How to write an effective common application essay

What would you like to showcase before the college admission staff if they are looking beyond your high school grades and standardized test scores?

Significance of the Common Application Essay

By now you will know what a Common Application a.k.a. Common App is?

It is an application that is accessed by over seven hundred colleges in the US including the Ivy League and many other reputed colleges. So when you fill in all your academic and personal details like your name, high school name, extracurricular activities, etc. on the Common App, all colleges who use it can get your details from there. This is where you will also find the Common App Essay a.k.a. the Personal Statement.

This entire topic is devoted to this Common App Essay.

Not all colleges reach out for the Common App as they will have their own processes in place for getting this information. All the effort you put into compiling the Common App Essay will certainly assist you – whether your college application is through the Common or non-Common App. It will further ease your efforts when you have to also compile additional or minor essays.

Those colleges that fall into the non-Common App using category, also require essays or brief answers to questions.

But what is the significance of the Common App Essay?

Many colleges believe that it is impractical to gauge a student’s aptitude and college-readiness by simply reviewing his high school grades, standardized test scores, how many challenging courses were taken, etc. So they don’t have any ‘grade/score requirement’ to be eligible to apply.

Rather than just looking at an applicant’s statistics, they endeavor to see each applicant as a person. College admission staff are human too and would be crushed with a lack of enthusiasm if their task primarily comprised going through high school grades, SAT/ACT scores, TOEFL scores, and AP/IB scores all the time.

Just ensuring that your grades and standardized test scores are outstanding is not a sure ticket to your favorite college. You must also have a stunning Personal Statement to complement your academic performance.

Are you wondering why?

Your Personal Statement talks about you – the real you and not about your grades and such other statistics about you. It is the single document in your application that communicates naturally without putting down cold figures by which you can be assessed. This is the only route available to you to speak to the college admissions staff about yourself so that they see you as a person and not just someone with a bunch of numbers.

There is no dearth of students with excellent grades and test scores who apply to the best colleges in the US. So every college has the luxury of having their pick when considering the academic capabilities of a student but they need to identify the student for his talents and potential and not just by his grades. They will be looking for information of the real person with all those excellent scores.

You may have your reservations of how important the Personal Statement is – if it can be a game-changer. Your essay is of great significance and you should spend considerable time – ideally a few months, in putting it together. How significant your essay is will differ from one college to another.

Experienced counselors reckon that the essay can corner up to 30% of the selection process. So can you imagine! You put in so much time and effort for excellent high school grades, SAT/ACT, TOEFL, AP/IB scores, internship, volunteering, community service, etc. but it will add up to 70% or a little more on your chances of being accepted.

So now do you get an idea of how significant your essay is and that you must spend time on it like you will on the other academic and extracurricular pursuits?

We will discuss in detail how you should systematically go about writing your Personal Statement so that you write one that will help you get accepted at your favorite college.

The College Essay is no enigma!

Let’s be clear on what these essays are.

The Personal Statement

This is a 600-650-word essay Common Application Essay that will be part of your Common App and can be viewed by those colleges who access it. This Personal Statement is the only means for the college admission staff to get to know you as an individual. So both Personal Statement and Common App Essay are one and the same.

Secondary or Supplemental Essays

Some colleges request for essays with certain guidelines that will be an added document besides the Personal Statement. It can range from discussing one of your extracurricular activities or considering a famous quote and discuss it.

Listed below are Common App Essay Cues. These cues are more or less what colleges have been asking over the last couple of years. We’ll discuss these cues in detail subsequently.

  • A student’s social circumstances, family environment, individuality, aptitude, or passions are perhaps so significant that he strongly feels that his application will be half-done without a mention about it.

Does this sound like you? If yes, tell us all about it.

  • All hardships come with a silver lining. They offer us the wisdom and experience that help us deal with future situations successfully.

Describe a situation or event when you had to confront a problem, difficult situation, or debacle. Were you broken or did you meet the challenge head-on? What did this event teach you?

  • There must have been an instance when you disputed or protested against an opinion or point of view. Why did you take such a stance? And what came out of the stand you took?
  • Narrate a difficult situation you’ve overcome or that you’d like to sort out. It could be a cerebral poser, a social problem, or even something that is very close to your heart – however small or big it may be.

Discuss why it is significant to you and how you resolved it or what can be done to see it through.

  • Narrate an occurrence, achievement, or newfound awareness that set off your personal development and helped you see people and the things around you in a new light.
  • Discuss a subject, belief, or issue that you can get so engrossed with that you forget about everything else. Why do you find it fascinating? What do you do to feed your curiosity and hunger to know more about it?
  • Write an essay on a subject of your liking. It’s acceptable if you had written it earlier or it was something you wrote to a cue given by someone.
  • What fires your imagination? Or thrills you? Or conveys what you are? Put down your thoughts in 650 words.

Evidently then, your Personal Statement should steer clear of putting down all the information that is already there in your resume or Common App Activity section. You should by no means attempt to project yourself as some kind of superhero who accomplished the impossible at such a young age. Don’t use melodrama to magnify what you may have endured. You needn’t bring in your family or your views on ethnicity, class, or gender into your essay. It is necessary to try to show the college admissions staff that side of your personality that only your family, friends, teachers, and peers are familiar with.

Whatever you choose to write, ensure that it is relevant and sincere.

An aside:

The above-mentioned Common App Essay Cues are a mixed bag and you have an option to write about any of them. It’s best that you mull over the stories you can share and then choose which one to go with. It is usually an open choice and you’ve nothing to lose with the choice you make.

Get acquainted with these students

We will now walk you through the situation of some students and how they dealt with putting together an outstanding Personal Statement and got accepted at reputed colleges in the US.

Student#1 Robbie

Robbie plans to pursue pre-med at college. She is however still in two minds about it. She has always been a multitasker and has participated in many unrelated activities. Robbie participated in numerous singing events but never won any prizes. She played golf, was in the school debate team, and participated in the theatre too.

But what is missing from Robbie’s CV?

She dreams of participating in the US Women’s Open (Golf), adores her mother, and has more best friends than she can count.

Student#2 Agnes

Agnes has a way with words. She finds writing so easy that she can’t imagine how anyone can flounder for words. However, she is not part of the school bulletin team. She has never dared to send in any of her poems or articles to publications, so she can’t confidently admit that she is a writer.

She is also a keen mock trial participant and she’s very good at it – her friends tell her that she has it in her to become an excellent lawyer. However, Agnes has reservations about pursuing Law, Philosophy, or Political Science and isn’t very sure she wants to become a lawyer.

But what is missing from Agnes’ CV?

She loves trekking and loves even more to draw and paint landscapes that come as a package deal with trekking.

Student#3 Ryan

Ryan is good at his studies – his grades are good but none of the subjects excite him so he’s quite undecided of what he should pursue. Whenever he has some spare time, Ryan teaches math at the local orphanage. He plays cricket and is in the dance troupe too.

But what is missing from Ryan’s CV?

Ryan plays the violin that he pursues only because his mother wants him to. He’s very close to his younger brother and is in awe of his older sister who’s now away at college.

Student#4 Sam

Sam studies at the best public school in his small mountain town. His family is comfortably off but Sam chooses to work at the local café after school. This leaves him with little time to pursue any extracurricular activities and in any case, his school doesn’t have much to offer there.

Sam likes biology but isn’t sure if he wants to attend pre-med at college. He doesn’t see himself pursuing medicine and is quite bewildered of what program he should pursue at college.

But what is missing from Agnes’ CV?

Sam loves mountain climbing and has been doing it with his Uncle as a young boy. His father doesn’t like mountain climbing and he’s very close to his Uncle.

Taking the first step to write

Staring at a blank sheet and wondering how to begin writing is a barrier that even a well-versed author has to struggle with so as a high school student, it quite expected when you feel uncertain about how to get going with writing.

You have so much to say and are bursting with enthusiasm to make an impression. Right? But how do you express yourself without going over the top with your narrative?

The only remedy to combat such anxiety – of not knowing how to begin and what tone of voice to use in your narrative, is to compose yourself, charge your creative cells and then get down to writing.

We’ll handhold you to take charge of putting together your Common App Essay, secondary, and supplemental essays long before they are needed. We recommend trashing procrastination right away. June is the best time to get started. Wondering why?

You must be already sighing at the thought of spending your summer working hard on this. But treat this as a warm-up to get into the groove and accomplish the most challenging part of your applications before August. By then, you will have thought through what you want to put down.

The added benefit of attending to this task as early as June is that you will have the first draft of your Personal Statement ready to share with the teachers whom you will request college recommendation letters from. By having early access to your Common App Essay, your recommenders will have something to connect within their letters.

This small effort will go a long way in ensuring that your application doesn’t just mention details about you but gives a peek into the real person you are, your aspirations, your beliefs, etc. Therefore each document in your Common App will complement each other and work as a part of the whole story that is you.

Work with the suggested timelines to match your schedules but you must begin working hard on this in summer.

Discussing and ideating essay themes and using cues (2-3 weeks)

To begin, you should peruse the Common App cues to identify which of them excites you and you are able to relate to. We’ve listed cues to further help you ideate and begin the initial writing during summer.

Let’s begin with Cue #7 since it’s not specific but more comprehensive. We will thereafter go by numerical order.

Cue #7

You are free to choose the theme of your essay – it could be something that you’ve written in the past or something that you wrote to another cue or something that is of your own thinking.

  • What are the things that matter to you? Enumerate on all those subjects or themes. What is it that is the prime subject of conversation amongst your family, and your friends?

(This is not about mentioning your extracurricular activities). Narrate an event or story that summarizes this subject that is important to you.

  • Which relative who lives with you is dear and important to you? Narrate a situation when this family member helped you in sailing through rough waters. Is there a significant heart-to-heart talk that you had with him? Tell us about it.
  • Reflect for a minute – which person in your family, a friend, or teacher is important to you? How did you both connect? When and where did you meet? Tell us about it. Was there a time when you discussed something of relevance and significance to you? Tell us about it.
  • Discuss incidents that are significant to you. These circumstances may not necessarily have been substantial, shocking, disastrous, or show how you impacted the community. It could be a certain time that is significant – like one summer perhaps? It could even be what you encountered when you were with a friend or relative on a given day or during the course of a few weeks or months.

Something to note:

Such distinct experiences or situations come handy when you are putting down your first thoughts on your Common App Essay. It’s best that you narrate an incident that you’ve spoken about to others in the past.

The smartest advice we can give you is to always use such instances, experiences, or events to convey your story in your Common App Essay.

Cue #1

A student’s social circumstances, family environment, individuality, aptitude, or passions are maybe so significant that he strongly feels that his application will be half-done without a mention about it. Do you fit into this picture? Tell us about it.

  • Recount your childhood – where did you live and grow up? Tell us about your community, surroundings, town or even city. Was it a quiet place or a bustling city? Why do you feel it is special and unique? What impact has this place had on you? If you were asked to describe something distinct about this place to a person who has never been there, what would you say? E.g. does it have a nature trail, amusement park, regattas?
  • Where did your parents live? Does it influence your everyday life? What was it like when you visited the place? Tell us about your reaction on seeing it for the first time.
  • Is there someplace that is dearer to you than your own home? Narrate to us what your first impressions of that place were. Was it a place you visited in the summer? How did that place become significant in your life? Tell us about it.
  • What is the one thing that makes you unforgettable? What is it that the people in your neighbourhood associate you with? When did you do this thing that people remember you by? What was significant about this thing that you did? Did you sing non-stop for three hours? Or did you step back when you felt your friend should win the singing competition?
  • Describe what you did during summers when you were a kid and later when you were in high school. Narrate the one summer day that you still remember. Why do you still remember it? Did what happened that day impact how you presently are? Tell us about it.

Cue #2

All hardships come with a silver lining. They offer us the wisdom and experience that help us deal with future situations successfully.

Describe a situation or event when you had to confront a problem, difficult situation, or debacle. Were you broken or did you meet the challenge head-on? What did this event teach you?

  • Have you ever been faced with significant changes in life? Moving to a new neighborhood or city? Switching school? Faced with the passing away of a loved one or a dear friend? (It’s best to leave out your romantic failures.)

Describe that one day when you had to come to terms with that change – when you moved to a different house, your last day at your old school, or the first day at your new school when you were told of the passing away of your dear one.

  • Was there an instance when you gave up an extracurricular activity or a part-time job? What happened? Tell us why you took such a decision.
  • Which was the toughest class in high school for you? Why was it tough? Describe a class project that you found challenging.

Also, describe a class project that helped you break barriers and made you rethink your views about something.

  • Were you ever compelled to participate in something that you were not very good at? What happened eventually? Narrate how you went about participating in it, and who encouraged you in your effort.
  • Have you encountered a mental or physical disability? Or did you ever have to deal with a serious challenge? Reflect on that happening and how glad you are with yourself at how you dealt with the situation.

Cue #3

There must have been an instance when you disputed or protested against an opinion or point of view. Why did you take such a stance? And what came out of the stand you took?

  • What moral code that you imbibed as a child do you cherish? Are they still dear to you? Describe how you learned and made them your own? Was it something you saw your grandpa do? Or was it something your mother taught you?

On the other hand, have your views on this changed since? How did the change come about? Were you influenced by a teacher? Or a friend?

  • Does your family believe in something that is quite opposite to yours? What caused the dissent? Narrate a difference of opinion that you had with somebody – it could have been a friendly squabble or more than that. Describe an instance when you were glad how you conducted yourself in the argument.
  • In what instance were you far off the mark about something? Describe how it dawned on you that you were incorrect? Did anybody help you see light?

Cue #4

Narrate a difficult situation you’ve overcome or that you’d like to sort out. It could be a cerebral poser, a social problem, or even something that is very close to your heart – however small or big it may be.

Discuss why it is significant to you and how you resolved it or what can be done to see it through.

  • Has there been a class project that has kept you awake late into the night? Was it really difficult? Tell us about it.
  • Have you been influenced by a book or an article? Has it put before you some brutal truths about the world? What was your takeaway? What do you plan to do about it? What was your first reaction when you read this book/article? Who shared this book/article with you? Have you discussed it subsequently with anybody? Have you reviewed and revisited the book/article?
  • Are there instances at home when there is an argument at the dinner table? Does this happen often? Do you have thoughts on how it can be resolved? Narrate one such instance. You could even narrate any other memorable dinner.
  • Is there something happening in the world that leaves you furious and fuming? Was there an event that triggered this fury? Recount the event visually and your responses to what you saw.

Cue #5

Narrate an occurrence, achievement, or newfound awareness that set off your personal development and helped you see people and the things around you in a new light.

  • Generally, people believe that a small figment of imagination can change things forever. Has there been such an instance in your life? Describe it. Narrate it like you were telling us a story.
  • Has something dawned on you out of the blue? How did it happen? Where were you? What were you doing? Who else was with you – or were you alone?
  • Set aside all your awards, trophies, grades – all the material proof of your accomplishments. Describe something about yourself that makes you feel extremely gratified and which is so intangible.

Cue #6

Discuss a subject, belief, or issue that you can get so engrossed with that you forget about everything else. Why do you find it fascinating? What do you do to feed your curiosity and hunger to know more about it?

  • What if your family went away for the weekend and left you to your own devices over a weekend? How would you start your day? Even if this is pure conjecture, narrate what happened like it’s a story. Describe in which room you spent time, what you did? Or did you opt to get out of the empty house? Where did you go? What did you do?
  • Is there an instance when you began doing something without anybody suggesting that you do it? Are you self-motivated? Narrate how you began doing something by yourself without goading.
  • In what instances do your friends seek you out for assistance? Narrate an instance that you feel you acted well and were able to be of sound assistance to a friend.
    Also, narrate an instance when someone else was of immense help to you.

By now, with all these discussions and ideating, Robbie, Agnes, Ryan, and Sam will have found so many interesting things about themselves that are not on their CV which they can elaborate upon.

Writing without reservation (3-4 weeks)

The cues shared above should help you begin writing – but prior to getting down to even drafting your Personal Statement, simply write without worrying about spelling or grammatical errors. The idea is to overcome any blocks or inhibitions that you may have about writing.

Such writing can loosen you up into writing freely and you can even enjoy writing when you write without reservation.

Your Personal Statement should read like you are talking to the reader. The reader shouldn’t feel that you are trying hard to impress and sound mature or knowledgeable. This is a possibility if you are all clammed up and tense while writing.

Listed below are a few tips to help you in writing without reservation:

Invest in a few notebooks

Yes, that’s right. You should use a pen to write on paper. Writing by hand nudges your sensibilities in a different way that no computer keyboard can match that. You cannot delete what you’ve written – even if you strike it out, it’ll still be there for posterity, legible for future reference. Also because you can’t delete it, writing itself will feel real.

Allocate 6 minutes to write without reservation every morning

Get into to habit of spending 6 minutes writing every morning. Set a reminder alarm and a timer when you start so there is no room for tardiness. Simply write – this is about writing without reservation, for the whole time. If you are at a loss for words, write those very words or anything to keep up the continuity of writing.

If you are unsure of what to write, peruse the Common App essay cues mentioned above – they are so comprehensive that one of them will help you begin on something.

For instance, when Agnes puts pen to paper she will not be discussing how participating in a mock trial and excelling in it helped her decide to pursue law. Instead, when she begins writing, she’ll start re-living that day. She will describe the atmospherics, what she was wearing, who accompanied her, and perhaps that she overate at lunch and was feeling uncomfortable. She’ll possibly question why she even agreed to participate in the trial. Was it because she wanted to have an argument that wouldn’t lead to much unpleasantness or was it the theatrics and excitement that appealed to her?

Instead of setting a time limit – if you feel the burden of six minutes, set yourself a target of writing three pages. Initially, you can put it down in large writing so you feel at ease.

Neither discuss nor go over what you’ve written with anybody

Although it will be very tempting, do not share what you’ve written with your family or teachers. You shouldn’t review it either as you will want to edit or improve on what you wrote. For now, let what you’ve written stay dormant.

In doing this, you will allow the story to speak, instead of bull-dozing what you think the story should be. This is one of the gravest blunders while writing – including you Personal Statement, pushing your way into a story that only needs to be stated.

Let’s explain this.

For instance, let’s discuss about Sam who learnt mountain climbing from his Uncle – an eventful summer and that special person in his life. As the experience and the relationship means so much to him, Sam is enthusiastic and would rather plunge right away into drafting his story. Even as he’s writing he begins questioning his choice – mountaineering is just a summer passion and he’s nowhere near being an expert at it. Then, maybe he shows what he has written to his teacher. The teacher reacts to it at face value – not realizing it is not even a draft yet and asks him to write about something else as this is not flying.

So give due regard to the methods we suggest and let what you’ve written rest in your notebook for a bit.

When you begin early, it will give you the luxury of having time on your side. Writing every day through summer will prepare you for the all-important task of writing your Personal Statement. By July-end, you will be able to review what you’ve written without reservation

Timeframes for writing your Common App Essay – in six months, three months, one month or less than a month

It’s best that you begin working on your college essays during the summer prior to your final high school year. But setting aside six months (June-December) for such a task may be difficult if you are already busy with other activities.

Listed below are other timeframes within which you can plan to ideate and write without reservation and accomplish your task.

Six months – June-December (best suited for early decision application deadline)

  • June: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues for 2-3 weeks
  • July: Write without reservation for 3-4 weeks
  • July-end/early August: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
  • Mid-August: Finish editing your first draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it
  • Second half of August: Write out further drafts – draft#3 and draft#4
  • Early September: Show your fourth draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
  • September-end: Finish your final draft

Finish the secondary essays in October since November is usually the deadline for early decision applications. In November, finish with any remaining secondary essays for colleges with December/January deadlines for submitting regular decision applications.

Three months – August-October (pushing hard to meet the early decision application deadline)

  • First fortnight of August: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues
  • Second half of August: Write without reservation
  • Early September: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
  • Week 2 of September: Finish editing your first draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it
  • Week 3 and 4 of September: Write out further drafts – draft#3 and draft#4
  • Early October: Show your fourth draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
  • By mid-October: Finish your final draft

Finish the secondary essays in the latter part of October since November is usually the deadline for early decision applications. In November, finish with any remaining secondary essays for colleges with December/January deadlines for submitting regular decision applications.

One month – October-November (to meet the regular decision application deadline)

  • Early October: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues
  • Second week of October: Write without reservation
  • Third week of October: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
  • Last week of October: Finish editing your first draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it
  • First fortnight of November: Write out further drafts – draft#3 and draft#4
  • Mid-November: Show your fourth draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
  • Last week of November: Finish your final draft

Finish the secondary essays in December for colleges with December/January deadlines for submitting regular decision applications.

Crushed for time – Beginning in November (if you have begun your application process very late and have less than a month to submit applications)

  • 2-4 days: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues
  • 2-3: Write without reservation
  • 2 days after writing without reservation: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
  • 3 days after finishing the first draft: Finish your second draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it. And then show your draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
  • 2 days after getting feedback: Finish writing draft#3
  • 2 days after finishing draft#3: Finish fourth and your final draft if you still have time on your hands

The application deadlines vary in some colleges. For instance, the University of California, Los Angeles – a reputed college, has a November application submission deadline. So it is critical that you compile your college list along with the list of all application deadlines and admission requirements by end-September so that you do not miss the bus and have to sit out for a year.

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