Guide to Essays and Interviews • Guide to US Applications

How to Write a Winning Common App Essay – The Ultimate Guide

POSTED ON 02/22/2023 BY The Red Pen

College applicant writing a common app essay

Applying to US universities involves writing several college application essays that allow admissions officers to get to know and understand you. Remember that these aren’t book reports or literary analyses but rather a personal narrative in your voice. Tim Wolfe, Associate Provost for Enrollment and Dean of Admissions at the College of William & Mary, says, “Essays can help an admission committee better understand the individual and how he or she will add to the campus community. They are also an opportunity for us to evaluate a student’s ability to communicate through the written format. We can get a glimpse into their personalities and perhaps learn something new about them, their backgrounds and experiences that don’t necessarily appear elsewhere in the application.”

Here’s a comprehensive guide to the Common App Essay

What is the Common App Essay?

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application—a centralised portal that submits your application to more than 900 colleges. While your admission relies heavily on your grades and academic achievements, this reflective college essay sheds light on your character, background and value as a potential student. You can use it to showcase your skills, values, interests, and more importantly, how prepared you are to attend college. It is a chance to tell your unique stories and showcase the information you could not include in their application.

The National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC) quantifies the relative importance of the different factors in the admission decision process and puts college essays at 18.9 percent. Erica Curtis, a former Admissions Evaluator at Brown University, said “We were expected to read five applications per hour, which equates to twelve minutes per application.” Since admissions officers have limited time to read applications, you must ensure that your 650-word essay is impactful.

Remember that your essay must complement and strengthen the rest of your application, not contradict it. For instance, if you’ve mentioned community service in the activities section of your application form, writing an essay on it is a good idea. In addition, using your essay to quantify what you’ve learnt from your involvement will set you apart from other students.

What are Common App essay prompts?

Common App essay prompts are a set of seven essay topics that you can choose from to write a personal narrative. They are as follows:

Common App essay prompt 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.

This prompt gives the reader a sense of who you are and what you value. Revealing an interest or experience that has significantly shaped your life’s journey shows the admissions officer a deeper insight into what defines you. It can be about you moving cities, a love for the indoors or meeting a stranger on a recent vacation. But irrespective of the experience or interest you choose, ensure that your writing effectively communicates the impact it had on you. For instance, if you plan to write about moving houses, speak about the emotions involved. Were you happy about the move? How did it change your life? If you weren’t, what did you do? How did you adjust to a new neighbourhood?

If you want to discuss an interaction with a stranger in a different country, reflect on its importance. What did you learn about the person, the place and their culture? Did you return home anew? If so, what changed? How do you view the world differently?

Read a Common App essay example that worked!

Common App essay prompt 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?

Admissions officers know that, at your age, the challenges you’ve encountered are limited. Moreover, there is no definitive description of a challenge. It is subjective. For instance, changing schools is challenging for some, as they need to adapt to a new environment. For others, it can involve a scarring experience like bullying.

Remember that it is not only the challenge the prompt wants you to reveal but also its implications and what it has taught you. So, if a challenge didn’t change you, it is probably not worth discussing.

Don’t be embarrassed about your failures or hesitate to reveal them. The admissions committee wants to see real people, not a list of your achievements. Reveal how you’ve handled failure, what you’ve learnt from it and how you applied those lessons to become the person you are today. A good essay will give the reader a glimpse into your life, motivations and interests.

But, whether you are writing about a challenge or a failure, be mindful not to make it a sob story. Remember to focus on your growth and not the problem.

Read a Common App essay example that worked

Common App essay prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Whether you oppose gender discrimination, an old-fashioned outlook on feminism or other social norms, admissions officers want to understand why you feel a certain way, see your perspective and hear your opinion. But instead of focusing on the issue, tell them why you think a particular norm is incorrect.

Reveal an incident that prompted your thought—what was the outcome? For example, if you’re against the caste system in India, don’t go into its details. Instead, write about an incident or something you read that made you take a stand, how you reacted and what you plan to do to bring change.

Read a Common App college essay example that worked

Common App essay prompt 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?

For this prompt, write something you’re grateful for—a kind gesture, a gift or a helping hand that got you out of a difficult situation. Feel free to mention the act and the person you’re grateful to, but don’t let that be your focus. Instead, speak about how you felt, what you learnt from the experience and how it impacted or changed your interaction with others. For example, you are incredibly grateful to an acquaintance who offered you emotional support. Did you discover the power of empathy? Did it teach you to become a better listener? Did it motivate you to create an online buddy system for your class where students can share their problems?

Suppose you want to shed light on how your neighbours supported your family when everyone tested positive for Covid-19; talk about how it motivated you. Did you start a grocery and medicine drive once you recovered? Did you cook for those who were sick and stuck at home?

Common App essay prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

The key phrase in this prompt is “sparked a period of personal growth”. Did spending time at a senior citizen’s home every week teach you a lesson about life? Or, did organising a bake sale for the neighbourhood children change your perspective of your neighbours? Did watching your school’s football season from the substitute bench impact your view teamwork?

Plenty of stories can provide admissions officers with insight into your personality. Bear in mind the elements of growth, understanding and transformation resulting from the story you are about to share.

Read a Common App essay example that worked.

Common App essay prompt 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?

For admissions officers, this is a window into your mind. It reveals the subjects that fascinate you, how you process information, seek out new resources, and how far you would go to pursue a passion. After all, college is about the pursuit of knowledge.

Whether it’s your love for classical music or your obsession with solving the Rubick’s Cube in less than a minute, write about what makes you tick.

Additionally, take advantage of the latter half of the question. If existentialism fascinates you, do you turn to Jean-Paul Sartre or Franz Kafka? Or, do you prefer discussions with your aunt, who teaches philosophy? Tell the reader why you keep returning to a specific person or thing for clarity.

Read a Common App essay example that worked.

Common App essay prompt 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.

Feared by some and loved by others, this is the Schrodinger’s cat of all the prompts. The remaining six prompts are all-encompassing and cover almost every aspect of a high school student’s life. So, it is wise to answer this prompt only if you have an entirely new story.

Some examples include writing about naming siblings and cousins while harbouring a dislike for your name. Be careful with this prompt. If the other prompts allow you to reveal your story better at any time, feel free to reject this one.

How to make your Common App essay stand out?

Writing an essay that plays a crucial role in your college application is overwhelming. Here are a few tips to help you along the way.

1) Pick your Common App essay prompt wisely:

The Common App essay is your chance to shed light on what the rest of your application doesn’t cover. Think of it as a way of giving the admissions officer a glimpse into experiences that have honed your personality. So, be smart about selecting an essay prompt and pick one that allows you to elaborate on incidents that had a life-changing impact. If you’re thankful for an act of kindness that not only changed you as a person but encouraged you to help others on multiple occasions, then select the essay prompt that lets you tell this story.

2) Use anecdotes and childhood experiences while brainstorming:

Thinking of anecdotes is an excellent way to begin. Speak to family and friends to refresh your memory. Some examples of anecdotes include how you helped set up a waste management system in the building or how you worked towards improving a skill. You may even channel your childhood. For example, one student wrote that riding her bike every day after school was cathartic. It was where she sweated out her stress, ventured into unknown territories and made new friends (or enemies). She wrote about sharing secrets, plotting against her brothers, counting pennies at the local newsagent whilst negotiating for strawberry jelly sweets and freewheeling through joyous childhood memories. It taught her about prudence and the importance of community, fitness, managing stress, pushing boundaries and always moving forward.

3) Choose an uncommon topic:

Only consider topics that let you highlight experiences that are radically different from the thousands of essays that admissions officers read on the same subject. If you choose a common topic, the ante of quality and difficulty shoots up. Your ‘sports essay’ or ‘social service’ story will have to be in the top brass of the thousands of similar stories. If you must select a common topic, make uncommon connections, offer unexpected twists to your narrative, share unusual insights and reveal something unexpected.

But if you choose an uncommon topic, you immediately eliminate a large portion of the competition. ‘My Superman pajamas’, ‘summer road trips in a rickety bus’ or ‘driving a horse carriage’ are memorable Common App essay examples.

4) Don’t try to impress the admissions officer:

Be original and authentic. Allow your essay to showcase you and your experiences in the best possible light instead of writing what you think admissions officers want to hear. Ken Anselment, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Lawrence University, says, “Writing an application essay might feel like you’re singing for the judges on “The Voice,” hoping that what you write will get them to pound their giant button, turn their chairs and say, “I want you.” It’s true that your voice is what we are looking for. When you write your college essay, use your authentic voice. If you’re a serious person, write your essay with a serious voice. If you’re a funny person, be funny. If you’re not funny, your college essay might not be the best place to try on that funny writer voice for the first time.” Be open. Be frank. Admit faults.

5) Unleash your sense of humour but be careful:

In writing, there is a fine line between being funny and offensive. But if you know where to draw that line, go right ahead. A well-written essay, sprinkled with humour, is like fresh air for those going through thousands a week. So don’t shy away from self-deprecating humour, profess your fears, tug at heartstrings, and take pride in your wins with a little humble bragging. But if writing humour is not your forte, don’t attempt it. Remember, what sounds funny in your head, may sound arrogant or rude to the reader.

6) Use simple formatting:

Admissions officers must work quickly, so fancy formatting, unnecessary flourishes and unique fonts will appear distracting. While pasting your essay into a text box, formatting like italics may not transfer.

7) Write concisely:

Conciseness is an essential characteristic of academic writing. So express your ideas without using unnecessary words. It’s easy to think that using more complicated-sounding phrases will give your text a more academic feel, but it only makes it difficult to read. Remember, you have a limit of 650 words. So avoid inflated phrases. Instead of saying, “a majority of the students prefer outdoor expeditions”, just say, “most students enjoy outdoor expeditions”. Do away with redundancies. Instead of saying “careful scrutiny”, just “scrutiny” would suffice.

8) Avoid common pitfalls:

Do not be discriminatory or negative about religions. Also, avoid clichés like starting essays with “Coming from a business family…” or “Sitting around the dinner table, we would discuss…”. They’re done to death.

9) Be Vulnerable:

Readers connect more when you reveal a vulnerability than when you only tout strengths. So, don’t shy away from showcasing your human side. As mentioned earlier, feel free to talk about that one time you failed, how that impacted you and what failure taught you. Speak about losing a pet and how you came to terms with your loss.

10) Go Deep:

Don’t be superficial. Instead, dive into the details. For example, while writing about your budding interest in public policy, talk about how you’ve always loved reading about the historical framework of public policies in different countries. Mention that the international relations course in high school solidified that interest. Talk about how you read Chanakya’s Arthashastra to understand the formation and implementation of state policies. An essay with depth showcases genuine interest.

11) Use interesting language:

Please don’t use the thesaurus on every word. Interesting language means using words to build imagery. “I want to lead from the battlefield” sounds much better than saying, “I want to make a difference”. Likewise, “wrung dry of ideas” vs “had no plans” is better.

12) Focus on you:

Fight the urge to focus on your athletic practice schedule, the grandparent you admire or last summer’s social service timetable. Remember you are writing to give the admissions officer a complete picture of yourself. You may use these people or experiences as launching pads. But your Common App essay ultimately has to be about you. What kind of teammate are you? Is grandpa the reason you’ve always got a harmonica in your bag? Did the service trip spark a deep interest in a specific social issue that now drives your academic study? These are better areas of focus.

If you need help with your Common App essay, our team of experts will brainstorm ideas and help you structure and edit your writing. For more information, get in touch with us.