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Articles / Applying to College / Write An UN-Common App Essay

Write An UN-Common App Essay

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 28, 2016

No, that “UN" part in my post's title does not stand for “United Nations."

Yes, rising seniors; it's time! Time to start thinking about your Common Application essay!


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 post — 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 September (or even in August!), you will have a good head start on your main Common Application essay. 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 Common App (unlikely), you will still need to write an essay on a general topic such as those that the Common App requires.

Here are the (same as last year) 2016-2017 Common Application essay prompts (http://tinyurl.com/h5xhdp8):

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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.

To help you get started thinking about how and what to write, here is a list of articles (from the College Confidential site) and Admit This! blog posts that I wrote about application essays. This is a long list, so don't feel duty-bound to read all of them. Find several that appeal to you and then read and learn from them. (Some reference the oldCommon App prompts, but the info on approach is pertinent):
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What you'll see in the samples that I posted in the above 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.
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So, think about an essay idea that will address one of those Common Application topics.

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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.
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.
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To give you a nudge of inspiration, here's an example of an UN-Common App essay that crossed my path from a client. It centers on what you can pull from seemingly mundane observations around you every day and in school …
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There is a certain delight in feeling little. I mean little in the context of the word belittle. As negative a connotation the word has adopted, in a different frame of reference, it's quite enthralling. An example:

I have an unconscious tendency to strategize my position in a classroom. I prefer the front-row-middle seat always.

An early Saturday morning earlier this month found me standing under the doorframe of my assigned classroom, staring at the redheaded girl who had stolen my seat. I spent 54 seconds telepathically explaining to her and her Starbucks coffee that THAT was MY seat. All I got back was static. Giving up grudgingly, I wandered to what seemed to be the absolutely most irritating seat in the entire room—middle-row middle seat. Amazingly, the tallest students of the class found it absolutely necessary to sit in the front two rows, creating a grade-A wall between any view of the front and me. Quite an advantage if the teacher threw erasers, though, but an unlikely possibility in this class—Quantum Theory and Relativity.

My teacher stepped in. Quick punctuated biography of Hayn Park: Born South Korean. Raised South American. Schooled Harvard, Moscow, Columbia. Specialty: quantum physics. Korean military service. Columbia again. His opening bit of wisdom to my class: “Stay in school, at least they don't make you dig ditches." He had me at Panama.

He opened class with the insanely attractive “Common sense doesn't apply here." His follow-ups were even more alluring. “Next class we won't be working in three-dimensional space anymore, we'll start with 3+1 space" and “If something travels faster than light, then your cause will happen after you effect" and my ultimate favorite, “Here's how to make a black hole."

It's been six classes, and I now know what it means to have one's breath taken away, to literally have the air stolen from my lungs by some magnificent invisible force. For two-and-a-half hours every seven days, I enter a world where boredom has no time to invade, where math is the only language, and theory the only absolute. One class a week to grasp knowledge I did not know existed, to learn that what I thought was impossible could be.

The seat I was forced to take that first day has ever since been my greatest blessing. From all four corners I am constantly saturated by brilliance. Angular people lopsidedly focused on a particular subject, speaking with fluency in that one subject. Vulcan at his forge. A distinctive pride arises when I realize I can call these my peers. A distinctive pride with an attached humility. Feeling small is a boon when I see all the room I have to grow.

During breaks, I listen to Hayn's off-topic trivia about anti-matter and the like. The impact of his abridged soda-machine-time lectures is staggering. Instead of unproductively staring at walls on my subway ride home, I reread the notes of the day, redrawing some diagrams, reliving the class. In doing so, not only do I see the facts but I also comprehend their truth. Thinking is a gerund often spoken of but rarely done. Thought is the effect of my Saturday morning venture. Thought—the actual stimulation of new ideas and questions based on logic. Startling myself with what I know what I can know, and what I want to know.

I crave this in college and in life.

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The important thing to remember about essays is that they are an opportunity rather than a burden. Try to understand how many thousands of applications your colleges will have to wade through this coming admissions season. Many applicants will have the same or similar academic and EC profiles. What could make the difference in many cases are the essays that reveal insights of uniqueness about you.

So, take some time to consider how to approach your supplemental essays. Use the articles and examples above to stimulate your thought process and set the stage for your expositions. It's worth every bit of effort you put into it.

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Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.

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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