Disclaimer – we’re not experts. Everything in this series will be from our personal experiences and points of view, so take it with a grain of salt.
The Common App Essay. It’s scarier than the monster under your bed, the skeletons in your closet, and your mom after you accidentally wash the reds with the whites. But we’re trained monster-fighters, which is why we’re here to equip you with armor to tame the beast that is the Common App Essay!
What is the Common App Essay?
To fight your enemy, you need to know who they are. Most people don’t hear about the Common App Essay until their junior year, but it’s the most personal part of your college application – and where you can really shine.
Tip: The Common App is the most *commonly* used online college application. It basically allows you to fill out all your personal information/testing/extracurriculars once, insert one Common App Essay, and send it off to dozens of colleges. Create your Common App account as soon as it releases for your year so that you can start getting familiar with the format (and see the supplemental essays for each college).
The Common App Essay is the main writing portion of your college application. It has a word range of 250-650, which means that at its longest, it’s about a page long single-spaced. Each year, the Common App releases its newest prompts (which usually don’t change much from the last year’s). You will pick one to write on, and indicate it in the application.
Tip: This year’s Common App prompts are already out! Find them here.
How to Approach the Essay
Throughout high school, we write a lot of impersonal, analysis-based essays (DBQ, CCOT, ALSDKDSJKLJF, etc). This is none of them. The Common App Essay is meant to be personal, insightful, and most importantly – about you.
Your application already lists all of your achievements. The essay is where you bring yourself to life, differentiating yourself from thousands of high school seniors that are just as accomplished. That being said, the Common App Essay is not where you should brag about your accomplishments. It’s a place to talk about what motivates you, what you value, and how you became the person you are.
So before you start, you should probably figure out who you are through a little bit of brainstorming. Sit down and write 3 things that define who you are – they can be your background, life events, or extracurriculars you actually like.
Next, write down some stories related to those 3 things that define you. Examples can include the moment you fell in love with JSA, the moment you figured out that you wanted to be a doctor, or the moment you fell in love with Costco.
Tip: Note that these are all moments. The best way to craft an essay is by writing out the story of a particular moment and how it affected/changed you.
Choose one message that you want to communicate through this essay. Some people try to communicate too many messages, and in the midst of that lose what they were trying to say in the first place.
The best topics aren’t always the most special, or even the most groundbreaking. A good essay usually takes a typical topic that a lot of people may write about and makes it unique to you. It talks about what you learned, what motivates you, and what a certain event/activity means to you. It’s not about the moment. Instead, it’s about how the moment influenced who you are now.
Writing the Essay
Now that you know what you’re going to write about, it’s time to write it! Think about it as if you were writing a blog or a journal entry. Be vulnerable – it should be an essay that you’re proud of, but wouldn’t want the world reading.
The first draft is always going to be the hardest, so don’t stress out over it. The goal with the first draft is to get your ideas out on paper so that you can edit them. Don’t try for perfection the first time.
Tip: For some people, this may be your first time writing a personal essay. That’s okay! The more you write, the easier it will be to find your voice. When people read through your essay (or you read it), it should sound like you. No one else should be able to put their name at the top of that essay.
You will write one draft. You will write two drafts. You will stop counting how many drafts you have written. However, don’t delete those drafts! Every time you do a major revision or start over, create a new Google Doc/Word Document so that you can revisit old ideas or have a backup if your revision doesn’t go the way you thought it would.
What We Wrote About (!!!)
What we think makes this blog unique is that we give you a glimpse into our personal experiences, rather than just being a college advice column. So here’s a bit about our own essays…
“A couple of common topics people choose to write about include background, extracurriculars, and what motivates them. For me, all three of those things collide. I wrote about my dad, who’s an opera singer, and how he’s influenced me. From a young age, I’ve watched him pursue his passion at all costs, even when it wasn’t easy. As such, he raised me with the mindset that I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I was passionate about it and worked hard. That in turn inspired me to pursue debate.
My essay centers on the stage. I grew up around the stages of various operahouses, and I close off the essay standing on the stage of the national debate tournament, having found my own stage, voice, and passion in the process. Between those two bookends, I talk about the lesson that both debate and JSA have taught me – to chase my passions no matter the cost, and to build my own stages and platforms instead of waiting for them to be offered to me.”
“I struggled a bit with figuring out what was worth talking about because I felt like I was pretty ordinary. I don’t have one thing I’m super good at or a huge life-changing experience. So I chose to write about the capstone to a long journey in my life: a backpacking trip I took to New Mexico with my Boy Scout troop. I grew up spending weekends in the woods and walked the entire road from being a tiny tiger cub to becoming an Eagle Scout. It’s something that has always been there in my life, so it was something I could thoroughly speak about. My message was about escaping the lukewarm grasps of my sleeping bag (something we all experience every day before school) and relating that to finding my passion in medicine. It’s simple, but it’s a topic I had control over and could shape to show what motivates me and who I am.”
Writing this essay should not consume days of your life at a time. Sometimes, if you’re stuck or have just finished a new draft, you’ll need a break. Feel free to take a walk, hang out with friends, or do things you enjoy.
Even after you think you finished an essay, take a couple of days away from it before coming back to read it with fresh eyes. You’ll see your writing in a new light, and either love it just as much or detest it with every fiber of your being.
Don’t be afraid to scrap essays. If you find that your original message is getting lost, return to it and simplify your essay accordingly. Some of the best essays written occur at 2 AM in the morning, with a completely different angle and idea than you had originally come up with.
Peer-Editing and Professional Help
You’ll want to ask 2-3 trusted friends and maybe 1-2 teachers to read your essay and to get feedback from – on things like grammar and overall writing quality.
Tip: Ask friends/teachers what they think the main message of your writing is – if they don’t know, or they’re getting the wrong one, then your essay has taken a wrong turn.
Sometimes you’ll get advice that you don’t agree with. Trust yourself! We’ve both had teachers tell us that the style of our writing was disagreeable, and should be changed – however, we didn’t always end up listening to the advice of others. Take everything they say with a grain of salt. What’s most important about the essay is that you like it.
Others will choose to hire professional help. Neither of us did, but it’s something that certain people might find helpful. It’s all up to you. Just make sure that you’re doing the writing and that your opinion still comes out on top.
Kat + Daniel