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Approaching the Personal Essay on the Common Application


The Common Application offers you several choices in prompts for you to write to for a personal essay. Choice is good, but too much choice can also be confusing.

Here are some tips for approaching each of the options.

Option 1: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

1. This is not a space for you to brag.
2. This essay is also not asking you about your experience, so don’t describe it. Rather analyze how the experience you choose reveals something about you.
3. Don’t forget the small things in your life can be as significant as the bigger things in life.

Option 2: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

1. Rather than summarize your stand on the issue, be sure to discuss the issue to demonstrate you are aware of both sides to the argument/conflict.
2. Don’t lecture.
3. Be sure to write why you are interested in this issue.

Option 3: Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

1. Think about how a person may have not been a positive role model but affected you in a positive way.
2. Don’t forget ordinary people can affect you in extraordinary ways.
3. It may be best to steer away from mom, dad, and celebs in this essay.

Option 4: Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

1. Stay away from the typical historical picks like Martin Luther King and Jack Kennedy.
2. Colleges probably won’t be impressed if you choose cartoon or comic charters as they may indicate you have limited experience with literature.
3. Note, a creative person can be from the area of science; this is not all about the arts.

Option 5: A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

1. Don’t interpret diversity as only about racial and ethnic diversity. Even white males can have diverse perspectives.
2. Avoid clichés and stereotypes in this essay. One cliché is “I could never imagine anyone living in poverty this dire before.” If you write about an Asian friend, don’t write about how “hard-working” she is.

Option 6 – Topic of your choice.

1. Be sure your essay in this category really doesn’t already fit for one of the five prompts above.
2. This essay is not calling for poetry or art work.
3. Be careful not to be too clever.

One thing to remember about all these choices on the Common Application is every one of them can be reduced to this prompt: Who are you?