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how to write the common app essay

How to Write the Common App Essay

The Common Application, commonly referred to as “the Common App”, is just what it sounds like— a single application that you can use to apply to multiple schools. Over 700 schools accept the Common App, so it’s more than likely you’ll be able to apply to most, if not all, of the schools on your list through just a single application.

But that’s not all — you’ll still have to write an essay as part of your application. Here’s everything you need to know about the Common App essay and how to complete it.

The Common App Essay Basics

You are required to write one personal essay for the Common App (plus any supplementary essays required by individual schools — more on that later), and the length must be 650 words or less.

Luckily, you get to choose from 7 different essay prompts, which were strategically chosen to allow students to express their character, community, identity, and aspirations.

Here are the 2019-2020 Common App Essay Prompts:
  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. 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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. 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 that is 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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that 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?
  7. 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.

Schools know full well that the numbers and grades on an application don’t give the full story about an applicant, so essays serve as a great opportunity for you to talk about your life and let your personality shine.

Colleges aren’t expecting you to have won an Oscar or started your own nonprofit at age 12— they just want to get to know you, so have fun with your essay and focus on expressing yourself!

Common App Essay Tips

The whole purpose of the essay is for the admissions staff to get to know the person behind the application, so be authentic in your writing and try to tell your story honestly.

Your application will be one of potentially thousands of essays that the admissions staff must read, and here’s the secret they’ll all tell you: don’t write what you think they want you to write. College admissions staff don’t expect you to be a published author at the age of 8 or the CEO of a start-up before 18— they’re realistic.

Mainly, admissions staff are looking for your personality fit for the school and for the major (e.g. if you’re applying to the engineering school, are you analytical and drawn to problem-solving?).

Last, but not least, double and triple check your essay for spelling and grammar errors. Not all spell checks will catch mistakes!

Supplementary Essays on the Common App

In addition to the personal essay, you may have to complete an extra essay or essays required by individual schools on your list. The prompts for these supplementary essays vary from school to school, but typically fall within these categories:

  • A discussion of an extracurricular activity or something you’re proud of
  • Why you want to go to that particular college
  • Unique, off-the-wall questions, such as talking about a personality quirk or what you would do with a million dollars.
Tackling the “Why I want to go to College XYZ” question

This is a very common question to get stuck on since it requires some serious reflection. Here are some ways to think about your answer:

  1. Yes, you’re applying to a school because it’s close to home or it has your program or it’s the cheapest option, but there’s a reason you’ve chosen these criteria. Think about why the criteria you use to decide on schools is important to you.
  2. Spend some time on Niche researching the schools you’re interested in by looking at student reviews, campus life stats, and student polls on the different aspects of life at that college. What initially caught your eye about the school? What does that school have that none of the other schools on your list have?
  3. Most importantly, this is still a part of the application where you’re best served expressing yourself honestly, injecting your personal experience into your reasons for applying to this school.

Bottom Line

Spend some time reflecting on what makes you the person you are, what motivates you, and what makes you want to go to college. The more you relax and have fun with these essays, the better they’ll be.

View the Best Colleges that Accept the Common App

Author: Alex Caffee

Former Marketing and Business Analyst at Niche. Dessert aficionado. Currently living and working in New York City.