The 2019-2020 Common App essay prompts remain the same as last year’s, offering students a myriad of ways to tell their story. But the college essay continues to cause much stress and anxiety among college applicants, and it shouldn’t. The only question is will these applicants pick a topic that will allow them to tell their story properly.
All too often students either select or are given poor advice by those around them about which topic would make a strong essay. The result is an essay that is mediocre, that doesn’t show off the student in a positive light, and makes no impression on the admission officers. These individuals can spot an essay written by someone other than the applicant a mile away and they read thousands of essays every day so applicants should write something that they will remember.
The most common error students make is thinking they know what the admission officers want to read. Trust me, what they want to read is an essay that tells an interesting story about the student, and the last thing a student should do is write it using the steps learned in English class: introduction, a few points, conclusion. Boring! Rather, they should pretend they’re writing a journal entry or a letter to a dear friend. These tend to be more open, honest pieces that reveal the personality of the writer.
I find that selecting the topic is the hardest part and one of the best places to start is to think about what not to write about. Begin by avoiding the sports essay about scoring the winning goal in the tournament or that volunteer service trip to a third world country. Important to the applicant, for sure, but so over used. An essay that is a reformatted resume is also not a good idea because all that information should already be in the application. Click here for other topics to steer clear of.
Rather, students should look for an incident or experience that will allow them to reveal something about themselves that goes beyond the grades, extra curricular activities and all other information that has already been presented. The character of the student, how they think, react to a given situation, etc. should shine through in this essay. But, similar to an English class essay, there should be no misspelled words, grammar and sentence structure should be good, and it should be truthful. The word count is still 650 words which doesn’t sound like much, but is plenty to tell a good story if the topic is strong. Hint: Once the topic is chosen, I allow my students to write to their hearts content till the story is down on paper, editing to the required word count afterwards. Focusing on the word count at the beginning is a perfect way to create writer’s block.
A college essay, while not the sole piece of an application, can be a deal breaker or tip the scales in favor of the candidate, and cannot be written in one sitting. Applicants should give themselves time to write their essay and they shouldn’t hesitate to have others proof read it, but don’t ask too many people. Everyone has an opinion and in short order the applicant will be all confused. Select just one or two, don’t feel obliged to take all the advice given and always make sure that the voice that comes through at the end is that of the applicant.