Whilst students have a range of essay topics to choose from, it’s also worth remembering that all the Common App essay prompts are designed to encourage respondents to cover several important themes.
So, as your students prepare to to write their Common App essay, it’s important that they ask the following questions.
- Which personal experience from my life will make an interesting story?
- How can my essay tell a story and keep a reader interested?
- How can I best illustrate moments in my life which have changed/defined me?
- Will this story show me in my best light?
These questions should inform every section of the Common App essay, and will allow students’ responses to be that much more structured and coherent.
How to get the opening line right
The importance of the opening line in the Common App essay can’t be understated. It’s a chance for applicants to demonstrate flair, originality and wit, and to really grab the reader’s attention. That’s why brainstorming the opening line is an important exercise in itself.
Check out these powerful Common App opening lines from students at some of our BridgeU partner schools. These openers also come highly rated from US admissions staff.
“I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001 – Stanford University
“I have a secret. Every day, after school, I come home late.” – Harvard University
Both these opening lines have short, sharp sentences which instantly grab the reader’s attention and offer intrigue as to the potential topic the essay could be covering. Both immediately offer the promise of an essay which will be story-driven and dramatic. Both openings also suggest a story which will be about a life-changing event in the writer’s life.
In short, these opening lines make the reader want to know more.
How to tell a vivid story
Vivid storytelling, and the ability to hone a narrative is vital when writing the Common App essay. Here are some essential components of a great essay which are worth considering and practicing.
Descriptive language and vivid imagery
“Swinging open the door of my sheltered dorm room, I dashed through the corridor, veering towards the lounge. My sister, intermittently coherent, was acquainting me with the morning’s events. It was the 7th of July, and four suicide bombs had detonated in London. The city itself, typically a bustling, urban jungle, had been paralysed; tourists, office-workers, and residents were trapped like foxes in their holes.”
This is a sample from an essay that discusses the terrorist attack in London on July 7, 2005. Not only does this essay tell a compelling story of the applicant’s experience of what was a traumatic and newsworthy event, but its use of vivid imagery and descriptive language is very powerful.
For example, consider the description that London “had been paralysed”; personifying the city of London in this way helps to demonstrate the writer’s empathy and awareness. It’s also a much more effective use of imagery than simply saying something like “London was at a standstill”.
Getting personal – sharing passions/things that are important to the writer
Each day, I was used to reading and talking about current events. Understanding world events is my passion. Evaluating their importance is my responsibility. Today, however, these same events were threatening to tear my life apart.
I tried to imagine how any religion could not only condone but encourage these actions. I thought about how our Western culture had become irredeemably intertwined with other cultures, all of which seemed mutually uncomprehending. Wasn’t achieving a greater level of cross-culturalism meant to be a good thing?
These are two further excerpts from the same essay. In this extract, we gain an insight into the writer’s personal passions. These two extracts tell us about a time where the writer realised that something they were normally passionate about could, in their own words, tear their life apart.
The writer prides themself on their ability to make sense of world events – this was an event they struggled to make sense of, a moment when their status quo was challenged.
Collapsed on the sofa, I realised that the mission I had chosen, to convince my school community to connect with the rest of the world, to some extent was no longer necessary. July 7th, like September 11th, would do the job for me. I got through that day, as did my family, physically unscathed, but emotionally charged. We all have a choice: to connect with the rest of the world or to cut it off. The events of that morning reaffirmed my choice. Non-interventionism is no alternative. Hell is not other people.
The writer uses powerful storytelling techniques to end their essay, and shows that they end their account of the July 7 having gone on a journey. Having faced a moment where their life was thrown into chaos, the writer reaffirms their decision to connect with the rest of the world.
So why is this Common App essay so successful?
Put simply, it creates a compelling picture of both the writer’s worldview, and their aspirations for the future. It effectively demonstrates the writer’s core values by dramatising a moment when those values were called into question.