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4 Tips To Ace The Common App

by Carol Barash, PhD, on Jul 31, 2014 11:30:00 AM


The Common Application goes live August 1st! With the countdown almost over, here are four keys to acing a version of the 300-pound gorilla of college admissions.

1. Tell your story.

In releasing the fourth version of the Common App (CA4) the committee developing the questions did away with the old set of complex, multi-dimensional essay prompts in order to cut through the aura of complexity that shrouds the Common App, especially the essays, and ask user-friendly questions that are accessible to all. Scott Anderson, Director of Outreach at The Common Application, said in an email releasing the questions that their purpose is to give applicants “the chance to tell their unique stories.”

The new questions are more straightforward and less analytical. This by no means makes them easier to answer, but the questions provide a clue about what admissions officers are looking for: a story that reflects your character.  The first question — Some students have a background or a story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. — and the last question — Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. — clearly ask for a simple and honest story from your own life experience, but no matter which prompt you choose, you should be at the center of your essay.

2. Learn from it!

The Common App teaches vital skills to succeed in college and in life: project management, organization, planning and self-advocacy, just to name a few. Get started early and figure out what methods work best to keep yourself on track. Maybe it’s a big wall-calendar, maybe it’s an iPhone app or a day planner.Use the activities and future plans sections to explore different career paths and extracurricular opportunities. Do research online, talk to friends and community members, and read biographies of people who have chosen different career paths.

Perhaps most importantly, use college app essays as a chance to learn about yourself. Reflect on the key moments that have brought you to today and what you are doing to make a difference now and in the future. Research suggests that students who take this process approach, who prepare to succeed by practicing, do succeed more often than other students.

3. Be specific.

Telling your story doesn’t mean that you should tell your whole life story. Your response to the Common Application essay should focus on individual moments from your life that teach admission officers about your character, not broad experiences that are hard to connect with. Take the time to find all of the smaller stories that you might write about.

When you get to writing and not just the essay, any part of the application be as detailed as possible. Tell what happened in the most straightforward way you can. That means no grandstanding; no tidy morals at the end. The idea is to draw your reader in and share your experience with them. Use specifics, dialogue and description to convey your experience, and trust your reader to get the message.

4. Keep it active.

The fourth of the new Common App essay questionsDescribe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.tempts students down some dangerous paths: “content” suggests stasis; “what do you experience there” encourages passivity, and “meaningful” is perhaps the last word you actually want to use in a college admission essay! Other questions, like the thirdReflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?are more clear in their request for a story about how you acted in a given situation.

No matter the prompt, the response should be all about action. Don’t shift to an analytical essay and argue for your beliefs like you would in English class. There is a huge difference between saying “I believe” and showing your belief in action. If you tell a story about the moment you took action, your reader will get a very clear picture of what they can count on you for. This is one of the most important things admissions officers are trying to ascertain. What will you do when confronted with new situations? How will you act?

Have more questions? Check out our Guide to The Common App and tips for answering each essay prompt here.

Topics:college admission