If college applications are barreling like a thousand stampeding buffalo toward you, chances are the Common Application essay leads the pack—one of the seemingly most intimidating parts of the process.
However, writing this essay doesn’t have to mean dealing with the biggest bison in the herd. In fact, the summer before senior year—or the summer before junior year—is a great time to start working on this essay, both in coming up with an idea and an execution.
The prompts for the 2017–2018 application season are as follows:
- 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. [No change]
- 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? [Revised]
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
- Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change]
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
- 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? [New]
- 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. [New]
Although it might seem tempting to relax the whole summer, much less effort will be required of you come fall if you take some time to ruminate upon and/or have experiences to write about during your vacation.
Part of the problem, of course, is how broad the topics are. Being broad and general is the last thing you want to do.
“Step in the shoes of the person who will be reading your essay. They want to see a real person, who struggles and who has flaws, and who is trying to improve him or herself,” says Kyle Huang, a current high school senior from California who has been accepted to MIT, Vanderbilt, and Yale, among others. “They don't want to read the same thing over and over again, so make sure you do something to stand out. Any story can be told in an interesting way if you make it.”
His essay for the Common Application, using the guidelines of prompt one, began with an anecdote about seeing the sunrise from a plane window—a specific moment—to illuminate his journey and differences that he experienced when transitioning to America from Shanghai, China.
Likewise, current senior Duha Alfatlawi (accepted to Harvard and Columbia, among others) framed her 650-word narrative, which took her from Iraq to the US, with simple objects that meant much to her.
“I wanted to show the admissions counselors that I came from a completely different world when I was young but that throughout my journey to America, I remained inquisitive and adventurous,” Alfatlawi says. “To represent these two traits, I used my magnifying glass and my training wheels. I said that those things are no longer tangible items for me since they were left behind; however, their symbolic meanings are still a huge part of my life as I continue to want to explore the world, travel, and of course delve into the world of nanobiology and engineering, a world in which I would need a magnifying glass to look into.”
Both of these essays share moments, which you should seek when writing. Moments can be based around objects (like Alfatlawi’s magnifying glass), places, people, ideas, or a memory no more than a few minutes long (like Huang’s sunrise).
Moments provide an entry point to the essay, giving it a thematic, contemplative side (or a humorous perspective) without having to resort to common clichés, and can be used at the end to tie up all threads of the mini-narrative. The word limit can be restrictive, so having these types of symbols helps in that manner as well.
These moments should be looked for, contemplated upon, or experienced as soon as possible to give the subconscious enough time to work in developing the strongest idea possible.
“Starting early is a really important component to producing a quality essay, because it gives you time and the ability to really develop what you want to say,” Alfatlawi says. “Overall, I think it's important to present yourself in a way that is true, but also distinguishing.”
The first steps in both students’ Common Application essay process include brainstorming and outlining. While these might sound rather tedious and school-like, the goal is to have fun with whatever process you ultimately choose—if the writing is enjoyable because it is based on something you truly enjoy, then it can be reasonably inferred that the admission officers will see this too. Genuine passion shines through.
Related: College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example
So start a list this summer and add to it as you think of more ideas or have more experiences—adding what truly matters to you, regardless of how “trivial” you might think it is. It’s more important to be honest when writing than to write merely to please the admission officers.
“For people who maybe don't [think they have] a super interesting story to tell, I'd tell them don't pull their hair out for it,” Huang advises, adding that the telling of the story and the personal voice you develop is most important.
While making your list, if you find it difficult or think an improvement can be made, summertime is great for making memories and choosing moments. Decide which trait you would like to present to admission officers in your essay, or which theme that runs through your life you’d like to explain; with that knowledge in hand, seek out moments that correspond, and begin to write.
“Think about all the little stories that you can tell surrounding your main topic,” Huang says. “Really try to show your personality in the essay(s)…Don’t talk about academic achievement too much—they already see that in the rest of your application.”
These moments are, after all, the ones that translate best into stories people seek to read. One of the most cliché pieces of advice—“show, don’t tell”—is what helped Huang in his many applications.
“Instead of saying, ‘I did not understand anything on the board,’ say something like, ‘The lines and scribbles on the board seemed like a foreign language,’” Huang explains. “Clearly, the latter one really paints a picture really well in the reader’s mind. I found that using imagery or using a small real-life example is really beneficial in a lot of cases. Doing so breathes life into your sentences.”
(Click here to see The New York Times’s four favorite successful essays from last year, examples of moments done successfully.)
Seek moments, and the lead buffalo of college applications will begin to slow. Here’s to hoping that makes the rest of the process easier to control too.
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"American Childhood"by Anne Dillard is a good example of using chronological organization. In this story, Dillard tells a memory from her childhood one winter morning when she was 7 years old and got in trouble for throwing snowballs at cars, being chased down an ally by an adult.
Introduction: Dillard uses a frame story to explain the other characters, setting and scene. She explains that at 7, she was used to playing sports with boys and that taught her how to fling herself at something. She then finishes the introduction by telling the reader "I got in trouble throwing snowballs, and have seldom been happier since".
Body: In the body of the paper, Dillard tells the story chronologically, in the order that it happened:
- Waiting on the street with the boys in the snow.
- Watching the cars.
- Making iceballs.
- Throwing the iceball and having it hit the windshield of a car, breaking it.
- The car pulling over and stopping.
- A man getting out of the car and chasing them.
- The kids running for their lives.
- The man chasing her and Mikey around the neighborhood, block after block.
- The pounding and the straining of the chase.
- The man catching them when they could not get away.
- The man's frustration and "You stupid kids" speech.
Conclusion: Dillard returns to the idea that this was her supreme moment of happiness and says if the driver would have cut off their heads, she would have "died happy because nothing has required so much of me since as being chased all over Pittsburg in the middle of winter--running terrified, exhausted--by this sainted, skinny, furious redheaded man who wished to have a word with us." She ends the piece with an ironic comment "I don't know how he found his way back to his car."