Uncommon Knowledge – On Writing the Common App Essay

September 16, 2018
5 min read

The Common App Essay is one of the most wildly misunderstood parts of the college application process. Prima facie, it seems like a simple enough task: write an essay of 650 words or less that responds to one of seven prompts, all of which contain innocuous questions that seem to be more or less on par with the tedious inquiries about interests and problem-solving that one might encounter at an entry-level corporate job interview. Despite its appearance of ease, however, it is the one component of the application that creates genuine malaise and panic in both students and their parents. Teachers, consultants, and parents are notorious for giving bad advice about it and online resources (I’m looking at you, College Confidential) do little but exacerbate the anxiety. It is the one essay that a student is never really prepared for, as it is quite unlike nearly everything else encountered either in high school English classes or on the application itself.

Having read hundreds – perhaps thousands – of these essays in my work as a writer/editor, I’ve identified a few of the misunderstandings that lead applicants astray and some of the habits that young writers would be wise to avoid. Take heed.

  • It’s worth noting what the Common App Essay is not: it is not a cover letter. Regardless of the prompt, the Common App Essay is not asking you to display your ability to cram your extracurricular activities into an “essay.” Don’t do that.
  • The Common App Essay is really asking, “what do you know and what can you tell us about yourself that we could not discern from reading the rest of your application and how well can you articulate it?” It is, in short, a test of the Delphic maxim “Know Thyself.”
  • If you think that you’re the only applicant whose essay begins in First Person, Present Tense with you standing in front of an audience, preparing for a competition, getting ready for a game, or filled with some kind of petrifying anxiety, you’re quite mistaken.
  • You are also quite mistaken if you think that introducing a small child – including yourself at age ____ ­– suffering from one or more maladies is going to be a novel read.
  • That’s not to say you shouldn’t write about any of those things. Chances are you’re going to: at 16 or 17, your life experiences are likely going to be relatively scant. What’s important is that you don’t try to be novel, that you don’t try to be cute, that you don’t try to overdramatize any moment: instead, aim for sincerity. It’s not how you start: it’s where you go from there.
  • Rather than focusing on what happened, focus on how it changed you. Focus on what you figured out: find the larger truth of it. It’s ok to address the ambivalence you feel or felt. It’s ok to speak to the mixture of feelings that we all suffer from. It’s ok to admit that sometimes winning – or losing – doesn’t feel like anything but relief and that there are feelings other than accomplishment that accompany the things we do in our lives. Speak to those things that make you feel most human.
  • A good personal essay tells the truth: it is sincere without being sentimental, sharp without being acerbic, searching without being solipsistic, personal without begging sympathy or seeking praise.
  • Yes, of course you want to “change the world” and “make an impact” and that School X “will allow (you) to create change as (you) fight for….” No one’s asked you for that. Resist the urge to plea, to talk about the school, or to daydream.
  • It’s worth noting again that the word “essay” comes from the French verb “essayer,” meaning to try. It is etymologically related to “assay,” as in to test for purity.
  • This is the one time that you’re being asked to talk about yourself: do not squander it.
  • Do not waste words quoting others, referencing books, or mentioning scholars in the hopes of racking up brownie points: it’s obvious. In life’s great game of Ambition, one rule holds sway: don’t be obvious.
  • You can’t know what you don’t know, but assume this much: what you do need to know, you won’t know until after the point that you needed to know it. Life is filled with those points: they make for great essays.
  • Think about the best movies. What happens to characters in really great movies? They believe themselves and their lives to be one thing… and then they must face the fact that all those things aren’t quite as simple as they thought. They’re forced to confront mortality, fragility, weakness, moral failings, betrayal… and they change. They become something new. You have a story like that in you: now is the time to tell it.
  • Regarding adverbs and adjectives: they seldom add anything to an essay. Whenever I need to edit for space, I search for any word ending in –ly and slash and burn.
  • Mind your verb tenses and moods.
  • If you find yourself writing something because it sounds clever, stop writing it. Think about what you’re avoiding… and write that instead.
  • Trust the process. First yours, then your editor’s.

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Warby Parker