Students completing their college applications in the fall of 2014 will be choosing from the Common Application essay topics. The prompts which first premiered last fall received generally positive feedback, so the Common Application decided to stick with the same prompts. In this article, we’ll review each one of the prompts and discuss strategies for effective essays.
The Basics of Good Essay Writing
Keep it Real
Too often students write what they think admissions officers want to hear or what they believe essays are supposed to sound like. These essays end up sounding boring and fake. The purpose of an admissions essay is to let admissions get to know you, so be authentic. Personal statements are really tough for a lot of students so don’t be hard on yourself if it takes some time and struggle to feel comfortable with really being yourself.
Remember admissions officers are reading hundreds and hundreds of essays and your essay will be most successful if it is original. Often the first theme that comes to your mind may be the exact same one that comes to other students’ minds. That’s not to say a great essay can’t be written on winning the big game, learning to love engineering by playing with LEGO, feeling victory when you climb to the top of a mountain, or learning to care about the poor through service. Good essays have probably been written on all of these topics. But know that if it has been covered before, the bar will be higher for you.
Remember Your Audience
Think about who will be reading the essay and what they hope to learn about you. Learn more about what admissions officers are looking for.
Rewrite and Proofread
A good essay usually takes multiple drafts. Be prepared to rewrite. Avoid spelling and grammar mistakes. Have at least two people proofread your essay and listen with an open mind to their feedback. One nice thing with the Common Application prompts is they are available early so you have plenty of time over the summer to work on your essay. Students who take time for revisions end up with better essays.
Strategies for Common Application Essays
Common Application Essay Choice 1: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Strategy: This is the most broad-sweeping and general of the prompts. In previous years students have had the option to write an essay on the “topic of your choice” and this was a very popular option. While this prompt is a bit different from “topic of your choice,” students should be able to fit a very wide range of essay themes into this prompt. So if none of the other prompts feel like exactly what you are looking for, see if you can fit what you’d like to write about in this prompt.
Strategy: Make sure the problem you choose is actually a real problem. Writing about the one and only time you got a B or didn’t win the big game may make you sound indulged and fragile. If the problem was that you made stupid choices, what’s stopping you from continuing to make them in new situations? Avoid anything that makes you look like a bad college candidate (drunk driving, shoplifting, cheating, etc.) Finally, I suggest you choose a problem that was solved primarily through your own action.
Common Application Essay Choice 3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Strategy: This is a topic that will great for students who genuinely have had a significant change and are able to articulate that experience. If you haven’t, however, avoid the temptation to make something up. It never works.
Common Application Essay Choice 4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Strategy: Remember you should be at the center of your essay. The place or environment should be described, but you should remain the star. Contentment doesn’t necessarily offer a lot in the way of plot or action, so you’ll want to be sure that you have a solid story. As many teens have similar experiences that bring contentment (hiking, soccer field, being in your own room). You’ll want to tread carefully and avoid cliches. Make sure you’ve got a story line and a fresh way to approach this topic.
Common Application Essay Choice 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Strategy: Again you’ll want to watch out for potential cliched interpretations here. Common topics include Bar Mitzvah, Quiñceaera, and the day I got my driver’s license essays. Some of these essays will be great, some will be lousy. Make sure you’ve got a unique interpretation if you choose this topic.
While the Common Application is the standard application form for nearly 500 colleges, this single essay will not be the only essay most students write. Some colleges are not a member of the Common Application and many members also assign additional essay topics. While this essay won’t be the only college admissions essay most students write, it is most often the most important topic. Take time to really think through your plan and be prepared to try more than one topic before you settle on the one that fits you best. Remember writing personal essays can be tough, so it is okay if you struggle. Hang in there and keep plugging along until you write an essay you can be proud of.
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