Getting Started with the Common App Essay

College applications have become more competitive and increasingly complex over the last ten years. Each institution has their own requirements and the Common Application serves to streamline the process for students and allow them to track their applications to multiple schools. Even with a more straightforward process, the importance of a solid personal essay cannot be overstated. The major prompts for the essay changed this year based on feedback from recent surveys. While each prompt varies in language, all of them require a reflection on an event or story that was foundational in the student’s life. When I work with students on their Common App essay, I start by pushing them to understand the primary audience of their work and the genre of the personal essay.

In order to do this, I get my students thinking about who is actually reading their essays. In a recent Washington Post article, Jeff Knox, a former admissions officer at the University of Pittsburgh, summarizes: “The audience that reads application essays are overworked admission professionals who more typically spend about three minutes reading each… essay.” Students are often shocked to hear about how little time is spent reading their essays. After all, they are used to writing for their English teachers, who spend much more time reading over their work and also have an invested interest in their progress as a writer. Based on the sheer volume of essays that admission officers have to get through, that’s not the case with common app essays. In light of this, my students quickly realize the importance of “standing out” as much as possible.

To achieve this goal, I’ll sit down with my students and together we’ll analyze the genre of a personal essay. We’ll look at some samples of the genre and answer two key questions:

  1. Given the audience, what are the goals of this type of writing?
  2. What are some common features (genre conventions) of the essay?

Question #2 almost always involves a discussion about debunking some of the “myths” they have carried over from their English classes. Often, students have been told along the way to avoid the use of the pronoun “I” in their essays. So when they read the prompts, they often become flustered because they haven’t done much high-level writing that requires them to articulate their own experiences. Writer’s block tends to be the first hurdle, so I encourage them to brainstorm topics connected to the prompt’s question. I ask them to recall stories or moments that would fit the nature of the prompt. Then, we write out specific details for each topic or story and I have them write key words or phrases that they would like to incorporate in the essay itself. This language serves as the foundation for their overall story. From there, we build an outline to sketch out each paragraph’s idea. The outlines are usually focused on theme and idea development rather than thesis and supporting claims, which students are more used to in structured, academic writing.

Once they complete a draft, I ask them to have another person (other than me) read it for just five minutes to gain some insight to what was memorable for someone completely outside the drafting process. The outside perspectives gives students a better idea of what’s worth keeping and what should be left out as they revise.

Ultimately, the key to navigating the Common App essays is to break out of the traditional “school mode” of writing and shape the language of the essay to sound more conversational and authentic. Given the constraints on an admission officer’s time (to say nothing of mental fatigue that comes from reading essays all day), it’s hard to make that immediate connection and leave an impression if you sound robotic or too formal. Each student has a unique story to share and working through a step-by-step process like this gives them a better chance to make that all-important first impression.

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