7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay

7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay

August 30, 2021

With advice from author Elizabeth Benedict

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Each year, over a million high school seniors apply for college through the Common Application. This online system enables you to submit one application to multiple schools, meaning you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement.

The Common App essay gives colleges the opportunity to learn more about you as a person and what's important to you. You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality.

Here, we explain what the Common App essay entails before diving into admissions experts' biggest tips for crafting a memorable personal statement.

What Is the Common App Essay?

The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the Common App and require the essay.

You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.

This statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. You can discuss almost anything you want, provided your topic addresses the prompt you've chosen. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story.

You must submit the Common App essay to all colleges that require it, though some may ask you to submit one or more supplemental essays as well.

The application form provides you with a box in which to type your essay; however, it's strongly recommended that you compose your essay in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or another word processor before copying and pasting your final draft into this box.

How Important Is the Common App Essay?

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 tended to place more emphasis on the essay.

"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, a former Princeton writing instructor and the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc.

Benedict, who spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, has helped students around the world apply to college for over a decade.

"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 extracurriculars, and a mediocre essay could sink your application," she said.

While most experts agree that a strong Common App essay won't necessarily secure you 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.

According to Benedict, this often happens at small liberal arts colleges, which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach.

Experts' Top 7 Common App Essay Tips

Admissions officers, higher education administrators, education consultants, and college admissions advisors like Benedict have many tricks for approaching the Common App essay. Here are some of their biggest tips.

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. Soule currently serves as Bowdoin College's dean of admissions and student aid.

"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. "Students I work with run the gamut from having a good idea to having absolutely no idea what to write about," Benedict said. "Often in our brainstorming session, an idea will pop up in discussion, and I'll say, 'That's a good idea,' and the student will be surprised."

To identify potential essay topics, Benedict proposes asking yourself a series of questions. Have you experienced a turning point in your life? Are you deeply passionate about a particular subject?

Ultimately, 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.

Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, asks students to think about what version of themselves they want to present to schools and to trust their instincts.

"Don't just jump on the first prompt you read and start writing," she writes in a blog post for NYU. "Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to us about a specific achievement? Do you want to give us insight into a hardship you faced and conquered?"

In essence, work backward: Start with a topic and then see which essay prompt fits it the best.

This is the same advice given by Thea Hogarth of College Essay Advisors: "Once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you'll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story."

3. Use Your Space Wisely

Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and 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. But just how long should your statement be? Admissions Blog advises aiming for around 500 words. And former Tufts University admissions officer Becky Leichtling concurs.

"The most common 'personal statement' length is in the ballpark of 500 words," Leichtling writes for Bright Horizons College Coach. "I consider 500 the 'sweet spot,' but don't stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 [words] that you're honestly proud of."

4. Fill Your Story With Details

Details are everything when it comes to the Common App essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.

"Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement," Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, writes on his company's website. "Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you."

Meredith Reynolds, associate director of admissions at Tufts, similarly recommends that applicants emphasize specifics in their essays. "By focusing on details, you set yourself apart," she says.

In terms of structure, Benedict advises approaching the Common App essay one step at a time. "Break down the topic to the smallest pieces you can and write a paragraph about each," she said.

In other words, discuss specific moments from your life. Relate conversations you've had. Describe how something felt or looked. It's the details in your story — not the topic itself — that will help you stand out the most.

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.

"[Students] are used to writing academic essays and trying to impress with big words and formal-sounding constructions," Benedict said when asked about the most common mistake students make on the Common App essay. "The best essays have a conversational voice — not a stiff, academic one."

Educational consultant Ian Fisher agrees. In a blog post offering language tips for college essays, Fisher expounds on the importance of writing in a way true to how you talk in real life.

"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," he writes.

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."

Likewise, students should refrain from relying on cliches. This includes phrases such as "happily ever after," "beggars can't be choosers," and "crack of dawn." Benedict advises getting someone to "cliche-proof" your essay.

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.

Shemmassian suggests giving your draft to "a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor." Meanwhile, Reynolds says you should "show your essay to two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well."

All recommendations from experts share a common thread: Getting feedback on your Common App essay should be a top priority.

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.

"At the most selective colleges and universities, there are usually supplemental essays as well, and those are part of the overall package, and they are very important," Benedict said.

She also discussed how a great Common App essay combined with weak supplemental essays could reflect poorly on your application and increase your risk of getting rejected.

"I can't stress enough the importance of the supplemental essays," Benedict continued. "For the most selective universities, all of the essays taken together present a 'package' of who you are." And how you choose to put together that package is up to you.


Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc., which has been helping students apply to college around the U.S. and all over the world for a dozen years. Elizabeth is a best-selling novelist, a prolific journalist, and an editor of many books. She has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her clients are regularly admitted to top universities and their first-choice colleges.


Feature Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images

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