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Strategies for Success on the Common Application

Marcy J.

In this lesson, we’re going to provide some tips for writing college admission essays for the Common Application. This application lets you submit your personal statement to hundreds of colleges simultaneously. You are given a choice of five prompts to respond to that change periodically. Regardless of the prompt you choose, however, you should keep the following guidelines in mind.

ACT/SAT Grammar Still Applies
Remember all those picky grammar rules that the ACT and SAT love to test? Well, they’re still relevant to a college application essay. While the people reviewing your college essay won’t be quite as pedantic as the graders on those exams, you should identify and fix common grammar and rhetoric errors before submitting your essay.

Watch out for subject-verb agreement errors, shifts in tense, vagueness, and other basic grammar faux-pas. Also keep an eye out for repetitive word choices, word choice errors, repetitive sentence structures, wandering sentences, and incorrect or unnecessary transitions.

Consolidate Ideas Whenever Possible
The Common Application has a hard-coded limit of 650 words. If you’re anything like the author of this blog, you will find yourself running out of space surprisingly quickly. Therefore, it’s important to save words wherever possible. The most effective way to do this is to consolidate ideas. Do two or three simple sentences contain significant overlap? Combine those sentences into one shorter complex, compound, or complex-compound sentence. Be ruthless in this process. Every word should advance the point you are trying to convey. Delete words and phrases that don’t directly advance your “story” and emphasize those that do.

Tout Your Successes
The Common Application essay is not the place to be coy or humble about your achievements. While you shouldn’t artificially inflate your accomplishments (a little “create license” is okay), you should strive to consistently put your best foot forward. To be clear: it’s acceptable, even advisable, to express your shortcomings or self-doubt in the context of the story you are telling. However, make sure that you own both your successes and the lessons that you’ve learned from your failures.

Don’t Worry About Being Original
Because of the sheer number of essays that colleges receive each year, it is highly-unlikely that you will come up with a topic that the people reviewing your essay haven’t seen before. Worry less about selecting an original topic and more about the final step.

Focus On the Moment
Find a single, key moment in your life and explore that moment to its fullest. Did the death or injury of a loved one make you feel powerless? Describe, to the best of your recollection, exactly how you felt powerless. Did you learn something important on a mission’s trip or a service project? Identity the exact moment your eyes were opened and focus on that to the exclusion of everything else. Pour your heart out in descriptive details. Be personal. Do not take the objective or distant approach you would with a more “academic” essay. Remember: this is your story. Make sure your audience feels it.

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