The Common App essay may seem like one of the most daunting parts of the college admission process. However, remember that just like anything else, you can take this step by step and conquer it. At Campus to Career Crossroads, we take a very specific and time-oriented approach to tackle the Common App essay, which includes helping you get comfortable with the process.
For some students, it is the most interesting part of the application process because it gives them an excellent chance to express themselves in a way that they may never have done so.
In this piece, we will give you nine tips that can help you right away. We will go over the definition of the Common App essay, give you a more in-depth explanation of the essay, explain why it is important and give you some Common App essay tips you can use to help you with your application.
What is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is an essay that you will complete as part of the Common Application, often called the “Common App.” The Common App is an application that you fill out and which is accepted by more than 1,000 colleges and universities. Admission professionals who read your Common App essay will use it as part of the evaluation process to determine whether you would be a good candidate for admission to that particular college or university.
The Common App decides its essay prompts — the questions you will answer — in the months prior to you becoming a rising senior.
The Common App has a 650-word limit, though you do not have to work all the way up to that limit. (However, we highly recommend that you either hit the 650-word limit or get really close to it, because if you are too short, you may not be fully showcasing your abilities.)
There is more to writing the Common App essay than simply spooling out the answer to what you (think) an admission committee wants to hear. You should demonstrate your ability to present growth and even have a point of conflict, where we are not sure what will have happened for you will turn out for the best.
If you are worried about whether you actually have something to talk about, remember, everyone does, and it does not have to be overly dramatic, such as you finding the cure for world hunger. Remember, you just have to show evidence of personal growth, and just about everyone can relate to that.
Overview of the Common App Essay
When you create a login and password for the Common App, it gives you access to several sections, including the part you submit in the “Writing” tab of the Common App, where you will find the seven prompts for the current application season. If you are needing some additional help understanding how to have an excellent Common App, check out these 12 tips.
The current prompts are:
- 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.
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
Luckily, you get to choose from all of those prompts to find the right one for you.
Once you decide on a prompt, you can:
- Create your essay in a Google doc, Word document or another word processor. (Do not write your essay directly in the text box on the Common App. What happens if you accidentally submit it or lose it accidentally?)
- Make revisions to your essay in your Google or Word document, getting help with editing along the way.
- Submit your essay, remembering that the same essay goes out to all colleges and universities to which you want to apply. If you accidentally reference “UConn” in your Common App essay, it will go out to all the other colleges, not just UConn. You could easily ruin your chances at all colleges if you do something like that.
- Write your supplemental essays, which can be tailored to each college and university that you apply to.
- Finish up all the other parts of the Common App and hit the “submit” button prior to the college deadline. Note that the Common App opens on August 1 every year.
Why the Common App Essay is Important
The Common App essay gives you an opportunity to open up about your qualifications beyond what you submit on your transcripts. After all, you are so much more than an ACT, SAT score, or a grade point average. You are also more than what you do for your extracurricular activities. Expounding on the essay allows you to tell your own story — a story that is different from anyone else’s. Think about it. Nobody has your exact upbringing, school experiences, interactions with people you admire, stressors, goals, and dreams.
Other factors can also come to light when you write the Common App essay, and you might even surprise yourself! You may come up with ideas when you write that you did not even know were lurking inside your head! After all, you do not have to be a part of the Association of Writing and Writing Programs to craft an amazing essay.
9 Common App Essay Tips to Stand Out
Let’s go over some tips for writing the Common App essay. You can also use these tips as a step-by-step guide.
Tip 1: Brainstorm your core values.
What are your core values? Before you do anything, including the essay prompt that you would most like to write on, choose the core values that mean the most to you.
Core values outline your beliefs and tell you the differences between right and wrong. Honesty might be a core value that you try to embrace every single chance you get. Spend some time thinking about the core values that mean a lot to you. For example, you might list the following core values:
Tip 2: Determine how you will distinguish yourself.
What is unique about you besides your core values? Are you really good at bike racing or art? Are you excellent at creating businesses as an entrepreneur might? Do you enjoy writing novels in your spare time? Maybe you do not feel as if you want to focus on your accomplishments. In that case, you may want to swing toward this prompt: 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?
That is the beauty of the Common App essay — you can choose to go many different directions with it.
Tip 3: Pick the best essay prompt for you.
Which essay prompt speaks to you the most? If you scan the list of topics, you want to find one that you can identify with. For example, if you were in a car accident your freshman year and missed six months of school, you may want to write about this challenge by answering the question regarding when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
You may want to take the option of writing about the topic of your choice if you want to share about how you restored your Model T Ford. Luckily, you have the opportunity to write about anything if you do not like the other topics. Be creative and consider thinking about the topic in another way. It might work to your advantage!
Tip 4: Outline your essay.
Once you choose a topic, outline your essay. It is a great idea to break it up so you write with purpose instead of wavering all over the place. For example, your outline might look like this:
- Catchy introduction with a hook
- Topic 1
- First point
- Evidence for first point
- Second point
- Evidence for second point
- First point
- Importance of the topic
- Strong closing
Jot down ideas. As you plug in the exact information, carefully consider how your essay will show how you have demonstrated change or personal growth over time. Make sure you reflect on exactly how everything you have learned will translate into college and your future.
Tip 5: Do not repeat information.
One of the most overlooked Common App essay tip, remember not to repeat information that already exists in your application. Remember that will include other information in your application, including the classes you have taken in high school.
Only introducing new information in your essay is an essential Common App essay tip— do not repeat what already exists in other parts of your application. Your essay should provide new, compelling information for admissions officials to learn about you.
Tip 6: Freely prewrite your essay.
Now, free writing is an important part of writing your essay, but keep in mind that it should also have some organization to it. It is one of our favorite Common App essay tips! As your English teachers have always told you, you should include an introduction, your thesis (or main) paragraph, body paragraphs (ideally, two) and a conclusion.
That gives you an internal gauge with how to handle your essay. If you do not have this in mind, you might find it difficult to write in the first place.
It had been a really tough week in the dance studio. I couldn’t nail the grand jeté I had been working on the last several months. However, I knew where I should go on Sunday, where I go every Sunday: to my grandpa’s house. We spent hours casting tiny flies at the end of a rod, swish and flick, similar to a dancer’s graceful leaps. (Kind of like a grand jeté, come to think about it.)
(Why not tell a story? It makes admission committees sink right into your tale.)
Thesis, or main paragraph
What is your essay trying to say? What is the essence of it? What does it boil down to? (You get the idea.)
I learned compassion and humility at the river behind my grandpa’s house — he taught me the lessons that weave into the fabric of my being.
Body paragraph 1
Next, you would write your first body paragraph, relating to compassion, which you mentioned as one of your values. You could launch into how you learned compassion for the fish, but also reach back into other parts of your life, such as when you saw a particular student getting picked on in school, for example, and helped him build his self-esteem or get help. Don’t be afraid to use dialogue, like you are writing a story, to make it come alive for your readers.
Body paragraph 2
Next, you would write about your second core value — humility — and how you learned that from fishing with your grandpa and other circumstances in your life that give you opportunities to embody that core value.
Now, you tie it all together. You can also explain how you will continue to embody both core values in your own life, from now into the future, including in college. Also stitch together how accomplishing the grand jeté will also foreshadow how you can live by your core values and how they will serve as a guide throughout your life.
Tip 7: Tighten it up.
Self-editing can go a long way to help you get ready for the next step in the process. If you spend a little time cleaning up your essay, making sure that it flows well and more. If you believe it hits all the right points, you will have done a lot in advance to fix up your essay.
Read it out loud! Reading it out loud can help you decide when to cut too-long sentences, get rid of the adverbs, add in the right punctuation, simplify your words, and remove any redundancies.
What would your English teacher say? Go back to English 101 and fix anything you know could look better.
Tip 8: Get help with editing.
Even if you think you are a good writer, you still need editing help. Do not overlook this Common App essay tip. However, it is important to remember that you do not want to open your essay up to everyone you know. You may start getting confused if you receive too much feedback from various sources. Therefore, consider trusting just one or two people with your essay instead of ten.
Along with Common App essay advice, Campus to Career Crossroads has editing resources to help you get your essays in tip-top shape. We help with essay strategy, content development, revising, proofreading, and helping you make your essay the best it can be.
Tip 9: Set it aside.
Naturally, you do not want to hammer your Common App essay out two days before the deadline. So set it aside after you have written it. Kind of like giving something space after you have worked hard on it, try to wait a few days or a week before you put the final touches on the essay. One of our best Common App essay tips is that writing gets better with each revision.
Make sure you have plenty of time prior to the deadline. (Your application deadline depends on whether you are applying Early Decision or Early Action, usually November 1) or Regular Decision (usually January 1). All colleges have different deadlines, so check on the deadline for that particular college.
Crush Your Essay
Whether you are looking forward to writing your essay or trying to figure out how to make it easier to complete, it is a good idea to get a handle on a schedule to make it happen. You do not want to be kicking out your essay three days before the admissions deadline. Admissions officials can quickly read a rushed essay.
Remember, learning how to write a good Common App essay does not happen overnight. We will help you map out a concrete timeline. At Campus to Career Crossroads, we will put you on a firm schedule so that you can space out all of your responsibilities throughout your senior year.
Take a look at several frequently asked questions regarding Common App essay tips.
How do I make my Common App essay stand out?
One of the best Common App essay tips you can do to make your Common App essay stand out is to make it compelling. Think about what you like to read and make your essay as interesting to read as what you enjoy reading yourself. Also, choose the most interesting things about yourself to write about to engage your reader.
What should I show in my Common App essay?
Steer clear of repeating what the admission committee already knows about you. For example, if you have taken four years of French, they will already know that about you by reading about the classes you have taken. On the other hand, if you spent your first nine years living in France, the admission committee may not see that from your application.
What are colleges looking for in my Common App essay?
What makes a good Common App essay? Ultimately, college admission committees are looking for people to round out their classes also known as institutional priorities. They will use your essay as one way (but not the only way) to identify whether you will fit the class or not. They will take a look at everything you bring to the table — your grades, transcript, supplemental essays, and more. However, it is important to make sure your essay is as good as you can possibly make it.