Common Application Essay Tips Part 1 – Unearthing the Topic

Common Application Essay Tips Part 1 – Unearthing the Topic | The Red Pen

Part 1 in a 2-part series

In a sea of applications, with every student wanting to stand out as the perfect candidate, admissions officers (AOs) might find the offbeat essay topic more compelling to read. AOs read thousands of application essays about social service, internships, sports achievements, science projects, favourite pets, changing schools, musical prowess, coming-of-age stories and more. So, what can you do to set yourself apart? One of the best ways to do so is to write about something that goes beyond your application form and shows who you are, off the transcripts. What kind of human are you? Do you have a wicked sense of humour? A secret hobby? A particular quirk? A fallible side? A sacred ritual? Write about what makes you, you! 

Here are some ideas that can help you ‘humanise’ yourself. 

1) Glorify the everyday:

Household chores, family responsibilities, your routines, the chats you have with the neighbourhood grocer or milkman, your relationships with family staff or Sunday family rituals make up who you are. For example, one student wrote about the daily mantra he would recite before going to school. He wrote about how it centred him and built his resilience. Just being aware of things you do every day can lead to some marvellous introspection.

2) Narrow the lens:

We all have faced moments where time stands still or something clicks in our head and a shift happens. A realisation occurs and a key opens a door of cascading ideas or emotions. Was it the first time you met someone? Was it when you made a particular meal? Was it a result of daily activities such as meditation or writing in a journal? Was it a culmination of so many summers spent in the same place? How did it define you? It’s important to remember that meaningful moments don’t have to be particularly grand. It can be as simple as the struggle of reconciling your cultural views with those of an older generation or how a powerful book shaped your approach to conflict. 

3) Juice the creativity:

Instead of talking about a stationary place and what you liked about it, try zeroing in on a part of that place. For instance, if you love parks, maybe talk about benches or trees in particular. One student, who wrote about swing sets, said, “Swings are everywhere, so it’s relatable.” But what she did was use it as a metaphor throughout the essay to showcase her own personality, creating a captivating picture of her energy and an awareness of her surroundings. Additionally, using swings as her favourite place gave her a lot of imagery to work with in her essay as she could describe what being on swings felt like in different places. 

4) Charter your childhood: 

You are a sum of all your experiences. Your childhood adventures can be great fodder for an essay. For example, one student wrote about how riding her bike every day after school was cathartic to her. It was where she sweated out her stress and ventured into unknown territories. It was also how she made new friends (or enemies!) around the neighbourhood, depending on whether she was retrieving a ball, crossing a black cat or picking flowers from someone’s front garden. Almost always, it was about her catching up with her best friends from down the lane. She wrote about sharing secrets, plotting against her brothers, counting pennies at the local newsagent whilst negotiating for strawberry jelly sweets and freewheeling through joyous childhood memories. It taught her prudence, community, fitness, stress, balance, pushing boundaries and to always move forward. 

5) Don’t fade. Stand up or stand out:

If you choose to write on ‘common’ topics, the ante of quality and difficulty goes up, by a great deal! Your ‘sports essay’ or ‘social service’ story will have to be in the top brass of the thousands of similar stories out there. The challenge here would be to make uncommon connections by offering unexpected narrative turns or connections to values. You could also provide uncommon insights by telling the reader something unexpected or use uncommon language by phrasing things in a way that has not been heard before. By choosing an ‘uncommon’ topic, you immediately eliminate some competition. Superman pyjamas, summer road trips in a rickety bus, driving a horse carriage or even a Cuban grandfather; these subjects form some of the most memorable college essays. 

6) Be true to yourself:

Don’t sound trite or unauthentic–the worst kind is the perfect prefect, goody-two-shoes kind. Don’t try to write what you think AOs want to hear. Rather, be open, frank and admit faults. Self-deprecation is admirable! So profess your fears, tug at heartstrings and take pride in your wins while remaining cautious not to ever extol your virtues. Be a ‘Humble Brag’ and let your spunk and spirit shine through your experience.  

7) Create an idea bank:

Put pen to paper and Ideate! 

  • What kind of cuisine do you end up ordering every weekend?
  • How do you organise your cupboard?
  • Do you harbour any peculiarities?
  • What pages of the newspaper or book do you read first?
  • How do you speak to different people?
  • What are your roots and culture? Is it unknown to a broad spectrum of society? 
  • Have you experimented with your identity, including your hair, clothes or voice? 
  • On which relationships do you need to work the hardest? What has that taught you?
  • Do you have a personal code or a dictionary of words by which you abide?
  • What are quirky family rituals that are only abided by your relatives?
  • What’s your association with nature? 
  • How do you react to stress? 
  • What makes you grin? What makes you groan? 
  • What gets you out of bed every day?
  • What’s on your Instagram feed?
  • Where do you spend the most time?

These are great starting points to get you thinking about your essay.

When writing your Common Application essay, think out of the box. What portrait do you want to paint of yourself? Be mindful that your setting also shouldn’t just reference the past, it should speak for the future too. The majority of the essay should be about your response and reaction to the experience you have had and not the event itself. What mark did it leave on you? Show who you are because of it and make it a page-turner. Give the AO a reason to look up and say, “YES!” 

In part 2, we discuss how to craft your essay style to ensure that it stands out. For more information, get in touch with us. 

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