Yes, the Common Application essays are a big thing. Think about it for a second: you’re applying to a particular school in just the same way that another ten, twenty, or thirty thousand other students are applying. Your dossier comprises statistics or all sorts, lists of activities, maybe awards. And the GPA. How can admissions wade its way through all the stats while getting no inkling of exactly what sort of person you are—beyond classes and test scores and volunteer hours? One answer is ––––– trumpets, please: the personal essay.
Let’s take a look at the first two Common Application essay options.
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
See that word “identify”? How do you see yourself among your peers? Specifically, is there a story you can relate to the reader which will uncover a special moment when you discovered something about yourself, made a connection with the complexities of life that you had never made before? How did that experience, that moment, affect you?
Don’t go into excessive detail describing the circumstances while leaving out the gist of the questions: the revelation of your identity.
Don’t ever lose sight of the fact that the admissions officer reading your essay has ready access to every aspect of your high school years. You have enumerated all the classes and grades and tests and teams and clubs and on and on. And? So? What might you have gotten out of one or more of those experiences that defines who you are right now?
Never assume that the essay reader can or should understand your nature because of what you have studied, or because of the sort of activities in which you have been involved. And don’t look for something MONUMENTAL. The smallest incident, even what seems like an incidental conversation with someone one particular day, may tell a resonating story about you and your identity.
You can write about caring for a sibling, why you decided to pick up a can along the curb, playing hoops with friends, a sunrise witnessed when no one was around, a trail ride, your take on the expanding universe. Anything goes, as long as it’s meaningful to you – and you focus not just on telling an interesting story, but on the impact of that event on your life.
The second essay choice is perhaps the other side of the coin from the first:
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Here, the question in the second sentence is everything. Because everyone experiences failures of all kinds, you have a chance to show how open you are to self-reflection and learning from a your perceived mistakes. This is really, really the place where you can demonstrate your level of maturity in no uncertain terms.
Do you notice how these first two prompts are different in most every way from the sorts of very important questions that you’ve confronted in your high school, teenage years? No more being just one of the gang. Differentiate yourself. No more shying away from tooting your own emotional and intellectual horn. Differentiate yourself from the homogenized mass of high school students. Show ‘em who you are and how you think and feel.
It comes down to this: what do you want the college admissions office reader to know about you? In what way did you benefit from your failure? What did you learn about yourself or others? What will you do differently in the future? In this essay, you’ll demonstrate that failure doesn’t equate to “bad”; rather, it leads to a revelation, an epiphany, a great moment of learning in your life!
As always, words that count are more important than counting words.