Far too many students don’t have anything worthwhile to say in their conclusions to application essays about why they want to attend a particular college or university. If you are completely out of ideas, it’s always a good idea to express appreciation at the end of your college-specific essays.
How do you tackle the main essay on the Common Application to give yourself the best shot of writing an essay that is acceptance worthy at even the most selective colleges and universities?
While your essay should be unique, your approach to writing a great essay should actually be both formulaic and geared towards differentiating your story and perspective on life from those of other applicants.
Students (and their parents) who are serious about figuring out which Common App essay prompt to pursue should take the time to watch the entire video below. In it, I walk you through each prompt that will appear on the “common” portion of the 2020-2021 Common App and give each a grade for the average and not so average Common App applicant. Enjoy!
So much of what you read, watch, or hear in the media is there to make you feel like it’s impossible to get into Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale without cheating your way in or using some unsavory connection to worm your way in.
Yet, a successful – and ethical – formula for getting into Ivy League colleges does exist and is pretty straightforward.
Below, I share the simple four-step formula for getting into Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, or Yale, which has helped 100% of my students who have followed it get into one or more Ivy.
Step 1: Take Rigorous High School Courses and Get As in Them
Notice how it didn’t say “be smart” or “pursue your academic passions.” Such entreaties sound lovely, but they’re beside the point. The foundation of your campaign to get into an Ivy League college depends on you willingness and ability to consistently take the most rigorous courses at your high school and then earn A grades in all such courses as well as whatever other courses you are also taking. If your school reports A grades via a range (such as A-, A, A+ or 90-100), work your hardest to get the highest As possible (A+ or 97+). If your school grades on a different scale than those mentioned so far, simply aim for the top of it.
Every high school is different, but in many cases, taking the most rigorous courses at your high school is synonymous with one of the below three scenarios (or some combination or permutation thereof):
A. Running the table with as many Advanced Placement courses as you can take each academic year and taking all of your other academic courses at the highest levels on offer
B. Taking the most challenging courses offered to students in your high school during your first two years in high school, then becoming a full-fledged International Baccalaureate® (IB) Diploma Programme (DP) student at the start of your junior year, and finally completing the full IBDP with both predictions and final cumulative scores aligned in the 40-45 range
C. Taking as many Honors, High Honors, Gifted, and/or Dual Enrollment courses as possible throughout your four years in high school
In no grade in high school should you take fewer than five academic courses (though I prefer six if you can swing it), and if you are being strategic about things, no matter the exact curriculum on offer at your school or official names of courses available at your school, at minimum, your four-year academic course load in high school should include the following:
Most Rigorous English Course Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Math Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous History Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Science Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Foreign Language Available to 9th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous English Course Available to 10th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Math Available to 10th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous History Available to 10th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Science Available to 10th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Foreign Language Available to 10th Grade Students (Same Language as Last Year) – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous English Course Available to 11th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Math Available to 11th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous History Available to 11th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Science Available to 11th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Foreign Language Available to 11th Grade Students (Same Language as Last Year) – 1 Credit
*Or, if an IBDP student:
-Three HLs in areas you are most passionate about and that are likely to align with your potential college major(s)
-Three SLs in areas you are also deeply passionate about
-Of your six IB courses, only one (max) should be arts-related unless you plan to major in one or more art in college
-If your school offers Mathematics: analysis and approaches HL, you should take it and get an A (or Predicted 5+ minimum) in it
Most Rigorous English Course Available to 12th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Math Available to 12th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous History Available to 12th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Science Available to 12th Grade Students – 1 Credit
Most Rigorous Foreign Language Available to 12th Grade Students (Same Language as Last Year) or Double Up on English, Math, History, or Science, but only with an Advanced/AP/IB/Honors+ Course – 1 Credit
Or, if an IBDP student, continuation of * detailed above.
Notice how I didn’t mention elective/arts courses. They are nice to take too, especially if you need to or want to pursue your passions through them and have the horsepower to do so, but to be completely honest, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, and Yale are focused on your academic courses, not PE, Health, Arts (except for AP or IB), Personal Finance, etc. courses.
Remember, the above academic course progression is only a minimum goal; you can always do more, and that would be great – just keep earning As if you take on more rigor/courses than the progression outlined above.
Step 2: Score Very Well on the SAT and/or ACT
To be blunt – aim for 1450 on the SAT or 33 on the ACT minimum. To pump up your standardized test profile also aim to take and submit scores of 750 or higher on at least two SAT Subject Tests. For most people this requires a great deal of studying and a history of actually being a serious student in school. Do students get into Ivy League colleges with lower scores than those stated above? Yes. You should assume that you are not going to be one of them.
Before we move on to Step 3 and Step 4, I should note that many students around the world are able to beautifully accomplish the aforementioned Step 1 and Step 2; yet, the majority of such students will not get into Ivy League colleges even if they try. This is for the same reason that most professional baseball players have no problem hitting a double but very few will ever hit an inside-the-park home run: they are unable or unwilling to go past second base. Below you will learn how to go beyond second base and return to home plate without being called out.
FUN FACT: the majority of students, parents, talking-heads/influencers complaining about how hard it is to get into an Ivy League college are doing so because they don’t want to or don’t know how to put in the effort necessary to complete Step 3 and Step 4 below.
Step 3: Strategically Differentiate Your Life
Everyone wants to win the lotto these days (hit the jackpot without the effort). But, again, if we are being real, very few billionaires just fell into their money. They or their predecessors developed a plan and executed on it in order to make it big.
The same idea applies to getting into Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, or Yale. You need to sit down like a young adult, think critically, develop a plan, and execute on it if you are going to give yourself the best shot of getting into an Ivy League college.
What should the plan look like? It should not look like any other student’s plan, that’s for sure. That’s why sitting down like a young adult and attempting to think critically all alone is often not enough for many teens with Ivy League dreams. Most teenagers with big goals really do need to sit down with at least one older and wiser strategic thinker in order to game plan out a strategy that can be tactically and earnestly implemented.
Sadly, many students only turn to a mom, dad, sibling, friend, or teacher who means well but doesn’t know much about what Ivy League colleges are really attracted to in students. Other students go to their high school’s college counselor hoping he or she will be the “older and wiser strategic thinker” that they are so desperately looking for in order to give themselves the best shot of Ivy League college admission. Pretty soon most students figure out (if they do at all) that even if their college counselor is well-meaning and knowledgable (the student would actually be very lucky to find these characteristics in his or her college counselor), very few high school-based college counselors have the time, interest, and/or ability to provide the personalized and highly strategic college admissions coaching students with Ivy League goals need.
For example, so many students go to their high school counselors looking for advice on how to get into Ivy League colleges and their counselors summarily advise them to consider other colleges all together because, “fit matters more than rank, Johnny” or, if the students are lucky, maybe the counselors will advise the students to become extracurricular leaders! Woopdidoo!
Both scenarios make my blood pressure rise, though at least in the latter case the counselors are respecting students’ questions and goals. Yet, as attractive as student leaders are to Ivy League colleges, there is a very important characteristic that trumps leadership in the eyes of Ivy League college admissions officers:
The earlier in high school you can sit down with someone who actually knows what he or she is talking about and has the time and interest to get to know you and your goals well the more likely you will be able to strategically differentiate your life choices over the course of your high school career while also aligning your life choices to your unique value system. This in turn will allow you to stand out for all the right reasons to Ivy League admissions committees and ultimately reach your full college admissions potential.
There has been a complete implosion of English instruction in K-12 education. As I have alluded to before: most students capable of getting straight As in high school English classes can’t write well or speak well. This is because most students capable of getting straight As in high school English classes have never learned how to think critically, which is a prerequisite for eloquent writing and speaking. Many students get As in English – even AP-level English – without actually being able to think, write, or speak that well.
Layer on top of that travesty the advent of smart phones and other forms of electronic communication, which have corrupted teenage minds and writing skills over the past twenty years, and you have a nightmare scenario for the future of humanity.
Yet, in this living nightmare there is an opportunity for those high school students who have actually – miraculously – been taught how to think, write, and speak clearly – like mere peasants, high school dropouts, and ragamuffins could in 1938. I mean this seriously. I was looking through an English test that my grandmother had to take in eighth grade in a Baltimore public school, and it was far harder than any English test I EVER took in high school or college. As a point of reference: in the last twenty years I’ve earned an MA in Education Administration and a BA in History (the latter from Penn no less…). Maybe I would have been better off being born in 1922 and simply graduating high school in 1940 (as long as I survived the war)? I digress.
If you are in high school and open to actually learning how to think clearly and write and speak articulately, the world is your oyster. Frankly, the Ivy League would be luck to have you – and their admissions officers know it. Thus, if you pull off high level thinking and communicating in your application to an Ivy League college, you are going to set yourself apart from the average Ivy League applicant.
Many students (and their parents) realize that they need help in the communication portion of their college applications. That’s why every year in late spring I start getting calls from rising high school seniors and their parents begging me to help edit college applications – specifically extracurricular resumes and college application essays.
Frankly, I find providing developmental editing, substantive editing, copy editing, proofreading, and constructive critiquing for rising seniors generally tedious and often painful because it’s pretty time-consuming and emotionally draining for me to fix over a several-week period what took twelve years to do to you, namely, destroy your ability to communicate effectively. That’s why I much prefer meeting with students early in high school in order to start the important process of teaching them how to think deeply and write and speak well. This is also a reason why I developed the How to Build and Extraordinary Extracurricular Resume short course; creating a good resume is pretty much a science, but it’s a repetitive one. I would never create an online course for college application essays, though, because college application essays need to be so personalized and well-tailored that any prefab online course teaching you how to create “a perfect college application essay” isn’t capable of being bespoke enough to help a student knock out an Ivy League-level college application essay. Only personalized coaching can get you there – especially if you have not benefited from the rare instances of proper English instruction that still remain in this anti-intellectual age. As such, I do still take on a limited number of clients each year for laser, comprehensive, intensive, and group application communication support (resumes, essays, and interview prep) even though such work becomes harder each year because of the daily devolution of institutionalized K-12 education.
Long story short, the earlier you become a master communicator the more likely you will actually be able to share both your own voice and a voice worth listening to on your college applications and in college admissions interviews.
It’s really that simple. If you can tackle the four steps above with grace and gusto (and dare I suggest, gravitas), you are extremely likely to get into Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, Penn, Princeton, or Yale. Yet, even more important than getting into any Ivy League college, if you can accomplish all of the above, you will have learned a lot and grown a lot as a person and remained ethical in so doing.
University of Pennsylvania announced today that its supplemental essay question in search of a 650-word response by applicants is no more. Students applying during the 2019-2020 admissions cycle for Fall 2020 admission will be asked two new questions instead:
- How did you discover your intellectual and academic interests, and how will you explore them at the University of Pennsylvania? Please respond considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected. (300-450 words)
- At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classroom, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. (150-200 words)
Students are still able to write up to a grand total of 650 words in their responses to these questions; yet, with the changes, applicants will now have the challenge and opportunity to deliver two distinct messages in response to two distinct essay prompts.
Also announced today is a new policy that would have kept both U.S. President Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka Trump (who both transferred to Penn’s Wharton School of Business as juniors) from ever attending or graduating from Wharton.
“From cycle year 2019-2020 forward, Wharton and Engineering will no longer accept external junior transfers. The College and Nursing will continue to accept junior transfers…We have made this change in consultation with our academic partners across campus. The curricular pre-requisites for transferring into Wharton or Engineering as a junior are both specific and extensive. As we reviewed Wharton and Engineering transfer applicants, we consistently saw that most applicants were unable to take the coursework necessary for a seamless transition into these schools. We hope this change will help applicants focus on the schools and programs that best align with their interests and preparation, and that allow them to successfully transition to our campus.” wrote Eric Furda, who currently holds the title of Dean of Admissions at Penn.
Ironically, earlier this month this site pondered how Ivanka Trump got into Penn back in 2002 and whether or not she would get in again today. It’s clearly a sore point with the powers that be at Penn these days that the current president of the U.S. and one of his top assistants both graduated from Penn. Whether or not this Penn admissions policy change has anything to do with the university’s current “resistance” to the leader of the free world is purely a matter of speculation.
Additional interesting tidbits shared by Furda this summer include:
-Penn will allow applicants to self-report test scores – as long as they are not athletes or international students. This means that certain students will simply be trusted to honestly report their highest scores on their applications and only send in official corroboration of their scores if they ultimately get into and deposit at Penn later in the admissions cycle.
– Penn is passive-agressively encouraging its IB applicants to take Math Analysis HL instead of other new math offerings rolled out recently by the IBDP.
– Penn will offer both regional and virtual information sessions during the year ahead and all of these will be listed here.
In an increasingly connected world, reading beyond what pops up on a mobile devise is dropping to the bottom of priority lists for many teenagers. And for those of us dedicated to books and the power of reading to educate, inform and entertain, this is REALLY bad news.
It’s hard to think how anyone can build fundamental communication skills without dedicating significant time to reading, whether for pleasure or information gathering. And it’s not just about developing an interesting mind or expanding vocabulary. Students who aren’t readers often don’t write well. They have a hard time imagining as well as organizing thoughts, developing arguments, and articulating ideas.
For college-bound students, this is more than just bad news—it’s a crisis. Colleges not only care that you read, they also care what you are reading as well as what you have learned from the experience.
These concerns play out in many different ways in the admissions process, and the most successful applicants are often those who set aside time in their busy schedules to read. And not just what appears on your daily “feed.”
For high school students, being aware of the reading advantage in college admissions is key. Here are five excellent reasons you would be wise to make time for reading:
Academics: It’s no secret that many of the most academically challenging courses in high school require strong reading skills—the ability to absorb and retain a large volume of material in a relatively short amount of time. Advanced Placement (AP) as well as International Baccalaureate (IB) curricula in social studies, literature, and language are notoriously reading-intensive. And colleges want not only to see you’re taking these courses but also that you’re succeeding with good grades.
Summer is usually a great time to “study forward” by obtaining AP/IB texts and reading beyond what is assigned or expected by the first day of school. Get ahead and stay ahead of the reading. You’re bound to see results in terms of improved reading skills, better grades, and less stress.
Test Scores: You can pay thousands of dollars to the best test prep company in town, but nothing improves test scores like being an active reader. Both ACT and SAT are designed to challenge reading skills both in comprehension and interpretation. And those students who didn’t stop reading in middle school are bound to be more successful test-takers.
Push your reading level higher by mixing pleasure reading with more academic magazines, journals, or texts. Challenge yourself by not only reading from AP/IB course materials but also taking the time to annotate texts and look up vocabulary words. A little extra time devoted to reading can pay off in a big way in terms of improved test scores—ACT, SAT, and AP.
Applications: Colleges have learned that a good way to get to know a student in the application process is to ask about their reading habits. For example, one of the supplemental essay prompts required by Columbia University during 2018-19 asked, “List the titles of the books you read for pleasure that you enjoyed most in the past year.” In fact, Columbia asked three questions designed to probe applicants’ reading tastes and interests. Stanford, Wake Forest, Princeton, Emory, Colgate, Davidson and a number of other schools have their own versions of questions designed to probe reading habits.
Knowing these kinds of essay questions may be in your future, why not dive into a wide variety of literature? Don’t limit yourself to a single genre or to reading only fiction or nonfiction. Mix it up. Go a step further and read something that relates to potential career and/or academic interests. And be sure to keep track of what you have read noting best books or interesting magazines as well as favorite authors.
Interviews: If you’re applying to a college that either recommends or requires a personal interview, you had better come prepared with at least one favorite book about which you can knowledgeably speak. The “reading” question appears in many different forms, but the bottom line is that if you stumble here and can’t come up with a title or are forced to reach back to middle school, you could be in a bit of trouble. And you wouldn’t be alone. It’s shocking to interviewers how often students can’t remember the last book they read for pleasure or respond with cheesy middle school novellas. And worse, they might remember the title of something read for class, but they either have the story all wrong or simply can’t remember any element of the plot.
Avoid the embarrassment and read some good books as you have time. Take notes, think about what you read, and even talk over the best books with friends or family. Know why you would recommend a book. And get feedback on your recommendations. Don’t think you have to re-brand yourself as an intellectual by only reading great literature. Interviewers can have fairly ordinary literary tastes. And don’t try to “fake it” by suggesting a book you think will make you seem smart. If you’re honest about what you like, you might be surprised to find that you and your interviewer share tastes in authors to the point that an interesting conversation ensues.
Stress: All kinds of research shows that reading is way more effective at reducing stress than listening to music, drinking a cup of tea or even taking a walk in the woods. Significant side benefits include an increase in emotional intelligence and empathy—character traits increasingly shown to be wanting in adolescents. And reading also turns out to be a very good way to focus energy and improve concentration.
But if none of the above moves you to pick up a book, then focus on this: readers live longer! ‘Nuff said.
If your attempt at writing a strong college application essay is failing, you very well could be making this major mistake in the drafting process. Fix it and you will give yourself a fighting chance to write an essay that is actually decent. We gave the first reason your college application essay is so bad back in 2016, and it can be found here.
Yale University is experimenting with the role digital media can play in college admissions. Using technology advanced last year by the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success, Yale’s admissions readers in some cases became admissions viewers and experienced what will likely become a third dimension in college admissions—the creative use of media to present the case for admission to a highly selective institution.
Staying on the cutting edge of technology is challenging in any field, but changes in college admissions since the introduction of the electronic application are almost beyond description. Stacks of manila folders tucked into walls of file cabinets have been replaced by application “platforms” configured to align with enrollment management software, which oversees a process that is increasingly data-dependent and data-driven.
And the work has become less cyclical and more continuous as applicants have the luxury of starting applications earlier by entering information that “rolls over” from one year to the next. Marketing begins with the administration of the first PSAT, with even the earliest scores sold to colleges anxious to get their names before potential applicants. There’s hardly a moment to reflect on successes and failures before it’s time to gear up for the next group of recruits turned applicants.
But as almost anyone involved in college admissions would agree, something isn’t quite right with this picture—the entire college admissions process is due for a major overhaul. And a handful of deans and enrollment management experts are ready to try.
“Technology has transformed how we process applications and how we read applications, but not how we create content for these applications,” commented Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale’s dean of undergraduate admission.
Like many others charged with overseeing admissions, Quinlan felt the time had come for Yale to experiment with application content that responded to the pervasiveness and availability of digital media. While the Common Application set the standard, others saw a market ripe for innovation.
“I really felt we needed to make a change. We were looking at more and more essays that felt like they had been written by 47-year olds and not 17-year olds,” said Quinlan. “We thought we needed more material—different material—in the review process.”
Enter the Coalition application. Born out of concern that reliance on a single electronic application was a risky proposition and developed with a view toward attracting a wider, underserved audience, the Coalition application as built by CollegeNet looked for ways to integrate creativity and give colleges the kind of basic flexibility they wanted in an application platform.
“After the fall of 2013, we needed to bring more options into the application space,” Quinlan explained. “We thought giving students a choice of applications would be better for colleges and better for applicants.”
One of over 90 colleges that originally joined the Coalition and 47 that actually launched applications for 2016-17, Yale viewed this as an opportunity to design a substantially different set of application specifications from those contained in the Common Application.
Students applying to Yale could choose to write two additional 200-word essays (beyond the personal statement and other short-answer questions) for the Common Application or they could choose to write one 250-word essay and provide an upload related to that essay on the Coalition application.
While many Coalition members chose to simply replicate requirements laid out on the Common Application, Quinlan decided to offer alternate but not totally different requirements on Yale’s Coalition application. He kept the prompts the same for both applications, but used the Coalition application’s functionality to support links to digital media.
“It was critical to our review process that we not give preference to one application type over another. Our results from the first year bear this out; the rate of admission for students who submitted the Common Application and for students who submitted the Coalition Application were nearly identical.”
Nevertheless, the results were exciting. While only about one percent or 300 of Yale’s applicants used the Coalition application, the advantage of providing students with a choice of how to present themselves was clear. In some cases, the online media helped “separate” a student or verified some element of the application that didn’t come through strongly enough in a recommendation or through a student’s writing.
“We found certain situations, for example, where a video component made a difference—showed examples of kinds of characteristics we’re looking for.”
To illustrate his point, Quinlan talks about an application Yale received from Justin Aubin, an Eagle Scout who lives and attends high school in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. Justin’s recommendations were excellent, and he was an outstanding student. But Yale has lots of those applicants.
What made Justin stand apart was a video his older brother filmed to document the construction of Justin’s Eagle project. In this distinctly amateurish record of decisions made as the work progressed, the Yale admissions office could easily see how Justin managed and supervised younger scouts and how he exhibited compassionate leadership, which inspired respect from the group as a whole.
The additional essay Justin provided put the video in context. But most importantly, he presented information that highlighted and underscored character traits Yale values and wants to bring to campus in the classes they admit. Other information on the application suggested this was possibly the case, but the video nailed it.
Justin Aubin was eventually admitted and will be attending Yale in the fall as a member of the class of 2021. And Quinlan credits Justin’s creative use of digital media—submitting the video—as making the difference
In all fairness, Yale isn’t the first institution to allow videos and other digital media to be submitted as part of an application for admission. Goucher College in Maryland and George Mason University in Virginia and others have video options available through institutional applications.
And it’s not all that unusual for colleges to offer several different application formats with differing requirements. In fact, smaller colleges make clear that their institutional applications are often more popular than the standardized Common Application.
In addition, last year’s applicants could use ZeeMee, an online resume promoted in questions on the Common Application, or SlideRoom—a Common App partner—to provide more visual support for their talents and interests.
But the difference for colleges using the Coalition application was that they could design their own questions and media integration. They didn’t have to rely on a third-party website that might encourage more “freeform” or off-message responses.
Yale’s new application was no more difficult for staff to review than the two-essay Common App version and could be scripted to allow for comparable responses across applicants using either platform. Linking the digital media to an essay prompt was key to the success of the experiment.
“Staff enjoyed doing something else. It was a way to experiment with new ways of interpreting new kinds of application content.”
Quinlan has a great deal of respect for the Common Application and has no interest in changing that relationship, which has worked very well for Yale. But he does want to offer students a choice of application platforms.
“We want the two applications to be different so students can be thoughtful about which they use and what they decide to present to us.”
While he expects to “tweak” the essay prompts offered in the Yale supplement, Quinlan will continue to provide the digital media option in the Coalition application. “We will maintain the two applications for next year with the same set-up.”
And students will be free to choose the application platform that best presents their credentials and makes their case for admission to Yale University.
For the record, the Coalition application will make available new functionality on June 15. And for the coming year, the roster of institutional members will grow to 135. After July 1, colleges can open individual applications according to their own timelines.
Attention rising high school seniors! In the sixth of a series of beachfront advice posts to celebrate summer, learn the beautifully simple way to gain inspiration for the college application essays you should be completing this summer.
Write an essay worthy of getting you into your dream college! Expert college application essay editing is just a click away!
Every year students ask me the same question:
“How long should my Common Application essay be?”
I am never shy about providing them with the response that best summarizes how they need to approach both the Common Application essay and the Common Application in general:
“Go Big or Go Home!”
Despite what the official directions on the Common App indicate, students writing a 250-word essay – the lowest end of the range that is officially acceptable to complete this essay – have a far lower chance of convincing college admissions officers of their admissions-worthiness than students who believe in the maxim, ‘bigger is better.” The official upper limit in acceptable length on the Common App essay is 650 words.
A well-thought out and well-developed essay of any true substance is not only not possible in 250 words, it’s barely possible in 450 words. This is why none of our clients have ever submitted a Common App essay consisting of fewer than 450 words. With that said, the true sweet spot in Common Application essay writing, for this current year’s prompts and prompts going back over a decade, is 500 to 650 words. This was even the case a few years ago when the Common App limited students to a mere 500 words. That experiment lasted for such a short time because colleges were getting such transparently superficial essays that they were a waste of time and effort for students and completely lacking any valuable insight helpful to college admissions officers.
Think of a 500- to 650-word essay as a smooth and enjoyable flight from D.C. to Disney World. In 500 to 650 words students have the space they need to achieve proper cruising altitude: writing a strong introductory paragraph that both grabs readers’ attention and clearly states the essay’s thesis. Next, just as one wants to have an enjoyable in-flight experience with the fasten seatbelt sight off and flight attendants passing out drinks and snacks, so to does a 500- to 650-word essay allow readers to relax a bit. In 500 to 650 words students are able to produce non-rushed, non-turbulent, highly valuable descriptive and specific body paragraphs that go a long way toward proving the essay’s thesis. Finally, landing a plane takes great skill, as does writing a conclusion to a college application essay. It’s not a simple rehash of the lift off (thesis); it should be complementary to it. Students who have 500 to 650 words to work with are able to smoothly touch down in a way that puts the cherry on top of the entire flying/essay reading experience. At the end of the day, admissions officers read your essays because they want to fly the friendly skies with you into your world. 500 to 600 words allows you to give them a proper flying experience and gives you the words necessary to differentiate your world from the world of other applicants.
In order to produce a great final draft essay, your rough drafts should be even longer than 650 words. It’s very common for our clients to create first, second, and third draft essays of nearly 1,000 words. Only through consistent and high quality editing can any essay be ready for submission to colleges and universities, and starting with too few words on initial drafts is a recipe for a puny little final draft essay.
So, the big take-away ideas on the Common App Essay are these:
- Don’t do the minimum because you are officially allowed to do the minimum
- Go big or go home – your final draft should be 500 to 650 words and your first draft should be even longer
- In your final draft, ensure that paragraph transitions are smooth – just as a good pilot and great weather conditions allow a flight to be smooth from lift-off to landing
So, what are you going to be writing about on this year’s Common App? None of the essay prompts are easy, and all require a great deal of time, thought, and drafting before members of the Class of 2020 can confidently hit submit on their applications.
Honestly, I miss the old questions that existed through the 2016-2107 iteration of the Common App. The current questions, which have existed since the 2017-2018 Common App, indicate that the people behind the Common App are less and less interested in reading essays from normal teenagers and more and more interested in pushing teens to appear exceptional, idiosyncratic, or downright eccentric for the purpose of entertaining application readers and putting on a show of some sort of diversity. I would be surprised if many of the admissions officers could portray themselves accurately with these prompts. Yet, this is what students in the Class of 20202 who will apply to Common App colleges and universities have to work this admissions cycle, so they better start brainstorming now.
The 2019-2020 Common Application essay prompts are as follows:
Choose the option below that best helps you write an essay of no more than 650 words.
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Are you ready to start drafting? If you are a member of the Class of 2020, your time to start drafting is now! You should aim to wrap up your Common App essay no later than early August, which will give you plenty of time to draft and perfect your essays for Common Application supplements.
Remember, if you want or need help with any part of your essay brainstorming and drafting, I’m here to help you.
Fans of Janine Robinson and her enormously popular Essay Hell blog will love the latest in her series of practical primers on college essay writing, Essay Hell’s 50 Most Commonly Asked Questions—a crash course on how to write a totally awesome college admissions essay.
In this short—it takes under an hour to read—ebook guide, Robinson has compiled 50 of the questions she’s encountered most frequently in workshops and working individually with students and others on college essay writing. Readers can easily learn the basics of everything from form to content in thumbnail responses provided in the narrative and then expand their knowledge by clicking on links to related posts on the Essay Hell blog. Standing alone, the guide is an easy and direct introduction to college essays. But the combination with more specific and detailed advice in the blog gives a powerful overview of what admissions readers look for and appreciate in essays submitted with college applications.
The guide is broken into five chapters featuring questions on how to find essay topics, the best way to structure essays and how to strike the right tone for the right topics. Sample questions include
Who reads these essays?
What are admissions experts looking for?
Do I need an impressive topic?
Can I write about mental illness, sex, religion, politics, etc.”
Does a college application essay need a title?
How much of a role can parents play in brainstorming and writing the essay?
Robinson’s pioneering approach to college essays is one now shared by many essay coaches. She teaches students how to “tap their real-life stories to illustrate their unique qualities and characteristics, and distinguish themselves from other applicants.” And she is quick to point out that the style and content of these kinds of essays is not for English teachers or grades—they are less formal in nature.
As a bonus, the guide includes a link to six sample essays in the introduction from Robinson’s collection of college application essays, called Heavenly Essays. It also includes a free book offer for readers.
Between now and February 17, Essay Hell’s 50 Most Commonly Asked Questions will be available on Amazon for download free of charge. After that, a free digital copy may be obtained by emailing Janine Robinson at [email protected]. The second offer ends March 1.