Oct   2015



Answer One Question to Stand Out in Your Common App Essay

President, Wow Writing Workshop

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 the 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, President and Cofounder of WowWritingWorkshop, has been reporting the news, writing for businesses and nonprofits, and teaching students how to tell their stories for three decades. Her articles on the college essay and other topics appear in a variety of publications, in print and online.  

Kim and her business partner, Susan Knoppow, founded Wow in 2009 as a full-service company that specializes in personal statement and supplemental essay coaching services to students applying to college, graduate school, and beyond. The company also provides professional essay coaching to educational consultants and strategic communications and writing services to businesses and nonprofit organizations. Kim and Susan are co-authors of a popular e-book for anyone who works with students applying to college: How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents ($9.99 on Amazon.com).

Kim is a recognized national expert on the college application essay and speaks to high school and parent groups about the role of the college essay within the competitive admission world. Kim is also a frequent guest speaker at industry conferences, and has planned and moderated expert panel discussions on the college essay with admission professionals from the nation’s top universities. Kim conducts monthly webinars for parents and represents Wow during webinars and interactive social media events (Twitter Chats, Google Hangouts, etc.) sponsored by community service organizations, test prep organizations, and financial aid companies.  

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