Common App Essay Prompts 101

This is based off Day 3 of my high school’s College Readiness Academy provided by the UCSB Early Academic Outreach Program! If you want to see the rest of my College Readiness Academy posts, you can check out my previous two posts, “Personal Insight Questions 101” and “16 Factors to Consider When Selecting a College.”

Let’s say you already have a few CSUs and a handful of UCs you would like to apply to. If you’re interested in expanding your list of colleges, consider applying to a private university! However, to apply to most private institutions, you’re going to have to utilize the Common Application.

Similar to answering the Personal Insight questions for UCs, the Common App provides students with a set of seven prompts to answer when applying to a private institution. These prompts are all of equal value, meaning that one prompt is not considered better or worse than any other. Unlike the Personal Insight questions, though, you must choose only one prompt to respond to. Your response should fall somewhere in between 250-650 words, which gives you much more “wiggle room” for storytelling than the Personal Insight prompts.

You can check out all seven of the 2017-2018 Common App essay prompts here.

Here are a couple tips on responding to these prompts:

  1. Tell a story.
    Personal Insight questions ask you to write short-answer responses, whereas Common App prompts ask you to write an essay, so feel free to share a story! Write about any experiences that have shaped you into the person you are today. Don’t be afraid of being “too personal” in your essay, because that’s exactly what the college admissions officers want to see!
  2. Use conversational language.
    A common misconception among students applying to colleges is that their college essays need to be “perfect,” meaning that they have to include sesquipedalian vocabulary and academic language in order to impress the college admissions officers.
    However, the people reading your essay know that you’re only around 17 years old. They know that you don’t typically speak the same way you would write. They know you normally wouldn’t use the words “elucidate” and “scintillating” in your everyday conversations.
    So make your essay sound like what it’s supposed to sound like – you. This essay is telling the admissions officers all about you, so make sure it sounds like you’re having an intimate conversation with the reader!
    To better understand this, have your best friend read your essay once you’ve finished writing it. If he/she says that your essay sounds completely different from the way you’d speak, then modify your writing style accordingly. On the other hand, if he/she does think it sounds the way you’d speak, then perfect! Have more people read your essay and make any changes from there, if necessary. (More information on that later!)
  3. Include specific details and your personal reflection.
    Your essay should answer all of the reader’s questions (Who? What? When? Where? Why?) and include specific details about your selected prompt. Avoid “flowery” language; instead, use words that you know are absolutely vital to include in your essay. Rather than setting the scene in the first 200 words of your essay, go straight into what you’re going to say. Don’t waste your word count on extraneous information!
    Also, be sure to include your own personal reflection on your story. In other words, you should be able to answer the question, “So what?” This question may sound a bit harsh at first, but the college admissions officers don’t want to know just about your obstacles – they want to know how you overcame them.
    So let’s say you endured a family tragedy. So what?
    You experienced a traumatic experience when you were a little kid. So what?
    You’ve struggled financially throughout your whole life. So what?
    You need to include the purpose of your story, as well as how it impacted your life in a positive note. The “So what?” question shows that you can think about and learn from the events in your life, good and bad. The admissions officers want to see that you actually did something about your poor circumstances, not merely cried about it for years on end.
  4. Stick to only one or two important stories.
    If you want to elaborate on your leadership qualities, avoid saying how you were President of MESA your senior year, Vice-President of Bible Club your junior year, Sophomore Class Representative of ASB, etc. The admissions officers have already read your list of extracurricular activities, so giving this information in your essay would not be new. Instead, think of one story (or even one day) that impacted your life immensely, and expand upon that.
    For example, you can write about how you advocated healthier food choices at school and how you led a group of 40 students in your campaign. You can write about how you were the oldest child and had to take on parenting responsibilities for your four little siblings while your parents were away at work.
    Focus on one or two stories that paint a vivid picture of your character rather than cherry-picking three to four brief stories from your life. You want to be able to clearly depict your personality through one or two specific life experiences rather than multiple.
  5. Show, don’t tell.
    This is similar to the last tip, but it is still a crucial piece of advice to give. Don’t just summarize your experiences or challenges – rather, give explicit details about them!
    An example of this mistake would be something like the following:
    I am an amazing dancer. We won first place at a national competition three years in a row. I worked very hard alongside my teammates.
    Sounds boring, right? You want to not only grab the admissions officers’ attentions, but you also want to let them know how you reached success.
    This is a much better model to follow:
    I am the captain of my school’s dance team. Through blood, sweat, and tears, we practiced six days a week, dancing from after school to 8 p.m. on weekdays and from noon to 6 p.m. on Saturdays. I coordinated dance practices alongside our head coaches, as well as helped design the uniforms for our dance competitions. After winning first place at a national competition three years in a row, I really want to pursue dancing as a career.
    Sounds way more captivating, right? You should always incorporate concrete examples and rich, meaningful details in your essay to sound much more appealing to admissions officers.
  6. Start early.
    The most difficult part of writing any essay is getting started. Since it is currently the summer before senior year, this would be the perfect time to get a head start on your college essays!
    To facilitate the process, I recommend reading all seven prompts, deciding on three prompts that you can relate to the most, and writing rough drafts for each prompt. Read your essays over and over and decide which one encapsulates your personality the best. Whichever essay you choose is the essay you will be submitting to the Common Application.
    Give yourself sufficient time to look over your essays and to tweak them if necessary. After you write your first draft, take a weeklong break from your essay. Don’t even touch it, look at it, or even think about it. After one week, return to your essay and read it again and again. You will approach your essay with fresh eyes, and you may notice a few mistakes that you didn’t catch before!
    In addition, it is a wonderful idea to research the colleges you’re interested in as quickly as you can to determine whether or not they require the Common App essay AND any supplemental essays to go along with the first one. Some majors may require you to submit a supplemental essay, so be sure to do your research and get started on those soon!
  7. Get feedback.
    As with all “perfect” essays in life, feedback is one of the most important parts of tweaking your essay. You may notice a few errors after reading your essay a thousand times, but your classmate may notice a lot more after reading your essay once.
    I highly suggest asking a minimum of three people to proofread your college essay. Whether it’s your mom, dad, guidance counselor, English teacher, coach, or best friend, he/she will be able to give you a few pointers on how your essay sounds as well as how you can improve your writing skills.
    It’s crucial to ask different people to proofread your essay because different people you know have different strengths. Your English teacher can catch silly grammar mistakes, but your mom can let you know if your essay doesn’t sound like you. You have several months to fine-tune your college application essay, so obtain as much feedback as you can until your essay is polished and ready to submit!

That’s all the tips I have to share for today! Thank you for reading, and as always, don’t hesitate to let me know any other pieces of advice I may have missed! We can create a community of prospective college students together.

I will write again soon! ♡

Love, Roselyn

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