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How to Write the 2020-21 Common App Essay

APR 14, 2020 • 9 min read

Welcome to Crimson’s 9 part series on this year’s Common Application Essay prompts and how to tackle them.

In this series we will not only tackle every one of the seven prompts and how to answer them one by one, but we will also provide some insight as to how admissions officers assess the essays as part of the overall admissions process, and some key mistakes to avoid.

So let’s get started!

Part 1: What is the Common Application Essay?

The United States has among the very best university systems in the world, with more investment in higher education than any other nation. For that reason alone, the application process is competitive, and U.S. college Admissions Officers often ask students to go through long and involved application processes.

U.S. colleges use both quantitative and qualitative measures to judge your college applications.

The Quantitative aspects of your application include grades, test scores, and your résumé (quality and number of activities is often quantified by Admissions Officers).

The Qualitative aspects of your application include your letters of recommendation, your interview, and, most importantly, your essays.

Essays bring your application to life.

  • Admissions Officers want to know what kind of person you’ll be on their campus, beyond your scores and academics, and essays are their best shot at getting to know you.
  • As a result, essays can account for up to 30% of your admissions decision—a significant portion that you have control over! That’s why Crimson mentors spend a great deal of time helping you refine your essays until you view them as ‘perfect’.

The Common App Essay (or personal statement) is a 650-word essay that all schools using the Common App will see.

  • Your Personal Statement is your best chance to share qualitative, personal aspects of yourself with the admissions committee so that they may get to know you beyond your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.
  • It’s not possible to capture your entire personality in a single essay, so the key is choosing to capture one or a couple elements that differentiate you from your peers
  • That doesn’t mean you need some kind of incredible experience or story; all you need is something meaningful to you — and to capture how much it means to you in your writing!

The first thing to know about the Common App essay is that it is personal, which means that it should focus on an element of your life that’s not reflected in the remainder of your application. If you simply write another version of your resume, you will be missing a chance for the admissions committee to get to know you.

The majority of schools to which you apply will ask you to submit a Common App essay in order to give them a sense of you as a student beyond your grades. Though you might choose to write about an academic topic, ultimately your goal is to have the reader understand more about your values, your thoughts, and your experiences outside the classroom. You are telling a story, and original writing is the way to make your application memorable and compelling.

If you enroll in an introductory US literature, you might end up reading James Baldwin’s essays in Notes of a Native Son, about being black and the civil rights movements in the 1940s and 1950s; Joan Didion’s essays in The White Album, on her depression and the politics of California in the 1960s and 1970s; or Gloria Anzaldúa’s Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, about her sexuality and growing up on the US -Mexico border.

Now, you do not have to write the next great American essay collection. But all of these writers can give you an idea of what it means to write about yourself, and then to connect your experience to your thoughts/beliefs, your community, your environment, or the world at large. Though you might write an essay in any tone, from comedy to drama, you ultimately want to choose a topic that is specific enough that you can tell us about it in an essay that’s fairly short.

The task with the Common App essay is to figure out how to talk about yourself in fewer than 650 words. (Technically, you could hand in only 200, but you want to use just about all the space you’re given!) You’ll write just one Common App essay for all the schools to which you are applying, so focus the months that you have to prepare the best essay you can about one topic.

To help you get started, the Common App provides you with a series of prompts. In reality, you can write about any topic you think will best represent you (in another part of this series you will see prompt 7 allows you complete freedom to write what you choose!) but the Common App prompts can be helpful starting points.

Crimson Education is the world’s leading university admissions support company specialising in helping students gain entry to some of the world’s most competitive universities find out about our admissions support program.

What Should I Write About?

Talk over your ideas with a family member or friend. Make a list of all the ways you might respond to the top three prompts that call your attention. Then, spend some time jotting ideas in your notebook with thoughts on specific moments in your life that you could write about.

For example, if you want to write about the role of music in your life, tell us a story about when music was particularly meaningful, or challenging, or impactful for you. If you just tell us about all the instruments that you have played, that’s a restatement of your résumé and a waste of an opportunity to give us insight into who you are. Maybe music transformed your difficult relationship with your younger brother, made you start studying the origins of jazz and opened your eyes to cultural appropriation, or taught you how to channel your rebelliousness at a difficult time of your life. A personal story is the key to a successful Common App essay.

Crimson’s holistic approach provides support across all areas of the US university application process. We assist you to find your best-fit university, create a personalised roadmap, ace your standardised tests, craft the perfect essay, build candidacy through extracurriculars, and more.

In the next part of this special blog series we will look at the Common App’s first essay prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

Read Part 2 now

If you would like your essay reviewed by an expert so you can feel confident when submitting your college application, get your essay reviewed by Crimson.

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Crimson Education is the world’s leading university admissions support company specialising in helping students gain entry to top Universities.