How To Write The Common App Essay

First off, how important is the Common App essay?

It is certainly an important part of the application process. If you are a highly competitive applicant with a great GPA and academic record, however a mediocre or sub-par essay, it could sink your application at many top institutions. A great essay can also be the difference maker between acceptance and rejection for those students that are at the tipping point between these two decisions among an admissions committee.

Indeed, over half of colleges surveyed by the National Association for College Admission Counseling considered the personal statement at least moderately or considerably important, and extremely selective universities places an even greater emphasis on this.

What are the prompts for the Common App essay this application cycle for 2021-2022?

When deciding how to approach the personal essay in your common application, you first need to know what prompts you can choose from. For the 2021-2022 cycle this year, these are the following prompts that applicants are able to choose from:

  1. 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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  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?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. 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?
  7. 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.

How do you choose a prompt or essay?

Truthfully, the best strategy is to choose the prompt that genuinely evokes a passion of yours that you can discuss in detail, an idea that you have had that you believe is worth sharing, or an experience that you would like to convey to an admissions committee.

Whichever of these you decide on, the main purpose of this should be to write about something that genuinely conveys who you are as an applicant to an admissions committee, and highlights attributes that you think would be desired at the institutions you have chosen to apply to.  

This is often easier said than done. If you are having trouble deciding from this list, it is worth taking several minutes to brainstorm and write bullet points of experiences or ideas that you could utilize as a starting point. After doing this for each separate prompt, you can go through this list more clearly and choose the topic that you are most passion about. Remember, if the essay does not excite and inspire you, it is not likely to do so for readers during the admissions committee process who are reviewing hundreds of essays during the cycle.

How should I structure my essay?

Every personal statement should have a strong opening that grabs the readers attention, a middle portion that describes your passions and ideas and further substantiates your interests with examples, and a closing that brings the entire arc and essence of your statement to a satisfying end to complete your essay.

While the common application technically states that the essay can range from 250 to 650 words, you should take advantage of this opportunity to showcase yourself to programs and should aim for a final personal essay length of between 500-650 words.

As an important note that is not to be overlooked – the application does provide you with a box for your essay submission but we would strongly encourage first drafting and finalizing your essays in a Microsoft Word document or word processor before transferring this to the Common App application prior to submission.

What should my opening look like?

It goes without saying that many admissions readers are pouring through dozens and sometimes hundreds of essays in an application cycle. With this in mind, a strong opening to grab and keep the reader’s attention past one or two sentences is of paramount importance.

Importantly, you do not need to force yourself to write the most earth-shatteringly thought-provoking first sentence that has ever been written in an essay. This can lead to over-thinking and even cause writer’s block when trying to start by obsessing over this beginning.

Instead, focus on the main message that you want to convey in each paragraph and how this will fit into the bigger picture and flow of your essay. Knowing the path and structure you wish to forge in the end can help you pick a starting point for the beginning.

Appropriate places to start are with a personal experience regarding something that you said or did in a moment or time, something that was said or done to you, an event that you witnessed, and can even simply start with a thought or an opinion on a topic. In this first paragraph, it is important to lay the groundwork for the passion, idea, or journey that you are going to describe for the reader going forward. If you are looking for further inspiration, here are some essays from admitted students at top universities that the Shemmassian Consulting group shares on it’s blog.

How do I structure and fill out my middle?

The middle portion of your essay is critical because it gives you the space to delve into the important experiences or ideas that have informed who you are and what drives you.

Here, it is important to note that your essay should NOT read like a resume or C.V. and simply become a list of accomplishments that are listed in a sequence of events. The committee will already have these experiences in other sections of the application, and the goal should not be to try to list as many as possible.

Instead, pick the one or two major experiences that you find most meaningful in your life, academic career, or extracurricular realm to discuss in detail. Express why that experience has  shaped who you are as a person, why it motivates and drives you to learn and excel, and why it will make you an outstanding candidate to pursue such interests at the institution that you are applying to.

Here, it is encouraged to be detailed, share meaningful anecdotes from your experience, and demonstrate this by ‘showing’ the admissions reader, not simply ‘telling’. What is meant by this is that it is one thing to simply state ‘I am passionate about community service’, and an entirely different and more meaningful message to show the reader this by describing an experience of yours getting involved directly in the community that shaped your and another person’s life. The reader will clearly make the connection about your passion for service, but it is not because you told them outright but rather because you showed them through a description of your actions that add validity to this idea.

What do I close with?

Just as opening the essay can be difficult in attempting to artfully capture the reader’s attention, closing can be equally as difficult in trying to wrap everything up neatly while bringing your points to a close.

First off, if your story follows an arc that starts with your opening of an experience or an encounter, it can be helpful to start the first sentence of the last paragraph by bringing the reader back to this original point so that they come full circle. It also gives the impression that you have connected the entire essay throughout. It is not necessary to do this and not all essays will be amenable to this depending on the story arc, but it is a tool that can be used in certain situations.

Do not simply summarize each paragraph of the essay in a sentence at the end, but instead take this opportunity to bring the reader to the realization of why such experiences have made you a stronger, more well-versed, and passionate candidate for the field or topic that you have chosen to discuss.

Final Thoughts

While thinking of a topic for the Common App can be difficult and the process itself can be stressful, there are several resources you can use to help you on your way to getting your application ready.

Avoid some of the common pitfalls listed above, plan out the structure of your essay before diving in, and go through multiple drafts to create a final product with a strong opening, descriptive middle, and convincing closing.

Going through multiple drafts, and having others view your work and provide edits, is critical to gaining another perspective on how your essay may be viewed by admissions committees. It can be helpful at a surface level to avoid typos, repetitive words you may have not noticed, and catch when transitions between paragraphs are not working well. More critically, it can allow you to deduce whether your main message is coming through in a meaningful way to others apart from yourself.

If you are looking for in-depth review and editing of your essay or application with experienced reviewers with prior admissions experience or top college performance, take a look at some options to choose from here.

Frequently asked questions

How important is the personal statement for college applications?

Since universities can receive thousands of applications, and many of these applicants all have average or above average GPA and standardized test scores, the personal statement is an important differentiator that lets the admissions committee know who you are as a person and what you can uniquely contribute to their institution.

How important are secondary essays for college applications?

Many admissions experts agree that the secondary essays for specific colleges are even more important than the personal essay in the common application. The reason for this is that the college in question has specifically posed these essay questions because they believe that they reveal a more telling story regarding their applicants. Since this determines who they will then want to accept at their institution, it is important not to rush through the secondary essays and make the best effort possible in standing out in your essay.

Should I go through multiple drafts of my college essays?

Absolutely. You should have multiple people review your essays for grammar and spelling errors, transition quality, and overall message. The most polished essays that are application-ready have usually been through at least 2 or 3 revisions prior to submission.

What is the most common interview format for college?

The most common format for college interviews is one-on-one or panel interviews (two or more interviewers with one applicant). It is important to prepare and practice answers to the most common college interview questions.

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