Common Application–First Essay Question


With the Common Application now out online and this year’s questions posted, I thought that I might discuss how to approach some of these questions.

The first question asks you to “Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.” In my experience, this is the most common question in college applications, the one most applicants can get a pretty good working essay out of, and probably the one with the most danger to it. It might look easy, but it’s easy to go astray.

The part that’s the most straightforward is the part of the question that asks to write about yourself. Finding something that happened to you might require some brainstorming and some gray matter to the grindstone, but usually you get it: a summer job, a trip, a visit, an encounter, a choice made. While I’m general here, finding these experiences in the context of your own life will come. Be as specific as you can: a time, a place, a person. Don’t try to cram it all in. Instead, the focus is on one thing. Tell us the story of this one thing.

Here’s several place where students can make some mistakes:

  1. You find something meaningful and that has had impact, but isn’t really about you. I’ve seen essays reflecting on a sister’s drug use, on the death of a beloved grandparent, the loss of a sibling. All of these are important and meaningful topics, but frankly, they don’t always show the student writer. To do well at this essay, your topic and your life event has to be an event that you were front and center in as an active participant and that shows something about your personality, character and individuality.Also, the above mentioned danger topics also draw a certain amount of pity to a candidate and can feel manipulative to the readers as such. Get into college by showing you and not trying to get an admissions officer to feel bad for you.
  2. There’s a second part of the question that is easy to skip over. It’s that first word, “Evaluate.” This means that they want to see that you’ve figured out what you’ve gained from the experience. What insights or lessons or perceptions have you gained. Again, it doesn’t need to be some Siddartha-esque awaking or Joycean epiphany. Instead, just say what you didn’t know before the experience.
  3. Make sure the experiences are unique. Too often students write about playing soccer, participating in band, or the coach that made them do 1,000 push-ups. It’s hard to find that independent thing about you, but the college essay is showing how you’re different rather than the same.

In the next few days, I’ll share an essay or two that shows some of successful ways other students of mine have gone at this question. Before then, sit down and brainstorm a list of some potential topics that might help you respond to this question.