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When setting out to draft the common app essay, many applicants think about their achievements, leadership stories, and volunteering activities – things that present them in a completely positive or even perfect light.

However, you can also approach this essay from a place of vulnerability. Think about stories that reveal you are not perfect but show that you have learned a lot, if such stories are truly an important part of who you are and the impact you want to make on the world. Universities are looking for a unique perspective, and a journey of change and learning.

Here are some questions I always ask my students to consider as they start their essay writing journeys.

1. When do you feel that you got things wrong?

Did you have a particular assumption or view which, due to various events in your life, you eventually did a complete 360 on? For example, you initially thought that mental health was entirely separate from physical health, and that seeing a psychiatrist could not help one’s physical symptoms. However, through a series of events, you learned how these two areas of health directly affect each other, realized that mental health is in a state of crisis, and now have some concrete goals to address a particular area within this larger issue and make a positive change in the world somehow.

This can be a great way to show that you are open minded enough to change your opinion or make new discoveries. You can also show you are interested in helping people you can now empathize with, thanks to the specific experiences you had. To make sure it’s unique, consider the various thoughts you had throughout the experience; you probably didn’t have it all figured out right away, and the specific journey you took is what will make it unique to you.

2. Consider topics with a stigma.

Your knee-jerk reaction may be that such topics have not been a major part of your life. But stigma can be limited, subtle, or even largely unacknowledged. For example, maybe in your high school, being in a particular club has a negative connotation. Maybe you have an interest in fashion design, which is not celebrated because it’s not considered masculine. Or, you initially struggled with becoming vegan or having some other dietary restriction for fear of the stigma attached to it. You can establish the stigma first. For example, you feared that when coming out as vegan or as only eating halal or kosher food, others would see you as judgmental regarding their own dietary choices, would see you as radical in some way, or would assume certain motives for your decision. The process of struggling with, accepting, sharing, and eventually embracing a part of your life you initially feared sharing can go a long way in showing how you have grown, and how you can help others.

3. Think about misconceptions people have about you / ways in which you defy expectations.

You don’t need to discuss achievements or academics here. It could have to do with gender norms in your culture or city, or hobbies or interests that seem very random or surprising to others when you talk about them. Maybe you identify strongly with a culture that isn’t your own. Whatever aspects about you surprise people in your life could be a good place to start as you think about how you are unique, and this topic would be especially useful if it has to do with any future goals you have – whether, academic, professional, or simply personal.

The Common App essay can be a great avenue to unleash your creativity and tell your own story. Don’t be limited by what you think the school wants to hear! Dig deeper and reflect on your experiences for those cool ideas that are hiding for now.

4. Consider asking friends and family about yourself.

Ask the people who know you best:

  • How would you describe me?
  • What do you think are my strengths, or the ways in which I stand out?

This is a starting point. You can then consider: Is that different from how I see myself? How so? You ultimately don’t want someone else to describe your story, but people who really know you well may offer some insights that get your creative wheels turning. Also think about what you have learned about yourself through this exploration.

Write top-notch college applications essay with Prep Zone


Wondering where to start with your US college applications essay? Prep Zone Academy is hosting a free webinar about this topic on the 18th of April. In this webinar, we will discuss what US College essays are like and what is the best way to approach them.

  • What are the admissions team looking for in the essays
  • How to balance between whacky and boring topics
  • How to write about your love for a specific university and major
  • When should you start writing them
  • How important are essays for admissions
  • How to approach your Common Application and UC Essays
  • School Supplements – Major and University specific Essays
  • Q & A

Click the button below for more info & registration details.

More Info & Registration
Tiffany L

Tiffany L

Tiffany earned degrees in East Asian Studies and Law from Harvard and UC Berkeley. She studied abroad at Tokyo University, published articles in several law journals, and interned at Warner Brothers Studios and the Writers Guild of America. After gaining experience counseling non-profits in Berkeley, she worked for California law firms specializing in restaurant law and video game law.For the past several years she has enjoyed teaching and advising applicants on their applications to diverse programs, and her track record includes LSE, Cardiff, Bristol, Manchester, Cornell, NYU, Emory, Tufts, and Columbia.

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