An Introvert’s Guide to a Creative Common App

It is common in Inuit culture to teach children through storytelling rather than scolding them and attempting to discipline them into submission. While arguably a brilliant tactic, I am no parent and by no means wise enough to have such a large amount of wisdom to share. However, as your friendly neighborhood older sister, burgeoning writer, and ill-reputed nightmare editor, I have a few tips and tricks of my own to share with the average clueless high school student. Ah yes, the days of yore when I too was in...high school. Dreadful place. Truly don’t miss it. Never plan on going back. Yet, one of the few instances my feeble age-addled mind can remember is the college application season. The time has come and gone for the early applicants to put themselves out there and wait with bated breath at the whim of admissions counsellors and scholarship programs alike. For those still hesitant to apply to schools, or those simply not done with the dratted essay, I welcome you to hear my tale of woe and learn from my many, many, MANY mistakes. 

Now, as the title might suggest, I am not exactly the most social of people; it was no secret that I didn’t exactly get around to leaving the house much in high school. When the time finally came to sit down and write a compelling common app essay, I genuinely struggled to dredge up any impactful, meaningful, or even interesting memories. In fact, I had a page long list (in 11 point font, mind you) of ideas and how they might reflect my character should I deign to write about them. Naturally, I was at a loss. Four drafts and counting, with mere months till the dreaded November 1st deadline, I didn’t have any compelling adventure or life-altering misfortune to win the hearts of the admissions counsellors. As it turns out, I didn’t need one.

Turn that trauma into a good drama, and badabing badaboom my pitifully self-deprecating and truly cringe-worthy essay was born. Spoiler alert, I wrote about getting rejected on Valentine’s Day. It worked I guess, because I got a note from an admissions counsellor that the essay was good. Your essay does not need to be a huge, life-changing moment. There was a technique that students were taught in first grade called ‘Explode the Moment’ which takes an ordinary event or moment and delves deep into it, picking it apart and giving it far more significance than the average onlooker would give it. If, like me, you had no big important life events during your high school career, this might be the route for you. 

My personal writing style is not the most suited for narrative writing (frankly my strong suit lies more in scientific and argumentative writing than storytelling), which made the common app essay incredibly challenging. In the process of drafting and rewriting and editing I was able to find my personal voice and writing style to best suit what I aimed to accomplish in the essay. As it may be, multiple drafts is a lot more work, but allows you to play with your style, voice, and word choice, as well as find the idea which comes most easily to write. I can’t write unless I feel inspired or comfortable enough to sit down and churn out upwards of a thousand words. Obviously, not the most conducive workflow for an essay with a short and restrictive word limit. This made word choice all the more important. I went through a process of machete editing (cutting out large unnecessary chunks) followed by a few rounds of scalpel editing (finetuning word choice, condensing sentences, tweaking formatting, etc.). The best advice is to sit down and just write. Editing and ensuring the text makes sense can always come after. Editing is in fact my forte, and the part of the writing process I most enjoy. 

While editing I’ve seen a fair few essays in my time, both from my fellow college-hopeful classmates as well as younger friends and students. It is not always required in the average suburban high school English class to start writing your essay, and many students lack the help they may need to get started. I was in a rather privileged position wherein I had, not one, but two classes that helped draft and edit my essay in school itself.  If you’re not lucky enough to have a teacher drill it into your head, do NOT under any circumstances try to follow some type of essay formula. The most common boredom-inducing essays seem to follow a few common formats. Ironically enough, in my plethora of drafts I was guilty of a few of these mistakes.

The first of these archival archetypes, Sad Boi Hours, typically is dredged in flowery language of grief and desperately pining for pity points as the author describes a tragic, turbulent time. While these are definitely life-altering, reality-shattering moments that affect the fragile psyche of a teenager, the experience may not say much about you as a person. Remember that the goal of the common app essay is not just to market yourself as a good applicant to colleges. One of the most common pitfalls in these essays is that the author spends so much time focusing on the experience or person they’re writing about that the lesson learned is lost. The focus shifts to the tale of woe when the true focus should be the author. Introspection, maybe? For example, many people tend to write about a relative passing away - especially now this is a common, traumatic experience - and how that person taught them a lesson on how to be or that certain things should be valued. Yes, this is a teachable moment, but rather than reflecting the type of person that the author is, it simply shows they learned and moved on from the event. 

The second of these dime-a-dozen drafts is the not-as-subtle-as-you-think-you-are Resume Builder. Let me guess, you’re trying to slide in a shiny new extracurricular that didn’t make the one page limit of your resume. Unfortunate how you cannot brag to everyone about that transformative trip abroad, learning yet another instrument, or god forbid the time you medalled at a sports event. There is a reason colleges ask you to attach a copy of your resume and answer questions about your extracurriculars. It’s so they don’t have to read about it in an essay. Spoiler alert, these are usually not as interesting as one would hope and usually come off as way more kiss-ass than need be. Moreover, they tend to demonstrate very cliche traits (ie. dedication, teamwork, perseverance). Don’t write what you think colleges want to hear. Instead subtly show them, weaving in traits and talents as part of the narrative and not the crux of it.

You may have the misfortune of being a Thesaurus Thief type essay. This can go one of two ways, with both being equally disastrous. Either every word is some high-brow SAT vocabulary meant to make the author look smart, or the essay is very obviously taken from a prep book/other resource material. The former is incredibly counterintuitive. Despite the words being fancy, colloquial language is preferable if the connotation of the word is incorrect. Does the word actually fit there? Just because a word is a synonym does not mean it can be a replacement. And this goes without saying, but please don’t plagiarise. 

Arguably the worst of all: Too-Visual Visionary aka Schmoozing Shakespeare. To write solely in allusions and allegories is an art not easily perfected in high school. These essays usually waste words on description and setting the scene without getting to the meat of the story. Sometimes the authors will employ highly symbolic metaphors and completely lose the reader in convoluted language and run on sentences in an attempt to seem artsy and highbrow. If the reader is getting lost trying to find the meaning of the piece then the author has failed. With the word limit every word must be intentional and well placed. Moreover, hooking the reader quickly and efficiently allows the narrative to progress quicker, ergo the point the author is trying to make gets made much quicker. 

Full disclosure, I did not have the perfect essay. I’m not a perfect writer. However, I do stand before you as living proof that an essay like mine got me into colleges. So, to prove my advice has merit, and that I don’t enjoy ripping apart other people’s writing for fun, I offer my own humble attempt of the old Prompt #5. Here in all its roughly edited, poorly proofread glory is my own Common Application™ essay: 

Valentine’s Day comes only once a year in a frenzy of red, heart themed versions of EVERYTHING. It’s a classic Hallmark holiday for couples to rub in your face how very single you are and prove their material love through the purchase of unnecessarily ostentatious gifts. And naturally, like most hormone-driven teenagers, I too succumbed to the thrill of the pink frills.  

Like every other good coming of age story it started on a seemingly normal day. Our not-so-daring heroine, yours truly, was about to attempt a feat of herculean proportions: confessing to her crush. For the time being, I was blissfully unaware of the impending trainwreck. I made a card, painstakingly gluing tiny paper hearts on the inside and doodling a Pikachu as an inside joke. I sat as my target approached... and procrastinated my way till it was time to go. Bag in hand, coat on, already halfway out the door, I just went for it. I shoved the gift bag into his hand, dipping in for a quick hug. Cutesy, right? As if the tomato red hue I was turning wasn’t enough, I then proceeded to land a kiss on his check, turn around, grab my stuff, and hightail it out of there. And his response was...NOTHING.

Cue the mope, but naturally more dramatic as I was an angsty high schooler. 

Step one: Denial. Maybe I wasn’t clear enough? No, I think a smooch on the cheek is usually a pretty clear message. Then on to step two: Anger. We are SO not friends anymore. I skipped club meetings, along with a get together or two and realised that silence, the absence of the day-to-day noise I was so used to, was absolutely deafening. And finally step three: Eureka moment. I had lost the one thing I should have valued most: his friendship. I spent so much time blaming him, blaming the circumstances, blaming my problems that I never really had a chance to look past that.  I had failed to ask myself why. Why was I ghosted, besides the obvious fact that he did not like me?

 I learned he liked his best friend, his best guy friend that is. Now, that was a bit embarrassing. He never would have liked me, at least not in the way I had hoped. Obviously it was hard to essentially expose the entirety of your true unfiltered self, much less to your ditzy friend with an inconvenient crush. So he couldn’t bring himself to explain it to me. Or rather I never took the time to look hard enough.

The proverbial rose-tinted glasses fell off to reveal that I was not, in fact, the leading character in the novel of life, however much I might have wished I could be a Lizzy Bennet. But even after this realization, getting back on the right track was no easy task. When I finally showed my face at the next robotics meeting, I wasn’t quite sure how to act. Thankfully, he solved that problem for me, greeting me with his a lopsided grin and a warm hug, like it was any other day. Despite the fact that those feelings would never be returned, it was more important that I be there to support my friend. He was undergoing the most difficult time of his life. Rather than being consumed solely by my own issues,  I needed to be sensitive to him. Growing up as a person who has never borne the ire of society, I’ve always taken and taken, never giving back to those who helped me get to where I was. I was privileged.  I still am, but rather in the sense that I’ve grown and know that there’s more to a relationship, regardless of what kind, than merely taking. I learned that I too ought to be a source of support.  

Aside from the glaringly obvious typos, one should note the cheesy, almost fable like conclusion. There is a lesson learned. I, the author am a changed person. The focus is on me me me, as it rightfully should be, in order to demonstrate who I am, what I am like, and why this quality (qualities?) make me a perfect applicant. And, not to toot my own horn or anything, but it’s kind of funny. In a more universal sense, because my life is one big cosmic joke, the admissions counsellor who complimented my essay was from the college of the guy who rejected me. Don’t be scared to laugh at yourself. People take the common app essay WAY too seriously. At the end of the day this essay is the cherry on top of a good academic record and resume. 

If all else fails, the following block of text is a good way to make sure you’ve covered your bases. What prompt did you choose? Why? What experience or story from your life fits best for the prompt? What does it say about you as a person? What do you want colleges to learn about you from this story? Is it the typically xyz hobby changed my life, relative/pet died, or I’m amazing because I achieved xyz story and would you consider changing it? What sort of tone do you want to have for this story? How does this tone reflect on your personality? Do you want to sound like YOU, and if not how do you want to accomplish that? Do you want to big a sequence of events or focus on one smaller instance? How do you plan to cover all events in the word limit? Can you sufficiently ‘explode the moment’ in a way that shows something about yourself? Do you  have a backup prompt/story idea? Do you have an outline? For your first pick prompt? For any backup prompts? Do you have an idea of pacing or how much you want to include? What is your process? Generate lots of ideas. It doesn’t have to be something big, profound, or some sob story. It can be something small as long as it shows something about you. Be willing to start several drafts. If need be make a chart of the sequence of events, cause and effect, etc. Free write. Conference with many many people. Did you catch all the typos? Stick each paragraph in google translate or read it outloud so you can hear the essay. Does the essay read like someone speaking and telling a story? Do you need more punctuation? Do the sentences make sense? Edit and revise, edit and revise, edit and revise, repeat.