4 Tips for Writing the Common App Essay

common app essay

The Common Application opens for submissions August 1 each year, but you start your application at any time. Summer break – when you usually have a bit more time at your disposal – is the perfect time to start your Common App, particularly your Common App essays. 

Below, we cover four tips for writing your Common App essay, as well as some do’s and don’ts to consider as you’re writing your essays. If you’re writing an essay for the Coalition App, these four steps will work for that essay as well. 

What is the Common App Essay?

The Common Application, a college application tool used by nearly 900 colleges, contains an optional Writing section. You may need to complete one of the personal essay prompts in this section depending on the application requirements of the schools you’re applying to.

The basic idea behind this essay is to reveal an aspect of yourself that the admissions counselors won’t know from the paper-version of you. You want to select a prompt that allows you to share a personal perspective, talk about something that is important to you, tell a bit of your story.  

You have a few varied prompts to choose from:  

  • Offer background or a story from your life
  • Discuss cherished or challenged beliefs & the effects of standing up for them
  • Share an accomplishment and/or contribution and recount the challenges and rewards
  • Offer a problem and explain how you have or could solve it
  • Describe what is hard about being a student today and provide some advice for those younger
  • Chronicle various obstacles and/or failures in your life and their effects
  • Describe an idea so engaging that you can lose time exploring it

And, lastly, you can pick your own topic to write about. 

View the 2020 Common App essay prompts here: https://www.commonapp.org/apply/essay-prompts

The Coalition App is another application tool that is used by more than 150 colleges and has a similar structure and function as the Common App, including an application essay.

View the 2020 Coalition App essay prompts here: https://www.coalitionforcollegeaccess.org/essays

4 Steps to Write Your Common App Essay

#1: Write for All the Prompts

First, the best way to get started is to try writing for all the prompts. Set a timer for 20 minutes and just write. Repeat this for each of the prompts. 

A prompt that you initially had no interest in may turn out to be something that you find easy to write about. For help cultivating your ideas and generating original essay topics, read this post

#2: Pick Two Drafts to Focus On

Second, pick two prompts for which you can write a complete draft and get to writing. Once you have two good drafts, it’s time to share your essay with a wide audience: teachers, friends, and family.  

#3: Write and Rewrite

Third, ask for and implement edits from your teachers, friends, or family. Take care to find a balance between listening to the comments and suggestions of others and finishing with an essay that is still in your voice – albeit a polished, thoughtful, personal version of your voice! 

And you guessed it, all this writing and rewriting takes time. The summer can provide you an opportunity to write drafts that no one will ever see. 

#4: Save Your Drafts

Fourth, save your drafts. Many schools will set time aside in the fall to work on essays in English class, so be sure to save your drafts as separate documents, creating new documents that incorporate edits. 

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This will help if you need to show your English teacher come fall that you really did do plenty of writing and editing over the summer. Additionally, once school starts you may have access to readers/editors of your essay that you did not have over the summer.  

Besides showing your English teacher all the work you have done, saving the occasional draft or essay version can also be extremely helpful if your essay gets a little too over-edited by a parent or teacher. A previous draft can help you find your way back to your voice.  

Common App Essay Dos and Don’ts

Do write a complete essay that has well-flushed out ideas, but
Don’t go over more than 500 or 550 words.

Do write about something personal to you, but
Don’t try to turn something small into something bigger. Not everyone has a big story to share.  Keep it real because, believe me, the reader can tell when you are stretching a story.  

Do write about something that makes you stand out from other applicants, but
Don’t limit this idea to circumstances or experiences. Perhaps you stand out because you are interested in something unusual or have an unusual way of thinking about problems or looking at the world.   

Do write about something that makes you stand out from other applicants, but don’t limit this idea to circumstances or experiences. Perhaps you stand out because you are interested in something unusual or have an unusual way of thinking about problems or looking at the world.   

Do get specific, but
Don’t lose sight of the big picture. You don’t want an essay that is full of cliches or truisms, but you also do not want to get so into the nitty-gritty that you have no clear theme or purpose. The prompts are your guide; by ensuring that you are answering one of the prompts, you can be sure your essay has a clear purpose as well as details.  

Do be funny, but
Don’t try to be funny if you are not funny! The essay needs to have your voice. If you are serious, then be serious in your essay. If you have a good sense of humor, then let that show.  The key is that you do want to take this seriously. Don’t confuse humor with indifference or disrespect to the process.  

Do write, edit, and rewrite. You want to get feedback from others so share your writing with people who know you, but
Don’t lose yourself along the way. Yes, you must edit your essay to ensure that it does not contain any grammatical errors and the ideas are clear. However, you want your essay to be about you: reflect your perspective, retain your voice, and give admission counselors a window into who you are beyond the paper or quantitative version of yourself. 

While it may seem daunting, writing your essay is as easy as 1, 2, 3, 4: 

#1 write on all prompts; #2 write two drafts on two different prompts; #3 share your drafts with others and get to editing, but remember to #4 keep track of the different versions of your essays in case you need to revert to or use part of an older version.  

Want more tips for filling out your Common Application? Be sure to check out this post: Your Guide to the 2020 Common App 

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