The Common App personal essay is the Holy Grail of your college application, but for many, the perfect topic is an elusive target. For those of you who didn’t spend your summer vacation staring at the Common App website, here are a few tips for where to start.
The Common App that the Class of 2018 will become all too familiar with is not the one of years past. One of the biggest changes affects the essay’s word limit. For the first time, the Common App will strictly enforce the limit of 250 to 650 words. Additionally, the 150-word activities and extracurriculars paragraph is now gone, so you can focus your time and energy on thebigger essay.
Take a look at the new essay prompts:
• Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
• Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
• Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
• Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
• Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Despite the significant changes to the essay prompts, Jim Montague, Program Director of Guidance and Support Service at Boston Latin School, said that he hasn’t changed the essay writing advice that he gives to his students. He still advocates early preparation during both a student’s junior year of high school and the summer before senior year.
You’ll notice that the open-ended question is now conspicuously absent from the prompt list. However, if you’re creative enough, almost any essay topic can fit under one of these prompts.
“The question that allows students to choose any topic will be missed. It allowed our students to choose something they really care about and write,” wrote Montague in an email. “There are still many ways to respond to these choices, though. Raising the limit on the number of words allowed is also perceived by students to be helpful and allows them to express themselves more easily and completely.”
And for those who still have no idea where to begin?
“Sit down with someone who knows you well and brainstorm experiences and interests that might form the core of an essay or a direction worth pursuing,” wrote Montague. Get a group of close friends together, bounce ideas off of family members, and don’t be afraid to get creative and express your personality. This is the only part of your essay that isn’t presented as a generic list of achievements, so make it count.
A few personal tips:
• Make the essay about you—sure, your grandmother was an incredibly inspiring person in your life, but college admissions officers want to hear your story and not hers. If your essay includes family members or friends, make sure the focus stays on you.
• Pick a topic that will allow your voice to show through the essay. Use humor, lyricism, or whatever awesome writing skills you’ve been honing for the past two decades. Insider tip: if you’re going for funny, have people read your essay and make sure your brilliance and wit translates on the page. There’s nothing worse than an essay that tries and fails to be funny.
• Keep a notebook or file to write down every idea you have, even if you don’t think you’ll choose it. Scattered thoughts can come together in surprising ways, and you may even stumble across a topic for another essay.
• Picking an event in your life can be dangerous territory if you waste a lot of space on describing what happened instead of how it affected you—just be aware of this pitfall. Show, don’t tell!
• If you’re stuck, take a closer look at the prompts and write down every possibility you can think of for each topic. If you’re still frantically searching for a topic, don’t despair; sometimes, it takes multiple rewrites and several dead-end topics to craft the perfect essay.
As a former college admissions officer who read over 3,000 essays every admissions cycle, I can’t stress enough that students should consider quality over quantity when drafting college essays. My colleagues have previously written blog posts encouraging students to draft essays in their everyday voice, and to avoid replacing normal words with cousins from the thesaurus. The bigger picture here is to tell your own story as clearly and concisely as you can. The same goes for the length of your personal statement—hone in on the specific message you want to convey and deliver it as succinctly as you can.
Admission officers prioritize content over quantity. I never met an admission officer who literally counted the words in a college essay. Outliers in either direction were immediately noticed, though—writing 250 words when the space accommodates 650, or submitting 2-3 pages when a single page was requested—can send a bad first impression. But the difference between 280 words and 315 words, or 512 words and 627 words, will go completely unnoticed. Admission officers do notice, however, the clarity of your thought and the effectiveness with which you convey your ideas. If your message was well-said in 250 words but the maximum was 300, so you added 50 words of fluff, those 50 words are diluting the strength of your message. Similarly, if you wrote a 500-word piece you’re proud of but the maximum is 300, please don’t go line-by-line to delete extra words; instead, reconsider the scope of your essay, because you may have selected a larger topic than can be thoughtfully addressed within the word count.
For those of you still concerned about the literal word count: The most common “personal statement” length is in the ballpark of 500 words. The three standardized application portals—the Common App, the Universal App, and the Coalition App—all request personal statements capped at 650 words, but that’s the absolute limit, at which point your writing will be cut off. I consider 500 the “sweet spot,” but don’t stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 that you’re honestly proud of. Many colleges also ask for short answer responses, sometimes called supplemental prompts or personal insight questions, in the range of 150, 250, or 350 words; in this case, aim for the suggested length and be aware of the hard limits on either end, but don’t stress if you’re over or under by 10-15%.