With the 2017-2018 application cycle soon to be underway, the essay team here at CollegeVine has decided to share some of our best tips and strategies on how to write the all-important Common App essays. This year, The Common Application has announced various revisions and additions to its essay prompts. In total, three of the original five prompts have been revised, and two entirely new prompts have been added.
In this blog post, we’ll provide advice on how to break down these prompts, organize your thoughts, and craft a strong, meaningful response that will make admissions committees take notice.
Overview of the Common App
The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to you know you. While SAT scores, your past course load, and your grades provide a quantitative picture of you as a student, the Common App essay offers adcoms a refreshing glimpse into your identity and personality. For this reason, try to treat the essay as an opportunity to tell colleges why you are unique and/or what matters to you.
Since your Common App essay will be seen by numerous colleges, you will want to paint a portrait of yourself that is accessible to a breadth of institutions and admissions officers (for example, if you are only applying to engineering programs at some schools, don’t focus your Common App on STEM at the expense of your other applications — save that for your supplemental essays).
In short, be open and willing to write about a topic you love, whether it is sports, music, politics, food, or watching movies. The Common App essay is more of a conversation than a job interview.
Strategy for Writing the Common App 2017-2018 Essays
Because the Common App essay is 650 words long and includes minimal formal directions, organizing a response can seem daunting. Fortunately, at CollegeVine, we have developed a simple approach to formulating strong, unique responses.
This section outlines how to: 1) Brainstorm, 2) Organize, and 3) Write a Common App essay.
Before reading the Common App prompts, brainstorming is a critical exercise to develop high-level ideas. One way to construct a high-level idea would be to delve into a passion and focus on how you interact with the concept or activity. For example, using “creative writing” as a high-level idea, one could stress their love of world-building, conveying complex emotions, and depicting character interactions, emphasizing how writing stems from real-life experiences.
A different idea that doesn’t involve an extracurricular activity would be to discuss how your personality has developed in relation to your family; maybe one sibling is hot-headed, the other quiet, and you’re in the middle as the voice of reason (or maybe you’re the hot-head). These are simply two examples of infinitely many ideas you may come up with.
To begin developing your own high-level ideas, you should address these Core Four questions that all good Common App essays should answer:
- “Who Am I?”
- “Why Am I Here?”
- “What is Unique About Me?”
- “What Matters to Me?”
The first question focuses on your personality traits — who you are. The second question targets your progression throughout high school (an arc or journey). The third question is more difficult to grasp, but it involves showing why your personality traits, methods of thinking, areas of interest, and tangible skills form a unique combination. The fourth question is a concluding point that can be answered simply, normally in the conclusion paragraph, i.e., “Writing matters to me” or “Family matters to me.”
Overall, there is no single “correct” topic. You will be great as long as you are comfortable and passionate about your idea and it answers the Core Four questions.
If you have read my last two blogs that feature FAQ's about the Common Application, OR if you have gone through the experience of completing an app, I can imagine you have "had it" with this topic. (Me too!) So without further ado, here we go with (hopefully) the last round of Common App FAQ's, based on recent, actual student/parent questions. As always, my goal is to make life just a little easier for you by identifying and/or explaining what to do and when, as you go through the college admissions process.
1. When I cut, paste and then save an essay into any of the essay question spaces, the result is chaos: no paragraph breaks, sentences broken up right in the middle, huge spaces at the top and sometimes in the middle of the essay. I have spent hours trying to get the formatting to come out right; but each time I save an essay, it's all over the place. Help!
From everything I hear and read about essay formatting, I don't think there is anything you can do about this. In The Common Application Daily Update (October 30, 2013), the following appeared:
"We have informed all member colleges that errors in the text-to-PDF conversion process have the potential to produce essays that contain unusual formatting, including inconsistent fonts and errant paragraph breaks. We have assured colleges that students have no control over this formatting and that these types of errors are our fault, not the students'. We have heard confirmation from many colleges that they will not in any way penalize students for a technical problem that is out of their control."
As I said above, it appears that there is no solution. So sorry, it is what it is. BUT, be sure that your essays conform to the word/character limits. Regardless of the formatting issues, essays will get cut off (right in the middle of words!) if they exceed stated limits. See my HuffPost blog, "The Top 6 Questions Students (and Everyone Else) Are Asking about the New Common Application," for what some of those limits are.
2. I understand that I can change my answers and essays on the Common App after I submit it? Is that correct?
When I sent a question ticket to the Common App Help Center about the issue, this is what they said:
"Applicants may edit the Common App after they submit to one college and before submitting to additional colleges to correct errors or update information. There is no limit to application versions. You can make unlimited edits to the application, including the Additional Information section, but not to the Personal Statement essay. The Personal Statement can have a maximum of three submitted versions."
3. I have been trying to find a place on the Common App to submit my resume. Where is it?
According to the Common App people, "...resumes may be submitted to colleges that want them and may not be submitted to colleges that don't want them. For colleges that accept them, a student can upload their resume in that college's Writing Supplement section. Unlike previous Common Applications, the Common App Additional Information section may not be used for resume submissions."
4. I just can't figure out how to actually submit my application. Will you write out the steps I can follow to help me do that?
Here are the steps for Application Submission:
A. The Dashboard on the Common Application will indicate whether you are ready or not to submit. Yellow dots indicate what has not been submitted. They will turn green upon submission of the Application and Writing Supplement.
- Go to the Dashboard page that contains your list of colleges.
- Click on the college to which you are applying and on the left hand side it will show whether
√ All sections of the Common App are completed, noted by ready
√ All of the College Member Questions are completed, noted by ready
√ The Assign Recommenders is completed, noted by ready
- "Ready" status for all three means that your application can be submitted. Click on the Submit button.
- Once again, a yellow dot will indicate if something is missing. Click on that heading to go to the section and complete it.
B. Once the Common App is submitted, then move onto the writing supplement and submit it.
- Go to the 'My Colleges' tab. Click on one college (e.g, Stanford University) and select "Submission-Common App."
- The first step is print preview. The print preview PDF is generated automatically once you click the "Start Submission button. If you are satisfied with the preview, then click "continue" at the bottom of the page. The only way to preview is through the submission menu. If you are not satisfied with your PDF preview, click the "X" in the top right corner to close the preview and abandon the submission.
- Be sure to print a copy of the PDF preview.
- Next, you will be routed to the payment page for the college you selected. Complete that page and copy down the payment tracing number you are provided. You will be able to see if the payment has been posted by following the steps of submission again. If you see the "paid" fee message after the PDF preview, you can then proceed to the signature page. (Warning! If you are prompted to pay again, stop. Don't pay again!) Most payments are posted immediately; others take 24 to 48 hours.
- If your payment has not been posted to the application after 48 hours, let the Common App Help Center people know and provide them your payment tracing number and the name of the school to which you made the payment.
- Once the payment is completed, you will sign, date and hit the final Submit. Note: The application will not be submitted until you complete this part.
C. You should receive a submission confirmation email within 24 hours.
Once you submit your application and you see the green check on the dashboard, the school will have access to your application and is able to view
5. Is there one place on the Common App where I can find early and regular application deadlines, application fees and which test scores colleges require?
The Common Application offers users a very helpful grid that identifies all of the information you ask for and then some. Go to the Home Page, scroll to the top where you will find three tabs: About Us, Member Colleges, and Media Inquiries. Click on Member Colleges and then click again on the pull-down tab, Application Requirements. Voila! A pdf will come up that says 2013-2014 College Deadlines, Fee, and Requirements.
The following is what you will find: (I have also provided the definitions of various notations used in the grid.):
A. COMMON APP MEMBER
A-Z, contains the names of the 500+ public and private colleges that use the Common App.
As the App Requirement Notes say, all of the colleges are co-educational, unless under the Type column it says:
W = Women only
M = Men only
C = Two coordinating single-sex colleges geographically adjacent to one another that share resources.
The grid gives deadline dates for ED (Early Decision), EDII (Early Decision II), EA (Early Action), EAII (Early Action II), REA (Restrictive Early Action), RD (Regular Decision), and Rolling. For explanations of these different ways of applying, go to the Early Applications section of my website.
D. APP FEES
As noted in a previous blog, there is no charge for the Common Application, itself, but some colleges charge differently for US and international students.
US = United States student, citizen or resident
INTL = International student
ART = Art Supplement
SR = SlideRoom, a website/program that allows individuals to submit their arts materials
COL = colleges that offer then own Art Supplement.
Writing = Many Common Application colleges ask students to answer their own essay questions in the section called Writing Supplement. In order to get into a college's Writing Supplement, applicants must first complete all of the college specific questions that appear in the Common Application.
F. MINIMUM STANDARD TEST POLICY: SAT/ACT Tests Used
The choices include
SAT w/Writng or ACT w/Writing (w = with Writing)
SAT w/o Writing or ACT w/o Writing (w/o = without Writing)
SAT w/Writing or ACT w/Writing, 2 SAT Subject Tests
SAT w/o Writing and 2 SAT Subject Test or ACT w/o Writing
"See website" = Means that the Common App finds a school's test policy too complex to be described on its grid and you should check the individual website
G. TEST POLICY
A = Tests Always Required
F = Test Flexible (Means that a variety of factors might be looked at by a college, including test scores. Check the college's website to see exactly what they are.)
N = Tests Never Used
S = Tests Sometimes Required
H. INTL = LANGUAGE PROFICIENCY TESTS
If a student is an international student and English is not his/her first or primary language, a college may require one of the following language proficiency tests.
I = IELTS = International English Language Testing System (managed by Cambridge University, the British Council and the IDP Education Pvt. Ltd
T = TOEFL = Test of English as a Foreign Language (offered by Educational Testing Service, ETS)
PTE = Pearson Test of English
Oddly enough, the grid does not offer a space for a counselor. That is taken care of by the Recommender section in each of the college sections of the Common App. However, in the notes section, Common App says, "For those counselors submitting recommendations online...all institutions now require the School Report and Final Report."
TE = Teacher Evaluations (number of teacher evaluations required: 1 or 2)
OE = Other Evaluations (indicates that a school accepts recommendations from people other than teacher, mentors, ministers, art teachers, clergy, family members, peers, work supervisors, coaches, etc.)
MR = Mid Year Report required
J. SAVES FORMS
Indicates whether the colleges saves recommendations once a student has matriculated into a college.
Y = Yes
Just so you know, as of the 10/23/13 update of the grid, not all of the early deadlines had been brought up to date.
Unless I hear from readers that they want more, with this submission I am retiring from my self-assigned role of writing about The Common Application. Do feel free to submit comments with your questions should you still have issues or problems with the Common App. I truly wish you all well.
(Much of the above information has been excerpted from The Common Application Help Center, Application Requirements Notes, Daily Update, and Common App Facebook.)
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