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Common App Essay Advice from Cornell Admissions

I am sharing an email I received from the Wow Writing Workshop this past week. I have completed their essay program along with several others and agree with this message wholeheartedly. Yes–it contradicts what many people believe, even some other essay specialists. However, in my experience, students who write normal essays and stress less seem to do very well.

I advise students to forego overdone topics (how social media makes them feel inadequate, sports injuries, and how they realize their privilege while doing community service in underserved areas). However, when a student is denied by an unlikely college, the common app essay is not the reason unless it is inappropriate (too boastful or expressing prejudice). And while I don't recommend them, even the verboten topics above can work if handled in an authentic way.

Shawn Felton, Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions and Deputy Chief Admissions and Enrollment Officer at Cornell University, said this:

I've been working in college admissions for a few decades. In this time, I've noticed that students spend too much time searching for stories they believe will make them sound different or unique.

Please don't do that. It's a waste of your time. I don't want different. I don't want unique. I just want to know what makes you the person you are. I want to know what matters to you. I want to know what you care about. I want to know what you dream about.

If you want me or any admissions decision maker to notice you, try to worry less about standing out, and focus instead on standing up. There is a preoccupation with being different and unique among college applicants. I get it. The stakes are high, and there are so many applicants to so many schools these days.

But the reality is, most college applicants are much more alike than they are different. The search for something unique to share is a long, windy road going nowhere quickly. Instead, worry less about being unique and just be you and show admissions readers who you are.

Why am I sharing this? The more I can help lower the stakes at this high-stakes time, the calmer my students will be. And calm students write stronger college essays.


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