4 years ago
Admissions Advice

What kind of common app essay looks better or is more unique?

I am a rising senior currently working on college applications. I have two ideas for my coalition/common app essay. The first one is about my dad's death when I was five and how it taught me the value of leadership and compassion as I was often alone and had to take care of myself and the house (basically a 6 year old house wife lol) while my mom worked. The other is more of a commentary on my love for rock and roll music. In the rock essay I talk about my passion for activism and how many songs in the 60s-80s were against the Vietnam war and highlighted the corruption of the government. I also talk about how my love for rock music inspired me to teach myself electric guitar.

Of these two ideas, which would better appeal to college admissions officers? I want to make sure that I seem like a worthy, unique candidate while also showing good character. I understand that ivy league admissions officers have seen the best of the best, so what should I submit to ensure that I am somewhere near that bracket? Thank you!


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3 answers

Accepted Answer
4 years ago

From the perspective of someone who's worked with... at this point something like 100-150 students on their essays, both of these are valid subjects for a Common/Coalition App essay, but they do both have some drawbacks that you'll need to weigh. Which one would appeal "better" to an admissions officer depends entirely on how they're written—and that's how it is with most essay ideas. It's rare you'll find an idea that would actually be disqualifying if written well, and no topic is going to put you over the top solely on its own. Your approach is what's really important.

First, I'm going to disagree with the comments already here and say that the idea of writing about your dad's death and its effect on you has a lot of potential, and could be an extremely effective Common App essay. For what it's worth, the idea that you can't write about things like deaths in the family are not so much hard and fast rules as guidelines for the average student to follow—most people, by definition, are not going to be able to write a strong essay because most people are not going to have the experiences you've had. If you have meaningful things to say surrounding that experience—and it sounds like you do—there are risks to writing that essay for sure but also ways to do it well.

Namely, it can't just be an essay on "this is what I had to do when I was 6 years old"—it has to have relevance to the person you are right now, the way you look at the world, your values, and how you approach your future goals. You shouldn't spend more than say a third of the essay narrating your experiences from the past—the majority of the essays should (in a figurative, not literal sense), be in the present tense. If you can do that effectively, and make the essay about the kind of person you've had to become when faced with a tragedy like that, it could be a really strong essay.

For the other idea, it has a lower floor (easier to write an essay that will basically work) but probably a lower ceiling (it would be really hard for it to match the emotional resonance of the other idea). If you're uncertain of how to approach writing about your dad's death, I would use the time that you have to try and draft this essay first and see how it turns out. A couple of notes—again you should make sure the essay relates in some way to your ideals and values (it sounds like it already does), and, if possible, how those might apply to your goals. That doesn't mean what you plan to study necessarily, but more so the values and goals you hope to live through and carry out in your life at large.

I would also try to make sure, in that one, that your focus remains on you and not on the music that you're writing about. A common pitfall when you choose to write about art or music or even politics and activism—i.e. topics that don't implicitly relate back to you (as opposed to a topic like the first one)—is that it can become easy to write an essay about those topics and not about yourself. So if it becomes an essay about 60s and 70s rock-n-roll where you're more of a side character than the main focus—that won't be very effective. But if you're able to use that music as a lens or a window to, again, your own goals and values, then it could work very well.

I hope that helps. The basic rule, in reality, is that essay subjects are rarely inherently bad or good. 90% of a college essay is how you write it, and how you parlay that topic into a meaningful narrative about yourself.

4 years ago

Rock and Roll one. There is a rule of thumb to not talk about the three D's: Divorce, Death, and Disease when writing college essays. Not to say what you didn't go through was extremely tough, but it has become a cliche. Rock and Roll speaks more to your interests and helps admission officers paint a better picture of who you are. Ultimately if you decide to write about death, I would be very careful so it doesn't come off as a cliche.

4 years ago

Safer Option but less garunteed:

So the music one should have some tie in to your major if you want to own a buisness say music has thought me this and this will make me a better businessman/woman because of reasons.

You should probably avoid the governmental aspect of the music essay and focus more on musics impact on your life and include 80s music there.

Riskier but is either float or sink no in between:

If you write about your dads passing don’t make it about when you were 5 write about its ripple effects to today and how taking on responsibility made you a better person and increased your passion do not spend more than 4 sentences of your life between ages 5 to age 14. You should focus on the here and now and avoid the “sad sob story” and the overcoming loss part and essentially make this 2 paragraph your 630 word essay presuming a max of 650 leaving room for any things you missed while writing as cutting parts is not fun to do after the fact.

Because of my dads passing when I was 5 I had increased responsibilities and when I was 16 I got a job and that job did x for me. Other responsibilities I had included y. Y thought me that blah is a part of who I am. As my escape I play music and that teaches me patience discipline etc.

The things I learned from x y and music has made me who I am today. insert traits are my takeaways from x y and music these will impact me beyond highschool as the traits will make me a better insert major profession and then explain.

Hope this helps and best of luck to the ivies!

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Duke University
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Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


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