Common Application Misconceptions

While college admissions officers used to admit students primarily based on their GPAs and SAT/ACT scores, that’s no longer true.  In fact, during the past 10 years, as competition for college admission has continued to increase year after year, college admissions officers have started to pay more and more attention to the Common App essay/Coalition App essay. In fact, most admissions officers report to me that the essay plays a “highly significant” role in admissions, and when pressed, tell me that up to 30% of a decision to admit or reject a student is based on what the student writes in the Common App essay.

The Common App essay can make or break your admissions chances


Your GPA and test scores provide admissions officers with a metric of your ability as a student, but numbers don’t really tell admissions officers much about who you are as a person. In other words, they don’t tell college admissions officers anything about your attributes, the “intangibles” that make you the unique being you are.

How do you find out who you are? It’s actually not that hard, once you clear away the two most common misconceptions about the Common App essay.

Misconception 1: I need to read the Common App essay prompts and answer one of the seven prompts directly.

Not true. In fact, I recommend that you don’t even look at the Common App prompts until you’ve written your own essay. Why? Because every story you want to tell about yourself will always satisfy prompt number 7 which reads: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

In other words, it’s more important for you to figure out what you want to tell the admissions officers, to determine what story will leverage your chances, than to try guessing the “right” or “best” answer to one of the Common App prompts.

Again, remember that whatever essay you want to write about yourself will always satisfy the requirements of Common App prompt number 7.


 Misconception 2: I need to pick a unique topic.

As every writer knows, there is no such thing as a unique topic; there are only unique ways of representing that topic.

Let me restate this in a different way. There is no topic that hasn’t been written about before. However, there are different, novel, unique, exciting, interesting, and compelling ways of executing even the most mundane topic.

Remember the famous Costco essay that helped admit Brittany Stinson into five Ivy League schools and Stanford?  There’s nothing new about that essay’s topic—shopping in Costco—and there’s nothing new about the author’s intention–to show off intellectual curiosity and playfulness. But what was new about the Costco essay was the way Brittany wrote the essay. Had it not been written in such a delightful, animated, playful way, Brittany’s Common App essay would have become just another “reason to reject” essay.


Let me stress again: you can write about anything, your family, the pleasure you take in an activity, an afternoon walk. Your topic will serve you well as long as you write it well.


Want help writing your Common App essay? Call me. I’m always ready to help you!


Dr. Osborn works with students from all over the world via Skype, Zoom, FaceTime, phone, and Google docs to help them reach their independent, college, and graduate school goals. Through a personal, one-on-one approach, Dr. Osborn creates an individualized curriculum for each student based on the student’s strengths, passions, and college aspirations. Her holistic approach helps students perform well in school and win admission to the Ivy League and other competitive colleges.  

About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.

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