Estrela Consulting Blog

Being Not-So-Common in Your Common App Essay

Kristina Dooley May 18, 2015

650 words.

650 words to share your story.

650 words to make an impression.

650 words to demonstrate why YOU are the best candidate.

650 words that will determine your future.

Wait, what?? Can this be true? Will your college essay REALLY be THE reason you do or don’t get admitted to a school…and why you may or may not end up on the Forbes 400 list?
Ok, maybe this is stretching it a bit…but your college essay IS important. In fact, the National Association for College Admission Counseling’s 2014 State of College Admission survey revealed that colleges ranked the essay as the 5th most-important factor in the application process.  The only items ranking higher in importance were grades, curriculum and test-score related.  Recommendations, extracurricular activities, class rank and interviews all fell further down the list of items…AFTER the essay.
So how can you make sure your essay stands out in a sea of “meh”? While there are many ways to tackle the essay-writing process, some general rules to follow are these:

  • Write as you would speak: Not sure how to do that? Read it out loud and ask yourself “Would I ACTUALLY say that?”
  • Tell YOUR story: This is about you, not about the YOU that someone tells you you should be…the REAL you.
  • Share something NEW: If your essay is about something that’s already outlined in another part of your application, choose a new topic. This is your opportunity to show your depth and breadth of interests/experiences…don’t waste it!
  • Be genuine: Admission officers are trying to get to know you via your writing. Let them in.
  • Don’t try the “Shock and Awe” tactic: Your essay isn’t the best place to test out your comedy act or tell your best gross-out story. Yes, you should be authentic, but don’t use this as a venue to be over the top.  You never know who will be reading your essay on the admission staff and while offending them with your essay may leave an impression, it’s probably not the one you’d like to make.

The Common Application will launch August 1st but that doesn’t mean you need to wait to get started on your essay.  Each year the essay topics are released in the Spring so that rising seniors have the opportunity to begin considering which they’ll choose, and what they’ll focus on in their essay.  Here, for your viewing pleasure, are the 2015-16 Common Application essay prompts:

  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.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Students will choose ONE of the topics above.  The essay should be 650 words or less and, beginning with the 2015-16 application cycle, Common App member schools may elect to require or not require the essay (it has been required by ALL members in the past).  However, most member schools will likely still require this portion of the application, so students should plan on this being a part of their application preparation. Completing this significant task prior to the August 1st launch of the Common App will not only save you time once your senior year begins, but it will also allow you to complete your applications by early fall ahead of deadlines.  Happy Writing!

Essay writing guidance is just one of the many services offered by Estrela Consulting.  For more information on how we can help you through your writing process, or any other aspect of your college planning, please contact us at