Common App Essay Topic

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.

Common App Essay: What Should I Write About?

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It seems like the most daunting task: staring at a blank page and trying to figure out how to encapsulate your entire personality, activities, passions, life experiences thus far, and worthiness as an applicant in under 650 perfectly-curated words that some adult halfway across the country will impersonally read and judge, determining your undergraduate fate. Yet, if you're reading this, you know all too well this rite of passage that happens Senior year of high school: The Common App Essay.

With every student I've ever worked with, it's the initial staring at that blank page that seems almost crippling. "What do 'they' want me to say?" is the refrain that forms an endless loop in those initial writing sessions. And this IS a rather crucial question, considering that your essay will only get read for a couple minutes at best. You must make an impact, and the admissions staff must be able to figure out the gist of you in those couple minutes.

WHAT THE ADMISSIONS READERS WANT:

Admissions officers want a well-rounded CLASS, not a well-rounded applicant.

I'll say it again: colleges want a well-rounded CLASS, not a well-rounded applicant.

Think about it: 70 students who are all fairly okay actors and also mediocre lacrosse players are NOT going to form a world-class drama department with exceptional student-run plays and also be able to compete against the other universities' lacrosse teams. They need AMAZING actors in their drama department and SUPER-HUMAN lacrosse players for their team, who can win them trophies. Fantastic teams and departments instill pride in their university and encourage their alumni to donate big bucks. This is ideal! Thus, for admissions purposes, it's better to be exceptional at one thing than "kind of okay" at several things.

And believe it or not, "they" really really *want* to like you. It would be no greater joy to the college admissions readers to determine that you are exactly the right fit for their school, ensuring that their acceptance pool has one more top-tier student for the next matriculating class. So, how do you convey that YOU are indeed the perfect fit?

USE THE COMMON APP ESSAY TO SHOW HOW YOU ARE EXCEPTIONAL

You may not be an all-star rugby player or the top math student in your state or have bonafide awards to SHOW how skilled you are, but you have myriad personal qualities that are desirable to a college. The key to figuring this out is to ask yourself a few basic (though philosophical) questions:

1) What are you PASSIONATE about?

Like, really love? How did it start? Is there an activity or interest that you'd be lost without? This doesn't have to be something that wins awards or that you get credit for. I've seen very successful applicants write about ComicCon cosplay and owning their inner "geek," to baking lemon bars and working in a bakery, to learning chess because it was intriguing, even if they never played to wunderkind levels. Basically, if you truly love something, it will show on the page, and the college admissions advisors will know you have the capacity to be passionate about other activities at their school as well.

2) Where do you show INITIATIVE?

As in, where you do go above and beyond to find opportunities outside the classroom and school? If you claim to feel strongly towards volunteering, it means much more to an admissions reader that you started your own group or located a charity all on your own to train rescue dogs several days a week every summer, than it does that you participated in your school's already-organized trip to the homeless shelter or tutored younger kids in science for required community service hours. Do you spend all your time competing in triathlons or swimming competitions, when your school doesn't even offer these things and you had to nurture these interests yourself? This shows a take-charge, can-do attitude that colleges want on their campuses. It means you might be the future student who starts a bowling league or university garden-to-cafeteria movement.

3) What experience, person, or activity CHANGED YOU the most?

If there's someone or something that transformed you into the person you are, the admissions readers want to know! Did your relationship with your best friend teach you how to kindly disagree and stand up for yourself, and now you want to advocate for the environment? Did coping with your learning disability teach you that you can overcome any obstacle, and now you want to be a learning specialist yourself? Did taking acting classes teach you how to deal with uncertainty in life, and that you can only control the things within your power and should let go of the rest? If anything contributed to your personal philosophy, write it down!

4) What makes you YOU?

More than anything, admissions officers want to understand your heart and soul, the personality behind all the activities, grades, scores, and accomplishments—things that they just can't glean from the rest of your application. Are you likable, positive, and curious? Are you a person they'd want to have a conversation with? What type of roommate would you be, and who would they even match you with? And where do they see you participating in their campus community?

And you know how you can tell from a text message if someone was annoyed or joking? They might use different punctuation or put certain words in all-caps for emphasis. Well, admissions officers can tell from the tone of your essay—your VOICE, if you will—if you take yourself too seriously, are kind, funny, compassionate, self-aware, snarky, etc. So more than any facts you write in your essay, make it sound like YOU.

I hope you’re on your way to finding or tweaking your Common App essay topic, if you haven’t already. Sometimes, a little free advice (like this), is just the nudge you may need to start writing. Other times, you may still feel overwhelmed with how to package yourself to admissions officers. Luckily, I spend countless hours helping seniors and parents do just that. To find out how I can help bring out the real YOU in your Common App and supplemental essays, contact me here.