Common App Essays That Worked: Two Approaches to the Personal Statement

What Makes a Common App Essay Work?

The Common App Personal Statement is a many-splendored thing. This 650-word personal essay is part exposition and part narrative,  part summary and part scene, and for many students, entirely confusing. Indeed, this unique genre can flummox even the strongest essay writers, so if you’re confused, you’re in good company.  Added to this confusion is the pressure students and parents put on the common app personal statement as the essay that is sent out to each and every school on the student’s application list. Taken together, this pressure and confusion can leave students frozen—bewildered as to how to begin, and in search of a structure for their unique story. In this post, two experienced essay coaches, Steven Flores and Chris Bench, share two common approaches, along with examples and commentary around what makes great Common App essays and examples of Common App essays that worked. 

Common App Essays That Worked: The Story Approach

Our first approach comes from Steven Flores. Steven has been an essay coach for five years, and teaches critical and creative writing as a professor in the Honors College at University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. As a practicing fiction writer, Steven helps his students see the story structure behind their compelling college essays. In this excerpt, he talks about a particularly impactful essay that arose from a series of brainstorming sessions: 

One of the most powerful essays I’ve encountered was written by a young Indian-American woman who had her heart set on attending top business schools, with an eye toward entrepreneurship or management. I knew from speaking with her that her qualifications were stellar and that she had excelled inside and outside of the classroom, but when it came to providing a neat encapsulation of her character, she was drawing a blank: what could she write that wouldn’t be redundant of her impressive activities lists, or the copious suite of essays covering activities, community, her choice of college, her major, etcetera? How could she capture her purpose in a mere 650 words? 

Identify the root of the essay topic

However, as we spoke, I began to notice a tension.  I listened closely and asked more questions. Tension, while bad for our vitals, is the lifeblood of a good story.  What emerged was actually a host of tensions,  divided into two streams: (1) As a young woman of color, the student often had to make space for herself in activities that were mostly white and male. (2) As a young Indian woman,  the student was trapped between very high expectations to succeed in the business world and the more domestic role carved out by what she called a “traditional” belief system. When I asked her for examples, she spoke of chhaupadi,  the Hindu practice of excluding menstruating women from religious events. Such an event had happened to her. Thinking back on it,  she found it was the first and most concrete example of her being excluded on the basis of biological sex.  More importantly, it was the catalyst that caused her to question tradition, not just for herself, but on behalf of women living within patriarchal laws and norms, and for people of color who have often had to insist on their seats in the classroom and in the boardroom. 

Screenshot (4)

Your College Admissions Journey, Mapped Out!

Introducing our college planning timeline with a handy checklist of essential tasks, a step-by-step guide for every grade level, from freshman to senior year, AND financial aid, college applications, extracurricular activities, and more.

Take the essay from idea to story

The student was a phenomenal writer. Her story began with a vivid description of ceremonial dress and the other sights, sounds, and smells that accompany preparation for a major holiday gathering. Within the story, the excitement for the celebration is palpable, but then, an inciting incident deflates the excitement and introduces tension into her story: We follow our protagonist’s bewilderment and shame after her grandmother told her she was ‘unclean’ and must be excluded from the Diwali celebration. This vivid opening led the student to reflect on how her newfound consciousness led her to challenge the status quo and reject the complacency of “tradition” at both extracurricular and family gatherings. Through engaging, contemplative scenes, the student showed how she learned to navigate her complex identity within a culture she loves and strongly identifies with. Finally, the student projects into the future to show how the confidence she has gained by advocating for her authentic self will ultimately help her succeed in spaces that women of color have traditionally been excluded from—namely, boardrooms. The student was wildly successful, due in no small part to her stellar profile, superlative writing, and—we like to think—her willingness to take a risk writing an essay as intrepid as she was. 

Common App Essays That Worked: The Thematic Approach

While a slice-of-life story springs most readily to mind when one thinks of a “personal essay,” there are plenty of ways to show the admissions readers who you are. This is the terrain of the thematic essay, where you can tell admissions readers who you are, what you love and how your mind works by showing them how you spend your time. This requires the ingenuity, curiosity, and patience to discern the patterns of your personality from everyday events. In this effort, conversations with friends, siblings, and parents can help—and so can a seasoned essay coach. 

Chris Bench, Assistant Director of Tutoring & Essay services at Hello College, has worked with students on college applications for over a decade, and is himself a proud graduate of Kenyon College (AB) and the University of Chicago (MA). Below, Chris details how a students weaves seemingly disparate hobbies into a compelling Common App essay.

The importance of a theme in great common app essays

Whatever I’m discussing with a student, I’m centrally focused on one thing: theme. Students are generally used to thinking about their activities and interests (their presidency of the Debate Team or the process by which they made the varsity tennis team, for example). What they’re often less adept at discussing is the importance of those topics—what the topics reveal about their values, beliefs, and ideals. Often the most interesting and unexpected observations grow out of the mutual discovery, between myself and a student, of an important theme in their life.

Recently, while working with a student, she cited as among her various activities and interests reading paperback airport mysteries, shadowing doctors on their rounds, and learning to employ her grandmother’s handloom to make traditional textiles. Notably, when I asked about the appeal of each of these, she appeared to contradict herself: she emphasized these activities’ repetitiousness—James Patterson’s recycled plot, the hospital rounds’ repeated questions, the handloom’s rhythmic clack and thrum—but also the surprise and sometimes delight to be found in each activities—an unexpected killer’s reveal, a patient’s unique circumstances, a sari’s unique pattern. 

Tie it all together to develop an essay that worked

Significantly, this paradoxical commitment to repetition and structure on one hand and to creativity and novelty on the other matched her general ethos as well as her biography: she was a very deliberate, methodical science student. This was as true for her work in a lab (setting up thousands of petri dishes to systematically produce novel knowledge about the breast cancer cells she studied in her internship) as it was for the repetitious-but-creative wirework jewelry she sold on eBay (the profits from which she donated to benefit the educations of impoverished young women in India). The end result was an essay about the emergence of awesome complexity from relatively simple patterns—for example, DNA—as well as a portrait of a future physician who realized that the structured patient visits would make manageable the complex array of people seeking answers and comfort for themselves and their loved ones. By finding a common thematic framework, we were able to combine three seemingly unrelated topics under a single thematic umbrella, providing an unexpected means of demonstrating her character. 

Great Common App Essays Come in All Shapes and Sizes

Great Common App essays appear in many guises. However, the feature they all have in common is that they give the admissions reader a clear and convincing picture of the student’s character. Each one tells the admissions reader something that they can’t glean from grades, test scores or activities lists. More than specific content knowledge, great Common App essays convey some enduring aspect/s of character that will see students through the invariable trials and tribulations that will appear on life’s path. More immediately, they will show the admissions committee that the student is someone who will benefit their community and that the community will benefit the student in return.

For assistance with your Common App essay speak with one of our experts at HelloCollege

Sharing is caring!

Picture of 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.

Make Your College Dreams Reality

Our proven admissions strategies elevate your acceptance odds. Click now and embark on this exciting journey with us.

Our Students Have Been Accepted to:

Schedule Free Consultation

Our consultations are designed to help you create a roadmap through college admissions. We break down the process into simple terms and help your family understand what’s involved. Plus, you’ve got an expert right there to answer your pressing questions.