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Articles / Applying to College / Assay Your Common App Essay

Assay Your Common App Essay

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 30, 2013
“Assay" is a word we don't see or hear very often. What does it mean? Well, no less an authoritative source than Wikipedia tells us:

An assay is an investigative (analytic) procedure in laboratory medicine, pharmacology, environmental biology, and molecular biology for qualitatively assessing or quantitatively measuring the presence or amount or the functional activity of a target entity (the analyte), which can be a drug or biochemical substance or a cell in an organism or organic sample.

I'm using that term only in the sense of those first seven words: “An assay is an investigative (analytic) procedure …" Obviously, as I am prone to do here, I'm making a little rhyme for the sake of a (hopefully) catchy title. So, forget all that chemistry lingo above and think of “assay" as a contemplative evaluation … a contemplative evaluation of your ideas for your Common Application (CA) essay.

Does the thought of writing that CA essay give you chills, indigestion, or nightmares. Not to worry. That's what I'm here for, to lend some helping-hand thoughts to aid your cause. Just keep in mind that the essay is your friend. No, really! In addition to your academic record and recommendations, the essay can can push a borderline applicant into the “Admit" column, if executed properly. That's the purpose of this message — to help you write the best essay you can.

One of my goals for the summer is to make sure that by the time you return to school in late August or early September you will have completed your Common Application essay, or at least have a solid idea to develop. So it's time to start thinking about this, if you haven't already done so.

You will most likely be using the Common Application for at least some (if not all) of your target schools. Chances are, even if you don't end up using the CA, you will still need to write an essay on a general topic such as those that the Common App requires.

The first thing I would like you to do is get acquainted with the Common Application's essay prompts. In order to do that, read this blog post that I wrote: http://www.collegeview.com/admit/?p=3159. It will give you a good overview on how to think about Common App writing.

Please take special note of the link that appears near the bottom of that page. It refers to a series of articles that I wrote for College Confidential: “Real-Life College Essay Lessons." It's located at http://www.collegeconfidential.com/college_admissions/sample_college_essays.htm.

What you'll see in the samples that I posted in those articles is the natural style incorporated by the writers. Their essays flow smoothly and don't have an “academic" feel about them. When you read these, you can almost hear the writers speaking. In other words, their “voice" is natural and not at all affected by formality or overblown usage. They don't use big words just for the sake of impressive vocabulary. Big words don't impress admissions committees. A natural voice, convincingly presented, does.


As an important aside, here's another tip: Get the wonderful little book On Writing the College Application Essay by Harry Bauld. It's worth its weight in acceptance letters. It's as fresh and pertinent today as it was back in 1987 when it first came out. Not many college books go through as many printings as this one has, which is some indication of its legendary status among high schoolers. The secret to Bauld's success is that he takes some of his own writing medicine with the text. There is humor, pathos, instruction, brevity, revelation, and intelligence here. It can be a one-night read, but you'll want to savor it over and over as you build those critical writing samples that will populate your college applications.

Bauld's humor shines through in his mini-play about two young admission staffers struggling with a mountain of mediocre applications and the inevitable sub-par essays. With each sarcastic comment, we get precious insights into how college gatekeepers think (Bauld is a former Ivy League admissions officer). Thus, through poking fun at these fictional essays, Bauld warns us of the perilous pitfalls. His treatise on topics to avoid will be shocking to many who have already planned their essay topics. Are you guilty of writing about “The Trip," My Favorite Things," or “Tales of My Success"? There are other bad topics too. You can also learn why this lead: “I do some of my best thinking in the bathroom" got its author into a top college. There are examples galore with critical commentaries by some of Bauld's admission officer buddies. It's a gold mine for essay writers and a true classic in the genre.


So, think about an essay idea that will address one of those Common Application topics. Also, think about why you decided on that particular topic.

The best essays help you to stand out in a crowd and reveal who you are and how you think. Sure, you can write a good essay about anything, but an essay often has the most impact if it highlights something that is unique or unusual about YOU.

After you have read through all this material–and had a chance to think it over — do the following:

– Jot down at least one Common App topic idea (not an entire essay, just an explanation of your idea). In the past, some rising seniors have actually found it easier to note multiple topics. Feel free to do that, if you're stuck for one great idea.

– Make sure you stay focused on which Common App prompt(s) your ideas are for.

– If you're up for it, write down not only your topic idea(s) but also do a draft of a first paragraph (or two) so I you can review it later to see if you think you're still on the right track.

This should get you started on the track to success.

Finally, try to have some fun with this. I know that “fun" probably isn't the first word that comes to mind when you think about your college essays, but you may find that once you get on a roll, you actually enjoy expressing yourself. Really!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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