Writing the College Application Essay – The Common Application Prompts

Many colleges and universities (nearly 500) use the Common Application. I thought it might be helpful, therefore, to offer some input about the Application’s essay prompts.

Short Answer: Please elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150 words)

One hundred fifty words doesn’t seem like much but if you give this essay a sharp focus, it can be more than sufficient. Rather than describe the actual “extracurricular or work experiences,” keep the essay personal by discussing your feelings, reactions or the lessons learned from your involvement. If you must say more about the activity itself, try not to over-explain it, as this will slow down your essay. Instead, find that one moment – walking into the classroom to help underprivileged kids on their math, your flute solo at the school concert – and explore that in detail.

Personal Essay – To complete the Common Application you need to write 250-500 words on one of five topics, or a “topic of your choice.” Those five topics are:
1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced, and its impact on you.

When developing an essay from this prompt, try to offer the reader some surprises. If you made the basketball team after shooting jump shots for an hour after practice, and you learned that hard work pays off, well, that’s great but hardly original. Again, make this as personal as you can. The achievement itself does not have to be world beating; the risk you took doesn’t have to be physical. The important thing is that it reveals your personality and values and gives admission officers some insight into the kind of person you are. Also, keep in mind that the personal essay should be about something that cannot be found elsewhere in your application. Try not to use this essay to tout achievements and experiences you have already listed.

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

Once again, keep this as personal and original as you can. Climate change, for example, is surely a serious issue but expressing your concern about it will hardly make you stand out. Local issues can work well, especially if you have somehow been involved in them. A key here is to spend as little time as possible on the issue, leaving most of the essay for its importance to you. Also, try to stay away from outright political subjects, as they can be divisive.

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

Once again, don’t go for the obvious. For example, loving parents are tempting subjects, but it will be hard to avoid clichés. Instead, brainstorm hard on influences that are less direct. Did Granddad’s annoying habit of talking to strangers finally make you realize that people everywhere are all the same? Did your coach’s fierce devotion to his job ultimately teach you that life requires balance? You can even be playful. Watching your neighbor mow the lawn every Sunday has inspired you to be rich enough to afford a gardener.

These are the first three essay prompts on the Common Application. In my next blog, I’ll cover the final three

For more personal help with the application essay, contact Craig Heller directly at 818-340-1276 or [email protected]

Share this post

Related Posts