The Four Ingredients of a Great Common App Essay

Make sure you take the time to "tell your story"

The Four Ingredients of a Great Common App Essay

What are colleges looking for? This is the question that torments every prospective college student who sits down to write a college admissions essay.

Put simply, colleges want to get to know you – not just your grades or where you come from or what your background is, but what makes you tick, what drives you, what your passions are. If your GPA and standardized test scores are what gets you in the door, your essay is your sales pitch – your two-minute elevator speech designed to convince colleges you have something unique to offer. It’s what distinguishes you from other prospective students with similar grades and extracurriculars.

You can’t afford to waste the opportunity: A well thought out essay can be the difference between acceptance and rejection and may even be a factor in scholarship decisions. Students who disregard the importance of a powerful essay do so at their own peril.

So what makes an essay great? I’ve worked with many college students over the past several years, advising them as to how to craft an ideal essay that tells their personal story. Below are the four essential ingredients of a successful essay.

1. Demonstrate a strong command of the English language, avoid grammatical errors, and use appropriate vocabulary.

This should really go without saying, of course, but it’s important that you know your “your”s from your “you’re”s, place commas in their correct positions, and maintain proper sentence structure. Even if you intend to be an engineering major, colleges are going to want to see that you understand basic grammar and can communicate well. Careless writing is indicative of a careless personality. That’s why it’s important to repeatedly proof-read your essay to make certain that it’s completely error-free.

It also helps to demonstrate a healthy vocabulary. Adjectives like “big” and “bad” might work for describing Red Riding Hood’s lupine nemesis, but they should be avoided in your essay. Remember: you’re an adult now, and you have to start speaking and writing like one. Equally important, though, is to make sure not to overdo it: Antidisestablishmentarianism might be a fun word to try and say, but it too does not belong in your essay. Misusing a vocabulary word is one of the worst mistakes students make. You want to speak in clear, concise way that tells your story and gets your point across. You also don’t want to use cliché terms or exaggerate: not every experience you’ve had can accurately be described as “tremendous,” “incredible,” or “life-changing.”

2. Show your knowledge – without bragging.

Colleges are looking for well-rounded individuals who have exhibited a general curiosity about the world. In talking about what motivates you, also discuss your journey. Let them know, perhaps, what books you’ve read and how they’ve influenced you, or what cultural or life experiences you’ve had. That’s not to say that you should name-drop every classic work of literature you’ve encountered or every scientist you’ve ever met. And you certainly shouldn’t simply restate what can already be found in your activities list. Keep in mind: you’re telling a story, a narrative essay that will illustrate your character and explain what motivates you.

Colleges want to see that you’re looking to attend a university for the right reasons – not just because mom and dad told you to or you don’t know what else to do with yourself – not even because you’re looking for the security of a steady job. What colleges want to see is genuine curiosity. They want to hear about your intellectual journey so that they can decide whether you’re someone who will add to the community and look to expand your intellectual horizons – a proactive learner – or if you’re someone who takes a backseat and lets others do the driving.

“In school I read Lord of the Flies and found it very interesting. I’ve also read some books by Aldous Huxley and a book about Gandhi.” (No!)
“My investigations into Surrealism led me to question my own perceptions and the world around me. I took up the writings of Aldous Huxley, Ken Kesey, Philip K. Dick, and others, and began asking existential questions and wondering about the nature of the human condition.” (Yes!)
The first paragraph is directionless and comes off as pure boasting. The second paragraph, on the other hand, cites literature in order to advance a narrative about the student’s personal intellectual journey; that is the correct way to show off what you know. I tell my students to keep in mind the oxymoron, “Brag humbly”: show what you know, but without sounding like a show-off.


“I attended a summer course at Cornell on bioengineering. It was truly fascinating!” (Ho-hum)
“My interest in stem cell research and the CRISPR technique pioneered by UC-Berkeley’s Jennifer Doudna and her team led me to apply to Cornell’s summer course on bioengineering….” (Yes!)
The point is to demonstrate your knowledge rather than simply list out your credentials. Any books, courses, experiences, et cetera, that you mention, should all serve to advance your overall narrative.

3. Show some introspection.

In addition to knowledge about the world, colleges want to see that you have the ability to self-reflect. Let them know that you understand your place in the universe – that you’ve come a long way, but that you still have a great deal to learn and experience. A truly wise person knows that they don’t know everything, and that real learning requires a sense of humility. Try to demonstrate a sincere appreciation for the world around you.

4. Have direction.

What do you want to get out of college? Why are you going? Talk a bit about your own expectations. What can college do for you? If you already know what you want to do in life, great! – talk about it. If not (and that’s perfectly fine), talk about being confronted and challenged, about learning to question your preconceived notions and expand your horizons. Your intellectual journey shouldn’t have an end, but it should have a goal. How will college help you reach that goal? This is a question you should be able to answer if you’re going to spend tens of thousands of dollars and the next four years of your life pursuing a degree. You can be humble, recognize your place in the universe, and yet also believe in the power of one to bring about change.

In the end, what’s most important is that you have a good story to tell. The Common App is the colleges’ way of asking, “What’s your story?” And so make it a story. You may not have escaped war-torn Sudan or journeyed on foot across the Rockies, but, somewhere inside of you, you have a story to tell. Find that story and share it. You’ve got a captive audience and just a few minutes of their time to make them like and understand you. Now is the time to dig deep and expose your thoughts and dreams.

By Ross Rosenfeld. Ross is the owner of Ross Tutoring and has written for numerous publications including The Hill, the Daily News, Newsday, the Long Island Pulse, Newsweek, and Charles Scribner's.


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