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How to Write a Common App Essay

a female student writing an essay at a desk

Many students use the Common Application to apply to colleges, making it easier to apply to multiple colleges without having to fill out separate applications for each. However, this application requires the student to write an essay when applying. 

This essay is perhaps the most dreaded part of the college application process. Even advanced high school writers may find writing the college admissions essay challenging. But we have the information you need to write a Common App essay you'll be proud of. 

What is the Common App Essay?

The Common Application essay, often called the personal statement, is sent to every college you apply to that accepts the Common Application. This essay will answer one of seven essay prompts to showcase who you are and why the college would be honored to offer you admission.

Since students submit their Common App essays to every school, it’s essential to choose the right essay prompt for you and take the time to truly communicate who you are as a person and a student.

How Many Common App Essays Are Required?

Even though there are seven essay prompts, only one Common App essay is required. You will respond to only one of the prompts, choosing the one that appeals to you the most.

 Many schools also require students to write supplemental essays. These essays are separate from the Common App essay and are often shorter. The Common Application will notify you if the college you are applying to requires a supplemental essay.

How Long is the Common App Essay?

The Common App essay word limit is 650 words. However, according to the official Common App essay requirements, the lowest word limit is 250 words. Most experts recommend that students write an essay closer to the higher end of the word count.

Admissions officers depend on the Common App essays to give them more profound insight into who you are as a person and a student. Therefore, you want your essay to offer a comprehensive picture of who you are and what matters to you. 

What Do Admissions Officers Look for in the Common App Essay?

Since the admissions officer will read and analyze your essay, it would be nice to know what they are looking for. The essay is the admissions officer’s opportunity to “meet you” and visualize the person behind the numbers. While no essay can save an unqualified application, an outstanding essay can push an otherwise mediocre one into the “yes” pile.

But writing a good application essay is hard. Many students write essays that are too cliché or too shallow; others write essays that are impersonal and uninformative. The application essay drastically differs from the typical high school assignment—it’s deeply personal rather than merely informative.

Here are five things an admissions officer looks for:

  1. Can the applicant write?
  2. What does the essay say about the applicant?
  3. Are there deep, personal reflections?
  4. What will the applicant bring to our college community?
  5. Do the qualities represented in the essay resonate with the rest of the application?

The essay is a lens into a single person- you. So consistency is essential. You should consider how you want to represent yourself and what characteristics you want to highlight.

What Common App Essay Prompt Should You Choose?

When it comes to Common App essay prompts, the best way to choose a topic is to brainstorm with a parent, teacher, advisor, or friend. Consider what would make the most interesting story for you to tell and give an admissions officer the most insight. Brainstorming should be imaginative and creative. 

Think about the moments in your life that had the most drama, conflict, or humor. What moment would tell an admissions officer the most about how you would contribute to the college community?

Writer Anne Lamott refers to the first draft, or the “child’s draft,” where “you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” Play with your first few drafts. Not even famous writers get it right the first time.

Common App Essay Examples

It also helps to read some essay examples. Ethan Sawyer, a college essay expert, provides 27 Outstanding College Essay Examples from Top Universities 2023.

How Do You End Your Common App Essay?

The end of your Common App essay should be clear and impactful. Avoid simply summarizing everything. Talk about future goals or end in a moment of action.

The following tips were shared by a professional writer and approved by an English teacher:

·  End your essay with dialogue.

·  End your essay with action.

·  End your essay using descriptions.

·  End your essay by going full circle.

·  End your essay by directly addressing the college.

For detailed descriptions of each, read How to End Your College Application Essay.

Final Thoughts on the Common App Essay

The college essay is perhaps the most frustrating part of the application, but it’s still crucial. Since the essay provides the opportunity for you to give the colleges a “window into your soul,” so to speak, the Common App essay is your chance to make a memorable impression. 

A strong essay can cause an admissions officer to offer you admission or leave little impression. Or it could cause them to place your application on the “wait list” or “reject” pile. Make it count.

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