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


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?



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.


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?


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.

Nailing the SAT Essay Part I: Sloppy Success vs. Perfect Mediocrity

So many of us women – at any age – suffer from feelings of having to be “perfect”, whatever exactly that is. I, for one, started feeling this way in middle school – gotta love puberty! - but the quest to be perfect exploded in high school.  In the top-ranking public high school in the country – Talented and Gifted Magnet in Dallas, Texas – I was taking 8 (you read that right) concurrent AP classes my Junior year, and obsessing about getting 99’s across the board on my report card.  I was a little “cray”.

Luckily for me, my misplaced desire for perfection had definite endings – the end of the grading period, the end of the school year, etc.  Also, luckily for me, my course-load was math/science/computer-heavy, where there is an end to every problem and you just have to get there.

But what do you do when you’re writing an essay, and there are infinite ways you could craft your words, infinite examples you could utilize, infinite combinations of sentence structures and ways to weave your argument?

That, my friend, is when you need to chuck this need for perfection out the window…  ESPECIALLY if you are writing a timed essay on the SAT or ACT!!

See, even though you might not have experienced it yet, in the “real world” (outside of school), it’s fairly impossible to be “perfect”.  There will always be someone more skilled, smarter, prettier, faster, stronger, more “successful”, and wealthier than you.

If you wait until you’re “perfect” before you submit that report/manuscript or audition for that part, you’ll be waiting a long time - possibly forever – before you follow your dreams.

And if you wait until you think you have the “perfect” essay written in your head before you put your pencil on the paper and start writing it, time will be called before you finish your introduction!!!

In my experience tutoring and coaching countless high-schoolers for the SAT and ACT, the biggest essay obstacle I’ve seen is when the student just wasn’t able to finish her essay in the designated time: 25 minutes for the SAT and 30 minutes for the ACT.  (Or more, if you have extended or double time.)  That’s when you see essay scores of 2 or 4 out of 12 possible points.

Sadly, the test-graders only see what’s on the page.  They will NEVER see the beautiful thoughts in your head, or your gripping stance on how history repeats itself unless we can innovate as a society.  Therefore, your job is to get your thoughts on that page so that they can be graded.  And whatever will be, will be.

In general, if you can just write and finish the 2 pages you’re allotted on the SAT (or get 2 pages written on the ACT), you’re looking at a safe score of 8+ out of 12.  While not phenomenal, this is waaaaay better than a 2, and could mean the difference of 100+ points on the SAT Writing section!

So, if this is you, and you are paralyzed by a need to be perfect, you may be wondering how you can go from never getting your thoughts on the page and scoring a 2 – to letting go and getting a solid 8 that can be built upon.

It’s easy: practice being sloppy!

For the next month, I want to you try the following exercise, which I learned from Julia Cameron’s “Morning Pages” and adapted to get results for teenagers prepping for the SAT:

Mental Mastery Technique #1: Practice Sloppy Success

1)    Get a blank sheet of computer paper.

2)    Set the alarm on your phone for 5 minutes.

3)    Start writing!  Your goal is to completely fill up the page in the 5 minutes before your alarm goes off.

That’s it!  However, here are some helpful hints, as this seems way easier than it actually is:

  • Keep your pen moving and write whatever pops into your head. If you are blank, write “blank” until something pops into your head.
  • DO NOT erase or cross out anything! Not even a misspelled word.  You need to get used to not being perfect for the sake of this exercise.
  • Don’t worry about perfect grammar, complete sentences, or “stupid” ideas.  This is an exercise in getting your thoughts on the page without censoring.
  • Don’t read what you wrote. You even have my permission to throw away the sheet of paper afterwards.

I’ve gotten amazing results for my students with this practice, sometimes in as little as a couple days.  Why?  For several reasons:

  • No more over-analysis-paralysis!  Something actually gets written!
  • By writing whatever comes up, you are releasing feelings of test anxiety and other emotions onto the page, so it no longer takes up your valuable head-space.
  • You are shifting the focus of what you’re trying to accomplish: finishing as opposed to being perfect.

Please help yourself and give this a try. Right now!  After all, it only takes 5 minutes.  Then post your comments below to share the results you get.

Very Important: Can you think of a friend/classmate who’s suffering from writer’s block on the SAT or ACT essay? Share this post with them – you might just save their score!