Take a free practice test

November 10, 2016

 By Danielle Kirschbaum


Take a look at some of the most frequently seen Common App Essay pitfalls and here are our tips for avoiding them:


It is tempting to share all your accomplishments. You want to write about the seven AP credits under your belt or the dozens of community service projects you’ve championed. After all, if you don’t list your accomplishments in your essay then colleges will never know what you’ve done, right? Wrong. 

The truth is, colleges will see a record of your accomplishments simply as a part of your Common Application submission in your activity list and awards. Your teachers, counselors, and mentors will also elaborate on your achievements through their recommendations . The personal statement essay is not a place to reiterate components found elsewhere in your application, but to take us in a new direction. 

Instead of enumerating every bullet point of your resume, pick one aspect that means the most to you, and write about why. Don’t just brag, but brag with purpose! Write about what you learned about the difficulties of teamwork and project management when you decided to launch your volunteer puppy clinic. Give us a personal story about the time your attempts at creating world peace failed and what you learned. The essay is not a place to list, but instead, to express growth and movement in a positive direction. 



We’ve all been there––bad days at home or at school, the week where nothing went your way, or, worse, the time that your life was profoundly changed through tragedy. Sorrow and grief are parts of life, but they shouldn’t be the only component of your essay. The essay is not a short story: it isn’t a space to dwell on the cruel nature of tragedy, but rather, a place to explore the growth that has occurred as a result. 

Much like life finds ways to continue, tell us about how your Grandmother’s illness helped you to recognize the importance of being thankful or how losing the ability to do one thing helped you realize your strengths in other areas. As they say, when doors close, windows open. Find the windows that have been opened by the closing doors in your life and let us know about those. 



Europe. Out of state. The moon. While a lot students have great stories of their first experiences beyond the comfort of hometowns and high schools, unfortunately, too many of these sound all alike. We get it—it was your first time on your own or without your parents. You ate new food. You learned a new language. You made new friends. Don’t use the essay as a chance to elaborate on all of the typical aspects of a new trip. Instead, tell us what you brought home with you. 

How did your trip to the women’s shelter in India change your thinking on global women’s rights? What have you done to further that interest in your hometown? The subtler changes are the ones that are more interesting to read about, and show a deeper level of maturity. For every trip you want to write about, first ask yourself how your day to day actions have changed as a result. If you cannot find tangible ways you have changed beyond the trip, then it probably hasn’t changed your life after all.



You’ve ridden the bench all year but the coach decides to put you in with less than 10 seconds left in the game. No one believes you can do it, but you know that you’re ready. The referee blows the whistle and you charge—you dodge once, twice, three times and then you’re free! You score the game winning goal and your teammates lift you up on their shoulders to carry you around the stadium while the crowd goes wild. 

Heard that before? So have we. Believe it or not, this was not the most challenging moment in your life and has very little to do with who you are as a person. What this story features is a high stakes, high reward dynamic that makes it seem deceptively interesting. Instead, see if you can search your life for other moments of tension and a suspenseful outcome. 

Additionally, an effective essay does not need to focus only on moments of success. It would be much more interesting to read an essay written by the kid who didn’t score the game winning goal but learned something valuable from the experience. Don’t be afraid to reveal moments of vulnerability because these are the moments that make us who we are. What you didn’t do well is almost better than what you did do perfectly. 



We aren’t saying not to write about any of the topics listed above, but rather, don’t go for the easy option and slip into a cliche. Your topic doesn’t need to be polished and perfect, but it does need to be revealing. Let us know how you’ve grown as a result of your experiences, and how this newfound maturity will affect you moving forward.