The Common App essay, also called a personal statement, is one of the trickiest components of a college application. Many students struggle with how to make their essays stand out from the crowd. After spending years building up an excellent high school resume, getting good grades, and dreaming of college, it could all come down to one 650 word college essay! That’s a lot of pressure. Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. In this blog, our college essay advisors tell you everything you need to know about the Common App essay, how to brainstorm ideas, how to write it, the biggest challenges, mistakes to avoid, and handy tips to keep in mind. We also provide a few samples to help you understand what types of essays actually impress college admissions committees.
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The Common App essay is the personal statement that students have to submit on the Common Application portal. College apps are getting tougher by the minute as students are judged on so many different criteria – academics, of course, but also extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, supplemental essays, and the personal statement. All the hard work you put in towards taking on tough IB and AP classes, servicing your community, committing to your extracurriculars, could all be wasted because of one essay, that most students write in a month!
Many students are intimidated by the concept of the essay, not just because of how important it is, but also because they simply don’t know what to write in it. How personal should they get? What’s the right tone? What are colleges even looking for? With these questions running through your mind, it can be hard to focus and actually start writing.
But the Common App essay is like any other aspect of your application, or in fact, like any other challenge you meet in life. With adequate preparation, strategic planning, and a commitment to excellence, you can produce a Common App essay that’s sure to impress college admissions committees. In fact, if you do it right, writing this essay could actually help you refine and perfect your writing skills and even teach you things about yourself that you didn’t know! Read on to learn failproof tips from our college admissions consulting experts!
What is the Common App?
The Common Application, often called Common App, is the cornerstone of the college application process for most students in the US and Canada. It’s an online, centralized portal that gathers college application components from students and sends them to colleges. Students only have to submit their application once, and it’s sent to every college they want to apply to. With over 900 participating colleges all over the world, the Common App just makes life so much easier for high school students applying to college, not to mention their parents and teachers. Can you imagine if you had to send an individual application to each and every college you’re applying to? Well, you still might have to send out 2 or 3 different applications since not every college in the US and Canada uses Common App. For instance, UC schools have their own application system and if you’re targeting those, you will have to submit a separate application. But the overwhelming majority of colleges in the US do utilize Common App, which makes it a huge boon during application season. In one portal, you can submit your personal information, transcript, list of activities, letters of recommendation, and the personal statement, which will go out to all the colleges you want to apply to.
The Common App Essay
So, what is this dreaded Common App essay anyway? If you’re a high school student applying to college, you might know it as your main essay or personal statement. This is the component you submit in the “Writing” tab of the Common App, where you’ll find the 7 prompts for the current application season along with a textbox where you write your essay in response to one of the prompts. It’s strongly recommended that you write your essay in a Google doc, MS Word, or some other reliable word processor with backups, and then copy paste the final draft into the Common App textbox. You should not be typing your first drafts and making revisions directly in Common App! You might end up losing the essay due to a technical glitch or worse, submitting a rough draft by accident.
The great thing about the Common App essay, and one that students frequently forget, is that the same essay goes out to all the colleges. So, you don’t need to write individual essays for each college or tailor your essays to talk about specific courses or universities. In fact, you should aim to keep your Common App essay as general as possible, without reference to any specific schools or degrees. For instance, if you make your Common App essay very focused on your passion for science subjects and talk about your desire to attend a top engineering college, while you’re applying to liberal arts schools as well, you’re tanking your chances of getting an acceptance from the latter. Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to get college-specific when you’re writing your college supplemental essays.
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Difference between Common App essay and supplemental essays
As part of your college application, you’re expected to submit a number of different written components, from the descriptions of your extracurricular activities to your personal statement and the supplemental essays. It’s very important that you understand the different requirements and purpose of each of these written components and tailor them as needed. Specifically, make sure you don’t get confused between the Common App essay and the supplemental college essay. As we mentioned above, the Common App essay is your 250-650 word personal statement that you submit with your primary application on Common App. You only need to write one, and it goes out to all the colleges you apply to. The purpose of the Common App essay is to give the college admissions committees a better idea of who you are as a person and what makes you unique. It should be focused on your life and experiences, without any reference to a specific college or bias towards a specific stream (such as STEM, liberal arts, etc.).
Once your primary application is processed and if you make it through (though not all colleges screen primary apps), specific colleges will start reaching out to you with their supplemental application that will include prompts for essays. In these essays, you’re expected to get specific and address why you want to get into that college and reference your academic interests. Colleges can ask for more than one supplemental essay, and the required word count can vary. Some have a maximum word count of 250 words while others match the maximum length of the Common App essay at 650 words.
How do you differentiate between these two essays? How do you even find enough material for all these essays? Well, think of your Common App essay as your broad personal statement, an answer to the question “Tell me about yourself” (in relation to specific prompts), while your supplemental essay focuses in on the question of “Why do you want to attend this college?”. The two essays should complement each other, but there should be no overlap.
How can you ensure this? That’s what we’ll explain in this blog. If you do your Common App preparation right, and give yourself enough time to brainstorm, you’ll most likely come away with plenty of raw material, topic ideas, and inspiration for your supplemental essays too. There will be plenty of ideas you might reject as unsuitable for your Common App essay which could work for your secondary app essays.
Why is the Common App essay important?
So, if colleges will be asking for college-specific essays anyway, why is the Common App essay important? Well, in many cases, you won’t even get to the supplemental essays stage without an impressive Common App essay. This essay could count for 10% to 30% of how your primary application is evaluated, and the more elite the college, the more important it is. That’s because elite colleges such as Ivy League schools receive a huge volume of high-caliber applicants. They have plenty of applications from students with top grades, amazing extracurriculars, and references, so the Common App essay really becomes crucial in making an application stand out. Additionally, some schools, such as private liberal arts colleges, favor a more holistic admissions process. These colleges often don’t prioritize standardized test results as much as other schools and give more weight to the students’ extracurriculars and personal statement.
The Common App essay could be the deciding factor between you and another candidate with a similar profile. Many students with the best grades in their class and a roster of impressive extracurricular activities, not to mention top SAT scores, end up rejected from their dream schools because of a poorly-written essay. Having said that, it’s important to remember that no matter how great your personal statement is, it won’t make up for uneven grades and a less than robust resume, especially at elite schools with competitive admissions.
Remember that the Common App essay represents a final chance for you to take your application to the next level. By the time you’re writing and submitting your essay, there’s not much you could do about your transcript, your history of extracurriculars, etc. These components are long-term achievements which can’t be accomplished in a day. But you’re in complete control of your Common App essay and it’s your one chance to advocate for yourself in front of the admissions committee.
In fact, from the students’ perspective, this is what makes the Common App essay so important. Most of your primary application is quantitative, focused on grades, scores, contact information, and so on; your essay is one of the few “qualitative” components of your application. It allows you to speak directly to the admissions committee, and really humanize yourself, help them see you as person rather than just a collection of facts and figures. Your grades and standardizes test scores and all those other application components are certainly important – they indicate your academic prowess, your talents, your abilities – but they don’t represent you as a person. Everybody has a unique story and adding that personal context can really enhance your application.
Common App Essay Prompts
Common App releases the prompts for every admissions cycle around spring. The prompts have stayed more or less constant over the last few years, though a couple of prompts are occasionally changed, so it’s always a good idea to check them when they are released. You can select any 1 of the 7 prompts provided to write a 650 word essay.
These are the latest Common App essay prompts.
Colleges have no preference for which prompt you pick. Some students prefer to look at the prompts and get inspired, and that could work, but ideally, you should brainstorm ideas about the best stories and narratives from your life that could work for your Common App essay before picking a prompt. You can then tailor the ideas as per the specific prompt ask. As there are so many open-ended prompts, you’ll have a lot of freedom to choose a topic that works best for you.
Many students believe that Common App essays have to be extremely serious, talk about a traumatic or deeply impactful event, or document amazing achievements. Of course, you can choose to write a serious essay focused on any of these topics (or others) – but they’re not the only kind of essays that get acceptances! Many students write about light-hearted or seemingly trivial topics but are able to make their essays meaningful and unique. You should never sacrifice authenticity and truth for “razzle-dazzle”. Focusing on what the admissions committee wants or prefers is a useless exercise. Not only will it make your essay seem forced and pretentious, but it also has no basis in fact, since admissions committees don’t actually have any “preference” for a specific topic.
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Common App Essay: Unique Challenges
Essays are a crucial part of any admissions process. If you decide to pursue graduate studies, you’ll undoubtedly have to write a statement of purpose for graduate school, among other types of essays and written submissions. And naturally, grad school level essays are longer and more challenging. At the same time, in some ways it’s easier to write an essay about yourself when you’re older. High school students face unique challenges when writing their essay and that often causes the “blank page panic” when they sit down to actually write their essay.
For one thing, younger students talking about themselves are talking as much about their potential and their dreams, as they are about their actual experiences. You can’t expect that at this early stage in life, students have had some great epiphanies or breakthroughs. High school students are still forming their identity and exploring who they are. It’s difficult to know exactly what to write to make yourself stand out from the crowd when you’re not even sure who you are or what your unique experiences are. That’s why many students experience writer’s block and find it difficult to know where to even start. Moreover, communication skills develop with time, and younger students may find it more difficult to express themselves in a natural, eloquent way, through their writing.
That’s why it’s so, so important that you should give yourself plenty of time to write your essay and break down the process into several steps that will help you logically bridge every fear and uncertainty you might have.
As we mentioned above, the best way to handle your Common App essay is to break down the writing process into several steps and give yourself plenty of time to complete each step. Before we get into the actual timeline, let’s figure out what would be the best time to start writing your essay.
When to start?
Common App applications open in August, but they release their essay prompts as early as March or April. This gives students plenty of time to work on their essay – and not many students make full use of this time!
Our recommendation is that you work backwards from when you want to target sending out your applications and start working on your Common App essay 3 months before that date. This might seem like a huge amount of time for a 650 word essay, but trust me, you’ll need it. We’ll break down the reasons why in a minute. Just know that without spending a few months on your essay, you won’t be able to give it your best shot and truly make it stand out.
If you’re targeting early acceptance deadlines, you’ll probably have to submit your primary application by October and secondaries by November. If you’re targeting regular application timelines, then you have a bit more time as primary deadline is in November and secondaries’ deadlines are in January. Different colleges have different timelines, so you’ll have to check the admission websites of the colleges you’re applying to so you can confirm the exact dates.
You should plan your Common App essay timeline according to these dates. For instance, if you’re targeting early decision admission, then the secondary applications would most likely be due in October or November. So, the ideal time for you start your Common App essay work would be around July. This timeline also works as you can then spend your summer before senior year of high school working on your essay. Even if you’re busy with a summer job or a summer program, you’ll still have more time to devote to writing and brainstorming than you would during your school year.
We suggest that you don’t wait till the last minute to work on your essay. While of course it’s possible to write your essay in a month or even sooner, that will not give you enough time for the “preparation” stage of writing your essay. It will definitely impact the quality of your essay and make it that much harder for you to find your “voice”.
Moreover, leaving your essay-writing till the last minute is just a recipe for chaos. Remember that once your senior year starts, and those application deadlines start approaching, you’ll get busy with all the other submissions that are due for your application, and you’ll have the secondary essays to worry about too. Once school starts, you’ll have to manage all that with keeping up your grades and devoting time to your extracurriculars. You won’t have much time or (more importantly) the mental energy left over to deal with your Common App essay. That’s why we highly recommend that you use the summer before your senior year of high school to do the major work on it.
Starting early will also give you time to seek out feedback on your essay. Specifically, it will give you sufficient time to approach your referees (who will be writing your letter of recommendation) and show them a draft of your Common App essay. This action serves a dual purpose. First, as mentors, they could provide valuable feedback. Second, looking through your essay can help them calibrate their perspective on you, see you in a different light, and influence what they include in your letter.
Remember that if you really want your college application to stand out, you need to tell a consistent story that is supported by all the different elements of your application: the essay, the supplemental essays, the letters, and the extracurriculars. Each component should communicate different aspects of yourself that complement each other and present a picture of a real person with depth and something unique to offer. The synergy between these different elements, and a consistent narrative, can make your application really impressive and prove your clarity of mind and focused ambitions. However, it’s not easy to achieve this effect while also keeping your essay as authentic as possible. So, how do you make the best use of the opportunity the essay presents you, while still presenting evidence-based points that are supported by your experiences and align with the rest of your application? Well, that’s why we recommend starting your essay writing process so early! It’s not a simple matter of picking a prompt and writing a couple of drafts of the first topic that comes to mind. You might get a good essay that way – but if you want a GREAT essay, one that will truly stand out, you’ll need to put in the hard work and advance preparation towards making that happen.
This is the timeline we recommend to help you write a stellar Common App essay.
As you can see above, it will take you around 3 months, as per the timeline, to create the final draft of your Common App essay. If you start in mid-June or July, you’ll be finishing it up and asking for feedback around September, once school starts. That leaves you a couple of months to work on the rest of your application and secondary essays.
While this timeline represents the ideal amount of time you should be spending on your essay, you can condense it down as it suits you. Make sure you’re aware of the key application deadlines for the colleges you’re applying to, including early admissions deadlines (if applicable), and ensure that your essay and the rest of your Common App components are ready in time.
Next, let’s see how to complete each of the steps we’ve listed above.
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Preparing for Your Common App Essay
We recommend that before you actually start writing the first draft of your essay, you should spend some time brainstorming and freewriting, exploring different prompts, and reflecting on yourself and your life so far. This kind of pre-writing preparation is a crucial step to writing an effective, meaningful, and memorable essay. Not only will it help you identify topics for your essay, but it’s also a great way to broaden your perspective on yourself and think deeply about who you are and what you want. Moreover, this exercise isn’t just useful for your Common App essay – all your reflections from this period can also be used to help you write your supplementary essays!
Brainstorming Part 1: Self-reflection
We recommend spending a week or 10 days focusing on self-reflection and introspection. This is similar to “journaling”, something you may actually already be doing, but with a greater focus on writing about topics related to your Common App essay.
You should spend 10-15 minutes every day writing in your journal. At this stage, just indulge in some free-wheeling thought association about your life, your experiences, your goals, what makes you unique, what are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced, and so on. Note down any essay topics that come to you but don’t stress out if nothing suggests itself. The important part here is to start the process of self-reflection and to start narrating your experiences.
Life can seem like a random collection of events, but each of us is on our own journey of growth and learning. Don’t get bogged down by expectations and other people’s ideas – this is the time to just focus on yourself and what makes you unique. No idea, experience, or perspective is too silly or strange. Write down whatever comes to your mind as something significant that you’d like to discuss in your Common App essay. To get your self-reflection started, here are 4 questions you can ask yourself:
- Who are you?
- What makes you different?
- What are you passionate about?
- What do you hope to achieve?
While doing this exercise, you should be wary of getting too invested in the college application “checklist” and reducing your life to a series of achievements or key experiences. You’re not writing a resume; you’re just exploring who you are and getting into the habit of thinking and writing about yourself. In fact, the whole point of the personal statement is to provide a perspective of yourself beyond what’s already shared in the other application components.
Brainstorming Part 2: Prompts
Once you’ve done some general self-reflection and identified some important narratives and qualities about yourself that you’d like to highlight, go back to your list of prompts, and see which one jumps out at you. At this stage, for some students, one or the other prompt may seem like an obvious choice. For example, if you’ve found yourself journaling a lot about a significant traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one, prompt no 2, which asks you to talk about a setback or obstacle, might seem like the answer. But don’t be so hasty to fix on a topic. Remember, at this stage, you haven’t even begun to define your topic! Getting too attached to an idea too early is as bad as not knowing what to write about, as it can prejudice you against exploring different ideas and maybe finding a more appropriate one.
Ideally, at this stage, you should be looking at 3 or 4 different prompts and brainstorming specifically in response to them. That way, you’ll have a variety of different experiences and narratives to choose from when you’re ready to write your first draft.
Below, we’ve listed a few key considerations and reflections for each of the prompts, that can serve as a starting point for your brainstorming. Spend some time every day – it could be 10 minutes, or it could be half an hour – just writing down your instinctual responses to the prompts, using our questions and reflections as a guide.
Prompt 1: 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.
This prompt is an excellent opportunity for you to talk about any hobbies, talents, extracurriculars, and any other interests that are important to you and that you haven’t got a chance to talk about elsewhere in your application. This includes “useless” hobbies that may not be achievement oriented, but that you’re nevertheless passionate about, such as needlework, playing video games, volunteering at an animal shelter, and so on.
It’s also an opportunity to reflect on your identity, your family, your hometown, and any other aspect of your personal life that’s both unique and important to you. Many students use this prompt to talk about their racial or ethnic identity, their sexuality, their gender, and so on. You can weave a story of personal growth through your interests or identify important influences on yourself and how they interact with each other. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- What was your upbringing like? What social environments surround you? How do they impact you?
- Where do you live? What are some key images that would strike a stranger about the area where you live?
- Where are your parents from? Have you ever visited their home town? What impression did it leave on you?
- What do people around you know you for? Do you have a long-term commitment to any specific skills or talents?
- What was your childhood like? Would you describe it as happy? What’s your happiest memory of childhood?
Prompt 2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
This is the “overcoming obstacles” prompt. If you’ve faced any major adversity in your life, that you think is significant to your story, this is your chance to write about it. Many students also use this prompt to talk about more minor obstacles, and describe a narrative of personal growth, self-reflection, and learning. Whatever the incident or topic you chose to talk about, the key here is to focus on how you dealt with and overcame the failure, challenge, or adversity.
Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Many students avoid this prompt as they believe it’s referring to big-scale, political activism and social service, and they don’t think they’ve ever made any kind of significant impact in this area. In fact, this prompt can be a great opportunity to talk about any time you experienced change in your value system, even if the impact was quite small. It could be as simple as noticing a need for change that prompted a change in your belief systems, for instance, a poor interaction with a doctor that made you think about how the healthcare system can improve. Here, you should focus on your thought process and map out the genesis of the change, and what impact it had on you.
- Think back to your childhood. Do you hold the same values you do today as you did then? If no, what made you change?
- Do you agree with the values and beliefs of your family, friends, and others close to you? If not, why do you hold different beliefs? Have you ever tried to change their mind/have they ever tried to change your mind?
- Think of a time when you questioned yourself or changed your beliefs. How did you change? Why did you start questioning yourself?
- Have you ever gone against the social norms of the people around you? What made you do that?
Prompt 4: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
You can use this prompt to write a more philosophical essay that focuses on the impact another person made on you, and why it stayed with you. Most people would find it difficult to actually think of a material gift that left a philosophical impact on you and significantly changed your life. That’s why many students use this prompt to write about non-material “gifts” in the form of memorable advice, a challenge, an obstacle, or a task, that taught the student a valuable lesson and motivated them to do better.
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
This is one of the more open-ended prompts that students love to use as it allows them to amplify their achievements and talk more about “impressive” experiences in their life. Actually, it’s a mistake to use this prompt to just talk about the same extracurriculars and academics you’ve already covered in the rest of your application. Even if you do mention an extracurricular activity here that you’ve already covered elsewhere, the important thing is to bring a different perspective and reveal a new side of yourself. It’s not just about saying “I did this amazing thing”. You’ve got to think about how the event or accomplishment impacted you, what led up to it, and what you took away from the experience.
- Have you ever been deeply impacted by someone’s words, advice, or guidance? Describe the experience and how you changed after it.
- Have you ever had a “eureka” moment that changed your life? Did you ever experience a moment of clarity about something you want that helped you define your long-term goals?
- Apart from all the achievements listed in your resume, what’s your biggest accomplishment? Is there a seemingly insignificant moment of your life that you’re truly proud of?
Prompt 6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
This prompt is an ideal opening to help you talk about your more “useless” extracurriculars. The activities or interests that you’re passionate about, but which aren’t achievement oriented and hence don’t make it to your resume. It could be anything as simple as baking or bird-watching, or as abstract as an interest in how language works. If you can tell a story about how you found this interest, how it motivates you, why you love it, how it influences other aspects of your life, and how it helped you grow as a person, then this is the prompt for you. This is a great chance to paint a vivid picture of your inner life and communicate your unique way of thinking to the admissions committee.
- Is there something you’re so good at, people come and ask for your help? This could be really anything, from a musical talent to being good at fixing things around the house.
- If given unlimited leisure time, how would you spend it? What would you do if you didn’t have any obligations to go to school or earn a living? What sparks your passion for life?
Prompt 7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
The most open-ended prompt of all, this one allows you to essentially create your own topic and write about whatever you want. This is the prompt students use when they want to write something unusual, for example, an essay written in a more lyrical style to communicate your love of poetry, or an essay focused on what makes your personality unique, using an extended artistic metaphor. This prompt is also useful if there’s a specific experience, event, or person you want to talk about, but the topic doesn’t align with any of the other prompts.
If you’re finding brainstorming in response to a prompt difficult, we’d suggest starting with the prompt no 7, as it’s the most open-ended and essentially allows you to write about whatever you want.
These two brainstorming sessions should help you expand your vision of yourself, understand yourself better, and have a clearer idea of what makes you special. Then, you can move on to free writing.
Here're some more tips for your common app essay:
Alright, so you’ve done some journaling and brainstormed a few essay ideas in response to the prompts. Don’t jump straight into selecting the idea and writing the essay – spend at least a couple of weeks, ideally 3 weeks, indulging in free writing. Try your hand at writing in response to a few different prompts, or all of them, if you have the necessary inspiration. Don’t think about restrictions such as word count, flow, structure, or any of that just yet. Just let your inspiration run free and write about anything you like.
The goal here is loosen your writing up, shake free the cobwebs from your brains, and get into the habit of writing about yourself. This is when you can work out the little awkward details in your writing and develop a more natural writing style. Some of this raw material, after some editing, could even make it to your essays, but don’t be too concerned at this stage with the “outcome” or this exercise will be wasted. Write without pressurizing yourself to produce brilliance, using the prompts as a kind of starting off point for a free associating exercise. This step is crucial to making sure your final essay sounds authentic, natural, and personal, rather than a formal summary of events or a forced statement of facts.
Give yourself a daily goal – 10 mins, or a few pages, whatever works for you. You should ideally do this activity in the morning, when you’re fresh and have a clear, relaxed head space. Select a cool, quiet corner of your house or a library where no one will interrupt you and sit down with your writing instrument of choice – notebook, laptop, or whichever medium feels most natural and comfortable for you!
If you find yourself facing writer’s block, shake yourself out of the rut by asking yourself “why”. Whatever you’re writing about – an idea, experience, event, or person, ask yourself why is this important to me? Why do I care? Why does it bother me? And keep going.
Another important tip at this stage is not to ask for feedback or show your writing to anyone. This is the time for ideation, not perfection. In fact, step away from your own writing for some time and don’t come to re-read it till after a few days. This is a great way to reap great essay ideas and get around your own anxiety and self-doubt.
What all of this pre-work does is help you avoid time wastage and inefficiency at a later stage. If you simply start off writing an essay based on a prompt without any brainstorming or preparatory work, you might spend a lot of time struggling to write, work late nights trying to get the tone or the style right, and then still feel that it doesn’t quite work without any idea of why. Self-reflection helps you get to the core of the matter, identify the “juiciest” stories and experiences from your life, while brainstorming helps you work through the “bad” writing in a low-pressure environment. When you select a topic after all this work, you’re likely to feel much more confident about your essay and that will reflect in the smoothness and eloquence of your writing.
Selecting a topic
After your more than a month of daily brainstorming and freewriting, take a break for a couple of days and don’t think or write anything related to your Common App essay. Then, come back and go over the results of your journaling, brainstorming, and freewriting with a fresh eye, and select a topic that stands out to you.
Here are some tips to help you select a good topic:
- Anchor your essay to a story, which will be the “hook” that opens the essay and draws the reader in. Focus on this story and which experience you’ll use to build the story, and that will help you select a topic. A personal, meaningful anecdote, such as the first time your mother taught you to make a specific dish, or the time you interacted with a new student who changed your beliefs, is an excellent opening for an essay. Try to think of significant experiences that could be great essay-openers and define your topic around that.
- Pick a “focus” for your essay. Is it a person? An event? An experience? A quality about yourself you want to highlight? Remember, it’s important to give your essay a single focus and do justice to that topic rather than try to crowd in too many elements.
- Connect your experiences to your ambitions and pick a topic that actually helps you show your potential, your ambitions, and your dreams. Sometimes significant experiences in your past don’t really have any connection to your future, though they might give you plenty to write about. Your topic should connect your past, future, and present effectively, and show a consistent narrative.
- Try and balance your application out strategically. Select a topic that shows a different side to yourself than what you’ve already communicated in the rest of your application, for instance, if your extracurriculars are focused on your competitive athletic career, talk about a completely unexpected non-athletic passion such as environmentalism or expand upon how your personal insecurities, and a time you failed, and how you learned to cope with it. Humanize yourself and bring a nuanced perspective to your achievements. On the other hand, if you have inconsistent grades or your extracurriculars aren’t that impressive, amplify your accomplishments and talk about the passions that you devote your time to, even if they aren’t resume-worthy.
You should start by selecting 4 to 5 topics that are most meaningful and personal to you and then narrow it down to the one that’s most suitable for the Common App essay. Don’t throw away the rest! You can use the rest of the topics to get inspired when writing your secondary essays. Moreover, shortlisting multiple topics ensures you always have a back-up if, for whatever reason, your initial essay idea doesn’t work out.
Remember: don’t let self-doubt be your biggest enemy. There is no wrong or cliché or boring or lame topic. When it comes to the Common App essay, the how and why is key, much more so than the what. Do YOU believe in your story? Are you speaking honestly and from your heart? Is there a logical narrative and flow to your essay? Is there a meaningful conclusion that you’ve drawn? These are the questions you should be asking yourself, rather than wondering what the admissions committees will think of your topic!
At the end of the day, admissions committees are not judging your experiences, but rather your way of thinking – they want to get to know you as a person. When you’re writing your essay, you can always monitor your language to make sure it’s not overtly sentimental or emotional, but your topic and the key narrative should be all yours and completely sincere. Even if it’s a so-called “cliché” topic – such as, for example, an immigrant’s story or the obstacles you faced as an athlete and how you overcame them – the important thing is, your essay should have nuance and depth and a well-thought out perspective.
Let’s get into how you can actually write an impressive Common App essay.
Writing the Common App Essay
Writing the first draft
At this stage, you simply take the plunge and get into the actual writing of your essay. First of all, thanks to all your brainstorming and journaling, you’ll probably find the writing part quite easy! Most students are more challenged by the structure of their essay and figuring out how to create a logical flow with a meaningful conclusion. To help you out, we’ve listed a few common essay types that you can use to structure your essay. We’ll also go over how to outline your essay and create a logical structure.
Selecting a “type” of essay can be helpful as a kind of guide for you during your writing process. The following are the most common essay types students use to write their Common App essay:
Specific Story: This is the classic and most popular type of personal statement. It opens with a personal, meaningful story, which is complete in itself, and sets up the “lesson” or “focus” for the rest of the essay. The essay may go on to discuss other related experiences or how that specific story impacted other areas of the student’s life, or it could expand various facets of the single story, connecting to the student’s present and future. This a is reliable essay style, but you should be careful not to make it to moralistic or fable like. For example, you could open the essay with the story of how you met a patient at an old age home you volunteered at, and how their words or actions had a meaningful impact on you and galvanized you to take action about how people at the old age home were treated. It’s a complete story in itself, and then you could move on to talk about how you are committed to always speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves, and how you did that in other arenas of your life, and how you plan to pursue this goal in your future.
Iterative Pattern: This is a great essay type for those who want to talk about a journey of growth, learning, and self-reflection. Here, you open with an event or incident that may not have a definite conclusion or lesson, and then return throughout the essay to various related incidents that show a progression of a single theme through time. For instance, if there’s a specific issue you’ve struggled with, such as stuttering or public-speaking, you could start with incidents describing past attempts at public speaking and how you failed there, and then go on to describe how you worked towards improving yourself and overcoming your fears, and end with an incident where you actually achieved success in public speaking.
Circular: In this essay, you start with a story or incident, but don’t share the entire story or the final takeaway at the beginning. Instead, you use the rest of the essay to discuss how you felt about the incident, your thought process, the impact it had on you and others, and then you come back to the story and end the essay with a meaningful conclusion. For example, if you’re writing an essay for prompt no 3 (about a time you changed your mind), you could begin the essay describing an incident where you have to make a crucial decision – say, about whether or not you’ll expand the membership of your “boys-only” chess club to invite anyone who wants to join – then provide context about your family background, previous beliefs, and how you’ve changed them, and then come back to the provide the happy ending to the story, explaining how you not only changed the membership rules but took additional steps to make the new members feel welcome and comfortable.
Building Challenges: In this type of essay, you provide a series of different events or experiences in your life that all build on one another to present a kind of obstacle course that you have to overcome. This essay type is most often used to write adversity focused essays. For example, a student from a socio-economically disadvantaged background could start their essay talking about their earliest childhood struggles, how they overcame them, and then go on to expand on other struggles they’ve faced, which could be related to their background or their education or interests. They key with this type of essay is to focus on the “overcoming” adversity aspect, and to emphasize what you’re proud of and what you did well in these different circumstances.
Creative Essay: These are essays that don’t confirm to any conventional formats. Some students chose to go completely off-beat and create a radically different essay structure. For example, you could write the essay in the style of a chapter from your favorite classic novel, but with you as the protagonist. Or, you could create a dialogue between two imaginary people, say, two important historical figures, talking about you. This is a very difficult kind of essay to pull off, but it can be high-risk, high-reward, when done right. Many students use it as a way to showcase their expert knowledge of any specific area or prove their creativity to the admissions committees.
Check out this infographic:
Once you’ve figured out, broadly-speaking, what type of essay you want to write and what you’ll include in it, the next step is to create an outline. Now, some students prefer to start with free writing and create a reverse outline later, but that’s not an ideal way to work. Reverse outlining usually takes up more time and isn’t very efficient.
Your essay should, generally speaking, include 3 to 5 paragraphs. More than 5 paragraphs could make your essay look very cluttered – remember you can’t go beyond 650 words! On the other hand, you’ll need a minimum of 3 paragraphs to cover the beginning, middle, and end, three crucial components in any essay.
Having said that, your essay topic and personal inspiration should always your structure, so if you think more than 5 paragraphs makes sense and is logical within the flow if your essay, go for it. However, we still wouldn’t recommend less than 3 paragraphs. Having a wall of text in front of you is just difficult to read and could get you marked down.
Create the following outline for your essay:
Here are some tips to keep in mind for when you’re writing your essay:
Build the suspense: When you’re telling your anchor story, the one that opens your essay, make sure you keep building the suspense. There should be some mystery about what happens and conflict in the middle to keep it interesting. For instance, if you’re talking about that time that you overcame your fear of water after a swimming injury to finally return to the pool, don’t begin by saying “I got back into the pool after my injury for the first time on 6th September.” That gives away all the drama! Instead, build the story by describing your fears, the previous incident, and encouragement you received from your coach, and then end with the fact that you finally made it back into the pool.
Don’t deal in plain statements: To make your essay engaging, it’s very important not to rely solely on statements of facts and to back up every fact with evidence. This could be in the form of experiences or activities, personal incidents, descriptions of a specific setting, descriptions of your state of mind, and so on. For example, instead of simply saying “I was angry that I had to leave my hometown.”, describe an incident where you confronted your mother about her decision to move you away and talk about how that anger impacted your relationship with your mother. When talking about a meaningful outdoors trip, instead of saying “The forest was very beautiful.”, try giving specific, sensory-based descriptions and talk about how the setting impacted you, for example – “With the trees swaying above me and the leaves rustling in the wind, I found an inner peace and calmness I’d never experienced before.” Make your essay as engaging as possible, with thoughtful analysis, vivid descriptions, and beautifully set scenes.
Answer the prompt: Make sure, as you’re writing, that you’re addressing the prompt you’ve been given. Try and understand the prompt at a deeper level and don’t just create a surface level connection because it suits your topic. Remember, prompt no 7 is essentially a “free topic” so if you really want to create your own topic, that’s the one you should go for.
Be deliberate, authentic, and humble: Every sentence should have a clear reason for being included in your essay. At the same time, your voice should be as natural and authentic as possible. Don’t drop in pretentious references or brag about your achievements if they don’t belong in the essay. Keep your central topic in mind and only include details and events and relevant to it.
Beginning/middle/end: Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is a fundamental rule of essay writing and is crucial to making sure your essay has a logical, coherent flow.
End with a key takeaway: Your essay should always have a learning, an epiphany, a moral, or talk about a new perspective you gained. You could introduce it earlier in your essay, but it should be reiterated in the concluding paragraph.
Revising your essay: 2/3/4 drafts
We really cannot emphasize enough the importance of revisions and editing when it comes to writing your Common App essay. This is when you get your critical monocle out, place it over your eye, and give your essay a really thorough analysis. Most students satisfy themselves with just 2 drafts – the initial one, and the second one that they create after seeking feedback from their teachers or mentors – but you should ideally work on 3 or 4 drafts by yourself, before even showing the essay to anyone else. When you’re revising your essay, make sure you keep the following things in mind:
Is it too much? This is where you check yourself – remember that you simply cannot communicate every single thing about yourself in one essay. The key is to find one theme you want to expand on and focus on that. If there’s too many incidents, events, experiences, with no clearly defined conclusion or connection between them, it might be time to re-write your essay. As writers say, sometimes you have to “kill your darlings”, which means, you shouldn’t get too attached to specific ideas or sentences if they don’t fit in with the rest of your essay.
Is it too little? At the same time, it’s also possible to get too specific and be bogged down with unimportant details that don’t really add to your story. Ask yourself if your essay has a broader perspective or lesson to offer and if not, you need to add that in.
Show don’t tell: As we mentioned before, you should not be making unsupported statements and piling facts on facts. Check your essay to make sure your statements are all supported by accompanying examples, descriptions, or stories.
Use your outline: Keep coming back to your outline to improve you’re the structure and flow of your essay. It’s easy to get carried away with writing the introduction and making it too long, and the outline should help you stay on top of how much time you’re spending on each sub-section of your essay. Additionally, sometimes, a great description or line can be incorrectly placed in the essay, and your outline will help you identify that. For instance, your essay should never begin with your “key takeaway”, no matter how important it is. You need to build to it. So don’t be afraid to move things around. As you’re working, define the purpose of each paragraph and keep checking if your writing is aligning with that purpose.
Check for clarity: All essays should have a few key elements. That includes your anchor story, your central thesis or declarative statement, and your key takeaway. Is your essay communicating everything you want it to? Or is the message getting lost in a sea of words?
Trim the excess: Students are often tempted to include braggy details in their personal statement that are not relevant to the rest of the essay. This is a bad idea – it certainly won’t impress anyone and could make you seem pretentious and insincere. Similarly, students sometimes add personal details in their personal anecdotes that don’t add to the story and only editing will help you catch these little details. For instance, you really don’t need to add details of your appearance in any of your anecdotes, unless it’s directly relevant to the story.
Check grammar and spelling: Don’t just rely on auto-correct! Make sure you go over your essay with a fine-toothed comb, catching every spelling or grammatical error. Leaving these in is the best way to get yourself marked down by admissions committees.
Use varied sentence lengths and structure: Sometimes, when you’re writing in your natural style, you may end up repeating certain sentence structures that come most easily to you. Make sure you include a variety of sentence lengths. This makes your essay more readable and engaging.
Use active voice: Always use active voice wherever you can, rather than passive voice. For instance, instead of saying “The dance class was run by me from Monday to Saturday.”, try “I ran the dance class from Monday to Saturday.”.
Avoid cliche turns of phrase: This is a little tricky to implement because cliches exist for a reason and sometimes that’s just what your essay needs! A good rule here is to check if you can replace the cliché phrase with a more specific, descriptive sentence . For example, instead of saying “When Mrs. Peabody handed me that award, I was on top of the world!” you could try “When Mrs. Peabody handed me that award, and I saw my mother beaming with pride in the audience, I knew that I’d finally made her proud of me like I always wanted to.”
Check your vocabulary and tone: It’s important to strike the right balance between formal and informal. Your essay should not read like a thesaurus, stuffed full of complicated words and formal sentences that don’t really belong there. At the same time, don’t use any vulgar language and don’t over-use colloquialisms. The goal is to sound natural, sincere, and authentic, without sacrificing clarity and eloquence.
Getting feedback and finalizing your essay
Once you’ve thoroughly revised your essay and got it as perfect as you can from your perspective, it’s time to invite other people to take a look at it. Who should you seek feedback from? There are many options: friends, peers, parents, teachers, and older mentors. There’s always a risk with certain types of feedback, for example, parents may sometimes over-edit your work, making you lose your natural voice, whereas teachers could view your essay from an academic perspective and ask you to make it more formal. Ideal reviewers are older mentors, friends who have recently and successfully been through the admissions process, guidance counsellors, or admissions experts.
The most important thing is that you trust your reviewers and that they know you well enough to give you genuine, well-meaning feedback. Keep an open mind to all the feedback you receive, but remember, don’t sacrifice your voice. In case of a serious disagreement with someone over a critical point in your essay, always back yourself, because no one knows you better than you!
Also, try and get feedback from varied sources. Friends and family can comment on the personal experiences you talk about in the essay while teachers and counselors can help you perfect the tone, format, and language of the essay.
Once you’ve gathered all the feedback, go back to your essay, and complete a final revision keeping in mind the feedback you’re received. After this, do a final check of your outline, flow, grammar, spelling, and so on.
But wait! Don’t submit it yet. Before your final submission, you should always have someone else – a trusted advisor or friend – take a look at your essay. After going over the same piece of writing so many times, re-read fatigue can make you miss out on obvious errors. So, make someone else proofreads your draft before you submit it on Common App. Remember, Common App does not allow you to make any updates to the submitted essay. You really need to be sure that you’re happy with the final draft before submitting.
Next, let’s put some of these tips, tricks, and strategies into action and see some examples of great Common App essays.
Sample #1: Rina
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
The fragrance of cloves mingles with the potent smell of green chilis to fill the kitchen with a delicious and familiar scent. After hours of chopping, peeling, and stirring, some overnight marinating and a couple of disastrous attempts at frying onions, I’d finally managed to re-create my grandmother’s biryani recipe from scratch. But the final test was still to come. Would my mother approve of my efforts? After all, I’d done all of this as a surprise for her birthday. As I stood there, watching my mother gingerly lift the spoon to her mouth, I couldn’t believe that I’d actually spent an entire day and night working so hard to recreate one of my family’s traditional Indian recipes. I’d come a long way from the scared girl who couldn’t run away fast enough from my bi-cultural background.
Growing up, what I wanted more than anything else was to blend in with my peers. I remember every year during the annual school fundraiser, all students were asked to contribute something for the baked goods sale. A typical American event – and one that I dreaded. My mother always insisted on preparing elaborate Indian sweets, syrupy gulab jamuns and golden jalebis, and I always felt so out of place standing next to that stand in school. It took me a long time to realize that my greatest source of discomfort was my own insecurity.
The distance I felt from my mother only increased with time, as I grew up to be a regular American teenager who preferred my friends’ company to my mother’s and who listened to all the wrong kinds of music. That all changed two summers ago, when we got the news that my grandmother in India had passed away. I noticed a great change in my mother after she came back from the funeral. She was quiet, sad, and withdrawn, and most importantly, she’d stopped cooking altogether. One day, I asked her why. She told me that her mother was the one who had taught her how to cook, and now that she was gone, she felt some crucial emotional connect was gone from her cooking and she couldn’t find any joy in it. This revelation made me think deeply about my own disconnect from my Indian roots and how hurt my mother must be my continuous rejection. What for me was just a natural desire to “fit in”, for her represented a rejection of so much that was important to her. Eventually, to my mother’s delight and surprise, I asked her if she would teach me how to cook Indian food like her mother had taught her. Though I’d started the exercise as a way to help my mother with her grief, I was happy to discover that I enjoyed cooking thoroughly and soon developed a taste for Indian food I’d never had before. I took on more and more complicated recipes and felt a great sense of accomplishment at every one that I mastered.
This experience made me realize how important it was to embrace every part of yourself and to keep an open mind to new experiences, and new perspectives. This is a lesson I’ll carry with me as I enter the next stage of my life, and I’m glad I learned it before it was too late for me to mend my relationship with my mother.
So that’s how I ended up in my kitchen that day, covered in flour and oil splatters, awaiting my mother’s judgment with trepidation. And as my mother’s face lit up with a smile of delight, giving her stamp of approval to my difficult culinary feat, I felt I’d finally found that sense of belonging I’d been searching for all my life. (621 words)
Why it works: This essay is a great example of the “circular” style of essay. It opens with a story that hooks the reader in, builds suspense about what the conclusion could be, and ends with a meaningful takeaway that brings the story full circle. Though the setting is simple, the stakes are high, and that is clearly communicated in the way the story unfolds and the subsequent experiences shared. Additionally, the writer narrates experiences and events that add context to the central thesis – that of finding belonging and accepting your self – and does not include any unnecessary details that could clutter the narrative. She also includes evocative descriptions that make the essay an engaging read.
Sample #2: Robert
Prompt 2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
9 pm on a school night, the radio blasting The Weeknd, I was cruising down the N-75, feeling that I could keep going forever. No, I wasn’t out for a wild night with friends – right beside me was my father, looking at me with pride. After spending months terrified of getting behind the wheel, I’d finally gotten over my fear. That day, I was actually driving on the highway at night, a combination of circumstances that would have given me nightmares just a few weeks ago.
Most teenagers dream of the day they can finally get behind the wheel and be the masters of their own destiny, and I was the same. Unlike most teenagers, my parents felt no trepidation handing me the keys to their car when the time came for me to start practicing. I was the responsible, mature, and capable oldest child and had quickly mastered the basics of driving in my theoretical lessons. So, what could go wrong? I found that out within a month of starting actual driving lessons with my father. It was one disaster after another. I’d turn to the wrong side. I’d take too long to brake. And sometimes I’d just freeze, too anxious to move or do anything. As my father tried to tell me, it was a very dangerous maneuver to undertake in the middle of a busy intersection! It all culminated in a small accident that resulted in some minor damage to my father’s car and some major damage to Mrs. Waterford’s pea beds.
To everyone’s astonishment, including my own, this small accident completely traumatized me, to the point that I gave up my driving lessons and stopped practicing. All of my friends had also experienced some kind of bumps in their driving journey, but none of them had been deterred. Moreover, I’d always prided myself on being the kind of person who could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I’d taken on a full roster of STEM-oriented AP classes and maintained a 4.0 GPA all through junior year, and I’d played on an injured ankle to get my football team to victory in freshman year. But when it came to driving, all my gumption seemed to desert me.
I remember the day my friend got her license, and we went for a drive together. She asked me why I was so scared of driving and joked that it’s the first time I’d ever failed a class. Her lightly spoken words struck a chord in me as I realized that she’d actually pinpointed the source of my fear. I’d always had a natural aptitude and affinity for the two main interests of my life: science and football. I’d found it easy to do well in school and on the field, and never really explored interests beyond these safe arenas. That’s why I didn’t really know what to do when faced with something that didn’t come naturally to me. Driving was the first time I’d had to face up to my failure, and it had spooked me completely.
Once I had that realization, I spent some time reflecting on how I could move past this fear. I soon got back behind the wheel, and I took extra classes with a trained instructor so I could get really confident in my driving. With my license finally in hand, the first thing I did was call my friend to tell her I’d passed!
I’m now committed to challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone, whether it’s expanding my roster of subjects to include more humanities courses or auditioning for our school play. Not every new experience has been a “success”, but as I know now, that’s not the point! My fear of failure has now transformed into a fear of stagnation, and this has helped me see life in a whole new perspective. (645 words)
Why it works: Robert’s essay is a great example of an “overcoming obstacles” essay that focuses on a personal obstacle and provides the necessary context to make it a compelling narrative for a personal statement. The key in any essay about overcoming a challenge is to document your journey from obstacle to learning to growth, and Robert’s does that very clearly. In any personal statement that has a “growth narrative” there also needs to be a focus on the writer’s inner thoughts and evolving thinking. In this essay, Robert walks his audience through how we felt at each stage of dealing with this obstacle. Finally, he ends with a memorable takeaway that reiterates the lesson he learned and explains how he plans to implement this lesson in his life.
Sample #3: Sarah
Prompt 6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
“Sarah. Sarah! Wake up!” My mother’s voice woke me with a start, and I raised a bleary head from my drool-covered book. Once again, I’d lost track of time and fallen asleep reading a Thomas Hardy novel. My mother watched me bewildered and asked me, “I guess you really love your new English Literature class, huh?”. My mother’s bewilderment stemmed from the fact not very long ago, I had a clear trifecta of interests – my friends, cheerleading, and fashion designing – and reading stories about things that happened to people very far away, 200 years ago, did not figure in my list of priorities. And now here I was, obsessively working my way through Hardy’s entire body of work, not long after I’d finished all the completed Austen novels. And I was already planning which Bronte sisters’ works I’d be reading next!
I have Mr. Smithers to thank for starting me on my astonishing journey of discovering, and falling in love with, 19th century British literature. While we were studying Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for our Lit class, he assigned each of us a specific assignment about different aspects of Regency era life. In my case, knowing my predilection for fashion, he asked me to work on a project about the trending women’s fashions when Jane Austen was alive. What started as a routine assignment for class soon transformed into one of the most fascinating explorations of my life. I found myself completely absorbed in the tiniest little details of Regency fashion: the imported textiles, the use of chemises, what types of slippers they wore. From exploring the “what”, I soon found myself asking how and why. I borrowed books from our school library about the politics and economy of Regency era England. I began to see the deeper connections between the socio-economic climate, and prevalent cultural trends, and how that all manifested in the form of major fashion trends. Before, I’d only ever thought of Napoleon as a short, angry French man from some distant era in history! Now, I found out how close he had come to actually conquering England, and how his rejection of extravagant court fashions in favor of ancient Greek philosophies actually popularized the empire waisted gowns that dominated Regency era England ballrooms.
With Mr. Smither’s encouragement and guidance, I found more and more novels to help me continue exploring this new interest. Under the sunlight streaming through the windows of our dusty little school library, I absorbed myself in these stories of people from a long gone era. Yet every story I read only revealed to me how humans, across time and space, have a treasury of common experiences. Reading Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, I found myself sympathizing with the double standards that Tess was dealt just because she was a woman. It also made me think deeply about how I had also internalized and sometimes acted upon sexist ideas. Like any high school, our school too was a rumor factory that most often targeted girls. I decided, from that moment, to stop participating in forwarding any gossip or rumors. I also spoke to some of my friends who had thoughtlessly spread unkind gossip about a new girl. It was a tiny act of kindness and change, but it helped me grow as a person and re-define my perspective on what matters.
The most wonderful thing about literature is the power it has to take us beyond ourselves and show us a different way of thinking than we ever imagined. Today, I not only have a new interest, but also a new perspective on life, and a new avenue to growth and learning. I can’t wait to see what new perspectives, ideas, and theories are waiting for me between the pages of a book. (629 words)
Why it works: Sarah’s essay focuses on her interest in a specific subject and takes the reader on a journey of discovery along with her. Essays responding to prompt no 6 can sometimes be tricky to write, since it’s more difficult to set up a conflict or expand upon lessons learnt when talking about a technical topic or a specific subject. Sarah manages to create conflict by showing us a contrast between who she used to be and who she is now and leading us through the steps that led to her transformation. She also has a clear takeaway – the power of literature and its personal impact on her – and that ties back in with her initial set up of how much she had changed thanks to her new-found interest. It gives a clear idea of who she is and how she thinks, and presents a unique perspective on a regular hobby.
1. How long is the Common App essay?
The Common App essay should be between 250 to 650 words. Ideally, you should write an essay of at least 500 words to ensure your narrative is substantial and meaningful.
2. Can I edit my Common App essay after submitting it?
No – once you’ve submitted your Common App essay, it is locked for editing. Make sure you’ve triple-checked your final draft, and get someone else to proofread it, before you submit it.
3. Is the Common App essay important?
Yes, the Common App essay is a very important admissions component. It can count for up to 30% of your application review. The more elite and competitive the college, the more importance they’ll give to the Common App essay. As the only qualitative component of your primary application, your essay is a great opportunity to make yourself stand out from the crowd and humanize your “checklist” of achievements for the admissions committee. A great essay could help you edge out other applicants with similar profiles in terms of academic record and extracurriculars.
4. How much time should I spend writing my Common App essay?
Ideally, you should spend 3 months writing your Common App essay, giving yourself plenty of time for brainstorming, free writing, selecting a topic, writing multiple drafts (at least 3), seeking out feedback, and finalizing your essay. You can compress these activities down into a shorter timeline, but this could make the process that much more difficult and could impact the final quality of your essay. Starting and finishing your Common App essay early also leaves you free to deal with all the other application components closer to the actual college app deadlines. Remember, you’ll also have to write secondary essays for multiple colleges in a short period of time – a month or less – and your Common App essay prep could be very useful in writing secondary essays as well. So, it’s best to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for and write your Common App essay.
5. How should I choose my Common App essay prompt/topic?
If you’re struggling to find a topic for your Common App essay, start with journaling and brainstorming before you get into actually writing the essay. Just write down your free-association responses to 3 or 4 of the prompts. Ask yourself a few key questions to guide your brainstorming such as: who am I? What do I hope to achieve? What is my passion? What makes me unique? Find the experiences, events, ideas, and people in your life that are the most meaningful to you, personally, and then select a topic that corresponds to those events.
6. What makes a Common App essay stand out?
A great Common App essay is one that demonstrates your excellent writing skills, shows depth and breadth of thought, a clear journey of self-reflection, and truly expresses who you are as a person. Your essay should not be a repetition of the items already seen in your resume. Instead, it should provide a new and refreshing perspective on you, and should clearly communicate what makes you special.
7. Who should I ask to review my Common App essay?
Ideally, you should ask at least two people to review your Common App essay. Select someone close to you, such as a parent or a friend, who can give you genuine, well-meaning feedback about the personal aspects of your essay. You should also ask an experienced mentor to review your essay, such as an English teacher or guidance counsellor. If you’re really struggling with it, you can get the help of admissions consultants who can give you expert feedback.
8. What’s the difference between my Common App essay and a supplemental essay?
The Common App essay is your personal statement, and you only need to write one essay that goes out to all colleges along with your primary application. You can select from 1 of 7 prompts and write an essay about any meaningful, personal achievements or experiences that you’d like admissions committees to know. The Common App essay should be general and should not reference any specific colleges. On the other hand, supplemental essays are written in response to college-specific prompts and should directly address why you want to go to a particular college. These essays are a part of your secondary application and colleges can share 1 or more prompts to help them get to know you better.
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