Tips for Writing Common App Essays

Tips for Writing Common App Essays

2017-09-20T11:59:28-07:00 September 20th, 2017|College Admissions, The College Admissions Essay|0 Comments

For many students, nothing about the college application process is more fraught with anxiety than writing the required essays. The anxiety that often accompanies writing these essays is not unfounded, as students are suddenly being asked to write profoundly and eloquently on a topic about which the majority of them have little experience writing: themselves. Throughout their years of education, students hone their abilities writing about history, literature, and science, but rarely does the opportunity arise for personal reflective writing. Today we’re sharing everything you need to know to write a Common App Essay that will have a positive impact on your college admissions decisions.

What is the Common App Essay?

Most of the colleges that use the Common App require students to submit an essay with their application. In the same way that using the Common App allows students to fill out one application and send it to multiple universities, students can also respond to one of seven essay prompts and send that essay to all of their Common App schools. You can see the 2017-2108 prompts here

The Common App Essay has a word limit of 650 and gives students the opportunity to share their experiences on various topics, including personal growth, facing challenges, and problem solving.

Why the Essay is Important

The essay is the one part of a college application that allows the person reading the application to get a sense of the applicant’s personality. For many colleges, applicants are reduced to lists of numbers (test scores, GPA) and extra-curricular activities, which cannot paint a complete picture of who an applicant really is. (Remember, you’re more than just your grades!) To ensure that they get a deeper look at the applicants’ personalities, colleges require students to submit personal essays. 

The Common App Essay is the applicant’s opportunity to introduce him/herself to the admissions officers. The prompts are tailored to invoke self-reflection and provide opportunities to share personal stories and insights.  

What to Write About – Brainstorming/Self-Reflection

Writing a Common App essay that will be well-received takes work. This is not the sort of assignment that can be churned out on a whim. It requires genuine thought and reflection and likely many, many drafts. There is no one topic that is better than others; everyone has a unique life experience and anything that offers a look at an applicant’s unique perspective is great. Think about events in your life that have had an impact on the person you are today, issues about which you feel strongly, passions and interests that occupy your free time, and accomplishments that make you feel proud. Read through the prompts to see if any ideas come to you right away and make note of them, but also sit with the prompts that aren’t as immediately accessible and put some time into reflecting on how you could answer them.

It can be helpful to start by making a list of events, accomplishments, traits, interests, ideas, etc. that you want to be able to include in your essay. From that list, you can work backwards to see if any of the prompts lend themselves to the topics you have brainstormed.

Dos and Don’ts


  • Be creative
    • This is an opportunity to write about something that matters to you, without having to work within the confines of a rigid school assignment. You don’t have to follow any particular structure (other than common sense – it is an essay; don’t try to submit poetry or a short story or a painting or anything like that), so don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Your Essay should express something that is core to who you are as a person and there are so many ways to accomplish that.
  • Tell a story with your own unique voice
    • Everyone has their own voice when it comes to telling stories. Your voice is the way that you express yourself in your essay. Sometimes it can be challenging to find your voice, especially when you don’t do a lot of regular writing. It might require many drafts and rewrites before you find your “college essay voice” but that’s ok! Your essay should sound like the most polished version of the way you normally speak.
  • Be yourself
    • Don’t be tempted to write what you think the admissions people want to see. What they want to see is you! Be genuine, answering the questions in a way that feels true to you.
  • Tell a personal story (but not TOO personal)
    • Your essay should be personal enough that the people reading your application feel like they’ve had a glimpse into who you are as a person, but not so personal that they feel uncomfortable reading it. A good rule of thumb is that if it’s not a story you would tell the college admissions people in person, it’s probably not a story you should tell them on paper either.


  • Don’t approach it like an academic essay
    • This is not the typical 5-paragraph essay with quotes, commentary, and analysis that you’ve been learning to write throughout high school. Of course, five paragraphs are fine if that’s what you need to tell your story, but don’t feel like you have to stick to the structured academic essay that you’re used to.
  • Don’t include statements about people in general – this essay is about you
    • While you may need to occasionally give general background information on your topic, the majority of the sentences in the essay need to be about you and your experience. If the colleges wanted to see your ability to write about a general subject, they would ask. What they want from the Common App Essay is to learn about you.
  • Don’t use empty phrases
    • There’s almost nothing worse in a college essay than the phrase “It was amazing.” This is a completely empty phrase because it doesn’t tell the reader anything. Instead of just saying something was amazing, show the reader what made it amazing. Similar empty phrases include things like “I learned so much about myself” or “It was the best” or “I can’t even begin to describe…” Do your best to avoid using these types of empty phrases and make sure you’re thoroughly explaining your ideas with concrete examples instead.
  • Don’t have too many people “helping” you with the Essay 
    • While it’s nice to have family and friends offer to help you with your essay, it’s generally not a good idea to have too many people contributing their opinions. Getting multiple people’s opinions can result in the essay no longer sounding like it came from you. You should have one or two trusted adults look over your essay to check for spelling and grammar errors and to make sure it makes sense to an outside reader, but otherwise try not to get too much input from well-meaning loved ones!
  • Don’t treat it like a diary
    • As mentioned before, your Essay topics should be personal, but not to the point that it makes the admissions person feel uncomfortable. This is not a diary. While sometimes Essays may be about painful topics (divorce, illness, loss of a loved one, etc.), this is not the place to lament those experiences or reveal intimate details. Don’t include anything you wouldn’t feel comfortable saying to the admissions officers (strangers who are determining whether you should be admitted to their school) in person.

For personalized help with your Common App Essay, email us at or call (916) 905-2466 to talk to a College Counselor today!

Additional Resources:

College Admissions Essays – The Value of Good Commentary

Ivy League College Admissions

Exactly What to Expect on College Applications

College Counseling Services



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