The Common Application Prompts: Number 1

By Ryan Hickey + updated on November 24th, 2009

Over the next few days, the EssayEdge blog will feature a series of posts on the most common essay prompts faced by students applying to an undergraduate institution. I’m talking, of course, about the prompts on the 2009 Common Application. We’ll examine one prompt in each post starting today.

First, though, a bit of general information. The Common App offers a choice of six different essay prompts, a number that is misleading. In reality, there are an infinite number of possible prompts because the sixth prompt says simply, “Topic of your choice.”

When preparing to write your Common App essay, pay close attention to the general instructions. The Common App prompts are fairly unique in that they specify a minimum length rather than a maximum length. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that your essay has to be 250 words or shorter when in reality it needs to be at least 250 words.

Though the Common App does not set a maximum word count, you shouldn’t take that as license to write for pages and pages. This is still an application essay and it thus needs to be effective without droning on. Your application packet will be thick enough without several added pages of text. I suggest that rather than agonizing over specific word count, you aim to write an essay that fits neatly on one single-spaced page using 12-point Times New Roman font, regardless of which topic you choose.

Now, today’s focus: prompt number one.

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

This may seem specific on the surface, but in reality it’s quite vague. Let’s see if I can phrase it in a clearer way. “Tell us about something important that happened to you.” At its most basic level, this prompt asks you to tell a story. Beyond simply describing that event, though, you also need to explain why it is important; essentially, you need to tell them why it’s worth writing about in an essay like this.

So what should you write about? That’s hard to say, as the answer will be different for each applicant. Based on experience, I can point out a few subjects that are fairly clichéd and overdone. You probably want to avoid topics of this sort if you can:

-         The state/county championship XXX game/race (sporting event)

-         A difficult high school class that required you to work hard

-         The death of a friend/family member

-         Receiving a bad grade or losing a sporting event, and then working to overcome that setback

-         Having some experience in the medical field and then deciding to become a doctor

-         “I didn’t think I could do it, but I did it”-type stories

Essays based on subjects like those are fairly common here at EssayEdge. That doesn’t mean that it’s impossible to write a good essay using one of these stories, though. It simply means that if you do decide to write an essay about scoring the winning goal or your grandfather’s death, you need to pay particular attention to making your essay stand out from the crowd.

To make your essay stand out, you need to do two things: narrate/describe the event in a captivating and active manner, and give the story a point. Both are equally important.

With regard to the first point, check out the posts from November 10th and November 19th, which provide tips on effectively writing about an event or experience and adding description to your writing.

As for the second, ask yourself the following questions: why did you choose to write about this event above all others? Why is this something you want the admissions committee to know about? Even if you write about an extremely interesting experience and you relate that experience in a compelling way, the essay will not succeed if you don’t tell the admissions committee how the specific event you’ve written about connects to you in broader sense. Perhaps it illustrates a personality trait. Maybe it shows how you’re different from your peers. It could show how you achieve success or deal with failure. It might even represent a turning point of some sort in your life. Whatever the case may be, without an explanation of how the event has affected you, your essay will be nothing more than a story.

If you’re struggling to come up with the right words to describe your “significant experience” or your explanation of how that event affected you is a bit fuzzy, an EssayEdge editor can help. We specialize in providing guidance that will ensure your essay says precisely what you need it to say. Our Premium Editing Service includes a detailed edit, an in-depth critique, and the chance to ask follow-up questions of your editor. Moreover, if there’s something specific you want the editor to address, simply note that with your order. We’ll be sure to pay particular attention to that aspect of your essay.

If you’ve chosen to write on this topic, good luck; if you’re planning to write on one of the other Common App options, check back soon for advice on the other five prompts!

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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2 Responses to “The Common Application Prompts: Number 1”

  1. Cristina Felicetta says:

    Do you think writing about a volunteer experience is too over used?

  2. Ryan Hickey says:

    Hi Cristina!

    Writing about a volunteer experience, while common, is not necessarily overused. The key is to emphasize the unique aspects of your particular volunteer experience. It’s not enough to simply say that you volunteered doing X activity, and learned a lot about helping people, the plight of the disadvantaged, or some other high-level concept. Instead, share vivid details of your activity – what you did, the people you met, how everything affected you – and then explain why all of that was important to your growth in some way as a person. It may even be best to focus on a single person, moment, or activity rather than trying to capture the entirety of the experience if possible. That way, you are able to really get into details without worrying about squeezing everything into an essay that can’t be too long.

    Hope that helps – thanks!


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