Attending: Vanderbilt University
Original essay draft: discussed his experience interviewing strangers for “Humans of Shenzhen.” In his essay, Bob mentioned what he learned from three strangers in particular—an overworked businessman who one day up and quit his job to pursue his hobby, a deliveryman for a restaurant who braved all sorts of weather to do his job, and a student struggling to pass the gaokao exam.
Our Evaluation: However descript, this essay was lacking personal reflection. As the Common App is supposed to show the part of you that you really want the Admission Officers to know about, we suggested that Bob focus on his passion, photography.
Revised draft: Bob's revised essay opens with him plopped on his bed gazing around his room, noticing all the elements in it connected to his hobby—cameras in a dry box, photographs he has taken hanging on the wall, and school brochures and yearbooks that he has taken pictures for. Throughout the essay, Bob reflects on the various reasons that he enjoys experiencing life through a lens.
Original essay draft: focused on his struggle dealing with Tourette’s syndrome. He described going to all sorts of doctors, from traditional Chinese herbalists to Western ones, in the pursuit of a cure.
Our Evaluation: The essay seemed a bit too negative, and it was evident that David was aiming for an emotional appeal, so we suggested that rather than focus on the hardships that come with Tourette’s, he focus on an experience which marked his “overcoming” of the sadness and negative emotions that come with the disorder.
Revised draft: David writes about how he switched schools—from a Chinese to an international one—and joined the choir. His practice for and then execution of his first solo performance, a traditional African song, perfectly demonstrated his transition from “childhood to adulthood,” as David mastered his mind, quelling his impulses and, in turn, steering his future.
Accepted to: Yale, Columbia, Princeton, Dartmouth
City/School: Top 10 International School in Beijing
Attending: Brown University
City/School: US Boarding school
Original essay draft: Jennifer’s initial choice of topic for her Common App essay was a classic one: overcoming her own fear of failure to take up competitive swimming. She felt so strongly about the lesson of perseverance that she had learned in the pool that her first draft ended up one long sophomoric monologue of “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!”
Our Evaluation: The biggest weakness in Jennifer's essay lay in the superficiality of her reflections. We coached her to use the “from small to big” method: take a simple, mundane task from everyday life—such as swim practice—and make it larger-than-life, transcending personal boundaries to create resonance with the readers.
Final Draft: The challenge here, though, is to avoid preaching. The crux of Jennifer’s personal reflection recognized the futility of human attempts and yet glorified the dignity of man and the power of his faith.
Robert’s initial essay draft was about his independent biology research project at the University of Toronto. Since the details of this project were already included in his research portfolio and resume, we advised Robert to showcase the more creative and “softer” characteristics of his personality. He ended up writing about a community service experience in a senior home, where he met an elderly man who would become a source of inspiration and motivation.
Attending: UC Berkeley
City/School: Boarding school in Canada
Accepted to: University of Pennsylvania (E.D.)
City/School: Top 10 high school, Shenzhen
Lee’s CommonApp essay answered prompt 4, about “a place or environment where you are perfectly content.” His original essay was about playing the zither, but we figured this was too stereotypically “Chinese” (plus, playing the zither won’t really allow him to meld into a student orchestra), so we broadened the response to include his two other favorite artistic outlets—the studio arts, in particular, drawing and painting; and the violin. His first draft read more like a summary of his experiences with the arts. There was no real flow between paragraphs and no depth to each individual paragraph or to the piece as a while. To fix this, we altered the essay content and structure so that the final product would be more of a reflection on aesthetics rather than mere summarization. In her conclusion, Lee combines a dash of philosophy with a dash of future goals for a complete picture of why he wishes to live for art.