Admission News

Common Application Prompt #1: How to Write the College Essay

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Here is the first prompt on the Common Application for you to choose to respond to for your 650 word college application essay:
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This prompt is wide-open, giving any writer the great opportunity to write almost anything she or he chooses, no restrictions. However, this prompt is also scary. It is so open and so vague that its lack of direction can really stymie an applicant.

So let’s look at some important words in the prompt to get you started, to unfreeze you. Those words are: [your] application would be incomplete without it.

What do the words in the prompt imply?

• You are focusing this story on getting into college, not applying for a job or getting a date. You should showcase traits you think help make you are good addition to a college campus.
• You are completing what is otherwise a complete application, and you do not want to repeat what is already included in your application.
• You have already provided grades and test scores and recommendations and a list of what you have done and honors you have earned. If you are not repeating, then you must add something beyond this information. They want a better sense of who you are! What would give them that: knowing your personality, your dreams, your ethics, your out-of-school interests?

So to begin writing, if you have chosen this prompt, you need to decide what you want to reveal about yourself.
Then how do you go about writing that?

• First, you want to set yourself apart. Do not tell a story you can imagine hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants will share. How many football stories, classroom successes and failures, admirations for parents, and trip adventures can a college admission person read? Look at your life and chose something special, and write about it in a fresh and specific way.
• Second, do not think the best story you pick has to be a grand story. You do not have to impress. Going to South America, surviving an avalanche, single-handedly saving the Rain Forest are not necessary to illustrate who you are. You are no single experience. You are a unique set of experiences that have made you over years. Maybe you are diverse in some way your application has so far not shown.

For example, you are a lover of the night. You got that from many years at camp in the woods where there were no street lights and the kerosene lamps were turned off early. You sat in the dark in the porch with your parents and sister and gazed at the stars and told stories. Hence you are a quiet, contemplative, imaginative young person wanting to bring the nights alive with appreciation on campus, and you might also be interested in reducing light pollution.

Or, perhaps, you came for a different background where you were not allowed to watch TV or have a computer until you went to high school. What experiences did you have during those years and how have they defined you as a person and/or how have they motivated your beliefs and actions?

This prompt is a good one to choose to set yourself apart, and it offers you a wide opportunity to do so. Just remember admissions people are looking for an individual beyond the data and the career goals. Who are you?

If you would like to read more about how to write to the other prompts for the personal college essay on the Common Application, go to College Basics.