Admissions

Tackling The Common Application Essay

Raw Pixel

Rising high school seniors, we haven't forgotten about you! The COVID-19 pandemic has overwhelmed the realm of higher education. It seems as though all we have been hearing and reading about the past five months or so is how the coronavirus has affected, is affecting, and will affect almost every aspect of our lives. Many of us have sought ways to escape the onslaught of bad news.


If you are about to begin your senior year of high school, whether in person or online, and you plan to go to college, your focus may have been more on the college process instead of the COVID process. Colleges and universities across America have been fully sidetracked, trying to make sense out of how to continue providing higher education to their student bodies, while wrestling with an increasing burden of safety precautions, virus testing plans, unexpected expenses, teacher and student protests, and virus outbreaks among staff. That's just a short list of their pandemic-related woes.

However, the college process cycle continues, and this year's high school seniors will be applying to colleges and universities just as they have every year, even during world wars, depressions and other major national concerns. So I won't be writing about the novel coronavirus today, but rather, about one important aspect of your college application process: the Common Application essay.

In addition to your academic record and recommendations, the essay can push a borderline applicant into the "Admit" column if executed properly. So it's time to start thinking about this, if you haven't already started.

You will most likely be using the Common Application for at least some (if not all) of your target schools. Chances are, even if you don't end up using the Common App (unlikely), you will still need to write an essay on a general topic such as those that the Common App requires.

Get to Know the Common App Prompts

Here are the 2020-2021 Common Application essay prompts. They are the same as last year's:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Check These Resources for Guidance

To help you get started thinking about how and what to write, I've listed a dozen of my College Confidential articles about writing application essays. You don't have to read all of them, just find several that appeal to you, then read and learn. (Note that some of the articles reference older Common Application prompts, but my advice also applies to the current prompts.)

1. Great Common Application Essays

"There are myriad topics in your world … right under your nose. Use them!"

2. Using Humor in Your College Essay

"Titles can lend heft to an essay if they are carefully thought out …"

3. More about Essays

"Those are just three examples of great college application essays."

4. Thoughts on Application Essays

"Keeping all this in mind, construct a list of "little known habits, hobbies and other weird stuff " about yourself. Then, work to shape an aspect (or aspects) of that list into a winning statement."

5. More On Essays

"You should be able to see the advantage of using not only picturesque imagery but also one of my favorite essay elements: humor."

6. More Essay Insights

"Do you have some kind of challenge in your life that you have worked to overcome, like Cheryl? If so, give some thought to writing about it in your college applications."

7. Adventures in Essayland

"As always, remember: Don't write what you think they want to hear; write what you want to say!"

8. The Application Essay: Think About It

"Essay ideas are everywhere; we just don't see them."

9. Essays with A Smile

"Even the brightest students many times have difficulty conjuring decent topics and gathering their compositional forces to put together a winning set of sentences and paragraphs. So, what's a frustrated essayist to do then?"

10. Application Essays

"The lesson here for essay writers is to look around your everyday lives carefully. Scenes like those immortalized here in "Banana Girl" happen all the time."

11. Applying You to Your Application Essays

"What you can see in these entries is the contrast between writers who write what they want to say (the winners) and those who write what the contest judges want to hear (the losers)."

Make Sure Your Voice Shows

What you'll see in the samples I posted in the above articles can show you the natural style incorporated by the writers. Their essays flow smoothly and don't have an "academic" feel about them. When you read them, you can almost hear the writers speaking. In other words, their "voice" is natural and not at all affected by formality or overblown usage. They don't use big words just for the sake of impressive vocabulary. Big words don't impress admissions committees. A natural voice, convincingly presented, does.

The best essays help you to stand out in a crowd and reveal who you are and how you think. Sure, you can write a good essay about anything, but an essay often has the most impact if it highlights something that is unique or unusual about you.

Finally, try to have some fun with this. I know that "fun" probably isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think about your college essays, but you may find that once you get into it, you'll actually enjoy expressing yourself!