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The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay That Will Get You Accepted

Common App essay - magoosh

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably started the very exciting process of applying to college—and chances are you may be a little overwhelmed at times. That’s OK! The key to getting into the right college for you is taking each step of the application process in stride, and one of those steps is completing the Common App and the Common App essay.

In this post, you’ll learn what the Common Application essay is, how to write one (including a free checklist to help you with the process), example essays, and much more. Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

What is the Common App, and More Importantly, What is the Common App Essay? Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay? What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common Application Essay FAQs

What is the common app, and more importantly, what is the common app essay.

What is the Common App essay - magoosh

The “Common App,” short for the Common Application , is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once. It’s accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally.

The idea is that the Common App is a “one-stop shop” so you don’t have to complete a million separate applications. That said, plenty of colleges still require their own application components, and the Common App, as user-friendly as it aims to be, can still feel like a bit of a challenge to complete.

Part of the reason the Common App can seem intimidating is because of the Common App essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application this way. But never fear! In reality, the Common App essay is easy to ace if you know how to approach it and you give it your best.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at anything and everything you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay in order to help you get into the school of your dreams. We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay.

Button to download 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Common App essay facts - magoosh

Below are just a few of the short and sweet things you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay, but we’ll elaborate on some of this content later in this post.

There is no fee to complete the Common App, but nearly every college has its own set of necessary submissions fees.
250-650 words
One (but specific colleges may request more than that in their applications)
You have until 11:50 pm in your timezone on the day a college application is due to submit the Common App, including the Common App essay.
(more on this below!)

How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

How to write a Common App essay - magoosh

The million dollar question about the Common App essay is obviously, “How do I actually write it?!”

Now there’s something to keep in mind before exploring how to compose the Common App essay, and that’s the purpose of this task. You may be wondering:

  • What are college admissions boards actually looking for?
  • Why are you being asked to write this essay?

College admissions boards want to see that you can compose a compelling, well-crafted essay. After four years of high school, you’re expected to be able to craft a clear and concise piece of writing that addresses a specific subject.

So yes, you’re actually being evaluated on your essay writing skills, but the purpose of the Common Application essay is deeper than that—it’s to present the type of person and thinker that you are.

Regardless of which prompt you choose, colleges are trying to get a sense of how thoughtfully and critically you can reflect on your life and the world around you .

And furthermore, they want to get a sense of who you are—your interests, your personality, your values—the dimensional aspects of you as an applicant that simply can’t be expressed in transcripts and test scores . In short, you want to stand out and be memorable.

That said, there is no exact formula for “cracking the case” of the Common App essay, but there are plenty of useful steps and tips that can help you write a great essay.

(In a hurry? Download our quick and concise handout that sums up some of the keys to the Common App essay!)

1) Familiarize Yourself With the Common App Prompts and How to Approach Them

The Common App recently released the 2021-2022 essay prompts , which are almost the same as last year’s prompts, but with one BIG difference.

The prompt about problem solving (formerly prompt #4) has been replaced with a prompt about gratitude and how it has motivated you. According to Common App President and CEO Jenny Rickard, this change was inspired by new scientific research on the benefits of writing about gratitude and the positive impact others have had on our lives.

Additionally, the Common App now includes an optional Covid-19 prompt where you can discuss how you’ve personally been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, let’s take a look at each 2021-2022 Common App prompt individually. You’ll notice that every prompt really has two parts to it:

  • share, explain and describe a narrative, and
  • reflect on, analyze, and draw meaning from it.

Let’s take a look.

  Prompt #1: A snapshot of your story

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss a background, identity, or interest that you feel is meaningful to who you are and/or that or sets you apart from others.
  • Reflect on why this attribute is meaningful and how it has shaped you as a person.

  Prompt #2: An obstacle you overcame

Prompt: 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?

  • Recount a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
  • Reflect on how this affected you, what you learned from it, and if it led to any successes later down the line.

  Prompt #3: A belief or idea you questioned or challenged

Prompt: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  • Explain a time that you questioned a particular belief or way of thinking.
  • Elaborate on what prompted this questioning, what the outcome was, and why this outcome was significant.

  Prompt #4: An experience of gratitude that has motivated you

Prompt: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

  • Describe the specific experience or interaction that made you feel a sense of gratitude. Make sure to explain who did something nice for you and why it was surprising or unexpected.
  • Explain, as specifically as possible, how this feeling of gratitude changed or motivated you. What actions did you take a result? How did your mindset change?

  Prompt #5: An accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth

Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  • Describe an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth for you.
  • Reflect on the nature of this growth and/or a new understanding you gained in the process.

  Prompt #6: An interest so engaging you lose track of time

Prompt: 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?

  • Discuss a topic, idea, or interest that is so engaging to you that you lose track of time when focused on it.
  • Reflect on and explain why this interest is so important to you, and your method of learning more about it.

  Prompt #7: An essay topic of your choice

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss any subject matter or philosophical question of interest to you.
  • Reflect on the implications of this subject or question, and how it has shaped you, transformed you, impacted your life, etc.

  Now keep in mind that to some degree, it doesn’t actually matter which prompt you choose to answer, so long as you write and present yourself well. But you obviously want to pick whichever Common App essay prompt speaks to you most, and the one you think will provide you the meatiest and most meaningful material.

This is an outstanding guide to choosing the right Common App essay prompt, but as a rule of thumb, the “right” prompt will probably stand out to you. If you have to rack your brain, for example, to think of a challenge you’ve overcome and how the experience has shaped you, then that prompt probably isn’t the right one.

Authenticity is key, so choose the prompt you can answer thoroughly.

2) Brainstorm

Whether you know immediately which prompt you’re going to choose or not, do yourself a huge favor and brainstorm . Take out a notebook and jot down or free write all of the ideas that spring to your mind for as many of the prompts that you’re considering. You might be surprised what ideas you generate as you start doing this, and you might be surprised which ideas seem to have the most content and examples to elaborate on.

Also, it’s important to note that your subject matter doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or spectacular. You don’t have to recount a near-death experience, an epic overseas adventure, a 180-degree turn of faith, etc. Your ordinary life, when reflected upon thoughtfully, is interesting and profound.

3) Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)

This may sound painfully obvious, but for some of us, it can be hard to stay on topic. Each prompt is posed as a question , so don’t lose sight of that and let your essay devolve into a story about yourself that never really gets at the heart of the prompt.

As you’re drafting your essay—say after each paragraph—pause and refer back to the question, making sure each paragraph plays some part in actually responding to the prompt.

4) Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively

The Common App essay isn’t like many of the other argumentative essays you’ve been taught to write in school. It is argumentative in that you are essentially arguing for why you are a good candidate for a particular college, using your personal experience as support, but it’s more than that.

The Common Application essay is essentially a narrative essay that is reflective and analytical by nature. This means that regardless of which prompt you select, you’ll be sharing something personal about yourself, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what you shared is important.

And even if this isn’t an essay format that you’re accustomed to writing, you can still rely on your knowledge of basic essay structures to help you. You’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.

Let’s talk about those three pieces now.

Introduction

The purpose of an introduction is 1) to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading, and 2) to introduce the reader to the general subject at hand.

So the most important part of the introduction is a unique attention-getter that establishes your personal voice and tone while piquing the reader’s interest. An example of a good hook could be a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, and so on.

Now, you may be wondering, “Do I need a thesis statement?” This is a great question and the simple answer is no.

This is because some students prefer to hook their reader with a bit of mystery and let their story unfold organically without a thesis sentence “spoiling” what is to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a thesis sentence, it just means you don’t need one. It just depends on how you want to build your personal narrative, and what serves you best.

That said, your essay does need a greater message or lesson in it, which is another way of saying a thesis . You just don’t necessarily have to write it out in the introduction paragraph.

It might help you to keep a thesis in mind or even write it down just for your own sake, even if you don’t explicitly use it in your introduction. Doing so can help you stay on track and help you build up to a stronger reflection.

Here are some examples of narrative thesis statements:

  • I moved a lot as a child on account of having a parent in the military, which led me to become highly adaptable to change.
  • The greatest obstacle I’ve overcome is my battle with leukemia, which has taught me both incredible resilience and reverence for the present.
  • An accomplishment that I achieved was making the varsity volleyball team, which has made me grow tremendously as a person, specifically in the areas of self-confidence and collaboration.

As discussed earlier, there are two parts to each prompt: explanation and reflection . Each part should be addressed throughout the essay, but how you organize your content is up to you.

A good rule of thumb for structuring the body of your essay is as follows:

  • Situate your reader: provide context for your story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details. For example, you may frame an essay about an internship at the zoo with the phrase, “Elephants make the best friends.” Your reader knows immediately that the subject matter involves your interaction with animals, specifically elephants.
  • Explain more about your topic and how it affected you, using specific examples and key details.
  • Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.

Note that while there are no set rules for how many paragraphs you should use for your essay, be mindful of breaking paragraphs whenever you naturally shift gears, and be mindful of too-long paragraphs that just feel like walls of text for the reader.

Your conclusion should flow nicely from your elaboration, really driving home your message or what you learned. Be careful not to just dead-end your essay abruptly.

This is a great place to speculate on how you see the subject matter informing your future, especially as a college student and beyond. For example, what might you want to continue to learn about? What problems do you anticipate being able to solve given your experience?

5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly

It may go without saying, but tell your own story, without borrowing from someone else’s or embellishing. Profound reflection, insight, and wisdom can be gleaned from the seemingly simplest experiences, so don’t feel the need to stray from the truth of your unique personal experiences.

Also, make sure to laser in on a highly specific event, obstacle, interest, etc. It is better to go “narrower and deeper” than to go “wider and shallower,” because the more specific you are, the more vivid and engrossing your essay will naturally be.

For example, if you were a camp counselor every summer for the last few years, avoid sharing several summers’ worth of content in your essay. Focus instead on one summer , and even better, on one incident during that summer at camp.

And on that note, remember to be vivid! Follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell . Provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for your readers.

6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone

Unlike in most academic essays, you can sound a bit less stuffy and a bit more like yourself in the Common App essay. Your essay should be professional, but can be conversational. Try reading it aloud; does it sound like you? That’s good!

Be mindful, however, of not getting too casual or colloquial in it. This means avoiding slang, contractions, or “text speak” abbreviations (e.g. “lol”), at least without deliberate context in your story (for example, if you’re recounting dialogue).

You’re still appealing to academic institutions here, so avoid profanity at all costs, and make sure you’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.

7) Revise and Proofread

This one is a biggie. Give yourself time during your application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite your essay several times. Let it grow and change and become the best version it can be. After you write your first draft, walk away from it for a couple days, and return to it with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you feel like adding, removing, or changing.

And of course, make sure your essay is pristine before you submit it. Triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc. Since this isn’t a timed essay you have to sit for (like the ACT essay test , for example), the college admissions readers will expect your essay to be polished and sparkling.

A tried and true method for both ensuring flow and catching errors is reading your essay aloud. You may sound a little silly, but it really works!

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay?

What to avoid in Common App essay - magoosh

Resume Material

Your Common App essay is your chance to provide a deeper insight into you as a person, so avoid just repeating what you’d put on a resume. This is not to say you can’t discuss something mentioned briefly on your resume in greater depth, but the best essays offer something new that helps round out the whole college application.

Controversy

Okay, now this one is a bit tricky. On the one hand, you should write boldly and honestly, and some of the prompts (the one about challenging a particular belief, for example) are appropriate for addressing potentially contentious topics.

But that said, avoid being controversial or edgy for the sake of being controversial or edgy. Be steadfast in your beliefs for the greater sake of the narrative and your essay will be naturally compelling without being alienating to your readers.

Vague Stories

If you have a personal story that you’re not entirely comfortable sharing, avoid it, even if it would make a great essay topic in theory. This is because if you’re not comfortable writing on the subject matter, you’ll end up being too vague, which won’t do your story or overall application justice. So choose a subject matter you’re familiar with and comfortable discussing in specifics.

Unless they really, truly serve your essay, avoid general platitudes and cliches in your language. It is definitely encouraged to have an essay with a moral, lesson, or greater takeaway, but try to avoid summing up what you’ve learned with reductive phrases like “slow and steady wins the race,” “good things come in small packages,” “actions speak louder than words,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on.

What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common App essay examples - magoosh

There are tons of Common App essays out there, including these Common App essay examples accepted at Connecticut College, which include explanations from admissions readers about why they were chosen.

But let’s take a look here at two versions of an example essay, one that is just okay and one that is great.

Both Common App essay examples are crafted in response to prompt #2, which is:

Essay Version #1, Satisfactory Essay:

During my sophomore year of high school, I tore my ACL, which stands for “anterior cruciate ligament,” and is the kiss of death for most athletic careers. This injury ended up being one of the greatest obstacles of my life. It was also, however, a turning point that taught me to see opportunity amidst adversity.

It was particularly awful that I was just about to score a winning goal during a championship hockey game when I was checked by a guy on the opposing team and came crashing down on my knee. It was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I knew immediately that this was going to be bad.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, not really knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class for those students who wanted to continue studying art beyond what was already offered. I had taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed and excelled at them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my scheduled, as required.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began feeling better. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at. I wanted to share the world around me as I saw it with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before. I met and made friends with many new people in that art class, people I would have never known if I hadn’t taken it, which also opened me up to all kinds of new mindsets and experiences.

We’re all familiar with the common adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” and this is exactly what happened for me. I might never have pursued art more seriously if I hadn’t been taken out of hockey. This has served as a great reminder for me to stay open to new opportunities. We never know what will unexpectedly bring us joy and make us more well-rounded people.

Areas for Improvement in Version #1:

  • It lacks a compelling hook.
  • The discussion of the obstacle and reflection upon it are both a bit rushed.
  • It could use more vivid and evocative language.
  • It uses a cliche (“one door closes”).
  • It is somewhat vague at times (e.g. what kinds of “new mindsets and experiences” did the writer experience? In what ways are they now more “well-rounded”?).

Now let’s apply this feedback and revise the essay.

Essay Version #2, Excellent Essay:

My body was splayed out on the ice and I was simultaneously right there, in searing pain, and watching everything from above, outside of myself. It wasn’t actually a “near death” experience, but it was certainly disorienting, considering that just seconds before, I was flying down the ice in possession of the puck, about to score the winning goal of our championship game.

Instead, I had taken a check from an opposing team member, and had torn my ACL (or anterior cruciate ligament), which is the kiss of death for most athletic careers.

My road to recovery included two major surgeries, a couple months on crutches, a year of physical therapy, and absolutely zero athletic activity. I would heal, thankfully, and regain movement in my knee and leg, but I was told by doctors that I may never play hockey again, which was devastating to me. Hockey wasn’t just my passion—it was my life’s goal to play professionally.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, feeling like a ghost haunting my own life, watching everything but unable to participate. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally, and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class after school for those students who wanted to study art more seriously. I had already taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my schedule, as required. And, because of hockey, I certainly had never had afternoons open.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began to feel alive again, like “myself” but renewed, more awake and aware of everything around me. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at, to bring everything I saw to life. It wasn’t just that I’d adopted a new hobby or passion, it was that I began looking more closely and critically at the world around me. I wanted to share what I saw with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before.

My art teacher selected a charcoal portrait of mine to be showcased in a local art show and I’ve never been more proud of myself for anything. Many of my friends, family members, and teammates came to see the show, which blew me away, but also I realized then just how much of my own self worth had been attached to people’s perception of me as a successful athlete. I learned how much better it feels to gain self worth from within. Unlike hockey, which I’d trained to be good at since I was a toddler, art is something that made me much more vulnerable. I didn’t do it to try to be the best, I did it because it felt good. And getting out of my comfort zone in this way gave me a sense of confidence I had never known prior, despite all my time on the ice during high-stakes games.

Today, I’m back in skates and able to play hockey, but will probably not play professionally; while I am disappointed, I’m also at peace with it. We make plans in life, and sometimes life has other plans for us that we have to adapt to and embrace, which is the more profound lesson I’ve learned in the healing process. We can crumple in the face of obstacles, or we can look for a silver lining and allow ourselves to grow into more complex, dynamic, well-rounded people. I don’t know what the rest of life holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to keep making art, and I’m going to keep opening myself up to new opportunities and experiences.

Strengths of Version #2:

  • It has a compelling hook that draws the reader in.
  • It has a clear beginning, middle, and end (expressed as an introduction, body, and conclusion).
  • It directly addresses the prompt at hand and sticks to it.
  • It focuses on one specific incident.
  • It is well balanced in its explanation of and reflection on a given experience.
  • It uses a clear, unique voice and tone as well as vivid, evocative language.
  • It has a logical and cohesive flow.
  • It is highly personal while also polished and professional.

Hopefully these examples have given you ideas of how you can take your Common App essay from good to great. If you have more questions about how to write a Common App essay, keep reading our FAQs below.

Common App essay FAQs - magoosh

How much do I actually have to write for the Common App essay?

Last year, the Common App essay was capped at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words required. The best essays tend to range between 500-650 words.

Think of it this way as you start to draft: 500 words is one single-spaced page (250 words is one double-spaced page), so you should write roughly a page to page and half of typed, single-spaced content.

Where can I find the official Common App essay prompts?

Here are the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts , which are the same as last year’s, with the exception of a new prompt #4 and the addition of a Covid-19 Common App prompt .

Do I need a title for the Common App essay?

A title is not required for the Common App essay, but you are, of course, more than welcome to include one if you’d like.

Where can I go for more information about the Common App essay?

All of the necessary information for the Common App and the Common App essay can be found on the Common Application home page.

For further reading, here are some posts that tackle and dispel common myths about the Common App essay:

Myth: The Common App essay must sound professional. Myth: Colleges can’t tell if someone helps write a common app essay.

If you haven’t already, you can download our free Common App essay checklist .

Happy Writing!

There you have it! The Common App essay can actually be quite rewarding to write if you give yourself enough time to prepare for it thoroughly. Remember, it’s all about you, and you’re the authority on that! So hunker down and don’t forget to have fun in the writing process.

We’d also love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you still have about the Common Application essay? What are you thinking about writing on?

Comment below, and good luck!

Nadyja Von Ebers

Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions . Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn !

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21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

What’s covered:, what makes a good common app essay, is your common app essay strong enough.

When you begin writing your Common App essay, having an example to look at can help you understand how to effectively write your college essay so that it stands apart from others. 

These Common App essay examples demonstrate a strong writing ability and answer the prompt in a way that shows admissions officers something unique about the student. Once you’ve read some examples and are ready to get started, read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong Common App essay.  

Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 

Read our Common App essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.

It’s Personal

The point of the Common App essay is to humanize yourself to a college admissions committee. The ultimate goal is to get them to choose you over someone else! You will have a better chance of achieving this goal if the admissions committee feels personally connected to you or invested in your story. When writing your Common App essay, you should explore your feelings, worldview, values, desires, and anything else that makes you uniquely you.

It’s Not Cliché

It is pretty easy to resort to clichés in college essays. This should be actively avoided! CollegeVine has identified the immigrant’s journey, sports injuries, and overcoming a challenging course as cliché topics . If you write about one of these topics, you have to work harder to stand out, so working with a more nuanced topic is often safer and easier.

It’s Well-Done

Colleges want good writers. They want students who can articulate their thoughts clearly and concisely (and creatively!). You should be writing and rewriting your essays, perfecting them as you go. Of course, make sure that your grammar and spelling are impeccable, but also put in time crafting your tone and finding your voice. This will also make your essay more personal and will make your reader feel more connected to you!

It’s Cohesive

Compelling Common App essays tell a cohesive story. Cohesion is primarily achieved through effective introductions and conclusions , which often contribute to the establishment of a clear theme or topic. Make sure that it is clear what you are getting at, but also don’t explicitly state what you are getting at—a successful essay speaks for itself.

Common App Essay Examples

Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts.

Prompt #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.

Prompt #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?

Prompt #3 :  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #4 : Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? (NOTE: We only have an example for the old prompt #4 about solving a problem, not this current one)

Prompt #5 :  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #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?

Prompt #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.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects.

Prompt #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.

Prompt #1, example #1.

The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.

It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.

Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.

Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.

Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.

Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.

Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning. 

I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.

I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.

I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.

I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.

I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.

Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.

Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.

This student draws readers in with a strong introduction. The essay starts ambiguous—“I led with a spade”—then intrigues readers by gradually revealing more information and details. This makes the reader want to keep reading (which is super important!) As the writer continues, there is a rather abrupt tone shift from suspenseful to explanatory with statements like “It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship” and “Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game.” If you plan to start with an imagery-heavy, emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic introduction, you will need to transition to the content of your essay in a way that does not feel abrupt. 

You will often hear that essays need to “show, not tell.” This essay actually does both. First, the student tells readers the importance of bridge, saying “we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion” and “I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met.” Then, the student shows the lessons they have learned from bridge through a series of parallel sentences: “I nod… sportsmanship and forgiveness” “I greet… not to make excuses” “I chat… it’s never too late to start anything” and so on. This latter strategy is much more effective than the former and is watered down because the student has already told us what we are supposed to get out of these sentences. Remember that your readers are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. Avoid summarizing the moral of your story for them!

Overall, this essay is interesting and answers the prompt. We learn the importance of bridge to this student. The student has a solid grasp of language, a high-level vocabulary, and a valuable message, though they would be better off if they avoided summarizing their point and created more seamless transitions. 

Prompt #1, Example #2

Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.

My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.

Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-­rooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.

After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.

During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.

It was there that I met Emily, a twelve­-year-­old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.

Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.

Due to their endearing (and creative) use of language—with early phrases like “sloppy joes and spaetzle” as well as  “Germerican” and “Denglisch”—readers are inclined to like this writer from the get-go. Though the essay shifts from this lighthearted introduction to more serious subject matter around the third paragraph, the shift is not abrupt or jarring. This is because the student invites readers to feel the transition with them through their inclusion of various anecdotes that inspired their “feelings of cultural homelessness.” And our journey does not end there—we go back to America with the student and see how their former struggles become strengths.

Ultimately, this essay is successful due to its satisfying ending. Because readers experience the student’s struggles with them, we also feel the resolution. The conclusion of this essay is a prime example of the “Same, but Different” technique described in our article on How to End Your College Essay . As the student describes how, in the end, their complicated cultural identity still exists but transitions to a source of strength, readers are left feeling happy for the student. This means that they have formed a connection with the student, which is the ultimate goal!

Prompt #1, Example #3

“1…2…3…4 pirouettes ! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.

For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. 

As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls . I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple- pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more. 

My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four. 

“Dancers, double- pirouettes only.” 

Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements. 

As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake , the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes , gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet. 

With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.

The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity of the student’s writing. It is purposefully reflective. Intentional language creates a clear character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with the student reflecting on their past. 

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the concl usion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

The main weakness of this essay (though this is a stellar essay) is its formulaic beginning. While dialogue can be an effective tool for starting your essay, this student’s introduction feels a bit stilted as the dialogue does not match the overall reflective tone of the essay. Perhaps, in place of “Next goal: five turns,” the student could have posed a question or foreshadowed the growth they ultimately describe.

Prompt #1, Example #4

My paintbrush dragged a flurry of acrylic, the rich colors attaching to each groove in my canvas’s texture. The feeling was euphoric.

From a young age, painting has been my solace. Between the stress of my packed high school days filled with classes and extracurriculars, the glide of my paintbrush was my emotional outlet.

I opened a fresh canvas and began. The amalgamation of assorted colors in my palette melded harmoniously: dark and light, cool and warm, brilliant and dull. They conjoined, forming shades and surfaces sharp, smooth, and ridged. The textures of my paint strokes — powdery, glossy, jagged — gave my painting a tone, as if it had a voice of its own, sometimes shrieking, sometimes whispering.

Rough indigo blue. The repetitive upward pulls of my brush formed layers on my canvas. Staring into the deep blue, I felt transported to the bottom of the pool I swim in daily. I looked upward to see a layer of dense water between myself and the person I aspire to be, an ideal blurred by filmy ripples. Rough blue encapsulates my amorphous, conflicting identity, catalyzed by words spewed by my peers about my “oily hair” and “smelly food”. They caused my ever present disdain toward cultural assemblies; the lehenga I wore felt burdensome. My identity quivers like the indigo storm I painted — a duel between my self-deprecating, validation-seeking self, and the proud self I desire to be. My haphazard paint strokes released my internal turbulence.

Smooth orange-hued green. I laid the color in melodious strokes, forming my figure. The warmer green transitions from the rough blue — while they share elements, they also diverge. My firm brushstrokes felt like the way I felt on my first day as a media intern at KBOO, my local volunteer-driven radio station, committed to the voices of the marginalized. As a naturally introverted speaker, I was forced out of my comfort zone when tasked with documenting a KBOO art exhibition for social media, speaking with hosts to share their diverse, underrepresented backgrounds and inspirations. A rhythmic green strength soon shoved me past internal blue turbulence. My communication skills which were built by two years of Speech and Debate unleashed — I recognized that making a social change through media required amplifying unique voices and perspectives, both my own and others. The powerful green strokes that fill my canvas entrench my growth.

Bright, voluminous coral, hinted with magenta and yellow. I dabbed the color over my figure, giving my painting dimension. The paint, speckled, added depth on every inch it coated. As I moved the color in random but purposeful movements, the vitality ushered into my painting brought a smile across my face. It reminded me of the encounters I had with my cubicle-mate in my sophomore year academic autism research internship, seemingly insignificant moments in my lifelong journey that, in retrospect, wove unique threads into my tapestry. The kindness she brought into work inspired my compassion, while her stories of struggling with ADHD in the workplace bolstered my empathy towards different experiences. Our conversations added blobs of a nonuniform bright color in my painting, binding a new perspective in me.

I added in my final strokes, each contributing an element to my piece. As I scanned my canvas, I observed these elements. Detail added nuance into smaller pictures; they embodied complexities within color, texture, and hue, each individually delivering a narrative. But together, they formed a piece of art— art that could be interpreted as a whole or broken apart but still delivering as a means of communication.

I find beauty in media because of this. I can adapt a complex narrative to be deliverable, each component telling a story. Appreciating these nuances — the light, dark, smooth, and rough — has cultivated my growth mindset. My life-long painting never finishes. It is ever-expanding, absorbing the novel textures and colors I encounter daily.

This essay is distinct from others due to its melodic, lyrical form. This is primarily achieved because the student’s form follows the movements of the paintbrush that they use to scaffold their essay. As readers, we simply flow through the essay, occasionally picking up bits of information about its creator. Without even realizing it, by the end of the essay, admissions officers will know that this student is a swimmer, was in Speech and Debate, is Indian, and has had multiple internships.

A major strength of this essay is the command of language that the student demonstrates. This essay was not simply written, it was crafted. Universities are, of course, interested in the talents, goals, and interests of applicants, but an essay being well-written can be equally important. Writing skills are important because your reader will not learn about your talents, goals, and interests if they aren’t engaged in your essay, but they are also important because admissions officers know that being able to articulate your thoughts is important for success in all future careers.

While this essay is well-written, there are a few moments where it falls out of the flow and feels more like a student advertising their successes. For example, the phrases “media intern at KBOO” and “autism research internship” work better on a resume than they do in this essay. Admissions officers have a copy of your resume and can check your internship experiences after reading your essay! If you are going to use a unique writing style or narrative form, lean into it; don’t try to hybridize it with the standard college essay form. Your boldness will be attractive to admissions officers.

how to format college essay in common app

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the conclusion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

Prompt #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?

Prompt #2, example #1.

“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.

Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.

When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.

As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.

Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.

We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.

We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.

My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.

Here is a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful Common App essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.

Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.

The only part of this essay that could use a bit of work is the introduction. A short introduction can be effective, but this short first paragraph feels thrown in at the last minute and like it is missing its second half. If you are keeping your introduction short, make it matter.

Prompt #2, Example #2

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

This Common App essay is well-written. The student is showing the admissions officers their ability to articulate their points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery, the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.

In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.

While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates their family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feels perfectly justified after they establish that they were pondering their failure.

Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling.

Prompt #2, Example #3

The muffled voices behind thin walls heralded trouble.

They were fighting about money.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened and it wasn’t going to be the last. It was one of those countless nights I had to spend curled up under the blanket while pretending to be asleep. My father had been unemployed for five years now, and my mother, a local kindergarten teacher, was struggling to support the family alone. Our situation was bleak: Savings had run out and my parents could no longer hide our lack of money from me. To make matters worse, I was a few weeks away from starting high school, which would inevitably lead to college, yet another financial stressor for my family.

The argument didn’t sound like it would end soon.

“Why did you spend money on that?” my mother said, with an elongated sigh.

“I had to,” my father said, decidedly.

Every fight over the years had left me in despair and the idea of going through another fight daunted me. I had looked forward to my teen years all my life, an age that allows, for the first time, more responsibility. Indeed, after this fateful night, after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a mounting responsibility to help my family, and started brainstorming.

Always being fascinated by computers, I spent my childhood burying myself under computer cabinets, experimenting with computer parts. Naturally, I wondered if my skills in this area might be marketable.

The next morning, my friend, Naba, mentioned that her computer wasn’t working. A tuk-tuk ride later, and I was at her doorstep, and her mother was leading me to her room. I was off to work: I began examining her computer, like a surgeon carefully manages his scalpels and tools. A proper diagnosis was not far from reach, as I realized a broken pin in her computer’s SATA slot. After an hour of work, and a short trip to the hardware store, I successfully fixed the computer. To my pleasant surprise, Naba’s mother drew out two fresh 500 Rupee notes. One covered the cost of the parts I bought and the other was a token of appreciation. Bidding her goodbye, I went straight back home and put one of the 500 Rupee notes inside my family’s “savings-jar.”

Later that day, I devised a plan. I told my friends to spread the word that I was available to fix computers. At first, I got only one or two calls per week. I would pick up the computer from my client’s home, fix it quickly, and return it, thus earning myself a commission. While I couldn’t market my services at a competitive price, because I wasn’t able to buy the parts wholesale, I compensated by providing convenience. All my clients had to do was call me once and the rest was taken care of. Thus, my business had the best customer service in town.

At the beginning of my junior year, after two years of expanding my business through various avenues, I started buying computer parts from hardware suppliers in bulk at a cheaper rate. My business grew exponentially after that. 

Before long, I was my town’s go-to tech person. In this journey throughout high school, I started realizing that I had to create my own opportunities and not just curl up under a blanket, seeking only comfort, as I used to. Interacting with people from all walks of life became my forte and a sense of work ethic developed in me. My business required me to be an all-rounder– have the technical skills, be an easily approachable person, and manage cash flow. Slowly becoming better at this, I even managed to sway admins of a local institution to outsource their computer hardware purchases and repairs through me. As my business upsized throughout the years, I went from being helpless to autonomous – the teenager I always aspired to be.

This essay truly feels like a story—almost making you forget you are reading a college essay. The student’s voice is strong throughout the entire essay and they are able to give us insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations at every step of the story. Letting the reader into personal challenges like financial struggles can be daunting in a college essay, but the way this student used that setback to establish an emotional ethos to their narrative was well done.

Because the essay is essentially just telling a story, there’s a very natural flow that makes it enjoyable and easy to read. The student establishes the conflict at the beginning, then describes their solution and how they implemented it, and finally concludes with the lessons they took away from this experience. Transitions at the beginning of paragraphs effortlessly show the passage of time and how the student has progressed through the story.

Another reason this essay is so successful is because of the abundance of details. The reader truly feels like they are hiding in the room with the student as their parents yell because of the inclusion of quotes from the argument. We understand the precision and care they have for fixing computers because of the allusion to a surgeon with their scalpel. Not only does this imagery make the story more enticing, it also helps the reader gain a deeper appreciation for the type of person this student is and the adversity they have overcome.

If there were one thing this essay could do to improve, it would be to include a resolution to the conflict from the beginning. The student tells us how this business helped them grow as a person, but we don’t ever get to find out if they were able to lessen the financial burden on their parents or if they continued to struggle despite the student working hard. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it would be nice to return to the conflict and acknowledge the effect they had on it, especially since this prompt is all about facing challenges.

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #3, example #1.

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

This essay is cohesive as it centers around the theme of identity and the ability for two identities to coexist simultaneously (an interesting theme!). It uses the Full Circle ending strategy as it starts with a metaphor about food touching and ends with “I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.”

The main issue with this essay is that it could come off as cliché, which could be irritating for admissions officers. The story described is notably similar to High School Musical (“I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me”) and feels slightly overstated. 

At times, this essay is also confusing. In the first paragraph, it feels like the narrative is actually going to be about separating your food (and is somehow going to relate to the older brothers?). It is not entirely clear that this is a metaphor. Also, when the writer references the third submission day and then works backward to explain what a submission day is and that there are multiple throughout the semester, the timeline gets unnecessarily confusing. Reworking the way this paragraph unfolded would have been more compelling and less distracting.

Overall, this essay was interesting but could have been more polished to be more effective.

Prompt #3, Example #2

I walked into my middle school English class, and noticed a stranger behind my teacher’s desk. “Hello,” she said. “Today I will be your substitute teacher.” I groaned internally. “Let me start off by calling roll. Ally?” “Here!” exclaimed Ally. “Jack?” “Here.” “Rachel?” “Here.” “Freddie?” “Present.” And then– “…?” The awkward pause was my cue. “It’s Jasina,” I started. “You can just call me Jas. Here.” “Oh, Jasina. That’s unique.” The word “unique” made me cringe. I slumped back in my seat. The substitute continued calling roll, and class continued as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Just a typical moment in a middle school, but I hated every second of it.

My name is not impossible to pronounce. It appears challenging initially, but once you hear it, “Jas-een-a”, then you can manage it. My nickname, Jas (pronounced “Jazz”), is what most people call me anyway, so I don’t have to deal with mispronunciation often. I am thankful that my parents named me Jasina (a Hebrew name), but whenever someone hears my name for the first time, they comment, and I assume they’re making assumptions about me. “Wow, Jas is a cool name.” She must be pretty cool.“I’ve never heard the name Jasina before.” She must be from somewhere exotic. “Jas, like Jazz?” She must be musical and artsy. None of these assumptions are bad, but they all add up to the same thing: She must be unique. 

When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task, but I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red. I knew it was really yellow, but you could always tell which drawings were mine. During snack time, we could choose between apple juice and grape juice. I liked apple juice more, but if everyone else was choosing apple, then I had to choose grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. I tried to continue this habit into middle school, but it backfired. When everyone became obsessed with things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber and blue mascara (that was a weird trend), my resistance of the norm made me socially awkward. I couldn’t talk to people about anything because we had nothing in common. I was too different. 

After 8th grade, I moved to Georgia, and I was dreading being the odd one out among kids who had grown up together. Then I discovered that my freshman year would be Cambridge High School’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from 5 different schools, there was no real sense of “normal”. I panicked. If there was no normal, then how could I be unique? That’s when I realized that I had spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were or what I really cared about. 

It was time to find out. I stopped concentrating on what everyone else was doing and started to focus on myself. I joined the basketball team, I performed in the school musical, and I enrolled in Chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I took art classes, joined clubs, and did whatever I thought would make me happy. And it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. My friends and I had things in common, but there was no one who could say that I was exactly like anyone else. I had finally become my own person.

My father named me Jasina because he wanted my nickname to be “Jazz.” According to Webster, “jazz” is “music characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate distortions of pitch.” Basically, jazz is music that is off-beat and unpredictable. It cannot be strictly defined. 

That sounds about right. 

Right off the bat, this essay starts extremely strong. The description of attendance in a class with ample quotes, awkward pauses, and the student’s internal dialogue immediately puts us in the middle of the action and establishes a lot of sympathy for this student before we’ve learned anything else. 

The strength of this essay continues into the second paragraph where the use of quotes, italics, and interjections from the student continues. All of these literary tools help the student express her voice and allow the reader to understand what this student goes through on a daily basis. Rather than just telling the reader people make assumptions about her name, she shows us what these assumptions look and sound like, and exactly how they make her feel.

The essay further shows us how the student approached her name by providing concrete examples of times she’s been intentionally unique throughout her life. Describing her drawing red suns and choosing grape juice bring her personality to life and allow her to express her deviance from the “norm” in a much more engaging and visual way than simply telling the reader she would go against the grain to be different on purpose.

One part of the essay that was a bit weaker than the others was the paragraph about her in high school. Although it was still well written and did a nice job of demonstrating how she got involved in multiple groups to find her new identity, it lacked the same level of showing employed in previous paragraphs. It would have been nice to see what “socially flexible” means either through a conversation she had with her friends or an example of a time she combined her interests from different groups in a way that was uniquely her.

The essay finishes off how it started: extremely strong. Taking a step back to fully explain the origin of her name neatly brings together everything mentioned in this essay. This ending is especially successful because she never explicitly states that her personality aligns with the definition of jazz. Instead, she relies on the points she has made throughout the essay to stick in the reader’s memory so they are able to draw the connection themselves, making for a much more satisfying ending for the reader.

Prompt #4 (OLD PROMPT; NOT THE CURRENT PROMPT): 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.

Prompt #4, example #1.

“Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” 

Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation. 

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one. 

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand. 

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one. 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself. 

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith. 

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities. 

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension. 

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities. 

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and a strong conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.

As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!

The main weakness of this essay is that it is slightly confusing at times—how the other students found coaches feels unintentionally under-explained (a simple phrase like “through pleading and attracting sympathy” in the fourth paragraph could have served the writer well) and a dojang is never defined. Additionally, the turn of the essay or “volta” could’ve packed a bigger punch. It is put quite simply with “I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.” A more suspenseful reveal could’ve served the author well because more drama did come later.

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #5, example #1.

Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life. 

Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.

My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.

Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.

This essay feels real and tells readers a lot about the writer. To start at the beginning, the intro is 10/10. It has drama, it has emotions, and it has the reader wanting more.

And, when you keep going, you get to learn a lot about a very resilient and mature student. Through sentences like “I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover” and “Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities,” the reader shows us that they are aware of their resilience and maturity, but are not arrogant about it. It is simply a fact that they have proven!

Sometimes writing about adversity can feel exploitative or oddly braggy. This student backs up everything they say with anecdotes that prove and show their strength and resilience, rather than just claiming their strengths. When I read this essay, I want to cheer for its writer! And I want to be able to continue cheering for them (perhaps, if I were an admissions officer, that would make me want them at my school!).

Prompt #5, Example #2

Armed with a red pen, I slowly walked across the room to a small, isolated table with pink stools. Swinging her legs, my young student beamed and giggled at me, slamming her pencil bag on the table and bending over to pick up one of her toys. Natalie always brought some new toy with her to lessons—toys which I would sternly take away from her and place under the table until she finished her work. At the tutoring center where I work, a strict emphasis on discipline leaves no room for paper crowns or rubber chickens. 

Today, she had with her a large stuffed eagle from a museum. As she pulled out her papers, I slid the eagle to the other side of the table. She looked eagerly around, attempting to chat with other students as I impatiently called her attention to her papers. “I should name my eagle,” she chimed, waving her pencil in the air. I cringed—there was no wondering why Natalie always had to sit by herself. She was the antithesis of my academic values, and undoubtedly the greatest adversary of my teaching style.  

As the lesson progressed, Natalie became more fitful; she refused to release her feathered friend, and kept addressing the bird for help with difficult problems. We both grew increasingly more frustrated. Determined to tame this wryly, wiggling student, I stood my ground, set on converting this disobedient child to my calm, measured ways of study.  

As time slowly crept by, I noticed that despite Natalie’s cheerful tone and bright smile, the stuffed eagle was troublesomely quiet and stern-faced. Much like myself. Both the eagle and I were getting nowhere in this lesson—so we hatched a quick plan. Lifting the eagle up in the air, I started reading in my best impersonation of an eagle, squawking my way through a spelling packet. The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed. She sang out every letter, clapped her hands at every page, and followed along with the eagle, stopping at every few letters to declare that “E is for eagle” and pet her teacher fondly on the beak.  

Despite my ostensibly dissatisfied attitude toward my students, I did not join the tutoring center simply to earn money. I had always aspired to help others achieve their fullest potential. As a young adult, I felt that it was time for me to step out of the role of a pupil and into the influential role of a teacher, naively believing that I had the maturity and skill to adapt to any situation and help these students reach their highest achievements academically. For the most part, the role of a stern-faced, strict instructor helped me get by in the workplace, and while my students never truly looked happy, I felt that it was part of the process of conditioning a child to learn. 

Ironically, my transition to adulthood was the result of a stuffed animal. It was indisputable that I always had the skill to instruct others; the only thing needed to instruct someone is knowledge of the subject. However, it was only upon being introduced to a stuffed bird in which I realized that students receive the most help not from instructors, but teachers. While almost anyone can learn material and spit it back out for someone, it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens. From my young pupil and her little bird, I have undergone a change in attitude which reflects a growth in maturity and ability to improve the lives of others that I hope to implement in my future role as a student, activist, and physician. My newfound maturity taught me that the letter “e” stands for many things: empathy, experience, enthusiasm, and eagle.

In this essay, the student effectively explores their values (and how they learned them!) then identifies these values through a reflective conclusion. While the writer humbly recognizes the initial faults in their teaching style, they do not position their initial discipline or rigidity as mean or poorly intentioned—simply ineffective. This is important because, when you are discussing a transition like this, you don’t want admissions officers to think of you as having been a bad person. 

My favorite part about this essay is its subtlety. The major shift in the essay comes through the simple sentence “The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed.” The facts of this narrative are not too complicated. Simply put, the writer was strict then learned that it’s sometimes more effective not to be strict. The complexity of this narrative comes through reflection. Notably, through the ending, the student identifies their values (which they hadn’t given a name to before): “it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens.” 

The final sentence of this essay ties things up very nicely. Readers are left satisfied with the essay and convinced that its writer is a kind human with a large capacity for reflection and consideration. That is a great image to paint of yourself!

Prompt #5, Example #3

When it’s quiet, I can still hear the Friday night gossip and giggles of my friends. It’s a stark contrast from the environment I’ve known all my life, my home. My family has always been one to keep to themselves; introverts with a hard-working mentality—my father especially. He spent most of his time at work and growing up without him around, I came to be at peace with the fact that I’d probably never really get to know him. The thought didn’t bother me at the time because I felt that we were very different. He was stoic and traditional; I was trying to figure out who I was and explore my interests. His disapproval of the American music I listened to and my penchant for wearing hand-me-downs made me see him as someone who wanted to restrain my individuality. That explains why I relied heavily on my friends throughout middle and high school; they liked me for who I was. I figured I would get lonely without my friends during quarantine, but these last few months stuck at home gave me the time to make a new friend: my father. 

It was June. I had the habit of sleeping with my windows open so I wouldn’t need to set an alarm; the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the neighborhood children playing outside would wake me. One morning, however, it was not the chirping of birds or the laughter of children I awoke to, but the shrill of a saw. Through the window screen, on the grass below, my father stood cutting planks of wood. I was confused but didn’t question him—what he did with his time was none of my business. It was not until the next day, when I was attempting to work on a sculpture for an art class, that the sounds of hammering and drills became too much to ignore. Seeking answers, I trudged across my backyard towards the corner he was in. On that day, all there was to see was the foundation of what he was building; a shed. My intrigue was replaced with awe; I was impressed by the precision of his craft. Sharp corners, leveled and sturdy, I could imagine what it would look like when the walls were up and the inside filled with the tools he had spread around the yard. 

Throughout the week, when I was trying to finish my sculpture for art class—thinking about its shape and composition—I could not help but think of my father. Art has always been a creative outlet for me, an opportunity to express myself at home. For my dad, his craftsmanship was his art. I realized we were not as different as I had thought; he was an artist like me. My glue and paper were his wood and nails.

That summer, I tried to spend more time with my dad than I have in all my 18 years of life. Waking up earlier than usual so we could have our morning coffees together and pretending to like his favorite band so he’d talk to me about it, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to speak with him. In getting to know him, I’ve recognized that I get my artistry from him. 

Reflecting on past relationships, I feel I am now more open to reconnecting with people I’ve perhaps misjudged. In reconciling, I’ve realized I held some bitterness towards him all these years, and in letting that go, my heart is lighter. Our reunion has changed my perspective; instead of vilifying him for spending so much time at work, I can appreciate how hard he works to provide for our family. When I hear him tinkering away at another home project, I can smile and look forward to asking him about it later.

This is an outstanding example of the great things that can be articulated through a reflective essay. As we read the essay, we are simply thinking alongside its author—thinking about their past relationship with their father, about their time in quarantine, about aspects of themselves they think could use attention and growth. 

While we reflect, we are also centered by the student’s anecdote about the sculpture and the shed during quarantine. By centering us in real-time, the student keeps us engaged in the reflection.

The main strength here is the maturity we see on the part of its writer. The student doesn’t say “and I realized my father was the best dad in the world;” they say “and I realized my father didn’t have to be the best dad in the world for me to give him a chance.” Lots of students show themselves as motivated, curious, or compassionate in their college essays, but a reflective essay that ends with a discussion of resentment and forgiveness shows true maturity.

Prompt #5, Example #4

As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?

During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice. 

Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.

As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.

Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.

This essay is structurally-sound, with the student’s journey learning to savor mantou and their journey trying to find their voice serving as outstanding parallels. Additionally, as they describe the journey to find a voice in their writing, they definitely show off their voice! The clear introduction provides a great image and draws us in with an intriguing question. Additionally, their little inserts like “a strand of sweetness” and “falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had” work very well.

When the student describes their first published poem, however, their writing gets a little more stilted. This is a common error students make when writing about their achievements. If this student is writing about the craft that goes into writing, we should hear the details of the craft that went into the poem, instead of simply learning that they “opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum.” This is interesting information but would be stronger if it were supplemented by descriptions of the voice they created, comparisons to the styles of other poets, and analysis of their stylistic choices. This would make the essay feel more cohesive, centering entirely around concepts of voice and style.

Prompt #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?

Note: We don’t have a stellar example for this prompt, so instead, we’re sharing a couple examples that need improvement, and what can be done to make the essays more engaging. 

Prompt #6, Example #1

What factors shape the depth and allure of a literary character? This is the exact question I asked myself as my eyes riveted on the white pages covered with little black letters.

I was reading my old novels. I’ve written three novels and many short stories. Each of them repetitively portrayed the hero as intelligent and funny, and the antagonists as cold and manipulative. I came to the appalling realization that my characters were flat, neither exciting nor original. They just didn’t stand out! 

As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Vice and virtue are to the artist material to an art.’ Their mixing makes a novel addictive because its plot is rich with turnarounds and its characters more engaging. In his famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wilde deconstructs the psyche of his characters. He brilliantly plays with the protagonist’s youthful appearance and the decaying portrait to build a truly unique idiosyncratic identity. The persona of Dorian Gray is so complicated a psychologist could analyze it for hours on end!

Inspired by this character, It was my turn to explore good and evil into characters to make my stories more enthralling. I skillfully played with vice and virtue, separating, merging them… My latest novel is the fruit of this exercise. I chose to set it in 20th century London. Its opium dens and exclusive salons; middle-class workers, peasants and politicians breathed the same newly industrialized air; modernity in Blackfriars bridge and tradition in St Paul’s Cathedral; all of these contrasts set the perfect environment for my characters to grow. Following Laclos’ Valmont, Maupassant’s Georges Duroy and Duffy’s Myra Hindley, I played with those contrasts to present an intricate character, truly creative – unlike my previous ones. Insanity, religion, depravity and love are merged into each character, reflecting Edwardian London. As I reflected on my work, I realized vice and virtue altogether made them more human and credible. These characters stood out, they were interesting, I even wanted to know more about them! 

After rewriting, erasing, typing, and thinking countless times, I realized writing is a unique exercise. Nothing is definite when you are holding a fountain pen, hearing its screeching sound on the white paper and watching the ebony ink forming letters. When I wasn’t too happy about a change I made in my story, I simply erased and rewrote it. Everything I imagined could happen: white pages are the only place the mouse eats the cat or the world is taken by a zombie attack! 

This exact exercise of diversifying my characters satisfied my relentless curiosity. Asking myself ‘how could this character be if she had lost her parents in a maritime tragedy?’ allowed me to view the world from different perspectives (some very dissimilar to my own) and considering how each character would react to different situations brought them to life. As I was writing, I was aiming to change the usual narratives I had previously traversed. I loved experimenting with countless personality traits in my characters – minutes flowing, my hand dancing on the paper as my mind was singing words coming alive….

There were times where my hand just stopped writing and my mind stopped raging. I tried thinking differently, changing a character’s background, the story, the setting. I was inspired by Zola, A.Carter, Fitzgerald, the Brontë sisters… I could observe the different reactions of their characters, and reflect on mine theoretically. But it was only part one of the work: I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically, always leading to fresh ideas – I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting. Both theory and practice are required to gain intellectual independence and experience, in writing and more globally: before I can change a character, I have to understand it. Before we can change the world, we have to understand it.

The main strength of this essay is the authenticity of the topic the student chose. They aren’t making anything up or stretching the truth. Writing is something that captivates them, and that captivation shines through—particularly through their fourth paragraph (where they geek out over specific plots and characters) and their fifth paragraph (where they joyfully describe how writing has no limitations). Admissions officers want to see this passion and intensity in applicants! The fact that this student has already written three novels also shows dedication and is impressive.

The main weakness of this essay is its structure. Ironically, it is not super captivating. The essay would have been more compelling if the student utilized a “anecdote – answer – reflection” structure. This student’s current introduction involves a reflective question, citations about their past writing experience, then their thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Instead, this student could’ve provided one cohesive (and powerful!) image of them being frustrated with their own writing then being inspired by Dorian Gray. This would look something like:

“I stayed up three nights in a row studying my own writing—bored by my own writing. The only thing more painful than seeing failure in the fruits of your labor is not seeing a path for improvement. I had written three novels and numerous short stories, and all I could come up with was funny and intelligent heroes going up against cold and manipulative villains. What kind of writer was so consistently cliche? On the third night, I wandered over to my bookshelf. Mrs. Dalloway caught my eye (it has such a beautiful cover). I flipped through. Then, I grabbed Giovanni’s Room . I was so obsessed with my shortcomings that I couldn’t even focus long enough to see what these authors were doing right. I picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and decided to just start reading. By the end of the night, I was captivated.”

An introduction like this would flow nicely into the student describing their experience with Dorian Gray then, because of that experience, describing how they have altered their approach to writing. The conclusion of this essay would then be this student’s time for reflection. Instead of repeating content about their passion—“I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically” and “I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting”—, the student could dedicate their conclusion to reflecting on the reasons that writing is so captivating or the ways that (until the day they die) writers will always be perfecting their craft.

This essay is a great example of how important it is to pick a topic that truly excites you. It also illustrates how important it is to effectively structure that excitement.

Prompt #6, Example #2

Astonished by the crashing sound of waves in my ear, I was convinced this magical shell actually held the sound of the big blue sea — my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop . It distinctly reminded me of the awestruck feeling I had when I witnessed the churning waves of a windy night by the ocean the previous weekend; I lost track of time gazing at the distant moonlit border dividing our world from the ever-growing black void. Turning to my mom, I inquired curiously, “Can we go to the place where the water ends one day?”

She explained to me I could never reach the end of the ocean because the harsh line I had seen was actually an illusion called the horizon —  there was no material end to the ocean. For a mind as young as mine was, the idea of infinity was incomprehensible. As my infatuation with the ocean continued to grow, I finally understood that regardless of how far I travel, the horizon is unattainable because it’s not a physical limit. This idea is why the ocean captivates me — no matter how much you discover, there is always more to explore. 

Learning about and exploring the ocean provided an escape from one reality into another; though we are on the same planet, it’s an entirely separate world. Through elementary and middle school, I devoted vast amounts of my free time to learning about simpler concepts like a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and coral reef ecosystems. I rented countless documentaries and constantly checked out books from my local library — my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” This episode remained memorable because it was centered around the impacts of fossil fuels on marine animals; it was the first time I’d learned about the impending crisis we are faced with due to the human mistreatment of our planet.

Prior to viewing that episode, I relied on the ocean as an outlet — I fueled all of my emotions into studying marine organisms. Once I learned of its grave future, I delved into the world of environmental activism. This path was much more disheartening than studying echolocation — inevitable death due to climate change took a toll on my mental health. I attended two climate strikes in November of my sophomore year. Following the strikes, I joined Sunrise Movement Sacramento, a youth-led climate justice organization advocating for the Green New Deal. While analyzing legislation and organizing protests were significant takeaways from my experience with climate activism, they were not the most important. I became an organizer because of my love for the ocean and I remain an organizer because of my passion for dissolving the disproportionalities marginalized groups face due to the sacrificing of people’s livelihood for the sake of profit. The more I learned about our modern society, the more hopeless I grew that I could see any significant change within my lifetime.

However, this hopelessness comes in waves; every day, I remind myself of the moment I discovered the horizon. Or the moment I first dove into the beautiful waters of the Hawaiian coast and immediately was surrounded by breathtaking seas of magnificent creatures and coral gardens — life felt ethereal and beautiful. I remind myself that like the ocean, the vast majority of the universe has yet to be discovered; that distant border holds infinite opportunity to learn. In a universe as vast as ours, and life as rare as ours, individuals still choose to prioritize avarice over our planet. Despite this grave individualism, the ocean reminds me every day there is hope in the fight for a better world. Though I will never discover every inch of the ocean’s floor, I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.

Sometimes the path to a great essay is taking something normal and using it to show admissions officers who you are and what you value—that is precisely this student’s approach! Finding the ocean fascinating is not unique to this student. Tons of kids (and adults, too!) are obsessed with the ocean. What this student does is take things a step further as they explain their curiosity about the ocean in relation to their pain about the destruction of the environment. This capacity for reflection is great!

This student shows a good control of language through their thematic centering on ocean and horizons that carries through their essay—with ”this hopelessness comes in waves” and “I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.” The details provided throughout are also effective at keeping readers engaged—things like “ my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop” and “ my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.”

The main weakness of this essay is the lack of reflection when the student discusses environmental activism. There’s reflection on the student’s connection to the ocean and horizons at the beginning and at the end, but when the student discusses activism, the tone shifts from focusing on their internal thoughts to their external actions. Remember, a lot of students write about environmental activism, but not a lot of students write about an emotional connection to the ocean as an impetus for environmental activism. This student would stand out more to admissions officers if they had dug into questions of what the ocean means to them (and says about them) in the paragraphs beginning “Learning about and exploring the ocean…” and “Prior to viewing that episode.”

Prompt #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.

Prompt #7, example #1.

Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due. 

It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me. 

Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror. 

Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).  

Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day). 

Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control. 

Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain.

This essay is relatable yet personal! The writer makes themself supremely human through discussing the universal subject of showering. That being said, an essay about showering could easily turn boring while still being relatable. This writer keeps its relatable moments interesting and fun through vivid descriptions of common feelings including “causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely” and “the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.”

While describing a universal feeling, this student also cleverly and intentionally mentions small facts about their life through simple phrases like “I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me” and “the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me.” To put it simply, though we are talking about a shower, we learn about so much more!

And, at the end, the student lets us know that that is exactly why they love showers. Showers are more than meets the eye! With this insightful and reflective ending (“the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy”), readers learn about this student’s capacity for reflection, which is an important capacity as you enter college.

The one major error that this writer commits is that of using a trite transition. The inclusion of “Honestly though” at the beginning of this student’s ending detracts from what they are trying to say and sticks out in their writing.

Prompt #7, Example #2

Steam whooshed from the pot as I unveiled my newest creation: duck-peppercorn-chestnut dumplings. The spicy, hearty aroma swirled into the kitchen, mingling with the smell of fresh dough. Grinning, I grabbed a plump dumpling with chopsticks, blew carefully, and fed it into the waiting mouth of my little sister. Her eyes widening, she vigorously nodded and held up five stubby fingers. I did a little happy dance in celebration and pulled my notebook out of my apron pocket. Duck-peppercorn-chestnut: five stars.

In my household, dumplings are a far cry from the classic pork and cabbage. Our menu boasts everything from the savory lamb-bamboo shoot-watercress to the sweet and crispy apple-cinnamon-date. A few years ago, my sister claimed she was sick of eating the same flavors over and over. Refusing to let her disavow our family staple, I took her complaint as a challenge to make the tastiest and most unconventional dumplings to satisfy her. With her as my taste tester and Mum in charge of dough, I spent months experimenting with dozens of odd ingredient combinations. 

During those days spent covered in flour, my dumplings often reminded me of myself—a hybrid of ingredients that don’t usually go together. I am the product of three distinct worlds: the suburbs of Boston, the rural Chinese village of [location removed], and the coastal city of [location removed]. At school, I am both the STEM nerd with lightning-fast mental math and the artistic plant mom obsessed with funky earrings. I love all that is elegant, from Chinese calligraphy to the rolling notes of the Gourd flute, yet I can be very not elegant, like when my sister and I make homemade slime. When I’m on the streets, marching for women’s rights and climate action, I’m loud, bellowing from the bottom of my gut. In the painting studio, though, I don’t speak unless spoken to, and hours can slip by like minutes. I’m loud and quiet. Elegant and messy. Nerdy and artistic. Suburban, rustic, and metropolitan.

While I’m full of odd combinations, they are only seemingly contradictory. Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper, different facets of my identity also converge. After my tenth-grade summer, when I spent six weeks studying design at art school and another three researching the brain at Harvard Med, I began asking myself: What if I mixed art and neuroscience together? That fall, I collaborated with my school’s art museum for an independent research project, exploring two questions: How are aesthetic experiences processed in the brain? And how can neuroscience help museums design exhibits that maximize visitor engagement? I combed through studies with results from tightly controlled experiments, and I spent days gathering my own qualitative data by observing museum visitors and asking them questions. With the help of my artistic skills, I could identify the visual and spatial elements of the exhibits that best held visitors’ attention. 

By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am—art and neuroscience—I realized I shouldn’t see the different sides of myself as separate. I learned to instead seek the intersections between aspects of my identity. Since then, I have mixed art with activism to voice my opinions nonverbally, created Spotify playlists with both Chinese and western pop, and written flute compositions using music theory and math. In the future, by continuing to combine my interests, I want to find my niche in the world. I can make a positive impact on society without having to choose just one passion. As of now, my dream is to be a neuroscientist who designs art therapy treatments for mental health patients. Who knows though? Maybe my calling is to be a dim sum chef who teaches pottery on the side. I don’t know where I’ll go, but one thing’s for sure—being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.

This essay is outstanding because the student seems likable and authentic. With the first image of the student’s little sister vigorously nodding and holding up “five stubby fingers,” we find ourselves intrigued by the student’s daily life. They additionally show the importance of family, culture, and creativity in their life—these are great things to highlight in your essay!

After the introduction, the student uses their weird dumpling anecdote to transition to a discussion of their unique intersections. This is achieved smoothly because weirdness/uniqueness is the focus of both of these topics. Additionally, the comparison is not awkward because dumplings are used as more than just a transition, but rather are the through-line of the essay—the student weaves in little phrases like “Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper,” “By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am,” and “being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.” This gives the essay its cohesive feel.

Authenticity comes through in this essay as the student recognizes that they don’t know what the future holds. They just know what kind of a person they are—a passionate one! 

One change that would improve this student’s essay would be focusing on fewer intersections in their third and last paragraph. The student mentions STEM, music, family activities, activism, and painting, which makes it feel like a distraction in middle of the essay. Focus on the most important things you want to show admissions officers—you can sit at intersections, but you can’t be interested in everything.

Prompt #7, Example #3

“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned. 

But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach. 

I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed. 

To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude. 

It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel! 

Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness. 

A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”

This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.

At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!

Prompt #7, Example #4

Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.

I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.

“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008

Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.

“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019

I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.

With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.

“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020

Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.

With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.

I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”

The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.

Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.

At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!

Prompt #7, Example #5

“We’re ready for take-off!” 

The tires hit the tarmac and began to accelerate, and I just realized what I had signed up for. For 24 hours straight, I strapped myself into a broken-down SUV whereas others chose the luxury of soaring through the skies for a mere two hours. Especially with my motion sickness and driving anxiety, I would call myself crazy too.

To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.

The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box. 

All of a sudden, I noticed brightly colored rocks in the distance, ones I had been dying to see for years. Their fluorescence popped amongst the magnificent winding hills as the sunset became romantic in hue. The desert glistened with mirages of deep blue water unlike anything I had ever seen. Nevada was home, but home always seemed to be just desert and casinos. For once, I looked forward to endless desert outside my window rather than a sea of clouds.

I never realized how little I discovered of the world beyond home. For years I complained about how there was nothing to do or discover outside. Not once did I set out to prove myself wrong. Instead, I chose a daily routine of homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV. However, as summer vacation ended, I decided to set my stubbornness aside and finally give this drive back home a chance. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my favorite trip of all time. 

As we drove along, the world chose to prove me wrong when I discovered Heaven on Earth along Shasta Lake. I stood out of the sunroof, surrounded by lush green mountains and fog. I extended my arms out and felt a sense of flight that no plane could ever take me on. As the water vapor kissed my face, I floated into a dreamland I never wanted to leave. I didn’t have to go to great lengths to discover the beauty of the world; it was right in front of me.  From this moment on, comfort and convenience would no longer be my best friends. Rather than only looking for famous travel destinations or following carefully mapped-out routes, I would let curiosity lead the way. 

Since then, my daily life has been anything but routine. I’m proud to boast of my family’s homemade kombucha attempts, of flights purchased and taken in one day, and of a home flooded with knick-knacks from thrifting trips. Every day I set out to try something new, see a different perspective, and go beyond normal. Whether it is by trying a new recipe using taro, making a risky fashion choice with wide-legged pants, or listening to a new music genre in Spanish, I always act with curiosity first.

Over the years, I have devoted my time towards learning Swedish, building computers, and swimming. Although my accent is horrid, some computers almost broke, and even a starfish would outswim me, I continue to enjoy activities I once criticized. For me, there is no enjoyment without some risk. Nobody I know is a kazoo-playing, boogie-board loving, boba connoisseur like me.

This essay is an Overcoming Challenges story that centers around a single anecdote. The structure works nicely as the student describes what they were like before their road trip, what happened on the road trip, and what they were like after. 

The most major improvement that this essay needs is better-communicated authenticity. At the beginning, it feels a bit gimmicky. The student describes their preparedness, particularly the fact that they always carry a first aid kit, and it’s not super believable. Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” it feels like we are in a sitcom and the student is that funny obsessive kid. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and you want to make yourself appear profoundly real.

On a similar note, the narrative arc of this essay isn’t entirely believable. The student describes a large personality and value shift but doesn’t describe any struggles that accompany the shift. A quick shift like that is far from easy. On the other hand, if the immediacy of the shift was easy, they could write about moments after their shift in mindset when they have felt troubled by residual desires to stay in their comfort zone, instead of writing “I always act with curiosity first.”

The greatest strength of this essay is the paragraphs beginning “I never realized how little…” and “As we drove along…” The fixation on comfort seems much more believable when it involves “homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV.” The descriptions of the drive provide beautiful, evocative imagery. And it’s topped off with some nice reflection! Digging into this great portion of the essay would make this an even stronger essay!

Want to see more examples? Check out this post with 16 strong essay examples from top schools , including common supplemental essay questions.

At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application.

That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.

Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay. 

That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

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How to Write the Common App Essay

how to format college essay in common app

By Eric Eng

A close up look of an application paper being filled out by a female student

As a student applying to college, your Common App essay plays a critical role in painting a vivid and personal picture of who you are beyond grades and test scores. This guide on how to write the Common App essay will walk you through the steps of crafting a captivating essay that will impress college admissions officers and increase your chances of being accepted into your dream school.

Understanding the Purpose of the Common App Essay

The Common App essay isn’t just another college essay – it is your opportunity to reveal your true personality, demonstrate your creative prowess, and convince admissions officers that you are a unique individual who has a lot to offer their institution.

A woman sitting on a desk while typing.

When it comes to college admissions, the Common App essay holds a special place. It serves as a gateway for you to showcase your abilities beyond your academic achievements. While your grades and test scores provide a glimpse into your intellectual capabilities, the Common App essay allows you to present a more comprehensive picture of who you are.

Imagine yourself as a puzzle, with each piece representing a different aspect of your identity. The Common App essay acts as the glue that brings these pieces together, allowing admissions officers to see the complete picture of your character, values, and life experiences.

The Role of the Common App Essay in College Admissions

Colleges look for students who are more than just academically inclined. They want individuals who can bring their diverse experiences, perspectives, and interests to the campus. The Common App essay provides colleges with this holistic view of you as a person, not just a student. It is a window into your personality, character, values, and life experiences.

Through the Common App essay, admissions officers gain insight into your passions, motivations, and the unique qualities that set you apart from other applicants. It allows them to understand how you might contribute to the campus community, both academically and socially. This essay is your chance to demonstrate your potential to thrive in a college environment and make a positive impact on those around you.

Furthermore, the Common App essay serves as a tool for colleges to assess your writing skills. It showcases your ability to craft a compelling narrative, articulate your thoughts effectively, and engage readers. Admissions officers are not only interested in what you have to say but also how you say it. Your writing style and voice play a significant role in capturing their attention and leaving a lasting impression.

What Admissions Officers Look for in a Common App Essay

The key things admissions officers look for in a Common App essay are reflection, insight, mental agility, resilience, and the ability to effectively articulate thoughts and ideas. They want to see evidence of self-reflection and introspection, as this demonstrates your capacity for personal growth and maturity.

Admissions officers also value critical thinking skills and the ability to analyze situations from different perspectives. They want to see that you can think outside the box, challenge assumptions, and approach problems with creativity and innovation. Your essay should showcase your mental agility and intellectual curiosity.

Resilience is another trait that admissions officers seek in a Common App essay. They want to know how you have overcome challenges and setbacks in your life. Sharing stories of perseverance and resilience can demonstrate your ability to adapt and thrive in the face of adversity.

Lastly, admissions officers pay close attention to your writing style and voice. They want to see that you can express yourself clearly and effectively. Your essay should be engaging, well-structured, and free of grammatical errors. A strong and compelling voice can captivate the reader and make your essay memorable.

Overall, the Common App essay is an opportunity for you to shine. It allows you to showcase your unique qualities, experiences, and perspectives. By crafting a thoughtful and well-written essay, you can make a lasting impression on admissions officers and increase your chances of getting accepted into your dream college.

Deciphering the Common App Essay Prompts

One of the most intimidating parts of the college application process can be deciphering the Common App essay prompts . It’s crucial to comprehend each prompt fully to write an essay that effectively responds to it.

a male student studying intently

When it comes to the Common App essay prompts , understanding the nuances of each one is essential. These prompts are carefully crafted to elicit unique and personal responses from applicants. They are designed to give you the opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself, to delve into your experiences, and to showcase your individuality.

Breaking Down Each Common App Essay Prompt

Each of the seven Common App prompts is designed to give you the opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself. They range from discussing a background, identity, or talent that is meaningful to you to describing a problem you would like to solve to sharing a story of a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.

For example, Prompt 1 asks you to reflect on a background, identity, or talent that is significant to you. This prompt invites you to explore your cultural heritage, personal passions, or unique skills that have shaped your identity. It encourages introspection and self-discovery, allowing you to showcase your individuality and the factors that have influenced your personal growth.

Prompt 2, on the other hand, challenges you to delve into a problem you would like to solve or a belief you hold dear. This prompt presents an opportunity to showcase your critical thinking skills, your ability to analyze complex issues, and your passion for making a difference.

Whether you choose to discuss a global issue or a personal challenge, this prompt allows you to demonstrate your problem-solving abilities and your commitment to creating positive change.

Prompt 3 invites you to share a story of a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. This prompt encourages you to reflect on moments of adversity and how you overcame them. It provides a platform for you to showcase your resilience, determination, and growth mindset.

By sharing your experiences of overcoming obstacles, you can demonstrate your ability to learn from setbacks and your capacity for personal development.

Choosing the Right Prompt for You

Choosing the right prompt is not about what you think admissions officers want to hear but rather about selecting a prompt that allows you to express your true self. Consider which prompt resonates most with you and provides the best platform to articulate your authentic experiences and aspirations.

When selecting a prompt, it’s important to choose one that aligns with your personal values, interests, and experiences. Reflect on your own journey, your passions, and the moments that have shaped you. Which prompt allows you to tell a story that truly represents who you are and what you believe in?

Remember, the goal of the Common App essay is to provide admissions officers with a deeper understanding of who you are beyond your grades and test scores.

It’s an opportunity to showcase your unique perspective, your values, and your potential contributions to the college community. So, choose a prompt that allows you to authentically express yourself and share your story in a compelling and meaningful way.

Crafting Your Common App Essay

Once you have a clear understanding of the prompts, the next step is to start crafting and writing your Common App essay. This stage involves developing a unique theme, creating a well-structured narrative, and writing with clarity and authenticity.

Image of a hand holding a pen and writing on a paper

When it comes to developing a unique and compelling theme, it can be the most challenging part of the process. However, it is also the most vital for making your essay stand out among the thousands of applications.

The theme of your essay should not only reflect who you are as an individual, but it should also echo across your other application elements, weaving a connected narrative that provides a comprehensive view of you as a compelling and multifaceted individual.

Consider the experiences, values, or passions that define you. What sets you apart from other applicants? What makes you unique? These are the questions you should ask yourself when brainstorming for a theme.

Perhaps it’s a personal journey that has shaped your perspective on life or a particular interest that has driven you to pursue it further. Whatever theme you choose, ensure that it is authentic and genuinely reflects who you are.

Structuring Your Essay Effectively

Once you have established your theme, it’s time to structure your essay effectively. A well-structured essay has a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction should grab the reader’s attention and set the tone for the rest of the essay. It should provide a glimpse into what the reader can expect and make them eager to continue reading.

The body of your essay is where you delve into the meat of your story. This is where you can provide examples, anecdotes, or experiences that support your theme and showcase your unique qualities.

Be sure to organize your thoughts logically and coherently, using paragraphs to separate different ideas or aspects of your story. Each paragraph should flow smoothly into the next, creating a seamless narrative that keeps the reader engaged.

Finally, the conclusion should tie everything together, leaving the reader with a deep understanding of why you are a good fit for their institution. It should summarize the main points of your essay and reinforce your theme.

Avoid introducing new information in the conclusion, as it may disrupt the overall flow of your essay. Instead, focus on leaving a lasting impression and making a strong case for why you should be considered.

Writing with Authenticity and Clarity

Authenticity and clarity are key when it comes to writing your Common App essay. An authentic essay showcases your sincere voice and allows the reader to get a genuine sense of who you are as a person.

Avoid trying to impress the reader with overly complex language or excessive use of vocabulary. Instead, focus on being yourself and expressing your thoughts and experiences in a genuine and relatable way.

Clarity is equally important. Your ideas should be relayed effectively, without any confusion or ambiguity. Keep your language simple and straightforward, ensuring that your message is easily understood. Avoid using jargon or technical terms that may alienate the reader. Instead, strive for clarity and precision in your writing.

Remember, the Common App essay is an opportunity for you to showcase your unique qualities, experiences, and aspirations. It is your chance to stand out from the crowd and make a lasting impression on the admissions committee.

Take the time to develop a compelling theme, structure your essay effectively, and write with authenticity and clarity. With these elements in place, your Common App essay will truly shine.

Revising and Polishing Your Common App Essay

A great essay isn’t written; it’s rewritten. Revision is an integral part of the writing process, and polishing your essay until it shines is what ultimately differentiates a good essay from a great one.

Self-Editing Techniques for Your Essay

Start by reading your essay out loud to identify awkward phrasing and unnatural language. Use online grammar and spell check tools, but do not rely on them completely. Keep an eye out for inconsistencies in your story and areas where you can provide more detail or clarity.

A woman in the library writing on her notebook

Seeking Feedback and Making Revisions

Don’t be afraid to seek out feedback. Show your essay to a trusted teacher, mentor, or family member, and be open to their critiques. Use their feedback to make revisions. Remember, criticism can be constructive and can make your essay more effective.

Common Mistakes to Avoid in Your Common App Essay

While a well-rewritten essay can capture an admissions officer’s attention, many writers fall prey to certain common traps.

Overused Topics and Clichés to Steer Clear of

Overused topics can include being team captains or community service experiences. These topics, while potentially important to you, can be harder to make unique because of their frequent usage. Also, beware of clichés such as dare to be different, where it’s not the cliché itself that’s problematic, but rather the lack of originality it signifies.

Pitfalls in Tone and Style to Be Aware of

Writing your essay in a tone that isn’t genuinely yours can be a red flag for admissions officers. Don’t try to sound overly academic if that’s not your natural voice. Also, don’t overuse the thesaurus. It doesn’t impress anyone and can make your essay hard to read. Remember, authenticity is key.

By following these guidelines on how to write the Common App essay and dedicating sufficient time and effort, you can craft a powerful essay that accurately reflects who you are and persuades colleges that you would be a valuable addition to their campus community.

Having all the necessary information is important before choosing any course of action. AdmissionSight is always here to assist you with any questions or concerns. We have more than ten years of expertise assisting students in successfully navigating the challenging admissions process.

Consult with AdmissionSight and find out what we can do to help you get into the school of your choice by ensuring that you are sufficiently aware and well-prepared for the application process.

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  • Choosing A Major
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Common App Essay Format

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Need to format your Common App essay? Follow our top tips to get this step completed as quickly as possible.

1. Use a word processing tool

Should you type your essay directly into the online common application or should you use a word processing tool? Answering this question is your first step in formatting your essay. Either option is possible, but at Studential we recommend using the word processing tool as it allows you to easily plan, check and correct your essay while offline. In any word processing tool, such as Microsoft Word or Google Docs, you will be able to format your essay.

For example headings using bold, UPPERCASE, italics or underline whichever is your preference (ours is Bold). You will be able to create paragraphs and check not only spellings and grammar, but also word counts. If you’re struggling for a word, most word processing tools provide thesauruses, synonyms etc. These are really useful and can spark ideas.

2. Check your word count

A very important fact is being able to check your word count (remember it is 250 to 650 words for your essay) and continue to recheck and refine it, until it is within this very strict word count. If you’re asking family and friends to proof read and check your essay before you submit it, you’ll also be able to set ‘track changes’ on the document so you can accept or reject their suggestions.

3. Add your essay

Once you’ve formatted it as you want it, the next stage is to cut and paste your essay into the correct field in the online Common Application.

Italics, bold and underline formatting from your word processing version should still be saved when you cut and paste. However occasionally when you cut and paste there may be formatting issues after you’ve pasted it. Don’t assume it’s all pasted correctly. Recheck it and reformat where you have to. For example, has the last line pasted in ok?  Do you have any line breaks or spaces that weren’t meant to be there? Are there capitals or lowercases which are incorrect? Is all the punctuation the same as the original? The online application essay field will also create block formatting of paragraphs and new paragraphs will not be indented. Instead there will be one line of space between each paragraph. This is normal for all online common applications and cannot be changed.

4. Beware your internet browser

Different browsers e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome may paste slightly differently, so if you struggle first time, try re-loading the online application using a different browser and then cut and paste again. Alternatively if this still doesn’t work, it’s about trying a different word processing tool. If you think you’re within the word count but it’s saying you’re not or your paragraphs are formatting incorrectly after you’ve cut and pasted them; the best idea is to cut and paste into Notepad (for windows users) or TextEdit (for Macs). Then from here cut and paste into the essay text box. This is because Notepad and TextEdit strip out all the formatting and just paste plain text. This may mean you need to create your paragraphs again but all the weird and wonderful formatting issues will most likely disappear.

5. Preview your essay

Once your essay is uploaded you can preview the page, once you’ve saved your changes and pressed continue. To double check the Common Application across all sections including your essay, you’ll need to fully complete every field and requirement and start the submission process. At this time you’ll have the option to save a pdf version to your computer. Don’t worry if you suddenly realize you’ve missed something. Since 2015/16 applications, the online system lets you make unlimited edits after you’ve submitted your first application.

Further information

For more tips and advice on putting together your common application for college, please see:

  • Common Essay Prompts
  • Choosing A Common App Essay Topic
  • Common App Essay Introduction
  • Common App Essay Conclusion
  • Editing Your Essay

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How to Format A College Essay: 15 Expert Tips

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College Essays

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When you're applying to college, even small decisions can feel high-stakes. This is especially true for the college essay, which often feels like the most personal part of the application. You may agonize over your college application essay format: the font, the margins, even the file format. Or maybe you're agonizing over how to organize your thoughts overall. Should you use a narrative structure? Five paragraphs?

In this comprehensive guide, we'll go over the ins and outs of how to format a college essay on both the micro and macro levels. We'll discuss minor formatting issues like headings and fonts, then discuss broad formatting concerns like whether or not to use a five-paragraph essay, and if you should use a college essay template.

How to Format a College Essay: Font, Margins, Etc.

Some of your formatting concerns will depend on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box on an online application form or attaching a formatted document. If you aren't sure which you'll need to do, check the application instructions. Note that the Common Application does currently require you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.

Most schools also allow you to send in a paper application, which theoretically gives you increased control over your essay formatting. However, I generally don't advise sending in a paper application (unless you have no other option) for a couple of reasons:

Most schools state that they prefer to receive online applications. While it typically won't affect your chances of admission, it is wise to comply with institutional preferences in the college application process where possible. It tends to make the whole process go much more smoothly.

Paper applications can get lost in the mail. Certainly there can also be problems with online applications, but you'll be aware of the problem much sooner than if your paper application gets diverted somehow and then mailed back to you. By contrast, online applications let you be confident that your materials were received.

Regardless of how you will end up submitting your essay, you should draft it in a word processor. This will help you keep track of word count, let you use spell check, and so on.

Next, I'll go over some of the concerns you might have about the correct college essay application format, whether you're copying and pasting into a text box or attaching a document, plus a few tips that apply either way.

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Formatting Guidelines That Apply No Matter How You End Up Submitting the Essay:

Unless it's specifically requested, you don't need a title. It will just eat into your word count.

Avoid cutesy, overly colloquial formatting choices like ALL CAPS or ~unnecessary symbols~ or, heaven forbid, emoji and #hashtags. Your college essay should be professional, and anything too cutesy or casual will come off as immature.

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Mmm, delicious essay...I mean sandwich.

Why College Essay Templates Are a Bad Idea

You might see college essay templates online that offer guidelines on how to structure your essay and what to say in each paragraph. I strongly advise against using a template. It will make your essay sound canned and bland—two of the worst things a college essay can be. It's much better to think about what you want to say, and then talk through how to best structure it with someone else and/or make your own practice outlines before you sit down to write.

You can also find tons of successful sample essays online. Looking at these to get an idea of different styles and topics is fine, but again, I don't advise closely patterning your essay after a sample essay. You will do the best if your essay really reflects your own original voice and the experiences that are most meaningful to you.

College Application Essay Format: Key Takeaways

There are two levels of formatting you might be worried about: the micro (fonts, headings, margins, etc) and the macro (the overall structure of your essay).

Tips for the micro level of your college application essay format:

  • Always draft your essay in a word processing software, even if you'll be copy-and-pasting it over into a text box.
  • If you are copy-and-pasting it into a text box, make sure your formatting transfers properly, your paragraphs are clearly delineated, and your essay isn't cut off.
  • If you are attaching a document, make sure your font is easily readable, your margins are standard 1-inch, your essay is 1.5 or double-spaced, and your file format is compatible with the application specs.
  • There's no need for a title unless otherwise specified—it will just eat into your word count.

Tips for the macro level of your college application essay format :

  • There is no super-secret college essay format that will guarantee success.
  • In terms of structure, it's most important that you have an introduction that makes it clear where you're going and a conclusion that wraps up with a main point. For the middle of your essay, you have lots of freedom, just so long as it flows logically!
  • I advise against using an essay template, as it will make your essay sound stilted and unoriginal.

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Plus, if you use a college essay template, how will you get rid of these medieval weirdos?

What's Next?

Still feeling lost? Check out our total guide to the personal statement , or see our step-by-step guide to writing the perfect essay .

If you're not sure where to start, consider these tips for attention-grabbing first sentences to college essays!

And be sure to avoid these 10 college essay mistakes .

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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.

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  • College Application

How to Write a Winning Common App Essay

Including 3 stellar common app essay examples.

Guide to Writing a Common App Essay

The Common App essay, also called a personal statement, is one of the trickiest components of a college application. Many students struggle with how to make their essays stand out from the crowd. After spending years building up an excellent high school resume , getting good grades, and dreaming of college, it could all come down to one 650 word college essay ! That’s a lot of pressure. Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. In this blog, our college essay advisors tell you everything you need to know about the Common App essay, how to brainstorm ideas, how to write it, the biggest challenges, mistakes to avoid, and handy tips to keep in mind. We also provide a few samples to help you understand what types of essays actually impress college admissions committees.

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Article Contents 48 min read

The Common App essay is the personal statement that students have to submit on the Common Application portal. College apps are getting tougher by the minute as students are judged on so many different criteria – academics, of course, but also extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, supplemental essays, and the personal statement. All the hard work you put in towards taking on tough IB and AP classes, servicing your community, committing to your extracurriculars, could all be wasted because of one essay, that most students write in a month!

Many students are intimidated by the concept of the essay, not just because of how important it is, but also because they simply don’t know what to write in it. How personal should they get? What’s the right tone? What are colleges even looking for? With these questions running through your mind, it can be hard to focus and actually start writing.

But the Common App essay is like any other aspect of your application, or in fact, like any other challenge you meet in life. With adequate preparation, strategic planning, and a commitment to excellence, you can produce a Common App essay that’s sure to impress college admissions committees. In fact, if you do it right, writing this essay could actually help you refine and perfect your writing skills and even teach you things about yourself that you didn’t know! Read on to learn failproof tips from our college admissions consulting experts!

The Common Application, often called Common App, is the cornerstone of the college application process for most students in the US and Canada. It’s an online, centralized portal that gathers college application components from students and sends them to colleges. Students only have to submit their application once, and it’s sent to every college they want to apply to. With over 900 participating colleges all over the world, the Common App just makes life so much easier for high school students applying to college, not to mention their parents and teachers. Can you imagine if you had to send an individual application to each and every college you’re applying to? Well, you still might have to send out 2 or 3 different applications since not every college in the US and Canada uses Common App. For instance, UC schools have their own application system and if you’re targeting those, you will have to submit a separate application. But the overwhelming majority of colleges in the US do utilize Common App, which makes it a huge boon during application season. In one portal, you can submit your personal information, transcript, list of activities, letters of recommendation, and the personal statement, which will go out to all the colleges you want to apply to.

So, what is this dreaded Common App essay anyway? If you’re a high school student applying to college, you might know it as your main essay or personal statement. This is the component you submit in the “Writing” tab of the Common App, where you’ll find the 7 Common App prompts for the current application season along with a textbox where you write your essay in response to one of the prompts. It’s strongly recommended that you write your essay in a Google doc, MS Word, or some other reliable word processor with backups, and then copy paste the final draft into the Common App textbox. You should not be typing your first drafts and making revisions directly in Common App! You might end up losing the essay due to a technical glitch or worse, submitting a rough draft by accident.

The great thing about the Common App essay, and one that students frequently forget, is that the same essay goes out to all the colleges. So, you don’t need to write individual essays for each college or tailor your essays to talk about specific courses or universities. In fact, you should aim to keep your Common App essay as general as possible, without reference to any specific schools or degrees. For instance, if you make your Common App essay very focused on your passion for science subjects and talk about your desire to attend a top engineering college, while you’re applying to liberal arts schools as well, you’re tanking your chances of getting an acceptance from the latter. Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to get college-specific when you’re writing your college supplemental essays.

Difference between Common App essay and supplemental essays

As part of your college application, you’re expected to submit a number of different written components, from the descriptions of your extracurricular activities to your personal statement and the supplemental essays. It’s very important that you understand the different requirements and purpose of each of these written components and tailor them as needed. Specifically, make sure you don’t get confused between the Common App essay and the supplemental college essay. As we mentioned above, the Common App essay is your 250-650 word personal statement that you submit with your primary application on Common App. You only need to write one, and it goes out to all the colleges you apply to. The purpose of the Common App essay is to give the college admissions committees a better idea of who you are as a person and what makes you unique. It should be focused on your life and experiences, without any reference to a specific college or bias towards a specific stream (such as STEM, liberal arts, etc.).

Once your primary application is processed and if you make it through (though not all colleges screen primary apps), specific colleges will start reaching out to you with their supplemental application that will include prompts for essays. In these essays, you’re expected to get specific and address why you want to get into that college and reference your academic interests. Colleges can ask for more than one supplemental essay, and the required word count can vary. Some have a maximum word count of 250 words while others match the maximum length of the Common App essay at 650 words.

How do you differentiate between these two essays? How do you even find enough material for all these essays? Well, think of your Common App essay as your broad personal statement, an answer to the question “ Tell me about yourself ” (in relation to specific prompts), while your supplemental essay focuses in on the question of “Why do you want to attend this college?”. The two essays should complement each other, but there should be no overlap.

How can you ensure this? That’s what we’ll explain in this blog. If you do your Common App preparation right, and give yourself enough time to brainstorm, you’ll most likely come away with plenty of raw material, topic ideas, and inspiration for your supplemental essays too. There will be plenty of ideas you might reject as unsuitable for your Common App essay which could work for your secondary app essays.

Why is the Common App essay important?

So, if colleges will be asking for college-specific essays anyway, why is the Common App essay important? Well, in many cases, you won’t even get to the supplemental essays stage without an impressive Common App essay. This essay could count for 10% to 30% of how your primary application is evaluated, and the more elite the college, the more important it is. That’s because elite colleges such as Ivy League schools receive a huge volume of high-caliber applicants. They have plenty of applications from students with top grades, amazing extracurriculars, and references, so the Common App essay really becomes crucial in making an application stand out. Additionally, some schools, such as private liberal arts colleges, favor a more holistic admissions process. These colleges often don’t prioritize standardized test results as much as other schools and give more weight to the students’ extracurriculars and personal statement.

The Common App essay could be the deciding factor between you and another candidate with a similar profile. Many students with the best grades in their class and a roster of impressive extracurricular activities, not to mention top SAT scores, end up rejected from their dream schools because of a poorly-written essay. Having said that, it’s important to remember that no matter how great your personal statement is, it won’t make up for uneven grades and a less than robust resume, especially at elite schools with competitive admissions.

Remember that the Common App essay represents a final chance for you to take your application to the next level. By the time you’re writing and submitting your essay, there’s not much you could do about your transcript, your history of extracurriculars, etc. These components are long-term achievements which can’t be accomplished in a day. But you’re in complete control of your Common App essay and it’s your one chance to advocate for yourself in front of the admissions committee.

In fact, from the students’ perspective, this is what makes the Common App essay so important. Most of your primary application is quantitative, focused on grades, scores, contact information, and so on; your essay is one of the few “qualitative” components of your application. It allows you to speak directly to the admissions committee, and really humanize yourself, help them see you as person rather than just a collection of facts and figures. Your grades and standardizes test scores and all those other application components are certainly important – they indicate your academic prowess, your talents, your abilities – but they don’t represent you as a person. Everybody has a unique story and adding that personal context can really enhance your application.

Common App Essay Prompts

Common App releases the prompts for every admissions cycle around spring. The prompts have stayed more or less constant over the last few years, though a couple of prompts are occasionally changed, so it’s always a good idea to check them when they are released. You can select any 1 of the 7 prompts provided to write a 650 word essay.

These are the latest Common App essay prompts.

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Colleges have no preference for which prompt you pick. Some students prefer to look at the prompts and get inspired, and that could work, but ideally, you should brainstorm ideas about the best stories and narratives from your life that could work for your Common App essay before picking a prompt. You can then tailor the ideas as per the specific prompt ask. As there are so many open-ended prompts, you’ll have a lot of freedom to choose a topic that works best for you.

Many students believe that Common App essays have to be extremely serious, talk about a traumatic or deeply impactful event, or document amazing achievements. Of course, you can choose to write a serious essay focused on any of these topics (or others) – but they’re not the only kind of essays that get acceptances! Many students write about light-hearted or seemingly trivial topics but are able to make their essays meaningful and unique. You should never sacrifice authenticity and truth for “razzle-dazzle”. Focusing on what the admissions committee wants or prefers is a useless exercise. Not only will it make your essay seem forced and pretentious, but it also has no basis in fact, since admissions committees don’t actually have any “preference” for a specific topic.

Common App Essay: Unique Challenges

Essays are a crucial part of any admissions process. If you decide to pursue graduate studies, you’ll undoubtedly have to write a statement of purpose for graduate school , among other types of essays and written submissions. And naturally, grad school level essays are longer and more challenging. At the same time, in some ways it’s easier to write an essay about yourself when you’re older. High school students face unique challenges when writing their essay and that often causes the “blank page panic” when they sit down to actually write their essay.

For one thing, younger students talking about themselves are talking as much about their potential and their dreams, as they are about their actual experiences. You can’t expect that at this early stage in life, students have had some great epiphanies or breakthroughs. High school students are still forming their identity and exploring who they are. It’s difficult to know exactly what to write to make yourself stand out from the crowd when you’re not even sure who you are or what your unique experiences are. That’s why many students experience writer’s block and find it difficult to know where to even start. Moreover, communication skills develop with time, and younger students may find it more difficult to express themselves in a natural, eloquent way, through their writing.

That’s why it’s so, so important that you should give yourself plenty of time to write your essay and break down the process into several steps that will help you logically bridge every fear and uncertainty you might have.

Recommended Timeline

As we mentioned above, the best way to handle your Common App essay is to break down the writing process into several steps and give yourself plenty of time to complete each step. Before we get into the actual timeline, let’s figure out what would be the best time to start writing your essay.

When to start?

Common App applications open in August, but they release their essay prompts as early as March or April. This gives students plenty of time to work on their essay – and not many students make full use of this time!

Our recommendation is that you work backwards from when you want to target sending out your applications and start working on your Common App essay 3 months before that date. This might seem like a huge amount of time for a 650 word essay, but trust me, you’ll need it. We’ll break down the reasons why in a minute. Just know that without spending a few months on your essay, you won’t be able to give it your best shot and truly make it stand out.

If you’re targeting early acceptance deadlines, you’ll probably have to submit your primary application by October and secondaries by November. If you’re targeting regular application timelines, then you have a bit more time as primary deadline is in November and secondaries’ deadlines are in January. Different colleges have different timelines, so you’ll have to check the admission websites of the colleges you’re applying to so you can confirm the exact dates.

You should plan your Common App essay timeline according to these dates. For instance, if you’re targeting early decision admission, then the secondary applications would most likely be due in October or November. So, the ideal time for you start your Common App essay work would be around July. This timeline also works as you can then spend your summer before senior year of high school working on your essay. Even if you’re busy with a summer job or a summer program , you’ll still have more time to devote to writing and brainstorming than you would during your school year.

We suggest that you don’t wait till the last minute to work on your essay. While of course it’s possible to write your essay in a month or even sooner, that will not give you enough time for the “preparation” stage of writing your essay. It will definitely impact the quality of your essay and make it that much harder for you to find your “voice”.

Moreover, leaving your essay-writing till the last minute is just a recipe for chaos. Remember that once your senior year starts, and those application deadlines start approaching, you’ll get busy with all the other submissions that are due for your application, and you’ll have the secondary essays to worry about too. Once school starts, you’ll have to manage all that with keeping up your grades and devoting time to your extracurriculars. You won’t have much time or (more importantly) the mental energy left over to deal with your Common App essay. That’s why we highly recommend that you use the summer before your senior year of high school to do the major work on it.

Starting early will also give you time to seek out feedback on your essay. Specifically, it will give you sufficient time to approach your referees (who will be writing your letter of recommendation) and show them a draft of your Common App essay. This action serves a dual purpose. First, as mentors, they could provide valuable feedback. Second, looking through your essay can help them calibrate their perspective on you, see you in a different light, and influence what they include in your letter.

Remember that if you really want your college application to stand out, you need to tell a consistent story that is supported by all the different elements of your application: the essay, the supplemental essays, the letters, and the extracurriculars. Each component should communicate different aspects of yourself that complement each other and present a picture of a real person with depth and something unique to offer. The synergy between these different elements, and a consistent narrative, can make your application really impressive and prove your clarity of mind and focused ambitions. However, it’s not easy to achieve this effect while also keeping your essay as authentic as possible. So, how do you make the best use of the opportunity the essay presents you, while still presenting evidence-based points that are supported by your experiences and align with the rest of your application? Well, that’s why we recommend starting your essay writing process so early! It’s not a simple matter of picking a prompt and writing a couple of drafts of the first topic that comes to mind. You might get a good essay that way – but if you want a GREAT essay, one that will truly stand out, you’ll need to put in the hard work and advance preparation towards making that happen.

This is the timeline we recommend to help you write a stellar Common App essay.

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As you can see above, it will take you around 3 months, as per the timeline, to create the final draft of your Common App essay. If you start in mid-June or July, you’ll be finishing it up and asking for feedback around September, once school starts. That leaves you a couple of months to work on the rest of your application and secondary essays.

While this timeline represents the ideal amount of time you should be spending on your essay, you can condense it down as it suits you. Make sure you’re aware of the key application deadlines for the colleges you’re applying to, including early admissions deadlines (if applicable), and ensure that your essay and the rest of your Common App components are ready in time.

Next, let’s see how to complete each of the steps we’ve listed above. 

Preparing for Your Common App Essay

We recommend that before you actually start writing the first draft of your essay, you should spend some time brainstorming and freewriting, exploring different prompts, and reflecting on yourself and your life so far. This kind of pre-writing preparation is a crucial step to writing an effective, meaningful, and memorable essay. Not only will it help you identify topics for your essay, but it’s also a great way to broaden your perspective on yourself and think deeply about who you are and what you want. Moreover, this exercise isn’t just useful for your Common App essay – all your reflections from this period can also be used to help you write your supplementary essays!

Brainstorming Part 1: Self-reflection

We recommend spending a week or 10 days focusing on self-reflection and introspection. This is similar to “journaling”, something you may actually already be doing, but with a greater focus on writing about topics related to your Common App essay.

You should spend 10-15 minutes every day writing in your journal. At this stage, just indulge in some free-wheeling thought association about your life, your experiences, your goals, what makes you unique, what are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced, and so on. Note down any essay topics that come to you but don’t stress out if nothing suggests itself. The important part here is to start the process of self-reflection and to start narrating your experiences.

Life can seem like a random collection of events, but each of us is on our own journey of growth and learning. Don’t get bogged down by expectations and other people’s ideas – this is the time to just focus on yourself and what makes you unique. No idea, experience, or perspective is too silly or strange. Write down whatever comes to your mind as something significant that you’d like to discuss in your Common App essay. To get your self-reflection started, here are 4 questions you can ask yourself:

  • Who are you?
  • What makes you different?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you hope to achieve?

While doing this exercise, you should be wary of getting too invested in the college application “checklist” and reducing your life to a series of achievements or key experiences. You’re not writing a resume; you’re just exploring who you are and getting into the habit of thinking and writing about yourself. In fact, the whole point of the personal statement is to provide a perspective of yourself beyond what’s already shared in the other application components.

Brainstorming Part 2: Prompts

Once you’ve done some general self-reflection and identified some important narratives and qualities about yourself that you’d like to highlight, go back to your list of prompts, and see which one jumps out at you. At this stage, for some students, one or the other prompt may seem like an obvious choice. For example, if you’ve found yourself journaling a lot about a significant traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one, prompt no 2, which asks you to talk about a setback or obstacle, might seem like the answer. But don’t be so hasty to fix on a topic. Remember, at this stage, you haven’t even begun to define your topic! Getting too attached to an idea too early is as bad as not knowing what to write about, as it can prejudice you against exploring different ideas and maybe finding a more appropriate one.

Ideally, at this stage, you should be looking at 3 or 4 different prompts and brainstorming specifically in response to them. That way, you’ll have a variety of different experiences and narratives to choose from when you’re ready to write your first draft.

Below, we’ve listed a few key considerations and reflections for each of the prompts, that can serve as a starting point for your brainstorming. Spend some time every day – it could be 10 minutes, or it could be half an hour – just writing down your instinctual responses to the prompts, using our questions and reflections as a guide.

Prompt 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.

This prompt is an excellent opportunity for you to talk about any hobbies, talents, extracurriculars, and any other interests that are important to you and that you haven’t got a chance to talk about elsewhere in your application. This includes “useless” hobbies that may not be achievement oriented, but that you’re nevertheless passionate about, such as needlework, playing video games, volunteering at an animal shelter, and so on.

It’s also an opportunity to reflect on your identity, your family, your hometown, and any other aspect of your personal life that’s both unique and important to you. Many students use this prompt to talk about their racial or ethnic identity, their sexuality, their gender, and so on. You can weave a story of personal growth through your interests or identify important influences on yourself and how they interact with each other. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • What was your upbringing like? What social environments surround you? How do they impact you?
  • Where do you live? What are some key images that would strike a stranger about the area where you live?
  • Where are your parents from? Have you ever visited their home town? What impression did it leave on you?
  • What do people around you know you for? Do you have a long-term commitment to any specific skills or talents?
  • What was your childhood like? Would you describe it as happy? What’s your happiest memory of childhood?

Prompt 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?

This is the “overcoming obstacles” prompt. If you’ve faced any major adversity in your life, that you think is significant to your story, this is your chance to write about it. Many students also use this prompt to talk about more minor obstacles, and describe a narrative of personal growth, self-reflection, and learning. Whatever the incident or topic you chose to talk about, the key here is to focus on how you dealt with and overcame the failure, challenge, or adversity.

Have you ever had an accident, or major health problems, that significantly impaired you and impacted your life? Can you think of a specific day when you dealt with the consequences of your impairment? "}]" code="timeline2">

Prompt 3 : Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Many students avoid this prompt as they believe it’s referring to big-scale, political activism and social service, and they don’t think they’ve ever made any kind of significant impact in this area. In fact, this prompt can be a great opportunity to talk about any time you experienced change in your value system, even if the impact was quite small. It could be as simple as noticing a need for change that prompted a change in your belief systems, for instance, a poor interaction with a doctor that made you think about how the healthcare system can improve. Here, you should focus on your thought process and map out the genesis of the change, and what impact it had on you.

  • Think back to your childhood. Do you hold the same values you do today as you did then? If no, what made you change?
  • Do you agree with the values and beliefs of your family, friends, and others close to you? If not, why do you hold different beliefs? Have you ever tried to change their mind/have they ever tried to change your mind?
  • Think of a time when you questioned yourself or changed your beliefs. How did you change? Why did you start questioning yourself?
  • Have you ever gone against the social norms of the people around you? What made you do that?

Prompt 4 : Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

You can use this prompt to write a more philosophical essay that focuses on the impact another person made on you, and why it stayed with you. Most people would find it difficult to actually think of a material gift that left a philosophical impact on you and significantly changed your life. That’s why many students use this prompt to write about non-material “gifts” in the form of memorable advice, a challenge, an obstacle, or a task, that taught the student a valuable lesson and motivated them to do better.

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Prompt 5 : Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

This is one of the more open-ended prompts that students love to use as it allows them to amplify their achievements and talk more about “impressive” experiences in their life. Actually, it’s a mistake to use this prompt to just talk about the same extracurriculars and academics you’ve already covered in the rest of your application. Even if you do mention an extracurricular activity here that you’ve already covered elsewhere, the important thing is to bring a different perspective and reveal a new side of yourself. It’s not just about saying “I did this amazing thing”. You’ve got to think about how the event or accomplishment impacted you, what led up to it, and what you took away from the experience.

  • Have you ever been deeply impacted by someone’s words, advice, or guidance? Describe the experience and how you changed after it.
  • Have you ever had a “eureka” moment that changed your life? Did you ever experience a moment of clarity about something you want that helped you define your long-term goals?
  • Apart from all the achievements listed in your resume, what’s your biggest accomplishment? Is there a seemingly insignificant moment of your life that you’re truly proud of? 

Prompt 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?

This prompt is an ideal opening to help you talk about your more “useless” extracurriculars. The activities or interests that you’re passionate about, but which aren’t achievement oriented and hence don’t make it to your resume. It could be anything as simple as baking or bird-watching, or as abstract as an interest in how language works. If you can tell a story about how you found this interest, how it motivates you, why you love it, how it influences other aspects of your life, and how it helped you grow as a person, then this is the prompt for you. This is a great chance to paint a vivid picture of your inner life and communicate your unique way of thinking to the admissions committee.

  • Is there something you’re so good at, people come and ask for your help? This could be really anything, from a musical talent to being good at fixing things around the house.
  • If given unlimited leisure time, how would you spend it? What would you do if you didn’t have any obligations to go to school or earn a living? What sparks your passion for life?

Alright, so you’ve done some journaling and brainstormed a few essay ideas in response to the prompts. Don’t jump straight into selecting the idea and writing the essay – spend at least a couple of weeks, ideally 3 weeks, indulging in free writing. Try your hand at writing in response to a few different prompts, or all of them, if you have the necessary inspiration. Don’t think about restrictions such as word count, flow, structure, or any of that just yet. Just let your inspiration run free and write about anything you like.

The goal here is loosen your writing up, shake free the cobwebs from your brains, and get into the habit of writing about yourself. This is when you can work out the little awkward details in your writing and develop a more natural writing style. Some of this raw material, after some editing, could even make it to your essays, but don’t be too concerned at this stage with the “outcome” or this exercise will be wasted. Write without pressurizing yourself to produce brilliance, using the prompts as a kind of starting off point for a free associating exercise. This step is crucial to making sure your final essay sounds authentic, natural, and personal, rather than a formal summary of events or a forced statement of facts.

Give yourself a daily goal – 10 mins, or a few pages, whatever works for you. You should ideally do this activity in the morning, when you’re fresh and have a clear, relaxed head space. Select a cool, quiet corner of your house or a library where no one will interrupt you and sit down with your writing instrument of choice – notebook, laptop, or whichever medium feels most natural and comfortable for you!

If you find yourself facing writer’s block, shake yourself out of the rut by asking yourself “why”. Whatever you’re writing about – an idea, experience, event, or person, ask yourself why is this important to me? Why do I care? Why does it bother me? And keep going.

Another important tip at this stage is not to ask for feedback or show your writing to anyone. This is the time for ideation, not perfection. In fact, step away from your own writing for some time and don’t come to re-read it till after a few days. This is a great way to reap great essay ideas and get around your own anxiety and self-doubt.

What all of this pre-work does is help you avoid time wastage and inefficiency at a later stage. If you simply start off writing an essay based on a prompt without any brainstorming or preparatory work, you might spend a lot of time struggling to write, work late nights trying to get the tone or the style right, and then still feel that it doesn’t quite work without any idea of why. Self-reflection helps you get to the core of the matter, identify the “juiciest” stories and experiences from your life, while brainstorming helps you work through the “bad” writing in a low-pressure environment. When you select a topic after all this work, you’re likely to feel much more confident about your essay and that will reflect in the smoothness and eloquence of your writing.

Selecting a topic

After your more than a month of daily brainstorming and freewriting, take a break for a couple of days and don’t think or write anything related to your Common App essay. Then, come back and go over the results of your journaling, brainstorming, and freewriting with a fresh eye, and select a topic that stands out to you. 

Here are some tips to help you select a good topic:

  • Anchor your essay to a story, which will be the “hook” that opens the essay and draws the reader in. Focus on this story and which experience you’ll use to build the story, and that will help you select a topic. A personal, meaningful anecdote, such as the first time your mother taught you to make a specific dish, or the time you interacted with a new student who changed your beliefs, is an excellent opening for an essay. Try to think of significant experiences that could be great essay-openers and define your topic around that.
  • Pick a “focus” for your essay. Is it a person? An event? An experience? A quality about yourself you want to highlight? Remember, it’s important to give your essay a single focus and do justice to that topic rather than try to crowd in too many elements.
  • Connect your experiences to your ambitions and pick a topic that actually helps you show your potential, your ambitions, and your dreams. Sometimes significant experiences in your past don’t really have any connection to your future, though they might give you plenty to write about. Your topic should connect your past, future, and present effectively, and show a consistent narrative.
  • Try and balance your application out strategically. Select a topic that shows a different side to yourself than what you’ve already communicated in the rest of your application, for instance, if your extracurriculars are focused on your competitive athletic career, talk about a completely unexpected non-athletic passion such as environmentalism or expand upon how your personal insecurities, and a time you failed, and how you learned to cope with it. Humanize yourself and bring a nuanced perspective to your achievements. On the other hand, if you have inconsistent grades or your extracurriculars aren’t that impressive, amplify your accomplishments and talk about the passions that you devote your time to, even if they aren’t resume-worthy.

You should start by selecting 4 to 5 topics that are most meaningful and personal to you and then narrow it down to the one that’s most suitable for the Common App essay. Don’t throw away the rest! You can use the rest of the topics to get inspired when writing your secondary essays. Moreover, shortlisting multiple topics ensures you always have a back-up if, for whatever reason, your initial essay idea doesn’t work out.

Remember: don’t let self-doubt be your biggest enemy. There is no wrong or cliché or boring or lame topic. When it comes to the Common App essay, the how and why is key, much more so than the what. Do YOU believe in your story? Are you speaking honestly and from your heart? Is there a logical narrative and flow to your essay? Is there a meaningful conclusion that you’ve drawn? These are the questions you should be asking yourself, rather than wondering what the admissions committees will think of your topic!

At the end of the day, admissions committees are not judging your experiences, but rather your way of thinking – they want to get to know you as a person. When you’re writing your essay, you can always monitor your language to make sure it’s not overtly sentimental or emotional, but your topic and the key narrative should be all yours and completely sincere. Even if it’s a so-called “cliché” topic – such as, for example, an immigrant’s story or the obstacles you faced as an athlete and how you overcame them – the important thing is, your essay should have nuance and depth and a well-thought out perspective.

Let’s get into how you can actually write an impressive Common App essay.

Writing the Common App Essay

Writing the first draft.

At this stage, you simply take the plunge and get into the actual writing of your essay. First of all, thanks to all your brainstorming and journaling, you’ll probably find the writing part quite easy! Most students are more challenged by the structure of their essay and figuring out how to create a logical flow with a meaningful conclusion. To help you out, we’ve listed a few common essay types that you can use to structure your essay. We’ll also go over how to outline your essay and create a logical structure.

Essay types

Selecting a “type” of essay can be helpful as a kind of guide for you during your writing process. The following are the most common essay types students use to write their Common App essay:

Specific Story : This is the classic and most popular type of personal statement. It opens with a personal, meaningful story, which is complete in itself, and sets up the “lesson” or “focus” for the rest of the essay. The essay may go on to discuss other related experiences or how that specific story impacted other areas of the student’s life, or it could expand various facets of the single story, connecting to the student’s present and future. This a is reliable essay style, but you should be careful not to make it to moralistic or fable like. For example, you could open the essay with the story of how you met a patient at an old age home you volunteered at, and how their words or actions had a meaningful impact on you and galvanized you to take action about how people at the old age home were treated. It’s a complete story in itself, and then you could move on to talk about how you are committed to always speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves, and how you did that in other arenas of your life, and how you plan to pursue this goal in your future.

Iterative Pattern : This is a great essay type for those who want to talk about a journey of growth, learning, and self-reflection. Here, you open with an event or incident that may not have a definite conclusion or lesson, and then return throughout the essay to various related incidents that show a progression of a single theme through time. For instance, if there’s a specific issue you’ve struggled with, such as stuttering or public-speaking, you could start with incidents describing past attempts at public speaking and how you failed there, and then go on to describe how you worked towards improving yourself and overcoming your fears, and end with an incident where you actually achieved success in public speaking.

Circular : In this essay, you start with a story or incident, but don’t share the entire story or the final takeaway at the beginning. Instead, you use the rest of the essay to discuss how you felt about the incident, your thought process, the impact it had on you and others, and then you come back to the story and end the essay with a meaningful conclusion. For example, if you’re writing an essay for prompt no 3 (about a time you changed your mind), you could begin the essay describing an incident where you have to make a crucial decision – say, about whether or not you’ll expand the membership of your “boys-only” chess club to invite anyone who wants to join – then provide context about your family background, previous beliefs, and how you’ve changed them, and then come back to the provide the happy ending to the story, explaining how you not only changed the membership rules but took additional steps to make the new members feel welcome and comfortable.

Building Challenges : In this type of essay, you provide a series of different events or experiences in your life that all build on one another to present a kind of obstacle course that you have to overcome. This essay type is most often used to write adversity focused essays. For example, a student from a socio-economically disadvantaged background could start their essay talking about their earliest childhood struggles, how they overcame them, and then go on to expand on other struggles they’ve faced, which could be related to their background or their education or interests. They key with this type of essay is to focus on the “overcoming” adversity aspect, and to emphasize what you’re proud of and what you did well in these different circumstances. 

Creative Essay : These are essays that don’t confirm to any conventional formats. Some students chose to go completely off-beat and create a radically different essay structure. For example, you could write the essay in the style of a chapter from your favorite classic novel, but with you as the protagonist. Or, you could create a dialogue between two imaginary people, say, two important historical figures, talking about you. This is a very difficult kind of essay to pull off, but it can be high-risk, high-reward, when done right. Many students use it as a way to showcase their expert knowledge of any specific area or prove their creativity to the admissions committees.

Check out this infographic:

Essay structure

Once you’ve figured out, broadly-speaking, what type of essay you want to write and what you’ll include in it, the next step is to create an outline. Now, some students prefer to start with free writing and create a reverse outline later, but that’s not an ideal way to work. Reverse outlining usually takes up more time and isn’t very efficient.

Your essay should, generally speaking, include 3 to 5 paragraphs. More than 5 paragraphs could make your essay look very cluttered – remember you can’t go beyond 650 words! On the other hand, you’ll need a minimum of 3 paragraphs to cover the beginning, middle, and end, three crucial components in any essay.

Having said that, your essay topic and personal inspiration should always your structure, so if you think more than 5 paragraphs makes sense and is logical within the flow if your essay, go for it. However, we still wouldn’t recommend less than 3 paragraphs. Having a wall of text in front of you is just difficult to read and could get you marked down.

Create the following outline for your essay:

Depending on the type of essay you\u2019re writing, this could include another personal anecdote, or it could be a meaningful takeaway. It\u2019s very important to have a defining, impactful conclusion that sums up your thesis from earlier in the essay and ties up any loose ends. "}]">

Here are some tips to keep in mind for when you’re writing your essay:

Build the suspense : When you’re telling your anchor story, the one that opens your essay, make sure you keep building the suspense. There should be some mystery about what happens and conflict in the middle to keep it interesting. For instance, if you’re talking about that time that you overcame your fear of water after a swimming injury to finally return to the pool, don’t begin by saying “I got back into the pool after my injury for the first time on 6th September.” That gives away all the drama! Instead, build the story by describing your fears, the previous incident, and encouragement you received from your coach, and then end with the fact that you finally made it back into the pool.

Don’t deal in plain statements : To make your essay engaging, it’s very important not to rely solely on statements of facts and to back up every fact with evidence. This could be in the form of experiences or activities, personal incidents, descriptions of a specific setting, descriptions of your state of mind, and so on. For example, instead of simply saying “I was angry that I had to leave my hometown.”, describe an incident where you confronted your mother about her decision to move you away and talk about how that anger impacted your relationship with your mother. When talking about a meaningful outdoors trip, instead of saying “The forest was very beautiful.”, try giving specific, sensory-based descriptions and talk about how the setting impacted you, for example – “With the trees swaying above me and the leaves rustling in the wind, I found an inner peace and calmness I’d never experienced before.” Make your essay as engaging as possible, with thoughtful analysis, vivid descriptions, and beautifully set scenes.

Answer the prompt : Make sure, as you’re writing, that you’re addressing the prompt you’ve been given. Try and understand the prompt at a deeper level and don’t just create a surface level connection because it suits your topic. Remember, prompt no 7 is essentially a “free topic” so if you really want to create your own topic, that’s the one you should go for.

Be deliberate, authentic, and humble : Every sentence should have a clear reason for being included in your essay. At the same time, your voice should be as natural and authentic as possible. Don’t drop in pretentious references or brag about your achievements if they don’t belong in the essay. Keep your central topic in mind and only include details and events and relevant to it.

Beginning/middle/end : Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is a fundamental rule of essay writing and is crucial to making sure your essay has a logical, coherent flow.

End with a key takeaway : Your essay should always have a learning, an epiphany, a moral, or talk about a new perspective you gained. You could introduce it earlier in your essay, but it should be reiterated in the concluding paragraph. 

Revising your essay: 2/3/4 drafts

We really cannot emphasize enough the importance of revisions and editing when it comes to writing your Common App essay. This is when you get your critical monocle out, place it over your eye, and give your essay a really thorough analysis. Most students satisfy themselves with just 2 drafts – the initial one, and the second one that they create after seeking feedback from their teachers or mentors – but you should ideally work on 3 or 4 drafts by yourself, before even showing the essay to anyone else. When you’re revising your essay, make sure you keep the following things in mind:

Is it too much? This is where you check yourself – remember that you simply cannot communicate every single thing about yourself in one essay. The key is to find one theme you want to expand on and focus on that. If there’s too many incidents, events, experiences, with no clearly defined conclusion or connection between them, it might be time to re-write your essay. As writers say, sometimes you have to “kill your darlings”, which means, you shouldn’t get too attached to specific ideas or sentences if they don’t fit in with the rest of your essay.

Is it too little? At the same time, it’s also possible to get too specific and be bogged down with unimportant details that don’t really add to your story. Ask yourself if your essay has a broader perspective or lesson to offer and if not, you need to add that in.

Show don’t tell : As we mentioned before, you should not be making unsupported statements and piling facts on facts. Check your essay to make sure your statements are all supported by accompanying examples, descriptions, or stories.

Use your outline : Keep coming back to your outline to improve you’re the structure and flow of your essay. It’s easy to get carried away with writing the introduction and making it too long, and the outline should help you stay on top of how much time you’re spending on each sub-section of your essay. Additionally, sometimes, a great description or line can be incorrectly placed in the essay, and your outline will help you identify that. For instance, your essay should never begin with your “key takeaway”, no matter how important it is. You need to build to it. So don’t be afraid to move things around. As you’re working, define the purpose of each paragraph and keep checking if your writing is aligning with that purpose.

Check for clarity : All essays should have a few key elements. That includes your anchor story, your central thesis or declarative statement, and your key takeaway. Is your essay communicating everything you want it to? Or is the message getting lost in a sea of words?

Trim the excess : Students are often tempted to include braggy details in their personal statement that are not relevant to the rest of the essay. This is a bad idea – it certainly won’t impress anyone and could make you seem pretentious and insincere. Similarly, students sometimes add personal details in their personal anecdotes that don’t add to the story and only editing will help you catch these little details. For instance, you really don’t need to add details of your appearance in any of your anecdotes, unless it’s directly relevant to the story.

Check grammar and spelling : Don’t just rely on auto-correct! Make sure you go over your essay with a fine-toothed comb, catching every spelling or grammatical error. Leaving these in is the best way to get yourself marked down by admissions committees.

Use varied sentence lengths and structure : Sometimes, when you’re writing in your natural style, you may end up repeating certain sentence structures that come most easily to you. Make sure you include a variety of sentence lengths. This makes your essay more readable and engaging.

Use active voice : Always use active voice wherever you can, rather than passive voice. For instance, instead of saying “The dance class was run by me from Monday to Saturday.”, try “I ran the dance class from Monday to Saturday.”.

Once you’ve thoroughly revised your essay and got it as perfect as you can from your perspective, it’s time to invite other people to take a look at it. Who should you seek feedback from? There are many options: friends, peers, parents, teachers, and older mentors. There’s always a risk with certain types of feedback, for example, parents may sometimes over-edit your work, making you lose your natural voice, whereas teachers could view your essay from an academic perspective and ask you to make it more formal. Ideal reviewers are older mentors, friends who have recently and successfully been through the admissions process, guidance counsellors, or admissions experts.

The most important thing is that you trust your reviewers and that they know you well enough to give you genuine, well-meaning feedback. Keep an open mind to all the feedback you receive, but remember, don’t sacrifice your voice. In case of a serious disagreement with someone over a critical point in your essay, always back yourself, because no one knows you better than you!

Also, try and get feedback from varied sources. Friends and family can comment on the personal experiences you talk about in the essay while teachers and counselors can help you perfect the tone, format, and language of the essay.

Once you’ve gathered all the feedback, go back to your essay, and complete a final revision keeping in mind the feedback you’re received. After this, do a final check of your outline, flow, grammar, spelling, and so on.

But wait! Don’t submit it yet. Before your final submission, you should always have someone else – a trusted advisor or friend – take a look at your essay. After going over the same piece of writing so many times, re-read fatigue can make you miss out on obvious errors. So, make someone else proofreads your draft before you submit it on Common App. Remember, Common App does not allow you to make any updates to the submitted essay. You really need to be sure that you’re happy with the final draft before submitting.

Next, let’s put some of these tips, tricks, and strategies into action and see some examples of great Common App essays.

Sample #1: Rina

The fragrance of cloves mingles with the potent smell of green chilis to fill the kitchen with a delicious and familiar scent. After hours of chopping, peeling, and stirring, some overnight marinating and a couple of disastrous attempts at frying onions, I’d finally managed to re-create my grandmother’s biryani recipe from scratch. But the final test was still to come. Would my mother approve of my efforts? After all, I’d done all of this as a surprise for her birthday. As I stood there, watching my mother gingerly lift the spoon to her mouth, I couldn’t believe that I’d actually spent an entire day and night working so hard to recreate one of my family’s traditional Indian recipes. I’d come a long way from the scared girl who couldn’t run away fast enough from my bi-cultural background.

Growing up, what I wanted more than anything else was to blend in with my peers. I remember every year during the annual school fundraiser, all students were asked to contribute something for the baked goods sale. A typical American event – and one that I dreaded. My mother always insisted on preparing elaborate Indian sweets, syrupy gulab jamuns and golden jalebis, and I always felt so out of place standing next to that stand in school. It took me a long time to realize that my greatest source of discomfort was my own insecurity.

The distance I felt from my mother only increased with time, as I grew up to be a regular American teenager who preferred my friends’ company to my mother’s and who listened to all the wrong kinds of music. That all changed two summers ago, when we got the news that my grandmother in India had passed away. I noticed a great change in my mother after she came back from the funeral. She was quiet, sad, and withdrawn, and most importantly, she’d stopped cooking altogether. One day, I asked her why. She told me that her mother was the one who had taught her how to cook, and now that she was gone, she felt some crucial emotional connect was gone from her cooking and she couldn’t find any joy in it. This revelation made me think deeply about my own disconnect from my Indian roots and how hurt my mother must be my continuous rejection. What for me was just a natural desire to “fit in”, for her represented a rejection of so much that was important to her. Eventually, to my mother’s delight and surprise, I asked her if she would teach me how to cook Indian food like her mother had taught her. Though I’d started the exercise as a way to help my mother with her grief, I was happy to discover that I enjoyed cooking thoroughly and soon developed a taste for Indian food I’d never had before. I took on more and more complicated recipes and felt a great sense of accomplishment at every one that I mastered.

This experience made me realize how important it was to embrace every part of yourself and to keep an open mind to new experiences, and new perspectives. This is a lesson I’ll carry with me as I enter the next stage of my life, and I’m glad I learned it before it was too late for me to mend my relationship with my mother.

So that’s how I ended up in my kitchen that day, covered in flour and oil splatters, awaiting my mother’s judgment with trepidation. And as my mother’s face lit up with a smile of delight, giving her stamp of approval to my difficult culinary feat, I felt I’d finally found that sense of belonging I’d been searching for all my life. (621 words)

Why it works : This essay is a great example of the “circular” style of essay. It opens with a story that hooks the reader in, builds suspense about what the conclusion could be, and ends with a meaningful takeaway that brings the story full circle. Though the setting is simple, the stakes are high, and that is clearly communicated in the way the story unfolds and the subsequent experiences shared. Additionally, the writer narrates experiences and events that add context to the central thesis – that of finding belonging and accepting your self – and does not include any unnecessary details that could clutter the narrative. She also includes evocative descriptions that make the essay an engaging read. 

Sample #2: Robert

9 pm on a school night, the radio blasting The Weeknd, I was cruising down the N-75, feeling that I could keep going forever. No, I wasn’t out for a wild night with friends – right beside me was my father, looking at me with pride. After spending months terrified of getting behind the wheel, I’d finally gotten over my fear. That day, I was actually driving on the highway at night, a combination of circumstances that would have given me nightmares just a few weeks ago.

Most teenagers dream of the day they can finally get behind the wheel and be the masters of their own destiny, and I was the same. Unlike most teenagers, my parents felt no trepidation handing me the keys to their car when the time came for me to start practicing. I was the responsible, mature, and capable oldest child and had quickly mastered the basics of driving in my theoretical lessons. So, what could go wrong? I found that out within a month of starting actual driving lessons with my father. It was one disaster after another. I’d turn to the wrong side. I’d take too long to brake. And sometimes I’d just freeze, too anxious to move or do anything. As my father tried to tell me, it was a very dangerous maneuver to undertake in the middle of a busy intersection! It all culminated in a small accident that resulted in some minor damage to my father’s car and some major damage to Mrs. Waterford’s pea beds.

To everyone’s astonishment, including my own, this small accident completely traumatized me, to the point that I gave up my driving lessons and stopped practicing. All of my friends had also experienced some kind of bumps in their driving journey, but none of them had been deterred. Moreover, I’d always prided myself on being the kind of person who could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I’d taken on a full roster of STEM-oriented AP classes and maintained a 4.0 GPA all through junior year, and I’d played on an injured ankle to get my football team to victory in freshman year. But when it came to driving, all my gumption seemed to desert me.

I remember the day my friend got her license, and we went for a drive together. She asked me why I was so scared of driving and joked that it’s the first time I’d ever failed a class. Her lightly spoken words struck a chord in me as I realized that she’d actually pinpointed the source of my fear. I’d always had a natural aptitude and affinity for the two main interests of my life: science and football. I’d found it easy to do well in school and on the field, and never really explored interests beyond these safe arenas. That’s why I didn’t really know what to do when faced with something that didn’t come naturally to me. Driving was the first time I’d had to face up to my failure, and it had spooked me completely.

Once I had that realization, I spent some time reflecting on how I could move past this fear. I soon got back behind the wheel, and I took extra classes with a trained instructor so I could get really confident in my driving. With my license finally in hand, the first thing I did was call my friend to tell her I’d passed!

I’m now committed to challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone, whether it’s expanding my roster of subjects to include more humanities courses or auditioning for our school play. Not every new experience has been a “success”, but as I know now, that’s not the point! My fear of failure has now transformed into a fear of stagnation, and this has helped me see life in a whole new perspective. (645 words)

Why it works : Robert’s essay is a great example of an “overcoming obstacles” essay that focuses on a personal obstacle and provides the necessary context to make it a compelling narrative for a personal statement. The key in any essay about overcoming a challenge is to document your journey from obstacle to learning to growth, and Robert’s does that very clearly. In any personal statement that has a “growth narrative” there also needs to be a focus on the writer’s inner thoughts and evolving thinking. In this essay, Robert walks his audience through how we felt at each stage of dealing with this obstacle. Finally, he ends with a memorable takeaway that reiterates the lesson he learned and explains how he plans to implement this lesson in his life.

Sample #3: Sarah

“Sarah. Sarah! Wake up!” My mother’s voice woke me with a start, and I raised a bleary head from my drool-covered book. Once again, I’d lost track of time and fallen asleep reading a Thomas Hardy novel. My mother watched me bewildered and asked me, “I guess you really love your new English Literature class, huh?”. My mother’s bewilderment stemmed from the fact not very long ago, I had a clear trifecta of interests – my friends, cheerleading, and fashion designing – and reading stories about things that happened to people very far away, 200 years ago, did not figure in my list of priorities. And now here I was, obsessively working my way through Hardy’s entire body of work, not long after I’d finished all the completed Austen novels. And I was already planning which Bronte sisters’ works I’d be reading next!

I have Mr. Smithers to thank for starting me on my astonishing journey of discovering, and falling in love with, 19th century British literature. While we were studying Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for our Lit class, he assigned each of us a specific assignment about different aspects of Regency era life. In my case, knowing my predilection for fashion, he asked me to work on a project about the trending women’s fashions when Jane Austen was alive. What started as a routine assignment for class soon transformed into one of the most fascinating explorations of my life. I found myself completely absorbed in the tiniest little details of Regency fashion: the imported textiles, the use of chemises, what types of slippers they wore. From exploring the “what”, I soon found myself asking how and why. I borrowed books from our school library about the politics and economy of Regency era England. I began to see the deeper connections between the socio-economic climate, and prevalent cultural trends, and how that all manifested in the form of major fashion trends. Before, I’d only ever thought of Napoleon as a short, angry French man from some distant era in history! Now, I found out how close he had come to actually conquering England, and how his rejection of extravagant court fashions in favor of ancient Greek philosophies actually popularized the empire waisted gowns that dominated Regency era England ballrooms.

With Mr. Smither’s encouragement and guidance, I found more and more novels to help me continue exploring this new interest. Under the sunlight streaming through the windows of our dusty little school library, I absorbed myself in these stories of people from a long gone era. Yet every story I read only revealed to me how humans, across time and space, have a treasury of common experiences. Reading Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, I found myself sympathizing with the double standards that Tess was dealt just because she was a woman. It also made me think deeply about how I had also internalized and sometimes acted upon sexist ideas. Like any high school, our school too was a rumor factory that most often targeted girls. I decided, from that moment, to stop participating in forwarding any gossip or rumors. I also spoke to some of my friends who had thoughtlessly spread unkind gossip about a new girl. It was a tiny act of kindness and change, but it helped me grow as a person and re-define my perspective on what matters.

The most wonderful thing about literature is the power it has to take us beyond ourselves and show us a different way of thinking than we ever imagined. Today, I not only have a new interest, but also a new perspective on life, and a new avenue to growth and learning. I can’t wait to see what new perspectives, ideas, and theories are waiting for me between the pages of a book. (629 words) 

Why it works : Sarah’s essay focuses on her interest in a specific subject and takes the reader on a journey of discovery along with her. Essays responding to prompt no 6 can sometimes be tricky to write, since it’s more difficult to set up a conflict or expand upon lessons learnt when talking about a technical topic or a specific subject. Sarah manages to create conflict by showing us a contrast between who she used to be and who she is now and leading us through the steps that led to her transformation. She also has a clear takeaway – the power of literature and its personal impact on her – and that ties back in with her initial set up of how much she had changed thanks to her new-found interest. It gives a clear idea of who she is and how she thinks, and presents a unique perspective on a regular hobby.

The Common App essay should be between 250 to 650 words. Ideally, you should write an essay of at least 500 words to ensure your narrative is substantial and meaningful.

No – once you’ve submitted your Common App essay, it is locked for editing. Make sure you’ve triple-checked your final draft, and get someone else to proofread it, before you submit it.

Yes, the Common App essay is a very important admissions component. It can count for up to 30% of your application review. The more elite and competitive the college, the more importance they’ll give to the Common App essay. As the only qualitative component of your primary application, your essay is a great opportunity to make yourself stand out from the crowd and humanize your “checklist” of achievements for the admissions committee. A great essay could help you edge out other applicants with similar profiles in terms of academic record and extracurriculars.

Ideally, you should spend 3 months writing your Common App essay, giving yourself plenty of time for brainstorming, free writing, selecting a topic, writing multiple drafts (at least 3), seeking out feedback, and finalizing your essay. You can compress these activities down into a shorter timeline, but this could make the process that much more difficult and could impact the final quality of your essay. Starting and finishing your Common App essay early also leaves you free to deal with all the other application components closer to the actual college app deadlines. Remember, you’ll also have to write secondary essays for multiple colleges in a short period of time – a month or less – and your Common App essay prep could be very useful in writing secondary essays as well. So, it’s best to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for and write your Common App essay.

If you’re struggling to find a topic for your Common App essay, start with journaling and brainstorming before you get into actually writing the essay. Just write down your free-association responses to  3 or 4 of the prompts. Ask yourself a few key questions to guide your brainstorming such as: who am I? What do I hope to achieve? What is my passion? What makes me unique? Find the experiences, events, ideas, and people in your life that are the most meaningful to you, personally, and then select a topic that corresponds to those events.

A great Common App essay is one that demonstrates your excellent writing skills, shows depth and breadth of thought, a clear journey of self-reflection, and truly expresses who you are as a person. Your essay should not be a repetition of the items already seen in your resume. Instead, it should provide a new and refreshing perspective on you, and should clearly communicate what makes you special.

Ideally, you should ask at least two people to review your Common App essay. Select someone close to you, such as a parent or a friend, who can give you genuine, well-meaning feedback about the personal aspects of your essay. You should also ask an experienced mentor to review your essay, such as an English teacher or guidance counsellor. If you’re really struggling with it, you can get the help of admissions consultants who can give you expert feedback.

The Common App essay is your personal statement, and you only need to write one essay that goes out to all colleges along with your primary application. You can select from 1 of 7 prompts and write an essay about any meaningful, personal achievements or experiences that you’d like admissions committees to know. The Common App essay should be general and should not reference any specific colleges. On the other hand, supplemental essays are written in response to college-specific prompts and should directly address why you want to go to a particular college. These essays are a part of your secondary application and colleges can share 1 or more prompts to help them get to know you better.

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10 Instructive Common App Essay Examples — 2024

March 26, 2024

Examples are integral to the learning process in just about every subject. In writing, they’re particularly important, especially when working with abstract concepts or attempting to master a new genre. Imagine how lost you’d feel if you had to write a poem without ever reading one, or craft a thesis statement without being shown a few models! Accordingly, it stands to reason that reading Common App essay examples should be an essential part of the college personal statement writing process as well.

However, we’ve noticed that reading Common App essay examples can sometimes hinder more than help, creating self-esteem pitfalls and leading students to unhelpful conclusions about the college application process. It doesn’t have to be this way, though! When you understand how essays are used in the admissions process as well as the hallmarks of a strong personal essay, you can read Common App essay examples more objectively, noticing their similarities rather than their differences. Ultimately, embracing those similarities is what will allow you to produce your strongest work. In today’s blog, we’ll review how all Common App essays are similar and teach you how to objectively evaluate examples so that they are a useful–rather than stress-inducing—tool during your writing process.

What are the pitfalls of reading Common App essay examples?

Think about what typically happens when you work on an assignment in English class. Let’s say you’re doing a short story unit. Your teacher might give you a short story (or several) written by a professional writer, which you read and analyze for specific elements. She then lets you loose to start your own story, but it’s unlikely you’re comparing yourself to the short story author while you write. That person is an expert, after all, and this is your very first piece of fiction!

College essays, though, are different. They’re not written by professional writers; they’re written by your peers (peers who might even be applying to the same selective institutions that you are). As such, the fact that you’ve never written a college essay before offers little reassurance. Everyone else seems to manage to produce amazing essays, right? So why shouldn’t you?

After years of working with students on their writing, we have some theories…

Why Reading Common App Essay Examples Can Feel Especially Loaded

  • It’s easy to arrive at inaccurate conclusions . “If so-and-so got into Harvard by theming all their essays about chicken soup, then I should do the same!” or “This person was accepted to Stanford after writing about their earliest childhood memory, so that must be the way to do it!”
  • You compare your writing style and life experiences to the examples , falsely concluding that yours can’t possibly be interesting or good enough. Worse, these conclusions might derail your initial drafts altogether.
  • After reading several examples, you decide that you’re going to “break the mold” of the Common App essay and do something “unique.” However, to be quite frank, your chance of presenting admissions officers with something that they’ve never seen before has approximately the same probability as seeing a velociraptor in your backyard. Remember, they read thousands of applications per year. Their objective is not to be surprised but to get to know you .

What are the best practices for reading Common App essay examples?

Before you dive into reading Common App essay examples, consider beginning your journey with personal essays written by professional writers. Their objective is different than yours, sure. However, you can pay close attention to how they craft their stories, how and when they reflect, how they begin, and how they conclude.

Ask yourself: What stayed with me? What did I enjoy? What did I learn about the writer?

The New York Times “ Lives ” section is especially perfect for this assignment, as the essays are typically under 700-800 words. Here are a few to get started with, but browse around (there are hundreds to choose from):

Running into Danger on an Alaskan Trail , by Cinthia Ritchie

Safe on the Southbank, by Elliot Ackerman

Familiar Ground , by Mark Montinaro

What do I do next?

Before you proceed any further, it’s important to understand the Common App essay’s purpose. Every piece of writing has a purpose, whether that’s to argue a thesis, persuade someone to buy a product, provide information, or entertain. Let’s go back to our short story example—if you’re writing a story solely for English class, your purpose might be to show your teacher that you understand the elements of short fiction. If you want the story to be published in a literary magazine, though, your purpose will be much different.

So, let’s review the purpose of a college personal statement: to add dimension to the rest of your application. As such, your personal statement should:

  • Immerse the reader into your world
  • Provide insight into something you value or think is important
  • Allow the reader to connect with you

In addition to your essay’s purpose, it’s also important to understand 1) who your Common App personal statement will be read by and 2) how it will be evaluated.

Common App Essay Examples (Continued)

Firstly, your Common App essay does not get sucked into a black hole, never to be seen by human eyeballs again. It will be read in full by admissions officers at each college—real people who want to connect with you (and whose job it is to give due diligence to every part of your application). They’re not reading your essay to circle wonky sentences with a red pen or find reasons to fast-track your application to the circular file. Instead, they are reading your work with a focus on discovery. What can they learn about you that will tell them more about what kind of student, person, community member, and/or campus contributor you’ll be?

Moreover, many admissions offices utilize a multi-step holistic decision-making process. Although your essay will likely be read several times by several different readers, the first round of review is typically focused on whether you have sufficient academic preparation and/or potential to succeed as a student. Later rounds—if your application makes it to that point—are when admissions officers typically look more closely at subjective elements like teacher recommendations and essays.

That said, know that essays are not deciding factors in admissions decisions. They can be a strong factor, particularly if your application falls in the middle of the pool at any given institution, because they help an admissions committee understand more about you and what qualities or experiences you would bring to campus if admitted. However, your essay alone will not get you admitted to or rejected from any given college.

What are the elements of a strong Common App essay?

A piece of writing’s purpose will give you essential insight into what elements are most important within that piece of writing. For example, fiction is supposed to immerse the reader into the world of the author’s creation, ultimately offering new perspectives and insights. As such, setting and character development are two major elements of any fiction piece.

Accordingly, a Common App essay’s purpose gives us insight into its most important elements. Remember, a strong Common App essay:

  • Immerses the reader into your world
  • Provides insight into something you value or think is important
  • Allows the reader to connect with you

…which means that the major elements to focus on are:

  • Positive voice/tone

Reading Common App essay examples with a focus on the above three elements can be a highly effective way to understand the genre. Doing so will give you the building blocks you need for your own essay.

Before we look at a set of examples, though, let’s delve a little more deeply into the writing process as well as each of the above three elements.

How do I write a strong Common App essay?

Before you can start writing, you’ll need to choose a topic (or potential topic). When it comes to topics, the way you write about any given topic often outweighs the topic itself. ( See exceptions here . ) Accordingly, the topic that is often the most successful is one that:

  • You feel most excited or inspired to write about
  • Allows you to immerse the reader in your world/experiences
  • Gives you the opportunity to reflect

Once you’ve chosen a topic, ask yourself the following question before/as you write:

Why does this story matter to me?

This question is the big kahuna. Why this story? You don’t have to know how your essay will unfold or what conclusions you will arrive at, but you should have a sense of why this topic is important to you to explore in the first place. Try jotting it down at the top of your page:

I want to write about how art helped me deal with my mom’s cancer diagnosis. It matters to me because art is a huge part of who I am. I want colleges to know that my passion for art is something I’m very serious about.

I’m planning to write about my ACL tear last year. It made me realize that I no longer want to play soccer competitively. Instead, I want to pursue politics! I think this shows that I’m able to turn obstacles into opportunities and adapt to change. I want colleges to know that about me.

The “big picture” is important. Let it guide and inform your early outlines and drafts.

Once you’ve nailed down why this story matters to you, it’s time to start thinking about how you want to tell it. You might want to make a list of specific anecdotes, memories, or experiences related to your story and see which one(s) you feel most drawn to. For example:

Why this story matters to me

Related Stories

  • Getting my art box for my birthday
  • When my brother scratched his bike and I repainted it
  • The first time I went to Art Club
  • Working on my art show submission
  • Painting mailboxes in my neighborhood

Ultimately, you might incorporate more than one story into your essay, but for now, you’ll just want to choose one to begin with. Close your eyes and pick the first story or image that comes to mind. Start writing it down with the goal of being as specific and descriptive as possible. Ask yourself:

  • What did I see, hear, smell, and/or feel?

For example, consider the following three sentences:

  • There’s a stream behind my house.
  • A sluggish, polluted stream winds through the woods behind my house.
  • A crystal-clear brook gurgles over rocks in my mother’s garden.

The first sentence doesn’t provide much detail, right? Consequently, you’ll automatically insert your own images, picturing a stream that you know versus the stream behind my house. My job is to immerse you in my world, though, which means that I need to be more specific!

In contrast, the second and third sentences each describe a very specific stream. Notice how much power I have as the writer to evoke different images and strike a particular tone. Use this to your advantage! Either sentence would immerse you into my world, help you connect with me, and reinforce theme.

It’s completely fine if your early drafts include a surplus of details. As you refine your drafts, focus on preserving details that enhance the narrative and removing details that may be distracting. For example:

A sluggish, polluted stream winds through the woods behind my house. There’s a tree next to it that towers thirty feet high, housing chattering birds and squirrels. The stream originates from a reservoir several miles away, and when we visited several months ago after noticing the worsening water quality, we noticed that the reservoir’s beaches were littered with trash and that it was being used as a dumping ground by a local construction company. This is when I threw myself into creating a proposal to bring before the town council that would protect the reservoir.

The focus of this essay is clearly on the writer’s efforts to protect and clean the reservoir. As such, the tree near her house may be a detail that the writer could remove. However, is there anything else she could add about the reservoir’s surrounding area that would paint an even clearer picture of what’s at stake? Is there a dearth of wildlife? Suffering plant life? A moratorium on fishing? Those details could vivify this paragraph.

You’ve written out your story and included lots of detail. Great! Now, you must balance the descriptive, storytelling elements of your essay with an appropriate level of interiority and reflection. To do so, you’ll want to ask yourself:

Where could I reflect on my experience or reveal my thoughts and feelings?

Raise your hand if you’ve heard “Show, don’t tell” your whole life. However, did you know that almost every piece of writing incorporates both showing and telling? In personal essays, the balance between both elements is essential. While you should certainly “show” readers what your experience was like via the use of details and description, you should also “tell” them why it matters. Reflect on your experience—what was hard? What did you learn or wonder, think or feel? Which lessons are you taking forward?

In addition to demonstrating how you think and process information, your reflection also gives your reader another opportunity to connect with you on a personal level. We’ll point out specific examples of interiority and reflection in the example essays below, but be on the lookout for where writers use statements like these: “I thought…” “I felt…” “I wondered…” “I decided…” which often signal reflective moments.

Check Your Tone

The concept of voice feels nebulous to many writers. Essentially, readers hear your writing voice through what you choose to write about and how you choose to write about it. If you’re providing specific details as well as an appropriate level of reflection and writing in a style that feels comfortable and natural to you, trust that your voice is shining through, even if it doesn’t feel that way as you write!

As for tone, we suggest aiming for general positivity. However, positive doesn’t mean that you have to hype yourself up, slap a shiny bow on an unresolved issue, or arrive at a forced ending. It simply means that your essay should have some sort of upward trajectory and arrive at a hopeful or forward-thinking conclusion.

Let’s look at three examples of tone:

In the end, my reservoir proposal didn’t go through. It left me feeling annoyed and depressed. I was mad for a pretty long time about this outcome, but I think I’m ready to move forward.

This tone feels fairly negative, ending the essay on an unresolved note and potentially causing the reader to wonder: is this writer really ready to move forward?

My proposal made it to the last round, which shows how hard I worked. Making it to the last round was the greatest thing to happen to me—it made me a stronger person in the long run!

Too much! Too much! Being excessively upbeat and self-congratulatory can send red flags of its own.

In the end, my proposal made it to the last round but didn’t go through. This was a tough outcome. However, I decided to re-evaluate my motivation and priorities, which helped me overhaul my strategy. After more research, practice, and preparation, I’m more than ready to try again. Most importantly, I’m confident I’ll be able to handle future setbacks with grace and tact.

Much improved. While the writer is honest about being disappointed, she also shares how she adjusted and how she’d like to move forward. There isn’t a clear resolution per se, but that’s okay—there’s still plenty of positive momentum and a sense of how she’d handle future challenges.

Okay, I’ve written a draft. How do I make sure it’s still on track?

Remember that your Common App essay’s purpose is to:

  • Connect with the reader

…which means that you’ll need to focus on the following elements:

Accordingly, after you complete a draft, ask yourself the following:

  • Which details immerse the reader in my world? Do I need to add more?
  • Did I reflect on my experience or reveal my thoughts?
  • What do admissions officers learn about me?

To get into each element more deeply, let’s dive into our example essays.

First, Examples #1-6 will highlight where writers incorporated detail and reflection as well as the overall final takeaway that a reader may walk away with.

Next, Examples #7-8 will explain where writers could incorporate more detail and/or reflection for a stronger essay.

Finally, Examples #9-10 are early, in-progress drafts. We’ll share what developmental feedback we would give these writers to help them move forward.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #1

On a hot day last summer, my brother ran his bike into the mailbox. He skinned his knee, but was less worried about that and more worried about the chipped paint on his new red bike. Tears welling in his eyes, he rubbed the chip with his finger and even more paint flaked off.

“Wait,” I said. “Wait here for just one minute.”

I had taken my brother outside because my mom was sleeping after a chemo treatment, but I ran upstairs as quickly and quietly as I could to get my box of paints. It’s a wooden box, smudged with charcoal fingerprints and streaks of acrylics. I hadn’t always been an artist, but when my art teacher noticed the designs in my notebook margins and asked if I wanted to come to an art club meeting, I decided to try it.

At that first meeting, my teacher taught us how to create a mountain sunrise. As the painting took shape, I marveled at the techniques–using my thumbprint to create the sun, crafting shadows with surprising colors, creating different effects by applying varying types of pressure to my brush. I was also surprised that focusing on my piece felt so meditative–it was the first time since my mom’s diagnosis that I hadn’t been preoccupied with whether her treatments would work or what I was going to cook my brother for dinner.

“What do you want on your bike?” I asked my brother. “Instead of the scratch.” I opened up my box and pointed toward his bike. His eyes widened.

“Anything I want?” he asked.

He chose a baseball bat, and crouched next to me as I painted. When I was done, he said, “Can you paint a baseball, too? Over here.” He pointed to the other end of the bike.

“I’ll show you how.” I dipped his thumb in white and pressed it on the bike’s frame, then showed him how to use my thinnest brush to add curved red stitching.

Word spread quickly about my bike designs. My brother’s friends stopped by the house with pictures of designs that they wanted, and my neighbor’s little girls shyly approached when I was outside with my brother, asking for butterflies. I started carrying my paints around just in case. The kids always gave me something–a shiny rock they’d found, a few quarters, a special feather. It makes me smile when I look out the window and see those bikes pedaling around the neighborhood, my brother’s among them. It makes my mom smile, too. I asked what she would want painted on her bike if she had one, and she said a sunflower. I painted one on our mailbox, cheery and yellow, its stem curling around the handle and down the post.

There are always new techniques to learn and improvements to strive toward, but I feel that art is about trying to create meaning within a chosen medium. There’s so much I can’t control, but what I can do is create beauty in my life and in the lives of others. It’s why I started teaching an afterschool art class at my brother’s elementary school, why I’m currently working on a wall mural in the children’s room at the library, why I’ve taught myself graphic design skills to create posters for art club events and shows. Also, my mailbox paint creations gained so much popularity that my entire street commissioned me to do their boxes. I donated the money to cancer research, but more importantly, the designs are a beacon of support to my mom each day that she feels strong enough to walk outside and check the mail.

Although college will bring new challenges, I also know it will bring a new collection of scratched-up bikes and bare mailboxes, waiting to be painted with brightly colored designs that allow me to express myself and impact others.

What we can learn from this example:

Let’s run down our list of questions:

Which details immerse you in the writer’s world?

This essay is loaded with specific details: her brother’s bike, her art box, her first art club meeting, and her drawings/designs, to name a few. These details help us picture her environment and connect with her experience.

Where did she reflect on her experience or reveal her thoughts?

She provides the most significant reflection in the final two paragraphs, where she tells us why art is so important to her, how she stays involved, and that she wants to continue using art to engage & connect with others in college. However, she also provides small moments of reflection throughout the essay, such as in paragraph four: “I was also surprised that focusing on my piece felt so meditative–it was the first time since my mom’s diagnosis that I hadn’t been preoccupied with whether her treatments would work or what I was going to cook my brother for dinner.” Without that sentence, it might be difficult to understand why art became so important to her.

What will admissions officers learn about her?

She’s creative, dedicated, and empathetic. She’s also clearly a leader who takes initiative, both within her family and in her community.

In sum, this writer used details and reflection to help readers understand what she finds important—in the process, she’s given her essay a positive tone and clear voice.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #2

By some people’s standards, my grandma might be considered a hoarder. When I say there is stuff everywhere at our house, I mean it: broken crystal glasses from a hundred years ago, old watch straps, a shockingly large collection of thumbtacks. Three coffee makers that haven’t worked since before I was born. A broom no one uses because it doesn’t actually sweep anything up.

Whenever I make a motion to throw something out–an empty spice jar for example, or socks with holes in them, my grandma acts personally insulted. (She has also been known to survey the trash can for offending items.) She’ll take it from me grouchily and remind me of its potential uses–spice jars can be cinnamon and sugar shakers! Socks are free dusters! Sometimes, though, she doesn’t have a reason beyond “I might need it someday.”

College Essay Examples (Continued)

At first, I thought this statement was weird. What could we possibly need a cracked Tupperware container for? But then I learned that her attitude stems, in part, from growing up on a rural farm. Everything was repurposed, and it was common to keep things that may not have direct uses, knowing you’d likely find one at some point or another. For example, a large plastic container with a broken lid could be turned on its side and stuffed with hay for the cat in the winter, or plastic bread bags could be used to pack school lunches. Dried-up markers? Homemade watercolor paint. Egg cartons and dryer lint? Fire starters. Chipped bowl? Bird bath.

Her attitude made me interested in our collective willingness to sentence an item to the trash before finding a reuse for it. We buy cheap clothes knowing they might only last us a year. Single-use plastic still dominates, even though the vast majority of it heads to the landfill instead of being recycled. Old jeans are tossed instead of patched up and used as gardening pants, like my grandma does. The worst part is that we do all this knowing that our planet is undergoing irreversible shifts as a result of climate change. The world we’re heading toward is a world none of us can possibly be prepared for.

But what if people could be convinced to adopt my grandma’s mindset? And what would it take to inspire such behavioral changes on a large scale? I started learning about the field of neuroeconomics through books, podcasts, and a summer course at our local college, and became fascinated with the neuroscience behind decision-making. Could principles of neuroeconomics influence environmental policy? What factors could help people make long-lasting, environmentally conscious changes, and how we might facilitate them? These are massive, long-term questions. For now, was there a way to inspire my friends to start being more mindful of their consumption? To start reusing spaghetti jars and dusting with hole-y socks? And what might people be willing to donate or repurpose when there was a community effort to do so?

So, me and my grandma started advertising our services, and the response was unlike anything I could have possibly imagined. We now have a garage full of items that we either donate, sell, or repair, everything from antique dresses that my grandma soaks the stains out of to custom-patched jeans to dressers and wooden toys that need a quick sanding and fresh coat of paint. Our yard sales have become legendary and I’m the go-to kid when people have an old end table with Buzz Lightyear on it that they don’t know what to do with. “Drop it off at my grandma’s,” I say, and they do. Until I can figure out how to effect the kind of large-scale change I’d like to make, I’ll start small and keep going, hopeful that I’m making a difference one revitalized sock at a time.

There’s the coffeemakers, the broom that doesn’t sweep, the socks, the jeans, the repairable items…we could go on. Since this essay is about this writer’s interest in sustainability, notice that he exclusively focuses on specific examples of repurposable items. Such a move supports the narrative rather than acting as filler.

Where did he reflect on his experience or reveal his thoughts?

This writer reflects throughout the essay by using “I” statements (“I thought…”) and asking direct questions, both of which are powerful ways to let readers in on his thought process—and show how it changed.

What will admissions officers learn about him?

This writer is intellectually curious, open-minded, and humorous. It’s also clear that he’s passionate about sustainability and the environment, and is committed to exploring new initiatives and possibilities in college.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #3

My life has always been punctuated by my father’s military deployments, like periods placed in the middle of sentences. I often measured time in relation to them: before, during, or after , holding my breath for my father’s departure or homecoming, for the inevitable extensions and sporadic phone calls, for the unexpected emotions and responsibilities. By the time I was in high school, my father had been gone for more of my childhood than he had been present, and in tenth grade, my parents decided to divorce.

Until then, I had always been surrounded by friends who also had an active duty parent. We didn’t have to explain to each other what the ups and downs felt like. We just knew. I knew that when Mariela’s father’s deployment got extended, she could use a trip to the beach, her favorite place, knew that one of the most painful parts of the whole deployment cycle was the anticipation, and would check in with my friends more frequently during that time, knew that the first week often felt the most discombobulated, and was usually when my mom would offer to drop off meals or help ferry kids to after-school activities. That first week was also the time when things usually went wrong: a burst pipe, a dead car battery, a broken washing machine. Murphy’s Law , my mom always said.

I had spent my entire life existing within this predictably unpredictable cycle. So, when my mom and I moved right before my junior year to a small condo ten minutes from my grandparents but 2,000 miles away from my father’s last duty station, I assumed it wouldn’t be that much different from other moves. I’d join new clubs, make new friends, get to know our neighbors.

But I was immediately confronted by a sense of otherness in a community of kids who had known each other since kindergarten. Explaining where I’d lived before–and why–either solicited shocked reactions “You’ve moved six times?” or prying questions “Why didn’t you stay with your dad?” Mentioning a deployment received a blank stare.  I felt like the previous version of me, the way I’d always thought of myself–as a military kid–was no longer true, or had somehow evaporated into thin air.

Then, last spring, I had an unexpected breakthrough. My chemistry lab partner struggled with some of the steps. As I explained them to her, she visibly relaxed and shot me a thankful smile. I grinned too, because in that moment, I felt more like myself than I had in months.

Later that week, I applied for a peer tutoring position and was accepted. I feel passionate about trying to make personal connections with my students so that I can try to understand and anticipate their needs. I notice whether some students like to brainstorm ideas aloud before writing them down, or prefer when I use pictures to explain concepts. Some students appreciate small talk for a few minutes before we get started, and others need to be more efficient, trying to squeeze in a tutoring session before their after-school job. Not only that, but as I got to know my fellow tutors, I found friendship and connection. When Sophia’s brother was in the hospital, I picked her up for an afternoon movie. On the night of my piano recital, Olivia and Mary were in the front row cheering me on.

I’ve come to understand that my previous identity is still part of me, even though I now live a very different lifestyle than I did several years ago. Sometimes, I still miss being a military kid. But all the lessons I learned from that time in my life–the importance of a supportive community, empathy, kindness, and anticipating others’ needs–are always with me, informing everything I do.

What we can learn from this college essay example:

Writing about significant challenges is one circumstance where you can choose to be somewhat less descriptive. Notice that the writer contains her challenges in the first half of the essay and only includes need-to-know details. For example, we don’t need to know the reason for her parents’ divorce, or every nitty-gritty deployment detail. She sticks to the facts.

However, she incorporates more specifics into the second half of the essay, including details about particular conversations/comments, her tutoring experience, and her friends.

In an essay about a challenge, reflection is almost always placed toward the end of the essay. You can see that this writer reflected on her experiences in the final few paragraphs, taking time to appreciate where she’s been and where she’s going. However, she uses “I” statements throughout to let us in on what she was thinking and feeling, ex. “I assumed it wouldn’t be much different from other moves…” “I felt like the previous version of me…”

She’s resilient and adaptable, which she’s conveyed through her mature and positive tone. Remember, a positive tone isn’t forced or fake—it simply means that your essay has forward momentum or a positive future outlook. At the end of this essay, one has the overall sense that, even though this writer sometimes struggles with her new lifestyle, she’s ready to take on new challenges. It’s also clear that she values and prioritizes being part of a community.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #4

The scent of crushed garlic permeates the air, mingling with tamari and sesame oil. The nutty smell of brown butter hits my nose next, followed by earthy sage. Something sweet and spicy—sweet potatoes tossed in cinnamon and gochujang.

Most Saturday mornings, the kitchen counter is a mess of ingredients, whisks, and hot pans with my parents shuffling around in the middle, kneading bread or marinating meat. They’re rarely home for dinner during the week, but Saturdays are when we try our hand at everything from my Italian great-grandmother’s tomato-stained lasagna recipe to new dishes like bulgogi, potstickers, and garlic naan.

Often, the recipes fail miserably the first time. A few months ago, our naan dough was so sticky that it was difficult to knead and then impossible to flip in the pan. Our raviolis split open when we dropped them in boiling water; our lemon curd always broke. Without fail, though, there was some special trick we were missing. My mom’s best friend, who gave us the naan recipe, showed us how to oil our hands before kneading the dough and brush the back of each naan with water before dropping it into the pan. The result? Perfectly chewy and easy-to-flip bread. YouTube tutorials fixed our ravioli problem—turns out we needed to turn down the heat and avoid overloading the pot. (We’re still figuring out the lemon curd.)

I always write down the adjustments in the margins of our recipe notebook, adjustments that are sometimes happy accidents, like when we successfully thickened a soup with cashews instead of butter or accidentally added cinnamon to a chocolate chip cookie recipe. It made me embrace the mindset that whatever problem we were facing could always be creatively solved.

It was this sense of possibility that helped me navigate new territory last year. After extensive testing and many years of chronic stomach problems and headaches, I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. I felt both relieved and nervous as I wondered whether our cooking Saturdays would be more difficult. My mom, however, seemed undeterred and immediately started researching gluten-free substitutes and flours. We quickly found that there were an overwhelming number of flour possibilities—tapioca, rice, coconut, almond, oat—all combined in various ratios and used for differing purposes.

We decided to test the flours one by one, quickly finding that coconut flour cannot be directly substituted for regular flour, almond flour naturally creates a chewier cookie, and gluten-free flours almost always need more moisture than regular flour. Every time we successfully modified one of our “old” recipes, I felt both energized and encouraged that I didn’t have to give up foods I loved just because I was gluten-free.

My experiences have made me realize that food inclusivity can be an underrated yet simple way to show kindness to others. After multiple events and birthday parties where I brought my own snacks or avoided the food table, I’ve become more mindful of people’s food traditions and considerations. For example, one of my Indian friends eats exclusively vegetarian while my Muslim friend doesn’t eat pork. My cousin has an anaphylactic peanut allergy, and my neighbor recently became vegan for environmental reasons. When they come over to study or hang out, I love the smile I get when they realize they can eat whatever snack or baked good I’ve made (especially if it’s brownies).

In addition to empathy, all those Saturday mornings cooking with my parents—and the food knowledge I’ve gained from our friends and family—have encouraged my adaptability. Instead of focusing on what might go wrong, I focus on how I can always learn something new if I’m open-minded enough to do it. Making perfect ravioli might just mean turning down the heat, unsticking my naan might just require a little sprinkle of water, and finding new friends in college might just take a warm plate of nut-free, vegan, gluten-free brownies.

This writer used quite a few sensory food details and specifics throughout, from what the food tasted and smelled like to details about recipes. As such, the focal point of her essay—food—comes to life for us in a way we can easily envision.

She also grouped her details in threes. When you have a number of potential examples to share—as this writer did—consider embracing the rule of three. Our brains like patterns, and three is typically the sweet spot of effectiveness and memorability. Notice that this writer uses three examples in several areas: the opening paragraph, third paragraph, sixth paragraph, and final paragraph. Limiting yourself to three can be an excellent way to increase your writing’s power and simultaneously reduce words. Win-win!

This writer reflected in several places, mostly in the second half of the essay. She uses “I” statements to signal how her thoughts evolved—“I felt nervous…” “I wondered…” “My experiences made me realize…” In addition, she specifically discusses two values that are the most important to her: empathy and adaptability.

She’s empathetic, adaptable, and family-oriented. She’s also perseverant, willing to try new things, and values connection with others.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #5

I’ve always been obsessed with the ocean. Bioluminescent plankton. Killer whales. Alien-like creatures that only exist in the abyssal zone, a place less explored than outer space. As a child, I spent summer beach days observing tide pools and writing down what I saw in a notebook. I learned about scientists like Eugenie Clark and Sylvia Earle, fearless crusaders who explored the ocean through scuba diving and deep-sea expeditions. Although many jobs within marine biology don’t require diving ability, I dreamed of being the type of scientist who boldly investigates underwater caves and cascades down to the bottom of the ocean in a submersible with bizarre and never-before-seen fish flashing past the tiny windows.

Even though the cold waters near our home weren’t exactly a diving mecca, I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was learn. I started saving up money to pay for lessons and was so excited when I finally had enough to take an introductory course. The class started out in a pool, and once we mastered a certain set of skills, we’d be able to do our first open-water dive.

Since I loved the ocean so much, I thought diving would come naturally to me. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I managed to keep up until it came time to work on clearing our masks underwater, which is when you rinse the inside of the mask while you’re diving rather than have to re-surface every time the glass fogs. However, whenever I loosened my mask to flood it with water, I couldn’t push away the nagging sense of panic. I kept sucking water up my nose instead of blowing out and would immediately need to surface, choking and gasping.

I tried again. And again. And again. Over and over, the mask clearing went sideways: I’d press on the seal, tilt my head up, and attempt to blow through my nose, only to inhale instead of exhale or become overwhelmed by the water clouding my vision. After several weeks and little improvement, my instructor sat me down to discuss taking a break.

Honestly, rather than feeling a sense of failure, all I felt was a sense of relief. However, as soon as I got home, that instant relief was replaced by intense disappointment. Diving was my dream, and I couldn’t let myself give up that easily.

I knew that there must be something mentally preventing me from enjoying diving and being able to complete certain skills. To figure out what that “something” was, I started talking to both beginning and experienced divers on online forums, who were quick to share their own experiences of struggling on their first dives. They emphasized water comfort as well as mindfulness techniques, such as yoga and meditation. Instead of diving, I started heading to the pool multiple days per week, doing laps and getting more comfortable in the water, in addition to taking a yoga class and meditating every morning.

Several months ago, I went back to my diving class with renewed purpose and confidence. I successfully cleared my mask underwater and quickly mastered the next set of skills. And two weeks ago, when I lowered myself beneath the surface of the ocean on my first open-water dive, it was nothing short of magical.

Diving is about more than my childhood dream—it’s about my confidence in myself. Although it was a longer journey than I anticipated, I’m proud of myself for committing to my goal. Rather than allowing myself to believe that my fears can’t be overcome and that I have to live with limited opportunities, I choose to embrace the belief that having fears—and confronting them—will only make me a stronger diver and a more resilient scientist.

In addition to her specific childhood interests, the writer also goes into detail about her scuba diving classes—what they were like, what went wrong (particularly in regard to mask-clearing), and what she did to overcome her fears. For example, in the sixth paragraph, she gives us detailed specifics about the actions she took: “Instead of diving, I started heading to the pool multiple days per week, doing laps and getting more comfortable in the water, in addition to taking a yoga class and meditating every morning.” Imagine how much less effective that paragraph might be if she instead wrote “I decided to try out some of their suggestions, and they worked.”

If you’re writing an essay about a particular failure or struggle, think about why it felt so significant, and be sure to incorporate that “why” into your essay. This writer does so in the final paragraph, where she discusses why overcoming her diving-related obstacles was such a significant step for her.

They’ll learn that she has grit, perseverance, resilience, and self-awareness. She’s willing to fail and try again. Not only that, she’s willing to reflect on her experience and use what she learned to continue growing.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #6

It happened quickly. One minute, I was wide open, waiting to catch a throw during my family’s annual Thanksgiving football game. The next minute, I was being tackled to the ground by my cousin and felt something pop.

At first, I thought the pop was something benign. Air cracking through a joint, maybe. I rolled over to stand up, but my right leg gave out beneath me as soon as I tried to put weight on it. My cousin helped me limp inside and my mom piled frozen corn bags on my knee. Within an hour, it had swelled to the size of baseball and I was in too much pain to move.

Several specialists and an MRI later, I was diagnosed with an ACL tear and scheduled for surgery. This news would have been difficult enough without the fear that now ballooned in my mind: what about soccer ?

I’d been a competitive soccer player since I was three, and I loved the game. Actually, I didn’t just love it, I lived and breathed for it. Singularly focused on my dream of becoming a professional athlete, I dedicated multiple hours per week to improving my skills on and off the field.

But the ACL tear changed everything. It would be at least nine months before I could play soccer again, and I was terrified about what that would mean. Would I now be passed over during the college recruiting process? Was this the beginning of the end?

I felt sorry for myself for several weeks before deciding that I had a choice in how the next steps played out. College soccer or no college soccer, my team now was important to me. While I was recovering at home, I convinced my coach to send me videos of soccer practices so I could stay up to date on our team’s strategy, and I was disciplined about physical therapy as soon as I could after the surgery.

However, I also started pouring my extra time into an unexpected place: history. I’d always been interested in the Cold War, and had listened to a few podcasts about it, but digging in even further made me obsessed with McCarthyism as well as the psychological manipulation that occurred at various levels of government during that time. I wondered: how does peer pressure influence adults, particularly at the highest levels of government? How do people perceive threats to their political survival? Is it possible for politicians to sacrifice themselves on the altar of their morals, or is it more likely that they’ll always act in their own best interests? I could even see these same questions playing out in the political landscape today.

When I went back to school post-surgery, a new ritual began: before hobbling over to the field to watch my team’s soccer practice, I’d be in my AP History teacher’s classroom, picking his brain about whatever topic had claimed my attention that week. He ultimately recommended me for a summer program at a local college that investigated political ethics, where I found a group of friends who shared my interests. To this day, we’re constantly sharing political articles in our group text and discussing them together spiritedly.

Giving myself the space to go in new directions, and to learn more about who I am now, changed everything. I realized I had never challenged my dream of being a professional soccer player, never asked myself if that was what I really wanted until I had to. I’ll always love soccer, and always bring my all to any field I’m on. But I love other things, too, and I now am looking for a space where I can be curious, ask new questions, and push what I think I know in new ways. Where will my current interests lead me? I can’t wait to find out.

For starters, this writer provides a solid level of detail about the injury itself. Rather than saying “I tore my ACL playing football” he gives us some context and detail about where he was, who he was playing with, and what happened. It might seem small, but these details allow us to envision his experience. In the second half of the essay, he also provides specifics about his political interests, including his current questions and curiosities.

Moreover, his essay includes a number of small details that alert us to his drive and dedication. For example, in the eighth paragraph, he could have said, “…a new ritual began: I stopped in to see my AP History teacher before soccer practice.” Instead, he wrote: “…. a new ritual began: before hobbling over to the field to watch my team’s soccer practice, I’d be in my AP History teacher’s classroom….” His language communicates that it was difficult for him to get to both places, even though he doesn’t expressly tell us that.

This writer reflects at the beginning and end of the essay. In the first few paragraphs, he shares what he was thinking and feeling during the aftermath of the ACL tear, which helps us empathize with his situation and understand why it felt so significant. In the final paragraph, he then arrives at some conclusions about the “big picture” and where he plans to go from here.

You may have heard the advice to avoid writing about sports or sports injuries in your college essay, but we’ve seen many students write powerful essays about sports when they lean deeply into how the event or injury affected them on a personal level. This writer did just that, using his injury to demonstrate his resilience, ability to overcome challenges, and willingness to challenge his beliefs. In addition, by asking open-ended questions, he also showcases his intellectual passions/curiosities.

Okay, time to put our skills to the test! The following two essays could use some additional tweaking. Let’s figure out where:

Common app essay examples: essay #7.

Beep. As the cashier passes each item over the scanner, she rolls it in my direction, where I have a growing collection of produce, soup cans, and chip bags. Beep. I sort through the heap, automatically stacking cans and moving eggs and bread to the side. Beep.

“Paper, plastic, or reusable?” I ask.

I started my job as a grocery bagger last summer, and at first, it seemed like it would be easy money. However, on my first day, I quickly learned that bagging groceries was part art, part science.

How hard could this be? I assumed the goal should be to load each bag with as many items as possible, and so placed three jars of spaghetti sauce, canned vegetables, and a half-gallon of milk in one bag, confident that I was being efficient.

Wrong. So, so wrong.

As soon as I lifted the bag toward the cart, the handles ripped off and the entire thing crashed to the floor. The cans rolled in multiple directions; the milk skidded across the tiles in what seemed like slow motion.

No spills. Phew .

I breathed a sigh of relief about those glass jars of sauce…until I picked up the bag. The inside was now a crime scene of tomatoes and broken glass. The cashier rolled her eyes at me and other customers stopped to crane their necks and see what was happening. I wanted to disappear.

“Hey, kid.” An older man limped over to where I was standing and took the bag from my hands. “Why don’t you go grab this lady some new sauce?”

I scurried off to the spaghetti sauce aisle, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. How could I have messed up something as simple as bagging groceries?

I got the sauce and went back. Gerry—as I would soon come to know him—was standing at my bagging station, patiently sorting the customer’s pile of food. When he saw me, he gestured me over.

“Now,” he said. “Here’s what you do. Cans on the bottom, around the outside, see? But only a couple.” He watched me load some in. “No, no, that’s too many.” He took one out. “You should be able to easily lift it, see?” He picked up the bag with one hand.

“Cans around the outside. Good. Now glass in the middle. Take one of these—” he took a spaghetti sauce jar out of my hands and deposited it snugly between the cans. “Good. Now, what else we got? Put the boxes and crushable items on top—look, she’s got granola bars, popcorn. Yep, just like that.”

Gerry supervised me for the rest of the week, teaching me how to handle all kinds of bagging conundrums, like fresh meat (put it in a separate bag); cleaning supplies (don’t put them with the food, in case they leak); recently-misted produce (put another plastic bag over it to keep it from getting the rest of the groceries wet); and eggs (either on top of a mid-weight bag or at the bottom of a light bag. Oh, and tell the customer which bag the eggs are in!).

I’ve quickly learned our customers’ bagging preferences, and cashiers now often request me as their bagger. I’ve also learned that these interactions mean a lot to people, as properly bagged groceries make it easier for people to transport their food home efficiently and in one piece. Most importantly, Gerry taught me that nothing is more essential than your willingness to learn and do your best, no matter what job you find yourself doing.

Gerry retired last month, but I think of him whenever I’m training a new bagger or navigating ripped-bag catastrophes. And when I see a jar of spaghetti sauce coming down the conveyor belt, I can’t help but grin as I place it safely between a few cans.

How this writer could improve his essay:

Which details immerse you in the writer’s world? Do they need to add more?

This writer is doing great with details, making use of imagery to bring us into the narrative. We can clearly envision the groceries coming down the conveyor belt, the cans and jars being packed into bags, and even the writer’s horror at the bags ripping!

There is some reflection at the end of the essay, when the writer tells us what he’s learned. However, we’d love to see this writer do a little more digging. It’s clear that he learned some significant life lessons from Gerry that he’s tried to apply at work and beyond. However, the reflection feels a bit rushed. To strengthen, this writer might consider expanding on how he’s applied the lessons he’s learned as well as what he’s specifically discovered about himself or others in the process of doing so.

He’s willing to learn, is dependable and dedicated, and is committed to mastering new skills. If he could spend a little more time focusing on why his newfound life lessons felt so significant and how he applied them, it would help give admissions officers a better sense of him as both a person and a prospective member of their community.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #8

I needed a four-letter word for “angry” that started with R, a type of eagle most commonly found in the Western United States, and a movie from the 1980s that featured characters named Allison, Brian, and Claire. I tapped my pencil on the side of my father’s hospital bed and then tried a few possibilities. “Rude”? No, the second letter needed to be A. “Rash”?

With my father on dialysis, my mother and I spent hours with him at the treatment center. Several days a week, I’d go straight there after school and do my homework in his room. Once, when I arrived, he had a small crossword puzzle book sitting on the bed and handed it to me with a weak smile.

He fell asleep halfway through the first one, but in the chaos and noise of beeping machines and nurses filtering in and out, and of my brain working overtime wondering how much the treatments would help, the crosswords were a simple yet challenging way to keep me busy. I’d often solve as many clues as I could and then save a few for when he woke up, particularly ones about bands from the 80s, old actors and TV shows, or comic book characters.

The crosswords soon infiltrated every area of my life. I’d work on one on the bus on the way to the hospital, between classes, while I was eating lunch. At first, my friends eyed me strangely, but they caught on to the addictiveness soon enough. There would usually be a group of us crowded around a half-solved puzzle at lunch, shouting out answers and penciling in possibilities.

Unexpectedly, crosswords also became a way to learn more about people I loved. A “Dubai” answer led one of my friends to excitedly share that she had been born there. Another friend enjoyed strategizing which section to attempt first. And I also noticed that my dad had an endless knowledge of politics, recalling past presidential candidates with ease. When I asked him how he could remember all of that, it led to stories about his younger days, doing door-to-door campaigning for local candidates. I was surprised because we’re both introverts, and I would feel so nervous to knock on doors. I asked him if anyone ever got upset about his political beliefs.

He took a minute to answer. “In my experience,” he said slowly. “If someone was upset, it meant that they cared. And if they cared, it meant we had something in common.”

After that conversation, I realized I should be pushing myself past what I thought I was capable of, both in and outside of my puzzles. I now try to take risks that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise, talk to people who I may not have tried to be friends with, and sign myself up for new experiences. In all of these situations, I do my best to learn about other people, just like my father did. It’s my goal to continue doing that in college.

How this writer could improve her essay:

This writer has already included a number of excellent details—specific crossword puzzle clues, the struggle of commuting back and forth to her father’s treatments, etc. She also helps us envision her lunchtime crossword gatherings as well as the new connections she began to make with her friends. However, she could add more details in the final paragraph—what risks has she tried to take? What new experiences has she taken on?

In this essay, notice that one reflection organically leads to another. In paragraph five, the writer tells us that crosswords helped her learn more about people she loved, which leads to additional insights about taking risks and pushing herself outside her comfort zone. However, these realizations don’t quite feel connected yet.

As such, this writer might elect to dig a little deeper into why it’s important to her to learn more about others and take risks. Outside of crossword puzzles, what specific examples can she share? In the process, she might uncover new connections.

Alternatively, she might decide that she wants to focus on one particular direction. Currently, she discusses her relationship with her friends as well as her father. However, she might decide that she wanted to write exclusively about how her deepened connection with her father inspired her to change and broaden her perspective.

They’ll learn that she’s intellectual, likes to challenge herself, and appreciates connection. However, as noted in the previous section, her essay is just starting to connect the dots between experiences and insights. Accordingly, this writer would do well to think about what she would like admissions officers to know and then structure her content more intuitively around that goal.

You’re basically a Common App essay expert now, so let’s switch gears and look at two early-stage freewrites. To strengthen their work, what could these students do next?

Common app essay examples: essay #9.

Last summer, I worked as a camp counselor, and by the last week, I could navigate multiple issues with ease. Between lost shoes, runny noses, and separation anxiety, I felt like I could handle anything that came my way. It hadn’t always been like this, though.

When I first started working as a summer camp counselor, I thought my main objective was to make sure that the campers were always having a positive experience. “Don’t cry!” I would say. “Your mom will be back to pick you up later!” Or “Why are you sad? We’re going to have so much fun today!” But it rarely helped. Sometimes, my advice would only make the kids more upset. Other times, they would look at me accusingly as if I couldn’t possibly have any idea what they were experiencing. I struggled with why my efforts to connect were falling flat.

With the help of my sister, I finally realized that trying to empathize with my campers instead of trying to make them feel happy all the time allowed me to connect with them on a deeper level. I was able to do this by thinking about my own summer camp experiences, and trying to remember how it felt to miss my mom or struggle during a certain activity.

Dealing with our own feelings—and other people’s feelings—is complicated and sometimes doesn’t make any sense. By approaching my campers, my friends, and my family members with empathy and a goal to try to relate to them, I am doing my best to create stronger relationships.

Where this writer could go from here:

First, what does this writer want to share about herself with colleges?

She wants to share how much she values building meaningful connections with others.

Right now, this writer is painting with very broad strokes, and we’d encourage her to add more detail! To bring us into her experience, this writer might try “showing” rather than “telling,” particularly at the beginning of the essay. What types of details could “show” us how she handles different situations as a camp counselor? For example, “Between lost shoes, runny noses, and separation anxiety, I felt like I could handle anything that came my way” might evolve into:

“Miss, do you have a tissue?”

“I’m hungry!”

“I can’t find my shoe…”

There were two packs of tissues in my back pocket, and I handed one to Julian. I reassured Anna that snack time was in ten minutes. And I had seen Michelle’s shoe somewhere…yes! There it was, tucked behind the plant.  

Michelle stuck her shoe on and ran off; Anna begrudgingly joined a group playing hide and seek. But Julian kept crying. I sat down next to him and asked him if he was okay. He told me he missed his mom.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I remember missing my mom at summer camp, too.”

Julian cried for a few more minutes and blew his nose. I asked him if he wanted a drink of water. He shook his head…

Where did this writer reflect on her experience or reveal her thoughts?

Although this writer reflects briefly at the end of the essay, notice that it doesn’t feel earned yet because we haven’t yet learned how she ultimately arrived there. How exactly did she practice and build empathy? How and why has her experience as a summer camp counselor changed the way that she approaches other relationships? If she could lean into specific experiences as well as her own thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities, she’d be on her way to a significantly stronger piece.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #10

For my seventh birthday, my parents got me a chia pet. (I had been asking for a dog, but no such luck.) The chia pet came in a cute gray pot that looked like a hedgehog, and once you planted the seeds and they sprouted, the grass was supposed to look like hair. My parents said if I took this responsibility seriously I could potentially get a more interesting pet (maybe not a dog, but a fish or a Venus fly trap was on the table) so seven-year-old me dove in head-first.

I planted the seeds, set the pot on my window sill, and spritzed it dutifully with a small spray bottle daily. If you’ve ever grown chia seeds, you know that they sprout like crazy. Before I knew it, my chia pet needed a haircut every other day, and my parents were instantly regretting their promise to upgrade my pet roster.

But now, I didn’t want a fish or a dog. I wanted more plants. Soon enough, my window sill was covered with plants, and I’ve spent the past ten years growing my collection even larger. I’ve taken my efforts outside, too, redoing my family’s garden and teaching my friends and family about how to choose plants for their yards.

My seven-year-old self merely wanted a pet to take care of, and had no idea that my first chia pet would lead me to where it has today. I still remember the excitement I felt about the possibility of expanding my collection, an excitement that I continue to feel as I learn about plants.  In college, I want to major in horticulture, with an emphasis on sustainable spaces. I’ve found that a lot of people want to make changes to their space and be more sustainable, but they’re not sure how to do that. If I could be the one who teaches them how, I’d absolutely love it.

First, what does this writer want to share about himself with colleges?

He’s passionate about growing plants, which has not only shaped his extracurricular activities (he interns at a greenhouse) but also what he wants to study in college.

This writer starts off very strong, with a humorous and very specific anecdote about his very first plant. To continue bringing readers into his story and help them connect with who he is now , he’ll want to continue incorporating that same level of detail throughout the essay. At the moment, a whole ten-year period of his life is summarized rather quickly. Providing specific examples that help us understand how his journey unfolded over time would be a powerful addition.

Writing about formative childhood memories in college essays is completely fine as long as approximately half the essay—and the reflection in particular—centers on who you are now and how you’ve grown. Notice that his current reflection focuses heavily on what he was thinking and feeling as a seven-year-old. Instead, he’ll want to lean into the excitement that he currently feels. Why is his plant collection so meaningful to him, and what about horticulture continues to interest and excite him? Are there particular topics that he’s passionate about or has had the opportunity to explore further during his internship? How does he know that he wants to work with people to create sustainable spaces?

Note: if this student’s love of plants had stayed firmly rooted in the past (i.e., the love of plants hadn’t progressed past age seven and had no bearing on current interests), we would have advised against this essay topic.

Final Thoughts – Common App Essay Examples

The college personal statement is an important part of the application that can reveal more about who you are and what you’ll bring to a college campus. Studying the genre is an essential part of being well-prepared to do your best writing, an exercise that includes understanding the essay’s purpose as well as its essential elements. When used appropriately, Common App essay examples can be an insightful addition to any writing process. Relax, be yourself, and know that admissions officers are eager to get to know you –the real, multidimensional, interesting person–behind the application.

  • College Essay

Kelsea Conlin

Kelsea holds a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Tufts University, a graduate certificate in College Counseling from UCLA, and an MA in Teaching Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Chautauqua .

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10 Exceptional Common App Essay Examples

Common app essay examples.

One of the most important pieces of the college admissions process is the Common App essay, also known as the college essay or the personal statement. By reading Common App essay examples, you can prepare to write your own. 

However, what is a personal statement? In a word, a personal statement is an essay you’ll write for college. We will learn more about what makes a great personal statement by exploring sample Common App essays. In fact, the best way for students to ace this type of essay is through dissecting Common App essay examples to see what works. 

Breaking down the Common App essay

In this article, we’ll use Common App essay examples to explore what makes a strong personal statement. We’ll break down what makes each of these Common App essay examples successful. That way, you can find inspiration and tools to unlock the best version of your own college entrance essays. We will also provide tips for coming up with college essay ideas and finding a college application essay format that works for your story.

At CollegeAdvisor, our goal is to demystify the college admissions process for all students. As such, we’ll also introduce you to many resources about how to write a college essay—like our guide on How to Write a Personal Statement linked below! In it, you’ll find even more stellar Common App essay examples to help you get inspired.

How to Write a Personal Statement – 5 Personal Statement Examples

What is a Common App essay?

The first step in writing a college essay is understanding the varying types of college essays. When students look up “what is a personal statement?” they are likely to come across many articles about sample Common App essays. Indeed, personal statement sample essays are often the same as Common App essay examples. While there are many other types of college essays, such as supplemental essays, the Common App essay/personal statement is extremely important. 

Let’s first explore one major question: what is a personal statement?

Whether you are applying to undergrad, grad school, or a scholarship, the personal statement is a general term for an essay that introduces you to admissions officers. As such, personal statement sample essays must tell a unique story about you that conveys who you are. They should showcase your personality traits, values, and personal growth. With this story, you are showing admissions teams what kind of person and community member you will be when you step onto their campus. For this reason, no two personal statement sample essays are identical.

Understanding the Common App essay

Now, let’s explore what the Common App essay is. A Common App essay is a personal statement submitted through the Common App. Astoundingly, over 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States use the Common App as an application platform. As a result, when you apply to college, you will almost definitely use the Common App. This is why there are so many Common App essay examples out there.

All Common App essay examples are 250-650 wo r ds long. Since students can apply to multiple schools using the Common App, the Common App essay examples we provide were likely submitted to several different colleges. Note how these sample Common App essays are personal to the student but still general enough to work for different schools. 

Do all schools require a Common App essay?

Besides wondering “what is a personal statement?”, many students wonder if they need one for every school.  As we mentioned, many universities in the U.S. use the Common App . However, the personal statement, also known as the Common App essay, is not required by all schools. 

For example, the Universi t y of Washington-Seattle does not accept the Common App essay even though students can apply using the Common App. However, the school has different college entrance essay requirements . These appear when you select a school on your Common App portal. 

Encouraged but not required

Some schools encourage but do not require students to submit a college entrance essay. For example, Bridgewater State University encourages students to write a college entrance essay, but it’s not mandatory. In this case, we still recommend submitting an essay, since every part of an application is a chance to showcase who you are and why you’re a compelling candidate. 

Furthermore, some schools do not require essays at all. In fact, they won’t even read your college entrance essay should you submit one. These schools, one of which is the University of South Florida , rely exclusively on other measures such as grades, test scores, or extracurriculars to make their college admissions decisions.

Though all schools don’t require a Common App essay, many do. They also might require supplemental essays. As such, it’s important to start preparing your essays early by first reading Common App essay examples. This will help you learn what makes a great college essay.

Common App Essay Prompts

The second question students might ask after ”what is a personal statement?” is “what do I write about?”

Luckily, the Common App gives you plenty of college essay ideas through the college essay topics it provides. All of the Common App essay examples we will look at responded to one of the current prompts. 

Let’s review the seven current prompts that inspired our Common App essay examples:

Current 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. reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. how has this gratitude affected or motivated you, 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..

When looking at these prompts, you’ll note that they are all asking you to be reflective. Indeed, all common app essay examples and college essays that worked involve the student engaging in self-reflection. As such, it matters less what you write about and more what deeper meaning the topic at hand has to you. Successful sample Common App essays demonstrate that the author is a deep thinker.

Choose your own topic

Furthermore, note that prompt #7 allows you to submit an essay on any topic of your choice. So, if none of the first six prompts inspire you, you can focus on another topic of your choice that is meaningful to you.

There is no one-size-fits-all college application essay format. Indeed, all of the Common App essay examples we will explore take different approaches to telling their stories. 

As we look at Common App essay examples, take note of how students were self-reflective and demonstrated their unique passion for a topic. We’ll dig into how they accomplish this as we review each of these college essays that worked.

And remember, while your essays are extremely important, they are just one part of the overall admissions process. So, before you jump into these essay examples, don’t forget to take our CollegeAdvisor quiz to see how prepared you are to successfully tackle your college applications!

How to use these Common App Essay Examples

Before we look at sample Common App essays, let’s discuss how you can use these examples of college essays to support you in writing your own.

First, avoid the impulse to compare your life to other students’ stories in these Common App essay examples. These sample Common App essays are great tools because of the students’ reflections. It truly doesn’t matter what you write about so long as you can do it in a meaningful way that shows personal growth and self-awareness. Great personal statement sample essays can be written about the most mundane or common topics . So, don’t compare your life experiences with those of other students. Simply add these Common App essay examples to your college essay writing toolbox and understand what works.

Reflect on how you want to tell your story

Secondly, use these Common App essay examples to find inspiration for how you wish to tell your story. Do these Common App essay examples use dialogue that really makes a scene come to life? Maybe a few sample Common App essays discuss topics you hadn’t realized you could write about, giving you ideas for new college essay topics. Drawing inspiration from Common App essays that worked is distinct from copying their ideas or language. So, don’t try to imitate any of these essays. Rather, use them as a tool to enhance your own unique essays. 

Finally, take note of what you learn about the writers of these sample Common App essays. Then, look at yourself through the same lens. What do you want college admission officers to learn about you? Your college entrance essay is your chance to show that.

Common App Essay Examples #1

The first of our sample Common App essays discusses a topic that many students might assume is too ordinary: a student’s love of books. After reading each of our sample Common App essays, we’ll break down what makes them strong Common App essay examples.

Sample Common App Essays #1: Books and Identity

Under the harshly fluorescent lights of an aisle in Walmart, I take position amidst the rows of plastic silverware, paper towels, and household goods while my mother searches for supplies she needs for a Fourth of July party. Neither the faint swells of an outdated and overplayed pop song nor the hustle and bustle of a retail store on a holiday weekend reach my ears because as usual, my nose is buried in a book. My mother calls to me, but her voice barely registers and I ignore her, shifting in the spot I have designated for myself aside the packages of Hefty trash bags on the bottom shelf.

She finally finds me, and I reluctantly tear my concentration away from the page. “I’ll just stay here,” I say, buying myself precious time in which I can finish the next sentence, paragraph, or chapter of the novel, and I sink contentedly back into a state of mind where I am entirely myself and nothing, not even other customers searching for trash bags, can disturb me.

This memory is not an uncommon one for me. As a child, I could always be found in stores or restaurants with my latest literary pick in hand. I constantly nagged my parents to bring me to the library or bookstore; this was a constant even as I went through “phases” as I grew up, dabbling in music and theater with temporary or half-hearted enthusiasm. Other children dressed up as astronauts or princesses, but I took on roles of different people as I struggled to find myself.

As I grow older and continue to explore different interests, my love for reading has sparked my intellectual curiosity and taught me valuable life lessons. Reading was an escape during a time when I didn’t quite know who I wanted to be. Now it marks the cornerstone of who I’ve become. I’ve read just as many books about fictional villains and heroes as those about regular people who face the same struggles I do. For me, it’s these kinds of books, stories of people not so different than myself, that have changed and defined my outlook on life. 

One such book is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, a story of twins and their difficulty finding their own identity in a world where they are bound together. Noah, one of the twins, describes how he feels he is always “undercover.” He says, “‘Maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people. Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time. Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, […] grow, dive into the world.’” I was unable to realize a person could be defined by multiple aspects of himself.

My tendency to try to fit into a specific role proved to be unsuccessful, but one of my different “selves” was always a part of me, even when taking on the role of someone I didn’t want to be. A love for reading is not a temporary persona I put on to appease parents, friends, or college admissions officers. The reader of a story has an unique perspective of the mind of a character. Because of this, I have realized the true depth and intricacy every person and situation can hold.

I struggled with defining my own identity, with labeling who I was, but now I know every person is much too complex to be defined by a label as simplistic as “athlete” or “musician.” So although it might be assumed that an individual pursuing an engineering degree does not enjoy reading, I am grateful for my love of books, as it is with this passion that I find myself ready to “dive into the world.”

Why this essay worked

As we mentioned earlier, it may feel difficult to come up with college essay ideas. This student chose a topic that some might consider mundane— their love of reading. However, the student is successful because they show how reading has been a critical part of their identity and personal development. 

In this essay, the student tells us how reading was an escape from the pressure she felt to define who she was. Later, reading became an integral part of her identity as a learner intrigued by stories. Given that the student plans to major in engineering, this fact adds depth and intrigue to the student’s personal brand. A college admissions officer would find this student an appealing candidate because they will likely be engaged and passionate. Through this example, we see that any topic can be a successful one if it is important to the reader and connects to a core aspect of their identity.

Lastly, as we see in many great examples of college essays, this student includes many details. They even reference dialogue from a favorite book, further illustrating their love of reading. 

Now, let’s look at a very different college application essay format in the second of our Common App Essay examples.

Sample Common App Essay #2

The second of our Common App essay examples takes the unique—and potentially challenging—approach of talking about another person. In this essay, the author describes her relationship with Sophia, a child with special needs that she meets while volunteering. 

The author’s essay is in response to prompt #3 of the Common App essay prompts: 

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Not many Common App essay examples respond to this prompt. Let’s see how this student tackles it.

Common App Essay #2: Challenging Bias about Ability

I see Sophia and wave, laughing at her leaps of excitement that brighten my day. Sophia grins up at me, pointing at her two missing front teeth, and I marvel at how grown-up she is becoming. Deciding to capitalize on her boundless exuberance, I suggest we work on her backstroke, her least favorite. Sensing her reluctance to lie flat on the water, I point out the purple monkey and the giraffe on the ceiling, coaxing her to relax on her back and practice a few kicks. I know that with this distraction, she will slowly uncoil her arms from my waist, gaining the confidence to float on her own. Beaming, I praise her courage, offering a congratulatory high-five. Proud of today’s improvements, I hand her the dreaded kickboard. Sophia’s dimples vanish as she vigorously shakes her head, inching away from the terrifying aqua board.

Recognizing this fear, I remember a trick she loved from the previous lesson. I promise to teach her how to do an under-water handstand, and in response, she tentatively grasps the board with one hand, while clinging to me with the other. I then challenge her to splash me as hard as she can with powerful freestyle kicks, and laugh as my face is soon drenched with water. Clapping, I marvel at her ability to propel herself without any assistance, and to celebrate, we belt out “Let It Go” from Frozen together. My giggles vanish and my heart aches as she begins to recollect the long needles from her latest hospital visit, but I am amazed to see that her laugh never ceases.

Sophia has special needs. Despite her mental challenges, her bubbly and infectious personality never fails to be an uplifting inspiration. I marvel at how this 10-year-old has learned to fully appreciate the life she has been given and cherish each precious moment. In and out of surgeries, hospitals, and clinics, she still exhibits an unparalleled enthusiasm for life.

Sophia’s determination coupled with her bright personality inspires me to embrace optimism in my life. I am passionate about enabling Sophia to break down any perceived obstacles and stereotypes in front of her and lead an active life, just like any other child. Though I go in each week as the teacher, I leave having been her student. Each evening after volunteering, I would lie awake, tossing and turning, wondering how I could do more for Sophia. Prior to volunteering, I often took for granted that I have sports and activity programs readily available. But with far more athletes than coaches in the program, why did more of my peers not volunteer? Why did more people not know about the special gifts people with disabilities radiate?

Yearning to share my experience with others, I founded a club at my school called HandiCapable, encouraging my peers to volunteer with people who have special needs through sports mentoring. I hope to encourage my school community to see that people with mental disabilities are people first, facing challenges like us all. I fought to change an underlying culture where people with intellectual disabilities are mocked or misunderstood in today’s society by spearheading a campaign to eliminate the word “retarded.” Breaking away from using hurtful and derogatory colloquialisms is the first step towards understanding and compassion, altering the way we think, speak, and ultimately act.

Sophia has taught me that nothing is insurmountable if you have courage, foresight and above all, a positive attitude. She has driven me to be more accepting of people who may seem initially quite different, but face challenges like I do. She has inspired me to be more appreciative of uniqueness, because everyone has an individual personality and perspective from which I can learn. Sophia has changed how I view the world.

What makes this a successful essay ?

Writing about another person when applying to college can be tricky. Many sample Common App essays write so much about the other person that they forget to center the author. However, in this essay, the author demonstrates the impact that Sophia had on her, centering her own experiences. In doing so, it highlights how Sophia taught the author to face challenges with joy and courage. 

The student also answers the prompt fully and in detail. Specifically, the writer discusses how her experience with Sophia led her to challenge ableist thought. Moreover, the author tells the reader how her inspiration led her to create a club at her school. By doing this, she demonstrates her own leadership skills and activist mindset. In short, we learn a lot about the author even though this essay is about someone who inspired her.

For our third sample, we’ll give into the challenging world of Common App essay examples that talk about sports.

Personal Statement Sample Essay #3

Many examples of college essays talk about a sport that a student has played for a long time. Writing about this topic can be difficult. At times, students spend too much time talking about the details of the sport rather than their experiences. 

In the third of our sample Common App essays, the author shows us how her relationship to gymnastics changes over her lifetime. In doing so, she reveals a lot about her character. Let’s take a look:

Personal Statement Sample Essays #3: Perseverance and Commitment through Gymnastics 

Gymnastics has always been a part of my life and has shaped who I am today. Without gymnastics I would not have the same determined mindset, competitive nature, and appreciation of a team. If I were to neglect sharing this aspect of my life, my application would truly be incomplete.

When I was two years old, my parents enrolled me in the Parent-and-Me program at Countryside Gymnastics. At six, I became part of the pre-team program, Dynamos, and was placed in the compulsory team at age seven.  As a compulsory, I struggled to be as good as my teammates. This struggle caused frustration which evolved into determination and a competitive nature. Throughout the rest of my compulsory years, I gradually improved but still felt as though I were stuck. I knew I had to “up my game.”

The optional levels, 7 and up, brought a new factor—fear. Even though this fear did hold me back at times, I did not let it keep me from achieving my goals. Gymnastics is also extremely tough on the body. Once I entered the optional level of gymnastics, I trained at least 20 hours a week and endured the aches and pains that came along with it. However, I did not let these pains defeat me. When I reached level 9, I began to experience severe back pain, which a spine specialist diagnosed as a subcutaneous lipoma. Although the physician highly recommended I stop training to avoid complications later in life, I was too committed to stop the sport.  I let my desire push me through the pain, and I had a successful competition season, qualifying for the Region 8 Regional Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. 

During summer training in 2013, I worked as hard as possible to reach level 10, with the back pain progressively worsening. Once my pain peaked, my coach told me it may be time to “hang it up.” I could either quit or repeat level 9 with minimal training. Ultimately, the choice was mine. To prove I was capable of reaching level 10 and to support my team, I continued to train on a vigorous schedule. At level 10, I am the highest level gymnast at Countryside Gymnastics and am determined to have an exceptional competition season.

This determination and competitiveness that pushes me to accomplish my goals in gymnastics also exists in my current scholastics—the health sciences, which will ultimately prepare me for my future in pediatric medicine. Without the desire to be the best I can be, I might not have achieved success throughout my high school years.

Why this essay worked 

Some sample Common App essays that write about sports focus too heavily on the sport. In doing so, they fail to tell us much about the author. However, colleges want to know about you!

This author writes about what gymnastics has meant to her throughout her life. This gives us a window into how she thinks, what she fears, and how she handles challenges. Through describing how she pushed forward when faced with injuries or fear, she shows us how she will succeed in college and in life.

Common App Essay Examples #4

Many Common App essay examples attempt to subtly weave in achievements. However, in the fourth of our sample Common App essays, the author takes a bold move. This essay talks about how the author handles failure, revealing critical details about their character. Some might assume that successful Common App essay examples need to focus on “successes,” not failures. However, this essay shows how failure can be a good essay topic choice—if you address it the right way.

Let’s see how one student skillfully tackles the topic of failure.

Sample Common App Essays #4: A New Perspective on Failure

Stretching my ankle against the theraband, my pre-pointe teacher hands out evaluations, determining who will move up to pointe shoes. The TheraBand, worn from months of strengthening in hopes of earning pointe shoes, snaps as I eagerly grab my evaluation. Dumbfounded, I wonder how all my friends were advancing to pointe while I wasn’t. Maybe my body is not built for ballet, I conceded.

A year later, the server on the other side of the net serves the ball with a loud smack. The ball hurdles towards me in seemingly slow motion. Other players yell my name, encouraging me. I need to pass the ball, or else I won’t make the middle school volleyball team. Positioning myself, I bend my knees, and… I hit it out of the court. 

Defeated, I accept the rejection with the mindset that my lack of athleticism is permanent. 

The following fall, walking out of the audition room and having made it successfully past the first round, I was dizzy and elated. Moments prior, I perfectly performed an excerpt from a piece I prepared for 3 months and was about to play yet another excerpt, which would determine whether I would make the district honors band. Breathing rhythmically, my fingers glide over the familiar scales, my heart thumps the beat of the piece, and I triumph in my second successful audition of the evening. The results the next day were disappointing. I thought about how my mother is tone deaf, and decided that was the reason I would never be successful in my musical aspirations.

Regarding my failures as something out of my control was a recurring theme in my life. Reflecting on past experiences, I am not sure when the thought that my abilities were unchangeable began to prevail. However, I am aware of when the toxic mindset began to change.

For years, I had marveled at long distance runners. Their athleticism and ability to persistently push onwards in a race was something I lacked in my life and simultaneously desired. Spring of my freshman year of high school, I decided I wanted to join the Cross-Country team. However, joining a sport in high school tended to be very difficult, due to the fact current players had already been participating for years prior. Despite anxiety about possibly “failing” at something again, I tried anyways. After careful research and planning, I set a schedule of running and cross training six days a week. Beginning in March, I developed the capability to keep up with experienced teammates by the time the pre-season began in June.  With determination, I trained myself from a 12-minute mile runner to a 7-minute mile runner and a competitive Cross-Country athlete.

For the first time, I realized something: Failure does not define me. Instead, it drives me to succeed.

Having previously believed negative qualities cannot be changed, self-training for a sport revealed situations are not permanent. Whatever I lack in inherent talent can always be made up for in hard work and strategic planning. Innately, I am self-motivated and resilient.  Once I realized this, obtaining my goals was a possibility, and eventually, a reality. 

Because of my newfound self-awareness, pursuing goals is efficient and organized, and often produces favorable results. I no longer believe traits, such as my body type or genetic predisposition for music, restrict my ability to achieve. Instead, they are simply obstacles to be overcome. 

Letting shortcomings or events define my future or limit my aspirations is a thing of the past. What truly defines me is my ability to push past rejection and continually better myself – no matter what version of myself I am at the moment. 

Why did this essay work well?

One approach that successful personal statement sample essays could take is focusing on an unexpected topic. Throughout this essay, the author plays with the idea of failure. They introduce us to many specific moments in life when they have failed. 

As the essay moves forward, the author’s perspective on failure shifts. They learn that through their failures, they can identify ways to improve. They also realize that their own perceptions of their abilities shape how they set goals and whether they achieve them. Essentially, this student tells us through stories how they have developed a growth mindset. This is something that college admissions officers highly value in applicants.

The best Common App essay examples showcase traits that are both true to the author and appealing to colleges. Think about how to do this as you craft your own essays.

Sample Common App Essay #5

Personal statement sample examples are incredibly personal, and this next example is no different. Here, we’ll learn about a tradition that the author values deeply—spending Saturday mornings with family. 

Common App Essays that Worked #5: Family Values

I relish Saturday mornings. After a long week of rushed early mornings and drawn-out nights filled with studying, Saturday is the reward. My eyes open at my own pace. Weekdays, I awaken at 6:45 a.m. to the harsh sound of my cell phone alarm or my mom calling through my bedroom door. But not on Saturday, on that day, I rise to the sound of birds chirping or my dad moving around downstairs. Stretching for a long moment, I just enjoy staring at the ceiling. I am content after an extra hour and half of sleep.

Slowly, I leave my warm bed, throw on a comfy sweater and place my glasses on my head. It’s a welcome change from my weekday routine. I do not miss forcing my sleepy body out of bed, slipping into my itchy uniform, or forcing contacts into my tired eyes. When I make my way down the steps I am greeted by my dad reading the newspaper in his favorite leather armchair rather than my full backpack in the foyer.

These relaxing mornings offer me a much-needed break. For once, I’m not rushing off to school or soccer practice. Any essays I need to write or physics tests I must study for can wait a while. 

I take the time to just sit on the couch and read a book or watch TV. I can do everything I want or do nothing at all.

However, the true highlights of these mornings occur when I am sitting at the kitchen table with my crossword puzzle and pencil on my right and my breakfast plate and hot mug of tea on my left. Between bites of pancake, I share tricky crossword clues with my family. My mom looks up from the sports section to carefully consider the hint and my sisters bombard me with suggestions but it’s usually my dad, standing over the griddle flipping pancakes, who calls out the correct answer. As I find contentment in a meal, the Puzzles and Games section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the company of my family, I realize that it truly is the little things in life that mean the most.

I appreciate my dad who works long hours but still gets up to cook a big weekend breakfast for my family and the way that he serves me tea in my mom’s white college mug because he knows it’s my favorite. My sisters’ and I laugh playfully as we compete over who’s the strongest and tease me because I’m the weakest. I shake my head and smile at my mom who insists that she can eat three pieces of French Toast even though we all know she’ll barely finish two. To someone else, lazy Saturdays and family breakfasts may appear so routine, so insignificant. But to me, these moments are perfect.

This essay proves that sample Common App essays that worked don’t have to be about a huge life event. In fact, this student is writing about the most common aspects of everyday life: spending time with family. However, the way the student writes about their family demonstrates a lot about the student’s character. We learn that this student values the little things in life and cares deeply for others. 

Secondly, by using specific details, from crossword puzzles to coffee mugs, this essay highlights the author’s love for their family. This student masters the age-old writing advice of “show, don’t tell.” This approach keeps Common App essay examples intriguing and fun to read. 

Personal Statement Sample Essay #6

There isn’t one successful college application essay format or topic. However, writing about a pivotal moment in one’s life can lead to a very compelling story. Though it can be difficult, this student chooses to be vulnerable about how a catastrophic injury changed their life.

Common App Essay Examples #6: Lessons from an Injury

When I finally woke for the first time in three days, I could feel needles dancing up and down my legs where there were none, and when the doctor asked me to wiggle my toes, there was not even a flicker. Regarding my condition, the doctor told me, “Your skiing accident has left you paralyzed. Permanently.” 

In Korea, where I was born, a disability is considered very shameful. Many see people with disabilities as aliens of society. People with disabilities in Asian countries rarely leave the house due to the inaccessible nature of the society and the unbearable piercing stares of the surrounding community members. Seeing this as my only possible life in a wheelchair, the people closest to me repeatedly etched into my brain that without the use of my legs, I could never be successful or happy–a forever pitied human being.

As my church and family members visited me after my injury and saw me in the wheelchair, they reacted in shock, saying, “I’m sorry. I really hope you walk again.” As they tried to console me, I could feel their deep pity. Before even asking if I was okay, or how I was doing, my immobile legs had already drawn in their minds a picture of my bleak future. 

As apologies and condolences were continuously thrown at me, I started to believe that everyone was right. Maybe I was just a burden. Maybe I would not ever be happy. Enveloped in a façade of darkness, for so many days, I merely sat in bed begging my legs to move again. 

I would be lying if I claimed I suddenly woke up one day and was completely happy again. But through weeks and months, I started to discover that if I continued to look to my surroundings for motivation or support, I would not find it. To everyone else, my church members, my family, I had just become “that girl in the wheelchair.” But I knew I could not just give up on my aspirations or conform to the definitions that I had been labeled with due to one physical attribute.

Through my experiences after my injury, I started to notice so much, especially the lack of diversity in the workplace, and the support that this fact gave to existing societal stereotypes. I started to wonder, how would my experience after my accident have changed, or how much encouragement would I have received if I saw a doctor, teacher, nurse, that had the same abilities as I did? Motivated, I began to involve myself more, and started to work harder academically, so that one day, through my life, I can become this strength and encouragement for someone else. 

Many people, seeing me driving, or even just sitting at the movie theater, come up to me and tell me that I’m an inspiration. They tell me how amazing I am for just having gotten dressed in the morning and leaving the house. Honestly, these actions should not be considered inspiring. I’m just living my life. But because of the many prejudiced opinions towards the disability community, opinions that I too once held, the fact that a person in a wheelchair can complete even just everyday activities is considered a great feat. 

Someday, I want to be someone that inspires, not because I can get dressed or talk for myself, but because I have really accomplished something that significantly influences the world. 

Yes, there are times when I wish I could just get up and walk. However, these moments are temporary and trifling. It scares me to think that without the occurrence of my accident, I may have remained living with the traditional and well-known biases regarding disability and other differences that exist in society. Then, I may have been a true pitiful character. 

Today, I am Korean and still, a person with a disability. But I am proud. 

A common assumption is that college essays that worked simply highlight a major hardship or tragic life event. However, this is simply not true. Common App essay examples about hardships are successful only if they show how the author grew from an experience. 

In this essay, the student shares how their skiing accident changed the way they were treated, thereby changing how they viewed themselves. Rather than feeling pitiful or less-than, this student discovered a newfound determination to positively influence the world. Their perseverance is seen not only in surviving an accident, but in overcoming the limitations society places on people with disabilities. 

Common App Essay Examples #7

Many powerful sample Common App essays tap into core aspects of the human experience. This often includes how we navigate our identities– especially in an ever-globalizing world. The following example of Common App essays that worked tackles that topic with grace.  

Sample Personal Statement #7: Embracing Heritage, Integrating Identity 

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” 

Six words. Six words were all it took for Ernest Hemingway to embody the sorrow of a family after losing a child. It seems almost impossible to so elegantly summarize a life in six words. 

I received this seemingly impossible assignment in AP Language a year ago. How could I encapsulate my seventeen years of life into six words? Would those words sound funny, poignant, dark? I reflected on important moments that shaped me as a person to answer my questions. 

I reminisced about my early years: two loving parents and a playful younger sister. During those years, my parents instilled in me their most important values: meaningful academic pursuit, following our Indian traditions, and preserving cultural heritage.

I remembered the first time I faced the struggle that would tear me apart for the next twelve years: values ingrained in me as a child versus values my friends and the society around me possessed. As I grew older, I learned just how different my friends’ values were from mine. 

Throughout my middle school and freshman years, I had two sets of friends: my school friends and my travel basketball friends. The former focused on social status rather than academics; the latter focused on athletics rather than academics. To fit in, I created another persona for myself: someone who focused singularly on social status and athletics. This decision to change my personality based on my surroundings cost me my drive for academic pursuit, and I threw away educational opportunities. I lost sight of who I was and what held true meaning for me. 

At that time, my six words would’ve been: “Flip a coin, American or Indian.” For the next two years, I lived by that mantra.

My struggle with balancing the two-sided coin ended in tenth grade by a chance conversation with a cousin in India. As she described her social struggles and their limiting effects on her educational opportunities, I realized how fortunate I was to be in the U.S. I held my destiny in my hands; all I had to do was to reshape my mind. The dissonance created by compartmentalizing my two important sides prevented me from moving forward, and I had to bridge the distance I had created between my Indian heritage and living as an American. 

I embraced my cultural heritage by immersing myself into Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance, and passionately committing to it by completing a rigorous 3-year Certificate Course with Alagappa University of Performing Arts. In order to share my art with the community, I performed for neurologically challenged senior citizens residing in assisted living homes. Through this service, I was able to spread joy and culture amongst my American community, helping me bridge my cultural gap. 

Additionally, my upbringing had been focused on science with an expectation that my career would be in the medical field. Eventually, I developed an affinity toward science. Growing up, I was exposed to the American ideal that I can shape my own opportunities, pursue whichever career I desired, and just follow my heart. I found myself naturally attracted to journalism, and following my heart I ventured into journalism. 

Still, a key part of me was missing, and I found it only after conversing with my journalism teacher. She was describing an article by Helen Pearson, renowned science journalist, when it hit me: this is what I wanted to do. Science journalism was the product of my Indian upbringing and go-getter American attitude. That cathartic conversation is all that was needed to find the perfect career path for me. 

My cultural confusion turned out to be the springboard I needed for discovering balance, finding a potential career, arming me with rich life experiences, and allowing me to write the six words that transformed my life and that I still stand by:

“Shape my mind, shape my destiny.”

What makes this essay great ?

For students coming from multiple cultures or marginalized identities, writing a personal statement can be a healing form of self-reflection. Indeed, many successful Common App essay examples touch on this topic. However, as always, writing about it with intention and care is ultimately what makes these personal statement sample essays work. 

As an Indian-American, this student feels torn between connecting to their Indian heritage and integrating within their American community. They overcome this inner conflict by reframing how they view their identity, rejecting the either-or paradox they felt caught in. They even intentionally immerse themself in their Indian culture and share it with others through volunteer work. From their reflection, they discover how science journalism could be a career that merges all parts of their identity.

Compelling Common App essay examples are written engagingly . This author hooks us from the start of their essay with an intriguing quote that immediately catches the reader’s attention. They also bring that hook back to show us how changing their mindset allowed them to overcome their inner conflict.

Our next example of Common App essays that worked brings together two topics that the author feels passionate about. In doing so, the author doubles their ways to showcase who they are. 

Sample Common App Essay #8

All Common App essays that worked have touched upon a topic that is meaningful to the author. This next author wrote about two – their love of Rubik’s cubes and scientific research.

Common App Essay Examples #8: Rubik’s Cubes and Research

The complex array of colors had always baffled me. Orange, yellow, green, red, white, and blue all jumbled together on a mystifying gadget that just could not be completed. Twisting and turning side after side was of no use, the Rubik’s Cube could not be solved. This elaborate contraption presented me with the most overwhelming experience of my life. It outshined everything else in my dull life, and solving it became a life-changing experience.

I spent many weeks trying to find different combinations that could solve the mysterious puzzle. After continuously failing, I felt infuriated. However, rather than giving up on my goal, I knew I could do it. I worked backwards until I realized what I did wrong early in the solving process. I kept forgetting to do a critical step, causing me to get two colors in their wrong spots. Knowing this, I was able to alter my procedure and make significant progress. I was finally able to solve four out of the six sides over the course of 45 seconds. Solving the last two sides, however, needed a little more time and effort. My affection for mathematics and science stems mainly from this- both involve a similarly coherent and disciplined approach just like the Rubik’s Cube. 

This past summer, I did research work at Columbia University Medical Center on ion channel membrane proteins and studied their structure and function in the ultimate goal to find drug targets to help cure cancer. When some research experiments provided dubious outcomes, I was given the assignment of checking that the viruses we were working with had been identified correctly. I spent weeks running DNA gels through gel electrophoresis and trying to find specific genes in each virus, but I had varying results. I was exasperated, but rather than giving up on my task, I thought about my past experience with the Rubik’s Cube. Working backwards on the Rubik’s Cube helped me figure out exactly at which step I went wrong.

So I decided to work backwards on my research until I reached the source, the primers, I had used to amplify the DNA and specify the desired mutations were nonspecific, thus making them ineffective in distinguishing the six genes of interest to us. Knowing this, I was able to modify my experiments accordingly, looking at protein content instead of DNA sequences. I was finally able to prove that four of the six viruses were correct. The last two, however, needed to be reanalyzed. Just like the troubleshooting strategy with the Rubik’s Cube, working backwards helped me to find my source of error and ultimately got me 4/6 th of the way through my goal.  My research work was crucial to the graduate student whom I was working with, and he was able to redesign his experiments to account for the fifth and sixth viruses.

Researching in a lab alongside a renowned professor was a thrilling experience for me. I gave up hanging out with my friends on the beach and chose to work with chemicals and viruses instead. My urge to understand these proteins was the driving force of my research. I am incredibly proud of my contribution to solving the puzzle of cancer. It was a small piece, but vital nevertheless. This cerebral inspiration, combined with an aspiration to learn more about life’s ambiguities, compels me to chase a profession with scientific research.

The sense of self-satisfaction and achievement I felt from my research work at the Columbia University was much the same as that I felt upon solving the Rubik’s Cube. This sensation is one I hope to experience throughout my life as the cancer puzzle is unequivocally one of the most critical puzzles of the modern era and certainly the first of a myriad of puzzles I hope to solve in the field of scientific discovery. 

Why this Essay Worked

This sample combines two college essay ideas flawlessly. First, the student introduces us to their love of Rubik’s cubes. Then, they flow into their love of research and the impact they made through their summer internship at a cancer research lab. 

The real power comes in how the student uses their approach to Rubik’s cubes in order to overcome a roadblock in their research. By doing so, the student highlights their problem-solving skills alongside their compassion for others. In this, this essay highlights the writer’s wish to positively impact the world. We can learn a lot about crafting a strong college application essay format from this example.

Our next sample of Common App essays that worked highlights a student’s passion for language . Moreover, it uses a hook and a writing style that makes it a standout essay.

Personal Statement Sample Essay #9

When thinking about how to write a college essay, start by thinking: what could I talk about all day? Great Common App essay examples often focus on passions. This author introduces us to one of their passions—the written word—through a story about an influential English teacher.

Common App Essay Examples #9: A Love for Language 

It is like selecting the perfect pair of socks, I suppose. I envision myself kneeling before the bottommost drawer of my bureau, my chilled feet egging me on, and perusing the trove of choices that awaits my roving fingertips. I meditate on the day’s promises before making my selection – now, did the weatherman say 65 or 55 degrees? Was that rain the Farmers’ Almanac called for? Perhaps I should just wear sandals. After a few more moments of inspection: Ah – there it is! Of perfect hue, texture, and temperament, it is exactly the article for which I sought.

There exists a great parallel between this, the daily hosiery search that begins my mornings, and my lifelong pursuit of the perfect word. Socks and words, both objects of my affection, are united in their enduring qualities: both involve a weighty decision, require a certain shrewdness and pragmatism from the selector, and offer nearly endless options that only intensify the quandary. However, in seventeen years of interaction with both, I informedly pronounce that I find the latter to be infinitely more cumbersome, convoluted, and, thus, beautiful. 

My rendezvous with language began as all children’s do: with crying. On the heels of crying came babbling, soon ousted by laconic speech and finally replaced by comprehensible expression. To my youngest self, language was mechanical and lifeless, a rigid blend of lexicon and grammar that broke as many rules as it created. This sentiment prevailed until I walked into Mrs. Regan’s fourth-grade class.

On that fateful first day, I recall being struck by her inviting personality and stylish plaid frock (I was personally wanting in the department of fashion). Beyond the warmth of her disposition, her pedagogical philosophy was unconventional and striking, even to an easily-distracted girl who wore the same green shirt every day. Her intention was not to satisfy district-determined measures or adhere to the antiquated curricula her coworkers professed. Instead, she pushed her students to invite intellectual challenges and conundrums, exposing us to the complexities of academia that she adored.

Her passion was best evidenced by the infamous vocabulary lists that circulated every Monday, boasting words typically native to a high school workbook. Suddenly, pedestrian exercises in ‘Choosing the Right Word’ were transformed into riveting explorations of the English language’s multiplicity, breadth, and allure. Within weeks I was concocting sentences just to employ ‘voracity’ and asking for synonyms for ‘vociferous’ that could aptly describe my rowdy classmates.

With thanks due to Mrs. Regan’s tutelage, my enthusiasm for words matured into an infatuation. I began to pour through the well-worn dictionary that presided over my nightstand, tasting the foreign syllables as they rolled from my lips. Coincidentally, I was soon given the title of the ‘human dictionary’ at school and have since served as a consultant for my friends and peers, answering questions of “What word fits best here?” or, the age-old query, “Affect or effect?” But the further I read, the more humbled I become, dwarfed by the vastness and mystery of my mother tongue.

Though my ensuing years of education have been enormously fruitful, Mrs. Regan remains my childhood hero on two counts: she encouraged my obsession with the written word and indulged my fourth-grade wish for a challenge. The insatiability I feel puzzling over jargon on PubMed, hearing the ping of Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s word of the day arriving in my inbox, and maybe even shedding a tear at the aesthetic tenor of ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ can be traced to those days of yore, spent copying definitions in a blockish scrawl. Today, as in that year far gone, I am still in pursuit of the perfect word – ever elusive, sitting on the tip of my tongue. But pouring through the dresser drawers of my mind, abundant with the tokens of my educational and lingual experience, I know it will not be long until I find it.

What makes this essay stand out?

Great Common App essay examples must be well-written. In this essay, the student’s writing mirrors her love for writing; they are both exceptional. Not all effective sample Common App essays need to have large vocabulary words like this essay does. However, they all need to reflect the student’s unique voice and be grammatically correct. 

This essay takes us into the student’s mind, showing us how they think and how much they love the English language. They highlight countless examples of how they embrace the challenge of writing, all through the metaphor of choosing socks. As such, we see a student who is ambitious and passionate. These character traits make them a very desirable candidate.

Common App Essay Examples #10

Next, let’s look at our final sample of Common App essays that worked. In this essay, we’ll explore a student’s relationship to acting and labels throughout their life.

Common App Essay Examples #10: Letting Go of Labels

“Are you ready?” I looked up at the sound of an unfamiliar voice, which I followed to a face caked in a mask of stage makeup. I replied with a curt nod and feigned smile, forcing my expression to oppose the dread welling inside my stomach. In no way did I feel prepared; truthfully, I felt nothing short of ridiculous, clad in an electric green, one-sleeved spandex dress reminiscent of a 4 th grader’s discarded dance ensemble (and no doubt someone’s well-intentioned but unfortunate donation to the costume bin). Trapped in my orb of painful self-awareness, I peeked into the audience, imbibing Coke from the concession stand and looking detachedly at iPhones, waiting for the dimming lights to signify the start of Act I. All I felt was my heart careening into my throat.

Weeks before, I accepted the request to play my ukulele during the high-school production of Godspell the musical. I thereupon decided to enter the wily seas of the theatre arts with the remarkably determined response of “Hey, why not?” Initially, my decision seemed an innocuous one. Playing ukulele? Seeing a show? Indulging in complimentary refreshments? The positive haze that enveloped the future reminded me that this could be my shot – the chance of realizing my Audra-McDonald-and-Angela-Lansbury-inspired dreams of performing, a dream left behind long ago.

Music and theatre forever had been a part of me, a shaper of the fantasies of grandeur and fame inherent with childhood. Christened with the bellows of Tchaikovsky and Dvořák and raised alongside a sister infatuated with the spotlight, it seemed only natural for me to ascend to my own musical perch. As years passed, however, my shier disposition guided me to athletics, and I soon became the recipient of patronizing nods when I explained that, no, I did not sing too. Even so, with the purchase of a ukulele, my passion became a quiet one, made undeniably alive in the moments everyone left the house and silenced as the family car pulled in again. 

Unfortunately, no late-night bedroom performance could have prepared me to step before an audience. In the wing, someone grabbed my arm and motioned onto the stage. My legs took on the cartoon effect of wobbling back and forth, and I plastered a perturbed grin on my face as a sorry attempt at joy (probably reading more a grimace than the beacon of ecstasy I had hoped). The cast shuffled onto the stage, cloaked in the colors of Stephen Schwartz’s vision, and the cue sounded for the song to start.

I stood arrested under the searing lights, feeling my heart race and sweat glands dilate. I looked into a faceless audience, blackened by the concentration of light striking my retina. Blinking and restoring my vision, I glanced beside me and saw the warmth and undiluted joy of my peers. Their smiles were not feigned. A lone flautist tooted out the first notes and, still watching over my shoulder, I fumbled to make a C chord. The tune began; I inhaled and opened my mouth and sang. 

I used to fashion square containers in my mind, ones in which I placed my friends, acquaintances, and, often, myself. I smacked a label on the box – maybe ‘Equestrian’, ‘Mathematical Genius’, or ‘Makes a Mean Stew’ – and relied upon my scheme, this Dewey Decimal System of my interpersonal library, to govern my conceptions of those around me. Only once I had lumped myself into the ‘Athlete’ bin and sealed the lid did I notice that an air-tight container is not where I belong, not where any free-thinking, passionate, idiosyncratic being belongs. Immersing myself into the vibrancy of the Godspell stage, uke in tow, and exuding what I had internalized shattered this jejune way of categorizing the world.

As I reassessed my perspective, I thought, maybe one day I’ll become a crusader of self-expression, a lover of every powerful facet that culminates in the individual, no matter where I find myself. Until then, I’ll keep on singing – not proudly, not defiantly, and definitely not concordantly, but my voice will pipe to the intricate, malleable tune of myself.

One college application essay format that works for some students is to take us directly into a scene through dialogue. This is often an effective hook. Here, the author uses this tactic to capture our attention. They also describe the moment before they step on stage with evocative details, allowing us to experience their anxiety. This is another great example of showing and not telling. 

However, the author’s anxiety about acting transforms into several realizations about their relationship to the arts. Fear led them to stop acting, and embrace athletics instead. However, in the end, the author realizes that they don’t need to choose one or the other. Instead, they can continue to evolve and explore new sides of themself as they grow. 

Undoubtedly, college admissions officers evaluated this writeras a lifelong learner who faces fears and constantly questions society’s assumptions. Like many compelling personal statement sample essays, this student takes us on a journey through her self-development.

How to write a college essay?

We’ve looked at 10 successful Common App essay examples. Now, you might be wondering how to write a college essay that is equally as compelling. Let’s look at some college essay tips to help you ace the process :

4 tips for writing college essays

1. start early.

We can almost guarantee that none of the Common App essay examples featured here were written overnight. In fact, these Common App essays that worked required ample time to choose a topic, reflect on one’s growth, write the essay, get feedback, and edit. 

Often, to write a successful essay, one must step away from a piece and come back to it. As such, it is important to give yourself plenty of time to write your essay. For most, this means several months. If you’re a college junior, start the summer before your senior year. 

2. Be you, specifically and authentically

Whether you’re writing about an injury or a favorite book, make sure your college essay ideas are meaningful and personal. Pick a topic that you could passionately talk about all day. Furthermore, always speak about your ideas and experiences in detail. Telling us that you love books is not as powerful as telling us how your parents had to continually turn off the lights in your room because you would stay up all night reading.

3. Write many drafts

Your first draft is often not your best draft. In fact, it can take upwards of 3-4 drafts to get to an essay that you’re proud of. Likewise, prepare yourself for the possibility of completely scrapping one of your college essay topics or reworking your entire college application essay format. These are all natural parts of the process.

4. Get help from others

Like many of the most challenging things in life, applying to college is best done with help. When brainstorming college essay topics, consider asking friends and family what makes you stand out in their minds. Ask experts like a CollegeAdvisor admissions counselor or an English teacher to review your essay. And, of course, read many examples of college essays to find inspiration. But don’t forget that you aren’t alone in this process!

We’ve now talked about how to write a college essay and looked at some Common App essay examples. But what makes a great college essay? We’ll explore characteristics of Common App essays that worked next.

What makes a great college essay?

We’ve looked at many Common App essay examples in this guide. As you’ve likely noticed, there is no single perfect recipe for college essays that worked. In fact, these sample Common App essays are all very different. From college essay topics to college application essay format, there is great diversity in what makes a great college essay. 

Still, there are some traits that many great Common App essay examples share. Here are a few:

Unique to the student 

Among the most important college essay tips is to write about what matters to you. If you try to copy someone else’s idea or write what you think colleges want to hear, your essay will feel forced. Instead, choose the topic that immediately catches your attention. This will lead to you writing about your most meaningful experiences. These could be anything from growing up without money to remembering your favorite toy. The personal statement sample essays we highlighted touch on many different topics. However, all of them were important to the authors.

Along with this, focus on writing in your own voice. If you don’t naturally write with four syllable vocabulary words, then don’t try to do so in your essay. Our personal statement sample essays highlighted several different writing styles, and they all worked.

Well-written

You don’t have to write like a college professor. However your essay does have to be easy to read and free of grammatical errors . Note that our personal statement sample essays were free from slang and typographical errors. In part, admissions officers are assessing your writing abilities. Show them the best writing you can produce.

Undoubtedly, admissions officers are looking to see how you reflect upon your experiences. Ideally, they want to see personal growth. What did you learn? What do you value? How do you solve problems? How do you approach challenges? All of our Common app essay examples demonstrate the author reflecting upon their experience in order to answer such questions. 

Additional Common App Essay Tips

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide to Common App essay examples. To finish, we have a few more tips from what we saw in our personal statement sample essays.

Show, don’t tell

A common literary approach that all of the sample Common App essays employed is the maxim of “show, don’t tell.” Though this is a cliché piece of advice , it is critical to all college essays that worked. It involves using descriptive language, dialogue, and other details to make your story come to life. Imagine you are a film director – how would you describe the story you are trying to tell in 3D detail? Our sample Common App essays were chock full of details that brought each story to life and made for an engaging read.

Find a hook

A hook is a compelling start to an essay. It is one of the most common aspects of a successful college application essay format. A hook can look like a piece of dialogue, an evocative sentence, or a surprising statement. If you look at our Common App essay examples, you’ll see that they all start with an interesting hook.

Read your essay aloud

The last of our college essay tips has to do with how you edit your essay. We recommend reading it aloud to yourself. This not only helps with finding typos or wordiness; it also allows you to connect with the emotion behind your essay. Does reading it make tears well in your eyes? Does it make you laugh? If so, you’re likely onto something great. Reading your essay out loud also helps to know if it sounds natural. As we stated earlier, all of our sample Common App essays capture the unique voices of different students.

Other CollegeAdvisor Essay Resources to Explore

At CollegeAdvisor, we’re committed to helping you ace the admissions process and get into a school that makes you happy. As such, beyond this article with sample Common App essays, we have other resources to guide you through the essay process.

Common App Essays 2023‒2024

If you liked reading our Common App essay examples, check out this article about personal statement sample essays. You’ll find more college essay ideas and college essay tips inside. 

Alternatively, if you’re already in college but are considering transferring , we have a guide for writing your transfer essay. With this guide, you’ll be able to reflect on why a new school might be a better fit for you. You’ll also learn how to ensure that your application to a new school is compelling. Since transfer essays have a slightly different college application essay format, you shouldn’t simply recycle a past personal statement.

Additionally, we have helpful webinars about writing your Common App essay. Our webinar on crafting your unique story will help you think about what kind of characteristics or branding you wish to highlight in your essay. Thinking in this way may feel more natural than trying to simply answer a prompt. 

Crafting Your Story: Effective Strategies for College Essays

If you’re a junior , our webinar on using the summer before your senior year to get ahead on writing your personal statement will help you get organized. Resources like these can help make the college application process much less stressful. We can guarantee that each of these sample Common App essays took a good amount of time to write. With that in mind, starting early is key.

Common App Essay Examples – Final Takeaways

In this article, we showed you ten Common App essay examples and broke down why they are Common App essays that worked. Hopefully, you can now answer both the questions “what is a personal statement?” and “what makes great sample Common App essays?”. If you remember only one of our featured college essay tips, let it be to stay true to yourself in your essay. 

The process of applying to college, and especially being vulnerable in an essay, can be daunting. However, CollegeAdvisor is here to support you. In addition to providing dozens of examples of college essays and other resources , we offer personalized admissions guidance designed to help students succeed. Click here to connect with a member of our team and learn more. 

Courtney Ng wrote this guide full of Common App Essay Examples. Looking for more admissions support? Click  here  to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how  CollegeAdvisor.com  can support you in the college application process.

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how to format college essay in common app

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College Application Essay Format Rules

how to format college essay in common app

The college application essay has become the most important part of applying to college. In this article, we will go over the  best college essay format for getting into top schools, including how to structure the elements of a college admissions essay: margins, font, paragraphs, spacing, headers, and organization. 

We will focus on commonly asked questions about the best college essay structure. Finally, we will go over essay formatting tips and examples.

Table of Contents

  • General college essay formatting rules
  • How to format a college admissions essay
  • Sections of a college admissions essay
  • College application essay format examples

General College Essay Format Rules

Before talking about how to format your college admission essays, we need to talk about general college essay formatting rules.

Pay attention to word count

It has been well-established that the most important rule of college application essays is to  not go over the specific Application Essay word limit .  The word limit for the Common Application essay is typically 500-650 words.

Not only may it be impossible to go over the word count (in the case of the  Common Application essay , which uses text fields), but admissions officers often use software that will throw out any essay that breaks this rule. Following directions is a key indicator of being a successful student. 

Refocusing on the essay prompt and eliminating unnecessary adverbs, filler words, and prepositional phrases will help improve your essay.

On the other hand, it is advisable to use almost every available word. The college essay application field is very competitive, so leaving extra words on the table puts you at a disadvantage. Include an example or anecdote near the end of your essay to meet the total word count.

Do not write a wall of text: use paragraphs

Here is a brutal truth:  College admissions counselors only read the application essays that help them make a decision .  Otherwise, they will not read the essay at all. The problem is that you do not know whether the rest of your application (transcripts, academic record, awards, etc.) will be competitive enough to get you accepted.

A very simple writing rule for your application essay (and for essay editing of any type) is to  make your writing readable by adding line breaks and separate paragraphs.

Line breaks do not count toward word count, so they are a very easy way to organize your essay structure, ideas, and topics. Remember, college counselors, if you’re lucky, will spend 30 sec to 1 minute reading your essay. Give them every opportunity to understand your writing.

Do not include an essay title 

Unless specifically required, do not use a title for your personal statement or essay. This is a waste of your word limit and is redundant since the essay prompt itself serves as the title.

Never use overly casual, colloquial, or text message-based formatting like this: 

THIS IS A REALLY IMPORTANT POINT!. #collegeapplication #collegeessay.

Under no circumstances should you use emojis, all caps, symbols, hashtags, or slang in a college essay. Although technology, texting, and social media are continuing to transform how we use modern language (what a great topic for a college application essay!), admissions officers will view the use of these casual formatting elements as immature and inappropriate for such an important document.

How To Format A College Application Essay

There are many  tips for writing college admissions essays . How you upload your college application essay depends on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box in an online application form or attaching a formatted document.

Save and upload your college essay in the proper format

Check the application instructions if you’re not sure what you need to do. Currently, the Common Application requires you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.

There are three main formats when it comes to submitting your college essay or personal statement:

If submitting your application essay in a text box

For the Common Application, there is no need to attach a document since there is a dedicated input field. You still want to write your essay in a word processor or Google doc. Just make sure once you copy-paste your essay into the text box that your line breaks (paragraphs), indents, and formatting is retained. 

  • Formatting like  bold , underline, and  italics  are often lost when copy-pasting into a text box.
  • Double-check that you are under the word limit.  Word counts may be different within the text box .
  • Make sure that paragraphs and spacing are maintained;  text input fields often undo indents and double-spacing .
  • If possible, make sure the font is standardized.  Text input boxes usually allow just one font . 

If submitting your application essay as a document

When attaching a document, you must do more than just double-check the format of your admissions essay. You need to be proactive and make sure the structure is logical and will be attractive to readers.

Microsoft Word (.DOC) format

If you are submitting your application essay as a file upload, then you will likely submit a .doc or .docx file. The downside is that MS Word files are editable, and there are sometimes conflicts between different MS Word versions (2010 vs 2016 vs Office365). The upside is that Word can be opened by almost any text program.

This is a safe choice if maintaining the  visual  elements of your essay is important. Saving your essay as a PDF prevents any formatting issues that come with Microsoft Word, since older versions are sometimes incompatible with the newer formatting. 

Although PDF viewing programs are commonly available, many older readers and Internet users (who will be your admissions officers) may not be ready to view PDFs.

  • Use 1-inch margins . This is the default setting for Microsoft Word. However, students from Asia using programs like Hangul Word Processor will need to double-check.
  • Use a standard serif font.  These include Times New Roman, Courier, and Garamond. A serif font adds professionalism to your essay.
  • Use standard 12-font size. 
  • Use 1.5- or double-spacing.  Your application essay should be readable. Double spaces are not an issue as the essay should already fit on one page.
  • Add a Header  with your First Name, Last Name, university, and other required information.
  • Clearly   separate your paragraphs.  By default, just press ‘ENTER’ twice.

Sections Of A College Admissions Essay

University admissions protocols usually allow you to choose the format and style of your writing. Despite this, the general format of “Introduction-Body-Conclusion” is the most common structure. This is a common format you can use and adjust to your specific writing style.

College Application Essay Introduction

Typically, your first paragraph should introduce you or the topic that you will discuss. You must have a killer opener if you want the admissions committees to pay attention. 

Essays that use rhetorical tools, factual statements, dialog, etc. are encouraged. There is room to be creative since many application essays specifically focus on past learning experiences.

College Application Essay Body

Clearly answering the essay prompt is the most important part of the essay body. Keep reading over the prompt and making sure everything in the body supports it. 

Since personal statement essays are designed to show you are as a person and student, the essay body is also where you talk about your experiences and identity.

Make sure you include the following life experiences and how they relate to the essay prompt. Be sure to double-check that they relate back to the essay prompt. A college admissions essay is NOT an autobiography:

Personal challenges

  • How did you overcome them?
  • How or how much do past challenges define your current outlook or worldview? 
  • What did you learn about yourself when you failed?

Personal achievements and successes

  • What people helped you along the way?
  • What did you learn about the nature of success

Lessons learned

  • In general, did your experiences inform your choice of university or major?

Personal beliefs

  • Politics, philosophy, and religion may be included here, but be careful when discussing sensitive personal or political topics. 
  • Academic goals
  • Personal goals
  • Professional goals
  • How will attending the university help you achieve these goals?

College Application Essay Conclusion

The conclusion section is a call to action directly aimed at the admissions officers. You must demonstrate why you are a great fit for the university, which means you should refer to specific programs, majors, or professors that guided or inspired you. 

In this “why this school” part of the essay, you can also explain why the university is a great fit for  your  goals. Be straightforward and truthful, but express your interest in the school boldly.

common app essay format, essay sections 1

College Application Essay Format Examples

Here are several formatting examples of successful college admission essays, along with comments from the essay editor.

Note: Actual sample essays edited by  Wordvice professional editors .  Personal info has been redacted for privacy. This is not a college essay template.

College Admission Essay Example 1

This essay asks the student to write about how normal life experiences can have huge effects on personal growth:

Common App Essay Prompt: Thoughtful Rides

The Florida turnpike is a very redundant and plain expressway; we do not have the scenic luxury of mountains, forests, or even deserts stretching endlessly into the distance. Instead, we are blessed with repetitive fields of grazing cows and countless billboards advertising local businesses. I have been subjected to these monotonous views three times a week, driving two hours every other day to Sunrise and back to my house in Miami, Florida—all to practice for my competitive soccer team in hopes of receiving a scholarship to play soccer at the next level. 

The Introduction sets up a clear, visceral memory and communicates a key extracurricular activity. 

When I first began these mini road trips, I would jam out to my country playlist and sing along with my favorite artists, and the trek would seem relatively short. However, after listening to “Beautiful Crazy” by Luke Combs for the 48th time in a week, the song became as repetitive as the landscape I was driving through. Changing genres did not help much either; everything I played seemed to morph into the same brain-numbing sound.  Eventually, I decided to do what many peers in my generation fail to do: turn off the distractions, enjoy the silence, and immerse myself in my own thoughts. In the end, this seemingly simple decision led to a lot of personal growth and tranquility in my life. 

The first part of the Body connects the student’s past experience with the essay prompt: personal growth and challenging assumptions.

Although I did not fully realize it at the time, these rides were the perfect opportunity to reflect on myself and the people around me. I quickly began noticing the different personalities surrounding me in the flow of traffic, and this simple act of noticing reminded me that I was not the only human on this planet that mattered. I was just as unimportant as the woman sitting in the car next to mine. Conversely, I also came to appreciate how a gesture as simple as letting another driver merge into your lane can impact a stranger’s day. Maybe the other driver is late for a work interview or rushing to the hospital because their newborn is running a high fever and by allowing them to advance in the row of cars, you made their day just a little less stressful. I realized that if I could improve someone else’s day from my car,  I could definitely be a kinder person and take other people’s situations into consideration—because you never know if someone is having one of the worst days of their lives and their interaction with you could provide the motivation they need to keep going on . 

This part uses two examples to support the writer’s answer to the essay prompt. It ends the paragraph with a clear statement.

Realizing I was not the only being in the universe that mattered was not the only insight I attained during these drives. Over and over, I asked myself why I had chosen to change soccer clubs, leaving Pinecrest, the team I had played on for 8 years with my best friends and that was only a 10-minute drive from my house, to play for a completely unfamiliar team that required significantly more travel.  Eventually, I came to understand that I truly enjoy challenging myself and pushing past complacency . One of my main goals in life is to play and experience college soccer—that, and to eventually pursue a career as a doctor. Ultimately, leaving my comfort zone in Pinecrest, where mediocrity was celebrated, to join a team in Sunrise, where championships were expected and college offers were abundant, was a very positive decision in my life. 

This part clearly tells how the experience shaped the writer as a person. The student’s personality can be directly attributed to this memory. It also importantly states personal and academic goals.

Even if I do not end up playing college soccer, I know now that I will never back down from any challenge in my life; I am committed to pushing myself past my comfort zone. These car rides have given me insight into how strong I truly am and how much impact I can have on other people’s lives. 

The Conclusion restates the overall lesson learned.

College Admission Essay Example 2

The next essay asks the reader to use leadership roles or extracurricular activities and describe the experience, contribution, and what the student learned about themselves.

As I release the air from the blood-pressure monitor’s valve, I carefully track the gauge, listening for the faint “lub-dub” of  Winnie’s heart. Checking off the “hypertensive” box on his medical chart when reading 150/95, I then escort Winnie to the blood sugar station. This was the typical procedure of a volunteer at the UConn Migrant Farm Worker Clinic. Our traveling medical clinic operated at night, visiting various Connecticut farms to provide healthcare for migrant workers. Filling out charts, taking blood pressure, and recording BMI were all standard procedures, but the relationships I built with farmers such as Winnie impacted me the most.

This Introduction is very impactful. It highlights the student’s professional expertise as a healthcare worker and her impact on marginalized communities. It also is written in the present tense to add impact.

While the clinic was canceled this year due to COVID-19, I still wanted to do something for them. During a PPE-drive meeting this July, Winnie recounted his family history. I noticed his eyebrows furrow with anxiety as he spoke about his family’s safety in Tierra Blanca, Mexico. I realized that Winnie lacked substantial information about his hometown, and fear-mongering headlines did nothing to assuage his fears. After days of searching, I discovered that his hometown, Guanajuato, reported fewer cases of COVID-19 in comparison with surrounding towns. I then created a color-coded map of his town, showing rates across the different districts. Winnie’s eyes softened, marveling at the map I made for him this August. I didn’t need to explain what he saw: Guanajuato, his home state, was pale yellow, the color I chose to mark the lowest level of cases. By making this map, I didn’t intend to give him new hope; I wanted to show him where hope was.

The student continues to tell the powerful story of one of her patients. This humbles and empowers the student, motivating her in the next paragraph.

This interaction fueled my commitment to search for hope in my journey of becoming a public health official. Working in public health policy, I hope to tackle complex world problems, such as economic and social barriers to healthcare and find creative methods of improving outcomes in queer and Latinx communities. I want to study the present and potential future intervention strategies in minority communities for addressing language barriers to information including language on posters and gendered language, and for instituting social and support services for community youth. These stepping stones will hopefully prepare me for conducting professional research for the Medical Organization for Latino Advancement. I aspire to be an active proponent of healthcare access and equity for marginalized groups, including queer communities. I first learned about the importance of recognizing minority identities in healthcare through my bisexual sister, Sophie, and her nonbinary friend, Gilligan. During discussions with her friends, I realized the importance of validating diverse gender expressions in all facets of my life.

Here, the past experience is directly connected to future academic and professional goals, which themselves are motivated by a desire to increase access among communities as well as personal family experiences. This is a strong case for why personal identity is so important.

My experiences with Winnie and my sister have empowered me to be creative, thoughtful, and brave while challenging the assumptions currently embedded in the “visual vocabulary” of both the art and science fields. I envision myself deconstructing hegemonic ideas of masculinity and femininity and surmounting the limitations of traditional perceptions of male and female bodies as it relates to existing healthcare practices. Through these subtle changes, I aim to make a large impact.

The Conclusion positions the student as an impactful leader and visionary. This is a powerful case for the admissions board to consider.

If you want to read more college admissions essay examples, check out our articles about  successful college personal statements  and the  2021-2022 Common App prompts and example essays .

Wordvice offers a full suite of proofreading and editing services . If you are a student applying to college and are having trouble with the best college admissions essay format, check out our application essay editing services  (including personal statement editing ) and find out  how much online proofreading costs . 

Finally, don’t forget to receive common app essay editing and professional admissions editing for any other admissions documents for college, university, and post-doctoral programs.

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  • College Essay Format & Structure | Example Outlines

College Essay Format & Structure | Example Outlines

Published on September 24, 2021 by Meredith Testa . Revised on May 31, 2023.

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay, but you should carefully plan and outline to make sure your essay flows smoothly and logically.

Typical structural choices include

  • a series of vignettes with a common theme
  • a single story that demonstrates your positive qualities

Table of contents

Formatting your essay, outlining the essay, structures that work: two example outlines, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

You should keep the formatting as simple as possible. Admissions officers need to work very quickly, so fancy formatting, unnecessary flourishes, and unique fonts will come off as more distracting than individual. Keep in mind that, if you’re pasting your essay into a text box, formatting like italics may not transfer.

Your essay will be easier for admissions officers to read if it is 1.5- or double-spaced. If you choose to attach a file, ensure that it is a PDF.

You don’t need a title for your essay, but you can include one, especially if you think it will add something important.

Most importantly, ensure that you stick to the word count. Most successful essays are 500–600 words. Because you’re limited in length, make sure that you write concisely . Say everything that you need to express to get your point across, but don’t use more words than necessary, and don’t repeat yourself.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Once you’ve finished brainstorming topics but before you start writing, think about your writing’s trajectory: how you’ll start the essay , develop it, and end it .

Do you want to organize it chronologically? Would you prefer to make a “sandwich” structure by introducing a topic or idea, moving away from it, and then coming back to it at the end? There’s a variety of options (and a pair of strong examples below), but make sure you consider how you’d like to structure the essay before you start writing.

Although you should organize your thoughts in an outline, you don’t have to stick to it strictly. Once you begin writing, you may find that the structure you’d originally chosen doesn’t quite work. In that case, it’s fine to try something else. Multiple drafts of the same essay are key to a good final product.

Whatever structure you choose, it should be clear and easy to follow, and it should be feasible to keep it within the  word count . Never write in a way that could confuse the reader. Remember, your audience will not be reading your essay closely!

Vignettes with a common theme

The vignette structure discusses several experiences that may seem unrelated, but the author weaves them together and unites them with a common theme.

For example, a student could write an essay exploring various instances of their ability to make the best of bad situations. A rough outline for that essay might look like this:

  • In a rehearsal for a school play when a lighting fixture malfunctioned and the set caught fire, I helped extinguish it.
  • To help the situation, I improvised fixes for the set and talked with the director about adding lines referencing the “disaster.”
  • I didn’t get into my first-choice high school, but I became class president at the school where I ended up.
  • When I had ACL surgery, I used the downtime to work on my upper body strength and challenged my friends to pull-up contests.
  • How these qualities will serve me in college and in my career

Single story that demonstrates traits

The narrative structure focuses on a single overarching story that shows many aspects of a student’s character.

Some such essays focus on a relatively short event that the author details moment by moment, while others discuss the story of a longer journey, one that may cover months or years.

For example, a student might discuss trying out for a sports team as a middle schooler, high school freshman, and high school senior, using each of those instances to describe an aspect of their personality. A rough outline for that essay might look like this:

  • Confident, there to have fun
  • Very passionate and in love with the sport
  • Little sister was born that day, so I had to go alone with a friend’s parents
  • Learned to be independent and less self-centered
  • Realized that as much as I love gymnastics, there are more important things
  • Gave up first homecoming of high school, had to quit other activities, lost countless hours with friends
  • I had to repeat level 9 and didn’t progress quickly
  • I had a terrible beam routine at one competition the previous year and still had a mental block
  • I got stuck on some skills, and it took over a year to learn them
  • Passion from age 7, perspective from age 11, diligence from age 15

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:

  • A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
  • A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.

Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.

Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:

  • Use a standard, readable font
  • Use 1.5 or double spacing
  • If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
  • Stick to the word count
  • Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches

You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay , but you can include one if you think it adds something important.

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How To Format & Structure Your College Application Essay

How To Format & Structure Your College Application Essay

College essays are a key component of your college application to top universities. Your essays are a chance for admissions officers to get to know you beyond your grades, test scores, and ECLs. But how do you craft essays that reflect who you are AND impress the admissions officers?

First, it's important to understand that the essays you write in high school differ from what you have to write in your college application essays . Whether you’re writing the Common App Essay , Supplemental Essays, or UCAS Personal Statement , it's crucial that you prepare ahead of time to do your absolute best. Read ahead for guidelines on how to format and structure a college application essay and what mistakes to avoid.

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General College Essay Formatting Guidelines

The main focus of your college essay is the content. The format and structure should make the essay easy to read to maintain this focus.

A title to your college essay is generally not required and takes from your word count. It can also confine your essay to a single meaning, so if you decide to use titles, use them with care. Keep your font double-spaced with a line space between the paragraphs to keep the essay easy on the eyes.

When the word count is not given, staying around 600 words is a safe bet. While it’s important to share about yourself in your essay, oversharing could make you stand out from your competition — in the worst way possible!

Uploading Your Essay

If you are copying and pasting your essay into a text box, here are some necessary actions to take to ensure your essay will be received as intended.

  • Make sure that your essay is transferred over completely . Formatting on a different program initially than using the copy/paste function could cut your essay off, change your word count, alter the paragraph structure, and overall change the initial way you meant your essay to be read.
  • The smaller details, such as bold and italics, may not be possible depending on the platform . As the point of the essay is the text, not including bold/italics only makes for a more straightforward read — it might just be a blessing in disguise!

When attaching a document, you’ll need to be  more precise with your formatting, but here are a few rules of thumb to follow:

  • 1” margin is the standard, and difficult to go wrong with.
  • An easy-to-read font, such as Times New Roman and Arial, is the way to go . The last thing you want is for the admissions officers to have difficulty reading your essay due to a complicated font.
  • Download your college essay in an accepted format according to the submissions site.

3 Tips on How to Structure Your College Application Essay

Common App Essay Guide Part 2: Structure

The actual writing process may be scarier than the format- this is where you tell your story. A standard way of structuring your essay is in this story format, separated into the following 3 acts:

Act 1: The Hook

You want to get your reader excited. Introduce yourself, set the scene, grab their interest, and prepare them for Act 2.

Act 2: The Transformation

This is the event that occurs that drives a change in you. It can be something small, or something life-changing — what matters is it mattered to you, and caused a change to some degree.

Act 3: The Change

Now, in the aftermath of Act 2, you share how you are a different person because of it — more resilient, caring, patient, hardworking, etc.

While this is a general, relatively easy structure to use, it is not the only one! Students have used all kinds of creative structures to help themt stand out amongst other essays. While the story structure is not the be all, end all, it certainly allows for an effective way to share a transformative change within the word count.

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Red Flags To Avoid On Your College Essay

Top 5 Common App Personal Essay Red Flags

High-achieving students often have a tendency to underestimate how much work it takes to craft a good, strong college essay. It is not enough to do really well in all areas of your life if you are not able to reflect that in your essay!

Here are some easy-to-make mistakes to avoid in writing your college application essay:

Using your college essay as a resume

While you may want to share all of your accolades, there are other parts of the application dedicated to this. The essay allows for a more flexible way to share who you are as a person, how you have changed, and how you see yourself growing in the future.

Starting with generic quotes

Generic quotes do not tell the reader about who you are. Usually, these quotes are popular, and if many relate to it then it is not sharing your unique personality and changes you have undergone.

Trying to sound too academic

The college essay is different from your typical academic essays from English class. No need to have a thesaurus on hand — share your experiences as one individual to another.

Sounding different on your essay than the rest of your application

When admissions officers are reading your application, they are considering it holistically. You want to be consistent in your application, showing the same person through your activities as in your personal essay.

Focusing on achievement over growth

Writing about the time you won a volleyball game does not give much insight into who you are as a person the same way that sharing a transformative experience might.

Final Thoughts

By following the college application essay guidelines listed above, you will be able to focus all the attention on the content and give universities invaluable information about who YOU are — and who you could be on their campus. 

For more individualized, exclusive information from admissions experts, book a consultation now to start your journey to your dream university.

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Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

Find the right college for you.

Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.

Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.

Tips for Essay Writing

A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.

1. Start Early.

Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.

You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.

2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.

Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.

3. Create a Strong Opener.

Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.

Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.

4. Stay on Topic.

One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.

A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.

5. Think About Your Response.

Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.

6. Focus on You.

Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.

7. Stay True to Your Voice.

Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.

8. Be Specific and Factual.

Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.

9. Edit and Proofread.

When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.

Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.

What is the format of a college application essay?

Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.

Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.

How do you start an essay?

The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.

You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.

What should an essay include?

Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.

What shouldn’t be included in an essay?

When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.

How can you make your essay personal and interesting?

The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.

Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?

Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.

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