How To Write Your Common App Essay – Part 1 Of 8

First stop, the Common Application, which is accepted by most colleges and requires you to write a 650-word personal essay. You have six prompts to choose from and a wide open white space to fill up. Yes, whitespace is intimidating, but we are here to help.

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I’m Cara Sheffler, and I’ve been tutoring and working with students preparing for college for 12 years, after graduating from Princeton University in 2004. Here in New York, the test prep capital of the world, we tend to look at the calendar a bit differently. To you, this is summer, a time of summer jobs, driver’s licenses, internships, or travel. To us, it is essay season. If this sounds terrible to you, please note that providing essay feedback is an activity that is entirely compatible with sitting on a beach.

First stop, the Common Application, which is accepted by most colleges and requires you to write a 650-word personal essay. You have six prompts to choose from and a wide open white space to fill up. Yes, whitespace is intimidating, but we are here to help.

In this seven-part series, we will take you through the Common Application prompts and describe some useful ways to approach them, so that you can successfully write an essay that truly says something genuine about yourself to college admissions officers.

However, before we do, we would like to offer a quick set of tips for the Common App to keep in mind:

  1. Set aside the time. Yes, you might see writing application essays as a rotten way to spend the summer, but trust us, it will be even more rotten to have it hanging over your head in the fall.
  2. Talk to people about your essay! Run it by friends, family, teachers, coaches—anyone whose opinion you respect. The more you pitch your essay idea, the better formed that idea will become. Don’t be shy. Even if the feedback you get us useless, your act of articulating your idea will help enormously when it comes time to write.
  3. Remember that this essay helps create a powerful impression of you as an applicant. It is one of the few places on the application that allow you to be you.  If you could tell the admissions committee only one story, what would it be? That’s truly the prompt you’re answering. It’s not as much about listing a point on your resume as it is about coming across with a genuine, interesting, and likable voice, no matter the topic.
  4. Think of your topic first, and THEN choose the prompt. Every essay prompt is essentially asking you to write about yourself. Do not reply to the prompt as though it’s a question in a conversation: think of a story and start telling it. One of those prompts will work – and you can use our prompt-by-prompt guide to find out which – but don’t forget that it’s the story that matters, not the prompt.
  5. Make sure you’re writing about yourself! This might sound silly, but if you start your essay with a fascinating story about how your grandmother came to America, you aren’t talking about YOU. That anecdote might mean a lot to you, but the admissions office needs to know about you, not your grandmother (she’s probably not applying for admission to the Class of 2022). It doesn’t mean that you can’t talk about her, just make sure that she is there to illustrate something about you, you are not there to make a point about her.
  6. Make sure your essay features your intellectual vitality. Remember that the school is admitting you as a student. Even if you write about a personal experience that happened far from the classroom, make sure that you are ultimately talking about your mind, how you see the world, and how you hope to someday see yourself in that world, learning from it.

For now, start thinking about stories you would like to tell in your college application and reading through the Common App prompts for inspiration. Next week, we’ll start by going through Prompt 1.

Happy writing!

Related Topics: 

How To Write Your Common App Essay – Part 2 Of 8 

Why The “Why This College?” Question Matters – And How To Answer It

Lessons From The Essays Of Yale Quadruplets

How To Help Your College Applications The Summer Before Your Senior Year

Noodle Pros Essay Specialists

Noodle Pro Cara Sheffler has 12 years of tutoring experience. She graduated magna cum laude from Princeton with a B.A. in Comparative Literature. Cara especially loves to tutor French, history, literature, and math—she is delighted when the chance to teach Old Provençal arises.