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

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2. Keep the Focus on the Word "Explain"

This is related to the above point -- while you'll want to keep the "description" to a minimum, you should really do a lot with the final part of the prompt ("explain that influence"). The explanation is where you will present a thoughtful discussion of yourself and the things that influence you. The explanation is what reveals your passions, interests and personality. It's this part of the essay that has the most value for the college admissions folks.

3. Watch Out for Predictable Choices

When option #4 is handled correctly, your essay won't sound like a dozen other essays. Thus, it's often wise to shy away from predictable figures like Martin Luther King, Jr., and Albert Einstein. Try to identify a character, historical figure or creative work that is a bit less predictable and that connects clearly with your passions and interests.

4. Be Careful with Fictional Characters

You should be wary of choosing a trivial, humorous or cartoon character for this option. If you do, you run the danger of looking like you don't take the essay requirement seriously. The college admissions folks want to get to know you through your writing, so make sure your writing isn't shallow, facetious or dismissive. While it might be fun to write about a South Park character, does such an essay really create the best portrait of you for the admissions officers? At the same time, a skillful writer can make almost any subject matter work.

5. Don't Write About Your Favorite Contemporary Song

Music can certainly be a good focus for this essay, but the admissions officers get tired of reading hundreds of essays about songs by students' favorite bands. For one, the lyrics of most popular music really aren't that profound, and you also run the danger of having a reader who doesn't share your musical tastes.

6. Approach the Word "Creative" in Broad Terms

The phrase "creative work" in the prompt often makes us think of things like poetry or painting. However, every field -- engineering, science, psychology, mathematics, religion, medicine -- depends upon creativity for its advancement. The best scientists are great creative thinkers. Some of the best essays for option #4 focus on creative works outside of the arts. For example, a novel technique for attacking the AIDS virus is a "creative work."

7. Keep Much of the Focus on You

Spend a bit of your essay explaining the "influence on you." The admissions folks don't want to learn about the influential work or character as much as they want to learn about you. The essay is a tool for helping a college figure out if you'll be a good match for the campus community. If your essay doesn't reveal your interests and personality, you haven't succeeded in responding to the essay question.

Option #5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

Realize that this question defines "diversity" in broad terms. It's not specifically about race or ethnicity (although it can be). Ideally, the admissions folks want every student they admit to contribute to the richness and breadth of the campus community. How do you contribute?

Carrie wrote the following college admissions personal essay for question #5 on the Common Application: "A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you."

Give Goth a Chance

When I sat down to write this essay, I tried, as my high school English teacher always instructed, to imagine the audience for my writing. The more I thought about it, the more I pitied the college admissions screeners who would be reading a thousand essays on diversity. Along with the expected takes on race and ethnicity, how many of those essays would present their authors as outcasts, loners, kids who didn’t fit in at his or her school? How could I present myself as someone unique and interesting—strange, even—without falling prey to the cliché of the self-pitying social misfit?

Let me be direct: in some ways, I am the antithesis of what one might picture as a student who contributes to campus diversity. I am white, middle-class, and heterosexual; I have no physical handicaps or mental challenges apart from a tendency towards sarcasm. But when I receive college brochures picturing smiling, clean-cut teens dressed in the latest from Abercrombie & Fitch and lounging on a blanket in the sun, I think, those people are not like me.

Simply put, I am a Goth. I wear black, lots of it. I have piercings and ear gauges and tattoos. My hair, naturally the same sandy blonde that the rest of my family shares, is dyed jet, sometimes highlighted in streaks of purple or scarlet. I rarely smile, and I don’t do sun. If I were inserted into those brochure photographs of typical college students, I would look like a vampire stalking her wholesome prey.

Again, I am imagining my reading audience, and I can almost see my readers’ eyes roll. So you’re a little weird, kid. How does that contribute to campus diversity? Well, I think I contribute plenty. Diversity goes beyond the physical; race or ethnicity might be the first things one thinks of, but really, it is a question of what makes someone the person that he or she is. Diversity might be considered in terms of economic or geographical background, life experiences, religion, sexual orientation, and even personal interests and general outlook. In this respect, my Goth identity contributes a perspective that is far different from the mainstream. Being Goth isn’t just about physical appearance; it’s a way of life that, like any other, includes not only individual tastes in music, literature, and popular culture, but also particular beliefs about philosophy, spirituality, and a range of other human issues.

To give just one specific example, I am planning to major in Environmental Studies, and while it might seem odd to picture a ghoulishly-dressed girl who adores the natural world, it was my Goth outlook that led me to this academic interest. I read voraciously, and am drawn to subject matter that is somewhat dark; the more I read about humanity’s impact on the planet and the near-apocalyptic dangers posed by global climate change, pollution, overpopulation, the manipulation of the food supply and other environmental threats, the more interested I became, and the more determined that I should become involved. I, along with other members of my school’s Environmental Club, started a campus recycling program, and lobbied our superintendent to install in all classrooms power strips that are used to easily shut down equipment such as printers and computers at the end of the day, thereby conserving energy and generating significant savings for our school. I was drawn to this dark subject matter of environmental crisis, not to wallow in it or savor the Schadenfreude, but to change it and make the world a better place.

I know Goths look a little funny, as we wear our ebony trenchcoats in seventy-degree weather. I know we seem a little odd as we gather in shady nooks to discuss the latest episode of True Blood. I know professors may sigh as we swell the enrollments of poetry and art classes. Yes, we’re different. And we—I—have a lot to contribute.

Critique – The diversity topic on the Common Application presents a writer with specific challenges that are discussed in these writing tips. In broader terms, however, all college admissions essays must accomplish a specific task: the admissions folks will be looking not just for good writing skills, but also evidence that the writer has the intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness and the strength of character necessary to be a contributing and successful member of the campus community.

The Title - In general, Carrie's title works fine. It clearly captures the subject of the essay -- approaching Goth with an open mind. Also, the allusion to John Lennon's Give Peace a Chance is appropriate given the song's message about acceptance and understanding. It's not a title that is highly original, and it isn't the best hook for grabbing the reader's attention, but it is still a solid title.

The Topic - Carrie takes a risk in her essay. When you read advice about college admissions interviews, you'll often be told to dress somewhat conservatively, get rid of the pink hair and remove all but the most innocuous piercings. The danger of looking too far out of the norm is that you may encounter an admissions officer who isn't open-minded or who feels disturbed or uncomfortable with your appearance. While we don't want to cater to people's biases, we also don't want to diminish our chances of getting into college.

Carrie, however, isn't one to tone down her identity during the admissions process. Her essay blatantly states "this is who I am," and she makes it the job of the reader to overcome his or her preconceptions. There is a slight danger that she will get a reader who refuses to accept the "Goth" culture Carrie describes, but I think most readers will love the way Carrie approaches her topic as well as her straight-shooting style. The essay has a level of maturity and self-confidence that the reader will find attractive. Also, the reader is likely to be impressed by the way that Carrie imagines her audience's reaction. She has clearly encountered prejudice before, and she preempts it when she imagines the admissions folks reading her essay.

Essay option #5 is a smart choice for Carrie's topic, for the essay certainly is about diversity. Carrie clearly shows how she will add an interesting and desirable element to the campus community. The essay demonstrates that she has thought about identity and diversity, that she is open-minded, and that she has a thing or two to teach others about their preconceptions and biases. She weaves in enough details about her passions and accomplishments to debunk any knee-jerk assumptions a reader might make about a Goth.

The Tone - Carrie's essay approaches her topic seriously, but it also has a pleasing smattering of humor. Little phrases like "I don't do sun" and "a tendency towards sarcasm" capture Carrie's personality in an economical manner that will also get a nice chuckle from her readers. In general, the essay has a great balance of seriousness and playfulness, of quirkiness and intellect.

The Writing - The quality of the writing in this essay is superb, and it is even more impressive because Carrie is going into the sciences, not the humanities where we might expect to see stronger writing. The essay has no grammatical errors, and some of the short, punchy phrases reveal a high level of rhetorical sophistication. If you take apart the essay sentence by sentence, you'll notice a huge variety in sentence length and structure. The admissions officers will immediately recognize Carrie as someone who has a mastery of language and is prepared for college-level writing.

The length of the essay is also excellent. At 650 words, the essay manages to pack a lot of information into a short amount of space. Carrie writes economically; every word counts.

Final Thoughts - Think about the impression you have when you finish reading Carrie's essay. We feel that we have gotten to know her. She is someone with an offbeat appearance, but she is wonderfully comfortable with who she is. The self-confidence and self-awareness demonstrated in the essay will certainly impress her readers.

Carrie's essay teaches her reader something, and the mastery of language is remarkable. Admissions officers are likely to finish the essay thinking three things: 1) they want to get to know Carrie better; 2) they think Carrie would make a positive contribution to the campus community, and 3) Carrie's reasoning and writing skills are already at a college level. In short, Carrie has written a winning essay.

5 tips for Option 5

A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

1. Diversity Isn't Just About Race

The prompt for option #5 explicitly states that you should define diversity in broad terms. It isn't just about skin color. Colleges want to enroll students who have a diverse range of interests, beliefs and experiences. Many college applicants quickly shy away from this option because they don't think they bring diversity to a campus. Not true. Even a white male from the suburbs has values and life experiences that are uniquely his own.

2. Understand Why Colleges Want "Diversity"

Option #5 is designed to give you an opportunity to explain what interesting qualities you'll bring to the campus community. There are check boxes on the application that address your race, so that isn't the point here. Most colleges believe that the best learning environment includes students who bring new ideas, new perspectives, new passions and new talents to the school. A bunch of like-minded clones have very little to teach each other, and they will grow little from their interactions. As you think about this question, ask yourself, "What will I add to the campus? Why will the college be a better place when I'm in attendance?"

3. Be Careful Describing Third-World Encounters

College admissions counselors sometimes call it "that Haiti essay" -- an essay about a visit to a third-world country. Invariably, the writer discusses shocking encounters with poverty, a new awareness of the privileges he or she has, and greater sensitivity to the inequality and diversity of the planet. This type of essay can too easily become generic and predictable. This doesn't mean you can't write about a Habitat for Humanity trip to a third-world country, but you want to be careful to avoid clichés. Also, make sure your statements reflect well upon you. A claim like "I never knew so many people lived with so little" can make you sound naive.

4. Be Careful Describing Racial Encounters

Racial difference is actually an excellent topic for an admissions essay, but you need to handle the topic carefully. As you describe that Japanese, Native American, African American or Caucasian friend or acquaintance, you want to make sure your language doesn't inadvertently create racial stereotypes. I've seen a lot of essays in which students simultaneously praise a friend's different perspective while using stereotyping or even racist language.

5. Keep Much of the Focus on You

As with all the personal essay options, #5 is asking about you -- what diversity you will bring to campus, or what ideas about diversity you will bring. Always keep in mind the primary purpose of the essay. Colleges want to get to know the students who will become part of the campus community. If your entire essay describes life in Indonesia, you've failed to do this. If your essay is all about your favorite friend from Korea, you have also failed. Whether you describe your own contribution to campus diversity, or if you talk about an encounter with diversity, the essay needs to reveal your character, values and personality. The college is enrolling you, not the diverse people you've encountered.

Option #6. Topic of your choice.

Sometimes you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first five topics are broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you.

Eating Eyeballs

I first became aware of food when I was about six years old. Yes, I already knew that you put food in your mouth, chewed and swallowed, and that it tasted either good or bad. But I wasn't really aware of food until I noted that while my friends had dinner like macaroni and cheese, my parents were making chicken cacciatore. I was crushed; I wanted to be normal. So I retaliated by refusing to taste the wonderful meals my parents would make. I would only agree to try the dishes if my parents would let me eat peanut butter afterwards. My fall back plan was a little odd, as I didn't like peanut butter, so I would usually eat the dinner my parents had prepared after acting dismayed at the foreign sounding name of the dish.

As I grew older, I learned the value of trying new things. I learned that eating food that my friends were not used to made me more comfortable whenever I was visiting someone's home. I would eat almost anything, and my parents trusted me to eat without making ugly faces at unfamiliar food. My manners earned me invitations to adult parties where I could curl up, read, and politely eat my dinner. It got me out of having a baby-sitter, and I was proud to be considered grown-up.

By the time I was thirteen, there were only a few things that I wouldn't eat:

  • Snails: I thought the sauce was delicious, but my imagination always brought up a picture of some oozing, yellow thing right before I bit into the actual snail.

  • Fish: Fresh fish is still hard to come by where I live, and I always imagined the smell of a fish market was something much worse than it actually was.

  • Any organ of any kind: I'd heard too many people say, "Ew, gross," in response to the thought of liver or kidneys to even consider the thought that I might enjoy them.

Despite my prejudices, (I'd never even tried any of these dishes when they were prepared by a good cook), when I was fourteen my parents decided that I was ready to go to France without them along to supervise my manners. They sent me to visit my friend Anne's family. The main point of this trip was to improve my French, so I was under orders to speak only French with my new family. With Anne's family, I traveled to Paris, Privas, Saint Jean de Luz, and Saint Malo. For three weeks, my only connection to the English language were the four books that my mother had allowed me to take (I had wanted more). I always ate what my new family served because I knew that my parents were counting on me not only to speak French, but also to be polite, which included eating what I was offered.

The first couple of meals I had in France were reassuringly familiar: a little bit of cheese, omelet, gazpacho, or quiche. Then Patrice, Anne's father and a marine biologist, grilled sardines the length of my hand for dinner. His method of grilling the sardines was charring them. I had tried charred meat before, and hadn’t liked it. This dinner was charred, a fish, and it was looking at me with an eyeball in a head that I was going to have to eat. Patrice explained that the best way to eat these sardines was to eat the whole thing -- bones, skin, eyes, and all. Since my French was still a little shaky, I hoped that I had misunderstood him -- one of the few times I would have enjoyed feeling stupid. Patrice made it clear, however, that I was to eat the entire, ugly little fish when he picked one up, pointed to it, and ate it in three bites. I still don’t know how he managed to fit that much fish into his mouth.

I forged my way through three of those little fish: eyes, tongue, bones, imagined brains, and all. Then I switched over to the eggplant casserole, a dish I felt a certain fondness towards because I had displayed some knowledge of the French language earlier that evening by saying that an "aubergine" was an "eggplant." My brief moment of fluency had convinced me that I liked the dish, and I became a great fan of squash for the remaining three weeks of my visit to France.
Two days after the sardine incident, I saw little, round, brown things simmering away in a frying pan when I walked through the kitchen. Because they smelled like a particular savory pasta sauce my parents would make, I decided that that they must be mushrooms, and that even though I didn't like mushrooms, at least they weren't eyeballs. The "mushrooms" were served. I took eight, Anne took three, and Patrice took about twenty. The distribution of the food should have made me realize that the savory brown things probably weren't mushrooms (Anne usually eats more), but they smelled so good that I didn't pay attention. When I was on my last one I asked what kind they were; the reply was "mouton." I didn’t know different types of mushrooms very well, but I was fairly sure that there was no such thing as a "sheep mushroom." Patrice must have noticed my confusion because his next word, in English, was "kidney." Oh. I ate the last kidney on my plate and served myself some nice, plain bread and goat cheese, a regional specialty. Later, I reminded myself that I really had liked the kidneys before I knew what they were.

Even later that night, I heard a conversation between Patrice and Jean-Louis, Anne's Uncle. I had come downstairs to brush my teeth and heard them talking in the wonderful old stone kitchen. They were remarking (in French) that I was much braver about food then they had thought I would be. That was a real turning point for me because I'd understood a full conversation in French and I knew that I was doing well on the food front. The two men never knew that I had overheard their conversation, but it has stuck with me up to today. Their remarks made me adventurous enough to try different kinds of fish, crabs, snails (which I now love), liver, a heart, and what I think were a pair of rabbit's lungs. Although some things were better than others (the rabbit's lungs had a rather odd, spongy texture), I still tried them.

I visited Anne's family during the next two summers and had several more food and language adventures. During my last visit, Patrice informed me that I was not only to speak in French, but read it, too. I sadly packed away my English books and picked up a book in French. As it was the fourth Harry Potter book, I wasn't really very miserable at all, and I still find it funny that the French word for "wand" is "baguette."

Critique -

The Title - Lora's essay has a great title. In fact, there's a good chance you read her essay because the title grabbed your attention. Even if the essay has some weaknesses (which all essays invariably do), the readers in the admissions office will remember her title.

The Topic - On one level, Lora's topic is rather trivial. After all, we all have foods we like and don't like. Nearly every kid finds certain meals disgusting. That said, Lora succeeds in taking a rather slight and commonplace topic and using it to say something about encountering a different culture. The essay isn't just about "gross" food. It's also about family, travel, social discomfort, maturation and introspection.

Lora was correct to submit her essay under #6 on the common application, "Topic of your choice." The essay could potentially fit under question #1: "Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you." However, is eating an eyeball (or a kidney or a lung) really a "significant experience"? Not everyone reading the application would think so. Topic #6 gives Lora a bigger umbrella under which to explore her rather unconventional subject.

The Tone - Lora's essay is certainly not as serious or philosophical as Sophie’s essay. But put yourself in the shoes of the readers in the admissions office: do you want to read thousands of essays about personal tragedy, poverty or suffering? Of course not. A lighter essay is often a welcome change. However, an essay does need substance. If it has lots of laughs but little depth, the admissions folks aren't going to be impressed.

Lora strikes a nice balance on this front. Her essay is light and quirky beginning with its title and ending with Harry Potter. But it also has substance. We learn a lot about Lora through her discussion of food. By the end, we know that Lora is thoughtful, that she tries to overcome her biases, that she likes to travel, that she works hard to make a good impression.

The Writing - Probably the biggest problem with Lora's essay is the same problem that Sophie had: the essay is too long. At over 1,100 words, the essay needs about 25% hacked out. These cuts don't need to remove any substance. Lora's prose is certainly clear and grammatical, but she does on occasion repeat words and phrases, and some small details don't add much to the overall essay. In a few places she uses many words where a few would do. As a quick example, consider the first item in Lora's bulleted list of gross foods:

  • Snails: I thought the sauce was delicious, but my imagination always brought up a picture of some oozing, yellow thing right before I bit into the actual snail.

A little rewording and we get a tighter sentence, and we go from 28 words to 21, a reduction in length of 25%:

Even with its length, Lora's essay shows that she can write. The essay has no glaring errors. It has has some pleasing structural elements such as the early mention of her four English language books and the conclusion with a French edition of Harry Potter. The essay is wonderfully accessible and down to earth. We get the impression that Lora is presenting her true self -- we don't get the feeling that she's abusing a thesaurus or having a professional editing service write the essay for her. Overall, the essay will convince the readers in the admissions office that Lora can handle college-level writing.

Final Thoughts - The greatest strength of Lora's essay is that we finish it feeling like we've gotten to know Lora. Is she the type of person we'd like to go to college with? Would she make a good roommate? Does she have a sense of humor? Is she thoughtful? Can she handle college writing? In all cases, yes.

However, this is an essay that easily could have gone astray. When applicants try to be clever and creative, they run the danger of writing something that's more fluff than substance.

4 tips for Option 6 -- Topic of your choice.

1. Make Sure Options 1 Through 5 Aren't Appropriate

I've rarely seen an admissions essay that doesn't fit into one of the first five Common Application essay options. Even the essay which she submitted under option #6 could fit into option #1. In truth, it probably doesn't matter much if you write your essay under option #6 when it could fit elsewhere (unless the fit with another option is obvious) -- it's the quality of the essay that most matters.

2. Don't Try Too Hard To Be Clever

Some students make the mistake of assuming that "Topic of Your Choice" means that they can write about anything. Keep in mind that the admissions officers take the essay seriously, so you should too. This doesn't mean you can't be humorous, but you do need to make sure your essay has substance. If your essay focuses more on a good laugh than on revealing why you'd make a good college student, you should rethink your approach.

3. Make Sure Your Essay Is An Essay (No Poems, Drawings, etc.)

Every now and then a budding creative writer decides to submit a poem, play or other creative work for essay option #6. Don't do it. The Common Application allows for supplemental materials, so you should include your creative work there. The essay should be an essay -- non-fiction prose that explores a topic and reveals your character.

4. Reveal Yourself

Any topic is a possibility for option #6, but you want to make sure your writing fulfills the purpose of the admissions essay. The college admissions folks are looking for evidence that you'll make a good campus citizen. Your essay should reveal your character, values, personality, beliefs and (if appropriate) sense of humor. You want your reader to end your essay thinking, "Yes, this is someone who I want to live in my community."
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