college essay writing

It’s mid-July, and I’m sure most soon-to-be seniors are enjoying a much needed respite from school work, term papers, and standardized testing.  But the halcyon days of summer, unfortunately, will eventually come to an end.  It’s not a bad idea to get started on the main Common Application essay — get it out of the way before it has to compete for your attention against tests, papers, extracurricular activities, and any supplemental application essay questions, most of which get published August 1st.

So where does one even begin when tackling the Common App essay?  Is there anything in particular colleges want to see?  Let’s start with the first essay prompt (we’ll dive into the rest as the weeks progress):

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.

Holy background-or-story-so-central-to-their-identity Batman!  Do you have to have lived Bruce Wayne’s life, with its dramatic highs and lows, to answer this question?  Absolutely not!  Here’s your guide for breaking down this prompt:

  1. Know your audience.  Remember, this essay is going to be read by an academic community’s gatekeeper, someone wanting to know how well you’d fit in at his school.  When narrowing down your topic, your story, think about how it relates to you as an academic, a leader, someone who overcomes obstacles, a person with a particular talent, or a person who interacts with her community.
  2. Highlight key words.  Don’t let the words “background” or “story” distract you.  The key word here is “identity” — yours, to be exact.  This prompt is all about letting your reader know about you, how you see yourself, what informs your actions.  The background and story here are important, yes, but only insomuch as they’re a jumping point from which to get to the heart of your essay: you.
  3. Illustrate your story.  You can tell someone until you’re blue in the face that you’re funny, but until she laughs at one of your jokes, she’ll have a hard time believing you. Don’t just tell your reader you’re such and such.  Show her!   Has your identity manifested itself in some way, through actions or drive?  If so, show your reader.
  4. State your goals.  Imagine you’re Superman.  Well, Superman is Superman because he has purpose  —  he’d be just another strong man with a cape, otherwise.  While his story is unique — how many other kids from Kansas can say they fell to earth in a meteor shower? — it’s the impact that story has had on Superman’s outlook and mission that is so compelling.  Let your reader know how you see things and what contributions you’re hoping to make.
  5. Avoid wrestling with inner demons.  Your personal statement is not a diary entry or reality show.  And a college admissions committee is not your therapist.  Don’t cloud an admission officer’s mind with doubts about your ability to handle the pressures of college or its social environs.  Focus on your strengths!

Zeroing in on a story that screams “you” from among a lifetime of stories might seem daunting, but don’t let the challenge scare you away from choosing this essay prompt.  If you remember your target audience and their interest in hearing your story, you’ll be better able to hone your topic into a successful personal statement — one that focuses in on how your identity will help you make strong academic or social contributions to your prospective college.

Essay-Pitfalls-CTA

Written by Zaragoza Guerra
Zaragoza Guerra is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Zaragoza previously worked as a senior admissions officer at MIT, Caltech, and The Boston Conservatory.