3 Must-haves for a Perfect College Essay Anecdote

3 Must-haves for a Perfect College Essay Anecdote

When writing the college application essay, the biggest struggle for students is… How do you find the perfect anecdote for your Common App and college application essays?

Here’s the thing: Nowadays, as the college admissions process gets more competitive, the anecdote you pick is absolutely essential. It’s the only platform (apart from interviews) in the entire application process where you can speak directly to the admissions officer of your dream schoo.

The essay is the only opportunity where you can showcase your passions and unique voice that set you apart from the rest of the applicant pool.

So, you must take advantage of it!

Well, what makes a good anecdote? Actually, how do you even brainstorm a good anecdote? I’ll show you how.

3 Must-haves for the Perfect College Essay Anecdote

Your college essay must:

  • Showcase growth
  • Have a message & showcase your personality
  • Be laser-focused and specific

1. Your College Essay Anecdote Must Showcase Growth

College admissions officers want to understand how you’ve grown over the years and throughout your high school career. I mean, college can be tough — the lessons you’ve learned from various life experiences will help determine how well you’ll adjust and succeed to college culture and college academics. So, your anecdote must paint a picture of an experience that has TAUGHT you something.

Don’t be VAGUE about the learnings from an experience.

For instance, don’t say that a takeaway from a story is that… you’re hardworking and you’ve learned to overcome obstacles from an experience. I hear these general analyses all the time!

These examples are vague and oftentimes just plan silly. Most students applying to your dream schools are hardworking, resilient people. So, saying that you’re hardworking doesn’t distinguish you from the crowd.

The trick is to go one step deeper: Yes, you’re hardworking, but what specific experience(s) have led you to be resilient and hardworking? These experiences that taught you the value of (insert trait here) will make you stand out.

What pivotal moment in your life has made you realize that (insert trait here) is crucial? Think of the answers to this question and sit with it. You know if your answer is trite and generic. Force yourself to keep delving deeply and be insightful!

2. Your College Application Essay Needs to Showcase Your Personality

If you have a working draft of your essay, read it out loud.

Once you’re done, ask yourself this: Based on this essay anecdote, in three words, how would you describe the personality of this writer?

Then, ask yourself these two questions: Are these three personality traits unique to YOU? Are these traits that you’d consider to be your core values?

Make sure your answer is “Yes!” to the above two questions. Your essay must very clearly showcase your personality.

Once you’ve solidified the personality part of your essay, ask yourself the final (and possibly the most important) question of all: What is the message you want to convey in your essay anecdote? How do you want to be remembered? Is this clearly evident in the conclusion and analysis part of your essay?

The message and personality aspects of the essay are actually quite intertwined… as Maya Angelou said:

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.
–Maya Angelou

3. Your College Essay Anecdote Must Be Laser-focused

There are two main ways you can structure your essay: bird’s eye view vs. laser-focused view.

I highly suggest that you choose the laser-focused essay anecdote route.

Let’s use an example to talk about these two camps in greater detail. Let’s say that the main message of your essay is this: I want the admissions folks at XYZ University to know that I’m passionate about camping and this sparked my interest in environmental science.â””

In the bird’s eye view route, you could use a few small anecdotes about camping that led you to be interested in environmental science and the outdoors. The problem is, in a limited, 650 word essay, you don’t have much of an opportunity to tell a juicy story using a few small anecdotes. The bird’s eye view writing style is actually almost like an AP English paper; you have a thesis (your message) and you’re trying to find 3 facts to support your thesis. This is boring and doesn’t give you an opportunity to showcase you and your personality.

On the other hand, a laser-focused and specific essay anecdote allows you to paint a picture of the story and showcase your voice and personality. In this route, you’d use one event — that pivotal moment — that led you to realize your love of camping and convinced you that environmental science was a true passion. This one moment is the climax of your essay anecdote… this is key.

So, now that you know what makes a good anecdote for a college essay, let’s talk about brainstorming methods for the perfect college essay anecdote to get your creative juices flowing.

MIT Common Application College Essay Example

MIT Common Application College Essay Example

Here’s a college application essay example by Cristen*, who was accepted to MIT! Our analysis of strengths and weaknesses are below.

*Cristen is not a student of Winning Ivy Prep

MIT Common App Essay Example

“My parents don’t have tax forms,” I said pointedly. “They don’t fill them out.”

“Of course they file tax forms,” she shot back. “Everyone does.” After a few more minutes of fruitless discussion, I left the College Office, unsuccessful. I would pay for SAT II exams, again.

Even with fee waivers, applying to college is pricey. Sending test scores to more than 4 colleges cost money, AP exams fees are reduced but not obliterated, and I’d love to meet the genius who thought of charging a fee for applying for financial aid. When approaching Ms. Cleary for help with the CCS Profile – I didn’t know where to indicate welfare and food stamp income – she asked me which school I chose to apply to.

“M.I.T.,” I replied.

“Oh, M.I.T.?” she mused. “How ironic, that you’re applying to M.I.T. and yet you can’t fill out a form…” I don’t consider my school’s administration supportive or welcoming.

My family felt strained enough paying $57 for senior dues when I attended middle school. Being a senior at Stuy is much, much worse. So far, this year’s classes have demanded about $270 total in textbooks, workbooks, art supplies, and other expenses. When my teachers ask whether anyone will have trouble paying for their supplies, no one speaks up and an awkward silence ensues.

While academic costs have mostly been waived, high school memories are not priceless. Yearbook photos just came in, and packages cost from $86 to about $230. I’ll probably wear an old dress and take the subway to my senior prom, which will probably set me back another $160. I will not get a class ring.

Many of my friends carry $10 and $20 daily, while I get $5 on a good day. Most of their parents are middle to upper class, working as teachers, lawyers, programmers, doctors, writers, social workers, or scientists, unlike my mother who is excused from work because of illness. Some of my classmates come from private schools, and many buy prep books for exams and have been in expensive SAT prep courses since middle school.

They seem unable to comprehend my situation; the blank, baffled looks on their faces upon learning I have no cable television, cell phone, or air conditioning shock me.

“We do it because we want you to be happy,” my grandmother had explained to me when giving me $60 to attend a discounted college trip. Even in a nation governed by socioeconomic class, I believe that happiness and perseverance are enough for success. Although I use second-hand paints and brushes in acrylic painting class, I know that my painting will look just as striking.

Source: MIT Admissions Blog

Analysis & Comments

In this essay, the author made me feel:

  • Inspired

In this essay, the author exhibits these personality traits:

  • Perseverance
  • Grit

College Essay Strengths:

This essay does an awesome job of showcasing Cristen’s personality – it has a ton of voice and sarcastic humor, but not in a negative way. As a reader, we can immediately picture the kind of person Cristen would be if we actually met her.

The introduction is hooky. It starts off with a little humor and immediately pulls us in. We learn about Cristen’s upbringing, and the rest of the essay contains unique anecdotes to show how much of an outcast she felt during her time at Stuy. She does a good job lacing these anecdotes to make the essay cohesive.

The conclusion is relatively strong, and the message is clear – she has overcome tons of obstacles, but she doesn’t let her background deter her from reaching her goals. It’s a very positive message.

Overall, Cristen’s essay is strong and very unique. She took a risk by poking fun of her school, but she pulls it off by spinning her situation in a more positive light.

College Essay Weaknesses:

Cristen’s unique voice and risk-taking spirit is pretty evident in her writing – it’s a very strong essay. However, I do believe that one reaaaaally good story instead of a few small anecdotes would’ve made this essay much more striking.

Cristen’s essay brings forth a question that students always have about their college application essay: Should you take “risks” in your writing? It IS a bit risky to poke fun of your high school and its faculty, as Cristen did.

But, Cristen’s way of making fun of Ms. Cleary is not whiney, which is why her essay works. Ms. Cleary simply represents another obstacle in Cristen’s life that made her high school years tough. She uses Ms. Cleary as an example to show that she doesn’t back down – she’ll make the best darn lemonade our of any sour lemons she gets dealt in life. In other words, the essay ends on a high note.

If you do want to take risks in your writing by poking fun of something or someone, that’s completely fine… as long as you get multiple second opinions! You don’t want to offend people. You also don’t want to sound overly negative and whiney. You need to strike a good balance, as Cristen has.

Stanford College Application Essay Example

Stanford College Application Essay Example

Here’s a college application essay example by a student* who was accepted to Stanford.

*Not a student of Winning Ivy Prep

Most children acquire the same eye color or a similar shaped nose from their parents, but I’ve inherited much more: a passion for learning and an insatiable curiosity which has served me well throughout my academic career. My father, an electrical engineer, taught me to explore the world with inquisitive eyes, constantly seeking to learn more, to understand more. I watched him for hours as he worked on elevator schematics at home, wondering what all the various symbols and lines meant. I was fascinated by technology and wanted to know how and why things worked the way they did.

“How does this toaster work?” “What’s inside this VCR?” I was never satisfied with the simplified answers that my parents sometimes gave to these questions. So I discovered many answers for myself by exploring and experimenting.

My playground was a jumble of old circuit boards, spare electric wire, and an assortment of broken appliances. I spent hours disassembling and tinkering with the amazing treasures I found lying around our garage. My mother, a first grade teacher, noticed my intellectual curiosity and encouraged my childhood explorations. She gave me piles of mind-opening children’s books, which I willingly read. Books like “What Makes Popcorn Pop, and Other Questions about the World around Us” allowed me to discover the irresistible appeal of imaginative questions and their fascinating answers.

I was given a remarkable amount of freedom at a young age. When I was 6, my parents bought an old computer for $25 from a local yard sale with the intention of letting me loose on it. I was thrilled. Motivated by curiosity, I delved into it at once and learned how to use each and every feature of the computer’s antiquated MS-DOS operating system. With my father’s help and an old programming book by my side, I even created simple videogames for my younger brother to play.

My parents taught me to be independent and self-motivated by providing me opportunities to learn by trial and error. I recall an episode where my parents bought a new microwave when I was just 8 years old. As they unpacked the microwave, I caught sight of the owner’s manual and asked to see it. After reading the 40-page text front-to-back, I learned one very important thing: how to use a feature called “child lock,” or as I saw it, “parent lock.” By pressing a special sequence of buttons on the microwave, disabled it, thus protecting my parents from the dangers of using the appliance without my supervision. Until this day, the first thing I do after buying a new gadget is read the entire manual, in search of nifty features.

My intellectual curiosity is the result of a unique combination of early influences and childhood experiences which have fueled my passion for learning inside and outside of the classroom — learning from everything I do. I hope to continue applying this curiosity to all aspects of my life, exploring the world through the eyes of my childhood persona. By refusing to accept the obvious explanation, refusing to settle for a superficial understanding, and refusing to endure the status quo, great American innovators like my role model Benjamin Franklin created new knowledge, new technologies, and new innovations. I strive to do the same. It’s part of who I am, and what drives me to become successful and happy.

Source: AP Study Notes

Analysis & Comments

In this essay, the author made me feel:

  • Fascinated, sort of (except not really)

In this essay, the author exhibits these personality traits:

  • Passion for engineering and electronics
  • Clarity of thought and organization
  • Natural curiosity

College Essay Strengths:

This essay is pretty simple and clear-cut, isn’t it? Of all the topics that the author could’ve written about, he wanted the admissions committee to know of his passion for engineering. This thirst-for-knowledge theme is intertwined in every example of the essay. From the get-go, his passions are very clearly communicated, which is great.

The writing is very straightforward and methodological, almost like the author we imagine him to be. Based on this essay we know exactly the type of person the author is. The essay, in other words, paints a very good picture of our author.

College Essay Weaknesses:

This essay is pretty strong. However, there’s still room to revamp the essay.

First things first: The introduction could be a little more hooky. Don’t get me wrong — currently, the introduction is perfectly fine. But, a hooky introduction would make the essay more dynamic and give it some voice. Because the essay is a bit too dry at the moment, some added voice would really give the essay a boost.

Moreover, this essay sprinkles in a few mini stories to get across the author’s message about his passion for engineering. This is perfectly fine. However, it would be best if there was one good, juicy story to convey his message instead of a few small stories.

Finally, let’s talk about the conclusion. The point of any good conclusion is to tie together any loose ends. This author’s conclusion doesn’t add much value to the overall essay because he basically reiterates the same message he already conveyed in the introduction that, since childhood, the author had a thirst for knowledge outside and inside the classroom. It leaves me wanting a bit more from him.

Additionally, the author’s last sentence is weak and trite. His innate curiosity drives him to be successful and happy? Really? That’s how he wants to end the entire essay? There are tons of better concluding statements than that one.

At the end of the day, yes, the author got into Stanford. Great. But, it’s unarguable that this essay has many points of improvement, albeit lots of strengths as well.

Because the college admission process is pretty obscure, it’s extremely important to make sure that every piece of the admissions puzzle for your application package is the absolute best it can be.

PS: Check out the link below for more college application essay examples

Get more college essay examples for Stanford, UPenn, Columbia, NYU… You name it!

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College Application Essay Example UPenn

College Application Essay Example UPenn

Here’s a college admissions essay example from a friend of Winning Ivy Prep who was accepted to University of Pennsylvania!

UPenn Common App Essay Example

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.

Aspire, to reach for [an ambition], from Latin aspiro (ad + spiro), to breathe for [a purpose], a derivative of spiro, to breathe. Aspiration drove Bill Gates to found Microsoft, led Einstein to the theories of relativity, and brought me to the study of language.

Aspirate, to create a strong burst of air, used in a linguistic sense, also from Latin spiro, to breathe. In English, aspiration turns B’s into P’s, D’s into T’s and G’s into K’s. Most languages have aspirated consonants, including both Ancient Greek and Korean. Though you’d never think that Ancient Greek and Korean were in any way related, being on different sides of Asia, the two surprisingly have a lot in common.

When I was still in diapers, my working mom hired a nanny who, like my mother, was Korean in order to give me early exposure to her language. My English blossomed when I started preschool. In kindergarten my Chinese dad introduced me to his language through children’s television. Elementary school brought me French, and middle school ushered in my interest in Latin. Hotchkiss let me study Chinese and Ancient Greek while continuing my Latin. This past summer, I went back to my roots and worked on my childhood Korean. All told, I am learning three living languages – English, Chinese and Korean – and two dead ones, Latin and Ancient Greek.

I get some odd looks when people find out how many and what languages I study. I have a reason to study Korean and Chinese because they are the languages of my heritage, but how do I explain Latin and Ancient Greek? They’re dead languages, now only home to school crests and old philosophers. I fit as many as I could into my school schedule and studied them over break, but it seemed as if I couldn’t stop learning languages. In English, I traced etymologies as far back as anyone had researched. I learned the concept of nasal vowels from my Navajo friend. But through all this, I never figured out the why factor. What was it about language that drove me to it? 

The answer struck me in the form of a Korean cell phone. When I studied Korean last summer, I couldn’t figure out why the Korean ㄷ, a soft T, was pronounced ㅌ, a hard T, when it was next to ㅎ (H). There was no English equivalent, and I couldn’t rationalize the sound change to myself. Frustrated, I took a break for the day and went out to the movies with a friend. When I borrowed her cell phone to make a call and looked at the arrangement of the Korean alphabet on the number keypad, everything clicked. In contrast to the English keypad, where letters are arranged alphabetically, Korean maps its letters onto the keypad according to how they are sounded. Specifically, consonants that are formed with the same mouth movements all map to one number.

For example, if English number keypads had this system, M, B and P would be together because they are bilabial consonants, formed by placing both lips together. In this consonant group, M is the sonorant, a consonant that can be continually sounded. Because Korean keypads place all similar sounds together, I realized that plosives and aspirates were closely linked. I quickly deduced that since ㅎ (H) was just the burst of air required for aspiration, it would easily combine with a plosive to create the equivalent aspirate consonant. If English had a similar sound change (or, in linguist-speak, “a corresponding morphophonemic phenomenon”), B would change to P, D to T, and G to K in the presence of an aspirate.

I had known from my first day of Ancient Greek that it, along with Korean, was an inflected language, where the endings of words determine their grammatical function. When I noted that Korean once had pitch accent (where one syllable of a word has emphasis and a pitch), just as Ancient Greek does, I couldn’t sit still. I turned to my friend and exclaimed that Korean was a lot like Ancient Greek. I think she was more interested in Johnny Depp than phonic aspiration, though: she told me to give her phone back, stop talking so loudly and just watch Pirates of the Caribbean. But even as I eased myself into the sword fights and special effects, I couldn’t help but think, “Why can’t I aspire further in a movie theater? Maybe I’ll learn Haitian creole.”


Analysis & Comments

In this essay, the author made me feel:

  • Intrigued. This author has a super unique interest in languages
  • Invested. The author’s passion is really evident in his writing, and I’m hooked. I want to learn more about how he ties it everything together in the end.

In this essay, the author exhibits these personality traits:

  • Passion for languages
  • Detail oriented mindset
  • Creativity of thought

College Essay Strengths:

This essay is pretty long – it’s about 1100 words. We can definitely cut out a large portion of the words and keep the essays’ spirit intact. I definitely don’t advocate writing more than the recommended word count. Let’s put that aside for now and talk about the message of the essay.

The author chose a very unique topic — his love of languages — and his passion is crystal clear in his writing. He goes into great detail about why he finds language so enticing and intellectually challenging. It’s fun to learn about what goes on in his mind when he learns a new language and connects the dots between the languages he’s learning.
The introduction and conclusion are other very strong points of this essay. In the introduction, the author uses definitions to hook us right from the get-go. At the end, he adds a little humor to an otherwise esoteric topic, and he does a nice job tying the conclusion back to the intro about being at the movies with his friend. We walk away a little more educated and with a newfound respect for the complexities of languages.

College Essay Weaknesses:

This essay is overall very strong — it showcases bite-sized bits of the author: his culture, his environment in which he grew up, his passions, his humorous side. However, we pointed this out before: The essay is supppper long. He could’ve cut out tons of words to keep the essay within reasonable limits and still preserve the message and show his personality.

PS. Check out this post if you want to know how to answer UPenn’s supplemental essay questions.


Check out the link below for more Common App essay examples

Get more college essay examples for Stanford, UPenn, Columbia, NYU… You name it!

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How to Answer The Common App Essay Prompt #2

How to Answer The Common App Essay Prompt #2

How to Answer The Common App Essay Prompt #2:

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This is my favorite essay prompt.

I’m not saying it’s the easiest Common Application Essay prompt, but it’s a great one to showcase various aspects of your personality that are pretty enticing to admissions officers.

So, what do admissions officer want to see in an admissions essay, you ask?

Well, they want to see that you’re likeable. They also want to see that you’re resilient and gritty. Why? Because college is HARD, dude.

Really, college is difficult. Don’t get me wrong — college is super fun, but it will challenge you on many dimensions — academically and socially. Thus, showing that you’re mature and able to navigate and bounce back from challenges is extremely attractive in the eyes of an admissions officer.

You see, it’s no fun to read about someone who’s seemingly perfect. So, don’t portray yourself as such. Everyone who has amounted to anything has failed at some point.Stories about bouncing back from challenges and obstacles tend to make for a juicy story.

Alright, so, there are “good” failures and “bad” failures for this essay. Let’s unpack this a bit more.

How to Write About Failures for The Common Application Essay

A “bad” failure is an essay about failing something and that’s it. There’s no story about what you learned and how you bounced back from failure.

For instance, a “bad” failure is when you get a “D” on a test and that’s it. Or, maybe you flopped during soccer tryouts for your school’s team and you didn’t make varsity. Ok, so what?

A “good” failure for the college admissions essay is to write a time that you tried something, but it didn’t work out.

If I were you, I’d actually rephrase this question: “Describe a time you didn’t succeed or things didn’t go according to plan… and what did you learn from it?”

You see, a failure for this essay doesn’t have to be catastrophic. Focus more on the juicy problem and how you overcame the obstacle.

Is Showing Failure in The Common App Essay a Sign of Weakness?

A lot of students (and parents) shy away from this essay prompt because they’re worried about sounding “weak.”

Don’t worry about being vulnerable and sounding weak.

For an over-achieving student like you, I know it sounds like failure is a baaaad thing… but failure is just a part of life.

As J.K. Rowling said in her Harvard commencement speech:

It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all — in which case, you fail by default.

Actually, It takes a high level of maturity to talk about failure and the takeaways from the failure.

I live here in Silicon Valley. This is where a bunch of companies like Apple and Google started. The founders of these companies don’t shy away from talking about failure because it’s inevitable. Steve Jobs, who was once an iconic figure at Apple, had failed multiple times before Apple really took off.

So, don’t worry about sounding weak. Challenges and obstacles make good, memorable stories as long as you write about your learnings and takeaways from failure.

5 Essential Common App Essay Writing Secrets

5 Essential Common App Essay Writing Secrets

Alright, ready to write your first Common App Essay draft?

First thing’s first: I want you to force yourself to sit down, uninterrupted, and write for at least 30 minutes. Then, take a break, then start back up for 30 minutes again. Do this until you run completely out of juice.

I know these time targets seem sort of arbitrary but there’s a method to this madness: These concentrated pockets of time spent writing is meant to discipline your mind to get used to writing a Common App Essay.

While you’re writing your first rough draft, keep in mind these 5 tips:

  • Highlight your personal brand message
  • Show how the story unfolds.
  • Write with an authentic voice
  • Write a hooky introduction
  • Finish strong with a positive, upbeat conclusion.

1. Highlight your Personal Brand Message in Your Common App Essay

Before you dive right into writing, do this: At the top of your document, write and highlight that one-liner personal brand message that will be the core of the story.

I don’t want you to forget these two very critical attributes that are make-or-break factors of a winning personal statement.

Keep these factors top of mind when you write your story.

2. Show how the story unfolds

When you tell a story, show your reader how the story unfolds.

Don’t tell your reader that a series of events simply happened and how it made you feel. Show the the reader the details of how the story unfolded.

You see, if you do a good job describing in detail how the story unfolded, then your reader will naturally feel how you were feeling in that moment.

In other words, you don’t need to explicitly tell the reader that you were excited. You should aim to paint such a vivid picture of the story that the reader will naturally feel excited for you.

In order to show how your story unfolds, be specific about the details of the situation.

Don’t say:
“I was excited when I led my basketball team to state championships.”

“The time was running out; I had no choice but to make the 3-pointer shot. I jumped, took the shot, and held my breath as the ball rolled slowly around the rim of the basketball net. I almost prayed for a slight breeze to push it into the net. Finally, the ball slowly rolled in — I made the shot! Everyone went wild.”

The second example is more fun to read, isn’t it? This is what you want.

Before you run off into the sunset, there’s a big but here.

Showing how a story unfolds is absolutely critical. But, don’t overdo it. If you overloading every sentence of your essay with adjectives in an effort to show, not tell, it gets hard to read and each unnecessary adjective takes up valuable word real estate.

The solution is to alternate between showing and telling.

3.Your College Essay Needs Your Authentic Voice

When you write, you might feel a need to be pedantic.

Fight this impulse. You don’t want to sound so stiff.

Harnessing an authentic voice is a little tricky. But, try this: Err on the side of using language that’s more casual than super formal. In other words, write how you would normally talk. This way, you’ll preserve your voice.

In later revisions, you can always change casual sounding parts of an essay. It’s harder to reinsert voice into an already dull sounding essay.

4. Write a Hooky Introduction

You need to jolt the admissions officer awake with a hooky introduction.

The introduction is the reader’s first impression of you. Seize it as an opportunity to make yourself stand out from the sea of other highly qualified applicants dying to get into to your dream school.

You see, there’s a chance that your admissions officer is drained from a day’s work by the time he gets to your essay. It’s absolutely critical that your writing shakes him awake, especially if he’s tired.

Make him want to read it.

To get your gears turning, here are five introduction ideas:

  • Begin with dialogue.
  • Start with a quote.
  • State a shocking, bold statement. Keep it appropriate, though!
  • Start right in the middle of a story.
  • Pose a question.

5. Finish Your Common App Essay With a Positive, Upbeat Conclusion.

The feeling you create at the end of your essay has a significant influence over how your reader remembers you.

So, you need to crush the conclusion if you want your reader to remember you on a memorable and positive note.

In your conclusion, make sure you bring your story full circle.

A good way to end your essay is by linking back to the original anecdote. Bring the reader up to date on how you’re handling the challenge or obstacle today. Or, you could simply make your main point in a fresh way.

It never hurts to add humor as a clever zinger, too. Experiment with this as long as it’s within the confines of the voice and tone of your writing.

For those of you writing your essays for The Common Application, here are the essay prompts!!