Writing the Right Common App Essay

Career Sep 9, 2021

With Early Action deadlines approaching, choosing between seven prompts amidst varying opinions about the right approach and writing Common App and supplemental essays may seem like a tedious task.

What should you include and avoid, especially when different people and websites tell you things that do not quite match? How do you give a picture of who you are in just 650 words?

Here are some pointers and frequently asked questions from someone who has been in the same position as you to give you an idea of how to get started!

What actually is the Common App essay?

Simply put, the Common App essay is your personal statement that allows you to showcase your unique identity. It gives insights and evidence into your personality and character that your overall profile does not show. More than a million students use common app annually and, the essay is your chance to stand out from the herd.

Why is it so important?

A study conducted by National Association for College Admission Counseling in 2019 stated that 56.4% of colleges surveyed regarded essays as moderately or substantially important. In some cases, a shining essay can make up for slip-ups in grades and inconsistent extracurricular records you have been fretting over. Though, remember not to use it as an intentional application strategy. Sure, your essay acts as a tipping point in your favour, but it alone cannot promise admission to the university you want to go to.

Your essay must STAND OUT!

We can't stress this enough- your essay has to be distinctive. It may be a good exercise to read your essay critically and judge whether it sounds uniquely yours, or a generic piece that may have been written by another student. If it is the latter, cut and rewrite-even from scratch if needed; even if it is your umpteenth attempt.

This does not mean that you need to have an extraordinary experience or an overly heart-wrenching story. You don't have to lay out parts of yourself that you are not comfortable putting out. Nor do you need to curse your life for being average or predictable. Your essay just needs to be written in a way that describes your individual perspective honestly, regardless of the theme you choose. A Princeton student, for example, drew parallels between her life and that of GOT's Jon Snow as the premise of her essay.

Tell your tale yourself!

Some introverts may find it difficult to share certain aspects of their lives. Fix this ASAP! Be okay with telling your tale, even if it is embarrassing. This is exactly what the reader is looking for - something not ordinary! As John Dewis says, tell a secret. Since the essays are about you, don’t have anyone write them for you. Firstly, the admissions officer with years of experience will easily notice that this isn’t your work, and, secondly, it is dishonest and immoral. Besides this, you're the best person to portray what's inside of you.

Make your essay detailed but not deep.

There’s a limit of 650 words for the essay and no ideal length. Write an essay based on truth, containing specific details about you. Never lie; making up a story for your essay is the last thing you want to do. Try not to summarise your life story in 650 words and rather focus on one aspect/event that you believe is worth sharing. Don’t get too deep. Avoid boasting about your achievements for three reasons: 1) they may already be a part of your application; 2) you flattering yourself may bore the reader; 3) Say you’ve won a school debating championship, just imagine how many countless students will there be sharing the same achievement. Perhaps, this might not distinguish you from other candidates. You may have to give up the temptation of writing about all these successes you’ve had, just because the pros of sharing a failure are more.

We highly recommend "Hack the College Essay", a comprehensive guide by John Dewis that contains strategies and student responses.

However, remember that there is no "correct" way to write a Common App essay. The core idea, well, is to just be yourself. Common App essays often help admission offices decide if you are well-suited to their specific environment. Being someone you aren't for the sake of university, only to end up unhappy when you get there, may not be as fulfilling as you expect.

Good luck in making it to your dream colleges and sending you all the reassurance you need to know that it's okay if you don't get in either. <3


Mahad Imran

Freshman at NUST. Tech-savvy and Esports enthusiast. Cares deeply about social empowerment, climate change and student well-being.