In this article, CollegeAdvisor.com admissions expert Finn provides an overview of the CommonApp Essay for juniors. For more guidance on building a college list and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.
For anyone applying to college, the Common Application Personal Statement Essay, or CommonApp Essay for short, is a daunting task. For Juniors in particular, this essay looms on the horizon. This overview will hopefully help you feel more confident and ready to tackle what can be a wonderful, reflective process.
For more a specific guide to each CommonApp Essay Prompt, check out more of our Essay Guides.
What is the CommonApp Essay?
The CommonApp Essay is the personal statement portion of the Common Application that will be sent to every college you apply to through the CommonApp. It should not only demonstrate of your writing ability but, more importantly, show the admissions officers who you are beyond the rest of your application.
The essay has a limit of 650 words. Your essay should be close to 650 words, but if you have said all that you need to say after 550 words, that is completely fine.
- 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.
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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 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.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
- 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.
The Common App essay is specifically designed to be all about you. The admissions officers want to know who you are, how you react to the environment around you, what you enjoy, what you hate, what you aspire to, and so on.
This essay should help the admissions committee understand what they see on your activity sheet or why you are set on majoring in one particular subject. Let them have a look behind all the grades and test scores!
When to start
If you’re applying to schools early (EA, ED, REA), your CommonApp Essay should be finished by mid-October at the very latest. Ideally, however, you’ll have your essay finished by August or September. Remember that you’ll need time to finish all the other parts of your application, such as the Supplemental Essays (more on those here).
That being said, there’s no “one-fits-all” answer to the question of the Common App Essay timeline. Some students can write their CommonApp Essay over the course of a month, but it took me something near 20 drafts over the course of 6-8 months to get my essay to a place where I was confident to submit. At CollegeAdvisor.com, we’ll help you start, workshop, and finish your Common App Essay on a timeline that suits you. A personal college advisor can also help you stick to your deadlines and writing goals.
Part of the process is knowing who you are as a writer and holding yourself accountable. Starting early is key. Regardless of whether you’re a slow or fast writer, you should give some thought to the CommonApp Essay during your Junior year, even if that’s just reviewing the process and doing some brainstorming.
Brainstorming for the CommonApp Essay
The CommonApp Essay process takes some serious time and self-reflection. It’s not the kind of essay that you can do overnight, or even in a week. There will be times when you are dissatisfied with your writing, your topic, or the feedback that you receive. However, through this challenge, you have the potential to grow so much as a person and a writer.
One common trap that students encounter is to get caught up in the prompts. Don’t feel like you have to answer one of the prompts from the get-go. The CommonApp questions are designed to be open-ended to the extent that they can be answered by a variety of different essays. To this end, the final prompt can literally be on any topic.
You can find a start to your essay anywhere – maybe a memento you’ve kept in your room, a club you’re passionate about, a school play, a trip you took, the color orange, a sunset, your favorite food, your least favorite food. The CommonApp essay is all about telling your story.
Create a list of potential topics
When first brainstorming for your CommonApp Essay, let yourself write all of your ideas down, and expound on them as you feel necessary. Have you had a particularly meaningful interaction or conversation lately? Is there one theme or idea that has dramatically affected your life negatively or positively? Have you had any great learning experiences recently? What is your passion? All of these are great questions to keep in mind as you brainstorm.
If you’ve opted to write with a specific prompt in mind, let that be a launching point, but listen to the writing. If your story or your free writing wants to deviate from the question, let it! You are not bound by the question at this point, so do not try to impose that on your brainstorming.
Selecting a topic
At the end of your brainstorming session, which idea sticks in your mind? Which one has the potential to showcase your story? Your personality? Your interests? Start with those. If you’re interested in your essay, there’s a greater likelihood that the person reading your essay will be, too.
If you still need help deciding on a topic, consider meeting with a personal advisor such as an Admissions Expert at CollegeAdvisor.com. By getting to know you, your advisor will be able to help you create a compelling essay that showcases your best qualities and helps you stand out. A personal mentor can nudge you in the right direction, let you know which topics might be better or worse, and find interesting topics through conversations that you may have not even thought to write about.
Writing the CommonApp Essay
Often, the basic structure of a successful CommonApp Essay is as follows:
- Something happens to you.
- It affects you on a personal level.
- After doing some reflection…
- You change and grow.
I want to emphasize the importance of that third section—the reflection on your experience. This part will reveal the most about you to the Admissions Officers. Really dive into the way that your experience affected you emotionally, mentally, and physically. What parts of the experience stuck with you and why?
If you’re struggling with the reflection piece of the essay, ask yourself: Why did this experience make you feel a certain way? Why was it impactful? How did you grow after this experience? How do you foresee yourself continuing to grow?
Just let it out
When you first start out, let your writing lead you, not the other way around. Being too critical or editing too much at the beginning is the CommonApp Essay writer’s downfall.
Do not worry about the word count—just get all your ideas on the page. Write in excess. Write 1,300 words. You will eventually cut down, clean, and organize, but you need something to cut before you can do so. Once you get all your thoughts onto the page, you can figure out which ones really belong (spoiler alert: many will not).
Once you’ve done this, congratulations! You’re through step one—go get some ice cream and take a week off to let your writing breathe.
Cutting down and cleaning up
Ok—so you’ve written and you’ve written and you’ve written and now you have a 2,000 word mess. Now what? It’s time to revise.
First, figure out what you’ve just written. Read it over a few times. What is your story really about—what do you want the admissions officers to take away from this essay? Who have you become as a result of the experiences you’re sharing? Why is this topic important to you?
Once you have determined the core theme of your essay, it’s time to start cutting back.
This is the moment to take out everything that doesn’t fit. If you can’t justify why a particularly sentence is essential, cut it.
You might be reluctant to cut sentences that you might’ve spent hours coming up with, but it’ll ultimately pay off. As English author Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch writes: “Murder your darlings.” In essence, edit as though you are not attached to any part of your essay. If it’s not serving the essay, it needs to go or change.
Take your time
If you’re struggling with your essay, feel free to give it some space. This is the reason we recommend that you start writing the CommonApp Essay your Junior year—sometimes it can be helpful to let your essay sit on the shelf for a week. When you come back to it, you’ll read it with fresh eyes and a new headspace.
Being able to take a step back and look at what you’ve written can be helpful because it can reveal sections that need cutting, clarifying, or smoothing out, as well as reveal what is missing!
CommonApp Essay Tips and Tricks
Make your essay interesting
Start with a hook—something that your reader can read quickly and that makes them ask questions. Admissions officers have to review some 500 to 2500 applications over the course of a few months, so if your essay doesn’t grab its reader’s attention, you might as well have not written an essay at all.
Show, don’t tell
Tell your story through actions, thoughts, feelings, and senses. “It was cold outside” is much weaker than, “I shivered as the breeze prickled my skin.” Let your evidence be colorful and expressive, and convey your experience to the readers. This will help your essay be more memorable, compelling, and specific.
Making your essay your essay
Make the essay an essay that only you could write—if anyone else could turn in this same essay, it’s no longer your essay. For example, many students are the president of their student government, but why has your experience changed you as a person? What makes your experience unique? The fact that you have done student government is great, but that can be read from your Common App activities sheet. What does this essay add to the rest of your application?
Keep your reader in mind
The admissions officers reading your essay are real people, not robots. They have lives, moods, and emotions. Having an admissions officer who is tired or grumpy can make a serious difference in how they grade your application. It’s prudent to make your essay (and application as a whole) as watertight as possible.
Are there any places in your essay where your writing may be misconstrued as offensive, naive, desultory, flimsy, or under-researched? Are any parts of your essay unclear? You don’t want to be misunderstood. Any flaw that can be picked open may be picked open, so make sure to read your CommonApp Essay over through the lens of a grumpy person who doesn’t want to admit you to their school. If your essay can withstand that level of scrutiny, you’re making some progress!
Stay true to your voice
Don’t try and be the “ideal applicant” or write the “perfect college essay.” Such a thing does not exist—colleges look for diversity in their applicants’ backgrounds, so don’t stifle yours.
Finishing your essay.
So, you have a solid draft. It’s not incredible, but it’s definitely not the worst, and it’s much better than it was. How do we elevate your essay to the next level?
Get a second (or third! or fourth!) opinion
First, ask for someone else to look at your essay.
Now, before you start showing your essay to everyone you know, let’s talk about outside readers. The CommonApp Essay is referred to as the Personal Statement—it’s a statement from you, ultimately about you. To that end, it needs to sound like it comes from you. Admissions officers know when your mom has written your CommonApp Essay.
Additionally, the diction that you use in your writing helps differentiate you from your peers. If too many people edit your essay, you will start to lose that diction that makes your essay unique, so select the people to whom you show your essay carefully. If a reviewer makes a comment on your essay that feels disingenuous to you, ignore it. If you feel like you need to, let your reviewer know ahead of time that you probably won’t take all of their comments so they aren’t offended.
The experienced advisors are CollegeAdvisor.com are sensitive to the needs of your essays. During this revision process, we work to preserve your voice while helping you form your essay into its best version. We do not write essays for students—rather, we provide support as needed so that you can show your best, truest self to colleges.
In addition to an advisor, you may consider showing your essay to your English teacher, a parent, a grandparent, a family friend, a sibling or friend who writes well, or your guidance counselor. Keep in mind that most of these people are not professionals operating in the collegiate realm, so use your best judgement when incorporating their comments into your writing.
CommonApp Essay: Final Thoughts
Once you have written and re-written (and perhaps re-re-written) your CommonApp Essay, congrats! It’s time to start working on the Supplemental Essays.
We know that college applications can be a long, grueling process. And we’re here to help! CollegeAdvisor.com has a team of over 130 experienced college admissions experts. Our Advisor Matching team will pair you up with an advisor that suits your needs and can help you stand out in the admissions process.
This informational essay on the CommonApp Essay was written by Finn Bamber, Harvard ‘22. If you want to get help with your college applications from Finn or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.