Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills


How to Write 2015 Common App Essay #1: Background, Identity, Interest or Talent

how to write 2015 common app background identity interest or talent essayIt’s that time of year again — college application season.

I love it.

Why? Students start to envision themselves as college freshmen. The next step of their lives is on the horizon. It’s almost here.

But first…

You’ve got a college admissions essay to write.

Don’t worry. Help is on the way.

In this series of posts, I’ll give you tips on how to write the 2015 Common Application essay.

I’ll tell you how to choose a college essay prompt, what colleges look for in college essay answers, and how to avoid college essay pitfalls. I’ll give you essay examples, too.

First — an overview.

  • The 2015 Common Application has five prompts.
  • You answer one of them. 250-650 words.
  • Click here to read my posts on Common Application Essay Prompt #2, Prompt #3, Prompt #4, and Prompt #5.
  • For a complete list of the 2015 Common Application questions, click here.
  • Not every school accepts the Common Application, so check your list. Some schools require different essays.

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 — Meaningful — Incomplete without it.

Do these Keywords Apply to You?

  • “Background, identity, interest.” These words are meant to spark your imagination. Think about what’s shaped your life – who you are, how you think, your hobbies. 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 molded 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 understand you. You also haven’t told it anywhere else in your application.

Why Choose this Prompt?
1. This experience helped shape who you are.
2. If you didn’t tell this story, the school wouldn’t fully understand you.
3. Your topic doesn’t fit any of the other prompts.

Possible Pitfalls:

  • This isn’t “topic of your choice.” You can’t write about anything you’d like. You have to satisfy the keywords.
  • Always Say What You Learned. Even though the prompt doesn’t specify it, make sure to include what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown from your experience. This is essential for a complete answer.

Example of a Successful Essay Topic:

A young woman was such an accomplished ballet dancer that she studied with the prestigious Bolshoi ballet in New York. Everyone, including her family, assumed that she’d turn professional. Instead, she decided to become a nutritionist. The student wrote about her love of ballet and how it exposed her to a hidden world of young dancers with eating disorders. Ballet led this student to a new goal: helping dancers stay healthy.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Succeed?

  •  All the keywords are addressed. This student couldn’t tell her story without writing about dance. It was central to her identity and her application would be incomplete without it.
  • She learned from her experience. From her perspective as a dancer, she realized what she wanted from her future.

Example of a Poor Essay Topic:

A student enjoyed driving his car. He liked to ride for hours listening to his favorite music and taking twists and turns he didn’t know, just see where he would end up. Sometimes he drove so far that he had to use his GPS to get home.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Fail?

  • The keywords are not addressed. This is a nice story, and probably would be interesting to read. But the student doesn’t indicate anywhere how or why it’s central to who he is or what his talents are.  If he didn’t write about this activity, no one would miss it.
  • There is no learning or growing experience.

If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, go to their website. They also have a very helpful Facebook page.

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

Also in this series:
How to Write Common App Prompt #2: A Time you Experienced Failure
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: Transition from Childhood to Adulthood

For the entire list of 2015 Common App essay prompts click here.



Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting in Redding, Connecticut. A Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, Sharon lectures extensively on essay writing. Sharon teaches students how to master interview skills, write killer resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, Skype and email. Visit her website for more info. Connect on Google+, Pinterest and Twitter.


Leave a comment

Writing College Essays: 3 Words to Ditch

college essay writing: 3 weak wordsSome words shouldn’t find their way into college application essays. I’m not talking about words that make you sound like a thesaurus (I’ll get to that at a later date) – I’m talking about words that are weak.

Weak words are like limp handshakes – a little damp, a little icky – you wish the person shaking your hand had the confidence to do it right. Maybe nobody told them. Which is why I’m telling you.

3 of the Weakest Words in College Essays:

1. Things
2. Get
3. This

What Makes These Words Weak?
They’re all vague. (What “things” are you talking about, anyway?) They’re also BORING.
Please, don’t bore your college reader (zzzzzzzz).

How Do You Get Rid of Weak Words?
Easy. Learn to recognize them, and then substitute stronger, more interesting words. Interesting words are often more specific words.

Here are examples of how to change weak words to strong:

1. Things

Weak: “I enjoy learning about certain things on my own.”
Strong: “I enjoy learning about science and math on my own.”
Weak: “I frequently hear things like, “Hey Smart Girl, I bet you know everything.”
Strong: “I frequently hear comments like, “Hey Smart Girl, I bet you know everything.”

2. Get

Weak: “The day after getting the ping-pong table, I asked my dad to play with me.”
Strong: “The day after the store delivered the ping-pong table, I asked my dad to play with me.”
Weak: “If snow was predicted, I’d head out in the middle of a storm to get the driveway cleared.”
Strong:If snow was predicted, I’d head out in the middle of a storm to clear the driveway.”

3. This

Weak: “I’ve been working on this since last summer.”
Strong: “I’ve been working on my carpentry skills since last summer.”
Weak: “I didn’t pursue this expecting to become a professional.”
Strong: “I didn’t pursue dance expecting to become a professional.”

Find the weak words in your essays and substitute stronger ones. You’ll show off your writing skills, and impress your college reader.

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:

follow Sharon Epstein on Twitterfollow Sharon Epstein on pinterest
Leave a comment — let me know what you think!

Leave a comment

Writing Successful College Essays: Revise, Revise, Revise

write a successful college essay: reviseToday’s post is a guest blog from my good friend and colleague, Debra Wilburn. For more than two decades, Debra has facilitated student development through career advising, first at Antioch College and now as Assistant Director of Career Services at Wright State University, in Dayton, Ohio.

When I asked Debra what she’d like to write about, she knew immediately: the importance of revising your essays.

Here is Debra’s post:

I work with top-achieving students on essays for a competitive internship program. Along with a résumé, the student’s essay is circulated to hiring managers for review. This package is the first impression the students make: it either opens the door to the next step (an interview), or leads the manager to believe the student is not the right fit.

When that first door opens and they make good professional contacts, the students find other doors opening, and step by step they build interesting, rewarding careers.

It all starts with their essay.

And yet – they often complain about the work of writing it.

Specifically, they complain about my requirement for revising the essay.

They say things like:

I don’t think I need to revise it. I get As on all my papers.
Professors have never complained about my writing before.
Is this really necessary?
It looks good to me.

Me is not the audience for the essay!

After they’ve revised the essay, they say things like:

I thought I was a good writer, but now I know there’s always room for improvement.

I wish someone had challenged me like this before.

Thank you for pushing me.

These top-achieving students do not bring me solid and winning essays on the first go-round. They get there by doing the work of revising.

An experienced reader can tell when revisions have been made in a written essay. Revising makes for a better quality piece of writing, but what may be more important is how evidence of revision speaks to the quality of the writer’s character: taking pride in what they produce and having conviction about the importance of their story. Even more significant is how evidence of revision lets the reader know that the writer truly values the opportunity that is in front of them and has worked hard to make a meaningful connection.

If you really want the opportunity, then do the work of revising the essay. Remember what my students say: Thank you for pushing me.

– Debra Wilburn has assisted her own and other students applying to and fulfilling internships, co-ops, study abroad, and career positions in New York; Washington, D.C; Boston; Los Angeles; San Diego; Miami;  Atlanta; Cork, Ireland; London, England; Paris, France; Sydney, Australia; Greece, and other destinations.  Prior to working at public institution Wright State, Debra was a faculty member in the co-op department at Antioch College, a private, liberal arts college in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Since 1998, she has been a campus liaison to the Disney College Program and The Washington Center for Internships and Academic Seminars. She is the parent of a National Merit Finalist and founder of FilmDayton. Debra earned her B.A. from Cornell University, and her M.A. from Wright State University.

Leave a comment

Writing College Essays: Silly Grammar Mistakes

funny grammar mistakesNo college admissions officer wants to read a college application essay full of spelling and grammar mistakes — and you can be sure it won’t reflect well on you.

But there’s also another problem you can run into — you want to be sure that you say what you mean.

Take a look at the graphic – It seems like the police are getting quite an eyeful peering through that nudist camp wall, doesn’t it? Of course, the person who wrote it probably meant the cops were down at the police station filling out boring paperwork. But that’s not how it reads, and it’s a silly mistake.

Here’s another example of a silly mistake – in this case one missing comma changes the entire meaning of a sentence:

  • “Let’s eat, Grandpa.”
  • “Let’s eat Grandpa.”

In number one, Grandpa is being called for dinner. In number two, Grandpa is dinner (uh oh).

So remember – always check your spelling, punctuation, and grammar – and make sure that you say what you mean — or  you might end up eating Grandpa for dinner.

15 Grammar Goofs that Can Make You Look Silly
Four Grammar Mistakes You’re Probably Making

Leave a comment

College Essay Topics: Try A “Mindful” Day

Today I found college essay writing inspiration in the New York Times ‘Dining & Wine’ section. The article is about Mindful Eating.

The idea, from Buddhist teachings, is to place a forkful of food in your mouth. Then put your fork down. Chew slowly. Take the time to experience the pleasure of what you’re eating. As the writer says, “the texture of the pasta, the flavor of the cheese, the bright color of the sauce in the bowl, the aroma of the rising steam.”

This is called mindful eating.

Most of us eat pretty mindlessly. We’ve got our hand in a bag of chips, or we’re snatching something off the counter or shoveling that next bite of food into our mouths. Before we know it, it’s been swallowed and forgotten. 

That got me thinking about the other mindless things that fill our lives.

What else do we do that’s mindless?

Plenty. I’m just as guilty as anyone, starting from getting up in the morning, to plowing through lunch, to surfing the internet and talking on the phone and watching tv all at the same time.

How about you? Do you text and talk and do homework and listen to music at the same time? Do you rush from home to school to sports to dinner? Do you really pay attention when you say hi to people? Or listen to what they say back?

What if you didn’t speed through your days?

What would you notice? What would you see or hear or taste or appreciate that you don’t even think about now?

Live a mindful day.

Try it. Slow down. Be mindful about what you’re doing and saying. What do you notice? What do you appreciate? How did you live this day differently? How might it change your future days?

The answers might just make a great college essay topic. If you stop and think about it.

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info.

Leave a comment — let me know what you think.

related posts:
Looking For Ideas for Your College Application Essay? Look Behind You
Writing College Application Essays: How to Choose a Topic