CollegeLAH’s Guide to Using Common App

Creating your CommonApp account

  • Go to and click on “Create An Account”
  • Fill in your email address and create a password. Note that the password must be between 8-16 characters, containing at least an upper case alphabetic letter, one numeric character, and a symbol (!@#$%^&*).

1 login page

2 keying in password

  • Fill in your details and click on I am a(n): “Applicant planning to enroll within the next 12 months”.
  • Tick both boxes and click on “Create” to create your brand new CommonApp account.

3 creating account

  • Once you are logged in, you are able to view your Dashboard and your full CommonApp Account.


Your CommonApp Account

4 dashboard

  • Your CommonApp Account is separated into four main functions: Dashboard, My Colleges, Common App, and College Search.
  • Dashboard: The Dashboard is the central monitor to your applications. Once you have added colleges to your applications, you will be able to view them on the dashboard, showing you the deadlines, requirements and your progress.
  • My Colleges: The My Colleges tab shows the colleges that you have added into your account. You will complete your work for each college here. Some colleges will require extra essays or questionnaires answered. As these might vary depending on the different faculties/schools within the college that you are applying to, they will appear only appear after you have completed the “Questions” section.
  • Common App: Your Common application. Here, you will fill up relevant details for your application, from your profile, educational background, SAT/TOEFL/ACT test results to your dreaded Common App Essay.
  • College Search: College Search allows you to search for colleges/universities by different criteria, i.e. by name, country, state, term, applicant type or deadline. You may also perform multiple searches by separating terms with a comma, i.e. Boston, New York, etc.

5 college search

6 adding college


The Common Application

7 personal info



This is the part where you fill in everything about yourself – name, address, contact details, demographics, geography, languages, citizenship, scholarship information, and common app fee waiver. It provides the most basic understanding of who you are to the admission officers. Most of this section is very straightforward but we will clarify the bits that might not be.

Scholarship information – This is a new feature that allows you to apply to scholarships that use the Scholar Snapp platform. Basically, it’s a “Common App” for scholarships. These can be scholarships offered by external organisations.

Read more about Scholar Snapp here:

Common App Fee Waiver – Nothing is this world is free. Likewise, applying via Common App costs money as well. However, if you think that you face sufficient financial difficulties such that you might be unable to afford the application fees, then you can apply for the fee waiver. Your counsellor will be contacted to provide evidence of financial difficulties so don’t try to cheat.



This is a relatively straightforward section, where you are required to fill in information about your family background. It is divided into 4 subsections: Household, Parent 1, Parent 2, and Sibling. You will need their basic information such as name, age, occupation, country of birth, education level etc.



This is where things get gradually less straightforward. You will provide your educational information here, from secondary school to your Pre-U studies. Here’s a clarification that will be useful for most readers here, especially if you’re from Malaysia. Even if you are enrolled in, for instance, Taylor’s College, KDU, Taylor’s University (ADTP), INTI University, you are indeed still in school. Likewise, the terms “college” and “university” are interchangeable in the USA i.e. Taylor’s College is not a college but a school while Bates College is a university and/or a college.

Current or Most Recent School: Unless you’re studying at a school in the USA or US Territories, your school might not be listed here. Search for your school’s name and if it does not appear, select “I don’t see my high school on this list”. Likewise, if you are homeschooled, select the “I am/was homeschooled” option. If you’re studying in an American-styled school, you should have a designated school counsellor. Otherwise, this can be any teacher or academic staff member who has good knowledge and understanding of the non-academic aspects of you. Therefore, it is entirely up to you whether you want a teacher from your secondary school or one from your pre-U school to be your counsellor. Common App references are significantly different from what usual Malaysian references would be, so be sure that your counsellor knows about the writing style.

Other School: If you are doing your Pre-University education in a different institution as compared to your secondary school, you will need to fill up this subsection. Just do exactly the same as the previous step for each High School you have attended. That said, please do not key in your primary school and kindergarten. Likewise, given that High School means the schools where you did SPM/IGCSE till IBDP/A-level/STPM/Matrikulasi/AP, please do not include your PMR school if it was different than the one you did your SPM/IGCSE at. Otherwise, please do.

Community-Based Organization: If any of these organisations helped you with your Common App application, then do declare them. These are generally non-profit organisations that are representative of particular civil societies e.g. Black communities, underprivileged suburban children.

Education Interruption: If you are finishing your Pre-University studies later than scheduled, please declare it in this subsection. Otherwise, tick “I have no interruption to report.”

College & Universities: If you have completed a university level course, be it online or through a physical college, fill up this subsection. For the occasional Singaporeans who might be reading this, declare your H3 Subjects here. Likewise, if you have completed an actual uni/college level course, declare here. Please keep in mind that your Pre-University education (A-level, IBDP, STPM, Matrikulasi, AP) does not count here.

Grades: There are 4 options under the class rank reporting, mainly

1) Exact: For instance, 53 out of 187 (187 will be filled in under “class size”)
2) Decile: Top 10%, 20%, 30% …  
3) Quintile: Top 20%, 40% .., 80%
4) Quartile: Top 25%, 50% … and so on.

If you are on a Pre-U programme that does not use GPA/CGPAs (A-level, IBDP), leave the relevant sections blank. Likewise, if you’re doing Matrikulasi or STPM, declare your CGPA as well as the GPA scale (‘4’ for STPM, Matrikulasi etc.) Whether or not your GPA is weighted depends on this question – do all contributing subjects/modules/aspects have the same individual contribution to your GPA? If your answer is no, then your GPA is probably weighted.

Current or Most Recent Year Courses: This is where you declare your Pre-University subjects as well as your Year 11 subjects (SPM, IGCSE etc). In other words, A-level History counts as one course, STPM Ekonomi counts as one course.

Honors: If you have won awards, competitions or scholarships, declare them here. Important point to note here is the grading system, Grade 9 refers to Form 4 and equivalent, Grade 10 being SPM/IGCSE while Grade 11 refers to your AS-level. Intuitively, Grade 12 is your A-level/IBDP/STPM. The exception here then is that if your pre-U course lasts only a year e.g. Australian year 12, SAM, Matrikulasi. In that case, Grade 12 refers to that and Grade 11 refers to IGCSE etc. Basically, it all depends on the number of academic years your Pre-U studies contribute to. PG generally applies to those who undertook gap years.

Future Plans: Write about your future career plans and highest degree you intend to earn here.



Test Taken: Check ‘yes’ to self-report your SAT, SAT II, IELTS, TOEFL, IB, A-levels scores. You should list all tests that you expect to take and have already taken.

If you have taken courses such as SPM, STPM, IGCSE, IB Middle or IBDP, elect ‘yes’ for the last column with the prompt: “Is promotion within your education system based upon standard leaving examinations by a state or national leaving examinations board?” Do note that if you took AP, you do not have to check this box.

Senior Secondary Leaving Examinations: If you check ‘yes’, a new section indicating “Senior Secondary Leaving Examinations” comes up. For each test chosen, another column will appear; this is where you should fill in the specifics of each test. This means that if you have already sat for your A-level, IBDP, STPM, then tick “yes” and fill up accordingly. For most, who are still studying for the actual examinations, tick “no”.



After indicating ‘yes’, you have a maximum of 10 columns for you to fill in all activities. You’re given a maximum of 50 characters to state the name of the activity, and another 150 characters to describe the activity. Once again, an important note on the grade level system, intuitively, Grade 12 refers to A-level/IBDP/STPM. If you are taking a gap year after your Pre-University studies, any activities done after graduation comes under “Post-Graduate”. For sports specifically, if you are in your school/state/national team, then you are involved in Varsity/JV sports. If you are not in the main team i.e. reserve, secondary or development team, then you are in JV.

For example:

Music Club – Founding President

Spearheaded 2 national music concerts; raised $10,000+ for the Malaysian Elderly Association. Honed leadership skills working with 60 members.  (142 characters)

Keep your description concise to minimize character count and convey your message clearly.

Do note that the activities included here are assumed to be the most important and relevant since Year 9. It is important to arrange the activities in order of relative importance to you and your application. Feel free to include any previous or current jobs.

You might want to consider carefully which activities to include as this section is vital in portraying who you are both as a student and as a person. It is highly recommended that you state activities that you are interested in continuing in university. You may include hobbies only if these are relevant and if you feel that you have gained a lot from these activities.



Personal Essay

You have a choice of 5 questions to choose from. Choose one from the list below:

8 essay prompts

Our advice would be to briefly write down the main outline of your response to each question. With this in mind, you can roughly compare the quality of your responses across all questions. Try not to overthink the process; choose the essay that gives you the right platform to best express yourself.

That being said, essays about everyday activities and/or volunteering work might be deemed mundane by the admission officers, unless you’re able to write creatively about the topic, or if you feel that your application will be incomplete without that particular story to reflect who you are. Ultimately, this is where you have the opportunity to showcase your unique identity and personality.

Here’s a link to another article on CollegeLAH about writing US essays.


Disciplinary History

Honesty is the best policy! Do not be afraid if you have a tainted disciplinary record. This does not mean that you will be rejected solely based on this.


Additional Information

It is not necessarily the case that your application would be in any way disadvantaged if this section is left unfilled. If there is nothing else to add, there is no need to include unnecessary details.

However, if you do wish to include additional information, here are examples of what could be added:

1) Description of the 11th extremely important activity (because you can only write about 10 activities in the previous section)

2) Clarification of extenuating circumstances –
“Took a gap year after Year 11 because …”
“SAT scores were unusually poor because…”
“Discontinued a music syllabus after Year 10 because…”

3) Information regarding yourself that you think the application will not be complete without

However, please do not continue your unfinished essay here.

Congratulations on completing this CommonApp section!


College Essays

Hurray! Don’t be too happy yet, this is not the end of your application to the States. Colleges/Universities have more questionnaires for you to answer. Most will also have extra essays, known as supplementary essays. That means more essays to write! Fret not, CollegeLAH essays editing services are here to help you!



9 recommender

In every tab for the colleges that you are applying to, there is a subsection called “Recommendations and FERPA”. This is where you invite your preferred teachers to be your counsellor and recommenders. A counsellor cannot be a recommender and vice versa. You can invite as many recommenders as you want. Ultimately, you will be the one deciding whose references to put in. Likewise, you can have non-academic referees e.g. sports coach, music tutor (more relevant for those applying for sports/music scholarships). Waiving your FERPA rights means that you agree legally not to have access to your references or transcripts and have your counsellor send them on your behalf. Please note that once your recommender is invited into your application for a particular university, his/her reference can also be used for other universities.

Written by: The CollegeLAH Team

CommonApp Essay – To Dare

The essay below, which was required by The Common Application, successfully got Lim Sheau Yun admitted into Yale University, Stanford University, Columbia University, University of Pennsylvania, Dartmouth College, Brown University, University of Chicago, Duke University, Barnard College and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. 

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. Share your story.

To Dare

“Chinese girls don’t shave their hair.”

Or at least, that’s what my grandfather, traditional man and Feng Shui enthusiast, told me.

“The only people who willingly shave their heads are true believers in Buddha. Others are being punished or are psychotic. You are none of the above.”

“And to top it all off, you’re a girl.”

So imagine his expression on the 22nd of May 2010, when this eighth grade girl went bald. To him, it didn’t matter if it was to raise money for a local cancer hospital in need of repaying a loan.

Understandably, my grandfather felt betrayed. Years ago, he and his father fled Mao’s China, choosing to preserve their Confucian legacy in Malaysia. My actions were against everything he fought to maintain: tradition, order and filial piety.

Chinese culture is a difficult environment to dare in. The primary school I used to attend had a strict rule: your hair had to be between three and five centimetres below your ear. Not one, not two, but between three and five, to be measured every two weeks or so. I was one of those in-betweeners caught between the paralysing boundaries of a ruler: a statistic, a short-haired bob in the midst of other girls who were taught to look and act the same. Feminine, but not too feminine. Intelligent, but not too bold, not too original. We were taught to be bright, but not to have a spark.

I don’t dwell too much on the why I shaved. It was mostly a blur of forms and raising money. What I do remember is that I cried a total of five times after. I was an outsider in my own home, at the mercy of my grandfather’s disapproval. After all, I was an absurd sight to see with my buzz cut, and my chin held so far high you couldn’t see the tears in my eyes.

But what I didn’t expect was the eventual respect my grandfather had for me. The ridicule stopped, and he started taking an interest in my academic and extracurricular pursuits. I think he had to begrudgingly acknowledge the courage it took to dare. As my mother once said: “If it’s one thing Chinese admire more than anything else, it’s strength.”

In some sense, it took a drastic act of rejection of tradition for my grandfather to realise that I was beyond a child, beyond another granddaughter he could safely protect in his anachronistic bubble which forbade risks. Certainly, my head shaving wasn’t the only event that spawned his change in perspective, but I like to think it helped.

The day I shaved my head was the day I discovered that a ruler could not define me and tradition would not hold me back. Fear used to be my breakfast, lunch, dinner. Fear of consequences, fear of the unknown, fear of rejection, fear of losing family, friends. I feared to venture outside the age-old path traipsed by countless Chinese women before me. But I did. And my grandfather’s mindset for his remaining two years on Earth also diverged from a path I once thought was concrete: he came to respect me not only as his granddaughter, but also as an independent woman who was free to make her own choices.

And I continue that legacy today. I’m certainly not fearless yet, but with each day, I grow a little bolder and a little more willing to dare, changing perspectives and destroying boundaries like the twenty-first century hybrid I am.

DISCLAIMER: The essays on this site are strictly meant as a starting point to give an idea of how successful essays look like. There is no surefire formula to writing good essays. COLLEGELAH IS STRICTLY AGAINST PLAGIARISM OF ANY KIND. Plagiarism can have serious consequences so please DO NOT PLAGIARISE.

Essays for Applications to University of California

The essays below, which are required by the University of California (UC) application system, successfully got him admitted into UC San Diego, UC Los Angeles, and wait-listed at UC Berkeley.

All identifying names have been removed as the owner would prefer to be anonymous

Prompt #1

Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.

A crowd slowly gathered beneath me as I mounted the last few steps. Despite their shouts, I’ve made up my mind clearly. Next thing I knew, I was free falling from this towering height.


When I was 5, my dad gave me a dull, aged coin. I would grip that magical metal in my tiny hands wherever I went, even to the washroom. Once, sitting on the toilet bowl, I stretched out my fingers to once again admire its glimmer. Suddenly, it slipped through my hand – “Ploop”. It sank to the bottom of the toilet bowl. Although it was just a 1 Ringgit Malaysia coin, I remembered how dad still insisted on fishing it out.

Since young, my dad has taught me to appreciate every cent the universe offers. He sent me to various financial management courses and trainings that only adults would join. Because of this, I was exposed to quite a bit of financial knowledge relatively earlier than my peers. There, I made friends who are even older than my dad. I learned my basics in stocks trading and multi level marketing through them. They gave me encouragement when I felt unconfident and would give me advice before I proposed my business ideas to my college societies.

Under their guidance and influence, I began to realize my dream for the future.


Jumping down from the tree house was an activity in one of the financial management camps. I was instructed to declare my financial goal to the universe before the jump.

As my feet left the platform, I knew exactly what I was going to say.
“I, [NAME], will be financially free in 17 years, 2035”

Prompt #2

Tell us about a personal quality, talent, accomplishment, contribution or experience that is important to you. What about this quality or accomplishment makes you proud and how does it relate to the person you are?

“Can I do this?” I asked myself. It was already challenging for the 16 year-old me to talk to strangers, but now, I have to bargain prices and close deals!

I started my own business when I was 16; it was named by extracting the first and the last 2 letters from my name – [COMPANY NAME].

Business Guru’s advice 1: Make obstacles into opportunities. (CHECK)
After receiving instructions from my experienced venture partner, I spent countless nights staring at the computer screen to produce a webpage. Back then, I didn’t know what Photoshop was, so most of the graphics were designed and edited using my childhood-doodling program – Paint. It took me one whole week to complete all the tasks that my venture partner had assigned. However, she told me that due to her overwhelming schedule, she wanted to quit. With little knowledge of the tricks and trades of doing a business and with no prior experience, I was left with nothing but a short sorry note and a 10-digit supplier’s phone number. I trembled during my first call to the supplier. Somehow, out of sheer luck, I manage to get a good price. Soon before I realized, I became friends with the supplier. The following deals were never had been easier.

Business Guru’s advice 2: Take one step at a time. (CHECK)
I learned the ways to attract customers through shadowing other competitor’s blog pages – the font they use, the system, and the psychology behind every detail. In one month, the RM22 Malaysian Ringgit bill from my first sale lied comfortably on my hand. Before this, I would not have believed that a high school student could generate money by starting his or her own business. Although RM22 is not a generous amount of money, it certainly has boosted my confidence and fueled the momentum for the second, third, more future sales.

Business Guru’s advice 3: Complete what you have started. (                )
[COMPANY NAME] Blogshop grew from bringing me a few ringgit to a few hundred in 5 months. It became a routine for me to constantly check my messages. Sometimes, I would even withstand my mother’s nagging and skip meals just to reply the emails and confirm the delivery statuses. The time I spent with [COMPANY NAME] was so ample to the extent that my younger brother was getting a little bit jealous. [COMPANY NAME] became the main focus in my life. From time to time, I would proudly share my happiness with my best friend, telling him stories behind [COMPANY NAME]’s “success”.

However, the “success” did not last long. With my parents demanding me to prioritize my studies and friends around me starting to revise intensely for high school examination (SPM), I chose to give up on [COMPANY NAME]. I thought that I could always go back to [COMPANY NAME] whenever I choose to, but it’d been 2 years now, and I haven’t.

[COMPANY NAME] was more like a friend than a business that I owned. Through knowing him, I learned to reflect on my mistakes – there were times when customers were not satisfied with my product, but [COMPANY NAME] taught me to respect every customer’s feedback and make every possible amendment that I can. Besides, through knowing him, I became a better negotiator, a better marketer and certainty, a better businessman. He taught me interpersonal values that were far greater than any of the business guru’s advices.

Even leaving him made me more conscious of my choices. I realize how inconsistent I was in handling matters in my life. He would still be here if I had say “one more step..” when I was on the verge of giving up. No matter what, I’ll make this an anecdote that I hold close and dear to when I start a new business in the future. Giving up is no longer an option. Till then, allow me to leave Business Guru’s advice 3 unchecked.

I would ask myself again. “Can I do this?”

Yes. Yes I can.

Links which you might find useful:

  1. More about University of California essays here

DISCLAIMER: The essays on this site are strictly meant as a starting point to give an idea of how successful essays look like. There is no surefire formula to writing good essays. COLLEGELAH IS STRICTLY AGAINST PLAGIARISM OF ANY KIND. Plagiarism can have serious consequences so please DO NOT PLAGIARISE.

How to write application essays to get into Actuarial Science programs in US?


I am a corporate scholar currently doing ADP (1+4 program) in Taylor’s University. I am doing Actuarial Science and I plan to apply to UPenn (The Wharton School) and University of Wisconsin-Madison. May I know what is the best approach to the admission essays in order for me to get into these school?

This reader wishes to pursue Actuarial Science at UPenn (Wharton) or University of Wisconsin.

This reader wishes to pursue Actuarial Science at UPenn (Wharton) or University of Wisconsin.


Hello! It seems that we share a pretty similar Pre-U background. First of all, it’s quite difficult for me to give you good advice on how to approach the essay without knowing the question. Why don’t you come back to us when the questions or prompts are released?

Secondly, essays are not all there is to your application. Don’t forget about SAT 1 and 2, because your scores in these tests matter a lot too, especially if you’re applying to competitive universities like the Ivy Leagues. And It’s not just the Ivy Leagues, there are a lot of stuff you have to pay attention to in order to get into any school: SAT 1 and 2 scores, TOEFL/IELTS scores, the essay and the interview. Without a decent score for SAT 1 or TOEFL, your admissions chances will be dented even if you have a good essay. By the way, your sponsoring body will not allow you to go abroad if you do not get the CGPA (in ADP) required if I am not mistaken. If you have already sat for TOEFL, SAT 1 and 2, and you are happy with your scores, I don’t mind finding current students from UPenn (Wharton) to help you with applications! I’ll be very happy to help another Malaysian student get accepted.

I am very pleased to know that the University of Wisconsin-Madison is in your list of schools too. My big advice on this school is to apply as early as possible because there are lots of applicants and admissions might not have the time to read yours. This incident happened to me and my friend. Most of their admitted students have SAT scores between 1810-2000. Furthermore, SAT 2 is not a requirement for Wisconsin! How awesome is that?

Oh! And are University of Michigan-Ann Arbor, Pennsylvania State University – University Park and University of Illinois – Urbana Champaign in your list? These public schools have excellent actuarial science programs too. Do update us if you have any more questions!

Answered by: A corporate scholar who is currently pursuing a degree in Actuarial Science at Pennsylvania State University after completing the ADP (1+4 track) at Taylor’s University.

Hi. I just wanted to add that your intended major might not matter as much as your passion, personality and opinions (collectively known as “who you are”) when writing your college essays. Speaking from my experience applying to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor’s Actuarial Mathematics major (I eventually got admitted), I didn’t even touch on my intended major in any of my essays. I wrote 3 essays for UMich, and they are the Commonapp essay that is sent to every school you apply to via Commonapp, and 2 more essays just for UMich. The Commonapp questions are very personal and don’t explicitly ask why you chose your major. For example, last year they asked applicants to write about their failures or a defining event in their lives, among others. The prompts should remain the same this year. The UMich questions were about my identity and the standard “Why our college?” What I mean to say is, don’t worry too much about your major when writing your essay, and just be yourself, no matter how cliched that sounds.

Answered by: Yeong Wern Yeen, a JPA scholar, will be going to the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) this fall. She just finished Cambridge A Level at Taylor’s College Subang Jaya.

Syaza Nazura, an Actuarial Science student at University of Wisconsin, Madison, also wrote an article on how to approach the US application essays, in response to this reader’s question.

US Application Essay – Just Be You.

“How do I write an essay that would help me gain admission into this particular university?”

Numerous people have asked me the same question over the past year or so, and I know hundreds, if not thousands, of other applicants out there are wondering the same thing.

My answer is simple: Just be you.

To put it differently, there is no one best way or approach to write an essay.

You may have read an article or two on the Internet about how an applicant wrote about her goldfish and gained admission into one of the top universities in the US.

You may also have heard about your friend’s brother’s classmate that wrote about his loving parents and got into an Ivy League.

Or what about your neighbor’s kid who graduated from Harvard? Didn’t he write about his first job for his application essay years ago?

But what if you have never owned a goldfish, or any other pet? What if your parents are divorced? What if you have never gotten a job in your whole life? Would you have to make something up to get the same results as they did?

(note: none of the examples stated above are real)

When you go on Google and start searching for good application essays, you’ll be thinking, “Maybe I should write something like this. If this person got in with this kind of essay, maybe it’ll work for me as well.”

Well, that’s just it. You’re not being you. You’re trying so hard to be like other people that you’re not giving yourself the chance to be the best you can.

Yes, these people were in your shoes once, and it’s okay to admire them and try to follow in their footsteps. But in terms of the application essays, you can only rely on yourself.

The admission officers are looking for originality. They are looking for the unique and personal touch in your essay. As they read your essay, they are looking for your passion. They are searching for that spark in your writing. If you write about something that you are not passionate about, well, good luck getting in. That something may result in an admission for some other applicant, but not for you.

Open up your heart. Dig down deep and find that one thing that is uniquely and truly you. What is it that makes you who you are? What is it that makes you special and different from others?

Be honest, even if it’s embarrassing or painful. Write from your heart; share your feelings with the reader. Instead of telling them how you feel, let them experience it for themselves. Hook them on your story, and they’ll be longing to know more about you. Next thing you’ll know, hey, you’re admitted!

So stop worrying yourself with things like, ‘oh, how should I write my essay so that I can get into my dream school.’ As long as you write from the heart and answer their prompt or question, you will be just fine.

Good luck 🙂

Links you might find useful:

Essays That Worked – these universities seem to agree with Syaza that you should just be yourself and write from your heart when it comes to penning application essays:

  1. Johns Hopkins University
  2. Connecticut College
  3. Tufts University

Syaza Nazura copy

Syaza Nazura is a business student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA. While not entertaining the thoughts of whether or not Actuarial Science is the best path for her, she stuffs herself full of chocolate and blogs at This MARA scholar plays basketball and is in love with anime and manga.

How To Write Successful US College Application Essays?

What does it take to be a part of the UCLA community or other US universities?

How to write the essay that will gain you admission to UCLA?

I have been asked to help proofread a few US college application essays.  I have a few things to say and would like to help spark your inspiration. 🙂 Of course, this is just my humble opinion. I am in no way a professional essay writer, a spy in the admissions office, or an expert psychologist who happens to know how the admission office thinks.  

These tips and opinions are based on my own experience in writing the application essays, and feedback I got from other people. In short, it’s just my own collective perspective about the US college application essay. I hope that after reading this post, you will have the inspiration to write a piece that is one-of-a-kind, and truly yours.

1.  It’s about you

I feel that an essay should first and foremost describe you as an individual. If you find yourself describing and explaining about another person (your family member, some professor you admire or some famous movie star) more than yourself, I suggest to take a step back and restructure your essay. After all, colleges want to admit you, not someone else. If a stranger can pick up your essay, and, after reading it, give a 5-minute introduction about you, then you know you’re good to go.

2.  Uniqueness

How do you write a non-cliché essay?  After reading your own essay, you should be like “is that really me? That’s kinda embarrassing/weird/etc, but it is undeniably me” kinda thing.  Don’t assume that everyone out there is the same as you. Many people have always regarded the things that they do as normal and hence feel reluctant to showcase themselves in their genuine form. It is the things that seem normal to you that might turn out to be the most interesting. For example, I may find that making bubbles in the bathroom to be normal. Of course, I would later find out that the movement of the the colors on the surface of the bubble is somehow connected to the weather patterns of other planets.

My point is, try to write about your normal daily life and don’t try too hard to portray what you want people to think about you. There are far too many essays like that, sculptured with hand-picked words to meticulously describe yourself as if you are an object.  After all, the essay is to provide the “human” factor in the application. Have fun with it and go with the flow.

3.  Honesty

Honesty is the best policy! Sometimes, really amazing essays comes from telling a secret. Something that you wouldn’t tell your best friends or even your parents. Some things like how whenever you tell your parents that you’re going to the gym but actually go bicycling in the back alleys of your neighborhood that your parents have explicitly told you not to.  And later on, you make friends the beggars of the streets, the 20-sen-tissue-sellers, the aluminium-tin-can-collector and how those people that taught you to appreciate yourself and the life you have. Or how you actually unconsciously critique people’s clothing choice and you secretly want to have your own clothing line because there’s just too many people out there who don’t know how to wear matching colors. Sometimes, plain brute honesty will bring out your personality in your most genuine form.

4.  The classic “show, don’t tell”

If you have a hard time following this, try to write an essay without using the adjectives you want to describe yourself. Let’s say you want to describe yourself as a hard working, determined and patient person. Do this by not writing those words in your essay. That way, you will somehow force yourself to show your characteristics through an incident. For example, if you want to portray curiosity and innovation. Don’t say that “I am curious and innovative because…”; instead, try to show it by writing an essay about drinking Chinese tea. And that when you stir the tea, you observe that the tea leaves swirl around the cup and will only stop in the middle of the cup. You then take this idea and observation to the next level and invent a water cleaner which uses the same concept. Well, you get the picture.

With all these things combined, you will ultimately end up with an essay that isn’t like any other on the planet. Who else in this world blow bubbles when they’re bathing, invents a water cleaner, critiques people’s fashion, and personally know the alleys of their neighborhood inside out? The answer is you, and only you can come up with an essay like that.

I hope this post will help all of you to write great essays.  Enjoy the application process: it’s a time of self-reflection, and a time to get to know yourself better. Take your time, question yourself and most of all, have fun!

Wishing all who are applying the best of luck and may the odds be ever in your favor. And don’t forget to proofread your essays!


A blogger at, Dylan Ler Hong Jing is a student in University of California, Los Angeles. You contact him at if you have any questions regarding US, UK applications or anything related to education and scholarship.