never been able to hold down an extracurricular activity throughout high school(( With this simple sentence, we learn that the writer has struggled with overcoming challenges in the past. )) . Cutting my losses would be quicker than cleaning the clay from my clothes, so I began to wipe off my hands and pack up my things. The instructor approached me, explaining that what had just happened was perfectly normal. She urged me to try again. I didn’t want to, but her presence made me stay.
For the rest of the class, the instructor hovered by my wheel. She was ready to lend a hand when necessary. She was my safety net, and I felt more confident to continue. I squeezed my clay out and down with the care of a first-time mom. It began to look more like a bowl and less like a mound of dirt. As I watched the bowl come into being, I felt tears prick my eyes. I felt silly for crying at something so simple, but it wasn’t so simple after all. A bowl materialized from my bare hands, all because I didn’t quit.
Quitting(( This paragraph has wonderful reflection.)) is easy, and I’ve taken the easy road more times than I can count. But it ended the day of that ceramics class. If you leave clay untended, it will dry out and become useless. Before ceramics, I hadn’t been tending to myself. I grew dry, cracking under the weight of any external pressures. But my teacher taught me that a little more persistence, time, and effort can yield something beautiful and useful.
When my bowl was done, I carried it to the shelf to be fired. The instructor explained that she’d put our projects in the kiln, and we could pick them up at our next class. I returned the following week and saw my bowl sitting on my wheel. It was imperfect but sturdy, messy yet intricate. It was exactly right. I set it aside and grabbed another block of clay, foot hovering over the pedal(( This conclusion ties up the essay with a bow. It calls back to the beginning and emphasizes that the writer will keep overcoming whatever obstacles arise.)) .
AO Notes on The Bowl that Taught Me Not to Quit
In this essay, the writer goes on a journey learning to do ceramics. We see that they experience failure but can learn from it. Their strengths of creativity and resilience shine through.
- Positive spin: Writing college essays about challenges is difficult because it’s easy to get wrapped up in hardship. But this essay does a great job moving on from the failure and focusing on the lessons learned.
- Explaining an underwhelming resume: It happens so quickly that you might miss it if you blink, but this writer very subtly explains why they don’t have many resume items. Accounting for an insufficient resume in this way comes across as taking responsibility rather than making excuses. We also see that the writer has learned from these challenges and is moving forward in a new direction.
Example #3: ENFP
Common App Prompt #6
“You know how whenever you want to plan out your weekend there are too many fun things to do and too many people to do them with? And how it’s impossible to commit to doing anything next Saturday, let alone next month? What if something even more exciting comes up? Ugh!”
“I have literally no idea what you’re talking about. That sounds stressful.”
My friend’s response confused me.
“Stressful!? It’s fun! And stressful. But mostly fun.”
We’ve all had realizations that remind us we are not the same as the people around us(( After that fun introduction, this sentence brings our attention directly to the main point of the essay.)) . Our brains and our tendencies are ours, and they aren’t necessarily shared by others–even close friends and family.
This conversation was one of those times. I was a sophomore and truly did not consider that my peers would follow routines, carefully planning out their weekends while I relied on vibes, group texts, and parental reminders of homework to get me through. Every day is a new experience and I wake up energized for the excitement of a new beginning. Fun, right?
Apparently, some people find my way stressful.
The first week of junior year, my English teacher surprised us with a test. Not an academic one–she administered the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. I didn’t know what that meant, but she explained it was a personality assessment. Then she looked directly at me and pointed.
“YOU! YOU are an ENFP!”
I’d been called a lot of things, but this was a new one. She was absolutely certain that this string of meaningless letters described me. As if anyone could possibly define me!
Sure enough, I took the assessment and got my results. E-N-F-P. Extraverted-iNtuitive-Feeling-Perceiving. I learned that each variable was one of two possibilities that describe people’s preferences about how they interact with their external and internal world. Each person exists on a spectrum between each set of variables.
I was pretty extreme on all four. Suddenly, I understood why people said I had a “big personality”.
This was just the start of my journey into psychology to better understand myself and others(( This paragraph ties together the personality test story with the writer’s personal journey of seeing the world through new perspectives.)) . I knew I was an extrovert–that was the easy one. But now I felt like I had language to explain why my arguments in debate were naturally grounded in emotion (common for Feeling types) rather than the data of a Thinker. I understood why my Judgment (J, rather than P) friends couldn’t stand my inability to commit to a plan. I needed to Perceive all of my options before committing to just one of them.
I delved into writers, psychologists, and researchers like Adam Grant, Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, and Gretchen Rubin. I even embraced my own (very ENFP) preference to listen to their audiobooks rather than read in quiet solitude. I listen to books with one ear bud in while walking around my small town. That way I can learn while staying open to meeting a new friend, stopping by a shop, or petting a cute dog.
My INTJ friend didn’t understand how I could listen to a book while actively striking up conversations with strangers. To each their own.
Part of learning about myself was understanding that I love to learn about how people think and form habits. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. That is true for planning a weekend, maintaining relationships, or even writing a college essay.
I want to study psychology (and about 100 other subjects) and create a career where I can help people understand themselves and build positive habits around who they are(( I like how the writer connects these relations to their academic and career goals.)) , rather than try to change themselves to fit the expectations of others. Sure, maybe that will lead me to become a psychologist. But I think teachers, doctors, writers, and business leaders have an opportunity to do this as well.
All I know for sure is that, just like each new day, college is the next adventure. I’m excited to see what happens.
AO Notes on ENFP
Most of us know about personality tests, but this writer is able to make the topic a deeply personal one. We learn about their personality and habits. We learn about how they interact with others. Overall, the topic really helps us see the world from their perspective.
- Creative topic: The topic itself isn’t one an admissions officer will see every day. But it’s not so out-there that it comes across as hokey.
- Perspective: Admissions officers appreciate when students can see the world from perspectives other than their own. This writer shows a lot of maturity when explaining how their personality test sparked a realization that they don’t see the world the same way their friends do.
- Connections to future goals: The writer doesn’t just present the topic without speaking to its greater meaning. They show that personality tests are meaningful to them because they are related to an academic interest in psychology.
Example #4: Warhammer 40k Miniatures
Carefully(( This introduction has great vivid language.)) dipping the microscopic end of my horse hair brush into the pot of citadel paint, I can feel my excitement building. Gunmetal grey—my favorite primer color. Next comes the white and gold highlights that edge the armor. I'm about to bring one of my favorite Orcs to life, adding tactful details and shading to his green skin and menacing scowl. This is my passion, my obsession: painting Warhammer 40k miniatures.
Now, I’m well aware of the reputation Warhammer has—nerdy. As a tabletop miniature war game set in a dystopian future(( The writer subtly explains this hobby just in case admissions officers aren’t familiar with it.)) , players collect and paint miniatures to represent their armies. They then battle it out on a tabletop strewn with miniature trees, structures, and other terrains. I've been a fan of the game for years, but it's the painting that I love most. There’s something about taking a tiny, unpainted model and turning it into a work of art that I find incredibly satisfying. Nerd, guilty as charged.
I've always been drawn to the Orcs in particular, with their sheer strength and ferocity. But lately, I've been getting more into the Necrons, these ancient, robotic warriors that have been resurrected after millions of years of dormancy. And let's not forget the noble Tau, with their advanced technology and futuristic design. The story of each people goes deep, too. There are dozens of books written about the broader universe of Warhammer—a shared world that spans tens of thousands of years of lore. I’ve read almost every one of them. No matter the character I’m painting, no matter the story they’ll take place in, I watch in awe as each brushstroke brings the character to life in front of my eyes.
As my obsession with miniature painting has grown, I've started entering painting competitions(( This detail shows the magnitude and impact of the activity.)) . It's nerve-wracking showing off my work to a panel of judges, but it's also incredibly rewarding when they appreciate my hard work. I’ve received accolades and even small prizes for my artistry. After every competition, I choose my favorite miniature to display on a shelf in my room. I still have some of the earliest miniatures on my shelf, looking a little rough around the edges but still serving as a reminder of where I started.
But painting miniatures isn't just a hobby for me; it's also been a gateway for other forms of art. I've started dabbling in oil painting, using the same attention to detail and skillful brushwork that I use on my miniatures. While making the transition to a new medium has been challenging, I’ve slowly I’ve built a small collection of paintings. Some of them are as epic as my miniatures—depictions of battles and important moments from the 40k universe. But others are more tranquil, like a recent landscape I painted for my mom’s birthday of the stream behind our house(( We also learn how the writer’s obsession has expanded to other areas of their life. I like this detail because it’s an endearing story of the writer making art for their mom.)) . Becoming more dynamic with my art has made me a better artist, which has in turn made my miniatures even more lifelike.
Warhammer has been the biggest portal into a world of imagination and creativity. But it’s also unlocked my belief in myself as someone capable of succeeding in art(( And here it is—a central point of the essay. Painting these miniatures isn’t just about the miniatures. It’s also about the writer’s growth as an artist.)) . I’ve transcended the level of hobbyist and, over the years I’ve been painting, I’ve learned to call myself an artist. That title is a lot to carry, but it’s one that I can’t wait to continue growing into, figure by figure, painting by painting. And I can’t wait to bring the world of 40k to my dorm—sharing the universe with my friends and classmates. You’ll know where to find me. Just look for the nerdy artist with the dense wooden play table, toting around an army of skeletal warriors and hulking orcs. I can’t wait to share my world with you.
AO Notes on Warhammer 40k Miniatures
This essay is a great example of how to write about a hobby in a college essay. Notice how the writer explains their hobby in vivid detail, but the core of the essay is still about the writer themself.
- Vivid details: Personal statements can be wonderful exercises in creative writing. While that can be difficult for some students, this writer did it exactly right.
- Narrative structure: The writer seamlessly transitions readers between each paragraph. They slowly reveal how their journey has progressed. And, most importantly, they incorporate loads of good reflection.
- Personal meaning: It’s clear that Warhammer itself is meaningful to the writer. But I also like how they draw the focus inward to discuss how painting miniatures “unlocked” a belief in themself.
Example #5: The Band
Common App Prompt #5
I always imagined my band’s first show would take place on a stage. Maybe not in front of a packed amphitheater, but a stage. One with lights, a sound system, a curtain behind it, and some mixture of friends, family, and strangers ready to hear us play.
But there I was, holding a guitar in the women’s section of JC Penney at the mall(( This sentence is so unexpected that it’s sure to make most admissions officers stop, do a double take, and chuckle.)) . We fumbled through a cover of “Mr. Brightside” while middle-aged women shopped for sundresses.
Not exactly what I had in mind.
Our drummer’s mom managed the shoe section at JC Penney and said her boss wanted a creative way to get younger people excited about shopping there. She suggested that her son’s band would be perfect for this opportunity. They paid us in pizza and asked us to perform for two hours–a tall order for four high school sophomores who knew about five and a half songs.
It wasn’t evident to us that we would learn anything from our musical endeavors, or that our music would take us beyond the local mall. I’ve always known writing and performing pop-rock songs isn’t a likely career path. But a recent late night conversation with my bandmates-turned-best-friends showed us all how much we have grown and learned through music(( This reflection is great.)) . What started as a way to spend time with friends on a hobby turned into an accidental entrepreneurial venture and surprisingly poignant lessons.
For one thing, writing music with others is hard. Getting four new musicians to agree on everything from tempo to lyrics to how many verses each song should have isn’t easy. We figured it out as we went along, fueled by copious amounts of Mountain Dew and Bagel Bites.
We eventually created a system where each member learned the lyrics to each song and at least one other person’s part. Sharing original lyrics–poetry–between friends is uncomfortable. But we became more cohesive once everyone was on the same page with the story we were telling. When the bass player, who can’t play drums, learned just enough to understand that the kick drum hits on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on the 2 and 4, our rhythm section began to play more in sync. Once our drummer got over his fear of singing, we were able to incorporate simple harmonies, which led to him improving our lyrics.
Most surprising was making money and feeling like we were running a small (very small) business(( By expanding the focus to talk about music as a business venture, the writer also shows the extent of their activity’s impact.)) . Our second show after the infamous JC Penney incident was a battle of the bands at the public pool that June. We placed fourth–no prize. By August, we played another battle of the bands and won first place, largely thanks to our efforts to publicize the event to everyone in our network (some might call it begging our friends to come). To our surprise, we won $800 on one of those comically large checks.
We decided to allocate some of the money to equipment we needed–cables, cymbal stands, and more Bagel Bites–and put the rest towards professional recording. The process of contacting local studios, negotiating rates, and working with professionals in the industry was completely new to all of us.
A year before, we thought agreeing on lyrics was tough. But the sonic experience of hearing your own music back and agreeing on the tone and effects of every instrument can bring out differences you didn’t know existed. I’d read about arguments between bands from the Beatles to Kings of Leon, and now the four of us had to work out our differences together in real time. Thankfully, we navigated that challenge without losing our sanity for more than a few brief moments.
I am grateful for the lessons we have learned over the past three years(( And with this conclusion, the writer really drives home the essay’s main theme.)) . Not only do we have music and memories to show for our efforts, but we have all learned about creative collaboration, budgeting, and marketing our art.
AO Notes on The Band
This essay makes me want to sing! It’s full of personality, but it still manages to be vulnerable and reflective. By the conclusion, we really see what the writer has learned from being in a band.
- Humor: The writer immediately draws us in with an introduction that is funny, surprising, and full of personality. The introduction alone makes me want to keep reading. And right as we’re through the introduction, the writer drives home their main point: they learned a lot through music. Then, to our delight, the humor continues throughout. It’s subtle enough to keep our attention and not be overwhelming or inauthentic.
- Strengths: I can see that the writer is very collaborative and entrepreneurial. I also like how they give insight into their relationship with their friends and bandmates—we learn a lot about them through their interactions with others.
- Accomplishments: This essay is a solid example of how to write about accomplishments in a personal and meaningful way. The writer could have just opened with the accomplishments, but that wouldn’t have been very interesting or vulnerable. By nesting those accomplishments within a broader story about music, the writer is able to convey greater meaning.
Good Common App Essay Examples
If you’re feeling intimated by all the outstanding essays you’ve seen online, fear not. You don’t have to have a Pulitzer to get into college.
What you do need is a good, meaningful essay, even if it’s not perfect. The essays in this section represent what the majority of Common App essays look like. They aren’t necessarily perfect, but they’re written strategically and with verve. You can tell that their writers genuinely care about the essay they’ve been tasked with.
Putting in a similar effort with your own Common App essay will get you far. Let’s take a look.
Example #6: Herb
I stood in the dimly lit garage, staring at the child-sized pile of metal and wires in front of me. I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe. This was our creation(( This introduction reveals the product of the journey the writer is about to go on: building a robot.)) , a robot that my father and I had spent months designing and building with meticulous care.
It all started on a slow Sunday afternoon, when my dad suggested we take on a new project. He wanted to build a robot. At first, I was hesitant. I was skeptical that we had the know-how to even construct the body of the robot, much less one that actually worked. But my dad, a tinkerer and inventor, was determined to try. So we got everything set up in the garage and got to work. As it turns out, building a robot wouldn’t just improve our technical abilities. It would bring us closer together along the way.
Before this project, my dad and I tended to argue and disagree(( I appreciate this clear transition and description of the “before” state that the writer and their father are growing from.)) . But in the garage with our robot materials, we were both so invested in building the robot that we collaborated perfectly. We bounced ideas off each other, read books and online forums, and even got advice from friends who were more experienced in robotics. For what seemed like the first time, my dad thought of me as an equal. Usually I was just there to hand him wrenches and screwdrivers as he worked on his latest creation. This time was different. We were a team. And with each passing day, our robot began to come alive.
We spent months in the garage, building and troubleshooting. My dad worked on the mechanics. He carefully assembled the joints and servos that would give the robot its movement. While he did that, I focused on the design. I drew mock-ups on my iPad and researched different exterior materials to use. I clumsily constructed our prototypes before my dad helped me put all the pieces together.
The final result was a beautiful machine. It was almost four feet tall and towered over our family dog. And it actually worked. The exterior gleamed—the sensors we used added visual flair and extreme function. But the most impressive aspect of our robot was its artificial intelligence system, which we had spent weeks programming and refining together. It was still fairly rudimentary as far as robots go, but we were proud of such a major accomplishment.
We decided to name our creation Herb, after my father’s beloved herb garden. We liked the irony of mixing a machine with a garden. He was perfect.
After working on him for months, it was time to enter Herb into a local show for machine enthusiasts. Our entry was accepted(( This detail also shows the magnitude of their accomplishment.)) . The show will take place next spring, so my dad and I are polishing Herb’s exterior, tweaking bugs that arise in his artificial intelligence, and preparing him for his out-of-garage debut.
While I’m proud that we will finally get to show Herb off to the world, what I’m more proud of is how far my father and I have come. Working on Herb brought us closer together, and the process helped my dad see me as a fellow tinkerer and inventor rather than just an assistant. In our garage, as we constructed something entirely un-human, we found the human in ourselves. Our father-son love came to life through a robot. I wouldn’t trade it for anything(( I really like this poetic conclusion that neatly ties together the essay’s theme.)) .
AO Notes on Herb:
This essay is an endearing story about how the writer’s relationship with their father improved while working on a robot together. We learn a lot about the student and their interests as we accompany them on this journey.
What makes this essay good:
- Organization: There’s some back and forth with narrative and reflection in this essay that gives it a pretty complex structure. But the writer does an awesome job keeping readers on track by using very clear signposting. Phrases like “before this project” and “after working on him for months” help readers navigate the complexity.
- Reflection: The writer incorporates great reflection throughout. The third paragraph shows us the “before state” that the writer is growing from, and by the end of the essay, we really see where they’ve ended up mentally, emotionally, and personally.
What the writer could do to level up:
- More focus on the writer : While this essay isn’t too bad about this, there is some room for improvement. The main descriptive parts of the essay all focus on the robot. We do learn about the writer and their goals through these descriptions. But the essay is approaching being too much about the robot and not enough about the writer.
Example #7: Laughter & Acceptance
"Why was the transgender person so bad at math? Because they always had to trans-late equations!"
Okay, okay, that was a terrible joke. But let me tell you, finding self-acceptance as a transgender person ain't no joke. It's a struggle, a battle, a war. But it's a war that can be won, and I'm here to tell you how(( From the start, we get a clear sense of the writer’s personality. This sentence also tells us exactly what the essay is about.)) .
I grew up in a world that told me being trans was wrong, that it was something to be ashamed of. And I believed it. I tried to hide who I was, to pretend like I was someone else. But it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just didn't work.
But then something happened. I don't know what it was—maybe a shift in the universe, maybe a sign from God. But something changed, and I realized that I couldn't keep living a lie. I had to be true to myself, regardless of what misery and consequences that might bring down around my head.
After telling my younger sister, who cried tears of joy and support, bless her, I decided to come out to the rest of my family. Let me tell you, it was not pretty. They didn't understand what I meant. They told me I was going to hell, that I was a disgrace to our family. And it hurt, oh man it hurt. But through the pain I saw a glimmer of something—was that hope?(( The writer does an excellent job reflecting and taking the “more phoenix, less ashes” approach.)) For the first time, I was being honest with myself and with the world. The whips and lashes of my parents’ words were more painful than I could have anticipated, but I left the room with my head held up and a barely-perceptible feeling of lightness around my shoulders.
And that's when the real work began. See, coming out is one thing, but accepting yourself is another. It's not easy, trust me. It's like trying to walk on a tightrope, one wrong step and you're a gonner. But I didn't give up, I kept going.
And you know what? It started to get easier. I started to find people who accepted me for who I was, who supported me and loved me. I started to feel confident in my own skin. And it was a good feeling—a great feeling. The best feeling.
But my life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are still moments every day when I feel down, when the weight of the world feels like it's crushing me. But even in those moments, I've learned to find strength in myself, to remind myself that I am worthy and deserving of love and respect.
And that's what self-acceptance is all about. No one can avoid feeling sad, angry, or frustrated all the time. But if those feelings only crop up now and again? You’re doing pretty good. Most of all, it’s about letting those negative emotions pass when they come, roll over you like a wave before they go on their way. It's about laughing at the absurdity of it all(( With this philosophy, we really see how much the writer has grown.)) , and finding joy and humor in the midst of the pain.
So, dear reader(( Addressing your reader in a college essay is a pretty risky stylistic choice that we would generally advise against.)) , if you're struggling with self-acceptance, you're not alone. I’m there with you. And remember: it's okay to laugh at yourself, to find the humor in the situation. It's not always easy, but it's worth it. Because when you can accept yourself, you can be proud of who you are, and that's something to be truly grateful for. Tell a joke about yourself and laugh it off. You’ll feel better, I promise(( I like these sentiments, but they could be more focused on the writer instead of the reader.)) .
AO Notes on Laughter & Acceptance
This essay does a wonderful job maintaining sight of the writer’s strengths and positivity in light of really tough challenges. The writer isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. Because of that, we learn a lot about them.
- Authenticity : I’d guess that this essay couldn’t have been written by anyone other than its writer. Its voice is so clear and authentic that I truly feel like the writer is talking straight to me. Since Common App essays are one of the only places where you get to speak straight to an admissions officer, authenticity is key.
- Positivity : Let’s face it. This essay is about a really serious topic that was clearly challenging for the writer. But what makes it so great is that in spite of all the challenges, the writer is able to find positivity and light. They don’t dwell on the hardships but look forward to the future. That’s exactly what a college essay about a challenging topic should do.
- Tone : Balancing your personal tone and voice with the conventions of Common App essay writing can be tricky. It’s hard to predict how an admissions officer will react to what you write. Some might love the fact that this essay truly sounds like the student who wrote it, while others might be put off by its informality. The writer could clean up just a few areas of informal language to play it a little safer.
Example #8: The Old iPhone
Common App Prompt #3
I unscrewed the tiny Phillips-head screws and wedged open my iPhone 5. I cringed as the material cracked out of place. Despite my nervousness, I felt curious. I had always been fascinated by technology and machines, but this was the first time I had ever taken apart a device as complex as an iPhone.
And it wasn’t just any iPhone. It was my very first—my most prized possession until I bought my new phone a few months ago. Since then, it had been sitting in the back of my desk drawer, collecting dust and taking up space. I just didn’t have the heart to sell, recycle, or trade it in. On a day when my ADHD was particularly affecting me, I decided to tinker with my phone to calm myself down.
Working with machines and technology had become my biggest strategy for dealing with my ADHD on those difficult days(( This is an excellent transition.)) . I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was thirteen. I’d been struggling to pay attention in class, and my teachers and parents thought it would be best to get me tested. After I started taking medication, my symptoms improved a lot. But the whole process made me feel like something was off about the way my brain worked naturally. That’s why on the days my medication just isn’t cutting it I center myself by playing with machinery and technology. Even though I can’t fully understand my brain, I can understand a machine. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to get me back on track.
At my desk while disassembling the phone, I carefully removed each piece and set them aside on a bathroom hand towel beside me. I felt calm and focused. As someone with ADHD, it can be difficult for me to concentrate on a single task. But with every part I removed, my mind grew more and more focused. I didn’t feel pulled to passing thoughts and distractions like I normally do.
Working on the phone was like meditating. The parts were so small and delicate that it took all of my attention not to lose or break any. As I examined each component, I thought about all the hard work that goes into designing, manufacturing, and selling the millions of iPhones sold each year.
Taking apart the iPhone improved my technical knowledge, but it was more than that. It also helped me to understand my own mind in a new way(( This is an important shift back to the writer’s own experience. If it weren’t here, the essay would be too much about the iPhone and not enough about the writer.)) . While working my way through this small but magnificent machine, I realized that I could think of my own brain as a kind of machine. It has a complex network of circuits and pathways that control my thoughts and actions. It requires energy to work. It is made up of smaller components that allow it to function. I can’t tinker around with my brain, but I can appreciate it for the incredible machine that it is. I just need to learn more about how my brain works and adapt accordingly.
In many ways, my ADHD has always felt like a kind of malfunction, like something is wrong with me. But as I took apart the iPhone, I began to see that even the most advanced technology isn’t perfect—there’s dust and glitches and grime and bugs. And just as Apple does software updates and new product releases to improve the iPhone, I can find ways to improve how I function with my own brain(( With this comment, the essay ends on a very positive and hopeful note—exactly what you want in a college essay. )) .
AO Notes on My Old iPhone
In this essay, the writer describes how tinkering with an iPhone affected their personal journey with ADHD. I especially like how the writer takes two quite different topics and weaves them together seamlessly.
- Creative take: The core of this essay topic is a good one. The writer uses a hobby to talk about a deeper personal topic they’re wrestling with. As a result, we learn quite a bit about both.
- Strengths: We always say that you should write your college essays around core strengths. This writer does exactly that. As readers, we can tell that the writer is a problem-solver. They figured out a way to help themselves when their medication wasn’t working, and they also used that activity to do some reflection.
- Personal meaning: The writer could have just written about how they tinker with machines to help with their ADHD. But they went beyond that. They reflect more deeply on what the experience of having ADHD means to them.
- More connections: This essay is quite good. But as a reader, I’m still left wondering why the writer is drawn to tinkering and machines in the first place. It seems like there is room for the student to write a bit more about how all of this relates to their future goals.
Example #9: My Partner in Music
Built from a dark, mocha-colored wood and strung with the best strings my mom could afford, my viola has been with me through a lot. The first time I held the instrument in my hands, I knew it was made just for me. Sure, my viola had had previous owners. But they were only caring for it until it made its way home. My instrument is who I spend the most time with, who I know the closest, and who I’ve invested so much time in. With my viola, I’ve experienced my greatest accomplishments.
I come from a family of prodders rather than pushers(( This paragraph and the following dive too deeply into the writer’s past without making clear why the information is necessary to the narrative.)) . My loved ones have never pushed me to do anything, but I’ve been prodded in certain directions. At a mere year old, I began swim lessons. At age two, I took up soccer. At two and a half, I experimented with gymnastics. None of those activities ever stuck. But my true calling came at age three when my parents started me on viola lessons.
At first, I struggled to even hold my tiny, almost toy-like viola in place. Barely able to hold my own fork for dinner, I wrestled to place my fingers correctly on the fingerboard. When it was finally time for me to use my bow, it kept falling under its own weight, my small arm not strong enough to balance it.
But I was enthralled by the sounds I was able to make. I watched in awe as my teacher conjured up the most beautiful music I’d ever heard from her instrument. Unlike swimming, soccer, and gymnastics, music made sense to me. The ability to make something so engaging from wood and metal captured my attention.
When I got my new instrument, I had been playing the viola for exactly twelve years. Between the age of three and fifteen, my skills had grown exponentially. All those nights and weekends practicing, the blisters, and the hours and hours of lessons had paid off.
This past year, I earned a spot in the American Youth Symphony, one of the most prestigious youth symphonies in the world(( It’s not until this paragraph that we get to the heart of the essay: the writer’s big accomplishment, and the challenges they overcome to get there.)) . With the symphony’s minimum age of fifteen and average age in the early twenties, I’m one of the youngest musicians in the ensemble.
It wasn’t always so clear that playing viola was my destiny. When I was a sophomore in high school, I auditioned for my regional youth symphony. I had practiced my solo for months. I had played the piece so many times that it practically became part of me. With an imaginary metronome ticking away inside of me, my fingers knew exactly how to race across my strings, and my bow hand followed along in perfect time.
When it came time for my regional orchestra audition, however, the song completely vanished. I walked up to the stage, judges behind a partition. I sat down, brought my viola up to my chin, and froze. What had been muscle memory evaporated into thin air, and I was left with a blank mind and a silent instrument. I panicked, unsure of what to do.
I stared down at the scroll of my instrument and took a deep breath. We had played this piece a thousand times. We were ready. Most importantly, I wasn’t doing this alone. My viola and I were in it together. I raised my bow to the strings and began. The song emerged from my fingers, bow, and instrument. It was beautiful. It was perfect. That audition earned me regional first chair, and I learned a valuable lesson: I have to believe in myself(( And here we get to the theme of the essay. It’s not just about the viola. It’s about the writer—a musician.)) .
Now, as a member of the American Youth Symphony, I return to this lesson every day. It’s easy to get intimated when you’re playing alongside the country’s best young musicians. But, with my viola in hand, I know that I am a musician, too.
AO Notes on My Partner in Music
This writer tells us about their prized instrument. But the essay isn’t just about the instrument. It’s about the writer. The essay does an excellent job detailing a challenge the writer overcame. By the end, we see that the writer has grown and has achieved a huge accomplishment.
- Contextualizing a great achievement: The writer’s strengths shine through in this essay because of their achievement. But throughout the essay, we also see that the writer has had to work hard to get to where they’re at today. That context adds great dimension to our understanding of them.
- Voice: Through all the events that happen in this essay, the writer’s voice remains consistent. They have a solid tone that shows their work ethic and unwillingness to give up.
- Get to the main idea quicker: Notice how the first few paragraphs of this essay are simple setup. We learn a lot about who the student was as a child before we get to the heart of the essay. The central conflict doesn’t come until almost the last paragraph. In general, college essays should be primarily about things that have happened in your life since starting high school. Brief mentions of previous events are fine, but they take up a touch too much space in this essay. It takes a while for us, the readers, to really see what the essay is about.
Example #10: The Laundromat
As the son of Chinese immigrants, I grew up working in my parents' laundromat(( Sometimes straightforward “statement” hooks work. This one does the job well.)) . It wasn't glamorous, but it was a good way to earn some extra money and help out my family. Over the years, I got to know a lot of the regulars who came in to use the machines. Some were friendly, some were angry, and some were just plain weird. But one thing they all had in common was that they had stories to tell. And I learned from every single one of them.
There was Mrs. Nguyen, an older Vietnamese woman who came in every week with a small load of clothes. She always greeted me warmly and snuck me a hard strawberry candy. We mostly talked about me—my schoolwork, friends, and sports. But one day, she opened up. She told me about her experiences fleeing Vietnam in the aftermath of the war. She described the dangers she faced and the sacrifices she made to keep her family safe. I was stunned that someone I had grown so close to had experienced such a challenge. What shocked me most was Mrs. Nguyen’s kindness in spite of everything she had been through. Before learning this about Mrs. Nguyen, I let small problems like late homework and friend arguments really upset me. But hearing her story put things into perspective for me, and I’m so grateful that she felt comfortable enough to share it with me(( Perspective: always a good lesson to learn. This example shows some good maturity.)) .
Carlos came every Tuesday and Thursday. He was a thirteen-year-old who always seemed to be practicing for the spelling bee. He went to my sister’s school and was shy and quiet. But after seeing him multiple times a week, I learned that he was also incredibly smart and dedicated. He would come into the laundromat with a stack of flashcards and a dictionary, looking for somewhere quiet to practice. He’d close his eyes and mouth the letters to himself before peeking to see if he was right. After months of watching him, I finally went up to him and offered to help(( With this “show, not tell” example, we see our writer exhibiting generosity and kindness. I also like the humor and personality in the following two sentences.)) . I started quizzing him on words that I couldn’t even really pronounce myself. I relied heavily on his dictionary! But after practicing together, Carlos won his school spelling bee and eventually went on to regionals. I was so proud of him. I learned that it if you want to succeed, you have to put in the work like Carlos did. Every time I think of quitting something, I remind myself of his determination, and I keep going.
And finally, there was Gary, a nurse who worked in the emergency room at our local hospital. He was always rushing through his laundry because of his busy schedule, but he was never too busy to sit down and talk with us kids. Gary inspired my interest in pursuing medicine. He told me countless stories about what he saw in the ER. But what I always appreciated most was when he would explain the science behind what was happening. Gary was a talented teacher who could always break down complex concepts into something even a kid could understand. By my junior year, Gary encouraged me to take AP Chemistry and Biology and now he’s helping me look at pre-medicine programs(( Nice—we get some background about the student’s academic interests.)) . Gary has sparked in me an interest in caring for people through medicine.
I could have chosen to ignore all these people and hide away in the back of the laundromat. But instead I chose to talk with them, even though it was sometimes scary and intimidating. Being around so many people, hearing all their stories, it’s really shown me that everyone has a story to tell. More importantly, everyone can learn from those around them. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the regulars at the laundromat, and I hope I inspired them in some way too.
AO Notes on The Laundromat
In this classic “understanding self through others” essay, we get to know the writer through their interactions with others. The writer does a pretty good job walking the (sometimes dangerous) line between saying too much about others and not enough about themself.
- Personality: One of the best parts of “understanding self through others” essays is that we get to see who the writer is without them having to tell us. Through each of these small interactions, the writer—and their personality, values, beliefs—shines through.
- Maturity: This writer shows several strengths. I think one of the most salient is their maturity. The way they were able to learn from Mrs. Nguyen, help Carlos, and be inspired by Gary took a lot of maturity. As an AO, that would tell me that this student is ready for the college classroom.
- Connection to academic interests: Not all personal essays need to connect to an academic interest. Most probably don’t. But it was a natural connection for this writer, and I’m glad they made it. It raises the stakes of their interactions and leads beautifully into their conclusion.
- Streamline: With the three different examples, the essay reads a bit choppy. The writer could put better transitions in between each person, or they could weave the examples together into a cohesive narrative. Streamlining would also help emphasize the essay’s focus on the writer rather than the laundromat patrons.
“Bad” Common App Essay Examples
Okay, these essays aren’t necessarily “bad” as essays. But if we’re being honest, they’re not great Common App essays either.
That doesn’t mean that they don’t have the potential to become great Common App essays, though. As you’ll see in the notes from our Admissions Officers, these essays contain the seeds of good essays. They just need some reorganization and refinement.
Let’s take a look.
Example #11: What I’ve Learned About Life
We all know that life is short so you have to make the most of it. I always try to do my best and live every day to the fullest(( These sentences are both cliches. It’s always better to hook readers in with your own words.)) . Well, I did that until I broke my arm in 8th grade. I used to be not afraid to do anything, but it turns out that’s what got me in trouble. I was riding my bike home from school one day and saw a stump. I thought about what we talked about in English class that day. It was something about “carpe diem” and so I decided, “You know what? I’m gonna jump that stump.”(( This story makes for a good concrete example.)) And I did. Almost. My bike tire caught on the stump and flipped me over the handle bars. A bystander had to help me call my mom to take me to the hospital and it was fractured in four places pretty bad it actually hurt a lot. So after that I still learned to live every day to the fullest but I also learned that you need to make good decisions when doing so.
My mom always tells me that I need to be more patient because it’s a virtue and I am not patient at all. But I have decided that the most important thing to me is to try hard no matter what. I’ll work until the ends of the earth to prove myself because those who work hard succeed. So when I realized that I tried to listen to my mom. Now when I get impatient I take a deep breath and remember my goal of being successful and sometimes it is hard to be patient and I can get angry or frustrated but then I think about what my mom said. It’s a virtue and I want to be as virtuous as possible. My mom has worked so hard in this life to give me a better life and all I want to do is make her proud(( These are fantastic sentiments that could be drawn out more clearly.)) . I really think that’s what it means to be a good person. I’ll always work hard so I can be successful and she can watch me shine.
AO Notes on What I’ve Learned About Life
This essay, while short, gives an honest effort at conveying something deeply meaningful. I especially like the very last sentence, which tells us a lot about who the writer is as a person. But there are a few areas this essay could improve.
What this essay does well:
- Authenticity: It’s clear that the writer is discussing something very meaningful. I have no doubt that these lessons have played a big role in their life.
What could be improved on:
- Too short: The maximum word count for the Common Application essay is 650 words. We like to encourage students to get to at least 80% of the word count, which means that your Common App essays should be at least 520 words. This essay is only 361.
- The topic is too vague and full of generalities: The writer is communicating something meaningful about what they’ve learned throughout their life, but they do so only through generalities. Being too vague makes it hard for admissions officers to see who you really are. Instead, the writer could use concrete experiences and reflect specifically on how those experiences impacted them.
Example #12: Clean Slate
Common App Prompt #7
Bubbles, foam, and the sweet smell of chemicals. Shiny surfaces free of streaks and grime. I cleaned the entire house in three hours flat. I never really learned how to clean growing up, but I started seeing cleaning videos online. The cleaning videos always relax me, so I thought I’d give it a try(( This shows the writer’s initiative.)) .
First I needed to figure out what kinds of supplies to buy. After watching a few more videos, I made a list of the most commonly used items. Since I was on a limited budget, so I could only get the basics. I turned to coupons to find the best bargains possible. I bought disinfectant, a multi-purpose cleaner, and a window and mirror spray. I also found a mop, sponges, and a scrubber brush. It all cost me only fifteen dollars!
My family was shocked when I came home with these supplies in a shopping bag. They didn’t understand why I cared so much. We vacuumed and used disinfectant wipes every so often to keep things manageable, but none of us knew that you are supposed to deep clean your house every month or so until I told everyone based on what I saw online. I showed them each product I bought and told them what the purpose of each one was. They were proud of me for taking initiative and learning something new. They also couldn’t wait to see the results.
Then it was time for me to get to work. To strike inspiration, I put on another cleaning video in the background. I began with the bathroom. It was tidy, but it sure wasn’t clean. There was dust on all the surfaces, soap scum, and rust. I grabbed the disinfectant spray first because it has to sit for a while to actually disinfect. Then I used the mirror spray to clean toothpaste off the mirror. I scrubbed all the surfaces with my new sponge until they were squeaky clean. Then I moved on to the floors. My mop is a spray mop, so it was a quick job.
Next I moved on to the kitchen. That was much harder because it was more complex. There are several appliances, dishes to do, and food to put away. I wiped down the cabinets, which had a dark grime that you couldn’t even see before. I felt accomplished because I was actually cleaning. Once the kitchen was done, I moved on to the living room and the bedrooms. It took forever, but I did it(( By this point, we should have some more reflection from the writer about why this story is personally meaningful.)) .
I gave my family a tour around the house, showing them all the nooks and crannies I had cleaned. They were impressed and I felt so proud. I stood back, admiring my work. The house glistened like a diamond with cleanliness.
The next day I got up and decided to take a look around, excited to see my handiwork again. I was in shock when I stepped into the kitchen. It was a disaster. There was food and dishes everywhere. I ran to the bathroom. It wasn’t any better. There were dirty clothes and an open toothpaste tube. The baseboards already had a small bit of dust. I was devastated. All my hard work was gone just like that.
I told my family how upset I was. They understood and said that they would try to be better next time. But I also learned that that’s just how cleaning goes. You can try to keep things tidy, but we actually live in this house and sometimes that means making a mess. I hugged my family members and felt better after their apology(( I really like the picture we get of the writer here. I can tell that they are very mature and thoughtful!)) . We made up, they picked up a few things to pitch in, and I put my cleaning supplies back in the closet until next time.
AO Notes on Clean Slate
In this essay, we go on a cleaning journey with the writer. We see their successes and disappointments. We learn a bit about their family background, and we cheer them on as they overcome challenges.
- Writing and organization: This essay is well-written, and the narrative easily holds a reader’s interest. There’s a good sense of the plot, and the paragraphs are clearly organized and easy to read through.
- Strengths: We really see the writer’s initiative through this story. They did their research, got their supplies, and put their interest into action.
- More significance: While this is a fun topic, it doesn’t convey much meaning about the writer’s life. The writer could make the topic more significant by adding more reflection throughout to show explicitly how this story has changed them as a person. Or they could select a different topic that relates to something more deeply meaningful about their life.
Hopefully these Common App essay examples have shown you what to do (and what not to do). More importantly, we hope that the commentary from our former admissions officers has helped you analyze the why behind what makes an effective Common App essay.
Absorbing these lessons and applying them to your own Common Application essay will help take your writing to the next level. No matter what you write about, your goal should be to create a seamless application narrative that speaks to your strengths.
If you’re not sure what step to take next, we've got you covered. The Essay Academy — our comprehensive digital college essay course — walks you through every step.
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19 Common Application Essay Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
Many students trip over common obstacles in their college application essays. For example, many students can’t see beyond the superficial prompt to construct an essay that positively communicates their personality and passion. Some students rehash their activities and achievements without adding the personal flavor, perspective and substance that admissions officers look for. Learn how to avoid these and other damaging traps.
As an independent college admissions consultant, I read many application essays and see many common application essay mistakes. Here’s some helpful advice:
- Select the Best Topic and Subject. The Common Application, as well as many individual college applications and supplements, give students a choice of essay topics. Resist the temptation to quickly make a selection. Instead make an inventory of your key experiences and achievements, adjectives that describe you, anything significant in your background, as well as what you can potentially “offer” (e.g. athletics, music, dance) a college. Then read the options carefully and decide which topic(s) provides the best opportunity to portray your self in a desirable manner. If the application requires more than one essay, select distinct topics and subject areas so the admissions people get a broader, and more complete, picture of you. If you are an athlete, for example, try not to write more than one essay about sports.
- Answer the Question. Read the prompt carefully and pay particular attention to two part questions. For example, if you choose to “evaluate a significant experience, achievement or risk you have taken and its impact on you”, make sure you thoughtfully and critically analyze both the situation and its impact. If you choose to “discuss an issue and its importance to you” make sure you focus on its importance to you. The admissions people are looking for a window into your character, passion and reasoning.
- Be Personable and Specific. Colleges don’t learn much from a generic essay. If you are asked to describe your reasons for your interest in a particular school that you are applying to, make sure your essay addresses the particular features of that school that appeal to you and explain why. Brainstorm with others. Don’t be afraid to think creatively. Don’t be afraid to reject ideas! Most strong essays have more “show” than “tell”.
- Make Your Essay The Right Length. Many prompts specify a desired number of words or a range. If it’s 200 to 250 words, don’t insert your 500 word essay. In fact, many on-line applications will not even accept more than the stated limit. If there is only an upper limit, don’t stress if your essay appears too short. Lincoln got his points across succinctly in the Gettysburg address — in less than 275 words. Be concise. Omit irrelevant details, clichés, and poorly developed ideas. Do not distract the reader with unnecessary words and repetition.
- Watch Your Tone. If you come across as a spoiled child, a stuck-up rich kid, lazy, sarcastic or a cynic, the admissions team might decide that you are not the right fit for their school. A bit of well placed humor is fine, but don’t try to be a comedian.
- Don’t Appear Self-Interested or Materialistic. While few applicants are genuinely altruistic, most colleges are turned off by students who appear more focused on what the school can do for them, rather than how they can benefit from the education and at the same time be a contributing member of the campus community. If you are applying to a business program, the average starting salary of recent graduates should not be your stated motivation for seeking admission!
- Don’t Rely on Your Computer’s Spell Checker. Applicants who rely solely on their computer’s spell check program may find themselves submitting applications with poor grammar and word choice. Just because everything is spelled properly doesn’t mean it is correct. A good way to catch mistakes is to read your essay very slowly and out loud.
- Don’t Overlook the Mundane. Some of the best and most memorable essays are based on a simple conversation between people. The impressions and takeaways from such a conversation can be extremely engaging and provide a valuable window into the personality and values of the writer. Some essays of this type center on a moment of enlightenment or illumination when the writer views life from a new perspective and/or gains new confidence.
- Skip the Volunteer Trip. Dedicated community service over a period of time can be a strong topic for an application essay. Volunteer day at the local park, or two weeks of school building in Africa, will probably not impress the admissions committee. They see many essays of this type. Not only is it difficult to stand out from the pack, but these experiences are often more about the experience than about you, or convey that money buys opportunity.
- Don’t Rehash the Resume. The admissions committee relies on essays to learn additional things about you such as your initiative, curiosity about the world, personal growth, willingness to take risks, ability to be self directed, motivation and ability to make the most of a situation. They are interested in your personal qualities such as leadership, confidence, ability to work in a team, strength of character, resilience, sense of humor, ability to get along with others and what you might add to the campus community. In short, use your essays to showcase a side of you not visible from other parts of the application.
- Peruse the Entire Application. Many applications, especially for some of the more competitive schools, are complex and require multiple essays and short answers. Don’t look at each question in a vacuum, but rather view the application holistically when deciding how to best portray yourself through responding to the various prompts. For example, if you have five key areas you wish to cover, and there are five essays, try to strategically focus on one area in each essay.
- Don’t Fall in Love with the Thesaurus. Resist the temptation to be a sesquipedalian or come across as a pedantic fop! There’s no need to use a big word in every sentence. Use caution when showing off your extensive vocabulary. You risk using language improperly and may appear insecure or overly eager to impress. Admissions people aren’t keen about picking up a dictionary to understand your essay. Worse yet, if your essay vocabulary is at a much higher level than what would be expected from your English grades and SAT/ACT scores, it may appear that your essay is not your own work. Most teenagers don’t use myriad and plethora in their daily vernacular.
- Check Your Ego at the Door. Even if you are impressed with yourself, most admissions officers don’t respond favorably to students who brag, put down classmates, or wax eloquent about their amazing achievements. While self doubt is generally undesirable, a bit of humility can be well received, especially in an essay about overcoming adversity.
- Accentuate the Positive. Few students have a perfect resume, which is apparent in the application. Drawing attention to weakness in an essay is generally not a good idea, unless you were able to overcome a weakness, and make it a strong suit.
- Proofread Carefully. Don’t let your eagerness to submit an application cause you to overlook careless mistakes. Errors can doom your otherwise excellent application. Make sure you schedule sufficient time for a thorough review. When possible, have at least one other person proofread your essay. They may catch something important that you missed. For example, you don’t want to tell Ohio State that you really want to be a Wolverine! Again, read your essay out loud.
- Organize Your Essay. An impressive essay generally contains a strong opening, well organized content, and a powerful closing. If your essay lacks structure and seems to ramble, chances are it won’t impress the reader. Start with an outline and design your essay paragraph by paragraph. Make sure you include enough background information about whatever topic you are writing about so that the reader can put it into context. For example, one student wrote an excellent essay about a horrible first day of school, but forgot to include that he had just moved to town, from halfway around the world, and was struggling with English. Resist the temptation to run off and start writing. Experts will tell you that up-front planning of your essays is well worth the time invested. Not only will the quality of your essays be much higher, you’ll probably end up saving time in the long run!
- Research the College Before Writing the Essay. Almost every school has its own identity and mission. Some universities even have a slogan. Others have niche areas of study that they like to promote. Pay attention to what is important to the particular school and, when appropriate, consider including it in some manner in your essay.
- Invest in a Strong Introduction. Admissions people read a lot of essays and may not be energetic and fresh when yours reaches the top of their pile. That’s why it’s essential to attract their attention up front. It is critical that the first few sentences capture their interest. A boring opening may cause the reader to not pay close attention to the remainder of the essay. Design the introduction to draw them into your essay. A well-planned essay may omit some key details in the opening forcing the reader to pay close attention to the rest of the story.
- Start Early and Take Your Time. Don’t wait until the last minute. Application essays almost always take longer than you anticipate. Invest the time necessary to do it right. It should be your best work. Ask others to review your drafts and offer comments and suggestions. Take comments and suggestions seriously – behind every good writer is usually at least one good editor!
Author: Lynn Radlauer Lubell is the Publisher of InLikeMe.com, and the Founder of Admission By Design , a College Consultancy, based in Boca Raton, Florida.
Lynn Radlauer Lubell, Publisher of InLikeMe.com and Founder of Admission By Design, an Educational Consultancy based in Boca Raton, Florida.
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5 Terrible Topics for the Common Application Personal Statement
Do avoid writing about grandma or grandpa in your Common App. Personal Statement. And in your supplemental admissions essays too.
Of the thousands of applicants each year to highly selective colleges, it may surprise some to learn that the vast majority of these applicants choose one of five topics to write about in their Common Application Personal Statements. That’s right. Even though these students may think they’re being super creative in their approach to the Personal Statement, their approach is often anything but unique or creative. In our quarter century of helping students earn admission to highly selective colleges, we can name on one hand the 5 topics students are inclined to write about in their Personal Statements that very much hurt their case for admission: sports, community service, dead or living grandparents, music, and foreign travel.
The Sports Essay
Don’t write about sports . That essay about how you hurt your leg but worked really hard to get yourself back in shape and win the race won’t wow an admissions officer at one of our nation’s elite universities. Rather, it will inspire an admissions officer to yawn a great, big yawn. So too will that essay about how you may not have won the water polo game but through the loss, you and your teammates learned about the importance of perseverance, sportsmanship, and teamwork. Does that sound cliché? If not, it should.
The I’m an Amazing Person Essay
You don’t need to do community service to earn admission to an elite American universities. It’s one of the most common misconceptions about the process. Working in a soup kitchen or in a hospital ward is the route so many college applicants choose to take to boost their chances of admission to their dream college. And do let them take that route. Don’t correct them. They’re your competition. Admissions officers so often view these sorts of activities as cliché, as efforts made simply in the hope of improving their odds of admission. If only these applicants knew how such an approach achieves the opposite effect.
The Grandpa Essay
Maybe grandpa is your hero. Maybe he recently died. That’s nice that he’s your hero and we’re sorry about his death. But college admissions officers don’t want to read about grandpa . They want to read about you. Common Application Personal Statements about dead or living grandparents so often read the same. They’re dull. They’re wonderful tributes to relatives. But they offer little to no insight into who an applicant is and how he or she thinks — which is the primary concern of admissions officers reading these essays.
The Trip to India Essay
Has a friend of yours ever asked you to watch his slideshow of pictures from a recent trip he took to Poland? Maybe it wasn’t Poland. Maybe it was Thailand. The destination isn’t the point. The point is that you were likely quite bored. It’s pretty cool to see the wonders of the world in person. Seeing it through photographs of your friend’s adventures typically isn’t as cool. And neither is writing about foreign trips in college essays. It also happens to convey wealth — that your family had the money to travel around the world. Admissions officers don’t exactly earn the most high-paying salaries. Don’t bore admissions officers with tales of your foreign escapades . And don’t flaunt your wealth. It doesn’t exactly inspire admissions officers to want to root for you.
The Music Essay
You don’t have to write about an activity in your Common Application essay. Writing about an activity — whether or not you intend it — puts you in the position of selling. This is why you should be admitted. This is why you would be of value to the college to which you’re applying. Don’t sell. Rather, showcase your love of learning and great intellectual curiosity without trying to impress an admissions officer about how you’re the first chair violin at your school. ZZZzzz is right.
We Help with the Many College Essays
But simply knowing what not to write about in your Common Application Personal Statement doesn’t exactly point you in the direction of what you should be writing about. It doesn’t offer you insight into how you can stand out in the crowded field. And that’s because that’s precisely what we do with our clients at Ivy Coach. We help them stand out. We help make them, in two words, wonderfully weird. Not just in the Personal Statement but in the activities, in the letters of recommendation, in the many supplemental essays (e.g., Why College essays ) required of the vast majority of highly selective colleges. If you’re interested in Ivy Coach’s assistance with these essays, contact us today to learn about our services.
And what do our readers think of these 5 terrible topics for the Common Application Personal Statement? Were you about to write an essay that falls into one of these categories? If so, we hope you’re now reconsidering.
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Categories: College Essays
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Bad Common App Personal Statement Topics
October 06, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Topics , Personal Statement , Brainstorming , Red Flags , Common App
What is the most widely utilized, but often poorly-executed, Common App essay topic?
Believe it or not, it's you.
You are probably a bad Common App Essay topic.
Writing an autobiography is one of the most common mistakes applicants make when brainstorming essay topics.
Truth be told, it’s difficult to make an absolute statement on what a good or bad essay topic is.
More often than not, it's the execution of an essay topic, as opposed to the topic itself, that will determine whether or not you have a strong essay.
That being said, there are some essay topics which are typically more DIFFICULT to turn into a good, unique, and personally insightful essay. They are as follows:
- Essays about a competition or performance
- Essays about charities or service initiatives
- Essays about music or art
- Essays that are simply infeasible from an execution standpoint
Now, why do these topics typically produce subpar essays?
Regarding the first three topics form the list above, these essays usually fail to show authenticity and originality, and are susceptible to tones of arrogance and self-praise.
These essay topics are typically overused and fail to showcase yourself in a way that is unique.
Moreover, these topics will often tempt you to talk exclusively about yourself and your accomplishments.
Finally, sometimes the topic is too big to effectively convert into a 650-word essay.
Even topics that are great in theory can be ruined by attempts to compress them into an essay as short as the Common App essay.
So what generally makes for a good essay topic?
Here’s a big one: telling a story through the len of a relationship.
Writing about a relationship - between yourself and another person, place, or thing that is personally meaningful - is an effective way to circumvent the pitfalls of the aforementioned bad topics.
It will allow you to avoid seeming conceited, show care, humility, and personal development, and showcase yourself without coming off as self-centered.
Relationships offer a great opportunity to demonstrate personally insightful material.
Throughout your Common App, there are more than enough opportunities to showcase your accolades and expertise.
The Common App essay is a unique opportunity to show your character - how you grow, your unique way of moving through the world, how you interpret experiences, your capacity for empathy, humility, and vulnerability.
Put simply, a bad essay topic makes it more difficult to accomplish those things. While every topic can become a great essay, great topics make it easier to accomplish that goal.
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Chat with an expert.
Is my common app essay bad
I am writing about my interest in makeup, does that sound shallow?
It could… I mean, if you were interested in becoming a chemist so you could work on makeup formulas or something like that, it might tweak an admissions officers interest. Or if you get a kick out of doing makeup for theater productions, might work. Or if you’d turned it into a small business doing kids parties with a makeup component. But just… being interested in makeup? It does come across as shallow.
My daughter had a friend who developed an interest in really complex makeup, like for movies. Her work as a young teenager was absolutely incredible. I think that would make an amazing essay. So it really depends ends on the context and how you write it.
I get the impression OP means ordinary makeup. OP needs to ask herself (or himself) how an interest in makeup will impress adcoms. If you’re applying anywhere competitive, will this make them interested in what you add to the class?
Watch out this doesn’t come across as too vocational.
I think this topic could be written about by a 17-18 year old kid, and would sound genuine. Admissions officers at all levels want to read about YOU in the personal essay. Don’t worry about what the tangential topic is, but instead please remember to have someone else read it and give you feedback.
I will never forget the admissions officer at Pomona who raved about a recent essay she read about a kid learning to drive. It doesn’t matter what the essay is about, if you can convey something about who you are, making them want you to come attend their school.
You could talk about the impact that it had on you as a person and what it really means to you
IMHO, yes. Honestly, make-up? To me, make up is something that covers who you are. I think an essay should show who you are.
I agree - it does remind me of Elle Woods! I love that movie but in reality…I’m sure there’s something better in your wheelhouse.
I am a makeup artist. I love makeup. I always have. People think makeup is shallow but the reality is quite different. There is a zen moment, a catharsis, a revelation when you apply makeup to yourself and others. It’s transfomative, it can take you to a different place. I would also think about how people react to makeup. It’s relationship to culture in general. It’s a personal expression of one’s self. Every person on earth presents themselves to the world in a certain way. Makeup is part of that exterior we show to the world. It’s a very deep topic regarding person, philosophy and culture. If you do it right, it can be done.
I have no problem with your topic. I firmly believe a kid can write an essay about anything. One essay that still sticks in my mind was the girl who wrote about her nightlight. Right now, one of my students is writing about why she doesn’t enjoy showers. It’s all in the delivery.
If you are simply writing about why you enjoy make up, and it’s all telling and no showing, you might not have a compelling essay. You also need to ensure your personality comes through. This is not an academic essay. It’s not being graded. It’s a essay with a goal: for the AO to read it and think “I like this person. Admit.”
I think this can be fun but also have risk of sounding shallow if you do it wrong. Like, what makes you intersted in make up? Do you view make up as a form of art? or do you want to be a businesswoman in a make up industry? Or chemistry in it? You have to try to connect to your career goal even if things may chance in the future.
Google “Hacking the College Essay 2017” and read it.
Write the Essay No One Else Could Write “It boils down to this: the essay that gets you in is the essay that no other applicant could write. Is this a trick? The rest of this guide gives you the best strategies to accomplish this single most important thing: write the essay no one else could write. If someone reading your essay gets the feeling some other applicant could have written it, then you’re in trouble. Why is this so important? Because most essays sound like they could have been written by anyone. Remember that most essays fail to do what they should: replace numbers (SAT/GPA) with the real you. Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer. She’s got limited time and a stack of applications. Each application is mostly numbers and other stuff that looks the same. Then she picks up your essay. Sixty seconds later, what is her impression of you? Will she know something specifically about you? Or will you still be indistinguishable from the hundreds of other applicants she has been reading about?”
Just don’t let the reaction be, “What the *@# was this one thinking?” It’s for a college app.
The more competitive the college, the more the essay needs to be relevant to what they want to see that matters for their class. This isn’t free topic in your writing class. If you were asking for a summer job and needed to write something, would it be about make up? Lol, I hope the shower essay doesn’t make it seem this kid needs accommodations in the dorm.
I’ve seen an essay about makeup published after the author was accepted to MIT. So it’s totally possible.
Your essay should never be about makeup. If you are using makeup as an example of how you think differently than other people or are more creative, it could work. Just make sure that you describe something that you are not cliche and use specific interactions in your essay.
I’m not sure a lot of those self submitted wacky essays that supposedly worked are real. And we see them totally out of the context of an app/supp. Sure, there are also kids who write about their fluffy puppy.
The issue isn’t some kid or two who claims to get in. It’s making your own sensible effort. Be wise.
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Common App Essay Mistakes You Should Avoid at all Costs
So you want some tips on Common App essay mistakes ?
Well, buckle up because I’ve got you covered!
Let’s cut to the chase, college application essays can be a real pain. And that blinking cursor on an empty screen can be very demotivating.
Sometimes, students can make a ton of Common App essay mistakes because they feel “stuck” and just want to get the thing written, even if it means going in the wrong direction.
But hey, here’s the deal: saying the wrong thing or going overboard can actually do more harm than good. A killer college essay requires serious thought and preparation.
The Common App not just about showcasing your writing skills; it’s also a chance to reveal your perspective, personality, and life experiences. This is your one shot to introduce yourself to your dream colleges and show the admissions committee how you’ll rock their freshman class.
Sounds important? Well, that’s because it is!
In this article, we’ll take a look at seven common app essay mistakes you need to avoid when writing your college essay. Follow these tips, and you’ll be one step closer to that acceptance letter!
7 Common App Essay Mistakes to Avoid
1. telling lies.
Don’t lie, my friend. Seriously, it should go without saying, but let’s emphasize it anyway. Instead of fabricating stories, reflect honestly on your successes, meaningful experiences, hobbies, and unique essay topics. You’ve got plenty of material that already qualifies you for the college you’re applying to. No need for embellishments!
If you’re writing a Common App essay, choose the topic that enables you to shine. Our guide to the Common App essay prompts should help.
2. Fixating too much on grand future ambitions
Look, it’s totally okay if you haven’t figured out your entire life plan yet. Most students at your stage don’t have it all mapped out, and that’s perfectly fine. Colleges understand that too. Focus on what you’ve accomplished and experienced so far; that will make a more impactful essay than a bunch of future fantasies.
3. Forgetting your audience
Don’t treat the common app essay like a chore to check off your to-do list, especially if you’re applying to multiple universities. Understand that your essay will be read by someone important, someone who’s looking for specific things. So, write with purpose, avoid being too casual or overly detailed, and consider what matters to your readers.
4. Using a cookie-cutter template
Keep in mind that it’s a competition out there. Admissions committees have to go through hundreds of essays each year. Imagine being in their shoes, reading countless accounts of “perfect” students who all blend together. Boring, right? You want to stand out! Be the essay that grabs their attention, evokes emotions, and makes them remember you as someone special.
5. Being too formal
Don’t get too formal or wordy. Using a thesaurus won’t magically get you into your dream college. Admissions officers can spot pretentious language from a mile away. If your essay is filled with words that no normal 18-year-old would ever use, it’s a red flag. Keep it readable, informal, and engaging. Explain your thoughts clearly and concisely, instead of trying to impress with unnecessary complexity. Use college application editing services to get the best result.
6. Writing the Common App essay on the last minute
Avoid last-minute essays like the plague. Seriously, procrastination leads to stress, sloppy mistakes, and a subpar final product. Even if you’re a talented writer, your first draft is rarely a masterpiece. Treat your essay with care. Take time for brainstorming, revise it multiple times, and edit meticulously to catch errors. Your essay should be a strong asset, not a liability.
7. Confusing the essay with the application
Remember, your college application is like a puzzle, and each component should add something unique. The essay shouldn’t repeat what’s already in your transcripts or other application materials. It’s an opportunity to share a personal challenge, a lesson learned, a moment of growth, or a unique experience that makes you stand out from the crowd. Admissions committees don’t just want to see repetitive information; they want to learn something new about you through your essay.
So, when you’re writing your essay, think about what makes you unique and how you can showcase that. Share a story that reflects a challenge you overcame, a moment of personal growth, or a lesson that shaped you into who you are today. Let your college application essay be a window into your world, a glimpse of what sets you apart from other applicants.
Remember, you’re not just filling out forms and writing essays for the sake of it. Each component of your application serves a specific purpose. Your essay is your chance to demonstrate your character, resilience, and individuality. Make it count by avoiding these Common App essay mistakes!
Worst Common App Essay Mistakes and How to Avoid Them
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In order to submit a good application essay, you must, of course, have good writing skills . There are a lot of essay writing tips you can find online, starting with common app essay mistakes that applicants usually make hindering them from actually constructing an app essay that will manifest their true personality and passion.
There are several common app essay examples online. You can investigate as many as you can and learn as much common app essay tips as possible. Here are the common mistakes and some very useful tips you might want to consider when writing your application essay:
Keep it organized. Before writing down your app essay, make an outline first of how you intend to go about it. This is to ensure that all questions are addressed as well as to keep track of your progress. An essay that lacks structure might confuse your readers and, in turn, fail to show what you really want your audience to know about you.
Do not choose a topic and subject immediately. College and university applicants usually provide a list of topics to write about in their app essays. Before choosing a topic and a subject, look into the list carefully first and consider which one will best portray you in the most desirable way. Consider your passion, your interests, and the subjects you excel in.
Do not beat around the bush. Once you have selected a topic and a subject, make sure to answer the questions. Read them carefully and ensure that every question or topic is accounted. Be particularly attentive to multiple-part questions because this is where applicants usually miss out on some points.
Start with a really good introduction. A good start will encourage the admissions department to read on. This is especially applicable when they are reading thousands of app essays which are already starting to look very generic by then. Make a good impression as early as possible.
Avoid ambiguous answers. Remember, the admissions department wants to see your character and spot your potentials. In order for them to do that, you have to let them into your life through your app essay so avoid constructing an essay that is generic and instead is more specific and descriptive.
Avoid being too lengthy. A lot of common app essay prompts specify the required word count so make sure to strictly follow the limit. The admissions department will look into your ability to understand instructions and follow them accordingly and non-compliance to these instructions could even lead to your disqualification.
Mind your tone. The tone of your essay must maintain a certain level of decorum. After all, it is an academic paper. Try to avoid sounding sarcastic or too humorous. While the goal is for the real you to manifest, you also have to remember that you have to put yourself in the best light possible.
Make it a mutual relationship. Another common mistake that applicants make is sounding too one-sided in their app essays. Do not make it appear that you are only looking forward to the benefits the college or university can offer but also what it can benefit from you.
Do not rely on a single spell checker. Most students will probably draft their app essays in a Word Document which has its own spell checker but do not rely on this solely. You have to double check it yourself and make sure your grammar is perfect. You can, of course, ask a family member or a friend to check for you.
Do not overlook the small things. Remember that good essays do not necessarily have to be grandiose. Simple thoughts and simple words can go as deep as well and even reach out to more audience because it is easier to read and understand. In fact, some of the best and most memorable essays come from the simple conversations but are nevertheless valuable and very engaging.
Avoid writing about volunteer trips. While community service is always a good thing, it will less likely impress the admissions department, not with thousands of other applicants writing about it, too. Remember that you have to make an extra effort for your app essay to stand out so instead of writing about generic answers and experiences, try including something that is out of the box or unique.
Avoid stating the obvious. Your app essay is not a reflection of your resume so do not make it appear like it is. The point of these essays is for the admissions department to look into your values and other characteristics that are otherwise unavailable in academic records. Instead, include things that will showcase your personal qualities such as leadership skills and strength of character.
Do not be too aggressive. There is nothing wrong with being a go-getter but if you cross the line and come out as being too egoistic, it will reflect badly on your application. Try to balance your strengths with weaknesses but make sure to include how you have or intend to overcome these weaknesses.
Do not forget to edit and proofread. Never submit an essay after the first draft. Essays require editing and proofreading more than twice to ensure that your thoughts are aligned and your grammar is perfect. You might want to wait a few hours or even a day after your finish your first draft to edit to make sure that you are looking at it with fresh eyes and perspective to easily spot errors and mistakes.
Do not miss the deadline. You have to thoroughly plan out your application by making a timeline to track your progress. Start early, research the requirements, make a checklist, and ensure you follow it accordingly. Try to spare extra time in case you need to make more revisions than intended.
Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, bad college essays: 10 mistakes you must avoid.
Just as there are noteworthy examples of excellent college essays that admissions offices like to publish, so are there cringe-worthy examples of terrible college essays that end up being described by anonymous admissions officers on Reddit discussion boards.
While I won't guarantee that your essay will end up in the first category, I will say that you follow my advice in this article, your essay most assuredly won't end up in the second. How do you avoid writing a bad admissions essay? Read on to find out what makes an essay bad and to learn which college essay topics to avoid. I'll also explain how to recognize bad college essays—and what to do to if you end up creating one by accident.
What Makes Bad College Essays Bad
What exactly happens to turn a college essay terrible? Just as great personal statements combine an unexpected topic with superb execution, flawed personal statements compound problematic subject matter with poor execution.
Problems With the Topic
The primary way to screw up a college essay is to flub what the essay is about or how you've decided to discuss a particular experience. Badly chosen essay content can easily create an essay that is off-putting in one of a number of ways I'll discuss in the next section.
The essay is the place to let the admissions office of your target college get to know your personality, character, and the talents and skills that aren't on your transcript. So if you start with a terrible topic, not only will you end up with a bad essay, but you risk ruining the good impression that the rest of your application makes.
Some bad topics show admissions officers that you don't have a good sense of judgment or maturity , which is a problem since they are building a class of college students who have to be able to handle independent life on campus.
Other bad topics suggest that you are a boring person , or someone who doesn't process your experience in a colorful or lively way, which is a problem since colleges want to create a dynamic and engaged cohort of students.
Still other bad topics indicate that you're unaware of or disconnected from the outside world and focused only on yourself , which is a problem since part of the point of college is to engage with new people and new ideas, and admissions officers are looking for people who can do that.
Problems With the Execution
Sometimes, even if the experiences you discuss could be the foundation of a great personal statement, the way you've structured and put together your essay sends up warning flags. This is because the admissions essay is also a place to show the admissions team the maturity and clarity of your writing style.
One way to get this part wrong is to exhibit very faulty writing mechanics , like unclear syntax or incorrectly used punctuation. This is a problem since college-ready writing is one of the things that's expected from a high school graduate.
Another way to mess this up is to ignore prompt instructions either for creative or careless reasons. This can show admissions officers that you're either someone who simply blows off directions and instructions or someone who can't understand how to follow them . Neither is a good thing, since they are looking for people who are open to receiving new information from professors and not just deciding they know everything already.
College Essay Topics To Avoid
Want to know why you're often advised to write about something mundane and everyday for your college essay? That's because the more out-there your topic, the more likely it is to stumble into one of these trouble categories.
The problem with the overly personal essay topic is that revealing something very private can show that you don't really understand boundaries . And knowing where appropriate boundaries are will be key for living on your own with a bunch of people not related to you.
Unfortunately, stumbling into the TMI zone of essay topics is more common than you think. One quick test for checking your privacy-breaking level: if it's not something you'd tell a friendly stranger sitting next to you on the plane, maybe don't tell it to the admissions office.
- Describing losing your virginity, or anything about your sex life really. This doesn't mean you can't write about your sexual orientation—just leave out the actual physical act.
- Writing in too much detail about your illness, disability, any other bodily functions. Detailed meaningful discussion of what this physical condition has meant to you and your life is a great thing to write about. But stay away from body horror and graphic descriptions that are simply there for gratuitous shock value.
- Waxing poetic about your love for your significant other. Your relationship is adorable to the people currently involved in it, but those who don't know you aren't invested in this aspect of your life.
- Confessing to odd and unusual desires of the sexual or illegal variety. Your obsession with cultivating cacti is wonderful topic, while your obsession with researching explosives is a terrible one.
Too Revealing of Bad Judgment
Generally speaking, leave past illegal or immoral actions out of your essay . It's simply a bad idea to give admissions officers ammunition to dislike you.
Some exceptions might be if you did something in a very, very different mindset from the one you're in now (in the midst of escaping from danger, under severe coercion, or when you were very young, for example). Or if your essay is about explaining how you've turned over a new leaf and you have the transcript to back you up.
- Writing about committing crime as something fun or exciting. Unless it's on your permanent record, and you'd like a chance to explain how you've learned your lesson and changed, don't put this in your essay.
- Describing drug use or the experience of being drunk or high. Even if you're in a state where some recreational drugs are legal, you're a high school student. Your only exposure to mind-altering substances should be caffeine.
- Making up fictional stories about yourself as though they are true. You're unlikely to be a good enough fantasist to pull this off, and there's no reason to roll the dice on being discovered to be a liar.
- Detailing your personality flaws. Unless you have a great story of coping with one of these, leave deal-breakers like pathological narcissism out of your personal statement.
While it's great to have faith in your abilities, no one likes a relentless show-off. No matter how magnificent your accomplishments, if you decide to focus your essay on them, it's better to describe a setback or a moment of doubt rather that simply praising yourself to the skies.
- Bragging and making yourself the flawless hero of your essay. This goes double if you're writing about not particularly exciting achievements like scoring the winning goal or getting the lead in the play.
- Having no awareness of the actual scope of your accomplishments. It's lovely that you take time to help others, but volunteer-tutoring a couple of hours a week doesn't make you a saintly figure.
Too Clichéd or Boring
Remember your reader. In this case, you're trying to make yourself memorable to an admissions officer who has been reading thousands of other essays . If your essay makes the mistake of being boring or trite, it just won't register in that person's mind as anything worth paying attention to.
- Transcribing your resume into sentence form or writing about the main activity on your transcript. The application already includes your resume, or a detailed list of your various activities. Unless the prompt specifically asks you to write about your main activity, the essay needs to be about a facet of your interests and personality that doesn't come through the other parts of the application.
- Writing about sports. Every athlete tries to write this essay. Unless you have a completely off-the-wall story or unusual achievement, leave this overdone topic be.
- Being moved by your community service trip to a third-world country. Were you were impressed at how happy the people seemed despite being poor? Did you learn a valuable lesson about how privileged you are? Unfortunately, so has every other teenager who traveled on one of these trips. Writing about this tends to simultaneously make you sound unempathetic, clueless about the world, way over-privileged, and condescending. Unless you have a highly specific, totally unusual story to tell, don't do it.
- Reacting with sadness to a sad, but very common experience. Unfortunately, many of the hard, formative events in your life are fairly universal. So, if you're going to write about death or divorce, make sure to focus on how you dealt with this event, so the essay is something only you could possibly have written. Only detailed, idiosyncratic description can save this topic.
- Going meta. Don't write about the fact that you're writing the essay as we speak, and now the reader is reading it, and look, the essay is right here in the reader's hand. It's a technique that seems clever, but has already been done many times in many different ways.
- Offering your ideas on how to fix the world. This is especially true if your solution is an easy fix, if only everyone would just listen to you. Trust me, there's just no way you are being realistically appreciative of the level of complexity inherent in the problem you're describing.
- Starting with a famous quotation. There usually is no need to shore up your own words by bringing in someone else's. Of course, if you are writing about a particular phrase that you've adopted as a life motto, feel free to include it. But even then, having it be the first line in your essay feels like you're handing the keys over to that author and asking them to drive.
- Using an everyday object as a metaphor for your life/personality. "Shoes. They are like this, and like that, and people love them for all of these reasons. And guess what? They are just like me."
Unlike the essays you've been writing in school where the idea is to analyze something outside of yourself, the main subject of your college essay should be you, your background, your makeup, and your future . Writing about someone or something else might well make a great essay, but not for this context.
- Paying tribute to someone very important to you. Everyone would love to meet your grandma, but this isn't the time to focus on her amazing coming of age story. If you do want to talk about a person who is important to your life, dwell on the ways you've been impacted by them, and how you will incorporate this impact into your future.
- Documenting how well other people do things, say things, are active, while you remain passive and inactive in the essay. Being in the orbit of someone else's important lab work, or complex stage production, or meaningful political activism is a fantastic learning moment. But if you decide to write about, your essay should be about your learning and how you've been influenced, not about the other person's achievements.
- Concentrating on a work of art that deeply moved you. Watch out for the pitfall of writing an analytical essay about that work, and not at all about your reaction to it or how you've been affected since. Check out our explanation of how to answer Topic D of the ApplyTexas application to get some advice on writing about someone else's work while making sure your essay still points back at you.
(Image: Pieter Christoffel Wonder [Public domain] , via Wikimedia Commons)
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With this potential mistake, you run the risk of showing a lack of self-awareness or the ability to be open to new ideas . Remember, no reader wants to be lectured at. If that's what your essay does, you are demonstrating an inability to communicate successfully with others.
Also, remember that no college is eager to admit someone who is too close-minded to benefit from being taught by others. A long, one-sided essay about a hot-button issue will suggest that you are exactly that.
- Ranting at length about political, religious, or other contentious topics. You simply don't know where the admissions officer who reads your essay stands on any of these issues. It's better to avoid upsetting or angering that person.
- Writing a one-sided diatribe about guns, abortion, the death penalty, immigration, or anything else in the news. Even if you can marshal facts in your argument, this essay is simply the wrong place to take a narrow, unempathetic side in an ongoing debate.
- Mentioning anything negative about the school you're applying to. Again, your reader is someone who works there and presumably is proud of the place. This is not the time to question the admissions officer's opinions or life choices.
College Essay Execution Problems To Avoid
Bad college essays aren't only caused by bad topics. Sometimes, even if you're writing about an interesting, relevant topic, you can still seem immature or unready for college life because of the way you present that topic—the way you actually write your personal statement. Check to make sure you haven't made any of the common mistakes on this list.
Admissions officers are looking for resourcefulness, the ability to be resilient, and an active and optimistic approach to life —these are all qualities that create a thriving college student. Essays that don't show these qualities are usually suffering from tone-deafness.
- Being whiny or complaining about problems in your life. Is the essay about everyone doing things to/against you? About things happening to you, rather than you doing anything about them? That perspective is a definite turn-off.
- Trying and failing to use humor. You may be very funny in real life, but it's hard to be successfully funny in this context, especially when writing for a reader who doesn't know you. If you do want to use humor, I'd recommend the simplest and most straightforward version: being self-deprecating and low-key.
- Talking down to the reader, or alternately being self-aggrandizing. No one enjoys being condescended to. In this case, much of the function of your essay is to charm and make yourself likable, which is unlikely to happen if you adopt this tone.
- Being pessimistic, cynical, and generally depressive. You are applying to college because you are looking forward to a future of learning, achievement, and self-actualization. This is not the time to bust out your existential ennui and your jaded, been-there-done-that attitude toward life.
(Image: Eduard Munch [Public Domain] , via Wikimedia Commons)
Lack of Personality
One good question to ask yourself is: could anyone else have written this essay ? If the answer is yes, then you aren't doing a good job of representing your unique perspective on the world. It's very important to demonstrate your ability to be a detailed observer of the world, since that will be one of your main jobs as a college student.
- Avoiding any emotions, and appearing robot-like and cold in the essay. Unlike essays that you've been writing for class, this essay is meant to be a showcase of your authorial voice and personality. It may seem strange to shift gears after learning how to take yourself out of your writing, but this is the place where you have to put as much as yourself in as possible.
- Skipping over description and specific details in favor of writing only in vague generalities. Does your narrative feel like a newspaper horoscope, which could apply to every other person who was there that day? Then you're doing it wrong and need to refocus on your reaction, feelings, understanding, and transformation.
There's some room for creativity here, yes, but a college essay isn't a free-for-all postmodern art class . True, there are prompts that specifically call for your most out-of-left-field submission, or allow you to submit a portfolio or some other work sample instead of a traditional essay. But on a standard application, it's better to stick to traditional prose, split into paragraphs, further split into sentences.
- Submitting anything other than just the materials asked for on your application. Don't send food to the admissions office, don't write your essay on clothing or shoes, don't create a YouTube channel about your undying commitment to the school. I know there are a lot of urban legends about "that one time this crazy thing worked," but they are either not true or about something that will not work a second time.
- Writing your essay in verse, in the form of a play, in bullet points, as an acrostic, or any other non-prose form. Unless you really have a way with poetry or playwriting, and you are very confident that you can meet the demands of the prompt and explain yourself well in this form, don't discard prose simply for the sake of being different.
- Using as many "fancy" words as possible and getting very far away from sounding like yourself. Admissions officers are unanimous in wanting to hear your not fully formed teenage voice in your essay. This means that you should write at the top of your vocabulary range and syntax complexity, but don't trade every word up for a thesaurus synonym. Your essay will suffer for it.
Failure to Proofread
Most people have a hard time checking over their own work. This is why you have to make sure that someone else proofreads your writing . This is the one place where you can, should—and really must—get someone who knows all about grammar, punctuation and has a good eye for detail to take a red pencil to your final draft.
Otherwise, you look like you either don't know the basic rules or writing (in which case, are you really ready for college work?) or don't care enough to present yourself well (in which case, why would the admissions people care about admitting you?).
- Typos, grammatical mistakes, punctuation flubs, weird font/paragraph spacing issues. It's true that these are often unintentional mistakes. But caring about getting it right is a way to demonstrate your work ethic and dedication to the task at hand.
- Going over the word limit. Part of showing your brilliance is being able to work within arbitrary rules and limitations. Going over the word count points to a lack of self-control, which is not a very attractive feature in a college applicant.
- Repeating the same word(s) or sentence structure over and over again. This makes your prose monotonous and hard to read.
Bad College Essay Examples—And How to Fix Them
The beauty of writing is that you get to rewrite. So if you think of your essay as a draft waiting to be revised into a better version rather than as a precious jewel that can't bear being touched, you'll be in far better shape to correct the issues that always crop up!
Now let's take a look at some actual college essay drafts to see where the writer is going wrong and how the issue could be fixed.
Essay #1: The "I Am Writing This Essay as We Speak" Meta-Narrative
Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine. I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.
In my junior year, I always had in mind an image of myself finishing the college essay months before the deadline. But as the weeks dragged on and the deadline drew near, it soon became clear that at the rate things are going I would probably have to make new plans for my October, November and December.
Falling into my personal wormhole, I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. "Maybe you should write about Star Trek ," she suggested, "you know how you've always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!" I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened. Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.
I fell into a state of panic. My college essay. My image of myself in senior year. Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there. My heart lifted, I took his advice and listed three of my greatest achievements - mastering my backgammon strategy, being a part of TREE in my sophomore year, and performing "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General" from The Pirates of Penzance in public. And sure enough, I felt inspiration hit me and began to type away furiously into the keyboard about my experience in TREE, or Trees Require Engaged Environmentalists. I reflected on the current state of deforestation, and described the dichotomy of it being both understandable why farmers cut down forests for farmland, and how dangerous this is to our planet. Finally, I added my personal epiphany to the end of my college essay as the cherry on the vanilla sundae, as the overused saying goes.
After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal. Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.
In the middle of a hike through Philadelphia's Fairmount Park, I realized that the college essay was nothing more than an embodiment of my character. The two essays I have written were not right because they have failed to become more than just words on recycled paper. The subject failed to come alive. Certainly my keen interest in Star Trek and my enthusiasm for TREE are a great part of who I am, but there were other qualities essential in my character that did not come across in the essays.
With this realization, I turned around as quickly as I could without crashing into a tree.
What Essay #1 Does Well
Here are all things that are working on all cylinders for this personal statement as is.
Killer First Sentence
Was your childhood home destroyed by a landspout tornado? Yeah, neither was mine.
- A strange fact. There are different kinds of tornadoes? What is a "landspout tornado" anyway?
- A late-night-deep-thoughts hypothetical. What would it be like to be a kid whose house was destroyed in this unusual way?
- Direct engagement with the reader. Instead of asking "what would it be like to have a tornado destroy a house" it asks "was your house ever destroyed."
Gentle, Self-Deprecating Humor That Lands Well
I played with the thought in my mind, tapping my imaginary communicator pin and whispering "Computer. Tea. Earl Grey. Hot. And then an Essay." Nothing happened. Instead, I sat quietly in my room wrote the old-fashioned way. Days later I emerged from my room disheveled, but to my dismay, this college essay made me sound like just a guy who can't get over the fact that he'll never take the Starfleet Academy entrance exam. So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.
The author has his cake and eats it too here: both making fun of himself for being super into the Star Trek mythos, but also showing himself being committed enough to try whispering a command to the Enterprise computer alone in his room. You know, just in case.
A Solid Point That Is Made Paragraph by Paragraph
The meat of the essay is that the two versions of himself that the author thought about portraying each fails in some way to describe the real him. Neither an essay focusing on his off-beat interests, nor an essay devoted to his serious activism could capture everything about a well-rounded person in 600 words.
(Image: fir0002 via Wikimedia Commons .)
Where Essay #1 Needs Revision
Rewriting these flawed parts will make the essay shine.
Spending Way Too Long on the Metanarrative
I know that intro might have given the impression that this college essay will be about withstanding disasters, but the truth is that it isn't about that at all.
After 3 weeks of figuring myself out, I have converted myself into a piece of writing. As far as achievements go, this was definitely an amazing one. The ability to transform a human being into 603 words surely deserves a gold medal.
Look at how long and draggy these paragraphs are, especially after that zippy opening. Is it at all interesting to read about how someone else found the process of writing hard? Not really, because this is a very common experience.
In the rewrite, I'd advise condensing all of this to maybe a sentence to get to the meat of the actual essay .
Letting Other People Do All the Doing
I sat down with my mom to talk about colleges. "Maybe you should write about Star Trek ," she suggested, "you know how you've always been obsessed with Captain Picard, calling him your dream mentor. Unique hobbies make good topics, right? You'll sound creative!"
Almost out of nowhere, Robert Jameson Smith offered his words of advice. Perfect! He suggested students begin their college essay by listing their achievements and letting their essay materialize from there.
Twice in the essay, the author lets someone else tell him what to do. Not only that, but it sounds like both of the "incomplete" essays were dictated by the thoughts of other people and had little to do with his own ideas, experiences, or initiative.
In the rewrite, it would be better to recast both the Star Trek and the TREE versions of the essay as the author's own thoughts rather than someone else's suggestions . This way, the point of the essay—taking apart the idea that a college essay could summarize life experience—is earned by the author's two failed attempts to write that other kind of essay.
Leaving the Insight and Meaning Out of His Experiences
Both the Star Trek fandom and the TREE activism were obviously important life experiences for this author—important enough to be potential college essay topic candidates. But there is no description of what the author did with either one, nor any explanation of why these were so meaningful to his life.
It's fine to say that none of your achievements individually define you, but in order for that to work, you have to really sell the achievements themselves.
In the rewrite, it would be good to explore what he learned about himself and the world by pursuing these interests . How did they change him or seen him into the person he is today?
Not Adding New Shades and Facets of Himself Into the Mix
So, I tossed my essay away without even getting to disintegrate it with a phaser set on stun.
Yet in this essay, I was still being nagged by a voice that couldn't be ignored. Eventually, I submitted to that yelling inner voice and decided that this was not the right essay either.
In both of these passages, there is the perfect opportunity to point out what exactly these failed versions of the essay didn't capture about the author . In the next essay draft, I would suggest subtly making a point about his other qualities.
For example, after the Star Trek paragraph, he could talk about other culture he likes to consume, especially if he can discuss art forms he is interested in that would not be expected from someone who loves Star Trek .
Or, after the TREE paragraph, the author could explain why this second essay was no better at capturing him than the first. What was missing? Why is the self in the essay shouting—is it because this version paints him as an overly aggressive activist?
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Essay #2: The "I Once Saw Poor People" Service Trip Essay
Unlike other teenagers, I'm not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive. My whole outlook on life changed after I realized that my life was just being handed to me on a silver spoon, and yet there were those in the world who didn't have enough food to eat or place to live. I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.
During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness. But my most vivid memory was the moment I first got to the farming town. The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water? As these questions rolled around my already dazed mind, I heard a soft voice asking me in Spanish, "Are you okay? Is there anything I can do to make you feel better?" I looked down to see a small boy, around nine years of age, who looked starved, and cold, wearing tattered clothing, comforting me. These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate ahead of themselves. It was at that moment that I saw how selfish I had been. How many people suffered like this in the world, while I went about life concerned about nothing at all?
Thinking back on the trip, maybe I made a difference, maybe not. But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.
What Essay #2 Does Well
Let's first point out what this draft has going for it.
This is an essay that tries to explain a shift in perspective. There are different ways to structure this overarching idea, but a chronological approach that starts with an earlier opinion, describes a mind changing event, and ends with the transformed point of view is an easy and clear way to lay this potentially complex subject out.
(Image: User:Lite via Wikimedia Commons)
Where Essay #2 Needs Revision
Now let's see what needs to be changed in order for this essay to pass muster.
Condescending, Obnoxious Tone
Unlike other teenagers, I'm not concerned about money, or partying, or what others think of me. Unlike other eighteen year-olds, I think about my future, and haven't become totally materialistic and acquisitive.
This is a very broad generalization, which doesn't tend to be the best way to formulate an argument—or to start an essay. It just makes this author sound dismissive of a huge swath of the population.
In the rewrite, this author would be way better off just concentrate on what she want to say about herself, not pass judgment on "other teenagers," most of whom she doesn't know and will never meet.
I realized that the one thing that this world needed more than anything was compassion; compassion for those less fortunate than us.
Coming from someone who hasn't earned her place in the world through anything but the luck of being born, the word "compassion" sounds really condescending. Calling others "less fortunate" when you're a senior in high school has a dehumanizing quality to it.
These people who have so little were able to forget their own needs, and put those much more fortunate in front of themselves.
Again, this comes across as very patronizing. Not only that, but to this little boy the author was clearly not looking all that "fortunate"—instead, she looked pathetic enough to need comforting.
In the next draft, a better hook could be making the essay about the many different kinds of shifting perspectives the author encountered on that trip . A more meaningful essay would compare and contrast the points of view of the TV commercials, to what the group leader said, to the author's own expectations, and finally to this child's point of view.
Vague, Unobservant Description
During the summer of 2006, I went on a community service trip to rural Peru to help build an elementary school for kids there. I expected harsh conditions, but what I encountered was far worse. It was one thing to watch commercials asking for donations to help the unfortunate people in less developed countries, yet it was a whole different story to actually live it. Even after all this time, I can still hear babies crying from hunger; I can still see the filthy rags that they wore; I can still smell the stench of misery and hopelessness.
Phrases like "cries of the small children from not having enough to eat" and "dirt stained rags" seem like descriptions, but they're really closer to incurious and completely hackneyed generalizations. Why were the kids were crying? How many kids? All the kids? One specific really loud kid?
The same goes for "filthy rags," which is both an incredibly insensitive way to talk about the clothing of these villagers, and again shows a total lack of interest in their life. Why were their clothes dirty? Were they workers or farmers so their clothes showing marks of labor? Did they have Sunday clothes? Traditional clothes they would put on for special occasions? Did they make their own clothes? That would be a good reason to keep wearing clothing even if it had "stains" on it.
The rewrite should either make this section more specific and less reliant on cliches, or should discard it altogether .
The conditions of it hit me by surprise; it looked much worse in real life than compared to the what our group leader had told us. Poverty to me and everyone else I knew was a foreign concept that people hear about on the news or see in documentaries. But this abject poverty was their life, their reality.
If this is the "most vivid memory," then I would expect to read all the details that have been seared into the author's brain. What did their leader tell them? What was different in real life? What was the light like? What did the houses/roads/grass/fields/trees/animals/cars look like? What time of day was it? Did they get there by bus, train, or plane? Was there an airport/train station/bus terminal? A city center? Shops? A marketplace?
There are any number of details to include here when doing another drafting pass.
Lack of Insight or Maturity
But this abject poverty was their life, their reality. And for the brief ten days I was there, it would be mine too. As all of this realization came at once, I felt overwhelmed by the weight of what was to come. Would I be able to live in the same conditions as these people? Would I catch a disease that no longer existed in the first world, or maybe die from drinking contaminated water?
Without a framing device explaining that this initial panic was an overreaction, this section just makes the author sound whiny, entitled, melodramatic, and immature . After all, this isn't a a solo wilderness trek—the author is there with a paid guided program. Just how much mortality is typically associated with these very standard college-application-boosting service trips?
In a rewrite, I would suggest including more perspective on the author's outsized and overprivileged response here. This would fit well with a new focus on the different points of view on this village the author encountered.
Unearned, Clichéd "Deep Thoughts"
But I gained something much more important. I gained the desire to make the world a better place for others. It was in a small, poverty-stricken village in Peru that I finally realized that there was more to life than just being alive.
Is it really believable that this is what the author learned? There is maybe some evidence to suggest that the author was shaken somewhat out of a comfortable, materialistic existence. But what does "there is more to life than just being alive" even really mean? This conclusion is rather vague, and seems mostly a non sequitur.
In a rewrite, the essay should be completely reoriented to discuss how differently others see us than we see ourselves, pivoting on the experience of being pitied by someone who you thought was pitiable. Then, the new version can end by on a note of being better able to understand different points of view and other people's perspectives .
The Bottom Line
- Bad college essays have problems either with their topics or their execution.
- The essay is how admissions officers learn about your personality, point of view, and maturity level, so getting the topic right is a key factor in letting them see you as an aware, self-directed, open-minded applicant who is going to thrive in an environment of independence.
- The essay is also how admissions officers learn that you are writing at a ready-for-college level, so screwing up the execution shows that you either don't know how to write, or don't care enough to do it well.
- The main ways college essay topics go wrong is bad taste, bad judgment, and lack of self-awareness.
- The main ways college essays fail in their execution have to do with ignoring format, syntax, and genre expectations.
Want to read some excellent college essays now that you've seen some examples of flawed one? Take a look through our roundup of college essay examples published by colleges and then get help with brainstorming your perfect college essay topic .
Need some guidance on other parts of the application process? Check out our detailed, step-by-step guide to college applications for advice.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024 (With Examples)
The Common App essay is one of the most important parts of your application, but it can be extremely daunting if you’re not familiar with creative writing or what admissions officers are looking for.
In this blog post, we’ll provide advice on how to break down these prompts, organize your thoughts, and craft a strong, meaningful response that admissions officers will notice. If you’d like more free personalized help, you can get your essays reviewed and explore school-by-school essay help on CollegeVine.
Why the Common App Essay Matters
Admissions is a human process. While admissions committees look at grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, there are five students that have great qualifications in those areas for every spot in a university’s class. As an applicant, you need an admissions counselor to choose you over everyone else — to advocate specifically for you.
This is where essays come in; they are an opportunity for you to turn an admissions counselor into an advocate for your application! Of your essays, the Common App is the most important since it is seen by most of the colleges to which you apply. It is also your longest essay, which gives you more space to craft a narrative and share your personality, feelings, and perspective.
It’s not hyperbole to say that getting the Common App essay right is the single most important thing you can do to improve your chances of admission as a senior.
Overview of the Common App
The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to know you. While SAT scores, your past course load, and your grades provide a quantitative picture of you as a student, the Common App essay offers adcoms a refreshing glimpse into your identity and personality. 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 (for example, if you are only applying to engineering programs at some schools, don’t focus your Common App on STEM at the expense of your other applications — save that for your supplemental essays).
In short, be open and willing to write about a topic you love, whether it is sports, music, politics, food, or watching movies. The Common App essay is more of a conversation than a job interview.
What Makes a Great Common App Essay?
A great Common App essay is, first and foremost, deeply personal. You are relying on the admissions committee to choose you over someone else, which they are more likely to do if they feel a personal connection to you. In your essay, you should delve into your feelings, how you think about situations/problems, and how you make decisions.
Good essays also usually avoid cliche topics . A couple overdone themes include an immigrant’s journey (particularly if you’re Asian American), and a sports accomplishment or injury. It’s not that these topics are bad, but rather that many students write about these subjects, so they don’t stand out as much. Of course, some students are able to write a genuine and unique essay about one of these topics, but it’s hard to pull off. You’re better off writing about more nuanced aspects of your identity!
You should also, of course, pay close attention to your grammar and spelling, use varied sentence structure and word choice, and be consistent with your tone/writing style. Take full advantage of the available 650 words, as writing less tends to mean missed opportunities.
Finally, it’s a good practice to be aware of your audience – know who you are writing for! For example, admissions officers at BYU will probably be very religious, while those at Oberlin will be deeply committed to social justice.
See some examples of great Common App essays to get a better idea of what makes a strong essay.
How your Common App Essay Fits with Your Other Essays
The Common App is one part of a portfolio of essays that you send to colleges, along with supplemental essays at individual colleges. With all of your essays for a particular college, you want to create a narrative and tell different parts of your story. So, the topics you write about should be cohesive and complementary, but not repetitive or overlapping.
Before jumping in to write your Common App essay, you should think about the other schools that you’re writing essays for and make sure that you have a strategy for your entire portfolio of essays and cover different topics for each. If you have strong qualifications on paper for the colleges you are targeting, the best narratives tend to humanize you. If you have weaker qualifications on paper for your colleges, the best narratives tend to draw out your passion for the topics or fields of study that are of interest to you and magnify your accomplishments.
Strategy for Writing the Common App Essays
Because the Common App essay is 650 words long and has few formal directions, organizing a response might seem daunting. Fortunately, at CollegeVine, we’ve developed a straightforward approach to formulating strong, unique responses.
This section outlines how to: 1) Brainstorm , 2) Organize , and 3) Write a Common App essay.
Before reading the prompts, brainstorming is a critical exercise to develop high-level ideas. One way to construct a high-level idea would be to delve into a passion and focus on how you interact with the concept or activity. For example, using “creative writing” as a high-level idea, one could stress their love of world-building, conveying complex emotions, and depicting character interactions, emphasizing how writing stems from real-life experiences.
A different idea that doesn’t involve an activity would be to discuss how your personality has developed in relation to your family; maybe one sibling is hot-headed, the other quiet, and you’re in the middle as the voice of reason (or maybe you’re the hot-head). These are simply two examples of infinitely many ideas you could come up with.
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, i.e., “Running matters to me” or “Ethical fashion matters to me.”
You can brainstorm freeform or start with a specific prompt in mind.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to start by jotting down the 3-5 aspects of your personality or experiences you’ve had on a piece of paper. Play around with narratives that are constructed out of different combinations of these essential attributes before settling on a prompt.
For example, you might note that you are fascinated by environmental justice, have had success in Model Congress, and are now working with a local politician to create a recycling program in your school district. You may also have tried previous initiatives that failed. These experiences could be constructed and applied to a number of Common App prompts. You could address a specific identity or interest you have associated with public advocacy, discuss what you learned from your failed initiatives, explore how you challenged the lack of recycling at your school, fantasize about solving waste management issues, etc.
Selecting a prompt that you identify with
For example, consider the following prompt: 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?
Perhaps you had been a dedicated and active member of your school’s debate team until one of your parents lost their jobs, leaving you unable to afford the high membership and travel dues. You decided to help out by getting a job after school, and responded to your familial hardship with grace and understanding (as opposed to anger). A few months later, and after speaking with your former debate coach and your parents, you set up a system to save up for your own trips so that you could still participate in debate!
In general, the most common mistake CollegeVine sees with Common App essays is that they aren’t deeply personal. Your essay should be specific enough that it could be identified as yours even if your name wasn’t attached.
If you get stuck, don’t worry! This is very common as the Common App is often the first personal essay college applicants have ever written. One way of getting unstuck if you feel like you aren’t getting creative or personal enough is to keep asking yourself “why”
For example: I love basketball…
- Because I like having to think on the fly and be creative while running our offense.
It can often help to work with someone and bounce ideas off them. Teachers are often a bad idea – they tend to think of essays in an academic sense, which is to say they often fail to apply the admissions context. Further, it is unlikely that they know you well enough to provide valuable insight. Friends in your own year can be a good idea because they know you, but you should be careful about competitive pressures applying within the same high school. Older friends, siblings, or neighbors who have successfully navigated the admissions process at your target universities (or good universities) strike that medium between no longer being competitive with you for admissions but still being able to help you brainstorm well because they know you.
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.
The traditional approach
This involves constructing a narrative out of your experiences and writing a classic personal essay. 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.
The creative approach
Some students prefer to experiment with an entirely new approach to the personal essay. For example, a student who is passionate about programming could write their essay in alternating lines of Binary and English. A hopeful Literature major could reimagine a moment in their life as a chapter of War and Peace, adopting Tolstoy’s writing style. Or, you could write about a fight with your friend in the form of a third person sports recap to both highlight your interest in journalism and reveal a personal story. Creative essays are incredibly risky and difficult to pull off. However, a creative essay that is well executed may also have the potential for high reward.
Your Common App essay must display excellent writing in terms of grammar and sentence structure. The essay doesn’t need to be a Shakespearean masterpiece, but it should be well-written and clear.
A few tips to accomplish this are:
- Show, don’t tell
- Be specific
- Choose active voice, not passive voice
- Avoid clichés
- Write in a tone that aligns with your goals for the essay. For example, if you are a heavy STEM applicant hoping to use your Common App essay to humanize your application, you will be undermined by writing in a brusque, harsh tone.
“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 a 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.”
A few tips for the writing (and re-writing!) process
- If you have enough time, write a 950 word version of your personal statement first and then cut it down to the official word limit of 650. In many cases, the extra writing you do for this draft will contain compelling content. Using this, you can carve out the various sections and information that allow you to tell your story best.
- Revise your draft 3-5 times. Any more, you are probably overthinking and overanalyzing. Any less, you are not putting in the work necessary to optimize your Common App essay.
- It can be easy for you to get lost in your words after reading and rereading, writing and rewriting. It is best to have someone else do your final proofread to help you identify typos or sentences that are unclear.
Deciding on a Prompt
This section provides insights and examples for each of the 7 Common App essay prompts for the 2023-2024 cycle. Each of these 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 (click the link to jump to the specific prompt):
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 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, reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. what prompted your thinking what was the outcome, reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. how has this gratitude affected or motivated you, discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others., 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, 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..
This prompt offers an opportunity to engage with your favorite extracurricular or academic subject, and it allows you to weave a narrative that displays personal growth in that area. An essay that displays your personality and a unique interest can be attention-grabbing, particularly if you have an unconventional passion, such as blogging about Chinese basketball or unicycling.
Don’t feel intimidated if you don’t have a passion that is immediately “unique,” however. Even an interest like “arctic scuba diving” will fail as an essay topic if it’s not written with insight and personality. Instead of attempting to impress the Admissions Officer by making up unusual or shocking things, think about how you spend your free time and ask yourself why you spend it that way. Also think about your upbringing, identity, and experiences and ask yourself, “What has impacted me in a meaningful way?”
Here Are A Few Response Examples:
Background – A person’s background includes experiences, training, education, and culture. You can discuss the experience of growing up, interacting with family, and how relationships have molded who you are. A background can include long-term interactions with arts, music, sciences, sports, writing, and many other learned skills. Background also includes your social environments and how they’ve influenced your perception. In addition, you can highlight intersections between multiple backgrounds and show how each is integral to you.
One student wrote about how growing up in a poor Vietnamese immigrant family inspired her to seize big opportunities, even if they were risky or challenging. She describes the emotional demand of opening and running a family grocery store. (Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects in all the examples.)
The callouses on my mother’s hands formed during the years spent scaling fish at the market in Go Noi, Vietnam. My mother never finished her formal education because she labored on the streets to help six others survive. Her calloused hands not only scaled fish, they also slaved over the stove, mustering a meal from the few items in the pantry. This image resurfaces as I watch my mother’s calloused hands wipe her sweat-beaded forehead while she manages the family business, compiling resources to provide for the family.
Living in an impoverished region of Vietnam pushed my parents to emigrate. My two year-old memory fails me, but my mother vividly recounts my frightened eyes staring up at her on my first plane ride. With life packed into a single suitcase, my mother’s heart, though, trembled more than mine. Knowing only a few words of English, my mother embarked on a journey shrouded in a haze of uncertainty.
Our initial year in America bore an uncanny resemblance to Vietnam – from making one meal last the entire day to wearing the same four shirts over and over again. Through thin walls, I heard my parents debating their decision to come to the United States, a land where they knew no one. My grandparents’ support came in half-hearted whispers cracking through long-distance phone calls. My dad’s scanty income barely kept food on the table. We lived on soup and rice for what seemed an interminable time.
However, an opportunity knocked on my parents’ door: a grocery store in the town of Decatur, Mississippi, was up for rent. My parents took the chance, risking all of their savings. To help my parents, I spent most of my adolescent afternoons stocking shelves, mopping floors, and even translating. My parents’ voices wavered when speaking English; through every attempt to communicate with their customers, a language barrier forged a palpable presence in each transaction. My parents’ spirits faltered as customers grew impatient. A life of poverty awaited us in Vietnam if the business was not successful.
On the first day, the business brought in only twenty dollars. Twenty dollars. My mother and my father wept after they closed the shop. Seeing the business as a failure, my mom commenced her packing that night; returning to Vietnam seemed inevitable.
The next business day, however, sales increased ten-fold. More and more customers came each successive day. My mom’s tears turned into—well, more tears, but they were tears of joy. My mother unpacked a bag each night.
Fifteen years later, my parents now own Blue Bear Grocery. My parents work, work, work to keep the shelves stocked and the customers coming. The grocery store holds a special place in my heart: it is the catalyst for my success. My parents serve as my role-models, teaching me a new lesson with every can placed on the shelf. One lesson that resurfaces is the importance of pursuing a formal education, something that my parents never had the chance of.
When the opportunity to attend the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) presented itself, I took it and ran, as did my parents by leaving Vietnam and by buying the store. Although I am not managing hundreds of products, I am managing hundreds of assignments at MSMS – from Mu Alpha Theta tutoring to lab reports to student government to British literature.
Had I not immigrated, my hands would be calloused from the tight grip of the knife scaling fish rather than from the tight grip on my pencil. My hands would be calloused from scrubbing my clothes covered in fish scales rather than from long hours spent typing a research paper.
Although the opportunities that my parents and I pursued are different, our journey is essentially the same: we walk a road paved with uncertainty and doubt with the prospect of success fortified by our hearts and our hands.
Identity – this can mean racial identity, sexual orientation, gender, or simply one’s place within a specific community (even communities as unique as, say, players of World of Warcraft). With the topic of racial identity, it’s important to remember the audience (college admissions counselors often lean progressive politically), so this might not be the best place to make sweeping claims about today’s state of race relations. However, reflecting on how your culture has shaped your experiences can make for a compelling essay. Alternatively, focusing on a dominant personality trait can also make for a compelling theme. For example, if you’re extremely outgoing, you could explain how your adventurousness has allowed you to learn from a diverse group of friends and the random situations you find yourself in. One important thing to note: the topic of identity can easily lack originality if you cover a common experience such as feeling divided between cultures, or coming out. If such experiences are integral to who you are, you should still write about them, but be sure to show us your unique introspection and reflection.
One student detailed how growing up as an American in Germany led to feelings of displacement. Moving to America in high school only exacerbated her feelings of rootlessness. Her transcultural experiences, however, allowed her to relate to other “New Americans,” particularly refugees. Helping a young refugee girl settle into the US eventually helped the writer find home in America as well:
Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.
My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.
Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deeprooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.
After moving from Berlin to New York state at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.
During my first weeks in Buffalo, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Buffalo.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered New Hope, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with New Hope’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.
It was there that I met Leila, a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl who lived next to Hopeprint. In between games and snacks, Leila would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children New Hope served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.
Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.
The above essay was written by Lydia Schooler, a graduate of Yale University and one of our CollegeVine advisors. If you enjoyed this essay and are looking for expert college essay and admissions advice, consider booking a session with Lydia .
Interests – Interest are basically synonymous to activities, but slightly broader (you could say that interests encompass activities); participation in an interest is often less organized than in an activity. For instance, you might consider cross country an activity, but cooking an interest. Writing about an interest is a way to highlight passions that may not come across in the rest of your application. If you’re a wrestler for example, writing about your interest in stand-up comedy would be a refreshing addition to your application. You should also feel free to use this topic to show what an important activity on your application really means to you. Keep in mind, however, that many schools will ask you to describe one of your activities in their supplemental essays (usually about 250 words), so choose strategically—you don’t want to write twice on the same thing.
Read a successful essay answering this prompt.
This prompt lends itself to consideration of what facets of your personality allow you to overcome adversity. While it’s okay to choose a relatively mundane “failure” such as not winning an award at a Model UN conference, another (perhaps more powerful) tactic is to write about a foundational failure and assess its impact on your development thereafter.
There are times in life when your foundation is uprooted. There are times when you experience failure and you want to give up since you don’t see a solution. This essay is about your response when you are destabilized and your actions when you don’t see an immediate answer.
For example, if you lost a friend due to an argument, you can analyze the positions from both sides, evaluate your decisions, and identify why you were wrong. The key is explaining your thought process and growth following the event to highlight how your thinking has changed. Did you ever admit your fault and seek to fix the problem? Have you treated others differently since then? How has the setback changed the way you view arguments and fights now? Framing the prompt in this way allows you to tackle heavier questions about ethics and demonstrate your self-awareness.
If you haven’t experienced a “big” failure, another angle to take would be to discuss smaller, repeated failures that are either linked or similar thematically. For example, if you used to stutter or get nervous in large social groups, you could discuss the steps you took to find a solution. Even if you don’t have a massive foundational challenge to write about, a recurring challenge can translate to a powerful essay topic, especially if the steps you took to overcome this repeated failure help expose your character.
One student described his ignorance of his brother’s challenges — the writer assumed that because his brother Sam was sociable, Sam was adjusting fine to their family’s move. After an angry outburst from Sam and a long late-night conversation, the writer realizes his need to develop greater sensitivity and empathy. He now strives to recognize and understand others’ struggles, even if they’re not immediately apparent.
“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.
Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.
When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.
As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.
Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.
We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.
We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.
My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.
This prompt is difficult to answer because most high schoolers haven’t participated in the types of iconoclastic protests against societal ills that lend themselves to an awe-inspiring response. A more tenable alternative here could be to discuss a time that you went against social norms, whether it was by becoming friends with someone who seemed like an outcast or by proudly showing off a geeky passion.
And if you ever participated in a situation in tandem with adults and found some success (i.e., by blogging, starting a tutoring organization, or participating in political campaigns), you could discuss your experiences as a young person without a college degree in professional circles. However, avoid sounding morally superior (as if you’re the only person who went against this convention, or that you’re better than your peers for doing so).
Another way to answer this prompt is to discuss a time when you noticed a need for change. For example, if you wondered why medical records are often handwritten, or why a doctor’s visit can be long and awkward, maybe you challenged the norm in healthcare by brainstorming an electronic-recording smartphone app or a telemedicine system. In a similar way, if you led a fundraiser and recognized that advertising on social media would be more effective than the traditional use of printed flyers, you could write about a topic along those lines as well. Focus on what action or experience caused you to recognize the need for change and follow with your actions and resulting outcome.
As a whole, this prompt lends itself to reflective writing, and more specifically, talking the reader through your thought processes. In many cases, the exploration of your thought processes and decision-making is more important than the actual outcome or concept in question. In short, this essay is very much about “thinking,” rumination, and inquisition. A good brainstorming exercise for this prompt would be to write your problem on a sheet of paper and then develop various solutions to the problem, including a brief reason for justification. The more thorough you are in justifying and explaining your solutions in the essay, the more compelling your response will be.
While this prompt may seem to be asking a simple question, your answer has the potential to provide deep insights about who you are to the admissions committee. Explaining what you are grateful for can show them your culture, your community, your philosophical outlook on the world, and what makes you tick.
The first step to writing this essay is to think about the “something” and “someone” of your story. It is imperative to talk about a unique moment in your life, as the prompt asks for gratitude that came about in a surprising way. You will want to write about a story that you are certain no one else would have. To brainstorm, ask yourself: “if I told a stranger that I was grateful for what happened to me without any context, would they be surprised?”
Note that the most common answers to this prompt involve a family member, teacher, or sports coach giving the narrator an arduous task ─ which, by the end of the story, the narrator becomes grateful for because of the lessons they learned through their hard work. Try to avoid writing an essay along these lines unless you feel that your take on it will be truly original.
Begin your essay by telling a creative story about the “something” that your “someone” did that made you thankful. Paint a picture with words here ─ establish who you were in the context of your story and make the character development of your “someone” thorough. Show the admissions committee that you have a clear understanding of yourself and the details of your world.
Keep in mind, however, that the essay is ultimately about you and your growth. While you should set the scene clearly, don’t spend too much time talking about the “something” and “someone.”
Your story should then transition into a part about your unexpected epiphany, e.g. “Six months after Leonard gave me that pogo stick, I started to be grateful for the silly thing…” Explain the why of your gratitude as thoroughly as you can before you begin to talk about how your gratitude affected or motivated you. Have a Socratic seminar with yourself in your head ─ ask yourself, “why am I grateful for the pogo stick?” and continue asking why until you arrive at a philosophical conclusion. Perhaps your reason could be that you eventually got used to the odd looks that people gave you as you were pogoing and gained more self-confidence.
Finally, think about how learning to be grateful for something you would not expect to bring you joy and thankfulness has had a positive impact on your life. Gaining more self-confidence, for example, could motivate you to do an infinite number of things that you were not able to attempt in the past. Try to make a conclusion by connecting this part to your story from the beginning of the essay. You want to ultimately show that had [reference to a snippet of your introduction, ideally an absurd part] never have happened, you would not be who you are today.
Remember to express these lessons implicitly through the experiences in your essay, and not explicitly. Show us your growth through the changes in your life rather than simply stating that you gained confidence. For instance, maybe the pogo stick gift led you to start a pogo dance team at your school, and the team went on to perform at large venues to raise money for charity. But before your pogo days, you had crippling stage fright and hated even giving speeches in your English class. These are the kinds of details that make your essay more engaging.
This prompt is expansive in that you can choose any accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked personal growth or new understanding.
One option is to discuss a formal accomplishment or event (whether it is a religious ritual or social rite of passage) that reflects personal growth. If you go this route, make sure to discuss why the ritual was meaningful and how specific aspects of said ritual contributed to your personal growth. An example of this could be the meaning of becoming an Eagle Scout to you, the accomplishment of being elected to Senior Leadership, or completing a Confirmation. In the case of religious topics, however, be sure to not get carried away with details, and focus on the nature of your personal growth and new understanding — know your audience.
Alternatively, a more relaxed way to address this prompt is using an informal event or realization, which would allow you to show more personality and creativity. An example of this could be learning how to bake with your mother, thus sparking a newfound connection with her, allowing you to learn about her past. Having a long discussion about life or philosophy with your father could also suffice, thus sparking more thoughts about your identity. You could write about a realization that caused you to join a new organization or quit an activity you did not think you would enjoy, as doing so would force you to grow out of your comfort zone to try new things.
The key to answering this prompt is clearly defining what it is that sparked your growth, and then describing in detail the nature of this growth and how it related to your perception of yourself and others. This part of the essay is crucial, as you must dedicate sufficient time to not undersell the description of how you grew instead of simply explaining the experience and then saying, “I grew.” This description of how you grew must be specific, in-depth, and it does not have to be simple. Your growth can also be left open-ended if you are still learning from your experiences today.
One student wrote about how her single mother’s health crisis prompted her to quickly assume greater responsibility as a fourteen-year-old. This essay describes the new tasks she undertook, as well as how the writer now more greatly cherishes her time with her mother.
Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life.
Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.
My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.
Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.
This prompt allows you to expand and deepen a seemingly small or simple idea, topic, or concept. One example could be “stars,” in that you could describe stargazing as a child, counting them, recognizing constellations, and then transforming that initial captivation into a deeper appreciation of the cosmos as a whole, spurring a love of astronomy and physics.
Another example could be “language,” discussing how it has evolved and changed over the course of history, how it allows you to look deeper into different cultures, and how learning different languages stretches the mind. A tip for expanding on these topics and achieving specificity is to select particular details of the topic that you find intriguing and explain why.
For example, if you’re passionate about cooking or baking, you could use specific details by explaining, in depth, the intricate attention and artistry necessary to make a dish or dessert. You can delve into why certain spices or garnishes are superior in different situations, how flavors blend well together and can be mixed creatively, or even the chemistry differences between steaming, searing, and grilling.
Regardless of your topic, this prompt provides a great opportunity to display writing prowess through elegant, specific descriptions that leverage sensory details. Describing the beauty of the night sky, the rhythms and sounds of different languages, or the scent of a crème brûlée shows passion and captivation in a very direct, evocative way.
The key to writing this essay is answering the question of why something captivates you instead of simply ending with “I love surfing.” A tip would be to play off your senses (for applicable topics), think about what you see, feel, smell, hear, and taste.
In the case of surfing, the salty water, weightlessness of bobbing over the waves, and fresh air could cater to senses. Alternatively, for less physical topics, you can use a train of thought and descriptions to show how deeply and vividly your mind dwells on the topic.
Well-executed trains of thought or similar tactics are successful ways to convey passion for a certain topic. To answer what or who you turn to when you want to learn more, you can be authentic and honest—if it’s Wikipedia, a teacher, friend, YouTube Channel, etc., you simply have to show how you interact with the medium.
When brainstorming this particular essay, a tip would be to use a web diagram, placing the topic in the middle and thinking about branching characteristics, themes, or concepts related to the topic that are directly engaging and captivating to you. In doing so, you’ll be able to gauge the depth of the topic and whether it will suffice for this prompt.
In the following example, a student shares their journey as they learn to appreciate a piece of their culture’s cuisine.
As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?
During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice.
Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.
As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.
Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.
Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story
We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools!
This prompt allows you to express what you want to express if it doesn’t align directly with the other prompts. While this prompt is very open-ended, it doesn’t mean you can adapt any essay you’ve written and think it will suffice. Always refer back to the Strategy section of this article and make sure the topic and essay of your choice addresses the Core Four questions necessary for a good Common App essay.
This prompt, more than the others, poses a high risk but also a high-potential reward. Writing your own question allows you to demonstrate individuality and confidence. Here, you can craft an innovative essay that tackles a difficult topic (for example, whether to raise or lower taxes) or presents information with a unique format (such as a conversation with an historical figure).
We encourage you to try something unconventional for this prompt, like comparing your personality to a Picasso painting, using an extended philosophical metaphor to describe your four years of high school, or writing in a poetic style to display your love of poetry. If you are extremely passionate about a topic or an expert in a certain area, for example Renaissance technology or journalism during World War II, you can use this prompt to show your authority on a subject by discussing it at a high level.
Be careful to frame the essay in a way that is accessible to the average reader while still incorporating quality evidence and content that would qualify you as an expert. As always, exercise caution in writing about controversial social or political topics, and always make sure to consider your audience and what they’re looking for in a student.
Sometimes an unconventional essay can capture Admissions Officers’ attention and move them in a profound way; other times, the concept can fly completely over their heads. Be sure to execute the essay clearly and justify your decision by seeking high-quality feedback from reliable sources. As always, the essay should demonstrate something meaningful about you, whether it is your personality, thought process, or values.
Here’s what the experts have to say about this prompt…
This prompt, like the others, is really asking you to tell the story of who you are. Your essay should be personal and should talk about something significant that has shaped your identity.
Here are a few broad themes that can work well: academic interest; culture, values, and diversity; extracurricular interests; and your impact on the community. You should highlight one of these themes using creative, vividly descriptive narrative. Make sure to not fall into the common pitfall of talking about something else -- an extracurricular activity, for example -- more than yourself.
A student I advised had a great idea to respond to this prompt -- an essay about how they do their best thinking while sitting on a tree branch near their home. Not only was it unique and personal, but it allowed the student to show what they think about, dream about, and value. That's the main goal for any applicant responding to prompt 7.
Alex Oddo Advisor on CollegeVine
All of the Common App prompts are broad in scope, but this one really takes the cake! I typically advise using the first six prompts as guardrails for your brainstorm, but in doing so, you may come up with a topic that doesn’t cleanly fit with any of the first six prompts. That’s where this prompt can come in handy.
Or, you might have an idea that’s really out there (like writing about your love of sonnets as a series of sonnets). Essentially, this prompt is a good fit for essays that are anywhere from slightly unconventional to extremely atypical.
If this all feels a bit confusing - don’t worry! How you write your story is much more important than what prompt you end up choosing. At the end of the day, these are just guides to help you cultivate a topic and are not meant to stress you out.
Priya Desai Advisor on CollegeVine
Students who want to complete the CommonApp’s seventh prompt need to have already gone through the other prompts and determined that their story cannot fit with those. Thus, generally speaking, I advise my students to not use the final prompt unless it is absolutely necessary.
If an admission officer believes that your essay could have been used with one of the other prompts, this may lead them to have a perception about you as a student that might not be accurate.
Nevertheless, as my colleagues have pointed out, what matters is the essay the most and not necessarily the prompt. That being said, the test of whether or not you as a student can follow directions is part of the prompt selection and how well you answer it. If you choose the final prompt and yet your answer could work with another available prompt, this will not put you in your best light.
In conclusion, only use this prompt when absolutely necessary, and remember that the purpose of the personal statement is to give the admissions officers a glimpse into who you are as a person, so you want to use this space to showcase beautiful you.
Veronica Prout Advisor on CollegeVine
Where to get your common app essay edited.
At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application. That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.
Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!
Related CollegeVine Blog Posts
25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)
Applying to competitive colleges? You'll need to have a stand-out Common App essay.
In this article, I'm going to share with you:
- 25 outstanding Common App essay examples
- Links to tons of personal statement examples
- Why these Common App essays worked
If you're looking for outstanding Common App essay examples, you've found the right place.
If you're applying to colleges in 2023, you're going to write some form of a Common App essay.
Writing a great Common App personal essay is key if you want to maximize your chances of getting admitted.
Whether you're a student working on your Common App essay, or a parent wondering what it takes, this article will help you master the Common App Essay.
What are the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023?
There are seven prompts for the Common App essay. Remember that the prompts are simply to help get you started thinking.
You don't have to answer any of the prompts if you don't want (see prompt #7 ).
Here's the seven Common App essay questions for 2022, which are the same as previous years:
- 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 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
The last prompt is a catch-all prompt, which means you can submit an essay on any topic you want.
Use the Common App prompts as brainstorming questions and to get you thinking.
But ultimately, you should write about any topic you meaningfully care about.
What makes an outstanding Common App personal essay?
I've read thousands of Common App essays from highly motivated students over the past years.
And if I had to choose the top 2 things that makes for incredible Common App essays it's these:
1. Being Genuine
Sounds simple enough. But it's something that is incredibly rare in admissions.
Authenticity is something we all know when we see it, but can be hard to define.
Instead of focus on what you think sounds the best to admissions officers, focus on what you have to say—what interests you.
2. Having Unique Ideas
The best ideas come about while you're writing.
You can't just sit down and say, "I'll think really hard of good essay ideas."
I wish that worked, but it sadly doesn't. And neither do most brainstorming questions.
The ideas you come up with from these surface-level tactics are cheap, because no effort was put in.
As they say,
"Writing is thinking"
By choosing a general topic (e.g. my leadership experience in choir) and writing on it, you'll naturally come to ideas.
As you write, continue asking yourself questions that make you reflect.
It is more of an artistic process than technical one, so you'll have to feel what ideas are most interesting.
25 Common App Essay Examples from Top Schools
With that, here's 25 examples as Common App essay inspiration to get you started.
These examples aren't perfect—nor should you expect yours to be—but they are stand-out essays.
I've handpicked these examples of personal statements from admitted students because they showcase a variety of topics and writing levels.
These students got into top schools and Ivy League colleges in recent years:
Table of Contents
- 1. Seeds of Immigration
- 2. Color Guard
- 3. Big Eater
- 4. Love for Medicine
- 5. Cultural Confusion
- 6. Football Manager
- 9. Mountaineering
- 10. Boarding School
- 11. My Father
- 12. DMV Trials
- 13. Ice Cream Fridays
- 14. Key to Happiness
- 15. Discovering Passion
- 16. Girl Things
- 17. Robotics
- 18. Lab Research
- 19. Carioca Dance
- 20. Chinese Language
- 21. Kiki's Delivery Service
- 22. Museum of Life
- 23. French Horn
- 24. Dear My Younger Self
- 25. Monopoly
Common App Essay Example #1: Seeds of Immigration
This student was admitted to Dartmouth College . In this Common App essay, they discuss their immigrant family background that motivates them.
Although family is a commonly used topic, this student makes sure to have unique ideas and write in a genuine way.
Common App Prompt #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. (250-650 words)
The three, small, purple seeds sat on the brown soil. Ten feet from me I could see my grandpa with his yunta and donkeys. They were in unison: the two donkeys, the plow, and him. My grandpa commanded; the donkeys obeyed. I began to feel tired. Exhausted. My neck was being pierced by the Mexican sun as I dropped seeds for hours.
I can’t complain; I wanted to do this.
I placed three tiny seeds, imagining the corn stalk growing while the pumpkin vines wrapped around it; both sprouting, trying to bear fruit. I clenched a fistful of dirt and placed it on them. “Más,” my grandpa told me as he quickly flooded the seeds with life-giving dirt.
Covered. Completely trapped.
My grandfather has been doing this ever since he was a little boy. Fifty-five years later and he still works hard on the field. There isn’t much else to do in the small town of Temalac, Guerrero. All he could do was adapt; something my parents never did. They sacrificed everything and left their home, never to return again. With no knowledge of what would come tomorrow, with only their clothes on their backs, they immigrated to the US. They had to work on unknown soil, hoping their dedication will help sprout the new seeds they’d soon plant. They did this for me. They wanted me to worry about my education, not if there would be enough rain to satisfy the thirst of the crops.
I have a thirst.
A thirst to be the vessel for my family into a better future. I must be the crop that feeds them. All these thoughts rushed into my soul as I looked back down the aluminum bucket. I could never be a farmer. I’m grateful my parents were.
They planted a seed. A tiny seed with no instructions but to succeed. I’m the first-born son of two immigrant parents. I had a clean sheet to become anything. I could’ve fallen into my town’s influence, joined a gang, and become another statistic. Regardless of the dirt I come from, I began to sprout. Ever since I was eight years old I was entrusted with responsibilities. We were lucky that school was a three-minute walk; yet it was a stressful journey for a child. I had to wake up my brother, give him breakfast, make sure his clothes were ready, and that he was doing well in school.
Growing up, I always fell behind in school. I had to take summer classes to match my peers’ intellect; while others were reading to learn, I was merely learning to read. My parents weren’t able to teach me English; I grew up solely developing my Spanish accent . My bilingual brain hadn't yet matured and lacked the English tongue. Entrusting a child to be the translator-of-all-matters for his parents robs him of his childhood. I had to help my parents navigate an English system unknown to them. From the day I learned to speak I had to learn to advocate not just for myself, but for my parents.
I’m the type of person my family tree hasn’t seen. Staying in high school, getting good grades, and being a responsible individual are aspects that make people around me think that I have sprouted. But I have not yet bloomed into the being I wish to become. In fact, I have merely tunneled my roots onto the Earth; roots that have been solidified by the determination my parents instilled in me as a child. Nothing I ever accomplished was handed to me. It’s the fact that I have come this far without the advantages other students have that fills me with pride.
Why This Essay Works:
Everyone has a unique family history and story, and often that can make for a strong central theme of a personal statement. In this essay, the student does a great job of sharing aspects of his family's culture by using specific Spanish words like "yunta" and by describing their unique immigration story. Regardless of your background, sharing your culture and what it means to you can be a powerful tool for reflection.
This student focuses on reflecting on what their culture and immigrant background means to them. By focusing on what something represents, rather than just what it literally is, you can connect to more interesting ideas. This essay uses the metaphor of their family's history as farmers to connect to their own motivation for succeeding in life.
This essay has an overall tone of immense gratitude, by recognizing the hard work that this student's family has put in to afford them certain opportunities. By recognizing the efforts of others in your life—especially efforts which benefit you—you can create a powerful sense of gratitude. Showing gratitude is effective because it implies that you'll take full advantage of future opportunities (such as college) and not take them for granted. This student also demonstrates a mature worldview, by recognizing the difficulty in their family's past and how things easily could have turned out differently for this student.
This essay uses three moments of short, one-sentence long paragraphs. These moments create emphasis and are more impactful because they standalone. In general, paragraph breaks are your friend and you should use them liberally because they help keep the reader engaged. Long, dense paragraphs are easy to gloss over and ideas can lose focus within them. By using a variety of shorter and longer paragraphs (as well as shorter and longer sentences) you can create moments of emphasis and a more interesting structure.
What They Might Improve:
This conclusion is somewhat off-putting because it focuses on "other students" rather than the author themself. By saying it "fills me with pride" for having achieved without the same advantages, it could create the tone of "I'm better than those other students" which is distasteful. In general, avoid putting down others (unless they egregiously deserve it) and even subtle phrasings that imply you're better than others could create a negative tone. Always approach your writing with an attitude of optimism, understanding, and err on the side of positivity.
Common App Essay Example #2: Color Guard
This student was admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill . Check out their Common App essay that focuses on an extracurricular:
Sweaty from the hot lights, the feeling of nervousness and excitement return as I take my place on the 30-yard line. For 10 short minutes, everyone is watching me. The first note of the opening song begins, and I’m off. Spinning flags, tossing rifles, and dancing across the football field. Being one of only two people on the colorguard means everyone will see everything. It’s amazing and terrifying. And just like that, the performance is over.
Flashback to almost four years ago, when I walked into the guard room for the first time. I saw flyers for a “dance/flag team” hanging in the bland school hallway, and because I am a dancer, I decided to go. This was not a dance team at all. Spinning flags and being part of the marching band did not sound like how I wanted to spend my free time. After the first day, I considered not going back. But, for some unknown reason, I stayed. And after that, I began to fall in love with color guard. It is such an unknown activity, and maybe that’s part of what captivated me. How could people not know about something so amazing? I learned everything about flags and dancing in that year. And something interesting happened- I noticed my confidence begin to grow. I had never thought I was that good at anything, there was always someone better. However, color guard was something I truly loved, and I was good at it.
The next year, I was thrown into an interesting position. Our current captain quit in the middle of the season, and I was named the new captain of a team of six. At first, this was quite a daunting task. I was only a sophomore, and I was supposed to lead people two years older than me? Someone must’ve really believed in me. Being captain sounded impossible to me at first, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing my best. This is where my confidence really shot up. I learned how to be a captain. Of course I was timid at first, but slowly, I began to become a true leader.
The next marching season, it paid off. I choreographed many pieces of our show, and helped teach the other part of my guard, which at the time was only one other person. Having a small guard, we had to be spectacular, especially for band competitions. We ended up winning first place and second place trophies, something that had never been done before at our school, especially for such a small guard. That season is still one of my favorite memories. The grueling hours of learning routines, making changes, and learning how to be a leader finally paid off.
Looking back on it as I exit the field after halftime once again, I am so proud of myself. Not only has color guard helped the band succeed, I’ve also grown. I am now confident in what my skills are. Of course there is always more to be done, but I now I have the confidence to share my ideas, which is something I can’t say I had before color guard. Every Friday night we perform, I think about the growth I’ve made, and I feel on top of the world. That feeling never gets old.
Common App Essay Example #3: Big Eater
This Common App essay is a successful Northwestern essay from an admitted student. It has a unique take using the topic of eating habits—an example of how "mundane" topics can make for interesting ideas.
" A plate of spaghetti, six pieces of chicken nuggets, a bowl of fish soup, and a plate of French fries covered in chili sauce. And, don't forget the dessert, make it warm chocolate with milk. Oh... I could also use that 500ml lemonade as you process the order please."
The disbelief printed in the face of the waiter as he scribbled my order confirmed to me that he definitely heard me right. I get that look a lot and I kind of got used to it. In fact most of my friends have teased that my extremely huge appetite is a genetic disorder. Well if you ask me, I think they just envy me.
I come from a family that most people would refer to as humble although I think we eat as "Royalty". Ma spends her day either preparing for the next meal or cleaning up after the previous one. Meals are the only time, if you were lucky enough, you could slip in a request to Papa and at least get a promise. Further, when anyone got sick, they would first be served with twice their average consumption as the first medication ; if symptoms persisted then you could see a physician. The "chiemo", Ma's name for our meals , was guided by one rule, "Your plate had to be cleared regardless of how much food you were served." Probably that and Ma's belief that food consumption was directly proportional to physical and intellectual growth, are responsible for my eating tendencies.
As I grew older and started going to school, I picked up a habit that anytime something made me uncomfortable, whether it was a sum or Sam the bully , I would seclude myself and devour whatever Ma had packed in my lunch box. Surprisingly once I was satisfied, my mind was composed and I could think straight or face my fears. I rode under this without noticing any oddity till I got to high school.
School was thousands of miles from home. All my conscious childhood memories were made inside our camp bubble and I hadn't as much as stepped out the camp let alone travelled that far. Papa and Ma hadn't gone to high school and had no advice whatsoever to help me cope. I remember Ma looking into my teary eyes promising to bring me as much food as she could the next time she was allowed into the school.
The subsequent weeks were rough as I not only kept unsuccessfully asking for extra portions but also had to bear the perplexed stares from fellow students. When I eventually adapted to the rations , I had a change of perspective. I got a deeper understanding of addictions as mind illusions that we are totally dependent on some amounts of different substances which couldn't be further than the truth. That prompted me to join my school's guidance and counselling team where I shared my story to counsel fellow students who were reported to be drug addicts.
Since then through my appetite for different taste of food I have learnt to identify and appreciate different cultures in my country. For instance when served beef I could identify the economic activity, geographic location, and even guess the mood of the cook by looking at the sizes, the amount of soup in the stew, and how precisely the spices have been added respectively. This has led me to appreciate our different cultures in defining who we are and celebrating our diversity.
However, control over my appetite doesn't mean it got any smaller. When I miss home, I eat. When I code, I eat. When I am worried, I eat. When people get worried that I eat too much, I eat. The only difference is I have a choice, but mostly I still chose to eat.
This essay uses their relationship with food to explore how their perspective has changed through moving high schools far away. Having a central theme is often a good strategy because it allows you to explore ideas while making them feel connected and cohesive. This essay shows how even a "simple" topic like food can show a lot about your character because you can extrapolate what it represents, rather than just what it literally is. With every topic, you can analyze on two levels: what it literally is, and what it represents.
Admissions officers want to get a sense of who you are, and one way to convey that is by using natural-sounding language and being somewhat informal. In this essay, the student writes as they'd speak, which creates a "voice" that you as the reader can easily hear. Phrases like "I kind of got used to it" may be informal, but work to show a sense of character. Referring to their parents as "Ma" and "Papa" also bring the reader into their world. If you come from a non-English speaking country or household, it can also be beneficial to use words from your language, such as "chiemo" in this essay. Using foreign language words helps share your unique culture with admissions.
Rather than "telling" the reader what they have to say, this student does a great job of "showing" them through specific imagery and anecdotes. Using short but descriptive phrases like "whether it was a sum or Sam the bully" are able to capture bigger ideas in a more memorable way. Showing your points through anecdotes and examples is always more effective than simply telling them, because showing allows the reader to come to their own conclusion, rather than having to believe what you're saying.
This student's first language is not English, which does make it challenging to express ideas with the best clarity. Although this student does an overall great job in writing despite this hindrance, there are moments where their ideas are not easily understood. In particular, when discussing substance addiction, it isn't clear: Was the student's relationship with food a disorder, or was that a metaphor? When drafting your essay, focus first on expressing your points as clearly and plainly as possible (it's harder than you may think). Simplicity is often better, but if you'd like, afterwards you can add creative details and stylistic changes.
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Common App Essay Example #4: Love for Medicine
Here's another Common App essay which is an accepted Dartmouth essay . This student talks about their range of experiences as an emergency medical responder:
“How do you keep going after days like this?” a tear-stricken woman asked me after watching me put all my effort into attempting to resuscitate her husband after he had committed suicide. I‘ve grappled with my answer to her question for many years, but I may finally have one.
I wish I could truthfully say that I have grown accustomed to the catastrophic calls. I wish I could say the weight of the words “I’m sorry for your loss” lessens after saying them countless times to heartbroken families. But that is not the reality.
“Days like this” come often in emergency medicine; people call 911 on the worst day of their lives, when their baby stops breathing or their loved one suddenly collapses. Being one of the youngest medical responders ever certified in [Location] , I have spent the majority of my adolescence running toward car crashes, flaming buildings, and into ditches while most sane people bolt in the opposite direction. While I am no stranger to cardiac arrest, severed limbs, and failing organs, it isn’t the mutilated patients that stand out in my memory, but the moments when I get a pulse back during CPR, the hugs from grateful family members, and the few, but treasured “thank you’s.”
This steel box that flies down the road at seventy miles per hour is where I grew up, where I fell in love with emergency medicine. It was a whole new world of insatiable curiosity and gut-wrenching adrenaline; where I became fascinated by the actions of presents a new puzzle—a new person to heal.
I never knew I had the courage to talk a suicidal sixteen-year-old boy down from the edge of a bridge, knowing that he could jump and take his life at any moment.
I never knew I had the strength to hold the hand of a dying man encased in the wreckage of his car while he spoke his last words to me.
I never knew I had the confidence to stand my ground and defend my treatment plan to those who saw me as less than capable because of my age or gender.
The emergency services brought me to places that I never could have imagined and introduced me to patients and people who broadened my worldview. I found myself in frigid rivers pulling unresponsive people into boats and laughing at the incredible sense of humor of a homeless man. It didn’t matter where people came from or who they were when they were on my stretcher, socioeconomic status and labels fell away. Whether I was performing CPR or helping a frail old woman off her kitchen floor, I knew I was changing a stranger’s life even if all I could offer was a hand to hold.
I have an innate passion to heal. I am continuously enthralled by the complexity and endless beauty of the human body and I could spend my whole life studying it, but I will only scrape the surface of its wonders. I could engineer cells to produce missing proteins; I could grow stem cell hearts, livers, and kidneys; I could create tumor destroying medications; I can heal people one person at a time until I help eliminate the word ‘incurable’ from the dictionary. I answer that catastrophic call day after day because to love medicine is to love humanity and no one has ever really lived until they have done something for someone who can never repay them.
This essay has lots of detailed moments and descriptions. These anecdotes help back up their main idea by showing, rather than just telling. It's always important to include relevant examples because they are the "proof in the pudding" for what you're trying to say.
This topic deals with a lot of sensitive issues, and at certain points the writing could be interpreted as insensitive or not humble. It's especially important when writing about tragedies that you focus on others, rather than yourself. Don't try to play up your accomplishments or role; let them speak for themselves. By doing so, you'll actually achieve what you're trying to do: create an image of an honorable and inspirational person.
This essay touches on a lot of challenging and difficult moments, but it lacks a deep level of reflection upon those moments. When analyzing your essay, ask yourself: what is the deepest idea in it? In this case, there are some interesting ideas (e.g. "when they were on my stretcher, socioeconomic status...fell away"), but they are not fully developed or fleshed out.
Common App Essay Example #5: Cultural Confusion
This student's Common App was accepted to Pomona College , among other schools. Although this essay uses a common topic of discussing cultural background, this student writes a compelling take.
This student uses the theme of cultural confusion to explain their interests and identity:
An obnoxiously red banner with Chinese characters hangs in front of a small, unassuming diner close to home. I stroll inside Grand Lake, this bustling hive with waitresses scuttling hurriedly and tables shaking lightly, the din of laughter from families mixing with the aromas of Chinese food. A lady with a notepad impatiently beckons my family to sit at one of the free tables, and as soon as we’re all settled in, she begins addressing me in Mandarin - possibly asking what I wanted for a drink. I look at her blankly, and she returns the confused expression. “I don’t speak Chinese,” I laugh forcibly after a tense moment. She doesn’t find the humor in my apology. From thereafter, our order is taken in broken English, our chopsticks switched out for the standard fork and knife , and I feel the burning gaze of the waitresses judging my family as we eat our Sunday brunch in silence.
Cultural confusion is commonplace. Being born in Peru and raised in Venezuela makes no difference in how most people see and treat us. Focusing on my slanted, almond eyes and ebony hair, I’m automatically pegged as an Asian wherever I go. Touring Peruvian artisan markets is always a test of wit and cleverness, as vendors try to over-price items we’re interested in simply because we look Asian , and therefore must also have Crazy Rich Asian bank accounts. Pulling out a simple credit card at a Caracas mall once got us chased by three armed motorcyclists on the highway, and my mother risked collision as she wove in and out of the cramped lanes like a Formula One race car driver. Since when did my appearance jeopardize my life?
My ancestry traces back to both Chinese and Japanese roots, its imprint burrowed deep in my face and DNA. But I’m a third generation, Peruvian-born girl with the fire to prove it. Over time, our Asian culture diluted and was replaced with a vibrant, Latino lifestyle. With each generation, the immigrant language faded, folktales blurred, spices dulled, and all things Asian abandoned. I celebrated Noche Buena as a kid, not Chinese New Year’s. My favorite childhood dishes were anticuchos and papa huancaína, not onigiri rice balls or sushi rolls . Everyone assumes that I am a math prodigy, shy and antisocial, a black belt karate master, and a laughingstock on the dance floor . But actually, I struggle hardest in my math class, studying twice as much as others for the same grade. My personality, although sweet, is bold and gregarious. I am a three-year kickboxer and a five-year Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor. Turn on Marc Anthony and I may just get a spot on So You Think You Can Dance. I’m Latina, just packed in a cute, little Bento box .
There is one Asian stereotype that I fit into, even though its backstory is completely misguided: playing the piano . In reality, piano musician culture was not developed in any Asian region, rather in European countries with pioneers such as Bach and Haydn. Statistically, there is an equal amount of Asian and non-Asian musicians in the professional world. I came across the piano through my own curiosity and will, not through my parents bludgeoning me to play it like it’s portrayed with all young Asians. I actually studied South American music for an international piano competition in Peru, finished as a finalist, and grew to love the radiant and eccentric style of Latino modern music. But I digress-- my potential should be evaluated separately from my appearance.
I am a musician born by passion, not by race. I am a human defined by my achievements and experiences, not physical assumptions. Leave your preconceptions by the welcome mat and size me up by the sound of my Rachmaninoff sonata or Enrique Iturriaga solos , and let my character sing your first and final impressions of me.
Common App Essay Example #6: Football Manager
Here's a UPenn essay that worked for the Common App:
When I watched the Patriots and Falcons play in the Super Bowl in February of [Date] , I had no idea that the next time I watched a football game I would be on the sidelines, right in the middle of all the action. However, that’s exactly what happened, and my experience as a football manager is not one that I will ever forget.
At the end of my junior year, the head football coach, Coach Cotter (who was also my AP Government teacher), asked me if I wanted to be a manager for the football team. He told me I would have to be at all the practices and games during the summer and throughout the school year. He made a compelling offer, but I turned him down because I didn't think I would have enough time during the summer with my classes, work, and vacation. One of my friends, however, took him up on his offer. In the middle of July, after hearing her talk about how much she enjoyed it, I asked her if she thought I would be able to join. After we spent a little bit talking about it , she asked if I wanted to go with her and see what it was like. I agreed, and I loved it. I asked Coach Cotter if he would mind if I joined, and I can still hear him saying, "Absolutely, the more the merrier!" in my head. The weeks of practice that followed, and then eventually the long Friday nights, proved to be an unforgettable experience.
The job of a football manager does not sound glamorous. Being at football practice for six hours every day during the summer and then three hours after school, surrounded by 47 sweaty football players and seven coaches who are constantly shouting is not how I planned to spend my summer and the fall of my senior year. But there was no way for me to know that this experience would teach me valuable lessons about life, regarding teamwork, hard work, and discipline.
In late July it was evident that some of the players were new and unsure of what to do. I watched as day after day the upperclassmen helped them learn their positions and become better players. This demonstration of teamwork impressed me, because instead of laughing at the younger players for not knowing what to do, they helped them become the best players they could be to make the team stronger. Once, three of our seniors got in trouble for some off field activities, and they had to sit out the first game, along with losing their helmet stickers that are given out for exceptional performances. I witnessed the effect that the consequences had on these players, and I heard one of our coaches after we lost the game tell them “Now you see how the consequences of your actions affected the entire team. Don't ever underestimate your importance to this team.” After that game, I saw the hard work that those boys put in to earn back their reputations and their helmet stickers. They taught me that even if I make mistakes, I will always learn from them no matter how much hard work it takes.
We managers go by many names: watergirls, team managers, hydration specialists. But none of these monikers can capture the rush of emotion I feel after a hard fought game, or the feeling of connectedness that comes every time we celebrate as a team after a victory, ringing our bell and blasting “Party in the USA.” My sense of school spirit has never been stronger. Throughout the summer, the three hours after school, and the seven hours I spend on game days with the players, I have learned lessons and developed relationships that I will never forget.
This essay has lighthearted moments in it, such as recognizing how being a football manager "does not sound glamorous" and how "we managers go by many names: watergirls..." Using moments of humor can be appropriate for contrasting with moments of serious reflection. Being lighthearted also shows a sense of personality and that you are able to take things with stride.
The reflections in this essay are far too generic overall and ultimately lack meaning because they are unspecific. Using buzzwords like "hard work" and "valuable lessons" comes off as unoriginal, so avoid using them at all costs. Your reflections need to be specific to you to be most meaningful. If you could (in theory) pluck out sentences from your essay and drop them into another student's essay, then chances are those sentences are not very insightful. Your ideas should be only have been able to been written by you: specific to your experiences, personal in nature, and show deep reflection.
Although this essay uses the topic of "being a football manager," by the end of the essay it isn't clear what that role even constitutes. Avoid over-relying on other people or other's ideas when writing your essay. That is, most of the reflections in this essay are based on what the author witnessed the football team doing, rather than what they experienced for themselves in their role. Focus on your own experiences first, and be as specific and tangible as possible when describing your ideas. Rather than saying "hard work," show that hard work through an anecdote.
More important than your stories is the "So what?" behind them. Avoid writing stories that don't have a clear purpose besides "setting the scene." Although most fiction writing describes people and places as exposition, for your essays you want to avoid that unless it specifically contributes to your main point. In this essay, the first two paragraphs are almost entirely unnecessary, as the point of them can be captured in one sentence: "I joined to be a football manager one summer." The details of how that happened aren't necessary because they aren't reflected upon.
In typical academic writing, we're taught to "tell them what you're going to tell them" before telling them. But for college essays, every word is highly valuable. Avoid prefacing your statements and preparing the reader for them. Instead of saying "XYZ would prove to be an unforgettable experience," just dive right into the experience itself. Think of admissions officers as "being in a rush," and give them what they want: your interesting ideas and experiences.
Common App Essay Example #7: Coffee
This student was admitted to several selective colleges, including Emory University, Northwestern University , Tufts University, and the University of Southern California . Here's their Common Application they submitted to these schools:
Blue blanket in one hand, cookie monster in the other, I stumbled down the steps to fill my sippy cup with coffee. My diplomatic self gulped down his caffeine while admiring his Harry Potter wands. My father and I watched the sunrise through the trees and windows. I cherished this small moment before my father left, disappearing in and out of my life at the wave of a wand, harassing my seemingly broken, but nevertheless, stronger, family.
I was 10, and my relationship with coffee flourished as my father vanished. I admired the average, yet complex beverage and may have been the only ten-year-old to ask for a French-press for his birthday. Nonetheless, learning to craft intricate cups of coffee became my favorite pastime. I spent hours studying how to “bloom” the grounds in a Chemex or pour a swan. Each holiday, I would ask for an aeropress, an espresso machine. I became a coffee connoisseur, infinitely perfecting my own form of art.
As the years went by--I was 11, 12, 13--I began to explore the cafes in Pittsburgh with my grandmother, capturing them through our shared love for photography. Coffee (one of the few positive memories I have of my father) is also the bridge that allows my grandmother and I to converge our distinctly different backgrounds into one harmonious relationship. Inside quaint coffee shops, we would discuss pop culture, fashion, and the meaning of life. We made it our mission to visit every cafe and document them not only through the camera lens, but also through the conversations we shared.
I was 16 years old, and working at a family-owned coffee shop training other employees to pour latte art. Making coffee became an artistic outlet that I never had before. I always loved math, but once I explored the complexities of coffee, I began to delve into a more creative realm--photography and writing--and exposed myself to the arts--something foreign and intriguing.
When my father left and my world exploded , coffee remained a light amongst the darkness. As the steam permeates my nostrils and the bitterness tickles my tongue, I learn a little more about myself. The act of pouring water over grounds allows me to slow down time for a moment, and reflect upon my day, my life, my dreams, and my future. When I dive into a morning cup, I take a plunge into the sea of the self, and as I sip, am struck with the feeling that coffee is a universal link between cultures. I picture my great grandmother sitting on her front porch in Rome, slurping LaVazza and eating her coffee-soaked biscotti. Every cup takes me back to my heritage, forces me to reflect upon where I came from and where I must go, and who else, in another world, is sipping the same drink and reflecting upon the same principles. You see, coffee is like the ocean. It bridges two culture, two lands, two brains, all through conversation, exposure, exploration, but by one medium. I do not see it as simply a beverage, but rather, a vehicle for so much more.
At 18, coffee is a part of who I am-- humble, yet important , simple, yet complex, and rudimentary, yet developed. As I explore new coffee shops, I explore a new part of myself, one once hidden beneath the surface of my persona. My grandmother and I--we are conquistadors of the cafe scene, conquering the world one coffee shop at a time and, in the process, growing endlessly closer to each other and ourselves. Coffee has allowed our relationship to flourish into a perpetual story of exploration and self-reflection.
Now, I often think about my father and how someone whom I resent so much could have introduced me to something I love so much. It is crazy to think that it took losing him for me to find my true self.
This essay uses coffee as a metaphor for this student's self-growth, especially in dealing with the absence of their father. Showing the change of their relationship with coffee works well as a structure because it allows the student to explore various activities and ideas while making them seem connected.
This student does a great job of including specifics, such as coffee terminology ("bloom the grounds" and "pour a swan"). Using specific and "nerdy" language shows your interests effectively. Don't worry if they won't understand all the references exactly, as long as there is context around them.
While coffee is the central topic, the author also references their father extensively throughout. It isn't clear until the conclusion how these topics relate, which makes the essay feel disjointed. In addition, there is no strong main idea, but instead a few different ideas. In general, it is better to focus on one interesting idea and delve deeply, rather than focus on many and be surface-level.
Near the conclusion, this student tells about their character: "humble, yet important, simple, yet complex..." You should avoid describing yourself to admissions officers, as it is less convincing. Instead, use stories, anecdotes, and ideas to demonstrate these qualities. For example, don't say "I'm curious," but show them by asking questions. Don't say, "I'm humble," but show them with how you reacted after a success or failure.
Common App Essay Example #8: Chicago
Here's another Northwestern essay . Northwestern is a quite popular school with lots of strong essay-focused applicants, which makes your "Why Northwestern?" essay important.
To write a strong Why Northwestern essay, try to answer these questions: What does NU represent to you? What does NU offer for you (and your interests) that other schools don't?
Chubby fingers outstretched and round cheeks flattened against the window, I leaned further into the plexiglass. Although I could feel a firm hand tugging at my shirt, urging me to sit back in my seat - at ten, I possessed little concept of manners (or sanitary awareness) , both of which I abandoned as I refused to cease standing on the chair of the CTA train - at the moment, all that mattered was that I was soaring above the streets of Chicago. Eyes darting across the ever changing expanses of the city, I refused to lift my gaze in fear of missing anything.
For the first time, I was taking a trip in the belly of a gargantuan silver beast, known familiarly to most Chicagoans as the “L.” What distinguishes the L from its relatives - the Tube, le Métro, the MTA - is its ability to burst through concrete and asphalt streets to rise above, guided only by wood and steel, and glide through the towering skyscrapers that dot the Chicago skyline. It elevates and cultivates a sense of infinite wonder in its riders, from the all-too-serious businessmen I’ve caught gazing dreamily out the windows to the young children futilely yet passionately attempting to balance in the center of the car as the train weaves throughout the city. From that first ride to the present day, my fascination with the inner and outer workings of the L and its passengers has refined itself to an infatuation.
Each ride presents a chance to ponder the overlooked, to question the seemingly mundane : You can quantify the number of people that find themselves teeming through the L’s sliding doors, but can you quantify their experiences? Who is that woman, man, student, small rodent, and what is their story? I adopt the lenses of journalists, economists, marketers, sociologists, historians, and the mere fellow passenger to analyze: the placement of an ad for Planet Fitness adjacent to an ad for Pizza Hut, the change in the racial makeup of passengers as the train travels North to South, the origin of unassuming stains or abandoned books. More recently I pondered, if they say the beat of a butterfly’s wings can induce a hurricane halfway across the world, can a five minute train delay get me into college?
The L is a catalyst between my vim mind and the seemingly elusive outer world, a seventy-five cent silver chariot that I can ride to whatever adventure I see fit . Since that first ride, I persist in search of the optimal collection of train stops, forging a mental map of Chicago shaped by my life experiences - all accessible by a simple swipe of a ventra card. The multitude of train lines that branch from the L’s “Loop” are dotted with my discoveries. The boathouse, where I strain my vocal chords from hours of training (and hours of laughing with my teammates).
The school, where I test the waters of political responsibility, explore the depths of socioeconomic research, and conquer the wakes of edits delivered on my reporting for the newspaper. The small urban farm, located in a former project, that I help create and cultivate each spring and summer.
My thirst and and hunger for the knowledge of anything and everything was, and remains, insatiable. This train, this beating artery, pumping from the birthplace of the city to its outer reaches, is what quenches my thirst and satiates my hunger. Riding the L not only gave me the access to pursue rowing, a liberal education, and volunteerism; it forged a sense of adventurousness deep into the synapses of my nerves, a sense driving me into the intersections of journalism, student government, fashion, and aiding my beautiful city. That first L ride instilled the interests that lie within me, passions that subsist on experiencing life at its fullest and engaging my sponge-like intellectuality. I thrive on discovery; It defines who I am.
This essay uses a variety of descriptive and compelling words, without seeming forced or unnatural. It is important that you use your best vocabulary, but don't go reaching for a thesaurus. Instead, use words that are the most descriptive, while remaining true to how you'd actually write.
This essay is one big metaphor: the "L" train serves as a vehicle to explore this student's intellectual curiosity. Throughout the essay, the student also incorporates creative metaphors like "the belly of a gargantuan silver beast" and "seventy-five cent silver chariot" that show a keen sense of expression. If a metaphor sounds like one you've heard before, you probably shouldn't use it.
This student does a fantastic job of naturally talking about their activities. By connecting their activities to a common theme—in this case the "L" train—you can more easily move from one activity to the next, without seeming like you're just listing activities. This serves as an engaging way of introducing your extracurriculars and achievements, while still having the focus of your essay be on your interesting ideas.
Admissions officers are ultimately trying to get a sense of who you are. This student does a great job of taking the reader into their world. By sharing quirks and colloquialisms (i.e. specific language you use), you can create an authentic sense of personality.
Common App Essay Example #9: Mountaineering
Here's a liberal arts college Common App essay from Colby College . Colby is a highly ranked liberal arts college.
As with all colleges—but especially liberal arts schools—your personal essay will be a considerable factor.
In this essay, the student describes their experience climbing Mount Adams, and the physical and logistical preparations that went into it. They describe how they overcame some initial setbacks by using their organizational skills from previous expeditions.
This Colby student explains how the process of preparation can lead to success in academics and other endeavours, but with the potential for negative unintended consequences.
Common App Prompt #2: 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? (250-650 words)
The night before I climb to the summit, I pack my bag carefully, making sure all my equipment is in its rightful place. Headlamp in the left pocket. Clif Bar (nauseating but necessary) next to my sleeping bag. Three unlocked carabiners on my harness. Extra layers, ropes, and ice axes diligently packed away. After a few hours of sleep, I wake up under the midnight moon, my brain foggy in the high altitude and grateful for the extra preparation.
Although I would love to say this sense of organization comes naturally , it only became habit after my first major mountaineering expedition. The summer after freshman year, I flew to Washington to climb Mt. Adams, a lofty 12,000-foot peak in the shadow of Rainier. My backpacking, rock climbing, and skiing experience gave me the technical skills I would need for mountaineering, which is essentially a combination of those three sports. But physical skills alone could not compensate for the logistical skills I lacked. Just twenty minutes before starting the climb, I scrambled to pack under the faint beam of my headlamp. My one a.m. brain betrayed me; I left all my food at base camp. I climbed as far as I could, but had to descend to camp before long. It was not safe for me to continue on without food.
This anecdote was not unique to one summit attempt, or the outdoors in general. In middle school, I constantly neglected to make flashcards and write down homework, and my grades, though good, suffered as a result. I left behind a trail of forgotten ski coats and misplaced textbooks, and few were surprised when parent-teacher conferences revolved around the word ‘careless’. But after that failed summit attempt, I created organizational systems for every subsequent kayaking, hiking, and mountaineering trip, and began to apply them beyond the trailhead. While high school isn’t exactly comparable to climbing mountains, I pack my backpack the night before, make flashcards weeks before tests, and always stash extra snacks for cross country. The preparation steals a few precious minutes of sleep, but in return, means honors societies and academic excellence.
These processes have led to academic success, but weren’t without flaw. I spent hours preparing for each challenge, and in return expected an A on every test and a successful summit of each mountain. I felt that the outcome should be in exact proportion to my effort. I failed to recognize that I can’t control every variable. Heading into a difficult summit attempt of Mount Olympus, the tallest peak in Washington’s Olympic Range, I was certain it would go my way. I was in great shape, had practiced all my knots and rope skills, and, of course, had packed the night before. Despite it being the most difficult mountain, I had attempted, I thought that due to the work I had put in, it was my right to summit. I was wrong.
The glacier leading up to the summit was calving, or shedding ice, too quickly. These glacial avalanches would be deadly, there was no other way to the summit, and it was totally out of my control. I was devastated. We ate Snickers, normally enjoyed on the summit, on the glacier staring up at the peak. Below our feet, swimming through the glacial crevasses, were ice worms: tiny, endemic invertebrates. I transformed my disappointment into an opportunity to slow down and research glaciers and their tiny microorganisms. Looking back, I’m not upset I didn’t summit. I learned about ice worms and watermelon snow algae, but more importantly that while I can’t control every outcome, I can always control my attitude. I won’t reach the peak of every mountain, ace every test, or win every cross-country race, no matter how hard I prepare. But I can do my best, enjoy the process, and embrace the outcome, even if it’s not exactly what I expected.
This essay does a great job of having a cohesive theme: mountaineering. Often times, great essay topics can be something simple on the surface, such as your favorite extracurricular activity or a notable experience. Consider using the literal activity as a sort of metaphor, like this essay does. This student uses mountaineering as a metaphor for preparation in the face of upcoming challenge. Using an overarching metaphor along with a central theme can be effective because it allows you to explore various ideas while having them all feel connected and cohesive.
Admissions officers want to see your self-growth, which doesn't always mean your successes. Often times, being vulnerable by expressing your struggles is powerful because it makes you more human and relatable, while providing the opportunity to reflect on what you learned. The best lessons from come failures, and writing about challenge can also make your later successes feel more impactful. Everyone loves to hear an underdog or zero-to-hero story. But counterintuitively, your failures are actually more important than your successes.
This essay has some nice ideas about focusing only on what's in your control: your attitude and your effort. However, these ideas are ultimately somewhat generic as they have been used countless times in admissions essays. Although ideas like this can be a good foundation, you should strive to reach deeper ideas. Deeper ideas are ones that are specific to you, unique, and interesting. You can reach deeper ideas by continually asking yourself "How" and "Why" questions that cause you to think deeper about a topic. Don't be satisfied with surface-level reflections. Think about what they represent more deeply, or how you can connect to other ideas or areas of your life.
Common App Essay Example #10: Boarding School
This personal essay was accepted to Claremont McKenna College . See how this student wrote a vulnerable essay about boarding school experience and their family relationship:
I began attending boarding school aged nine.
Obviously, this is not particularly unusual – my school dorms were comprised of boys and girls in the same position as me. However, for me it was difficult – or perhaps it was for all of us; I don’t know. We certainly never discussed it.
I felt utterly alone, as though my family had abruptly withdrawn the love and support thatI so desperately needed. At first, I did try to open up to them during weekly phone calls, but what could they do? As months slipped by, the number of calls reduced. I felt they had forgotten me. Maybe they felt I had withdrawn from them. A vast chasm of distance was cracking open between us.
At first, I shared my hurt feelings with my peers, who were amazingly supportive, but there was a limit to how much help they could offer. After a while, I realized that by opening up, I was burdening them, perhaps even irritating them. The feelings I was sharing should have been reserved for family. So, I withdrew into myself. I started storing up my emotions and became a man of few words. In the classroom or on the sports field, people saw a self-confident and cheerful character, but behind that facade was someone who yearned for someone to understand him and accept him as he was.
Years went past.
Then came the phone call which was about to change my life. “Just come home Aryan, it’s really important!” My mother’s voice was odd, brittle. I told her I had important exams the following week, so needed to study. “Aryan, why don’t you listen to me? There is no other option, okay? You are coming home.”
Concerned, I arranged to fly home. When I got there, my sister didn’t say hi to me, my grandmother didn’t seem overly enthusiastic to see me and my mother was nowhere to be seen. I wanted to be told why I was called back so suddenly just to be greeted as though I wasn’t even welcome.
Then my mother then came out of her room and saw me. To my immense incredulity, she ran to me and hugged me, and started crying in my arms.
Then came the revelation, “Your father had a heart attack.”
My father. The man I hadn’t really talked to in years. A man who didn’t even know who I was anymore. I’d spent so long being disappointed in him and suspecting he was disappointed in me, I sunk under a flood of emotions.
I opened the door to his room and there he was sitting on his bed with a weak smile on his face. I felt shaken to my core. All at once it was clear to me how self-centered I had become. A feeling of humiliation engulfed me, but finally I realized that rather than wallow in it, I needed to appreciate I was not alone in having feelings.
I remained at home that week. I understood that my family needed me. I worked with my uncle to ensure my family business was running smoothly and often invited relatives or friends over to cheer my father up.
Most importantly, I spent time with my family. It had been years since I’d last wanted to do this – I had actively built the distance between us – but really, I’d never stopped craving it. Sitting together in the living room, I realized how badly I needed them.
Seeing happiness in my father’s eyes, I felt I was finally being the son he had always needed me to be: A strong, capable young man equipped to take over the family business if need be.
Common App Essay Example #11: My Father
This Cornell University essay is an example of writing about a tragedy, which can be a tricky topic to write about well.
Family and tragedy essays are a commonly used topic, so it can be harder to come up with a unique essay idea using these topics.
Let me know what you think of this essay for Cornell:
One in three victims of a heart attack don’t show any symptoms before it happens. Ninety-five percent of cardiac arrests that occur outside a hospital are fatal. These are not merely statistics. A heart attack redefined my life on November 21st, [Date] .
It was a warm autumn morning, and I was raking leaves with my Boy Scout Troop to fundraise for our high adventure patrol’s 50-mile hike to summit Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I had left my house on my bike early, without telling my mom—she was asleep, and my dad was at work.
About an hour into raking, I saw my mother park nearby, and braced myself for a lecture about how my absence had freaked her out. No part of me imagined why she was actually there. Two words, delivered with the force of a Mack truck, “Dad died.” That morning on his routine break, his cardiac arteries became terminally obstructed. A heart attack and subsequent cardiac arrest ensued. That was it. No goodbye, no I love you, none of that.
From there, my mind spiraled downward into an emotional void. I began to question my entire life—and how my father played into it. What did I last say to him? Did he know how much I loved him? I wanted to pinch myself and end the nightmare. But no, it was real life. In the subsequent weeks, there was no clarity or closure. The path I was travelling on was engulfed by thick fog. I questioned everything about life as I knew it: why do bad things happen to good people?—what does life mean?—how can I move forward?—how can the universe be so cruel? Three years later, I’m still searching for answers.
My father was wise, reserved, hardworking, and above all, caring. I idolized his humility and pragmatism, and I cherish it today. But after his death, I was emotionally raw. I could barely get through class without staving off a breakdown.
Looking at my reflection in my dresser mirror one afternoon, I was examining my bloodshot, teary eyes when I noticed an old sticker of a black and white eye. When I was ten or eleven, I had gotten into trouble for playing video games too much, cursing, or some other youthful infraction. I was in my room as punishment after being scolded, when my dad came in. He placed this simple sticker on the mirror, and said, “Just remember, I’m always watching over you, no matter where I am.” When this happened, I knew he was being contextual about making sure I didn’t misbehave— but after his death, it seemed so omniscient and transcendental. When I look at that sticker, I know he’s with me.
One of my dad’s favorite adages was, “If you really think you’re doing your best—and it’s still not enough—make your best better.” When he would scold me about my grades, I always thought he was just being a “stickler,” demanding perfection. I know now that he was just encouraging me to do and be my best. His words have become my credo. During the entire year after his death, there were more than a few “firsts without dad”—first Christmas, first birthday, first Father’s Day, but also the first time I truly motivated myself. I think of my dad often, but never more than when I am pushing myself to succeed.
One in three victims are unaware they’re about to have a heart attack? Ninety five percent of cardiac arrest victims die? These statistics are just not good enough for me. As my dad would say, it’s time to make our best better to combat heart disease. My father is more than a statistic. His wisdom lives within me. When I face life’s obstacles, I know I can conquer them with him on my side.
Writing about tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, is a tricky topic because it has been used countless times in college admissions. It is difficult to not come off as a "victim" or that you're trying to garner sympathy by using the topic (i.e. a "sob story"). This essay does a great job of writing about a personal tragedy in a meaningful and unique way by connecting to values and ideas, rather than staying focused on what literally happened. By connecting tragedy to lessons and takeaways, you can show how—despite the difficulty and sorrow—you have gained something positive from it, however small that may be. Don't write about personal tragedy because you think "you should." As with any topic, only write about it if you have a meaningful point to make.
This essay is effective at making the reader feel the similar emotions as the author does and in bringing the reader into their "world." Even small remarks like noting the the "firsts" without their loved one are powerful because it is relatable and something that is apparent, but not commonly talked about. Using short phrases like "That was it. No goodbye, no I love you..." create emphasis and again a sense of relatability. As the reader, you can vividly imagine how the author must have felt during these moments. The author also uses questions, such as "What did I last say to him?" which showcase their thought process, another powerful way to bring the reader into your world.
Admissions officers are looking for self-growth, which can come in a variety of forms. Showing a new perspective is one way to convey that you've developed over time, learned something new, or gained new understanding or appreciation. In this essay, the student uses the "sticker of a black and white eye" to represent how they viewed their father differently before and after his passing. By using a static, unchanging object like this, and showing how you now view it differently over time, you convey a change in perspective that can make for interesting reflections.
Common App Essay Example #12: DMV Trials
Here's a funny Common App essay from a Northwestern admitted student about getting their driver's license.
This topic has been used before—as many "topics" have—but what's important is having a unique take or idea.
What do you think of this Northwestern essay ?
Seatbelt on. Mirrors adjusted. Key in the ignition. I am ready to roll. I am sitting in the parking lot of a DMV with a small Hispanic lady with overly drawn-on eyebrows in the passenger seat. In her hands, she holds a beige clipboard and a pen that looks as though it has been half-eaten by some underfed pomeranian. Oh wait, it’s not the pomeranian, it’s her. She is now gnawing on her pen. Oh gosh, Emily don’t focus on that; focus on how you’re going to pull out of this parking lot. I am panting heavily. All of the sweat that was once flowing from my body is now on the steering wheel.
Breath, Emily, breath. I drive to the exit and face a four-lane roadway. “Turn left,” my passenger says.
“Okay,” I mutter back. I can do this. I can totally do this. I am Emily [Name] for goodness sake. The Emily [Name] who is president of student council, Failure is not in my vocabulary; it never has been, and it never will be. I proceed in driving. “Stop!” Oh no. I look to my right to see the examiner grip the ceiling handle with all her might; her eyes simulate the expression her penciled-on eyebrows were portraying all along. I am in the middle of the roadway; cars are heading towards me in all directions. At that moment, I know I failed.
March 25, [Date] , is a day that will live in infamy. The day I experienced failure. Unaccepting of my loss, I blamed my driving incompetence on my mother’s Chrysler minivan, which had what I liked to call “touchy brakes.” My father was good at agreeing with me, adding on with “it’s too foggy out” and “maybe you’re wearing the wrong shoes.” Assigning responsibility for my ineptitude to a pair of sneakers was far easier than admitting that I just wasn’t good at driving. So, with my ego still at large, I decided to take the driver’s test again the following weekend.
April 1, [Date] , is another day that will live in infamy. The day I experienced failure for the second time. I failed my road test again, but not for the same reason as before. This time I actually made it out of the parking lot. However, I did in fact run over a curb and blow a stop sign. I didn’t receive as much sympathy as I did for my earlier attempt. It wasn’t the car nor the shoes this time. It was me. I failed my driver’s test all on my own. Now, any normal, rational human being would probably call this “not a big deal,” but to my high-strung sixteen-year old-self, it was a big deal. How could I have failed something that ninety percent of my class mastered on their first try?
My entire life, I had been accustomed to excelling in whatever I did. Whether it was in school work or extracurriculars, my life ran on a simple input-output system. I would put the hard work in and out would come immediate success.
On July 29, [Date] , I finally got my license. After the April debacle, I practiced driving almost every week. I learned to stop at stop signs and look both ways before crossing streets, the things I apparently didn’t know how to do during my first two tests. When pulling into the parking lot with the examiner for the last time, a wave of relief washed over me.
“Third time’s the charm,” the lazy-eyed instructor told me. I was ecstatic! For the first time in my life, I was licensed in driving as well as licensed in resilience. My experiences at the DMV taught me that failure is inevitable and essential to moving forward. As I peer down the long road ahead, I am no longer afraid to conquer any bump in my path.
This essay does a good job of having a compelling narrative. By setting the scene descriptively, it is easy to follow and makes for a pleasant reading experience. However, avoid excessive storytelling, as it can overshadow your reflections, which are ultimately most important.
This essay has some moments where the author may come off as being overly critical, of either themselves or of others. Although it is okay (and good) to recognize your flaws, you don't want to portray yourself in a negative manner. Avoid being too negative, and instead try to find the positive aspects when possible.
More important than your stories is the answer to "So what?" and why they matter. Avoid writing a personal statement that is entirely story-based, because this leaves little room for reflection and to share your ideas. In this essay, the reflections are delayed to the end and not as developed as they could be.
In this essay, it comes across that failure is negative. Although the conclusion ultimately has a change of perspective in that "failure is inevitable and essential to moving forward," it doesn't address that failure is ultimately a positive thing. Admissions officers want to see failure and your challenges, because overcoming those challenges is what demonstrates personal growth.
Common App Essay Example #13: Ice Cream Fridays
This Columbia essay starts off with a vulnerable moment of running for school president. The student goes on to show their growth through Model UN, using detailed anecdotes and selected moments.
“Ice cream Fridays!” “Two hours of recess!” 500 middle schoolers stood and cheered, pounding their feet on the bleachers. Declan was the popular star quarterback and my opponent for school president. He looked like an adult in a tailored suit, gesturing with his hands, never checking his notes, casting looks at the girls sitting in the front row. He had long wavy hair, a smooth complexion, and charisma. I sat in my polyester blue blazer and rumpled khakis. I was becoming more emasculated and filled with self-doubt with each chant.
I had the best platform ideas and my aunt helped paint two dozen campaign posters. The year before, I carried the weight in student council while Declan skipped half our meetings. I was sure I could win. I clomped to the mic in my dad’s dress shoes. I read my long speech from my notes without enthusiasm. My only applause came from a couple of friends who felt bad for me.
Later, in high school, math and programming made sense to me — people didn’t. At a Model UN meeting, confident upperclassmen talked about the power of persuasion and public speaking. I felt like I didn’t belong, but their command of the stage made me want to be a part of it. At my first conference, representing Brazil’s humanitarian policies, I had developed what I thought was a brilliant proposal. I was confident and was the first to raise my placard. I had so many ideas but when I took the mic, I didn’t know where to start. I rambled on about background and never got to my main points. I felt foolish for thinking I was going to be so effective. My highwater pants and my sleeves hanging over my fingers added to my insecurity.
I continued this pattern of my speaking skills not matching my confidence in the quality of my ideas. To compensate, I increased the intensity of my preparation. I’d fill a binder with hundreds of research documents, I immersed myself in my roles. I mistakenly assumed that good ideas alone would be enough to win. At one conference, two delegates asked me to join their bloc to get access to my ideas with no intention of giving me a meaningful role. They saw me purely as a policy wonk.
My fascination with geopolitical and economic issues were what kept me committed to MUN. But by the end of sophomore year, the co-presidents were fed up. “Henry, we know how hard you try, but there are only so many spots for each conference...” said one. “You’re wasting space, you should quit,” said the other.
Nevertheless, I persisted. My junior year I ran for club secretary. Automating attendance and quantitative projects were my inclination. But members saw me as a younger, less intimidating officer, and started coming to me for guidance. When Gabby, a freshman, came to me for advice, I tried to pass her off to the co-presidents. She was terrified of speaking at conferences, and I didn’t know how to express my empathy. “They aren’t going to take me seriously, I don’t have charisma, I’m too short!” I saw my own insecurities in her. I didn’t feel like I was qualified to help, but I reminded her of the passion she had shown in meetings. Gradually, I became a mentor to her and many others. I was enjoying supporting them and was gratified by guiding their growth as delegates. One sophomore even anointed me “MUN soccer mom.”
On the bus to her first conference, Gabby was in a panic, but throughout the day I saw her confidence grow. When she won Outstanding Delegate, beyond anyone’s expectations, our whole row erupted in wild cheers. When my name was also called shortly after, it felt anticlimactic. I was far more proud of succeeding in my new role as a mentor than I was of my own award.
This essay has a compelling story, starting from this author's early struggles with public speaking and developing into their later successes with Model UN. Using a central theme—in this case public speaking—is an effective way of creating a cohesive essay. By having a main idea, you can tie in multiple moments or achievements without them coming across unrelated.
This student talks about their achievements with a humble attitude. To reference your successes, it's equally important to address your failures. By expressing your challenges, it will make your later achievements seem more impactful in contrast. This student also is less "me-focused" and instead is interested in others dealing with the same struggles. By connecting to people in your life, values, or interesting ideas, you can reference your accomplishments without coming off as bragging.
This essay has moments of reflection, such as "math and programming made sense... people didn't". However, most of these ideas are cut short, without going much deeper. When you strike upon a potentially interesting idea, keep going with it. Try to explain the nuances, or broaden your idea to more universal themes. Find what is most interesting about your experience and share that with admissions.
Stories are important, but make sure all your descriptions are critical for the story. In this essay, the author describes things that don't add to the story, such as the appearance of other people or what they were wearing. These ultimately don't relate to their main idea—overcoming public speaking challenges—and instead are distracting.
Common App Essay Example #14: Key to Happiness
Here's a Brown University application essay that does a great job of a broad timeline essay. This student shows the change in their thinking and motivations over a period of time, which makes for an interesting topic.
Let me know what you think of this Brown essay:
Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (250-650 words)
If you are not the first, you are one of the rest. I always thought this was the key to happiness. Even when I was an infant, my mom used to say that I chose the people who could carry me. There were only two people: my mom and my sister, not even my dad.
Growing up, I always wanted to be the best in everything. And I was for the most part. I have a bunch of certificates: first in elocution competition, debates, patriotic song competitions, fancy dress, story narration, top 1% in the Macmillan math Olympiad, etc. In all the parent-teacher meetings, every teacher would say that my parents were blessed to have such a child and no one else stood a chance.
Everything went great until I came second in the fifth grade in the annual examination. I just could not admit that I got defeated, that someone else was better than me. As the middle school period is when “who is the prettiest girl in class” came up, I lost there as well. Since that mattered a lot during the puberty stage, that cost me my confidence. I stopped talking to my friends because I thought they had this perception of me being ugly. It went to such an extent that I thought my parents felt the same way, so I’d never let them attend the parent-teacher meetings. I stopped participating in many activities.
Then the ultimate burst: my sister, the one whom I’d let hold me, moved to the United States. That was the rock bottom; I felt so lonely and lost. I just isolated myself because I felt so insecure. I was afraid to be with myself. Still, I lingered on and immersed myself in something I knew I was good at and did not have to be social: academics. Then came the eighth grade. This was the most crucial period of my life. Just keep reading and you’ll know why.
This was when I was introduced to programming, and since I was always inclined to problem-solving and logical analysis, I was fascinated. When I could solve the problems my tutor gave me, I felt like I was solving problems in my real life and started to regain control (as I was when I was a baby) . That’s how my passion for programming started. I delved further into this. This made me come out of that pitch-black pit. In my tenth-grade board exam, I was one among the few to get the perfect score in computer science. But I wasn’t ready to let this go after the tenth grade. I gave up a relaxed life for the Android development classes during my tenth-grade summer vacations.
When I published my first app in the Google play store, I realized that this was the happiest I had ever been. So, does it make you happy if you are the best at everything? When was I the happiest— when I was the best at everything or when I was programming? The truth is that the former happiness was fleeting. It was for those few words of my teachers or my peers, but the latter was real. It’s true, that was harder to achieve but when I did come past all those little runtime errors and crashes, it made my day. So, the answer to the question is ‘no’. What makes you happy is you pursuing your passion.
The outcome: my attitude towards life changed. Nothing could pull me down anymore. Even if I didn’t top my class, I was happy because I knew my happiness was independent. The sheer spirit of chasing my dreams makes me happy. I will work hard to achieve them. You create your own destiny.
This student's first language is not English, which provides some insight into why the phrasing may not seem as natural or show as much personality. Admissions officers are holistic in determining who to admit, meaning they take into account many different factors when judging your essays. While this essay may not be the strongest, the applicant probably had other qualities or "hooks" that helped them get accepted, such as awards, activities, unique background, etc. Plus, there is some leniency granted to students who don't speak English as their first language, because writing essays in a foreign language is tough in and of itself.
It's good to be confident in your achievements, but you don't want to come across as boastful or self-assured. In this essay, some of the phrasing such as "when I was the best at everything" seems exaggerated and is off-putting. Instead of boosting your accomplishments, write about them in a way that almost "diminishes" them. Connect your achievements to something bigger than you: an interesting idea, a passionate cause, another person or group. By not inflating your achievements, you'll come across more humble and your achievements will actually seem more impactful. We all have heard of a highly successful person who thinks "it's no big deal," which actually makes their talents seem far more impressive.
This essay has some takeaways and reflections, as your essay should too, but ultimately these ideas are unoriginal and potentially cliché. Ideas like "what makes you happy is pursing your passion" are overused and have been heard thousands of times by admissions officers. Instead, focus on getting to unique and "deep" ideas: ideas that are specific to you and that have meaningful implications. It's okay to start off with more surface-level ideas, but you want to keep asking questions to yourself like "Why" and "How" to push yourself to think deeper. Try making connections, asking what something represents more broadly, or analyzing something from a different perspective.
You don't need to preface your ideas in your essay. Don't say things like "I later found out this would be life-changing, and here's why." Instead, just jump into the details that are most compelling. In this essay, there are moments that seem repetitive and redundant because they don't add new ideas and instead restate what's already been said in different words. When editing your essay, be critical of every sentence (and even words) by asking: Does this add something new to my essay? Does it have a clear, distinct purpose? If the answer is no, you should probably remove that sentence.
Common App Essay Example #15: Discovering Passion
Here's a Johns Hopkins essay that shows how the student had a change in attitude and perspective after taking a summer job at a care facility.
It may seem odd to write about your potential drawbacks or weaknesses—such as having a bad attitude towards something—but it's real and can help demonstrate personal growth.
So tell me your thoughts on this JHU Common App essay:
Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (250-650 words)
"If I'll have to be around the old people, I'm not working there. I just don't feel comfortable around them. I mean, I can't even understand what they're saying half the time!"
Dismissively, I rejected my father's nagging proposal that I apply for a summer job at a local long-term care center, arguing that I'd lose my patience much too quickly in attempting to interact with elderly residents. However, with my father being, well, my father, I reluctantly filled out a job application, reluctantly attended an interview, and, 5 days later , reluctantly commuted to an orientation for my position as a 'resident partner'. Although I initially viewed the job as a prison sentence which I had been condemned to serve for 8 hours per day, the care center would eventually come to serve as a clarion call, challenging each and every preconceived notion I held in regards to a globally misunderstood population, and by extension facilitate the development of a more socially conscious personal character.
From the moment I stepped foot in the care center that would soon become a home-away-from-home for the length of my summer, the entirety of my perspective concerning senior citizens was entirely turned upon its head. These elderly persons were nothing near the stereotypical portrayals of the generational group which I had taken at face value and had accepted to be unalterably true; these individuals appeared to be exactly that: individuals. These individuals laughed as if no-one were watching, grinning from ear to ear. These individuals wore expressions of abandonment, fighting against tears of sorrow. These individuals engaged in enthusiastic conversation with acquaintances, recounting the latest achievement of a granddaughter. These individuals engaged in solitary introspection, attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to piece together distant memories of a late wife. Where I had inserted my simplistic view of senior citizens as a static monolith, these individuals showcased a mosaic of human emotion , destroying the ideological box I had structured around their collective identity.
Nonetheless, while the past notions which I had nurtured were quickly deprived of their vitality as a direct consequence of the myriad behaviors exhibited by the care center's residents , I developed a more comprehensive and impactful understanding of the elderly population through my interactions with residents suffering from neural afflictions, namely a frail, endearing woman named Constance.
Resultant of the frequency with which Constance and her wheelchair seemed to bump into me, it happened that a friendship blossomed between she and I. Revealing to me one afternoon that she had endured a stroke decades ago, Constance passively lamented the implications of such an experience, among which existed a speech impediment compromising the ease with which she could engage in conversation. For some odd reason or another, this confession served as a catalyst, utterly decimating any remnant of my elementary view in regards to this social demographic. Perhaps owing to the intimate nature of such a statement, or perhaps owing to the period of introspection such a statement encouraged within me, Constance's words facilitated a realization of the depth of the innumerably varied experiences undergone by senior citizens. Not only did Constance demonstrate to me the dynamic, rounded character of elderly individuals ; Constance unwittingly offered me a glimpse into the unfortunate reality that neural diseases are deeply misunderstood, resulting in the reduction of afflicted persons to the definition and symptoms of their disease .
Armed with a newfound awareness of the subtle dehumanization suffered by those found in circumstances mirroring Constance's, my interest in the function and coordination of the brain and its activity was magnified. Moreover, my tentative decision to pursue a career in neurology—in order to reduce the marginalization of elderly individuals by means of amplifying general knowledge concerning neurological diseases—was solidified.
Regardless of whether this aspiration comes to pass, or I head down a different path , it will remain true that I left my summer job with so much more than a paycheck.
This student uses vulnerability in admitting that they held preconceived notions about the elderly before this experience. The quote introduces these preconceived notions well, while the description of how this student got their job in the care facility is also engaging.
Admission officers love to see your interactions with others. Showing how you interact reveals a lot about your character, and this essay benefits from reflecting upon the student's relationship with a particular elderly individual.
It is good to be descriptive, but only when it supports your expression of ideas. In this essay, the author uses adjectives and adverbs excessively, without introducing new ideas. Your ideas are more important than having a diverse vocabulary, and the realizations in this essay are muddled by rephrasing similar ideas using seemingly "impressive," but ultimately somewhat meaningless, vocabulary.
This essay touches on some interesting ideas, but on multiple occasions these ideas are repeated just in different phrasing. If you have already expressed an idea, don't repeat it unless you're adding something new: a deeper context, a new angle, a broadened application, etc. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of each sentence, and have I expressed it already?
It's true that almost any topic can make for a strong essay, but certain topics are trickier because they make it easy to write about overly used ideas. In this essay, the main idea can be summarized as: "I realized the elderly were worthy humans too." It touches upon more interesting ideas, such as how people can be reduced down to their afflictions rather than their true character, but the main idea is somewhat surface-level.
Common App Essay Example #16: "A Cow Gave Birth"
This Common App essay for the University of Pennsylvania centers on the theme of womanhood. Not only is it well-written, but this essay has interesting and unique ideas that relate to the student's interests.
A cow gave birth and I watched. Staring from the window of our stopped car, I experienced two beginnings that day: the small bovine life and my future. Both emerged when I was only 10 years old and cruising along the twisting roads of rural Maryland. While my country-bound aunt and cousin were barely phased, the scene struck my young and sheltered eyes. Along with a whirlwind of emotions, the unrestrained act of parturition triggered a feeling of warmth I will never forget.
Years later I learned in biology that all women are biologically nurturing, physically and emotionally. What did that mean? At that point in my life, I could truly make no connection. My idea of femininity was locked in what society had shown me thus far. Femininity was wearing dresses, applying makeup, cheerleading, and giggling near the most popular jock in the entire middle school. In other words, things I did not exactly partake in.
But as I sat in the classroom, I didn’t think about my gender or how I relate to what society considers to be female. Rather, the discussion brought me back to that hot car, parked in front of that special birthing cow. I witnessed the essence of biological femininity as that cow radiated love and affection to her calf immediately after his arrival into the world. The cow represented the epitome of femininity: nurturement and selflessness.
As I have considered the idea of “biological femininity”, I have for years questioned how I fit in with that term. Admittedly, I stray far from the stereotypical female. However, according to developmental neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and studies of sex-based cognitive differences, I am empathetic and intuitive, and prefer language over logic— and that was all I needed. Through the birth of a calf, I realized that I did not need to be interested in “girl things” to be a girl. I did not need a characterized maternal figure to show me how to be a young lady. I certainly did not need a man to tell me how to be a woman. The qualities I possess internally give me all the femininity I need to be a female. There was no definition beyond that, nothing society could paint. That, I believed, was absolutely beautiful.
The future is female. Now that I am beginning to understand the fluidity of femininity, hearing those words empowers me. There are endless ways to live the female experience, no one experience more valid than another. Creativity, intuition, kindness, and love are the roots of femininity, while whatever blooms is up to the individual. With my roots firmly planted, I only need the opportunity to grow to create my future.
When I began thinking of a future field of study and career, I didn’t hesitate; I knew I wanted to work with women. After my struggle with femininity, nothing else intrigued me more. The birth of the cow seven years ago was my inciting incident. My story must include the love, warmth, and beauty of that day. To be a part of the birth story of others entering this world and to study the life and love that preceded is my goal. Eventually, through whatever it takes, I will become an OB/GYN so I can work with women daily , helping teenagers through puberty and educating on sexuality, supporting women through their personal challenges, and assisting in the life-changing act of childbirth. I am dedicated to the future of women.
A cow gave birth and I watched. That experience helped me to become the powerful, strong-minded, and passionate young woman I am today. In pursuing a doctorate I hope to encourage and guide other women to be their own best self and show through my actions and story that there is no one version of womanhood that is “right”, perhaps influencing a new generation.
Common App Essay Example #17: Robotics
This Common App essay was for Washington University in St. Louis .
This student writes about their experience creating and using an engineering notebook to better document their robotics progress. They share the story of how their dedication and perseverance led to winning awards and qualifying for the national championships.
Lastly, they reflect on the importance of following one's passions in life and decision to pursue a business degree instead of a engineering one.
My drooping eyes fluttered, biding time before my inevitable descent into a well-deserved slumber. My hand scratched on with determination as I reflected on the past VEX robotics season in my engineering notebook. As I penned my final entry, the once heavy strokes of ink regressed into nothingness, and the cartridge breathed its last, one final victim of my notebook. With an internal salute, I disposed of the pen and retrieved another to finish my reflection. When finally content with my writings, I clicked my pen shut and let out a deep sigh of closure before sauntering up to my bed. As I lay down, I realized that my dedication to my engineering notebook had concluded a crucial leg in my journey toward further education and adulthood. My mind wandered back to the beginning.
Going into my freshman year, my high school's VEX Robotics program personified the proverbial David facing other organizations’ Goliaths. With only one adviser, our poorly funded team struggled to compete with the private clubs who could access high-tech engineering rooms stocked abundantly with building materials. Despite the program’s frugality, my team successfully qualified for the Wisconsin State Championship in my freshman and, then, sophomore year. During those years we earned respect throughout the VEX community , but we never procured any awards that would solidify our program’s competitiveness. To win awards, teams must document their robotics progress in an engineering notebook. During my junior year, with the desire to improve my VEX club’s prestige, I volunteered to create the notebook. At the time, I feared the commitment, never anticipating the unforeseen rewards.
As I progressed through my junior year, I crafted the engineering notebook assiduously ; I set timetables, documented brainstorming sessions, and sketched potential designs all in hopes of winning an award to validate my team. With the first competition approaching, my team spent countless hours building and coding the robot, constantly overcoming the challenges presented by our lack of building materials. In spare moments between schoolwork and VEX, I worked feverishly on the notebook. When competition day arrived, I worried that all our hard work would be unavailing. Despite my apprehensions, we performed exceptionally , and we went on to win the tournament.
Furthermore, my team won the Design Award, which recognizes the best engineering notebook. I felt momentarily overjoyed, but I realized that perseverance could potentially multiply our success. Upon arriving home, I withdrew to my room and continued my meticulous work in my engineering notebook. By the time the State Championship arrived, teams from around Wisconsin respected our program . We were no longer underdogs; rather, we were fierce competitors. At State, we won the CREATE Award for a well-documented and creative design solution, and we qualified for the CREATE US Open Championship. Representing Wisconsin at the national level was the greatest honor of my life. Reshuffling my pillow, my reverie ceased as I considered how my experience creating the engineering notebook taught me invaluable life lessons of tenacity and diligence. I thought about how I no longer bore a childish fear of commitments; instead, I embraced new challenges. Moreover, I realized the notebook enhanced my time management skills both in the short-term and in the long-term. I often worked ahead on homework to leave time for writing, and I learned to make decisions about the overall timeline of our project.
Above all, however, the notebook helped me realize that I should study business instead of following the typical VEX participant’s engineering path. I found my niche when I focused on project management with the notebook instead of concentrating on the specifics of the robot. In a final wink of consciousness, I felt true happiness knowing that my hard work had paid off. Then I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
This essay touches on various lessons that they've learned as a result of their experience doing robotics. However, these lessons are ultimately surface-level and generic, such as "I embraced new challenges." Although these could be a starting point for deeper ideas, on their own they come off as unoriginal and overused. Having interesting ideas is what makes an essay the most compelling, and you need to delve deeply into reflection, past the surface-level takeaways. When drafting and brainstorming, keep asking yourself questions like "How" and "Why" to dig deeper. Ask "What does this represent? How does it connect to other things? What does this show about myself/the world/society/etc.?"
Although this essay is focused on "VEX robotics," the details of what that activity involves are not elaborated. Rather than focusing on the surface-level descriptions like "We competed and won," it would be more engaging to delve into the details. What did your robot do? How did you compete? What were the specific challenges in "lacking building materials"? Use visuals and imagery to create a more engaging picture of what you were doing.
The hook and ending sentences of "drifting off to sleep" feel arbitrary and not at all connected to any ideas throughout the essay. Instead, it comes off as a contrived choice to create a "full circle" essay. Although coming full circle is often a good strategy, there should be a specific purpose in doing so. For your intro, try using a short sentence that creates emphasis on something interesting. For the conclusion, try using similar language to the intro, expanding upon your ideas to more universal takeaways, or connecting back to previous ideas with a new nuance.
Common App Essay Example #18: Lab Research
I remove the latex gloves from my hands. I oscillate between looking at the rats enclosed in the acoustic startle chambers to my right, and my team project advisor to my left. A silver lab table, cluttered with syringes, vials, and countless notes, separates me and him. A lab rat’s cage sits at the center like a cornucopia. I begin to sit on a cold lab stool, and upon confirming that the Startle Reflex software is indeed running, I settle into my seat. Though the atmosphere smells faintly of urine, I am comfortable.
These lazy afternoons collecting data defined my experience at the Governor’s School in the Sciences. Our team would spend hours with the acoustic startle chambers, startling rats in the presence of anxiogenic pheromones from other rodent urine in order to evaluate their altered behavioral responses — freezing, excessive grooming, urination, that sort of thing. Turns out, scaring rats enough to pee their pants takes a long time.
My team project advisor, Zach, made these long hours, not only bearable, but pivotal in my understanding of the applied sciences. Zach was the youngest counselor at GSS and was definitely the easiest to talk to. He would always entertain me and my peers with tales of his college club’s calls for divestment in the fossil fuel industry. He relayed to us an inspiring tale: one day, while completing some organic chemistry assignment, Zach felt the commanding urge to start a protest. Against the backdrop of the divisive presidential election of 2016, Zach felt increasingly frustrated by a general feeling of listlessness amid a rapidly transforming world. He eventually found environmental activism, drawing on his scientific background, as a vehicle to make tangible change in the global landscape. And while Zach’s angsty musings were easy to tease, always ornamented with quintessential frat-boy idiosyncrasies, like the overuse of the words “bro” and “yo,” they forced me to consider my own passions in the context of scientific inquiry. Zach, motivated by the pregnant intersection between environmental science and civic engagement, oriented my own career goals in a very profound way.
Prior to GSS, I had always found myself trying to mediate between my interests in public policy and science, from obsessively reading about America’s diplomatic relations to Middle East, to madly teaching myself about the neuroscientific underpinnings of behavior. Zach’s endeavors, his involvement in activism while studying science, revealed an entire sphere between two worlds where my own passions in both could finally coincide. The fruitful conversations I had with Zach demanded that I consider the pragmatic applications of the research we were doing, engaging with the real world in the same manner he had.
Researching chemical signaling in rodents was an exploration of the social transmission of fear in humans — a study with numerous political applications, especially in today’s age of demagogic political rhetoric. Indeed, a rat gaining awareness of a fearful situation is analogous to a human’s awareness of a fearful situation; hysteria in large groups has often lent to social chaos, falling victim to the same conspecific negotiations as in our rodent study. Application of our study in a political context made me realize that my interests are interwoven, though kaleidoscopic.
At GSS, whether it be in the lectures I listened to or the labs I did, my professors borrowed ideas from all fields alike; political implications arising in neuroscientific research, cultural anthropology in human evolution — even philosophical inquiries appeared in courses on special relativity. I loved every academic excursion onto these intellectual, peripheral avenues, as they always contextualized science in a broader sense. This interdisciplinary way of thinking is where I have found my passions to reside, inspired by Zach’s ruminations on activism amid a place of such intellectual vitality ; I know this is, not only where complex solutions to the world's problems reside, but where my future does too.
Common App Essay Example #19: Carioca Dance
Watching my coach demonstrate the drill, it seemed so simple. But when I tried to do the Carioca drill (it sounds like “karaoke”, but doesn’t involve wailing into a microphone - it’s more like shuffling sideways while doing the Irish jig) , everything fell apart.
Left foot back, right foot in front, left foot... where does it go again? Too late, I realized - I tripped over my feet and fell flat on my face as my teammates started laughing. “Saad, let’s see you dance again!” my teammate called out to me as we got ready to repeat the drill on the way back.
Everyone grinned and watched in anticipation. I swallowed my pride and tried to Carioca in the other direction and stumbled yet again, as my teammates continued to laugh. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this drill”, I thought to myself.
As the practices wore on, the drill changed. Instead of being called Cariocas, the drills were now named after me - “Saads”. Pretty ironic, right? At the start of every practice, I would try the Carioca like everybody else and miserably fail. I would stumble, or trip, or, worse, I would end up doing a full frontal.
In order to avoid embarrassment, I began doing the drills as fast as possible. My “diving in head first” approach (literally and figuratively) definitely wasn’t working. Then at the start of the new season, I tried something different. As everyone quickly did the Carioca across the field, I slowly put each foot in front of the next. It was painstakingly slow, and everyone laughed as I practically crawled across the field. I began doing this every practice. It was a painful process - everyone laughed day after day as I tried to slowly work on perfecting Cariocas. With each practice, I got better. I gradually began stumbling over my own feet less. Until one day, I was doing them at full speed.
I’ve become more flexible and quicker on my feet now that I can do Cariocas and It was like the pattern of the Cariocas, but instead of my feet, it was my mouth that made me afraid I would look clumsy. Like the Cariocas, avoiding or rushing through the problem wasn’t helping me. Instead, I practiced talking in front of stuffed animals, then in front of the mirror, and before I knew it, I was giving a presentation at a Future Business Leaders of America conference in front of judges who gave me great reviews.
Other places off of the lacrosse field, I found myself stumbling there also – interacting with customers at Kohl’s or with patients at the hospital. Instead of tripping over my feet with customers, now working at Kohl’s I find myself being able to connect and assist customers much better – something that seemed so easy to do, but I always tried to rush through because of my fear of embarrassment. I had become a robot programmed to ask how someone's day was , instead of actually engaging and meeting new, interesting, complex people.
Now, I can “Carioca” with them , as well as all of the patients at the hospital I volunteer at. I’ve stopped tripping over my own feet, and it’s led to me not being afraid to connect and interact with patients and customers or present in front of large crowds. Life is just one long Carioca – you might stumble at first, but if you keep pushing, the right feet will find themselves in the right place.
Having a natural-sounding style of writing can be a great way of conveying personality. This student does a fantastic job of writing as they'd speak, which lets admissions officers create a clear "image" of who you are in their head. By writing naturally and not robotically, you can create a "voice" and add character to your essay.
This student chooses a unique activity, the Carioca drill, as their main topic. By choosing a "theme" like this, it allows you to easily and naturally talk about other activities too, without seeming like you're simply listing activities. This student uses the Carioca as a metaphor for overcoming difficulties and relates it to their other activities and academics—public speaking and their job experience.
Showing a sense of humor can indicate wit, which not only makes you seem more likeable, but also conveys self-awareness. By not always taking yourself 100% seriously, you can be more relatable to the reader. This student acknowledges their struggles in conjunction with using humor ("the drills were not named after me—'Saads'"), which shows a recognition that they have room to improve, while not being overly self-critical.
Common App Essay Example #20: Chinese Language
A few weeks before freshman year of high school, I stood and stared wide eyed in front of the fortress that is Lincoln. I was there on a mission. Today, I would choose the language I’d take for the next four years.
The list of languages that Lincoln offered startled me. “There’s so many,” I thought, “Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and French.”
About an hour prior, my mom told me, “You need to take Spanish! You could do so much with it.” A couple days before that, multitudes of people advised me that I would regret taking anything other than Spanish.
There’s nothing wrong with Spanish, but I didn’t have a hunger for it. It didn’t seem appetizing. At first glance, I knew what I wanted. I wanted Chinese, and it was mine the moment I laid eyes on it.
I excelled in Chinese class. I passed every test with flying colors. I remembered Chinese characters like they were the names of my best friends. I could converse. Chinese attached itself to every part of my life. I translated anything I could get my hands on, like magazines and menus. It even infiltrated my dreams. I dreamt of radicals and the past life of every character. The only thing I had to do now was visit China.
China was like a far off wish, though. Until it wasn’t. A trip to China was in our school’s future. My mom couldn’t pay for a trip, though. She can’t work because of her disabilities, and I have three other siblings as well as a nephew all in one house. But I didn’t let that dissuade me, because China was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I wasn’t going to let slip away. I started a GoFundMe page, did other fundraisers, and asked for personal donations until I finally reached the whopping total of $ 5,500 . That money covered a passport, visa, plane ticket, and a 9-day guided educational tour as well as extra spending money.
As soon as I stepped off the plane, and set my eyes upon the beautiful city of Shanghai, I fell in love. In that moment, I had an epiphany. China was made for me, and I wanted to give it all my first; first job and first apartment.
Everywhere I looked there were people who spoke the language I loved, Mandarin, so I did what any rational person would do. I made conversation. I talked to moms, kids, seniors, middle schoolers, high schoolers, store clerks, food vendors, and grocery attendants. The list could go on.
Being able to talk with people who had a completely different background than I did astounded me. Some of us had nothing in common but this wonderful language. I shared stories and personal views with so many people I didn’t know, and in return I got innumerable ones from them. The Chinese gave me a piece of their culture and accepted me with open arms. There were so many things in the world that I had never experienced, but these people had . Their stories would be the ones I’d share with my children and grandchildren.
This trip helped me realized how I’m just one person--one small speck--in this world. There is so much more to learn and experience. My trip to China is the reason I want to teach English abroad. The connections I made were because I was able to communicate. Having a second or third language at your disposal makes you an asset. Whole new cultures are open to you. I want kids and adults to be able to make lifelong connections just as I did when I was in China.
“Junzi zhi xin bù sheng qí xiao, ér qìliàng hángài yish.” (Géyán lián bì) is a Chinese proverb that reminds us that we should not act for our own selfish desires, but rather try to serve the greater good.
Using creative metaphors can be an effective way of conveying ideas. In this essay, the metaphor of "Chinese characters...were the names of my best friends" tells a lot about this student's relationship with the language. When coming up with metaphors, a good rule of thumb is: if you've heard it before, don't use it. Only use metaphors that are specific, make sense for what you're trying to say, and are highly unique.
Whenever you "tell" something, you should try and back it up with anecdotes, examples, or experiences. Instead of saying that "I made conversation," this student exemplifies it by listing who they talked to. Showing is always going to be more compelling than telling because it allows the reader to come to the conclusion on their own, which makes them believe it much stronger. Use specific, tangible examples to back up your points and convince the reader of what you're saying.
Although this essay has reflections, they tend to be more surface-level, rather than unique and compelling. Admissions officers have read thousands of application essays and are familiar with most of the ideas students write about. To stand out, you'll need to dive deeper into your ideas. To do this, keep asking yourself questions whenever you have an interesting idea. Ask "Why" and "How" repeatedly until you reach something that is unique, specific to you, and super interesting.
Avoid writing a conclusion that only "sounds nice," but lacks real meaning. Often times, students write conclusions that go full circle, or have an interesting quote, but they still don't connect to the main idea of the essay. Your conclusion should be your strongest, most interesting idea. It should say something new: a new perspective, a new takeaway, a new aspect of your main point. End your essay strongly by staying on topic, but taking your idea one step further to the deepest it can go.
Common App Essay Example #21: Kiki's Delivery Service
Common App Prompt #6: 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? (250-650 words)
I spent much of my childhood watching movies. I became absolutely engrossed in many different films, TV shows, and animations. From the movie theatres to the TV, I spent my hours enjoying the beauty of visual media. One place that was special to me was the car. My parents purchased a special screen that could be mounted on the back of the headrest, so that I could watch movies on trips. This benefited both parties, as I was occupied, and they had peace. Looking back, I realize this screen played a crucial role in my childhood. It was an integral part of many journeys. I remember taking a drive to Washington D.C, with my visiting relatives from Poland, and spending my time with my eyes on the screen. I remember packing up my possessions and moving to my current home from Queens, watching my cartoons the whole time. I can comfortably say that watching movies in the car has been an familiar anchor during times of change in my life.
I used to watch many different cartoons, nature documentaries, and other products in the car, yet there has been one movie that I have rewatched constantly. It is called “Kiki’s Delivery Service” by Hayao Miyazaki. My parents picked it up at a garage sale one day, and I fell in love. The style of the animations were beautiful, and the captivating story of a thirteen year old witch leaving home really appealed to me. To be honest, the initial times I watched it, I didn’t fully understand the story but the magic and beauty just made me happy. Then, the more I watched it, I began to see that it was more about independence, including the need to get away from home and establish yourself as your own person. This mirrors how I felt during that period of my life,with mehaving a little rebellious streak; I didn’t agree with my parents on certain topics. That is not the end of the story though. As the years passed, and I watched it a couple more times, although with less frequency than before, my view of this movie evolved yet again.
Instead of solely thinking about the need for independence, I began to think the movie was more about the balance of independence and reliance. In the movie, the girl finds herself struggling until she begins to accept help from others. Looking back, this also follows my own philosophy during this time. As I began to mature, I began to realize the value of family, and accept all the help I can get from them. I appreciate all the hard work they had done for me, and I recognize their experience in life and take advantage of it. I passed through my rebellious phase, and this reflected in my analysis of the movie. I believe that this is common, and if I look through the rest of my life I am sure I would find other similar examples of my thoughts evolving based on the stage in my life. This movie is one of the most important to me throughout my life.
Common App Essay Example #22: Museum of Life
Stepping inside the converted railway station, I am transported to another world. Amidst gorgeous Beaux-Arts architecture, statues pose on pedestals, and thousands of paintings line the adjacent rooms. The Musée d’Orsay is one of the most magical museums on Earth. I am immediately drawn to the impressionist exhibits to explore the land of Degas and Monet. Dancers stand in rehearsal. Water lilies bask in a pond. The sun sets on Notre Dame. The Little Dancer sculpture I have always dreamed of seeing stands in its glass case. I am overwhelmed with beauty, moments in time painted into immortality and hung up on the wall. Close enough to marvel at the brush strokes taken by the artists who painted my favorite famous works of art in existence , I am seeing dreams that have come to fruition, paintings that have impacted the world with their presence.
A naturalistic observation at an art museum may not sound like it would be effective , but art museums are the best place to observe and learn about a person. My exploration of one gives insight into my aptitude for working in the medical field.
Some people cannot stand art museums. They find no value in looking at pictures on a wall for hours and trying to interpret their meaning. These people prefer more concrete ideas in life rather than the abstract and do not enjoy the unknown or the unsolved. Others go to say that they went. They simply take a picture with the most famous work in the museum and call it a day. Some are lucky enough to appreciate the art’s meaning , but many of these people are most concerned with their appearance and others' opinions on it. Finally, some spend hours absorbing the stories, culture, and beauty that hang on the walls.
I take time interpreting new ideas and perspectives and appreciating the history that lies before me. This reflects my open-mindedness, my thirst for knowledge, and simply my appreciation for art. I am proud to call myself one of the creatives of the world : an imaginative, curious soul.
If people were to watch me experience the art museum, they would see me pass half of the exhibits to get to the ones I am truly enamored by, where I can feel my heart beating out of my chest and the gears of my brain going into overload to take in all of the history and frozen moments in time that surround me. I carefully examine and stop to ponder at the works that truly strike me, and simply take a glance at others. If they were to attempt to create a summary of me based on their observations, I am sure they would be perplexed .
I always gravitate towards what matters most to me, the impressionist exhibits of life: my passions, the people I love, and discovering new things at every chance I get. I live to collect moments, just as the moments in paintings hang on the wall for everyone to see for themself. I enjoy when topics are up for interpretation but find comfort in knowing the fundamentals and studying what is already known. Above all, I want to help others and bring smiles to their faces. I would love to see my impact on the world through the happiness of those I touch around me. This is why pursuing medicine is the perfect future for me.
Like solving a puzzle from the inside-out to give patients a fresh canvas, it is a scientific art . I want to carry my love for art into my practice of medicine, to find creative ways to interpret issues that most would say are unsolvable . My painting, my impact on the world, will be creating those blank canvases for others to continue to paint on, working to give others their own chance to walk through the art museum we call life.
Using visuals can be a way to add interesting moments to your essay. Avoid being overly descriptive, however, as it can be distracting from your main point. When drafting, start by focusing on your ideas (your reflections and takeaways). Once you have a rough draft, then you can consider ways to incorporate imagery that can add character and flavor to your essay.
Admissions officers are people, just like you, and therefore are drawn to personalities that exhibit positive qualities. Some of the most important qualities to portray are: humility, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and passion. In this essay, there are several moments that could be interpreted as potentially self-centered or arrogant. Avoid trying to make yourself out to be "better" or "greater" than other people. Instead, focus on having unique and interesting ideas first, and this will show you as a likeable, insightful person. Although this is a "personal" statement, you should also avoid over using "I" in your essay. When you have lots of "I" sentences, it starts to feel somewhat ego-centric, rather than humble and interested in something greater than you.
This essay does a lot of "telling" about the author's character. Instead, you want to provide evidence—through examples, anecdotes, and moments—that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about who you are. Avoid surface-level takeaways like "I am open-minded and have a thirst for knowledge." These types of statements are meaningless because anyone can write them. Instead, focus on backing up your points by "showing," and then reflect genuinely and deeply on those topics.
This essay is focused on art museums and tries to tie in a connection to studying medicine. However, because this connection is very brief and not elaborated, the connection seems weak. To connect to your area of study when writing about a different topic, try reflecting on your topic first. Go deep into interesting ideas by asking "How" and "Why" questions. Then, take those ideas and broaden them. Think of ways they could differ or parallel your desired area of study. The best connections between a topic (such as an extracurricular) and your area of study (i.e. your major) is through having interesting ideas.
Common App Essay Example #23: French Horn
Holton is my best friend. He may be a bit worn down, but he is an old soul with a story to tell. With him, I have enjoyed Russian folklore, romantic escapades, and renowned classics. With him, I have succeeded and failed. At times, we have had arguments, but when I look back on our time together, it’s the magical moments that resound. When I moved schools, I lost contact with many of my old friends, but I never lost Holton.
At first, I was a bit hesitant about our relationship, but my teacher advised me that Holton and I would grow into great friends if we just gave each other a chance. How could I say no? Since then, I have never looked back. We have taken trips to New York City every weekend, with each passing day bringing a new adventure. Eventually, people began to express worry that all the time we spent together would hinder my academics and hold me back from other pursuits; I didn’t care. Nothing could break our bond.
Sometimes I reminisce about the day I first met Holton. The old adage goes, gold is first and silver is second. With Holton, this notion was turned upside down. When I walked into the shop, it was all gold. It was as if King Midas had touched everything in the store. However, something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Was that a silver among the golds? He is not your standard image of perfection without that golden shine. However, I knew not to judge anything at face value but rather by the story that it tells; it was this silver horn that possessed the hauntingly golden sound.
Holton is my french horn. Not a shiny new one, but one that has travelled far and experienced much. He has been with me under the bright lights of Lincoln Center and Peter Jay Sharp Theater, and has always given my right arm a good workout as I carry him from class to class, rehearsal to rehearsal, performance to performance.
Through Holton, I have experienced failure. My failed New Jersey Youth Symphony audition as a sixth grader fueled my motivation to practice harder. I still remember my dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances. Such failures invariably led to success. Acceptance into the Juilliard Pre-College program will always be one of my happiest memories. However, no success comes without sacrifice. In my early childhood, I participated in every activity that I liked. Basketball, choir, piano...if I enjoyed it, I did it. Mandatory all-day attendance every Saturday at Juilliard with my friend Holton in company, meant I had to give up some other things that I loved. I could no longer be a part of the New Jersey Youth Chorus, the beloved choir in which I had sung for seven years. I would not be able to try out for freshman basketball, one of my high school goals. I would not be able to participate on the debate team in earnest, something that I fell in love in my freshman year. But Holton has been worth these sacrifices and more.
The journey I am experiencing with him more than makes up for anything else I had to give up, and I cannot wait to continue our journey in my college years.
Soon, my high school experience will be over, and as I bid adieu to the friendly walls of [School] , I will hit the road to wherever this application process takes me. Among all the suitcases in the trunk will be a black, worn-down horn case; inside will be Holton, ready for more adventures. Many college-bound seniors wish for good roommates. I know that in Holton I will have, at the very least, one great one. He will always hold a special place in my life and in my heart as my first prize silver.
This student chose the creative idea of personifying their French horn as their central theme. Using this personification, they are able to write about a multitude of moments while making them all feel connected. This unique approach also makes for a more engaging essay, as it is not overly straightforward and generic.
It can be challenging to reference your achievements without seeming boastful or coming across too plainly. This student manages to write about their successes ("acceptance into the Julliard Pre-College program") by using them as moments part of a broader story. The focus isn't necessarily on the accomplishments themselves, but the role they play in this relationship with their instrument. By connecting more subtly like this, it shows humility. Often, "diminishing" your achievements will actually make them stand out more, because it shows you're focused on the greater meaning behind them, rather than just "what you did."
This student does a good job of exemplifying each of their ideas. Rather than just saying "I experienced failure," they show it through imagery ("dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances"). Similarly, with their idea "no success comes without sacrifice," they exemplify it using examples of sacrifice. Always try to back up your points using examples, because showing is much more convincing than telling. Anyone can "tell" things, but showing requires proof.
This essay has a decent conclusion, but it could be stronger by adding nuance to their main idea or connecting to the beginning with a new perspective. Rather than repeating what you've established previously, make sure your conclusion has a different "angle" or new aspect. This can be connecting your main idea to more universal values, showing how you now view something differently, or emphasizing a particular aspect of your main idea that was earlier introduced.
Common App Essay Example #24: Dear My Younger Self
Common App Prompt #7: 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. (250-650 words)
My advice is not scientifically-proven, mother-tested, or kid-approved. However, I think it will make your life easier. But take this advice — as anyone would from a 17 year old — with a grain of salt. It is only as reliable as my own experiences. So here it is:
- Speak Portuguese. It’s frustrating to know that I lost such a valuable skill because I deemed it too “embarrassing” to use in front of my kindergarten classmates. Fluency in another language is not only uncommon, but it also would have allowed you to communicate with your Brazilian relatives.
- Don’t live your life as if you're constantly being watched and criticized. Chances are, no one is even paying attention to you.
- Experiment with your interests early. Now is the perfect time to try different interests and see which ones you like. Take up something that pushes you out of your comfort zone: bagpipes, rock climbing, musical theater, literally anything. Eventually, you will find something you love.
- Take comfort in the fact that no matter what obstacle you encounter, it’s happened to everyone. You’re not the first person to get a 70 on your paper, trip in public, or rip your pants. Although, try to keep the pants-ripping to minimum.
- You don’t need to be exactly like your father. I am a spitting image of him. I may have inherited his intelligence, but that came with his ego as well. You can learn just as much from his mistakes as his achievements.
- Wear your retainer.
- Empathy makes your life easier. People who are inexplicably cruel are suffering just as much as the recipients of their abuse. Understanding this makes your interactions with these people less painful.
- Skip the “I want to be an anesthesiologist” phase — you don’t.
- Comparing yourself to your classmates is counterproductive. Sometimes you will forge ahead, other times you will lag behind. But ultimately, you’re only racing yourself.
- Your intelligence is not defined by your grades and test scores.
- I am passive aggressive when I lack the confidence to express something that upsets me. Learn to communicate effectively. It saves you from the endless “what if” contemplations that keep you awake at night. If you are successful, tell me how.
- Speak up to your stepmom.
- Try not to identify too strongly with material items. I ran into this issue when my hair defined me: friends often stated that they just couldn’t imagine me without my large and poofy hair. When it started falling out after a stressful period, I had to reestablish the image my hair had made.
- Always eat the cake. I couldn't tell you how many times I’ve turned away a slice of cake, only to regret it the next day. If you really can’t commit, do yourself a favor and take a slice home with you.
- Recognize and appreciate your privilege. There is no limit to the opportunities you have and that amazes me.
- Cherish your grandparents.
- Forgive your mother. Harboring resentment hurts you just as much as her. All the time I spent being angry at her could’ve been spent discovering her strengths.
- Cut off worried thoughts with “what if things work out?” In periods of change, acknowledge the fact that things may go according to plan. This isn’t an ignorant overlook of reality. Anticipate that this change will be bring some good with it.
- Accept inevitable truths: You will get older. Your friends will come and go. You will struggle and triumph. You will encounter heartache, joy, and everything in between. This list will continue to grow.
This essay chose a unique structure in the form of a letter addressed to themselves with a list of lessons they've learned. This structure is unique, and also allows the student to explore a variety of topics and ideas while making them all feel connected. It is tricky to not seem "gimmicky" when choosing a creative structure like this, but the key is to make your essay well thought-out. Show that you've put effort into reflecting deeply, and that you aren't choosing a unique structure just to stand out.
This essay is highly focused on lessons they've learned, which shows a deep level of reflection. Your ideas and takeaways from life experience are ultimately most compelling to admissions officers, and this essay succeeds because it is focused almost entirely on those reflections. This student also manages to incorporate anecdotes and mini stories where appropriate, which makes their reflections more memorable by being tangible.
Showing humility and self-awareness are two highly attractive traits in college admissions. Being able to recognize your own flaws and strengths, while not making yourself out to be more than what you are, shows that you are mature and thoughtful. Avoid trying to "boost yourself up" by exaggerating your accomplishments or over-emphasizing your strengths. Instead, let your ideas speak for themselves, and by focusing on genuine, meaningful ideas, you'll convey a persona that is both humble and insightful.
The drawback of having a structure like this, where lots of different ideas are examined, is that no one idea is examined in-depth. As a result, some ideas (such as "intelligence is not defined by your grades") come across as trite and overused. In general, avoid touching on lots of ideas while being surface-level. Instead, it's almost always better to choose a handful (or even just one main idea) and go as in-depth as possible by continually asking probing questions—"How" and "Why"—that force yourself to think deeper and be more critical. Having depth of ideas shows inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and ultimately are more interesting because they are ideas that only you could have written.
Common App Essay Example #25: Monopoly
Sliding the scottie dog across “Go!” past Boardwalk and Park Place , I immediately exhale. I am safe for another round; far more importantly, though, my younger brothers have not surpassed me.
After passing by the weekend of “GO,” I begin the next lap around the board of challenge, success, and strategy. My next turn stops me at a chance card that reads: “Psychology project, physics assignment, and precalc test tomorrow. You will not be home from riding until 10 PM, but be at school at 6:30 a.m. for an NHS meeting. Go.” Solving for f’(x) atop a tack trunk in between riding my horses, Cinda and Coco, and writing about Milgram’s prison experiment by the light of my phone on the way back home, I’ve managed to make it through this round, but not before falling asleep, pencil in hand.
My next turn is greeted with a bit more docility as I land on my brother’s property, and begrudgingly pay my rent of driving him to and from lacrosse practice. I return home to finish updating a client’s website, and complete my homework before re-organizing my closet to be sorted chromatically (I suppose I am the slightest bit type A...) . Later, I pass out while on FaceTime with my bestfriend, Stephen, only to have a nightmare filled unsolvable physics problems: which way does the pulley go?! The world may never know!
However, my next roll is not as kind: I land on the tile that reads “GO TO JAIL!” The night before the most important math test of the year, I discover that my dad, with whom I have a very distant relationship, has become homeless. Questioning what I was doing as I continued to study—and consuming an entire bag of jolly ranchers in the process—I remind myself that I cannot control what others around me choose to do. With luck on my side and doubles on the first role, I take the test the next day to discover I have studied all of the right problems and receive a 98%. I am still in the game for another turn.
Feeling a bit weary from my last roll of the dice, I cross my fingers with the “FREE PARKING” square in sight. As luck has it, I smoothly glide past the hotels to have my best horse show yet- earning multiple wins against stiff competition and gaining points to qualify for five different national finals this year.
The game of Monopoly runs parallel to my life in many ways. It is a game of strategy and precision, with a hint of luck and a tremendous amount of challenge. These factors result in a game filled with tests and questions around every corner, keeping me on my toes. Through good and bad “turns,” I have learned when to multitask and when to focus, when to take risks and when to play it safe, when to have a poker face and when to ask for help. Most importantly, I know that in moments of doubt or confusion, I can rise to the occasion. Whether I am faced with a befuddling essay prompt, a difficult course in the horse show ring, or even unfortunate decisions by people in my life, I know I can always attack any situation with confidence and vigor.
As I embark on my next trip around the board, I reflect on the past properties I have purchased, taxes I have paid, and hotels I have built. Through the rounds I have played thus far, I learned how to deal with whatever numbers I roll and spaces I land on, whether that be “GO TO JAIL” or “FREE PARKING”. I pick up the chance card from my last turn with confidence: “Take what comes and enjoy the ride” I smile. I am ready.
This essay uses the board game "Monopoly" as a metaphor for their life. By using a metaphor as your main topic, you can connect to different ideas and activities in a cohesive way. However, make sure the metaphor isn't chosen arbitrarily. In this essay, it isn't completely clear why Monopoly is an apt metaphor for their life, because the specific qualities that make Monopoly unique aren't explained or elaborated. Lots of games require "strategy and precision, with a hint of luck and a tremendous amount of challenge," so it'd be better to focus on the unique aspects of the game to make a more clear connection. For example, moving around the board in a "repetitive" fashion, but each time you go around with a different perspective. When choosing a metaphor, first make sure that it is fitting for what you're trying to describe.
You want to avoid listing your activities or referencing them without a clear connection to something greater. Since you have an activities list already, referencing your activities in your essay should have a specific purpose, rather than just emphasizing your achievements. In this essay, the student connects their activities by connecting them to a specific idea: how each activity is like a mini challenge that they must encounter to progress in life. Make sure your activities connect to something specifically: an idea, a value, an aspect of your character.
This essay lacks depth in their reflections by not delving deeply into their main takeaways. In this essay, the main "idea" is that they've learned to be persistent with whatever comes their way. This idea could be a good starting point, but on its own is too generic and not unique enough. Your idea should be deep and specific, meaning that it should be something only you could have written about. If your takeaway could be used in another student's essay without much modification, chances are it is a surface-level takeaway and you want to go more in-depth. To go in-depth, keep asking probing questions like "How" and "Why" or try making more abstract connections between topics.
In the final two paragraphs, this essay does a lot of "telling" about the lessons they've learned. They write "I know that in moments of doubt...I can rise to the occasion." Although this could be interesting, it would be far more effective if this idea is shown through anecdotes or experiences. The previous examples in the essay don't "show" this idea. When drafting, take your ideas and think of ways you can represent them without having to state them outright. By showing your points, you will create a more engaging and convincing essay because you'll allow the reader to come to the conclusion themselves, rather than having to believe what you've told them.
What Can You Learn from These Common App Essay Examples?
With these 25 Common App essay examples, you can get inspired and improve your own personal statement.
If you want to get accepted into selective colleges this year, your Common App essays needs to be its best possible.
What makes a good Common App essay isn't easy to define. There aren't any rules or steps.
But using these samples from real students, you can understand what it takes to write an outstanding personal statement .
Let me know, which Common App essay did you think was the best?
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Frequently asked questions
What is the common application essay.
The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.
Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.
Frequently asked questions: College admissions essays
When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.
No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.
Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.
Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.
When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding your message and content. Then, check for flow, tone, style , and clarity. Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors .
If your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.
If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.
If you’ve got to write your college essay fast , don’t panic. First, set yourself deadlines: you should spend about 10% of your remaining time on brainstorming, 10% on outlining, 40% writing, 30% revising, and 10% taking breaks in between stages.
Second, brainstorm stories and values based on your essay prompt.
Third, outline your essay based on the montage or narrative essay structure .
Fourth, write specific, personal, and unique stories that would be hard for other students to replicate.
Fifth, revise your essay and make sure it’s clearly written.
Last, if possible, get feedback from an essay coach . Scribbr essay editors can help you revise your essay in 12 hours or less.
Avoid swearing in a college essay , since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.
If you have bad grades on your transcript, you may want to use your college admissions essay to explain the challenging circumstances that led to them. Make sure to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects and highlight how you overcame the situation or learned an important lesson.
However, some college applications offer an additional information section where you can explain your bad grades, allowing you to choose another meaningful topic for your college essay.
Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:
- Extracurriculars, especially sports
- Role models
- Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
- Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
- Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
- Overcoming a difficult class
- Using a common object as an extended metaphor
It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.
Yes. The college application essay is less formal than other academic writing —though of course it’s not mandatory to use contractions in your essay.
In a college essay , you can be creative with your language . When writing about the past, you can use the present tense to make the reader feel as if they were there in the moment with you. But make sure to maintain consistency and when in doubt, default to the correct verb tense according to the time you’re writing about.
The college admissions essay gives admissions officers a different perspective on you beyond your academic achievements, test scores, and extracurriculars. It’s your chance to stand out from other applicants with similar academic profiles by telling a unique, personal, and specific story.
Use a standard font such as Times New Roman or Arial to avoid distracting the reader from your college essay’s content.
A college application essay is less formal than most academic writing . Instead of citing sources formally with in-text citations and a reference list, you can cite them informally in your text.
For example, “In her research paper on genetics, Quinn Roberts explores …”
There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay . College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count .
Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:
- Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
- Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
- Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
- Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
- Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)
To write an effective diversity essay , include vulnerable, authentic stories about your unique identity, background, or perspective. Provide insight into how your lived experience has influenced your outlook, activities, and goals. If relevant, you should also mention how your background has led you to apply for this university and why you’re a good fit.
Many universities believe a student body composed of different perspectives, beliefs, identities, and backgrounds will enhance the campus learning and community experience.
Admissions officers are interested in hearing about how your unique background, identity, beliefs, culture, or characteristics will enrich the campus community, which is why they assign a diversity essay .
In addition to your main college essay , some schools and scholarships may ask for a supplementary essay focused on an aspect of your identity or background. This is sometimes called a diversity essay .
You can use humor in a college essay , but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.
Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.
Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.
You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.
To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:
- Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
- Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories
You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.
Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .
There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic
- Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
- Focuses on you and your experiences
- Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
- Is creative and original
Unlike a five-paragraph essay, your admissions essay should not end by summarizing the points you’ve already made. It’s better to be creative and aim for a strong final impression.
You should also avoid stating the obvious (for example, saying that you hope to be accepted).
There are a few strategies you can use for a memorable ending to your college essay :
- Return to the beginning with a “full circle” structure
- Reveal the main point or insight in your story
- Look to the future
- End on an action
The best technique will depend on your topic choice, essay outline, and writing style. You can write several endings using different techniques to see which works best.
College deadlines vary depending on the schools you’re applying to and your application plan:
- For early action applications and the first round of early decision applications, the deadline is on November 1 or 15. Decisions are released by mid-December.
- For the second round of early decision applications, the deadline is January 1 or 15. Decisions are released in January or February.
- Regular decision deadlines usually fall between late November and mid-March, and decisions are released in March or April.
- Rolling admission deadlines run from July to April, and decisions are released around four to eight weeks after submission.
Depending on your prospective schools’ requirements, you may need to submit scores for the SAT or ACT as part of your college application .
Some schools now no longer require students to submit test scores; however, you should still take the SAT or ACT and aim to get a high score to strengthen your application package.
Aim to take the SAT or ACT in the spring of your junior year to give yourself enough time to retake it in the fall of your senior year if necessary.
Apply early for federal student aid and application fee waivers. You can also look for scholarships from schools, corporations, and charitable foundations.
To maximize your options, you should aim to apply to about eight schools:
- Two reach schools that might be difficult to get into
- Four match schools that you have a good chance of getting into
- Two safety schools that you feel confident you’ll get into
The college admissions essay accounts for roughly 25% of the weight of your application .
At highly selective schools, there are four qualified candidates for every spot. While your academic achievements are important, your college admissions essay can help you stand out from other applicants with similar profiles.
In general, for your college application you will need to submit all of the following:
- Your personal information
- List of extracurriculars and awards
- College application essays
- Standardized test scores
- Recommendation letters.
Different colleges may have specific requirements, so make sure you check exactly what’s expected in the application guidance.
You should start thinking about your college applications the summer before your junior year to give you sufficient time for college visits, taking standardized tests, applying for financial aid , writing essays, and collecting application material.
Yes, but make sure your essay directly addresses the prompt, respects the word count , and demonstrates the organization’s values.
If you plan ahead, you can save time by writing one scholarship essay for multiple prompts with similar questions. In a scholarship tracker spreadsheet, you can group or color-code overlapping essay prompts; then, write a single essay for multiple scholarships. Sometimes, you can even reuse or adapt your main college essay .
You can start applying for scholarships as early as your junior year. Continue applying throughout your senior year.
Invest time in applying for various scholarships , especially local ones with small dollar amounts, which are likely easier to win and more reflective of your background and interests. It will be easier for you to write an authentic and compelling essay if the scholarship topic is meaningful to you.
You can find scholarships through your school counselor, community network, or an internet search.
A scholarship essay requires you to demonstrate your values and qualities while answering the prompt’s specific question.
After researching the scholarship organization, identify a personal experience that embodies its values and exemplifies how you will be a successful student.
A standout college essay has several key ingredients:
- A unique, personally meaningful topic
- A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
- Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
- Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
- Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
- A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.
You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.
Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.
In most cases, quoting other people isn’t a good way to start your college essay . Admissions officers want to hear your thoughts about yourself, and quotes often don’t achieve that. Unless a quote truly adds something important to your essay that it otherwise wouldn’t have, you probably shouldn’t include it.
Cliché openers in a college essay introduction are usually general and applicable to many students and situations. Most successful introductions are specific: they only work for the unique essay that follows.
The key to a strong college essay introduction is not to give too much away. Try to start with a surprising statement or image that raises questions and compels the reader to find out more.
The introduction of your college essay is the first thing admissions officers will read and therefore your most important opportunity to stand out. An excellent introduction will keep admissions officers reading, allowing you to tell them what you want them to know.
You can speed up this process by shortening and smoothing your writing with a paraphrasing tool . After that, you can use the summarizer to shorten it even more.
If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.
Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.
You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.
If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.
In your application essay , admissions officers are looking for particular features : they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.
Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.
You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay , but you can include one if you think it adds something important.
Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:
- Use a standard, readable font
- Use 1.5 or double spacing
- If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
- Stick to the word count
- Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches
There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:
- A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
- A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.
Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.
Campus visits are always helpful, but if you can’t make it in person, the college website will have plenty of information for you to explore. You should look through the course catalog and even reach out to current faculty with any questions about the school.
Colleges set a “Why this college?” essay because they want to see that you’ve done your research. You must prove that you know what makes the school unique and can connect that to your own personal goals and academic interests.
Depending on your writing, you may go through several rounds of revision . Make sure to put aside your essay for a little while after each editing stage to return with a fresh perspective.
Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your language, tone, and content . Ask for their help at least one to two months before the submission deadline, as many other students will also want their help.
Friends and family are a good resource to check for authenticity. It’s best to seek help from family members with a strong writing or English educational background, or from older siblings and cousins who have been through the college admissions process.
If possible, get help from an essay coach or editor ; they’ll have specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and be able to give objective expert feedback.
When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.
Include specific, personal details and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.
Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.
When writing about yourself , including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.
First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character . You can start with these questions:
- What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
- Whom do you admire most and why?
- What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?
However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.
In a college application essay , you can occasionally bend grammatical rules if doing so adds value to the storytelling process and the essay maintains clarity.
However, use standard language rules if your stylistic choices would otherwise distract the reader from your overall narrative or could be easily interpreted as unintentional errors.
Write concisely and use the active voice to maintain a quick pace throughout your essay and make sure it’s the right length . Avoid adding definitions unless they provide necessary explanation.
Use first-person “I” statements to speak from your perspective . Use appropriate word choices that show off your vocabulary but don’t sound like you used a thesaurus. Avoid using idioms or cliché expressions by rewriting them in a creative, original way.
If you’re an international student applying to a US college and you’re comfortable using American idioms or cultural references , you can. But instead of potentially using them incorrectly, don’t be afraid to write in detail about yourself within your own culture.
Provide context for any words, customs, or places that an American admissions officer might be unfamiliar with.
College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing . Use a conversational yet respectful tone , as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.
Aim to write in your authentic voice , with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.
Admissions officers use college admissions essays to evaluate your character, writing skills , and ability to self-reflect . The essay is your chance to show what you will add to the academic community.
The college essay may be the deciding factor in your application , especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.
Some colleges also require supplemental essays about specific topics, such as why you chose that specific college . Scholarship essays are often required to obtain financial aid .
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First-year essay prompts
Common App has announced the 2023-2024 essay prompts.
Below is the complete set of common app essay prompts for 2023-2024..
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
We will also retain the optional community disruption question within the Writing section.
Looking for tips on how to approach the essay? Check out our blog !
Starting your Common App essay can be hard. Jen and Emma are here to help.
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