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How to Write Common Application Essay 2 lessons we take from obstacles


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 2: Lessons We Take From Obstacles

How to Write Common Application Essay 2 lessons we take from obstaclesHave you ever faced an obstacle and had to figure out how to get through it? Did you succeed—or maybe not?

Have you ever failed at something? I mean really tanked.

Did you learn from your experience?

Then Common Application Essay prompt #2 may be for you.

This is the second in my series on how to write the 2018 Common Application essay prompts.  In this post, you’ll discover how to approach Common Application Essay prompt 2 and decide if it’s right for you.

Are you ready? Here we go…

Common Application Essay Prompt #2:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay
“Obstacles”…”Lessons”…”Challenge”…”Setback”…
“Failure”…”Affect you”…”Learn”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF

  • You tried something and failed, took a risk that didn’t pay off, made a decision that turned out to be faulty, achieved something you weren’t sure you could do, figured out a way to succeed without enough resources, persevered in the face of difficult circumstances.
  • AND you learned from your experience.
  • AND you can reflect on how it affected you.

how to write 2013 common app essayPitfalls to Avoid:

  • This question has three parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: Your experience, how it affected you, and what positive lessons you learned.
  • Don’t wallow in the obstacle. It’s not the obstacle that’s important. Colleges are looking for how you responded and what you learned. Don’t spend too much space on what happened. Mention it and move on.
  • Avoid writing about a bad grade or marking period. Lots of students have a bad grade or marking period. If you write about it, the risk is that your essay will sound like a lot of others. (“I worked hard and learned that I could persevere.”) Remember: If your gut says it’s a common topic, sounds boring, or doesn’t differentiate you from other applicants, then choose something else to write about.

Tip: Failure isn’t the only option. Some students think this question is only about failure. It’s not. That’s why the prompt includes the keywords “obstacle,” “challenge,” and “setback.” Your experience doesn’t have to rise to the level of failure for you to write about it. And you certainly don’t have to try and manipulate a setback or challenge to make it sound like one.

Successful Essay Topic Example:

“Snowbound Night”

When he was 15, Andrew started a snowplow business using an ATV he had purchased. But the ATV wasn’t good at plowing deep snow. Andrew knew that, and would plow out his customers two or three times during a big snowfall. But one night his alarm didn’t wake him up, and by morning there were eight inches of snow on the ground. When Andrew started to move the ATV, it got stuck in his driveway. He knew his customers were counting on him, so he worked all night to shovel out the ATV, and plowed out his customers just in time for them to get to work.

After that experience, Andrew realized he needed to upgrade his equipment so he could serve his customers better. Eventually, Andrew traded his ATV for a truck with a plow, which in turn made his business more successful. Now he would like to pursue a business career.

Why this Topic Succeeds:

•    All the keywords are addressed. Andrew told his story, examined how his failure affected him, and then wrote about the positive lessons he learned.
•    It also shows he has good character. He didn’t leave his customers hanging.

But should you really write about a failure?

Absolutely. It’s a character-building experience.

Colleges wonder whether or not you can succeed in college by handling a bad grade, a difficult roommate or another frustration. When they see you’ve already been able to handle a significant challenge, you’ve given them that answer. They start to envision the kind of person you’ll be after college, too.

how to write 2013 Common Application essay

Are You Uncomfortable Discussing Failure?

how to write Common Application how to write essay personal statementDON’T BE.  Remember, colleges look for character-building stories and problem solving skills.

In fact, Christine Hamilton, Associate Director of Undergraduate Admission at Babson College, tells me she sees a lot of failure essays and that’s okay with her. She learns a lot about the character of incoming students by hearing how they’ve coped with failure.

CAUTION: Never write about failures that include very risky behavior or anything illegal (like hanging off a cliff or being caught drinking and driving).

Next time: How to write 2018 Common Application essay prompt #3.

Other posts in Sharon Epstein’s series:
How to write 2018 Common Application Essay 1 – Background, Identity or Interest
sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills

Sharon 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. 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.

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How to Write Common Application Essay 1 Background Identity Interest Talent


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How to Write 2018 Common Application Essay 1: Background, Identity, Interest, or Talent

How to Write Common Application Essay 1 Background Identity Interest TalentWriting a Common App essay? You may have heard there are some do’s and don’ts. You may feel ready to write, or a little bit panicky. Or you may just be looking for some extra help.

Welcome! This is your guide to the Common Application essay prompts. It’s the first of a seven-part series that will cover all the prompts. In it, you’ll discover advice and information to help you write your best Common Application essay.

You’ll learn what schools look for in a Common Application essay, how to choose an essay prompt, Common App do’s and don’ts, and how to avoid college essay pitfalls. I’ll give you essay examples, too.

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.

What Do Schools Look for in a Common Application Essay?

  • Your writing skills.
  • Your ability to communicate your ideas.
  • Your personality on the page. (What do you care about? What makes you laugh, wonder, hope, dream, reflect, set goals, challenge yourself, want to change something? And why.)
  • A learning or growth experience.

Here are the Common Application Essay Instructions: What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.

Okay, ready? Here we go…

Common Application Essay Prompt #1:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:how to write 2015 common app essay

Background — Identity — Interest — Talent — Meaningful — Incomplete without it.

Do these Keywords Apply to You? 

  • “Background, identity, interest, talent.” These words are meant to spark your imagination. Take a minute and think about what’s shaped your life. Is it who you are…where you’re from…what you love…how you think…a cause you advocate…a hobby you just learned? You can write about almost anything as long as it’s important to the person you’ve grown to be.
  • “Meaningful” means that this experience has shaped you in a fundamental way—it has influenced your choices, outlook, perspective and/or goals.
  • Your application would be “incomplete without it.” You need to tell this story in order for people to fully understand you. You also haven’t told it anywhere else in your application.

Choose this Prompt IF:

1. This experience helped shape you in a positive way.
2. If you didn’t tell this story, the admissions committee wouldn’t fully understand you.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid:

  • It has to mean something.  Sure, you may like to swim or travel, but unless it’s a meaningful experience that helped define you in some way, it doesn’t qualify. You have to satisfy the keywords.
  • Don’t omit what you learned. Even though the prompt doesn’t specify it, make sure the reader sees what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown from your experience. This is essential for a complete answer.
  • Don’t sound like anyone else. Avoid writing about sports or mission trips—they’ve been written about so much most of them sound stale to admissions officers. It’s better to think about what else makes you stand out. If you’ve got the best recipe for chocolate cake or like to hunt for fossils, and you can link that to who you are, that’s going to be a more original topic.

Examples of Successful Essay Topics:

#1 – “Road Trip”

My student, Jeff, was the youngest of three brothers, both of whom were a lot older. (One was a teacher and one was in the Marine Corps.) Jeff was proud that the example his brothers set had helped him become responsible and mature, and he wanted to write about it. So he chose the summer they invited him on their cross-country trip, and the night they found themselves heading into a dangerous storm.

The two older brothers began arguing: One wanted to be safe and stop for the night and the other wanted to make it to their destination on time. Jeff recognized his brothers were at an impasse, so he checked the forecast and radar maps and figured out they could avoid the storm by taking a less direct route to their destination. When they stopped for gas, Jeff got out of the car and presented his solution. When they voiced their concerns, he calmly answered all of their questions. Eventually, his brothers agreed to continue using the longer route. When they got back in the car they asked Jeff to navigate.

By keeping a level head and finding the right way to communicate with his brothers, Jeff was able to facilitate a solution that satisfied everyone. He was proud that he helped lead them safely to their destination, and even prouder that he lived up to the examples of responsibility and maturity that his brothers had taught him.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Succeed?

  •  All the keywords are addressed. Jeff couldn’t talk about his identity without writing about his family. The example his brothers set for him made him expect a lot of himself and become a responsible leader in many of his daily activities. It was central to who he was.
  • He learned from his experience. By being mature and thoughtful he found that he could make a positive difference in a difficult situation.

#2 – “Sharks”

Nina loved animals – the sweet, non-threatening kind. She volunteered with animals at the local zoo, but had always avoided the bigger, “dangerous” ones. But then she watched the movie “Jaws.” And, oddly, Nina fell in love with sharks. As an animal lover, she became interested in their preservation, and concerned about what she felt were inaccurate, overly-negative portrayals.

Then Nina’s teacher assigned student presentations on a subject of their choice. Nina knew what she would do. Even though she was shy, she created a PowerPoint presentation designed to offer facts and to sway opinions. The class favorite was that humans have a greater chance of death by vending machines than by sharks.

Nina writes that while she might not have changed how all her friends think, the person who’s changed the most is Nina. Now when she volunteers with animals, Nina educates visitors about the more “dangerous” animals as well. And she will always argue for shark conservation.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Succeed?

  •  All the keywords are addressed. Nina couldn’t tell her story without writing about her love of animals. It was central to her identity and her application would be incomplete without it.
  • She learned from her experience. As she acquired more information, her perspective about animals grew, as did her perspective on what she wanted her role to be. She learned to be an advocate and discovered a passion she didn’t know she had.

Example of a Poor Essay Topic:

“Friends”

David enjoyed hanging out with his friends. He was a good friend and liked to spend time talking with his friends while they all hung out together. David felt he was a loyal friend and that friends would always be important in his life.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Fail?

  • The keywords are not addressed. It’s not clear why this topic is meaningful to David or why his application would be incomplete without it.
  • There’s no learning or growth experience.
  • Boring. Nothing about this idea stands out or feels original.

If David had thought more about this idea, then it might have become an interesting topic. Perhaps he had made a difficult decision regarding a friendship, or had a made a choice that failed and had to figure out how to make it right. Then this could very well have become a more successful essay.

How Do I Find Topic Ideas for My Common Application Essay?

1. Start by brainstorming. The trick is to make this fun! Scroll through your photos and take a look at your videos. Poll your parents and friends and ask them how they’d describe you. (But don’t let them make the decision for you — their memories and ideas aren’t necessarily yours.) Here’s a fun idea: listen to yourself think. It may sound silly, but how often do we think about something interesting, and then – poof – it’s forgotten. Pay attention to your thoughts. You may find you come up with an interesting insight or two.

2. Don’t stop at the obvious answers. After you think of an idea or two, think of one or two more. It gets harder, but it also forces you to really investigate what lies below the surface. Most important – don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. We all have fears and failures. None of us makes decisions that are right all the time. It’s how you deal with them that’s important. That’s what the colleges like to see.

Tip: If you need more help knowing where to start you Common Application essay, read my post on how to start writing your college essay.

Next time: How to write Common Application essay prompt #2.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills
Sharon 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. 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.


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

Which Common Application prompt should you choose? In this seven-part series I help you answer that question.

This is the last prompt. Hooray! (My fingers are tired!)

For the complete list of 2017 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 have 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.

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 UChicago’s essay prompts. UChicago prides itself on uncommon, fun essay questions. Even if the questions don’t speak to you, 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.

#7  is a new prompt this year. I’m excited to see what students write for their college essays!

Read the entire 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

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills

Sharon 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. 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.



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

How To Write 2017 Common App Essay 6 what makes you lose all track of time

You’re writing a Common Application essay.

How do you choose which essay to write?

In this 7-part series I’m helping you figure out which question on the 2017 Common Application essay is right for you.

For the complete list of 2017 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 you find this topic so engaging, exciting, or thought provoking.
  • “What or Who Do You Turn To When You Want to Learn More?” Ah! This means you’re an independent learner. It doesn’t really matter how you learn on your own—whether you ask a teacher, search Google, read books, watch videos, etc. What matters is that you find a way to satisfy your curiosity.

What Can Colleges Learn About You From This Question?

  • Your curiosity
  • Your resourcefulness
  • Your level of independence
  • The type of learner you’ll be when you get to college
  • The ideas or issues that are 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 a whole lot about you—they see how you think, what you care about, what concerns you. This is the part that helps differentiate you, that helps show what makes you, you.

how to write Common App essay 6CAUTION!
DON’T GET CAUGHT IN THE BORING TRAP!

Do you lose track of time when you’re in your room or with your friends? Do you zone out when you go for long walks in the woods?

Be careful of the Boring Trap.

Because this question can lead you down that path, no question about it.

Quite frankly, most of the best essay answers don’t have nice, easy stories. They’ve got an obstacle thrown in your path, a problem you have to solve, a decision you have to make, or some other circumstance that’s helped shape you into who you are.

This question doesn’t remind you to think about that. It should.

Let me give you an example. Let’s say you want to write about how you lose track of time with your friends. You’ve got great qualities—you’re friendly and loyal—and being with your friends captivates you because you love the discussions you have. You turn to your friends when you want information or help, and they support you. And that might be your essay.

It’s nice, but it’s “so what.” It doesn’t show a journey, an obstacle, a decision, a realization or growth. It doesn’t show how you started in one place and finished in another, or how you’ve built your character. It’s not going to be a memorable essay. You’ve been caught in the Boring Trap.

Here’s an example of How To Get Out of the Boring Trap:

Boring Essay—Before and After

Boring: Joanne loses all track of time in her room when she’s painting. It captivates her because she loves art and color. She likes to paint alone, and be alone with her thoughts and her imagination. She enjoys being surrounded by the paintings on her walls because it feels homey, and she’s made her room her hideaway. When she wants to learn more she takes a painting class at the art barn down the street. Next month she’s going to try watercolor.

Let’s look at what the reader learns: Joanne is artistic and loves color. She’s imaginative and likes feeling homey. She takes painting classes to learn more. Not much else. The essay doesn’t have a story. We don’t get a sense she’s grown at all or been shaped by her talent.

Same Topic, Not Boring: Joanne loses all track of time in her room when she’s painting. It captivates her because she loves art and color. As a matter of fact, she’s been influenced by two famous painters, Grandma Moses and Georgia O’Keefe, two artists who used color in very different ways. Joanne tries to figure out why they chose the colors they did and how they interpreted their worlds, and then she tries to find an original way to interpret hers. Joanne’s first grade teacher tried to make her draw people with proper fingers and toes, and at first she did. But then she rebelled. She decided she didn’t have to be like anyone else and has been drawing people and things the way she wants to ever since. Art gives her an expressive outlet for her thoughts and her imagination. It’s helped her develop her sense of personal expression. She also loves to learn, and whenever she can she takes art classes at the art barn down the street. She reads about her favorite painters and she’s learning about new ones. Next month she’s going to experiment with watercolor. She’s not sure what subject she’ll be painting or what she’ll learn about herself, but she can’t wait to get started.

What does the reader learn? Much more.

  • We learn how she thinks: Joanne discusses how other artists have influenced her and made her think about her own style.
  • She adds interesting detail: By discussing other artists, she shows that she has detailed knowledge about a subject that interests her.
  • She adds more “why.” Besides saying she loves art and color she says that art gives her an outlet for her thoughts and imagination and helps her find her own personal expression. This adds more insight and meaning to her essay.
  • She tells a story of a formative experience that shaped her character.
  • She adds more qualities that express her personality. Besides being artistic and loving color, we learn she has an independent nature and is always learning and thinking of ways to improve.

Everything Joanne added helps her essay be more original and interesting. It’s uniquely her. It shows how she’s grown, how she thinks, and what’s meaningful to her. She’s avoided the boring trap.

#6 is a brand new prompt and I’m excited to see the essays students will write this year!

Read the entire 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
Coming Soon:
How to Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

For the entire list of 2017 Common App essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, go to their website. They also have a very helpful Facebook page.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills

Sharon 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. 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.


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How to Write Common Application Essay 5: Accomplishment, Event, or Realization that Sparked a Period of Personal Growth

How To Write 2017 Common App Essay 5 a new understanding of yourself

The Common Application essay prompts are out.

How do you choose which essay to write?

In this 7-part series I help you figure out which question on the 2017 Common Application is right for you.

For the complete list of 2017 Common App essay questions click here.

Ready for #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 you’re changing—what’s happening as you become more responsible or mature. This can take place over a long period of time or a very short period of time.
  • “A new understanding of yourself or others” is your learning experience. It’s what you learned and how your perspective changed—How did your experience shape your attitude, outlook or actions? How did it help you become the person you are today?

What Can Colleges Learn About You From This Question?

  • How you’ve matured
  • Your ability to develop important relationships within your family or community
  • Your ability to reflect on how an important experience has shaped you

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • This Question has 3 Parts—Don’t Leave One Out. Include 1. Your accomplishment, event or realization; 2. Your period of personal growth; 3. Your new understanding of yourself and others.

Still Not Sure This is Your Topic?

Here are a few questions you can ask yourself: Did you set a goal for yourself that you achieved? Did you have an experience that helped you become more compassionate or understanding? Did you teach younger students what you were taught and saw yourself grow 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? These are just a few ideas—make sure to keep thinking!

Successful Essay Topic Example

“On the Flip Side”

Paige was a successful competitive gymnast when injuries ended her career. She felt lost until she began volunteering as coach of the Special Olympics gymnastics team. Paige made practices fun. She demonstrated exercises and developed routines. Most of all, she taught her athletes that it didn’t matter if they won or lost, as long as they competed as a team. And that’s exactly what they did at state competition.

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. She wrote in her essay that working with her athletes changed her; as she instilled confidence in her athletes, they did the same for her. Paige also realized something fundamental about herself: It was very important to her that everyone gets the chance to win, lose and compete, no matter his or her differences. While she isn’t sure of her career plans, Paige plans to use it to help people.

Why is this Example 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 and 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.

How to write Common Application essays

Hot Tip: No matter which essay prompt you choose, make sure it’s a story only you can tell. Tell the schools what you care about, what you think about, what bothers you and why. Show them the world through your eyes. Help them get to know what makes you you. That’s how you’ll write a great college application essay.

Read the entire 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
Coming Soon:
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

Related links:
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills

Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. She is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. Our tutors are award-winning writers and published authors who work with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, video and email. Visit our website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.


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How to Write Common Application Essay 4: Describe a Problem You’ve Solved or Would Like to Solve

How To Write 2017 Common App Essay 4 Describe a problem you've solved or would like to solveAre 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?

Then Common Application essay prompt #4 may be for you.

This is the fourth of my seven-part series on how to write the Common Application essay prompts.

You’ll learn about the question, the keywords, and the dos and don’ts of answering, I’ll also give you successful Common Application essay topic examples.

Ready for number 4? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay 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”

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 have an idea about what steps you’d take to work toward a solution.

What Can Colleges Learn About You From This Question?

  • An idea or experience you truly value
  • Your problem-solving skills
  • Your critical thinking skills
  • The course you plot when you have a goal
    how to write 2013 common app essay

    Pitfalls to Avoid: 

  • Answer the Entire Question. The question has three parts: (1) Describe a problem; (2) Explain its significance to you; (3) Identify a solution and either how to get there or how to begin to get there. You must answer all three parts.
  • The Problem Isn’t Meaningful Enough to You. You could write about lobbying for longer lunch periods at school, but so what? Don’t be superficial. Your topic tells the colleges who you are and what you care about. 
  • Vague or Generic essays. The prompt says you can write about anything “no matter the scale.” But broad topics still need to be of personal significance, with the emphasis on personal. Sure, you can write about world peace—but can you demonstrate your passion and connection? Be specific about how a topic has touched you or meant something to you—and put your personality squarely on the page.

  • Don’t Skimp on the Solution. I’ve seen students devote most of their essays to the problem and only a couple of sentences to achieving a solution. Don’t skimp on this section—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.

How to write Common Application essay describe a problem you've solved or would like to solveHot Tips: You don’t need to fly solo. Problems can be complex and so can their solutions. So when you’re thinking about your solution, you don’t need to be the only one involved. You may require a team or teams of people with specific skills to achieve your goal.

You don’t need the perfect answer. The prompt gives you the chance to explain the steps you’d take to identify a solution. As long as you discuss the process—the way you’d get to a solution—that’s okay, even if you’re not quite sure what the exact solution might be.

Examples of Successful Essay Topics

Brain Farts

Kenny 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. Kenny 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. Kenny hopes to conduct his experiment when he gets to college. With an interesting and personal essay topic, Kenny was able to demonstrate his scientific mind and problem-solving skills.

Water Pollution Detective

Last summer, 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.

Read the entire 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
Coming Soon:
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

Related links:
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts

For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, click here for more info.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills
Sharon 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. 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.


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How to Write 2017 Common Application Essay 3: A Time When You Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea

How To Write 2017 Common App Essay 3 Questioned or Challenged a Belief or Idea Hooray! You’re applying to college!

How do you choose which Common Application essay to write?

This 7-part series will help you figure out which 2017 Common Application question is right for you. You’ll learn what colleges look for, what pitfalls to avoid, and read examples of successful essay topics.

For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.

Ready for number 3? Let’s do it!

Common Application Essay Prompt #3:

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2013 common app essay

“Questioned or challenged”…”Belief or idea”…”Prompted your thinking”

Why Should You Consider This Topic?

  • This is a great essay to show off your critical thinking skills. That’s why it says “what prompted your thinking”—they want to get a good peek inside your head and see how your wheels turn.

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

  • A “belief or idea” can mean many things, including something you learned or were taught, or an opinion you or someone else holds. But it can also be bigger than that—take a look at the essay example below where a student challenges the existence of an entire school event.

how to write 2013 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid

  • This question has THREE parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: The event, what prompted your thinking, and the outcome.
  • Thoughts rarely arrive fully formed! Thinking is a process. It comes in stages. It’s important to show that process. For instance, if I have a pebble in my shoe, first I might think that something’s bothering me, then I want to see what it is, then I decide to take it out of my shoe. This is a simple example, but what if I wrote, “I had a pebble in my shoe and I took it out.” No! You actually thought about it before you acted. It’s like math class when the teacher makes you show your work—that’s what I mean when I say show the process of how you came to challenge your belief or idea.
  • Don’t forget to reflect on your decision. Were you satisfied with the outcome? Did you learn something from this experience? Would you do it again? Reflection demonstrates insight and maturity.
  • Caution: You never want to offend your reader. Remember that a belief or idea you disagree with could be one that your reader accepts, so always watch your tone and be respectful when needed.

Not Sure this Question Relates to You?
Here are 3 ways you might answer this question:

  • Were you told by an adult that you wouldn’t be successful in an activity, but you chose to pursue it anyway?
  • Did you challenge what a group of friends told you to do because you thought they were wrong?
  • Did you see someone being treated unfairly (perhaps even yourself) and attempt to rectify it?

What Other Kinds of Beliefs or Ideas Can You Consider?

  • It can be a belief or idea held by others (including friends, schoolmates and family).
  • It can be a belief or idea you’ve been taught (including your attitude or action toward others, or how something should or shouldn’t be done).
  • It can also be your own belief—something that’s unique to you. What if you thought your sister came from Mars? (Okay, that’s silly.) But sometimes we have our own ideas: Consider the student who thinks being loudest is the best way to gain attention, or the girl who thinks she’s happiest being alone. What if the student realized he’d rather have friends than negative attention, or the girl pushed herself out of her comfort zone to find out she enjoyed being a leader at school? Think about what you believed when you were younger, and if your ideas changed, why. If your experience is meaningful and says positive things about you (and answers the question), this prompt could be for you.

Which brings me to:

Should you write about religion? You can. I’ve had students who’ve written about different aspects of their spiritual journey, whether it was trying to conform to their parents’ religion or searching for their own truth. But remember the caution: You don’t want to offend your reader. So along with topic choice, consider the tone of your writing. For instance, it’s a lot different to say you felt a need to find your own spiritual path than to say you hated a specific religion and couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Bottom line: If you feel it could impact your admission, choose a different topic.

Hot Tip from College Admissions Officers: Some admissions officers tell me that many essays about spiritual journeys are starting to sound very similar to them. So if you want to write about your spiritual journey, find an original approach that makes your essay stands out. If it starts to feel generic, dig deeper into who you are and how this topic reflects your values, your ability to problem solve, or your goals. If you’re not sure it will stand out, switch topics.

Example of a Successful Essay Topic:

“Standing up for Autism”

An autistic student’s school held an annual event that supported autism. The event also supported a prominent charity devoted to autism. But the student had become aware that many people in the autistic community were upset with this charity. They felt it didn’t recognize the full value or contributions of the autistic community, and in fact had made some very negative statements. After researching the charity the student agreed, and decided he wanted the school to end its support of the charity. But he knew he’d have to handle it carefully and respectfully. So he collected evidence and videos and presented them to his vice principal. Then he wrote a formal letter to the Board of Education. After discussing the student’s material, the Board agreed that future events wouldn’t include the charity. The student was both surprised and delighted. In his essay he wrote that he learned that if he communicated his views in a clear and mature way, people in authority would respectfully listen to him and consider his viewpoint. In this case he was successful, and he felt he made a positive difference.

Why This Topic Succeeds

  • All the keywords are addressed. The student described the situation, discussed his thought process, and told the outcome.
  • He demonstrated critical thinking skills. He researched the charity to come to his own decision and then decided on the correct way to approach the school.
  • He included a learning experience. He learned that if he presented his views in a clear and respectful way that adults in authority would listen. He saw how he could make a positive change.
  • He gave colleges excellent reasons to admit him: He took on a leadership role, communicated well with adults, and worked to create change. Even if he hadn’t been successful these qualities would stand out.

Reasons Essay Prompt #3 Can Work for You: 

  • You can communicate your level of maturity.
  • You can highlight your critical thinking skills.
  • You can demonstrate that you’re open-minded and have respect for the beliefs and ideas of others.
  • You can show that your choices or ideas had an impact on yourself or others.

Remember: For your essay to be successful, show the schools some of your best qualities, and make sure they come away feeling that they’ve learned something interesting about what makes you, you.

For more information on the Common Application visit their website. They also have a very helpful Facebook page.

Next time: How to Write Common App prompt #4.

Read the entire 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
Coming Soon:
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

Related links:
Huffington Post: The Common App Prompts Are Changing
The Common Application Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts

For the entire list of 2017 Common Application essay prompts click here.
If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, click here for more info.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills
Sharon 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. 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.


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