Beginning the journey of crafting your Common App essay is a pivotal moment for any high schooler aspiring to enter the realm of higher education. As you navigate through the vast array of application essays, it's essential to steer clear of common pitfalls that can diminish the impact of your narrative. In this post, we delve into the nuances of storytelling, vulnerability, and insights to help you sculpt a compelling and authentic personal narrative that resonates with admissions officers.
1. Getting hung up on the prompts
When tackling the Common App Personal Statement, it's crucial to recognize that the prompts themselves hold minimal significance. The heart of the matter lies in crafting an impactful Personal Statement that vividly portrays your personality, growth, and maturity through a compelling narrative. The prompts serve as a framework rather than a strict guide. The best approach is often to develop your topic and Personal Statement arc first, allowing the essay to naturally align with the most fitting prompt. Admissions Officers (AOs) focus more on your reflective writing abilities and the narrative of your personal development rather than the specific prompt. Ultimately, the goal is to communicate a genuine story, and as long as that objective is met, any prompt is fair game.
2. Falling into essay tropes
As with most writing styles, there are many paradigmatic tropes employed in Personal Statements. AOs are very familiar with common tropes, as they read hundreds of these essays a year — such essays are much less likely to stand out against the broader pool. Topics such as immigration stories, “resume statements”, or discussions of your family (usually parents and/or grandparents) are overrepresented, and can be detrimental to your application. Usually writing about your family is a bad call — remember, this is a Personal Statement! Though family members can be featured in your essay, they should not be the primary focus. For immigration experiences, these should be markedly unique stories — many focus on struggles of adjusting to a new culture or language, which can feel repetitive if not approached from a highly personal perspective. Finally, for “resume-style” essays, you should always avoid this approach. If your PS feels like a prose version of your Activity List, you should start over! Generic essays on trope-y topics can be detrimental to an otherwise strong application, emphasizing the importance of choosing a unique angle to captivate the reader.
3. Lacking a “turning point”
The essence of a compelling Personal Statement lies in showcasing evolution and character development, not a static image of a single point in time. Approximately halfway through the essay, a pivotal "turning point" should occur, marking a moment of personal realization or change in thinking. This turning point should align with the chosen topic, offering a deeper connection to why the story is worth telling. By treating the essay as a narrative with a buildup to the turning point, applicants create a dynamic and engaging account. The conclusion then ties back to the current self, allowing AOs to glimpse the applicant's growth and maturity.
4. Avoiding vulnerability
While it might be tempting to present a flawless image, avoiding vulnerability can hinder the authenticity of your Personal Statement. AOs understand the competitive nature of the process and expect applicants to acknowledge their imperfections. Instead of fearing weaknesses, use them as opportunities for growth. Sharing moments of struggle and recovery demonstrates self-awareness and resilience. Attempting to sound flawless can come across as inauthentic, and AOs appreciate genuine reflections on personal challenges, provided they are presented in a constructive and meaningful light.
5. “Telling” rather than “Showing”
To captivate AOs — who read through entire applications in a matter of minutes — your Personal Statement should be creative, engaging, and enjoyable to read. Avoid presenting a mere list of facts and opt for a storytelling approach. Blend creative writing with personal reflection, incorporating anecdotes, thoughts, and memories to breathe life into your narrative. The goal is to make your experiences memorable and stand out amidst the multitude of applications. AOs appreciate the effort to make the essay an enjoyable and insightful read.
6. Focusing too much on the past
While drawing from past experiences is valuable, it's essential to balance the narrative by focusing on the present self. Colleges aim to understand who you are now, envisioning you as a prospective student on their campus. Limit discussions of experiences before high school to no more than one-third of the essay. If referencing early childhood events, ensure they directly contribute to recent character development. AOs may become skeptical of overly detailed stories from a young age, so keep past events relevant and concise to maintain credibility.
7. Sabotaging supplemental essays
The Common App essay should complement, not hinder, supplemental essays. Avoid discussing your intended major or favorite extracurricular activities extensively, as these are often subjects of separate supplemental essays. Duplicating content between the Personal Statement and supplements can lead to repetitive or vague submissions. Carefully plan your approach to ensure a cohesive narrative across all application components, maximizing the opportunity to showcase different facets of your personality and achievements.
8. Writing about a tragedy
While overcoming hardships is admirable, focusing on growth rather than suffering is key. Avoid writing about the worst experiences solely for pity, as AOs are more interested in how challenges shaped your identity and contributed to personal development. Choose topics relevant to your applicant identity, such as experiences that influenced your community engagement and self-awareness. Ensure your narrative reflects resilience and growth rather than emphasizing suffering for its own sake.
For example, writing about how a severe childhood illness shaped your awareness of isolation, and influenced your community engagement as you developed could be strong. On the other hand, writing about how a severe sports injury taught you how to “bounce back” is less effective and contrived.
9. Thinking your essay is “locked in”
Picture this — you’ve just submitted an application, and then notice a glaring typo in your Personal Statement. Though you can’t change what you’ve already submitted, this isn’t the end of the world! Contrary to common misconception, the Personal Statement is not set in stone once it’s been submitted to a school. Applicants can make necessary alterations to correct errors or enhance the narrative before submitting to other schools. So, if you notice grammatical or structural errors in your PS or a prime opportunity to include a powerful anecdote or realization, you can change this before you submit to another school. While obsessively tweaking is discouraged, the flexibility to modify non-school-specific information provides an opportunity for improvement. Don't panic if you notice a typo post-submission; instead, use subsequent submissions wisely to refine and optimize your essay for each application.
10. Getting a late start on writing
You should ideally begin writing your Common App essay early in the summer before senior year. Since this essay goes to every school through the Common App, it’s crucial to submit a polished and well-crafted essay. Beyond ensuring that you’ll have adequate time to perfect your essay, starting early streamlines the application process overall. Remember, most of your work will be outside of the Common App-specific components — supplement prompts can be the most time-consuming part of your applications. Most top schools have multiple extra essays, and pose highly specific questions.
As supplemental prompts are typically not released until later in the summer, so you can’t begin as far in advance. However, the consistency of Common App essay prompts allows for an early start, providing ample time for thoughtful reflection, revisions, and the creation of a compelling narrative that distinguishes your application.
Steering clear of common pitfalls, such as getting bogged down by prompts or succumbing to clichéd tropes, is essential to ensuring your narrative shines brightly in the eyes of admissions officers. Embrace vulnerability, weave a narrative that transcends the ordinary, and remember that your story is not static – it can evolve and improve. As you embark on this writing journey, let your Common App essay be a true reflection of your journey, growth, and the unique essence that sets you apart in the competitive landscape of college applications.
One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program
If you’d like to apply to a rigorous research program open to high schoolers, you may want to consider the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded by researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.
Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!
Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a Ph.D. student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.
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