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Using themes to anchor your common app essay

In Essays and Senior.

Using Themes to Anchor Your Common App Essay

Ok, so we’ve covered the basics of two of the major genres of the college essay--the Common APP and the Supplementals. Now it’s time to talk about how to craft a good essay. 

Before we get into the nitty gritty, I want to make one thing clear. The only truly essential starting point for your essay is that it be about something important to you. 

Check out this quote from Christopher Burkmar, Princeton University’s Associate Dean of Admissions: 

“Consider a mundane topic. Sometimes it’s the simple things in life that make the best essays. Some of my favorites have included essays that reflect on the daily subway ride to school, or what the family goldfish observed from the fishbowl perched on the family kitchen table. It doesn’t have to be a life-changing event to be interesting and informative.” 

Regardless of the topic, the best essays do not focus on a moment of crowning glory qua glory, that is. Their meaningful content goes deeper than the surface level achievement.  

The best essays hone in on details to paint a picture of self-awareness and personal transformation. What might that look like in practice?

We’ll explore some ideas in the next section. For now, though, let’s talk about some of the common values that we see in winning essays. 

Why do we write essays? Values, interests, and lessons

Why do we write essays? Or rather, why do colleges and universities require essays as a part of the application process?

It’s not because they want to take a look at your vocabulary, see how masterfully you can string together a sentence, or understand just how good you are at something. 

Your goal in the essay is not to impress the people who will be reading it. At least, that is, unless you’re trying to impress them with your maturity, humility, sense of self-awareness, and capability for deep reflection. 

The biggest obstacle in my work is coaching students away from “writing to the admissions committee.” That is, most students can’t escape the tendency to write their essays with their readers always in mind. 

To write a really great essay, you need to stop trying to impress a panel of mysterious readers whom you’ll likely never meet. 

Essays can be about almost any topic. The one condition: the topic needs to be a gateway into reflection. What does the topic, event, realization, etc., really mean or represent to you?

Here’s a flippant and geeky example from my life, to show how a solid essay concept can come from almost everywhere.

I’ve been playing video games since 2003, when I was 10 and picked up Warcraft III: the Frozen Throne (go ahead, look it up!).

For me, when I think of that game, I think of riding my bike down to my friend Dakota’s house on a rainy afternoon, sitting in his dad’s office, and taking turns playing games while his younger sister watched Elouise on VHS in the next room. 

I remember the hype when a game would reach its last, climactic battle--usually accompanied by the framerate tanking and us waiting for the smoke to clear. I also remember the simple feeling of belonging and friendship. 

Now that is a specific memory.

But is it yet an essay? Not quite. What’s missing is reflection: a clear connection to my life today. How has my relation to video games changed? How has it remained the same? Why does this memory matter to me? 

But it’s a good start. If nurtured, that seed could turn into a powerful essay about memory, change, and the plasticity of friendship over time. 

Point of Emphasis: My video game essay idea is good because it starts with something real, a highly specific memory with emotional power. It’s not glorious... but it is genuine.

To get your mind whirring, here’s a list of common themes that we see in all essays, no matter what specific content. 

Common Common App Essay Themes 

Most essays provide prompts that are "evergreen." That is, they are designed to elicit reflections that never really get old. I’m going to talk about a few of the most common that I see in my work. 

Intellectual vitality

Essays that highlight an applicant's “intellectual vitality” are ones in which the writer reflects on a source of unmitigated academic or intellectual passion in their lives.

For example, a cellist might write his obsession with replicating, note for note, Mendelssohn’s 5th symphony on parchment paper.

An aspiring art historian might recount an experience sitting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, watching an old gentleman sketch an ancient marble statue and imparting a history lesson about the geopolitics of the Mediterranean. 

“Deep” history

Deep history essays focus on familial, cultural, or other similarly deep wellsprings of personal meaning.

You think talking about your family is cliche? Go to a bookstore, find the fiction section, and pick three novels at random.

My bet is that at least two of them will touch on themes relating to family. The theme never tires. This is handy, because essays about family, culture, or background are accessible to everyone. 

One student’s essay might focus on the way that a cultural cuisine, and the tradition of cooking together, acted as a stabilizing buttress amid choppy waters in the applicant’s life.

Another essay might focus on the conspicuous lack of familial support during a critical period growing up, and the effects it had on the applicant. 

Overcoming challenges 

Lots of essays focus on overcoming challenges. These challenges, as we’ve already explored, can be “small” while remaining relevant.

It’s ok to focus on small challenges. If you’ve dealt with something seriously difficult in your life, like the loss of a parent or loved one, that can be a perfectly legitimate topic to write about in an essay.

If you’ve always dealt with a slight stutter and want to talk about gaining the confidence to speak up in class--that’s great, too.

Remember: As long as it’s something relevant to you, it’ll play. The theme of overcoming a challenge can also be appropriate for talking about growth in an extracurricular field - just remember to relate it back to yourself. 

Marginalization, feelings of inadequacy, insecurity

We are all, as they say, a work in progress.

If you think that your college essays need to give readers a window onto a version of yourself who is cool, calm, and collected 24/7, think again.

It’s OK to write about ways in which we feel marginalized, inadequate, and insecure. In fact, these essays can be some of the very best. 

Perhaps an applicant might focus on being the only Black student in a predominately white school. Or about an applicant’s struggle to feel like they “belong” in an advanced Biology class. 

Periods of transition 

For many students, some of the most meaningful experiences in life center around moments of profound transition or disruption.

A divorce or move can be an experience that rocks one's world to the core; readjusting can take time, to say the least. Talking about periods of adjustment to transition can make for a powerful, personal essay. 

An applicant might touch on the theme of transition by writing about the memory of an old home or a forgotten culture. Even when a move happens at a young age, something is still left behind - even if it’s something that can only be glimpsed through passing memories. 

Another applicant might take a different approach and talk about the transition, caused by the death of a parent, into adulthood. 

Revisiting assumptions

Another great evergreen theme revolves around the process of discovering the flaws in your own assumptions or behaviors and making a change.

The capacity for self-awareness and growth is one of the most important things to showcase in a college essay. And in talking about a time when you were wrong, you earn bonus points for humility. 

An applicant might talk about a time that they called someone a harmful word, thinking it was OK, only to realize how deeply they had impacted the person.

They might write about being stuck with a research question because they couldn’t let go of a key assumption that underpinned their entire project. 


Ah, leadership. A theme that we all think we need to demonstrate all the time. And sometimes, we do!

Leadership can mean so many different things to different people. Are you a vocal leader who speaks up and tries to organize those around you? Or maybe you have a more subdued, conciliatory style? Whatever the case, examples of leadership can be great as a basis for college essays.

One applicant may write an essay about organizing teammates or classmates to do something nice for a coach’s or teacher’s birthday. Another might write about their role in snatching victory from the jaws of defeat on the Mock Trial team. 

It's important to differentiate themes from cliches, though. Too much cliche can be the end of a great essay.

Final Thoughts

Read through some college essays and you'll probably come across these themes. Hell, read through any story and you will.

The reason we use these themes as guide lamps is because they are, more or less, true to life. We all experience the feeling of being marginalized, whether it's within our community or within an intimate relationship. Hard experiences are generative of meaning.

We all have meaningful stories to write. It's easy to feel like you don't have a story to tell, but don't give in to this particular brand of despair. You have a story to tell!

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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