Oct 1, 2021

How to Write the Common App Essay for 2021-2022

In 2021, the Common App announced that prompts will remain unchanged from the 2020-2021 school year, with the exception of prompt #4. The Common App prompts have remained the same for the past four years, so to even have one new prompt is quite a change from years prior. 

This article will explain how students can choose the prompts, break them down, organize their essay outline, and craft a compelling, concise response that admissions officers will love. We also provide links to additional articles with details about writing the Common App essay for each prompt.

Why Does the Common Application Essay Matter Anyway?

Getting into any academic institution requires both quantitative information (such as grades and test scores) and qualitative factors. The latter can be harder for admissions officers to measure in a candidate. While grades, test scores, and extracurriculars are crucial to getting accepted into a great school, on average, there will be five applicants for every spot in a university’s class. Therefore, applicants need their adcom to choose them over every other candidate.

This is where essays can be so critical to school admission–they give applying students the chance to convince their admissions counselor to become an advocate on their behalf. Of all your college application essays, the Common App essay is seen by most colleges to which candidates apply. It is also longer than most supplemental essays. Therefore, you have a great opportunity to demonstrate your personality, work ethic, character, and perspective.

It’s not an exaggeration to state that writing a strong Common App essay is probably the most important thing any student can do to get into the school of their choice. This requires knowing a few more details about the Common App essay and what admissions officers look for. 

Common Application Essay Overview

The Common App essay is essentially the most direct way for college or university officials to learn about YOU, their potential incoming student. Of course SAT scores, grades, and other metrics show a partial picture of you as a student, the Common App essay gives you a lot more room to craft an accurate narrative of your personality and academic potential. Therefore, students should treat the essay as an opportunity to tell colleges why they are better than other applicants and what truly matters to them.

You will likely send your Common App essay to several colleges, not just one. So you should craft an admissions essay that could be applicable to various schools and programs to which you are applying, not just one. For example, if you are only applying to pre-med programs at a few schools, do not focus your Common App essay solely on social sciences and your relation to this domain, even if you are applying to a few schools for social science as well. 

In other words, leave room in your essay to discuss the things you love and what drives you, both as a student and as a unique person. Keep in mind that the Common App essay is similar to an open-ended job interview question like “How would you define yourself?” It isn’t just an answer on a test or job application.

How Do I Write a Great Common App Essay?

The best Common App essays are, in general, more personal than other essays. As cliche as it might sound, you essentially want to “paint a picture of who you are” in a way that is both truthful and yet captivating.  You need the admissions committee to pick you over another applicant, which they are more likely to do if you can create a personal connection through your writing. In other words, explore your feelings, explain how you approach situations, analyze how you come up with solutions to problems, and demonstrate how you make difficult decisions. Exploring a problem or difficulty that you overcame can be one excellent way to show the admissions officer that you are just the kind of great student they want to admit to their school.

Additionally, strong essays avoid cliches, especially those used by other students who might be in your similar situation. One overdone theme for international students is to include an “immigrant’s journey” that highlights the difficulty of fitting into a new country or culture. So you might want to avoid this if you are an international student applying to any college in the US. Other cliche essays include dwelling on an injury or on missing out from an extracurricular in some way. These topics are not bad in themselves, but many students write about these particular topics, so they don’t stand out as much to adcoms. Instead of copying a cliched topic, write about the more “core” aspects of your personality that you bring to any important academic or social situations. 

There are a few other common admissions essay mistakes you should avoid, and reading about these in advance might help you steer clear of making a fundamental error when it comes to choosing your application essay topic. 

Other basic tips for writing a winning Common App essay include paying close attention to your language–keep it personal yet academic enough to reflect your high level of communication. Vary your sentence structure and word choice, and choose a tone or “voice” that is consistent throughout your essay and truthfully conveys your persona to your audience.

Speaking of the audience, make sure that you understand the culture of the school to which you are applying, and tailor your language to that culture. For instance, if you are applying to a more conservative or religious school like Notre Dame or Brigham Young University, you may want to avoid more racy or controversial topics that you could get away with at more liberal schools like Emerson College or Oberlin College. Know yourself–but also, be aware of your audience.

How Long Should My Common App Essay Be?

As with any other college or university admissions essay, you should approach your Common App essay like an Olympic athlete would prepare for their competition. Squeeze every last bit of word count out of your essay and use the full 650 words to your advantage. 

If you find yourself with fifty or more words to spare at the end of your essay, go back and see where you could add more detail to your personal narrative that would reflect an important part of your character or values. Fill out an anecdote with more detail. As the old saying goes, “Showing is better than telling.” That means you should give the reader a lot of specific and concrete detail when telling your story. When it comes down to it, 650 words is really not enough time at all to tell your entire story! So use your word count wisely. There are quite a few tricks you can use to shorten the length of your application essay.

How Does Your Common App Essay Fit in With Your Other Application Essays?

Before you start writing your Common App essay, you need to consider all the other schools to which you are submitting essays and create a portfolio that considers what the schools are looking for individually. You don’t want to leave out any important information from your Common App or other essays. 

You should also consider the strength of your other application documents. If you have the highest GPA and test scores of anyone at your school, then you might want to write an essay that highlights your personality or interest in other areas. Your Common App essay should humanize you, since individual traits are every bit as important as your transcripts. 

Likewise, if you weren’t the strongest student throughout your high school career and don’t have an academic profile that screams “I’m a great student!” then you may want to write an essay that shows your passion and commitment to anything else you care about. Or you could possibly show how you improved your academic performance by taking certain measures. Admissions officers love these kinds of stories of overcoming academic obstacles, especially when they reflect the work ethic of the applicant. 

Can I Get Editing For My Admissions Essay?

You of course want to make sure that you don’t leave any errors in grammar, spelling,or punctuation in this most important of college application essays. Having a third party edit and proofread your essay is NOT against the rules of the Common App essay, and there are a few ways you can edit your essay ethically without having another person write it for you (which is frowned up, of course). 

Depending on their resources, many applicants rely on a family member or classmate to look over and revise their writing. Many international students use a professional essay editing service to fix any mistakes in grammar and punctuation and make their writing stronger and more suitable for their audience. However you decide to revise your essay, getting a second pair of eyes is never a bad choice when it comes to any personal essays or papers.

wordvice editing service document breakdown

Make a Detailed Plan for Writing Your 2021-2022 Common App Essays

As we mentioned above, the Common App essay is 650 words long, and the Common Application Essay site does not provide any further instructions for how to write the essays, such as organization and amount of time to spend on each essay section. Fortunately, we at Wordvice have some experience with crafting impactful essays. The following sections will show you how to: 

  1. Brainstorm your topics 
  2. Choose the best prompt
  3. Organize your essay for best structure and flow
  4. Write the Common App essay, including tips on content and voice

1. Brainstorming your Common App essay topics

Brainstorming is crucial to writing any creative or personal essay. Before you even pick an essay prompt, consider a “high level” passion you have and all the ways in which you interact with it and how it shapes you as a person. For example, using “computer programming” as a central idea, you could stress your love of coding for various reasons and how that has impacted the projects you have done and continues to shape your self identity (i.e., as a “programmer”). 

Another idea might be to discuss how you have developed in relation to your other family members. Perhaps you have a relationship with two of your siblings that has come to define you and how to interact with people in general: maybe your younger sister is a “dreamer,” while your older brother is a “technician,” and as a middle child, finding out where you belong in this family dynamic led you to a way of thinking that differentiates you from most other candidates. Formative stories could be quite interesting and instantly give the reader a window into who you are. 

To develop your own central idea, answer the four essential questions that all good Common App essays answer:

  1. “Who am I?”
    • Address your personality traits and anything else about you that tells something who you are. This question can be answered in any number of ways: discussing a formative event or circumstance, a hobby, a time you overcame great difficulty, or a profound learning experience. 
  2. “How am I different from other applicants?”
    • Distinguish yourself by showing your uniqueness. You don’t need to explicitly state why you are different from others–rather, show this in your story details.
  3. “What things matter most to me?”
    • In paragraph form and using concrete details, give the reader a strong idea about what is important to you: family, work ethic, success, money, etc.
  4. “Why am I a great candidate for your school?”
    • Don’t forget to include some of the essential qualities that will make you a great student: time management, great communication, interest in topics, etc. Again, you can evidence these strengths in your story details rather than telling the reader THAT you are good at X, Y, and Z.

Start brainstorming by writing down a few aspects of your personality or experiences you find central to your development. Think about some basic narratives you could tell that use different combinations of these aspects before you actually choose a prompt.

For instance, you could note that you are in love with classical philosophy, made varsity on the debate team, and are now working with a local community organizer on a political issue that is important to you. Then organize these experiences into a very rough structure that will make it easier for you to choose the best Common App prompt.

An example narrative from these aspects: You discuss a specific interest you currently have associated with this community work; discuss what you have learned and the failures and successes you have had; explore how you could make a bigger difference, if only you were a lawyer or official advocate, etc. In contemplating these personal aspects, you are already beginning the organization step, which is crucial to composing a great essay.

2. Choosing a Common App prompt that fits you

There is no “best” common app essay prompt that will guarantee your acceptance into top schools. However, choosing a prompt that first you well will help you craft a more convincing narrative for admissions committees.

Consider the following prompt for instance (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?

This is a prompt that might work great if you can think of any salient challenges or obstacles that helped shape who you are today. Perhaps you were a high-profile member of your high school’s speech team, but you were sidelined by a financial crisis in your household. To help your family overcome this hardship, you got a part-time job and had to quit the speech team. However, your speech coach recognized your talent and dedication and allowed you to practice on your own time. 

This story would show that you are a dedicated son or daughter willing to help out your struggling parents and sacrifice your time to do so. It also shows that you have negotiation skills that help you overcome difficulties–a valuable personal trait for a college student.

Be sure to show who you are!

One of the most common mistakes that students writing the Common App Essay make is not including enough of themselves in their essay content. Your admissions essay should be personal enough that a reader who knows you would identify the applicant as you even without looking at your name or application form details.

If you find yourself getting lost in what to write, don’t panic. This is a common feeling, as an admissions essay is often the first REALLY important personal essay candidates will have written. One method of removing your essay writer’s block is to ask yourself “why?” whenever you might not know what you write next.

For example, here is what your inner monologue might look like as you walk yourself through some questions: 

“I have always loved biology.”

  • Why do I love biology?

“Because I enjoy learning facts about living organisms.”

  • Why do I enjoy this?

“Because I have always wanted to take things apart and see how they work from the inside.”

  • Why is this important to who I am?

“It is indicative of my approach to all of my passions, including academic interests.” 

By following this kind of “stream-of-consciousness” dialogue, you can get to the bottom of some of your motivations, actions, fears, and other aspects that define a person’s identity. 

It can also help to bounce your essay ideas off of a friend or family member. Closer friends can make for a good sounding board since they know a lot about your personality, likes, skills, drives, and ambitions. This might help you choose the most appropriate essay prompt for you. 

But again, there is no single “correct” topic. Your essay will be strong just as long as you remember to show the reader who you are and address the four “core questions” mentioned earlier.

3. Organizing your essay’s story

There are a couple of different approaches to take when it comes to organizing and outlining your essay. Feel free to be creative with your structure and use descriptions. You could even employ dialogue if it helps you tell a story better. 

However, your essay still needs to flow logically and naturally at the level of the sentence and even paragraph. You can achieve this by structuring chronologically, making a story arc, or beginning en media res (in the middle of your story) to hook the reader, and then moving back to a former period to unveil your complete narrative.

Some applicants prefer to take a wholly different and “experimental” approach to writing a personal essay. For instance, a student with a passion for theatre and fiction writing could write a “scene” in dialogue form (like a Samual Beckett play) that represents two parts of their personality. A mathematics expert could use an algorithm or algebraic formula as a metaphor for their life and draft their essay using that structure. 

Writing a more creative essay can certainly be risky, and it isn’t easy for most writers to pull off–even for professional authors! However, this just means that if your essay is well executed and gets your point across and shows the reader who you are, you will be highly rewarded for it in the end with high marks from adcoms.

4. Writing the Common App essay

The Common App essay must be perfect in terms of grammar and punctuation–but it should also flow well, have a distinct voice, and show your intelligence, personality, and ambition. 

A few tips to writing a clear and focused essay are:

  1. Show, don’t tell–rather than telling the reader simply that you “love science,” prove it by describing how many hours you spend per week in your room reading science books.
  2. Use lots of concrete detail–the more vivid detail, the better
  3. Avoid using cliched language or stories–using a tired personal essay story is one of the most common application essay errors writers make.
  4. Make your tone fit the goals of the essay. For instance, if you are a straight-A student with no extracurriculars, you might want to use your essay to show the officials how much of a laid-back person you are in real life.

Tips for writing and revising your essay

  • Revise your draft at least twice. While you don’t want to over-analyze your essay, the more you return to review and edit your written work, the better you can optimize your essay.
  • Write a longer version of the essay and then cut it down to 650 words. You probably have a lot to say about yourself, and doing that in 650 words is difficult. Write up to 1,000 words in the first draft (but not more). You can then revise and keep the most interesting information that will allow you to sell your story best.
  • Take some time away from writing. After you have written the first draft (or maybe even the first three paragraphs), it can be a good idea to step away from the essay and let your mind cool down. When you sit back down again, you will be able to see your work from a fresh perspective.
  • Let a professional editor take a look at your work. Well, it doesn’t have to be a professional editor per se. But letting someone with experience editing admissions essays read and proofread your essay will give you insight into any errors in grammar, spelling, or style that remain in your essay.

Common App Essay Prompts for 2021-2022

The Common App essay prompts for the 2021-2022 cycle have not changed from previous years, with the exception of prompt #4. Each allows writers to take a different path and perspective on their lives and issues. Choosing the prompt that lines up best with the personal story of yourself you want to tell is the key to writing a great Common App essay.

Here are this year’s prompts:

  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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  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? (NEW)
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  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?
  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.

Any Common App essays must showcase your personality, identity, and goals, and the very best will spark discussions on character, values, and community and how these factor into the making of a successful college applicant. You can read about how to answer each individual prompt in greater detail by clicking on the articles below.

The main objective for any Common App essay is to impart a lasting, authentic portrayal of yourself on your reader. Whenever you feel stuck, refer back to the four Core Questions that a Common App essay must answer. And above all, always make sure that the ideas and analysis in your essay reflect the characteristics you want to reflect to the admissions officers at your target schools. 

We hope these essay-writing strategies and tips help you write a powerful and winning admission essay. And remember that, as one of the best admissions essay editing services out there, Wordvice is there for you after your draft with both standard college admissions essay editing and premium admissions essay editing services, which provides a review letter and an extra layer of feedback about your essay’s content and structure. Best of luck writing your 2021-2022 Common Application essay!