How do I Write a Great Common Application Essay?

Posted on 14th June 2021

Staring at a blank page, hoping to tell the story that defines your identity and sets you apart from other college applicants, can be a very daunting task. US universities require applicants to write essays that are far more personal than the essays required by other universities around the world, and understandably many students—particularly those not doing essay subjects at school—feel some stress about writing their main personal essay for US applications, the Common Application essay!

We have worked with hundreds of students on their Common App essays, and have heard them say things like ‘I’m not a good writer’, ‘I don’t like essay subjects’, or ‘Nothing interesting has ever happened to me’. It’s understandable to feel intimidated by writing such an important essay, but re-framing how you think about it can give you the confidence to get started and produce a successful piece of writing.

The Common Application essay is a 650-word personal essay that forms a crucial component of a US application, and is often the last part of the application that admissions officers assess. So, it’s important to get started early on this and produce a polished piece of work. Students may choose to write about one of seven prompts, which you can find here . All the prompts are personal, and focus on things like skills and talents, challenges, and key experiences. Unlike in the UCAS statement, in the Common App essay it isn’t necessary to mention your academic interests or intended career path. Instead, you want to focus on your character; being open, honest, vulnerable, and passionate; and telling an engaging story.

So, if you don’t feel you are a strong essay writer, you will be relieved to know that Common App essays aren’t like school essays, for which you need to think about getting the wording, style, and content just right in order to get full marks. All you’re doing in your Common App essay is telling a story. Many of you won’t have studied storytelling or creative writing, but that’s OK! We all know how to tell stories instinctively: everyone likes telling their friends and loved ones about something that is exciting or interesting to them. And that’s just what you want to do in your essay.

You don’t have to worry about using a correct style, either- you should aim to write in the same way you’d tell a story: in your own natural voice that shows your personality and passion (though avoid being too casual or colloquial).

Another stumbling block for students writing their college essays can be that it is a very big task to delineate those things that define your identity—the core of who you are—and the values that have shaped that identity and your future goals. Teenagers may not know what principles they value most, or where their true passions lie, and that’s okay! Figuring this out may seem like an obstacle, but it’s actually an opportunity: by taking the time now to think this through, you’re setting yourself up not only to write a stronger college essay, but also to have a better chance of finding a US college that is a great fit for you, and to cultivate a self-awareness that will lead to good choices and robust mental health overall. One helpful resource to help you get started with this is the College Essay Guy’s Values Exercise- check that out here .

Students often wonder what they should write about: essay topics should be something unique and important to them, that they feel passionate about. It’s also not about the competitiveness of the subject matter: an essay about baking cookies, written in a genuine and passionate way, would make a better Common App essay than a dry and impersonal one about climbing Mount Everest!

Regarding how unique the subject matter should be, it depends! If the thing that shapes your life and you care most about is something like football or travel, then it may be a good topic for you, though you’ll need to add vivid details to make the essay deeply personal. But if you care deeply about something a bit out of the box—like playing the cornet in a brass band or taking trapeze classes—that might be a better choice. Johns Hopkins University has a great resource of successful essays , along with admissions officers’ comments, that are excellent guidance.

Of course, the pandemic has deeply affected all our lives, so it seems like a handy topic for your essay. We would recommend that you write about the pandemic only if your experience of it has been especially impactful. If you dealt with illness, or had a major life change like a parent losing a job, perhaps the essay is a good space to explore that and work out the impact this had on you, and what positives you can take from it. You can find some excellent examples of successful essays that tackled the pandemic in this New York Times article .

Remember, whatever topic you choose, your Common Application essay should tell a story you feel excitement and passion about; it should show vulnerability, and express your own personal voice. It should relate an experience that had true impact on you and communicates your essential self!

If you need help with your essays—from brainstorming and planning through to polishing your current drafts—we are here to help. Our essay tutors have experience in creative fields like creative writing, theatre, and translation, so can help you craft and tell your story effectively. We also deliver essay workshops for schools. Reach out to for full information about our essay support services.

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