Common App Essay FAQs

We've answered some of the most frequently asked questions about the Common App Essay. Writing your Common Application Essay should be a highlight of your school year, so just in case you’re feeling slightly apprehensive, read on for the answers you need to make this your finest essay yet.

1. When should I start writing my essay?

Plan in as much time as possible to write your essay; a few weeks and even a month or two if you can. Don’t leave it until a few days before your deadline.

Try to start writing as early as you possibly can. You will need time to decide which prompt to choose and which topic to write about.

You’ll then need to write an outline before starting to flesh this out further into sentences and paragraphs.

Once you’ve started writing your essay, it’s best to aim for two or three drafts of the essay until you hone it done to your best and you’re confident and proud of it.

It’s also really vital that you ask at least two other people to proofread and sense check it for you, (family, friends or school teachers) as a second independent opinion is key.

Once you start to plan out all these stages of writing, you can see why it’s so important to give yourself as much time as possible.

2. How do I choose my essay prompt?

It’s best to spend a while reading and rereading all the essay prompts a few times, contemplating them and see if any topics or ideas spring to mind.

If not do something else to distract yourself and go back to them after a few hours, a few days; its amazing how that time away will allow your brain space to generate new ideas.

If you’re still struggling for a topic, revisit all the key activities that have happened in your day to day life over the last few years, jot a few ideas down and then see how you can match one of those ideas to a prompt. Find out more about how to choose a prompt in our dedicated section.

If you’re lucky enough to have several ideas and you’re not sure which one to choose, write down a few sentences about each one. Then look at choosing the one you found easiest to write and that you can write the most about.

It’s much harder to generate new ideas when you’re short of the minimum number of words than it is to write too much about a topic and cut down the word count.

3. How do I begin writing my essay?

Once you’ve chosen your topic, write down a few sentences to describe exactly what you’re going to be writing about. This is your outline.

Then look at each sentence you’ve written and write a couple of sub sentences to explain each sentence in more detail. This is the start of your paragraphs.

If you’re struggling with expanding your sentences pick out key words from the sentences and explain what you mean by using those key words. Again this will help develop your essay further.

It’s also worth talking to family and friends for ideas. A second opinion is never a bad idea. For more ideas visit our brainstorming ideas section.

4. What are tutors looking for in my essay?

Is your topic personal to you? Is it about a small moment or journey that has real meaning to you? 

Writing about big world economic issues can come across as an academic essay and tutors need to read about the real you and what makes you tick.

What are you passionate about and why?  

Have you shown you can think thorough the impact and consequences of what you’ve been writing about?  Have you captured the tutor’s imagination in your scene setting introduction? You need to make it unique so that they won’t have read about it before.

Have you demonstrated how you can written creatively by using great vocabulary and described emotions and feelings? For example, saying “I wasn’t successful in the audition for the band but I’m going to try again.” is quite a bland sentence which could have been written by anyone.

Instead, try:

“After weeks in my dad’s cold garage, practicing every evening for long hours until my fingers hurt, I was utterly disappointed when I failed the band audition. However my determination to succeed, forced me to swallow my pride and find out exactly why I’d failed. I was single-minded in auditioning again, with a positive mind-set to succeed this time.”

This shows your strengths, and brings your story to life as a personal unique viewpoint.

Don’t forget the tutors are also looking for 100% accurate spelling, punctuation and grammar. Another reason to ask someone else to check your essay for you before you submit it.

5. Does my essay have to be the same for every college I apply to?

Since 2015/16, applicants have the ability to edit their essay unlimited times after submitting.

You may be wondering if this means that you need to create separate essays for each college you’re applying to,but with the amount of time and effort this will take against the benefit gained, our recommendation is that you just submit the one essay to cover all your college choices.

If a particular college such as a sports one, or an ultra-conservative one needs to focus on specific character attributes or activities, they are likely to ask you to complete a supplementary essay. 

At the end of the day it is your choice, but whatever your decision, you have a limitless opportunity to edit.

6. Should I talk about my qualifications?

Definitely not.

There are other sections in the Common Application where you can list your qualifications (those gained and those predicted for this year).

The essay is all about you and your personal experiences. Don’t waste any of the word count, duplicating information that is elsewhere.

7. How long does my essay need to be?

It needs to be between 250 to 650 words.

This word count is mandatory and if you either write less than 250 words or exceed 650, you will not be allowed to continue past this section in the online application until you have amended it accordingly.

This is why it is essential you write your essay in a word processing tool and then cut and paste into the online application. This will allow much easier editing and checking of the word count.

Writing the maximum number of words doesn’t mean it’s a better essay than a 450 or 550 word essay. It’s about the quality not the quantity of your essay and showcasing your creative writing skills to the admissions tutor.

8. How do I organize/structure my essay?

Start by planning your essay in a logical chronological order.

Plan an outline of what you’re going to be writing about by scribbling down a couple of sentences to explain your topic. Then start expanding on each one of the sentences. Use these sentences for your paragraphs.

It’s advisable to plan each paragraph in detail, in chronological order, linking the start of paragraph 2 to the end of paragraph one and flowing it nicely into paragraph three.

It’s fine to write the main paragraphs first and then go back and write an introduction to set the scene, and intrigue the reader, rather than trying to write the scene setting right at the start.

Don’t forget the conclusion which carries as much weight as all the rest of your essay. It’s easy to tail off at the end.

Instead focus on summarizing the key points in your essay (don’t include new ideas here, they should be in the main paragraphs) and leave the end sentence to write about the final impact and what the future may hold for your topic.

For more information, please see our Common App Essay Structure guide.

9. How do I edit my essay?

It is best to edit your essay in a word processing tool which can check for spelling, punctuation and grammar.

Also ask someone else to read your essay and check for anything that needs editing. Software packages won’t pick up every little nuance. For example ‘stationary’ and ‘stationery’ are both spelt correctly but have very different meanings.

In addition check each paragraph to see that it links to the previous one and flows into the next one, that introductory sentences are at the beginning of paragraphs and that you use active words ie ‘gained’ not ‘got’, ‘achieved’ not ‘had’.

For more in-depth analysis read our editing your common application essay section, as well as our guides on structure and format.

10. Where I can see some example essays?

Our website has some great Common App essay examples, across all the prompts which we hope will spark ideas for you.

You can also donate your own essay to help others write theirs by donating your common application essay.

Further information

For more tips and advice on putting together your common application for college, please see: