Common App Essays: What to Write & How to Write It


admissions essay writing

It’s that time of the year again: seniors are scrambling to complete their college admission essays while keeping up their extra-curricular activities and academics. Arguably the most stressful time of senior year, application season is inundated with university counsellors visits, university supplements, SATs and ACTs and, of course, the dreaded Common Application personal statement.

The importance of the personal statement is often undermined in the application process, but the 650 word (maximum) essay is where you differentiate yourself from the every other applicant that’s similar to you in terms of GPA and extracurriculars. This is where you shine and show who you are!

This year’s prompts are slightly different from last year’s with the replacement of one prompt and a few amendments to the unchanged prompts. To help you survive college application season, we’ve made this guide to the 2015-2016 Common Application prompts.

Prompt 1: 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.

This year, the Common App included “interest” and “talent” in the prompt. Unsurprisingly, this is the prompt most applicants turn to because there are just so many things you can write about — you are you, after all, so we’re sure you’ll be able to chat about what makes you awesome for a few pages. Think about the success you’ve had in sports, creative arts or academics, or talk about your family background or a life changing experience. When answering this prompt, remember to write about something that is unique to you so that you can craft a piece that shows who you are. Perhaps you have been interested in pursuing a career in marine biology ever since you visited an aquarium or your family has a Saturday family movie night tradition that has been essential to your growth. However, in your essay, you must also reflect on the importance of this background, identity, interest, or talent and how it has shaped your life, not just merely explain what it is. That’s what will show admissions officers what an asset your are to their college!

 

writing college admissions essayPrompt 2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
The trick to this prompt: a story about failure is a story about success. Yes, you do need to “recount and incident or time when you experienced failure”; however, you must also share what you learned from this incident and twist the “failure” story into one that reflects resilience, perseverance and determination. You should focus on how you overcame this obstacle instead of how you failed. Please don’t write about how you got an A- on your math quiz (because let’s be real, that’s not a failure, and it’s a really transparent thing to do), or when you fell asleep in class because you binge watched Orange is the New Black on Netflix the night before. Pick an incident that is significant and demonstrates your motivation to succeed.

Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Perhaps the hardest prompt of all, Prompt 3 forces you to dig deep and show some profound insight in your piece. If you choose this prompt, you must be able to speak about your belief with unwavering passion. The trick here is to pick something edgy enough to catch admissions officers’ eyes and to show that you know how to think outside of the box, but not something so out-there that it’s off-putting. Also be sure to bear in mind the core values of the kinds of colleges you’re applying to — if you’re looking at mostly religiously affiliated schools, it’d be best to put anything controversial regarding faith in your essay. You could write about how you challenged traditional views on women’s role in society or how you stood up for yourself when others disrespected your opinions. Once again, do not write about a controversial topic that will turn away your reader!

 

admissions essay writingPrompt 4: 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.

Well well well… this is the new kid on the block, the topic that replaced the beloved “Describe a place or environment in which you are perfectly content.” Problem-solving is an essential skill to possess as it showcases resilience, motivation and maturity. And through this prompt, you will be able to demonstrate that trait. Anything from being the only boy in a ballet class to leading a group of peers to help protect the environment could work for this topic. This prompt allows you to take some very creative approaches to writing this essay since the “problem” can be intellectual challenges, research queries or ethical dilemmas — the list goes on and on. Since this is a new prompt, it will be interesting to see how applicants approach this essay!

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

This prompt, like Prompt #1, is open to all sorts of ideas and topics. The accomplishment or event can be formal or informal. There are so many options! This prompt really stresses maturity and experience; therefore, whatever you write about has to reflect your emotional and mental growth that has helped you understand the world around you just a little more deeper. You can write about anything from gaining more independence at home to the day you were bar or bat mitzvahed. The opportunities here are endless, so just be sure to choose a story that demonstrates the best version of who you are and what kinds of qualities you can bring to your school of choice.

Personal statements can be daunting, but if there’s one piece of advice we want you to follow, it’s this: be sure to be you. We know that everybody has their dream college that they would do anything to be accepted into, but please, don’t let yourself get lost in that pursuit. Being 100 percent, unapologetically yourself is what will guarantee you end up at the right school for you.

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Selena Zhu

Selena Zhu is a high school student from Vancouver, B.C., Canada. In her free time, you can probably find her watching "The Big Bang Theory", dancing to upbeat songs in her bedroom, browsing the web, and writing for the Smart Girls Guide!