It’s no secret that Common Application personal essay is important to the U.S. college application process. What are the common pitfalls you should try to avoid? Part I of this article can be found here.
6) Use big words. Colleges love intellectual words and sophisticated essays.
If you, in general, speak using words you learned during SAT preparation and with a sophisticated flair, then we’d encourage it because that’s being true to who you are. However, if it is not natural for you to use that sort of diction and syntax, we’d suggest staying true to yourself because the voice won’t match up with the words you use. (Also, admission officers have read enough essays to have the ability to pick out the essays that sound like they’re trying too hard to be ‘smart’.) Balance the intellectual and thoughtful part of you with your own voice. Colleges aren’t just looking for smart people—they’re looking for genuine ones.
7) Write the Common Application essay as I would an essay for school.
The problem with this train of thought is the idea that there is a right/wrong way to write the Common Application essay. In academia, there’s a formula to follow. Students are trained for the VCE and IB exams, on top of the SAT optional essay, that there’s a ‘right’ way to write. And in those contexts, sure. However, the Common Application essay is a personal one—one that needs to reflect you. Most school essays don’t allow that personal touch, but that’s exactly what college admissions are looking for. Our suggestion? Don’t write in a school-essay-style for the Common Application essay.
8) Reading previous Common Application essays (especially the ones that made the news/social media) is a good idea and I can base my own essay ideas off of it.
If it’s in the news, we’d suggest not mirroring your own essay off of it; suffice it to say, if you’ve read it, hundreds of thousands of others have too. And if everyone has the same idea to emulate that essay, you’re all doing yourselves a disservice and not really showcasing the best parts of you. Don’t distract yourself with others’ work—spend time on your own essay, developing your own reflection, and editing it until you’re ready!
9) Cliché is bad. Avoid, avoid, avoid!
That’s not completely untrue. Honestly, it depends on what is cliché. Is it the subject matter? Is it your perspective? Is it your essay structure? Is it your voice? Are all four of those aspects of your essay cliché? If all four aspects are cliché, then maybe avoid writing about that topic or experience. But let’s say you really want to write about your musical experience and how it contributed to who you are as a person. Sure, a rather cliché topic for students with a Chinese background, but is your perspective unique? Is this reflected in the voice of your essay? If yes, is there some way you can change up the traditional essay structure to reflect on your unique perspective for music?
Thinking about these few aspects of your essay can help you determine whether or not your cliché topic is worth writing about. After all, no one is expecting an all-around non-cliché person or experience. It’s how you write it/reflect on it that matters.
10) My parents’ friends’ kids got into a Top 10 school (or my parents’ friends got into a Top 10 school and/or works for a university); they said my essay was too liberal/experimental/too much like a story. I have to listen to them because they know what they’re talking about.
This train of thought gets us every time. While we’re not saying that their opinion isn’t valuable, they’re not experts in college admission. They are also no longer 17- or 18-year-old students. They have gone beyond the framework of knowledge that a normal high schooler would have; it would be ingenuine to structure and write an essay the way they did when they applied. As mentioned in our introduction and Misconception #1, colleges look at more than just the essay or just grades. And for admissions officers, reading thousands of essays every year, it’s impossible to say that one formula from one year would work again in the current year.
Before you go
We urge you to be true to yourself, to dig deep, to reflect, to challenge the way you think/understand of yourself. Look at the moments that stand out to you in the recent years and ask yourself, “Why is this important to me? Why do I still remember this?” Use this opportunity to really learn about yourself and in that process, your voice will come naturally and so will your essay.
Start early, edit often, and get honest critique from friends and family. Ask them what they liked, what they were confused about, and work from there. If they tell you it’s not working, ask them why. If they tell you it’s too much like a story, ask them why that’s a bad thing. Challenge them too—we often have biases and certain framework of knowledge that require a little bit of challenging.
Be authentic, genuine, and make sure that your essay is enjoyable to read. With admissions officers reading thousands of these essays a year, an enjoyable essay is important to have. After all, this is about you, so make it count.