It may seem overwhelming to write a college essay for the first time. Especially when that college essay is for the Common Application and will be sent to every school that you apply to. In this post, I’ll go over some tips for writing the Common App essay, and what steps you can take to make your essay as compelling as it can be.

Before we begin, let’s look at the Common App essay prompts. There are seven prompts to choose from, and they’re the same from year to year.

They 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.

Now that you’ve read the prompts, the first step to writing your Common App essay is to—forget about the prompts.

That’s right, pretend you didn’t even read the prompts. Completely ignore them. This may seem counterintuitive, but there’s reasons for this. First, the prompts are extremely vague and open-ended. For example, question number one says to describe a “background, identity, interest, or talent.” But you could describe someone’s entire life using their background, identity, interests, or talents, so this is an extremely broad question. And the seventh prompt says that you can just pick an entirely new essay topic if you want. Because the prompts are so open-ended, pretty much any essay you write is going to be a good fit for at least one of the prompts.

Another reason you want to ignore the essay prompts while writing is that essays feel more compelling if you’re not focused on trying to answer a question. For example, if you start your Common App essay with the sentence “Something about my identity that is meaningful to me is . . .” the reader is not going to find that essay very interesting. That opening sentence will not hook or intrigue your reader. However, if you start your essay by jumping right into a story, or a conversation, or a problem, it’s going to result in a much more interesting read.

The second step in writing your Common App essay also involves forgetting: forget about the word count.

While the Common App essay, at 650 words maximum, is longer than most other essays you’ll have to write for college applications, most students still find it difficult to write about themselves in a meaningful way in such a small number of words. So don’t—let the first draft of your essay be as long as you need it to be. Wax poetic for six thousand words if that’s what it takes for your essay to feel well-written and finished. This is important because it is very easy to shorten an essay that is already well-written, but it is much harder to improve a sub-par essay while still keeping it within a word limit.

Now that you’ve forgotten about the prompts and the word count, it’s time to actually write your Common App essay.

For this essay, you can write about anything you want. Literally, anything at all. Your favorite book, an instrument you play, a special family tradition, your least favorite book. I wrote about a bracelet I got for my 12th birthday. Another student wrote about going to Costco with her parents. It really doesn’t matter what you write about. What matters is that your essay is an expression of you—that it has a sincere voice and carries a sense of your personality. The easiest way to write an essay like this is to pick something that you’re passionate or excited about. Don’t choose something just because you think it’ll make you sound smart. Instead, pick something that you find fun or interesting to write about (or, if you don’t like writing, to talk about). 

Once you’re happy with your essay, you must next tailor it to the Common Application.

First, make sure that it answers one of the prompts. If you’ve written about an event in your life, it probably already fits a prompt. But if you wrote about something else, or you’re unsure if it fits a prompt, just take a few minutes to double check by rereading the Common App prompts. You can always just pick prompt number 7, but if you don’t want to, just make sure that the connection to whichever prompt you chose is clear. I like to do this by including a phrase from the prompt somewhere in the essay. For example, if I were answering prompt number 6, I would make sure that somewhere in my essay I mention losing track of time.

And finally, the very last step in writing a Common App essay is to get it within the word limit.

If your essay is already 650 words or less, then congratulations! You’re done! But if it’s not, you’ll have to reread your essay a few times, and start taking out any unnecessary words and content. Anything that doesn’t add to your story’s meaning, anything that can be removed and still let your essay make sense, should be removed. This means adjectives, relative clauses, extra-long and descriptive sentences. Depending on how long your draft was, you might have to remove entire paragraphs. This might seem impossible at first, but you’ll be able to do it. If you really can’t think of anything to take out, let someone else read your essay, or just take a break for a few days so that you can look at it again with fresh eyes.

Once your essay is all done, I would recommend having someone else look over it, just to double check for grammar, spelling, and clarity, but you’ve finished the bulk of the work! Now you just have to work on those school-specific supplemental essays...

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