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What Can You Accomplish in the Common Application Essay?

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There are a few things you should be specifically aiming for in your college essay, and all of them are easy enough to accomplish:

Make Yourself Memorable: In advertising, the idea of making yourself memorable is called “branding.” Celebrities often call it “star power.” What it really boils down to is finding something about yourself, your experiences, and what you have to offer to the world that is effortlessly recognizable and easily recollected. What will make you stand out in a sea of similarly qualified applicants?

If a group of admissions officers is sitting around the decision table, all looking at groups of students with similar GPAs and activity lists, what will make the one reading your essay grab your application, stand up and say, “Take her! Take the dancer who choreographed her presidential election!” “I want the trapeze artist with the fear of heights!” “Don’t forget that hilarious soccer player with the gnarly feet!” An admissions officer should be able to easily recall details that are emblematic of your personality and that are representative of who you are at your core.

Tell admissions something they don’t know: You should use these essays as an opportunity to say something that hasn’t been said. This is how I FEEL about this thing. This is what is important to me. This is what I value. Maybe you talk about the bonding that occurs in morning car rides shared with your mom, or your nerdy love of experimenting with model rocket ships. Wouldn’t it be fun to detail your all-consuming allergy to processed foods (we are so sorry about that, by the way), or maybe compare your talents and inner qualities to your favorite sports cars? The students who are most successful try to reveal something to admissions officers that they would not be able to find on your transcript. And this doesn’t mean you can’t write about something that already appears on your activity list or in your academic report. What it means is that your essay shouldn’t be about the mission of Habitat for Humanity, or what you did in your community service hours for that organization; rather it should be about how YOUR experience with Habitat for Humanity changed YOUR life in a real and compelling way. What unexpected experience did you have there? How did it make you a more complete and interesting person? If you can’t tell a story that is personal and revelatory, you should consider looking elsewhere for a topic.

Put your personality on display: Are you studious and curious? Are you sensitive and brave? Are you determined? Are you funny? These qualities should shine through in your final essay. No matter the topic, an admissions officer should feel like they’re getting a giant slice of you in there. Family members and friends should be able to recognize your voice. A good test is to think – Would it be weird for anyone else to put his/or her name at the top of my essay? If so, you’re on the right track.

Prove your value as a community member: As a member of a higher academic institution, your talents and skills and qualities don’t exist in a bubble. Admissions wants to know that you care not only about furthering your own education and realizing your own potential, but also that you will contribute to the larger community. This is why themes like generosity, sincerity, and self-reflection are so important. Schools want to know you will have a positive influence on those around you and that your gifts will be shared with the other great minds they choose for your graduating class.

Showcase your basic writing and storytelling abilities: Obviously not all of us are going to be professional writers, and schools will probably expect higher quality writing and storytelling from their aspiring English majors than they will from, say, their aspiring engineers. But in a world where people increasingly communicate using the written word, even if it’s predominantly through email and text, it is crucial for students to have mastered the basics of writing and storytelling. And, (spoiler alert!) all of you will have to write in college. Still, this is the easiest demand to meet. Find a story that is memorable and one that naturally exudes authentic personality, and good storytelling will follow.

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