Common App Refresh Starts July 28

Reminder: The Common App will be offline from July 28-31 in order to prepare for the launch of the 2019-2020 application on August 1.

In the meantime, you can…

  • Write your essays
  • Update your resume
  • Network with colleges

Once the Common App refresh is complete, you can rollover your account if you created one previously, or open one up and get started. Check out our free Facebook group, Conquer the Common App, to stay up to date.

 

 *Stay in the know! Subscribe*

10 Do’s and Don’ts for Writing the Personal Statement (aka The Common App Essay)

Photo by Glenn Carstens-Peters on Unsplash

Our essay experts know best. Check out these 10 tips from Emma that will help you write the most effective personal statement. Summer is the best time to tackle this important essay, so start now! Interested in working with Emma? Contact us 

  • Don’t worry about the prompts. It’s helpful to read through the prompts to see if doing so sparks any ideas; however, there is no need to stress about writing an essay that exactly “answers” a prompt. Your goal is to write the best essay you can about whatever you decide is best to write about. Working with students 1:1, we totally disregard the prompts and usually find that their essay still easily fits under one of the questions. And, if not, there is often an open-ended prompt such as: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”
  • Do open with a scene. A strong opening scene draws the reader into your essay. Admissions officers and their first-round readers have hundreds of applications to get through—make yours stand out from the first sentence. Intrigue them or scare them or make them laugh. Make them want to keep reading.
  • Do focus on a single story. You only have 650 words. Perhaps that sounds like a lot to you: it’s not. There is no reason you should worry about filling it up. Through our process, you will find out how to generate enough detail to write an essay about any story. Nor should you worry about cramming as much as possible into the personal statement. Remember that colleges have all of your application data and that trying to do too much in the essay will only end up making your essay feel rushed and scattered.
  • Do make sure that your story has a clear beginning, middle, and end. You can tell your story out of order—for instance, opening with a scene from a stressful moment in order to build suspense before jumping back into chronology—but you always want to make sure your story has each of these elements. Skipping any single one will confuse your reader and make your story feel incomplete (because it is!).
  • And yet don’t get bogged down in detail. We usually find students have trouble generating enough detail. But sometimes we get a student who is unable to summarize effectively, too. Having too much detail can make your story confusing and also mean that your reader will have trouble understanding what the most significant elements are. It usually also means you don’t have room for reflection—the most important element in the essay!
  • Do present yourself in a positive light. We actively encourage you to tell a story that showcases your vulnerabilities, failures, weaknesses, and mistakes. However, either your narrative or your reflection (or some combination of the two), needs to ultimately redeem you so that your essay, in the end, shows you to be someone who is actively working to improve—to rectify mistakes, move past failures, or strengthen weakness. Your essay should be honest, but its main purpose is to make you seem like someone admissions officers want to see at their colleges! Make sure you come off well.
  • Don’t use huge thesaurus words. Again: you aren’t trying to impress the admissions officers! You are trying to show them who you are—and you are trying to make them like you. Using big words can mean using words you don’t quite know how to use, and that will show. Even if you do know how to use them, unless your essay is about how much you love long words or languages, using the big, 25-cent words can make you sound pretentious and overly formal. The language should sound like you and be relatively casual—not curse-word, talking-with-friends casual, but maybe talking-with-your-grandmother casual.
  • Do use vivid, interesting words and varied sentence structure. Being casual doesn’t mean the writing shouldn’t be good or interesting! Do push yourself to use words you might not use in your everyday speech, and do mix up the sentence structure to keep the writing varied and exciting. Do feel free to include words from your personal vocabulary—words from the language you speak at home or from a regional dialect or words you’ve made up. That can add a lot of texture and personality to an essay. Just make sure you define the words for your reader if the meaning isn’t clear from context.
  • But don’t use emotional language: I was happy; I was sad. Instead, let an action depict the emotional state. That is, instead of saying “I was happy,” you might write, “I couldn’t help skipping a few steps down the street after hearing the news.” And, instead of saying “She was sad,” you might write, “Her shoulders slumped, and she cradled her head in her hands.” You can’t see an emotion, and you always want to give the reader something to see.
  • And don’t use cliche—i.e. common, predictable, overused—language. Cliche language includes (but is definitely not limited to!) phrases like:
    • I need to be true to myself.
    • Time heals all wounds.
    • Every cloud has a silver lining.
    • Good things come to those who wait.
    • I learned more from them than they did from me.
    • Every rose has its thorn.
    • You win some, you lose some.
    • Little did I know.

Of course, your essay might have one of these messages at its heart. Maybe you did learn more from the kid you tutored than they learned from you. Maybe you did find the “silver lining” in a terrible situation. Both of these could make for great essays. But you want to verbalize that realization in your own unique and surprising way.

 

 *Stay in the know! Subscribe*

How to Gear Up for College Essay Writing

On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction

Why? It’s one of the most valuable resources for writers. You write a lot when applying to college, and beyond cranking out apps, it’s a process that lends itself to learning how to write well. To me, it’s a must-read!

 

Why? Over four weeks, you will be guided through a series of video exercises with questions and prompts to self-reflect about all the foundational elements of your backstory. From it, you will better you understand how the elements of your backstory have set you on your path in life. This is a must if you are going to write an effective personal statement.The process works: YouSchool has taken thousands of people through it and knows that if you do the work, you’ll gain a clear sense of what story you’re living in. You are also provided the structure to engage in deep conversations with people you trust (parents, teachers, friends, college counselors!). BackStory is a fantastic way to gear up for personal statement writing.

 

Why? It’s one of the only “college essay” books I can stomach. More importantly, it’s a thoughtful and sometimes funny (depending on the type of humor you enjoy) guide to writing the personal statement. It is also written well and is very easy to read.

 

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*

Do Perfect Students Have Nothing Interesting to Write About?

I am especially fond of Janine Robinson’s many posts on writing anecdotes. This month I am “final reviewing” many personal statements. In doing so, I’ve been thinking a lot about topic generation and how to get students to dig deeper to find topics that I have not read a hundred times before. It always bothers me when parents complain that we took a few hours to brainstorm topics; I’m not sure they understand that pinpointing a decent topic can take a lot of work. It is disheartening that so much digging needs to take place at all, but it often does. Anyway, Robinson’s blog post on essay topics has some interesting points, so thought I would share.

From what I’ve seen working with college-bound students for the last decade, many of our most talented, driven and intelligent teenagers are living such parallel, over-achieving lives that they struggle to find an effective essay topic. These are the same kids, many targeting Ivy League educations, who will need bull’s-eye essays to have even a shot of getting in.

It’s sad, unfair and ironic: The hardest working students have no time for a life. Here’s an example of a student I worked with recently:

The mom sent me an email summarizing her daughter’s background:

The daughter was interested in history and computer science, and also in theater (worked on every school production since 7th grade). She also did Model UN (with accolades); was editor of the school newspaper and active in debate club. Also, she was captain of the robotics team, the chess club and some other academic team. She had built her own computer and the family’s home service. She also participated in three varsity sports. The daughter’s GPA was stellar and test scores excellent.

Where did she want to go to college?

“Her high school counselor thinks she has a good chance at the Ivies,” mom wrote.

Sure sounds like this girl could have her pick of colleges, right? Good luck with that!

Acceptance rates at the prestige schools are at all-time lows. Even if she wrote an outstanding college application essay, her chances would be slim to none at the most elite schools. The real problem, to me, is that this student isn’t unusual.

Most of these applicants have similar off-the-charts grades, test scores and extracurricular dossiers. With everyone at the top of the heap, the focus often turns to their college application essays. The tragedy I mentioned in my sensational headline is that these are the exact brilliant students who have the hardest time coming up with an interesting and meaningful essay topic.

Why?

They are too busy doing the same things. Team sports, band, drama, clubs, and internships. Model United Nations. Summer camp. Mission trips. Robotic competitions. And mostly…studying.

Even though their activities and experiences are truly character-building and lesson-teaching, the highly orchestrated nature makes them difficult to mine for gritty, organic or relevant life-shaping lessons. That’s why one of my first questions to students I tutor is whether they had held a job. Summer jobs. Working part-time during school. Even hourly work. These are a gold mine for topic ideas, mainly because they fall outside that high school student bubble where everyone does the same thing. Suddenly a student has to deal with getting stiffed by a customer at a restaurant where he waits tables. Or a student has to find a way to get his lawn mower to job sites without a car. Maybe a student gets passed over to caddie at a golf club because she’s Hispanic.

I advise students to recall “times” they faced problems in their past to discover real-life moments that helped shaped their thinking in some way. If they can show themselves in action handling that issue, their stories (and essay topic) will reveal a piece of their unique personality. If they also reflect and explain what they learned when handling that problem, they also can reveal their character.

Personality + Character = Awesome Personal Statement Essay

The sad thing is that the most high-reaching students often have not had a summer job. Not only have they not had time in their activity-packed lives to hold a job working at Subway, or a clothing boutique or for their parent’s grocery store, but they simply don’t have ANY FREE TIME. Many of these students are distressed when we start brainstorming an essay topic. They say the same things as all students–“There’s nothing interesting about me.” I ask them what they do when they do get a rare moment of time to themselves.

They pause.

Think.

Think some more.

“I like to hang out with my friends,” many tell me. Oh yea. Friends. How sad is this??

Unfortunately, hanging with friends doesn’t often yield great essay topics, so we keep fishing around in their past to find something they have done where there weren’t a lot of adults around making sure nothing went wrong.

Perfect life. Nothing happens. No story. No story. Dull essay. Talk about pressure!

These students have worked so hard, for so long, and truly sacrificed a lot to be perfect students, the exact kind who should get into the most competitive college and universities. I believe many should simply let go of the Ivy League fantasy and focus on the several hundred or more outstanding educational institutions that don’t have Ivy status. Boy, would that chill out this frenzied application world almost overnight. I believe the kids would let them go without a second thought if their parents went first. I know I’m old school, but I have to note that many of my achieving students also mention “My anxiety” or “My depression” as possible essay topics.

I don’t think that’s just a coincidence.

I remember one student who was so desperate for an interesting experience that he planned to borrow an experience that happened to his mother when she was young. And guess who’s brilliant idea this was? Yup, mom’s. But for many of these perfect students, who have engaged in more interesting and challenging activities than many people do in a lifetime, they can’t find that magic topic or everyday experience to nail their college application essay.

It’s the overachievers who come from privileged backgrounds who have it the hardest. Somehow these students do have time for international vacations, second home visits, ski trips, spa outings, sailing, riding horses and golfing (I’m not trying to be snide; this is what they tell me). It’s possible to extract interesting experiences and write compelling essays that involve these privileged activities, but I haven’t seen many. Students who have had to step in to help their family or their own financial well-being are the lucky ones—at least when it comes to essay topics.

If they lived on a ranch in the middle of nowhere and helped raise the pigs.

If they helped their mom clean houses on weekends.

If they ran the cash register at the family laundry mat.

If they had to get a summer job to earn spending money (HINT: That could be any kid.)

Perfect Students: Dig Harder for Your Essay Topic

This is where “real-life” happens, and no matter how hard you try, it’s much easier to write about, extract relatable experiences and moments, and draw out life lessons when life involves a degree of struggle. I feel for these overachievers. They are hard-working, well-intentioned and great kids. For some, this may be their first taste of how life can sometimes be unfair. Don’t despair, though, if you are a perfect student who has done all the right things, plus some. You will still get into the most awesome schools.

When it comes to your college application essay, and finding a killer essay topic, you are going to have to once again be that kid who goes the extra mile. You can and will find great topics. They will just take more digging and imagination, possibly more research and self-reflection. I push the idea of the “mundane,” over the impressive. Works every time.

Even if you are one of those determined students who does everything, along with thousands of others doing the exact same thing, you are unique. You just need to work hard to find some type of problem (challenge, obstacle, failure, phobia, conflict, set-back, crisis, mistake, etc.) you faced in order to show how.

 

*Stay in the know! Subscribe for news, tips, and advice*