If you’re applying to multiple universities in the US, you’ll almost definitely have to fill out the Common App. A key part of this application form is the personal essay, which gets sent to every university you apply to. So how do you approach this key feature of the application?
While most universities will have additional essay prompts for you to answer, the Common App personal essay goes to everybody so the focus can’t be an individual school you hope to attend. Instead, it needs to demonstrate something about you that’s relevant to every university you’re applying to.
Here are 7 steps to acing the Common App essay.
1. Start early
Clocking in at only 650 words, or about a page of writing, the personal essay can seem deceptively easy - which can make it hard to motivate yourself to start early.
There’s actually a lot to do on the Common App, and if you leave your essay to the last minute, you may find yourself getting overwhelmed. Plus, short essays can often be much harder than longer ones, as you have to get a lot of information down in not very much space!
Our tip? Aim to start thinking about your essay in June of the year you’re going to apply. This gives you more than enough time to brainstorm topics, write lots of drafts, and not feel rushed as you also work on your other application materials and your final year studies.
2. Choose the right prompt, then reflect...
Each student has to choose one of 7 prompts to answer, which vary each year. There’s no strategic reason to choose a certain prompt, so pick whatever is genuinely most interesting or inspiring for you.
That being said, be careful if you choose the open-ended option to write about any topic of your choosing. It can be easy to be overly vague, or to forget to show the kinds of self-reflection that’s built into the topics of the other prompts.
3. It’s about the person, not the major
A UK Personal Statement is about convincing an admissions tutor that you’re a great candidate for a specific course, like English or Chemistry. But the Common App essay is about getting to know you as a person - so you need to choose a topic that shows off your personality, not necessarily your academic knowledge.
It’s hard to think about your own personality, but try this trick: for a couple of days, make note of the main topics of conversations between you and your friends and family. Whether it’s books you’ve read, the latest news, the football scores, or something else; the things that you’re passionate about in your daily life can be a good starting place for a personal essay.
4. Open strong
Admissions officers are going to be reading thousands of essays, and a lot of them will probably start to blur together. But if you start strong - from the very first sentence - you can catch their attention and make sure they’re really focused on what you have to say.
Consider how you can choose an opening sentence that creates a sense of suspense, and leaves the reader wondering where the essay is going to go from here.
Be careful to avoid clichés though: try not to start with an inspiring quotation or a rhetorical question. Readers see these a lot, and you don’t want to have them sighing before they’ve even gotten started!
5. Let the inspiration flow
It can be helpful to start by simply writing without thinking too deeply about structure. When the goal is to show off your personality, you don’t want to box yourself into a set structure or idea too early. Freewriting might lead you to places you didn’t expect, and that’s where the most creative ideas often are.
Don’t be afraid to use humour and suspense, almost as if you were writing fiction rather than an essay. Tell jokes, use words you think are fun, and don’t worry too much - at least at first - about anything except exploring the topic in a way you personally find interesting, and even fun.
That said, you’ll definitely want to leave yourself plenty of time to revise - you only have 650 words, after all, and you want to make sure the essay is well-structured and effective in the end. Speaking of which…
6. Maintain focus
Conveying your personality is a big task, and it’s tempting to try to cram as much information in as possible. Try and pick one or two concrete examples that fit the prompt you choose and really focus on those, trying to build to a specific conclusion.
For example, one of the 2020-21 essay prompts was, “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.”
Your two examples might be telling the story of the first time you visited your grandparents in the country your parents came from, and a time you introduced your best friend to a tradition from your family’s culture.
Now, this prompt is tricky because it doesn’t specifically pose a question for you to answer, but you still want to build to some kind of conclusion. Notice what the prompt says: that this should be an aspect of yourself so important your application ‘would be incomplete’ without it. So maybe your conclusion is explaining the specific ways your family’s immigrant background has shaped the person you are today.
7. Revise, revise, revise
Leave yourself plenty of time to edit your essay. Give it to friends, family, and teachers to read over and help you make sure it’s interesting, concise, and compelling
When you need more tips for how to tackle the second draft and beyond, check out our guide on revising your personal essay.
Ready to start your Common App essay? Head over to our tool and get going!