Your first three or four topics are most likely not good enough, so don’t be discouraged—keep trying, and stay open to new topics.
Read some books by great essayists, such as E.B. White and Anne Fadiman. Read writing books like Elements of Style and On Writing Well, and take these lessons to heart. Stop reading the English version of Harry Potter; fictions can wait until later.
Complete this exercise. Write a short paragraph in response to this question: What makes me think I can get into [insert dream school]? Answer it in an honest, succinct way. Now you have a message. The goal of your essay will be to convey that message.
After you write your essay, try to summarize everything that you are trying to convey into one sentence, at most two. If you can’t, then it’s a bad essay.
“Show not tell” is a major cliché, but it’s the key to the success of a common app essay. If you want to tell the reader that you are good at English, don’t write “I’m good at English.” Instead, show them you are good at English by writing beautiful, concise prose.
Think of yourself not as a high school student trying to get into a college, but as a storyteller trying to get a reader to care about your story. Remember, the reader is constantly asking himself: Why should I care? Why should I keep reading?
The key to writing a compelling essay is in the details. Insert as many interesting, telling details as you can. If you talk about a dog, mention his name. If you talk about a car, mention its brand.
Show as many things about yourself as possible, but don’t show off. Your awards and achievements are listed in other parts of the common app form, and there is no need to repeat them here.
There is no “perfect essay”; even at your 20th draft, there is still room for improvement. The more you edit and rewrite, the better it becomes. The process stops when you get too sick and tired of your essay, not when your essay becomes perfect. So the common app essay is partly a competition of stamina: the person who can last the longest wins.
Make sure it is under 550 words. Few admission officers have the patience to read anything longer than that. You’ll be surprised at how much you can cut and still convey your key message.
Always get someone whose first language is English to read and proof your essay before submission. A Chinese person who is fluent at English doesn’t count; it has to be a native speaker.
When your own essay brings you to tears every time you read it, then it’s a good essay. Congratulations.
Zara Zhang works at ByteDance in its Beijing office. Previously, she was an investment analyst at GGV Capital (first in the Menlo Park office, then in the Beijing office), a venture capital firm that invests in companies in the US, China, and other emerging markets. She has interned as a reporter covering China’s tech industry for The Information. Her writings have been published on The Harvard Crimson, Harvard Magazine, Foreign Policy, Huffington Post, and China Personified. She has also worked as a marketing intern at ZhenFund. Zara graduated from Harvard University Phi Beta Kappa with a degree in psychology. At Harvard, she wrote and edited for The Harvard Crimson, led the organization of Harvard China Forum (a 1,000-people conference featuring leaders from China and the US), and ran a weekly newsletter about food around the university.
Zara grew up in Changchun, a city in northeast China, and received her secondary education in Singapore. A language enthusiast, she is trained in Chinese-English interpretation and translation, speaks French and Japanese, and can sing in Cantonese.
Zara co-hosted “996”, a podcast where she and GGV managing partner Hans Tung interviewed leaders in US-China cross-border tech and entrepreneurship. Listen on iTunes, Overcast, Spotify, SoundCloud, or search “996” in any podcast app.
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