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How to Write College Essays 6 Grammar Rules You Should Break


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6 Grammar Rules You Should Break When You’re Writing Your College Essay

How to Write College Essays 6 Grammar Rules You Should BreakThe other day I told one of my students she could use contractions in her college application essay.

“You can do that?” she asked. “I’ve always been told not to use contractions.”

Like my student, you’ve probably been given a list of grammar rules to follow when you’re writing an English paper. But here’s the catch:

Your college essay isn’t an English paper. You’re telling a story. You’re writing in your own voice. You’ve got creative leeway.

Now to be fair, grammar rules are important. They help us clearly express what we want to say. They allow us to reach our reader in an effective way.

But it’s a big, creative world out there.

Look at me, for example. I wrote dialogue for soap operas. My characters didn’t avoid slang or contractions. If I wanted them to say, “Are you friggin’ kidding me, Alice? I’m outta here! I’m getting a divorce!”—they said that. I love how words sound and how I can combine them to make an impact. This is my style. The college essay is your style.

College Essay Writing Help 5 Grammar Rules You Should BreakSo welcome, creative traveler! You’ve landed in the territory of self-expression. This is where you get to tell your story. And to do that, I’m going to suggest you break a few rules.

6 Grammar Rules You Can Break While You’re Writing a Great College Essay:

1. Don’t  Use Contractions. Your essay should sound like you’re telling a story. It should be in a conversational tone. We all speak in contractions, so go ahead and use them. (Although, I avoid “would’ve” and “should’ve” because I think they’re too casual for college essays.)

2. Don’t  Use Sentence Fragments. Surprise! You might actually want to use a sentence fragment in your essay. A sentence fragment is short, so it’s like putting an exclamation mark on an idea. Think about using one when you want to emphasize a point. Here are three examples of sentence fragments:

I needed to find a new way to study. Because mine wasn’t working out.

The mountain was the tallest I’d ever seen. Which is why I knew I had to climb it

I finally remembered the answer. After the test had ended.

3. Don’t You Can Start Sentences With And, But and OrWant to start a sentence with a conjunction? Go ahead. In fact, you’ll be in good company. Here’s a quote from the Chicago Manual of Style, a guide that’s widely used in publishing:

“There is a widespread belief—one with no historical or grammatical foundation—that it is an error to begin a sentence with a conjunction such as and, but or so. In fact, a substantial percentage (often as many as 10 percent) of the sentences in first-rate writing begin with conjunctions. It has been so for centuries, and even the most conservative grammarians have followed this practice.”

4. Don’t End sentences with a preposition. We’ve been taught not to end sentences with prepositions, so we re-write our ideas to conform to this rule. For instance, when we want to say, “What space did you park the car in?” we change it to, “In which space did you park the car?”

This type of change often makes a sentence sound more formal. College application essays, though, should be more conversational, and that’s why ending sentences with prepositions is okay.

5. Don’t Use I. You probably know you should use “I” when you write your college essays. But it’s not always easy to write in the first person, especially if you’ve been taught not to voice your personal opinion. It can feel uncomfortable to make that transition.

How to write college application essay use I Are there places you disappear from your story?

You can disappear from your story if you write in the third person. For example, if you write, “A change in study habits was needed,” you’ve taken yourself out of the sentence. It feels like you’re a distant commentator, the outsider looking in. Put yourself back in your story. Use I. Instead, of saying, “A change in study habits was needed,” say, “I decided that I needed to change my study habits.” And don’t be haunted by the third person.

6. No one-sentence paragraphs. One-sentence paragraphs can be amazing.

Toss the notion that all your paragraphs have to be at least three to five sentences. Sure, some paragraphs will be that long. But if a one-sentence paragraph will make your point, provide a transition, or be part of your creative flow, go for it. Don’t go overboard—you’re not writing a poem—but if it works with the rest of your essay, one-sentence paragraphs can do amazing things.

So, traveler, you’ve arrived in the territory of self-expression. You’ve traveled here to tell your story. You’ll still follow some important grammar rules: you’ll use descriptive words, choose the active voice, and make sure your subject agrees with your verb. But it’s time to stretch those creative limbs. And if you’re still not sure breaking these grammar rules is the right way to go, just open up one of your favorite books, by any good author, and read a few paragraphs. Some grammar rules are meant to be broken. So go right ahead.

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sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

 

How to Write Common Application Essays 1-7


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How to Write the Common Application Essay Prompts 1-7

How to Write Common Application Essays 1-7Looking for expert guidance on how to write your Common Application essay?

Need help choosing a prompt, or knowing that the prompt you’ve chosen is right for you?

Then read on!

This is my 2018 series on How to Write the Common Application Essays.  In it, you’ll find professional guidance, tips and techniques to write your best Common Application Essay. I include examples of successful essay topics, too.

My goal is to help you find YOUR story. Because everyone has a story to tell.

Let’s Start with Common Application Essay Basics:

  • The 2018 Common Application has seven prompts. You answer one of them.
  • The Common App essay must be between 250-650 words.
  • You can’t upload more than 650 words.
  • Not every school accepts the Common Application, so check every college on your list for its essay requirements.
  • Click here for the entire list of 2018 Common App essay prompts.

“Ugh. Why Do I Have To Write This Essay???”

Common Application essay instructionsGreat Question. Your essay tells the schools something you want them to know about you apart from your courses, grades, and test scores. It’s your opportunity to write about something you care about and has meaning to you. It establishes a personal connection and helps you stand out from the crowd.

Below Are The Links to The Entire “How to Write” Series. You’ll see I’ve written individual posts for each Common App prompt. In each post, you’ll learn about that particular prompt and the keywords, the “do’s and don’ts” of writing that essay, and reasons for why that prompt might be right for you. I also analyze essays written by students so you can see what succeeds (or doesn’t). Here are the links:

Remember—my goal is to help you find YOUR story. Because you’ve got a story to tell.

I hope you’ll like my Facebook page or leave a comment for me here. I love inspiration!

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

How to Write Common Application Essay 7 topic of your choice


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 7: Topic of Your Choice

How to Write Common Application Essay 7 topic of your choiceWhich Common Application prompt should you choose? In this seven-part series I’ve been helping you answer that question. We’ve come to the final prompt. (Phew!)

For the complete list of 2018 Common Application essay questions click here.

Ready for #7? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #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.

Is this Prompt for You? Answer Yes IF:

  • The other prompts don’t speak to you.
  • You’re inspired by another school’s prompt.
  • You want to ask and answer your own question.
  • You’ve already written an essay that showcases you as an excellent college candidate.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Don’t Stress Over this Prompt. This prompt is meant to reduce your stress, not add to it, says Scott Anderson at The Common Application. Anderson adds, “Topic of your choice doesn’t mean default choice.” If the prompt feels too unstructured use one of the other prompts.
  • Don’t Submit Less Than Your Best. If you’re submitting an essay you’ve already written, make sure it’s well written and showcases you as an excellent potential college student.
  • Don’t Forget the Fundamentals. Prompt #7 doesn’t provide as much guidance as some of the other prompts. So this a good time to recap what schools look for in a Common Application essay:
    • Your writing skills
    • Your ability to communicate your ideas.
    • Your personality – what makes you laugh, think, hope, dream, care. In other words, what’s meaningful to you and why.
    • Schools like to see how you think, so show them that process.
    • Most of the best essays don’t have nice, easy stories. They’ve got an obstacle thrown in your path, a problem you need to solve, a decision you have to make, a realization you came to, or some other circumstance that’s helped shape you into who you are.
    • Essays include reflection—you need to be able to take a step back from your experience to understand how it’s shaped you and/or your goals.

Example of Successful Essay Topic

I had a student, James, who loved the novel The Stranger, by Albert Camus. The title character, Meursault, is estranged from the world, indifferent to society and unaffected by feelings.

So James wrote an essay in which he has a conversation with Meursault. In it, he counters Meursault’s view on the world. Instead of being unaffected, James tells Meursault that he attempts to live a purposeful life. He tries things for pleasure, like teaching himself to cook, because trying and learning give him a better understanding of the world. He tells Meursault about the joy of learning music. He talks about how he designed his own science experiments, and how he learned that, if you soak chicken bones in hydrochloric acid, they’ll bend at 45 degrees without breaking. No information is useless, James stresses to Meursault. At the end of the essay, he tells Meursault that he will always be glad he’s forged his own path and that (unlike Meursault) he has lived life to the fullest.

Why Does this Essay Succeed?

This topic didn’t fit into any of the other prompts, so prompt #7 was the natural choice.

James uses the conversation to show how he’s the opposite of Meursault—he cares, he’s involved, he’s eclectic, he’s engaged. The reader gets a clear sense of his personality, his intellectual curiosity, and his zest for life. It’s creative and original. These are all qualities colleges will like to see.

A Word in Support of Some of My Favorite Prompts from the University of Chicago:

If you’re still looking for essay inspiration, check out the University of Chicago’s essay prompts. UChicago prides itself on uncommon, fun essay questions. They encourage thought and reflection. And they always bring to light interesting aspects of the writer that might otherwise remain hidden. You might decide to answer one for the Common App or invent one of your own. Read the ones I’ve listed below to see how, with a little imagination, you can create your own question and let your imagination and personality fly.

A Sampling of UChicago prompts:

  • Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
  • History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
  • How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
  • Chicago author Nelson Algren said, “A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street.”…Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.
  • “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.”—Miles Davis (1926–91)
  • Susan Sontag said, “The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions.” We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
  • Click here to read more UChicago prompts.

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sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into creative and memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Read the entire “How to Write” series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

How to Write Common Application Essay 6 what makes you lose track of time


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 6: Makes You Lose All Track of Time

How to Write Common Application Essay 6 what makes you lose track of time

You’re writing a Common Application essay.

Which prompt do you answer?

In this 7-part series I’m helping you discover which Common Application essay prompt is right for you.

For the complete list of 2018 Common App essay questions click here.

Ready for #6? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #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?

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Topic, Idea or Concept”…”Lose All Track of Time”…”Why”…”What or Who Do You Turn To”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

  • “Topic, Idea, or Concept” is a very broad phrase. That’s good! It means you can choose almost anything, large or small.
  • “Lose All Track of Time” is self-explanatory. You’ve found yourself so engrossed in something that you didn’t realize how much time had passed.
  • “Why Does it Captivate You?” The key word here is why. You need to figure out why this topic is so engaging, exciting, or thought provoking for you.
  • “What or Who Do You Turn To When You Want to Learn More?” This refers to your independent learning—the times you collect information on your own. You might have asked a teacher, searched Google, read books, watched videos, etc.

What Can Colleges Learn About You From This Question?

  • You’re curious. When something intrigues you, you don’t just sit there—you do something.
  • You’re resourceful. You seek out new sources of information.
  • You’re independent. You’ve directed your own learning.
  • Colleges can picture you being an independent, curious learner at college.
  • Colleges can learn about something that’s meaningful to you.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • This Question Has 3 Parts—Don’t Leave Any Out. They are: 1. Topic, idea, or concept; 2. Why it captivates you; 3. Who or what you turn to when you want to learn more.
  • Don’t Shortchange “Why.” Discussing “why” is one of the most important things you can do in an essay. Through why, schools learn about you. They see how you think, what you care about, or what concerns you. After you’ve written your draft, read it again and ask yourself if you’ve explored all the reasons “why.”
  • Avoid the Boring Trap!

how to write Common App essay 6To me, this essay prompt is missing something — it doesn’t ask you to look for that little bit of grit in your story. Most of the best essays have some grit – they’ve got an obstacle thrown in someone’s path, a problem to solve, a decision that must be made. Grit makes your story more interesting. It uncovers more of you.

So when you’re writing this essay, find that time you had to think a little harder, become a little more self-reliant, make a decision, or solve a problem. You’ll make your essay more interesting, and avoid the boring trap.

Example of Successful Essay Topic

“The Artist”

Joanne is a an artist. She drew before she could talk. When she’s painting, Joanna loses all track of time. Art gives Joanne an expressive outlet for her thoughts and imagination and it’s helped her develop her sense of personal expression. She tries to interpret her world through her choice of colors, shapes, and setting.

In elementary school, Joanne’s teacher didn’t like her drawings of people and told her she had to draw them with the right number of fingers and toes. For a while, she did it the teacher’s way. But then she decided she didn’t have to be like anyone else and she’s been drawing her way ever since.

In her essay, Joanne wrote that she’s been influenced by two painters who use color and shapes in different ways: Grandma Moses and Georgia O’Keefe. She looks carefully at how they portray their worlds. That gives Joanne ideas about how she can find original ways to interpret hers.

Whenever she can, Joanne takes art classes at the Art Barn down the street. She reads about her favorite painters and she’s learning about new ones. Next, Joanne says, she’s going to experiment with clay. She’s not sure what she’ll be creating or what she’ll learn about herself in the process, but she can’t wait to get started.

Why This Topic Succeeds

  • All the keywords are addressed. She identifies what makes her lose track of time, discusses why it captivates her, and says what she does when she wants to learn more. 
  • She doesn’t shortchange “why.” She digs deep to say why art captivates her.
  • She avoids the boring trap. Joanne’s elementary school story is important because it was a roadblock. It made her look inward and examine her relationship to art, something she continues to do. By including this story, Joanne added that little bit of grit—this is a young lady who decided at an early age that she’s going to follow her own path.

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Next: How to Write Common App Prompt #7

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into creative and memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Read the entire “How To Write” series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

How to Write Common Application essay 5 accomplishment event or realization


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 5: Accomplishment, Event or Realization

How to Write Common Application essay 5 accomplishment event or realizationThe Common Application essay prompts are out.

Which question should you choose?

In this 7-part series you’ll discover which Common Application essay prompt is right for you.

You’ll learn how to think about each question and what pitfalls to avoid. I’ll give you essay examples, too.

For the complete list of 2018 Common App essay prompts click here.

Ready for prompt #5? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #5

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Accomplishment, Event, or Realization”…”Personal Growth”…”New Understanding of Yourself or Others”

Do The Keywords Apply To You?

  • “Accomplishment, event or realization” is a broad phrase. That’s good! It means you can choose almost anything, large or small, that you experienced, accomplished or realized.
  • “A Period of Personal Growth” is when this occurred. It’s also the process of what was changing inside of you.
  • “A new understanding of yourself or others” is your learning experience. It’s what you learned and how your perspective changed. When you’re writing this section think about how your experience shaped your attitude, outlook or actions, and how it helped you become the person you are today.

Why Should You Consider This Question?
Colleges Can Learn About:

  • Your maturity
  • Your ability to develop relationships within your family or community.
  • Your insight—you can take a step back and reflect on how an experience shaped you.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • Answer the Entire Question. This question has three parts: 1. Describe your accomplishment, event or realization 2. Explain your period of personal growth 3. Reflect on your new understanding of yourself and others. You must answer all three parts.

  • Avoid Being Superficial. Dig deep for your learning experience. It’s a key way you can differentiate yourself and your essay.

how to write college essaysExample of How to Dig Deeper: My student, Alex, wrote about being a tutor. He said his new understanding about himself was that he liked to help people. While this was true, it was also superficial. Lots of students like to help people. And what did the reader truly learn about him? Not enough.

So I asked him to write out a list of words that showed the positive results of helping people, and then choose one to focus on (he could have chosen more). He chose “potential.” In his revised draft, instead of saying he “liked to help people,” he wrote about how he came to understand how much he enjoyed helping people achieve their potential, and how tutoring helped him realize his own potential as well. Alex dug deeper for his learning experience, and found a way to differentiate his essay.

Still Not Sure This is Your Topic?
Here are Questions You Can Ask Yourself:

  • Did you have an experience that helped you become more compassionate or understanding?
  • Did you have the opportunity to teach younger students and found that you grew or matured in the process?
  • Did you have a life event that forced you to take on more responsibility?
  • Did you start your own business or volunteer program, and in the process became more understanding of your community, or your own responsibilities or actions?
  • Did you undertake a task, trip, or adventure that helped you mature and understand yourself better?

Example of a Successful Essay Topic

On the Flip Side

Paige was a successful competitive gymnast until she got injured and couldn’t compete. She felt lost; so much of her identity was being a gymnast.  A few months later she started volunteering as a coach of the Special Olympics gymnastics team in her town. Paige made practices fun. She taught her team exercises and developed routines. But most of all, Paige taught her athletes that it didn’t matter if they won or lost, as long as they competed as a team. The team lost at state competition, but they supported each other. To Paige, that was a win.

During her experience, Paige found herself growing as a coach and mentor. She discovered that as a teacher she was capable of making sports a positive experience for others. In her essay she wrote that working with her athletes changed her; as she instilled confidence in them, they did the same thing for her. Paige also realized something fundamental about herself—it was important to her that everyone, no matter his or her differences, gets the chance to win, lose and compete. While Paige isn’t sure of her career plans, she knows she wants to continue to work with people, and support them so they can achieve their best.

Why is This Topic Successful?
All the Keywords are Addressed.

  • Paige became a Special Olympics coach and trained her team for state competition—an event or accomplishment.
  • It sparked a period of personal growth—she developed as a coach, teacher and role model for her team.
  • She ended with a new, more mature understanding of herself—she realized that she didn’t have to be a gymnast to feel accomplished, and that it was even more fulfilling to use her skills to help others, which is what she plans to do.
  • She ended with a new understanding of others—working with her Special Olympians helped her realize how important it is that everybody be given the opportunity to win, lose and compete, no matter their differences. This understanding helped shape her future.

Tip: While Paige ended up with a new understanding of herself AND others, the prompt asks for a new understanding of yourself OR others. So, if you don’t have an experience that applies to both, you’re still good.

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Next: How to Write Common App essay 6

 

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into creative and memorable college application essays. I work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Read the entire “How to Write” series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: An Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

How to Write Common Application Essay 4 Problem You Solved or Would Like to Solve


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How to Write Common Application Essay 4: Problem You Solved or Would Like to Solve

How to Write Common Application Essay 4 Problem You Solved or Would Like to Solve

Are you looking for college essay help?

Do you want to find your best college essay topic, or learn which Common Application prompt is right for you?

Would you like to write a creative and memorable essay?

You’ve come to right place. This is my series on the 2018 Common Application essay prompts. In this post, you’ll learn about Common Application Prompt 4 and discover if it’s right for you.

Ready? Let’s do it!

Common Application Prompt 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.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Problem you’ve solved or would like to solve”“Personal importance”“No matter the scale”…”Steps you took or could be taken”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF:

  • You’ve identified a problem with meaning and importance to you.
  • You’ve actively worked on a solution – OR – Although you haven’t taken any steps, you have an idea what steps are necessary to find a solution.

Why Should You Consider This Topic?

  • It’s the chance to write about a meaningful idea or experience.
  • You can show off your problem-solving skills.
  • You can show off your critical thinking skills.
  • Colleges love to see how you think. This question lets you show them how you’d plan a course of action to achieve a goal.
    how to write 2013 common app essayPitfalls to Avoid: 
  • Answer the Entire Question. The question has four parts: Describe a problem, explain its significance to you, identify a solution, and describe either how you achieved it or might begin to achieve it. You must answer all four parts.
  • The Problem Isn’t Meaningful Enough to You. You could write about lobbying for longer lunch periods, but so what? Make sure the problem you’re writing about matters to you.
  • Don‘t be Generic. The prompt says you can write about anything “no matter the scale.” But even a large-scale topic needs to be of personal significance. Sure, you could write about world peace—but can you demonstrate your passion and connection? Or will you be writing phrases like, “Everyone should get along” and “Peace will help save the world”? Be specific about how a topic has touched you or means something to you. That’s the only way your personality will land squarely on the page.
  • Don’t Skimp on the Solution. If your essay spends most of its time describing the problem and only a couple of sentences on achieving a solution, then it’s unbalanced. Make sure to devote space to discussing your solution. This should include your thought process—what you’re thinking, why you’re thinking it, and the decisions that result. You’re showing colleges what kind of critical thinker and problem solver you’ll be at college. Show them you’ll be a darn good one.
  • You Don’t Have to Solve The Problem Alone. You may require a team or teams of people with specific skills to achieve your goal. That’s okay. Write about who they are (scientists,  politicians, researchers..?) and what they’ll contribute. Part of your problem-solving process is to figure out what support you’ll need.

Not Sure This Question Relates to You?
Here Are Questions You Can Ask Yourself:

  • Are you a budding scientist with research ideas?
  • Do you have an idea for a product that solves a problem?
  • Have you figured out a way to make everyday life a little easier?
  • Were you ever creative or resourceful when it came to solving a common problem?
  • Have you been involved with a group, program, or internship where you’ve learned about a problem that became important to you, and now you have ideas about how you can continue to think about or work on it?

Examples of Successful Essay Topics

Brain Farts

Jeremy was driving home and missed the turn down his street. He was stumped. He couldn’t figure out why he’d missed doing something he had done a hundred times. He wanted to know what caused his “brain fart,” so he found the scientific name (maladaptive change) and developed a two-part experiment to identify and predict when these changes would occur. Jeremy hopes to get the chance to conduct his experiment when he gets to college. In this essay, he was able to demonstrate his scientific mind and problem-solving skills.

Water Pollution Detective

During a school research project, Liz helped identify the source of pollution flowing into a local river. Helping her community meant a lot to her, and she wanted to do more. So now Liz plans to contact local authorities and work with them to set up a better monitoring system to prevent future spills. She hasn’t implemented the solution yet, but can explain the steps she’d take.

Saving the Crops

Lily, a student from China, witnessed locusts destroy her entire community’s harvest. Lily reasoned that if scientists could understand more about insect life cycles, they might be able to save crops and even combat hunger. To work on the problem, she plans to set up a research project in college. The project will use mathematical applications to more accurately predict the insects’ life cycle. Lily dreamed big, but at the same time her story was specific: She had a personal connection and a passion for solving a large-scale problem.

Interested in Common App essay #4? Include your decision-making process. Explain how you came up with (or would come up with) a possible solution (Research? Thought? Talking to people?). Make sure you explain why this topic is meaningful to you. And write a great problem-solving essay.

Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #5.

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sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into creative and memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.

Read the entire “How to Write” series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Talent, Identity, or Interest
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: The Lessons We Take From Obstacles
How to Write Common App Prompt #3: Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea
How to Write Common App Prompt #4: A Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve
How to Write Common App Prompt #5: Accomplishment, Event, or Realization
How to Write Common App Prompt #6: Topic, Idea or Concept that Makes You Lose Track of Time
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice