The Evolution of a Common App Essay: Tips and Excerpts
Do’s and Don’ts:
- Do choose a topic that you feel strongly about even if people say it’s cliche. A “unique” essay isn’t effective if it comes across as outlandish, unfocused, or worse—contrived; it’s the way you approach a subject that matters, not the subject itself.
- Do aim for sincerity over memorability.
- Don’t address risky (sensitive) subjects like mental illness or drug use. There’s a fine line between vulnerability and TMI; what strikes a chord with one reader might offend another. Think about how you can communicate similar ideas using different anecdotes. See below.
The Evolution of an Essay
I went through seven drafts from start to finish; this is a shortened (and slightly exaggerated) version of my thought process.
What’s the most integral part of your identity?
My struggle with it has probably shaped me more than anything.
Okay, too risky. What’s an event you keep revisiting in your mind?
That time when I got caught in a riptide.
Why is it significant? Jot down a few key words/ideas.
Helplessness. Fear. Saving myself. Writing. This became:
Surrounded by yet estranged from humanity, so close to shore yet so far away, I began to despair. The sharp pulse of my fear ebbed into resignation; my kicking and flailing slowed. But almost as soon as I stopped struggling, it dawned on me: all I had to do was tread. From this experience arose my poem “Fujian.” This piece is a memorial of the boundless joy I had felt upon reaching land, an elegy for the arrogant girl who had thought that she was greater than the sea. But it is also a lesson for days to come. Don’t waste energy fighting life’s many storms. Weather them out.
I went through several drafts and changed the topic several times, but noticed a recurring focus on the third idea—overcoming a seemingly insurmountable obstacle by ceasing to struggle. In my first draft, I was only able to swim back to shore after I stopped resisting the tide; in my final draft, I was only able to speak up after setting aside my fear of ridicule:
I think about how I’ve exchanged no more than a few words with my grandfather during the entire trip, fearing that he would rue the foreign lilt of my Mandarin. But silence is too high a price to pay. My aloofness has shielded me not from hurt but from connection; it is the weakest defense, mere child’s armor in a grown-up world. And so I clear my throat, my Mandarin an old tune whose lyrics I am only just recalling, and begin to speak.