Young man on his desktop computer at home completing the common app essay
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How To Write The Common Application Essay

02.15.2023 • 10 min read

Nick Griffin

Subject Matter Expert

Here’s a complete guide on how to write the common application essay. You’ll also learn why you should really consider completing it.

In This Article

  1. What Is the Common Application?

  2. 3 Common App Essay Prompts

  3. How To Write a Quality Common Application Essay

  4. 7 Tips When Writing Your Common Application Essay

  5. Why Is the Common Essay Important?

  6. Common Application Essay FAQs

Have you ever juggled 3 or more batons lit on fire? Maybe you haven’t. But that’s what it can feel like when applying to college. The process can be completely overwhelming. You have to decide where to go, what to major in, and how you are going to afford it all.

On top of all this, you have to fill out applications and get accepted to your dream school.

It can be difficult to quantify who you are on college applications because good test scores and a high GPA aren’t everything. What you’re capable of and who you are as a person require far more than a number can explain.

This is why schools across the country turn to the Common Application, or Common App, to help them make decisions on college admissions. And that’s why you’ve got to nail the Common App essay.

But don’t worry. This article will help by going over:

  • Common App info

  • Prompts

  • Writing steps

  • Tips

  • And more

What Is the Common Application?

The Common App is a college application that includes basic application information, such as your name and demographics. In addition, the application also asks for transcripts, letters of recommendation, test scores, and an original college essay.

Nearly 1,000 of the best colleges and universities around the country use this college application. From prestigious schools, such as Yale, Princeton, and Harvard, to state colleges, the Common App is a tool used to admit thousands of students each year.

Colleges choose to use the Common App to provide consistency in their application process and continuity between schools. By using the Common App, you can easily apply to several schools at once—opening up a world of possibility.

The thoroughness of the Common Application allows selective college admissions officers to paint a detailed picture of each applicant. This information helps them make the best decision on who to admit.

Before starting the Common App, get these resources together:

  • High school transcripts

  • ACT/SAT Scores

  • List of extracurricular activities (sports, clubs, organizations, etc.)

  • List of work and family responsibilities

  • Parent information (occupation and education level)

  • Academic honors and achievements

  • People to use as personal references (counselors, teachers, advisors, etc.)

  • List of schools you’d like to apply to

In addition to all of this information, students must complete a personal statement—the common essay—all the schools they listed will view.

3 Common App Essay Prompts

While the 7 prompts for the 650-word Common App college admission essay change from time to time, they are all chosen to learn about the applicant.

No matter which essay prompt you choose, it must show admissions counselors how you stand out from your peers. A wise student would do this in 2 ways:

  • How you are unique as a person

  • How you articulate yourself through your writing

The following Common App prompt examples are from the 2022-23 Common Application:

Prompt Example 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.

Examine what it is about you that sets you apart from others in your life. Since this prompt is asking for a story, make sure that’s what you deliver. Dive right in and tell a story that highlights your unique trait.

Do not simply explain why this trait is unique and beneficial, but have your writing allude to it. Be certain your story paints a complete picture.

Prompt Example 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 prompt is also asking for a life-changing story, which you can begin by telling. Be genuine with your challenge by highlighting the ways it presents difficulty in your life.

Make sure to show, not explain, in your story how you grew as a person from a challenge in your life. A real example works best.

Prompt Example 3

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Think about what gets you into that flow state. This prompt is asking you about the learning experience that has brought you to the present moment. Show this experience through a story.

Be careful not to overindulge in the rationale of why you like this topic. Rather, demonstrate how you keep coming back to it with a curiosity to dive deeper into your topic during your free time.

No matter which of the 7 Common App essay prompts you choose, make sure you are showing your reader instead of telling them. A great essay will captivate the reader no matter how many essays they read before yours.

How To Write a Quality Common Application Essay

Time and revision are your greatest allies when writing a quality essay. Make sure to give yourself the time to revise your essay multiple times before submitting your final draft.

Follow these steps to write a quality Common App essay:

1. Brainstorm

Since the goal of your college application essay is to show how you are unique, start there. No matter which prompt you end up going with, you want to make sure ‌you write about something that sets you apart and is not cliché.

Sit down and make a list of your unique traits. Think about what you enjoy doing and what has helped you become who you are. Talk to friends and family who know you best. Add ideas they might have to your list.

2. Choose a Prompt

After making your list of topics, you will choose a prompt. Think about which essay topics would make the best story to highlight your individuality.

Choose a prompt that best aligns with the topic of choice. Remember to demonstrate how you are unique.

3. Free Write on Your Topic

Before writing for your specific prompt, take 20 minutes to write about your topic. Sit down and begin writing anything that comes to mind. No filters.

If you jump from a story about the topic to the rationale for why you enjoy or appreciate it, no problem. This process is about getting you to think about your relationship to the topic of choice. Don’t get into the paralysis of analysis.

Just write.

4. Show Your Story

We all had Show and Tell in class as a kid. This is a valuable exercise to remember when writing an essay. Many people tend to tell or explain, more than they show or describe. This doesn’t work well for readers. Readers want to see a picture of who you are.

After reviewing your prompt and your free writing, start writing specifically to answer the prompt. Keep in mind ‌you’re sharing a story about personal growth. Let your story demonstrate your uniqueness without falling into the trap of explaining it.

Read through what you wrote and make changes to enhance clarity. Even though your essay can only be 650 words, don’t focus on that now. You can slim down your piece later.

5. Share Your Essay

Perhaps you could share your essay with an English teacher or counselor at your school? Maybe a family member or friend? Find as many people as you can to read through what you’ve written so far. Their feedback is extremely valuable.

It can be tempting to skip this step, but others will notice issues with flow, clarity, and tone that you could miss.

Since you are going to share your essay with strangers when you apply to college, why not have someone you know and trust read it first? It could help you create a great Common App essay.

6. Review, Reduce, and Revise

Consider the feedback you received after sharing your essay with others. What might you add or remove?

As you continue to revise your essay, work it down to less than 650 words. Read through the essay prompt you chose a few more times, and be sure you hit all parts.

Don’t be afraid to make big changes, but save past drafts along the way. This way you can always come back if you over-revise. You can seek out another opinion if you make drastic changes.

This is the longest and most time-consuming part of the essay process. Don’t rush through it.

7. Read Aloud

Find a quiet place and read your latest essay draft aloud to yourself. Look for places you pause for emphasis and spots that do not flow well together. This is where you add punctuation.

Your punctuation shows your reader how you want your essay to be read. Commas and long dashes will show emphasis, while periods and paragraphs will show changing thoughts. Make sure others will read your essay the same way you do.

If you can read aloud to others, or have others read your essay to you, it will help even more. You can continue to make changes until you submit it.

7 Tips When Writing Your Common Application Essay

Following the steps above will get your essay to a solid place. While going through your writing and revision process, keep these tips in mind:

1. Take Your Time

Knowing your Common Application is due around the first of the year, you’ll want to set yourself up with plenty of time before the application deadline to write your essay with revision in mind.

Giving yourself at least a month to go through the whole writing process is a smart move. It’s best to walk away from your essay and come back to it with fresh eyes.

Be sure to be realistic with how much time you have to work on it, considering other priorities during the school year.

2. Be Unique

Make sure your topic sets you apart from others. Remember, your essay needs to be unique in both writing style and content. Someone reading your essay should have a clear picture of who you are and what you’re capable of.

Write a personal story that exemplifies your qualities. Your story needs to show your reader, not tell them, why they should pick you to attend their school.

3. Don’t Be Afraid of Revision

Don’t fall into the trap of procrastinating and submitting your first draft. It takes time to do something well. Typos and grammatical errors will hurt your chances of acceptance during the college admissions process.

You will have great ideas in the beginning, but being able to make them flow well and describe them clearly takes effort.

4. Share Your Essay

Having other eyes on your personal essay will give you great ideas to strengthen your thoughts.

When different individuals come together to collaborate, they bring their unique viewpoints and ways of thinking, which can lead to new and innovative solutions. The same goes for writing an amazing essay.

Share your essay with several people to gain more perspective. Be sure to explain to your proofreaders what you want feedback on.

5. Avoid Over-Explaining

With the gravity of getting into college looming over your essay, it can be tempting to over-explain. This will result in an essay that remains in the pile of boring essays on the admissions officer’s desk.

Instead of explaining, share a story. Show your reader ‌you have the qualities they’re looking for through examples. This provides proof that what you say is true and keeps your essay much more interesting to read, making it memorable.

6. Review the Prompt

Look over the prompt you chose to write about several times. You must cover all parts of the prompt exactly the way you’re supposed to.

Until you submit your essay, you can continue to make changes to improve the overall picture of who you are.

7. Limit Yourself

It may seem strange to put a limit on your writing, but overthinking and over-revising can lead to problems. Set time limits on how long you will work on your essay each time you sit down with it.

By taking an hour here and there, you will have a fresh perspective and renewed energy to focus on creating quality work. Spending time on it all at once will lead to burnout and a lack of creativity.

Why Is the Common Essay Important?

Students spend years building up their college resumes, whether intentionally or unintentionally. Think of your college resume as a list of your accomplishments while in school, such as your grades, test scores, sports, and clubs.

Did you take community college courses during your senior year in high school? Perhaps you enrolled in online courses, such as Outlier’s College Foundation, giving you transferable college credit before applying.

While these achievements are important to college admissions officers, it’s the Common App essay that paints a picture of who you are and what you are capable of.

When written well, the common app is a huge time saver. The great part about the common essay is ‌the same essay goes out to all the schools you may want to apply to which spares you the pain of writing multiple essays. This means you can take your time and create one well-crafted college essay that describes what makes you truly unique from all the other applicants out there.

Students who take their time to formulate and edit their common essay will set themselves apart from others applying to the same schools and programs.

Common Application Essay FAQs

How long can the Common Application essay be?

The Common Application essay has no set word limit. The Common Application website suggests that the essay be limited to around 650 words. This number should be your target word count since many essay readers feel that more would be too wordy. You don’t want to lose their attention.

How many Common Application essays do I need to write?

Your personal statement, which is the essay you submit with your application, is the only one you need to write.

Several schools may ask you to explain an activity like an extracurricular in further detail. These schools will ask for a supplemental essay directly when or if they need it. For these essays, the word limit should be around 250 words.

Can I get scholarships from the Common Application essay?

You cannot get scholarships by simply filling out the Common Application, but each of the schools you are applying to offers grants and scholarships to students.

Fill out a FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) and do some research on how to get grants for college. There may be free money available to you, which will help you to create a college budget that will suit your needs.

While many scholarships require an essay, the requirements for writing a college scholarship essay may be different than the Common App essay.

The good news is your experience writing the Common App essay will help you immensely with writing college scholarship essays. This sets you above those doing it for the first time.

What makes a good Common Application essay?

Pinpointing exactly what makes the perfect Common Application essay is hard. With around 1,000 schools using the Common App, no consensus within admissions committees shows which qualities an essay must have to be accepted.

What we do know is ‌a quality Common App essay must be complete. This means it should include all the criteria in the essay prompt and be around 650 words.

A good Common App essay will show schools how the student stands out and will be an asset. The quality essay will be free of spelling and grammatical errors, demonstrating writing competence to the reader.

Take your time, seek help, and be willing to revise. Through authenticity and hard work, your essay will separate your application from all the others.

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