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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

2 Elements of Best Common Application Essays

The best Common Application essays provide admissions officers with insight into you and are memorable.

You’ve probably heard these two points many times.

But. . . .

What does it actually take to create a one-of-a-kind college application essay?

How can you figure out what aspects of yourself to share in your Common Application essay?

What will make your essay memorable?

I’m sharing case studies of multiple students to help you understand how to craft insightful and memorable application essays.

Why Do Admissions Officers Need to Know This About Me? 

The Common Application essay prompts invite you to share things about your background, experiences, interests, talents, identity, ideas, beliefs, and/or setbacks.

However, you’re not just writing an essay about yourself for yourself. You are writing for a very specific audience–college admissions officers who are trying to figure out whether or not to accept you into their intellectual and social community.

That DOESN’T mean you should be focused on trying to tell admissions officers what you think they want to hear.

Every year, I read application essays that sound way too “goody-goody” or are filled with veiled brag alerts. I can tell that the students’ are “writing to” the admissions officers, which is a really bad idea. These essays wind up being boring and turn off readers.

Don’t get me wrong.

I’m not saying you can’t focus on an accomplishment in your Common Application essay, but you’ve got to come at it from the right angle.

At the same time, you need to consider why the story you want to tell in your Common App essay is something that will be valuable for admissions officers to know about you. Every part of your application package needs to work together to build a vivid, compelling, and meaningful image of you.

Common App Essay Example for Engineering Student 

For instance, if you’re applying to engineering programs and have to write a supplemental essay about your specific intellectual and professional interests in engineering, you might want to write your main application essay (which tends to be more general and more obviously personal than a supplemental essay of this sort), about a meaningful experience that demonstrates your problem-solving skills. After all, engineering programs are looking for students who have this underlying skill.

If you write about problem solving in your Common App essay, you don’t have to focus on an engineering project (but you could).

You could write about a time you got lost while hiking and how you worked through this problem and how it influenced the way you think and act in other situations. In this case, your essay would help admissions officers learn more about something you love to do—hiking—and shed light on an underlying skill you have (using problem solving to deal with setbacks and challenges) that is relevant to how you are positioning yourself intellectually.

Click here to read my article on applying to engineering programs.

Common App Essay Example for Science Student Accepted to Ivies 

Let’s say you’re positioning yourself for the sciences. It’s possible that all of your supplemental essays focus on your scientific interests and experiences. In this case, you might want to use your Common Application essay to help admissions officers get to know other parts of you.

For instance, one of my STEM students who was accepted to Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and MIT wrote his Common Application essay on the moment he discovered the connection between his interests in poetry and chemistry.

The essay plunged readers into one mundane afternoon in his life and featured a few flashbacks and digressions, which helped admissions officers learn more about his writing, habits of mind, and experiments (poetic and scientific). Then, there was the turning point–the moment where a flash of insight pulsed across his consciousness–which helped him see underlying connections between these ways of thinking and modes of expression.

His main application essay thus helped readers get to know more about his poetic interests but also his day-to-day life, his ways of thinking, and the process behind some self-initiated experiments (that weren’t featured anywhere else in his application).

Had these students just been writing narratives about themselves for themselves, they might not have written about these particular topics, but they took into consideration their audience and the bigger picture of their applications to tell stories that were really important to them and, at the same time, connected with the needs of their audience. The best Common Application essays are always relevant in these ways.

Click here to read “Techniques Used in the Best College Application Essays.” This post includes a case study of an actual student essay and breaks down the different narrative strategies he used to help you learn how to incorporate similar techniques in your application essays. 

The Best Common App Essays Are Memorable 

When reviewing student essays, I always comment on their memorability. Admissions officers are reading hundreds–sometimes thousands–of application essays each year. You don’t want to be part of the blur in their mind. You want to have an effect on admissions officers.

I’m reminded of how a Harvard student “brought the crowded Lowell House dining hall. . .to stunned silence and then catharsis.” Her story was so humble. . .so real. . .so poignant. Imagine being able to make this kind of mark in the minds and hearts of your admissions officers. Click here to read my article on “How Harvard Can Help You Write an Amazing Common App Essay” and then scroll down to the examples of student narratives. You can also check out this student’s talk by clicking here.

The best Common Application essays are ones that admissions officers will remember after a long day (or night) of reading. Unfortunately, so many Common App essays are, in the end, forgettable. Even some of the brightest students wind up selecting topics that a reader will almost immediately forget.

How to Bore Admissions Officers

One of my students sent me an essay on a time he overcame a setback in a chess game. The structure was fine, the anecdotes were good, and I could see what was going on externally in the game and internally in his mind. On some level, this was a good essay. However, the essay was totally forgettable.

I hate to say that because I know that experience was important to the student, and I know he worked hard on writing the essay. But even I kind of quickly forgot what he wrote about. All I remembered was that he faced a difficult opponent and had to overcome the mindset that was getting in his way of strategizing.

I’ve read hundreds of these kinds of essays before.  Maybe the external details were different, but the overall structure and underlying message or lesson were the same.

Sometimes the way you tell the story can make all the difference. Sometimes what your reader will remember are your amazingly vivid and thought-provoking scenes (rather than the takeaway message).

In this case, I didn’t feel there was anything the student could do to transform the narrative into something that showcased things which are truly special about him. I happened to know this student quite well and quickly pointed out something else he’d done (and written about for another application) that was far more interesting and important.

 How Can You Intrigue Admissions Officers? 

Sometimes the Common Application essay prompts steer your brain into coming up with forgettable topics.

Remember that the Common App tries 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. The problem, though, is that if you start with the essay prompts rather than with yourself and what you feel is important for admissions officers to know about you, you’ll likely wind up focusing on something really common.

  • Think about possible “twists” on the Common App essay topics. For instance, the wording for the “Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea” essay prompt leads many students into immediately thinking about challenging other people. Of course, you can write an amazing essay about this kind of challenging or questioning, but you might want to explore twists like writing about a time when you challenged one of your own self-limiting beliefs.  
  • The mundane can be magical. Don’t overlook the value of taking admissions officers deep into your world by sharing with them a ritual, a habit, or some other part of your life. Admissions officers are very curious and want to get to know you.

One of my students wrote an amazing essay about the evolution of an annual family ritual, which also shed light on her technical prowess, her transition from being the kid helping out to the leader organizing and revamping the ritual, and even how the ritual connected to her community.

I’ve read wonderful essays about getting to know a veteran through a service project and how this relationship profoundly influenced the student’s way of thinking and acting, a student’s fascination with riddles and jokes, and a super organized student’s experience getting lost in a foreign country.

There are so many possibilities! Just don’t be gimmicky. 

  • Process is fascinating. The college application process tends to get you obsessed with your accomplishments, but don’t forget the middle! Let’s say you want to write about “a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time.” Come up with scenes that show (not just tell) you working on this idea. Maybe your mind was blown by a single sentence in a book you were reading that sparked a series of independent research projects. You could share the scene of you encountering that sentence, what made it so unsettling, and how your projects helped you work through the concepts. Even if these projects are listed and described elsewhere in your application package, you would be providing a behind-the-scenes perspective that would be so interesting and valuable to admissions officers. Plus, no one else would be writing this same essay because the experience is unique. 

There is no one right or wrong topic. You have to find the right angles to pursue, and that takes some time.

I’ll leave you with some words from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay “Experience”:

“A man is like a bit of Labrador spar, which has no lustre as you turn it in your hand, until you come to a particular angle; then it shows deep and beautiful colors.”

If your goal is to write the best possible Common Application essay, you’ve got to turn your experiences around in your mind until you find that perfect angle, the one that reveals your “deep and beautiful colors” to admissions officers.



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