5 ways to make your Common App essay personal

Posted on Posted in University applications

“Is my Common App essay personal enough?” – Make your essay shine!

As you are sitting there, writing your college essay, you probably wonder:

“Am I just writing the same stuff as everyone else?”

“Will they see my personality shine through in my essay?”

Make your Common App essay personal

“Should I even continue writing?!”

Of course you should continue writing! Don’t be silly – you are not the only one asking these questions.

You just need to find ways to make your Common App essay personal and talk about “you”.

Read on for 5 ways to help you along the way.

5 ways to make your Common App essay personal

  1. Tell a story
  2. Use anecdotes
  3. Match your tone to your story
  4. Use “seems” instead of “is”
  5. Use your own “names” for things

1. Tell your reader a story

Cognitive science suggests that stories engage the brain and aid learning. Stories are interesting and are easy to follow.

More importantly: they are easy to remember.

Use this pedagogical principle to your advantage!

Writing your essay response in the form of a story will make your Common App essay personal. And it will help the admissions team remember your application.

This is not meant to be “literal”, by the way. Please don’t write “My story is about how I want to go to college.”

Don’t even use the word “story.”

Rather, think of your response to the prompt in terms of “storytelling”.

The elements of storytelling are often summarised as the 4-Cs.

There are many different versions of what these Cs exactly are, but for your purposes we use the following:

  • Causality: events are linked by cause-and-effect, which establishes logic and structure.
  • Conflict: stories rely on goals and obstacles that need to be removed (leading to success, of course!)
  • Complications: nothing in life is straightforward or easy, which causes more and more obstacles, making final success even more impressive.
  • Character: stories are about people and the relationships that bind them, because they move the action forward and we can identify with them.

When you look at your Common App essay prompt, consider how you can answer it by using these story elements.

Example: Let’s say your prompt is about “your greatest idol”. How could you make the Common App essay personal by turning it into a story?

The characters are you and your idol, so much ist clear. But there are also those who your idol has positively affected, and those who you would like to affect positively. Your idol’s significance may have been rooted in how they handled conflict by removing the obstacles in their way, regardless of how one obstacle was complicated by another one. There is a direct relationship between you and them through the reasons (causality) that made you notice them, identify with them and, finally emulate them.

Voila! And there you have a story.

Follow the 4 Cs to make your Common App essay personal, and your readers will remember you.

2. Use anecdotes

Anecdotes are stories from your life that illustrate ideas by giving concrete examples of abstract concepts.

Using anecdotes will help to make your Common App essay personal because anecdotes add real-life experience and impressions to the structure. They are specific and genuine.

Your readers will not believe you if you simply tell them that you “were courageous as a boy”. They will want to hear more about what you have done so they can judge if you were “courageous”.

So, give them a little anecdote about how you were:

  • seriously courageous when you “stood up to the bully and protected the weak”; or
  • curiously courageous when you “decided to buy that shirt although mom had explicitly told me to save my money for college”; or
  • surprisingly courageous when you “shouted ‘Hear me out, will ya!’ to my couch when he lambasted me without giving me a chance to speak”.

Those are pretty clichéd examples, I admit, but can you see how there is all of a sudden some image and some “real-life” feeling to the word “courageous”?

That’s what will make your Common App essay personal.

Just be sure not to make up anything or lie – one can tell from your writing if you were there or if you weren’t!

3. Match your tone to your story

“Am I allowed to swear in my essay?” is an often-asked question.

The answer is always: only if it (a) belongs into your story and (b) is crucial to the impact of your story.

The idea is this: make your Common App essay personal by choosing a genuine tone.

This piece of advice, however, goes beyond swearing. It goes for the tone of your story as a whole.

  • if you tell a story that starts in your childhood and ends in your teenage years, you might want to have your tone develop from sounding childlike at the start to mature at the end;
  • if you tell a story about an emotional episode, feel free to adopt a very informal vocabulary containing emotive diction;
  • if you tell a story that discusses current affairs, you might need to write with greater formality, using technical vocabulary and the jargon of politics.

Remember: a story doesn’t only rest on what you write, but also how you write about it.

Use style to your advantage and adopt the tone that suits your particular story.

You will end of writing a story that sounds genuine, and readers are always captured by genuine emotions and impressions.

4. Use “seems” instead of “is”

Swapping the verb “to seem” for the verb “to be” can be a neat little device that, if not overdone (!), can lend your very unique perspective to events and make your Common App essay personal.

Look at these two sentences:

  1. The greengrocer was a strict but fair man.
  2. The greengrocer seemed a strict but fair man.

Which one of the two sounds more “personal”?

That’s right, the second one.

The use of the word “seemed” puts a personal point of view on the world. It’s almost like you are forcing your reader to wear “you”-glasses.

Throughout your essay, keep an eye out for opportunities to substitute “is” with “seems” to draw your reader into your world.

This swap works best for sentences that are non-factual – when you suggest that facts “seemed” a certain way to you, you either need to explain a warped perception or you show yourself to be a little unknowledgable.

So, a note of caution: like with everything else, use this device with caution, else it boils over, and turn your essay into pitch.

5. Use your own “names” for things

You call your mother “ma”? Write it.

You call a pen a “stylo”? Write it.

You call a friend a “pal”? Write it.

We all have our own weird little knacks and quirks. We all have our own views of the world, attitudes towards events, emotions linked with experiences.

More often than not, these will find expression in the language we use.

Use this principle to your advantage and don’t be afraid to inject some “personality” into your essay.

You can always back-scale a little bit during editing if it sounds too much.

Overall, however, this device will make your Common App essay personal by giving it a distinctly “you”-flavour.

Feeling a little better now?

I think you should.

Following these 5 easy tips can make all the difference to how your audience reads and, more importantly, remembers your essay.

Even if you already have a solid draft, you can make the Common App essay personal by swapping a verb or inserting an anecdote.

If you are looking for more personal help with your application essay, have a look at how I can support you further.

Good luck for your Common App essay!