Applying to college: the phrase alone can instill terror in the hearts of high school seniors, and even in those of us who have lived through the experience.
Every year, the college application process seems to get more complex, and more intense. If you’re a student, you might be reviewing rumors and horror stories about that classmate of yours with perfect grades and a 1500 SAT score who somehow got rejected from every Ivy League school. If you’re a parent, you might be afraid of how much the college admissions system has changed and grown more competitive since you were your kids’ age, or perhaps you never had to navigate this system at all.
One of many students’ and parents’ biggest fears is the sheer anonymity of the process. You, the college applicant, have worked hard through high school, earning great grades, expanding your worldview through extracurriculars or jobs, and contributing to your community… and now, it can seem pretty unjust to throw yourself at the mercy of an application system that seems arbitrary, blind to your personality, or even uncaring.
There’s good news, though.
The college application process has a logic to it—and it’s one you, the applicant, can both navigate and trust. All those essays, all those forms, all those questions? They’re about getting you in touch with the most authentic and vibrant version of yourself. In fact, if tackled with intelligence, reflection, and organization, the college process can actually offer you a chance to make the admissions process about you as a person, rather than about a distant name on a screen.
- What is The Common Application?
- Why does The Common App Essay—and other college essays—matter?
- What are these mystical college essays, anyway?
- 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts
- Let’s meet our students
- Part 2: Pre-writing your Common App Essay
- Brainstorming college essay topics and working with prompts (2-3 weeks)
- Freewriting (3-4 weeks)
- Essay writing timelines: how to write your Common App personal statement if you have six months, three months, one month, or even less
- Part 3: Choosing Your Topic
- Part 4: Writing your Common App Essay
- Writing and revising: common errors
- Full-length personal statement college essay example
- Common Application College Essay: Frequently asked questions
What is The Common Application?
You might be familiar with The Common Application, Common App for short, which serves as a single application that over seven hundred colleges, including every Ivy League school (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford) share.
The Common App allows you to fill out things like your name, demographics, extracurricular activities, and more, just once for every school that uses it. It is also where you’ll encounter “The Common App Essay,” otherwise known as your personal statement (PS), which is what this guide will focus on.
Though not every school uses the Common App—many state or public schools often have their own systems—the work you do in writing your Common App Essay will serve you in every other component of the process, including non-Common App schools (e.g., University of California [UC] schools) as well as the secondary and supplemental essays that go along with the Common App. (Schools that don’t use Common App may still ask for essays or short answers.)
Why does The Common App Essay—and other college essays—matter?
You may have heard the phrase “holistic” admissions thrown around—many universities follow this model, which means they don’t necessarily have an ACT or SAT cutoff score, nor do they require a certain number of AP/IB/Honors courses. Instead, they’re trying to get to know candidates as humans. Admissions officers are people—people who would be horribly bored if their job came down just to numbers, statistics, cutoffs, and counting up your AP and SAT and ACT scores.
In order to get into your dream school, you’ll need not only great grades and test scores but also a strong personal statement.
Your Personal Statement is the single loudest ‘qualitative’ element of your application. It brings to life the student—you!—behind your statistics and demographics. It’s the way you communicate with the admissions committee as a person and as a potential member of the campus community. With more people applying to colleges every year, admissions officers know they can have their pick of bright and motivated students. In addition to seeing your talents and achievements on paper, they need a chance to imagine what you might be like as a walking, talking human being.
Many students and parents wonder how big of a role essays play when it comes to college admissions decisions. While the importance of college essays—which are written over a period of a few weeks or (ideally) a few months—varies from school to school, most experts estimate that they make up for anywhere from 10-30% of admissions decisions! In other words, your four years of schoolwork, AP, IB, ACT, and SAT exams, community service, volunteering, etc. account only for 70-90%. These estimates are provided not to scare you, but rather to emphasize how critical it is for you to spend at least as much time on your college essays as would on any other high school pursuit.
Fortunately, we’re going to talk about every aspect of your personal statement in this guide, and reflect on some of the lessons we’ve taken from over a decade of coaching students through the college application process and getting into their dream schools.
What are these mystical college essays, anyway?
Let’s define our terms—
- Personal Statement (PS): when people refer to the personal statement, they’re talking about the 650-word Common Application Essay which all schools using the Common App will see. Your Personal Statement is your major chance to articulate the qualitative aspects of yourself to the admissions committee, and the admissions committee’s major chance to know you as a person. Throughout this guide, “Common App Essay,” “Common App personal statement,” and “personal statement” are used interchangeably.
- Secondary or supplemental essays: these are the essays that schools can choose to have you fill out on top of the core Common App Essay. They might invite you to talk more about an extracurricular activity on your resumé, or to reflect on a quote from a famous alumna/alumnus of the college and share your thoughts. They’re wide-ranging, and we’ll be covering them in an upcoming guide!
2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts
Here are the 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts (they largely stay the same from year to year)—and we’ll address how to think about them shortly, so just lodge them in your brain for now.
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.
You’ve got 650 free words to articulate what moves you, what excites you, what animates or explains you.
This means your essays are not a place to restate what can already be found on your resumé, CV, or Common App Activities Section. They’re also not a place to prove that you’ve had some major epiphany, changed the world, seen the Truth of reality, etc, at eighteen. They can be but do not have to be—by any means—about a major traumatic experience.
They can but need not discuss family, identity, race, gender, or class. They are a place to give the admissions committee a chance to see the you that your friends, classmates, teachers, teammates, and family know. We’ve seen students write about the New England Patriots, the poetry of John Keats, their grandparents’ village, their obsession with keeping too many Google Chrome tabs open, how grilling meats represented a rite of passage, and many more topics that range from the super-serious to the lighthearted but still meaningful.
Best Common App Essay Advice
The Common App Essay prompts are diverse enough that they allow you to write about pretty much anything. Therefore, we encourage you to brainstorm your best stories first and then think about which question to answer. Admissions committees have no preference for which prompt you choose.
Let’s meet our students
Throughout this guide, we’re going to refer to a few example essays. Some of these are made up but others are closely based on essays we have worked with students on over the past ten-plus years—and these students successfully met their admissions goals, including getting into multiple Ivy League and other top-tier schools. Let’s meet our students now!
Student #1: Ramya: Ramya intends to be pre-med in college, but isn’t sure if she wants to major in biology or something else entirely. She’s spent her high school years participating in a variety of activities. She played soccer, but wasn’t the star player. She was involved in student government, performed in cultural shows as a dancer, and did speech events.
What’s not on Ramya’s resumé? She is a rabid fan of the New England Patriots, despite living in California for most of her life. And she’s very close to her father and has a tight-knit group of friends.
Student #2: Anita: Anita has an aptitude for English and history. She likes writing, but she’s not on the school newspaper, nor has she ever published a piece of fiction or poetry, which makes her nervous about calling herself a writer. She spends much of her time on mock trial—in fact she’s nationally competitive at it—and lots of people tell her she’d make a great lawyer. But she doesn’t think she wants to major in political science or philosophy; she may not even want to do anything associated with mock trial in college.
What’s not on her resumé? She loves the outdoors, though she has nothing concretely extracurricular to prove it—she’s never been a camp counselor or a Girl Scout.
Student #3: Josh: Josh isn’t sure what he wants to study. He’s a solid student, though no particular subject gets his pulse racing. In his free time he draws comic strips, and he’s had a few on display at various community events in his town. He plays basketball and piano.
What’s not on his resumé? Josh has a complicated relationship with piano—his parents pushed him into it, and he’d like to quit as soon as possible. And he’s very close to his big brother, who recently left for college. He also has a little sister, who he’s never been tight with.
Student #4: Michael: Michael lives in a small coastal town and attends a big public high school. After school he has a job scooping ice cream, and though he’s not expected to contribute to his family’s income, he doesn’t have much time for clubs or sports, which aren’t very important at his school. He generally likes chemistry, but he isn’t sure what he wants to do with that. He doesn’t want to be pre-med, and he can’t imagine being a chemist, so he’s undecided about what to major in.
What’s not on his resumé? Michael is no great surfer by competitive standards, but he learned how to stand up on a board at a young age because his grandfather, who’s from Hawaii, taught him. His grandfather recently passed away.
Part 2: Pre-writing your Common App Essay
Of course, the terrifying part of starting any new piece of writing—whether you’re a professional, seasoned author or a high schooler planning for college—is the spooky glare of the blank page, that blinking cursor that doesn’t quite seem to yield to you.
One of the major challenges for many students about applying to college is knowing that they are full of passion and potential energy which hasn’t yet been converted into kinetic energy. That can make trying to communicate who you are as well as who you hope to become a daunting task. You might worry about sounding generic or not sounding like yourself or not sounding “smart” or “wise” enough.
The best antidote to all of these concerns, from writer’s block to finding your voice, is to prepare yourself emotionally and creatively well before you sit down to type out your personal statement.
Here’s how you can attack your Common App personal statement and secondary essays if you have a few months before they’re due. We are big proponents of starting early—ideally in June. Why?
You may not be thrilled at the prospect of spending the summer before your senior year on college applications. But getting going in June after your junior year and committing to a few exercises over the summer will be like spring training for summer athletes. By the time you get to August, when you’re drafting your Common App Essay and your secondary essays in full, you will be warmed up, and much of the hardest work—that is, the reflection, figuring out what you want to say—will be done for you.
(Bonus: starting early will also give you time to hand a strong draft of your essay to the teachers from whom you plan to request recommendation letters. If your recommenders know what you’re saying about yourself, they can help tell the same story about you—only from a different perspective. This is crucial because your application is a chance to offer not only the facts about you but also a narrative of you—a sense of who you are, how you move through the world, and what you hope to become. That means each component of your application—your Common App personal statement, your secondary essays, your teacher recommendations, the classes you’ve taken—is a kind of episode in the story.)
But, we’ve offered some adjusted timelines lower down in case you don’t have the whole summer to work with.
Brainstorming college essay topics and working with prompts (2-3 weeks)
Review the Common App questions and identify which ones get your juices flowing. You can also use our expanded prompts to help you brainstorm and freewrite over the summer. We’re starting with Common App Essay Prompt #7, since it is the broad, general question. Then we’ll circle back and go through #s 1-6.
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.
- Make a list of themes and broad topics that matter to you. What do you, your friends, and family spend a lot of time thinking about or talking about? (Note: this is not the same as asking for your list of extracurricular activities.) Tell the story of an important day or event in relation to one of these topics.
- Who’s a family member who lives with you and is important to you? Think of a specific time they helped you with something. Tell the story. What’s an important conversation you had with them? Tell the story.
- Think of any person—family, friend, teacher, etc—who has been important to you. When did you first meet them? Tell the story. When did you have a crucial, meaningful, or important conversation with them? Tell the story.
- Make a list of experiences that have been important to you. These do not have to be dramatic, tragic, traumatic, or prove that you changed the world, though they can be any of those. Perhaps a particular summer that mattered a lot? Or an experience with friend or family member who shaped you—it could be a specific day spent with them, or a weekend, a summer, a year?
(Remember: Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement. Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you. One of the best pieces of advice we can give you—and something you’ll see reflected in all of the following prompts—is to anchor things in anecdote or story as much as possible.)
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.
- Where did you grow up? Describe your neighborhood, town, or community. Big or small? What makes it unlike other parts of the world? How has it affected you? What images are important for someone who has never been to your hometown/neighborhood/community to see? For instance, is there farmland all around you, grain silos, cows? A Chik-Fil-A every block?
- Where is home for your parents? Does their home impact your day-to-day life? Describe the first time you saw their home, in story form.
- Did you grow up considering another place that is not where you currently live home? Tell the story of the first time you went there or the first time you remember going there. Was there a particular time—a summer, or a year—when that place became important? Tell that story.
- What’s the most memorable thing about you? What do people in your community or school know you for? Tell the story of the first time you did this thing. Tell the story of the most meaningful time you did this thing—it might be, say, when you won a game, but it also might be when you lost a game, or when you quit the team.
- How have you spent your summers in high school? In childhood? Tell a story of a memorable day during a memorable summer. Where were you? Why did it matter? Does what happened that day influence you today? How?
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?
- What major changes have you been through? A move? Changing schools? Losing a loved one or a friend? (Avoid writing about romantic relationships and breakups in your essays, but feel free to mine them in your freewriting.) Tell the story of the day that change occurred—the day you moved, the first day at the new school or the last day at the old school, the day you got bad news about a family member or a friend, etc.
- Did you ever quit an extracurricular activity or a job? Why? Tell the story of the day that happened, and of the day you decided to quit.
- What class was hardest for you in high school? Why? Tell the story of a specific class assignment that was difficult. Now tell the story of a specific class assignment that caused you to have a breakthrough, or changed your mind about something.
- Have you ever been forced to try something you weren’t good at? How’d it go? Tell the story of the day you tried it. Who encouraged you to? Where were you?
- Have you faced a disability, a mental or physical health issue, or other significant challenge while in high school? Think of a day when you are proud of how you handled or carried yourself in the face of this challenge. (Read more on how to write about a disability in your college essay for additional guidance.)
Prompt 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- What values did you grow up holding dear? Are they the same ones today? Tell the story of the first time you learned about these values—say, a morning at Sunday School or a conversation with a grandparent. If they’ve changed, tell the story of the moment (as best you can place it) when they changed—say, in a classroom, in a conversation with a friend, etc.
- Is there a prevalent belief in your family or community with which you disagree? How did you come to disagree? Tell the story of an argument—cordial or not—that you’ve had with someone about this issue. Tell the story of a time you are proud of how you handled conflict in relation to this disagreement.
- When were you wrong about something? Tell the story of how you figured out you were wrong. Who helped you get there?
Prompt 4. 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.
- What class assignments have gotten you thinking hardest? Tell the story of one of them.
- What books or articles have you read that caused you to identify something wrong in the world? What did you learn from those, and what did they/do they make you want to do? Tell the story of reading that book/article for the first time—where were you? Who handed it to you? Who did you discuss it with afterward? How often have you reread that meaningful book or article?
- Is there a problem that comes up over the dinner table with your family regularly? How do you think about solving it as a family, or individually? Tell the story of one of those dinners. Tell the story of another dinner, if you’d like!
- What makes you angry or furious about the world? Tell the story of a time you saw something—visually—that provoked that anger or frustration. Describe images and your reactions.
Prompt 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- They say a piece of short fiction is about a moment after which nothing will be the same again. Have you lived through one of those moments? What was it? Tell it the way you’d write a short story.
- Eureka! Have you ever had a moment when everything just *clicked*? Tell the story of that realization—set the scene, down to every image, who was or wasn’t in the room.
- Forget medals, victories, grades—what intangible, off-your-resumé quality or moment of your life are you proudest of? Tell the story of the day that happened.
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?
- Let’s say you’re left alone an entire weekend in your house. What do you get up to? Tell the story of a time that’s happened—or imagine, on the page, what that would be like. Set the scene: what rooms are you in in your house, or are you in your house at all? Where do you go? What do you bring with you?
- What activities have you self-started—that is, what have you done without ever being told to? Tell the story of the first day you started doing that thing.
- What do your friends come to you seeking help with? Tell the story of a time when you think you did a great job of helping another person. Now, to make sure you stay humble, tell the story of when that person helped you.
At the end of this brainstorming exercise, our students, Ramya, Anita, Josh, and M, will have discovered even more things not on their resumé that can expand what all they might write about.
Freewriting (3-4 weeks)
Your job, if you’ve started this early, is not to start writing your draft immediately, or even to choose which Common App question you plan to answer. First, you’re going to freewrite using the above prompts as a guide—choose the ones you like, or print them out, cut them up, and put them in a hat; each day, shake up the hat and grab one at random!
Freewriting is one of the fun parts, so the more you can do it, the better.
There are a number of ways to approach freewriting, and all of them are meant to keep you limber, loose, and free. You want to sound authentic in your essay—which means stiffening up under pressure, as many students do, trying to sound formal, more stereotypically “adult” or “learned.” The more you can sound like you while freewriting, the stronger position you’ll be in when it comes to drafting the personal statement.
- Buy a few composition notebooks: those $1 things, available at Walmart or the like. Work in these for the summer. No need to get precious—no fancy Moleskins here, and no laptops or tablets unless you are physically unable to write by hand. Why? Take the cartoonist Lynda Barry’s wise words here: “There is a kind of story that comes from hand. Writing which is different from a tapping-on-a-keyboard-kind-of-story. For one thing, there is no delete button, making the experience more lifelike right away. You can’t delete the things you feel unsure about and because of this, the things you feel unsure about have a much better chance of being able to exist long enough to reveal themselves.”
- Set aside six minutes each morning, or a few times a week, for the period of time you’re freewriting. Six minutes, that’s it! Put your timer on, put your pen to paper, and don’t stop writing until the timer goes off. If you run out of things to write, write “I don’t know I’m bored I don’t know help help I hate writing!” until new words come. What are you going to write about during those six minutes? You can try thinking about those Common App essay prompts—they’re so broad that they should let you in in some way: what’s my obstacle, my identity, the thing I love? Note that Anita isn’t sitting down to write her disquisition on How my life as a mock trial champion makes me prepared to go to law school. Instead, what might come out as she writes by hand is… I remember the rush the first time I stood up at a mock trial tournament. I was wearing a blazer and my mom’s heels and they were so uncomfortable. It was so overheated in the room and I’d drunk way too much Mountain Dew. But why did I love playing this role of attorney? Was it the theater? The chance to finally argue without getting in trouble at the dinner table? If six minutes doesn’t work for you, or if you think you’re not getting in the zone in that amount of time, try doing three pages in your composition notebook instead. Write in big letters and double-space. Let your hand roam free.
- Don’t show anyone anything you have written yet. And don’t reread it immediately. Let all that you’ve written sit, latent, so you’re not tempted to edit it right off the bat. Why? Allowing your writing to breathe away from you can prevent you from committing one of the cardinal sins of personal statement-writing—but also all writing!—trying to force the story into what you think it should be instead of what it is. To get more concrete: let’s say Michael wrote about his grandfather teaching him to surf in answer to several of those prompts—about a crucial summer, and an important person to him. But now he’s so excited about that that he immediately wants to turn it into his draft. As he’s writing, he gets self-conscious, thinking: why am I writing about surfing when I’m not a competitive surfer, and when it’s only something I do occasionally? Or say Michael shows it to an English teacher, who gets distracted by the quality of Michaels prose—which was meant to be free and unedited—and tells him to choose another topic, since this one isn’t “singing” yet. Respect your process and let these things sit.
In order to have this kind of time freedom, you’ll have to start early. And if you spend your summer warming up and training for the main event, you can start rereading your body of freewriting by the end of July.
Essay writing timelines: how to write your Common App personal statement if you have six months, three months, one month, or even less
In an ideal world, you can start writing and planning for your college essays the summer before your senior year. But many students have prior commitments that make following a six-month (June-December) timeline difficult. So here are a few adjusted timelines that can allow you to take advantage of the brainstorming and freewriting process even if you don’t have the full six-month window.
Six months – June to December (ideal if you are applying early action or early decision anywhere):
- June: Brainstorm and work with prompts, 2-3 weeks
- July: Freewrite, 3-4 weeks
- End of July/beginning of August: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
- Week two of August: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in)
- Weeks three-four of August: Complete third and fourth drafts
- Beginning of September: Seek feedback, if you have not already, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
- End of September: Complete final draft
Now you have October to complete your secondary essays. November is usually when early action/early decision deadlines hit. So by the end of October, you will have completed your application for anywhere you’re applying early; now you can use the last few weeks of November to complete any remaining secondary essays for schools with December or January due dates (most regular decision deadlines)
Three months – August to October (barely making the early application/early decision deadline):
- First two weeks of August: Brainstorm and work with prompts
- Second two weeks of August: Freewrite
- First week of September: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
- Week two of September: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in)
- Weeks three-four of September: Complete third and fourth drafts
- Beginning of October: Seek feedback, if you have not already, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
- Week two of October: Complete final draft
Now you have the second two weeks of October to complete your secondary essays for anywhere you are applying early with a November due date, and the rest of November to complete any remaining secondary essays for schools with December and January due dates (most regular decision deadlines)
One month – October to November (for regular decision schools):
- First week of October: Brainstorm and work with prompts
- Second week of October: Freewrite
- Third week of October: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
- Last week of October: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in)
- First two weeks of November: Complete third and fourth drafts
- Mid-November, before Thanksgiving break: Seek feedback, if you have not already, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
- Last week of November: Complete final draft
Now you have December to complete any remaining secondary essays for schools with December and January due dates (most regular decision deadlines)
Mega crunch time – Starting in November (in case you get started on your application really late and are down to less than one month, use the following timeline):
- 2-4 days: Brainstorm and work with prompts
- 2-3 days: Freewrite
- 48 hours after freewriting ends: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
- 72 hours after first draft: Complete second draft. (here is where the major revision work comes in) In addition, seek feedback between your second and third drafts, if you have not already done so, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
- 48 hours after receiving feedback: Complete third draft
- 48 hours after third draft, if time permits: Complete fourth and final draft
(Note: Some elite public universities, such as UC Berkeley and UCLA, have November application deadlines, so make sure that you write down your school list, with deadlines and requirements, by the end of September to ensure that you don’t miss anything.)
Part 3: Choosing Your Topic
With all this free-written raw material in hand, it’s time to choose the right topic. What notes should your essay hit? Here are some characteristics that a good essay topic contains:
1. Anecdote and specificity. As you saw in the prompts above, we’re big advocates of beginning with a particular story or anecdote. This is NOT the only way to start an essay, but it’s a classic one. Journalists call this a “lede”—it’s a hook that brings the reader into a wider topic. Your essay will always go beyond the anecdote, but an anecdote offers a reader an easy, smooth way into your personal statement.
A good essay topic can relate, as much as possible, to a particular anecdote, story, or even scene. Let’s say Josh found himself writing about his siblings—his older brother who just left for college, and his little sister who he’s spent more time with since his brother left. His essay shouldn’t start, “I love my little sister,” but “I remember the first time my younger sister and I connected. It was July, and our older brother had just gone to college, leaving the two of us alone at home together for the first time.”
A good essay begins at a specific point in time and revolves around a specific event. An essay without an anecdote or specific story is an essay TOPIC, not an essay. So pull from your freewriting: where did you find yourself writing about a particular event, story, anecdote, or point in time?
Another way of thinking about this is: does your potential topic contain a person (other than you), a setting, and a beginning/middle/end? That gives you a character, a place, and a plot—all crucial elements of an essay.
One important note is that you don’t have to start with the anecdote—it doesn’t have to be your “lede.” That might make you formulaic. But you’ll want one to work with, to anchor the piece at some point.
2. Tension, conflict, and opportunity to show growth. Josh might write a lovely reflection on how close he and his brother were, or how much he likes his little sister—but that doesn’t give the admissions committee much to work with. Why? Because your topic needs to display your ability to grow, to show change over a period of time. If Josh has always had a perfect relationship with his sister, well—first, no one will believe that!, and second, Josh is not really telling a story. So as you’re identifying the right anecdote for your essay, make sure you have a point of tension—a point where we, the reader, wonder if everything will turn out okay. For J, this might mean beginning with a time before he and his sister were close—say, when all the siblings were in the house and there wasn’t much time for the two to connect. Then Josh would tell us about what changed as soon as the brother left, and in there he might find an opening anecdote.
3. A wider relevance or a ‘lesson.’ Your essay doesn’t have to demonstrate that you underwent some great metamorphosis or epiphany as a child or teenager, but does your possible topic have a takeaway to work with? You’re looking for something that you can put in your pocket and carry into the future, and in an impressive and ideal world, something that the reader of the essay can say: “wow, I like that way of thinking, and I might even return to that one day.”
Another way of thinking about this is: your essay is about how your past influences your future, or the way you think now. Michael has settled on his grandfather teaching him to surf: That’s a fruitful topic—not just because it contains two characters (Michael and his grandfather), but also a place (the ocean, or, say, a surf shop), a plot (Michael couldn’t surf in the beginning, then learned in the middle, now at the end Michael can surf and tell us about it), but also because the end includes a lesson and a chance to spin that forward, perhaps by talking about how the sport has taught Michael how to be calm and collected under pressure.
4. Some connection between your past, your present, and your future. It’s common to see a student choose an important experience in their past, narrate the whole thing beautifully, but then forget to tie it to the present. Before you even start writing, think about whether your potential topic is influencing the way you think about the present, and, crucially, the future. Take Michael, again. He writes beautifully about his grandfather teaching him about the waves, but he’s not a pro surfer, and might even be going to college in the middle of the country. Does that matter? Not as long as he tells us how surfing influences him—as he did in extracting a wider lesson.
You might be afraid of picking that mythical ‘wrong topic,’ say, the one thing every admissions officer is secretly sick of reading about but which no one will tell you. Students often ask us: Should I not write about a dying grandparent? About coming out? About the meaning of my name? About politics?
Here’s a secret: the success of your topic almost always lies in the delivery—so absent writing about something flagrantly offensive, violent, or irresponsible, you’re unlikely to hit on that rumored thing the admissions officers can’t stand.
It is good to be afraid of cliché—but one of the truisms about clichés is that they become trite because they reiterate feelings we’ve all had. That also means that buried beneath many clichés is some authentic, particular, and personal relationship you have to your topic. If you’re working with a teacher, counselor, or advisor on your statement, they can help you discern whether you’re in cliché territory or whether you’ve bypassed it to a more fruitful realm.
But wait. There is one big rule. Be humble. Don’t try so hard to sound adult, or beyond your years, that you end up coming across as a know-it-all. It’s better to show the admissions committee that you are capable of finding and making meaning through the experiences you’ve had as a young person, no matter how small or limited they may seem to you. If you’ll let us wax philosophical for a moment: that ability to make meaning from something that isn’t pompous or dramatic—and to do so without being aggrandizing—is the stuff of great art. So you’re in a good tradition if you stick to humility and take a deliberate and honest approach to your essays.
So now, make a list of everything that seems like a fruitful topic. From the questions and prompts, you should find that you have 3-5 strong topic areas and stories—stuff that got you thinking and feeling, and which produced what Hemingway called the “honest sentences” that comprise good writing. Start with the one that moves you most—that’s your personal statement—but save all the others as fodder for your secondaries, or as backup material in case someone you trust tells you to consider switching topics for some reason. (Tip: the stuff that isn’t always linked to an anecdote or story but is important to you can often be useful for those secondaries.)
Let’s find out what our sample students chose to write about.
Essay #1: Ramya on the Patriots
Ramya could try to write something about medicine. Or she could write about soccer, dance, or speech. But none of those things seem to tell the admissions committee what they wouldn’t already know from simply reading her list of extracurriculars.
So we decide that Ramya is going to write about the Patriots. The question is how she’s going to demonstrate—through her football fandom—that she is a mature and thoughtful person who will be a good member of any college’s community. An Ode to Brady won’t do the trick here—but what will is Ramya’s thoughtful reflection on how spending time watching the Patriots at a sports bar every Sunday with her dad has given her a relationship with her father that most of her friends have never enjoyed with their families.
Essay #2: Anita on the outdoors + poetry
The obvious thing—and the thing most teachers and advisors told Anita to do—is write about mock trial. It would be a good opportunity to give the admissions committee some insight into her psychology behind the success. She took a couple of stabs at it during free-writing, though, and it didn’t flow.
So instead Anita decides to write about a wilderness solo she took in North Carolina on a school trip, and about how it influenced her relationship with poetry.
Essay #3: Josh on piano and mistakes
We talked a lot about whether Josh would do best avoiding writing about piano—it’s the main thing on his resumé and sometimes it can be good to show things off-resumé, as Ramya and Anita plan to. Josh did some writing about his relationship with his sister and his brother, and that might find a home in the secondary essays. But it became clear that Josh has an obsessive, if not always positive, relationship with piano, and so there’s something there.
But how to write “about piano?”
We look at the themes that came up during Josh’s reflection. He found himself writing a lot about mistakes, public performance anxiety, and the pressure to get a piece just right. Focusing in, Josh thought about a specific piece which helped him get over some performance anxiety, so he’ll write about learning that piece and facing the fear.
Essay #4: Michael on surfing
We’ve already referenced Michael’s essay a few times, but he’ll be writing about his grandfather teaching him to surf and the lessons surfing has given him off the board and out of the waves.
You’ll see us return to these students’ ideas as we work through outlines.
Part 4: Writing your Common App Essay
If you’ve spent your summer freewriting and then carefully selecting the right essay topic, you’re now in a strong place to start writing—ideally at the end of July or early August. (Remember that if you are applying early action or early decision to schools your deadline will come at the start of November, whereas regular decision applications will generally have December and January deadlines.) We can’t emphasize enough the importance of this organized pre-work, though—it’s incredibly frustrating for a student to write an entire draft and then find that it’s just “falling flat” or “doesn’t sound like them” or “is cliché.” Using the criteria we’ve already set out, though, you can avoid that scary feeling of having done a lot of work that you’ve got to shelve.
What ‘type’ of essay do you have to write? (list of narrative strategies)
It’s important to remember that there are as many narrative strategies as there are television shows, books, movies, plays, and poems. We can’t exhaustively discuss all of them, or even most, but we can give you a few “modules” to play with.
At 650 words, each of these will be best understood as a five-paragraph essay, so a basic structure stays the same, but the way things begin and end will not.
1. The Specific Experience Essay: This module is one of the most flexible and powerful types of essays. It begins with a scene, memory, or anecdote, and then tells us what that scene, memory, or anecdote continues to mean to the writer. It’s a classic, and should not be underestimated. Michael’s essay about learning to surf with his grandfather will use this structure, but so too will Anita’s about taking a wilderness solo. Anita will use a slightly more subtle version of this, but both essays begin with a scene: “I was eight when my grandfather first took me to the water” “The happiest two hours I have spent were on a boulder jutting into a stream in North Carolina…”
Resolving the Specific Experience Essay requires a student to point to some kind of realization garnered as a result of the experience. It doesn’t have to be an enormous Eureka! or epiphany, and in fact, it can come later. Michael’s reflection on the experience of learning to surf with his grandfather occurs over a decade after he first hit the waves. Anita’s comes during an English class two years later when she first reads the poetry of John Keats and William Wordsworth and realizes these writers were engaging with exactly what she experienced during her solo in the wilderness. The trick Michael and Anita each pull off is spinning the experience forward so that it means something for the rest of their lives. Michael writes about how he understands meditative headspace as a result of standing on the board all those hours with his grandfather, and how his grandfather’s legacy will always be with him. Anita goes small with her reflection: she talks about how she learned to see art, and artful experiences, in her everyday life, and in small, quiet moments. (This is especially good for Anita because it expands her away from just the hyper-intense mock trial competitor she might come across as.)
2. The Patterned/Iterative Essay: This module is a little more advanced. Let’s take Josh’s essay about piano playing. He might want to open with a scene of him playing piano on stage, but that’s a little obvious. The essay he’s going to write is actually about practice, and learning to stop making mistakes. So what if he started each paragraph with a different mini-moment of him playing piano and making a mistake? Paragraph 1: My first time erring on stage—I am six, and I’m playing Chopsticks. Then he’ll introduce the theme of the essay. Paragraph #2: My second time messing up—I am thirteen, and… etc. Then the natural place to end it is the time he almost messes up but doesn’t, which shows us how he’s grown overtime.
3. The Circular Essay: In this essay, the writer begins with a scene or image or concept and then will circle back to that scene or image or concept before the end of the essay in order to make sense of the initial opening. This essay deploys suspense. Take Anita’s essay, which might open: “I spent my happiest moments lost and alone in the wilderness. How did I get here? To understand that, you’ll have to understand X, Y, Z about me…” and which might close: “…that’s how I found myself, at sixteen, lost—but entirely at home in the wild.”
4. The Mini-Odyssey Essay: The last classic and powerful module is the good old problem-driven essay. In this type of essay, our hero (you, the writer) meets a challenge in the first paragraph and then the essay is devoted to showing us how it is solved. Let’s say Michael wanted to write not about learning to surf from his grandfather but about learning when his grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer. There’s a lot of narration that will be required for Michael to tell us about losing his grandfather—it’s too much to cram into the first paragraph. So Michael might distribute the narration chronologically, showing us first the bad news [the problem]—then zooming out to reflect; then showing us how he faced it [addressing the challenge], probably failing to adequately face it perfectly the first time, and then eventually facing it successfully [the solution].
Those are just a few more narrative possibilities for structuring your essay. Right now, we’ll focus on Ramya’s.
Now, taking your chosen topic, it’s time to outline it. Outlining works great for some people as a pre-writing tactic, and we always recommend it. For others, it can be harder than simply getting down to writing. If you’re really struggling to outline and would rather just follow the pen to a first draft, that’s fine, but do yourself a favor and make outlining your second draft step. At some point, everyone needs an outline, but it’s your call when to do it. Let’s follow this through with Ramya’s essay on the Patriots. The model we’ll use for this essay is a five-paragraph, anecdote-driven essay.
By the way, this prompt helped Ramya settle on the Patriots—Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? Ramya’s going to write about the sports bar where she watches her team play every Sunday during football season.
1. Introduction: Anecdote/scene: Ramya has a fun advantage to her essay—it’s unexpected. The heart of it takes place in a sports bar, and she may seem, on paper, to the admissions committee, to be an unlikely diehard football fan. So we begin… at the bar… and Ramya sets the scene: It had been a rough week at school—drama with my friend group, hard tests, orchestra practice, exhausting soccer drills—but I knew where I belonged on a Sunday. At Dee’s Sports Bar in San Jose, with my dad, watching our team… She also tells us about Dee’s itself, taking the chance to show the admissions committee that she has narrative skills in just noticing things: By the end of the football season, the staff knew what we wanted to sit… we were loyal to Dee’s, just as we had to be loyal to the Patriots, even when they seemed to be letting us down. In telling this as a story, Ramya has given the admissions committee a human being to relate to from the jump.
2. Billboard/nutgraph/thesis paragraph: in the magazine world, they call the second paragraph in a piece the “billboard paragraph” because it broadcasts—loud as on a billboard—what the piece is about. Newspapers call the same thing a nutgraph, and academic papers would refer to your thesis statement. All these point to one thing: this is where you shout, HEY! THIS IS WHAT MY ESSAY IS ABOUT! This is where you meld the scene and characters of paragraph 1 with the thematic concerns you’ll address for the rest of the essay. For Ramya, it goes something like this: Dee’s is where I learned to be loyal—to my team, the Patriots, from across the country—but also to my father, to my friends, and to myself. Ramya’s essay is going to focus on loyalty: a big theme, one that would sound terribly weak if she introduced it in the first line or even paragraph, but one that is surprising and interesting here because she’s juxtaposed it against a unique setting and seemingly light fare—sports at a bar. (Ramya has, at some point, assured the admissions committee that she’s not drinking in this bar!)
3. Body paragraph #1: In this paragraph, Ramya will tell us something more about loyalty, and why it matters. She’ll add context. So she will zoom away from Dee’s and tell us that throughout high school, she started noticing a lot of her friends getting caught up in social drama, becoming competitive with one another, fighting about romantic situations; set against all this, as well as bullying, depression, and other difficult parts of high school, Ramya’s loyalty to the Patriots and Dee’s served as a sanctuary—one of the things that kept her sane.
Now, it’s crucial to note that this isn’t enough for Ramya to write an essay about. “Here’s something that is important/valuable/meaningful to me” is sometimes where students stop. Ramya needs to advance that—to tell us something that shows maturity, shows an ability to reflect and introspect that will come in handy in college and adulthood…
4. Body paragraph #2: …so she uses her next paragraph to make a bigger point: what other types of loyalty being at Dee’s on a Sunday causes her to reflect on.
5. Conclusion: now, Ramya will spin the whole thing forward and point our eyes toward that ‘lesson’—the thing that she can put in her pocket, which will serve as a kind of talisman throughout life.
Writing and revising: common errors
Most people don’t outline. And even after outlining, many people fail to follow their outline. It’s natural that you’ll want to stray here or there, towards or away from the initial plan, but below are a few common errors that people make when they either don’t outline or ditch the guiding hand of their outline. As we go through some of these errors, we’ll also make a list of a few general tips and tricks for managing some of the toughest parts of your essay, including time, scene, epiphany, change, character, and more.
Here’s an excerpted version of how Ramya’s essay began, at first: [Ramya’s original drafts have been very slightly modified]
As a 5’1.75” Asian girl, not many people would expect me to spend every Sunday in a bar watching football….I was tired of streaming the games on my computer, and having it lag before every major play.
I want to thank Dee’s Sports Bar for teaching me life lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Thank you for showing me the importance of loyalty, relationships, and laughter.
I have always been loyal to the Patriots….
It’s not a bad start, but it brings us to Common Error #1: beginning the essay by introducing oneself, instead of introducing the story, AKA, starting too broad. Ramya begins by trying to tell us who she is in a big, introductory, throat-clearing way, instead of choosing a specific route into who she is. It’s sweet that she’s small, but there’s a lot in here that we don’t need: we don’t need her height, nor do we need to know that she used to get the games in one particular way or another. We just need to know that she’s at the bar.
She’s only got 650 words. Which leads us to Tip #1: Take refuge in the anecdote, in the specific, in the particular: everything gets easier if you choose something specific. Many writers—of college essays and other media—get stressed out, believing that they must convey their entire selves in an essay. This just isn’t possible to do in the capsule of space that is your Common App personal statement. And, it will ironically accomplish the opposite—it’ll cause your essay to look shapeless and meandering, therefore communicating very little about you. If you instead use an individual story as a stand-in for something larger, or for something else, your essay becomes a kind of parable or lesson that educates your reader both about you and, hopefully, about a part of the world they’ve never previously considered.
Now, think about the first declarative sentence Ramya makes in that initial draft: “I have always been loyal to the Patriots.” Tip #2: Struggling to define your thesis statement? Look for your first declarative statement! Ramya’s essay can’t be about her perpetual loyalty to the Patriots—that won’t be enough. But the fact that her prose naturally settled on that as its first short, sharp sentence tells us that she’s making a statement she probably believes in. Loyalty now becomes really important as a theme. Common Error #2: Hiding your thesis statement or burying it too low. Since we know that loyalty will have something to do with Ramya’s thesis statement, we now know we want it to arrive at the end of the first paragraph or at the start of the first.
Here’s how Ramya’s essay began at the end of 3-4 rounds of edits and revisions:
Just before 5 pm on Sunday, October 13, 2013, I was sitting in a bar, holding on to a feeling of optimism that was fading fast. But wait: it’s not what you think. I didn’t turn to drink; I turned to the TV screen. The score was 27-23, and the Patriots had missed too many opportunities. With just over a minute left to play, my dad—the man responsible for bringing me, a 15-year-old, to a bar—dejectedly asked me if we should leave. I reminded him a true sports fan never gives up on her team, no matter the situation. And after a miracle of a drive finished with an unforgettable pass into the corner of the endzone by my idol, Tom Brady, a swell of elated cheering and high-fiving from the fans in the bar ensued regardless of whether we had previously known one another. Loyalty brought us all together.
Another Common Error (#3!) that Ramya made was: Mixing up the conclusion’s sentiment with the billboard paragraph. Her second paragraph, in the original essay, read: “I want to thank Dee’s Sports Bar for teaching me life lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Thank you for showing me the importance of loyalty, relationships, and laughter.” That’s a sentiment, but it’s not a thesis. And that sentiment is fine—it may have a place at the end of the essay—but it doesn’t belong in the second paragraph, because it doesn’t guide our reading of the rest of the essay. It isn’t strong and declarative yet.
This was the billboard paragraph Ramya reached after a few rounds of edits:
There are a few different kinds of loyalty. Loyalty to a team, to an establishment, to other people—even to oneself. Sitting in that bar over the last year, I feel like I’ve glimpsed them all.
A lot is working here! It’s short, clear, and leads us to—Tip #3: define your terms. Ramya wants to talk about an abstract concept—loyalty. Many young writers wish to reflect on things like charity, service, leadership, loyalty, friendship, kindness, morality, etc—these are big topics. But Ramya isn’t just talking about loyalty, a word which could mean many different things to many different people. She’s defined loyalty for the purposes of this essay, which means now we are playing in her house.
As Ramya’s original first draft moved on, it stumbled into a very Common Error #4: the curious case of the missing lesson. Initially, Ramya’s penultimate paragraph offered a kind of ode to Dee’s instead of showing the admissions committee that she has a bigger Life Takeaway from her time spent supporting her team—a problem we could see would happen as soon as we noticed the sentiment of “Thanks Dee’s’” occupying the place that should have been reserved for a billboard paragraph. Returning to the outline, or making the outline partway through, would remedy that.
But don’t get stressed if your first outline feels like it’s getting away from you. Tip #4: Try a reverse outline. Once you’ve written one draft of your essay, print it out. (By the way: Tip #5: print stuff out! Don’t get stuck in an endless spiral of copy-and-paste—by printing out your draft, you can keep a draft next to you and then open a new document so that you feel free to rewrite entire paragraphs, or delete sections entirely.) Then take your printout and write out what the function of each paragraph is in the margin. Might get a little tough, right? If you can’t answer the question what is the goal of this paragraph? or what do I want the readers to garner from this paragraph?, then you’re probably missing a topic sentence.
Everything we’re talking about here—writing, noticing mistakes, correcting them—will take you at least three and as many as five or six drafts to get right. So, Tip #6: Don’t treat your early drafts like anything close to final. That means you’re going to have to get comfortable with simply putting idea to paper, and with cutting entire paragraphs or “points” within the essay. You’ve probably never written anything like the personal statement before, and you have to promise yourself to be iterative—otherwise, you’ll lock yourself into a weaker version of the essay.
As you’re iterating, try Tip #7: Read your drafts aloud so that you can tell when things feel stiff or weak; this should sound like you. Reading aloud can help you catch things like Common Error #5: tonal errors—sounding too formal or too glib/casual. Ramya never suffered from either of these problems; she sounded like herself even in early drafts. But many students feel that they either have to sound formal to the point of stuffiness (“On a Sunday afternoon, my father would pick me up from my room and take me down to the kitchen, whereupon we would adjourn to Dee’s Sports bar…”) or “authentically young” to the point of disrespecting the reader (“On Sundays my dad’s like, let’s go to Dee’s Sports Bar, and I go okay so I come on down and we get going…”) When you’re staring at the blinking cursor until your eyes cross, it can be easy to fall into one of these traps, and to write in a voice that isn’t yours. When you read aloud, you can catch it. Tip #8: The right essay-voice is the most polished version of your speaking-voice. You shouldn’t sound like you swallowed a Thesaurus, but you should sound a little more formal than your text messages to your friends would.
Full-length personal statement college essay example
Here’s what Ramya’s college essay looked like, in the end:
Just before 5 pm on Sunday, October 13, 2013, I was sitting in a bar, holding on to a feeling of optimism that was fading fast.
But wait—it’s not what you think.
I didn’t turn to drink—I turned to the TV screen. The score was 27-23, and the Patriots had missed too many opportunities. With just over a minute left to play, my dad—the man responsible for bringing me, a 15-year-old, to a bar—dejectedly asked me if we should leave.
I reminded him a true sports fan never gives up on her team, no matter the situation. And after a miracle of a drive finished with an unforgettable pass into the corner of the endzone by my idol, Tom Brady, a swell of elated cheering and high-fiving from the fans in the bar ensued regardless of whether we had previously known one another.
Loyalty brought us all together.
There are a few different kinds of loyalty.
Loyalty to a team, to an establishment, to other people—even to oneself. Sitting in that bar over the last year, I feel like I’ve glimpsed them all.
As a Boston-born girl, my loyalty to the Patriots seems natural—even if it’s not so common for a teenage Indian-American-Californian girl to be as much of a sports junkie as I am.
But I’ve seen that loyalty tested plenty of times.
I’m completely invested in the Pats; I’ve been known to be giddy when they win, and tearful when they lose.
However, finding a true home to watch Patriots games in California isn’t easy. So I owe Dee’s Sports Bar a surprising amount. By the end of the season, the staff knew what we wanted to eat, and where we wanted to sit, so the sports bar felt like a second home.
My dad and I have a typical father-daughter relationship; I get mad when he doesn’t let me go out, he gets mad when I neglect responsibility.
But in the year since we began staking out the bar, we’ve gotten so much closer. On the rides to and from, we talked about everything from school to politics to pop culture. And we talk about sports as equals. My best friend once told me that neither she nor her dad were willing to make the extra effort to find common ground. And I realized how lucky I was: sports offers my dad and me an inexhaustible topic that we can always turn to.
The bar also helped me figure out still another kind of loyalty—to myself.
Junior year was an emotional year, full of difficult academics and the inevitable social drama that comes with high school. The bar showed me that I needed to look forward to something comfortable—a place with no drama, no obligations, and a common goal… or at least, a common desperate desire for victory.
At the bar, nobody cared what I got on my last math test or which boy was asking my friend to prom.
All that matters is the game.
This realization isn’t limited to just sports; I figured out that I need a place to be completely myself—with my team and my dad. This included deciding that I only wanted to stay friends with people who make a positive impact on my life. These were such simple revelations, yet they made all the difference.
I have always been loyal to the New England Patriots. From my toddler days, as I sat mesmerized in front of the screen to today, as I analyze every statistic that I can get my hands on, I love every aspect of the team. But all of those trips to the sports bar taught me important lessons that apply beyond football. And for that, I am grateful.
Common Application College Essay: Frequently asked questions
There’s more that goes into applying to college than what we’ve been able to cover here, including your grades, standardized test scores, and recommendation letters, but your essays are some of the most important materials. They form the cornerstone of the qualitative side of your application. Get these right and your entire application starts from strength. Good luck!
Author: Dr. Shirag Shemmassian