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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

College Application Essays on Pizza

“Yale University loved her Papa John’s Pizza college application essay.” Carolina Williams’ supplemental essay for Yale has gone viral thanks to headlines like this one.

Now let’s get some perspective on the situation, understand what really matters about this application essay, analyze how it can help you come up with compelling angles in your own narratives, and map out how this essay connects to other Yale supplemental essay topics.


Let’s face an essential fact.

Saying that an essay on pizza got Carolina into Yale is a bit of an exaggeration.

Take a look at the handwritten letter from Yale:

“I absolutely loved reading your application. Your essay on reading 100 books in a year was so passionate, fun, and likable, and, as a fellow lover of pizza, I laughed out loud (then ordered pizza) after reading your application.”

Her regional admissions officer wrote to say:

“I am so glad that I had the opportunity to read your application. As someone who kept trying to read books for fun on top of thousands of applications this winter, I really loved reading your essay on reading 100 books in a year and I laughed so hard on your pizza essay. I kept thinking that you are the kind of person that I would love to be best friends with. I want you to know that every part of your application stood out in our process and we are thrilled to be able to offer you a spot at Yale.”

Hmmmm. . . .

Interesting, isn’t it?

The first essay both admissions officers commented on was the one on reading, but. . . .

The media is only picking up and promoting the pizza essay.

Stories about essays on books just aren’t very likely to go viral.

That’s sad but true.

However, what’s also true is that the Yale team felt that every single part of her application stood out.

Trust me, no admissions officer or committee is going to say, “Wow. . .this one essay on pizza is so clever. . .it made me laugh so hard. . .we have to let her in.”


On the surface, it might seem that Carolina’s pizza essay is just some sort of gimmicky hook, but it’s not.

Let’s consider her perspective:

“When I read the prompt, `Write about what do you love to do,’ ordering pizza was literally the first thing that came to my mind. So I just ran with it. I thought that even if I wanted to change it I would just start writing and see how it went. And it flowed so well, and I loved it so much and I didn’t want to change it and I was so proud of it. It was so reflective of my personality that if they wanted me they would really know what they are getting. So I decided to submit it.”

So many students stress out about being super serious and trying to impress admissions officers by telling them what they think they want to hear.

Guess what?

That often backfires.

Carolina’s essay works so well precisely because it’s so real and relatable. It isn’t pretentious. There are no veiled brag alerts.

She’s simply describing something she loves:

“The sound of my doorbell starts off high, then the pitch mellows out, and the whole effect mimics an instrumental interpretation of rain finally finding a steady pace at which to fall. I have spent several minutes analyzing its tone because I have had many opportunities to do so, as one thing I love to do is order pizza and have it delivered to my house. When the delivery person rings my doorbell, I instantly morph into one of Pavlov’s dogs, salivating to the sound that signals the arrival of the cheesy, circular glory. It smells like celebration, as I love to rejoice a happy occasion by calling Papa John’s for my favorite food. It tastes like comfort, since having pizza delivered to my quiet home is a way for me to unwind. It looks like self-sufficiency, because when I was young, ordering pizza made me feel grown-up, and it still provides that satisfaction for my child at heart. Accepting those warm cardboard boxes is second nature to me, but I will always love ordering pizza because of the way eight slices of something so ordinary are able to evoke feelings of independence, consolation, and joy.”

Her essay is refreshingly simple and straightforward, but also humorous and serious.


Admissions officers are genuinely curious about what you love to do.

That’s why Yale gives you the option of writing a 200-word supplemental essay to share “something that you love to do.”

That’s also why MIT has a similar 100-word essay: “We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do for the pleasure of it.”

One of my students who recently graduated from Yale wrote his MIT essay on glowsticking. It was awesome.

(Obviously, that’s not a video of my student.)


As I mentioned earlier, it’s important to keep in mind that the pizza essay was one of a few additional essays that Yale requires.

Yale asks you “choose two of the following topics and respond to each in 200 words or fewer”:

1. What is a community to which you belong? Reflect on the footprint that you have left. (You may define community and footprint in any way you like.)

2. Reflect on a time in the last few years when you felt genuine excitement learning about something.

3. Write about something that you love to do.

There’s also a very short (100 words or less) “Why Yale?” essay:

Why does Yale appeal to you?

1. Who or what is a source of inspiration for you?

2. If you could live for a day as another person, past or present, who would it be? Why?

3. You are teaching a Yale course. What is it called?

4. Most Yale freshmen live in suites of four to six students. What would you contribute to the dynamic of your suite?

If you’re applying to computer science or engineering, you’re asked to write another essay: 

“Please tell us more about what has led you to an interest in this field of study, what experiences (if any) you have had in computer science or engineering, and what it is about Yale’s program in this area that appeals to you.(Please answer in 500 words or fewer).”

CLICK HERE to read my article on how to successfully apply to engineering programs.

CLICK HERE to read my article on Yale’s evaluative alumni interviews.


I’m not sure if Carolina’s essay would have worked so well if it were expanded into a longer 650-word essay like the one you have to write for the Common Application.

My sense is that it packed a nice punch precisely because it was short and part of multiple short narratives.

You should think about how each of your essays–long or short–offer additional insight into who you are.

Are you coming across as one-dimensional? Is everything in your application very serious? Then, you need to consider how you can show more range.

Are you coming across as totally scattered? Will admissions officers walk away not having a clear sense of who you are? Then, you need to consider how you can tactfully and subtly tweak your narratives so there’s more unity.


Click here to learn how to schedule a private consultation with Dr. Bernstein.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Bernstein’s ongoing private college preparation and college admissions support.

Click here to learn about the online Get Yourself Into College® program.


Experience that “Sparked a Period of Personal Growth”

Here’s one of the revised Common Application essay topics for 2017-2018: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

This essay topic replaces the older one that asked you to “discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”

Most of my students avoided the previous version of this essay topic because it felt awkward and too simplistic to focus on a single event that signified their transition from childhood to adulthood. “Cheesy” was how one of my students described it.

I hope the new emphasis on discussing not just “an accomplishment, event, or realization” but also how it “sparked a period of personal growth” and led to “a new understanding of yourself or others” will inspire you to consider writing your Common Application essay on this topic.

It’s a really juicy topic.

So many times students feel like the most important things are past accomplishments. Obviously, your track record plays a significant role in the college admissions process.

However. . . .

Admissions officers are interested in students who have potential for even more growth and who are hungry for exploration.  

As Princeton’s Dean of Admission points out:

“About 70 percent of our students graduate in a major different from the one they indicated on their admission application. We think this is exactly the right approach. We expect that students will explore their intellectual interests, and we want them to follow their passions, wherever they may lead them.”

The best, most memorable college experiences are often ones in which your mind is blown and your perspectives broadened in ways you never could have imagined in high school.

But how can you demonstrate that you’re ready for the challenge? 

Well, writing about an experience that triggered a process of “personal growth”–especially one that changed your perspective on yourself and the world around you–is one excellent way of demonstrating it.


One of my students–who’s now studying engineering at Stanford–was originally planning to write her Common App essay on the time she felt like a failure because she couldn’t answer a judge’s question.

Click here to learn strategies for successfully applying to engineering programs. Click here to get tips on writing about “a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.”

We both agreed that the first draft she wrote felt too stiff and formulaic.

In fact, the juiciest parts of her experience–the ones that would probably matter most to college admissions committees–didn’t even make their way into her essay.

What were those really interesting aspects of her experience?

They were the parts related to the way her inability to answer the judge’s question about how her project “could change children’s lives”–propelled her into a process of rethinking the nature of her work.

She realized that she didn’t just want to spend her life pursuing her own intellectual interests; she wanted to find applications for her work that would benefit others.

As she worked through the details of this transformation in her goals, she also began to make a transition from always being the young person getting mentored to becoming a mentor for the next generation of budding scientists. She also worked on a significant project that involved setting up what became an award-winning mentoring program for children in her city.

Our conversations now focused on mapping out vivid anecdotes that helped admissions officers see her process of transformation. She developed super specific “before, during, and after” anecdotes that also shed light on her family background and culture.

She also decided to change her essay topic. She just tucked in a sentence in the penultimate paragraph about how this experience signified her transition from childhood to adulthood.

Ultimately, her essay addressed the new version of this Common Application essay prompt in that she described how a seemingly simple event at a science fair (a question from a judge) led to a “realization that sparked” a process of “personal growth,” which, in turn, led to a “new understanding” of herself in relation to others.


  • Many times the surface facts of your experience–your failure, your accomplishment, event, or other experience–are less intriguing than your process of realization and transformation. I know you want to dazzle the people reading your application essays, but mere “before and after” narratives are not as compelling as those that also feature the “during.” College is a time of massive intellectual and social growth. Admissions officers are looking for students who are open to this process of growth and have the underlying strategies for handling it. 
  • Experiment with adding authentic depth to your essay, perhaps by featuring multiple layers of change. My student, for example, focused on how the transformation associated with her goals (i.e., from focusing just on her intellectual interests to developing ways of using them to benefit others) also led to a change in the way she acted (i.e., she went from being just a mentee to being a mentor).  


Click here to learn how to schedule a private consultation with Dr. Bernstein.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Bernstein’s ongoing private college preparation and college admissions support.

Click here to learn about the online Get Yourself Into College® program.


How to Get Published in The New York Times

The New York Times Summer Reading Contest provides you with a great opportunity to learn more about issues you find intriguing, discover new areas of interest, and even gain a competitive edge in the college admissions process. 


Basic things you need to know about the contest:

  • For summer 2017, the contest runs from June 16th – August 25th. 
  • You answer two simple questions: “What interested you most in The Times this week? Why?” (These same questions are posted every Friday for the duration of the contest.) Your response can be a maximum of 1,500 characters (around 250-300 words).
  • Every Tuesday, winners from the previous week are announced and their responses published.
  • “Anyone 13 to 19 years old from anywhere in the world” can participate.
  • You’re allowed to focus on anything The New York Times published in 2017, “including videos, graphics, slide shows and podcasts.”
  • You can only submit one response per week.

CLICK HERE to get all the rules and details.


Don’t enter the contest just because you want to win and be able to mention this accomplishment in your college application. Use the contest to advance your knowledge of topics that already interest you or discover new things. This way, even if you don’t win, the experience will be valuable.

Option #1: Use the contest to explore subjects, issues, or questions that you already find intriguing.

In junior high and high school, classes tend to be focused on helping you establish a very broad understanding of subjects. However, I encourage my students to develop more advanced and specific knowledge of things that interest them.

Let’s consider an example.

Lots of high school students tell me that they’re interested in neuroscience and want to study it in college. Some of them have only learned about neuroscience in their science classes while others have also studied it through their involvement in Science Olympiad and Brain Bee. These are great ways to start building up your knowledge base, but they mostly involve absorbing facts.

Often my students will deepen their knowledge by participating in a summer research program (usually in the summer between 11th and 12th grade) like Boston University’s RISE (Research in Science and Engineering) program, where they get to spend six weeks conducting research “under the guidance of a faculty member, postdoctoral fellow, or graduate student mentor” for 40 hours a week. As BU points out, some “research interns submit their work to national science fair contests such as the Siemens Competition and the Intel Science Talent Search.”

But. . . .

What if there aren’t many extracurricular opportunities for you to explore your interests?

What if you can’t participate in one of these summer programs?



I always tell students in this situation to be creative in terms of how they take action on their interests.

Participating in the New York Times Summer Reading Contest is one of these creative approaches. Poke around inside the Times and find pieces that describe interesting work in the field.

Let’s say that right now all you know is that you’re fascinated by the brain. Search “neuroscience” or “the brain” and make sure you limit the search to 2017. In the following image, I show you how to limit your search.

College Admissions New York Times

Start clicking on some of the results.

You don’t have to read things the way you do for school. Just search and skim until you find something that captures your attention. Then dig in and read, look, and/or listen.

Once you start exploring inside the Times, you might find more specific things about neuroscience that interest you.

Maybe you’ll stumble across Jess Bidgood’s “How to Get the Brain to Like Art” and suddenly realize there’s a way for you to bring together your interests in neuroscience and art. Or maybe you’ll discover Caleb Carr’s review of The Brain Defense: Murder in Manhattan and the Dawn of Neuroscience in America’s Courtrooms, get intrigued by legal applications of neuroscience, and decide to read the book.

But wait. . .

How can this help you in terms of college admissions?

After all, submitting 250-300 word responses to pieces in the New York Times (see below for tips on how to structure your responses) isn’t the same as participating in an advanced summer research program.

Nevertheless, it counts.

Advancing your knowledge in these ways can make a big difference when you’re writing your supplemental essays for colleges. Let’s consider the University of Pennsylvania’s supplement:

“The Admissions Committee would like to learn why you are a good fit for your undergraduate school choice (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). Please tell us about specific academic, service, and/or research opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania that resonate with your background, interests and goals.”

To write a compelling essay in response to this prompt you have to be able to talk very specifically about your intellectual experiences (your “background” and “interests”) and then connect them to the resources at the University of Pennsylvania. You don’t want to be broad or vague.

In your supplemental essay, you could talk about how you initially got interested in neuroscience and how you advanced that interest through your reading of the New York Times and participation in the Summer Reading Contest. You could even mention which pieces in the Times you read and describe what you wrote about them for the contest. If there are a lack of opportunities in your community, you could refer to this fact and use your description to demonstrate your ingenuity in terms of pursuing your interests. Then, of course, you’d want to link your intellectual path to the opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania.

CLICK HERE to read my article on supplemental essays. CLICK HERE to read my article on how Coursera and edX classes can be useful in the college admissions process. CLICK HERE to read my article on Yale alumni interviewer reports; it will help you understand how important it is to be able to talk about your interests and how you’ve explored them.

Option #2: Use the contest to discover and explore new topics.

Sometimes students come to me with only a fuzzy sense of what interests them.

That’s totally okay.

You don’t actually have to know exactly what you want to study in college. (There are some exceptions to this claim, but I’m not going to get into them here.)

Janet Lavin Rapelye, the dean of admission at Princeton, points out that “about 70 percent of our students graduate in a major different from the one they indicated on their admission application. We think this is exactly the right approach. We expect that students will explore their intellectual interests, and we want them to follow their passions, wherever they may lead them.”

What is important is that you are an explorer.

You’re not going to discover your intellectual interests by just sitting around. Ideas aren’t going to magically drop into your mind. 🙂

The New York Times Summer Reading Contest can help you start your exploration.

Go to the home page and click on “Sections” and the little arrows to see more specific options within each section. Just start poking around and exploring whatever it is that seems intriguing to you.You don’t have to choose something serious or academic.

You might want to check out The Daily 360 (short videos), The Daily (short podcasts featuring the story behind the stories), Times Documentaries, the Arts section, or the Science section.

Even if you’re applying “undecided” to schools, I recommend talking about a few subjects or issues that excite you and how you’ve explored them. Your process of reading, listening to, watching The Times and contributing to the Summer Reading Contest is definitely something you can write about in your essays and talk about in your alumni interviews.


The Learning Network points out that “the best pieces year after year make both personal connections to the news and go beyond the personal to discuss broader questions and ideas that a piece raises.”

One thing that I really love about this contest is that it encourages you to enter into dialogue with authors and the issues they address. You’re not just writing an academic essay where you have to quote experts. Your voice and your personal connection to the issues raised in the piece are just as important. Plus, you’re challenged to connect your own perspective and the author’s to a broader context.

My #1 piece of advice is to read the entries of previous winners.

Study how they structured their responses.

  • Do they ever write things like this: “What I found most interesting in The Times this week is_______”?
  • How do they convey their interest?
  • How do they situate their specific ideas within a broader context?
  • What do you like about their writing style?

You might want to read Claire McClannan’s entry on “The World’s Disappearing Sand.” I love the tone of her contribution as well as her introduction: “Sand. The most boring thing you never thought about. But as it turns out, our cities depend on it, and we’re running out.” Just FYI, you can definitely start your Common Application essay in this kind of terse, surprising way. This type of introduction is much more compelling than the traditional opening paragraphs you have to write for your academic essays.

Gabe S.’s entry on “How the Government Supports Your Junk Food Habit” also has a great introduction: “Enter the twenty-first century: Greek yogurt, quinoa, juice cleanses, and Fitbits. Eating healthier and making the right choices at mealtime have gained popularity. And food companies have evolved to meet the demands of the customers who want all-natural, organic, GMO-free products.” I also like how he describes the way the article opened his eyes to how “agricultural policies had grown so out of line with the health-related needs of the country.”


I hope you take advantage of this opportunity. If you do, let me know. I love cheering on my students and readers!

The Learning Network emphasizes that it doesn’t matter “what you choose or whether you loved or hated it.” What they care “about is what you have to say about why you picked it.”


Click here to learn how to schedule a private consultation with Dr. Bernstein.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Bernstein’s ongoing private college preparation and college admissions support.

Click here to learn about the online Get Yourself Into College® program.


How Can Harvard Help You Write Amazing Common Application Essays?

Harvard offers an excellent free resource that can help you write a stunning, truly memorable Common Application essay.

This same resource can support you in crafting extraordinary personal narratives for the University of California’s “personal insight questions,” the Coalition Application prompts, and topics required by other non-Common App schools.


One of my new students is a high school junior who believed participating in Harvard’s Summer School program would be the major distinguishing factor in his application package.

After all, it was Harvard, and he’d earn college credit for the classes.

In fact, Harvard publicizes how the Secondary School Program “will strengthen your application to any college or university” and provide you with “many opportunities designed to help you navigate the college-application process, gain admission to the college of your choice, and enhance your performance in a college setting.”

I’m not sure I agree with all of those claims, especially the first one.

However, some of my students have attended the Secondary School Program and enjoyed taking more advanced courses related to their interests. One of these students is now a junior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she’s a Vagelos Scholar in Molecular Life Sciences.

Did participating in the summer program at Harvard make any true difference with her applications? 

I don’t think so.

Her substantial extracurricular experience related to her scientific interests–especially her independent hands-on research projects, experience working in a local professor’s lab, leadership of a Science Olympiad team, and long-term community service (which was connected to her passion for public health)–combined with her stellar grades, challenging classes at school, exceptional standardized test scores, and fascinating application essays definitely seemed more impressive than the fact that she took classes at Harvard.

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m not trying to put down Harvard’s Summer Program because it can be a really good option depending on your unique situation.

But it is definitely NOT necessary to participate in a summer program–even one at Harvard–that, on average, costs $11,900 (for tuition and room and board).

No one on an admissions committee is going to say, “Oh, wow. Look at this. John took summer classes at Harvard. Admit him.”

My student realized that taking yet another class wasn’t what he needed to pursue his fascination with a certain historical issue. Instead, I helped him design his own independent research project, connect with two professors whose work he admires and who agreed to review his work, integrate relevant community service into his work, and identify two journals where he might submit his essay.

In the end, this project is going to make the biggest difference for my student–as an individual and as an applicant.

However. . .

Harvard does have a resource he desperately needs, one that will help him distinguish himself from thousands of other students.


So what’s this resource?

It’s the Lowell House Speeches Project.

Harvard students in this undergraduate House have the opportunity to give “five-minute speeches on topics of personal significance.”

These aren’t college application essays, but you should listen to at least five of them.

Here are some questions to consider. . . .

  • What do you like about the way the narrative is structured? Is there something intriguing about where the student started or ended? 
  • What do you notice about the scope of the student’s talk? Does it cover a long period of time? If so, how does the student integrate a series of anecdotes that make you feel like you’ve really gotten to know him? Does the speaker have a super narrow scope? What advantage does a narrow scope give you?
  • What do you enjoy about the anecdotes? How does the writer strike just the right balance between internal and external details. . .between showing and telling?
  • Are there particular words, phrases, images, and sentences that you find beautiful, poignant, or memorable? What gives them these qualities? 
  • What do you think of the title? Is it necessary? Why? Why not?
  • Some of the talks are accompanied by transcripts. How does the speaker vary the length of her paragraphs and use dialogue?
  • What makes the talk memorable?

You don’t have to listen for all these things.


Zoom in on what attracts or repels you.

Consider how you might use similar devices or strategies in your own writing.

You don’t want to walk away just thinking: “Sophie’s talk was about x, y, and z, and it was great because. . . .”

You want to walk away thinking like this: “Wow, I never thought about how I could start my application essay with just one sentence, but Mark’s talk gave me a great idea for how to . . . .” 


There are almost 300 Lowell House Speeches you can listen to/watch.

I want to share with you some of my favorites. 

Dillon Cruz’s “Goose Creek” (2016) is a riveting, memorable, and elegant inter-generational narrative about “thirty years of promises and choices and sacrifices.” On the surface, it seems like the narrative is mainly about his father, grandfather, and mother, but as you’ll notice at the end, it’s ultimately about Dillon. He points out that these “stories are more than just stories” to him; they are “central to who” he is becoming. His showing is the most powerful telling.

Meghan Cleary’s “Dad’s Girlfriend” (2011) “brought the crowded Lowell House dining hall. . .to stunned silence and then catharsis.” Hmmm….Wouldn’t you love to have this kind of effect on the admissions officers reading your application? Are there any underlying strategies that you could borrow?

The twists and turns in Delfina Martinez-Pandiani’s “Exposed” (2017) are hauntingly poignant and memorable. I love how the whole talk emerges out of a haircut, people’s reactions to it, and how the act and reactions have shifted her perspectives on herself.

These three talks could work for the first Common App essay topic (“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it”), the fifth topic (“an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others”), or the seventh topic (“Share an essay on any topic of your choice”). CLICK HERE to learn more about the Common App essay topics.


The Harvard students’ talks should help you get your creative juices pumping.

If you want to transform your college preparation and application process into an “intense, whimsical, surprising, and transformative” experience that also helps you stand out from the thousands of other applicants, book a private consultation or learn about how you can get more comprehensive support from me.

Guide to New Common App Essay Topics (2017-2018)

The Common Application just released the new essay topics/prompts for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle, and I’m putting together a guide to help you write a truly vivid, compelling, and authentic application essay.


1. The first Common Application essay topic for 2017-2018 is still: “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.”

Tips on the “background, identity, interest, or talent” essay prompt:

You need to find just the right scope for your application essay.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to share everything about your “background, identity, interest, or talent” in a 650-word essay. If you do try to cover everything, your essay will probably wind up being very superficial, and that’s problematic because admissions officers really want to be taken deep into your experience so that they feel like they’re really getting to know you.

Start by thinking about the most meaningful or intriguing aspect of your “background, identity, interest, or talent.” What you share can be meaningful in all sorts of ways. For instance, you can zoom in on one particular aspect of your background and identity and how it informs the way you look at and approach certain things. Instead of just telling a general story about a meaningful interest, you can concentrate on a specific project or experience related to it.

Remember that you are not just writing a personal essay for yourself. You are writing a college application essay, and you need to be aware of your audience.

Look at the language of the prompt. The Common App is telling you to consider sharing something that is so meaningful that you feel your “application would be incomplete without it.” Why is it important that admissions officers know about this specific “background, identity, interest, or talent”?

Watch my video–“Your Common App Essay: The Most Important Question”– to get more tips on this very important issue. It also includes case studies of my students who earned admission to Stanford and Yale, which will help you get your own creative juices flowing.

2. The second Common App essay topic for 2017-2018 is no longer just about failure. It’s now: “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?”

I love this change!

The old Common Application essay prompt was: “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?” I found that a lot of students wound up coming up with a fairly limited range of failures.

Remember that the Common App gives you creative license. In the instructions, you’re told to use “the prompt to inspire and structure your response.”

Tips on the “lessons we take from obstacles we encounter” topic:

It’s really useful to share anecdotes that shed light on the external and internal details. In other words, you want admissions officers to be able to see the external situation and feel like they’re inside your mind as you’re facing this obstacle.

The process of your experience is very important. You don’t just want to focus on the obstacle, challenge, setback, or failure itself. You also want to connect it to who you are as a person and how this experience has shaped you in some way.

Head over to my post on “Why You Should Write About Failure in Your Application Essay” to learn why colleges value students who are capable of handling obstacles, challenges, setbacks, and even failures and get tips on what to avoid in this kind of application essay.

3. The third Common App essay topic for 2017-2018 is no longer just about challenging a belief. It also now encourages you to provide more insight into your thinking process. This is the new topic: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” 

Tips on the “time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea” prompt:

Check out my post on “The `Challenge a Belief or Idea’ Option” and watch this video.

I was advising my students to take creative license and write about questioning (not just challenging) beliefs or ideas, to help admissions officers understand the thinking process behind their decision, and to describe the outcome even before the Common App changed the wording, so the video is still relevant. Also, I share with you a case study of a student who was accepted to an Ivy League engineering program.

4. The fourth Common Application essay topic for 2017-2018 is still: “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.”


Common App Essay Instructions & Topics (Revised for 2017 – 2018)


One way to start coming up with interesting ideas for your Common App essay is to check out the instructions. I know this sounds ridiculously simplistic, but I’ve found that many students overlook these directions, and this neglect can lead to problems with your essay.


  • The first instructions remind you that your application essay is meant to demonstrate “your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic” and emphasize how this essay allows you to “distinguish yourself in your own voice.”

MY TIPS: You’re not writing a traditional academic essay.

Your tone doesn’t need to be formal.

You should definitely make use of contractions, which enhance the flow of your essay.

You don’t need to structure your essay the way you usually do for school essays.

In almost all cases, you should avoid writing a traditional opening paragraph. You can plunge readers right into the middle of an experience or have a opening paragraph that’s just one sentence long.

You can also do away with typical conclusions. Many of my students tuck a concluding sentence into the last main paragraph of their essay, which helps them avoid blah-sounding concluding paragraphs.

  • Then, there’s mention of something that’s really essential to keep in mind as you’re thinking about what you want to write about in your admissions essay.

You’re asked to consider what “you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores.”

MY TIPS: This isn’t to say that you can’t write about your courses or something related to your grades and test scores.

You just want to make sure you’re focused on aspects of your academic life that aren’t obvious from your transcript or other parts of your application. Provide insight into your thought process, perspective, and character.  You have to strike a balance between external and internal details.

CLICK HERE (and then scroll down in the post) to learn how you could write an essay about a tense in-class discussion that involved you challenging the belief of one of your classmates.

You could also write about a time when you failed or didn’t live up to your own intellectual standards. CLICK HERE to learn more about my strategies for the “failure” essay topic.

CLICK HERE to get tips on interesting ways of writing about your academic or intellectual experiences in the the “problem you’ve solved or would like to solve” essay.

  • Your Common Application essay must be between 250-650 words. If it’s shorter or longer, the Common Application won’t accept it.

 MY TIPS: It would be so amazing if you could write an illuminating 250-word college application essay, but you   probably can’t. Most of my students’ essays are between 600-650 words. Vivid anecdotes are key to powerful       personal essays.


The most revealing instruction is hidden in the details.

So what is that important detail? KEEP READING

Making the Most of Your College Visits and Getting Essential Insider Information

College visits are a great way for you to get a really good feel for schools, demonstrate your interest, and even increase your chances of gaining admission to them. . .but only if you make the most of them.


Did you know that many colleges keep track of your visits and contacts with them?

Some schools even use this information at some point in the admissions process.

Brian C. Rosenberg, the president of Macalester College (a top liberal arts school), explains that “a campus visit is the most important sign that an applicant is seriously interested, and there are times when that expression of interest can make the difference between acceptance and rejection. All colleges prefer to admit students who are likely to accept their offers of admission.”

That’s right.

You’re not the only one focused on getting accepted.

Colleges are very concerned about whether their accepted students will accept them.


According to the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC), “colleges need to know whether you are serious about attending if accepted, because if a college is under- or over-enrolled, there are serious consequences for the college.”  Due to the “large number of applications flooding in, colleges are trying harder to figure out how interested applicants are.”

Demonstrating your interest is becoming increasingly important in the admissions process.

vector colored raised hands presentation for any business

In NACAC’s 2010 Admissions Trends Survey, 23% of schools indicated that a student’s demonstrated interest is of “considerable importance,” 30.9% said it’s of “moderate importance,” 26.6% claimed it’s of “limited importance,” and 19.9% stated it’s of “no importance” in terms of admission.

TIP: Make the most of every part of the admissions process that’s in your control. Demonstrating your interest in a college by visiting campus is one of those elements.

TIP: Sign in when you attend the information sessions and campus tours that are a standard part of college visits. Don’t try to fly under the radar or have your parents write their names.  Put down your name.  Make your visit count.


Last year, when I visited Georgetown, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, MIT, Harvard, Columbia, and Yale, I was amazed by how many students and parents in the information sessions were frantically scribbling down the steady stream of facts and statistics that admissions officers were sharing during their presentations. KEEP READING

Common Application “Problem” Essay Topic

The Common Application released the revised and new essay topics for 2017-2018, and the “describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve” prompt remains the same. 

Here’s the exact essay prompt:

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.”

Writing an essay about such a problem is a great option, and I want to share some tips for effective ways of approaching this topic.


In some ways, the wording of this application essay topic is really simple, but let’s break it down so that you’re completely clear about the details.

You’re being asked to focus on a problem—either a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.

The Common App doesn’t say this, but you could write a great essay about a problem that you’re in the process of solving and focus on what you’ve figured out and done so far and what the next steps are for you.

You can write about any sort of problem, and the scale of it doesn’t matter. It can be a big or small problem.

You also have to explain why this problem is significant to you and describe your process of identifying a solution to it or the steps you could take to come up with a solution.

Remember that you have creative license in terms of how you approach all of the Common App essay topics.

CLICK HERE to get my tips on the Common App’s general essay instructions (which haven’t changed for 2016-2017).


When reading an essay on this particular Common App topic, admissions officers are really looking to see how you grapple with difficulties, questions that are not immediately answerable, things that are perplexing, challenges that cannot be quickly resolved.

Why do they care about how you grapple with these kinds of problems?


“Time When You Questioned Or Challenged a Belief or Idea” Common Application Essay Prompt


The Common Application gives you the option to write an essay in which you “reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

The original version of this application essay prompt was: “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”

However, the Common App revised it for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle so that the emphasis is no longer just on challenging a belief. Now you’re encouraged to consider writing about a time when you questioned a belief or idea, asked to shed more light on your thinking (rather than just your action).

CLICK HERE to access articles on the other new Common Application essay prompts for 2017-2018.


Many of my students used to immediately dismiss the “challenge” essay topic. The Common App revealed that during the 2015-2016 cycle, only 4% of applicants selected this prompt.

Some students said they couldn’t write an application essay on this issue because they felt that they’d never challenged a major belief or idea. Others shied away from this topic because they didn’t want to “rock the boat” in their essay.

The wording of the original topic was a bit intimidating because it seemed as though you had to write about challenging something big like someone’s political or religious belief.

Also, it makes sense to consider whether or not you’re likely to alienate readers by focusing on something controversial. Notice that I’m not saying you shouldn’t write about something risky. Sometimes “rocking the boat” is exactly what you want or need to do. You just have to make an informed decision.

Let’s say that you are Jewish, and in 10th grade you noticed that your school district’s calendar featured Jewish and Christian holidays but left out holidays related to other religions. Maybe this situation inspired you to talk with one of your Muslim friends to get her perspectives and eventually led the two of you to research school policies related to religious holidays and to create a student forum for discussing these issues. Then, in 11th grade, you met with the principal, superintendent, and school board to present a proposal that challenged the structure of the calendar, which resulted in the district agreeing to include a wider range of holidays in the calendar.

The most interesting details in this essay would be your collaboration with your peers, the way you created spaces for open-minded dialogues about complex issues, and how the experience changed the way you think about inclusiveness.

You can still write about seemingly “BIGGER” challenges, but the new version of the topic is more inviting.


You don’t have to write about political or religious beliefs and ideas.  You can if you want to, but you’re definitely not limited to them.

Let’s consider some other angles.


Here’s an example to get your creative juices pumping. Maybe you’ve always felt unworthy because you’re overweight, and one day you started realizing how much time you’ve spent feeling bad about yourself and not wanting to draw any attention to yourself. You could write a really compelling essay about how you started questioning the belief that you’re unworthy because of your weight and how your inner and outer world has started shifting because of this initial questioning.


Check out my video that features a case study of one of my students who wrote about her experience questioning and challenging the decision a judge made at a Science Olympiad event.

Notice that she didn’t take the topic in a limited literal sense. She took advantage of the creative license that the Common App gives you. Remember, you are told to use “the prompt to inspire and structure your response.” Instead of focusing on the kinds of things that might immediately come to mind when thinking of beliefs and ideas, she concentrated on questioning a decision.

Just FYI, this student was accepted to an engineering program at an Ivy League school. (Click here to get my strategies to increase your changes of getting into engineering programs.)

I give a very detailed account of how she structured her essay. You’ll also get my tips for creating a great narrative structure and using anecdotes to illuminate your process of questioning and challenging a belief or idea. Plus, I explain why admissions officers are interested in your response to this essay topic.



How to Find a Unique Angle for Your Common Application Essay

The advice I’m about to give on how to find a unique angle for your Common Application essay probably goes against one of the primary rules you’ve learned about writing papers.


You should have a general sense of the essay prompts, but you don’t want to be restricted by them.


Here are three good reasons.

#1 You have creative license in your Common Application essay. The topics are designed to “inspire and structure,” not limit and determine your response. 

That means you don’t have to stick to the topic the way you usually do when writing essays for school.

Take advantage of your freedom.

CLICK HERE to get more of my tips on the instructions related to the Common Application essay.

#2 Approaching essay topics head-on increases the chances that you’ll come up with the same basic ideas as thousands of other students.

The Common App wants to “make sure that every applicant can find a home within the essay prompts,” which means they develop a series of topics that connect with most students’ experiences.

You don’t have to write about a subject that no one else is writing about, but you do need to find an angle that will allow you to distinguish yourself.

#3 The first essay topic about your “background, identity, interest, or talent” basically allows you to write about anything you want. One of the new topics for the 2017-2018 admissions cycle is basically the same as the first prompt except you’re told to “share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

**During the 2015-2016 admissions season, 47 percent of students selected this prompt. Just FYI, 22 percent wrote “about an accomplishment, 17 percent about a lesson or failure, 10 percent about a problem solved, and four percent about an idea challenged.”**


Now let’s explore the option of looking elsewhere for inspiration in coming up with an angle.

A few weeks ago, I was reading the essay that one of my students was about to submit to the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Achievement Awards in Writing. Students are required to submit an example of what they consider their best work as well as a piece of themed writing. KEEP READING