A Common App Essay For Yourself


I remember the day in 2013 when I discovered that my whole life would depend on 500 words.

As a high school student, I had always found writing assignments easier than math problems. But the Common App essay was still the most dreadful, daunting, and distressing thing that I ever had to write. During this torturous process of crafting a compelling narrative for myself, there were many times when I fell into an existential crisis: Why can’t I come up with anything interesting to write about? Am I just a boring person? Have I lived the past 20 years in vain?

After several weeks of thinking, writing, rewriting, discussing, rewriting, rewriting, and rewriting, I was still unsure that I had done a good job—until I received letters of acceptance from Harvard and Princeton several months later.

As I reflected more on this experience, it occurred to me that high school students are required to write a Common App essay at a time when they are least equipped to do so. Reflecting and writing about myself and my life was not something I was taught to do in school. Even though almost all my classes (General Paper, Literature, Geography, Economics) required extensive writing, the kind of writing that I was instructed to pull off in exams and assignments was designed to impress the reader with eloquence, logic, and grasp of relevant content. We were taught to be objective not subjective, generic not personal, and to never use the first person in an essay. How can I be suddenly demanded to summarize my whole being in 500 words when every day I am told to do the opposite?

The personal essay is a fascinating genre of literature that is worth studying, but no one told me about all the great writers who crafted the works of art that exemplify its beauty. It was only after I entered college and started writing as a hobby that I began to appreciate the way Anne Fadiman writes about books, M. F. K. Fisher writes about food, and Gay Talese writes about people. Even an incorrigible bookaholic like me could not squeeze out time to read these writers from my impossibly packed schedule in high school. If only I had the chance to study these fine examples before writing my Common App essay, it would have been a much smoother and informed process.

There is so much at stake in these 500 words that we feel pressured to write self-consciously in prescribed ways. We are told to write something that would make ourselves appear well-rounded (but highlight your unique strengths), smart (but don’t come across as nerdy), well-read (but never show off with long, difficult words), and authentic (but make sure it’s a captivating story). There is no end to the list of contradictions.

But somehow, we all manage to come up with these 500 words, become sick and tired of revising them, and decide to put an end to this painful process. It may not be the perfect essay, but it is good enough that a current of pride flows through our body every time we read it.

Looking back, I can say that the exercise of writing a Common App essay, though excruciating, was also extremely enlightening. It helped me rediscover and redefine who I am. Over my past two years at Harvard, whenever I felt lost, rereading my Common App essay never failed to remind me of my passions, my strengths, and my aspirations.

It also made me realize that this essay serves more purposes than impressing an admission officer. It is a monument to your achievements in the first part of your life, a documentation of how you define yourself at age 20, a guidance to your future self. When you come back to it a decade later, you inevitably smile, and reflect on how far you have come, whether you have stayed true to your young self, and why you have or have not deviated from the path you envisioned.

Two years after I submitted my college applications, I still don’t feel ready to write a Common App essay.

For many of us, the first 20 years of our lives consisted of a linear trajectory whose finish point is marked by a letter of acceptance from a good college. Study hard. Play the violin. Join the student government. We had a singular sense of purpose, and did not need to think about larger questions such as: What do I want to achieve in my lifetime? How do I see myself contributing to humanity? These questions, we were told, will be resolved naturally once we get into a good college, which will lead to a good job, etc.

But now that we have achieved the big goal of getting into college, we are deprived of the lighthouse that has guided us throughout our youth. Adult life is no longer characterized by a blissful straightforwardness. There have been many times, since I got into Harvard, that I’ve asked myself: Now what? What’s the next big thing that I should be working towards?

I have finished half of my college career, but I still don’t feel ready to answer these questions. Even though I have a general sense of what I like to do (I’ve found great joy in writing, for example), I’m far from certain about what kind of career I will undertake, which organization I will work for, or which professional school I will enroll in. I’m not worried, because this sense of confusion is the blessing of a liberal arts education—a sense that you know many things and can do many things well. But sometimes it is important—even life-changing—to pause, take stock, and ask ourselves if we are doing all the things that Commencement speakers recommend in their speeches. Am I “following my heart”? Am I staying “hungry and foolish”? Am I “getting out of my comfort zone”?

One day, an idea crossed my mind: write a Common App essay, not for a college, but for myself. There is something powerful about converting our reflections into words, because it creates a sense of clarity that we can never obtain otherwise. In order to know ourselves, we have to communicate with ourselves. Yes, it can feel like self-torture—but no pain, no gain.

Though it may sound crazy, I’ve decided that writing a Common App essay is something that I should do regularly, especially when I’m entering a new phase in life. It can serve as an anchor, a self-help guide that is written by the person best equipped to help me: myself.

Feeling lost? Maybe it’s time to write a Common App essay—not to get into a college, but to get more out of life.

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