There's no need to fear the Common App personal statement! Although it's an important part of your application and should be as well developed as possible, it's far less daunting than the prompts make it out to be. Here, expert essay coach Daniel McElroy shares his advice for a productive pre-writing process to generate the best possible final draft.
You’ve probably already heard a lot about the Common App personal statement essay. It’s central to the college admissions process, and it’s often built up by peers, parents, teachers and counselors as a make-or-break step.
A lot of these conversations have likely been vague, anecdotal, and maybe even conflicting—none of which is a good recipe for confident work!
What’s that about someone writing their personal statement on the significance of dirty socks?! Someone else spent 650 words explaining how the first three measures of Beethoven’s 6th symphony changed their outlook on the world?
Anecdotes like these might leave you wondering: How could I ever write something so unique? How can I be confident that colleges will respond positively to a “risky” topic?
And if you’ve already spent some time with the Common App essay prompts, you may feel even more confused. How am I supposed to turn straightforward questions about who I am as a person into a creative and introspective masterpiece?
In this article, I’ll help you understand:
The Common App essay prompts remain more or less consistent from year to year: over the past five years only one of the seven questions has changed.
The Common App essay prompts for 2023-24 are as follows:
Because the Common App essay prompts have been relatively unchanged over the past few years, there’s a lot of information we’re able to take from them.
At the risk of stating the obvious, all seven Common App essay prompts really focus on who you are.
I state the obvious, though, because explaining who we are is usually an uncomfortably vulnerable undertaking.
I’ve seen students write a beautiful 650 word first draft analyzing the outlook or actions of every single person they know other than themselves.
I’ve seen students opt for a dry topic over their stated passion, because exploring the source or significance of the passion was overwhelming to them.
The prompts are designed to help you explain who you are, not what you (or those around you) do or think.
Every Common App essay prompt asks for you to dig into how or why you see the world the way that you do.
Whether you find the task of writing about yourself—as well as how you came to that understanding—inspiring or challenging is something you might not know until you begin.
That’s why it’s critical to get started early, give yourself plenty of time for edits, and make sure you have a trusted mentor who can help you explore the ideas in your essay articulately and confidently.
For one thing, some of the questions may delve into things you’ve never even thought to consider about yourself.
Additionally, the mere breadth of options presented by the Common App essay prompts is huge, and this can easily pose some significant decision fatigue if you’re not careful.
Here are a few scenarios I’ve encountered where the Common App essay prompts might have been limiting to students’ potential as they drafted their personal statements:
All of these students had two things in common.
An effective personal statement writing process involves figuring out what it is you have to say—in all its complexity, detail, and perhaps messiness—and then seeing whether/how one of the prompts might assist you in expressing those ideas with clarity.
(Even then, they might not—which is why that all-important Prompt #7 will always be there for you!)
Here’s where to begin:
The most important thing to do when starting your personal statement process is to get writing—messily.
The brainstorming questions on pages 18-19 of the ESM Prep College Essay Writing Guide are an excellent place to begin. These questions are inspired by the Common App essay prompts with one huge difference:
At this stage, there is no pressure to have insight.
We are simply looking for little nuggets of experience, perspective, or interest that might be explored more deeply. The insight will come, but first getting down some thoughts about what makes you who you are without worrying about how or why just yet is extremely useful.
Once you’ve written your brainstorming answers, discussing them with someone you trust will help you dig deeper into the potential insights and, crucially, the connections between ideas that might lead you to the depth and authenticity you hope your personal statement will eventually contain.
Ideally, this conversation will take place with a mentor who can then assign you a few targeted “free-writes” based on the ideas you’ve identified together as having potential. From there, you will have the beginnings of a draft.
The key is that a less prompt-driven pre-writing process will have kept every door open and explored every possibility, and you’ll be in a much more creative and generative space to add layers to your insight that will ultimately lead to the most interesting, genuine and effective personal statement.
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