How to Write Your Common App Essay: 8 Tips to Stand Out
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The Common Application has a way of bringing up a feeling of dread in high schools everywhere. There are some aspects of the Common App that are great. You only have to fill in your personal information once; it’s a streamlined way to get recommendation letters, and it helps you keep track of all your applications in one place. But one part of the process that college-going students struggle with each year is how to write a Common App essay. 

The questions feel vague, and it’s hard to know what, exactly, you should write about. When you do choose a topic, how much of your personality should shine through? Once it’s written, how can you tweak it to ensure it’s the best it can be? 

There is a lot of emphasis on crafting the perfect college essay. Although it may feel complicated and scary, we’re here to break it down for you. 

What is the Common App Essay?

The Common Application is a streamlined application system that many colleges use. Not all schools use it, but most college-going seniors will end up applying to at least one school that requires the Common App. 

The Common App essay is the primary personal statement that will accompany your college application. It’s a fairly open-ended essay, with seven prompts to choose from that leave the door open for you to write about pretty much anything. 

Your Common App essay should be between 250 and 650 words long, but we’d recommend using all the space you have. Think of writing a college essay as your chance to show your personality and life experience beyond what your application will provide. 

How Important is the Common App Essay?

Your college essay is one of the main components of your application. A study done by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in 2019 revealed that 56.4% of colleges surveyed consider the essay moderately to considerably important. 

A lot of it comes down to a question of how selective the schools are that you’re applying to. Every piece of your application takes on more weight as the selectivity of colleges increases.

Think of it this way – your Common App essay is a way for your admissions counselor to get to know you, beyond how you perform in the classroom and what clubs you’re a part of. It’s an important way for you to not only show off your impressive writing skills, but also make a personal impact on your application reader.

Now that you’re convinced of your college essay’s importance, let’s get into tips on how to make your Common App essay stand out.

8 Common App Essay Writing Tips to Stand Out

1. Take your time when choosing a topic. 

Before you begin writing your Common App essay, you need to decide on a topic. Many students rush this process and start writing about the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, marinate on several potential topics before you commit to one. Discuss your potential topic ideas with your guidance counselor, English teacher, or parents. 

If you’re having a hard time choosing between several ideas, consider writing an outline of each contender. These outlines should roughly sketch out the flow of the essay, the main points you’ll cover, and how that essay reflects your personality. 

Your essay should tell a story, regardless of which prompt you choose. Think long and hard about all of your college essay ideas. Ask yourself: does this story have a beginning, middle and end? Am I excited about this essay topic? Does this topic somehow connect to a bigger picture – whether that be my future goals, a past lesson, or a present struggle I’ve overcome?

2. Engage the reader immediately. 

You’ve heard this advice from your high school English teacher before, but it’s even more true now as a college applicant. Admissions counselors read dozens of Common App essays every day. Make them excited to keep reading yours. 

We know that’s easier said than done, so here’s a tip: start your essay in the middle of the action. Opening paragraphs have a tendency to be dull and don’t add to the story you are telling. If you find yourself providing too much exposition, get back to the action. On editing rounds, challenge yourself to cut out anything that doesn’t draw the reader further into the story.

3. Let your personality come through. 

Admission counselors can tell when an essay is written in a student’s authentic voice, and when it’s been edited so many times it sounds robotic. Let your personality shine through when writing a college essay! It’s the part of the application where your reader will really get a sense of who you are, beyond the numbers and achievements listed on the page. 

Of course, you should still write in a respectful, professional manner, demonstrating your maturity as a young adult. But that doesn’t mean your essay can’t have humor if you’re a funny person, or sarcasm if that’s who you are. 

4. Be concise. 

In high school, you may be used to padding your essays with extra adjectives and redundant sentences to achieve an arbitrary word count. When writing a college essay, leave that habit behind. 

Your Common App essay should be between 250 and 650 words. That might sound like a lot, but it’s really not much, especially when you’re trying to tell a descriptive story about your life. Use your space wisely. Edit your draft to make it as concise as possible, without missing opportunities to infuse detail and personality. 

5. Details are key.

This point might feel counterintuitive after reading our last tip, but trust us when we say details will make or break your Common App essay. Find ways to pepper your essay with relevant details that will make your application reader feel like they really know you. 

The details are what will set you apart from other applicants. Even if your topic isn’t super unique, the little things will help you stand out. Some of the best essays are about the smallest of moments, not life-changing events. It’s the details that make those essays so great.  

6. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. 

They may feel like scary, faceless judges who will determine the course of your future, but your college admissions counselors are actually just people. And they like to see their applicants as human, too. Don’t try to come off as too polished or perfect in your essay. In fact, do the opposite. Show your humanity by being vulnerable and portraying genuine emotions through your words. 

It’s not a ploy for sympathy or attention. It’s a chance to show your counselor a piece of who you are. And you don’t have to have been through a traumatic life event to follow this advice, either. Showing any genuine emotion – whether that be joy, passion, pain, or anything else – is what matters.

7. Show your intelligence. 

You’ve written countless essays in history class making connections from the past to modern-day, so you know how to think critically. Consider if there are any real-world events you could tie into your essay to show that you’re thinking about the bigger picture. 

Placing your essay within a larger framework is a great way to show off your intelligence and ability to think outside of yourself. Brainstorm historical, cultural, or current events you can draw from to make your essay stand out. The important part to remember here is that your essay shouldn’t stray too far from the main topic, which is you. This strategy requires nuance and creative thinking, but if you can nail it, you’ll distinguish yourself in a big way.

8. Get help with an essay tutor. 

The good news about writing a college essay is that you don’t have to do it alone. Asking for help from professionals who’ve done it before is a wise move when it comes to writing your Common App essay. 

Knovva Academy offers one-on-one college essay tutoring. Instead of going through the process by yourself, you’ll work with a tutor from concept to completion. You’ll receive personalized guidance that a blog post can’t give you to make you stand out from the crowd. 

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