Admissions, Uncategorized

5 Things To Do and 3 Never to Do in Common App Essays

Comments Off on 5 Things To Do and 3 Never to Do in Common App Essays 16 October 2018

Most students stress about their college admission essays. That’s not surprising: personal essays ask you to reflect on your life in a way that reveals both vulnerability and sophistication, global ambition and reach, all in your authentic voice. “As if the student showed up in person,” is how admissions officers describe an essay that makes you excited to meet its author!

How did essays become such an important part of the admissions process? In the 1960s and 1970s, when colleges began to admit a much more diverse student body, they wanted to give those students a fair chance, even when they came from less well-known high schools. Essays were a chance for students to tell their own stories to the admissions committee.

When I served as faculty advisor to the admissions committee at Rutgers University, we often felt a student’s essay gave us insights into who she would be as a student and community member. When grades, test scores, and activities are similar, students who reveal their unique perspective through their essays get a bit of an edge because admissions officers feel they know them. And as grades and test scores have become inflated over the past twenty years, essays provide students a chance to show something beyond their official record.

But how do you pull off that balance of authentic and professional that’s at the heart of a great essay? What if you hate to write, or you’re an introvert and prefer not to reveal the private parts of yourself, or it all feels completely daunting?  

I developed the Moments Method® and built Story2 to help students from all walks of life complete authentic admission and scholarship essays. The Moments Method is a simple process anyone can use to write solid essays and improve their chances of getting in and getting money at their top choice colleges.

The Moments Method is the core of our StoryBuilder online learning platform, which College Greenlight students can access free. The first 50 students to complete their essays and submit them through StoryBuilder will receive two rounds of written feedback on their essays from Story2 coaches.


StoryBuilder includes three self-paced courses on Personal Statements, Supplements, and Scholarship Essays. Everything you need is in StoryBuilder! Here are some bonus Do’s and Don’ts to help you get started:

  1. Go with Common App Question #1: Most students find Question #1 easiest to manage. And folks in admissions, who read dozens of essays every day, say students get the best results with that one too. So don’t overthink the questions.
    • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. Focus on moments of growth or change: Many students’ essays take on too much: everything you’ve done or the meaning of life. Instead, find small moments that have shaped you: a family meal, a project that didn’t work out, or when you did something for the first time. Then, start exploring the specific actions and details that make up each of those moments.
  3. Get out of your thoughts: It’s a bit counter-intuitive (because it goes against how most people are taught to write), but you don’t need to tell people what to think! Your stories reveal your character and connect powerfully to readers through our shared human experience. Sentence by sentence, replace everything that happens in your mind with actions that took place in the world with other people.
  4. Balance vulnerable and professional: Your essays are an opportunity to reveal things about you that aren’t part of your school record. The best essays explore things that are unique to you in a voice that feels like you’re speaking directly to the reader. Do dare to share those things that people may not know about you. But remember: your essays are public documents, so only talk about things you’re prepared to include in your public identity.
  5. Make time for supplements: Many selective colleges have supplemental essays in addition to the personal statement. These school-specific essays need to be researched and shaped for each college you’re applying to. Take the time to research each college, and write specifically for each one. That’s often where close admissions decisions are made.

And here are three things you definitely want to avoid:

  • Don’t apologize or explain: If you have extenuating circumstances that have affected your school or personal record, ask your College Advisor for help completing the Additional Information essay.
  • Don’t tell someone else’s story: Your college essays need to be about you, not someone else. If you’re asked about an influence, focus on how that person inspired and changed you.  
  • Never have someone else write (or heavily edit) your essay: This is your journey, your opportunity to tell your story in your own voice. It’s much better if your essay sounds like you, than an adult trying to write like you.

Story2 is collaborating with College Greenlight to help every student tell your unique stories and complete essays that improve your admission and scholarship results. Get your free StoryBuilder account here.

Carol Barash, PhD, award-winning teacher and entrepreneur, author of Write Out Loud, founder and CEO of Story2, has helped more than 150,000 people tell their stories and advocate for themselves and their communities. She’s a graduate of Yale and Princeton, and she taught at Princeton, the University of Michigan and Rutgers University, where she was faculty advisor to admissions. @carolbarash

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