Tips for getting started on your Common App essay

college admissions Common Application personal statements

Gearing up to begin your Common App essay? Here are some tips for getting started.

1. Read prompts from previous years

Here is a link to the '23-'24 Common App college essay prompts. These are very similar to the prompts from the last few years.

Notice that these questions prioritize reflection. In fact, the Common App essay is an exercise in talking about your character, rather than your accomplishments.

Think about the qualities of your character that stand out—what do you love about yourself? Think about adjectives: loyal, fair, kind, determined, etc. Make a list! 

As you consider everything else about your future application, think about what qualities of your character will come through from other aspects. What might your teacher recommendations share? What about your activities list? (For example: if you are proud of your ability to respond with fairness, I might learn this by seeing your participation in your school’s Honor Council).

Now, what is left? You want to make sure your essay highlights these features!

2. Start brainstorming


Here are some of my favorite exercises for brainstorming your college essay:

3. As you get to writing, consider the two main types of essays


There are really two types of Common App essays: montage and narrative.

In montage essays, the writer focuses on one big idea about who they are and what defines their character. From there, they tell stories.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when writing montage essays:

  • Are you a great teammate/intellectually curious human/big idea generator? 

  • Have you learned to be more comfortable with failure/more flexible with your thinking/more comfortable being independent in the world? 

  • Are you taking some “life lessons” from an impactful summer job/extracurricular activity into different aspects of your life?

In narrative essays, the writer pens a story with an arc, lessons, learnings, and effects.

Here are some questions to ask yourself when writing a narrative essay:

  • What is the story you have to share? 

  • What will I learn about you because you tell this story? 

  • What did you learn because this happened? How have you changed as a person?

4. Keep this draft open


Revisit your draft often. Share it with one or two people who have offered their support. Remember, only give these people “comment” privileges (not “edit”). It is so important that your essay is your own voice.

Elise holds a BA in Political Philosophy from Williams College and an MEd in Administration & Social Policy from Harvard. She has spent the past twenty years working in top-tier independent schools.


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