In anticipation of the upcoming admissions cycle, admissions officers share their thoughts on the Common Application essay. In conversation with each other, Penn Admissions staffers offer inspiration, reassurance, and direction for students starting their college essays. Meet the staff here; names are abbreviated below.
What are you looking for when you read this piece?
MM: This is one of the first times you think: What is my identity? Of course this is not fully formed yet. We don’t expect applicants to be fully formed adults. It’s interesting for us to hear the issues students are working through. There is pressure for students to have sensational content. Very often, the essays I remember most are little moments that give us insight into the way applicants see things. Maybe approach the essay with the question: What is my perspective on the world?
CTK: We are looking for a story of the journey of self-discovery. If students don’t fully understand what they are at this point it’s fine, this identity can change.
MC: To piggyback, it’s the imperative of taking the risk of telling a story that’s true. This is the opportunity to tell an off-resume story. This is your opportunity to tell us who you are.
TF: Your essay can also be a point in your story. It doesn’t have to be this moment. When admissions officers look at your resume, they can see your accomplishments in it. Students struggle with the essay having to represent them in this second.
MC: The essay does not have to be this point, but a point in time that is still representative of your whole. This is far more powerful than trying to pack everything that has happened in your life into one piece.
What are your thoughts on the Common Application essay prompts?
KL: I don’t necessarily know which prompt a student chooses when I start reading. It’s interesting to see where the student goes with their writing. The student can move in a million different directions.
JL: Whatever essay you choose, it is a great opportunity for you to share new information and for us to learn about what is important to you.
TJ: When it is very open, students can get confused. Prompts make this exercise more specific. Choosing a prompt is really just the idea of adding extra context.
How might students approach narratives that are difficult to tell?
TF: There are students who are dealing with traumatic things. You can tell your story and it can still show your strength and growth. These can be the most important stories we need to hear. A lot of kids don’t share these stories because they are embarrassed. We are not being judgmental. We recognize that students who take the step to come to college are empowering themselves.
KL: Some students believe that you have to write an uncomfortable essay to be noticed or stand out. This is not true. Of course you should write about a topic that tells us more about you and gives us insight into who you are, but if a topic makes you uncomfortable, don’t feel obligated to pursue it. We are not looking for entertainment in your essays or for you to make us cry, we truly want to get to know you as people and hear what is important to you.
How does the Common Application essay inform the rest of the application?
MM: The essay brings the elements of the application to life. It is so important because it is the only piece of the application where the student is speaking for themselves. We are very interested in how applicants see things, their perspective on paper.
CTK: The essay is the only piece where there is no real rubric – there is no real metric. This is a significant part in telling us who the student is going to be in this community.
BB: It’s our chance to be able to meet you!
Authenticity and voice are often key words that come up when discussing the personal statement. Can you discuss these concepts?
MC: One of the most important lessons of my college career was when a writing mentor told me that I was hiding behind trying to sound smart instead of telling who I am in my writing. Now I share with writers: Don’t hide behind the feeling that you have to sound smart. We know that you are smart. We know that you are capable of this experience by showing up at our door in the first place. Give us your truth. Just be you.
Do you have tips for getting started?
MC: Brainstorm a bank of ideas and experiences- start with a list of experiences that have meant something to you.
JL: Write it and sleep on it. Take your time.
TJ: Maybe don’t even think about the prompts. Think about something that you want to talk about and work backwards. Write several essays.
MC: Think about what you want us to know rather than things you think we want to hear. Tell us that.
MM: Have fun with it. Be creative!
MC: Really engage the process. If it is engaged properly, you will also learn things about yourself. You have to think about what’s important to you. You are not just answering questions, you are really crafting a story of who you are. As much as this process is for us, it is also for yourselves.