Tackling the Common App Essay – with Libby Joson

According to Mitch Warren, the Director of Admissions at Purdue University, the Admissions team received about 54,000 applications last year. So, to stand out when applying to Purdue (or any college or university, really) your admissions essay is key. This is your chance to show off your personality and background. Dr. Harry Denny, an Associate Professor of English and the Director of the Purdue Writing Lab, says, “Don’t be afraid to tell your story, but be afraid to tell a clichéd story.”

Since Purdue’s admissions officers receive an immense number of essays to read through, you have to take advantage of this opportunity to express yourself honestly and genuinely. Tell your story as you would tell it to a friend, allowing your best and most unique qualities to shine through. Dr. Denny suggests finding the story that makes you a compelling fit for the college or university you are applying to.

For Purdue’s Common Application, there are seven essay prompts to choose from. These prompts range from discussion of your background or talent to reflecting on failures or ethical dilemmas to any topic you’d like. You must only write 250-650 words minimum to maximum. Be sure to use that small amount of space to your advantage by expressing your passions without babbling.

Tips & Tricks

 Write first, edit later.

One of the best things you can do when writing an essay such as this is to just get your ideas out. You can always organize later. Both Dr. Barbara Dixon, the Associate Head of the Department of English, and Mr. Warren mention that misspellings or grammar errors are not the most important things unless there are a whole bunch of them, so focus more on the content.

Be original.

Dr. Dixon read common applications essays for several years, specifically for the Honors’ program. Flipping through about 100 essays a day, she looked for some kind of originality or a spark of creativity. When writing your essay, stay away from clichés, especially in the beginning and ending. Clichés are a turn off for admissions essay readers. If you really want to stand out, use your own voice. Your essay should sound like you, an 18-year-old, genuinely wrote it, not like your parents or a more sophisticated version of yourself. Be authentic. “The way you handle a topic, showing maturity and ability to look at an experience in your life outside of the bubble, is important,” says Dr. Dixon.

Know your audience.

Try to write about something that admissions essay readers have never heard of before. Students often write about being on a sports team, which can be “yawn-worthy” for readers like Dr. Dixon precisely because so many other people have written about that as well. What’s different or unique about your experience? She recommends thinking about your audience, those admissions officers sitting at their desks and spending hours reading hundreds of essays. You must keep them engaged!

Be detailed.

To make your essay stand out, you’ll want to bring the reader into the story, and let them visualize your experience. As a Common App essay reader, Dr. Dixon enjoys detailed glimpses into the writers’ lives, recollections of their experiences. For instance, your might write about what you learned from a positive volunteer experience, or even lessons learned from things that didn’t go so well. For his part, Warren enjoys essays from students who have overcome personal obstacles. This could even include something as simple as a struggle in a lab science course. “What did you do to overcome it? We really are just trying to get to know you. Honesty is important,” says Warren, “What was the realization you had and what did you do to change?”

Entertain (but don’t try too hard to be funny).

The Princeton Review recommends being cautious if you choose to use humor in your essay. It’s already hard enough to be funny around your friends, so you might not want to try a joke for the first time on an admissions officer. You definitely should never make assumptions about your audience, whether that be faith, politics, identity, nationality, etc. Dr. Denny says, “You just don’t know who is reading it. Don’t go out of your way to be a jerk or say something offensive.”

Keep it down to earth.

“We’re not grading it. Students often assume we’re looking for certain buzzwords, but that’s not true,” says Warren. Write how you would speak, and don’t try to show off. Similarly, Warren advises that students avoid using a thesaurus because the essay should be in your own words. Although you should have a parent or teacher review your writing, make it yours. Write about what matters to you, not what matters to them (Carlotti).

Writer’s Block?

If you get stuck, you can try two free writing exercises, according to Dr. Denny. First, set a timer for one minute and write down anything you can possibly think of, without judgment. Or, find a friend to listen and take notes for you. Second, try a visual storytelling activity like “mind mapping” to chart and then organize your personal experiences. Mind mapping refers to creating a visual depiction of your ideas, with a key idea in a box or a circle located in the center of the map and other ideas grouped into categories around it. Concept (or mind) maps work best with “a focus question to which the concept map comes as a response” (Lang). This will allow you to structure your experiences around a central idea. If you have trouble drawing this out on your own, there are lost of free concept-mapping programs online for students to access.

Final advice?

“Don’t stress. It’s only one part of your application; it’s really just an attempt to get to know you,” says Warren.

Resources

There are many resources you can utilize when writing a college application essay:

  1. Libraries often have writing groups and, if you live in the city, community centers might offer some help as well.
  2. For more help writing your essay, see the Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL):

https://owl.purdue.edu/owl/general_writing/undergraduate_applications/undergraduate_application_timeline/advice_for_writing_application_essays.html

  1. For this year’s Common Application (or Coalition Application) essay questions, see Purdue’s Admissions site: https://www.admissions.purdue.edu/apply/essay.php

As a reminder, the Early Action, financial aid, and Honors College application deadlines are all November 1st while the Regular Decision application deadline is January 15th. One of the biggest mistakes students make is missing the deadline.

Works Cited:

“Crafting an Unforgettable College Essay.” The Princeton Review, https://www.princetonreview.com/college-advice/college-essay.

Carlotti, Paige. “9 Essay Writing Tips to ‘Wow’ College Admissions Officers.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 23 Oct. 2014, https://www.usatoday.com/story/college/2014/10/23/9-essay-writing-tips-to-wow-college-admissions-officers/37397979/.

Lang, James M. Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons from the Science of Learning. Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Libby Joson is a sophomore majoring in Professional Writing at Purdue.