Common App Essay: 15 Questions to Ask Yourself if You're Stuck

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As you may have already read in my previous post, college admissions officers want to know what you're passionate about,where you've taken initiative, how you've transformed, and what makes you YOU. However, as I know from countless hours of helping students frame themselves in the best way possible, you may very well still be stuck getting started with your Common App essay. After all, a blank computer screen can seem scary! If this is where you are right now, never fear. You DO have plenty of things to talk about—we just have to find them. Take out either a blank document or piece of paper and write your answers to the following questions:

Common App Essay Tip: Look at how you spend your time

1. In class: What are your academic and intellectual interests?

2. Outside of class: What are your favorite hobbies and activities? Why do you like to do them?

3. Over the summer: Have you done any programs, classes, cool trips, or taught yourself anything?

4. To relax: What do you do when you just want to take a break from it all?

Because these comprise the natural fabric of your life, you may take it for granted that you personality type everyone in your school or that you knit scarves for each of your best friends to take your mind off Pre Calc homework. But believe me, most people don't go to Myers-Brigg temperament sorters or yarn stores to relax. This is a YOU thing that makes you stand out.

Common App Essay Tip: Look at your special interests

5. Do you have any unusual talents or skills? If so, how did you develop them? How did you get into them in the first place?

6. Are there any topics or global issues you're passionate about? Why? What are you doing about it?

Again, you may assume that since thoughts of saving the stray pit bulls in your neighborhood constantly run through YOUR head, everyone must be thinking the same thing. They aren't. Or if you're perpetually obsessed with counting cards and teaching yourself the finer rules of poker (and all the statistics involved), you may assume that's just typical. It isn't. That's special, and you should consider writing about it.

Common App Essay Tip: Look at your achievements

7. What accomplishment are you most proud of? What did you have to do to accomplish it?

8. What was the most challenging ordeal or event you've gone through? How did you get through it?

9. When or how have you shown leadership?

More than how "big" an achievement appears, it's the work you put in that's impressive to the admissions counselors. Not everything you want to do in life (and college) will come easily to you. In fact, even if you start out with a "natural" talent, you'll still only improve through hard work. What shows your character is how you roll up your sleeves and embrace the challenge—especially when success is not guaranteed and you had to take a risk.

Common App Essay Tip: Look at pivotal moments in your life

10. What was the best experience you've ever had? Why was this the "best"?

11. What was the worst experience you've ever had? Why was this the "worst"?

12. How have you changed over the past few years? Was there any event or person who caused/facilitated this transformation?

There aren't always major life events or "Aha!" moments that alter the course of your life and personality. However, if there are, the key is to look for the positive in the situation: how did you make lemons out of lemonade? How did you grow up, even though a situation may have sucked? Or if something phenomenal happened, how has this made you a more appreciative and grateful person?

Common App Essay Tip: Look at your personality

13. How are you unique or different from other people you know?

14. Is there anything about you that doesn't fit the stereotype, or that's unexpected?

15. Do you have any principles or beliefs that guide your actions? What are they?

The admissions officers want to know what kind of person you are and where you'd fit in. They want to know what makes you tick—and bonus points for being self-aware enough to already have some ideas about this in high school! Are you philosophical and spend time deliberating about your own values? That means you think for yourself, which will serve you well into college and beyond. Do you surprise people by being different from what they'd expect, like the all-star lacrosse player who is obsessed with following Anna Netrebko's operatic career and listens to Verdi in her spare time? Cool quirks like this will make you stand out—and help you get into your dream school!

After writing down the answers to these questions, you should see a few common threads emerge. If one topic keeps coming up, chances are, that's what you should write about to let the admissions officers know exactly who you are and why you're special!

I hope this helped you solidify your Common App essay topic, and more than that, assure you that you have several unique qualities that you probably take for granted, but that others would find fascinating. Though I'm able to give out this advice for free, sometimes you need extra one-on-one help to get the guidance and confidence you need.  To find out how I can help bring out the real YOU in your Common App and supplemental essays, contact me here.