The Common Application – A Chance To Be Unique

For most college-bound seniors, the application essay looms as a fearsome task. Almost all schools use the Common Application approach to admissions, which includesthe Common Application essay. It typically runs between 250 and 650 words.

The essay gives colleges an opportunity to see how well a student can write, provides a sense of the student’s views on different topics and offers a glimpse into the applicant’s personality. According to Sarah Lee, Director of College Counseling at Greenwich Education Group and former Harvard Law School Admissions Reader, “a successful college admissions essay must do three things very well.”

First, the essay informs the Admissions Committee about the student andwhat he or she cares about. Also, according to Lee, the essay ”connects the dots between the quantitative and qualitative information in the application that aligns with clear themes in the application.” Finally, the essay “clearly articulates the student voice so as to convert the Admissions Committee from evaluators to advocates.”


Students can choose from one of the five following options:

1. 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.

2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. The essay should center on how it affected you and the lessons you learned from the experience. 3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, which marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Not What, But Why

The prompts provide a great deal of flexibility in terms of topics, but the bottom line is they are asking the student to be introspective. The essay allows the student to show creativity, mental processes, values, passions, preferences, knowledge of topics such as literature or history, as well as their sense of their humor, if that seems appropriate in the piece. The focus of the essay shouldn’t be on the “what” as much as on the “why.” It is also an opportunity to show analytical and critical thinking skills. Colleges will get a sense of whether the student is methodical, open-minded, artistic or logical, among other things.

Students should avoid making a selection too quickly. It is better first to make a survey of one’s accomplishments, experiences, achievements and traits. Once done, the list can be matched up to the different prompts to see which provides the best opportunity to tell yourstory. As Lee explains, “the good news about writing a personal essay is that you are telling a story about yourself… and this is a subject you should know a lot about!”

Constructing the Essay

Once a topic is chosen, the actual writing begins. Answer the question; while there is a lot of freedom of response within the questions, readers should have no trouble determining which of the prompts a student has chosen. Students must also follow the format guidelines as laid out in the Common App rules (e.g., font, double spacing).It is critical not to lose points because of bad grammar and spelling. In addition to using spell-check, have a teacher, counselor or tutor re-check the essay.

In writing the essay, the student should provide examples, experiences and appropriate details to add color and interest to the essay. While some advise using a traditional essay format (introduction, body of the evidence and conclusion), Admissions officers do not require an essay that follows tradition. In fact, many of the well-written essays published by colleges are unique in format and style highlighting human details about the student that grades and test scores leave out.

Essays That Worked

Some colleges provide examples of essay that they found noteworthy, which may be accessed through the following links:

John Hopkins University

Connecticut College

Tufts University

Some Basic Suggestions

1. Be concise. Make sure you proof-read or better yet have someone else proof-read the essay not just for mistakes, but for content and flow.

2. Be an individual. The essay should help you stand-out from the crowd and establish you as a unique person and candidate. Your personality, character and passions are what make you unique. The reader won’t learn about you through a generic essay. This is the chance to showcase yourself. At the same time, though, watch your tone. Sounding smug, spoiled, stuck-up, cynical, sarcastic or materialistic, for example, won’t win you the support of many admissions officers.

3. Tell the truth. Avoid embellishing. Don’t try to sound super-intelligent by using the thesaurus to come up with a series of complex and obscure words that will leave the reader wondering what you are talking about.

4. Be smart. Above all, college is an intellectual pursuit above all. That is why it is important to show that you have a mind that is sharp and inquisitive – even open to controversial ideas and discussions. However, avoid standing on a soap-box as this will work against you.

5. Write vividly and coherently. You are writing a short story about yourself; being bland won’t set you apart. Make sure your examples are interesting and that you provide some details and color along with them. At the same time, going on and on about a topic or trying to cover too many topics or examples will come across as undisciplined, superficial aneven unfocused. The essay is you as a person. Let the rest of the application provide the facts The essay provides the color.

6. Know your audience. The essay should show how your interests and values fit well with those of the school. Doing some research about the school or schools is time well-spent.


The essay simply gives you a chance to show colleges who you are. It is not often in life you are given an opportunity to simply talk about yourself in a truthful and open manner.Margrét Ann Thors, Greenwich Education Group Writing Specialist, encourages students “to think of the admissions essay less as a piece of academic writing and more as a work of creative nonfiction—a personal essay in which they’re encouraged to let their voices, quirks, and personalities shine through.

“My most tried and true advice is: lead with the heart.”

Students will likely encounter lots of well-intentioned opinions from family members, friends, teachers, and the Internet, but ultimately the essay is meant to be an authentic distillation of who they are, not who they think—or who others think—an admissions counselor wants them to be, she adds.“I am most excited about a personal essay,” Lee says,“when I walk away feeling as if I have met this student and would like to know more about them.”