Applying to college is a lengthy, tiring, and almost painful process. You put in continuous effort to maintain a high GPA, take SAT/ACT tests, and possibly take AP tests. You get involved in extracurriculars (or, at least, you should for the sake of your application) or work throughout your high school years. And if that’s not enough for your application, now you’re supposed to be write the Common App essay?
If you’re great at writing essays, then this is your time to shine. But this part of the Common App stumps many, no matter how well you have written in your classes so far. There’s a few reasons for this:
- This essay is very personal.
- It’s also very open ended.
- You have a limited word count to show who you are as a person.
- It’s hard to stand out to admissions officers, who read several essays in a short time period.
You have to seriously engage or move the readers of your essay if you want your essay to stand out in the crowd. Read on for a 6 step guide to writing the Common App essay that convinces admissions officers towards sending that acceptance letter.
Why should you write the Common App essay?
Many schools do require a Common App essay response, but not all of them. Some colleges have specific questions in addition to or instead of the Common App essay. Check all your prospective schools’ requirements here.
In cases where the Common App essay is optional, should you spend time on it? What if you’re a really bad writer?
Typically, sending in optional materials helps you stand out in a sea of applicants.
These materials just have to be relevant. And your essay is all about who you are and what you want to do, which is what colleges want to know. Essentially, your essay is always relevant, if it answers the prompt you choose to respond to.
Related: Do you know what you want to do, professionally, later on in life? Here’s how to decide what career path is right for you.
Use the Common App essay to your advantage.
Writing the Common App essay shows admissions officers that:
- you are willing to do optional work to get into your chosen schools
- you have the ability to write (at least somewhat)
- there’s more to you than your GPA and test scores
- you have unique perspectives and experiences you can bring to your prospective schools
This is a chance to take control of your narrative. Tell admissions officers what has shaped your life. If you know what you want to study, tell them why you chose your major. Consider telling admissions officers if you have faced hardship and personal growth. In some very specific cases, your essay may explain a low course grade or test score.
Related: Don’t have a great GPA by the time college application season rolls around? Here’s how to get into college with a low GPA.
6 Steps for Writing a Common App Essay that Moves Readers
Hopefully we have convinced you that the Common App essay is worth writing. If you’re going to do it, or you have to do it, give yourself enough time to write and rewrite before the deadline.
Do it now so you have less to stress about as deadlines approach.
With this in mind, here’s how to write a good essay even if you’re horrible at writing:
1. Review the requirements for writing the Common App essay.
Essays must be 250-650 words. You must use proper spelling and grammar conventions. You should vary sentence length and structure. Use vocabulary that accurately depicts what you’re trying to say – you don’t get any extra points for “sounding smart.”
What’s the perfect length for your Common App essay?
This part is very important, which is why there’s a little section devoted to it: A longer essay is not necessarily a better one.
Don’t feel like you need to stretch out a perfectly good essay to make it longer. At the same time, don’t stop at exactly 250 words just to get the essay done as fast as possible.
There is no absolutely perfect word count for the Common App essay. But there is a way to tell whether your essay length is perfect for your application. You just have to answer these three questions:
- Does your essay answer every part of your chosen prompt?
- Does your essay tell the personal narrative you want admissions officers to hear?
- Is this essay interesting to read in some way, shape, or form?
If the answer is a resounding “yes!”, you’re done with your essay!
2. Choose which essay prompt most resonates with you.
Let the prompt marinate in your mind.
Most of the time, you just want to start something, right? Whether it’s a new art project, the next level of a video game, or homework that’s due relatively soon, you just want to get to it.
But if you choose a prompt too fast, without considering all your potential responses, you might write a weak essay. Or, you get so stuck that you scrap your whole first draft (yes, you’ll come back to your essay more than once) and start over with a different prompt.
So give yourself enough time to read through each prompt and think critically about how you’d answer each one. You can even do a little 5 minute brainstorm for each one, just to see which prompt really resonates with you.
What if you don’t have any huge life experiences? (No, you’re not boring.)
Not everyone has crossed the desert in a time of war, or started their own business, or had some big revelation about their lives. That’s completely understandable.
Think long and hard about any challenges you have faced. If you can’t think of anything dramatic, consider writing an entertaining story. College admissions officers have to read hundreds and hundreds of these things. The person reading your essay will probably appreciate a funny story and a change of pace.
A general disclaimer: You have the freedom to write about whatever you choose. But do remember your audience. If you are applying to a Catholic school, don’t talk about leaving the Catholic church. If you are applying to a liberal arts college, appeal to a more liberal audience. And under no circumstances should you ever write anything using hate speech or promoting violence, discrimination, etc.
3. Choose a single unique, concrete story, or topic to answer the prompt with.
You might be tempted to cram your entire life into 650 words. But that essay would be messy and disjointed. There’s so much to your life, and condensing entire facets of yourself into little paragraphs dilutes your experiences and robs readers of what might be a great read.
Reframe your idea of what you can (and should) do with your essay.
Each of these prompts can be answered by telling a concrete story. People naturally engage with detailed, neatly written stories. Your story should have a full progression, also known as a narrative arc, to satisfy the essay prompt and your readers.
The narrative arc will guide the actual content and structure of your essay, so let’s break down this concept.
The Narrative Arc (a.k.a. Freytag’s Pyramid)
Freytag’s pyramid is a classic concept in English classes. Freytag was a German author who noticed that most dramatic, moving stories follow the structure in the diagram above. Structure your essay like this and you, too, can tell a dramatic story of change.
The basic narrative arc needs (in this particular order):
- Exposition: Give your reader a little background as it relates to the story you are writing.
- Inciting incident: This is the part where your life was disrupted by some new event, idea, etc.
- Rising action: These are the steps you take and the consequences of them as you react to this first incident.
- Climax: This is the high point of the narrative, where the story “turns” in a new direction.
- Falling action: After the climax, what happens? Talk about it.
- Resolution: How does this story end? How have you changed? What’s next for you? (if this is relevant to the question)
This may seem confusing. So let’s look at an example.
Example Response to Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
One applicant answered this prompt with the story of how she defied modeling industry standards and became a plus-size model. Here is how her story follows the narrative arc:
- Exposition: The applicant speaks about her love of fashion and desire to get into modeling.
- Inciting incident: She is rejected by the modeling industry due to unfair stereotypes.
- Rising action: The applicant speaks out about unfair treatment and gatekeeping in the modeling world. She inspires other people who want to be models, but don’t fit the “look” of a model, to do the same.
- Climax: She motivates others to model in her high school’s fashion show.
- Falling action: She starts an important conversation about lack of diversity, stereotyping, and body shaming in the modeling world.
- Resolution: The applicant will continue to call out unfair treatment and stereotyping based on looks.
The story itself is emotionally captivating and has a satisfying conclusion. It shows that she is not afraid of doing the hard work that comes with defying the status quo. You also see that she cares about others. She wants to change the standards not only for herself, but for others as well.
Related: Is English the bane of your existence? Get some English tutoring to improve your reading and writing skills.
4. Use your word count to create strong imagery and movement. (But it’s a first draft, so no pressure.)
A good story places readers in a setting, includes characters and events that impact the story, and has a strong pivotal moment of change.
In the example above, the fashion show is the turning point, and the writer took the time to deliberate on that event. She includes details there to place you in that pivotal moment of change. But at other points, like the exposition, she didn’t need to put readers in an actual setting. She could just describe her love of fashion.
Critical “movement” happens during the inciting incident and the climax. You have to set an emotionally compelling scene there. Admissions officers want to feel your pain or your elation. Use vivid descriptions so they can understand your experience.
Related: Non-writers: Is the idea of “movement” in a story tripping you up? Here’s a clear explanation of what “movement” is and how to achieve compelling narrative movement.
The resolution should neatly tie your story together and provide some idea about future actions. It doesn’t have to be a 5 year plan. But it does have to show how you have changed because of your story though.
Your resolution can be a general future direction, something like: “I now understand the unjust stereotyping of people based on looks, and will continue advocating for inclusivity in the media.”
It can also be something career-specific, like: “Because of our family’s struggle to access educational resources for my disabled brother, I am going into the field of social work.”
But you’re only in first draft mode, so you don’t have to have beautifully crafted metaphors or emotionally compelling scenery right now. Just try to think about getting specific and showing personal movement and growth while you’re writing. It will make the next step easier.
5. Applying for college is tiring, but don’t neglect the editing process.
You’ve heard this throughout your entire high school career. Your first draft is never your best draft, so when you’re writing the Common App essay, set aside time and mental energy to edit it.
Let people you trust read your essay. Ask them questions like:
- What was the most interesting part?
- Did you get a sense of motion or change by the end of the piece?
- Were there any parts that were boring or unnecessary?
- How do I come off in this essay?
- Does the essay feel as impactful as possible?
Take all feedback and go back to your document. You don’t have to change anything in your essay just because someone suggested it. But the feedback you get will help you understand how someone you don’t know might respond to your submission.
6. Go back to the beginning: Does your essay meet the requirements and represent you well?
Throughout the essay writing process, you’ve thought about descriptions, movement, personal growth, and displays of character. But did you meet (or maintain) the actual requirements of the essay? Does your piece still meet all the requirements laid out in the first step?
2021-2022 Applicants: What should you do for the optional COVID-19 question?
Students who applied for the 2020-2021 school year were given the opportunity to explain how COVID-19 has impacted their lives through the optional COVID-19 question in the Common App. Common App instituted this new question so that students could talk about the impact of COVID-19 in one place. Students then spent the rest of their application talking about their interests, experiences and perspectives beyond the pandemic.
Common App has retained this question, which has a 250 word count limit, for 2021-2022 applicants.
This question is different than the standard Additional Information section included in the Common App.
The COVID-19 question is there for students who have faced significant hardship specifically because of the pandemic. If circumstances related to COVID-19 have significantly impacted your life and/or your academic career, this is the space to talk about it.
You do not have to specifically mention how your school handled the pandemic (i.e. the software you used, what learning model your school used). College counselors will send that information to Common App.
This is not an additional essay, and it is not a way to explain away your entire academic career.
If there are specific things that you can point to from 2019 to the present that have affected you, then consider answering this question. Otherwise, you can choose not to respond.
You have your personal story.
Now go write the essay that makes admissions officers laugh or cry and mail you an acceptance letter.