The Common App personal essay is the Holy Grail of your college application, but for many, the perfect topic is an elusive target. For those of you who didn’t spend your summer vacation staring at the Common App website, here are a few tips for where to start.
The Common App that the Class of 2018 will become all too familiar with is not the one of years past. One of the biggest changes affects the essay’s word limit. For the first time, the Common App will strictly enforce the limit of 250 to 650 words. Additionally, the 150-word activities and extracurriculars paragraph is now gone, so you can focus your time and energy on thebigger essay.
Take a look at the new essay prompts:
• 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.
• Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
• Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
• Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
• Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Despite the significant changes to the essay prompts, Jim Montague, Program Director of Guidance and Support Service at Boston Latin School, said that he hasn’t changed the essay writing advice that he gives to his students. He still advocates early preparation during both a student’s junior year of high school and the summer before senior year.
You’ll notice that the open-ended question is now conspicuously absent from the prompt list. However, if you’re creative enough, almost any essay topic can fit under one of these prompts.
“The question that allows students to choose any topic will be missed. It allowed our students to choose something they really care about and write,” wrote Montague in an email. “There are still many ways to respond to these choices, though. Raising the limit on the number of words allowed is also perceived by students to be helpful and allows them to express themselves more easily and completely.”
And for those who still have no idea where to begin?
“Sit down with someone who knows you well and brainstorm experiences and interests that might form the core of an essay or a direction worth pursuing,” wrote Montague. Get a group of close friends together, bounce ideas off of family members, and don’t be afraid to get creative and express your personality. This is the only part of your essay that isn’t presented as a generic list of achievements, so make it count.
A few personal tips:
• Make the essay about you—sure, your grandmother was an incredibly inspiring person in your life, but college admissions officers want to hear your story and not hers. If your essay includes family members or friends, make sure the focus stays on you.
• Pick a topic that will allow your voice to show through the essay. Use humor, lyricism, or whatever awesome writing skills you’ve been honing for the past two decades. Insider tip: if you’re going for funny, have people read your essay and make sure your brilliance and wit translates on the page. There’s nothing worse than an essay that tries and fails to be funny.
• Keep a notebook or file to write down every idea you have, even if you don’t think you’ll choose it. Scattered thoughts can come together in surprising ways, and you may even stumble across a topic for another essay.
• Picking an event in your life can be dangerous territory if you waste a lot of space on describing what happened instead of how it affected you—just be aware of this pitfall. Show, don’t tell!
• If you’re stuck, take a closer look at the prompts and write down every possibility you can think of for each topic. If you’re still frantically searching for a topic, don’t despair; sometimes, it takes multiple rewrites and several dead-end topics to craft the perfect essay.
College Admissions Essay
Title or No Title?
I like titles. But they need to be good. A title should be short and witty. Not cutesy. The tone of the title and essay should match. The best ones don’t give away too much about the essay, and only hint at what’s to come. Do not use questions. And don’t even think about a title that sounds anything like “My College Admissions Essay.”
Now, how do you think of a title, a good title? Brainstorm ideas by playing off words that link to your theme, message or topic.
Example: A student wrote an essay about how he broke his wrist playing football, and how he learned more about the game sitting on the bench that season. Theme: How bad things can result in good things/How you can learn from a new perspective. (This “theme” is also a Universal Truth or “life lesson”. Check out this post on Universal Truths to see if you have one hidden in your essay.)
Make a quick list of words from the essay that you could play around with: break, benched, football, sports, view, injury, hurt, new perspective…Let yourself “free associate,” which means you list key words and sayings that come to mind when you say one of them, such as “break.” Try the word in different tenses, in common phrases, in pop culture phrases (titles of movies, books, songs, etc.) and even clichés can work. Also, skim your essay for catchy phrases that might work. Try mixing up a couple keys words to make your own phrase. You can also use the Internet to brainstorm ideas–just Google your keywords or phrases. Have fun with it.
Breaking Away (movie title)
The Big Break
You Deserve a Break Today (line from McDonald’s commercial)
An Unexpected Break
Give Me A Break
A Break from the Past
Beyond the Break
I guess my favorite is Beyond the Break, since it implies the metaphorical movement beyond the injury. But if I didn’t like that one, I would move on to another key word. Keep playing around with them. Make a list. Read them out loud. One word will spark another and so on. You will know almost immediately when you hit on the right one.
If you can’t find one you like, just skip it. Better no title than a bad title for your college application essay—unless one is requested or required.
If you are still at the starting point with writing your essays, try my super helpful Jumpstart Guide. (You can worry about a title later!)
Sure you are done? Read my Ultimate Checklist before you push the button!