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Student Vs. Counselor: Writing the Common Application Essay

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Umass Old Chapel with graphic: Writing the Common Application Essay

Approaching the Common Application First-year essay can be a daunting task. I've been there. Sitting and staring at the laptop for hours feeling lost about where to start. However, writing this essay does not have to be a stressful experience; it can be fun! If you write about something that you are truly passionate about, or an experience that shaped your life — you will be able to let your personality shine. This is what truly matters in these statements; letting your voice be heard and giving admissions representatives an understanding of who you are. Stay tuned to learn more tips about writing this essay from Juan Martinez-Muñoz, a recent graduate and an assistant director of admissions at the University of Massachusetts. 

How can I make my essay stand out?

Juan: Making an essay stand out can be a very nerve-racking thing to think about. Honestly, the best thing to do is to focus less on “standing out”, and more on making sure you’re presenting yourself as you truly are. Stories of growth and discovery definitely help essays stand out – as well making sure your formatting is proper helps a bunch too!

Avani: In my experience, I have gone through the process twice with transferring. I was able to write my essay quite quickly after I had thought of an idea. This is because I always picked a topic I could write about naturally and show my voice to the respective audience. I wanted to make sure this part of my application allowed representatives to see beyond my grades, extra curriculars, and all the other aspects of the application. 

What is one of the most important things colleges look for in the essay? 

Juan: It’s tough to say what every college looks for as no two schools are exactly the same. That said, we look for your basics like formatting, seeing if the essay connects to the prompt and things like that. We want to see your story as much as we want to see if you’re able to write a decent essay.

Avani: Your personality, experiences, aspirations, passions, and everything else about you that cannot be stated elsewhere in the application should shine in your essay. Grammar mechanics is important but more importantly there should be a concept and something that admissions representatives can draw from the essay to learn about you.

Where do I start with topic ideas?

Juan: The Common Application provides around six different prompts to choose from. Take a look through the options, and see which one connects with you the most.

Avani: What I did to brainstorm topics was literally write ideas in the notes app of my phone. If an idea came to me I just wrote it down and also wrote a potential outline of things I could talk about with it. I had around five solid ideas and was able to narrow it down to the one that I felt most interested in writing about. This helped to visualize and connect ideas but also keep my topic options narrowed and focused. In this essay you can basically write about anything (that is the last prompt literally) that you want to - but make it worth it! 

What should I include and not in my essay?

Juan: Include important events that may help further contextualize things we may see in the application. When it comes to things not to include – try to avoid any graphic details of any events, especially traumatic events. While it is important to live in your truth, you also don’t know who will be reading your essay, so it is important to be mindful to not potentially trigger someone else. Also, all readers are mandated reporters, which means if there is something serious that is disclosed in your essay, you do not want someone to know about, it is our job to report what happens up. So be mindful of what you disclose, even though your application material is confidential and federally protected information, we also have a responsibility to make sure you are safe.

Avani: Three years ago, what I found to be the most important part of an essay was the hook! Make sure you draw in the reader and stand out. Admissions counselors are reading so many essays during this season so don’t make it repetitive but rather stand out with the opener. I would also be mindful in keeping the tone professional. I wrote about a personal matter and while when talking about such things the tone can come off more relaxed it is important to keep the reader in mind and maintain an appropriate tone.

Should I try to match the word maximum or is it okay if it is shorter?

Juan: I certainly advise not going over the word limit, but being under is more than fine if you are able to effectively convey whatever message you are trying to say.

Avani: In high school and now even throughout my college experience all my professors and mentors have told me one thing; quality over quantity. Make sure you use all the words you need but do not use filler words to meet the word maximum. Mine was a little under 650 words but I was proud of what I had produced. If you can say everything in less words that is great but if you use all that is fine too! 

Do colleges look for casual language or more advanced vocabulary?

Juan: By all means, keep it casual. When students try to use language that they don’t normally use, we can tell, and it can ruin the flow of the essay.

Avani: We have all been in the position at sometime, whether writing a research paper or analysis, where we used an online thesaurus or something to find more tortuous words (like I just did). However, I would strongly encourage you to not use over-the-top dictionary words — just sound natural and like yourself. 

How many eyes should I get on my draft?

Juan: If you can, try to have two to three trusted people read over your essay’s draft.

Avani: In high school, every mentor I had always told me the more eyes the better. I always had someone check my draft every time I edited it, and this helped to make sure none of my thoughts were lost in translation. Sometimes after writing, it can feel exhausting to edit and continue the cycle. However, this is crucial and you should also read through your draft a few times.

How many paragraphs should the essay be?

Juan: However many paragraphs you need to answer the prompt is however many paragraphs your essay should be. Most students write four to six paragraphs though.

Avani: One piece of advice I can offer here is unlike most analytical essays — this one is very open ended. You do not have to take the five steps sandwich approach, and you can be more flexible about how many paragraphs you want to use. Just be mindful of the organization and make sure your thoughts flow with good transitions. 

If I am a transfer candidate, what should my essay be about? 

Juan: As I was a transfer student — the thought of rewriting an essay scared me so much! I remember how tough the essay I wrote in high school was, and I had about a month to write the transfer one. I got it done in one day, and while I do not recommend this — I will say if you write about your passions it will come to you naturally. Your essay should be more based on your educational career and aspirations; this is what the prompt is normally about. Somewhere in this essay you could write about why you are transferring and what you like about the university you are hoping to get into - show them that you did your research!

Good luck to you all through this process and remember to make yourself come off naturally!


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