You and the Common Application Essay (Part 1)

The Common Application, an online college and university application form that allows students to fill out one single application to send to multiple schools that utilize a holistic application evaluation process (meaning they look beyond grades and test scores), was revamped for the 2013-2014 application cycle.  The changes made to the form included the creation of five new essay prompts, each one of which gives students a different opportunity to highlight part of their character or tell colleges something that is important in their life that may not be readily apparent when admission officers read their transcripts and recommendations.

But with five prompts to choose from and a word limit of 650, where do you begin?  Moreover, what should you say that is both on topic and relevant to your life?

Over the course of the next several blog entries, I’m going to break down each essay prompt and outline various strategies that you can adopt to write an on-target essay for any one of them.  Many equestrian students use the essay as an opportunity to talk about their riding and their passion for the sport and it certainly provides rich fodder for you to mine topics from.  (In fact, I mentioned this in an earlier blog entry.)  The key point to remember, however, is that the essay must tell the college something about you.  Unless it can do that successfully, the essay itself might flop.

Prompt #1 for 2013:  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.

If you’re a rider, this topic could be tailor-made for you.  Is your passion for the sport of show jumping or eventing or reining such that, if you don’t tell the college or university about it, they’ll only have a bare picture of your life – similar to looking only at a person’s skeleton in an x-ray without looking at the whole body?

Fantastic!

But let’s examine the key words in the prompt itself.  This particular prompt is looking for a story, which means that you, as the essay writer, need to format your essay in story form.  Mind you, it isn’t required that you begin with “once upon a time” or include flowing lines of dialogue or elaborate scene descriptions – especially as 650 words don’t allow much room for extraneous exposition – but rather it’s looking for you to set your essay up with a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion in the end that means something.  Maybe the story you wish to tell has a lesson that you learned in the end that changed your life (or your outlook on it).  Perhaps there is a “happily ever after” to be found when you met the horse that became your Prince (or Princess!) Charming.

Or is the ending yet to be written and that’s where your college education comes in?  There are a lot of options available and the best thing you can do is choose the one that is most authentic to you.  (After all, it’s your story!)

The other thing to remember when you set pen to paper (or finger to keyboard, which is more likely these days!) is that the essay prompt is requesting one story (singular).  Many students have a tendency to let one story bleed quickly into another and another until you find yourself with six different stories that jumble together in the reader’s mind.  (Admissions counselors read upwards of 500 application essays in a three month span every year – no need to confuse their already-overworked minds even more!)  So even though there might be a fantastic anecdote that precedes the story of how you received your first horse (your trainer sold the horse to three different people who had to send it back for a variety of reasons and the third time it came back your pony had just retired and you tried the horse and it was a perfect match), if the point you’re driving to (e.g. the conclusion of the story) is that you wanted so badly to win the local medal final and took steps to achieve the goal, then how the horse wound up in your possession isn’t important – but winning (or even losing!) the medal final is. 

Lewis Carroll said it best in Alice in Wonderland:  “Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

So if you choose essay prompt number one this fall, tell the admissions staff a story, students.  Format it clearly, be succinct, and make sure (most importantly!) that it’s about you.  It’s your application, your education, and your life that are important at this time of year – so make sure the admissions officers know that!

(And if you need or want help in the essay editing process, please contact me.  I’m reading several essays a night to give feedback but I can always read more!)

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