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3 Tips for Writing the Common App Essay: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

I have revised many exceptional essays, filled with honest self-reflection and true idealism, that were written in response to this prompt. I have read even more forgettable essays about a medical mission, violin performance, football injury and mountain climbing journey that fail to set the student apart. When writing this essay, here are some questions that you should be asking yourself:

“Is this the way I would describe it to a friend?”
While we are often proudest of our most shining accomplishments, resist the urge to brag. Your audience is an unfamiliar admissions reader but the tone should reflect the way you would talk to a friend. Try to be the best and most authentic version of yourself.

“What matters to me?”
Even the most thrilling description of your climb up Mount Everest will be meaningless if you cannot articulate why it mattered to you. Try to think of three adjectives that you would use to describe yourself. What are your core values and how does your story relate to them? A mountain climb can reflect patience, audacity, cooperation, determination, tenacity, fearlessness, camaraderie, ambition, and many other virtues. Mention one or two of them in your essay.

“How does this story relate to college and my future?”
The admissions reader wants to get to know you, so take the opportunity to connect this formative story to your dreams for college and the future. Did climbing the mountain make you realize that your dream of becoming a doctor was obtainable? Did it make you decide to become a professional athlete, teacher, conservationist or global leader? Did it make you excited to travel and explore new cultures? I want to know why the story matters not only for your life so far but also for your life to come.

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“3 Cover Letter Tips that Guarantee an Interview” (Rebecca Thorman, “U.S. News & World Report”)

In “3 Cover Letter Tips that Guarantee an Interview,” Rebecca Thorman presents solid advice for crafting an impressive and memorable cover letter.  To get an introduction, I recommend calling over sending emails; the added effort is well worth it.  Begin the call by asking if the person has a few minutes to talk and then keep the call short and concise.  If you don’t get much of a response, ask if you might call back in a week to touch base and see if anything came to mind.  It is wise to avoid putting anything in writing as emails are easily forwarded and may end up in the hands of someone at your company.  In terms of the cover letter itself, I generally like using three bullet points to summarize the skills and experiences that make you perfect for the job; the extent to which you need to quantify your accomplishments varies greatly by industry and more creative roles might require a more unique approach.  Overall, anecdotes (supported by names and numbers) are better than lists of adjectives.  When you do use adjectives, keep them precise and focused; generic strings of adjectives such as “ambitious, enthusiastic, hard-working and creative” are self-defeating.  My only objection to Ms. Thorman’s example is the phrase “With no prior sales or marketing experience.”  Although she goes on to describe an impressive accomplishment, it is never a good idea to begin by exposing a significant weakness.  

For the original article, see

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“The Only Resume Advice You’ll Ever Need” (Trudy Steinfeld,

In “The Only Resume Advice You’ll Ever Need,” Trudy Steinfeld offers several tried-and-true tips for standing out in a competitive job market.  I strongly agree with her advice to quantify your achievements, from the number of hours or dollars saved to percent improvement from one year or quarter to another.  If you are having trouble getting started, there are plenty of lists of action words or “power words” which you should put at the start of each bullet point (in past or present tense).  I always suggest limiting yourself to one page and using more bullet points for recent jobs than for older ones.   Lastly, and most importantly, the resume must reflect your understanding of the job description and of the company’s mission. 

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“How to Write a Cover Letter” (Susan Adams,

In “How to Write a Cover Letter,” Susan Adams gives some excellent advice on how to tackle this tricky task. The source of the problems with most of the cover letters I revise is inadequate preparation. Before you even start writing your letter, take notes and gather material. Read recent news articles about the company and industry and jot down trends and figures that are relevant to the job to which you are applying. Make a list of the job responsibilities, assignments and expected outcomes. Next to that, list your noteworthy experiences and main accomplishments at your current and recent jobs and internships. Look for common themes among the three lists – industry news, job responsibilities, your accomplishments – to help you connect them in your cover letter.

As you’re writing the cover letter, make sure that it answers the question, “Why am I the best person for this job?” Too many applicants answer the question, “Why is this the best job for me?” Follow the rule of show, not tell: use a lot of anecdotes (from your list above) and only a few character adjectives (creative, persistent, innovative) that apply to the job description.

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“Hacking the Common App Essay Prompts, Pt. I” (Josh Stephens, “The Huffington Post”)

In “Hacking the Common App Essay Prompts, Pt. I,” Josh Stephens gives some of the most helpful advice I’ve seen in a while. Rather than look for inspiration in the prompts themselves, start by asking yourself, “What else about me should the reader know?” A good essay is like a first date: you need to be true to yourself, throw in a bit of humor, and make the reader want to get to know you even better. Of the many common app essays I’ve revised this season, the best ones have been in response to the first prompt about a story that is central to their identity. Share what matters to you. 

For the original article, visit

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“Here’s Why Applying to Harvard Business School Has Never Been Easier” (Matt Symonds,

In “Here’s Why Applying to Harvard Business School Has Never Been Easier,” Matt Symonds presents the open-ended essay as an opportunity for self-reflection and a place to add greater dimension to your application. Although he proposes covering two to three topics in 500 to 800 words, I suggest developing a single topic and using up to 1000 words. For applicants with truly unique and ambitious career goals, this essay is the place to make a compelling argument, supported by facts and figures, for how you will achieve it and why you need a Harvard MBA to do so. 

To read the original article, visit

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“Understand the Factors Behind Medical School Admissions” (Kathleen Franco, “US News & World Report”)

In “Understand the Factors Behind Medical School Admissions,” Dr. Franco discusses a variety of important factors that influence medical school admissions decisions. Take the time to read each medical school’s mission statement and think deeply about how its values align with yours. Some of the best essays I have revised have taken a religious concept and discussed its profound impact on the applicants’ career decisions. Consider Jewish values such as “tikkun olam” (repairing the world) and “bikkur holim” (visiting the sick), Christian ideals such as Christ’s healing ministry, and Islamic perspectives on “ajal” (death) and strengthening “iman” (faith) by seeing Allah’s presence in the human body.

To read Dr. Franco’s article, visit:

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“In Your MBA Application, Be Authentic” (Stacy Blackman, “US News & World Report”)

Stacy Blackman provides excellent advice on how to be authentic and impressive in your business school application essays. Simply writing about your passion, however, is not enough to make a great essay. Avoid going into too much detail or being too obvious about how the skills developed while climbing a mountain will make you a persistent entrepreneur. Try to let a single, well-chosen anecdote speak for itself. The same advice applies for essays addressing your weaknesses: discussing your failure is an excellent way to demonstrate self-awareness and the desire to improve yourself, which are critical for getting the most out of your MBA.

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“An Expensive, Alternative Route to Medical School” (Brian Burnsed, “U.S. News and World Report”)

In “An Expensive, Alternative Route to Medical School,” Brian Burnsed cautions applicants against applying to a pre-med postbac program without doing their research about the program’s medical school acceptance rate and advising resources. I would add that applicants should speak to a few students who are currently in the program as well as a few who have graduated and are now in medical school. Ask them how the program helped them with the process of applying to medical school. Unfortunately, Mr. Burnsed overlooks the fact that many pre-med postbac students are older, non-traditional applicants who simply did not decide to become health professionals until after college. Some of the best pre-med postbac and medical school application essays that I have revised have been from older applicants whose experience in law, business and the military gave them the maturity and life skills to succeed in medicine.

To read the original article, visit:

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