So, you’re applying to college and are probably panicking about how to write the hardest part of your application: the Common Application essay. Don’t panic! We’re here to help. If you keep the following tips in mind, we’re confident that you’ll be well on your way to drafting a strong application essay that screams out, “Dear College, this is who I am, and here’s why you want me!”
So, let’s start with some basics.
What is the Common Application Essay?
The Common Application centralizes the admissions process for over 900 schools. These participating colleges and universities all use the same common biographical and academic information forms. Most of the schools also require or accept the Common Application essay. Neat, huh? Essentially, you choose the schools you want to apply to, add them to your application list, fill in the general demographic and biographical information, upload or input academic records and standardized testing information, designate people to write you recommendations, and upload the Common Application essay. All of this is done in one place. That’s it. Simple, right?
Now, many of the top-tiered schools require additional information and essays, but most of these documents can be uploaded into the Common Application. If you’re applying to art schools, the schools will provide extra links on their Common Application sites. Those links will lead you to a website where you can upload your art portfolio and additional documents. We’ll discuss such additional requirements in another post.
What do I need to include in the Common App Essay?
While the Common Application essay regularly makes adjustments to its essay prompts, for the 2022-2023 college application season, the prompts will remain exactly the same as last year, when the rarely used prompt about solving a problem was replaced with one that was inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, to, according to Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard, “help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives.” The 2023-2024 Common App Essay prompts also still contain the optional COVID-19 prompt that appeared in 2020.
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
- 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.
Did you notice a common theme among these questions? At its core, the Common Application essay is designed to make you answer the question, “WHO are you?” What colleges and universities want to know is (1) how your experiences or background have shaped you into the person you are today and (2) how who you are today is going to affect your future academic performance.
Why is the Common App Essay important?
This essay is one of the most important parts of your application, and in some cases, especially for top-tiered schools, it is weighed as much as, or more than, your grades and test scores—estimates say that they can account for anywhere from 10 to 30% of admission decisions. Why? Well, think about it. If most of the applicants applying to a top college have similar academic profiles, how can the schools distinguish one candidate from another? It’s all in the story you craft, and we’re here to help you present the best version of you!
Preparing to Write Your Common App Essay
A good starting point for writing a successful application essay is reading Common App essay examples that got other students admitted to their schools of choice. However, keep in mind that you do that for inspiration only and that your goal is not to copy anyone—ultimately, you’ll have to come up with your very own story and present it in your very own way. The tips and “dos and don’ts” below can help you do exactly that as you prepare to write or rewrite your Common Application essay.
You are also well advised to ask your teachers, counselors, and other mentors for advice at any step of the process: Maybe come up with a list of potential topics and let someone who knows you and is aware of your goal (to get into your school of choice) give you feedback on what they think suits or doesn’t suit you. Or make a draft of your story (maybe just in your head) and call your mentor to ask them if they would choose you as a prospective student based on that story. You can of course also seek out professional proofreaders like us to help you revise your personal statement and make it shine!
The two main points of getting yourself ready for writing your Common App essay are (1) that admissions committees have no preference for which prompt you choose and (2) that your essay is not a place to restate what you already said on your resumé or in the Common App “activities” section. You also don’t have to prove that you somehow changed the world or did something heroic. Instead, the essay is a chance for you to show the admissions committee the “you” that your friends, classmates, teachers, and family know. Our advice for where to start is to brainstorm the best (most interesting, most meaningful, most unique…) stories about your life that you can think of, and then look at the question prompts and decide which one your story could be an answer to.
Common App Essay Writing Timelines
Now that we agree on how important your Common App essay is, you will not be surprised if we recommend that you start working on it several months before the actual deadline. Why so early? Because you don’t want to rush or force it or regret your choice of topic when it’s too late to change. If you see this as a creative process that needs time, you’ll make the most out of it and also learn a lot along the way that will help you with writing other essays and assignments once you got into your school of choice!
Timeline 1: Write a Common App Essay in three months
|First two weeks||Don’t try to write anything—just brainstorm all the stories you could tell about your life, ask friends/family/advisors/mentors for input, and see how your stories could fit into the question prompts.|
|Weeks 3-4||Freewriting: Choose one prompt and one story every day, set a timer, and just write down everything that comes to your mind until the alarm goes off. Keep it light, and don’t show anything to anyone during this period. You don’t want to be too conscious about your writing yet. Just play around.|
|Week 5||Choose a story and a prompt and complete your first draft of your Common App personal statement.|
|Week 6||Complete your second draft (this is the revision/editing phase).|
|Weeks 7-8||Complete your third and fourth drafts.|
|Week 9||Ask for feedback from advisors, mentors, or teachers.|
|Week 10||Complete your final draft.|
Now you have one finished essay to apply with and two more weeks to show it around for more feedback in case you get second thoughts or to change it up again after sleeping on it for a couple of days.
If this seems like way too much time to invest in and focus on your essay, then try this:
Timeline 2: Write your Common App Essay in one month
|First week||Brainstorm and play around with the question prompts.|
|Second week||Freewriting: Write down any ideas that come to mind; don’t limit yourself with specific structure or content.|
|Third week||Complete the first draft of your Common App Essay.|
|Fourth week||Complete the second draft (this is the revision/editing phase), ask for feedback, and complete the final draft of your essay. Edit and proofread your essay before submitting to admissions officials.|
Since you don’t have much time for feedback if you start that late, make sure you contact your advisors/teachers well in advance to let them know when you’ll be ready so that they can schedule you in or tell you when they are available. You don’t want to pressure people and step on their toes when you need their valuable input!
Great Common App Essay Examples for 2023-2024
We found some of the best Common App essay examples from this year and years past to give you a sense of what kinds of essays work best to captivate admissions officials. We have listed essay examples in each section by their corresponding essay prompt to help you understand what kinds of responses are most suitable. Although your essay will be unique and might vary significantly from the examples below, read through each one to get an overall idea.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #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.
This prompt asks applicants to write about what makes them uniquely them. Whether you’re writing about a hobby, your background, or how you define yourself, it’s important to tell a story so central to who you are that your application would be incomplete without it.
When answering this prompt, it’s easy to repeat information that you are already presenting outside of the essay. Avoid this at all costs. Remember: the essay is supposed to add a new dimension to your application.
See this sample essay to get a sense of what a great response to this prompt could look like.
- Handiwork – An essay about interest in creating crafts. This student expertly illustrates their dedication to a hobby by presenting anecdotes packed with sensory details.
Excerpt from “Handiwork”
I’ve always been a crafter. From the early days of Kindergarten macaroni ornaments, to making my own prom dress last year, I’ve had a knack for creating things. For drafting sketches, drawing plans, making calculations, gathering supplies, adding finishing touches. There is something so satisfying about holding something you, and you alone, have made—something that was just an image in your mind until you set about to bring it into existence, to create something new, something different. I’m sure there are hundreds of doll furniture sets out there in that same gray and pink, but there is only one with fitted (albeit with sloppy stitching) navy blue covers. There’s a sense of pride there, however small.
Common App Essay Examples: 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 one of the more challenging prompts. It can be difficult to demonstrate strength and potential while writing about failure. However, if you’re comfortable with introspection and making yourself a bit more vulnerable, this prompt is a great option.
A good response to this prompt demonstrates a high level of confidence and maturity as well as humility and a willingness to learn. Simply writing about a failure does nothing; students should focus on how they handled their failures in positive ways.
This essay example demonstrates how to approach this prompt.
- Striking Out – An essay about setbacks and overcoming obstacles. Note the effectiveness of this kind of narrative in showing your abilities and perseverance.
Excerpt from “Striking Out”
About a week later, some of my friends from the team got together at the park to hang out. When I arrived, I was a little surprised that no one seemed to be mad at me – after all, I’d lost us the game, and they had to be disappointed about not making it to the semifinals. It wasn’t until we split into teams for an impromptu pickup game that I started to realize why no one was upset. Maybe it was the excitement of reaching the playoffs or the pressure of living up to my brothers’ examples, but sometime during that game, I’d lost sight of why most of us played summer league baseball. It wasn’t to win the championship, as cool as that would have been. It was because we all loved to play. I didn’t need a trophy or a Hollywood come-from-behind win to have fun playing baseball with my friends, but maybe I needed to strike out to remember that.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #3
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This is an extremely broad question – students could write about nearly anything they have ever questioned. It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all ideas and beliefs make great essays.
Students should not write about something superficial; they should write about ideas and beliefs that are central to their identities. A response to this prompt should demonstrate thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, and an ability to think analytically.
The following essay demonstrates what it takes to address this prompt effectively.
- Gym Class Hero – An essay about challenging an idea despite all the odds being stacked against you. Note the author’s use of internal monologue to move the narrative along and captivate the reader.
Excerpt from “Gym Class Hero”
Where did my doubt come from? No one ever said to me, “Oh, you can’t run a mile.” I don’t even remember any askance looks, any raised eyebrows implying I was out of my depth. Middle-schoolers can be a cruel bunch, but not that day. There was just that voice in my head, as clear as a bell: “You’ll never be able to run a mile. You can’t even climb stairs without getting winded. It’s going to hurt. You’ll probably pass out. You could never run a mile.’ A whole mile? That voice was right. It was, in my mind, impossibly long. What was I going to do?
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #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?
As mentioned above, this prompt was added last year and inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically, by research on the benefits of writing about the positive influence that other people have on our lives.
While this prompt may seem to be asking a simple question, your answer has the potential to provide deep insights into who you are to the admissions committee. Explaining what you are grateful for can show them your culture, your community, your philosophical outlook on the world, and what makes you tick.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #5
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
We all have had experiences that helped us grow and mature, and this prompt is therefore a good option for most—if not all—applicants.
The key here is to choose the “right” accomplishment, event, or realization and then write about it in a way that showcases depth and self-analytical skills. When identifying a period of personal growth, try to stay within the past few years. You want to show the admissions officers who you are now, and a childhood story is not likely to accomplish this as effectively.
This essay is a great example of how to properly approach this prompt.
- Student Teacher – An essay about an event that sparked personal growth. This essay example shows how demonstrating mental growth and wisdom can be just as effective as retelling how you overcame a difficulty.
Excerpt from “Student Teacher”
Anthony’s success wasn’t just his plane. He had succeeded in making me aware of my own failures. Here was a student who was never taken seriously and had developed a bunch of behavioral issues as a result. I never stopped to look for his potential, discover his interests, or get to know the kid beneath the facade. I had grossly underestimated Anthony, and I am grateful that he was able to disillusion me.
I like to think that I’m an open-minded, liberal, and non-judgmental person. Anthony taught me that I’m not there yet.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #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?
Like Prompt 3, Prompt 6 is very broad, and allows students to write about nearly any interest they might have. The purpose of this question is to learn what excites and motivates an applicant. Therefore, this option is ideal for students with concrete and established passions. On the other hand, students who are not sure what they are enthusiastic about should probably consider a different prompt.
To approach this prompt, start by listing all the topics, ideas, and concepts you care most about and then narrow those down to those you can describe, justify, and explain.
See the following essay, taken from this collection of “essays that worked”, to get a sense of what makes a great response to this prompt about passion for a hobby.
Excerpt from “Left and Right Don’t Exist”
Through flying, I began to consider all points of view, regardless of my personal perspective.
Perhaps it was my ability to scan the horizon to communicate a single story, uniting contrasting outlooks, that drew me to my love for journalism and the diverse melting pot that was my community.
To me, journalism modernizes the ancient power of storytelling, filled with imperfect characters and intricate conflicts to which I am the narrator. As editor-in-chief for my school newspaper, The Wildcat’s Tale, I aim to share the uncensored perspective of all students and encourage my editorial groups to talk — and listen — to those with whom they disagree. Starting each newspaper edition with a socratic, round-table discussion, I ask the other journalists to pursue stories that answer the questions: why did this happen and where will it lead?
Additional Common App Essay Writing Tips
|Write about a topic you are passionate about. When you have a lot to say about a topic, readers can quickly see the enthusiasm you have for the subject matter.||Don’t pick a topic you care little about. Your lack of passion will be evident in your writing. So don’t pick a topic because everyone else is writing about it, especially if that subject is meaningless to you. If you do so, your essay will look lifeless—that’s not what you want admissions officers to think of you!|
|How do you choose the best topic for yourself? Make a list (List 1) of hobbies, achievements, skills, and personality traits. Make another list (List 2) of ordinary routines you do—things that, when noticed, would make the people closest to you say, “That’s definitely you.”Pick an aspect from each list and combine them in a way that tells an interesting story. Select two to three events that can best highlight the two items you chose. For example, one student wrote about how her daily makeup routine and the colors she chose reflected how her confidence (both academically and personally) developed over the years. Another student wrote about how quitting one musical instrument and trying another one taught him how changing perspectives can improve a seemingly miserable situation. Now you try. What combinations can you make from your two lists?||Don’t write about potentially offensive topics. You don’t know who the admissions officers who will be reviewing your essay are. Play it safe and avoid subjects such as religion, politics, death, or any other emotionally charged topic that might make certain readers uncomfortable. Remember, you’re trying to make them like you.|
|Answer the question. That is, make sure your topic focuses on WHO YOU ARE.||Do NOT write about some amazingly interesting topic that has nothing to do with you. Remember, admissions officers want to know about YOU. So if you want to talk about the latest environmental disaster or the plight of a local ethnic tribe, make sure that story is about how that issue impacted you and shaped you as a person.|
|Skip generalized information. Instead, provide real, specific examples to support your statements. Your attention to detail will help make you more memorable to an admissions officer who has to read hundreds, if not thousands, of essays. For example, instead of “I love hiking,” you could say, “After reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I decided my next adventure would be climbing Mt. Everest.” What’s the difference between these two sentences? The first says you like something, while the second one illustrates that you do—but not only that, it also shows your level of commitment and your desire for challenge. Of the two example sentences, which do you think maximizes your use of words and would be more interesting to admissions officers?||Don’t be generic. If someone else can pick up your draft and say, “Hey, that’s about me, too,” then you know something is wrong. Your essay should be unique. You’re trying to distinguish yourself from all the other applicants, remember?|
|Watch the word count! Your Common Application essay cannot be longer than 650 words.||Don’t write a novel or be too short. As you start writing, you’ll soon realize that the 650-word limit does not give you a lot of space to talk about you. But that’s the point. You are NOT supposed to write an autobiography cataloging everything in your life. Instead, choosing a couple of specific events is all it takes to write a rich and powerful essay. Make those words count!|
|Edit, edit, edit! Did we say edit already? This essay is not something you should write in one sitting and call it a day. Instead, do the following. Draft it without editing (this way you get all your thoughts down on paper and can trim/adjust later). Read your draft. For each sentence ask if it is adding more information about who you are. If it doesn’t, it’s probably good to cut it. Check spelling and grammar. Ask some adults who know you well to read for flow and organization and to make sure your essay is substantively sound. Revise again if needed.||Don’t use clichés or antiquated language. This is why sharing your essay with a peer or editor and asking them to give you feedback on your language and tone can be of huge help—they will definitely notice all such platitudes and tell you to cut them out!|
DO NOT WRITE YOUR ESSAY AT THE LAST MINUTE. We know you’re busy with tests and life, but, hey, this is your college application we’re talking about. Make sure you give yourself enough time to draft it, let it simmer for a bit, and then revise it as necessary. If you struggle with organization and time management, have a look at the suggested timelines above!
There are a few other common 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.
Preparing Your Common App Essay for Submission
We know we keep repeating ourselves, but after writing your application essay, be sure to have it reviewed by a trusted friend or colleague, and edited by a professional editing service like Wordvice before you finally hand it in. And while writing, make use of our hundreds of admissions resources on making your way through the college and university admissions process.
An outstanding admissions essay should have a great topic. However, it should also use clear, crisp, engaging language and be free of errors. If you require further help on this front, check out Wordvice’s full suite of English editing and proofreading services, including our essay editing services. These services are ideal for international students who struggle with English or any students who want to take their essays to the next level.
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