Tips for International Candidates Writing the Common App Essay
“How do I best sell myself?” Here’s how to write an essay that is truly “you.”
“Give Me 10 Minutes and I’ll Write a Superior Essay”
You’ve spent hours scouring the internet to find tips for international candidates about writing the Common Application essay. You’ve singled out the perfect essay question to answer within the seven recommended prompts. Nervous with excitement, you’re finally applying to your dream school and you’re all ready to go. Yet, hours later, you’re still not sure what to write about. Why is it so tough to get started? Surely, it should be simple at this stage, right?
It’s Not That Simple
The truth is that writing a thoughtful, outstanding essay is not that easy for anyone, let alone YOU, an international student who may not be fully familiar with the added complexities of applying to colleges outside of your own country.
Here is my advice to conquer these essay-writing fears and put your best self forward in the process.
1) “I’m Not Sure What U.S. Colleges Want from Me”
If you were applying to university back home, there might not be any essay to write or maybe the essay has to focus exclusively on your academic subject of choice (looking at you, unis in the UK). As a result, that’s what you’ve been preparing for and the Common Application prompts may seem odd. In contrast, U.S. colleges prefer to assess your academic interests and results through transcripts and recommendations. Above all, this means the essay should focus on an aspect of your application that can’t be found elsewhere—your personality.
Through the story you carefully weave, U.S. admissions counselors will expect to get a sense of “fit” for their school. They hope to glimpse evidence of what will make you a great addition to their campus and how well you will contribute to their community. If you’re unsure if you might be a good fit for NYU, I’d recommend checking out my colleague Eudora’s excellent blog post here.
One of the top tips for international candidates writing their essay is simply to be yourself, be honest, and write in your own voice. If you try to “fit in” by changing who you truly are, chances are you will not thrive at that school after you get in—and that would be a shame!
2) “That’s Fine but… Who Am I and What Do I Stand For?”
Writing a good Common App essay does require a certain level of self-awareness. This can be difficult to figure out, especially if the culture you grew up in did not prepare you for this kind of introspection. Maybe you are not used to talking frankly about yourself and the very idea is puzzling or terrifying! Don’t worry, being self-aware and sharing inner thoughts can be hard at any age and for people of all backgrounds.
Establish What Truly Matters
One of the more practical tips for international candidates writing their first draft is to jot down two lists. One should feature people and activities that make you happy and motivate you. The second should record unnerving things that you’d like to change in the world. Such detailed lists will help you define your priorities and the impact you wish to have around you. Universities will be particularly receptive to these themes.
3) “Great. So, What Should I Talk About in That Essay, Really?”
Maybe boasting about accomplishments is frowned upon in your culture and modesty is appreciated. Maybe you have no issue being proud of your achievements but can’t quite see how the University will relate to them. Regardless of which essay prompt you choose, universities will want to read a story around something that happened to YOU. But which one? You could always make more lists to figure this out. You may have noticed by now, I am an unashamed fan of lists (and spreadsheets).
Story of Your Life
Why not make a blueprint of your life’s events, big and small? Write down your proudest achievements (for example, sports competitions, good grades, personal successes, overcoming fears) on one side. Then record failures or things you wish you’d done differently—and what you learned from them—on the other.
When you start writing your essay with a prompt and a theme in mind, these lists will certainly help narrow down your focus on one impactful event or experience that will become the core of the story.
4) “I Don’t Feel That I Can Be Myself”
You may find it easier to tell friends a story in your mother tongue and struggle a little to find the right tone in English for this essay. English may not be your first language, and that is OK! You will undoubtedly produce multiple drafts to refine your style. The key here is to find the balance between your natural voice and the level of academic writing expected in a university application.
The Byzantine Nature of This Treatise Is Importuning Me...
For that reason, do not overuse the thesaurus. It can be unnerving for a reader to realize quickly—and we do, trust me—that either someone else has written this essay for you or that every simple, logical word has been replaced by a more obscure, over-polished version. If it feels like you are trying too hard, you are.
5) “Will They Really Get ‘Me’?”
If your narration holds elements unique to your country or civilization (or even your community or school), feel free to briefly explain them to help the reader gain more insight into your world. For instance, when speaking about culture-specific events, behaviors, or traditions, you may want to provide some context. Customs which may seem obvious to you might be unknown to others. On the other hand, application reviewers are often well-traveled or even international citizens themselves!
We are all human beings with many commonalities. There is no need to suppress your personality or culture here to conform to what you think a foreign university may want. One of the best tips for international candidates applying to a school in the United States is just to be yourself and let your personality shine in the essay—that’s truly all you need to do.