The Common App announced their essay prompts for the 2019-2020 school year earlier this year. The good news is that there have been no changes in the prompts from the 2018-2019 year. The not-so-good news is that, by now, every applicant who has been researching how to write the Common Application essay will have had YEARS to figure out the best ways to respond to these prompts in ways that will impress the admissions officers. (In case you are interested, you can find the complete list of prompts here.)
But in this case, the good outweighs the bad, because you are reading this article right now and will have access to the latest “hot tips” on how to write the most powerful, compelling, and effective admissions essay to get into the college or university of your choice. For our advice on how to approach the Common App Prompts of years past, visit Wordvice’s article and video library for more detailed lessons on writing for each individual prompt. You can rest assured that these suggestions will still apply to the admissions essays you will be writing this admissions season—and probably for several more to come.
Common Application Tools for Students and Counselors
On its website, the Common App recommends a suite of on-demand resources, training videos, and infosheets called “Common App Ready.” This package includes information on how to create an application, detailed descriptions of each section, and requirements for submission, along with resources in Spanish. This resource is specially designed to help students and counselors through the application process and to give them some useful tips for writing the essay. However, if after reading and viewing all of these writing resources you are still hungry for more tips on writing the Common App admissions essay, this article will suggest a few more brainstorming, drafting, and even editing tips for responding to several of the Common App Essay prompts for the 2019-2020 year.
Writing to the Common App Essay Prompts
Don’t just write an essay—TELL A STORY
Many students feel the need to show admissions officers that they are super capable essay writers, and that can lead to a lot of embellished and flowery words and phrases. But what readers often remember the most, even in a lot of the most beautiful prose, is the story. What was the setting? What was the conflict? How was it resolved? How did our hero overcome the conflict and what lessons did he or she learn? The story is the meat-and-potatoes of the admissions essay, and the reason for this is that a story containing all of these elements will not only leave a lasting impression in the minds of the admissions officers, it will tell them what they need to know about how you deal with adverse situations and how you are able to glean important lessons from them. A protagonist who fights against all odds and becomes better and wiser for the struggle is probably someone who will perform excellently in a tough program at a top-tier college.
Pro-tip: When telling your story, start in the middle of the action to capture the reader’s attention. Then go back to the beginning and provide the background details before moving back to the conflict and showing the reader how you handled the situation.
Show your unique self through your story
If you remember nothing else from reading blogs about writing admissions essays, keep in mind that you should always strive to ENTERTAIN the reader. Readers can be deeply affected by the inner thoughts and unusual or impressive actions of the protagonist or of other interesting characters. Readers learn much about the character through authorial descriptions and viewing the world through the character’s eyes. In a personal essay, you must show your character mostly from a first-person perspective, and this means that every action or perspective should be filtered through you.
This is where the “special unicorn” element comes into play—in a sea of high-academically-achieving applications, what special flavor can you add to the school? What are your fascinating flaws? Maybe your social anxiety disorder has made your extracurricular achievements that much more impressive. What eccentric, weird obsession sets you apart from 99% of the other science or history majors? In the essay, your geeky photo collection of late Etruscan pottery will make you MORE popular, not less (no offense to the Etruscans). Most importantly, write about WHY do you do what you do and think what you think. Explain your thought process—let the reader into your mind to see how you tick. Imagine yourself as a character and really flesh yourself out to make the admissions officers remember you.
Pro-tip: Don’t be afraid to discuss something “negative” about yourself. Acknowledging your flaws or weak points demonstrates maturity and self-understanding—important qualities for a college student.
Showing trumps telling (and explaining trumps listing)
If you couldn’t tell by now, this article heavily favors using narratives in personal essays. Therefore, it shouldn’t surprise you that we recommend applying another golden rule of prose and poetry to the admissions essay: “Show, don’t tell.” This maxim means that writers should strive to create a more immediate connection—an “objective correlation”—between words and readers’ understanding or feeling. But this rule is much easier to understand than to follow, and a whole lot of beginning writers (and even many professional writers) mistake telling about what one did or how one felt with showing it.
It might help to think about this difference as “summary” (telling) versus “description” (showing). When summarizing, one often gives an overview of the situation, using more general abstract nouns and adjectives to describe events, objects, or feelings. When describing, one writes in vivid detail to give the reader or listener a more immediate connection to the circumstances—the details ultimately provide evidence for what the writer or speaker is saying, rather than filling in the gap with vague language or clichés.
For example, if I enjoyed and succeeded in an AP Chemistry class, here are two ways I could write about it. Try and spot the differences:
Telling: “I really enjoyed all of my AP courses, but AP biology was the best. The teacher was excellent and I received superlative grades on tests and assignments. I even made a fantastic project that impressed all of my classmates. I consider this the apex of my academic success in a single class.
Here the writer uses vague descriptions to tell how she felt and what she did: “the best,” “excellent,” “superlative grades,” “fantastic project.” It isn’t enough to use strong language or big vocabulary words—the reader needs to know exactly what happened to make you feel this way.
In the following example of “showing,” the writer uses details to document her achievements and shows the reader exactly what the teacher did to leave her with a lasting and powerful impression. She also connects this experience to her present way of approaching challenges and therefore shows its significance to her story.
Showing: “My high school capstone of scientific achievement was my success in “AP Biology,” where I focused preparation and perseverance onto tests, projects, and even daily assignments, even winning second place at the county science fair with my exhibit on aphids. However, I owe much of this success to my remarkable teacher, Ms. Jensen, whose knowledge of all things biological and whose tenacity in expressing this knowledge encouraged me to spend the majority of my afternoons researching and building my exhibit. Her one-on-one weekly meetings gave me the constructive criticism I will need when I write graduate-level research papers…”
As you can see, details really are the crux of a good story, and drawing a picture with them will make your readers see you as a full person rather than just another list of achievements on paper.
Pro-tip: Improve your ability at showing instead of telling by reading some good poetry. Poets pack a lot of description, action, emotion, and sensory detail into a limited amount of space—the same skill you will need when writing a personal essay.
Write now, edit later
Many writers feel the need to make everything “perfect” the first time they write something down. But while accuracy, lack of errors, and compelling writing are necessary qualities of a final draft, striving for perfection in the first draft is a near impossibility and will likely slow down the stream of brilliant ideas that you have stored up in your brain.
Here are a few techniques you can use to free yourself from that blockage while you are immersed in the creative process:
- Free-write. Set a timer for 10 to 30 minutes and JUST WRITE. You can give yourself a topic or event to write about if you need some basic parameters or context. But aside from that, don’t make any other rules, and once you have finished a phrase or sentence, DON’T GO BACK AND EDIT. This activity will allow you to write as much about a topic as you can while getting you in a more creative headspace.
- Outline your draft. An outline provides you with a basic essay roadmap that will prevent you from meandering or adding extraneous or unplanned content while you are drafting. This means that the chances of deleting and revising whole chunks of your work during the writing process will dramatically decrease. Your outline can include details, but try to keep the major headings down to only two or three topics so you don’t end up with an essay that is four pages when it should only be one.
- Write your first draft by hand. Yes, writing with pen and paper might seem like an old-fashioned method in the computer age (and therefore perhaps rather quirky advice), but it can be quite practical while drafting. Not only will you have an extra second or two to compute the “right word” while your hand is furiously struggling to keep up, but you will decrease your chances of writing something you didn’t intend to write—as opposed using a keyboard, when you can easily type an entire sentence before you realize you’ve written something totally random.
Think about the writing process and the editing process as two completely different “modes” in the process of completing an essay. Since writing and editing require different kinds of focus, you should switch between writing and editing mode only after you have finished one section or draft of writing. You can always go back and edit after you’ve written a few paragraphs, even if it is your third or fourth draft.
And once you have completed your final draft, make sure to have your work proofread by someone you trust to ensure there are no errors in grammar, spelling, or internal logic. A trusted friend or teacher can be an excellent resource for receiving constructive criticism and improving the strength of your essay.
In addition, consider sending your completed Common App essay to an editing professional who can not only proofread your work but only provide comments on how to improve arguments and communicate your story more effectively and naturally. The qualified admissions experts at Wordvice Editing Services have helped thousands of writers pen essays to get into their dream colleges and universities. Check out the various admissions services they offer at some of the lowest prices in the industry.
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Good luck to all prospective college and university students writing your admissions essays this season!