The Perfect Common Application: Advice from a Harvard Student

The most important and most visible part of the Common Application is the essay. There are several prompts to assist you in choosing what to write about. As of 2017, there is an open prompt so students would have full license to choose any subject. Beyond your grades and test scores, which will be mostly or entirely finished by the time you start writing, this is the most important part of your application. What follows is some of my own advice for writing the best Common App essay.

First, you have to choose your topic. Many people struggle with this step because they think about it in the wrong way. You have had many life experiences that could be applicable to the Common Application that your brain can’t adequately sort through them. This results in so-called “writer’s block” – where you can’t think of anything at all to write about. There are many ways to break through this, but for this essay, I think that the best strategy is to start from the other end.

• Instead of trying to apply your experiences to the prompts, simply think about what you would like to show colleges about yourself through your essay. Once you have a few things in mind, try to think about some of your own experiences that show these qualities. It doesn’t have to be a hugely significant event in your own life – many of the best essays are about small moments portrayed in a meaningful way.

• Secondly, don’t be afraid to take some creative license. If you can think of a few topics but can’t quite make them fit into the narrative that you want, feel free to embellish or adjust a few details into your essay (within reason, obviously). Admissions officers don’t care about the factuality of the narrative – they care about how it portrays you.
Once you’ve chosen your topic, there are three important points to remember about writing the essay.

1. Grab the reader’s attention.

Admissions officers don’t have time to read every application carefully – Harvard, for example, receives around 40,000 applicants annually (with similar numbers at most top schools) and can only take 1,600 students. This means that, in the first stage, the admissions officer reading your application will take less than 10 minutes to decide if it’s interesting or not. They will spend more time with your essay than any other part of your application, so it needs to grab their attention in some way. You need to give them a reason to take a closer look at you!

2. The essay is about you.

No matter what you end up choosing to write about, the essay needs to be primarily and fundamentally about you. Colleges are interested in the story you’re telling, but only as it pertains to you as an applicant. They will look at your grades, test scores, and various academic interests to ensure that they meet their standards, but the essay is your real opportunity to tell colleges something about you as a person. Keep that in mind while you’re writing your essay, because it may change how you want to tell the story and which details you choose to include.

3. Editing is the key to success.

While it is true that the essay is limited to 650 words, you shouldn’t worry about it too much at the beginning. Once you decide what to write about, you just need to write it down in a way that satisfies you, regardless of length. After you have that first draft, you simply need to give yourself enough time to edit it down to 650 words. This is one of the reasons that it is so important to start writing your essay for the Common Application as early as possible. Editing isn’t that hard, but it is very time-consuming, so be aware of that when you’re planning out your workload.

Good luck with your essay and with your Common Application!

Read our blog on 5 things that will increase your chances of getting accepted to Harvard!

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