If college applications are barreling like a thousand stampeding buffalo toward you, chances are the Common Application essay leads the pack—one of the seemingly most intimidating parts of the process.
However, writing this essay doesn’t have to mean dealing with the biggest bison in the herd. In fact, the summer before senior year—or the summer before junior year—is a great time to start working on this essay, both in coming up with an idea and an execution.
The prompts for the 2017–2018 application season are as follows:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. [No change]
- 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? [Revised]
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
- 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 that is 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. [No change]
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that 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? [New]
- 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. [New]
Although it might seem tempting to relax the whole summer, much less effort will be required of you come fall if you take some time to ruminate upon and/or have experiences to write about during your vacation.
Part of the problem, of course, is how broad the topics are. Being broad and general is the last thing you want to do.
“Step in the shoes of the person who will be reading your essay. They want to see a real person, who struggles and who has flaws, and who is trying to improve him or herself,” says Kyle Huang, a current high school senior from California who has been accepted to MIT, Vanderbilt, and Yale, among others. “They don't want to read the same thing over and over again, so make sure you do something to stand out. Any story can be told in an interesting way if you make it.”
His essay for the Common Application, using the guidelines of prompt one, began with an anecdote about seeing the sunrise from a plane window—a specific moment—to illuminate his journey and differences that he experienced when transitioning to America from Shanghai, China.
Likewise, current senior Duha Alfatlawi (accepted to Harvard and Columbia, among others) framed her 650-word narrative, which took her from Iraq to the US, with simple objects that meant much to her.
“I wanted to show the admissions counselors that I came from a completely different world when I was young but that throughout my journey to America, I remained inquisitive and adventurous,” Alfatlawi says. “To represent these two traits, I used my magnifying glass and my training wheels. I said that those things are no longer tangible items for me since they were left behind; however, their symbolic meanings are still a huge part of my life as I continue to want to explore the world, travel, and of course delve into the world of nanobiology and engineering, a world in which I would need a magnifying glass to look into.”
Both of these essays share moments, which you should seek when writing. Moments can be based around objects (like Alfatlawi’s magnifying glass), places, people, ideas, or a memory no more than a few minutes long (like Huang’s sunrise).
Moments provide an entry point to the essay, giving it a thematic, contemplative side (or a humorous perspective) without having to resort to common clichés, and can be used at the end to tie up all threads of the mini-narrative. The word limit can be restrictive, so having these types of symbols helps in that manner as well.
These moments should be looked for, contemplated upon, or experienced as soon as possible to give the subconscious enough time to work in developing the strongest idea possible.
“Starting early is a really important component to producing a quality essay, because it gives you time and the ability to really develop what you want to say,” Alfatlawi says. “Overall, I think it's important to present yourself in a way that is true, but also distinguishing.”
The first steps in both students’ Common Application essay process include brainstorming and outlining. While these might sound rather tedious and school-like, the goal is to have fun with whatever process you ultimately choose—if the writing is enjoyable because it is based on something you truly enjoy, then it can be reasonably inferred that the admission officers will see this too. Genuine passion shines through.
Related: College Application Essays: A Step-by-Step Example
So start a list this summer and add to it as you think of more ideas or have more experiences—adding what truly matters to you, regardless of how “trivial” you might think it is. It’s more important to be honest when writing than to write merely to please the admission officers.
“For people who maybe don't [think they have] a super interesting story to tell, I'd tell them don't pull their hair out for it,” Huang advises, adding that the telling of the story and the personal voice you develop is most important.
While making your list, if you find it difficult or think an improvement can be made, summertime is great for making memories and choosing moments. Decide which trait you would like to present to admission officers in your essay, or which theme that runs through your life you’d like to explain; with that knowledge in hand, seek out moments that correspond, and begin to write.
“Think about all the little stories that you can tell surrounding your main topic,” Huang says. “Really try to show your personality in the essay(s)…Don’t talk about academic achievement too much—they already see that in the rest of your application.”
These moments are, after all, the ones that translate best into stories people seek to read. One of the most cliché pieces of advice—“show, don’t tell”—is what helped Huang in his many applications.
“Instead of saying, ‘I did not understand anything on the board,’ say something like, ‘The lines and scribbles on the board seemed like a foreign language,’” Huang explains. “Clearly, the latter one really paints a picture really well in the reader’s mind. I found that using imagery or using a small real-life example is really beneficial in a lot of cases. Doing so breathes life into your sentences.”
(Click here to see The New York Times’s four favorite successful essays from last year, examples of moments done successfully.)
Seek moments, and the lead buffalo of college applications will begin to slow. Here’s to hoping that makes the rest of the process easier to control too.
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My days as a humanities double-major at the University often do not include more than reading novels and research articles and writing essays about the various readings. Every once in a while, however, I see stuff on social media that catches my interest. This happened in the case of Adit Ganguly’s blog post, “A Review of the Mandatory Freshman Writing Course.”
Adit, a freshman, took what is colloquially known as “Freshman Writing” as I and the rest of the University’s undergraduate population have done. Upon reading his blog post, I was reminded of my own experiences taking this course, and realized that the more freshman year becomes part of the past, the more the class has taught me, whether in terms of academic writing or deciding on a major.
Unlike Adit, who enjoyed WRT 105 to the utmost degree, I didn’t. I was a little late to the game, and many of the sections that did interest me were already at full capacity when I signed up. So I registered for a section that looked at least a little more interesting than the others. Thus my first impression of WRT 105 wasn’t all that great.
The semester started and went by quickly (as all semesters do—but especially that first one). I got along well with the other fifteen or so people in the class, and considering that my grades in the class were better than test scores in some of my other classes (read: math), I was doing fine.
Eventually, the final paper rolled around and I was terrified. I was supposed to write eight pages! I felt like I hadn’t learned anything. Sure, we had looked at some basic stuff in class, but it had certainly not prepared me for an eight- to ten-page essay. I had no idea what exactly the final product would or should look like, but I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, and wrote the paper anyway.
In hindsight, it turns out that I did not have to worry as much as I did. I handed in my essay on time and got a good grade in return. But I can’t say that I learned anything concrete, either.
However, what did come from that first semester WRT 105 experience was first and foremost a check mark on the first part of the mandatory writing requirement, and a grade that suggested that there was still hope for me, despite the fact that my grades from some other classes (once again, read: math) might have suggested otherwise.
But more importantly, what came from that class was a foundation (although a somewhat shaky one) for essay writing at the college level. Spring semester, and especially in the fall of my sophomore year, my courses and the assigned work became more demanding, requiring me to write and read more. Reading articles in particular has really helped me to understand what WRT 105 had intended to introduce to me: a roadmap to explain my thoughts in a (hopefully) coherent and logical way.
As it turns out, all it takes is a little practice. Well, mostly, anyway. Some tears on that laptop keyboard don’t hurt, either.
These things come to mind when I (a junior during winter break) take a walk down memory lane and remind myself of that once oh-so-dreaded WRT 105 course first semester. What I did realize very quickly is that the people in that same section were pretty cool. So cool, in fact, that I still hang out with them today. Were it not for that class, I might never have come in contact with people I now consider some of my best friends.
There are other stories, of course, some far better than my own, to be told about WRT 105. One of my freshman residents last year told me, “Writing [WRT 105] is a nice break from all that math I’m doing.” Later that year, that student’s biomedical engineering major was exchanged for one in religion.
Not all WRT 105 experiences are as dramatic as these. The course might just give you enough confidence your freshman year, so that when you’re faced with three 15- to 20-page essays your junior year, you keep your cool and don’t despair. No more than usual, anyway.