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Bad Common App Personal Statement Topics

October 06, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Topics, Personal Statement, Brainstorming, Red Flags, Common App

What is the most widely utilized, but often poorly-executed, Common App essay topic?

Believe it or not, it's you.

You are probably a bad Common App Essay topic.

Counterintuitive, right?

Writing an autobiography is one of the most common mistakes applicants make when brainstorming essay topics.

Truth be told, it’s difficult to make an absolute statement on what a good or bad essay topic is.

More often than not, it's the execution of an essay topic, as opposed to the topic itself, that will determine whether or not you have a strong essay.

That being said, there are some essay topics which are typically more DIFFICULT to turn into a good, unique, and personally insightful essay. They are as follows:

  1. Essays about a competition or performance
  2. Essays about charities or service initiatives
  3. Essays about music or art
  4. Essays that are simply infeasible from an execution standpoint

Now, why do these topics typically produce subpar essays?

Regarding the first three topics form the list above, these essays usually fail to show authenticity and originality, and are susceptible to tones of arrogance and self-praise.

These essay topics are typically overused and fail to showcase yourself in a way that is unique.

Moreover, these topics will often tempt you to talk exclusively about yourself and your accomplishments.

Finally, sometimes the topic is too big to effectively convert into a 650-word essay.

Even topics that are great in theory can be ruined by attempts to compress them into an essay as short as the Common App essay.

So what generally makes for a good essay topic?

Here’s a big one: telling a story through the len of a relationship.

Writing about a relationship - between yourself and another person, place, or thing that is personally meaningful - is an effective way to circumvent the pitfalls of the aforementioned bad topics.

It will allow you to avoid seeming conceited, show care, humility, and personal development, and showcase yourself without coming off as self-centered.

Relationships offer a great opportunity to demonstrate personally insightful material.

Throughout your Common App, there are more than enough opportunities to showcase your accolades and expertise.

The Common App essay is a unique opportunity to show your character - how you grow, your unique way of moving through the world, how you interpret experiences, your capacity for empathy, humility, and vulnerability.

Put simply, a bad essay topic makes it more difficult to accomplish those things. While every topic can become a great essay, great topics make it easier to accomplish that goal.

Top 11 College Application Red Flags to Avoid

September 12, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Common App, Application, ECs, Rec Letter, Declared Major, Social Media, Red Flags, Mistakes, Guide

There is plenty of advice on the Internet about what you should do for your college apps.

But what about common pitfalls you should avoid?

Here are 11 unconventional college application red flags that will weaken your application and hurt your admissions chances:

1. Offensive social media posts

Colleges have increasingly rejected and rescinded admissions offers after discovering offensive social media posts.


Parkland shooting survivor Kyle Kashuv had his Harvard admissions offer rescinded in 2019. (Source)

According to a 2017 survey of admissions officers , 14% of colleges rescinded at least one student’s admission in the previous two years due to negative social media posts.

Another survey found that 11% of officers denied admission based on social media content.”

These numbers are likely even higher in 2020, as admissions offices become more social media savvy.

Here are some specific examples:

  1. In 2017 , Harvard rejected 10 students after admissions officers discovered offensive memes that they had shared on Facebook.
  2. In 2020 , Cornell, Marquette, the University of Florida, and dozens of other colleges all rescinded acceptances due to racist social media posts after George Floyd’s murder.

2. Wrong major

Students who demonstrate interest in different majors have widely different acceptance rates at certain colleges.

This can work to your benefit, as most colleges will allow you to switch majors after enrolling.

At Harvard , students interested in “humanities” are admitted at almost double the rate as students interested in “engineering”:

Harvard Admissions Stats

At UC Berkeley , applicants intending on studying “computer science” have an 8.5% acceptance rate, compared to 17% overall.

At Carnegie Mellon , the acceptance rate of different programs ranges from 7% to 26% !

And at UCLA , the School of Engineering explicitly sorts students by intended major, as well as admits students at a significantly lower rate than the College of Arts and Sciences.

If you mention that you are interested in pursuing Major X in college, you need to have demonstrated interest in Major X in high school:

“Noting your intended major on a college application is generally a good idea, because it shows admissions committees that you have a firm direction and plan for the future ,” says Stephen Black, Head Mentor at the admission consulting firm Admissionado.

“Even if you’re not 100% sure that this will be your major—and virtually nobody is certain—it nevertheless shows that you are interested in exploring a particular field.”

What if, the week before applying, you discover that your true passion is different than what you’ve done throughout high school?

In short: Too bad.

You’re 4 years behind students who’ve pursued that passion since 9th grade.

Stick to your strengths.

Unless a school doesn’t allow you to change your field of study post-admission, sell the college on the strongest you possible.

It’s OK if you’re no longer passionate about that something when you apply — you’ll likely change your mind in college again anyway.

3. Wrong school

If you focus your application on a skill or interest that a school is known to be weaker in, then you better prove why you have a good reason to go to that school.

Convincing the MIT admissions office that their Ancient and Medieval Studies major is the ideal department for you is more of an uphill battle than claiming to want to study Computer Science.

4. Submitting an “obligatory” recommendation letter

Rec Letter

If you can get a rec letter like this, you’re golden. (Source)

Every letter of recommendation should strongly advocate for your acceptance.

If a teacher or counselor’s letter doesn’t actively advocate for you, then it will appear as if that recommender did not truly want to write on your behalf, but felt obligated in order to avoid a socially awkward situation with you.

How do you fix this?

When you ask for someone’s recommendation for college, be direct in making sure they will write you a strong letter.

Instead of asking:

"Would you be willing to write me a rec letter?"

Be straightforward and ask:

"Do you think you’d be able to write me a strong rec letter for college?"

It’s a simple change, but can be powerful.

This phrasing gives the teacher a bit more of an out if they don’t feel they can write you a strong letter. As The College Essay Guy writes:

"The word ‘strong’ gives teachers a polite out if they feel like they don’t know you well enough or don’t have time to take on your letter."

Additionally, writing a weak letter will feel like more of a personal betrayal after giving you this explicit confirmation, which can work to your benefit.

5. Submitting an “A-lister” recommendation letter

Me: “You got a rec letter from Tom Hanks? How cool!”

You: “Yeah, pretty sweet.”

A jaded admissions officer: “Yawn...Reject.”

You: “Wait…what? Did you not see the signature — That’s Tom Hanks!!”

Admissions officer: “Yep, that’s why you were rejected. This letter doesn’t mention a single specific anecdote about you. He clearly doesn’t know you. You only got this because your mom is a Hollywood agent, which speaks to your privilege. And as great of an actor as Mr. Hanks is, his words don’t carry much weight as to how amazing of a chemist you’re destined to be.”

6. Essays >15 words under the word limit.

Yes, the “word limit” is technically the maximum number of words you can write. But smart applicants know that it is also the expected number of words. Most college essays are barely 300 words.

If you can’t fill 300 words talking about the thing you want to spend 4 years of college studying, then you clearly aren’t passionate enough to be admitted.

Fifteen words is more than enough room to fit another sentence in.

7. Ignorance of privilege

If you were afforded opportunities that most students wouldn’t experience, acknowledge that. Or, at the very least, show that you understand that you were fortunate to have such experiences.

8. Insincere volunteering

If you write your essay about helping those less fortunate than you, you must be sincere and authentic in your writing.

Otherwise you risk sounding condescending, out-of-touch, and/or disrespectful.

Additionally, don’t co-opt or claim for yourself the experiences of people you help as a way to elicit sympathy; this reflects poorly on you as a person.

9. Typos

This is the easiest way to go from the Accept to Reject pile.

Print, read over, and have multiple friends/relatives read over every application before you submit.

There are 40,000+ students applying to many top colleges, usually for <2,000 spots. You can be sure that 39,000 cared enough to make sure there were no typos.

10. Different “voices” across essays.

Make sure all of your essays convey the same authentic voice. If you receive help on one essay, make sure it fits in with and sounds the same as the rest of your essays.

Make sure your Activities Section presents your achievements in the same way they’re presented elsewhere in your app and rec letters.

11. Unprofessional interview

A poor interview can erase a great “on paper” applicant’s chances.

The college is admitting you as a person, not a transcript, so failing the interview can make even the most impressive achievements seem fake or exaggerated.

Some of the biggest turn-offs identified by admissions officers are: not showing professionalism, dressing too casually, saying something offensive or crass, offering one word answers, and not having questions ready to ask about the interviewer’s school. ( Source 1 , Source 2 )

COVID and College Admissions: What Admissions Officers Have to Say

September 10, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | COVID, Common App, Essays, Admissions, Admissions Officers

Over 300 Admissions Deans published an open letter in June detailing the most significant ways that they see college admissions changing because of COVID-19.

Here is a brief summary of 5 key takeaways.

1. Increased Community Service Expectations

It sounds like volunteer work will be more highly valued/expected this cycle for students who are in a position to help others.

Here is the exact wording that the admissions officers use in their letter:

We value contributions to one’s communities for those who are in a position to provide these contributions.

We recognize that while many students are not in this position because of stresses and demands, other students are looking for opportunities to be engaged and make a difference.

This pandemic has created a huge array of needs, whether for tutoring, contact tracing, support for senior citizens, or assistance with food delivery. We view responding to these needs as one valuable way that students can spend their time during this pandemic.

We also value forms of contribution that are unrelated to this pandemic, such as working to register voters, protect the environment, combat racial injustice and inequities, or stop online harassment among peers.

2. Decreased Extracurricular/Summer Activities Expectations

Here is what the admissions deans have to say about extracurricular activities affected by COVID-19:

No student will be disadvantaged for not engaging in extracurricular activities during this time.

We also understand that many plans for summer have been impacted by this pandemic, and students will not be disadvantaged for lost possibilities for involvement. Potential internship opportunities, summer jobs, camp experiences, classes, and other types of meaningful engagement have been cancelled or altered.

3. Increased Emphasis on “Family Contributions”

Contributing to your family, whether that is working a job or caring for a relative, also counts as a form of service.

If you have spent a significant amount of time providing for your family, then you should make sure this comes across in your application and doesn’t get overlooked by your admissions reader.

Here’s what the admissions deans have to say:

Far too often there is a misperception that high-profile, brief forms of service tend to “count” in admissions while family contributions—which are often deeper and more time-consuming and demanding—do not.

Many students may be supervising younger siblings, for example, or caring for sick relatives or working to provide family income, and we recognize that these responsibilities may have increased during these times.

We view substantial family contributions as very important, and we encourage students to report them in their applications. It will only positively impact the review of their application.

4. SAT/ACT Test Optional

Many schools have gone ACT/SAT optional. Here is the official statement from Princeton’s Admissions Office:

Though standardized tests results will not be required for the 2020-21 cycle for an application to be considered complete, we still value these results and will evaluate them within the context of our holistic review. However, if you do not submit standardized testing, you will not be at a disadvantage.

And here is MIT’s :

Updated requirements. We will not require either the SAT or the ACT from first-year or transfer applicants applying this cycle…Students who do not submit SAT/ACT scores will not have any negative inferences be drawn from their absence.

5. New COVID-19 Essay on the Common App

The Common App added an optional 250-word prompt for students to use to shed light on how the pandemic has affected them.

Because this prompt is separate from the Personal Statement, it is strongly suggested that your primary Personal Statement essay not focus on the pandemic, something that we stress to the students we mentor while helping them develop strong Personal Statements.

Common App 2020-2021 Updates: What You Need To Know

August 02, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | COVID, Common App, Essays

Common App, the non-profit organization that provides the eponymous college application tool, launched its 2020-2021 application on August 1st. Below, we cover the three main changes you need to be aware of if you are applying this cycle:

1. COVID-19 Question

Due to the unprecedented global pandemic coinciding with this years college application cycle, the Common App has included a new, dedicated question allowin students to elaborate upon the impact of COVID-19 on their lives.

With any new application questions, students are often confused as to the best way to approach them. Luckily, we published a blog post with guidance on how to answer this question, which you can find here.

2. Additional Schools

In improving upon the Common App's goal to provide students with a frictionless application to a variety of colleges, 42 new colleges and universities have been added to the Common App. These include Texas Tech, Clemson, and Georgia Tech -- a full list is reproduced below.

  • Bryn Athyn College (PA)
  • Carlow University (PA)
  • Holy Family University (PA)
  • Point Park University (PA)
  • Medaille College (NY)
  • Baker College (MI)
  • Buena Vista University (IA)
  • Bethel University (MN)
  • Cornerstone University (MI)
  • Lake Superior State University (MI)
  • Indiana Wesleyan University (IN)
  • Loyola University Chicago (IL)
  • Northern Illinois University (IL)
  • University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (WI)
  • Wilmington College (OH)
  • Arkansas Baptist College (AR)
  • Auburn University (AL
  • Augusta University (GA)
  • Clemson University (SC)
  • Coastal Carolina University (SC)
  • Lees-McRae University (NC)
  • Milligan University (TN)
  • Palm Beach Atlantic University (FL)
  • Richard Bland College of William and Mary (VA)
  • Spalding University (KY)
  • Texas Tech University (TX)
  • Trevecca Nazarene University (TN)
  • University of Georgia (GA)
  • University of Louisville (KY)
  • University of Texas at Dallas (TX)
  • University of Texas at San Antonio (TX)
  • University of South Florida (FL)
  • Virginia Tech (VA)
  • Winthrop University (SC)
  • Fresno Pacific University (CA)
  • University of Colorado Denver (CO)
  • University of Colorado at Colorado Springs (CO)

3. User Experience Updates

Common App has updated the technical side of the application, including a "new recommender system, a new mobile app coming this fall, and an update of the transfer application personal statement prompt to align with first-year application essay prompts."

Help on Writing the COVID-19 Common App Essay Question

July 18, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | COVID, Common App, Essays, Personal Statement

The questions that are likely on every applicant's mind this year are:

What will college admissions officers do in 2020 when everyone's application essays are about COVID-19?

How do I address COVID in my Common App essays?

And how do I stand out from the crowd?

Thankfully, the company behind the Common Application has anticipated these concerns by adding an optional, dedicated prompt for students to address the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. The prompt has a maximum length of 250 words.

By including this new prompt, the Common App is strongly suggesting that your primary Personal Statement essay not focus on the pandemic.

Instead, students should:

  1. Proceed normally on their Personal Statements as they would in non-pandemic application years, writing a Personal Statement that sheds light on the qualitative aspects of themselves and their candidacy that aren't conveyed elsewhere in their applications.

  2. Take advantage of this extra essay prompt to provide information on how COVID has affected them and their families.

What is the COVID Essay?

As stated in a blog post from the Common App in May of 2020:

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives and postsecondary plans for many students. We want to reduce anxiety for applicants affected by these events and provide them with a way to share their experience with colleges and universities.

Next year, on the 2020-2021 application, Common App will provide students who need it with a dedicated space to elaborate on the impact of the pandemic, both personally and academically. We want to provide colleges with the information they need, with the goal of having students answer COVID-19 questions only once while using the rest of the application as they would have before to share their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19.

Below is the question applicants will see:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.

Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N

Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

The question will be optional and will appear in the Additional Information section of the application. The response length will be limited to 250 words .

What’s more, the Common App has added an additional question to the school counselor section of the Common App, providing your counselor with the opportunity to elaborate on changes to grading scales, graduation requirements, course offerings, or other circumstances that have been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.

You should make sure that your counselor is aware of this question and uses the opportunity to provide relevant academic details for your candidacy.

How to Write the COVID Essay

The next question is how to answer the COVID-19 prompt .

The biggest piece of advice I have for applicants is avoid trying to do too much on this essay.

It may be tempting to simply list everything that has happened to you over the past 6 months.

But within a 250-word allowance, it will be impossible to tell all of those stories at once in the detail needed to leave an impression on an admissions reader who will be reading hundreds of the same exact essay.

Select two or three of the most concrete impacts that the pandemic has had on your life.

Whether a parent lost a job and you were forced to pick up work, you faced the death of a close friend or loved one, or you started a new hobby during your quarantine, your application reader wants to get a sense of how you deal with an adversity that has affected everyone to varying degrees, and the depth of that shared adversity in your individual case.

Stylistically, this essay can be written as a straightforward list of events with the usual beginning, middle, and end structure:

  • Beginning: How were you/your community impacted?

  • Middle: How did it challenge you, and what did you do to push through that adversity?

  • End: What did you learn from this experience, or will continue to work on?

Alternatively, your essay could take a more creative/story-telling approach and focus on the show, don’t tell principle, most commonly used in the larger 650-word Personal Statement essay.

In this approach, the focus might be centered on a specific anecdote of how you/your community were impacted by the virus. You could tell a short story about this one instance, and how it changed your relationship with a particular person or how you view yourself in the world.

While this may be hard for some students to accomplish successfully within 250 words, it may be more appealing to read for an overworked admissions officer who has seen more essays of the aforementioned "list" variety than the latter "story-telling" approach.

The 7 Common App Essay Prompts for 2020

July 02, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays, Common App, Essay Prompts

The seven 2020 Common App essay prompts have been reproduced below.

The Common App essay word limit is 650 words, and requires a minimum of 250 words. The submission portal can be accessed here . The Common App deadline is the same as whatever the deadline is for the institution to which you are applying.

To get advice on how to best attack these Common App prompts from students who have successfully done so, check out our companion article here .

Prompt 1

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Prompt 2

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Prompt 3

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt 4

Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Prompt 5

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt 6

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Prompt 7

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.

It's never too early to get started on perfecting your application! If you want direct feedback on your essays from Ivy League students, or want to work 1-on-1 with an experienced mentor to craft your application, learn more about us here or click here to schedule a free 20-minute consultation

How to Write a Common App Personal Statement

Personal Statement Examples, Tips, Tricks, and Advice

June 01, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays, Common App, How To, Essays

This article discusses the seven Common App essay prompts, analyzes how to write a Personal Statement, and offers suggestions on how to go about conquering this critical essay.

The Common App Personal Statement is the centerpiece of your college application.

It will be sent to every school to which you apply.*

It is extremely broad, allowing you to write on literally any topic you want.

It is also the longest unfiltered, uninterrupted stream of information in your application (650 words).

This makes the Common App Personal Statement the perfect place to fill in any holes in your application, round yourself out as an applicant, and showcase a side of your personality that doesn't come through elsewhere.

With so much that can be accomplished and such broad license to write whatever you want, however, your Personal Statement for college can seem overwhelming at first glance.

The Personal Statement is an essay of no more than 650 words, and no less than 250 words, that should tell a story about yourself that is not included elsewhere in your application.

As the Common App's instructions for the Personal Statement state:

"The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)"

Right away, the first piece of advice to prospective applicants is to ignore the Common App's obligatory note and use the full range of space .

Of course, there is no need to hit exactly 650 words.

But if you are hitting anything less than 620 words, then you are putting yourself at a substantial disadvantage to students who do fill their entire allotted space.

By not getting as close to 650 as possible, you are potentially leaving out several sentences or descriptive phrases that could add significant weight and polish to your essay.

Thus, you should always write your Common App drafts over the word limit , then cut to get your essay to 650 words.

If you find yourself stuck at, for example, 600 words and can't come up with 50 more words to say about whatever story you are telling, then that is probably a bad sign for how interesting that story is going to be for your admissions reader.

The seven 2020 Common App essay prompts have been reproduced below and grouped together for ease of analysis.

Personal Traits

Personal Background

1) Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Prompt #1 is the broadest prompt offered by the Common App, and thus can offer the best launching point for a variety of powerful personal stories.


This Prompt offers a great opportunity to round out your application by discussing something not mentioned elsewhere in your application.

You can talk about your family, your heritage, a hobby, an interpersonal relationship that's impacted you, or any interests that were deemed too "non-academic" to make it into your Extracurriculars List.

Alternatively, you could choose to write about something already covered in your application (e.g. your experience doing research at a hospital, or working a part-time job), but in a way that sheds light on your personal motivations/connection to the subject rather than the scope of your achievement.


A common pitfall with this Prompt is to simply rehash an "interest or talent" that has already been covered in your application.

If you do decide to spend these 650 words on an activity mentioned elsewhere in your application, you need to constantly ask yourself: What new information does the reader gain that couldn't already be inferred from my transcript/rec letters/extracurriculars list?

For example, let's imagine you do debate. A Personal Statement about how you overcame the competition and won the National Championship would be interesting, but likely doesn't break any new ground in the mind of the admissions officer.

They already know you are great at debate, so unless this essay were tweaked to focus more on your personal growth or relationship with others, it likely won't help your admissions chances.

Overcoming Challenges

Overcoming Adversity

2) The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3) Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

5) Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompts #2, 3, and 5 all ask for you to describe an episode in your past that spurred some sort of personal growth.


These Prompts may require a bit more brainstorming effort on your part.

However, don't feel stumped if nothing immediately strikes you.

If you've lived on earth for more than 16 years, then I guarantee you have faced and overcome at least one obstacle or challenge that is worth reading a 650-word essay on.

Don't be afraid to ask family members, friends, or teachers/mentors for their thoughts; you'd be surprised how effective the recollections of others are at jogging your memory.

The best part about writing an essay around one of these Prompts is that it naturally avoids the major pitfall of Prompt #1 (re-listing accomplishments detailed elsewhere on your application). It forces you to focus on an instance of adversity you've faced in life, and to build your narrative arc around your own personal growth.

The three universal components of any story are (1) a beginning, (2) a climax, and (3) a resolution.

By using one of these Prompts as a start, you've already guaranteed that your essay will hit at least two of these three core elements of story-telling; namely, the "obstacle[]" or "time" or "accomplishment, event, or realization" that you discuss will be your Personal Statement's climax, and " learn[ed] from the experience" will be its resolution.


Starting with one of these prompts is more restrictive than starting with Prompt #1.

You may find it limiting at first to brainstorm ideas that fit these Prompts, so it may be helpful to first start brainstorming ideas for Prompt #1 and then seeing if any of them fit under these Prompts.

These types of essays can be among the most compelling when executed properly.

However, there are a couple common mistakes that students commit when writing stories about overcoming personal adversity, pitfalls that you should work hard to avoid when crafting your own essay.

First, at the brainstorming stage:

There are millions of high school students across the US applying to college every year. Relatively speaking, the vast majority of these students will have shared similar experiences and overcome similar challenges.

Did you place first in an athletic competition? Did you win a debate tournament? Did you conquer your fear of public speaking? Odds are, so have millions of other students your age.

That's not to say that your situation wasn't unique, or that the lessons you learned weren't meaningful.

But when an admissions officer is reading 100's of essays a week, the nuances get blurred and only the highest-level themes stay fresh in the mind.

If your essay can be summed up as, "I practiced hard, overcame adversity, and won X competition," then you likely will not stand out from the pack.

So when choosing the "accomplishment, event, or realization" that you discuss, make sure it is unique enough that an admissions officer will not be able to readily group it into an abstract category of essays that other high school-age students have written.

Courage Poster

Second, at the execution stage:

The experience of overcoming adversity and subsequently undergoing a period of reflection and personal growth is a very abstract, nuanced phenomenon that can be difficult to properly articulate.

It is also an experience that has been written about by almost every writer on earth. But not every writer has the ability to distill these experiences into words.

Thus, there have been hundreds -- if not thousands -- of cliches, trite imagery, and hackneyed phrases that have been developed in the English language and recycled ad nauseum .

"It was at that moment that I truly understood the saying that you can't judge a book by its cover..."

"But I knew that my actions would speak louder than my words, so I..."

"Losing the Spelling Bee may have knocked me down momentarily, but I understood that failure was only the first step towards success..."

If a phrase in your essay could be trademarked and hung on a motivational poster, you should probably remove it. Make sure to avoid cliches when writing about your experiences, otherwise the full weight of how you are such a unique and special person will not come through in your writing.

Describe a problem you've solved

Describe an Intellectual Issue

4) Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

6) Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Both of these Prompts ask you to describe an intellectual "problem" or "concept" that you are interested in, as well as your personal connection to that concept.


If you've done academic research, been involved in political advocacy, did debate, founded a business or charity, or developed a product, these could be the perfect Prompts for you.

Prompts #4 and #6 allow you to show the admissions officers what truly makes you tick by showcasing aspects of your personality that might not come through elsewhere in your application.

Is your GPA lower, or do you think you're fighting an uphill battle to show the admissions committee that you're a serious scholar? Use these 650 words to dispel their doubts by showing how knowledgeable about a topic you can be when you've set your mind to it.

Human intelligence takes forms, and the problems you're interested in solving may not be reflected on your transcript. These Prompts allow you to really highlight the "spike" of your application and show why you are THE person for topic X or issue Y.


These essays tend to verge on the impersonal, as students get caught up in describing the minutiae of the intellectual challenges they are tackling.

Given free rein to "describe a engaging that it makes you lose all track of time," many students also lose track of the word count, and end up with an essay that is 500-words of Wikipedia-summary-level content on an academic topic, and 150 words about the author herself and her passion for the subject.

The admissions reader is not looking to admit a class of textbook authors.

Given the very nature of the Common App Personal Statement (literally a "Personal" Statement), the most important part of Prompts #4 and #6 are actually their second halves; namely, how you relate to and have addressed the topic that you write about.

For example, if you are writing about a controversial topic like immigration or criminal justice reform, remember that you're not writing an Op-Ed for a newspaper advocating for your side.

The Personal Statement is not an exercise in persuasive writing. Rather, you should discuss your own involvement in these issues, the people you've met through your experience, and how they have collectively shaped your worldview.

Anything is possible

Anything Goes

7) 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.

If you can't think of an essay that falls under any of the other Prompts (which would be quite an accomplishment), then Prompt #7 serves as a catch-all that lets you write about literally anything you want.


You can write about anything.


You can write about anything.

Unless you already have a very well-written essay that doesn't fit under any of the other Prompts, I would not recommend that you choose this Prompt.

First, it will make it harder for you to focus your essay.

The 6 Prompts offered by the Common App are very good, very broad prompts.

They offer tremendous flexibility while also putting the necessary bumper rails on your essay that ensure it is at least passable.

Writing a Personal Statement that doesn't address anything covered by the 6 aforementioned Prompts means that your essay does not include an instance of personal growth, an interest/passion, an achievement, or an obstacle you've overcome.

If your essay does not have any of these elements, 99.99% of the time it will either be (a) uncompelling to the reader or (b) fail to add positive information to your application.

Another issue with choosing this Prompt is that the admissions officer reading your file will also not know what prompt your essay is trying to address.

Choosing one of Prompts #1-6 will immediately flag for the admissions reader what your essay is about, and what she should be looking for.

Neglecting to specify a Prompt puts an additional burden on the reader to sift through your writing and assess what its key themes are, taking attention away from your actual writing.

* Even for schools that do not require it, you are still given the option to submit your Common App Personal Statement with your application.

If you found this post helpful and want direct feedback on your essays from top Ivy League students, or want to work 1-on-1 with an experienced mentor to craft your application, learn more about us here or click here to schedule a free 20-minute consultation

Starting a Club: Required for the Ivy League?

December 08, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Common App, ECs, Ivy League

Literally every other applicant has founded at least 20 clubs while being the President of 15 others. How is that even possible? Who are these people?

This was the thought that nagged at me my entire senior fall while applying to colleges. I remember scrolling through Reddit and College Confidential and reading Chance Me after Chance Me, becoming extremely discouraged by all the other amazing applicants' lists of infinite ECs.

I'm sure you've had similar thoughts about your own candidacy. I know I did.

But what happens if you haven't founded a club at your school -- Are your dreams of getting into an Ivy League school hopeless?

The answer is an emphatic No.

And, as I learned after getting into Harvard, even if you had founded a club it probably won't matter in your admissions decision.

There are 3 main reasons for this:

Memorial Church at the center of Harvard Yard. (Image Source)

1. The numbers game

Think about this from a numbers perspective — there are ~40,000 high schools in the US.

If one student at every high school started a club, we’d have 40,000 students who’ve started clubs v. about 2000 spots at each Ivy League university. Even after filtering out students who didn’t found clubs, we’d still be left with 20x more "qualified" students than spots.

Unless the club you start becomes a nationally recognized charity, starting a club is almost never a defining factor in a Harvard app simply because 20 other students have also done the same exact thing.

Admissions letters (Image Source)

2. The journey is the reward

"If founding a club doesn’t help, then why do people who found clubs get into Harvard so often?"

The answer is a bit nuanced. Let me speak from my personal experience with Harvard admissions.

Harvard grades applicants across 4 metrics:

  1. Athletics
  2. Academics
  3. Extracurriculars
  4. Personal Qualities

Founding a club doesn’t help with 1, 2, or 4. That leaves us with just #3, Extracurriculars. So at best, founding a club will impact only ¼ of the scores that sum up to provide your overall application score.

You don’t "need to start a club" to get into Harvard or Stanford. In fact, it likely won’t help you — a million students found clubs every year in high schools around the world.

Rather, what will get you in is demonstrating how the act of founding a club showcased some unique combination of leadership, intellectual curiosity, initiative-taking, and personal qualities.

Don’t think of "starting a club" as a little checkmark on your resume, that once you’ve checked that box you’re suddenly Ivy League material.

Instead, think of how starting a club plays across the entire application. Instead of it just increasing your Extracurricular score, think about how it might increase your Personal Qualities and Academics scores.

Your essays are where this should really shine through, and showcase how the act of founding a club shapes your entire application and improves all of the 4 metrics on which you’re being graded.

  • What difficulties did you face starting your club? (Extracurricular)
  • How were you able to inspire others and gain the critical mass needed for the club to self-perpetuate? (Personal Qualities)
  • What did you learn about yourself through this process? (Personal Qualities)
  • Did your club compete in any competitions, and if so how did you perform? (Academics)
  • etc…

Starting and/or leading a club is definitely preferable to just showing up for meetings. But starting a club is, pardon the pun, just the start.

What matters is not just what you did, but also how you did it and why. That is what will distinguish your application from every other applicant, not the mere act of starting a club.

Factors that go into your admissions decision. (Image Source)

3. There are a ton of other (more common) ways to get in

If you’re a recruited athlete, no one cares whether you started a club at school or not. You’re getting in.

If you’re a certified genius, then you’re getting admitted for your academic prowess.

If you are a leader of an organization (e.g. your school’s Student Council, Youth in Government, a political campaign, etc.), it doesn’t matter whether you founded it or not — serving as a leader is impressive in its own right.

There are a ton of ways to get into Harvard. Every student’s path is unique, and there’s no single way to get in.

To put this in perspective, most students I know at Harvard never started anything in high school. What got them in were those aforementioned intangible characteristics that truly distinguished their applications.

What do colleges like more: GPA or ECs?

November 17, 2019 by | GPA, ECs, Regular Decision, Common App, Spike

Let's say you had the choice between 2 options:

Option 1) A high GPA (4.0) with little to no extracurriculars (ECs) beyond clubs at school and regional awards

Option 2) A relatively mediocre GPA (3.6) with significant extracurricular involvement and awards (at the state or national level)

While you may be tempted to argue that Option 1 shows evidence of a much more intellectually capable and hard-working student, you'd be wrong.

Option 2 is preferable for college admissions, but not for the reason you’d expect.

The most common way to get into a selective college is to have a “spike,” i.e. a world-class talent in one specific area, or several notable (non-world-class) talents in multiple fields.

Colleges want students farther to the right of this spectrum. (Image Source)

If being “well-rounded” is being above average at everything you do, being a “spike” means being great at one or two very specific things and average/above average at everything else.

For example, winning an International Math/Physics/Bio Olympiad, placing 1st in the country at the national debate championships, or writing and publishing a novel would be “spike” attributes that give your application the eye-catching pop that admissions officers love.

Ivy League Admissions statistics for the Class of 2020 (Image Source)

Colleges want to know that the students they accept will go on to change the world and make their college even more famous. Applicants who’ve already changed the world through their “spiky” talents are often the safest bets.

Option #1 clearly does not qualify as a “spike.” Simply running the numbers reveals this:

There are roughly 40,000 high schools in America. That means there are 40,000 valedictorians in the US alone every year, and 400,000 students in the “top 10” of their class.

Have a high GPA? Great, get in line behind these other 400,000 students.

Thus, Option #1 will never be the primary reason why an Ivy or highly selective college selects you. Having a high GPA is the first hurdle you need to clear to get accepted into a selective college — it isn’t what gets you in.

If you’re just a GPA, then, unfortunately, you have virtually no shot at a highly selective college — it just doesn’t differentiate your application.

Average high school GPA of admitted students to all 8 Ivy League schools. (Source)

However, all hope is not lost.

Based on my experience with admissions, high-GPA-only students have gotten into Harvard, but it has always been through the strength of the other aspects of their application — (1) teacher and counselor recs, (2) essays, and (3) interview.

Unfortunately, you have no direct influence over your teacher recommendations, and the interview can be a crap-shoot depending on how well you click with your interviewer.

Thus, the essays are your best chance to frame your application in the best light possible and convey why you and only you can add something uniquely meaningful to the incoming class.

As Logan Powell, Dean of Admissions at Brown University, once said:

“The essay is one of only two places where the student can tell us exactly who they are, in their own words (the other place is the interview).”

If you want additional personalized feedback on your essays and direct help from current Harvard students, check out the services we offer .

That leaves us with Option #2.

Though “low GPA” could be disqualifying in and of itself, if “low GPA” is meant relative to the typical Ivy League applicant (i.e. a 3.6–75), then it is definitely still possible that you could qualify for admission.

However, having “many extracurriculars, high grades in standardized tests…and honors in several prestigious competitions” doesn’t actually matter.

Simply participating in many student clubs or doing charity work for 5 hours a week doesn’t count on a college application. Anyone can put minimal time and effort into many different activities. Unless you have a leadership role, started the extracurricular you’re involved in, or grew it substantially, it doesn’t really count — imagine how many “debate team captains” there are in the US.

Annenberg Dining Hall at Harvard, where freshman eat their meals. (Image Source)

Similarly, having “high grades in standardized tests” won’t get you in anywhere. Having bad scores is disqualifying, but the opposite is not true. 10,000’s of applicants have great scores.

Finally, having “honors in several prestigious competitions” doesn’t mean much unless these are well-respected competitions and your honors occurred at the state, national, or international level.

Personally, if forced to choose, I would much rather be in Option #2. Obviously, it would be ideal to be the complete package.

Importantly, though, what will tip an application stuck in Option #2 towards either acceptance or rejection will be the rest of your actual application — teacher and counselor recommendations, interview performance, and essays.

In order to stand out, you must work extremely diligently on your essays.

As David Jiang , an Admissions Officer at Dartmouth College, has written:

"As an admissions officer reading hundreds of applications and essays in a short period of time, it takes something unique or memorable for an application to stand out at the end of the day.”

These three factors determine the “Personal Qualities” rating of your application.

They add a human dimension to your application that can help set you apart from the stack of nameless papers on an admissions officer’s desk.

They are your best chance to make the case for why your unique combination of personal qualities, interests, and motivation makes you especially well-qualified for the incoming class and can be the difference between acceptance and rejection.

Tl;dr: While Option 1 has no real chance without an incredible application, Option 2 could be a promising candidate. That, however, assumes the GPA is not too low (relative to the average admit of the college) and the essays, recs, and interview go well.

How much do SAT scores matter?

September 23, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | SAT, ACT, Testing, Common App

The importance of your SAT score depends heavily on what type of school you apply to.

  • Community college? Yes.
  • State school? Yes.
  • Selective College? A fair amount
  • Ivies? Not much.

The more selective the college, the less your academic qualifications matter in deciding whether you’ll be admitted.

Having a high SAT score is just the first step in getting into a selective institution. It won’t be what tips the admissions decision in your favor. (Image Source)

Why is that?

Well, once you get to the level of applying to Yale/Princeton/Stanford/Harvard, almost every applicant has a high SAT score, high GPA, and high AP/IB scores.

For example, in 2018 over 28,000 students scored a 2200+ on the SAT, which is equivalent to a 1520 on the new SAT.

There are roughly 2,000 acceptances at each Ivy League university. Thus, there wouldn’t even be enough space for all students who scored a 2200+ on their SAT even if Ivy League colleges only considered applicants with at least that score.

Average SAT score of enrolled students at America’s top universities. (Image Source)

Selective colleges don’t want to admit a class of academic grinds. They want students who are capable of excelling intellectually, sure.

But, more importantly, they want to admit students who will change the world and become the leaders of tomorrow.

Scoring highly on your SAT checks the first box — it’s a great start.

But it’s just a start. 10,000’s of other students have also checked that box.

You won’t be admitted to a selective college based solely on a list of numbers. Otherwise, there would be no point to applying to college — if that were the case, they could just run a computer program that instantly sorted students based on their SAT/GPA numbers and not bother with the whole process of applying to college.

But they don’t.

You won't be accepted to an elite college because of your standardized test scores. (Image Source)

And that’s because test scores only tell part of your story.

Test scores are a reason to reject a candidate, not a reason to accept a student.

What will differentiate your application is everything besides the numbers: the essays, the teacher recommendations, the extracurriculars.

As a friend of mine who’s worked in the Harvard’s Admissions Office told me, an applicant’s "Personal Qualities" rating is the single most under-rated aspect of the Harvard application.

Is Ranking Activities on the Common App Important?

September 09, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Common App, ECs

Yes, the ranking of activities is incredibly important.

I learned this the hard way by viewing my Harvard Admissions file, and seeing just how lucky I had gotten.

In the box at the very top of the “Activities Section” of the Common App, you are told to

“Please list your activities in the order of their importance to you.”

Many people miss this, or don’t properly rank their activities.

Screenshot of the Activities Section of the Common App (Source: Common App)

However, it is essential that you spend time critically thinking about which activities are most important, and ranking them in the order you want the admissions officers to read them.

That’s because some schools will automatically filter out the last 5 activities listed (as these tend to be much less informative/substantial for most applicants).

I didn’t know this when I applied to Harvard, and I got very lucky that the right activities happened to make it onto my admissions summary sheet by chance.

A screenshot of my Harvard summary sheet is above (personally identifying information has been removed). Harvard automatically generates a one-page summary sheet for every applicant so that files can be quickly and fairly reviewed, and I was able to access this information through a Student Records Request.

Note that only 5 activity spots are occupied on the sheet, despite my putting 10 activities down on my Common App.

The 5 activities that made it onto my summary sheet were simply the first 5 activities I listed in my Activities Section. This isn't true for every application (I've seen applications with more and less than 5 activities copied over), but it is something to be aware of since this might be a factor out of your control.

Additionally, note that only the Activity Type (e.g. “Theater/Drama” or “Debate” or “Science/Math”) and Position/Leadership Description (e.g. “Debate Team Captain” or “Intern at Company X”) were copied over onto my summary sheet.

Thus, it is extremely important that you make your 50-character Position/Leadership Description as informative as possible, since this is all the information that the admissions office will see (at least if you’re applying to Harvard).

Regular Decision Deadlines 2019/2020

A Comprehensive List

September 03, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | Deadlines, Common App, Regular Decision

The majority of college applicants apply to universities during the Regular Decision (RD) round. Schools often close their RD rounds during January, with a notable exception being the University of California system, which requires applications to be in by November 30th. RD applicants tend to hear back in March or April, and unlike the Early Decision round, there are no restrictions on the number of RD applications one can submit.

Whether you’re interested in Harvard, NYU, or Stanford, be sure to check out the Regular Decision deadlines below and our essay revision services!

University Regular Decision Deadline
Adelphi University Sunday, March 1, 2020
Agnes Scott College Sunday, March 15, 2020
Alfred University Wednesday, July 1, 2020
Amherst College Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Augustana College Wednesday, April 1, 2020
Austin College Sunday, March 1, 2020
Babson College Thursday, January 2, 2020
Barnard College Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Boston College Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Boston University Thursday, January 2, 2020
Brandeis University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Bridgewater State University Saturday, February 15, 2020
Brown University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Bryant University Saturday, February 1, 2020
Butler University Saturday, February 1, 2020
California Institute of Technology Friday, January 3, 2020
Carleton College Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Carnegie Mellon University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Centenary University Tuesday, June 30, 2020
Centre College Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Chicago State University Friday, May 1, 2020
Clark Atlanta University Wednesday, April 1, 2020
Clarkson University Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Columbia University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Dartmouth College Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Denison University Wednesday, January 15, 2020
DePaul University Saturday, February 1, 2020
DePauw University Saturday, February 1, 2020
Drake University Sunday, March 1, 2020
Drew University Saturday, February 1, 2020
Duke University Thursday, January 2, 2020
Emory University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Fairfield University Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Fisk University Monday, June 1, 2020
Fordham University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Framingham State University Saturday, February 15, 2020
Georgia Tech Wednesday, January 1, 2020
George Washington University Sunday, January 5, 2020
Georgetown University Friday, January 10, 2020
Gonzaga College Saturday, February 1, 2020
Goucher College Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Hamilton College Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Harvard University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Harvey Mudd College Sunday, January 5, 2020
High Point University Sunday, March 15, 2020
Illinois Wesleyan University Saturday, February 15, 2020
Indiana University Saturday, February 1, 2020
Johns Hopkins University Friday, January 3, 2020
Lehigh University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Lourdes University Saturday, August 15, 2020
Middlebury College Saturday, February 1, 2020
MIT Wednesday, January 1, 2020
New York University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Northeastern University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Northwestern University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Nova Southeastern University Saturday, February 1, 2020
Pepperdine University Sunday, January 5, 2020
Point Loma Nazarene University Saturday, February 15, 2020
Pomona College Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Princeton University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Providence College Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Saint Xavier University Tuesday, July 28, 2020
Salve Regina University Saturday, February 1, 2020
San Diego University Sunday, December 15, 2019
Southern Methodist University Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Stanford University Thursday, January 2, 2020
SUNY University at Buffalo Saturday, February 1, 2020
Swarthmore College Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Syracuse University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Transylvania University Saturday, February 1, 2020
Tufts University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Tulane University Wednesday, January 15, 2020
University of Arizona Friday, May 1, 2020
University of California Saturday, November 30, 2019
University of Chicago Wednesday, January 1, 2020
University of Colorado: Boulder Wednesday, January 15, 2020
University of Delaware Wednesday, January 15, 2020
University of Georgia Wednesday, January 1, 2020
University of Maryland Monday, January 20, 2020
University of Miami Wednesday, January 1, 2020
University of Michigan Saturday, February 1, 2020
University of North Carolina Wednesday, January 15, 2020
University of Notre Dame Wednesday, January 1, 2020
University of Pennsylvania Sunday, January 5, 2020
University of Rhode Island Saturday, February 1, 2020
University of Southern California Wednesday, January 15, 2020
University of Virginia Wednesday, January 1, 2020
University of Washington Friday, November 15, 2019
University of Wisconsin Saturday, February 1, 2020
Vanderbilt University Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Vassar College Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Villanova University Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Wagner College Saturday, February 15, 2020
Wake Forest Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Washington College Saturday, February 15, 2020
Washington University in St. Louis Thursday, January 2, 2020
Wellesley College Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Whitman College Wednesday, January 15, 2020
Williams College Wednesday, January 1, 2020
Worcester Polytechnic Institute Saturday, February 1, 2020
Yale University Thursday, January 2, 2020

What stands out the most on college applications other than GPA?

June 21, 2019 by Veritas Essays Team | GPA, ECs, Athletics, Regular Decision, Common App

For Ivy League schools (and speaking mostly from my experience with Harvard), it can be incredibly hard to “stand out” from the 40,000+ other valedictorians and debate champions applying every year.

Harvard’s Widener Library houses over 3.5 million books and serves as the backdrop for Commencement and Graduation ceremonies ( Image Source)

However, some things that were cited in the admission office papers released during the Harvard Asian-American admissions lawsuit that would instantly catch an admission officer’s eyes include:

  1. Athletics
    1. Being an athletic recruit (you’re pretty much guaranteed admission if you receive a likely letter)
  2. Recs
    1. A well-written, detailed recommendation letter from a faculty member at the school you’re applying to. Or, even better, being the child of a faculty member
  3. Essay
    1. Being able to convey a unique, compelling, and (most importantly) memorable personal story in your essay. For me personally, this was specifically called out as the difference maker for my app on my Harvard admissions summary sheet.
    2. If you want direct feedback on your essays from Ivy League students, or want to work 1-on-1 with an experienced mentor to craft your application essays, visit us here.
  4. Academics
    1. Original research published in a prestigious academic journal
    2. Attending a prestigious research camp like the Research Summer Institute (at least a dozen kids my year attended RSI, roughly 50 students do the program every year)
    3. Outstanding performance at an international competition like the International Mathematical Olympiad or International Physics Olympiad or Intel Science Fair
  5. Extracurriculars
    1. Founding a business or charity with national reach and legitimate objectives/operations
    2. Patents or artistic portfolios that demonstrate outstanding creativity
    3. Getting involved in the leadership of a social or political movement (I have friends who were involved in the Sunrise Movement in high school and, more famously, David Hogg matriculated last year)

As you can surmise from the above, GPA/SAT/AP scores will not make you stand out for an elite university — they are baseline cut-offs used to quickly narrow the pool.