Common App Essays That Worked

Most students don’t know where to start when they begin the first draft of their Common App essay. Of course, students write essays in English classes and other courses. However, a personal statement essay for a college application differs greatly from your standard essay. 

In a college application essay, not only must you present your unique worldview, but you also have to convince admissions officers and other readers that you should be given a place at their college. The pressure to write the best Common App essay is high, especially during the beginning drafting stages. As a result, many students feel lost before they’ve taken a single step on their college essay journey.

Luckily, HelloCollege can help you navigate this important part of the college application process. To learn more about what makes for a great college application personal statement, we asked two college admissions experts to share their expertise with us. This advice will help students to capture the essence of their character and to stand out from the crowd when they submit their personal statements this fall.

The Essay Coaches

Alisha Braun and Chris Bench are both Essay Coaches at HelloCollege. They specialize in coaching students and helping them craft College Application essays that will get them into their dream schools. 

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Alisha has her Ph.D. in Educational Policy from Michigan State. After working for 13 years in higher education and teaching at MSU and USF, she began working with HelloCollege in 2021. Chris, meanwhile, holds a Master’s in English from the University of Chicago and has been an Essay Coach for 9 years, 3 of them with HelloCollege. Alisha and Chris each shared their favorite essays with us and discussed the exact features and characteristics that make a Common App essay truly stand out. 

Common App Essay

Alisha says that her favorite essay addressed the second Common App prompt, about lessons learned from an obstacle, challenge, setback, or failure. The applicant wrote about teaching her younger foster brother during the COVID-19 pandemic. Her brother’s preschool was shut down, which created new challenges in her home. She described her responsibilities in detail and talked about how she made an at-home pre-K math, science, and reading readiness curriculum that was fun and enriching.

“I loved the playful moments in the essay,” Alisha says, “about reciting ABCs, counting to 10, and nursery rhyme excerpts (such as opening with “Hey diddle, diddle, the cat and the fiddle” and closing with “Hickory Dickory Dock”). These fond memories of childhood are easily relatable to most readers, humanizing the essay and giving it a light, upbeat tone.” 

Alisha also noted that the connection between this difficult time and the students’ future college plans made the essay stand out. “She expertly juxtaposed these moments with her own experiences as a high school student trying to balance her studies, extracurricular activities, and caring for her younger brother, all while doing well in school and those extracurricular activities. Instead of getting bogged down by these challenges (which is a common pitfall with prompt #2), the essay’s author was wonderfully positive, sharing how grateful she was for this experience which taught her patience and perseverance, and how she’ll apply those lessons to college.”

Chris’s favorite essay, on the other hand, “told a story of a young woman who worked security at a major concert venue helping a concert goer deal with a stressful situation.” The story, he writes, “was evocatively told, but it was also interestingly reflective about the concert goer’s situation—at once empathetic toward the young woman who was experiencing an emotional crisis, but thinking about the bad decisions the concertgoer had made leading up to that moment.” 

“The author was able to then use those reflections to look forward to college, predicting the experience’s relevance to the psychology degree she hoped to pursue. The author did a great job showing her personal insight, then connecting that insight to her college dreams.” Ultimately, because of her thoughtful and unique personal statement, she was able to attend Tulane.

Tips for Writing a Common Application Essay

In both cases, Alisha and Chris stressed the importance of essays’ capturing their author’s personalities and then making the case for why those characteristics made them desirable college candidates. “The best essays,” Chris argues, “are like a particularly flattering selfie in a camera roll: they capture one, particularly winning aspect of the author’s personality, and then they frame a picture highlighting that characteristic in a way that makes them a successful future college student.” 

Personal statements are not easy to write, but hopefully, you now have a better understanding of what a good college app essay looks like. You can never be too prepared, though, and HelloCollege has all the information you need to know to write the perfect college application essay.

We highly recommend that you check out our other blogs on “How To Choose A Winning Personal Statement Topic” and “College Essay Topics To Avoid.” HelloCollege even has an Essay Bootcamp service. If you sign up for our Bootcamp, you can receive one-on-one with your essay, this way; you can create a unique piece of writing that helps your college application stand out.

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The Hello College Team

The Hello College Team

HelloCollege CEO Andrea Emmons has spent the last 15 years guiding students and families across the country on their path to college. Andrea knows the profound impact proactive college planning has on the lives of students and is passionate about mentoring families through the process.
Kevin Krebs - Founder of HelloCollege

About Our Founder

Kevin Krebs

Inspired by his parents, Kevin’s journey from a first-gen, diverse, low-income background to Northwestern University shaped him. After experiencing challenges, including student loan debt, he founded HelloCollege and has spent the last 25 years helping students successfully navigate college admissions.

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