How to Write the Common App Essay

July 23, 2022
By AdmissionSight

How to Write the Common App Essay

Before we discuss how to write the common app essay, let us learn what it is about first. Common App is the streamlined online application that is accepted by the majority of American colleges, the Common App, includes a personal statement that must be 650 words long (or less).

Your main essay will be read by all colleges, so it must be strong even though it is not specific to any one of them. You should provide an answer to this question in your main essay, which will be read by the admissions committee.

Young man writing in front of his laptop.

As it is difficult to convey someone in 650 words, applicants must have an astute eye. The Common App gives you a choice of seven prompts to help you focus on a smaller pool of candidates.

General guidelines for college essays

Here are the general guidelines for college essay formatting before we tackle how to write the common app essay:

Keep an eye on the word count.

It is generally agreed upon that the most important guideline for college application essays is to stick to the word limit that has been provided. Typically, the Common Application essay word limit is between 500 and 650 words.

In the case of the Common Application essay, which uses text fields, it may be impossible to exceed the word limit, and admissions officers frequently use software that will automatically reject any essay that does so.

The ability to follow instructions is a crucial component of academic success. Your essay will be improved by refocusing on the essay prompt and removing superfluous adverbs, filler words, and prepositional phrases. However, it is advisable to use almost every word that is offered.

You will be at a disadvantage if you leave out additional words in the highly competitive field of college essay applications. Near the end of your essay, use an example or anecdote to increase the word count.

Use paragraphs rather than a wall of text instead of.

This is the harsh reality:

Only the application essays that are relevant to their decision are read by college admissions officers. Otherwise, they won’t even bother reading the essay.

The issue is that you are unsure of whether the rest of your application—including your transcripts, academic record, awards, and other credentials—will be strong enough to get you accepted.

Using a laptop to type in a table.

Make your writing readable by adding line breaks and separate paragraphs. This is a very simple rule on how to write the common app essay (and for essay editing of any kind). Line breaks are a very simple way to arrange your essay’s structure, ideas, and topics because they do not count toward the word count. Keep in mind that college advisors, if you’re lucky, will read your essay for 30 to 1 minute.

Give them every chance to comprehend what you’ve written.

Leave out the essay title.

Please refrain from using a title in your personal statement or essay unless it is specifically requested. This is unnecessary because the essay prompt itself serves as the title, and it also wastes your allotted words.

Never use formatting that is too casual, informal, or text message-based, such as THIS IS A REALLY IMPORTANT POINT!

Emojis, all-caps, symbols, hashtags, and slang are never appropriate in college essays. Despite the fact that social media, texting, and technology are all changing how we communicate today (what a great topic for a college application essay), admissions officers will consider the use of these informal formatting elements to be childish and unsuitable for such a significant document. So make sure to research on how to write the common app essay.

Save your college essay in the correct format and save it for uploading.

If you’re unsure of what to do, consult the application instructions. You must currently copy and paste your essay into a text box on the Common Application.

Using a laptop for Common app essay.

When it comes to submitting your college essay or personal statement, there are three main formats:

Typing your admissions essay into a text box

There is a designated input field for the Common Application, so there is no need to attach a document. You should still use a word processor or Google Doc to write your essay. Just make sure your formatting, line breaks (paragraphs), and indents are kept when you copy and paste your essay into the text box.

  • When copying and pasting text into a text box, formatting like bold, underline, and italics frequently get lost.
  • Verify that you stay within the word limit. There could be variations in word counts within the text box.
  • Observe paragraph spacing; text input fields frequently remove indents and double spacing.
  • If at all possible, make sure the font is uniform. Typically, text input boxes only support one font.

When submitting your essay for admission as a document:

You must check more than just your admissions essay’s formatting when attaching a document. You must take the initiative to ensure that the structure is logical and appealing to readers.

Microsoft Word format (.DOC)

You will most likely upload a.doc or.docx file if you are uploading your application essay. The drawback of MS Word files being editable is that occasionally there are conflicts between different MS Word versions (2010 vs 2016 vs Office365).

The good news is that almost any text program can open Word.

A PDF file

If maintaining the visual components of your essay is important to you, this is a safe choice.

Since older versions of Microsoft Word occasionally aren’t compatible with the newer formatting, saving your essay as a PDF prevents any formatting problems that come with that program.Despite the prevalence of PDF viewing software, many older readers and Internet users (who will serve as your admissions officers) might not be able to view PDFs.

  • Set margins of one inch. Microsoft Word’s default setting is this. However, students from Asia who use applications like Hangul Word Processor should check again.
  • Make use of a common serif font. Times New Roman, Courier, and Garamond are a few of these. Your essay will be more professional with a serif font.
  • Use a 12-point typeface standard.
  • Use double or 1.5 spacing. Your essay for the application should be readable. Since the essay ought to fit on one page, using double spaces is not a problem.
  • Include a header with your first and last names, the name of your school, and any other necessary information.
  • Use clear paragraph breaks. Simply press “ENTER” twice by default.

What to Write About in Your Common App Essay?

If you are perplexed about what to write about in your Common App essay, here are the seven essay questions provided by the Common App for 2020–2021.

  • 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.

Which Common App question is the most ideal?

The prompt you decide to respond to doesn’t really matter to the admissions officer. They probably won’t even look to see which prompt you chose to respond to before they start reading because their only objective is to better understand you.

Typing on a laptop in a table.

The best method for selecting a prompt is to first consider the story you want to tell, then determine which prompt best suits it.

Here is a list of the most popular applications for the 2018–2019 application season:

  • 24.1% of students used this instruction: “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.”
  • 23.7% of students chose to respond to the prompt, “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
  • According to 21.1 percent of students, “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?”
  • The remaining four prompts were used by 31.1 percent of students.

Therefore, you might consider choosing one of the less popular prompts if you want to stand out. But it’s hard to say whether that might matter given that almost a quarter of all students ignored the provided prompts.

There is no preference among colleges for which prompt you choose. Before selecting a prompt for your Common Application essay, you should ideally generate ideas for the best stories and narratives from your life that could work for the essay. Then, you can tailor the ideas to the specific prompt. As there are so many open-ended prompts, you will have a great deal of freedom in selecting the topic that best suits you. This is equally as crucial as learning how to write the common app essay.

How Important Is the Common App Essay?

You are aware of the value of having a high GPA, excellent test scores, and extracurricular involvement for your college application. What about the essay, though? How much does it really matter to your academic record as a whole?

Young woman typing an essay using her laptop.

Although the essay is always significant, how important is the common app essay in your entire application depends on the school you are applying to as well as your unique profile.

Your essays typically make up 25% of your overall application to the top 250 schools. This is only marginally less than the extracurricular participation rate of 30%. Essays actually outperform the 20% weighted average for grades and coursework, the 15% weighted average for test scores, and the 10% weighted average for recommendations and interviews. This is how important the common app essay is.

However, this breakdown is slightly altered now that many schools are adopting test-optional or test-blind policies. Test scores no longer count for 15% of admissions in these circumstances, so other aspects of your application, such as essays, are given more weight.

The importance of essays may come as a surprise to you, but top schools typically have at least 4 academically qualified applicants vying for each open position. Admissions officers require the essays in order to accurately evaluate a candidate’s fit with the institution. Essays are your one chance to express your viewpoint, individual experiences, and voice.

How to Answer the 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts?

One significant change has been made to the Common App essay prompts for 2021–2022, as one previous prompt has been replaced with a brand-new one (list can be found in the previous pages). There are still seven prompts available for college applicants to select from. Let’s take a look at two examples of how to answer the 2021-2022 common app essay prompts:

Examples of Common App Essays

Question #2

“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?”

One of the more difficult prompts is this one.

Writing about failure can make it difficult to convey strength and potential. But this prompt is a great choice if you don’t mind reflecting on yourself and becoming a little more open. A strong response to this question reveals a high level of self-assurance, maturity, humility, and an openness to learning. Writing about a failure in isolation is ineffective; instead, students should concentrate on how they handled their failures well.

Question #4

“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?”

This prompt on the Common App is not an attempt to trick you (or any of its prompts for that matter). So, take a moment to recall a time when someone helped you in a way that surprised you or made you grateful.

It doesn’t have to be a significant life-altering occasion. It might be as straightforward as when you were nervous before giving an oral presentation at school and a classmate went out of their way to reassure you by telling you to take a deep breath and that you’re going to rock the presentation.

Your anxiety was reduced by this brief conversation with your classmate, and you ended up giving a fantastic presentation.

Reflection is the next and most crucial step.

What did this conversation with your classmate teach you about yourself, and how has this gratitude changed or motivated you? When you interacted with your classmate, you may have felt a little more optimistic about people in general and teenagers in particular. And maybe the appreciation you experienced for what your classmate did for you inspired you to look for others at your school who might be in need and go out of your way to help them.

Although this is an overly simple example, I believe you get the idea.

The colleges you are applying to simply want to learn more about you, see that you are a good writer, and that you have the capacity for self-reflection. This is true of all Common App essays.

As an added bonus, gratitude is “strongly and consistently associated with greater happiness,” as stated in the Harvard Health quote at the start of this post. In light of this, writing a response to the most recent Common App prompt will not only allow you to complete one of your college application essays, but it may also make you happier because you will be writing about your gratitude.

What Makes a Good Common App Essay?

In general, the best Common App essays are more intimate than other essays.

Young woman who looks like she is thinking.

If you can establish a personal connection with the admissions committee through your writing, they are more likely to choose you over another applicant. In other words, talk about how you feel, describe how you approach problems, examine how you think of solutions, and show how you make decisions that are challenging.

Concentrate on a challenge or obstacle you overcame.

One fantastic way to demonstrate to the admissions officer that you are exactly the kind of outstanding student they want to admit to their school is to discuss a challenge or difficulty that you overcame. But don’t just concentrate on the issues. Describe how you resolved this issue and improved as a person as a result.

Don’t tell, show.

Explain how many hours a week you spend in your room reading science books rather than just telling the reader that you “love science.” This may entail giving a lot of concrete information; the more vivid the detail, the better, as it will help the admissions officer recall facts and personal traits when deciding whether or not to admit you.

Don’t use clichés in your writing.

One of the most frequent mistakes essay writers make is using a worn-out personal essay narrative. Check your writing for clichés or dated terminology after finishing the first draft of your Common App essay. Ask a peer or editor to read your essay and provide feedback on your language and tone.

Adapt your tone to the essay’s objectives

Students must make sure that WHAT they are trying to convey to readers is reflected in HOW they are writing their essays. For instance, if you are an A student with no extracurricular activities, you might use your essay to demonstrate to the admissions committee how laid-back you are in real life.

Many students believe that Common Application essays must be extremely serious, discuss a traumatic or profoundly impactful event, or detail extraordinary accomplishments. Obviously, you can choose to write a serious essay on any of these (or other) topics; however, these are not the only types of essays that get accepted.

Many students write about humorous or ostensibly inconsequential topics, but are able to make their essays meaningful and original. Never sacrifice authenticity and truth for glitz and glamor. This is what makes a good common app essay.

Concentrating on what the admissions committee desires or favors is a fruitless endeavor. Not only will it make your essay appear forced and pretentious, but it also has no factual basis, as admissions committees do not have a “preference” for a particular topic.

There are a few other common admissions essay errors you should avoid, and learning about them beforehand may prevent you from selecting your application essay topic inadvertently. If you require assistance on how to write the Common App essay, you can consult with us here at AdmissionSight.

We are a leading authority on college entrance and AdmissionSight has more than ten years of experience assisting high school students in improving their chances of being accepted into the colleges of their choice. We would love to hear from you!

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