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

Like what you’re reading?

Join the CollegeXpress community! Create a free account and we’ll notify you about new articles, scholarship deadlines, and more.

Join Now

About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President and Cofounder of Wow Writing Workshop, a strategic communication company specializing in college admission and grad school application essay writing and professional training. She leads a team of writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. Wow’s team teaches students how to write application essays, and provides expert training on their unique approach to professionals who want to improve their essay coaching practices. Kim blogs regularly about the college essay’s role in the admission process for multiple industry publications and websites. In 2019, she was named a LinkedIn Top Voice in Education.

Before co-founding Wow, Kim worked as a reporter and communication consultant. Highlights include: Co-producing a PBS documentary about teens and depression, No Ordinary Joe: Erasing the Stigma of Mental Illness; writing “First Class,” a weekly lifestyle column about the area’s most successful businessmen and women for the Detroit Free Press; creating “A Small Business Adventure,” a 12-part monthly series about the perils and pitfalls of running a small business for the Detroiter Magazine; supervising a public relations campaign and accompanying print materials that attracted local and national print, radio, and TV media coverage for the National Council of Jewish Women’s annual convention in celebrating its 100th anniversary.


Join our community of
over 5 million students!

CollegeXpress has everything you need to simplify your college search, get connected to schools, and find your perfect fit.

Join CollegeXpress
CollegeXpress Logo


Are you our next winner?

Register now for our scholarship giveaway