Tips for the Personal Essay Options on the Common Application Avoid Pitfalls and Make the Most of Your Personal Essay

Download 149,05 Kb.
Date conversion29.08.2017
Size149,05 Kb.
1   2   3

3. Don't Lecture Your Audience

The admissions officers don't want to be lectured on the evils on global warming or the cons on world trade. Save that writing for a paper in your college Political Science class. The heart of an essay on option #2 needs to be about you, so make sure your writing is as much personal as it is political.

4. Give Emphasis to "The Importance to You"

The end of the prompt for option #2 asks you to discuss the issue's "importance to you." Don't short change this essential part of the question. Whatever issue you discuss, you want to make sure that it truly is important to you and that your essay reveals why it is important to you. A good essay on this option reveals the person behind the writing.

5. Show Why You'd Be a Good Choice for the College

Trust me -- the common application doesn't include option #2 because colleges want to learn about world issues. Colleges want to learn about you, and they want to see evidence that you will add value to the campus community. The essay is really the only place in the application where you can highlight your convictions and personality. As you discuss an issue, make sure you reveal yourself to be the type of thoughtful, introspective, passionate and generous person who will make an ideal campus citizen.

Option #3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

I'm not a fan of this prompt because of the wording: "describe that influence." A good essay on this topic does more than "describe." Dig deep and "analyze." And handle a "hero" essay with care. Your readers have probably seen a lot of essays talking about what a great role model Mom or Dad or Sis is. Also realize that the "influence" of this person doesn't need to be positive.

Max Discusses a Summer Camp Challenge in This Essay for the Common Application

Student Teacher

Anthony was neither a leader nor a role model. In fact, his teachers and his parents were constantly chastising him because he was disruptive, ate too much, and had a hard time staying focused on a task. I met Anthony when I was a counselor at a local summer camp. The counselors had the usual duties of keeping kids from smoking, drowning, and killing each other. We made God’s eyes, friendship bracelets, collages, and other clichés. We rode horses, sailed boats, and hunted snipe.

Each counselor also had to teach a three-week course that was supposed to be a little more “academic” than the usual camp fare. I created a class called “Things that Fly.” I met with fifteen students for an hour a day as we designed, built, and flew kites, model rockets, and balsawood airplanes.

Anthony signed up for my class. Anthony stood out from my other students for many reasons. He was larger and louder than the other middle school kids. He was also the only African American in the class. The camp was located in a well-to-do and predominately white neighborhood. In a questionable effort to promote economic and racial diversity, the camp organizers developed a strategy of busing inner-city kids out to the burbs. But despite the best efforts of the organizers and counselors, the inner-city kids and suburbanites tended to stick to their own groups during most activities and meals.

Anthony was not a good student. He had been kept back a year at his school. He talked out of turn and lost interest when others were talking. In my class, Anthony got some good laughs when he smashed his kite and threw the pieces into the wind. His rocket never made it to the launch pad because he crumpled it in a fit of frustration when he couldn’t get the fins to stay on.

In the final week, when we were making airplanes, Anthony surprised me when he drew a sketch of a sweep-wing jet and told me he wanted to make a “really cool plane.” Like many of Anthony’s teachers, and perhaps even his parents, I had largely given up on him. Now he suddenly showed a spark of interest. I didn’t think the interest would last, but I helped Anthony get started on a scale blueprint for his plane. I worked one-on-one with Anthony and had him use his project to demonstrate to his classmates how to cut, glue and mount the balsawood framework. When the frames were complete, we covered them with tissue paper. We mounted propellers and rubber bands. Anthony, with all his thumbs, created something that looked a bit like his original drawing despite some wrinkles and extra glue.

Our first test flight saw Anthony’s plane nose-dive straight into the ground. His plane had a lot of wing area in the back and too much weight in the front. I expected Anthony to grind his plane into the earth with his boot. He didn’t. He wanted to make his creation work. The class returned to the classroom to make adjustments, and Anthony added some big flaps to the wings. Our second test flight surprised the whole class. As many of the planes stalled, twisted, and nose-dived, Anthony’s flew straight out from the hillside and landed gently a good 50 yards away.

I’m not writing about Anthony to suggest that I was a good teacher. I wasn’t. In fact, I had quickly dismissed Anthony like many of his teachers before me. At best, I had viewed him as a distraction in my class, and I felt my job was to keep him from sabotaging the experience for the other students. Anthony’s ultimate success was a result of his own motivation, not my instruction.

Anthony’s success wasn’t just his plane. He had succeeded in making me aware of my own failures. Here was a student who was never taken seriously and had developed a bunch of behavioral issues as a result. I never stopped to look for his potential, discover his interests, or get to know the kid beneath the facade. I had grossly underestimated Anthony, and I am grateful that he was able to disillusion me.

I like to think that I’m an open-minded, liberal, and non-judgmental person. Anthony taught me that I’m not there yet.


The Topic - This sample college admissions essay was written by Max for personal essay option #3 of the Common Application: "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence." This option tends to lead rather predictable essays that focus on the typical heroes of high school students: a parent, a brother or sister, a coach, a teacher.

From the first sentence, we know that Max's essay is going to be different: "Anthony was neither a leader nor a role model." Max's strategy is a good one, and the admissions folks who read the essay will most likely be pleased to read an essay that isn't about how Dad is the greatest role model or Coach is the greatest mentor.

Also, essays on influential people often conclude with the writers explaining how they've become a better people or owe all of their success to the mentor. Max takes the idea in a different direction--Anthony has made Max realize that he isn't as good of a person as he had thought, that he still has much to learn. The humility and self-critique is refreshing.

The Title - Max's title is perhaps a little too clever. "Student Teacher" immediately suggests a student who is teaching (something that Max is doing in his narrative), but the true meaning is that Max's student taught him an important lesson. Thus, both Anthony and Max are "student teachers."

However, that double meaning is not apparent until after one has read the essay. The title by itself does not immediately grab our attention, nor does it clearly tell us what the essay will be about.

The Tone - For the most part, Max maintains a pretty serious tone throughout the essay. The first paragraph does have a nice touch in the way that it pokes fun at all the cliché activities that are typical of summer camp.

The real strength of the essay, however, is that Max manages the tone to avoid sounding like he is bragging about his accomplishments. The self-criticism of the essay's conclusion may seem like a risk, but I'd argue it works to Max's advantage. The admissions counselors know that no student is perfect, so Max's awareness of his own short-comings will probably be interpreted as a sign of maturity, not as red flag highlighting a defect in character.

The Writing - At just a little over 700 words, Max's essay is a good length. The prose is never wordy, flowery, or excessive. The sentences tend to be short and clear, so the overall reading experience isn't labored.

The opening sentence grabs our attention because it isn't what we expect for this essay option. The conclusion is also pleasingly surprising. Many students would be tempted to make themselves the hero of the essay and state what a profound impact they had on Anthony. Max turns it around, highlights his own failures, and gives the credit to Anthony.

The balance of the essay isn't perfect. The prompt on the Common Application tells us to "indicate a person who has had a significant influence" on us, and then "describe that influence." Max's essay spends far more time describing Anthony than it does describing Anthony's influence. Ideally, Max could cut a couple sentences from the middle of the essay and then develop a little further the two short concluding paragraphs.

Final Thoughts - Max's essay takes some risks. It's possible an admissions officer would judge Max negatively for exposing his biases. Also, Max skirts some touchy issues when he talks about race. The essay could easily stray into a rather uncomfortable display of hierarchical racial positioning if Max were to present himself as the white kid from the suburbs who became the mentor of the poor minority kid from the inner city.

I believe Max avoids these traps and writes an effective and compelling essay. In the end, Max presents himself as someone who is a leader (he is designing and teaching a class, after all) and as someone who is aware that he still has much to learn. These are qualities that should be attractive to most college admissions folks.

6 Tips for Option 3:

Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
1. Push the Language in This Option

I've never been a fan of the wording of essay option #3, for if you followed the guidelines too literally, you would end up with a bland essay. The words "indicate" and "describe" suggest that your essay does not need to demonstrate any critical thought. However, a good response to #3 does far more than "describe" a person's influence on you. You should examine why the person was influential to you, and you should analyze the ways in which you have changed because of your relationship with the person.

2. Think Twice About Essays on Mom or Dad

There is nothing wrong with writing about one of your parents for this essay, but make sure your relationship with your parent is unusual and compelling in some way. The admissions folks get a lot of essays that focus on a parent, and your writing won't stand out if you simply make generic points about parenting. If you find yourself making points like "my Dad was a great role model" or "my mother always pushed me to do my best," rethink your approach to the question. Consider the millions of students who could write the exact same essay.

3. Don't Be Star Struck

In most cases, you should avoid writing an essay about the lead singer in your favorite band or the movie star who you idolize. Such essays can be okay if handled well, but often the writer ends up sounding like a pop culture junkie rather than a thoughtful independent thinker.

4. Obscure Subject Matter is Fine

Max writes about a rather unremarkable junior high kid he encountered while teaching summer camp. The essay succeeds in part because the choice of subject matter is unusual and obscure. Among a million application essays, Max's will be the only one to focus on this young boy. Also, the boy isn't even a role model. Instead, he's an ordinary kid who inadvertently makes Max challenge his preconceptions.

5. The "Significant Influence" Need Not Be Positive

The majority of essays written for option #3 are about role models: "my Mom/Dad/brother/friend/teacher/neighbor/coach taught me to be a better person through his or her great example..." Such essays are often excellent, but they are also a bit predictable. This essay, however, is about a "significant" influence, not necessarily a "positive" influence. Max’s essay focuses on a kid who is explicitly not a role model. You could even write about someone who is abusive or hateful. Evil can have as much "influence" on us as good.

6. You Are Also Writing About Yourself

When the prompt asks you to "describe that influence," it is asking you to be reflective and introspective. While an essay for option #3 is partly about the influential person, it is equally about you. To understand someone's influence on you, you need to understand yourself -- your strengths, your short-comings, the areas where you still need to grow. As with all the essay options, you need to make sure a response to #3 reveals your own interests, passions, personality and character. The details of this essay need to reveal that you are the type of person who will contribute to the campus community in a positive way.

Option #4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

Be careful of that word "describe." You should really be "analyzing" this character or creative work. What makes it so powerful and influential?


In the South, where I grew up, pork is a vegetable. Actually, it’s used as a “seasoning,” but so commonly that it’s almost impossible to find salad without bacon, greens without fatback, white beans free of pinkish shreds of ham. It was difficult for me, then, when I decided to become a vegetarian. The decision itself, made for the usual reasons of health, ethics and ecological conservation, was easy; putting it into practice, however, was another matter. At every restaurant, every school lunch, every church potluck, every family gathering, there was meat—in the entrée, the sides, the condiments. I suspected even innocent-seeming pie crusts of secretly harboring lard.

Eventually I worked out a system: I brought my own lunches to school, asked servers about the broth used in the soup of the day, avoided the usual suspects of beans and greens. This system worked well enough in public, but at home, I faced the challenge of respecting my parents and harmoniously sharing meals with them. They were excellent cooks, both of them, and I had always enjoyed the country-fried steaks, burgers and ribs they’d served to me for so many years—how could I now say “no” to those delicacies without angering or inconveniencing them, or, worse, hurting their feelings?

I couldn’t. And so, I backslid. I’d manage to live a pure, meatless life for a few weeks, subsisting on pasta and salads. Then, Dad would grill an especially juicy teriyaki-marinated flank steak, look at me hopefully, and offer a slice—and I would accept. I’d mend my ways, steam rice and stir-fry snow peas with mushrooms . . . and crumble at the first whiff of the Thanksgiving turkey roasting in the oven and the proud smile on my mother’s face. My noble goals, it seemed, were doomed.

But then, I found a role model, one who demonstrated to me that I could live without meat and still be a functioning member of society, eschew my parents’ pork chops and fried chicken without giving offense. I wish I could say that I was inspired by one of history’s great artists like Leonardo da Vinci, or a leader and inventor like Benjamin Franklin, but no. My inspiration was Lisa Simpson.

Let me pause here to acknowledge how absurd it is to be inspired by an animated sitcom character, albeit one as smart and together as Lisa. Yet it was the very absurdity of feeling, somehow, moved by Lisa’s resolve and strength of character, her refusal to compromise her beliefs, that convinced me I could follow her example. In the pivotal episode, Lisa is tortured by visions of the lamb whose chops provide her family’s dinner. “Please, Lisa, don’t eat me!” the imaginary lamb implores her. She is moved by ethics, yet almost breaks her resolution when Homer prepares a pig roast and is hurt by his daughter’s refusal to partake. Like me, Lisa is torn between her convictions and her fear of disappointing her father (not to mention the undeniable deliciousness of pork). But she manages to explain her beliefs to Homer and show him that her rejection of meat is not a rejection of him—that she can share his table and his love while still living according to her principles.

Again, I admit—as inspirations go, this one is a little ridiculous. No imaginary lamb-conscience spoke to me, and unlike Lisa, I was not able to celebrate my vegetarian lifestyle by triumphantly singing with Quickie-Mart manager Apu and guest stars Paul and Linda McCartney. But seeing the very obstacles that stymied me being overcome by a yellow-skinned, spiky-haired caricature was so silly that my difficulties, too, seemed silly. “Well heck,” I thought, “if Lisa Simpson—a cartoon character, for heaven’s sake— can stick to her guns, then so can I.”

So I did. I told my parents that I had decided to really commit myself to vegetarianism, that this was not a passing phase, that I was not judging or seeking to convert them, but that this was simply something I had decided for myself. They agreed, perhaps a bit patronizingly, but as the months went on and I continued to forego the chicken in my fajitas and the sausage gravy on my biscuits, they became more supportive. We worked together on compromise. I took on a larger role in preparing the meals, and reminded them to please use vegetable stock in the potato soup and to reserve a separate pot of plain spaghetti sauce before adding the ground beef. When we attended a potluck, we made sure that one of the dishes we brought was a meatless entrée, so that I would be guaranteed at least one edible dish at the pork-laden table.

I did not tell my parents, or anyone else, that Lisa Simpson had helped me say no, forever, to eating meat. Doing so would cast the decision, one that many teenagers passionately make for a few months and then abandon, in the light of well-intentioned immaturity. But Lisa did help me live a more healthy, ethical, and ecologically sound life—to say no to pork, in all its guises.


The Topic - Felicity wrote her essay in response to option #4 of the Common Application: "Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence." When admissions counselors see that an applicant has chosen this option, they expect to find an essay on one of the likely suspects like Martin Luther King, Abraham Lincoln, or Albert Einstein. For fiction and art, applicants tend to think big -- a Jane Austen heroine, a Monet painting, a Rodin sculpture, a Beethoven symphony.

So what are we to make of an essay that focuses on a seemingly trivial cartoon character like Lisa Simpson? Put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer. It's tedious reading through thousands of college applications, so anything that jumps out as unusual can be a good thing. At the same time, the essay can't be so quirky or superficial that it fails to reveal the writer's skills and character.

Felicity takes a risk in her essay by focusing on a rather silly fictional role model. However, she handles her topic well. She acknowledges the strangeness of her focus, and at the same time she produces an essay that really isn't about Lisa Simpson. The essay is about Felicity, and it succeeds in showing her depth of character, her inner conflicts and her personal convictions.

The Title - Titles can be difficult which is why many applicants skip them. Don't. A good title can grab your reader's attention and make him or her eager to read your essay. Lora's essay is a great example of a powerful title.

"Porkopolis" is perhaps a little less effective than "Eating Eyeballs," but the title still manages to make us curious and pull us into the essay. In fact, the title's strength is also its weakness. What exactly does "porkopolis" mean?. Will this essay be about pigs, or is it about a metropolis with too much pork-barrel spending? Also, the title doesn't tell us what character or work of art Felicity will be discussing. We want to read the essay to understand the title, but some readers might appreciate a little more information in the title.

The Tone - I mention the value of including a little humor to keep the essay fun and engaging. Felicity manages humor with wonderful effect. At no point is her essay shallow or flip, but her catalog of southern pork dishes and introduction of Lisa Simpson are likely to receive a chuckle from her reader.

The essay's humor, however, is balanced with a serious discussion of a challenge Felicity faced in her life. Despite the choice of Lisa Simpson as a role model, Felicity comes across as a thoughtful and caring person who struggles to mesh the needs of others with her own convictions.

The Writing - At about 850 words, Felicity's essay is a good length, and there's no obvious fluff or digression that needs to be cut. Also, Felicity is clearly a strong writer. The prose is graceful and fluid. The mastery of style and language marks Felicity as a writer who would be capable of performing well at the country's top colleges and universities.

Felicity grabs our attention with her humorous first sentence, and the essay holds our interest throughout because of the shifts between the serious and the whimsical, the personal and the universal, the real and the fictional. The sentences mirror these shifts as Felicity moves between short and long phrases, and simple and complex sentence structures.

I imagine there are strict grammarians who would object to Felicity's liberal use of the dash and her lack of the word "and" to introduce the final items in some of her lists. Also, someone might take issue with her use of conjunctions (and, yet, but) as transitional words at the beginnings of sentences. I imagine most readers, however, will view Felicity as a dexterous, creative and talented writer. Any breaking of the rules in her writing works to create a positive rhetorical effect.

Final Thoughts - Like most good essays, Felicity's is not without risk. She could run up against an admissions officer who thinks the choice of Lisa Simpson trivializes the purpose of the personal essay.

However, a careful reader will quickly recognize that Felicity's essay is not trivial. Sure, Felicity may be grounded in popular culture, but she emerges from the essay as a writer who loves her family but is not afraid to stand up for her own convictions. She is caring and thoughtful, playful and serious, inward and outward looking. In short, she sounds like a great person to invite to join one's campus community.

7 Tips for Option 4:

Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

1. Don't Do Too Much "Describing"

Although option #4 begins with the word "describe," description in its own right isn't very interesting. If you spend most of the essay describing the accomplishments of George Washington or the movements of a Beethoven Symphony, you will have created an essay that fails to demonstrate higher-level thinking skills. So, be sure to keep the mere description to a minimum, and keep the focus on analyzing the character, historical figure or creative work and its relationship to you.

1   2   3

The database is protected by copyright © 2016
send message

    Main page