Common Application Essay Options | 6 Things To Avoid!

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If you’ve taken a look at this year’s common application, congratulations because you are ahead of probably 75% of other high school seniors who are looking to apply for college admission this fall.  If you’ve gotten as far as the common application essay portion, you’re probably wondering…Avoid common application essay pitfalls!

  • Is one option better than the other?
  • How do I get started?
  • What do I write about that will get me accepted?

First of all, don’t panic and write a generic essay because you want to get your application finished and sent off.  Your college essay should take some time, but not so much that you are overly stressed about it.  That’s where we come in!…

Writing Your Common Application Essay – 6 Options with Tips and Pitfalls for Each

In a recent article, we showed you how to write a personal statement for college.  Today, let’s get a little more specific and tackle the 6 common application essay options and how to go about writing what the admissions representatives want to see.

Option #1 – Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Option 1 is probably the most commonly chosen essay, and for good reason.  This choice requires you to write about a significant even in your life that has had a profound  effect on you.  Here, we want to focus on a couple things…

  • Leadership
  • Positive Experience

We are constantly telling students how colleges want to see a demonstration of leadership skills.  Essay Option 1 lends itself perfectly to that!  You’re “significant experience” or “achievement” can, and should be directly related to a leadership position you were in.  Make it clear to the college that you had a very positive experience in this position, and “it wasn’t until that experience in my life that I truly considered myself a leader!”

Do not hesitate to talk about something negative or some adversity you’ve faced in your life.  However, be careful to put a positive spin on that so the outcome helps you to look like a leader in overcoming whatever challenge or dilemma you faced.

Things To Avoid: Talking about how great you are or making a generalized list of “achievements” or awards you’ve earned.  Make sure there is some substance to what you are writing and not just listing things you’ve done.

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

Option 2 of the common application essay choices is a difficult one to tackle simply because it’s very open ended.  Now, we are not saying you should avoid this one if you have something that you are truly passionate about.  If you do, then go for it!  If not, it will be relatively easy to spot and the admission reps will be turned off by it if not done correctly.

In order to capture their interest, you will need to convey your involvement and passion for your topic in a way that helps you look like you know what you’re talking about.  Showing that you have a genuine, vested interest in a topic is the key here.

For instance, if  you decide to write about the “Unemployment Rate in the United States”, do some research about the topic so that you are able to provide specific statistics that are not only accurate, but shocking!  (“shock value” can go a long way!)  Demonstrating that you know what you’re talking about by doing a little homework will only make your essay stronger.

Things To Avoid:  Not conveying a true passion or interest in your topic and/or failing to tie it into why or how it has an affect on you.

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

Option 3 should not be difficult for you to figure out.  While we recommend you avoid using a family member as your subject, there is a right way to do it should you choose to.

For instance, many students who choose this option want to talk about their mom.  That’s fine, but make sure there is substance! Don’t just say, “My mom has had a significant impact on me because she does my laundry, makes me do my homework and taught me how to make my bed”.  Hey, we’ve got news for you…so do millions of other moms! The key is to provide specific, outstanding examples of why she’s a positive impact, and tell them something specific that is unique!  If you can’t, you may want to choose someone else to write about.

A good choice here is a teacher or coach.  But again, provide a specific incident that changed you in a positive way.  If at all possible, provide an example of how this person has changed you for the better.  If it’s a coach, write about how they pushed you to be a better player and showed you that you are capable of so much more than you were giving.

Things To Avoid:  Writing about how great this person is without tying it in to how it’s changed you for the better, and the impact it’s had on you and your life.

Option #4 – Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

Number 4 of the common application essay options is tailor-made for the quirky, eccentric student.  Why?…we’re glad you asked!

The bottom line here is that it’s somewhat difficult to write about a person who is no longer living, or worse, a fictional character.  However, if done the right way, you can really impress the college admission reps.  For instance, if you are applying as a English Major it may be to your advantage to choose a fictional character from a literary work that encompasses who you are and what you are all about.  This will do a couple things…

  • Demonstrates your passion for literature and your ability to relate a character to real life.
  • Displays your talent for writing (English Major)

While the majority of students will probably avoid this option (and we don’t blame you!), there are situations where this can work to your advantage.  Keep in mind that admissions reps will “reward” students who take risks by going down the “path less traveled”.  Just make sure you do it right!

Things To Avoid:  Writing a literature or history lesson about a specific person without relating it to you in a positive, enlightening way.

Option #5 – A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

In other words, if we accept you, what are going to bring to the table?!

Much like Option 1, this choice is a great one that pretty much any high school student can write about…effectively!  You can be a leader in high school and your community all you want, but how are you going to be a leader on your college campus?  This is the chance to really show the colleges, with specific examples, of how you plan on contributing to their campus in a positive way.

Colleges want leadership, involvement and diversity out of their students and on their campus.  And while most students will look at this question, see the word “Diversity” and immediately think “race”, it doesn’t necessarily mean that.  Diversity can mean race, but it also means being diverse in other ways such as clubs, activities and organizations.

Cutting right to the core, this option wants you to talk about 2 things in depth…

  1. Why is diversity so important?
  2. What will you contribute to our campus?

That’s it.  Don’t read too far into the question because it’s not very difficult to answer.  Write about your uniqueness and translate it to something that you will be involved in on campus if admitted.  If an opportunity presents itself to show the admission reps how you will become a LEADER (there’s that word again), then by all means, do that!

Things To Avoid:  Making this all about race and/or ethnic background.  Diversity means a lot more than skin color!

Option #6 – Topic of your choice.

Many students will see this one and think, “Oh I can write about whatever I want!”.  Well you can, but we would recommend you use caution here.

Having free reign to write about anything can be dangerous if it’s not done right.  You don’t want to go on and on about a story or personal experience you’ve had in your life without any tie in, take away, or how it had an affect on you.  If you choose this option, make sure that you are able to put a spin on it so that a positive outcome is the focal point.

It may be smart to try and stay away from this option if at all possible.  It’s too open-ended and you just don’t know enough about who is reading this essay.  If you are using humor, the person reading may not be fond of humor in a college application essay.  Other options are more focused, give you a direction, and are easier to write because you have a specific topic or goal in mind.

Things to Avoid: Writing about a topic that has no relevancy or uniqueness to you, or writing a long list of things that make you great.

Hook Them!

The last thing we want to mention is the title of your essay.  You only have one chance at a first impression, so make sure you have a catchy title that virtually screams, “READ ME!!!“.  We’d argue that the title of your essay is almost as importance as your topic choice is!

There really isn’t a wrong or bad choice for your common application essay.  A couple of them are a bit easier to write about (#’s 1, 3, 5), but the key is to find a way to write about something that has been very significant in your life, then tie it into how it has molded you to be the person you are today.  Failing to relate your positive experiences to you as a person will be a strike against you!

We see hundreds of personal statements and college essays every year.  Some are good, some need very minor tweaking, and some are just downright bad!  If you’d like us to take a look at what you have before you send it off to your dream college, click here.

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