"My Dads" - Sample Common Application Essay for Option #1

Charlie Writes about His Atypical Family Situation in His College Application

Charlie's story of growing up with two dads works well for Common Application essay option #1
Charlie's story of growing up with two dads works well for Common Application essay option #1. ONOKY - Eric Audras / Getty Images

The essay prompt for option #1 of the 2017-18 Common Application states, "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."

Charlie chose this option because his atypical family situation was a defining part of his identity. Here is his essay:

Charlie's Common Application Essay:

My Dads

I have two dads. They met in the early 80s, became partners soon after, and adopted me in 2000. I think I’ve always know that we were a little different from most families, but that’s never really bothered me. My story, that which defines me, is not that I have two dads. I’m not automatically a better person, or smarter, or more talented, or better looking because I am the child of a same-sex couple. I’m not defined by the number of fathers I have (or the lack of mothers). Having two dads is inherent to my person not because of the novelty; it’s inherent because it has afforded me a completely unique life perspective.

I’m very fortunate to have grown up in a loving and safe environment—with caring friends, family, and neighbors. I know for my dads, that was not always the case. Living on a farm in Kansas, my dad Jeff struggled internally with his identity for years. My dad Charley was luckier; born and raised in New York City, he was always supported by his parents and the community there. He only has a few stories of being harassed on the street or the subway. Dad Jeff, though, has a web of scarring on his right arm, from the time he was jumped leaving a bar; one of the men pulled a knife on him. When I was little, he used to make up stories about these scars; it wasn’t until I was fifteen that he told me the truth.

I know how to be afraid. My dads know how to be afraid—for me, for themselves, for the life they’ve created. When I was six, a man threw a brick through our front window. I don’t remember much about that night save for a few images: the police arriving, my aunt Joyce helping to clean up the glass, my dads hugging, how they let me sleep in their bed that night. This night wasn’t a turning point for me, a realization that the world is an ugly, nasty place. We carried on as usual, and nothing like that ever happened again. I guess, in retrospect, my dads were just used to living slightly afraid. But it never stopped them from going out in public, being seen together, being seen with me. Through their bravery, their unwillingness to give in, they taught me the virtue of courage more concretely and lasting than a thousand parables or Bible verses ever could.

I also know how to respect people. Growing up in a “different” family dynamic has led me to appreciate and understand others who are labeled as “different.” I know how they feel. I know where they’re coming from. My dads know what it is like to be spat on, looked down on, yelled at, and belittled. Not only do they want to keep me from being bullied; they want to keep me from bullying. They have taught me, through their actions, beliefs, and habits, always to strive to be the best person I can. And I know countless other people have learned the same things from their own parents. But my story is different.

I wish having same-sex parents wasn’t the novelty it is. I’m not a charity case, or a miracle, or a role model because I have two dads. But I am who I am because of them. Because of all they’ve lived through, dealt with, suffered, and tolerated. And from that, they’ve taught me how to help others, how to care about the world, how to make a difference—in a thousand small ways. I am not just the “boy with two dads;” I’m the boy with two dads who taught him how to be a decent, caring, courageous, and loving human being.

A Critique of Charlie's Common Application Essay:

In this critique, we'll look at the features of Charlie's essay that make it shine as well as a few areas that could use improvement.

The Title:

Charlie's title is short and simple, but it is also effective. Most college applicants have a single dad, so the mention of plural "dads" is likely to pique the interest of the reader. Good titles don't need to be funny, punny, or clever, and Charlie has clearly gone for a straight-forward but effective approach. You can learn more in my tips for essay titles

The Length:

For the 2016-17 academic year, the Common Application essay has a word limit of 650 and a minimum length of 250 words. At 630 words, Charlie's essay is on the long side of the range. You'll see advice from many college counselors stating that you are better off keeping your essay short. I don't subscribe to this advice. Sure, you don't want to have wordiness, fluff, digressions, vague language, or redundancy in your essay (Charlie is not guilty of any of these sins).

But a well crafted, tight, 650-word essay can provide the admissions folks with a more detailed portrait of you than a 300-word essay. The fact that the college is asking for an essay means that it has holistic admissions, and the admissions folks want to learn about you as an individual. Use the space you've been given to do so.

Learn more in my article on essay length.

The Topic:

Charlie steers clear of my ten bad essay topics, and he has certainly focused on a topic that the admissions folks won't see very frequently. His topic is an excellent choice for Common Application option #1 for his domestic situation has clearly played a defining role in who he is. There are, of course, a few conservative colleges with religious affiliations that would not look favorably upon this essay, but that's not an issue here since those are schools that would not be a good match for Charlie. The essay topic is also a good choice in that it illustrates how Charlie will contribute to the diversity of the college campus. Colleges want to enroll a diverse college class, for we all learn from interacting with people who are different than us. Charlie contributes to diversity not through race, ethnicity, or sexual orientation, but by having an upbringing that is different from the great majority of people. 

Weaknesses:

For the most part, Charlie has written an excellent essay. The prose in the essay is clear and fluid, and aside from an incorrect punctuation mark and a vague pronoun reference, the writing is pleasing free of errors.

Although I don't have any significant concerns with Charlie's essay, I do think the tone of the conclusion could use a little reworking. The last sentence, in which he calls himself "a decent, caring, courageous, and loving human being," comes across as a little strong with the self-praise. In fact, my feeling is that the last paragraph would be stronger if Charlie simply cut the final sentence. He's already made the point in that sentence without the problem of tone we encounter at the very end.

The Overall Impression:

Charlie's essay has much that is excellent, and I particularly like how understated most of it is. For example, when Charlie narrates the scene of the brick flying through the window, he says "this night wasn't a turning point for me." This is not an essay about sudden life-changing epiphanies; rather, it is about the life-long lessons in bravery, perseverance, and love that have made Charlie into the person that he is.

A couple simple questions I always ask when evaluating essays are these: 1) Does the essay help us get to know the applicant better? 2) Does the applicant seem like someone who would contribute to a campus community in a positive way? With Charlie's essay, the answer to both questions is yes.

To see more sample essays and learn strategies for each of the essay options, be sure to read The 2017-18 Common Application Essay Prompts.

If you'd like Allen Grove's help with your own essay, see his bio for details.