Five Rules for Crushing the Common App

So, you want to use the Common App? Maybe you’ve read about it on our blog. Maybe you’re already well-informed of its potential benefits, and you know just what to expect, but now you’re ready to start.

In other words, you came. You saw. And now you want to conquer? You’re in the right place.

Rule 1: Show, don’t tell.

Whenever you have the chance to tell a story on your application (personal statements, short answers, etc.), don’t just TELL us what happened; SHOW us.  Use descriptive language, make it exciting, and help us see the experience through your eyes.  This will make us muuuuuuch more invested in your story, and also much more likely to remember it.


A) My father influenced me a lot when I was a kid.

B) Everything we got had to match: Lakers jerseys, well-worn catcher’s mitts, and even everything bagels with cream cheese.  Whatever my father liked, I loved. Whatever he bought, I asked for too…even if it was in a slightly smaller size.

Now, close your eyes and try to visualize each example. They both express the same general idea. But which one description is more vivid? See what we mean?

Rule 2: Find a focus.

Whenever you can, find a way to focus your application. Applications can be VERY overwhelming for readers, especially if you’re all over the place with your responses, interests, and extracurricular activities. Don’t do that.

Minimize extraneous information, emphasize the things you are the most interested in, and try to find patterns. For instance, if you are involved in soccer, theater, and math mentors, that’s AWESOME… but it’s also a bit scattered.

Maybe you can use all of these different activities to highlight the commonalities between them, and by doing so, write about the ways in which all three of them have taught you about your passion for leadership (or a similar kind of overarching, “umbrella” topic that connects them all). This kind of technique will help give the adcom a lens through which they can see your application more clearly. It will also help them remember you, which is the most important thing.

Rule 3: Depth, not breadth.

This is ESPECIALLY important for extracurricular activities. It is more important (and impressive) for colleges to see that you do a few things very well, very seriously, and at a very high level, than it is for them to see you do a thousand things in a mediocre way.

Extracurricular activities are an important part of your application because they help you showcase your leadership skills, your ability to cooperate with others, your passion, and the element of diversity that you can bring to the school. However, you can show these important qualities much more effectively if you focus on pursuing a few important activities very seriously rather than participating in many activities at a superficial level. (Plus, that sort of breadth/extracurricular craziness on a resume will make you look like you’re just trying to “pad” your application, or make it more impressive, instead of actually showing true involvement and passion. Adcoms will see right through that).

Rule 4: Show us what you really care about.

Show us your passion; NEVER write about something just because you think you should. Write about what you actually care about, using language that is truthful to who you are, and shows your unique personality and identity. Impersonal responses that bore you as a writer will bore us as readers, so don’t just use fancy language because you think you should. If it doesn’t ring true for you and the way that you normally speak, dump it.

Also, there is no such thing as a bad or inadequate topic. Anything, no matter how trivial or commonplace it may seem, can make a compelling essay if you actually CARE about it. Your passion will bring your writing to life, and that will bring your application to life as well.

Rule 5: Isolate your POV.

Whenever possible, differentiate yourself. Do whatever you can to separate yourself from your peers, and thereby make your application more memorable.

Try to find what makes your own point-of-view (POV) unique from anyone else’s, and then use that to your advantage. The best way to make your essays stand out is to write them in a way that no one else would, or could, because no one else is you. Figure out what is different about the way that you would tell a specific story, as opposed to the ways that your father or brother or friends would tell the same story. Find your own unique voice, perspective, and way of looking at the world, and then stay true to yourself when you write. This will make your personal statements much more compelling, and will make your Common App truly unforgettable.

Leave a Reply

A Transformative Freshman Year at Harvard