Student on computer thinking.jpg

What is the Most Common Mistake on the Common App Essay?

As the expression goes, if I had a dollar for every time one of my students was asked by their parent to change their Common Application essay because it did not do enough to promote their extracurricular activities or GPA, I would have, well, a lot of dollars. So, parents, please accept this polite admonishment: the Common Application personal narrative is not an extension of the activities list or transcript. It is an opportunity to provide insights into a student’s character, interests, influences, resilience, and/or motivations. Yet so many parents feel that their sons and daughters have not done enough to promote the hundreds of hours that they have dedicated to extracurricular activities or earning high grades. As a result, they give extremely bad advice about how to respond to the Common Application prompts. The truth is that the transcript, honors section, and activity section are where these accomplishments belong.

College admission committees are very adept at pulling out the information that they need to make informed admission decisions. They do not need you to repeat the same information two or three times. What they do need from the Common Application essay is what they cannot get in other places: personal insights. One of the worst things you can do is to squander the opportunity to provide invaluable information about your character to add an exclamation point to information you already provided in other parts of the application.

So, what are some examples of poor decisions on Common Application essays? Here are just a few:

1. Use the SAT as an example of an “obstacle” that a student faced and was able to overcome.

2. Discuss the difficulty of finding an internship until you persevered enough and eventually found a great one.

3. Cite your amazing GPA as an example of a talent that is so meaningful that your application would be incomplete without it.

4. Discuss a summer activity without including information about how it changed you, or how it taught you a lesson.

Of course, discussing an activity can also be very effective if you focus on what is inherently important about it: What did you learn from it? How did it change you? How did it provide you with a period of personal growth or a new understanding of yourself? Why were you so captivated by it? Why do you believe it is an important component of your personal identity? How did you use it to turn a weakness into a strength? How did you turn a failure into success?

In the brief time the colleges must learn as much as possible about you, they are seeking information about who you are as a student and also as a person. They would like to know what motivates you, how you think and respond to challenges, the extent to which you take advantage of the opportunities you are given, what kind of community member you will be, and how you will contribute to the greater good of the college and the world. Furthermore, they would like to hear your voice. This is the greatest benefit of the Common Application essay. It is your opportunity to give colleges additional insights into who you are as a person. Don’t squander the opportunity away simply because someone else tells you that the only things that are worth knowing about you are your test scores, your GPA, and your activities.