5 Tips on How to Write your Common App Essay

By Levi Busch

(Test Preparation (ACT/SAT/SSAT), English Literature at The Edge Learning Center)

Everybody knows that a college requests your grades in school, your scores on standardized tests, and a list of your significant extracurricular activities when you apply. Everybody also knows that these things all fit into neat boxes, discrete items that painlessly find their way on to the electronic application form. There is hardly any anxiety about these parts of the college application process, so why do students get so flustered when they begin filling our their Common App?

Two words: The Essay. 

Nothing strikes fear in the hearts of high school seniors quite like the sight of an empty Word document that needs to not be empty. The cursor flicks on and off as they ponder how it seems like 5 real time minutes pass in the space of what feels like 1 minute. Eventually, after some laborious soul-searching and (usually) copious amounts of caffeine, students produce their first draft, a document that, in my experience, always needs copious amounts of reworking. What follows from this first document is the truly time-consuming task: drafting and finalizing.

It would take many, many words to go through how I approach each stage of the essay drafting process, so I am going to focus particularly on the 5 errors that I see students make in their first drafts. If you read these 5 tips, then you will have to draft your essay an estimated 3-4 fewer times, you will save the future editors of your essay hours of tearful frustration, and you will enjoy a few more sleep-filled nights in the midst of the college application process. Let’s get started!

1.) Don’t drop information about yourself that an admissions officer could just as easily read in your Common App

“Now, standing on the top of Everest with two fewer partners that I’d started with, my body riddled with wounds from the ascent, I watched the sky turn an eerie red in the Nepalese sunrise. It seems I truly learned much from my time in my high school’s Mountaineering Club, for which I served as President from my sophomore year to now, accruing the George B. Dillman Award for Excellence in Grip Strength in the process.”

Hmmm… which is the more evocative of the two sentences above? One would think that this advice is a no-brainer, but this seems not to be the case. I have had many students write essays that look more like very creative CVs; that is to say, they tell a bit of a story, but they also mention their numerous 5s on AP exams, that one award they won for being a heck of a team player in tennis, and the fact that they did 7 more hours of community service than their high school required for graduation. These are all pretty boring factoids for an essay, and an admissions officer will already know them. Plus, if you include this info in your essay, you are wasting words that would be much better used to develop the specifics of your story.

Read more from Levi on college admissions – “How does a college use standardized test data?”

2.) Avoid overblown or sentimental emotions

Avoid overblown or sentimental emotions from Common App

When I learned that my failure to include the constant of integration resulted in a full point lost on my exam, I was devastated, howling my despair to the fluorescent lights in Mr. Law’s classroom. thinking of my new 3.99 GPA, I choked up, weeping at my destroyed future, before I forcefully turned my frown into a scowl and muttered my life-changing mantra: I will overcome this with hard work.

While many students get a few bad grades in their high school experience and get upset over them, it is hard to imagine a student acting as ridiculously as the one above. Whose emotions are so intense that they resemble those of a daytime soap opera character? The answer: no one. No one acts like this. When a student blows his/her emotions out of proportion in order to dramatize an event, it is immediately obvious to a reader. The essay takes on a plastic, manufactured feel, and it ceases to perform its most vital function: telling the reader who you are. It seems like the writer is assuming a persona (and a boring one at that). Whether you are writing about how your grandmother taught you calculus underwater, how taking care of your pet lizard ignited your fascination with reptilian biology, or how your deep hatred of Brutalist architecture caused you to write letters on behalf of your district’s aesthetic unity, you need to remain honest to your own emotions. Check your writing to make sure that you are not engaging in inadvertent hyperbole

3.) Focus on the specifics that make the experience unique to you

“The day of the big soccer match was beautiful. The sun was shining, the smell of freshly cut grass lingered in the air, and the sky harbored no traces of clouds.”

Ahhh…. how pleasant! While I feel a sense of serenity as I read these sentences, it is mostly because I am imagining MY OWN high school soccer field. If a soccer player from rural Wisconsin read these sentences, he/she would probably be thinking about their own soccer field! If this description of a big soccer match is making the reader think about his/her own experiences, the essay has already committed a very serious sin: it is not transferring the writer’s unique experience to the reader. Instead of stock descriptions and non-specific markers of beauty, focus on the details that could only belong to your story. Include the details about your story that force your readers to imagine the narrative on your terms. 

4.) Don’t make outrageous claims that your Common App and recommenders won’t corroborate

“I participated in [insert charity], [insert charity], and [insert charity] because I am a ruthless fighter for the rights of the impoverished individual, and I will stop at nothing until everyone in the world has equal rights.” 

It would be very nice if the students who wrote lines like this actually meant what they are saying, but they are mostly lying in order to seem more empathetic and kindhearted to the people who decide whether or not they get into college. Unfortunately for these students, admissions officers have a keen eye for B.S., so they look for every piece of information that would serve to qualify or prove such outrageous claims. They look to your participation in extracurriculars related to human rights, and they read your recommenders’ letters to make sure that you are as dedicated as you say you are. If these things don’t match up, you come across as disingenuous, and it’s very easy to deny admission to disingenuous people. 

5.) For God’s sake, read your essay out loud to yourself before you send it to any teachers, counselors, or parents to look at

read your Common App essay again before sending it to any teachers, counselors, or parents to look at

“It seem like him a falling, falling.”

When you read the above sentence (reprinted from an essay’s first draft with consent of the writer), did you stumble over it? Did it seem absolutely nonsensical? Would you have anything constructive to say about it other than “WHAT?” Congratulations! You now have a taste of what it means to be the beleaguered editor, the teacher/counselor/parent who has to parse the weird errors that students don’t care to check for! It is a mark of serious carelessness not to give your editors the best draft that you can, so if your essays are replete with spelling errors, grammatical errors, typos, emojis, or awkward phrasings, you are giving these kind readers the work that should rightfully be yours. 

This is not to say you are not allowed to make mistakes; a good editor will always help to iron out these errors, but please do them the kindness of eliminating obvious mistakes. The best way to do this is to read the essay out loud: you will stumble over awkward phrasings, you will mispronounce some misspelled words, and you will catch some of your grammatical errors. It is an easy way to identify and correct mistakes. 

Need help getting started with your application essays? Join our CAPS course this summer to learn how to craft an essay for U.S. Common Application that is best tailored to individual strengths. Call us for more information.

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About The Edge

The Edge Learning Center is Hong Kong’s premier Test Preparation, Academic Tutoring, and Admissions Consulting services provider. Founded in 2008, The Edge has helped thousands of students improve their ACT and SAT scores as well as their IB and AP grades. The AC team has just finished off a very successful year in which 84.62% of their clients were accepted into one of their top 3 schools and an astounding 48.15% of their Ivy Plus* applicants were accepted. (The general acceptance rate was only 7.61% last year) Check out the rest of our 2017 Admissions Results!

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