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As a former English major, I’ve always enjoyed writing but understand it’s not everyone’s favorite past time. The good news is that this isn’t your standard English essay. The bad news is that you’ve got only 650 words to tell your unique personal story. We all have one. What’s yours? The Common Application essay prompts are as follows:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

What makes a student competitive are their grades, course rigor and standardized testing. What makes a student compelling are their interests – what they do outside the classroom – as well as their essays. If you are competitive, an essay can be the difference between an admit and deny decision. So what do college admissions officers want to know?

  1. Who is this person?
  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
  3. Can this person write?

How to start? My favorite resource for brainstorming is a process introduced by The College Essay Guy called the Objects and Values exercises: Free College Essay Resources. These two exercises are where I start with my students. Once you nail down your essence objects and values that are most important, you are ready to find your unique story that highlights those things that are most important to you. Once you’ve figured out the angle you want to take, the next step is getting it down on paper.

With my students, I encourage a stream of consciousness exercise where they just brainstorm the different elements that could fit into the essay. Working together, we identify the most compelling parts of the story to craft the essay. How to craft the essay? This is where my other favorite resource comes into play. If you don’t have a copy of Janine Robinson’s Escape from Essay Hell, I highly recommend you purchase one. It’s a quick read and more importantly, is the best guide I’ve found for students who aren’t natural writers…. Last piece of advice: have fun with the essay and let your unique voice shine throughout. There is only one you!