Navigating the Common App this Fall: Focus on the Writing


 Applying to college during a pandemic may seem like a daunting task. Students worry how their admissions chances may be affected, especially if the pandemic prevented them from participating in important extracurriculars, or their grades took a hit. Fortunately, college admissions offices are aware of the challenges posed by COVID-19 and have adjusted their expectations accordingly. Some admissions officers see this year as an opportunity to experiment with the admissions process, possibly generating better ideas that will continue to be used in the future.

A trend in this year’s admissions process is the heightened importance of the college essay. Test scores, grades, and extracurriculars may be affected by the pandemic, so it’s up to students to make their case in their essays. The essay questions for the common app will be the same as last year’s, but this year the common app offers a space in the Additional Information section for students to explain how COVID has affected them or their communities. Keep in mind, this question is designed to give students not only a chance to speak about the difficulties brought by the pandemic, but also how they rose to meet the challenge. They want to know: How did you help yourself, family, and community during the pandemic? How did you persevere? What did you learn about yourself and your ability to face challenges that makes you a good candidate for our school? For more information about this topic, go to the common app website

Keep in mind that if you choose to answer the question about COVID-19, you probably shouldn’t talk extensively about the pandemic in your personal essay. Use that space instead to focus on something that sets you apart from other applicants. The common app offers several prompts; choose the one that allows you to make the best case for yourself as a potential student. You can find this year’s essay prompts here. A great college essay should be quite personal—even if you write about people or things that are important or inspiring to you, make sure that the main focus is on you as a student and person. Offer your reader a window into your life and specific information to help them connect to you. Avoid clichés, generalizations, and lists of your accomplishments. The admissions committee doesn’t need a restatement of every extracurricular activity you’ve ever done. They need to know what you are passionate about (and importantly why), your goals, the way you think, and how you express yourself. Significantly, don’t simply tell them—show them. Do it through anecdotes, analogies, and examples. This way you offer admissions counselors a side of you that may not be readily apparent in other components of your application, and it is a way to promote your writing abilities in the context of fairly personal life stories. In other words, take the essay as space to demonstrate how you apply what you learn.

The best way to write a great college essay is to start drafting early. If you’re not sure which prompt to go with, do a free-write for several of your top picks and select the one that allows the best writing flow. Once you’ve settled on the question and penned a solid draft, seek out help from your school’s counselors, teachers, or writing coaches. Write, rewrite, and polish until your essay is the best it can possibly be. At 650 words, the college essay demands that applicants express themselves concisely and effectively—there is little room for error so make every sentence mean something. Keep in mind also that many colleges require supplemental essays, and these should receive equal attention and rigorous editing.

In sum, don’t stress too much. This can be exciting. It is an avenue through which to practice effective communication, tap into your creative energies, as well as showcase something about yourself that you’re proud of and that can’t be captured only with a resume.

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