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10 Tips For Writing The Common App Essay

Every step of the Common Application Essay is important from deciding which prompt to write about and outlining which essay you’re writing, to planning the content and proofreading your final draft.

Here are a few tips to help you submit a successful Common Application.

1. Start early

Good writing takes time. Don’t wait until the week before applications are due to start writing the essays.

No matter how good a writer you are, the earlier you start, the better your finished essay will be.

Pencil the time you are going to spend on your essay into your calendar and make sure you stick to it. Trust us - by the time the deadline rolls around, you'll be glad you did!

2. Choose the right prompt

It may seem a bit overwhelming having to choose a topic from one of 5 prompts. Which one do you choose? What topic should you write about?

It’s best to read each of the prompts two or three times and let your mind think about any topics you may want to write about.

It’s ok if you can’t think of anything at the time. Leave it and come back a few hours or days later. It’s amazing what a little bit of space can do for generating ideas.

If you’re still struggling try writing down key words from each of the prompts and see what thoughts this can inspire.

For example in prompt 4 where it says ‘describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve” this can be an idea you’ve been puzzling over in the last few months and haven’t yet found a solution to or an experience you’ve had in the last 2-3 years where you can write about the journey you’ve been on.

An alternative is to consider what’s happened in your daily life over the last year or two, jot a few ideas down and then try and match them back to the prompts and you’ve chosen your topic.

It’s surprising just how much family and friends can help you out with ideas, so don’t be shy and ask them.

3. Get writing

Having decided on a topic you want to write about, start planning what you’re going to be writing about before you actually start writing. 

Firstly start with a couple of sentences that explain your idea. If you’re not sure what to say in these sentences try focusing your ideas around the tried and tested ‘who, what, where, why and how’.

For example why did you stand up for your brother when he was being harassed? What did you do? How did you do it? Where were you and who else was involved?

Once you’ve written your outline, start fleshing these sentences out further with more detail behind each one. This will form the basis of your paragraphs.

Now you can start to write your first draft. Bear in mind that It can be easier to write each of your essay paragraphs and then go back to write a catchy introduction that sets the scene, rather than struggling to find a creative introduction first.

4. Answer the prompt

Now that you have your thoughts down, read them over carefully and decide whether or not your answer responds to the prompt. If it does, you can begin rewriting. If it doesn't, start over.

Be prepared to discard several first drafts until you produce one that really speaks to you. Some people throw away their initial drafts, choosing to use their second paragraph as an opener in the next draft because they decide that the first paragraph is too waffly.

You may discover a better angle halfway through the essay — even in your conclusion.

5. Be unique, creative and honest

When you’re writing each of your paragraphs try to link each one back to the last paragraph in a sequential order and use active words such as ‘win or ‘join in’ rather than ‘get and ‘be’ as they make your essay personal and individual to you.

Focus as much on the introduction and the conclusion as the main paragraphs.

An introduction needs to be a hook for the reader (the admission tutor) to pull them into exploring your essay further, to intrigue them and make them want to find out more. 

A conclusion needs to summarize your topic and clarify anything you’ve left outstanding from your paragraphs.

If possible try to end by looking into what the future may hold. Above all write creatively and truthfully about you and how you feel.  You have a unique story to tell and this essay is your chance to shine brightly.

Humor is great to include, but don’t try too hard to be funny. It’s more important to be honest and write about what you feel confident about.

Don’t forget your 250 to 650 word count. This is non-negotiable but it doesn’t mean you have to aim for the 650 mark. It’s about the quality of your words not the quantity.

6. Save the drama

Don’t try to make forgetting to eat lunch last Monday sound like a life changing or harrowing experience.

You need not have cured cancer or battled adversity to produce a narrative that reads well. You don’t even need a “wow” moment; you just need to reveal something about yourself and allow your personality to shine.

The best personal statement I ever read was about a young man who had an “aha” moment as a counselor at summer camp when he realized that his campers viewed him as an adult.

7. Let your character shine

If you’re not funny, now is not the moment to start writing comedy. If you’re not Shakespeare, don't attempt iambic pentameter. This is YOUR story and YOUR writing, so be authentically YOU.

This also means avoiding cliches and any over-used words or phrases. This are unappealing to admissions tutors, and they will want to see you do better than this.

So get your creative juices flowing, and remove those tired sentences from your essay right away.

8. Proofread

Once you’ve written your essay and finished your conclusion you’re about 50% of the way there. You now need a major focus on proofreading your essay to check for everything from spelling, grammar and punctuation to sense checking facts, evidence and the focus and impact of your essay.

When you proofread and sense check yourself, don’t do this straight after writing it. Always leave a space of time; hours or days. The old adage ‘you can’t see the woods for the trees’ is so true.

It is vitally important that you ask others to proofread your essay as well and give you constructive and honest feedback.

Friends and family are usually willing to help and this is great. However it’s also worth asking your school teacher as well. How many students have they helped through the Common Application in previous years? Gain an advantage from all their years of experience.  

It doesn’t matter how many drafts of the essay you write (most students write several). It’s about the final draft (with all the editing and proofreading complete) being your absolute best; the one you’re proud and confident to have written.

9. Ask for feedback

Get help editing but don't feel you have to include all comments and suggestions. Only do this if you genuinely think it makes your statement better. 

Remember that your essay needs to be written in your voice.

If you ask all of your cousins who majored in English to read it, you'll get dozens of revision suggestions, resulting in a discordant symphony of different voices.

Pick a few people you trust to help you with the editing process and stick with them.

10. Know when to stop

If you’ve worked through all your drafts and rounds of feedback, it's time to stop and say it is finished.

Some applicants hold onto an essay and change a word here and a word there until the last minute, but you have to call it a day eventually.

So, remember to put it aside and work on the rest of your application.

Your Common Application essay is a gateway to your future, so give it as much time and energy as you can (but don't overdo it!).

Further information

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