Tips for Common App Essays

Posted on 18th July 2023

Common App Essays: What to write about, and what to avoid

When you apply to college in the US you are not applying to a course, as you would with a UK university, but for membership of an undergraduate community. Those communities are as interested in your values and your character as your intellectual interests, which is why personal writing is such a cornerstone of the US application process. The most common essay that US applicants write is the Common Application personal essay. This is a 650-word essay for which students choose from one of seven prompts to write (you can read a list of the prompts for 2023-24 here, and more about the Common App essay in a previous blog post here).

What is the Common App essay?

As you can tell from reading the list of prompts, the Common App essay is a bit more like a story than an academic essay students would write for school. It should be honest, open, personal, and written in an engaging, literary style. Most British students won't have experience with this type of writing, so they may find it challenging to select a prompt and a topic for their essay—and choose what to write about! However, by keeping a few rules of thumb in mind, students can find a good story to tell and avoid common pitfalls.

Which prompt should I choose?

Students often ask which prompt is best to choose. But we actually recommend that students reflect on their experiences and the stories they have to tell, before choosing a prompt.

Working this way can be ideal because it is more productive to take as a starting point the values, passions, the story you want to tell, and how the essay fits into the overall story that the application is telling. (A blog from our colleagues at ESM Prep goes into more detail about this here.) Once a student has a story that they feel is meaningful for them and gets across a sense of their identity and character, they should find that it fits in with one of the prompts, because the prompts are so open. And prompt 7 actually allows students to write their own title and fit it to the essay retrospectively!

Which prompts and topics should I avoid?

But certain prompts may work better for different students and different stories. For example, the second prompt is normally a good fit only if a student has faced a fairly serious challenge in their life, or one that impacted them in a profound way. Applicants will have a diverse range of life experiences, and many students may write about things like losing a family member or coping with other types of serious loss, hardship, or illness. Not everyone experiences this sort of thing as an adolescent; if that's the case, the second prompt is unlikely to be a good fit, unless the applicant focuses on the idea of setback or failure. In this case, lighter topics like struggling with a particular subject in school, or succeeding at something like a hobby after an initial failure could work well, as long as the topic is still meaningful to the student and their identity.

Many students who have faced challenges with mental health may be drawn to prompt 2. If you're considering this, keep in mind that writing about mental health experiences is likely to be a good choice only for those who have overcome the major part of the challenges, turned a difficult experience into a positive one, and/or drawn useful insights from the experience that are helpful in the present and future. Otherwise, universities (which can have overstretched mental health support services) may worry they may not be able to offer you the full level of support you need. In other words, this kind of essay should predominantly be a story of triumph over adversity, and not focus on the adversity itself.

Many students at UK independent schools may be from third-culture or international backgrounds, so it may be tempting to use this as the topic for the first prompt, as cultural background is a key component of identity. However, we wouldn't recommend this unless students feel their third-culture background is crucial to their core identity: so many students at UK independent schools have this background that admissions officers will have encountered many essays on this topic before!

Topics 3 and 6 might appeal to very academic students, or seem to be a way to avoid writing about personal things if this is something they find difficult. However, if choosing these prompts, the discussions of the ideas that interest them will need to be personal as well as factual. Good ways to do this are to connect ideas and interests to important people in your life, or to values, personal experiences, or unique perspectives. If a student can't do this, it's unlikely that this prompt is a good choice for them, as admissions officers are looking for essays that go beyond academics, into identity, individual experience, and motivation.

Writing US college essays can be a time-consuming process, but by setting aside lots of time (ideally the summer before year 13) to work on the essays and spending some time reflecting on values and what they want from the college experience, students can make the process smoother and even enjoy it! UES provides lots of help for essays, from essay-specific support to overall college counseling. Find out more and ask us your questions about essays and the whole US application process by booking a free call with one of our Founders:

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