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.