Common App Tips - Executing Your Essay


So you're ready to write your Common App essay. Congratulations! You may have a lot of great ideas racing around in your head, or you may have no idea what you want to write about. You've come to the right place. 


Our favorite question. Why do colleges want you to write an essay? Think about all the material you are submitting for your application. A good portion of it has to do with numbers and ratings (i.e. your test scores and report cards). They want to know more about you as a person, the stuff they can't learn from numbers. Your background, your experiences, your character traits, your learning and thinking style, etc. This is another opportunity for you to show them just how special you are and why, so take full advantage and don't hold back. Think of it like you're sharing something really special and important with a close friend. 

Available Prompts

The Common Application offers 7 different prompts (as of the 2019-2020 school year) to choose from. You can find the full essay prompts on the Common App website, but the short version of each is as follows.

  1. Share your story

  2. Learning from obstacles

  3. Challenging a belief

  4. Solving a problem

  5. Personal growth

  6. What captivates you?

  7. Topic of your choice

These offer pretty broad topics to kick off the brainstorming process. The trick now is selecting the prompt that is best for you.

Selecting Your Prompt

There are two ways to go about choosing your prompt. Neither is right or wrong, it just depends on how you work best. 


The first approach is to go through each individual prompt and brainstorm. This might help if you can't figure out what story you want to share with the admission team. By going through each prompt and brainstorming the topics, you may remember something you want to share that you never would have thought of otherwise. Go through each prompt and ask yourself the appropriate questions posed to get the brain juices flowing. It will be obvious to you which topics you have the most to say about, and which are complete duds. 

Forget About It

The second approach is to forget about the prompts and just write your story. This is a really great approach if you have a specific topic in mind and you just need to get it down on paper. Once you've written a rough draft or outline, you will be able to see with which prompt it most appropriately aligns. If it doesn't fit into one specific prompt topic, there's that magic number 7 that stands as a sort of free pass, the essay on any topic of your choosing.

Whichever approach you choose, you should try your best not to stress too much over the topic. Remember, the committee wants to learn more about YOU, so whatever helps you show who you are in an honest reflective way, works great.

Writing the Essay

You've selected a topic! Now comes the fun part. Let's get to writing. Some people need to outline first, others need to just throw all their ideas on the paper at once in some semblance of an essay. You know how you work best. Whatever you do, lay it all out. It is much easier to take things out during edits then to add things in, so the more you write, the better. This is a first draft so it does not have to be perfect. Throw grammar out the window, if you must. There will be time to edit all the mechanics during the revision process. This time is for the ideas. 

Things to Remember

Of course there are pitfalls you should avoid when writing your Common App essay. Let's discuss how to avoid these and produce your strongest essay.

Be True to You

Don't write what you think the admission team wants to hear. They are looking for individuals who can add to their school's community. If you write your essay based on what you assume they are looking for, you are not being genuine or honest and they will see right through you. There is no way for you to know what each individual admission team is searching for. All you can control is who you are and how you present your best self. 

Be Unique

So you've done a ton of community service and mission trips throughout high school - great! So have hundreds of high school seniors applying to colleges around the country. Maybe you want to write about your parents divorce and the effect it had on you growing up. That's fine, but consider that it may not be as memorable as you hope. I guarantee there will be thousands of other applicants writing about the same thing. Avoid being generic, give it some deep thought, and come up with a topic that will help you stand out among the thousands of essays the admission team reads.

Let Your Voice Shine Through

If you're funny, let the reader know! It's perfectly okay to write a humorous essay, as long as it's natural and true to who you are and your personality. If you're writing about a topic that is fueled by emotion, let that emotion come through. Don't feel you need to hold back feelings that will strengthen your essay and voice. Again, the team has seen your report card, read your recommendations, and looked at your test scores. This is your chance to show them who you are as a person, not just a file. 

Finishing Up

Once you've written everything you wanted to share, set it aside for a bit. Come back to the essay in about a week and read it through again. You may find there are things you wish to add or remove. You may also find those errors in mechanics and execution that we weren't too worried about in the initial drafts. It never hurts to have someone else look through your writing as well. Since the topic is so close to you, you know exactly what you're trying to convey. You want to be sure this comes across to other readers as well.

As always, we are here to help! If you have any questions or want someone to look over your essay, do not hesitate to reach out. Best of luck and happy applying!