7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
- A personal statement, the Common App essay is required by most Common App schools.
- The college essay plays a key role in many institutions' admissions processes.
- The 2020-21 Common App essay prompts are the same as last year's.
- Experts' biggest tips include writing how you speak and focusing on the details.
For high school seniors, fall means college application season. And college applications often mean applying through the Common App, an online system that lets you apply to multiple schools at the same time. In other words, you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement.
But just how important is the Common App essay? This application component gives schools 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 aspects about your personality that admissions officers can't detect through other parts of your application.
In this guide, we'll explain what the Common App essay entails, introduce this year's Common App essay prompts, and look at admissions experts' biggest tips for producing an unforgettable personal statement.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that (1) use the Common App and (2) require the essay.
Your personal statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths.
You can find the essay prompts and instructions by going to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." There, you'll choose one of seven Common App essay prompts to respond to. 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 to, 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 schools that require it, but you don't have to write a separate statement for each Common App college (though some schools may ask you to submit supplemental essays — more on this later).
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 first before copying and pasting the 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 conducted by the National Association for College Admission Counseling, 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement "moderately" or "considerably" important in the admissions process. Highly selective institutions typically placed more emphasis on the essay.
"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, former writing instructor and founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc., which has helped students around the U.S. and world apply to college for the past 12 years.
In one study, 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement “moderately” or “considerably” important in the admissions process.
Benedict spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, including how its importance varies by institution.
"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 cogent, well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor at certain schools. Benedict noted how this often happens at small liberal arts colleges, which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach.
What Schools Require the Common App Essay?
Only a small number of Common App schools do not require the Common App essay. That said, some colleges maintain a separate writing supplement, which appears on the Common App under that particular school with the label "Writing Supplement."
Here are some popular Common App schools that do not require the essay (but may require a writing supplement or other essays/short responses):
- Arizona State University
- Clemson University
- College of Charleston
- DePaul University
- Georgia Tech
- Indiana University Bloomington
- Loyola University Chicago
- Mississippi State University
- New College of Florida
- Otis College of Art and Design
- Pennsylvania State University
- University of Minnesota Twin Cities
- University of Mississippi
- University of Texas at Dallas
- Virginia Tech
What Are the 2020-21 Common App Essay Prompts?
The Common App essay prompts change every couple of years or so. This year's prompts are the same as last year's. You must choose and respond to one of the following prompts:
Prompt 1: Something Meaningful
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.
Prompt 2: Overcoming Obstacles
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?
Prompt 3: Questioning a Belief
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Prompt 4: Problem-Solving
Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
Prompt 5: Personal Growth
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Prompt 6: Passion
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?
Prompt 7: Your Choice
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.
The 7 Biggest Common App Essay Tips From Experts
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 purely 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.
And she isn't alone in her thinking. "It's not just about the topic, but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic," echoes Jennifer Gayles, director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College.
“What colleges are looking for (in general) is: good writing, [the] ability to express yourself, [and] a sense that you have some insight into your life.”
Choosing the right Common App essay topic can be tricky, but it's incredibly 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 thought-provoking questions, like whether you experienced a turning point in your life or whether you hold a deep passion for a particular subject or idea.
Ultimately, your essay's focus must be meaningful to you; it should also excite and inspire you and 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.
“In our experience, the best way to write a stellar, original Common App essay is to work backward.”
"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 down their statement, or they write too little and end up coming across as superficial and generic.
“Home in on the specific message you want to convey and deliver it as succinctly as you can. Admissions officers prioritize content over quantity.”
The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words. But just how long should your statement be exactly? 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 central 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."
“As I see it, you have two options when exploring a topic in your college essay: go broad or go deep. … One is better than the other (I’ll give you a hint: it’s the second one).”
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 notes.
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."
“Be careful using words that seem harmless but connote an immature or combative perspective.”
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.
However, students should also 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 in their descriptions. This includes sayings and 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, it's critical that you show it to someone who will not only offer feedback and advice but also edit and proofread it as needed.
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."
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 of your time working on the Common App essay. All essays can play a crucial role in your application.
"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.
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