7 Tips for Writing Your Common App Essay
How to use narrative devices and intentional editing to write a stand-out essay
Everybody wants to write a stellar essay. And everyone can with careful attention to your intention and narrative devices that will captivate your audience. You want it to be both informative and engaging. Balancing these is totally possible, and it comes with making use of particular narrative devices to help to guide your essay. In the following sections, I’ll guide you through a few components to remember while you embark on your Common App essay.
Keep in mind that admissions officers are reading potentially dozens of essays a day, and your essay comes last when they review your application. That means it’s absolutely vital that you wake them up and grab their attention at the beginning of the essay! Don’t linger too long waiting for dull set ups — get right into your topic and pull your reader in.
Every essay and every topic is unique, so this might be accomplished in a variety of ways. You can even look at your favorite books or essays to see how they pull you into the story! My main advice would be don’t be vague when you open. Grip the reader by immersing them immediately into your content.
Vivid imagery and description is often one good way to open up an essay. It allows the reader to enter into your world because you’ve introduced it so intricately. In a sense, you’ve set the scene with what we most need to know, and can guide us into the rest of the essay. As the reader, we feel grounded and intrigued by what you’ve laid forth.
To create even more action, you can enter in medias res. Plop us right into the action! This works especially well if you are centering your essay around a particular event or an experience that served as a catalyst. After we’ve pulled into the action, you can then take a step back and give us context and background information and direct the essay from there.
A direct or bold statement can also work well, especially with a limited amount of space! Instead of beating around the bush with a flowery introduction, you can get right into the main focus of your essay. This can open you up to more substance, faster, so that your essay on the whole can reach more depth in its 650 word count.
Tell a Story
The Common App essay is generally quite different from the majority of essays you will write for school. Despite it being a part of the college application, it actually doesn’t have to sound as academic as one might think. The main purpose of the essay is for admissions officers to be able to get to know you in your voice. It’s up to you to let them know what’s most important in your life. Because the essay is more personal, it can and should lean heavily into narrative. You are ultimately telling them your story, so do just that!
Viewing this essay as a narrative is useful in multiple ways. One, it allows you to show them your story around a particular theme or topic. It can enter into a more personal realm where they can see your personality, values, passions, talents, and skills all come to the forefront. Two, people are naturally attracted to stories. We love to hear them unfold and feel connected to one another’s humanity in this way. The same is absolutely true of admissions officers reading the essays. The more you view it as a telling of your personal story, the more it will connect, human to human.
Show Don’t Tell
This phrase is something you may have heard in your English class, and it’s a precious tip no matter the kind of writing you might be doing. It goes well with the idea of spinning a story as well. People connect the most with details, and in the specific lies the universal. Don’t merely tell them that you care about animals, show them that through your story of growing up fostering kittens and nurturing injured birds which fostered your desire to work at an animal rescue. Tell them about the first time you found an injured hummingbird when you were walking in the woods, how you reached out to a local wildlife rescue and learned the right procedure. Let them know how this sparked something within you — reveal what you did, what you thought, how it changed you, why it mattered. By guiding them through your story with these details, they will come to know and feel all that you are hoping they will understand. It will actually feel more natural and intriguing because they are able to feel the depth and span of a story. Through this, they get a deeper connection to you. Merely telling does not always prove the point; if it is stated they want to see how and why that is true and how it unfolds.
Focused Topic / Theme
In some sense, less is more within this particular essay. You should not try to fit in everything you’ve ever done or make a list of your accomplishments. Such essays will lack depth and substance that leads to true connection and meaningful information. This is one reason the brainstorming phase can be so helpful in deciding what story most needs to be told.
Instead of casting a wide net, hone in on a particular theme or topic. Are you wanting to talk about your fascination with astronomy and the mysteries of the universe? You can allow yourself some variety within this topic — perhaps you would start with an opening of you gazing into the night sky learning constellations. You might then go on to say how you continued to learn more in physics and realized the vastness of what you did not know. You could then details some activities that potentially fed into that or actions that you took, like doing research on your own and diving into books. This is streamlined.
What would be perhaps less focused and more vast would be if you wanted to show the world how committed you are to community service. The thing not to do would be to list out every experience you’ve done. Suddenly, your essay is focused on an expanse, but we’re not learning about a particular topic in depth. The better approach would be to illustrate your commitment to service through your most meaningful service activity. Which will best help you tell that story? Perhaps it is volunteering at your local nursing home and bringing them joy through connection. You could detail why you got involved in the position, a specific anecdote that showcases that connection, and give your personal take away. You would be showing this commitment to service and others by getting deep into the topic versus skimming only the surface.
Because this essay can be creative and personalized, you can add in various narrative embellishments. For instance, you could write about your love of medicine through metaphor and imagery pertaining to art, to highlight its beauty and requirement for consistent practice. This would certainly lend itself well to depicting medicine in a light that is unique to how you view it. However, as you’re writing and you might be interested in using metaphors, similes, or adjectives, try to keep in mind their connotations. (I would do this in edits, don’t bog down your writing flow!) If you’re comparing working in medicine to playing a soccer game and then saying how it is like captaining a ship and then saying that is akin to painting, that may be a bit much. Your reader will start to get lost in some of these details instead of allowing one set of imagery to develop cohesion throughout. Done well, it can help to guide your narrative and add personal flair.
Cut the Clutter
Writing is as much about editing as it is about writing. When writing a first draft, you’ll be full of potential, allowing all your ideas to meet the page, potentially and even ideally unedited. However not everything that appears needs to stay. Perhaps it was only there so that you could get o the next sentence, where the true substance lies. Every sentence, every phrase, and every single word should be working toward the main focus of the essay. In line with some of my advice above, if it isn’t necessary, cut it. If you feel a disruption in the flow when you read it (read it aloud!), something is wrong. Is the sentence too long? Ideas not developed? Redundant phrases? Too many adjectives? Cut it out. Say it one way and keep it moving. Condense five words down to one if it maintains the integrity. The true art of the essay is learning to refine and polish it. This can take multiple drafts to achieve, but is well worth the time editing so that it feels its most eloquent and authentic.
Of course, the conclusion is your final impression, so it is important to use it wisely. Here, you should feel resolution to everything that has come before. This is your place to bring everything together, to show the reader what they should take away from what came before, to highlight what you feel is the most important.
You can achieve this in a number of ways. You might make direct call backs to what has occurred previously. If you have a particular introduction that carried strong imagery or a particular event, you could even book end it on both ends. For instance, if you set the essay up with your anecdote about stargazing and naming constellations, perhaps you return to that position in the present, an ever-aspiring astronomer who wants to gaze further into the universe’s depths. You return to the same place changed. Having these references to what came previously can help it to feel unified.
You can also be direct and allow the ideas that are already building to come to a point that you summarize and resolve. You might leave a lingering thought or impression, or you might state your intentions or hopes for your future. Precisely what you do might depend on your topic, however, it should aid the essay is feeling complete and illuminating.
One thing that can be helpful is remembering that while the conclusion, yes, comes at the end, it is still very much an integrated part of the essay. Sometimes when I read conclusions, I can tell students don’t always know what to do, how to end, so it feels disjointed from the rest. Allow your ideas to transition naturally from the previous paragraph. View it as a continuation, not a separate entity. This will help it to hold the entire essay and close with a lasting impression.
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