Originally Posted: Oct 14, 2015
Last Updated: Mar 20, 2019
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: Mastering the Application Essay