A Guide to the Common App College Essay

We might say good college essays should be three things:

I. Memorable

II. Relevant

III. Personal

But wait — what about well-written? After all, if part of the job of a college essay consultant is to help polish the essay, shouldn’t polished itself count as a value in this list? And if the essay is supposed to help frame a student’s most impressive achievements, shouldn’t this very essay constitute some kind of impressive achievement? In lieu of a full creative portfolio, this essay is, after all, the chance to demonstrate one’s intellectual dexterity and literary finesse… so shouldn’t the thing be well-written?

Part of the point of the list above is to recontextualize our ideas about what “well-written” really means for a college application. After all, it is just as likely that the college essay reader has a background in literature as in science; besides which, the strictly literary strengths of an essay, such as epigrammatic phrasing and elliptical structuring, almost inevitably emerge in the process of editing a 650 word essay. For college essays, then, “well-written” means something else: that unique writing signifies a unique student.

Simply put, it’s not a GPA or an ACT score that distinguishes one student from the next. It’s personality and interest. Take, for example, The Overachiever, whose resume, like that of Other Overachievers, tallies a 3.9 GPA, a string of leadership positions, gold trophies in one field or another, and near-perfect ACTs. In the eyes of a top, competitive college, such phenomenal achievements may operate as check boxes that the requisite thresholds have been met; at that point, the college can start asking why it would actually want this student — that is, what the student brings that the others don’t. On occasion, this next-level status might be earned through an extraordinary sports record or an ambitious high school club. On a rare occasion, it might be earned through nearly-unprecedented abilities in a particular academic field. More likely, it will largely be earned by the college essay, which demonstrates not simply the student’s skill and determination — the domain of the rest of the application — but personal qualities like humor, ingenuity, empathy, and a penchant for self-critique befitting driven and original leaders. In other words, the essay demonstrates not only that the student is the hardest-running hamster on the wheel, but one who took a step back, evaluated the process, and designed a new wheel for maximum efficiency.

And the best test for that is three questions.

Question One: Is It Memorable?

By memorable, we mean that every word engages the reader in crystalline stories of people, scenes, and places — that a suspenseful organization of concrete depictions will not only hook readers but give them images to recall and stories to retell to their partners after long days of essay-crunching. It’s important to remember that memorability is as much a question of organizing paragraphs (often starting in media res) as composing colorful sentences. Two good rules of thumb:

- First, imagine it’s five minutes to lunchtime, your reader is hungry, hasn’t slept, and needs another cup of coffee after the first 30 essays of the day. What’s to keep them from skimming? What’s to keep them liking it? (Studies show judges are far harsher in their sentencing when they’re hungry — so what does that mean about an essay being read at noon?)

- Second, imagine it’s nighttime, your reader is enjoying a much-needed bath and revisiting, somewhat involuntarily, a stack of essays from the past twelve hours. In that stack are stories of teens living in homeless shelters, becoming celebrities, rebounding from addiction and abuse. Why is yours the one to think about? (A short answer for 99% of cases: because you didn’t look towards these kinds of big events but smaller, meaningful perceptions).

If your essay isn’t memorable, your reader probably won’t fight for you — because your reader might not remember you in the first place.

Question Two: Is It Relevant?

The words, the images, the characters should be concrete — and yet, they should also reach far outside themselves towards the rest of the application. A story can be moving and beautifully told, but if it doesn’t express the core values of the rest of the student’s profile, then it fails one of the college essay’s key tasks: to frame the disparate pieces of the application according to a consistent identity. Colleges need to know who they’re getting, and there are often two types of candidates they’ll see.

- Jack-of-all-trades students are engaged in so many different, unrelated activities as to risk diffuseness. Colleges may wonder what these students will actually do on campus and beyond, why these students’ skills are valuable when few are fully developed, and whether these students really have any core idea of who they are or what they want. (Most cynically, colleges may wonder if these students’ extracurricular lives were concocted by overzealous parents). The job of the essay, then, is to articulate consistencies between activities without mentioning these activities at all, lest the personal essay turn into a cover letter.

Take, for example, a student who peer-tutors, skis, develops robots, and serves in soup kitchens — four common, entirely unrelated activities, each a couple hours every couple weeks. The student should start by looking for core consistencies (in this case, helping others one-on-one and perfecting one’s physical performance), then think of a real-life story that incorporates them (for example, of learning to relate to a student through his/her body language), and finally back it up with supplements detailing professional ambitions around these values (using technology for physical therapy to help others improve their own intrapersonal communication skills). It may very well be worth dropping or at least minimizing some of the activities.

- Trade specialists, representing the second group, have an outwardly easier task. The plethora of such students’ near-identical activities already demonstrate that they will pursue sports or a cappella or politics on campus and beyond. The essay no longer needs to frame an interest but can focus on showing its relevance to the student’s own life. Once again, key activities shouldn’t be points but premises: what matters it the story of a personality, of a dominant character trait, as tested and demonstrated against the context of the surrounding application.

One common temptation here is to write a backstory — if you’re a skier, how dad threw you down the bunny hill, or if you’re a painter, the first time you saw a Van Gogh. Backstories may be necessary, particularly in applications focusing on service, but they’re not enough to show how you’ve set your own goals and standards. To that extent, the essay needs to be one last thing, personal.

And here lies the great tension of the college essay. On the one hand, the college essay needs to be relevant to the profiles of both the application and student without ever proving redundant to the other pieces; in other words, it has to help the reader assess everything that’s there in the rest of the application and prove consistent with each of those other pieces. But on the other hand, the college essay needs to be personal, demonstrating qualities and character traits that might not have been obvious in an otherwise professional application. In other words, it has to help the reader assess what isn’t contained in the rest of the application by adding something entirely new.

Question Three: Is It Personal?

“Make it personal” is, arguably, the stereotypical creed of the hapless college counselor. It’s a phrase I have personally (very personally) shouted, fellow tutors have mocked, and students have met, correctly, with a blank stare. After all, to “make it personal” should mean defying the injunctions of the college coach, who happily formulates individual experiences into cookie-cutter molds and big, universal morals.

So how, then, is it possible to be consistent with but not redundant to the rest of the application? How is it possible to radiate uniqueness through standard genre structures, to brag without bragging? How is it possible to set oneself apart while showing that you’re just a normal, relatable teenager? (Similarly, in the supplements, how to talk about the school offers you while really talking about what you offer the school?)

There are, at least, certain criteria admissions officers seem inevitably to apply as to whether or not the essay is personal. The only purpose of any college writing guide should be to delineate what some of those criteria are — or aren’t. I’ve spent the past few years working with dozens of seniors on application essays; those with the best common app essays, essays about challenges that forced them to question and redefine their individual perspectives to the point that they could redefine the challenge itself, have won admission to their top choices, while those with polished cover letters about their personal dedication to spectacular achievements listed elsewhere in the application have failed to show colleges what separates them from their academic and extracurricular counterparts. What is clear is that American colleges, which double as social and academic ecosystems (unlike more professionally-minded universities abroad), look to the college essay as a key piece of any application to answer at least a few of the questions about one’s personal, non-academic life that can’t be answered elsewhere:

- Have you struggled and succeeded in remaining true to yourself and your ideals despite inevitable changes in outlook on the way?

- Can you recognize faults and failures in your thinking and behavior — and improve them?

- When you encounter such faults and failures, as we all do, do you just try harder to overcome them in the same way — or develop new standards and solutions to the problems?

- What role will you play on campus and in life that nobody else could play — or play so well?

And finally:

- Is your application BS, or can you open up honestly about life?

This last is key. They want to know they know whom they’re getting, and the essay is the best bullshit-detector they have. Boast and lose. Those who have nothing but successes to show simply haven’t worked to the point of failure: that point where outside obstacles that can’t be overcome, from disabilities to divorces, force one to redefine priorities altogether. The girl who leaves an alcoholic parent to live with friends, the boy who realizes he’ll never fully conquer dyslexia but that he can still love literature on audio tapes, the stutterer who can’t overcome his speech impediment but realizes he can express himself visually — these are students who have shown strength not by overcoming their situation but by finding alternate solutions to deal with inevitabilities. (They’ve also all written great college essays.)

Finally, it’s worth remembering that the admissions officers who read your essay are human beings, as prone like the rest of us to error and prejudice as they are to compassion and concern. As admissions officers, it’s quite likely they have quite a bit of compassion and concern for their school — and that includes concern that its clubs are well-stocked, its intellectual debates are fierce, and its students are future leaders who will bestow the same reputation of excellence upon the school that the school once bestowed upon them.

Is there someone to take the main stage of the theater company, somebody to score the winning touchdown, and somebody on one side of the political spectrum to battle somebody on the other? These individual perspectives count: after all, if a college doesn’t like a student’s personality, the student probably wouldn’t like the college either. Colleges make an investment with each student they welcome into their everdiversifying portfolio, and like any investor, they care as much about the data for past performance as they do about the guidance for the very different future roles their students will perform.

But beyond all that, they care about the students themselves: that these are people they’d like to have around on campus in social and professional life alike. In the end, a good college essay is “personal” because it makes the reader care personally about the student. Usually, if not always, a story will offer the most effective way of eliciting personal concern. Always, it will make the reader want to reread the thing then and there, a few hours later, and that night with a partner alongside. It’s when an admission officer, after plowing through stacks of paper, feels the urge to tell his or her family and friends about this amazing essay, confidentiality agreement be damned, that the essay might definitively be described as “personal.” Whether or not that’s a good thing — well, that’s where a good writing coach might help.