Answer One Question to Stand Out in Your Common App Essay

President, Wow Writing Workshop

Oct   2015



Answer One Question to Stand Out in Your Common App Essay

The 2015–2016 Common Application has been live since August 1; if you haven’t already, it’s time to create your account and start writing your Common App essay.

Here’s the single best piece of essay writing advice to help you stand out and improve your chances of admission to your dream school: Before you start writing the Common App essay (or any other personal statement), ask yourself this question: What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package?

The question may not seem like such a big deal. But your answer is crucial. Without an answer, you will have trouble writing a college essay that will help admission officers decide if you are a good fit for their school.

College admission officers want you to reflect on your life in your Common App essay. Of course, at only 16 or 17 years old, you might not have much practice reflecting deeply into your life. Or maybe you’re introspective type, in which case, this might come easier to you!

Many students say flat out that they cannot answer this question. But they can.

How to answer the big question

First, get a little help from someone who knows you well—a parent, a friend, a trusted teacher, a mentor. Ask what he or she thinks of you. What are your best attributes? Are you industrious? Funny? A leader? Shy? Outgoing? Curious? Are you a risk taker?

Think characteristics, not accomplishments. Consider what colleges already know from your application: they know your grades, test scores, awards, clubs, jobs, and even the names of your brothers and sisters. They will know if your mom is Canadian or if your grandfather is an alumnus.

Now, ask yourself the question again: What do I want colleges to know about me that is not apparent from the rest of my application package? With input from someone who knows you well and some time doing your own reflection, you should be able to come up with an answer. Then you will be ready for the next part of the essay writing process.

How to select a prompt

Once you know which characteristic(s) you want to share, look at the five prompts on the Common App, and consider one or more of them more closely. Remember, any prompt will do—colleges do not choose favorites.

Now you need to find a story that both illustrates the trait you want to share and answers the prompt. These articles will help:

Related: Apply Your Mind to the College Application Essay

Related: Mastering the Application Essay

Related: How to Tell Your Story With Your Application Essay

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About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is the President of the Wow Writing Workshop, one of the nation’s premier resources on the college application essay. Sign up for WOW and stay in the loop!  You’ll find out what University of Michigan Assistant Director of Admissions Kim Bryant wants to read in a college essay, plus get expert blogs, video, and other tips from many other top admission experts, including Johns Hopkins, Michigan State, Brown, Middlebury, Rice, Santa Clara, University of Miami, Cornell, Vanderbilt, and Yale. Using a 10-step online system, we teach college-bound students how to write application essays that stand out so they get in! Our students get exclusive access to videos, articles, and writing activities to streamline the essay-writing process.

A journalist and communications consultant, Kim has been teaching college-bound students how to tell their own stories in their college essays for two decades. She started her career as a reporter for the Fort Lauderdale News and Sun-Sentinel. Since then, Kim’s work has appeared in The Detroit Free Press, The Detroit News, Crain’s Detroit Business, and a variety of regional and trade publications. She also has managed print and online communications for corporate and nonprofit clients nationwide.

Kim is a graduate of Michigan State University’s School of Journalism, where she was a reporter for The State News and covered campus news for United Press International. She served as a research/writing fellow for the Youth Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. and spent a summer honing her journalism skills at Northwestern University.

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