The Pressure of the Common App

This year more than a million students will complete the Common Application, a standardized application used by more than 500 colleges and universities. In a special for The Pine Needle, Madeleine Price has shared one possible response to the Common Application’s essay question.

common app logo

  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Failure is a defining characteristic of the human condition. It is your midterm grades falling under the ideal mark, or your prospective coach telling you that you were cut from the team after tryouts. It is the cast list without your name on it, or the repulsive feeling in your gut when you’ve forgotten an assignment. Failure is a shortcoming the part of the individual to meet expectation, whether that is the expectation of a teacher, a friend, a parent, an employer, or the student herself. As long as expectations exist, we are bound to fall short. I am not exempt from these shortcomings. There is one great failure affecting me largely at this very moment: the crippling failure to complete the essay portion of my Common Application.

I have never excelled at “selling myself”—emphasizing my strengths while understating my weaknesses. Unfortunately, the essay portion of the Common Application is created specifically for this purpose. This prompt is not intended to be a story of failure; it is intended to be a story of overcoming the devastating odds or a story of finding your true calling. Unfortunately for me, in the process of writing this essay, I am forced to admit that perhaps my true calling is not to write college admissions essays, and I’m sure that admissions staff will think less positively of me, as I am not currently overcoming the odds. Furthermore, I feel uncomfortable and awkward highlighting my best attributes. I have many strong and unique traits; however, as a prospective college student, I am indecisive, overwhelmed, and terrified of any portion of an application that isn’t found on either my transcript or my school file.

Even selecting my intended major from a never-ending list of possibilities sends me into a whirlwind of panic. I am afraid of finding myself in a position where I can’t turn back, with thousands of dollars wasted on an interest unexpectedly lost three years into a bachelor’s degree. On the other hand, “Undecided” is a terrifying option that might indicate a lack of commitment or weakness. Can admissions committees smell fear? With the knowledge that many college students do not graduate with their initial major, I select a different option each time. According to the applications I have already submitted, I am an education major with substantial interests in biomedical engineering and anthropology. My failure to complete the essay portion of applications only indicates a failure more devastating—a failure to be decisive about my future.

Ultimately this fiasco has caused me a large amount of stress; never in my life will I be faced with this much breadth of opportunity again. The slowly dwindling time terrifies me, so naturally, I am procrastinating the admissions process more obstinately. I believe I am capable, but I am also terrified by the magnitude of opportunity.

Lastly, I am experiencing an ultimate failure to be concise. While I have no idea what I mean to say in my essay, I still can’t condense

[500 words]