The Common App Essay: Tips for Sustainability and Environmentally-Themed Applications

In a companion post, I reviewed the college admissions process from the perspective of a sustainability-themed applicant. I broke down the five different components of a college application in the context of admissions, both broadly speaking and for those emphasizing an environmental focus in their application. In this article, I will take a detailed look at the common app essay and supplements.

Common App Essay and Supplements

Time Management

Understandably as an English major, writing my Common App essay and supplements was one of my favorite parts. Who doesn’t love writing about oneself? However, writing your personal essay and supplements can easily become a drag if you don’t budget your time well. Completing my personal essay and supplements was incredibly time consuming and needed to be done on top of my senior year workload. Many high schools will dedicate at least part of their senior English/Writing curriculum to the personal essay, aiding the students by teaching methods and techniques to approach personal writing and then providing teacher comments and feedback on drafts. Nevertheless, writing your personal essay and supplements will be a lot of outside work and budgeting your time accordingly and setting goals for completion will avoid the possibility of procrastination. You also need to account for the time editing your writing will take. No piece of writing will be perfect on the first draft, even from a great writer. Writing multiple drafts and having your peers and teachers make comments on your writing, as well as your own self-editing ensures that you’re going along the writing process to produce your best work.

Choosing Your Topic

Choosing your topic for your personal essay is challenging and sometimes you may end up completely switching subjects midway of writing it. What you choose to write about for your personal essay is essential in making your application stand out amidst the thousands of applications the admissions counselors are reading. It’s important to note that even if your whole application’s theme centers around environmental interests and sustainability, your personal essay does not necessarily need to talk about that. Some people choose to take a more personal route, perhaps writing about a familial circumstance, personal obstacle they’ve overcome, or defining moment they’ve had. As long as you feel like your subject matter is unique to you and you’re able to produce a well-written personal essay regarding it, go for it!

Supplements DOs and DON’Ts

  1. DO be more creative in your writing, if your supplement questions allow it. My senior year, one of the Tufts University supplements was “What makes you happy?” This was probably one of the most fun supplements to write, as I got to write about my love for The Office, which definitely isn’t the typical college supplement topic. That being said, the creative route isn’t for every supplement. Sometimes the college admissions wants a simple, well-written, more formal response to their supplemental questions.
  2. DO vary what you write about, particularly between your Common App essay and supplements. If you’ve already written about a sustainability or environmental program, great! What’s something else unique you can write about? Perhaps a leadership role you had in an extracurricular? Or a team sport you participated or held a leadership role in?
  3. DO be concise when you’re writing. Most supplements have a 200-300 word limit, some being as little as 100 words. Therefore, the flowery and over-worded language some of us may have a habit of writing with has no place on your college application.
  4. DO proofread ALL of your supplements and Common App essay. I’ve heard a couple of horror stories of students sending their “Why Lehigh?” supplement along to Tufts. That’s an easy way to be thrown in rejection pile.

Talking About Sustainability and the Environment in Your Writing

Choosing to write about sustainability and environmental leadership already displays certain characteristics about you to your college admissions counselor: you have a passion that you’re motivated about and you have leadership qualities to pursue your passion.

  1. To begin writing, think of a subject, possibly a certain instance or experience that you’re able to reflect on and clearly address the looming questions the college admissions counselors will have about you- Who are you? What are you interested in/what matters to you? How are you unique amongst all the applicants I’m going through?
  2. Write! It doesn’t have to be polished or clearly organized, as long as you’re getting your ideas down in a somewhat coherent way that you can shift through later.
  3. As a general rule about writing personal essays, remind yourself to show, not tell what you want to convey to the college admission counselors reading your essay. Simple statements like “I’m hard working” in your essay shows that one, you’re unable to write tactifully about ways that show that you’re hardworking and two, that these cover statements don’t actually prove that you are hard working. Rather, write about an instance that shows your work ethic and reflect on it.
  4. Remember the word limit. On first drafts you can go a bit above or a bit below, but within reason- an 800-word essay is easier to cut down than over 1,000-word essay.
  5. Drafts. As mentioned before, drafts are key to producing your best writing. Having a peer  read over your essay and asking what their biggest takeaway about you was is good way to see where your essay may need to be strengthened.
  6. Avoid clichès. Particularly if you’re writing about a certain experience, possibly a study abroad, do not recount the typical “This was a life-changing experience” or “I’ve seen the world, I’m so open-minded now.” Particularly in the realm of doing community service, do not write as if you’ve saved the world if you’ve done a community service trip to a developing country through a program that cost you thousands of dollars.
  7. An easy way of avoiding clichès is being specific. If you did feel like a particular trip or program changed your perspective or the way you think, then how? If you’re truly passionate about community service, write about any particular realms you’re interested in or any goals you have on the horizon for yourself? If you’re writing about your interest in the environment, try to pinpoint what aspects of the environment you’re most passionate about: the food industry, environmental policy, renewable energy, wildlife conservation? Being specific allows the reader to get more of a sense of who you are. You aren’t just someone who’s passionate about the environment, but rather someone who is interested in food policy and is passionate about stopping the unsustainable agricultural practices that big corporations use.

Eana is an alumna of Sustainable Summer and a current undergraduate at Colby College.