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How to Write a Common App Essay

The Common App essay is the easiest way for the school you are applying to, to know more about you as a person and what is important to you.

You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality. 

In reading this, you would understand what a common app essay is and how best to write one.

You would also be given tips that ensure you effectively organize your thoughts and craft a strong, meaningful response that admissions officers will notice. 

What is a Common App Essay? 

The Common app essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to know you. While SAT scores, your past course load, and your grades provide a quantitative picture of you as a student, the Common app essay offers a refreshing glimpse into your identity and personality. 

According to Elizabeth Benedict, “The more selective the college, the more the essay matters,”…”Applying to a hyper-selective college with mediocre or uneven grades and a fabulous essay will likely not get you into that college, [whereas] applying to a hyper-selective college with top grades and scores, outstanding extracurricular, and a mediocre essay could sink your application,” she said. 

Your common app essay will be seen by numerous colleges, as such, you will want to paint a portrait of yourself that is accessible to a breadth of institutions and admissions officers. It is a personal statement that you would submit in the course of your admission process. This essay gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story. 

Is the Common App Essay Important? 

There are number of reasons why the common app essay is
important. First of all, admissions are a human process.

While admissions committees look at grades, test scores, and extracurricular, sometimes your common app essay alone can advocate for you. Your common app essay is an opportunity for you to turn an admissions counselor into an advocate for your application.

Of your essays, the common app is the most important since most of the colleges to which you apply to see it. It is also your longest essay, which gives you more space to craft a narrative and share your personality, feelings, and perspective. 

Also, the common app essay is a key part of your college application. According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement moderately or considerably important.

Highly selective institutions placed more emphasis on the essay. While most experts agree that a strong common app essay won’t necessarily secure your admission into a highly selective college — especially if your grades and test scores aren’t up to par — a well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor. 

What Makes a Great Common App Essay? 

There are a number of things that easily come to mind in
making a good common app essay. Here are a few-  

  • A good common app essay is, deeply personal. You are relying on the admissions committee to choose you over someone else, which they are more likely to do if they feel a personal connection to you. In your essay, you should delve into your feelings, how you think about situations/problems, and how you make decisions. 
  • A good common app essay avoids cliché topics, some of which may include your immigrant journey (particularly if you’re Asian American), and a sports accomplishment or injury. It’s not that these topics are bad, but rather that many students write about these subjects, so they don’t stand out as much. In writing your common app essay, you want to be unique and stand out as much as you can.  
  • A good common app essay has great grammatical constructions and pays close attention to spelling, uses varied sentence structure and word choice, and consistency in your tone/writing style. 
  • A good common app essay specifically targets the audience. It is a good practice to be aware of your audience, which implies knowing who you are writing for. For example, admissions officers at BYU will probably be very religious, while those at Oberlin will be deeply committed to social justice.  

How to Write a Common App Essay? 

#1. Don’t mistake a rare topic for an effective topic 

Many students assume their Common app essay must revolve around a unique topic that no other applicant has ever written about, but this is a myth.

“Overuse of a topic doesn’t make it a bad topic,” Whitney Soule told U.S. News & World Report. “It’s not just about the topic,” echoes Jennifer Gayles, director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, “but why it’s important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic.” 

Choosing the right Common app essay topic can be tricky, but it’s extremely important. Your essay should excite and inspire you, as well as those who read it. “If an essay topic makes your heart beat fast, that’s a good sign,” said Benedict. 

#2. Pick the best essay prompt for you 

Not all Common app essay prompts are created equal. Of the seven prompts, some will no doubt work better for you than others. In picking, you should think about what versions of yourself you want to present to the school.

Find out what works what you, what passions you have and any special achievement you would like to share. Do not shy away from showing your writing skills while at it.  

#3. Use your space wisely 

Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common app essay: They either write way too much or struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic.

The Common app essay word count range is 250-650 words. However, it is usually advised that you should aim between 500- 550 words.  

#4. Fill your story with details 

Details are everything for the common app essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.

According to Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, -“Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common app personal statement,” “Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you.”

It is advised that you focus on details that set you apart and that you break them down, one step at a time.  

#5. Channel your authentic voice 

The Common App essay is unlike most essays you’ve written for school. Instead of analyzing a piece of literature or a historical event, you must showcase your identity. As such, the words you use should sound like they actually come from you — not a thesaurus or an English teacher.

According to educational consultant Ian Fisher, “You’re going to have to fight the urge to ‘impress’ your admissions reader with the big words you’ve learned from your SAT practice”.

Students should, however, avoid using any derogatory, offensive, or inappropriate language. Fisher recommends using words like “debate” instead of “fight” and “undeveloped” instead of “stupid.” 

#6. Get feedback 

Before submitting your Common app essay, show it to someone who will not only offer feedback but also edit and proofread your writing.

Show it to a person who writes well for proof reading purposes and to a person who knows you well, for authenticity purposes.  

#7. Don’t neglect supplemental essays 

Lots of competitive universities require the Common app essay in addition to supplemental essays and/or short answers. If you have other essays to submit, don’t spend all your time working on the Common app essay. After all, all essays can impact your admission chances. 

Strategy for Writing Common App Essays 

Because the Common app essay is 650 words long and has few formal directions, organizing a response might seem like a lot.

However, there is a strategy you can use. You can also call it the step-by-step guide towards writing your common app essay.  

Step 1- Brainstorm 

Brainstorming is the first way you can very easily get yourself to figure out what to include in your common app essay and what not to. This would require you to think about your passion and figure out what is most important to you.

To begin developing your own high-level ideas, you can address these Core Four questions that all good common app essays should answer: 

  • “Who Am I?” 
  • “Why Am I Here?” 
  • “What is Unique About Me?”  
  • “What Matters to Me?” 

The first question focuses on your personality traits. The second question targets your progression throughout high school (an arc or journey). The third question is more difficult to grasp, but it involves showing your unique methods of thinking, areas of interest and why you have an interest in it, and tangible skills.

The fourth question is a concluding point that can be answered simply, normally in the conclusion paragraph.

Sometimes, it can be helpful to start by jotting down the 3-5 aspects of your personality or experiences you’ve had on a piece of paper.

Play around with narratives, pen down important things that you would like to add and how best to effectively fit them into the limit of words you have.

Step 2- Organize 

Common app essays are not traditional five-paragraph essays. You are free to be creative in structure, employ dialogue, and use vivid descriptions.

From paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, your ideas should be clear and flow naturally. Great ways to ensure this are using a story arc following a few major points, or focusing on cause and effect.  

You can construct a great narrative from your personal experiences, making sure to capture the most important things. You could also research on the creative approach of writing your essay.

For example, a student who is passionate about programming could write their essay in alternating lines of Binary and English. A hopeful Literature major could reimagine a moment in their life as a chapter of War and Peace, adopting Tolstoy’s writing style.

However you wish to write your essay, ensure that you make the most out of it and convey the important message.  

Step 3- Write

Your Common app essay must display excellent writing in terms of grammar and sentence structure. The essay doesn’t need to be a Shakespearean masterpiece, but it should be well-written and clear.

In writing you common app essay, you should be careful to always write in the active voice and not passive voice, avoid clichés as much as you can and do not forget to write in a tone that aligns with your goals for the essay. 

In writing a common app essay, use the fundamental rule of “Show, don’t tell”. Instead of saying, “I struggled to make friends when I transferred schools,” you can show your emotions by writing, “I scanned the bustling school cafeteria, feeling more and more forlorn with each unfamiliar face. I found an
empty table and ate my lunch alone.” If you can effectively utilize these steps, you would find that your college essay would be very easy to write and when it’s relatable, you can be sure of landing a spot at the school of your choice.   

Common App Essay Example 

Example 1 

“It was Easter and we should’ve been celebrating with our family, but my father had locked us in the house. If he wasn’t going out, neither were my mother and I. 

My mother came to the U.S. from Mexico to study English. She’d been an exceptional student and had a bright future ahead of her. But she fell in love and eloped with the man that eventually became my father. He loved her in an unhealthy way, and was both physically and verbally abusive. My mother lacked the courage to start over so she stayed with him and slowly let go of her dreams and aspirations. But she wouldn’t allow for the same to happen to me. 

In the summer before my junior year I was offered a scholarship to study abroad in Egypt. Not to my surprise, my father refused to let me go. But my mother wouldn’t let him crush my dreams as well. I’d do this for myself and for my mother’s unfulfilled aspirations.

I accepted the scholarship. I thought I’d finally have all the freedom I longed for in Egypt, but initially I didn’t. On a weekly basis I heard insults and received harassment in the streets, yet I didn’t yield to the societal expectations for women by staying indoors. I continued to roam throughout Egypt, exploring the Great Pyramids of Giza, cruising on the Nile, and traveling to Luxor and Aswan.

And before I returned to the U.S. I received the unexpected opportunity to
travel to London and Paris. It was surreal: a girl from the ghetto traveling alone around the world with a map in her hands and no man or cultural standards could dictate what I was to do.

I rode the subway from Cambridge University to the British Museum. I took a train from London to Paris and in two days I visited the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, and took a cruise on the Seine. Despite the language barrier, I found I had the self-confidence to approach anyone for directions. 

While I was in Europe enjoying my freedom, my mother moved out and rented her own place. It was as if we’d simultaneously gained our independence. We were proud of each other. And she vicariously lived through my experiences as I sent her pictures and told her about my adventures. 

Finally, we were free. 

I currently live in the U.S with my mother. My father has gradually transformed from a frigid man to the loving father I always yearned for. Life isn’t perfect, but for the moment I’m enjoying tranquility and stability with my family and are communicating much better than ever before. 

I’m involved in my school’s Leadership Council as leader of our events committee. We plan and execute school dances and create effective donation letters. I see this as a stepping-stone for my future, as I plan to double major in Women’s Studies and International Relations with a focus on Middle Eastern studies.

After the political turmoil of the Arab Spring many Middle Eastern countries refuse to grant women equal positions in society because that would contradict Islamic texts. By oppressing women they’re silencing half of their population. I believe these Islamic texts have been misinterpreted throughout time, and my journey towards my own independence has inspired me to help other women find liberation as well. 

My Easter will drastically differ from past years. Rather than being locked at home, my mother and I will celebrate outdoors our rebirth and renewal.” 

Example 2 


Transformers are not just for boys. I loved these amazing robots that could transform into planes and cars the first time I saw them in the toy store.

The boys had all the samples, refusing to let me play with one. When I protested loudly to my mother, she gently chided me that Transformers were ugly and unfeminine. She was wrong. 

When I moved from China to Canada, my initial excitement turned to dismay as my peers were not as understanding of my language barrier as I’d hoped.

I joined the robotics team in a desperate attempt to find a community, though I doubted I would fit into the male-dominated field. Once I used physics to determine gear ratio, held a drill for the first time, and jumped into the pit to fix a robot, I was hooked. 

I went back to China that summer to bring robotics to my friends. I asked them to join me in the technology room at my old school and showed them how to use power tools to create robot parts. I pitched my idea to the school principal and department heads. By the time I left China, my old school had a team. 

Throughout the next year, I guided my Chinese team-only one of three that existed in the country with the help of social media. I translated instructions, set building deadlines, and coached them on how to answer judges’ questions. 

I returned to China a year later to lead my team through their first Chinese-hosted international competition. Immediately upon arrival at the competition, I gave the Chinese head official important documents for urgent distribution. I knew all the Chinese teams would need careful instructions on the rules and procedures.

I was surprised when the competition descended into confusion and chaos. Government policies against information sharing had blocked the Chinese teams from receiving information and the Chinese organizers hadn’t distributed my documents. I created another source of knowledge for my fledgling robotics teams. 

It took me several weeks to create a sharing platform that students could access through the firewall. On it, I shared my experience and posted practical practice challenges. I received hundreds of shares and had dozens of discussion questions posted. 

My platform’s popularity created an unintended issue; it garnered the attention and reprimand of the Chinese robotics organizations. When a head official reached out to my Canadian mentors, warning them to stop my involvement with the Chinese teams, I was concerned. When a Chinese official publicly chastised me on a major robotics forum, I was heartbroken. They made it clear that my gender, my youth, and my information-sharing approach were not what they wanted. 

I considered quitting. But so many students reached out to me requesting help. I wanted to end unnecessary exclusion. I worked to enhance access to my platform. I convinced Amazon to sponsor my site, giving it access to worldwide high-speed servers. Although I worried about repercussions, I continued to translate and share important documents. 

During the busy building season, my platform is swamped with discussions, questions, and downloads. I have organized a group of friends to help me monitor the platform daily so that no question or request is left unanswered. Some of my fears have come true: I have been banned from several Chinese robotics forums. I am no longer allowed to attend Chinese robotics competitions in China as a mentor.

The Chinese government has taken down my site more than once. Robotics was my first introduction to the wonderful world of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math.

I am dedicated to the growth of robotics in places where it is needed and wanted. I have used my hands and mind to tear down all barriers that separate people, no matter gender or nationality, from the inspiration and exploration of STEM.” 


How can my common app essay fit with my other essays?  

Before jumping in to write your Common app essay, you should think about the other schools that you’re writing essays for and make sure that you have a strategy for your entire portfolio of essays and cover different topics for each. If you have strong qualifications on paper for the colleges you are targeting, the best narratives tend to humanize you. If you have weaker qualifications on paper for your colleges, the best narratives tend to draw out your passion for the topics or fields of study that are of interest to you and magnify your accomplishments.  

How best can I get my common app essay edited? 

It is very important that you get your college essays reviewed before submitting them. You could take it to your English teacher at school or to anyone you know that could easily proof read your work.  

What if I have less than 500 words on my common app essay?

It is of no point having up to 600 words only to have them be irrelevant. It is best that your common app essay is power packed, containing all the relevant details. 

Do all schools require a common app essay? 

No. Every school has its own specific requirements. However, most schools require you write an essay in applying 

What if I am not a good writer? 

There is always room for you to try. But if you tried, and it did not work, you could always find a good writer, tell them your thoughts and ideas and have them put it down.  


Don’t feel bad when you begin to brainstorm and everything coming to you is not good enough. With time, you would figure it out. Try doing your brainstorming while you are performing other duties.

Also, remember to express these lessons implicitly through the experiences in your essay, and not explicitly. Show your growth through the changes in your life rather than simply stating that you gained confidence. 

With these, you can write a common app essay that would meet and surpass the admission requirements.  



Ajah Excel is a team growth and performance expert with over nine years of experience in blogging and personal development.
He leads a team of 36 crazy, restless innovators with an enviable work culture at Silicon Africa Technologies Limited – a fast-rising tech firm from the SouthEast.
Excel is the founder of and WriterGig.
He is also the co-organizer of TEDx Ikenegbu and convener of Social Media Fest.
He is a vibrant learner who yearns to share his knowledge to educate and inspire young Africans.
He has a B.Tech in Information Management Technology with certifications in growth hacking, effective communication, leadership, team, and personal development, to mention a few.
Ajah Anayochukwu Excel is a passionate public speaker, creative writer, and brand storyteller.

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