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Articles / Applying to College / Your Common Application Essay: Make A Strong Start!

Your Common Application Essay: Make A Strong Start!

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 11, 2018
Your Common Application Essay: Make A Strong Start!
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A sixth finger has started to grow out of the side of my left hand.

No, my hands are still normal, but I'm hoping that I might have grabbed your attention with that opening. I'd like to write about strong essay beginnings today -- the art of the start.

My first rule for writing college application essays, perhaps the most important one of all, is: Think about to whom you're writing.

You are going to be sending hundreds of words to people who are faced with mountains of applications (speaking specifically here about the Common Application), each one containing an essay of at least 250 and up to 650 words. Most will approach the 650-word limit.

In my day, I judged essay contests for various local and regional scholarship programs. Those experiences showed me why I never wanted to be a college admissions officer. I tried to imagine the effect some of the poorly written essays would have had on my admission recommendation for an otherwise qualified applicant. Your less-than-stellar written words can possibly override the strength of your academic numbers.

You'll find an ocean of books out there that will tell you how to write winning college essays. I've written many blog posts and articles here on College Confidential about how to approach, plan and complete application essays. Today, though, I want to focus on making a smart start.

A great start can keep your admissions reader from wanting to quit his or her job. In fact, had I encountered more smart starts in those scholarship essays I judged, I may have actually wanted to become part of an admissions committee somewhere. So, think about to whom you're writing -- someone with enormous piles of application files (paper or electronic) that must be read, digested, evaluated and judged. How will they react when their eyes fall upon the first words of your essay?

Get to Know This Year's Essay Prompts

In case you haven't already seen them, here are the 2018-2019 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 obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

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, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt or one of your own design.

These seven open the door to just about any topic about which you care to write. Prompt number seven even allows you to submit something you've already written, as long as it falls inside the 250-650-word limit range. You can even devise your own prompt.

As for devising your own prompt, if I were going to incorporate the opening I used at the beginning of this post -- A sixth finger has started to grow out of the side of my left hand -- my prompt might be along the lines of “What was the oddest dream you ever had? How did you feel when you woke up and what did you learn from it?" Oh, boy. I'd love to write that essay!

Consider Your Opening

But our mission today is to consider just reader-grabbing openings. So let's see if we can come up with some to match a couple of this year's Common App prompts.

First, let's look at no. two: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

We've all had failures. You may recall that German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, addressed challenges, setbacks and failures when he said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger." This quote can set up an opening grabber or lay the groundwork for a strong variation of it.

Let's say that you failed your driver's exam and skills-test twice. In your state, three flunks require you to go to a remedial driver's education course where all the poor drivers and bad test takers must labor through maddeningly boring classes about the laws and rules of the road, plus actually learning how to parallel park.

Your essay will tell the tale of flunking twice and then, in mortal fear of booting your third attempt (strike three!) and going straight to remediation class, how you mustered all your powers to triumphantly pass number three. That subject content has a lot of possibilities, but first you have to get your readers interested in your saga. That's where your dramatic opening comes in. What might some of them look like?

- Parallel parking sent me to a parallel universe of misery.

- Fortunately, the airbags in my car didn't deploy when I rear-ended that school bus during my driver's skills test.

- My driver's skills test examiner remarked that the five orange cones wedged beneath my car had set the Ohio state record for incompetent backing up.

Get the idea? The theory here is that a reasonably awake and alert admissions reader who sees any of the above leads will 99.9 percent of the time want to find out more about your sci-fi-like parallel parking, gentle bus rear-ending or rollicking wreckage in reverse.

Also, if you can add a twist of humor -- “set the Ohio state record for incompetent backing up" -- you may even cause a smile or chuckle to emerge from your readers. I say “readers" (plural) because some essays get read by more than one committee member. Thus, more chuckles can equal much better impressions. I've always said, “Make an admissions reader smile and you're halfway home."

Okay, how about no. four: 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.

The keys here are “personal importance" and “no matter the scale." It can be anything that has bothered you, which you've eventually fixed. I recommend not trying to be “profound:" Solving quadratic equations, complex chemical formulae or race-related issues, for example. Much smaller, more personal (that word appears in the prompt) and (as always, my favorite) humorous problems can be more effective, in my view.

A big problem these days for teens is smartphone addiction (even if they're unaware). Let's say that you've finally broken your habit and you want to tell the admissions committees how you did that. How can you get them interested enough (or awake enough) to find out about your conquest?

- I had a heart-to-heart with my Samsung Galaxy 9 and told it that we could still be friends.

- My iPhone and I now sleep in separate rooms.

- I'm better now, but text alerts still make me twitch.

Back to “know your audience." It's important to know the conditions under which admissions committee members work during application season. I found a good description of the mindset of those with whom you'll be dealing this application season. Here's a portion of those insights:

The key fact to know about your audience (and yes, you are writing for a specific audience and it doesn't include Grandma) is that they are bored. Tired. Jaded.

Think of all your friends applying to the same school who will spend an hour on their essay with trite blurbs about how good it felt to help the needy. These people must read them, every word. Bring the pain.

Who are these admissions gnomes? Imagine that:

- You are locked in your office from approximately November to March every year.

- You read applications day and night, and we're not exaggerating.

- You work your booty off trying to find the students that will be a good fit for your school, and vice versa.

- You respect every applicant, and you know how much time it takes to put an application together.

- You've read hundreds and hundreds of applications this year alone. They really start to blend together.

Now, imagine that you're that same admission officer and that you've come across one really rad college essay. It's like the smell of fresh-baked cookies, making you sit up in your chair and smile (and reach for milk). ...

… Bliss. You'd want to put this application in your "favorites" pile.

Write for that pile. Get the gnomes excited. Or, at the very least, don't put them to sleep.

Okay, so you get the idea, right? Admissions readers have a pretty tough (and potentially boring) job.

To “write for that pile," you first have to wake them up. But even if they're already half-awake, “don't put them to sleep." That's where your lead comes in.

Pick the Right Prompt

Here's my assignment for all of you who will be applying to college this fall, especially since most of you will be using the Common Application:

Study those seven essay prompts. Pick one that can best realize the story that you need and want to tell your admissions committee readers. Then, before the words begin to pour forth, think about how to grab their attention. Suck them in. Make them feel that they can't wait to see what your lead is leading them to. That's the way to get your essay off to a great, strong, and smart start.

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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