What are your chances of acceptance?

Calculate for all schools, your chance of acceptance.

Duke University

Your chancing factors

Extracurriculars.

how to write the best common app essay

21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

What’s covered:, what makes a good common app essay, is your common app essay strong enough.

When you begin writing your Common App essay, having an example to look at can help you understand how to effectively write your college essay so that it stands apart from others. 

These Common App essay examples demonstrate a strong writing ability and answer the prompt in a way that shows admissions officers something unique about the student. Once you’ve read some examples and are ready to get started, read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong Common App essay.  

Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 

Read our Common App essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.

It’s Personal

The point of the Common App essay is to humanize yourself to a college admissions committee. The ultimate goal is to get them to choose you over someone else! You will have a better chance of achieving this goal if the admissions committee feels personally connected to you or invested in your story. When writing your Common App essay, you should explore your feelings, worldview, values, desires, and anything else that makes you uniquely you.

It’s Not Cliché

It is pretty easy to resort to clichés in college essays. This should be actively avoided! CollegeVine has identified the immigrant’s journey, sports injuries, and overcoming a challenging course as cliché topics . If you write about one of these topics, you have to work harder to stand out, so working with a more nuanced topic is often safer and easier.

It’s Well-Done

Colleges want good writers. They want students who can articulate their thoughts clearly and concisely (and creatively!). You should be writing and rewriting your essays, perfecting them as you go. Of course, make sure that your grammar and spelling are impeccable, but also put in time crafting your tone and finding your voice. This will also make your essay more personal and will make your reader feel more connected to you!

It’s Cohesive

Compelling Common App essays tell a cohesive story. Cohesion is primarily achieved through effective introductions and conclusions , which often contribute to the establishment of a clear theme or topic. Make sure that it is clear what you are getting at, but also don’t explicitly state what you are getting at—a successful essay speaks for itself.

Common App Essay Examples

Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts.

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.

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?

Prompt #3 :  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #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? (NOTE: We only have an example for the old prompt #4 about solving a problem, not this current one)

Prompt #5 :  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

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?

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.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects.

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.

Prompt #1, example #1.

The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.

It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.

Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.

Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.

Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.

Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.

Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning. 

I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.

I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.

I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.

I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.

I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.

Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.

Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.

This student draws readers in with a strong introduction. The essay starts ambiguous—“I led with a spade”—then intrigues readers by gradually revealing more information and details. This makes the reader want to keep reading (which is super important!) As the writer continues, there is a rather abrupt tone shift from suspenseful to explanatory with statements like “It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship” and “Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game.” If you plan to start with an imagery-heavy, emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic introduction, you will need to transition to the content of your essay in a way that does not feel abrupt. 

You will often hear that essays need to “show, not tell.” This essay actually does both. First, the student tells readers the importance of bridge, saying “we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion” and “I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met.” Then, the student shows the lessons they have learned from bridge through a series of parallel sentences: “I nod… sportsmanship and forgiveness” “I greet… not to make excuses” “I chat… it’s never too late to start anything” and so on. This latter strategy is much more effective than the former and is watered down because the student has already told us what we are supposed to get out of these sentences. Remember that your readers are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. Avoid summarizing the moral of your story for them!

Overall, this essay is interesting and answers the prompt. We learn the importance of bridge to this student. The student has a solid grasp of language, a high-level vocabulary, and a valuable message, though they would be better off if they avoided summarizing their point and created more seamless transitions. 

Prompt #1, Example #2

Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.

My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.

Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-­rooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.

After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.

During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.

It was there that I met Emily, a twelve­-year-­old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.

Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.

Due to their endearing (and creative) use of language—with early phrases like “sloppy joes and spaetzle” as well as  “Germerican” and “Denglisch”—readers are inclined to like this writer from the get-go. Though the essay shifts from this lighthearted introduction to more serious subject matter around the third paragraph, the shift is not abrupt or jarring. This is because the student invites readers to feel the transition with them through their inclusion of various anecdotes that inspired their “feelings of cultural homelessness.” And our journey does not end there—we go back to America with the student and see how their former struggles become strengths.

Ultimately, this essay is successful due to its satisfying ending. Because readers experience the student’s struggles with them, we also feel the resolution. The conclusion of this essay is a prime example of the “Same, but Different” technique described in our article on How to End Your College Essay . As the student describes how, in the end, their complicated cultural identity still exists but transitions to a source of strength, readers are left feeling happy for the student. This means that they have formed a connection with the student, which is the ultimate goal!

Prompt #1, Example #3

“1…2…3…4 pirouettes ! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.

For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. 

As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls . I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple- pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more. 

My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four. 

“Dancers, double- pirouettes only.” 

Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements. 

As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake , the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes , gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet. 

With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.

The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity of the student’s writing. It is purposefully reflective. Intentional language creates a clear character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with the student reflecting on their past. 

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the concl usion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

The main weakness of this essay (though this is a stellar essay) is its formulaic beginning. While dialogue can be an effective tool for starting your essay, this student’s introduction feels a bit stilted as the dialogue does not match the overall reflective tone of the essay. Perhaps, in place of “Next goal: five turns,” the student could have posed a question or foreshadowed the growth they ultimately describe.

Prompt #1, Example #4

My paintbrush dragged a flurry of acrylic, the rich colors attaching to each groove in my canvas’s texture. The feeling was euphoric.

From a young age, painting has been my solace. Between the stress of my packed high school days filled with classes and extracurriculars, the glide of my paintbrush was my emotional outlet.

I opened a fresh canvas and began. The amalgamation of assorted colors in my palette melded harmoniously: dark and light, cool and warm, brilliant and dull. They conjoined, forming shades and surfaces sharp, smooth, and ridged. The textures of my paint strokes — powdery, glossy, jagged — gave my painting a tone, as if it had a voice of its own, sometimes shrieking, sometimes whispering.

Rough indigo blue. The repetitive upward pulls of my brush formed layers on my canvas. Staring into the deep blue, I felt transported to the bottom of the pool I swim in daily. I looked upward to see a layer of dense water between myself and the person I aspire to be, an ideal blurred by filmy ripples. Rough blue encapsulates my amorphous, conflicting identity, catalyzed by words spewed by my peers about my “oily hair” and “smelly food”. They caused my ever present disdain toward cultural assemblies; the lehenga I wore felt burdensome. My identity quivers like the indigo storm I painted — a duel between my self-deprecating, validation-seeking self, and the proud self I desire to be. My haphazard paint strokes released my internal turbulence.

Smooth orange-hued green. I laid the color in melodious strokes, forming my figure. The warmer green transitions from the rough blue — while they share elements, they also diverge. My firm brushstrokes felt like the way I felt on my first day as a media intern at KBOO, my local volunteer-driven radio station, committed to the voices of the marginalized. As a naturally introverted speaker, I was forced out of my comfort zone when tasked with documenting a KBOO art exhibition for social media, speaking with hosts to share their diverse, underrepresented backgrounds and inspirations. A rhythmic green strength soon shoved me past internal blue turbulence. My communication skills which were built by two years of Speech and Debate unleashed — I recognized that making a social change through media required amplifying unique voices and perspectives, both my own and others. The powerful green strokes that fill my canvas entrench my growth.

Bright, voluminous coral, hinted with magenta and yellow. I dabbed the color over my figure, giving my painting dimension. The paint, speckled, added depth on every inch it coated. As I moved the color in random but purposeful movements, the vitality ushered into my painting brought a smile across my face. It reminded me of the encounters I had with my cubicle-mate in my sophomore year academic autism research internship, seemingly insignificant moments in my lifelong journey that, in retrospect, wove unique threads into my tapestry. The kindness she brought into work inspired my compassion, while her stories of struggling with ADHD in the workplace bolstered my empathy towards different experiences. Our conversations added blobs of a nonuniform bright color in my painting, binding a new perspective in me.

I added in my final strokes, each contributing an element to my piece. As I scanned my canvas, I observed these elements. Detail added nuance into smaller pictures; they embodied complexities within color, texture, and hue, each individually delivering a narrative. But together, they formed a piece of art— art that could be interpreted as a whole or broken apart but still delivering as a means of communication.

I find beauty in media because of this. I can adapt a complex narrative to be deliverable, each component telling a story. Appreciating these nuances — the light, dark, smooth, and rough — has cultivated my growth mindset. My life-long painting never finishes. It is ever-expanding, absorbing the novel textures and colors I encounter daily.

This essay is distinct from others due to its melodic, lyrical form. This is primarily achieved because the student’s form follows the movements of the paintbrush that they use to scaffold their essay. As readers, we simply flow through the essay, occasionally picking up bits of information about its creator. Without even realizing it, by the end of the essay, admissions officers will know that this student is a swimmer, was in Speech and Debate, is Indian, and has had multiple internships.

A major strength of this essay is the command of language that the student demonstrates. This essay was not simply written, it was crafted. Universities are, of course, interested in the talents, goals, and interests of applicants, but an essay being well-written can be equally important. Writing skills are important because your reader will not learn about your talents, goals, and interests if they aren’t engaged in your essay, but they are also important because admissions officers know that being able to articulate your thoughts is important for success in all future careers.

While this essay is well-written, there are a few moments where it falls out of the flow and feels more like a student advertising their successes. For example, the phrases “media intern at KBOO” and “autism research internship” work better on a resume than they do in this essay. Admissions officers have a copy of your resume and can check your internship experiences after reading your essay! If you are going to use a unique writing style or narrative form, lean into it; don’t try to hybridize it with the standard college essay form. Your boldness will be attractive to admissions officers.

how to write the best common app essay

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the conclusion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

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?

Prompt #2, example #1.

“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.

Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.

When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.

As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.

Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.

We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.

We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.

My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.

Here is a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful Common App essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.

Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.

The only part of this essay that could use a bit of work is the introduction. A short introduction can be effective, but this short first paragraph feels thrown in at the last minute and like it is missing its second half. If you are keeping your introduction short, make it matter.

Prompt #2, Example #2

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

This Common App essay is well-written. The student is showing the admissions officers their ability to articulate their points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery, the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.

In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.

While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates their family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feels perfectly justified after they establish that they were pondering their failure.

Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling.

Prompt #2, Example #3

The muffled voices behind thin walls heralded trouble.

They were fighting about money.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened and it wasn’t going to be the last. It was one of those countless nights I had to spend curled up under the blanket while pretending to be asleep. My father had been unemployed for five years now, and my mother, a local kindergarten teacher, was struggling to support the family alone. Our situation was bleak: Savings had run out and my parents could no longer hide our lack of money from me. To make matters worse, I was a few weeks away from starting high school, which would inevitably lead to college, yet another financial stressor for my family.

The argument didn’t sound like it would end soon.

“Why did you spend money on that?” my mother said, with an elongated sigh.

“I had to,” my father said, decidedly.

Every fight over the years had left me in despair and the idea of going through another fight daunted me. I had looked forward to my teen years all my life, an age that allows, for the first time, more responsibility. Indeed, after this fateful night, after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a mounting responsibility to help my family, and started brainstorming.

Always being fascinated by computers, I spent my childhood burying myself under computer cabinets, experimenting with computer parts. Naturally, I wondered if my skills in this area might be marketable.

The next morning, my friend, Naba, mentioned that her computer wasn’t working. A tuk-tuk ride later, and I was at her doorstep, and her mother was leading me to her room. I was off to work: I began examining her computer, like a surgeon carefully manages his scalpels and tools. A proper diagnosis was not far from reach, as I realized a broken pin in her computer’s SATA slot. After an hour of work, and a short trip to the hardware store, I successfully fixed the computer. To my pleasant surprise, Naba’s mother drew out two fresh 500 Rupee notes. One covered the cost of the parts I bought and the other was a token of appreciation. Bidding her goodbye, I went straight back home and put one of the 500 Rupee notes inside my family’s “savings-jar.”

Later that day, I devised a plan. I told my friends to spread the word that I was available to fix computers. At first, I got only one or two calls per week. I would pick up the computer from my client’s home, fix it quickly, and return it, thus earning myself a commission. While I couldn’t market my services at a competitive price, because I wasn’t able to buy the parts wholesale, I compensated by providing convenience. All my clients had to do was call me once and the rest was taken care of. Thus, my business had the best customer service in town.

At the beginning of my junior year, after two years of expanding my business through various avenues, I started buying computer parts from hardware suppliers in bulk at a cheaper rate. My business grew exponentially after that. 

Before long, I was my town’s go-to tech person. In this journey throughout high school, I started realizing that I had to create my own opportunities and not just curl up under a blanket, seeking only comfort, as I used to. Interacting with people from all walks of life became my forte and a sense of work ethic developed in me. My business required me to be an all-rounder– have the technical skills, be an easily approachable person, and manage cash flow. Slowly becoming better at this, I even managed to sway admins of a local institution to outsource their computer hardware purchases and repairs through me. As my business upsized throughout the years, I went from being helpless to autonomous – the teenager I always aspired to be.

This essay truly feels like a story—almost making you forget you are reading a college essay. The student’s voice is strong throughout the entire essay and they are able to give us insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations at every step of the story. Letting the reader into personal challenges like financial struggles can be daunting in a college essay, but the way this student used that setback to establish an emotional ethos to their narrative was well done.

Because the essay is essentially just telling a story, there’s a very natural flow that makes it enjoyable and easy to read. The student establishes the conflict at the beginning, then describes their solution and how they implemented it, and finally concludes with the lessons they took away from this experience. Transitions at the beginning of paragraphs effortlessly show the passage of time and how the student has progressed through the story.

Another reason this essay is so successful is because of the abundance of details. The reader truly feels like they are hiding in the room with the student as their parents yell because of the inclusion of quotes from the argument. We understand the precision and care they have for fixing computers because of the allusion to a surgeon with their scalpel. Not only does this imagery make the story more enticing, it also helps the reader gain a deeper appreciation for the type of person this student is and the adversity they have overcome.

If there were one thing this essay could do to improve, it would be to include a resolution to the conflict from the beginning. The student tells us how this business helped them grow as a person, but we don’t ever get to find out if they were able to lessen the financial burden on their parents or if they continued to struggle despite the student working hard. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it would be nice to return to the conflict and acknowledge the effect they had on it, especially since this prompt is all about facing challenges.

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #3, example #1.

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

This essay is cohesive as it centers around the theme of identity and the ability for two identities to coexist simultaneously (an interesting theme!). It uses the Full Circle ending strategy as it starts with a metaphor about food touching and ends with “I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.”

The main issue with this essay is that it could come off as cliché, which could be irritating for admissions officers. The story described is notably similar to High School Musical (“I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me”) and feels slightly overstated. 

At times, this essay is also confusing. In the first paragraph, it feels like the narrative is actually going to be about separating your food (and is somehow going to relate to the older brothers?). It is not entirely clear that this is a metaphor. Also, when the writer references the third submission day and then works backward to explain what a submission day is and that there are multiple throughout the semester, the timeline gets unnecessarily confusing. Reworking the way this paragraph unfolded would have been more compelling and less distracting.

Overall, this essay was interesting but could have been more polished to be more effective.

Prompt #3, Example #2

I walked into my middle school English class, and noticed a stranger behind my teacher’s desk. “Hello,” she said. “Today I will be your substitute teacher.” I groaned internally. “Let me start off by calling roll. Ally?” “Here!” exclaimed Ally. “Jack?” “Here.” “Rachel?” “Here.” “Freddie?” “Present.” And then– “…?” The awkward pause was my cue. “It’s Jasina,” I started. “You can just call me Jas. Here.” “Oh, Jasina. That’s unique.” The word “unique” made me cringe. I slumped back in my seat. The substitute continued calling roll, and class continued as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Just a typical moment in a middle school, but I hated every second of it.

My name is not impossible to pronounce. It appears challenging initially, but once you hear it, “Jas-een-a”, then you can manage it. My nickname, Jas (pronounced “Jazz”), is what most people call me anyway, so I don’t have to deal with mispronunciation often. I am thankful that my parents named me Jasina (a Hebrew name), but whenever someone hears my name for the first time, they comment, and I assume they’re making assumptions about me. “Wow, Jas is a cool name.” She must be pretty cool.“I’ve never heard the name Jasina before.” She must be from somewhere exotic. “Jas, like Jazz?” She must be musical and artsy. None of these assumptions are bad, but they all add up to the same thing: She must be unique. 

When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task, but I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red. I knew it was really yellow, but you could always tell which drawings were mine. During snack time, we could choose between apple juice and grape juice. I liked apple juice more, but if everyone else was choosing apple, then I had to choose grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. I tried to continue this habit into middle school, but it backfired. When everyone became obsessed with things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber and blue mascara (that was a weird trend), my resistance of the norm made me socially awkward. I couldn’t talk to people about anything because we had nothing in common. I was too different. 

After 8th grade, I moved to Georgia, and I was dreading being the odd one out among kids who had grown up together. Then I discovered that my freshman year would be Cambridge High School’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from 5 different schools, there was no real sense of “normal”. I panicked. If there was no normal, then how could I be unique? That’s when I realized that I had spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were or what I really cared about. 

It was time to find out. I stopped concentrating on what everyone else was doing and started to focus on myself. I joined the basketball team, I performed in the school musical, and I enrolled in Chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I took art classes, joined clubs, and did whatever I thought would make me happy. And it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. My friends and I had things in common, but there was no one who could say that I was exactly like anyone else. I had finally become my own person.

My father named me Jasina because he wanted my nickname to be “Jazz.” According to Webster, “jazz” is “music characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate distortions of pitch.” Basically, jazz is music that is off-beat and unpredictable. It cannot be strictly defined. 

That sounds about right. 

Right off the bat, this essay starts extremely strong. The description of attendance in a class with ample quotes, awkward pauses, and the student’s internal dialogue immediately puts us in the middle of the action and establishes a lot of sympathy for this student before we’ve learned anything else. 

The strength of this essay continues into the second paragraph where the use of quotes, italics, and interjections from the student continues. All of these literary tools help the student express her voice and allow the reader to understand what this student goes through on a daily basis. Rather than just telling the reader people make assumptions about her name, she shows us what these assumptions look and sound like, and exactly how they make her feel.

The essay further shows us how the student approached her name by providing concrete examples of times she’s been intentionally unique throughout her life. Describing her drawing red suns and choosing grape juice bring her personality to life and allow her to express her deviance from the “norm” in a much more engaging and visual way than simply telling the reader she would go against the grain to be different on purpose.

One part of the essay that was a bit weaker than the others was the paragraph about her in high school. Although it was still well written and did a nice job of demonstrating how she got involved in multiple groups to find her new identity, it lacked the same level of showing employed in previous paragraphs. It would have been nice to see what “socially flexible” means either through a conversation she had with her friends or an example of a time she combined her interests from different groups in a way that was uniquely her.

The essay finishes off how it started: extremely strong. Taking a step back to fully explain the origin of her name neatly brings together everything mentioned in this essay. This ending is especially successful because she never explicitly states that her personality aligns with the definition of jazz. Instead, she relies on the points she has made throughout the essay to stick in the reader’s memory so they are able to draw the connection themselves, making for a much more satisfying ending for the reader.

Prompt #4 (OLD PROMPT; NOT THE CURRENT PROMPT): 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.

Prompt #4, example #1.

“Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” 

Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation. 

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one. 

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand. 

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one. 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself. 

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith. 

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities. 

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension. 

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities. 

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and a strong conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.

As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!

The main weakness of this essay is that it is slightly confusing at times—how the other students found coaches feels unintentionally under-explained (a simple phrase like “through pleading and attracting sympathy” in the fourth paragraph could have served the writer well) and a dojang is never defined. Additionally, the turn of the essay or “volta” could’ve packed a bigger punch. It is put quite simply with “I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.” A more suspenseful reveal could’ve served the author well because more drama did come later.

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Prompt #5, example #1.

Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life. 

Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.

My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.

Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.

This essay feels real and tells readers a lot about the writer. To start at the beginning, the intro is 10/10. It has drama, it has emotions, and it has the reader wanting more.

And, when you keep going, you get to learn a lot about a very resilient and mature student. Through sentences like “I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover” and “Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities,” the reader shows us that they are aware of their resilience and maturity, but are not arrogant about it. It is simply a fact that they have proven!

Sometimes writing about adversity can feel exploitative or oddly braggy. This student backs up everything they say with anecdotes that prove and show their strength and resilience, rather than just claiming their strengths. When I read this essay, I want to cheer for its writer! And I want to be able to continue cheering for them (perhaps, if I were an admissions officer, that would make me want them at my school!).

Prompt #5, Example #2

Armed with a red pen, I slowly walked across the room to a small, isolated table with pink stools. Swinging her legs, my young student beamed and giggled at me, slamming her pencil bag on the table and bending over to pick up one of her toys. Natalie always brought some new toy with her to lessons—toys which I would sternly take away from her and place under the table until she finished her work. At the tutoring center where I work, a strict emphasis on discipline leaves no room for paper crowns or rubber chickens. 

Today, she had with her a large stuffed eagle from a museum. As she pulled out her papers, I slid the eagle to the other side of the table. She looked eagerly around, attempting to chat with other students as I impatiently called her attention to her papers. “I should name my eagle,” she chimed, waving her pencil in the air. I cringed—there was no wondering why Natalie always had to sit by herself. She was the antithesis of my academic values, and undoubtedly the greatest adversary of my teaching style.  

As the lesson progressed, Natalie became more fitful; she refused to release her feathered friend, and kept addressing the bird for help with difficult problems. We both grew increasingly more frustrated. Determined to tame this wryly, wiggling student, I stood my ground, set on converting this disobedient child to my calm, measured ways of study.  

As time slowly crept by, I noticed that despite Natalie’s cheerful tone and bright smile, the stuffed eagle was troublesomely quiet and stern-faced. Much like myself. Both the eagle and I were getting nowhere in this lesson—so we hatched a quick plan. Lifting the eagle up in the air, I started reading in my best impersonation of an eagle, squawking my way through a spelling packet. The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed. She sang out every letter, clapped her hands at every page, and followed along with the eagle, stopping at every few letters to declare that “E is for eagle” and pet her teacher fondly on the beak.  

Despite my ostensibly dissatisfied attitude toward my students, I did not join the tutoring center simply to earn money. I had always aspired to help others achieve their fullest potential. As a young adult, I felt that it was time for me to step out of the role of a pupil and into the influential role of a teacher, naively believing that I had the maturity and skill to adapt to any situation and help these students reach their highest achievements academically. For the most part, the role of a stern-faced, strict instructor helped me get by in the workplace, and while my students never truly looked happy, I felt that it was part of the process of conditioning a child to learn. 

Ironically, my transition to adulthood was the result of a stuffed animal. It was indisputable that I always had the skill to instruct others; the only thing needed to instruct someone is knowledge of the subject. However, it was only upon being introduced to a stuffed bird in which I realized that students receive the most help not from instructors, but teachers. While almost anyone can learn material and spit it back out for someone, it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens. From my young pupil and her little bird, I have undergone a change in attitude which reflects a growth in maturity and ability to improve the lives of others that I hope to implement in my future role as a student, activist, and physician. My newfound maturity taught me that the letter “e” stands for many things: empathy, experience, enthusiasm, and eagle.

In this essay, the student effectively explores their values (and how they learned them!) then identifies these values through a reflective conclusion. While the writer humbly recognizes the initial faults in their teaching style, they do not position their initial discipline or rigidity as mean or poorly intentioned—simply ineffective. This is important because, when you are discussing a transition like this, you don’t want admissions officers to think of you as having been a bad person. 

My favorite part about this essay is its subtlety. The major shift in the essay comes through the simple sentence “The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed.” The facts of this narrative are not too complicated. Simply put, the writer was strict then learned that it’s sometimes more effective not to be strict. The complexity of this narrative comes through reflection. Notably, through the ending, the student identifies their values (which they hadn’t given a name to before): “it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens.” 

The final sentence of this essay ties things up very nicely. Readers are left satisfied with the essay and convinced that its writer is a kind human with a large capacity for reflection and consideration. That is a great image to paint of yourself!

Prompt #5, Example #3

When it’s quiet, I can still hear the Friday night gossip and giggles of my friends. It’s a stark contrast from the environment I’ve known all my life, my home. My family has always been one to keep to themselves; introverts with a hard-working mentality—my father especially. He spent most of his time at work and growing up without him around, I came to be at peace with the fact that I’d probably never really get to know him. The thought didn’t bother me at the time because I felt that we were very different. He was stoic and traditional; I was trying to figure out who I was and explore my interests. His disapproval of the American music I listened to and my penchant for wearing hand-me-downs made me see him as someone who wanted to restrain my individuality. That explains why I relied heavily on my friends throughout middle and high school; they liked me for who I was. I figured I would get lonely without my friends during quarantine, but these last few months stuck at home gave me the time to make a new friend: my father. 

It was June. I had the habit of sleeping with my windows open so I wouldn’t need to set an alarm; the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the neighborhood children playing outside would wake me. One morning, however, it was not the chirping of birds or the laughter of children I awoke to, but the shrill of a saw. Through the window screen, on the grass below, my father stood cutting planks of wood. I was confused but didn’t question him—what he did with his time was none of my business. It was not until the next day, when I was attempting to work on a sculpture for an art class, that the sounds of hammering and drills became too much to ignore. Seeking answers, I trudged across my backyard towards the corner he was in. On that day, all there was to see was the foundation of what he was building; a shed. My intrigue was replaced with awe; I was impressed by the precision of his craft. Sharp corners, leveled and sturdy, I could imagine what it would look like when the walls were up and the inside filled with the tools he had spread around the yard. 

Throughout the week, when I was trying to finish my sculpture for art class—thinking about its shape and composition—I could not help but think of my father. Art has always been a creative outlet for me, an opportunity to express myself at home. For my dad, his craftsmanship was his art. I realized we were not as different as I had thought; he was an artist like me. My glue and paper were his wood and nails.

That summer, I tried to spend more time with my dad than I have in all my 18 years of life. Waking up earlier than usual so we could have our morning coffees together and pretending to like his favorite band so he’d talk to me about it, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to speak with him. In getting to know him, I’ve recognized that I get my artistry from him. 

Reflecting on past relationships, I feel I am now more open to reconnecting with people I’ve perhaps misjudged. In reconciling, I’ve realized I held some bitterness towards him all these years, and in letting that go, my heart is lighter. Our reunion has changed my perspective; instead of vilifying him for spending so much time at work, I can appreciate how hard he works to provide for our family. When I hear him tinkering away at another home project, I can smile and look forward to asking him about it later.

This is an outstanding example of the great things that can be articulated through a reflective essay. As we read the essay, we are simply thinking alongside its author—thinking about their past relationship with their father, about their time in quarantine, about aspects of themselves they think could use attention and growth. 

While we reflect, we are also centered by the student’s anecdote about the sculpture and the shed during quarantine. By centering us in real-time, the student keeps us engaged in the reflection.

The main strength here is the maturity we see on the part of its writer. The student doesn’t say “and I realized my father was the best dad in the world;” they say “and I realized my father didn’t have to be the best dad in the world for me to give him a chance.” Lots of students show themselves as motivated, curious, or compassionate in their college essays, but a reflective essay that ends with a discussion of resentment and forgiveness shows true maturity.

Prompt #5, Example #4

As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?

During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice. 

Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.

As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.

Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.

This essay is structurally-sound, with the student’s journey learning to savor mantou and their journey trying to find their voice serving as outstanding parallels. Additionally, as they describe the journey to find a voice in their writing, they definitely show off their voice! The clear introduction provides a great image and draws us in with an intriguing question. Additionally, their little inserts like “a strand of sweetness” and “falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had” work very well.

When the student describes their first published poem, however, their writing gets a little more stilted. This is a common error students make when writing about their achievements. If this student is writing about the craft that goes into writing, we should hear the details of the craft that went into the poem, instead of simply learning that they “opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum.” This is interesting information but would be stronger if it were supplemented by descriptions of the voice they created, comparisons to the styles of other poets, and analysis of their stylistic choices. This would make the essay feel more cohesive, centering entirely around concepts of voice and style.

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?

Note: We don’t have a stellar example for this prompt, so instead, we’re sharing a couple examples that need improvement, and what can be done to make the essays more engaging. 

Prompt #6, Example #1

What factors shape the depth and allure of a literary character? This is the exact question I asked myself as my eyes riveted on the white pages covered with little black letters.

I was reading my old novels. I’ve written three novels and many short stories. Each of them repetitively portrayed the hero as intelligent and funny, and the antagonists as cold and manipulative. I came to the appalling realization that my characters were flat, neither exciting nor original. They just didn’t stand out! 

As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Vice and virtue are to the artist material to an art.’ Their mixing makes a novel addictive because its plot is rich with turnarounds and its characters more engaging. In his famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wilde deconstructs the psyche of his characters. He brilliantly plays with the protagonist’s youthful appearance and the decaying portrait to build a truly unique idiosyncratic identity. The persona of Dorian Gray is so complicated a psychologist could analyze it for hours on end!

Inspired by this character, It was my turn to explore good and evil into characters to make my stories more enthralling. I skillfully played with vice and virtue, separating, merging them… My latest novel is the fruit of this exercise. I chose to set it in 20th century London. Its opium dens and exclusive salons; middle-class workers, peasants and politicians breathed the same newly industrialized air; modernity in Blackfriars bridge and tradition in St Paul’s Cathedral; all of these contrasts set the perfect environment for my characters to grow. Following Laclos’ Valmont, Maupassant’s Georges Duroy and Duffy’s Myra Hindley, I played with those contrasts to present an intricate character, truly creative – unlike my previous ones. Insanity, religion, depravity and love are merged into each character, reflecting Edwardian London. As I reflected on my work, I realized vice and virtue altogether made them more human and credible. These characters stood out, they were interesting, I even wanted to know more about them! 

After rewriting, erasing, typing, and thinking countless times, I realized writing is a unique exercise. Nothing is definite when you are holding a fountain pen, hearing its screeching sound on the white paper and watching the ebony ink forming letters. When I wasn’t too happy about a change I made in my story, I simply erased and rewrote it. Everything I imagined could happen: white pages are the only place the mouse eats the cat or the world is taken by a zombie attack! 

This exact exercise of diversifying my characters satisfied my relentless curiosity. Asking myself ‘how could this character be if she had lost her parents in a maritime tragedy?’ allowed me to view the world from different perspectives (some very dissimilar to my own) and considering how each character would react to different situations brought them to life. As I was writing, I was aiming to change the usual narratives I had previously traversed. I loved experimenting with countless personality traits in my characters – minutes flowing, my hand dancing on the paper as my mind was singing words coming alive….

There were times where my hand just stopped writing and my mind stopped raging. I tried thinking differently, changing a character’s background, the story, the setting. I was inspired by Zola, A.Carter, Fitzgerald, the Brontë sisters… I could observe the different reactions of their characters, and reflect on mine theoretically. But it was only part one of the work: I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically, always leading to fresh ideas – I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting. Both theory and practice are required to gain intellectual independence and experience, in writing and more globally: before I can change a character, I have to understand it. Before we can change the world, we have to understand it.

The main strength of this essay is the authenticity of the topic the student chose. They aren’t making anything up or stretching the truth. Writing is something that captivates them, and that captivation shines through—particularly through their fourth paragraph (where they geek out over specific plots and characters) and their fifth paragraph (where they joyfully describe how writing has no limitations). Admissions officers want to see this passion and intensity in applicants! The fact that this student has already written three novels also shows dedication and is impressive.

The main weakness of this essay is its structure. Ironically, it is not super captivating. The essay would have been more compelling if the student utilized a “anecdote – answer – reflection” structure. This student’s current introduction involves a reflective question, citations about their past writing experience, then their thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Instead, this student could’ve provided one cohesive (and powerful!) image of them being frustrated with their own writing then being inspired by Dorian Gray. This would look something like:

“I stayed up three nights in a row studying my own writing—bored by my own writing. The only thing more painful than seeing failure in the fruits of your labor is not seeing a path for improvement. I had written three novels and numerous short stories, and all I could come up with was funny and intelligent heroes going up against cold and manipulative villains. What kind of writer was so consistently cliche? On the third night, I wandered over to my bookshelf. Mrs. Dalloway caught my eye (it has such a beautiful cover). I flipped through. Then, I grabbed Giovanni’s Room . I was so obsessed with my shortcomings that I couldn’t even focus long enough to see what these authors were doing right. I picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and decided to just start reading. By the end of the night, I was captivated.”

An introduction like this would flow nicely into the student describing their experience with Dorian Gray then, because of that experience, describing how they have altered their approach to writing. The conclusion of this essay would then be this student’s time for reflection. Instead of repeating content about their passion—“I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically” and “I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting”—, the student could dedicate their conclusion to reflecting on the reasons that writing is so captivating or the ways that (until the day they die) writers will always be perfecting their craft.

This essay is a great example of how important it is to pick a topic that truly excites you. It also illustrates how important it is to effectively structure that excitement.

Prompt #6, Example #2

Astonished by the crashing sound of waves in my ear, I was convinced this magical shell actually held the sound of the big blue sea — my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop . It distinctly reminded me of the awestruck feeling I had when I witnessed the churning waves of a windy night by the ocean the previous weekend; I lost track of time gazing at the distant moonlit border dividing our world from the ever-growing black void. Turning to my mom, I inquired curiously, “Can we go to the place where the water ends one day?”

She explained to me I could never reach the end of the ocean because the harsh line I had seen was actually an illusion called the horizon —  there was no material end to the ocean. For a mind as young as mine was, the idea of infinity was incomprehensible. As my infatuation with the ocean continued to grow, I finally understood that regardless of how far I travel, the horizon is unattainable because it’s not a physical limit. This idea is why the ocean captivates me — no matter how much you discover, there is always more to explore. 

Learning about and exploring the ocean provided an escape from one reality into another; though we are on the same planet, it’s an entirely separate world. Through elementary and middle school, I devoted vast amounts of my free time to learning about simpler concepts like a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and coral reef ecosystems. I rented countless documentaries and constantly checked out books from my local library — my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” This episode remained memorable because it was centered around the impacts of fossil fuels on marine animals; it was the first time I’d learned about the impending crisis we are faced with due to the human mistreatment of our planet.

Prior to viewing that episode, I relied on the ocean as an outlet — I fueled all of my emotions into studying marine organisms. Once I learned of its grave future, I delved into the world of environmental activism. This path was much more disheartening than studying echolocation — inevitable death due to climate change took a toll on my mental health. I attended two climate strikes in November of my sophomore year. Following the strikes, I joined Sunrise Movement Sacramento, a youth-led climate justice organization advocating for the Green New Deal. While analyzing legislation and organizing protests were significant takeaways from my experience with climate activism, they were not the most important. I became an organizer because of my love for the ocean and I remain an organizer because of my passion for dissolving the disproportionalities marginalized groups face due to the sacrificing of people’s livelihood for the sake of profit. The more I learned about our modern society, the more hopeless I grew that I could see any significant change within my lifetime.

However, this hopelessness comes in waves; every day, I remind myself of the moment I discovered the horizon. Or the moment I first dove into the beautiful waters of the Hawaiian coast and immediately was surrounded by breathtaking seas of magnificent creatures and coral gardens — life felt ethereal and beautiful. I remind myself that like the ocean, the vast majority of the universe has yet to be discovered; that distant border holds infinite opportunity to learn. In a universe as vast as ours, and life as rare as ours, individuals still choose to prioritize avarice over our planet. Despite this grave individualism, the ocean reminds me every day there is hope in the fight for a better world. Though I will never discover every inch of the ocean’s floor, I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.

Sometimes the path to a great essay is taking something normal and using it to show admissions officers who you are and what you value—that is precisely this student’s approach! Finding the ocean fascinating is not unique to this student. Tons of kids (and adults, too!) are obsessed with the ocean. What this student does is take things a step further as they explain their curiosity about the ocean in relation to their pain about the destruction of the environment. This capacity for reflection is great!

This student shows a good control of language through their thematic centering on ocean and horizons that carries through their essay—with ”this hopelessness comes in waves” and “I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.” The details provided throughout are also effective at keeping readers engaged—things like “ my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop” and “ my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.”

The main weakness of this essay is the lack of reflection when the student discusses environmental activism. There’s reflection on the student’s connection to the ocean and horizons at the beginning and at the end, but when the student discusses activism, the tone shifts from focusing on their internal thoughts to their external actions. Remember, a lot of students write about environmental activism, but not a lot of students write about an emotional connection to the ocean as an impetus for environmental activism. This student would stand out more to admissions officers if they had dug into questions of what the ocean means to them (and says about them) in the paragraphs beginning “Learning about and exploring the ocean…” and “Prior to viewing that episode.”

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.

Prompt #7, example #1.

Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due. 

It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me. 

Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror. 

Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).  

Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day). 

Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control. 

Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain.

This essay is relatable yet personal! The writer makes themself supremely human through discussing the universal subject of showering. That being said, an essay about showering could easily turn boring while still being relatable. This writer keeps its relatable moments interesting and fun through vivid descriptions of common feelings including “causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely” and “the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.”

While describing a universal feeling, this student also cleverly and intentionally mentions small facts about their life through simple phrases like “I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me” and “the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me.” To put it simply, though we are talking about a shower, we learn about so much more!

And, at the end, the student lets us know that that is exactly why they love showers. Showers are more than meets the eye! With this insightful and reflective ending (“the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy”), readers learn about this student’s capacity for reflection, which is an important capacity as you enter college.

The one major error that this writer commits is that of using a trite transition. The inclusion of “Honestly though” at the beginning of this student’s ending detracts from what they are trying to say and sticks out in their writing.

Prompt #7, Example #2

Steam whooshed from the pot as I unveiled my newest creation: duck-peppercorn-chestnut dumplings. The spicy, hearty aroma swirled into the kitchen, mingling with the smell of fresh dough. Grinning, I grabbed a plump dumpling with chopsticks, blew carefully, and fed it into the waiting mouth of my little sister. Her eyes widening, she vigorously nodded and held up five stubby fingers. I did a little happy dance in celebration and pulled my notebook out of my apron pocket. Duck-peppercorn-chestnut: five stars.

In my household, dumplings are a far cry from the classic pork and cabbage. Our menu boasts everything from the savory lamb-bamboo shoot-watercress to the sweet and crispy apple-cinnamon-date. A few years ago, my sister claimed she was sick of eating the same flavors over and over. Refusing to let her disavow our family staple, I took her complaint as a challenge to make the tastiest and most unconventional dumplings to satisfy her. With her as my taste tester and Mum in charge of dough, I spent months experimenting with dozens of odd ingredient combinations. 

During those days spent covered in flour, my dumplings often reminded me of myself—a hybrid of ingredients that don’t usually go together. I am the product of three distinct worlds: the suburbs of Boston, the rural Chinese village of [location removed], and the coastal city of [location removed]. At school, I am both the STEM nerd with lightning-fast mental math and the artistic plant mom obsessed with funky earrings. I love all that is elegant, from Chinese calligraphy to the rolling notes of the Gourd flute, yet I can be very not elegant, like when my sister and I make homemade slime. When I’m on the streets, marching for women’s rights and climate action, I’m loud, bellowing from the bottom of my gut. In the painting studio, though, I don’t speak unless spoken to, and hours can slip by like minutes. I’m loud and quiet. Elegant and messy. Nerdy and artistic. Suburban, rustic, and metropolitan.

While I’m full of odd combinations, they are only seemingly contradictory. Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper, different facets of my identity also converge. After my tenth-grade summer, when I spent six weeks studying design at art school and another three researching the brain at Harvard Med, I began asking myself: What if I mixed art and neuroscience together? That fall, I collaborated with my school’s art museum for an independent research project, exploring two questions: How are aesthetic experiences processed in the brain? And how can neuroscience help museums design exhibits that maximize visitor engagement? I combed through studies with results from tightly controlled experiments, and I spent days gathering my own qualitative data by observing museum visitors and asking them questions. With the help of my artistic skills, I could identify the visual and spatial elements of the exhibits that best held visitors’ attention. 

By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am—art and neuroscience—I realized I shouldn’t see the different sides of myself as separate. I learned to instead seek the intersections between aspects of my identity. Since then, I have mixed art with activism to voice my opinions nonverbally, created Spotify playlists with both Chinese and western pop, and written flute compositions using music theory and math. In the future, by continuing to combine my interests, I want to find my niche in the world. I can make a positive impact on society without having to choose just one passion. As of now, my dream is to be a neuroscientist who designs art therapy treatments for mental health patients. Who knows though? Maybe my calling is to be a dim sum chef who teaches pottery on the side. I don’t know where I’ll go, but one thing’s for sure—being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.

This essay is outstanding because the student seems likable and authentic. With the first image of the student’s little sister vigorously nodding and holding up “five stubby fingers,” we find ourselves intrigued by the student’s daily life. They additionally show the importance of family, culture, and creativity in their life—these are great things to highlight in your essay!

After the introduction, the student uses their weird dumpling anecdote to transition to a discussion of their unique intersections. This is achieved smoothly because weirdness/uniqueness is the focus of both of these topics. Additionally, the comparison is not awkward because dumplings are used as more than just a transition, but rather are the through-line of the essay—the student weaves in little phrases like “Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper,” “By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am,” and “being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.” This gives the essay its cohesive feel.

Authenticity comes through in this essay as the student recognizes that they don’t know what the future holds. They just know what kind of a person they are—a passionate one! 

One change that would improve this student’s essay would be focusing on fewer intersections in their third and last paragraph. The student mentions STEM, music, family activities, activism, and painting, which makes it feel like a distraction in middle of the essay. Focus on the most important things you want to show admissions officers—you can sit at intersections, but you can’t be interested in everything.

Prompt #7, Example #3

“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned. 

But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach. 

I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed. 

To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude. 

It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel! 

Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness. 

A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”

This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.

At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!

Prompt #7, Example #4

Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.

I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.

“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008

Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.

“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019

I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.

With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.

“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020

Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.

With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.

I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”

The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.

Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.

At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!

Prompt #7, Example #5

“We’re ready for take-off!” 

The tires hit the tarmac and began to accelerate, and I just realized what I had signed up for. For 24 hours straight, I strapped myself into a broken-down SUV whereas others chose the luxury of soaring through the skies for a mere two hours. Especially with my motion sickness and driving anxiety, I would call myself crazy too.

To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.

The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box. 

All of a sudden, I noticed brightly colored rocks in the distance, ones I had been dying to see for years. Their fluorescence popped amongst the magnificent winding hills as the sunset became romantic in hue. The desert glistened with mirages of deep blue water unlike anything I had ever seen. Nevada was home, but home always seemed to be just desert and casinos. For once, I looked forward to endless desert outside my window rather than a sea of clouds.

I never realized how little I discovered of the world beyond home. For years I complained about how there was nothing to do or discover outside. Not once did I set out to prove myself wrong. Instead, I chose a daily routine of homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV. However, as summer vacation ended, I decided to set my stubbornness aside and finally give this drive back home a chance. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my favorite trip of all time. 

As we drove along, the world chose to prove me wrong when I discovered Heaven on Earth along Shasta Lake. I stood out of the sunroof, surrounded by lush green mountains and fog. I extended my arms out and felt a sense of flight that no plane could ever take me on. As the water vapor kissed my face, I floated into a dreamland I never wanted to leave. I didn’t have to go to great lengths to discover the beauty of the world; it was right in front of me.  From this moment on, comfort and convenience would no longer be my best friends. Rather than only looking for famous travel destinations or following carefully mapped-out routes, I would let curiosity lead the way. 

Since then, my daily life has been anything but routine. I’m proud to boast of my family’s homemade kombucha attempts, of flights purchased and taken in one day, and of a home flooded with knick-knacks from thrifting trips. Every day I set out to try something new, see a different perspective, and go beyond normal. Whether it is by trying a new recipe using taro, making a risky fashion choice with wide-legged pants, or listening to a new music genre in Spanish, I always act with curiosity first.

Over the years, I have devoted my time towards learning Swedish, building computers, and swimming. Although my accent is horrid, some computers almost broke, and even a starfish would outswim me, I continue to enjoy activities I once criticized. For me, there is no enjoyment without some risk. Nobody I know is a kazoo-playing, boogie-board loving, boba connoisseur like me.

This essay is an Overcoming Challenges story that centers around a single anecdote. The structure works nicely as the student describes what they were like before their road trip, what happened on the road trip, and what they were like after. 

The most major improvement that this essay needs is better-communicated authenticity. At the beginning, it feels a bit gimmicky. The student describes their preparedness, particularly the fact that they always carry a first aid kit, and it’s not super believable. Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” it feels like we are in a sitcom and the student is that funny obsessive kid. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and you want to make yourself appear profoundly real.

On a similar note, the narrative arc of this essay isn’t entirely believable. The student describes a large personality and value shift but doesn’t describe any struggles that accompany the shift. A quick shift like that is far from easy. On the other hand, if the immediacy of the shift was easy, they could write about moments after their shift in mindset when they have felt troubled by residual desires to stay in their comfort zone, instead of writing “I always act with curiosity first.”

The greatest strength of this essay is the paragraphs beginning “I never realized how little…” and “As we drove along…” The fixation on comfort seems much more believable when it involves “homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV.” The descriptions of the drive provide beautiful, evocative imagery. And it’s topped off with some nice reflection! Digging into this great portion of the essay would make this an even stronger essay!

Want to see more examples? Check out this post with 16 strong essay examples from top schools , including common supplemental essay questions.

At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application.

That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.

Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay. 

That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. 

If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

Related CollegeVine Blog Posts

how to write the best common app essay

25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)

Essay Examples: Writing the Common App Essay

Applying to competitive colleges? You'll need to have a stand-out Common App essay.

In this article, I'm going to share with you:

  • 25 outstanding Common App essay examples
  • Links to tons of personal statement examples
  • Why these Common App essays worked

If you're looking for outstanding Common App essay examples, you've found the right place.

Ryan

If you're applying to colleges in 2023, you're going to write some form of a Common App essay.

Writing a great Common App personal essay is key if you want to maximize your chances of getting admitted.

Whether you're a student working on your Common App essay, or a parent wondering what it takes, this article will help you master the Common App Essay.

What are the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023?

There are seven prompts for the Common App essay. Remember that the prompts are simply to help get you started thinking.

You don't have to answer any of the prompts if you don't want (see prompt #7 ).

Here's the seven Common App essay questions for 2022, which are the same as previous years:

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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 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?
  • 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 last prompt is a catch-all prompt, which means you can submit an essay on any topic you want.

Use the Common App prompts as brainstorming questions and to get you thinking.

But ultimately, you should write about any topic you meaningfully care about.

What makes an outstanding Common App personal essay?

I've read thousands of Common App essays from highly motivated students over the past years.

And if I had to choose the top 2 things that makes for incredible Common App essays it's these:

1. Being Genuine

Sounds simple enough. But it's something that is incredibly rare in admissions.

Authenticity is something we all know when we see it, but can be hard to define.

Instead of focus on what you think sounds the best to admissions officers, focus on what you have to say—what interests you.

2. Having Unique Ideas

The best ideas come about while you're writing.

You can't just sit down and say, "I'll think really hard of good essay ideas."

I wish that worked, but it sadly doesn't. And neither do most brainstorming questions.

The ideas you come up with from these surface-level tactics are cheap, because no effort was put in.

As they say,

"Writing is thinking"

By choosing a general topic (e.g. my leadership experience in choir) and writing on it, you'll naturally come to ideas.

As you write, continue asking yourself questions that make you reflect.

It is more of an artistic process than technical one, so you'll have to feel what ideas are most interesting.

25 Common App Essay Examples from Top Schools

With that, here's 25 examples as Common App essay inspiration to get you started.

These examples aren't perfect—nor should you expect yours to be—but they are stand-out essays.

I've handpicked these examples of personal statements from admitted students because they showcase a variety of topics and writing levels.

These students got into top schools and Ivy League colleges in recent years:

Table of Contents

  • 1. Seeds of Immigration
  • 2. Color Guard
  • 3. Big Eater
  • 4. Love for Medicine
  • 5. Cultural Confusion
  • 6. Football Manager
  • 9. Mountaineering
  • 10. Boarding School
  • 11. My Father
  • 12. DMV Trials
  • 13. Ice Cream Fridays
  • 14. Key to Happiness
  • 15. Discovering Passion
  • 16. Girl Things
  • 17. Robotics
  • 18. Lab Research
  • 19. Carioca Dance
  • 20. Chinese Language
  • 21. Kiki's Delivery Service
  • 22. Museum of Life
  • 23. French Horn
  • 24. Dear My Younger Self
  • 25. Monopoly

Common App Essay Example #1: Seeds of Immigration

This student was admitted to Dartmouth College . In this Common App essay, they discuss their immigrant family background that motivates them.

Although family is a commonly used topic, this student makes sure to have unique ideas and write in a genuine way.

Common App 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. (250-650 words)

I placed three tiny seeds, imagining the corn stalk growing while the pumpkin vines wrapped around it; both sprouting, trying to bear fruit. I clenched a fistful of dirt and placed it on them. “Más,” my grandpa told me as he quickly flooded the seeds with life-giving dirt.

Covered. Completely trapped.

Why This Essay Works:

Everyone has a unique family history and story, and often that can make for a strong central theme of a personal statement. In this essay, the student does a great job of sharing aspects of his family's culture by using specific Spanish words like "yunta" and by describing their unique immigration story. Regardless of your background, sharing your culture and what it means to you can be a powerful tool for reflection.

This student focuses on reflecting on what their culture and immigrant background means to them. By focusing on what something represents, rather than just what it literally is, you can connect to more interesting ideas. This essay uses the metaphor of their family's history as farmers to connect to their own motivation for succeeding in life.

This essay has an overall tone of immense gratitude, by recognizing the hard work that this student's family has put in to afford them certain opportunities. By recognizing the efforts of others in your life—especially efforts which benefit you—you can create a powerful sense of gratitude. Showing gratitude is effective because it implies that you'll take full advantage of future opportunities (such as college) and not take them for granted. This student also demonstrates a mature worldview, by recognizing the difficulty in their family's past and how things easily could have turned out differently for this student.

This essay uses three moments of short, one-sentence long paragraphs. These moments create emphasis and are more impactful because they standalone. In general, paragraph breaks are your friend and you should use them liberally because they help keep the reader engaged. Long, dense paragraphs are easy to gloss over and ideas can lose focus within them. By using a variety of shorter and longer paragraphs (as well as shorter and longer sentences) you can create moments of emphasis and a more interesting structure.

What They Might Improve:

This conclusion is somewhat off-putting because it focuses on "other students" rather than the author themself. By saying it "fills me with pride" for having achieved without the same advantages, it could create the tone of "I'm better than those other students" which is distasteful. In general, avoid putting down others (unless they egregiously deserve it) and even subtle phrasings that imply you're better than others could create a negative tone. Always approach your writing with an attitude of optimism, understanding, and err on the side of positivity.

Common App Essay Example #2: Color Guard

This student was admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill . Check out their Common App essay that focuses on an extracurricular:

Sweaty from the hot lights, the feeling of nervousness and excitement return as I take my place on the 30-yard line. For 10 short minutes, everyone is watching me. The first note of the opening song begins, and I’m off. Spinning flags, tossing rifles, and dancing across the football field. Being one of only two people on the colorguard means everyone will see everything. It’s amazing and terrifying. And just like that, the performance is over.

Flashback to almost four years ago, when I walked into the guard room for the first time. I saw flyers for a “dance/flag team” hanging in the bland school hallway, and because I am a dancer, I decided to go. This was not a dance team at all. Spinning flags and being part of the marching band did not sound like how I wanted to spend my free time. After the first day, I considered not going back. But, for some unknown reason, I stayed. And after that, I began to fall in love with color guard. It is such an unknown activity, and maybe that’s part of what captivated me. How could people not know about something so amazing? I learned everything about flags and dancing in that year. And something interesting happened- I noticed my confidence begin to grow. I had never thought I was that good at anything, there was always someone better. However, color guard was something I truly loved, and I was good at it.

The next year, I was thrown into an interesting position. Our current captain quit in the middle of the season, and I was named the new captain of a team of six. At first, this was quite a daunting task. I was only a sophomore, and I was supposed to lead people two years older than me? Someone must’ve really believed in me. Being captain sounded impossible to me at first, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing my best. This is where my confidence really shot up. I learned how to be a captain. Of course I was timid at first, but slowly, I began to become a true leader.

The next marching season, it paid off. I choreographed many pieces of our show, and helped teach the other part of my guard, which at the time was only one other person. Having a small guard, we had to be spectacular, especially for band competitions. We ended up winning first place and second place trophies, something that had never been done before at our school, especially for such a small guard. That season is still one of my favorite memories. The grueling hours of learning routines, making changes, and learning how to be a leader finally paid off.

Looking back on it as I exit the field after halftime once again, I am so proud of myself. Not only has color guard helped the band succeed, I’ve also grown. I am now confident in what my skills are. Of course there is always more to be done, but I now I have the confidence to share my ideas, which is something I can’t say I had before color guard. Every Friday night we perform, I think about the growth I’ve made, and I feel on top of the world. That feeling never gets old.

Common App Essay Example #3: Big Eater

This Common App essay is a successful Northwestern essay from an admitted student. It has a unique take using the topic of eating habits—an example of how "mundane" topics can make for interesting ideas.

This essay uses their relationship with food to explore how their perspective has changed through moving high schools far away. Having a central theme is often a good strategy because it allows you to explore ideas while making them feel connected and cohesive. This essay shows how even a "simple" topic like food can show a lot about your character because you can extrapolate what it represents, rather than just what it literally is. With every topic, you can analyze on two levels: what it literally is, and what it represents.

Admissions officers want to get a sense of who you are, and one way to convey that is by using natural-sounding language and being somewhat informal. In this essay, the student writes as they'd speak, which creates a "voice" that you as the reader can easily hear. Phrases like "I kind of got used to it" may be informal, but work to show a sense of character. Referring to their parents as "Ma" and "Papa" also bring the reader into their world. If you come from a non-English speaking country or household, it can also be beneficial to use words from your language, such as "chiemo" in this essay. Using foreign language words helps share your unique culture with admissions.

Rather than "telling" the reader what they have to say, this student does a great job of "showing" them through specific imagery and anecdotes. Using short but descriptive phrases like "whether it was a sum or Sam the bully" are able to capture bigger ideas in a more memorable way. Showing your points through anecdotes and examples is always more effective than simply telling them, because showing allows the reader to come to their own conclusion, rather than having to believe what you're saying.

This student's first language is not English, which does make it challenging to express ideas with the best clarity. Although this student does an overall great job in writing despite this hindrance, there are moments where their ideas are not easily understood. In particular, when discussing substance addiction, it isn't clear: Was the student's relationship with food a disorder, or was that a metaphor? When drafting your essay, focus first on expressing your points as clearly and plainly as possible (it's harder than you may think). Simplicity is often better, but if you'd like, afterwards you can add creative details and stylistic changes.

Learn the secrets of successful top-20 college essays

Join 4,000+ students and parents that already receive our 5-minute free newsletter , packed with top-20 essay examples, writing tips & tricks, and step-by-step guides.

Students

Common App Essay Example #4: Love for Medicine

Here's another Common App essay which is an accepted Dartmouth essay . This student talks about their range of experiences as an emergency medical responder:

I never knew I had the courage to talk a suicidal sixteen-year-old boy down from the edge of a bridge, knowing that he could jump and take his life at any moment.

I never knew I had the confidence to stand my ground and defend my treatment plan to those who saw me as less than capable because of my age or gender.

This essay has lots of detailed moments and descriptions. These anecdotes help back up their main idea by showing, rather than just telling. It's always important to include relevant examples because they are the "proof in the pudding" for what you're trying to say.

This topic deals with a lot of sensitive issues, and at certain points the writing could be interpreted as insensitive or not humble. It's especially important when writing about tragedies that you focus on others, rather than yourself. Don't try to play up your accomplishments or role; let them speak for themselves. By doing so, you'll actually achieve what you're trying to do: create an image of an honorable and inspirational person.

This essay touches on a lot of challenging and difficult moments, but it lacks a deep level of reflection upon those moments. When analyzing your essay, ask yourself: what is the deepest idea in it? In this case, there are some interesting ideas (e.g. "when they were on my stretcher, socioeconomic status...fell away"), but they are not fully developed or fleshed out.

Common App Essay Example #5: Cultural Confusion

This student's Common App was accepted to Pomona College , among other schools. Although this essay uses a common topic of discussing cultural background, this student writes a compelling take.

This student uses the theme of cultural confusion to explain their interests and identity:

Common App Essay Example #6: Football Manager

Here's a UPenn essay that worked for the Common App:

This essay has lighthearted moments in it, such as recognizing how being a football manager "does not sound glamorous" and how "we managers go by many names: watergirls..." Using moments of humor can be appropriate for contrasting with moments of serious reflection. Being lighthearted also shows a sense of personality and that you are able to take things with stride.

The reflections in this essay are far too generic overall and ultimately lack meaning because they are unspecific. Using buzzwords like "hard work" and "valuable lessons" comes off as unoriginal, so avoid using them at all costs. Your reflections need to be specific to you to be most meaningful. If you could (in theory) pluck out sentences from your essay and drop them into another student's essay, then chances are those sentences are not very insightful. Your ideas should be only have been able to been written by you: specific to your experiences, personal in nature, and show deep reflection.

Although this essay uses the topic of "being a football manager," by the end of the essay it isn't clear what that role even constitutes. Avoid over-relying on other people or other's ideas when writing your essay. That is, most of the reflections in this essay are based on what the author witnessed the football team doing, rather than what they experienced for themselves in their role. Focus on your own experiences first, and be as specific and tangible as possible when describing your ideas. Rather than saying "hard work," show that hard work through an anecdote.

More important than your stories is the "So what?" behind them. Avoid writing stories that don't have a clear purpose besides "setting the scene." Although most fiction writing describes people and places as exposition, for your essays you want to avoid that unless it specifically contributes to your main point. In this essay, the first two paragraphs are almost entirely unnecessary, as the point of them can be captured in one sentence: "I joined to be a football manager one summer." The details of how that happened aren't necessary because they aren't reflected upon.

In typical academic writing, we're taught to "tell them what you're going to tell them" before telling them. But for college essays, every word is highly valuable. Avoid prefacing your statements and preparing the reader for them. Instead of saying "XYZ would prove to be an unforgettable experience," just dive right into the experience itself. Think of admissions officers as "being in a rush," and give them what they want: your interesting ideas and experiences.

Common App Essay Example #7: Coffee

This student was admitted to several selective colleges, including Emory University, Northwestern University , Tufts University, and the University of Southern California . Here's their Common Application they submitted to these schools:

I was 16 years old, and working at a family-owned coffee shop training other employees to pour latte art. Making coffee became an artistic outlet that I never had before. I always loved math, but once I explored the complexities of coffee, I began to delve into a more creative realm--photography and writing--and exposed myself to the arts--something foreign and intriguing.

This essay uses coffee as a metaphor for this student's self-growth, especially in dealing with the absence of their father. Showing the change of their relationship with coffee works well as a structure because it allows the student to explore various activities and ideas while making them seem connected.

This student does a great job of including specifics, such as coffee terminology ("bloom the grounds" and "pour a swan"). Using specific and "nerdy" language shows your interests effectively. Don't worry if they won't understand all the references exactly, as long as there is context around them.

While coffee is the central topic, the author also references their father extensively throughout. It isn't clear until the conclusion how these topics relate, which makes the essay feel disjointed. In addition, there is no strong main idea, but instead a few different ideas. In general, it is better to focus on one interesting idea and delve deeply, rather than focus on many and be surface-level.

Near the conclusion, this student tells about their character: "humble, yet important, simple, yet complex..." You should avoid describing yourself to admissions officers, as it is less convincing. Instead, use stories, anecdotes, and ideas to demonstrate these qualities. For example, don't say "I'm curious," but show them by asking questions. Don't say, "I'm humble," but show them with how you reacted after a success or failure.

Common App Essay Example #8: Chicago

Here's another Northwestern essay . Northwestern is a quite popular school with lots of strong essay-focused applicants, which makes your "Why Northwestern?" essay important.

To write a strong Why Northwestern essay, try to answer these questions: What does NU represent to you? What does NU offer for you (and your interests) that other schools don't?

This essay uses a variety of descriptive and compelling words, without seeming forced or unnatural. It is important that you use your best vocabulary, but don't go reaching for a thesaurus. Instead, use words that are the most descriptive, while remaining true to how you'd actually write.

This essay is one big metaphor: the "L" train serves as a vehicle to explore this student's intellectual curiosity. Throughout the essay, the student also incorporates creative metaphors like "the belly of a gargantuan silver beast" and "seventy-five cent silver chariot" that show a keen sense of expression. If a metaphor sounds like one you've heard before, you probably shouldn't use it.

This student does a fantastic job of naturally talking about their activities. By connecting their activities to a common theme—in this case the "L" train—you can more easily move from one activity to the next, without seeming like you're just listing activities. This serves as an engaging way of introducing your extracurriculars and achievements, while still having the focus of your essay be on your interesting ideas.

Admissions officers are ultimately trying to get a sense of who you are. This student does a great job of taking the reader into their world. By sharing quirks and colloquialisms (i.e. specific language you use), you can create an authentic sense of personality.

Common App Essay Example #9: Mountaineering

Here's a liberal arts college Common App essay from Colby College . Colby is a highly ranked liberal arts college.

As with all colleges—but especially liberal arts schools—your personal essay will be a considerable factor.

In this essay, the student describes their experience climbing Mount Adams, and the physical and logistical preparations that went into it. They describe how they overcame some initial setbacks by using their organizational skills from previous expeditions.

This Colby student explains how the process of preparation can lead to success in academics and other endeavours, but with the potential for negative unintended consequences.

Common App 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? (250-650 words)

This essay does a great job of having a cohesive theme: mountaineering. Often times, great essay topics can be something simple on the surface, such as your favorite extracurricular activity or a notable experience. Consider using the literal activity as a sort of metaphor, like this essay does. This student uses mountaineering as a metaphor for preparation in the face of upcoming challenge. Using an overarching metaphor along with a central theme can be effective because it allows you to explore various ideas while having them all feel connected and cohesive.

Admissions officers want to see your self-growth, which doesn't always mean your successes. Often times, being vulnerable by expressing your struggles is powerful because it makes you more human and relatable, while providing the opportunity to reflect on what you learned. The best lessons from come failures, and writing about challenge can also make your later successes feel more impactful. Everyone loves to hear an underdog or zero-to-hero story. But counterintuitively, your failures are actually more important than your successes.

This essay has some nice ideas about focusing only on what's in your control: your attitude and your effort. However, these ideas are ultimately somewhat generic as they have been used countless times in admissions essays. Although ideas like this can be a good foundation, you should strive to reach deeper ideas. Deeper ideas are ones that are specific to you, unique, and interesting. You can reach deeper ideas by continually asking yourself "How" and "Why" questions that cause you to think deeper about a topic. Don't be satisfied with surface-level reflections. Think about what they represent more deeply, or how you can connect to other ideas or areas of your life.

Common App Essay Example #10: Boarding School

This personal essay was accepted to Claremont McKenna College . See how this student wrote a vulnerable essay about boarding school experience and their family relationship:

I began attending boarding school aged nine.

Obviously, this is not particularly unusual – my school dorms were comprised of boys and girls in the same position as me. However, for me it was difficult – or perhaps it was for all of us; I don’t know. We certainly never discussed it.

I felt utterly alone, as though my family had abruptly withdrawn the love and support thatI so desperately needed. At first, I did try to open up to them during weekly phone calls, but what could they do? As months slipped by, the number of calls reduced. I felt they had forgotten me. Maybe they felt I had withdrawn from them. A vast chasm of distance was cracking open between us.

At first, I shared my hurt feelings with my peers, who were amazingly supportive, but there was a limit to how much help they could offer. After a while, I realized that by opening up, I was burdening them, perhaps even irritating them. The feelings I was sharing should have been reserved for family. So, I withdrew into myself. I started storing up my emotions and became a man of few words. In the classroom or on the sports field, people saw a self-confident and cheerful character, but behind that facade was someone who yearned for someone to understand him and accept him as he was.

Years went past.

Then came the phone call which was about to change my life. “Just come home Aryan, it’s really important!” My mother’s voice was odd, brittle. I told her I had important exams the following week, so needed to study. “Aryan, why don’t you listen to me? There is no other option, okay? You are coming home.”

Concerned, I arranged to fly home. When I got there, my sister didn’t say hi to me, my grandmother didn’t seem overly enthusiastic to see me and my mother was nowhere to be seen. I wanted to be told why I was called back so suddenly just to be greeted as though I wasn’t even welcome.

Then my mother then came out of her room and saw me. To my immense incredulity, she ran to me and hugged me, and started crying in my arms.

Then came the revelation, “Your father had a heart attack.”

My father. The man I hadn’t really talked to in years. A man who didn’t even know who I was anymore. I’d spent so long being disappointed in him and suspecting he was disappointed in me, I sunk under a flood of emotions.

I opened the door to his room and there he was sitting on his bed with a weak smile on his face. I felt shaken to my core. All at once it was clear to me how self-centered I had become. A feeling of humiliation engulfed me, but finally I realized that rather than wallow in it, I needed to appreciate I was not alone in having feelings.

I remained at home that week. I understood that my family needed me. I worked with my uncle to ensure my family business was running smoothly and often invited relatives or friends over to cheer my father up.

Most importantly, I spent time with my family. It had been years since I’d last wanted to do this – I had actively built the distance between us – but really, I’d never stopped craving it. Sitting together in the living room, I realized how badly I needed them.

Seeing happiness in my father’s eyes, I felt I was finally being the son he had always needed me to be: A strong, capable young man equipped to take over the family business if need be.

Common App Essay Example #11: My Father

This Cornell University essay is an example of writing about a tragedy, which can be a tricky topic to write about well.

Family and tragedy essays are a commonly used topic, so it can be harder to come up with a unique essay idea using these topics.

Let me know what you think of this essay for Cornell:

My father was wise, reserved, hardworking, and above all, caring. I idolized his humility and pragmatism, and I cherish it today. But after his death, I was emotionally raw. I could barely get through class without staving off a breakdown.

Writing about tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, is a tricky topic because it has been used countless times in college admissions. It is difficult to not come off as a "victim" or that you're trying to garner sympathy by using the topic (i.e. a "sob story"). This essay does a great job of writing about a personal tragedy in a meaningful and unique way by connecting to values and ideas, rather than staying focused on what literally happened. By connecting tragedy to lessons and takeaways, you can show how—despite the difficulty and sorrow—you have gained something positive from it, however small that may be. Don't write about personal tragedy because you think "you should." As with any topic, only write about it if you have a meaningful point to make.

This essay is effective at making the reader feel the similar emotions as the author does and in bringing the reader into their "world." Even small remarks like noting the the "firsts" without their loved one are powerful because it is relatable and something that is apparent, but not commonly talked about. Using short phrases like "That was it. No goodbye, no I love you..." create emphasis and again a sense of relatability. As the reader, you can vividly imagine how the author must have felt during these moments. The author also uses questions, such as "What did I last say to him?" which showcase their thought process, another powerful way to bring the reader into your world.

Admissions officers are looking for self-growth, which can come in a variety of forms. Showing a new perspective is one way to convey that you've developed over time, learned something new, or gained new understanding or appreciation. In this essay, the student uses the "sticker of a black and white eye" to represent how they viewed their father differently before and after his passing. By using a static, unchanging object like this, and showing how you now view it differently over time, you convey a change in perspective that can make for interesting reflections.

Common App Essay Example #12: DMV Trials

Here's a funny Common App essay from a Northwestern admitted student about getting their driver's license.

This topic has been used before—as many "topics" have—but what's important is having a unique take or idea.

What do you think of this Northwestern essay ?

Breath, Emily, breath. I drive to the exit and face a four-lane roadway. “Turn left,” my passenger says.

On July 29, [Date] , I finally got my license. After the April debacle, I practiced driving almost every week. I learned to stop at stop signs and look both ways before crossing streets, the things I apparently didn’t know how to do during my first two tests. When pulling into the parking lot with the examiner for the last time, a wave of relief washed over me.

This essay does a good job of having a compelling narrative. By setting the scene descriptively, it is easy to follow and makes for a pleasant reading experience. However, avoid excessive storytelling, as it can overshadow your reflections, which are ultimately most important.

This essay has some moments where the author may come off as being overly critical, of either themselves or of others. Although it is okay (and good) to recognize your flaws, you don't want to portray yourself in a negative manner. Avoid being too negative, and instead try to find the positive aspects when possible.

More important than your stories is the answer to "So what?" and why they matter. Avoid writing a personal statement that is entirely story-based, because this leaves little room for reflection and to share your ideas. In this essay, the reflections are delayed to the end and not as developed as they could be.

In this essay, it comes across that failure is negative. Although the conclusion ultimately has a change of perspective in that "failure is inevitable and essential to moving forward," it doesn't address that failure is ultimately a positive thing. Admissions officers want to see failure and your challenges, because overcoming those challenges is what demonstrates personal growth.

Common App Essay Example #13: Ice Cream Fridays

This Columbia essay starts off with a vulnerable moment of running for school president. The student goes on to show their growth through Model UN, using detailed anecdotes and selected moments.

My fascination with geopolitical and economic issues were what kept me committed to MUN. But by the end of sophomore year, the co-presidents were fed up. “Henry, we know how hard you try, but there are only so many spots for each conference...” said one. “You’re wasting space, you should quit,” said the other.

This essay has a compelling story, starting from this author's early struggles with public speaking and developing into their later successes with Model UN. Using a central theme—in this case public speaking—is an effective way of creating a cohesive essay. By having a main idea, you can tie in multiple moments or achievements without them coming across unrelated.

This student talks about their achievements with a humble attitude. To reference your successes, it's equally important to address your failures. By expressing your challenges, it will make your later achievements seem more impactful in contrast. This student also is less "me-focused" and instead is interested in others dealing with the same struggles. By connecting to people in your life, values, or interesting ideas, you can reference your accomplishments without coming off as bragging.

This essay has moments of reflection, such as "math and programming made sense... people didn't". However, most of these ideas are cut short, without going much deeper. When you strike upon a potentially interesting idea, keep going with it. Try to explain the nuances, or broaden your idea to more universal themes. Find what is most interesting about your experience and share that with admissions.

Stories are important, but make sure all your descriptions are critical for the story. In this essay, the author describes things that don't add to the story, such as the appearance of other people or what they were wearing. These ultimately don't relate to their main idea—overcoming public speaking challenges—and instead are distracting.

Common App Essay Example #14: Key to Happiness

Here's a Brown University application essay that does a great job of a broad timeline essay. This student shows the change in their thinking and motivations over a period of time, which makes for an interesting topic.

Let me know what you think of this Brown essay:

Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (250-650 words)

This student's first language is not English, which provides some insight into why the phrasing may not seem as natural or show as much personality. Admissions officers are holistic in determining who to admit, meaning they take into account many different factors when judging your essays. While this essay may not be the strongest, the applicant probably had other qualities or "hooks" that helped them get accepted, such as awards, activities, unique background, etc. Plus, there is some leniency granted to students who don't speak English as their first language, because writing essays in a foreign language is tough in and of itself.

It's good to be confident in your achievements, but you don't want to come across as boastful or self-assured. In this essay, some of the phrasing such as "when I was the best at everything" seems exaggerated and is off-putting. Instead of boosting your accomplishments, write about them in a way that almost "diminishes" them. Connect your achievements to something bigger than you: an interesting idea, a passionate cause, another person or group. By not inflating your achievements, you'll come across more humble and your achievements will actually seem more impactful. We all have heard of a highly successful person who thinks "it's no big deal," which actually makes their talents seem far more impressive.

This essay has some takeaways and reflections, as your essay should too, but ultimately these ideas are unoriginal and potentially cliché. Ideas like "what makes you happy is pursing your passion" are overused and have been heard thousands of times by admissions officers. Instead, focus on getting to unique and "deep" ideas: ideas that are specific to you and that have meaningful implications. It's okay to start off with more surface-level ideas, but you want to keep asking questions to yourself like "Why" and "How" to push yourself to think deeper. Try making connections, asking what something represents more broadly, or analyzing something from a different perspective.

You don't need to preface your ideas in your essay. Don't say things like "I later found out this would be life-changing, and here's why." Instead, just jump into the details that are most compelling. In this essay, there are moments that seem repetitive and redundant because they don't add new ideas and instead restate what's already been said in different words. When editing your essay, be critical of every sentence (and even words) by asking: Does this add something new to my essay? Does it have a clear, distinct purpose? If the answer is no, you should probably remove that sentence.

Common App Essay Example #15: Discovering Passion

Here's a Johns Hopkins essay that shows how the student had a change in attitude and perspective after taking a summer job at a care facility.

It may seem odd to write about your potential drawbacks or weaknesses—such as having a bad attitude towards something—but it's real and can help demonstrate personal growth.

So tell me your thoughts on this JHU Common App essay:

Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (250-650 words)

This student uses vulnerability in admitting that they held preconceived notions about the elderly before this experience. The quote introduces these preconceived notions well, while the description of how this student got their job in the care facility is also engaging.

Admission officers love to see your interactions with others. Showing how you interact reveals a lot about your character, and this essay benefits from reflecting upon the student's relationship with a particular elderly individual.

It is good to be descriptive, but only when it supports your expression of ideas. In this essay, the author uses adjectives and adverbs excessively, without introducing new ideas. Your ideas are more important than having a diverse vocabulary, and the realizations in this essay are muddled by rephrasing similar ideas using seemingly "impressive," but ultimately somewhat meaningless, vocabulary.

This essay touches on some interesting ideas, but on multiple occasions these ideas are repeated just in different phrasing. If you have already expressed an idea, don't repeat it unless you're adding something new: a deeper context, a new angle, a broadened application, etc. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of each sentence, and have I expressed it already?

It's true that almost any topic can make for a strong essay, but certain topics are trickier because they make it easy to write about overly used ideas. In this essay, the main idea can be summarized as: "I realized the elderly were worthy humans too." It touches upon more interesting ideas, such as how people can be reduced down to their afflictions rather than their true character, but the main idea is somewhat surface-level.

Common App Essay Example #16: "A Cow Gave Birth"

This Common App essay for the University of Pennsylvania centers on the theme of womanhood. Not only is it well-written, but this essay has interesting and unique ideas that relate to the student's interests.

Common App Essay Example #17: Robotics

This Common App essay was for Washington University in St. Louis .

This student writes about their experience creating and using an engineering notebook to better document their robotics progress. They share the story of how their dedication and perseverance led to winning awards and qualifying for the national championships.

Lastly, they reflect on the importance of following one's passions in life and decision to pursue a business degree instead of a engineering one.

This essay touches on various lessons that they've learned as a result of their experience doing robotics. However, these lessons are ultimately surface-level and generic, such as "I embraced new challenges." Although these could be a starting point for deeper ideas, on their own they come off as unoriginal and overused. Having interesting ideas is what makes an essay the most compelling, and you need to delve deeply into reflection, past the surface-level takeaways. When drafting and brainstorming, keep asking yourself questions like "How" and "Why" to dig deeper. Ask "What does this represent? How does it connect to other things? What does this show about myself/the world/society/etc.?"

Although this essay is focused on "VEX robotics," the details of what that activity involves are not elaborated. Rather than focusing on the surface-level descriptions like "We competed and won," it would be more engaging to delve into the details. What did your robot do? How did you compete? What were the specific challenges in "lacking building materials"? Use visuals and imagery to create a more engaging picture of what you were doing.

The hook and ending sentences of "drifting off to sleep" feel arbitrary and not at all connected to any ideas throughout the essay. Instead, it comes off as a contrived choice to create a "full circle" essay. Although coming full circle is often a good strategy, there should be a specific purpose in doing so. For your intro, try using a short sentence that creates emphasis on something interesting. For the conclusion, try using similar language to the intro, expanding upon your ideas to more universal takeaways, or connecting back to previous ideas with a new nuance.

Common App Essay Example #18: Lab Research

Common app essay example #19: carioca dance.

Having a natural-sounding style of writing can be a great way of conveying personality. This student does a fantastic job of writing as they'd speak, which lets admissions officers create a clear "image" of who you are in their head. By writing naturally and not robotically, you can create a "voice" and add character to your essay.

This student chooses a unique activity, the Carioca drill, as their main topic. By choosing a "theme" like this, it allows you to easily and naturally talk about other activities too, without seeming like you're simply listing activities. This student uses the Carioca as a metaphor for overcoming difficulties and relates it to their other activities and academics—public speaking and their job experience.

Showing a sense of humor can indicate wit, which not only makes you seem more likeable, but also conveys self-awareness. By not always taking yourself 100% seriously, you can be more relatable to the reader. This student acknowledges their struggles in conjunction with using humor ("the drills were not named after me—'Saads'"), which shows a recognition that they have room to improve, while not being overly self-critical.

Common App Essay Example #20: Chinese Language

The list of languages that Lincoln offered startled me. “There’s so many,” I thought, “Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and French.”

As soon as I stepped off the plane, and set my eyes upon the beautiful city of Shanghai, I fell in love. In that moment, I had an epiphany. China was made for me, and I wanted to give it all my first; first job and first apartment.

Using creative metaphors can be an effective way of conveying ideas. In this essay, the metaphor of "Chinese characters...were the names of my best friends" tells a lot about this student's relationship with the language. When coming up with metaphors, a good rule of thumb is: if you've heard it before, don't use it. Only use metaphors that are specific, make sense for what you're trying to say, and are highly unique.

Whenever you "tell" something, you should try and back it up with anecdotes, examples, or experiences. Instead of saying that "I made conversation," this student exemplifies it by listing who they talked to. Showing is always going to be more compelling than telling because it allows the reader to come to the conclusion on their own, which makes them believe it much stronger. Use specific, tangible examples to back up your points and convince the reader of what you're saying.

Although this essay has reflections, they tend to be more surface-level, rather than unique and compelling. Admissions officers have read thousands of application essays and are familiar with most of the ideas students write about. To stand out, you'll need to dive deeper into your ideas. To do this, keep asking yourself questions whenever you have an interesting idea. Ask "Why" and "How" repeatedly until you reach something that is unique, specific to you, and super interesting.

Avoid writing a conclusion that only "sounds nice," but lacks real meaning. Often times, students write conclusions that go full circle, or have an interesting quote, but they still don't connect to the main idea of the essay. Your conclusion should be your strongest, most interesting idea. It should say something new: a new perspective, a new takeaway, a new aspect of your main point. End your essay strongly by staying on topic, but taking your idea one step further to the deepest it can go.

Common App Essay Example #21: Kiki's Delivery Service

Common App 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? (250-650 words)

I spent much of my childhood watching movies. I became absolutely engrossed in many different films, TV shows, and animations. From the movie theatres to the TV, I spent my hours enjoying the beauty of visual media. One place that was special to me was the car. My parents purchased a special screen that could be mounted on the back of the headrest, so that I could watch movies on trips. This benefited both parties, as I was occupied, and they had peace. Looking back, I realize this screen played a crucial role in my childhood. It was an integral part of many journeys. I remember taking a drive to Washington D.C, with my visiting relatives from Poland, and spending my time with my eyes on the screen. I remember packing up my possessions and moving to my current home from Queens, watching my cartoons the whole time. I can comfortably say that watching movies in the car has been an familiar anchor during times of change in my life.

I used to watch many different cartoons, nature documentaries, and other products in the car, yet there has been one movie that I have rewatched constantly. It is called “Kiki’s Delivery Service” by Hayao Miyazaki. My parents picked it up at a garage sale one day, and I fell in love. The style of the animations were beautiful, and the captivating story of a thirteen year old witch leaving home really appealed to me. To be honest, the initial times I watched it, I didn’t fully understand the story but the magic and beauty just made me happy. Then, the more I watched it, I began to see that it was more about independence, including the need to get away from home and establish yourself as your own person. This mirrors how I felt during that period of my life,with mehaving a little rebellious streak; I didn’t agree with my parents on certain topics. That is not the end of the story though. As the years passed, and I watched it a couple more times, although with less frequency than before, my view of this movie evolved yet again.

Instead of solely thinking about the need for independence, I began to think the movie was more about the balance of independence and reliance. In the movie, the girl finds herself struggling until she begins to accept help from others. Looking back, this also follows my own philosophy during this time. As I began to mature, I began to realize the value of family, and accept all the help I can get from them. I appreciate all the hard work they had done for me, and I recognize their experience in life and take advantage of it. I passed through my rebellious phase, and this reflected in my analysis of the movie. I believe that this is common, and if I look through the rest of my life I am sure I would find other similar examples of my thoughts evolving based on the stage in my life. This movie is one of the most important to me throughout my life.

Common App Essay Example #22: Museum of Life

Using visuals can be a way to add interesting moments to your essay. Avoid being overly descriptive, however, as it can be distracting from your main point. When drafting, start by focusing on your ideas (your reflections and takeaways). Once you have a rough draft, then you can consider ways to incorporate imagery that can add character and flavor to your essay.

Admissions officers are people, just like you, and therefore are drawn to personalities that exhibit positive qualities. Some of the most important qualities to portray are: humility, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and passion. In this essay, there are several moments that could be interpreted as potentially self-centered or arrogant. Avoid trying to make yourself out to be "better" or "greater" than other people. Instead, focus on having unique and interesting ideas first, and this will show you as a likeable, insightful person. Although this is a "personal" statement, you should also avoid over using "I" in your essay. When you have lots of "I" sentences, it starts to feel somewhat ego-centric, rather than humble and interested in something greater than you.

This essay does a lot of "telling" about the author's character. Instead, you want to provide evidence—through examples, anecdotes, and moments—that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about who you are. Avoid surface-level takeaways like "I am open-minded and have a thirst for knowledge." These types of statements are meaningless because anyone can write them. Instead, focus on backing up your points by "showing," and then reflect genuinely and deeply on those topics.

This essay is focused on art museums and tries to tie in a connection to studying medicine. However, because this connection is very brief and not elaborated, the connection seems weak. To connect to your area of study when writing about a different topic, try reflecting on your topic first. Go deep into interesting ideas by asking "How" and "Why" questions. Then, take those ideas and broaden them. Think of ways they could differ or parallel your desired area of study. The best connections between a topic (such as an extracurricular) and your area of study (i.e. your major) is through having interesting ideas.

Common App Essay Example #23: French Horn

This student chose the creative idea of personifying their French horn as their central theme. Using this personification, they are able to write about a multitude of moments while making them all feel connected. This unique approach also makes for a more engaging essay, as it is not overly straightforward and generic.

It can be challenging to reference your achievements without seeming boastful or coming across too plainly. This student manages to write about their successes ("acceptance into the Julliard Pre-College program") by using them as moments part of a broader story. The focus isn't necessarily on the accomplishments themselves, but the role they play in this relationship with their instrument. By connecting more subtly like this, it shows humility. Often, "diminishing" your achievements will actually make them stand out more, because it shows you're focused on the greater meaning behind them, rather than just "what you did."

This student does a good job of exemplifying each of their ideas. Rather than just saying "I experienced failure," they show it through imagery ("dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances"). Similarly, with their idea "no success comes without sacrifice," they exemplify it using examples of sacrifice. Always try to back up your points using examples, because showing is much more convincing than telling. Anyone can "tell" things, but showing requires proof.

This essay has a decent conclusion, but it could be stronger by adding nuance to their main idea or connecting to the beginning with a new perspective. Rather than repeating what you've established previously, make sure your conclusion has a different "angle" or new aspect. This can be connecting your main idea to more universal values, showing how you now view something differently, or emphasizing a particular aspect of your main idea that was earlier introduced.

Common App Essay Example #24: Dear My Younger Self

Common App 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. (250-650 words)

Younger Anna,

  • Don’t live your life as if you're constantly being watched and criticized. Chances are, no one is even paying attention to you.
  • Wear your retainer.
  • Empathy makes your life easier. People who are inexplicably cruel are suffering just as much as the recipients of their abuse. Understanding this makes your interactions with these people less painful.
  • Comparing yourself to your classmates is counterproductive. Sometimes you will forge ahead, other times you will lag behind. But ultimately, you’re only racing yourself.
  • Speak up to your stepmom.
  • Always eat the cake. I couldn't tell you how many times I’ve turned away a slice of cake, only to regret it the next day. If you really can’t commit, do yourself a favor and take a slice home with you.
  • Cherish your grandparents.
  • Forgive your mother. Harboring resentment hurts you just as much as her. All the time I spent being angry at her could’ve been spent discovering her strengths.

This essay chose a unique structure in the form of a letter addressed to themselves with a list of lessons they've learned. This structure is unique, and also allows the student to explore a variety of topics and ideas while making them all feel connected. It is tricky to not seem "gimmicky" when choosing a creative structure like this, but the key is to make your essay well thought-out. Show that you've put effort into reflecting deeply, and that you aren't choosing a unique structure just to stand out.

This essay is highly focused on lessons they've learned, which shows a deep level of reflection. Your ideas and takeaways from life experience are ultimately most compelling to admissions officers, and this essay succeeds because it is focused almost entirely on those reflections. This student also manages to incorporate anecdotes and mini stories where appropriate, which makes their reflections more memorable by being tangible.

Showing humility and self-awareness are two highly attractive traits in college admissions. Being able to recognize your own flaws and strengths, while not making yourself out to be more than what you are, shows that you are mature and thoughtful. Avoid trying to "boost yourself up" by exaggerating your accomplishments or over-emphasizing your strengths. Instead, let your ideas speak for themselves, and by focusing on genuine, meaningful ideas, you'll convey a persona that is both humble and insightful.

The drawback of having a structure like this, where lots of different ideas are examined, is that no one idea is examined in-depth. As a result, some ideas (such as "intelligence is not defined by your grades") come across as trite and overused. In general, avoid touching on lots of ideas while being surface-level. Instead, it's almost always better to choose a handful (or even just one main idea) and go as in-depth as possible by continually asking probing questions—"How" and "Why"—that force yourself to think deeper and be more critical. Having depth of ideas shows inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and ultimately are more interesting because they are ideas that only you could have written.

Common App Essay Example #25: Monopoly

Feeling a bit weary from my last roll of the dice, I cross my fingers with the “FREE PARKING” square in sight. As luck has it, I smoothly glide past the hotels to have my best horse show yet- earning multiple wins against stiff competition and gaining points to qualify for five different national finals this year.

This essay uses the board game "Monopoly" as a metaphor for their life. By using a metaphor as your main topic, you can connect to different ideas and activities in a cohesive way. However, make sure the metaphor isn't chosen arbitrarily. In this essay, it isn't completely clear why Monopoly is an apt metaphor for their life, because the specific qualities that make Monopoly unique aren't explained or elaborated. Lots of games require "strategy and precision, with a hint of luck and a tremendous amount of challenge," so it'd be better to focus on the unique aspects of the game to make a more clear connection. For example, moving around the board in a "repetitive" fashion, but each time you go around with a different perspective. When choosing a metaphor, first make sure that it is fitting for what you're trying to describe.

You want to avoid listing your activities or referencing them without a clear connection to something greater. Since you have an activities list already, referencing your activities in your essay should have a specific purpose, rather than just emphasizing your achievements. In this essay, the student connects their activities by connecting them to a specific idea: how each activity is like a mini challenge that they must encounter to progress in life. Make sure your activities connect to something specifically: an idea, a value, an aspect of your character.

This essay lacks depth in their reflections by not delving deeply into their main takeaways. In this essay, the main "idea" is that they've learned to be persistent with whatever comes their way. This idea could be a good starting point, but on its own is too generic and not unique enough. Your idea should be deep and specific, meaning that it should be something only you could have written about. If your takeaway could be used in another student's essay without much modification, chances are it is a surface-level takeaway and you want to go more in-depth. To go in-depth, keep asking probing questions like "How" and "Why" or try making more abstract connections between topics.

In the final two paragraphs, this essay does a lot of "telling" about the lessons they've learned. They write "I know that in moments of doubt...I can rise to the occasion." Although this could be interesting, it would be far more effective if this idea is shown through anecdotes or experiences. The previous examples in the essay don't "show" this idea. When drafting, take your ideas and think of ways you can represent them without having to state them outright. By showing your points, you will create a more engaging and convincing essay because you'll allow the reader to come to the conclusion themselves, rather than having to believe what you've told them.

What Can You Learn from These Common App Essay Examples?

With these 25 Common App essay examples, you can get inspired and improve your own personal statement.

If you want to get accepted into selective colleges this year, your Common App essays needs to be its best possible.

What makes a good Common App essay isn't easy to define. There aren't any rules or steps.

But using these samples from real students, you can understand what it takes to write an outstanding personal statement .

Let me know, which Common App essay did you think was the best?

Ryan Chiang , Founder of EssaysThatWorked

Want to read more amazing essays that worked for top schools?

Hey! 👋 I'm Ryan Chiang, the founder of EssaysThatWorked.

Get our 5-minute free newsletter packed with essay tips and college admissions resources, backed by real-life examples from admitted students at top-20 schools.

Meet the Author

Ryan Chiang

I'm Ryan Chiang and I created EssaysThatWorked - a website dedicated to helping students write college essays they're proud of. We publish the best college admissions essays from successful applicants every year to inspire and teach future students.

You might also like:

20 Successful College Essay Examples + Why They Worked (2023)

20 Successful College Essay Examples + Why They Worked (2023)

20 Brilliant Personal Statement Examples + Why They Work

20 Brilliant Personal Statement Examples + Why They Work

UCLA Acceptance Rate By Major & Program 2023

UCLA Acceptance Rate By Major & Program 2023

37 Unique "Why This College" Essay Examples for Top-20 Colleges

37 Unique "Why This College" Essay Examples for Top-20 Colleges

23 College Essay Tips to Stand Out

What do outstanding essays have in common? Here are our 23 most effective strategies based on lessons from admitted students.

No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.

By signing up you agree to Terms and Privacy Policy

how to write the best common app essay

Now available for November 2023 ...

The College Essay Workshop

Join my on-demand step-by-step course for crafting outstanding college admissions essays, plus 1-on-1 help.

Here's everything needed to write essays worthy of Top-20 colleges.

Google Rating

Join our students who have earned acceptances to schools like...

See exactly how students wrote admitted essays for top schools.

Our 231 essay examples show you how ordinary students wrote outstanding essays that helped their applications - all in their own words.

These aren’t just essay examples - but real acceptance stories, from real students who share their most intimate details with you - down to their real essays and exact profiel stats.

How do I find a unique topic? How do I write a great essay? And how do I stand out?

Our 231 essay examples break down these exact questions. Every type of essay prompt, student, and school.

You’ll realize these students are just like you - and that, deep down, you can do it too.

how to write the best common app essay

Princeton Admitted Essay

People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M.—where did you get that cat? Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is... uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable...

how to write the best common app essay

MIT Admitted Essay

Her baking is not confined to an amalgamation of sugar, butter, and flour. It's an outstretched hand, an open invitation, a makeshift bridge thrown across the divides of age and culture. Thanks to Buni, the reason I bake has evolved. What started as stress relief is now a lifeline to my heritage, a language that allows me to communicate with my family in ways my tongue cannot. By rolling dough for saratele and crushing walnuts for cornulete, my baking speaks more fluently to my Romanian heritage than my broken Romanian ever could....

how to write the best common app essay

UPenn Admitted Essay

A cow gave birth and I watched. Staring from the window of our stopped car, I experienced two beginnings that day: the small bovine life and my future. Both emerged when I was only 10 years old and cruising along the twisting roads of rural Maryland...

Over 200 more admitted essays like these...

Learn the secrets behind outstanding application essays.

College essays are confusing. And it's not your fault. You're not taught how to write them in school.

How should I structure my essay? Can I use humor? What makes a truly great essay?

There's so much conflicting advice out there.

And with people selling "magic formulas" and "structures" to follow... it's easy to be led astray.

You’ll get access to courses, live events, a dedicated essay coach, and countless resources to help you write your best essays.

You finally have a place where you can ask these questions, get advice, and see exactly how admitted students before you did it.

You’re no longer figuring out everything on your own. You're no longer stuck wondering.

Everything you get

231 essays analyzed

Explore our database of 200+ admitted essays from top-20 colleges. Filter by prompt, school, topic, word count, and more. Get expert insights into why they worked and what you can learn from them.

Exclusive access to essay editing

You'll get access to our essay editing services, which is only offered for members. You can get your essays reviewed personally by me (Ryan). I'll give you detailed feedback on how to improve your essays and make them stand out.

Dedicated essay coach & support

You'll get access to our private community, where you can ask questions and get help from me directly. I'll be there to answer your questions and provide unlimited personalized advice.

44 in-depth video lessons

Learn the secrets behind outstanding essays. We break down the entire process, from brainstorming to writing and editing. You'll learn how to write amazing college essays for any prompt, with step-by-step guides and actionable tips.

26 downloadable guides

Get our best tips and tricks in easy-to-read guides. Learn what makes great essays, how to brainstorm your best topics, and how to write specific parts like a powerful hook and memorable ending.

Tons of bonuses

Get the Ultimate College Application Planner, my 154-Point Essay Checklist, and more. You'll also get a free copy of my eBooks, including 23 College Essay Tips to Stand Out and more.

Don't take our word for it

Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of our students and parents.

" Ryan, I want to express our great appreciation to you for your help on George's application essays. You have provided invaluable resources! P.S. I will certainly recommend you to our friends. "

how to write the best common app essay

" Ryan—David got into The University of Michigan!!! Only 4 kids got in out of 200 that applied at his school!!! Thank you so so much for everything "

how to write the best common app essay

" Thank you for the incredible help Ryan - both Hannah and I have said repeatedly that we could not have done it without you! "

how to write the best common app essay

" Thank you for your help with my essays back in November, including my Yale supplements. Just wanted to let you know I ended up getting into and committing to Yale! "

how to write the best common app essay

" I feel so much more reassured to press the submit button now. I wish I knew about your site sooner! "

how to write the best common app essay

" ... Invaluable to me during the college admissions process! It gave me a different perspective to look at my essays. "

how to write the best common app essay

" Initially I was skeptical about my essay's idea and whether it was properly reflected in my writing. This gave me a clear direction! "

how to write the best common app essay

Don't miss out on writing your best college essays.

© 2018- 2023 Essays That Worked . All rights reserved.

Registration on or use of this site constitutes acceptance of our Terms and Conditions , Privacy Policy , and Cookie Policy .

We have no affiliation with any university or colleges on this site. All product names, logos, and brands are the property of their respective owners.

Think you can get into a top-10 school? Take our chance-me calculator... if you dare. 🔥

Last updated March 5, 2024

Every piece we write is researched and vetted by a former admissions officer. Read about our mission to pull back the admissions curtain.

Blog > Common App , Essay Examples , Personal Statement > 12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University

Written by Alex McNeil, MA Admissions Consultant

Key Takeaway

If you’re applying to college, chances are you’re using the Common Application. And if you’re using the Common Application, then you’re definitely writing a Common Application essay.

But how do you write a Common App essay? More specifically, how do you write a good one that stands out to admissions officers? And hey—what does a good Common App essay even look like?

Ah, there it is. That last question is one nearly all students applying to college ask. That’s why example essays are so important. They help you sort through all the noise of the college admissions process to see exactly what a Common App essay can and should be.

We’ve compiled some of our favorite college essays for you to read. Even better, our team of former admissions officers has commented on and graded every single essay to guide you through what works (and doesn’t).

Let’s get to it.

The 2022-2023 Common Application Essay Prompts

First, we should start out by looking at the Common Application essay prompts. Sometimes the prompts change slightly from year to year, but they tend to remain fairly similar.

The Common App essay prompts are just that. Prompts. They prompt you to write an essay by giving you a place to start. They ask questions to help you reflect on important moments in your life. You only have to choose one prompt to answer.

Here they are, listed in the order provided by the Common App:

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • 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?
  • 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 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?
  • 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 prompts cover a range of topics that’s broad enough to let you write about just about anything.

But let us let you in on a little secret: how you answer the Common Application prompt matters less than the quality of the essay you write. After all, you can always choose the open-ended Prompt #7 option.

So our advice is to start with the essay and then choose a prompt to fit. Identifying a topic that resonates with you, regardless of the prompt, will produce the best essay possible. (And if you need some guidance about how to choose a Common App essay topic, check out our college essay writing guide .)

3 Tips for Writing Your Common Application Essay

Overall, your Common App essay should be the centerpiece of your college application. It should work to tie together your cohesive application narrative , and it should give admissions officers a genuine sense of who you are. Let's take a look at a few specific tips for writing a good Common App essay.

Write about a meaningful topic.

Think about the purpose of a Common App essay. It’s really your one chance to communicate directly with your admissions officers. Sure, your application has all your grades and classes and activities, but none of those things is actually you. The Common App essay exists so you can tell admissions officers information they can’t find anywhere else in your application. Think of it like a poetic introduction to who you are. Because you only have 650 words to make your impression, your essay should get straight to it. Choose a topic that reflects something deeply meaningful to who you are.

Write about a strength.

If your Common App essay is like an introduction, then you also want to make a good impression. That means that your essay should communicate one of your core strengths . Maybe you're the most compassionate person in the world. Maybe you’re so inventive that you can make anything out of a paperclip and a rock. Or maybe you’re so wise that everyone comes to you for advice. Whatever strength makes you who you are, let it shine through in your Common Application essay.

Pay attention to the structure of your essay.

As you’ll see in the “Bad” Common App Essay Examples section below, unorganized essays are hard to read. Admissions officers read hundreds to thousands of applications in a single year, so they go through them fast. That means that your essay needs to grab their attention and easily guide them through your narrative. Try your best to organize your ideas in a way that logically draws your reader through the story you’re telling.

Now keep those tips in mind as we go through each of these example essays.

Best Common App Essay Examples

There’s no single correct way to write a Common App essay, but the best ones grab your attention and keep it. They raise interesting questions, stories, and solutions. Writers reflect meaningfully on important topics, and they do so with a kind of elegance that’s hard to pinpoint. Writers use specific details and examples to set the scene. The best essays have narratives cohere perfectly and guide readers seamlessly through the story at hand.

Reading outstanding Common App essays can help you know what to aim for. Not every winning Common App essay has to look like the ones in this section, but they’ll give you a place to get started.

In particular, take note of the admissions officers’ comments and begin thinking about how you can apply these lessons to your own Common App essay.

Example #1: Board Game Family

Common App Prompt #1

“Professor Plum in the kitchen with the candlestick!”(( Opening with dialogue can be a risky choice, especially if it distracts the reader instead of drawing them in. But this essay uses opening dialogue as an effective hook to compel the reader to read on.)) My sister triumphed. I begrudgingly set down my clue tracker and opened the CONFIDENTIAL envelope. Indeed, her theory was correct. The thing about growing up in a board game family is that you quickly learn how to be a sore loser. In my home, countless sibling wars have been waged over an unjust hand of Gin Rummy or an out-of-bounds toe in Twister. But what I lack in sibling sportsmanship I make up for in wits. Playing board games with my family has taught me that the key to winning any game is resilience, sound strategy, and a little bit of charm(( This introduction has some fun language. And with this sentence, the writer gets straight to the heart of their essay. )) .

Candy Land was my gateway game, and it remains one of my favorites to play with my younger siblings. The game itself is simple: pick a card and move to the corresponding color on the board. First one to King Candy’s Castle wins. But, like life, the journey to the castle is full of setbacks. One unlucky draw, and you’ll lose half your progress. Having made many journeys up Candy Mountain, I grew accustomed to these setbacks. As I entered high school, I began facing real-world roadblocks that threatened to send me ten steps backward. My family moved towns, and the transition proved difficult. I felt behind in the new curriculum and lonely at a new school. Establishing a Board Game club helped me find friends and start my journey back toward Candy Castle.

As I grew older, I gravitated toward more difficult games like Risk. Unlike Candy Land, Risk requires strategy. Sure, randomly conquering territories might get you somewhere, but I learned that the most successful crusades are those that feature careful planning. Risk takes up our entire kitchen table, and we’ll play for hours at a time. My brother and I like to establish secret ententes. With whispered asides and unnoticed bathroom breaks, we work together to ensure victory. And when something doesn’t go our way, we revise our strategy and prepare for the next round. Risk isn’t just about taking risks–it’s about learning when to act, what to do, and who to align yourself with. It’s a lesson that applies to life outside the kitchen table, too.

While I’ve learned from every game I’ve played, the most impactful has been Scrabble(( This excerpt shows great personality, reflection, and personal growth.)) . When I started studying for the SATs, my family took up Scrabble. At first, Scrabble almost broke us. Dictionaries were slammed shut, points miscalculated, and tiles mysteriously lost. But with each new game, the board set anew, we remembered our mission: to help me practice vocabulary. With this fresh perspective, we began to work together. Instead of playing to win, we played to challenge each other and ourselves. For every non-word word I put on the board, I had to plead my case. Arguments like “Ahot” is synonymous with cold because of the root “a,” meaning “without” and “Truc” is a fun French word that we should have anglicized a long time ago anyway earned me both eyerolls and points. The more charming I was, the more sound my defense became, and the more likely my family was to concede. Together, we made our own rules and unforgettable memories.

I’ve summited Candy Mountain thousands of times and founded more countries than I can count. Our Scrabble games don’t look like everyone else’s, but these moments around my kitchen table, filled with laughter and rivalries, white lies and trusted alliances, are ones I will always cherish. They have made me into the thoughtful and strategic person I am today. More importantly, they’ve taught me that there’s a lot to learn when you’re having fun(( The writer concludes with this intentional reflection that leaves no question in the reader’s mind about what the main takeaway from the essay should be.)) .

AO Notes on Board Game Family

This essay takes a fun topic, board games, and turns it into a fun college essay. Most importantly, the writer doesn’t spend too much time focusing on the games themselves. Instead, they use the games as a way to talk about themself. That’s the key in an essay like this.

Why this essay stands out:

  • Humor: We get a strong sense of the writer’s personality through their humor. It’s okay to show some personality in your college essays!
  • Meaning : Through each of these stories, we learn a lot about the writer’s family background. There’s a clear picture of what their home looked like growing up, so we can easily see how they developed into who they are today.
  • Action steps: The writer doesn’t just describe fun family game nights. They explicitly connect these game nights to their determination as a player, sibling, and student. We see the steps they took to make new friends, win alongside their brother, and study for the SATs.

Example #2: The Bowl That Taught Me Not to Quit

Common App Prompt #2

The clay felt cold against my skin as my knees hugged the wheel for dear life(( With this opening, we jump right into the writer’s emotions. They don’t have to tell us explicitly what they’re feeling—we can feel that they are anxious from their description alone. It’s a wonderful example of “show, not tell.”)) . Don’t. Fall. Over. I begged the clay to stay put. In the back of my mind, I heard the instructor saying, “The clay will mirror what you do. If you are steady, the clay will be steady.” I planted my feet firmly on the floor and stared my bowl-to-be dead in the eye.

My journey as a ceramicist began as many journeys do: with a scolding from my mother. She said that I was wasting my summer. I needed a hobby. Flipping through the community center catalog, my gaze landed on Ceramics 101: Beginners. I decided to take on the wheel.

Soon, I was captivated. For the last three thousand years, ceramicists have been throwing clay to create pottery that is quicker to make and more reliable than hand-crafted pottery. This past summer, as I developed my pottery skills, I learned about more than clay. I learned about myself.

To start any project, there’s the matter of choosing which clay to use. When it came time for my first throw, I chose stoneware clay for its durability. I grabbed a slab, dabbed it with water, and tossed it on the wheel, just as the teacher had instructed. My foot gently pressed the wheel’s pedal, a vehicle for which I was certainly not licensed. Covered in wet clay, I pressed my hands against the slab, trying to shape it. But it wobbled(( And here we have the main conflict: things did not go as expected. As readers, we ask ourselves: what will the writer do now?)) . It spun completely out of control. I had clay in my hair and up my sleeves. My project, it seemed, was already ruined.

While I didn’t expect to be a ceramics savant, I did expect to make it through the first class without a mud bath. I felt like a failure as I watched all the other students, whose clay was taking shape on gracefully spinning wheels. I was embarrassed. I wanted to quit. And I was used to quitting, having never been able to hold down an extracurricular activity throughout high school(( With this simple sentence, we learn that the writer has struggled with overcoming challenges in the past. )) . Cutting my losses would be quicker than cleaning the clay from my clothes, so I began to wipe off my hands and pack up my things. The instructor approached me, explaining that what had just happened was perfectly normal. She urged me to try again. I didn’t want to, but her presence made me stay.

For the rest of the class, the instructor hovered by my wheel. She was ready to lend a hand when necessary. She was my safety net, and I felt more confident to continue. I squeezed my clay out and down with the care of a first-time mom. It began to look more like a bowl and less like a mound of dirt. As I watched the bowl come into being, I felt tears prick my eyes. I felt silly for crying at something so simple, but it wasn’t so simple after all. A bowl materialized from my bare hands, all because I didn’t quit.

Quitting(( This paragraph has wonderful reflection.)) is easy, and I’ve taken the easy road more times than I can count. But it ended the day of that ceramics class. If you leave clay untended, it will dry out and become useless. Before ceramics, I hadn’t been tending to myself. I grew dry, cracking under the weight of any external pressures. But my teacher taught me that a little more persistence, time, and effort can yield something beautiful and useful.

When my bowl was done, I carried it to the shelf to be fired. The instructor explained that she’d put our projects in the kiln, and we could pick them up at our next class. I returned the following week and saw my bowl sitting on my wheel. It was imperfect but sturdy, messy yet intricate. It was exactly right. I set it aside and grabbed another block of clay, foot hovering over the pedal(( This conclusion ties up the essay with a bow. It calls back to the beginning and emphasizes that the writer will keep overcoming whatever obstacles arise.)) .

AO Notes on The Bowl that Taught Me Not to Quit

In this essay, the writer goes on a journey learning to do ceramics. We see that they experience failure but can learn from it. Their strengths of creativity and resilience shine through.

  • Positive spin: Writing college essays about challenges is difficult because it’s easy to get wrapped up in hardship. But this essay does a great job moving on from the failure and focusing on the lessons learned.
  • Explaining an underwhelming resume: It happens so quickly that you might miss it if you blink, but this writer very subtly explains why they don’t have many resume items . Accounting for an insufficient resume in this way comes across as taking responsibility rather than making excuses. We also see that the writer has learned from these challenges and is moving forward in a new direction.

Example #3: ENFP

Common App Prompt #6

“You know how whenever you want to plan out your weekend there are too many fun things to do and too many people to do them with? And how it’s impossible to commit to doing anything next Saturday, let alone next month? What if something even more exciting comes up? Ugh!”

“I have literally no idea what you’re talking about. That sounds stressful.”

My friend’s response confused me.

“Stressful!? It’s fun! And stressful. But mostly fun.”

We’ve all had realizations that remind us we are not the same as the people around us(( After that fun introduction, this sentence brings our attention directly to the main point of the essay.)) . Our brains and our tendencies are ours, and they aren’t necessarily shared by others–even close friends and family.

This conversation was one of those times. I was a sophomore and truly did not consider that my peers would follow routines, carefully planning out their weekends while I relied on vibes, group texts, and parental reminders of homework to get me through. Every day is a new experience and I wake up energized for the excitement of a new beginning. Fun, right?

Apparently, some people find my way stressful.

The first week of junior year, my English teacher surprised us with a test. Not an academic one–she administered the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. I didn’t know what that meant, but she explained it was a personality assessment. Then she looked directly at me and pointed.

“YOU! YOU are an ENFP!”

I’d been called a lot of things, but this was a new one. She was absolutely certain that this string of meaningless letters described me. As if anyone could possibly define me!

Sure enough, I took the assessment and got my results. E-N-F-P. Extraverted-iNtuitive-Feeling-Perceiving. I learned that each variable was one of two possibilities that describe people’s preferences about how they interact with their external and internal world. Each person exists on a spectrum between each set of variables.

I was pretty extreme on all four. Suddenly, I understood why people said I had a “big personality”.

This was just the start of my journey into psychology to better understand myself and others(( This paragraph ties together the personality test story with the writer’s personal journey of seeing the world through new perspectives.)) . I knew I was an extrovert–that was the easy one. But now I felt like I had language to explain why my arguments in debate were naturally grounded in emotion (common for Feeling types) rather than the data of a Thinker. I understood why my Judgment (J, rather than P) friends couldn’t stand my inability to commit to a plan. I needed to Perceive all of my options before committing to just one of them.

I delved into writers, psychologists, and researchers like Adam Grant, Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, and Gretchen Rubin. I even embraced my own (very ENFP) preference to listen to their audiobooks rather than read in quiet solitude. I listen to books with one ear bud in while walking around my small town. That way I can learn while staying open to meeting a new friend, stopping by a shop, or petting a cute dog.

My INTJ friend didn’t understand how I could listen to a book while actively striking up conversations with strangers. To each their own.

Part of learning about myself was understanding that I love to learn about how people think and form habits. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. That is true for planning a weekend, maintaining relationships, or even writing a college essay.

I want to study psychology (and about 100 other subjects) and create a career where I can help people understand themselves and build positive habits around who they are(( I like how the writer connects these relations to their academic and career goals.)) , rather than try to change themselves to fit the expectations of others. Sure, maybe that will lead me to become a psychologist. But I think teachers, doctors, writers, and business leaders have an opportunity to do this as well.

All I know for sure is that, just like each new day, college is the next adventure. I’m excited to see what happens.

AO Notes on ENFP

Most of us know about personality tests, but this writer is able to make the topic a deeply personal one. We learn about their personality and habits. We learn about how they interact with others. Overall, the topic really helps us see the world from their perspective.

  • Creative topic: The topic itself isn’t one an admissions officer will see every day. But it’s not so out-there that it comes across as hokey.
  • Perspective: Admissions officers appreciate when students can see the world from perspectives other than their own. This writer shows a lot of maturity when explaining how their personality test sparked a realization that they don’t see the world the same way their friends do.
  • Connections to future goals: The writer doesn’t just present the topic without speaking to its greater meaning. They show that personality tests are meaningful to them because they are related to an academic interest in psychology.

Example #4: Warhammer 40k Miniatures

Carefully(( This introduction has great vivid language.)) dipping the microscopic end of my horse hair brush into the pot of citadel paint, I can feel my excitement building. Gunmetal grey—my favorite primer color. Next comes the white and gold highlights that edge the armor. I'm about to bring one of my favorite Orcs to life, adding tactful details and shading to his green skin and menacing scowl. This is my passion, my obsession: painting Warhammer 40k miniatures.

Now, I’m well aware of the reputation Warhammer has—nerdy. As a tabletop miniature war game set in a dystopian future(( The writer subtly explains this hobby just in case admissions officers aren’t familiar with it.)) , players collect and paint miniatures to represent their armies. They then battle it out on a tabletop strewn with miniature trees, structures, and other terrains. I've been a fan of the game for years, but it's the painting that I love most. There’s something about taking a tiny, unpainted model and turning it into a work of art that I find incredibly satisfying. Nerd, guilty as charged.

I've always been drawn to the Orcs in particular, with their sheer strength and ferocity. But lately, I've been getting more into the Necrons, these ancient, robotic warriors that have been resurrected after millions of years of dormancy. And let's not forget the noble Tau, with their advanced technology and futuristic design. The story of each people goes deep, too. There are dozens of books written about the broader universe of Warhammer—a shared world that spans tens of thousands of years of lore. I’ve read almost every one of them. No matter the character I’m painting, no matter the story they’ll take place in, I watch in awe as each brushstroke brings the character to life in front of my eyes.

As my obsession with miniature painting has grown, I've started entering painting competitions(( This detail shows the magnitude and impact of the activity.)) . It's nerve-wracking showing off my work to a panel of judges, but it's also incredibly rewarding when they appreciate my hard work. I’ve received accolades and even small prizes for my artistry. After every competition, I choose my favorite miniature to display on a shelf in my room. I still have some of the earliest miniatures on my shelf, looking a little rough around the edges but still serving as a reminder of where I started.

But painting miniatures isn't just a hobby for me; it's also been a gateway for other forms of art. I've started dabbling in oil painting, using the same attention to detail and skillful brushwork that I use on my miniatures. While making the transition to a new medium has been challenging, I’ve slowly I’ve built a small collection of paintings. Some of them are as epic as my miniatures—depictions of battles and important moments from the 40k universe. But others are more tranquil, like a recent landscape I painted for my mom’s birthday of the stream behind our house(( We also learn how the writer’s obsession has expanded to other areas of their life. I like this detail because it’s an endearing story of the writer making art for their mom.)) . Becoming more dynamic with my art has made me a better artist, which has in turn made my miniatures even more lifelike.

Warhammer has been the biggest portal into a world of imagination and creativity. But it’s also unlocked my belief in myself as someone capable of succeeding in art(( And here it is—a central point of the essay. Painting these miniatures isn’t just about the miniatures. It’s also about the writer’s growth as an artist.)) . I’ve transcended the level of hobbyist and, over the years I’ve been painting, I’ve learned to call myself an artist. That title is a lot to carry, but it’s one that I can’t wait to continue growing into, figure by figure, painting by painting. And I can’t wait to bring the world of 40k to my dorm—sharing the universe with my friends and classmates. You’ll know where to find me. Just look for the nerdy artist with the dense wooden play table, toting around an army of skeletal warriors and hulking orcs. I can’t wait to share my world with you.

AO Notes on Warhammer 40k Miniatures

This essay is a great example of how to write about a hobby in a college essay. Notice how the writer explains their hobby in vivid detail, but the core of the essay is still about the writer themself.

  • Vivid details: Personal statements can be wonderful exercises in creative writing. While that can be difficult for some students, this writer did it exactly right.
  • Narrative structure: The writer seamlessly transitions readers between each paragraph. They slowly reveal how their journey has progressed. And, most importantly, they incorporate loads of good reflection.
  • Personal meaning: It’s clear that Warhammer itself is meaningful to the writer. But I also like how they draw the focus inward to discuss how painting miniatures “unlocked” a belief in themself.

Example #5: The Band

Common App Prompt #5

I always imagined my band’s first show would take place on a stage. Maybe not in front of a packed amphitheater, but a stage. One with lights, a sound system, a curtain behind it, and some mixture of friends, family, and strangers ready to hear us play.

But there I was, holding a guitar in the women’s section of JC Penney at the mall(( This sentence is so unexpected that it’s sure to make most admissions officers stop, do a double take, and chuckle.)) . We fumbled through a cover of “Mr. Brightside” while middle-aged women shopped for sundresses.

Not exactly what I had in mind.

Our drummer’s mom managed the shoe section at JC Penney and said her boss wanted a creative way to get younger people excited about shopping there. She suggested that her son’s band would be perfect for this opportunity. They paid us in pizza and asked us to perform for two hours–a tall order for four high school sophomores who knew about five and a half songs.

It wasn’t evident to us that we would learn anything from our musical endeavors, or that our music would take us beyond the local mall. I’ve always known writing and performing pop-rock songs isn’t a likely career path. But a recent late night conversation with my bandmates-turned-best-friends showed us all how much we have grown and learned through music(( This reflection is great.)) . What started as a way to spend time with friends on a hobby turned into an accidental entrepreneurial venture and surprisingly poignant lessons.

For one thing, writing music with others is hard. Getting four new musicians to agree on everything from tempo to lyrics to how many verses each song should have isn’t easy. We figured it out as we went along, fueled by copious amounts of Mountain Dew and Bagel Bites.

We eventually created a system where each member learned the lyrics to each song and at least one other person’s part. Sharing original lyrics–poetry–between friends is uncomfortable. But we became more cohesive once everyone was on the same page with the story we were telling. When the bass player, who can’t play drums, learned just enough to understand that the kick drum hits on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on the 2 and 4, our rhythm section began to play more in sync. Once our drummer got over his fear of singing, we were able to incorporate simple harmonies, which led to him improving our lyrics.

Most surprising was making money and feeling like we were running a small (very small) business(( By expanding the focus to talk about music as a business venture, the writer also shows the extent of their activity’s impact.)) . Our second show after the infamous JC Penney incident was a battle of the bands at the public pool that June. We placed fourth–no prize. By August, we played another battle of the bands and won first place, largely thanks to our efforts to publicize the event to everyone in our network (some might call it begging our friends to come). To our surprise, we won $800 on one of those comically large checks.

We decided to allocate some of the money to equipment we needed–cables, cymbal stands, and more Bagel Bites–and put the rest towards professional recording. The process of contacting local studios, negotiating rates, and working with professionals in the industry was completely new to all of us.

A year before, we thought agreeing on lyrics was tough. But the sonic experience of hearing your own music back and agreeing on the tone and effects of every instrument can bring out differences you didn’t know existed. I’d read about arguments between bands from the Beatles to Kings of Leon, and now the four of us had to work out our differences together in real time. Thankfully, we navigated that challenge without losing our sanity for more than a few brief moments.

I am grateful for the lessons we have learned over the past three years(( And with this conclusion, the writer really drives home the essay’s main theme.)) . Not only do we have music and memories to show for our efforts, but we have all learned about creative collaboration, budgeting, and marketing our art.

AO Notes on The Band

This essay makes me want to sing! It’s full of personality, but it still manages to be vulnerable and reflective. By the conclusion , we really see what the writer has learned from being in a band.

  • Humor: The writer immediately draws us in with an introduction that is funny, surprising, and full of personality. The introduction alone makes me want to keep reading. And right as we’re through the introduction, the writer drives home their main point: they learned a lot through music. Then, to our delight, the humor continues throughout. It’s subtle enough to keep our attention and not be overwhelming or inauthentic.
  • Strengths: I can see that the writer is very collaborative and entrepreneurial. I also like how they give insight into their relationship with their friends and bandmates—we learn a lot about them through their interactions with others.
  • Accomplishments: This essay is a solid example of how to write about accomplishments in a personal and meaningful way. The writer could have just opened with the accomplishments, but that wouldn’t have been very interesting or vulnerable. By nesting those accomplishments within a broader story about music, the writer is able to convey greater meaning.

Good Common App Essay Examples

If you’re feeling intimated by all the outstanding essays you’ve seen online, fear not. You don’t have to have a Pulitzer to get into college.

What you do need is a good, meaningful essay, even if it’s not perfect. The essays in this section represent what the majority of Common App essays look like. They aren’t necessarily perfect, but they’re written strategically and with verve. You can tell that their writers genuinely care about the essay they’ve been tasked with.

Putting in a similar effort with your own Common App essay will get you far. Let’s take a look.

Example #6: Herb

I stood in the dimly lit garage, staring at the child-sized pile of metal and wires in front of me. I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe. This was our creation(( This introduction reveals the product of the journey the writer is about to go on: building a robot.)) , a robot that my father and I had spent months designing and building with meticulous care.

It all started on a slow Sunday afternoon, when my dad suggested we take on a new project. He wanted to build a robot. At first, I was hesitant. I was skeptical that we had the know-how to even construct the body of the robot, much less one that actually worked. But my dad, a tinkerer and inventor, was determined to try. So we got everything set up in the garage and got to work. As it turns out, building a robot wouldn’t just improve our technical abilities. It would bring us closer together along the way.

Before this project, my dad and I tended to argue and disagree(( I appreciate this clear transition and description of the “before” state that the writer and their father are growing from.)) . But in the garage with our robot materials, we were both so invested in building the robot that we collaborated perfectly. We bounced ideas off each other, read books and online forums, and even got advice from friends who were more experienced in robotics. For what seemed like the first time, my dad thought of me as an equal. Usually I was just there to hand him wrenches and screwdrivers as he worked on his latest creation. This time was different. We were a team. And with each passing day, our robot began to come alive.

We spent months in the garage, building and troubleshooting. My dad worked on the mechanics. He carefully assembled the joints and servos that would give the robot its movement. While he did that, I focused on the design. I drew mock-ups on my iPad and researched different exterior materials to use. I clumsily constructed our prototypes before my dad helped me put all the pieces together.

The final result was a beautiful machine. It was almost four feet tall and towered over our family dog. And it actually worked. The exterior gleamed—the sensors we used added visual flair and extreme function. But the most impressive aspect of our robot was its artificial intelligence system, which we had spent weeks programming and refining together. It was still fairly rudimentary as far as robots go, but we were proud of such a major accomplishment.

We decided to name our creation Herb, after my father’s beloved herb garden. We liked the irony of mixing a machine with a garden. He was perfect.

After working on him for months, it was time to enter Herb into a local show for machine enthusiasts. Our entry was accepted(( This detail also shows the magnitude of their accomplishment.)) . The show will take place next spring, so my dad and I are polishing Herb’s exterior, tweaking bugs that arise in his artificial intelligence, and preparing him for his out-of-garage debut.

While I’m proud that we will finally get to show Herb off to the world, what I’m more proud of is how far my father and I have come. Working on Herb brought us closer together, and the process helped my dad see me as a fellow tinkerer and inventor rather than just an assistant. In our garage, as we constructed something entirely un-human, we found the human in ourselves. Our father-son love came to life through a robot. I wouldn’t trade it for anything(( I really like this poetic conclusion that neatly ties together the essay’s theme.)) .

AO Notes on Herb:

This essay is an endearing story about how the writer’s relationship with their father improved while working on a robot together. We learn a lot about the student and their interests as we accompany them on this journey.

What makes this essay good:

  • Organization: There’s some back and forth with narrative and reflection in this essay that gives it a pretty complex structure. But the writer does an awesome job keeping readers on track by using very clear signposting. Phrases like “before this project” and “after working on him for months” help readers navigate the complexity.
  • Reflection: The writer incorporates great reflection throughout. The third paragraph shows us the “before state” that the writer is growing from, and by the end of the essay, we really see where they’ve ended up mentally, emotionally, and personally.

What the writer could do to level up:

  • More focus on the writer : While this essay isn’t too bad about this, there is some room for improvement. The main descriptive parts of the essay all focus on the robot. We do learn about the writer and their goals through these descriptions. But the essay is approaching being too much about the robot and not enough about the writer.

Example #7: Laughter & Acceptance

"Why was the transgender person so bad at math? Because they always had to trans-late equations!"

Okay, okay, that was a terrible joke. But let me tell you, finding self-acceptance as a transgender person ain't no joke. It's a struggle, a battle, a war. But it's a war that can be won, and I'm here to tell you how(( From the start, we get a clear sense of the writer’s personality. This sentence also tells us exactly what the essay is about.)) .

I grew up in a world that told me being trans was wrong, that it was something to be ashamed of. And I believed it. I tried to hide who I was, to pretend like I was someone else. But it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just didn't work.

But then something happened. I don't know what it was—maybe a shift in the universe, maybe a sign from God. But something changed, and I realized that I couldn't keep living a lie. I had to be true to myself, regardless of what misery and consequences that might bring down around my head.

After telling my younger sister, who cried tears of joy and support, bless her, I decided to come out to the rest of my family. Let me tell you, it was not pretty. They didn't understand what I meant. They told me I was going to hell, that I was a disgrace to our family. And it hurt, oh man it hurt. But through the pain I saw a glimmer of something—was that hope?(( The writer does an excellent job reflecting and taking the “more phoenix, less ashes” approach.)) For the first time, I was being honest with myself and with the world. The whips and lashes of my parents’ words were more painful than I could have anticipated, but I left the room with my head held up and a barely-perceptible feeling of lightness around my shoulders.

And that's when the real work began. See, coming out is one thing, but accepting yourself is another. It's not easy, trust me. It's like trying to walk on a tightrope, one wrong step and you're a gonner. But I didn't give up, I kept going.

And you know what? It started to get easier. I started to find people who accepted me for who I was, who supported me and loved me. I started to feel confident in my own skin. And it was a good feeling—a great feeling. The best feeling.

But my life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are still moments every day when I feel down, when the weight of the world feels like it's crushing me. But even in those moments, I've learned to find strength in myself, to remind myself that I am worthy and deserving of love and respect.

And that's what self-acceptance is all about. No one can avoid feeling sad, angry, or frustrated all the time. But if those feelings only crop up now and again? You’re doing pretty good. Most of all, it’s about letting those negative emotions pass when they come, roll over you like a wave before they go on their way. It's about laughing at the absurdity of it all(( With this philosophy, we really see how much the writer has grown.)) , and finding joy and humor in the midst of the pain.

So, dear reader(( Addressing your reader in a college essay is a pretty risky stylistic choice that we would generally advise against.)) , if you're struggling with self-acceptance, you're not alone. I’m there with you. And remember: it's okay to laugh at yourself, to find the humor in the situation. It's not always easy, but it's worth it. Because when you can accept yourself, you can be proud of who you are, and that's something to be truly grateful for. Tell a joke about yourself and laugh it off. You’ll feel better, I promise(( I like these sentiments, but they could be more focused on the writer instead of the reader.)) .

AO Notes on Laughter & Acceptance

This essay does a wonderful job maintaining sight of the writer’s strengths and positivity in light of really tough challenges. The writer isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. Because of that, we learn a lot about them.

  • Authenticity : I’d guess that this essay couldn’t have been written by anyone other than its writer. Its voice is so clear and authentic that I truly feel like the writer is talking straight to me. Since Common App essays are one of the only places where you get to speak straight to an admissions officer, authenticity is key.
  • Positivity : Let’s face it. This essay is about a really serious topic that was clearly challenging for the writer. But what makes it so great is that in spite of all the challenges, the writer is able to find positivity and light. They don’t dwell on the hardships but look forward to the future. That’s exactly what a college essay about a challenging topic should do.
  • Tone : Balancing your personal tone and voice with the conventions of Common App essay writing can be tricky. It’s hard to predict how an admissions officer will react to what you write. Some might love the fact that this essay truly sounds like the student who wrote it, while others might be put off by its informality. The writer could clean up just a few areas of informal language to play it a little safer.

Example #8: The Old iPhone

Common App Prompt #3

I unscrewed the tiny Phillips-head screws and wedged open my iPhone 5. I cringed as the material cracked out of place. Despite my nervousness, I felt curious. I had always been fascinated by technology and machines, but this was the first time I had ever taken apart a device as complex as an iPhone.

And it wasn’t just any iPhone. It was my very first—my most prized possession until I bought my new phone a few months ago. Since then, it had been sitting in the back of my desk drawer, collecting dust and taking up space. I just didn’t have the heart to sell, recycle, or trade it in. On a day when my ADHD was particularly affecting me, I decided to tinker with my phone to calm myself down.

Working with machines and technology had become my biggest strategy for dealing with my ADHD on those difficult days(( This is an excellent transition.)) . I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was thirteen. I’d been struggling to pay attention in class, and my teachers and parents thought it would be best to get me tested. After I started taking medication, my symptoms improved a lot. But the whole process made me feel like something was off about the way my brain worked naturally. That’s why on the days my medication just isn’t cutting it I center myself by playing with machinery and technology. Even though I can’t fully understand my brain, I can understand a machine. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to get me back on track.

At my desk while disassembling the phone, I carefully removed each piece and set them aside on a bathroom hand towel beside me. I felt calm and focused. As someone with ADHD, it can be difficult for me to concentrate on a single task. But with every part I removed, my mind grew more and more focused. I didn’t feel pulled to passing thoughts and distractions like I normally do.

Working on the phone was like meditating. The parts were so small and delicate that it took all of my attention not to lose or break any. As I examined each component, I thought about all the hard work that goes into designing, manufacturing, and selling the millions of iPhones sold each year.

Taking apart the iPhone improved my technical knowledge, but it was more than that. It also helped me to understand my own mind in a new way(( This is an important shift back to the writer’s own experience. If it weren’t here, the essay would be too much about the iPhone and not enough about the writer.)) . While working my way through this small but magnificent machine, I realized that I could think of my own brain as a kind of machine. It has a complex network of circuits and pathways that control my thoughts and actions. It requires energy to work. It is made up of smaller components that allow it to function. I can’t tinker around with my brain, but I can appreciate it for the incredible machine that it is. I just need to learn more about how my brain works and adapt accordingly.

In many ways, my ADHD has always felt like a kind of malfunction, like something is wrong with me. But as I took apart the iPhone, I began to see that even the most advanced technology isn’t perfect—there’s dust and glitches and grime and bugs. And just as Apple does software updates and new product releases to improve the iPhone, I can find ways to improve how I function with my own brain(( With this comment, the essay ends on a very positive and hopeful note—exactly what you want in a college essay. )) .

AO Notes on My Old iPhone

In this essay, the writer describes how tinkering with an iPhone affected their personal journey with ADHD. I especially like how the writer takes two quite different topics and weaves them together seamlessly.

  • Creative take: The core of this essay topic is a good one. The writer uses a hobby to talk about a deeper personal topic they’re wrestling with. As a result, we learn quite a bit about both.
  • Strengths: We always say that you should write your college essays around core strengths. This writer does exactly that. As readers, we can tell that the writer is a problem-solver. They figured out a way to help themselves when their medication wasn’t working, and they also used that activity to do some reflection.
  • Personal meaning: The writer could have just written about how they tinker with machines to help with their ADHD. But they went beyond that. They reflect more deeply on what the experience of having ADHD means to them.
  • More connections: This essay is quite good. But as a reader, I’m still left wondering why the writer is drawn to tinkering and machines in the first place. It seems like there is room for the student to write a bit more about how the activity resonates with them personally.

Example #9: My Partner in Music

Built from a dark, mocha-colored wood and strung with the best strings my mom could afford, my viola has been with me through a lot. The first time I held the instrument in my hands, I knew it was made just for me. Sure, my viola had had previous owners. But they were only caring for it until it made its way home. My instrument is who I spend the most time with, who I know the closest, and who I’ve invested so much time in. With my viola, I’ve experienced my greatest accomplishments.

I come from a family of prodders rather than pushers(( This paragraph and the following dive too deeply into the writer’s past without making clear why the information is necessary to the narrative.)) . My loved ones have never pushed me to do anything, but I’ve been prodded in certain directions. At a mere year old, I began swim lessons. At age two, I took up soccer. At two and a half, I experimented with gymnastics. None of those activities ever stuck. But my true calling came at age three when my parents started me on viola lessons.

At first, I struggled to even hold my tiny, almost toy-like viola in place. Barely able to hold my own fork for dinner, I wrestled to place my fingers correctly on the fingerboard. When it was finally time for me to use my bow, it kept falling under its own weight, my small arm not strong enough to balance it.

But I was enthralled by the sounds I was able to make. I watched in awe as my teacher conjured up the most beautiful music I’d ever heard from her instrument. Unlike swimming, soccer, and gymnastics, music made sense to me. The ability to make something so engaging from wood and metal captured my attention.

When I got my new instrument, I had been playing the viola for exactly twelve years. Between the age of three and fifteen, my skills had grown exponentially. All those nights and weekends practicing, the blisters, and the hours and hours of lessons had paid off.

This past year, I earned a spot in the American Youth Symphony, one of the most prestigious youth symphonies in the world(( It’s not until this paragraph that we get to the heart of the essay: the writer’s big accomplishment, and the challenges they overcome to get there.)) . With the symphony’s minimum age of fifteen and average age in the early twenties, I’m one of the youngest musicians in the ensemble.

It wasn’t always so clear that playing viola was my destiny. When I was a sophomore in high school, I auditioned for my regional youth symphony. I had practiced my solo for months. I had played the piece so many times that it practically became part of me. With an imaginary metronome ticking away inside of me, my fingers knew exactly how to race across my strings, and my bow hand followed along in perfect time.

When it came time for my regional orchestra audition, however, the song completely vanished. I walked up to the stage, judges behind a partition. I sat down, brought my viola up to my chin, and froze. What had been muscle memory evaporated into thin air, and I was left with a blank mind and a silent instrument. I panicked, unsure of what to do.

I stared down at the scroll of my instrument and took a deep breath. We had played this piece a thousand times. We were ready. Most importantly, I wasn’t doing this alone. My viola and I were in it together. I raised my bow to the strings and began. The song emerged from my fingers, bow, and instrument. It was beautiful. It was perfect. That audition earned me regional first chair, and I learned a valuable lesson: I have to believe in myself(( And here we get to the theme of the essay. It’s not just about the viola. It’s about the writer—a musician.)) .

Now, as a member of the American Youth Symphony, I return to this lesson every day. It’s easy to get intimated when you’re playing alongside the country’s best young musicians. But, with my viola in hand, I know that I am a musician, too.

AO Notes on My Partner in Music

This writer tells us about their prized instrument. But the essay isn’t just about the instrument. It’s about the writer. The essay does an excellent job detailing a challenge the writer overcame. By the end, we see that the writer has grown and has achieved a huge accomplishment.

  • Contextualizing a great achievement: The writer’s strengths shine through in this essay because of their achievement. But throughout the essay, we also see that the writer has had to work hard to get to where they’re at today. That context adds great dimension to our understanding of them.
  • Voice: Through all the events that happen in this essay, the writer’s voice remains consistent. They have a solid tone that shows their work ethic and unwillingness to give up.
  • Get to the main idea quicker: Notice how the first few paragraphs of this essay are simple setup. We learn a lot about who the student was as a child before we get to the heart of the essay. The central conflict doesn’t come until almost the last paragraph. In general, college essays should be primarily about things that have happened in your life since starting high school. Brief mentions of previous events are fine, but they take up a touch too much space in this essay. It takes a while for us, the readers, to really see what the essay is about.

Example #10: The Laundromat

As the son of Chinese immigrants, I grew up working in my parents' laundromat(( Sometimes straightforward “statement” hooks work. This one does the job well.)) . It wasn't glamorous, but it was a good way to earn some extra money and help out my family. Over the years, I got to know a lot of the regulars who came in to use the machines. Some were friendly, some were angry, and some were just plain weird. But one thing they all had in common was that they had stories to tell. And I learned from every single one of them.

There was Mrs. Nguyen, an older Vietnamese woman who came in every week with a small load of clothes. She always greeted me warmly and snuck me a hard strawberry candy. We mostly talked about me—my schoolwork, friends, and sports. But one day, she opened up. She told me about her experiences fleeing Vietnam in the aftermath of the war. She described the dangers she faced and the sacrifices she made to keep her family safe. I was stunned that someone I had grown so close to had experienced such a challenge. What shocked me most was Mrs. Nguyen’s kindness in spite of everything she had been through. Before learning this about Mrs. Nguyen, I let small problems like late homework and friend arguments really upset me. But hearing her story put things into perspective for me, and I’m so grateful that she felt comfortable enough to share it with me(( Perspective: always a good lesson to learn. This example shows some good maturity.)) .

Carlos came every Tuesday and Thursday. He was a thirteen-year-old who always seemed to be practicing for the spelling bee. He went to my sister’s school and was shy and quiet. But after seeing him multiple times a week, I learned that he was also incredibly smart and dedicated. He would come into the laundromat with a stack of flashcards and a dictionary, looking for somewhere quiet to practice. He’d close his eyes and mouth the letters to himself before peeking to see if he was right. After months of watching him, I finally went up to him and offered to help(( With this “show, not tell” example, we see our writer exhibiting generosity and kindness. I also like the humor and personality in the following two sentences.)) . I started quizzing him on words that I couldn’t even really pronounce myself. I relied heavily on his dictionary! But after practicing together, Carlos won his school spelling bee and eventually went on to regionals. I was so proud of him. I learned that it if you want to succeed, you have to put in the work like Carlos did. Every time I think of quitting something, I remind myself of his determination, and I keep going.

And finally, there was Gary, a nurse who worked in the emergency room at our local hospital. He was always rushing through his laundry because of his busy schedule, but he was never too busy to sit down and talk with us kids. Gary inspired my interest in pursuing medicine. He told me countless stories about what he saw in the ER. But what I always appreciated most was when he would explain the science behind what was happening. Gary was a talented teacher who could always break down complex concepts into something even a kid could understand. By my junior year, Gary encouraged me to take AP Chemistry and Biology and now he’s helping me look at pre-medicine programs(( Nice—we get some background about the student’s academic interests.)) . Gary has sparked in me an interest in caring for people through medicine.

I could have chosen to ignore all these people and hide away in the back of the laundromat. But instead I chose to talk with them, even though it was sometimes scary and intimidating. Being around so many people, hearing all their stories, it’s really shown me that everyone has a story to tell. More importantly, everyone can learn from those around them. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the regulars at the laundromat, and I hope I inspired them in some way too.

AO Notes on The Laundromat

In this classic “understanding self through others” essay, we get to know the writer through their interactions with others. The writer does a pretty good job walking the (sometimes dangerous) line between saying too much about others and not enough about themself.

  • Personality: One of the best parts of “understanding self through others” essays is that we get to see who the writer is without them having to tell us. Through each of these small interactions, the writer—and their personality, values, beliefs—shines through.
  • Maturity: This writer shows several strengths. I think one of the most salient is their maturity. The way they were able to learn from Mrs. Nguyen, help Carlos, and be inspired by Gary took a lot of maturity. As an AO, that would tell me that this student is ready for the college classroom.
  • Connection to academic interests: Not all personal essays need to connect to an academic interest. Most probably don’t. But it was a natural connection for this writer, and I’m glad they made it. It raises the stakes of their interactions and leads beautifully into their conclusion.
  • Streamline: With the three different examples, the essay reads a bit choppy. The writer could put better transitions in between each person, or they could weave the examples together into a cohesive narrative. Streamlining would also help emphasize the essay’s focus on the writer rather than the laundromat patrons.

“Bad” Common App Essay Examples

Okay, these essays aren’t necessarily “bad” as essays. But if we’re being honest, they’re not great Common App essays either.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t have the potential to become great Common App essays, though. As you’ll see in the notes from our Admissions Officers, these essays contain the seeds of good essays. They just need some reorganization and refinement.

Let’s take a look.

Example #11: What I’ve Learned About Life

We all know that life is short so you have to make the most of it. I always try to do my best and live every day to the fullest(( These sentences are both cliches. It’s always better to hook readers in with your own words.)) . Well, I did that until I broke my arm in 8th grade. I used to be not afraid to do anything, but it turns out that’s what got me in trouble. I was riding my bike home from school one day and saw a stump. I thought about what we talked about in English class that day. It was something about “carpe diem” and so I decided, “You know what? I’m gonna jump that stump.”(( This story makes for a good concrete example.)) And I did. Almost. My bike tire caught on the stump and flipped me over the handle bars. A bystander had to help me call my mom to take me to the hospital and it was fractured in four places pretty bad it actually hurt a lot. So after that I still learned to live every day to the fullest but I also learned that you need to make good decisions when doing so.

My mom always tells me that I need to be more patient because it’s a virtue and I am not patient at all. But I have decided that the most important thing to me is to try hard no matter what. I’ll work until the ends of the earth to prove myself because those who work hard succeed. So when I realized that I tried to listen to my mom. Now when I get impatient I take a deep breath and remember my goal of being successful and sometimes it is hard to be patient and I can get angry or frustrated but then I think about what my mom said. It’s a virtue and I want to be as virtuous as possible. My mom has worked so hard in this life to give me a better life and all I want to do is make her proud(( These are fantastic sentiments that could be drawn out more clearly.)) . I really think that’s what it means to be a good person. I’ll always work hard so I can be successful and she can watch me shine.

AO Notes on What I’ve Learned About Life

This essay, while short, gives an honest effort at conveying something deeply meaningful. I especially like the very last sentence, which tells us a lot about who the writer is as a person. But there are a few areas this essay could improve.

What this essay does well:

  • Authenticity: It’s clear that the writer is discussing something very meaningful. I have no doubt that these lessons have played a big role in their life.

What could be improved on:

  • Too short: The maximum word count for the Common Application essay is 650 words. We like to encourage students to get to at least 80% of the word count, which means that your Common App essays should be at least 520 words. This essay is only 361.
  • The topic is too vague and full of generalities: The writer is communicating something meaningful about what they’ve learned throughout their life, but they do so only through generalities. Being too vague makes it hard for admissions officers to see who you really are. Instead, the writer could use concrete experiences and reflect specifically on how those experiences impacted them.

Example #12: Clean Slate

Common App Prompt #7

Bubbles, foam, and the sweet smell of chemicals. Shiny surfaces free of streaks and grime. I cleaned the entire house in three hours flat. I never really learned how to clean growing up, but I started seeing cleaning videos online. The cleaning videos always relax me, so I thought I’d give it a try(( This shows the writer’s initiative.)) .

First I needed to figure out what kinds of supplies to buy. After watching a few more videos, I made a list of the most commonly used items. Since I was on a limited budget, so I could only get the basics. I turned to coupons to find the best bargains possible. I bought disinfectant, a multi-purpose cleaner, and a window and mirror spray. I also found a mop, sponges, and a scrubber brush. It all cost me only fifteen dollars!

My family was shocked when I came home with these supplies in a shopping bag. They didn’t understand why I cared so much. We vacuumed and used disinfectant wipes every so often to keep things manageable, but none of us knew that you are supposed to deep clean your house every month or so until I told everyone based on what I saw online. I showed them each product I bought and told them what the purpose of each one was. They were proud of me for taking initiative and learning something new. They also couldn’t wait to see the results.

Then it was time for me to get to work. To strike inspiration, I put on another cleaning video in the background. I began with the bathroom. It was tidy, but it sure wasn’t clean. There was dust on all the surfaces, soap scum, and rust. I grabbed the disinfectant spray first because it has to sit for a while to actually disinfect. Then I used the mirror spray to clean toothpaste off the mirror. I scrubbed all the surfaces with my new sponge until they were squeaky clean. Then I moved on to the floors. My mop is a spray mop, so it was a quick job.

Next I moved on to the kitchen. That was much harder because it was more complex. There are several appliances, dishes to do, and food to put away. I wiped down the cabinets, which had a dark grime that you couldn’t even see before. I felt accomplished because I was actually cleaning. Once the kitchen was done, I moved on to the living room and the bedrooms. It took forever, but I did it(( By this point, we should have some more reflection from the writer about why this story is personally meaningful.)) .

I gave my family a tour around the house, showing them all the nooks and crannies I had cleaned. They were impressed and I felt so proud. I stood back, admiring my work. The house glistened like a diamond with cleanliness.

The next day I got up and decided to take a look around, excited to see my handiwork again. I was in shock when I stepped into the kitchen. It was a disaster. There was food and dishes everywhere. I ran to the bathroom. It wasn’t any better. There were dirty clothes and an open toothpaste tube. The baseboards already had a small bit of dust. I was devastated. All my hard work was gone just like that.

I told my family how upset I was. They understood and said that they would try to be better next time. But I also learned that that’s just how cleaning goes. You can try to keep things tidy, but we actually live in this house and sometimes that means making a mess. I hugged my family members and felt better after their apology(( I really like the picture we get of the writer here. I can tell that they are very mature and thoughtful!)) . We made up, they picked up a few things to pitch in, and I put my cleaning supplies back in the closet until next time.

AO Notes on Clean Slate

In this essay, we go on a cleaning journey with the writer. We see their successes and disappointments. We learn a bit about their family background, and we cheer them on as they overcome challenges.

  • Writing and organization: This essay is well-written, and the narrative easily holds a reader’s interest. There’s a good sense of the plot, and the paragraphs are clearly organized and easy to read through.
  • Strengths: We really see the writer’s initiative through this story. They did their research, got their supplies, and put their interest into action.
  • More significance: While this is a fun topic, it doesn’t convey much meaning about the writer’s life. The writer could make the topic more significant by adding more reflection throughout to show explicitly how this story has changed them as a person. Or they could select a different topic that relates to something more deeply meaningful about their life.

Key Takeaways

Hopefully these Common App essay examples have shown you what to do (and what not to do). More importantly, we hope that the commentary from our former admissions officers has helped you analyze the why behind what makes an effective Common App essay.

Absorbing these lessons and applying them to your own Common Application essay will help take your writing to the next level. No matter what you write about, your goal should be to create a seamless application narrative that speaks to your strengths.

If you’re not sure what step to take next, we've got you covered. The Essay Academy — our comprehensive digital college essay course — walks you through every step. 

Liked that? Try this next.

post preview thumbnail

How A Selective Admissions Office Reads 50k Applications In A Season

post preview thumbnail

How to Write a College Essay (Exercises + Examples)

post preview thumbnail

How to Write Supplemental Essays that Will Impress Admissions Officers

post preview thumbnail

Leveling Up Your Extracurriculars (with examples!)

"the only actually useful chance calculator i’ve seen—plus a crash course on the application review process.".

Irena Smith, Former Stanford Admissions Officer

We built the best admissions chancer in the world . How is it the best? It draws from our experience in top-10 admissions offices to show you how selective admissions actually works.

  • Affiliate Program

Wordvice

  • UNITED STATES
  • 台灣 (TAIWAN)
  • TÜRKIYE (TURKEY)
  • Academic Editing Services
  • - Research Paper
  • - Journal Manuscript
  • - Dissertation
  • - College & University Assignments
  • Admissions Editing Services
  • - Application Essay
  • - Personal Statement
  • - Recommendation Letter
  • - Cover Letter
  • - CV/Resume
  • Business Editing Services
  • - Business Documents
  • - Report & Brochure
  • - Website & Blog
  • Writer Editing Services
  • - Script & Screenplay
  • Our Editors
  • Client Reviews
  • Editing & Proofreading Prices
  • Wordvice Points
  • Partner Discount
  • Plagiarism Checker
  • APA Citation Generator
  • MLA Citation Generator
  • Chicago Citation Generator
  • Vancouver Citation Generator
  • - APA Style
  • - MLA Style
  • - Chicago Style
  • - Vancouver Style
  • Writing & Editing Guide
  • Academic Resources
  • Admissions Resources

How to Write the Common App Essay–Examples for 2023-2024

how to write the best common app essay

So, you’re applying to college and are probably panicking about how to write the hardest part of your application: the Common Application essay. Don’t panic! We’re here to help. If you keep the following tips in mind, we’re confident that you’ll be well on your way to drafting a strong application essay that screams out, “Dear College, this is who I am, and here’s why you want me!”

So, let’s start with some basics.

What is the Common Application Essay?

The Common Application centralizes the admissions process for over 900 schools. These participating colleges and universities all use the same common biographical and academic information forms. Most of the schools also require or accept the Common Application essay. Neat, huh? Essentially, you choose the schools you want to apply to, add them to your application list, fill in the general demographic and biographical information, upload or input academic records and standardized testing information, designate people to write you recommendations, and upload the Common Application essay. All of this is done in one place. That’s it. Simple, right?

Now, many of the top-tiered schools require additional information and essays, but most of these documents can be uploaded into the Common Application. If you’re applying to art schools, the schools will provide extra links on their Common Application sites. Those links will lead you to a website where you can upload your art portfolio and additional documents.  We’ll discuss such additional requirements in another post.

What do I need to include in the Common App Essay?

While the Common Application essay regularly makes adjustments to its essay prompts, for the 2022-2023 college application season, the prompts will remain exactly the same as last year, when the rarely used prompt about solving a problem was replaced with one that was inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, to, according to Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard, “help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives.” The 2023-2024 Common App Essay prompts also still contain the optional COVID-19 prompt that appeared in 2020.

  • 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?
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?
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.

Did you notice a common theme among these questions? At its core, the Common Application essay is designed to make you answer the question, “WHO are you?”  What colleges and universities want to know is (1) how your experiences or background have shaped you into the person you are today and (2) how who you are today is going to affect your future academic performance.

Why is the Common App Essay important?

This essay is one of the most important parts of your application, and in some cases, especially for top-tiered schools, it is weighed as much as, or more than, your grades and test scores—estimates say that they can account for anywhere from 10 to 30% of admission decisions. Why? Well, think about it. If most of the applicants applying to a top college have similar academic profiles, how can the schools distinguish one candidate from another? It’s all in the story you craft, and we’re here to help you present the best version of you !

Preparing to Write Your Common App Essay

A good starting point for writing a successful application essay is reading Common App essay examples that got other students admitted to their schools of choice. However, keep in mind that you do that for inspiration only and that your goal is not to copy anyone—ultimately, you’ll have to come up with your very own story and present it in your very own way. The tips and “dos and don’ts” below can help you do exactly that as you prepare to write or rewrite your Common Application essay.

You are also well advised to ask your teachers, counselors, and other mentors for advice at any step of the process: Maybe come up with a list of potential topics and let someone who knows you and is aware of your goal (to get into your school of choice) give you feedback on what they think suits or doesn’t suit you. Or make a draft of your story (maybe just in your head) and call your mentor to ask them if they would choose you as a prospective student based on that story. You can of course also seek out professional proofreaders like us to help you revise your personal statement and make it shine!

The two main points of getting yourself ready for writing your Common App essay are (1) that admissions committees have no preference for which prompt you choose and (2) that your essay is not a place to restate what you already said on your resumé or in the Common App “activities” section. You also don’t have to prove that you somehow changed the world or did something heroic. Instead, the essay is a chance for you to show the admissions committee the “you” that your friends, classmates, teachers, and family know. Our advice for where to start is to brainstorm the best (most interesting, most meaningful, most unique…) stories about your life that you can think of, and then look at the question prompts and decide which one your story could be an answer to.

Common App Essay Writing Timelines

Now that we agree on how important your Common App essay is, you will not be surprised if we recommend that you start working on it several months before the actual deadline. Why so early? Because you don’t want to rush or force it or regret your choice of topic when it’s too late to change. If you see this as a creative process that needs time, you’ll make the most out of it and also learn a lot along the way that will help you with writing other essays and assignments once you got into your school of choice!

Timeline 1: Write a Common App Essay in three months

Now you have one finished essay to apply with and two more weeks to show it around for more feedback in case you get second thoughts or to change it up again after sleeping on it for a couple of days.

If this seems like way too much time to invest in and focus on your essay, then try this:

Timeline 2: Write your Common App Essay in one month

Since you don’t have much time for feedback if you start that late, make sure you contact your advisors/teachers well in advance to let them know when you’ll be ready so that they can schedule you in or tell you when they are available. You don’t want to pressure people and step on their toes when you need their valuable input!

Great Common App Essay Examples for 2023-2024

We found some of the best Common App essay examples from this year and years past to give you a sense of what kinds of essays work best to captivate admissions officials. We have listed essay examples in each section by their corresponding essay prompt to help you understand what kinds of responses are most suitable. Although your essay will be unique and might vary significantly from the examples below, read through each one to get an overall idea.

Common App Essay Examples: 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.

This prompt asks applicants to write about what makes them uniquely them. Whether you’re writing about a hobby, your background, or how you define yourself, it’s important to tell a story so central to who you are that your application would be incomplete without it.

When answering this prompt, it’s easy to repeat information that you are already presenting outside of the essay. Avoid this at all costs. Remember: the essay is supposed to add a new dimension to your application.

See this sample essay to get a sense of what a great response to this prompt could look like.

  • Handiwork – An essay about interest in creating crafts. This student expertly illustrates their dedication to a hobby by presenting anecdotes packed with sensory details.

Excerpt from “Handiwork”

I’ve always been a crafter. From the early days of Kindergarten macaroni ornaments, to making my own prom dress last year, I’ve had a knack for creating things. For drafting sketches, drawing plans, making calculations, gathering supplies, adding finishing touches. There is something so satisfying about holding something you, and you alone, have made—something that was just an image in your mind until you set about to bring it into existence, to create something new, something different. I’m sure there are hundreds of doll furniture sets out there in that same gray and pink, but there is only one with fitted (albeit with sloppy stitching) navy blue covers. There’s a sense of pride there, however small.

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #2 

This is one of the more challenging prompts. It can be difficult to demonstrate strength and potential while writing about failure. However, if you’re comfortable with introspection and making yourself a bit more vulnerable, this prompt is a great option.

A good response to this prompt demonstrates a high level of confidence and maturity as well as humility and a willingness to learn. Simply writing about a failure does nothing; students should focus on how they handled their failures in positive ways.

This essay example demonstrates how to approach this prompt.

  • Striking Out – An essay about setbacks and overcoming obstacles. Note the effectiveness of this kind of narrative in showing your abilities and perseverance.

Excerpt from “Striking Out”

About a week later, some of my friends from the team got together at the park to hang out. When I arrived, I was a little surprised that no one seemed to be mad at me – after all, I’d lost us the game, and they had to be disappointed about not making it to the semifinals. It wasn’t until we split into teams for an impromptu pickup game that I started to realize why no one was upset. Maybe it was the excitement of reaching the playoffs or the pressure of living up to my brothers’ examples, but sometime during that game, I’d lost sight of why most of us played summer league baseball. It wasn’t to win the championship, as cool as that would have been. It was because we all loved to play. I didn’t need a trophy or a Hollywood come-from-behind win to have fun playing baseball with my friends, but maybe I needed to strike out to remember that.

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #3

This is an extremely broad question – students could write about nearly anything they have ever questioned. It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all ideas and beliefs make great essays.

Students should not write about something superficial; they should write about ideas and beliefs that are central to their identities. A response to this prompt should demonstrate thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, and an ability to think analytically.

The following essay demonstrates what it takes to address this prompt effectively.

  • Gym Class Hero – An essay about challenging an idea despite all the odds being stacked against you. Note the author’s use of internal monologue to move the narrative along and captivate the reader.

Excerpt from “Gym Class Hero”

Where did my doubt come from? No one ever said to me, “Oh, you can’t run a mile.” I don’t even remember any askance looks, any raised eyebrows implying I was out of my depth. Middle-schoolers can be a cruel bunch, but not that day. There was just that voice in my head, as clear as a bell: “You’ll never be able to run a mile. You can’t even climb stairs without getting winded. It’s going to hurt. You’ll probably pass out. You could never run a mile.’ A whole mile? That voice was right. It was, in my mind, impossibly long. What was I going to do?

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #4 

As mentioned above, this prompt was added last year and inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically, by research on the benefits of writing about the positive influence that other people have on our lives.

While this prompt may seem to be asking a simple question, your answer has the potential to provide deep insights into who you are to the admissions committee. Explaining what you are grateful for can show them your culture, your community, your philosophical outlook on the world, and what makes you tick.

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #5 

We all have had experiences that helped us grow and mature, and this prompt is therefore a good option for most—if not all—applicants.

The key here is to choose the “right” accomplishment, event, or realization and then write about it in a way that showcases depth and self-analytical skills. When identifying a period of personal growth, try to stay within the past few years. You want to show the admissions officers who you are now, and a childhood story is not likely to accomplish this as effectively.

This essay is a great example of how to properly approach this prompt.

  • Student Teacher – An essay about an event that sparked personal growth. This essay example shows how demonstrating mental growth and wisdom can be just as effective as retelling how you overcame a difficulty. 

Excerpt from “Student Teacher”

Anthony’s success wasn’t just his plane. He had succeeded in making me aware of my own failures. Here was a student who was never taken seriously and had developed a bunch of behavioral issues as a result. I never stopped to look for his potential, discover his interests, or get to know the kid beneath the facade. I had grossly underestimated Anthony, and I am grateful that he was able to disillusion me. I like to think that I’m an open-minded, liberal, and non-judgmental person. Anthony taught me that I’m not there yet.

Common App Essay Examples: 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?

Like Prompt 3, Prompt 6 is very broad, and allows students to write about nearly any interest they might have. The purpose of this question is to learn what excites and motivates an applicant. Therefore, this option is ideal for students with concrete and established passions. On the other hand, students who are not sure what they are enthusiastic about should probably consider a different prompt.

To approach this prompt, start by listing all the topics, ideas, and concepts you care most about and then narrow those down to those you can describe, justify, and explain .

See the following essay, taken from this collection of “essays that worked” , to get a sense of what makes a great response to this prompt about passion for a hobby.

Excerpt from “Left and Right Don’t Exist”

Through flying, I began to consider all points of view, regardless of my personal perspective. Perhaps it was my ability to scan the horizon to communicate a single story, uniting contrasting outlooks, that drew me to my love for journalism and the diverse melting pot that was my community. To me, journalism modernizes the ancient power of storytelling, filled with imperfect characters and intricate conflicts to which I am the narrator. As editor-in-chief for my school newspaper, The Wildcat’s Tale, I aim to share the uncensored perspective of all students and encourage my editorial groups to talk — and listen — to those with whom they disagree. Starting each newspaper edition with a socratic, round-table discussion, I ask the other journalists to pursue stories that answer the questions: why did this happen and where will it lead?

Additional Common App Essay Writing Tips

There are a few other common essay mistakes you should avoid, and reading about these in advance might help you steer clear of making a fundamental error when it comes to choosing your application essay topic.

Preparing Your Common App Essay for Submission

We know we keep repeating ourselves, but after writing your application essay, be sure to have it reviewed by a trusted friend or colleague, and edited by a professional editing service like Wordvice before you finally hand it in. And while writing, make use of our hundreds of admissions resources on making your way through the college and university admissions process.

An outstanding admissions essay should have a great topic. However, it should also use clear, crisp, engaging language and be free of errors. If you require further help on this front, check out Wordvice’s full suite of English editing and proofreading services , including our essay editing services . These services are ideal for international students who struggle with English or any students who want to take their essays to the next level. 

Wordvice essay editors not only correct grammatical and stylistic errors but also provide suggestions on how you can improve the content of your essays. We are proud to say that we were ranked best admissions essay editing service by Wired.com. Check out Wordvice’s free AI proofreading tool and admissions editing services to learn how our editors can elevate your writing and help you get into your dream school.

10 Exceptional Common App Essay Examples

Common app essay examples.

One of the most important pieces of the college admissions process is the Common App essay, also known as the college essay or the personal statement. By reading Common App essay examples, you can prepare to write your own. 

However, what is a personal statement? In a word, a personal statement is an essay you’ll write for college. We will learn more about what makes a great personal statement by exploring sample Common App essays. In fact, the best way for students to ace this type of essay is through dissecting Common App essay examples to see what works. 

Breaking down the Common App essay

In this article, we’ll use Common App essay examples to explore what makes a strong personal statement. We’ll break down what makes each of these Common App essay examples successful. That way, you can find inspiration and tools to unlock the best version of your own college entrance essays. We will also provide tips for coming up with college essay ideas and finding a college application essay format that works for your story.

At CollegeAdvisor, our goal is to demystify the college admissions process for all students. As such, we’ll also introduce you to many resources about how to write a college essay—like our guide on How to Write a Personal Statement linked below! In it, you’ll find even more stellar Common App essay examples to help you get inspired.

How to Write a Personal Statement – 5 Personal Statement Examples

What is a Common App essay?

The first step in writing a college essay is understanding the varying types of college essays. When students look up “what is a personal statement?” they are likely to come across many articles about sample Common App essays. Indeed, personal statement sample essays are often the same as Common App essay examples. While there are many other types of college essays, such as supplemental essays, the Common App essay/personal statement is extremely important. 

Let’s first explore one major question: what is a personal statement?

Whether you are applying to undergrad, grad school, or a scholarship, the personal statement is a general term for an essay that introduces you to admissions officers. As such, personal statement sample essays must tell a unique story about you that conveys who you are. They should showcase your personality traits, values, and personal growth. With this story, you are showing admissions teams what kind of person and community member you will be when you step onto their campus. For this reason, no two personal statement sample essays are identical.

Understanding the Common App essay

Now, let’s explore what the Common App essay is. A Common App essay is a personal statement submitted through the Common App. Astoundingly, over 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States use the Common App as an application platform. As a result, when you apply to college, you will almost definitely use the Common App. This is why there are so many Common App essay examples out there.

All Common App essay examples are 250-650 wo r ds long. Since students can apply to multiple schools using the Common App, the Common App essay examples we provide were likely submitted to several different colleges. Note how these sample Common App essays are personal to the student but still general enough to work for different schools. 

Do all schools require a Common App essay?

Besides wondering “what is a personal statement?”, many students wonder if they need one for every school.  As we mentioned, many universities in the U.S. use the Common App . However, the personal statement, also known as the Common App essay, is not required by all schools. 

For example, the Universi t y of Washington-Seattle does not accept the Common App essay even though students can apply using the Common App. However, the school has different college entrance essay requirements . These appear when you select a school on your Common App portal. 

Encouraged but not required

Some schools encourage but do not require students to submit a college entrance essay. For example, Bridgewater State University encourages students to write a college entrance essay, but it’s not mandatory. In this case, we still recommend submitting an essay, since every part of an application is a chance to showcase who you are and why you’re a compelling candidate. 

Furthermore, some schools do not require essays at all. In fact, they won’t even read your college entrance essay should you submit one. These schools, one of which is the University of South Florida , rely exclusively on other measures such as grades, test scores, or extracurriculars to make their college admissions decisions.

Though all schools don’t require a Common App essay, many do. They also might require supplemental essays. As such, it’s important to start preparing your essays early by first reading Common App essay examples. This will help you learn what makes a great college essay.

Common App Essay Prompts

The second question students might ask after ”what is a personal statement?” is “what do I write about?”

Luckily, the Common App gives you plenty of college essay ideas through the college essay topics it provides. All of the Common App essay examples we will look at responded to one of the current prompts. 

Let’s review the seven current prompts that inspired our Common App essay examples:

Current Common App Essay Prompts

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..

When looking at these prompts, you’ll note that they are all asking you to be reflective. Indeed, all common app essay examples and college essays that worked involve the student engaging in self-reflection. As such, it matters less what you write about and more what deeper meaning the topic at hand has to you. Successful sample Common App essays demonstrate that the author is a deep thinker.

Choose your own topic

Furthermore, note that prompt #7 allows you to submit an essay on any topic of your choice. So, if none of the first six prompts inspire you, you can focus on another topic of your choice that is meaningful to you.

There is no one-size-fits-all college application essay format. Indeed, all of the Common App essay examples we will explore take different approaches to telling their stories. 

As we look at Common App essay examples, take note of how students were self-reflective and demonstrated their unique passion for a topic. We’ll dig into how they accomplish this as we review each of these college essays that worked.

And remember, while your essays are extremely important, they are just one part of the overall admissions process. So, before you jump into these essay examples, don’t forget to take our CollegeAdvisor quiz to see how prepared you are to successfully tackle your college applications!

How to use these Common App Essay Examples

Before we look at sample Common App essays, let’s discuss how you can use these examples of college essays to support you in writing your own.

First, avoid the impulse to compare your life to other students’ stories in these Common App essay examples. These sample Common App essays are great tools because of the students’ reflections. It truly doesn’t matter what you write about so long as you can do it in a meaningful way that shows personal growth and self-awareness. Great personal statement sample essays can be written about the most mundane or common topics . So, don’t compare your life experiences with those of other students. Simply add these Common App essay examples to your college essay writing toolbox and understand what works.

Reflect on how you want to tell your story

Secondly, use these Common App essay examples to find inspiration for how you wish to tell your story. Do these Common App essay examples use dialogue that really makes a scene come to life? Maybe a few sample Common App essays discuss topics you hadn’t realized you could write about, giving you ideas for new college essay topics. Drawing inspiration from Common App essays that worked is distinct from copying their ideas or language. So, don’t try to imitate any of these essays. Rather, use them as a tool to enhance your own unique essays. 

Finally, take note of what you learn about the writers of these sample Common App essays. Then, look at yourself through the same lens. What do you want college admission officers to learn about you? Your college entrance essay is your chance to show that.

Common App Essay Examples #1

The first of our sample Common App essays discusses a topic that many students might assume is too ordinary: a student’s love of books. After reading each of our sample Common App essays, we’ll break down what makes them strong Common App essay examples.

Sample Common App Essays #1: Books and Identity

Under the harshly fluorescent lights of an aisle in Walmart, I take position amidst the rows of plastic silverware, paper towels, and household goods while my mother searches for supplies she needs for a Fourth of July party. Neither the faint swells of an outdated and overplayed pop song nor the hustle and bustle of a retail store on a holiday weekend reach my ears because as usual, my nose is buried in a book. My mother calls to me, but her voice barely registers and I ignore her, shifting in the spot I have designated for myself aside the packages of Hefty trash bags on the bottom shelf.

She finally finds me, and I reluctantly tear my concentration away from the page. “I’ll just stay here,” I say, buying myself precious time in which I can finish the next sentence, paragraph, or chapter of the novel, and I sink contentedly back into a state of mind where I am entirely myself and nothing, not even other customers searching for trash bags, can disturb me.

This memory is not an uncommon one for me. As a child, I could always be found in stores or restaurants with my latest literary pick in hand. I constantly nagged my parents to bring me to the library or bookstore; this was a constant even as I went through “phases” as I grew up, dabbling in music and theater with temporary or half-hearted enthusiasm. Other children dressed up as astronauts or princesses, but I took on roles of different people as I struggled to find myself.

As I grow older and continue to explore different interests, my love for reading has sparked my intellectual curiosity and taught me valuable life lessons. Reading was an escape during a time when I didn’t quite know who I wanted to be. Now it marks the cornerstone of who I’ve become. I’ve read just as many books about fictional villains and heroes as those about regular people who face the same struggles I do. For me, it’s these kinds of books, stories of people not so different than myself, that have changed and defined my outlook on life. 

One such book is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, a story of twins and their difficulty finding their own identity in a world where they are bound together. Noah, one of the twins, describes how he feels he is always “undercover.” He says, “‘Maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people. Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time. Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, […] grow, dive into the world.’” I was unable to realize a person could be defined by multiple aspects of himself.

My tendency to try to fit into a specific role proved to be unsuccessful, but one of my different “selves” was always a part of me, even when taking on the role of someone I didn’t want to be. A love for reading is not a temporary persona I put on to appease parents, friends, or college admissions officers. The reader of a story has an unique perspective of the mind of a character. Because of this, I have realized the true depth and intricacy every person and situation can hold.

I struggled with defining my own identity, with labeling who I was, but now I know every person is much too complex to be defined by a label as simplistic as “athlete” or “musician.” So although it might be assumed that an individual pursuing an engineering degree does not enjoy reading, I am grateful for my love of books, as it is with this passion that I find myself ready to “dive into the world.”

Why this essay worked

As we mentioned earlier, it may feel difficult to come up with college essay ideas. This student chose a topic that some might consider mundane— their love of reading. However, the student is successful because they show how reading has been a critical part of their identity and personal development. 

In this essay, the student tells us how reading was an escape from the pressure she felt to define who she was. Later, reading became an integral part of her identity as a learner intrigued by stories. Given that the student plans to major in engineering, this fact adds depth and intrigue to the student’s personal brand. A college admissions officer would find this student an appealing candidate because they will likely be engaged and passionate. Through this example, we see that any topic can be a successful one if it is important to the reader and connects to a core aspect of their identity.

Lastly, as we see in many great examples of college essays, this student includes many details. They even reference dialogue from a favorite book, further illustrating their love of reading. 

Now, let’s look at a very different college application essay format in the second of our Common App Essay examples.

Sample Common App Essay #2

The second of our Common App essay examples takes the unique—and potentially challenging—approach of talking about another person. In this essay, the author describes her relationship with Sophia, a child with special needs that she meets while volunteering. 

The author’s essay is in response to prompt #3 of the Common App essay prompts: 

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Not many Common App essay examples respond to this prompt. Let’s see how this student tackles it.

Common App Essay #2: Challenging Bias about Ability

I see Sophia and wave, laughing at her leaps of excitement that brighten my day. Sophia grins up at me, pointing at her two missing front teeth, and I marvel at how grown-up she is becoming. Deciding to capitalize on her boundless exuberance, I suggest we work on her backstroke, her least favorite. Sensing her reluctance to lie flat on the water, I point out the purple monkey and the giraffe on the ceiling, coaxing her to relax on her back and practice a few kicks. I know that with this distraction, she will slowly uncoil her arms from my waist, gaining the confidence to float on her own. Beaming, I praise her courage, offering a congratulatory high-five. Proud of today’s improvements, I hand her the dreaded kickboard. Sophia’s dimples vanish as she vigorously shakes her head, inching away from the terrifying aqua board.

Recognizing this fear, I remember a trick she loved from the previous lesson. I promise to teach her how to do an under-water handstand, and in response, she tentatively grasps the board with one hand, while clinging to me with the other. I then challenge her to splash me as hard as she can with powerful freestyle kicks, and laugh as my face is soon drenched with water. Clapping, I marvel at her ability to propel herself without any assistance, and to celebrate, we belt out “Let It Go” from Frozen together. My giggles vanish and my heart aches as she begins to recollect the long needles from her latest hospital visit, but I am amazed to see that her laugh never ceases.

Sophia has special needs. Despite her mental challenges, her bubbly and infectious personality never fails to be an uplifting inspiration. I marvel at how this 10-year-old has learned to fully appreciate the life she has been given and cherish each precious moment. In and out of surgeries, hospitals, and clinics, she still exhibits an unparalleled enthusiasm for life.

Sophia’s determination coupled with her bright personality inspires me to embrace optimism in my life. I am passionate about enabling Sophia to break down any perceived obstacles and stereotypes in front of her and lead an active life, just like any other child. Though I go in each week as the teacher, I leave having been her student. Each evening after volunteering, I would lie awake, tossing and turning, wondering how I could do more for Sophia. Prior to volunteering, I often took for granted that I have sports and activity programs readily available. But with far more athletes than coaches in the program, why did more of my peers not volunteer? Why did more people not know about the special gifts people with disabilities radiate?

Yearning to share my experience with others, I founded a club at my school called HandiCapable, encouraging my peers to volunteer with people who have special needs through sports mentoring. I hope to encourage my school community to see that people with mental disabilities are people first, facing challenges like us all. I fought to change an underlying culture where people with intellectual disabilities are mocked or misunderstood in today’s society by spearheading a campaign to eliminate the word “retarded.” Breaking away from using hurtful and derogatory colloquialisms is the first step towards understanding and compassion, altering the way we think, speak, and ultimately act.

Sophia has taught me that nothing is insurmountable if you have courage, foresight and above all, a positive attitude. She has driven me to be more accepting of people who may seem initially quite different, but face challenges like I do. She has inspired me to be more appreciative of uniqueness, because everyone has an individual personality and perspective from which I can learn. Sophia has changed how I view the world.

What makes this a successful essay ?

Writing about another person when applying to college can be tricky. Many sample Common App essays write so much about the other person that they forget to center the author. However, in this essay, the author demonstrates the impact that Sophia had on her, centering her own experiences. In doing so, it highlights how Sophia taught the author to face challenges with joy and courage. 

The student also answers the prompt fully and in detail. Specifically, the writer discusses how her experience with Sophia led her to challenge ableist thought. Moreover, the author tells the reader how her inspiration led her to create a club at her school. By doing this, she demonstrates her own leadership skills and activist mindset. In short, we learn a lot about the author even though this essay is about someone who inspired her.

For our third sample, we’ll give into the challenging world of Common App essay examples that talk about sports.

Personal Statement Sample Essay #3

Many examples of college essays talk about a sport that a student has played for a long time. Writing about this topic can be difficult. At times, students spend too much time talking about the details of the sport rather than their experiences. 

In the third of our sample Common App essays, the author shows us how her relationship to gymnastics changes over her lifetime. In doing so, she reveals a lot about her character. Let’s take a look:

Personal Statement Sample Essays #3: Perseverance and Commitment through Gymnastics 

Gymnastics has always been a part of my life and has shaped who I am today. Without gymnastics I would not have the same determined mindset, competitive nature, and appreciation of a team. If I were to neglect sharing this aspect of my life, my application would truly be incomplete.

When I was two years old, my parents enrolled me in the Parent-and-Me program at Countryside Gymnastics. At six, I became part of the pre-team program, Dynamos, and was placed in the compulsory team at age seven.  As a compulsory, I struggled to be as good as my teammates. This struggle caused frustration which evolved into determination and a competitive nature. Throughout the rest of my compulsory years, I gradually improved but still felt as though I were stuck. I knew I had to “up my game.”

The optional levels, 7 and up, brought a new factor—fear. Even though this fear did hold me back at times, I did not let it keep me from achieving my goals. Gymnastics is also extremely tough on the body. Once I entered the optional level of gymnastics, I trained at least 20 hours a week and endured the aches and pains that came along with it. However, I did not let these pains defeat me. When I reached level 9, I began to experience severe back pain, which a spine specialist diagnosed as a subcutaneous lipoma. Although the physician highly recommended I stop training to avoid complications later in life, I was too committed to stop the sport.  I let my desire push me through the pain, and I had a successful competition season, qualifying for the Region 8 Regional Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. 

During summer training in 2013, I worked as hard as possible to reach level 10, with the back pain progressively worsening. Once my pain peaked, my coach told me it may be time to “hang it up.” I could either quit or repeat level 9 with minimal training. Ultimately, the choice was mine. To prove I was capable of reaching level 10 and to support my team, I continued to train on a vigorous schedule. At level 10, I am the highest level gymnast at Countryside Gymnastics and am determined to have an exceptional competition season.

This determination and competitiveness that pushes me to accomplish my goals in gymnastics also exists in my current scholastics—the health sciences, which will ultimately prepare me for my future in pediatric medicine. Without the desire to be the best I can be, I might not have achieved success throughout my high school years.

Why this essay worked 

Some sample Common App essays that write about sports focus too heavily on the sport. In doing so, they fail to tell us much about the author. However, colleges want to know about you!

This author writes about what gymnastics has meant to her throughout her life. This gives us a window into how she thinks, what she fears, and how she handles challenges. Through describing how she pushed forward when faced with injuries or fear, she shows us how she will succeed in college and in life.

Common App Essay Examples #4

Many Common App essay examples attempt to subtly weave in achievements. However, in the fourth of our sample Common App essays, the author takes a bold move. This essay talks about how the author handles failure, revealing critical details about their character. Some might assume that successful Common App essay examples need to focus on “successes,” not failures. However, this essay shows how failure can be a good essay topic choice—if you address it the right way.

Let’s see how one student skillfully tackles the topic of failure.

Sample Common App Essays #4: A New Perspective on Failure

Stretching my ankle against the theraband, my pre-pointe teacher hands out evaluations, determining who will move up to pointe shoes. The TheraBand, worn from months of strengthening in hopes of earning pointe shoes, snaps as I eagerly grab my evaluation. Dumbfounded, I wonder how all my friends were advancing to pointe while I wasn’t. Maybe my body is not built for ballet, I conceded.

A year later, the server on the other side of the net serves the ball with a loud smack. The ball hurdles towards me in seemingly slow motion. Other players yell my name, encouraging me. I need to pass the ball, or else I won’t make the middle school volleyball team. Positioning myself, I bend my knees, and… I hit it out of the court. 

Defeated, I accept the rejection with the mindset that my lack of athleticism is permanent. 

The following fall, walking out of the audition room and having made it successfully past the first round, I was dizzy and elated. Moments prior, I perfectly performed an excerpt from a piece I prepared for 3 months and was about to play yet another excerpt, which would determine whether I would make the district honors band. Breathing rhythmically, my fingers glide over the familiar scales, my heart thumps the beat of the piece, and I triumph in my second successful audition of the evening. The results the next day were disappointing. I thought about how my mother is tone deaf, and decided that was the reason I would never be successful in my musical aspirations.

Regarding my failures as something out of my control was a recurring theme in my life. Reflecting on past experiences, I am not sure when the thought that my abilities were unchangeable began to prevail. However, I am aware of when the toxic mindset began to change.

For years, I had marveled at long distance runners. Their athleticism and ability to persistently push onwards in a race was something I lacked in my life and simultaneously desired. Spring of my freshman year of high school, I decided I wanted to join the Cross-Country team. However, joining a sport in high school tended to be very difficult, due to the fact current players had already been participating for years prior. Despite anxiety about possibly “failing” at something again, I tried anyways. After careful research and planning, I set a schedule of running and cross training six days a week. Beginning in March, I developed the capability to keep up with experienced teammates by the time the pre-season began in June.  With determination, I trained myself from a 12-minute mile runner to a 7-minute mile runner and a competitive Cross-Country athlete.

For the first time, I realized something: Failure does not define me. Instead, it drives me to succeed.

Having previously believed negative qualities cannot be changed, self-training for a sport revealed situations are not permanent. Whatever I lack in inherent talent can always be made up for in hard work and strategic planning. Innately, I am self-motivated and resilient.  Once I realized this, obtaining my goals was a possibility, and eventually, a reality. 

Because of my newfound self-awareness, pursuing goals is efficient and organized, and often produces favorable results. I no longer believe traits, such as my body type or genetic predisposition for music, restrict my ability to achieve. Instead, they are simply obstacles to be overcome. 

Letting shortcomings or events define my future or limit my aspirations is a thing of the past. What truly defines me is my ability to push past rejection and continually better myself – no matter what version of myself I am at the moment. 

Why did this essay work well?

One approach that successful personal statement sample essays could take is focusing on an unexpected topic. Throughout this essay, the author plays with the idea of failure. They introduce us to many specific moments in life when they have failed. 

As the essay moves forward, the author’s perspective on failure shifts. They learn that through their failures, they can identify ways to improve. They also realize that their own perceptions of their abilities shape how they set goals and whether they achieve them. Essentially, this student tells us through stories how they have developed a growth mindset. This is something that college admissions officers highly value in applicants.

The best Common App essay examples showcase traits that are both true to the author and appealing to colleges. Think about how to do this as you craft your own essays.

Sample Common App Essay #5

Personal statement sample examples are incredibly personal, and this next example is no different. Here, we’ll learn about a tradition that the author values deeply—spending Saturday mornings with family. 

Common App Essays that Worked #5: Family Values

I relish Saturday mornings. After a long week of rushed early mornings and drawn-out nights filled with studying, Saturday is the reward. My eyes open at my own pace. Weekdays, I awaken at 6:45 a.m. to the harsh sound of my cell phone alarm or my mom calling through my bedroom door. But not on Saturday, on that day, I rise to the sound of birds chirping or my dad moving around downstairs. Stretching for a long moment, I just enjoy staring at the ceiling. I am content after an extra hour and half of sleep.

Slowly, I leave my warm bed, throw on a comfy sweater and place my glasses on my head. It’s a welcome change from my weekday routine. I do not miss forcing my sleepy body out of bed, slipping into my itchy uniform, or forcing contacts into my tired eyes. When I make my way down the steps I am greeted by my dad reading the newspaper in his favorite leather armchair rather than my full backpack in the foyer.

These relaxing mornings offer me a much-needed break. For once, I’m not rushing off to school or soccer practice. Any essays I need to write or physics tests I must study for can wait a while. 

I take the time to just sit on the couch and read a book or watch TV. I can do everything I want or do nothing at all.

However, the true highlights of these mornings occur when I am sitting at the kitchen table with my crossword puzzle and pencil on my right and my breakfast plate and hot mug of tea on my left. Between bites of pancake, I share tricky crossword clues with my family. My mom looks up from the sports section to carefully consider the hint and my sisters bombard me with suggestions but it’s usually my dad, standing over the griddle flipping pancakes, who calls out the correct answer. As I find contentment in a meal, the Puzzles and Games section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the company of my family, I realize that it truly is the little things in life that mean the most.

I appreciate my dad who works long hours but still gets up to cook a big weekend breakfast for my family and the way that he serves me tea in my mom’s white college mug because he knows it’s my favorite. My sisters’ and I laugh playfully as we compete over who’s the strongest and tease me because I’m the weakest. I shake my head and smile at my mom who insists that she can eat three pieces of French Toast even though we all know she’ll barely finish two. To someone else, lazy Saturdays and family breakfasts may appear so routine, so insignificant. But to me, these moments are perfect.

This essay proves that sample Common App essays that worked don’t have to be about a huge life event. In fact, this student is writing about the most common aspects of everyday life: spending time with family. However, the way the student writes about their family demonstrates a lot about the student’s character. We learn that this student values the little things in life and cares deeply for others. 

Secondly, by using specific details, from crossword puzzles to coffee mugs, this essay highlights the author’s love for their family. This student masters the age-old writing advice of “show, don’t tell.” This approach keeps Common App essay examples intriguing and fun to read. 

Personal Statement Sample Essay #6

There isn’t one successful college application essay format or topic. However, writing about a pivotal moment in one’s life can lead to a very compelling story. Though it can be difficult, this student chooses to be vulnerable about how a catastrophic injury changed their life.

Common App Essay Examples #6: Lessons from an Injury

When I finally woke for the first time in three days, I could feel needles dancing up and down my legs where there were none, and when the doctor asked me to wiggle my toes, there was not even a flicker. Regarding my condition, the doctor told me, “Your skiing accident has left you paralyzed. Permanently.” 

In Korea, where I was born, a disability is considered very shameful. Many see people with disabilities as aliens of society. People with disabilities in Asian countries rarely leave the house due to the inaccessible nature of the society and the unbearable piercing stares of the surrounding community members. Seeing this as my only possible life in a wheelchair, the people closest to me repeatedly etched into my brain that without the use of my legs, I could never be successful or happy–a forever pitied human being.

As my church and family members visited me after my injury and saw me in the wheelchair, they reacted in shock, saying, “I’m sorry. I really hope you walk again.” As they tried to console me, I could feel their deep pity. Before even asking if I was okay, or how I was doing, my immobile legs had already drawn in their minds a picture of my bleak future. 

As apologies and condolences were continuously thrown at me, I started to believe that everyone was right. Maybe I was just a burden. Maybe I would not ever be happy. Enveloped in a façade of darkness, for so many days, I merely sat in bed begging my legs to move again. 

I would be lying if I claimed I suddenly woke up one day and was completely happy again. But through weeks and months, I started to discover that if I continued to look to my surroundings for motivation or support, I would not find it. To everyone else, my church members, my family, I had just become “that girl in the wheelchair.” But I knew I could not just give up on my aspirations or conform to the definitions that I had been labeled with due to one physical attribute.

Through my experiences after my injury, I started to notice so much, especially the lack of diversity in the workplace, and the support that this fact gave to existing societal stereotypes. I started to wonder, how would my experience after my accident have changed, or how much encouragement would I have received if I saw a doctor, teacher, nurse, that had the same abilities as I did? Motivated, I began to involve myself more, and started to work harder academically, so that one day, through my life, I can become this strength and encouragement for someone else. 

Many people, seeing me driving, or even just sitting at the movie theater, come up to me and tell me that I’m an inspiration. They tell me how amazing I am for just having gotten dressed in the morning and leaving the house. Honestly, these actions should not be considered inspiring. I’m just living my life. But because of the many prejudiced opinions towards the disability community, opinions that I too once held, the fact that a person in a wheelchair can complete even just everyday activities is considered a great feat. 

Someday, I want to be someone that inspires, not because I can get dressed or talk for myself, but because I have really accomplished something that significantly influences the world. 

Yes, there are times when I wish I could just get up and walk. However, these moments are temporary and trifling. It scares me to think that without the occurrence of my accident, I may have remained living with the traditional and well-known biases regarding disability and other differences that exist in society. Then, I may have been a true pitiful character. 

Today, I am Korean and still, a person with a disability. But I am proud. 

A common assumption is that college essays that worked simply highlight a major hardship or tragic life event. However, this is simply not true. Common App essay examples about hardships are successful only if they show how the author grew from an experience. 

In this essay, the student shares how their skiing accident changed the way they were treated, thereby changing how they viewed themselves. Rather than feeling pitiful or less-than, this student discovered a newfound determination to positively influence the world. Their perseverance is seen not only in surviving an accident, but in overcoming the limitations society places on people with disabilities. 

Common App Essay Examples #7

Many powerful sample Common App essays tap into core aspects of the human experience. This often includes how we navigate our identities– especially in an ever-globalizing world. The following example of Common App essays that worked tackles that topic with grace.  

Sample Personal Statement #7: Embracing Heritage, Integrating Identity 

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” 

Six words. Six words were all it took for Ernest Hemingway to embody the sorrow of a family after losing a child. It seems almost impossible to so elegantly summarize a life in six words. 

I received this seemingly impossible assignment in AP Language a year ago. How could I encapsulate my seventeen years of life into six words? Would those words sound funny, poignant, dark? I reflected on important moments that shaped me as a person to answer my questions. 

I reminisced about my early years: two loving parents and a playful younger sister. During those years, my parents instilled in me their most important values: meaningful academic pursuit, following our Indian traditions, and preserving cultural heritage.

I remembered the first time I faced the struggle that would tear me apart for the next twelve years: values ingrained in me as a child versus values my friends and the society around me possessed. As I grew older, I learned just how different my friends’ values were from mine. 

Throughout my middle school and freshman years, I had two sets of friends: my school friends and my travel basketball friends. The former focused on social status rather than academics; the latter focused on athletics rather than academics. To fit in, I created another persona for myself: someone who focused singularly on social status and athletics. This decision to change my personality based on my surroundings cost me my drive for academic pursuit, and I threw away educational opportunities. I lost sight of who I was and what held true meaning for me. 

At that time, my six words would’ve been: “Flip a coin, American or Indian.” For the next two years, I lived by that mantra.

My struggle with balancing the two-sided coin ended in tenth grade by a chance conversation with a cousin in India. As she described her social struggles and their limiting effects on her educational opportunities, I realized how fortunate I was to be in the U.S. I held my destiny in my hands; all I had to do was to reshape my mind. The dissonance created by compartmentalizing my two important sides prevented me from moving forward, and I had to bridge the distance I had created between my Indian heritage and living as an American. 

I embraced my cultural heritage by immersing myself into Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance, and passionately committing to it by completing a rigorous 3-year Certificate Course with Alagappa University of Performing Arts. In order to share my art with the community, I performed for neurologically challenged senior citizens residing in assisted living homes. Through this service, I was able to spread joy and culture amongst my American community, helping me bridge my cultural gap. 

Additionally, my upbringing had been focused on science with an expectation that my career would be in the medical field. Eventually, I developed an affinity toward science. Growing up, I was exposed to the American ideal that I can shape my own opportunities, pursue whichever career I desired, and just follow my heart. I found myself naturally attracted to journalism, and following my heart I ventured into journalism. 

Still, a key part of me was missing, and I found it only after conversing with my journalism teacher. She was describing an article by Helen Pearson, renowned science journalist, when it hit me: this is what I wanted to do. Science journalism was the product of my Indian upbringing and go-getter American attitude. That cathartic conversation is all that was needed to find the perfect career path for me. 

My cultural confusion turned out to be the springboard I needed for discovering balance, finding a potential career, arming me with rich life experiences, and allowing me to write the six words that transformed my life and that I still stand by:

“Shape my mind, shape my destiny.”

What makes this essay great ?

For students coming from multiple cultures or marginalized identities, writing a personal statement can be a healing form of self-reflection. Indeed, many successful Common App essay examples touch on this topic. However, as always, writing about it with intention and care is ultimately what makes these personal statement sample essays work. 

As an Indian-American, this student feels torn between connecting to their Indian heritage and integrating within their American community. They overcome this inner conflict by reframing how they view their identity, rejecting the either-or paradox they felt caught in. They even intentionally immerse themself in their Indian culture and share it with others through volunteer work. From their reflection, they discover how science journalism could be a career that merges all parts of their identity.

Compelling Common App essay examples are written engagingly . This author hooks us from the start of their essay with an intriguing quote that immediately catches the reader’s attention. They also bring that hook back to show us how changing their mindset allowed them to overcome their inner conflict.

Our next example of Common App essays that worked brings together two topics that the author feels passionate about. In doing so, the author doubles their ways to showcase who they are. 

Sample Common App Essay #8

All Common App essays that worked have touched upon a topic that is meaningful to the author. This next author wrote about two – their love of Rubik’s cubes and scientific research.

Common App Essay Examples #8: Rubik’s Cubes and Research

The complex array of colors had always baffled me. Orange, yellow, green, red, white, and blue all jumbled together on a mystifying gadget that just could not be completed. Twisting and turning side after side was of no use, the Rubik’s Cube could not be solved. This elaborate contraption presented me with the most overwhelming experience of my life. It outshined everything else in my dull life, and solving it became a life-changing experience.

I spent many weeks trying to find different combinations that could solve the mysterious puzzle. After continuously failing, I felt infuriated. However, rather than giving up on my goal, I knew I could do it. I worked backwards until I realized what I did wrong early in the solving process. I kept forgetting to do a critical step, causing me to get two colors in their wrong spots. Knowing this, I was able to alter my procedure and make significant progress. I was finally able to solve four out of the six sides over the course of 45 seconds. Solving the last two sides, however, needed a little more time and effort. My affection for mathematics and science stems mainly from this- both involve a similarly coherent and disciplined approach just like the Rubik’s Cube. 

This past summer, I did research work at Columbia University Medical Center on ion channel membrane proteins and studied their structure and function in the ultimate goal to find drug targets to help cure cancer. When some research experiments provided dubious outcomes, I was given the assignment of checking that the viruses we were working with had been identified correctly. I spent weeks running DNA gels through gel electrophoresis and trying to find specific genes in each virus, but I had varying results. I was exasperated, but rather than giving up on my task, I thought about my past experience with the Rubik’s Cube. Working backwards on the Rubik’s Cube helped me figure out exactly at which step I went wrong.

So I decided to work backwards on my research until I reached the source, the primers, I had used to amplify the DNA and specify the desired mutations were nonspecific, thus making them ineffective in distinguishing the six genes of interest to us. Knowing this, I was able to modify my experiments accordingly, looking at protein content instead of DNA sequences. I was finally able to prove that four of the six viruses were correct. The last two, however, needed to be reanalyzed. Just like the troubleshooting strategy with the Rubik’s Cube, working backwards helped me to find my source of error and ultimately got me 4/6 th of the way through my goal.  My research work was crucial to the graduate student whom I was working with, and he was able to redesign his experiments to account for the fifth and sixth viruses.

Researching in a lab alongside a renowned professor was a thrilling experience for me. I gave up hanging out with my friends on the beach and chose to work with chemicals and viruses instead. My urge to understand these proteins was the driving force of my research. I am incredibly proud of my contribution to solving the puzzle of cancer. It was a small piece, but vital nevertheless. This cerebral inspiration, combined with an aspiration to learn more about life’s ambiguities, compels me to chase a profession with scientific research.

The sense of self-satisfaction and achievement I felt from my research work at the Columbia University was much the same as that I felt upon solving the Rubik’s Cube. This sensation is one I hope to experience throughout my life as the cancer puzzle is unequivocally one of the most critical puzzles of the modern era and certainly the first of a myriad of puzzles I hope to solve in the field of scientific discovery. 

Why this Essay Worked

This sample combines two college essay ideas flawlessly. First, the student introduces us to their love of Rubik’s cubes. Then, they flow into their love of research and the impact they made through their summer internship at a cancer research lab. 

The real power comes in how the student uses their approach to Rubik’s cubes in order to overcome a roadblock in their research. By doing so, the student highlights their problem-solving skills alongside their compassion for others. In this, this essay highlights the writer’s wish to positively impact the world. We can learn a lot about crafting a strong college application essay format from this example.

Our next sample of Common App essays that worked highlights a student’s passion for language . Moreover, it uses a hook and a writing style that makes it a standout essay.

Personal Statement Sample Essay #9

When thinking about how to write a college essay, start by thinking: what could I talk about all day? Great Common App essay examples often focus on passions. This author introduces us to one of their passions—the written word—through a story about an influential English teacher.

Common App Essay Examples #9: A Love for Language 

It is like selecting the perfect pair of socks, I suppose. I envision myself kneeling before the bottommost drawer of my bureau, my chilled feet egging me on, and perusing the trove of choices that awaits my roving fingertips. I meditate on the day’s promises before making my selection – now, did the weatherman say 65 or 55 degrees? Was that rain the Farmers’ Almanac called for? Perhaps I should just wear sandals. After a few more moments of inspection: Ah – there it is! Of perfect hue, texture, and temperament, it is exactly the article for which I sought.

There exists a great parallel between this, the daily hosiery search that begins my mornings, and my lifelong pursuit of the perfect word. Socks and words, both objects of my affection, are united in their enduring qualities: both involve a weighty decision, require a certain shrewdness and pragmatism from the selector, and offer nearly endless options that only intensify the quandary. However, in seventeen years of interaction with both, I informedly pronounce that I find the latter to be infinitely more cumbersome, convoluted, and, thus, beautiful. 

My rendezvous with language began as all children’s do: with crying. On the heels of crying came babbling, soon ousted by laconic speech and finally replaced by comprehensible expression. To my youngest self, language was mechanical and lifeless, a rigid blend of lexicon and grammar that broke as many rules as it created. This sentiment prevailed until I walked into Mrs. Regan’s fourth-grade class.

On that fateful first day, I recall being struck by her inviting personality and stylish plaid frock (I was personally wanting in the department of fashion). Beyond the warmth of her disposition, her pedagogical philosophy was unconventional and striking, even to an easily-distracted girl who wore the same green shirt every day. Her intention was not to satisfy district-determined measures or adhere to the antiquated curricula her coworkers professed. Instead, she pushed her students to invite intellectual challenges and conundrums, exposing us to the complexities of academia that she adored.

Her passion was best evidenced by the infamous vocabulary lists that circulated every Monday, boasting words typically native to a high school workbook. Suddenly, pedestrian exercises in ‘Choosing the Right Word’ were transformed into riveting explorations of the English language’s multiplicity, breadth, and allure. Within weeks I was concocting sentences just to employ ‘voracity’ and asking for synonyms for ‘vociferous’ that could aptly describe my rowdy classmates.

With thanks due to Mrs. Regan’s tutelage, my enthusiasm for words matured into an infatuation. I began to pour through the well-worn dictionary that presided over my nightstand, tasting the foreign syllables as they rolled from my lips. Coincidentally, I was soon given the title of the ‘human dictionary’ at school and have since served as a consultant for my friends and peers, answering questions of “What word fits best here?” or, the age-old query, “Affect or effect?” But the further I read, the more humbled I become, dwarfed by the vastness and mystery of my mother tongue.

Though my ensuing years of education have been enormously fruitful, Mrs. Regan remains my childhood hero on two counts: she encouraged my obsession with the written word and indulged my fourth-grade wish for a challenge. The insatiability I feel puzzling over jargon on PubMed, hearing the ping of Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s word of the day arriving in my inbox, and maybe even shedding a tear at the aesthetic tenor of ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ can be traced to those days of yore, spent copying definitions in a blockish scrawl. Today, as in that year far gone, I am still in pursuit of the perfect word – ever elusive, sitting on the tip of my tongue. But pouring through the dresser drawers of my mind, abundant with the tokens of my educational and lingual experience, I know it will not be long until I find it.

What makes this essay stand out?

Great Common App essay examples must be well-written. In this essay, the student’s writing mirrors her love for writing; they are both exceptional. Not all effective sample Common App essays need to have large vocabulary words like this essay does. However, they all need to reflect the student’s unique voice and be grammatically correct. 

This essay takes us into the student’s mind, showing us how they think and how much they love the English language. They highlight countless examples of how they embrace the challenge of writing, all through the metaphor of choosing socks. As such, we see a student who is ambitious and passionate. These character traits make them a very desirable candidate.

Common App Essay Examples #10

Next, let’s look at our final sample of Common App essays that worked. In this essay, we’ll explore a student’s relationship to acting and labels throughout their life.

Common App Essay Examples #10: Letting Go of Labels

“Are you ready?” I looked up at the sound of an unfamiliar voice, which I followed to a face caked in a mask of stage makeup. I replied with a curt nod and feigned smile, forcing my expression to oppose the dread welling inside my stomach. In no way did I feel prepared; truthfully, I felt nothing short of ridiculous, clad in an electric green, one-sleeved spandex dress reminiscent of a 4 th grader’s discarded dance ensemble (and no doubt someone’s well-intentioned but unfortunate donation to the costume bin). Trapped in my orb of painful self-awareness, I peeked into the audience, imbibing Coke from the concession stand and looking detachedly at iPhones, waiting for the dimming lights to signify the start of Act I. All I felt was my heart careening into my throat.

Weeks before, I accepted the request to play my ukulele during the high-school production of Godspell the musical. I thereupon decided to enter the wily seas of the theatre arts with the remarkably determined response of “Hey, why not?” Initially, my decision seemed an innocuous one. Playing ukulele? Seeing a show? Indulging in complimentary refreshments? The positive haze that enveloped the future reminded me that this could be my shot – the chance of realizing my Audra-McDonald-and-Angela-Lansbury-inspired dreams of performing, a dream left behind long ago.

Music and theatre forever had been a part of me, a shaper of the fantasies of grandeur and fame inherent with childhood. Christened with the bellows of Tchaikovsky and Dvořák and raised alongside a sister infatuated with the spotlight, it seemed only natural for me to ascend to my own musical perch. As years passed, however, my shier disposition guided me to athletics, and I soon became the recipient of patronizing nods when I explained that, no, I did not sing too. Even so, with the purchase of a ukulele, my passion became a quiet one, made undeniably alive in the moments everyone left the house and silenced as the family car pulled in again. 

Unfortunately, no late-night bedroom performance could have prepared me to step before an audience. In the wing, someone grabbed my arm and motioned onto the stage. My legs took on the cartoon effect of wobbling back and forth, and I plastered a perturbed grin on my face as a sorry attempt at joy (probably reading more a grimace than the beacon of ecstasy I had hoped). The cast shuffled onto the stage, cloaked in the colors of Stephen Schwartz’s vision, and the cue sounded for the song to start.

I stood arrested under the searing lights, feeling my heart race and sweat glands dilate. I looked into a faceless audience, blackened by the concentration of light striking my retina. Blinking and restoring my vision, I glanced beside me and saw the warmth and undiluted joy of my peers. Their smiles were not feigned. A lone flautist tooted out the first notes and, still watching over my shoulder, I fumbled to make a C chord. The tune began; I inhaled and opened my mouth and sang. 

I used to fashion square containers in my mind, ones in which I placed my friends, acquaintances, and, often, myself. I smacked a label on the box – maybe ‘Equestrian’, ‘Mathematical Genius’, or ‘Makes a Mean Stew’ – and relied upon my scheme, this Dewey Decimal System of my interpersonal library, to govern my conceptions of those around me. Only once I had lumped myself into the ‘Athlete’ bin and sealed the lid did I notice that an air-tight container is not where I belong, not where any free-thinking, passionate, idiosyncratic being belongs. Immersing myself into the vibrancy of the Godspell stage, uke in tow, and exuding what I had internalized shattered this jejune way of categorizing the world.

As I reassessed my perspective, I thought, maybe one day I’ll become a crusader of self-expression, a lover of every powerful facet that culminates in the individual, no matter where I find myself. Until then, I’ll keep on singing – not proudly, not defiantly, and definitely not concordantly, but my voice will pipe to the intricate, malleable tune of myself.

One college application essay format that works for some students is to take us directly into a scene through dialogue. This is often an effective hook. Here, the author uses this tactic to capture our attention. They also describe the moment before they step on stage with evocative details, allowing us to experience their anxiety. This is another great example of showing and not telling. 

However, the author’s anxiety about acting transforms into several realizations about their relationship to the arts. Fear led them to stop acting, and embrace athletics instead. However, in the end, the author realizes that they don’t need to choose one or the other. Instead, they can continue to evolve and explore new sides of themself as they grow. 

Undoubtedly, college admissions officers evaluated this writeras a lifelong learner who faces fears and constantly questions society’s assumptions. Like many compelling personal statement sample essays, this student takes us on a journey through her self-development.

How to write a college essay?

We’ve looked at 10 successful Common App essay examples. Now, you might be wondering how to write a college essay that is equally as compelling. Let’s look at some college essay tips to help you ace the process :

4 tips for writing college essays

1. start early.

We can almost guarantee that none of the Common App essay examples featured here were written overnight. In fact, these Common App essays that worked required ample time to choose a topic, reflect on one’s growth, write the essay, get feedback, and edit. 

Often, to write a successful essay, one must step away from a piece and come back to it. As such, it is important to give yourself plenty of time to write your essay. For most, this means several months. If you’re a college junior, start the summer before your senior year. 

2. Be you, specifically and authentically

Whether you’re writing about an injury or a favorite book, make sure your college essay ideas are meaningful and personal. Pick a topic that you could passionately talk about all day. Furthermore, always speak about your ideas and experiences in detail. Telling us that you love books is not as powerful as telling us how your parents had to continually turn off the lights in your room because you would stay up all night reading.

3. Write many drafts

Your first draft is often not your best draft. In fact, it can take upwards of 3-4 drafts to get to an essay that you’re proud of. Likewise, prepare yourself for the possibility of completely scrapping one of your college essay topics or reworking your entire college application essay format. These are all natural parts of the process.

4. Get help from others

Like many of the most challenging things in life, applying to college is best done with help. When brainstorming college essay topics, consider asking friends and family what makes you stand out in their minds. Ask experts like a CollegeAdvisor admissions counselor or an English teacher to review your essay. And, of course, read many examples of college essays to find inspiration. But don’t forget that you aren’t alone in this process!

We’ve now talked about how to write a college essay and looked at some Common App essay examples. But what makes a great college essay? We’ll explore characteristics of Common App essays that worked next.

What makes a great college essay?

We’ve looked at many Common App essay examples in this guide. As you’ve likely noticed, there is no single perfect recipe for college essays that worked. In fact, these sample Common App essays are all very different. From college essay topics to college application essay format, there is great diversity in what makes a great college essay. 

Still, there are some traits that many great Common App essay examples share. Here are a few:

Unique to the student 

Among the most important college essay tips is to write about what matters to you. If you try to copy someone else’s idea or write what you think colleges want to hear, your essay will feel forced. Instead, choose the topic that immediately catches your attention. This will lead to you writing about your most meaningful experiences. These could be anything from growing up without money to remembering your favorite toy. The personal statement sample essays we highlighted touch on many different topics. However, all of them were important to the authors.

Along with this, focus on writing in your own voice. If you don’t naturally write with four syllable vocabulary words, then don’t try to do so in your essay. Our personal statement sample essays highlighted several different writing styles, and they all worked.

Well-written

You don’t have to write like a college professor. However your essay does have to be easy to read and free of grammatical errors . Note that our personal statement sample essays were free from slang and typographical errors. In part, admissions officers are assessing your writing abilities. Show them the best writing you can produce.

Undoubtedly, admissions officers are looking to see how you reflect upon your experiences. Ideally, they want to see personal growth. What did you learn? What do you value? How do you solve problems? How do you approach challenges? All of our Common app essay examples demonstrate the author reflecting upon their experience in order to answer such questions. 

Additional Common App Essay Tips

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide to Common App essay examples. To finish, we have a few more tips from what we saw in our personal statement sample essays.

Show, don’t tell

A common literary approach that all of the sample Common App essays employed is the maxim of “show, don’t tell.” Though this is a cliché piece of advice , it is critical to all college essays that worked. It involves using descriptive language, dialogue, and other details to make your story come to life. Imagine you are a film director – how would you describe the story you are trying to tell in 3D detail? Our sample Common App essays were chock full of details that brought each story to life and made for an engaging read.

Find a hook

A hook is a compelling start to an essay. It is one of the most common aspects of a successful college application essay format. A hook can look like a piece of dialogue, an evocative sentence, or a surprising statement. If you look at our Common App essay examples, you’ll see that they all start with an interesting hook.

Read your essay aloud

The last of our college essay tips has to do with how you edit your essay. We recommend reading it aloud to yourself. This not only helps with finding typos or wordiness; it also allows you to connect with the emotion behind your essay. Does reading it make tears well in your eyes? Does it make you laugh? If so, you’re likely onto something great. Reading your essay out loud also helps to know if it sounds natural. As we stated earlier, all of our sample Common App essays capture the unique voices of different students.

Other CollegeAdvisor Essay Resources to Explore

At CollegeAdvisor, we’re committed to helping you ace the admissions process and get into a school that makes you happy. As such, beyond this article with sample Common App essays, we have other resources to guide you through the essay process.

Common App Essays 2023‒2024

If you liked reading our Common App essay examples, check out this article about personal statement sample essays. You’ll find more college essay ideas and college essay tips inside. 

Alternatively, if you’re already in college but are considering transferring , we have a guide for writing your transfer essay. With this guide, you’ll be able to reflect on why a new school might be a better fit for you. You’ll also learn how to ensure that your application to a new school is compelling. Since transfer essays have a slightly different college application essay format, you shouldn’t simply recycle a past personal statement.

Additionally, we have helpful webinars about writing your Common App essay. Our webinar on crafting your unique story will help you think about what kind of characteristics or branding you wish to highlight in your essay. Thinking in this way may feel more natural than trying to simply answer a prompt. 

Crafting Your Story: Effective Strategies for College Essays

If you’re a junior , our webinar on using the summer before your senior year to get ahead on writing your personal statement will help you get organized. Resources like these can help make the college application process much less stressful. We can guarantee that each of these sample Common App essays took a good amount of time to write. With that in mind, starting early is key.

Common App Essay Examples – Final Takeaways

In this article, we showed you ten Common App essay examples and broke down why they are Common App essays that worked. Hopefully, you can now answer both the questions “what is a personal statement?” and “what makes great sample Common App essays?”. If you remember only one of our featured college essay tips, let it be to stay true to yourself in your essay. 

The process of applying to college, and especially being vulnerable in an essay, can be daunting. However, CollegeAdvisor is here to support you. In addition to providing dozens of examples of college essays and other resources , we offer personalized admissions guidance designed to help students succeed. Click here to connect with a member of our team and learn more. 

Courtney Ng wrote this guide full of Common App Essay Examples. Looking for more admissions support? Click  here  to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how  CollegeAdvisor.com  can support you in the college application process.

Personalized and effective college advising for high school students.

  • Advisor Application
  • Popular Colleges
  • Privacy Policy and Cookie Notice
  • Student Login
  • California Privacy Notice
  • Terms and Conditions
  • Your Privacy Choices

By using the College Advisor site and/or working with College Advisor, you agree to our updated Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy , including an arbitration clause that covers any disputes relating to our policies and your use of our products and services.

how to write the best common app essay

  • High School
  • College Search
  • College Admissions
  • Financial Aid
  • College Life

5 Tips on How to Write The Perfect Common App Essay

A student sitting at a desk in front of their computer. Their head is in their hands and the computer has stickers on the front.

The Common App Essay is a type of Personal Statement that you’ll be submitting to nearly all the colleges you’ll be applying to. It gives you the opportunity to better describe your interests, passions, and experiences in ways that can’t necessarily be seen in other parts of your application. 

While the majority of your college applications require you to tediously enter in bits of random information like your demographics and parents’ level of education, the essay is your chance to stand out, set yourself apart, and make your case for getting accepted to the college of your dreams. 

There’s certainly a lot of pressure riding on this essay, and it can be overwhelming to even know where to begin. For many people, picking a prompt and finding a topic is the hardest part —and that’s before the writing even begins!

Writing the Common App Essay is not designed to be easy, and there are some common pitfalls you might fall into. Sometimes, it’s about choosing the wrong topic that isn’t revealing enough about you. Other times, it’s using the wrong tone that can make you come off differently than you’d expected.

After having successfully written my Common App Essay, 12 drafts and all, I’m here to share my best tips that I wish someone would have told me before I began the process. 

1. Don’t Be Cliche

College admissions officers read thousands of essays each year, and if you want yours to stand out against the crowd, steer clear of cliche topics.

There’s the classic, “I did a mission trip and learned that I like giving back,” or “I learned the power of teamwork when we won our rival’s soccer tournament.” And while there’s nothing wrong with these essays, they’re not unique and don’t reveal enough about who you are.

Dig deeper into specific moments of your life where you learned something important about yourself or others around you, even if you think it’s mundane.

Maybe it’s a dish your mom makes from your culture that makes you feel connected to your roots. Or how your favorite song takes you back to a specific childhood memory and makes you feel alive. 

Whatever it is, make sure it’s revealing something insightful about yourself that colleges can get invested in. Look around your home, school, or community: what stories can you tell?

2. Don’t Treat it Like a Resume

Treating your Common App Essay like a resume is one of the most common mistakes. Many students feel the need to use the space as a place to boast about all their accomplishments, almost as if their essay was a resume in paragraph form.

For one, college admissions officers already know all of this information from reading other parts of your application like your activities list, and by doing this, you’re wasting a bunch of space that could be better used.

Also, it can come across as conceited, so let your accomplishments speak for themselves. Even if you don’t mean to come across this way, it can still leave a bad taste in your application reader’s mouth.

It’s totally fine if your essay revolves around a specific experience that’s also on your resume, but make sure to do it in a narrative form (more on that next) instead of treating it like a cover letter.

3. Tell a Narrative

Like I mentioned, writing your essay in a narrative form is one of the best techniques you can use because it engages your reader and makes you stand out.

All this means is that you’re showing your reader how and why something interests you —be it art, science, or writing— through descriptive language, dialogue, and other storytelling tools, rather than just flat-out saying it. 

Dig deep into a specific moment when you discovered your passion for something, and use sensory details like sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell that you can remember from that moment. 

Invite your reader into a snapshot of your world , and get as detailed as possible.

4. Watch Your Tone

The tone of the essay is something that’s often overlooked, but is an important factor in how your application reader perceives your personality. 

Think of your essay as a first impression, because if you aren’t interviewing with the school, it’ll be all they know about you besides your grades, scores, and activities.

Try to aim for a balance of humility, humor, and seriousness. Your reader wants to see that you’re serious about their school and your education, but also down-to-earth and easy to get along with. They’re people too, and they are looking for applicants who are relatable and don’t take themselves too seriously.

The best piece of advice I was told was to treat my essay like a conversation. Always put yourself in your reader’s shoes and see what initial thoughts or judgments you think they’d form based on what you’re saying.

Also, let your essay breathe for a bit and come back to it a few weeks later with a fresh mindset. See what you think of it then. 

5. Use Your Space Wisely

There are two types of Common App Essay writers: those who write far too much and those who write far too little. 

If you write too much, you’re faced with having to trim out important parts, which can end up sounding disjointed. If you write too little, you’ll hardly crack the surface and risk sounding superficial.

Something I found helpful was planning out each paragraph with a topic sentence, one to two points I wanted to make, and a transition sentence that would lead into my next paragraph. By doing this, I had the skeleton of my essay and only had to add in details and supporting information. 

I highly suggest that if you tend to write too much (like me), you shouldn’t free-write your drafts. You’ll probably end up including too much information that distracts from your main idea. 

If you’re prone to writing too little, spend more time in the brainstorming part and get all your supporting details laid out from the start. It’ll be easier to build off of that way. 

Final Words of Wisdom

At the end of the day, this is your essay, so write it how you see fit. Make sure you’re letting your own voice shine through and being your honest, true self. I’m sure that’s exactly what your dream school wants, so don’t be afraid to be authentically you .

When every draft you make starts to feel worse than the one before it, remember that it’s totally normal to feel frustrated.

It took me 12 drafts, dozens of topics, and a LOT of willpower to finish it. 

But I got there, and you will, too. 

' src=

Author: Norah Baldwin

Norah is a high school senior from Boston, Massachusetts, and will major in Nursing next year at college. She currently works as a lifeguard and swim instructor for kids, and volunteers with the American Cancer Society in addition to blogging for Niche.

More Articles By Niche

The FAFSA has undergone several changes this year, causing unexpected delays for both students and colleges.

Here are my seven tips to the early high schooler in preparing for a strong college application.

We spoke with staff and faculty at Interlochen Arts Academy and Interlochen Arts Camp to get their best tips on overcoming perfectionism, developing confidence, and showcasing your artistic gifts. 

The Magoosh logo is the word Magoosh spelled with each letter o replaced with a check mark in a circle.

The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay That Will Get You Accepted

Common App essay - magoosh

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably started the very exciting process of applying to college—and chances are you may be a little overwhelmed at times. That’s OK! The key to getting into the right college for you is taking each step of the application process in stride, and one of those steps is completing the Common App and the Common App essay.

In this post, you’ll learn what the Common Application essay is, how to write one (including a free checklist to help you with the process), example essays, and much more. Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

What is the Common App, and More Importantly, What is the Common App Essay? Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay? What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common Application Essay FAQs

What is the common app, and more importantly, what is the common app essay.

What is the Common App essay - magoosh

The “Common App,” short for the Common Application , is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once. It’s accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally.

The idea is that the Common App is a “one-stop shop” so you don’t have to complete a million separate applications. That said, plenty of colleges still require their own application components, and the Common App, as user-friendly as it aims to be, can still feel like a bit of a challenge to complete.

Part of the reason the Common App can seem intimidating is because of the Common App essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application this way. But never fear! In reality, the Common App essay is easy to ace if you know how to approach it and you give it your best.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at anything and everything you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay in order to help you get into the school of your dreams. We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay.

Button to download 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Common App essay facts - magoosh

Below are just a few of the short and sweet things you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay, but we’ll elaborate on some of this content later in this post.

How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

How to write a Common App essay - magoosh

The million dollar question about the Common App essay is obviously, “How do I actually write it?!”

Now there’s something to keep in mind before exploring how to compose the Common App essay, and that’s the purpose of this task. You may be wondering:

  • What are college admissions boards actually looking for?
  • Why are you being asked to write this essay?

College admissions boards want to see that you can compose a compelling, well-crafted essay. After four years of high school, you’re expected to be able to craft a clear and concise piece of writing that addresses a specific subject.

So yes, you’re actually being evaluated on your essay writing skills, but the purpose of the Common Application essay is deeper than that—it’s to present the type of person and thinker that you are.

Regardless of which prompt you choose, colleges are trying to get a sense of how thoughtfully and critically you can reflect on your life and the world around you .

And furthermore, they want to get a sense of who you are—your interests, your personality, your values—the dimensional aspects of you as an applicant that simply can’t be expressed in transcripts and test scores . In short, you want to stand out and be memorable.

That said, there is no exact formula for “cracking the case” of the Common App essay, but there are plenty of useful steps and tips that can help you write a great essay.

(In a hurry? Download our quick and concise handout that sums up some of the keys to the Common App essay!)

1) Familiarize Yourself With the Common App Prompts and How to Approach Them

The Common App recently released the 2021-2022 essay prompts , which are almost the same as last year’s prompts, but with one BIG difference.

The prompt about problem solving (formerly prompt #4) has been replaced with a prompt about gratitude and how it has motivated you. According to Common App President and CEO Jenny Rickard, this change was inspired by new scientific research on the benefits of writing about gratitude and the positive impact others have had on our lives.

Additionally, the Common App now includes an optional Covid-19 prompt where you can discuss how you’ve personally been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, let’s take a look at each 2021-2022 Common App prompt individually. You’ll notice that every prompt really has two parts to it:

  • share, explain and describe a narrative, and
  • reflect on, analyze, and draw meaning from it.

Let’s take a look.

  Prompt #1: A snapshot of your story

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss a background, identity, or interest that you feel is meaningful to who you are and/or that or sets you apart from others.
  • Reflect on why this attribute is meaningful and how it has shaped you as a person.

  Prompt #2: An obstacle you overcame

Prompt: 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?

  • Recount a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
  • Reflect on how this affected you, what you learned from it, and if it led to any successes later down the line.

  Prompt #3: A belief or idea you questioned or challenged

Prompt: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  • Explain a time that you questioned a particular belief or way of thinking.
  • Elaborate on what prompted this questioning, what the outcome was, and why this outcome was significant.

  Prompt #4: An experience of gratitude that has motivated you

Prompt: 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?

  • Describe the specific experience or interaction that made you feel a sense of gratitude. Make sure to explain who did something nice for you and why it was surprising or unexpected.
  • Explain, as specifically as possible, how this feeling of gratitude changed or motivated you. What actions did you take a result? How did your mindset change?

  Prompt #5: An accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth

Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  • Describe an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth for you.
  • Reflect on the nature of this growth and/or a new understanding you gained in the process.

  Prompt #6: An interest so engaging you lose track of time

Prompt: 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?

  • Discuss a topic, idea, or interest that is so engaging to you that you lose track of time when focused on it.
  • Reflect on and explain why this interest is so important to you, and your method of learning more about it.

  Prompt #7: An essay topic of your choice

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss any subject matter or philosophical question of interest to you.
  • Reflect on the implications of this subject or question, and how it has shaped you, transformed you, impacted your life, etc.

  Now keep in mind that to some degree, it doesn’t actually matter which prompt you choose to answer, so long as you write and present yourself well. But you obviously want to pick whichever Common App essay prompt speaks to you most, and the one you think will provide you the meatiest and most meaningful material.

This is an outstanding guide to choosing the right Common App essay prompt, but as a rule of thumb, the “right” prompt will probably stand out to you. If you have to rack your brain, for example, to think of a challenge you’ve overcome and how the experience has shaped you, then that prompt probably isn’t the right one.

Authenticity is key, so choose the prompt you can answer thoroughly.

2) Brainstorm

Whether you know immediately which prompt you’re going to choose or not, do yourself a huge favor and brainstorm . Take out a notebook and jot down or free write all of the ideas that spring to your mind for as many of the prompts that you’re considering. You might be surprised what ideas you generate as you start doing this, and you might be surprised which ideas seem to have the most content and examples to elaborate on.

Also, it’s important to note that your subject matter doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or spectacular. You don’t have to recount a near-death experience, an epic overseas adventure, a 180-degree turn of faith, etc. Your ordinary life, when reflected upon thoughtfully, is interesting and profound.

3) Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)

This may sound painfully obvious, but for some of us, it can be hard to stay on topic. Each prompt is posed as a question , so don’t lose sight of that and let your essay devolve into a story about yourself that never really gets at the heart of the prompt.

As you’re drafting your essay—say after each paragraph—pause and refer back to the question, making sure each paragraph plays some part in actually responding to the prompt.

4) Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively

The Common App essay isn’t like many of the other argumentative essays you’ve been taught to write in school. It is argumentative in that you are essentially arguing for why you are a good candidate for a particular college, using your personal experience as support, but it’s more than that.

The Common Application essay is essentially a narrative essay that is reflective and analytical by nature. This means that regardless of which prompt you select, you’ll be sharing something personal about yourself, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what you shared is important.

And even if this isn’t an essay format that you’re accustomed to writing, you can still rely on your knowledge of basic essay structures to help you. You’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.

Let’s talk about those three pieces now.

Introduction

The purpose of an introduction is 1) to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading, and 2) to introduce the reader to the general subject at hand.

So the most important part of the introduction is a unique attention-getter that establishes your personal voice and tone while piquing the reader’s interest. An example of a good hook could be a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, and so on.

Now, you may be wondering, “Do I need a thesis statement?” This is a great question and the simple answer is no.

This is because some students prefer to hook their reader with a bit of mystery and let their story unfold organically without a thesis sentence “spoiling” what is to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a thesis sentence, it just means you don’t need one. It just depends on how you want to build your personal narrative, and what serves you best.

That said, your essay does need a greater message or lesson in it, which is another way of saying a thesis . You just don’t necessarily have to write it out in the introduction paragraph.

It might help you to keep a thesis in mind or even write it down just for your own sake, even if you don’t explicitly use it in your introduction. Doing so can help you stay on track and help you build up to a stronger reflection.

Here are some examples of narrative thesis statements:

  • I moved a lot as a child on account of having a parent in the military, which led me to become highly adaptable to change.
  • The greatest obstacle I’ve overcome is my battle with leukemia, which has taught me both incredible resilience and reverence for the present.
  • An accomplishment that I achieved was making the varsity volleyball team, which has made me grow tremendously as a person, specifically in the areas of self-confidence and collaboration.

As discussed earlier, there are two parts to each prompt: explanation and reflection . Each part should be addressed throughout the essay, but how you organize your content is up to you.

A good rule of thumb for structuring the body of your essay is as follows:

  • Situate your reader: provide context for your story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details. For example, you may frame an essay about an internship at the zoo with the phrase, “Elephants make the best friends.” Your reader knows immediately that the subject matter involves your interaction with animals, specifically elephants.
  • Explain more about your topic and how it affected you, using specific examples and key details.
  • Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.

Note that while there are no set rules for how many paragraphs you should use for your essay, be mindful of breaking paragraphs whenever you naturally shift gears, and be mindful of too-long paragraphs that just feel like walls of text for the reader.

Your conclusion should flow nicely from your elaboration, really driving home your message or what you learned. Be careful not to just dead-end your essay abruptly.

This is a great place to speculate on how you see the subject matter informing your future, especially as a college student and beyond. For example, what might you want to continue to learn about? What problems do you anticipate being able to solve given your experience?

5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly

It may go without saying, but tell your own story, without borrowing from someone else’s or embellishing. Profound reflection, insight, and wisdom can be gleaned from the seemingly simplest experiences, so don’t feel the need to stray from the truth of your unique personal experiences.

Also, make sure to laser in on a highly specific event, obstacle, interest, etc. It is better to go “narrower and deeper” than to go “wider and shallower,” because the more specific you are, the more vivid and engrossing your essay will naturally be.

For example, if you were a camp counselor every summer for the last few years, avoid sharing several summers’ worth of content in your essay. Focus instead on one summer , and even better, on one incident during that summer at camp.

And on that note, remember to be vivid! Follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell . Provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for your readers.

6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone

Unlike in most academic essays, you can sound a bit less stuffy and a bit more like yourself in the Common App essay. Your essay should be professional, but can be conversational. Try reading it aloud; does it sound like you? That’s good!

Be mindful, however, of not getting too casual or colloquial in it. This means avoiding slang, contractions, or “text speak” abbreviations (e.g. “lol”), at least without deliberate context in your story (for example, if you’re recounting dialogue).

You’re still appealing to academic institutions here, so avoid profanity at all costs, and make sure you’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.

7) Revise and Proofread

This one is a biggie. Give yourself time during your application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite your essay several times. Let it grow and change and become the best version it can be. After you write your first draft, walk away from it for a couple days, and return to it with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you feel like adding, removing, or changing.

And of course, make sure your essay is pristine before you submit it. Triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc. Since this isn’t a timed essay you have to sit for (like the ACT essay test , for example), the college admissions readers will expect your essay to be polished and sparkling.

A tried and true method for both ensuring flow and catching errors is reading your essay aloud. You may sound a little silly, but it really works!

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay?

What to avoid in Common App essay - magoosh

Resume Material

Your Common App essay is your chance to provide a deeper insight into you as a person, so avoid just repeating what you’d put on a resume. This is not to say you can’t discuss something mentioned briefly on your resume in greater depth, but the best essays offer something new that helps round out the whole college application.

Controversy

Okay, now this one is a bit tricky. On the one hand, you should write boldly and honestly, and some of the prompts (the one about challenging a particular belief, for example) are appropriate for addressing potentially contentious topics.

But that said, avoid being controversial or edgy for the sake of being controversial or edgy. Be steadfast in your beliefs for the greater sake of the narrative and your essay will be naturally compelling without being alienating to your readers.

Vague Stories

If you have a personal story that you’re not entirely comfortable sharing, avoid it, even if it would make a great essay topic in theory. This is because if you’re not comfortable writing on the subject matter, you’ll end up being too vague, which won’t do your story or overall application justice. So choose a subject matter you’re familiar with and comfortable discussing in specifics.

Unless they really, truly serve your essay, avoid general platitudes and cliches in your language. It is definitely encouraged to have an essay with a moral, lesson, or greater takeaway, but try to avoid summing up what you’ve learned with reductive phrases like “slow and steady wins the race,” “good things come in small packages,” “actions speak louder than words,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on.

What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common App essay examples - magoosh

There are tons of Common App essays out there, including these Common App essay examples accepted at Connecticut College, which include explanations from admissions readers about why they were chosen.

But let’s take a look here at two versions of an example essay, one that is just okay and one that is great.

Both Common App essay examples are crafted in response to prompt #2, which is:

Essay Version #1, Satisfactory Essay:

During my sophomore year of high school, I tore my ACL, which stands for “anterior cruciate ligament,” and is the kiss of death for most athletic careers. This injury ended up being one of the greatest obstacles of my life. It was also, however, a turning point that taught me to see opportunity amidst adversity.

It was particularly awful that I was just about to score a winning goal during a championship hockey game when I was checked by a guy on the opposing team and came crashing down on my knee. It was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I knew immediately that this was going to be bad.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, not really knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class for those students who wanted to continue studying art beyond what was already offered. I had taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed and excelled at them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my scheduled, as required.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began feeling better. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at. I wanted to share the world around me as I saw it with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before. I met and made friends with many new people in that art class, people I would have never known if I hadn’t taken it, which also opened me up to all kinds of new mindsets and experiences.

We’re all familiar with the common adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” and this is exactly what happened for me. I might never have pursued art more seriously if I hadn’t been taken out of hockey. This has served as a great reminder for me to stay open to new opportunities. We never know what will unexpectedly bring us joy and make us more well-rounded people.

Areas for Improvement in Version #1:

  • It lacks a compelling hook.
  • The discussion of the obstacle and reflection upon it are both a bit rushed.
  • It could use more vivid and evocative language.
  • It uses a cliche (“one door closes”).
  • It is somewhat vague at times (e.g. what kinds of “new mindsets and experiences” did the writer experience? In what ways are they now more “well-rounded”?).

Now let’s apply this feedback and revise the essay.

Essay Version #2, Excellent Essay:

My body was splayed out on the ice and I was simultaneously right there, in searing pain, and watching everything from above, outside of myself. It wasn’t actually a “near death” experience, but it was certainly disorienting, considering that just seconds before, I was flying down the ice in possession of the puck, about to score the winning goal of our championship game.

Instead, I had taken a check from an opposing team member, and had torn my ACL (or anterior cruciate ligament), which is the kiss of death for most athletic careers.

My road to recovery included two major surgeries, a couple months on crutches, a year of physical therapy, and absolutely zero athletic activity. I would heal, thankfully, and regain movement in my knee and leg, but I was told by doctors that I may never play hockey again, which was devastating to me. Hockey wasn’t just my passion—it was my life’s goal to play professionally.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, feeling like a ghost haunting my own life, watching everything but unable to participate. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally, and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class after school for those students who wanted to study art more seriously. I had already taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my schedule, as required. And, because of hockey, I certainly had never had afternoons open.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began to feel alive again, like “myself” but renewed, more awake and aware of everything around me. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at, to bring everything I saw to life. It wasn’t just that I’d adopted a new hobby or passion, it was that I began looking more closely and critically at the world around me. I wanted to share what I saw with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before.

My art teacher selected a charcoal portrait of mine to be showcased in a local art show and I’ve never been more proud of myself for anything. Many of my friends, family members, and teammates came to see the show, which blew me away, but also I realized then just how much of my own self worth had been attached to people’s perception of me as a successful athlete. I learned how much better it feels to gain self worth from within. Unlike hockey, which I’d trained to be good at since I was a toddler, art is something that made me much more vulnerable. I didn’t do it to try to be the best, I did it because it felt good. And getting out of my comfort zone in this way gave me a sense of confidence I had never known prior, despite all my time on the ice during high-stakes games.

Today, I’m back in skates and able to play hockey, but will probably not play professionally; while I am disappointed, I’m also at peace with it. We make plans in life, and sometimes life has other plans for us that we have to adapt to and embrace, which is the more profound lesson I’ve learned in the healing process. We can crumple in the face of obstacles, or we can look for a silver lining and allow ourselves to grow into more complex, dynamic, well-rounded people. I don’t know what the rest of life holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to keep making art, and I’m going to keep opening myself up to new opportunities and experiences.

Strengths of Version #2:

  • It has a compelling hook that draws the reader in.
  • It has a clear beginning, middle, and end (expressed as an introduction, body, and conclusion).
  • It directly addresses the prompt at hand and sticks to it.
  • It focuses on one specific incident.
  • It is well balanced in its explanation of and reflection on a given experience.
  • It uses a clear, unique voice and tone as well as vivid, evocative language.
  • It has a logical and cohesive flow.
  • It is highly personal while also polished and professional.

Hopefully these examples have given you ideas of how you can take your Common App essay from good to great. If you have more questions about how to write a Common App essay, keep reading our FAQs below.

Common App essay FAQs - magoosh

How much do I actually have to write for the Common App essay?

Last year, the Common App essay was capped at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words required. The best essays tend to range between 500-650 words.

Think of it this way as you start to draft: 500 words is one single-spaced page (250 words is one double-spaced page), so you should write roughly a page to page and half of typed, single-spaced content.

Where can I find the official Common App essay prompts?

Here are the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts , which are the same as last year’s, with the exception of a new prompt #4 and the addition of a Covid-19 Common App prompt .

Do I need a title for the Common App essay?

A title is not required for the Common App essay, but you are, of course, more than welcome to include one if you’d like.

Where can I go for more information about the Common App essay?

All of the necessary information for the Common App and the Common App essay can be found on the Common Application home page.

For further reading, here are some posts that tackle and dispel common myths about the Common App essay:

Myth: The Common App essay must sound professional. Myth: Colleges can’t tell if someone helps write a common app essay.

If you haven’t already, you can download our free Common App essay checklist .

Happy Writing!

There you have it! The Common App essay can actually be quite rewarding to write if you give yourself enough time to prepare for it thoroughly. Remember, it’s all about you, and you’re the authority on that! So hunker down and don’t forget to have fun in the writing process.

We’d also love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you still have about the Common Application essay? What are you thinking about writing on?

Comment below, and good luck!

Nadyja Von Ebers

Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions . Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn !

View all posts

More from Magoosh

7 College Essay Topics to Avoid Writing About

Leave a Reply Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

how to write the best common app essay

Teacher Habits

Helping Teachers inside the Classroom and Out

How to Write an Effective Common App Essay (2023-2024 Guide)

Are you ready to learn how to write a common app essay? The one that will make college admissions teams take notice and give you a leg up in the competitive application process? In this blog post, we’ll guide you through the process of crafting a standout essay that showcases your personal growth, unique experiences, and passions.

With our helpful tips and insights on how to write a common application essay, you’ll be well on your way to creating a compelling narrative that leaves a lasting impression on admissions officers.

Table of Contents

Key Takeaways

  • Create an exceptional and memorable common app essay by using the “show, don’t tell” technique, selecting a meaningful prompt & incorporating personal anecdotes.
  • Incorporate reflection to demonstrate self-awareness and personal growth while avoiding cliché topics and striking the right balance of language & tone.
  • Revise for clarity/coherence, seek feedback from trusted sources & proofread carefully before submitting your well-rounded application!

What Is the Common Application Essay?

The common app essay is a vital component of the college application process. It’s a 250-650 word personal statement that you submit with the primary application on common app, allowing you to stand out beyond your test scores and showcase your unique identity, interests, and talents.

The purpose of the common app essay is to create an impactful and unforgettable essay, capturing the attention of college admissions teams and setting you apart from other applicants. To achieve this goal, it’s crucial to choose the right topic from the seven common app essay prompts, ensuring you can craft a meaningful and memorable narrative.

But how do you choose the perfect common app essay topic? Consider your hobbies, interests, skills, experiences, family, heritage, or culture as potential subjects for your essay. These topics can help you stand out among the numerous common app essays, allowing you to showcase your personal growth beyond your test scores and academics. To create a great common app essay, employ the “show, don’t tell” technique, select specific word choices, utilize active voice, and avoid clichés. By following these tips, you’ll be well on your way to writing an exceptional essay that resonates with admissions officers.

As you embark on your essay-writing journey, develop a comprehensive strategy for your portfolio of essays, which includes the common app essay and any supplemental essays required by the schools you’re applying to. This approach ensures that each essay covers a unique personal story, giving you the best opportunity to shine. Start by reflecting on what is truly meaningful to you. This first step in writing a great common application essay will help you identify the experiences and passions that have shaped you, as well as the lessons you’ve taken away from them. With this foundation in place, you’ll be prepared to craft a captivating essay that stands out among the rest.

Remember, the key to crafting an exceptional common app essay is to select a topic that you’re passionate about writing about. The details of your story will make it stand out more than the topic itself. A unique story is sure to turn heads and capture attention. So dive deep into your personal experiences and let your authentic voice shine through.

Choosing the Right Prompt for Your Essay

Selecting the right prompt is essential for crafting a compelling common app essay that aligns with your unique experiences and passions. The common application essay offers seven prompts designed to spark creativity and reflection, giving you the opportunity to explore different aspects of your identity and showcase your personal growth.

To choose the best prompt, consider which one allows you to tell a powerful, meaningful story that demonstrates your personal growth and reflects your true passions. Think about how each prompt connects to your experiences, and which one offers the most potential for creating a captivating and memorable narrative that resonates with admissions officers.

Avoid choosing a prompt simply because it seems easy or straightforward. Instead, focus on a prompt that challenges you to think deeply and reflect on your experiences, allowing you to showcase your personal growth and development. This approach will help you create a strong common app essay that captures the reader’s attention and makes a lasting impression.

When selecting a prompt, also consider how it can complement your supplemental essays. Ensure that your chosen prompt allows you to create a cohesive narrative across your application, while avoiding overlapping topics. This strategy will help you present a well-rounded and compelling application to the most selective universities.

Remember, trust your instincts when selecting a prompt. You’re the expert on your own experiences and passions, so choose a prompt that you’re genuinely excited about and that allows you to share your unique story. By doing so, you’ll be well on your way to creating a standout common app essay.

Crafting a Compelling Narrative

To create a standout common app essay, it’s essential to craft a compelling narrative that incorporates personal anecdotes, reflection, and storytelling elements. These components work together to create an engaging, relatable, and memorable essay that captures the attention of admissions officers and sets you apart from other applicants.

By sharing your unique experiences and demonstrating personal growth, you’ll create a powerful narrative that resonates with readers and showcases your authentic self. Through your essay, you have the opportunity to reveal your way of thinking, your unique personality, and the experiences that have shaped you.

Keep in mind that the key to crafting a successful common app essay is to select a topic that you’re passionate about writing about. Focus on the experiences and passions that have had a significant impact on your personal development and have shaped who you are today.

Personal Anecdotes

Personal anecdotes are an excellent way to create an intriguing and relatable narrative in your essay. By sharing your personal experiences and the emotions they evoked, you can express complex feelings and convey character relationships in a way that truly connects with your readers. Examples of personal anecdotes that can be used in a common app essay include conveying powerful emotions, depicting meaningful character interactions, and telling a story about how you discovered an interest, the motivation it brings you, and how it influences other aspects of your life.

When crafting your essay, consider using personal anecdotes to illustrate your experiences and the impact they’ve had on your personal growth and development. For example, you could write about a family member, teacher, or sports coach giving you a challenging task that, by the end of the story, you become grateful for because of the valuable lessons you learned through your hard work.

Reflection is a crucial aspect of showcasing self-awareness and personal growth in your common app essay. By thoughtfully considering your experiences and their impact, you can demonstrate the significance of these experiences and how they have shaped your personal development. Through reflection, you can also help your readers understand the importance of your experiences and the lessons you’ve taken away from them.

By showing how your experiences have impacted your life and how you have grown as a person, you can create a powerful and engaging narrative that resonates with admissions officers. In your essay, consider how to incorporate reflection to showcase your personal growth and development.

For example, you could reflect on how a particular experience led to growth or change, how it helped you gain a new understanding or a more mature perspective, how your thoughts or actions changed as a result, and how gratitude affected your values or future goals.

Storytelling Elements

Incorporating storytelling elements into your common app essay can help you create a captivating and memorable narrative that engages your readers and leaves a lasting impression. By using techniques such as vivid descriptions, narrative arcs, and dialogue, you can bring your essay to life and truly connect with your audience.

To create a compelling narrative, consider how to incorporate storytelling elements such as plot, setting, characters, conflict, and theme. By weaving these elements together, you can craft a powerful and engaging story that showcases your personal growth and development.

When writing your essay, be mindful of the flow and organization of your ideas, ensuring that your narrative is clear and coherent. This will help your readers follow your train of thought and truly understand the message you’re trying to convey.

Avoiding Common Mistakes

When writing your common application essay, it’s crucial to avoid common mistakes that can detract from the quality and impact of your essay. One common pitfall to avoid is choosing cliché topics, as these can make your essay blend in with thousands of other common app essays. Instead, focus on sharing your unique experiences and showcasing your personal growth.

In addition to avoiding cliché topics, be mindful of the language and tone you use in your essay. It’s important to remain genuine and sincere while still avoiding overly sentimental or emotional language. By striking the right balance, you can create a compelling essay that truly reflects who you are and captures the attention of admissions officers.

Another common mistake is trying to impress your readers with complicated language and overly formal phrasing. Instead, focus on conveying your ideas clearly and concisely, using language that is natural and authentic to your voice.

By steering clear of these common mistakes and staying true to your unique experiences and passions, you’ll be well on your way to crafting a standout common app essay that leaves a lasting impression on admissions officers.

Writing Tips for Each Prompt

Each of the seven common app prompts offers a unique opportunity to showcase your personal growth, experiences, and passions. To craft a compelling essay for each prompt, consider the following tips and insights:

  • Reflect on a meaningful background, identity, interest, or talent that has shaped your life. This is an opportunity to share your unique story and demonstrate how it has influenced your personal growth and development.
  • Explore the lessons learned from obstacles encountered and how they have contributed to your later success. By reflecting on these challenges, you can show your resilience and determination in overcoming adversity.
  • I experienced a challenge recently when I was assigned a difficult task at work. Despite making an effort to complete it, I wasn’t able to achieve the desired result. This is a chance to demonstrate your ability to learn from your experiences and grow as a person.
  • I often take a step back to reflect on my decisions. Recently, I questioned and challenged a belief or idea that had a great impact on me. By discussing your thought process and the outcome of your actions, you can showcase your critical thinking skills and open-mindedness.
  • Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. This prompt allows you to demonstrate your creativity, problem-solving skills, and passion for making a difference in the world.
  • I recently experienced an accomplishment that made me feel proud of myself and gave me the motivation to learn more. It was truly a transformative moment for me, which marked a period of personal growth. By reflecting on this experience, you can illustrate your capacity for growth and self-improvement.
  • I find myself becoming completely absorbed when I’m exploring a new concept or idea. Time flies when I’m in that state of pure focus and enjoyment. This prompt offers a chance to showcase your intellectual curiosity and passion for learning.

By considering these tips and insights for each prompt, you can create a strong and compelling essay that effectively showcases your personal growth, experiences, and unique perspective.

Revising and Editing Your Essay

Revising and editing are essential steps in the writing process that can help ensure your common app essay is clear, coherent, and free of grammatical errors. Revising involves making major changes to your essay’s content, structure, and organization, while editing focuses on making sentence-level changes.

To ensure your essay is of the highest quality, it’s important to focus on improving your grammar, spelling, punctuation, sentence structure, clarity, coherence, and overall organization. By carefully revising and editing your essay, you can create a powerful and memorable narrative that captures the attention of admissions officers.

Seeking Feedback

Obtaining valuable input from trusted sources is crucial for improving your essay and ensuring it accurately represents you. Consider seeking feedback from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor who can provide invaluable insight into your essay.

When incorporating feedback, remember to stay true to your voice and experiences, even if you disagree with some of the suggestions you receive. After all, no one knows you better than you do.

In addition to seeking feedback from trusted sources, consider using a free Peer Essay Review tool, where another student will provide feedback on your essay. This can be a helpful way to gain a fresh perspective and ensure your essay is polished and ready for submission.

Clarity and Coherence

Ensuring clarity and coherence in your essay is essential for creating a successful and engaging narrative. Clarity helps make sure your message is understood, while coherence ensures that your ideas are connected logically and presented in an orderly manner.

To revise your essay for clarity and coherence, focus on the flow and organization of your ideas. Ensure that your narrative is clear, concise, and logically organized, allowing your readers to follow your train of thought and understand the message you’re trying to convey.

By carefully revising your essay for clarity and coherence, you can create a powerful narrative that resonates with your readers and leaves a lasting impression on admissions officers.

Proofreading

Thoroughly proofreading your essay is essential for eliminating any grammatical errors or inconsistencies that may detract from the overall quality of your work. By carefully reviewing your essay for errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, and formatting, you can ensure that your essay is polished and ready for submission.

To effectively proofread your essay, consider reading it out loud to yourself or having someone else read it to you. This can help you catch any errors that you may have missed during the writing process. Additionally, using a spell checker and grammar checker can be helpful in identifying any mistakes in your essay.

By thoroughly proofreading your essay and catching any errors, you can ensure that your common app essay is polished, professional, and ready to impress admissions officers.

Balancing Your Common App Essay with Supplemental Essays

Creating a cohesive narrative across your common app essay and supplemental essays is essential for presenting a well-rounded and compelling application to the most selective universities. By balancing these essays, you can ensure that each essay covers a unique personal story and showcases different aspects of your identity, experiences, and passions.

To achieve this balance, consider how your chosen essay prompt can complement your supplemental essays. Ensure that your chosen prompt allows you to create a cohesive narrative across your application while avoiding overlapping topics and presenting a well-rounded picture of who you are.

By carefully balancing your essay with your supplemental essays, you can create a powerful and engaging application that truly stands out to the most selective universities when it comes to college essays, a challenge that so many students face.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you start an introduction for a common app essay.

To begin your Common App essay, start with a creative and intriguing hook or “grabber” to draw the reader in. Follow this with an anecdote, which you will use to connect to the overall theme of your essay.

Make sure that your introduction captures the attention of admissions officers and highlights who you are as an individual.

How long should college essays be?

College essays should generally be between 400 and 600 words, though some institutions may specify a range of 250 to 650 words. Keeping your essay within the specified limits can demonstrate your ability to write concisely and follow directions.

This is important for college admissions officers, who are looking for students who can follow instructions and write effectively. It also shows that you are able to focus on the task at hand and not get carried away with it.

How can I choose the best prompt for my Common App essay?

Choose a prompt that allows you to share a powerful and meaningful story that demonstrates your personal growth and reflects your true passions. Pick a prompt that you’re genuinely excited about and trust your instincts.

What are some common mistakes to avoid when writing my Common App essay?

Avoid clichés, inappropriate language, and make sure your essay is true to your voice and experiences. Use a motivating tone to keep the reader engaged, and craft a strong introduction and conclusion.

Lastly, check to ensure there are no unexpected artifacts in the essay.

How can I create a cohesive narrative across my Common App and supplemental essays?

Create a cohesive narrative by considering how your chosen Common App essay prompt can complement your supplemental essays. Avoid overlapping topics and make sure to present a well-rounded picture of yourself in your writing.

Use a motivating tone to draw the reader in and make them want to learn more about you.

In conclusion, crafting a standout common app essay is an essential part of the college admissions process.

By understanding the importance of the essay, choosing the right prompt, crafting a compelling narrative, avoiding common mistakes, and balancing your essay with supplemental essays, you can create a powerful and memorable essay that captures the attention of admissions officers and sets you apart from other applicants.

Now, it’s time to put these tips into practice and craft an unforgettable essay that will help you shine in the competitive college admissions landscape.

  • College Application

How to Write a Winning Common App Essay

Including 3 stellar common app essay examples.

Guide to Writing a Common App Essay

The Common App essay, also called a personal statement, is one of the trickiest components of a college application. Many students struggle with how to make their essays stand out from the crowd. After spending years building up an excellent high school resume , getting good grades, and dreaming of college, it could all come down to one 650 word college essay ! That’s a lot of pressure. Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. In this blog, our college essay advisors tell you everything you need to know about the Common App essay, how to brainstorm ideas, how to write it, the biggest challenges, mistakes to avoid, and handy tips to keep in mind. We also provide a few samples to help you understand what types of essays actually impress college admissions committees.

>> Want us to help you get accepted? Schedule a free strategy call here . <<

Article Contents 48 min read

The Common App essay is the personal statement that students have to submit on the Common Application portal. College apps are getting tougher by the minute as students are judged on so many different criteria – academics, of course, but also extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, supplemental essays, and the personal statement. All the hard work you put in towards taking on tough IB and AP classes, servicing your community, committing to your extracurriculars, could all be wasted because of one essay, that most students write in a month!

Many students are intimidated by the concept of the essay, not just because of how important it is, but also because they simply don’t know what to write in it. How personal should they get? What’s the right tone? What are colleges even looking for? With these questions running through your mind, it can be hard to focus and actually start writing.

But the Common App essay is like any other aspect of your application, or in fact, like any other challenge you meet in life. With adequate preparation, strategic planning, and a commitment to excellence, you can produce a Common App essay that’s sure to impress college admissions committees. In fact, if you do it right, writing this essay could actually help you refine and perfect your writing skills and even teach you things about yourself that you didn’t know! Read on to learn failproof tips from our college admissions consulting experts!

The Common Application, often called Common App, is the cornerstone of the college application process for most students in the US and Canada. It’s an online, centralized portal that gathers college application components from students and sends them to colleges. Students only have to submit their application once, and it’s sent to every college they want to apply to. With over 900 participating colleges all over the world, the Common App just makes life so much easier for high school students applying to college, not to mention their parents and teachers. Can you imagine if you had to send an individual application to each and every college you’re applying to? Well, you still might have to send out 2 or 3 different applications since not every college in the US and Canada uses Common App. For instance, UC schools have their own application system and if you’re targeting those, you will have to submit a separate application. But the overwhelming majority of colleges in the US do utilize Common App, which makes it a huge boon during application season. In one portal, you can submit your personal information, transcript, list of activities, letters of recommendation, and the personal statement, which will go out to all the colleges you want to apply to.

So, what is this dreaded Common App essay anyway? If you’re a high school student applying to college, you might know it as your main essay or personal statement. This is the component you submit in the “Writing” tab of the Common App, where you’ll find the 7 Common App prompts for the current application season along with a textbox where you write your essay in response to one of the prompts. It’s strongly recommended that you write your essay in a Google doc, MS Word, or some other reliable word processor with backups, and then copy paste the final draft into the Common App textbox. You should not be typing your first drafts and making revisions directly in Common App! You might end up losing the essay due to a technical glitch or worse, submitting a rough draft by accident.

The great thing about the Common App essay, and one that students frequently forget, is that the same essay goes out to all the colleges. So, you don’t need to write individual essays for each college or tailor your essays to talk about specific courses or universities. In fact, you should aim to keep your Common App essay as general as possible, without reference to any specific schools or degrees. For instance, if you make your Common App essay very focused on your passion for science subjects and talk about your desire to attend a top engineering college, while you’re applying to liberal arts schools as well, you’re tanking your chances of getting an acceptance from the latter. Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to get college-specific when you’re writing your college supplemental essays.

Would you like more tips for how to write a stellar common app essay?

Difference between Common App essay and supplemental essays

As part of your college application, you’re expected to submit a number of different written components, from the descriptions of your extracurricular activities to your personal statement and the supplemental essays. It’s very important that you understand the different requirements and purpose of each of these written components and tailor them as needed. Specifically, make sure you don’t get confused between the Common App essay and the supplemental college essay. As we mentioned above, the Common App essay is your 250-650 word personal statement that you submit with your primary application on Common App. You only need to write one, and it goes out to all the colleges you apply to. The purpose of the Common App essay is to give the college admissions committees a better idea of who you are as a person and what makes you unique. It should be focused on your life and experiences, without any reference to a specific college or bias towards a specific stream (such as STEM, liberal arts, etc.).

Once your primary application is processed and if you make it through (though not all colleges screen primary apps), specific colleges will start reaching out to you with their supplemental application that will include prompts for essays. In these essays, you’re expected to get specific and address why you want to get into that college and reference your academic interests. Colleges can ask for more than one supplemental essay, and the required word count can vary. Some have a maximum word count of 250 words while others match the maximum length of the Common App essay at 650 words.

How do you differentiate between these two essays? How do you even find enough material for all these essays? Well, think of your Common App essay as your broad personal statement, an answer to the question “ Tell me about yourself ” (in relation to specific prompts), while your supplemental essay focuses in on the question of “Why do you want to attend this college?”. The two essays should complement each other, but there should be no overlap.

How can you ensure this? That’s what we’ll explain in this blog. If you do your Common App preparation right, and give yourself enough time to brainstorm, you’ll most likely come away with plenty of raw material, topic ideas, and inspiration for your supplemental essays too. There will be plenty of ideas you might reject as unsuitable for your Common App essay which could work for your secondary app essays.

Why is the Common App essay important?

So, if colleges will be asking for college-specific essays anyway, why is the Common App essay important? Well, in many cases, you won’t even get to the supplemental essays stage without an impressive Common App essay. This essay could count for 10% to 30% of how your primary application is evaluated, and the more elite the college, the more important it is. That’s because elite colleges such as Ivy League schools receive a huge volume of high-caliber applicants. They have plenty of applications from students with top grades, amazing extracurriculars, and references, so the Common App essay really becomes crucial in making an application stand out. Additionally, some schools, such as private liberal arts colleges, favor a more holistic admissions process. These colleges often don’t prioritize standardized test results as much as other schools and give more weight to the students’ extracurriculars and personal statement.

The Common App essay could be the deciding factor between you and another candidate with a similar profile. Many students with the best grades in their class and a roster of impressive extracurricular activities, not to mention top SAT scores, end up rejected from their dream schools because of a poorly-written essay. Having said that, it’s important to remember that no matter how great your personal statement is, it won’t make up for uneven grades and a less than robust resume, especially at elite schools with competitive admissions.

Remember that the Common App essay represents a final chance for you to take your application to the next level. By the time you’re writing and submitting your essay, there’s not much you could do about your transcript, your history of extracurriculars, etc. These components are long-term achievements which can’t be accomplished in a day. But you’re in complete control of your Common App essay and it’s your one chance to advocate for yourself in front of the admissions committee.

In fact, from the students’ perspective, this is what makes the Common App essay so important. Most of your primary application is quantitative, focused on grades, scores, contact information, and so on; your essay is one of the few “qualitative” components of your application. It allows you to speak directly to the admissions committee, and really humanize yourself, help them see you as person rather than just a collection of facts and figures. Your grades and standardizes test scores and all those other application components are certainly important – they indicate your academic prowess, your talents, your abilities – but they don’t represent you as a person. Everybody has a unique story and adding that personal context can really enhance your application.

Common App Essay Prompts

Common App releases the prompts for every admissions cycle around spring. The prompts have stayed more or less constant over the last few years, though a couple of prompts are occasionally changed, so it’s always a good idea to check them when they are released. You can select any 1 of the 7 prompts provided to write a 650 word essay.

These are the latest Common App essay prompts.

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. ","label":"","title":"Prompt 7"}]" code="tab1" template="BlogArticle">

Colleges have no preference for which prompt you pick. Some students prefer to look at the prompts and get inspired, and that could work, but ideally, you should brainstorm ideas about the best stories and narratives from your life that could work for your Common App essay before picking a prompt. You can then tailor the ideas as per the specific prompt ask. As there are so many open-ended prompts, you’ll have a lot of freedom to choose a topic that works best for you.

Many students believe that Common App essays have to be extremely serious, talk about a traumatic or deeply impactful event, or document amazing achievements. Of course, you can choose to write a serious essay focused on any of these topics (or others) – but they’re not the only kind of essays that get acceptances! Many students write about light-hearted or seemingly trivial topics but are able to make their essays meaningful and unique. You should never sacrifice authenticity and truth for “razzle-dazzle”. Focusing on what the admissions committee wants or prefers is a useless exercise. Not only will it make your essay seem forced and pretentious, but it also has no basis in fact, since admissions committees don’t actually have any “preference” for a specific topic.

Would you like more guidance on how to write stellar college essays?

Common App Essay: Unique Challenges

Essays are a crucial part of any admissions process. If you decide to pursue graduate studies, you’ll undoubtedly have to write a statement of purpose for graduate school , among other types of essays and written submissions. And naturally, grad school level essays are longer and more challenging. At the same time, in some ways it’s easier to write an essay about yourself when you’re older. High school students face unique challenges when writing their essay and that often causes the “blank page panic” when they sit down to actually write their essay.

For one thing, younger students talking about themselves are talking as much about their potential and their dreams, as they are about their actual experiences. You can’t expect that at this early stage in life, students have had some great epiphanies or breakthroughs. High school students are still forming their identity and exploring who they are. It’s difficult to know exactly what to write to make yourself stand out from the crowd when you’re not even sure who you are or what your unique experiences are. That’s why many students experience writer’s block and find it difficult to know where to even start. Moreover, communication skills develop with time, and younger students may find it more difficult to express themselves in a natural, eloquent way, through their writing.

That’s why it’s so, so important that you should give yourself plenty of time to write your essay and break down the process into several steps that will help you logically bridge every fear and uncertainty you might have.

Recommended Timeline

As we mentioned above, the best way to handle your Common App essay is to break down the writing process into several steps and give yourself plenty of time to complete each step. Before we get into the actual timeline, let’s figure out what would be the best time to start writing your essay.

When to start?

Common App applications open in August, but they release their essay prompts as early as March or April. This gives students plenty of time to work on their essay – and not many students make full use of this time!

Our recommendation is that you work backwards from when you want to target sending out your applications and start working on your Common App essay 3 months before that date. This might seem like a huge amount of time for a 650 word essay, but trust me, you’ll need it. We’ll break down the reasons why in a minute. Just know that without spending a few months on your essay, you won’t be able to give it your best shot and truly make it stand out.

If you’re targeting early acceptance deadlines, you’ll probably have to submit your primary application by October and secondaries by November. If you’re targeting regular application timelines, then you have a bit more time as primary deadline is in November and secondaries’ deadlines are in January. Different colleges have different timelines, so you’ll have to check the admission websites of the colleges you’re applying to so you can confirm the exact dates.

You should plan your Common App essay timeline according to these dates. For instance, if you’re targeting early decision admission, then the secondary applications would most likely be due in October or November. So, the ideal time for you start your Common App essay work would be around July. This timeline also works as you can then spend your summer before senior year of high school working on your essay. Even if you’re busy with a summer job or a summer program , you’ll still have more time to devote to writing and brainstorming than you would during your school year.

We suggest that you don’t wait till the last minute to work on your essay. While of course it’s possible to write your essay in a month or even sooner, that will not give you enough time for the “preparation” stage of writing your essay. It will definitely impact the quality of your essay and make it that much harder for you to find your “voice”.

Moreover, leaving your essay-writing till the last minute is just a recipe for chaos. Remember that once your senior year starts, and those application deadlines start approaching, you’ll get busy with all the other submissions that are due for your application, and you’ll have the secondary essays to worry about too. Once school starts, you’ll have to manage all that with keeping up your grades and devoting time to your extracurriculars. You won’t have much time or (more importantly) the mental energy left over to deal with your Common App essay. That’s why we highly recommend that you use the summer before your senior year of high school to do the major work on it.

Starting early will also give you time to seek out feedback on your essay. Specifically, it will give you sufficient time to approach your referees (who will be writing your letter of recommendation) and show them a draft of your Common App essay. This action serves a dual purpose. First, as mentors, they could provide valuable feedback. Second, looking through your essay can help them calibrate their perspective on you, see you in a different light, and influence what they include in your letter.

Remember that if you really want your college application to stand out, you need to tell a consistent story that is supported by all the different elements of your application: the essay, the supplemental essays, the letters, and the extracurriculars. Each component should communicate different aspects of yourself that complement each other and present a picture of a real person with depth and something unique to offer. The synergy between these different elements, and a consistent narrative, can make your application really impressive and prove your clarity of mind and focused ambitions. However, it’s not easy to achieve this effect while also keeping your essay as authentic as possible. So, how do you make the best use of the opportunity the essay presents you, while still presenting evidence-based points that are supported by your experiences and align with the rest of your application? Well, that’s why we recommend starting your essay writing process so early! It’s not a simple matter of picking a prompt and writing a couple of drafts of the first topic that comes to mind. You might get a good essay that way – but if you want a GREAT essay, one that will truly stand out, you’ll need to put in the hard work and advance preparation towards making that happen.

This is the timeline we recommend to help you write a stellar Common App essay.

1 week "}]">

As you can see above, it will take you around 3 months, as per the timeline, to create the final draft of your Common App essay. If you start in mid-June or July, you’ll be finishing it up and asking for feedback around September, once school starts. That leaves you a couple of months to work on the rest of your application and secondary essays.

While this timeline represents the ideal amount of time you should be spending on your essay, you can condense it down as it suits you. Make sure you’re aware of the key application deadlines for the colleges you’re applying to, including early admissions deadlines (if applicable), and ensure that your essay and the rest of your Common App components are ready in time.

Next, let’s see how to complete each of the steps we’ve listed above. 

Are you looking for help with your college application? Check out this guide:

Preparing for Your Common App Essay

We recommend that before you actually start writing the first draft of your essay, you should spend some time brainstorming and freewriting, exploring different prompts, and reflecting on yourself and your life so far. This kind of pre-writing preparation is a crucial step to writing an effective, meaningful, and memorable essay. Not only will it help you identify topics for your essay, but it’s also a great way to broaden your perspective on yourself and think deeply about who you are and what you want. Moreover, this exercise isn’t just useful for your Common App essay – all your reflections from this period can also be used to help you write your supplementary essays!

Brainstorming Part 1: Self-reflection

We recommend spending a week or 10 days focusing on self-reflection and introspection. This is similar to “journaling”, something you may actually already be doing, but with a greater focus on writing about topics related to your Common App essay.

You should spend 10-15 minutes every day writing in your journal. At this stage, just indulge in some free-wheeling thought association about your life, your experiences, your goals, what makes you unique, what are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced, and so on. Note down any essay topics that come to you but don’t stress out if nothing suggests itself. The important part here is to start the process of self-reflection and to start narrating your experiences.

Life can seem like a random collection of events, but each of us is on our own journey of growth and learning. Don’t get bogged down by expectations and other people’s ideas – this is the time to just focus on yourself and what makes you unique. No idea, experience, or perspective is too silly or strange. Write down whatever comes to your mind as something significant that you’d like to discuss in your Common App essay. To get your self-reflection started, here are 4 questions you can ask yourself:

  • Who are you?
  • What makes you different?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you hope to achieve?

While doing this exercise, you should be wary of getting too invested in the college application “checklist” and reducing your life to a series of achievements or key experiences. You’re not writing a resume; you’re just exploring who you are and getting into the habit of thinking and writing about yourself. In fact, the whole point of the personal statement is to provide a perspective of yourself beyond what’s already shared in the other application components.

Brainstorming Part 2: Prompts

Once you’ve done some general self-reflection and identified some important narratives and qualities about yourself that you’d like to highlight, go back to your list of prompts, and see which one jumps out at you. At this stage, for some students, one or the other prompt may seem like an obvious choice. For example, if you’ve found yourself journaling a lot about a significant traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one, prompt no 2, which asks you to talk about a setback or obstacle, might seem like the answer. But don’t be so hasty to fix on a topic. Remember, at this stage, you haven’t even begun to define your topic! Getting too attached to an idea too early is as bad as not knowing what to write about, as it can prejudice you against exploring different ideas and maybe finding a more appropriate one.

Ideally, at this stage, you should be looking at 3 or 4 different prompts and brainstorming specifically in response to them. That way, you’ll have a variety of different experiences and narratives to choose from when you’re ready to write your first draft.

Below, we’ve listed a few key considerations and reflections for each of the prompts, that can serve as a starting point for your brainstorming. Spend some time every day – it could be 10 minutes, or it could be half an hour – just writing down your instinctual responses to the prompts, using our questions and reflections as a guide.

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.

This prompt is an excellent opportunity for you to talk about any hobbies, talents, extracurriculars, and any other interests that are important to you and that you haven’t got a chance to talk about elsewhere in your application. This includes “useless” hobbies that may not be achievement oriented, but that you’re nevertheless passionate about, such as needlework, playing video games, volunteering at an animal shelter, and so on.

It’s also an opportunity to reflect on your identity, your family, your hometown, and any other aspect of your personal life that’s both unique and important to you. Many students use this prompt to talk about their racial or ethnic identity, their sexuality, their gender, and so on. You can weave a story of personal growth through your interests or identify important influences on yourself and how they interact with each other. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • What was your upbringing like? What social environments surround you? How do they impact you?
  • Where do you live? What are some key images that would strike a stranger about the area where you live?
  • Where are your parents from? Have you ever visited their home town? What impression did it leave on you?
  • What do people around you know you for? Do you have a long-term commitment to any specific skills or talents?
  • What was your childhood like? Would you describe it as happy? What’s your happiest memory of childhood?

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?

This is the “overcoming obstacles” prompt. If you’ve faced any major adversity in your life, that you think is significant to your story, this is your chance to write about it. Many students also use this prompt to talk about more minor obstacles, and describe a narrative of personal growth, self-reflection, and learning. Whatever the incident or topic you chose to talk about, the key here is to focus on how you dealt with and overcame the failure, challenge, or adversity.

Have you ever had an accident, or major health problems, that significantly impaired you and impacted your life? Can you think of a specific day when you dealt with the consequences of your impairment? "}]" code="timeline2">

Prompt 3 : Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Many students avoid this prompt as they believe it’s referring to big-scale, political activism and social service, and they don’t think they’ve ever made any kind of significant impact in this area. In fact, this prompt can be a great opportunity to talk about any time you experienced change in your value system, even if the impact was quite small. It could be as simple as noticing a need for change that prompted a change in your belief systems, for instance, a poor interaction with a doctor that made you think about how the healthcare system can improve. Here, you should focus on your thought process and map out the genesis of the change, and what impact it had on you.

  • Think back to your childhood. Do you hold the same values you do today as you did then? If no, what made you change?
  • Do you agree with the values and beliefs of your family, friends, and others close to you? If not, why do you hold different beliefs? Have you ever tried to change their mind/have they ever tried to change your mind?
  • Think of a time when you questioned yourself or changed your beliefs. How did you change? Why did you start questioning yourself?
  • Have you ever gone against the social norms of the people around you? What made you do that?

Prompt 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?

You can use this prompt to write a more philosophical essay that focuses on the impact another person made on you, and why it stayed with you. Most people would find it difficult to actually think of a material gift that left a philosophical impact on you and significantly changed your life. That’s why many students use this prompt to write about non-material “gifts” in the form of memorable advice, a challenge, an obstacle, or a task, that taught the student a valuable lesson and motivated them to do better.

Is there a person in your life whom you are completely loyal to? What is the source of your loyalty? "}]" code="timeline3">

Prompt 5 : Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

This is one of the more open-ended prompts that students love to use as it allows them to amplify their achievements and talk more about “impressive” experiences in their life. Actually, it’s a mistake to use this prompt to just talk about the same extracurriculars and academics you’ve already covered in the rest of your application. Even if you do mention an extracurricular activity here that you’ve already covered elsewhere, the important thing is to bring a different perspective and reveal a new side of yourself. It’s not just about saying “I did this amazing thing”. You’ve got to think about how the event or accomplishment impacted you, what led up to it, and what you took away from the experience.

  • Have you ever been deeply impacted by someone’s words, advice, or guidance? Describe the experience and how you changed after it.
  • Have you ever had a “eureka” moment that changed your life? Did you ever experience a moment of clarity about something you want that helped you define your long-term goals?
  • Apart from all the achievements listed in your resume, what’s your biggest accomplishment? Is there a seemingly insignificant moment of your life that you’re truly proud of? 

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?

This prompt is an ideal opening to help you talk about your more “useless” extracurriculars. The activities or interests that you’re passionate about, but which aren’t achievement oriented and hence don’t make it to your resume. It could be anything as simple as baking or bird-watching, or as abstract as an interest in how language works. If you can tell a story about how you found this interest, how it motivates you, why you love it, how it influences other aspects of your life, and how it helped you grow as a person, then this is the prompt for you. This is a great chance to paint a vivid picture of your inner life and communicate your unique way of thinking to the admissions committee.

  • Is there something you’re so good at, people come and ask for your help? This could be really anything, from a musical talent to being good at fixing things around the house.
  • If given unlimited leisure time, how would you spend it? What would you do if you didn’t have any obligations to go to school or earn a living? What sparks your passion for life?

Alright, so you’ve done some journaling and brainstormed a few essay ideas in response to the prompts. Don’t jump straight into selecting the idea and writing the essay – spend at least a couple of weeks, ideally 3 weeks, indulging in free writing. Try your hand at writing in response to a few different prompts, or all of them, if you have the necessary inspiration. Don’t think about restrictions such as word count, flow, structure, or any of that just yet. Just let your inspiration run free and write about anything you like.

The goal here is loosen your writing up, shake free the cobwebs from your brains, and get into the habit of writing about yourself. This is when you can work out the little awkward details in your writing and develop a more natural writing style. Some of this raw material, after some editing, could even make it to your essays, but don’t be too concerned at this stage with the “outcome” or this exercise will be wasted. Write without pressurizing yourself to produce brilliance, using the prompts as a kind of starting off point for a free associating exercise. This step is crucial to making sure your final essay sounds authentic, natural, and personal, rather than a formal summary of events or a forced statement of facts.

Give yourself a daily goal – 10 mins, or a few pages, whatever works for you. You should ideally do this activity in the morning, when you’re fresh and have a clear, relaxed head space. Select a cool, quiet corner of your house or a library where no one will interrupt you and sit down with your writing instrument of choice – notebook, laptop, or whichever medium feels most natural and comfortable for you!

If you find yourself facing writer’s block, shake yourself out of the rut by asking yourself “why”. Whatever you’re writing about – an idea, experience, event, or person, ask yourself why is this important to me? Why do I care? Why does it bother me? And keep going.

Another important tip at this stage is not to ask for feedback or show your writing to anyone. This is the time for ideation, not perfection. In fact, step away from your own writing for some time and don’t come to re-read it till after a few days. This is a great way to reap great essay ideas and get around your own anxiety and self-doubt.

What all of this pre-work does is help you avoid time wastage and inefficiency at a later stage. If you simply start off writing an essay based on a prompt without any brainstorming or preparatory work, you might spend a lot of time struggling to write, work late nights trying to get the tone or the style right, and then still feel that it doesn’t quite work without any idea of why. Self-reflection helps you get to the core of the matter, identify the “juiciest” stories and experiences from your life, while brainstorming helps you work through the “bad” writing in a low-pressure environment. When you select a topic after all this work, you’re likely to feel much more confident about your essay and that will reflect in the smoothness and eloquence of your writing.

Selecting a topic

After your more than a month of daily brainstorming and freewriting, take a break for a couple of days and don’t think or write anything related to your Common App essay. Then, come back and go over the results of your journaling, brainstorming, and freewriting with a fresh eye, and select a topic that stands out to you. 

Here are some tips to help you select a good topic:

  • Anchor your essay to a story, which will be the “hook” that opens the essay and draws the reader in. Focus on this story and which experience you’ll use to build the story, and that will help you select a topic. A personal, meaningful anecdote, such as the first time your mother taught you to make a specific dish, or the time you interacted with a new student who changed your beliefs, is an excellent opening for an essay. Try to think of significant experiences that could be great essay-openers and define your topic around that.
  • Pick a “focus” for your essay. Is it a person? An event? An experience? A quality about yourself you want to highlight? Remember, it’s important to give your essay a single focus and do justice to that topic rather than try to crowd in too many elements.
  • Connect your experiences to your ambitions and pick a topic that actually helps you show your potential, your ambitions, and your dreams. Sometimes significant experiences in your past don’t really have any connection to your future, though they might give you plenty to write about. Your topic should connect your past, future, and present effectively, and show a consistent narrative.
  • Try and balance your application out strategically. Select a topic that shows a different side to yourself than what you’ve already communicated in the rest of your application, for instance, if your extracurriculars are focused on your competitive athletic career, talk about a completely unexpected non-athletic passion such as environmentalism or expand upon how your personal insecurities, and a time you failed, and how you learned to cope with it. Humanize yourself and bring a nuanced perspective to your achievements. On the other hand, if you have inconsistent grades or your extracurriculars aren’t that impressive, amplify your accomplishments and talk about the passions that you devote your time to, even if they aren’t resume-worthy.

You should start by selecting 4 to 5 topics that are most meaningful and personal to you and then narrow it down to the one that’s most suitable for the Common App essay. Don’t throw away the rest! You can use the rest of the topics to get inspired when writing your secondary essays. Moreover, shortlisting multiple topics ensures you always have a back-up if, for whatever reason, your initial essay idea doesn’t work out.

Remember: don’t let self-doubt be your biggest enemy. There is no wrong or cliché or boring or lame topic. When it comes to the Common App essay, the how and why is key, much more so than the what. Do YOU believe in your story? Are you speaking honestly and from your heart? Is there a logical narrative and flow to your essay? Is there a meaningful conclusion that you’ve drawn? These are the questions you should be asking yourself, rather than wondering what the admissions committees will think of your topic!

At the end of the day, admissions committees are not judging your experiences, but rather your way of thinking – they want to get to know you as a person. When you’re writing your essay, you can always monitor your language to make sure it’s not overtly sentimental or emotional, but your topic and the key narrative should be all yours and completely sincere. Even if it’s a so-called “cliché” topic – such as, for example, an immigrant’s story or the obstacles you faced as an athlete and how you overcame them – the important thing is, your essay should have nuance and depth and a well-thought out perspective.

Let’s get into how you can actually write an impressive Common App essay.

Writing the Common App Essay

Writing the first draft.

At this stage, you simply take the plunge and get into the actual writing of your essay. First of all, thanks to all your brainstorming and journaling, you’ll probably find the writing part quite easy! Most students are more challenged by the structure of their essay and figuring out how to create a logical flow with a meaningful conclusion. To help you out, we’ve listed a few common essay types that you can use to structure your essay. We’ll also go over how to outline your essay and create a logical structure.

Essay types

Selecting a “type” of essay can be helpful as a kind of guide for you during your writing process. The following are the most common essay types students use to write their Common App essay:

Specific Story : This is the classic and most popular type of personal statement. It opens with a personal, meaningful story, which is complete in itself, and sets up the “lesson” or “focus” for the rest of the essay. The essay may go on to discuss other related experiences or how that specific story impacted other areas of the student’s life, or it could expand various facets of the single story, connecting to the student’s present and future. This a is reliable essay style, but you should be careful not to make it to moralistic or fable like. For example, you could open the essay with the story of how you met a patient at an old age home you volunteered at, and how their words or actions had a meaningful impact on you and galvanized you to take action about how people at the old age home were treated. It’s a complete story in itself, and then you could move on to talk about how you are committed to always speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves, and how you did that in other arenas of your life, and how you plan to pursue this goal in your future.

Iterative Pattern : This is a great essay type for those who want to talk about a journey of growth, learning, and self-reflection. Here, you open with an event or incident that may not have a definite conclusion or lesson, and then return throughout the essay to various related incidents that show a progression of a single theme through time. For instance, if there’s a specific issue you’ve struggled with, such as stuttering or public-speaking, you could start with incidents describing past attempts at public speaking and how you failed there, and then go on to describe how you worked towards improving yourself and overcoming your fears, and end with an incident where you actually achieved success in public speaking.

Circular : In this essay, you start with a story or incident, but don’t share the entire story or the final takeaway at the beginning. Instead, you use the rest of the essay to discuss how you felt about the incident, your thought process, the impact it had on you and others, and then you come back to the story and end the essay with a meaningful conclusion. For example, if you’re writing an essay for prompt no 3 (about a time you changed your mind), you could begin the essay describing an incident where you have to make a crucial decision – say, about whether or not you’ll expand the membership of your “boys-only” chess club to invite anyone who wants to join – then provide context about your family background, previous beliefs, and how you’ve changed them, and then come back to the provide the happy ending to the story, explaining how you not only changed the membership rules but took additional steps to make the new members feel welcome and comfortable.

Building Challenges : In this type of essay, you provide a series of different events or experiences in your life that all build on one another to present a kind of obstacle course that you have to overcome. This essay type is most often used to write adversity focused essays. For example, a student from a socio-economically disadvantaged background could start their essay talking about their earliest childhood struggles, how they overcame them, and then go on to expand on other struggles they’ve faced, which could be related to their background or their education or interests. They key with this type of essay is to focus on the “overcoming” adversity aspect, and to emphasize what you’re proud of and what you did well in these different circumstances. 

Creative Essay : These are essays that don’t confirm to any conventional formats. Some students chose to go completely off-beat and create a radically different essay structure. For example, you could write the essay in the style of a chapter from your favorite classic novel, but with you as the protagonist. Or, you could create a dialogue between two imaginary people, say, two important historical figures, talking about you. This is a very difficult kind of essay to pull off, but it can be high-risk, high-reward, when done right. Many students use it as a way to showcase their expert knowledge of any specific area or prove their creativity to the admissions committees.

Check out this infographic:

Essay structure

Once you’ve figured out, broadly-speaking, what type of essay you want to write and what you’ll include in it, the next step is to create an outline. Now, some students prefer to start with free writing and create a reverse outline later, but that’s not an ideal way to work. Reverse outlining usually takes up more time and isn’t very efficient.

Your essay should, generally speaking, include 3 to 5 paragraphs. More than 5 paragraphs could make your essay look very cluttered – remember you can’t go beyond 650 words! On the other hand, you’ll need a minimum of 3 paragraphs to cover the beginning, middle, and end, three crucial components in any essay.

Having said that, your essay topic and personal inspiration should always your structure, so if you think more than 5 paragraphs makes sense and is logical within the flow if your essay, go for it. However, we still wouldn’t recommend less than 3 paragraphs. Having a wall of text in front of you is just difficult to read and could get you marked down.

Create the following outline for your essay:

Depending on the type of essay you\u2019re writing, this could include another personal anecdote, or it could be a meaningful takeaway. It\u2019s very important to have a defining, impactful conclusion that sums up your thesis from earlier in the essay and ties up any loose ends. "}]">

Here are some tips to keep in mind for when you’re writing your essay:

Build the suspense : When you’re telling your anchor story, the one that opens your essay, make sure you keep building the suspense. There should be some mystery about what happens and conflict in the middle to keep it interesting. For instance, if you’re talking about that time that you overcame your fear of water after a swimming injury to finally return to the pool, don’t begin by saying “I got back into the pool after my injury for the first time on 6th September.” That gives away all the drama! Instead, build the story by describing your fears, the previous incident, and encouragement you received from your coach, and then end with the fact that you finally made it back into the pool.

Don’t deal in plain statements : To make your essay engaging, it’s very important not to rely solely on statements of facts and to back up every fact with evidence. This could be in the form of experiences or activities, personal incidents, descriptions of a specific setting, descriptions of your state of mind, and so on. For example, instead of simply saying “I was angry that I had to leave my hometown.”, describe an incident where you confronted your mother about her decision to move you away and talk about how that anger impacted your relationship with your mother. When talking about a meaningful outdoors trip, instead of saying “The forest was very beautiful.”, try giving specific, sensory-based descriptions and talk about how the setting impacted you, for example – “With the trees swaying above me and the leaves rustling in the wind, I found an inner peace and calmness I’d never experienced before.” Make your essay as engaging as possible, with thoughtful analysis, vivid descriptions, and beautifully set scenes.

Answer the prompt : Make sure, as you’re writing, that you’re addressing the prompt you’ve been given. Try and understand the prompt at a deeper level and don’t just create a surface level connection because it suits your topic. Remember, prompt no 7 is essentially a “free topic” so if you really want to create your own topic, that’s the one you should go for.

Be deliberate, authentic, and humble : Every sentence should have a clear reason for being included in your essay. At the same time, your voice should be as natural and authentic as possible. Don’t drop in pretentious references or brag about your achievements if they don’t belong in the essay. Keep your central topic in mind and only include details and events and relevant to it.

Beginning/middle/end : Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is a fundamental rule of essay writing and is crucial to making sure your essay has a logical, coherent flow.

End with a key takeaway : Your essay should always have a learning, an epiphany, a moral, or talk about a new perspective you gained. You could introduce it earlier in your essay, but it should be reiterated in the concluding paragraph. 

Revising your essay: 2/3/4 drafts

We really cannot emphasize enough the importance of revisions and editing when it comes to writing your Common App essay. This is when you get your critical monocle out, place it over your eye, and give your essay a really thorough analysis. Most students satisfy themselves with just 2 drafts – the initial one, and the second one that they create after seeking feedback from their teachers or mentors – but you should ideally work on 3 or 4 drafts by yourself, before even showing the essay to anyone else. When you’re revising your essay, make sure you keep the following things in mind:

Is it too much? This is where you check yourself – remember that you simply cannot communicate every single thing about yourself in one essay. The key is to find one theme you want to expand on and focus on that. If there’s too many incidents, events, experiences, with no clearly defined conclusion or connection between them, it might be time to re-write your essay. As writers say, sometimes you have to “kill your darlings”, which means, you shouldn’t get too attached to specific ideas or sentences if they don’t fit in with the rest of your essay.

Is it too little? At the same time, it’s also possible to get too specific and be bogged down with unimportant details that don’t really add to your story. Ask yourself if your essay has a broader perspective or lesson to offer and if not, you need to add that in.

Show don’t tell : As we mentioned before, you should not be making unsupported statements and piling facts on facts. Check your essay to make sure your statements are all supported by accompanying examples, descriptions, or stories.

Use your outline : Keep coming back to your outline to improve you’re the structure and flow of your essay. It’s easy to get carried away with writing the introduction and making it too long, and the outline should help you stay on top of how much time you’re spending on each sub-section of your essay. Additionally, sometimes, a great description or line can be incorrectly placed in the essay, and your outline will help you identify that. For instance, your essay should never begin with your “key takeaway”, no matter how important it is. You need to build to it. So don’t be afraid to move things around. As you’re working, define the purpose of each paragraph and keep checking if your writing is aligning with that purpose.

Check for clarity : All essays should have a few key elements. That includes your anchor story, your central thesis or declarative statement, and your key takeaway. Is your essay communicating everything you want it to? Or is the message getting lost in a sea of words?

Trim the excess : Students are often tempted to include braggy details in their personal statement that are not relevant to the rest of the essay. This is a bad idea – it certainly won’t impress anyone and could make you seem pretentious and insincere. Similarly, students sometimes add personal details in their personal anecdotes that don’t add to the story and only editing will help you catch these little details. For instance, you really don’t need to add details of your appearance in any of your anecdotes, unless it’s directly relevant to the story.

Check grammar and spelling : Don’t just rely on auto-correct! Make sure you go over your essay with a fine-toothed comb, catching every spelling or grammatical error. Leaving these in is the best way to get yourself marked down by admissions committees.

Use varied sentence lengths and structure : Sometimes, when you’re writing in your natural style, you may end up repeating certain sentence structures that come most easily to you. Make sure you include a variety of sentence lengths. This makes your essay more readable and engaging.

Use active voice : Always use active voice wherever you can, rather than passive voice. For instance, instead of saying “The dance class was run by me from Monday to Saturday.”, try “I ran the dance class from Monday to Saturday.”.

Once you’ve thoroughly revised your essay and got it as perfect as you can from your perspective, it’s time to invite other people to take a look at it. Who should you seek feedback from? There are many options: friends, peers, parents, teachers, and older mentors. There’s always a risk with certain types of feedback, for example, parents may sometimes over-edit your work, making you lose your natural voice, whereas teachers could view your essay from an academic perspective and ask you to make it more formal. Ideal reviewers are older mentors, friends who have recently and successfully been through the admissions process, guidance counsellors, or admissions experts.

The most important thing is that you trust your reviewers and that they know you well enough to give you genuine, well-meaning feedback. Keep an open mind to all the feedback you receive, but remember, don’t sacrifice your voice. In case of a serious disagreement with someone over a critical point in your essay, always back yourself, because no one knows you better than you!

Also, try and get feedback from varied sources. Friends and family can comment on the personal experiences you talk about in the essay while teachers and counselors can help you perfect the tone, format, and language of the essay.

Once you’ve gathered all the feedback, go back to your essay, and complete a final revision keeping in mind the feedback you’re received. After this, do a final check of your outline, flow, grammar, spelling, and so on.

But wait! Don’t submit it yet. Before your final submission, you should always have someone else – a trusted advisor or friend – take a look at your essay. After going over the same piece of writing so many times, re-read fatigue can make you miss out on obvious errors. So, make someone else proofreads your draft before you submit it on Common App. Remember, Common App does not allow you to make any updates to the submitted essay. You really need to be sure that you’re happy with the final draft before submitting.

Next, let’s put some of these tips, tricks, and strategies into action and see some examples of great Common App essays.

Sample #1: Rina

The fragrance of cloves mingles with the potent smell of green chilis to fill the kitchen with a delicious and familiar scent. After hours of chopping, peeling, and stirring, some overnight marinating and a couple of disastrous attempts at frying onions, I’d finally managed to re-create my grandmother’s biryani recipe from scratch. But the final test was still to come. Would my mother approve of my efforts? After all, I’d done all of this as a surprise for her birthday. As I stood there, watching my mother gingerly lift the spoon to her mouth, I couldn’t believe that I’d actually spent an entire day and night working so hard to recreate one of my family’s traditional Indian recipes. I’d come a long way from the scared girl who couldn’t run away fast enough from my bi-cultural background.

Growing up, what I wanted more than anything else was to blend in with my peers. I remember every year during the annual school fundraiser, all students were asked to contribute something for the baked goods sale. A typical American event – and one that I dreaded. My mother always insisted on preparing elaborate Indian sweets, syrupy gulab jamuns and golden jalebis, and I always felt so out of place standing next to that stand in school. It took me a long time to realize that my greatest source of discomfort was my own insecurity.

The distance I felt from my mother only increased with time, as I grew up to be a regular American teenager who preferred my friends’ company to my mother’s and who listened to all the wrong kinds of music. That all changed two summers ago, when we got the news that my grandmother in India had passed away. I noticed a great change in my mother after she came back from the funeral. She was quiet, sad, and withdrawn, and most importantly, she’d stopped cooking altogether. One day, I asked her why. She told me that her mother was the one who had taught her how to cook, and now that she was gone, she felt some crucial emotional connect was gone from her cooking and she couldn’t find any joy in it. This revelation made me think deeply about my own disconnect from my Indian roots and how hurt my mother must be my continuous rejection. What for me was just a natural desire to “fit in”, for her represented a rejection of so much that was important to her. Eventually, to my mother’s delight and surprise, I asked her if she would teach me how to cook Indian food like her mother had taught her. Though I’d started the exercise as a way to help my mother with her grief, I was happy to discover that I enjoyed cooking thoroughly and soon developed a taste for Indian food I’d never had before. I took on more and more complicated recipes and felt a great sense of accomplishment at every one that I mastered.

This experience made me realize how important it was to embrace every part of yourself and to keep an open mind to new experiences, and new perspectives. This is a lesson I’ll carry with me as I enter the next stage of my life, and I’m glad I learned it before it was too late for me to mend my relationship with my mother.

So that’s how I ended up in my kitchen that day, covered in flour and oil splatters, awaiting my mother’s judgment with trepidation. And as my mother’s face lit up with a smile of delight, giving her stamp of approval to my difficult culinary feat, I felt I’d finally found that sense of belonging I’d been searching for all my life. (621 words)

Why it works : This essay is a great example of the “circular” style of essay. It opens with a story that hooks the reader in, builds suspense about what the conclusion could be, and ends with a meaningful takeaway that brings the story full circle. Though the setting is simple, the stakes are high, and that is clearly communicated in the way the story unfolds and the subsequent experiences shared. Additionally, the writer narrates experiences and events that add context to the central thesis – that of finding belonging and accepting your self – and does not include any unnecessary details that could clutter the narrative. She also includes evocative descriptions that make the essay an engaging read. 

Sample #2: Robert

9 pm on a school night, the radio blasting The Weeknd, I was cruising down the N-75, feeling that I could keep going forever. No, I wasn’t out for a wild night with friends – right beside me was my father, looking at me with pride. After spending months terrified of getting behind the wheel, I’d finally gotten over my fear. That day, I was actually driving on the highway at night, a combination of circumstances that would have given me nightmares just a few weeks ago.

Most teenagers dream of the day they can finally get behind the wheel and be the masters of their own destiny, and I was the same. Unlike most teenagers, my parents felt no trepidation handing me the keys to their car when the time came for me to start practicing. I was the responsible, mature, and capable oldest child and had quickly mastered the basics of driving in my theoretical lessons. So, what could go wrong? I found that out within a month of starting actual driving lessons with my father. It was one disaster after another. I’d turn to the wrong side. I’d take too long to brake. And sometimes I’d just freeze, too anxious to move or do anything. As my father tried to tell me, it was a very dangerous maneuver to undertake in the middle of a busy intersection! It all culminated in a small accident that resulted in some minor damage to my father’s car and some major damage to Mrs. Waterford’s pea beds.

To everyone’s astonishment, including my own, this small accident completely traumatized me, to the point that I gave up my driving lessons and stopped practicing. All of my friends had also experienced some kind of bumps in their driving journey, but none of them had been deterred. Moreover, I’d always prided myself on being the kind of person who could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I’d taken on a full roster of STEM-oriented AP classes and maintained a 4.0 GPA all through junior year, and I’d played on an injured ankle to get my football team to victory in freshman year. But when it came to driving, all my gumption seemed to desert me.

I remember the day my friend got her license, and we went for a drive together. She asked me why I was so scared of driving and joked that it’s the first time I’d ever failed a class. Her lightly spoken words struck a chord in me as I realized that she’d actually pinpointed the source of my fear. I’d always had a natural aptitude and affinity for the two main interests of my life: science and football. I’d found it easy to do well in school and on the field, and never really explored interests beyond these safe arenas. That’s why I didn’t really know what to do when faced with something that didn’t come naturally to me. Driving was the first time I’d had to face up to my failure, and it had spooked me completely.

Once I had that realization, I spent some time reflecting on how I could move past this fear. I soon got back behind the wheel, and I took extra classes with a trained instructor so I could get really confident in my driving. With my license finally in hand, the first thing I did was call my friend to tell her I’d passed!

I’m now committed to challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone, whether it’s expanding my roster of subjects to include more humanities courses or auditioning for our school play. Not every new experience has been a “success”, but as I know now, that’s not the point! My fear of failure has now transformed into a fear of stagnation, and this has helped me see life in a whole new perspective. (645 words)

Why it works : Robert’s essay is a great example of an “overcoming obstacles” essay that focuses on a personal obstacle and provides the necessary context to make it a compelling narrative for a personal statement. The key in any essay about overcoming a challenge is to document your journey from obstacle to learning to growth, and Robert’s does that very clearly. In any personal statement that has a “growth narrative” there also needs to be a focus on the writer’s inner thoughts and evolving thinking. In this essay, Robert walks his audience through how we felt at each stage of dealing with this obstacle. Finally, he ends with a memorable takeaway that reiterates the lesson he learned and explains how he plans to implement this lesson in his life.

Sample #3: Sarah

“Sarah. Sarah! Wake up!” My mother’s voice woke me with a start, and I raised a bleary head from my drool-covered book. Once again, I’d lost track of time and fallen asleep reading a Thomas Hardy novel. My mother watched me bewildered and asked me, “I guess you really love your new English Literature class, huh?”. My mother’s bewilderment stemmed from the fact not very long ago, I had a clear trifecta of interests – my friends, cheerleading, and fashion designing – and reading stories about things that happened to people very far away, 200 years ago, did not figure in my list of priorities. And now here I was, obsessively working my way through Hardy’s entire body of work, not long after I’d finished all the completed Austen novels. And I was already planning which Bronte sisters’ works I’d be reading next!

I have Mr. Smithers to thank for starting me on my astonishing journey of discovering, and falling in love with, 19th century British literature. While we were studying Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for our Lit class, he assigned each of us a specific assignment about different aspects of Regency era life. In my case, knowing my predilection for fashion, he asked me to work on a project about the trending women’s fashions when Jane Austen was alive. What started as a routine assignment for class soon transformed into one of the most fascinating explorations of my life. I found myself completely absorbed in the tiniest little details of Regency fashion: the imported textiles, the use of chemises, what types of slippers they wore. From exploring the “what”, I soon found myself asking how and why. I borrowed books from our school library about the politics and economy of Regency era England. I began to see the deeper connections between the socio-economic climate, and prevalent cultural trends, and how that all manifested in the form of major fashion trends. Before, I’d only ever thought of Napoleon as a short, angry French man from some distant era in history! Now, I found out how close he had come to actually conquering England, and how his rejection of extravagant court fashions in favor of ancient Greek philosophies actually popularized the empire waisted gowns that dominated Regency era England ballrooms.

With Mr. Smither’s encouragement and guidance, I found more and more novels to help me continue exploring this new interest. Under the sunlight streaming through the windows of our dusty little school library, I absorbed myself in these stories of people from a long gone era. Yet every story I read only revealed to me how humans, across time and space, have a treasury of common experiences. Reading Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, I found myself sympathizing with the double standards that Tess was dealt just because she was a woman. It also made me think deeply about how I had also internalized and sometimes acted upon sexist ideas. Like any high school, our school too was a rumor factory that most often targeted girls. I decided, from that moment, to stop participating in forwarding any gossip or rumors. I also spoke to some of my friends who had thoughtlessly spread unkind gossip about a new girl. It was a tiny act of kindness and change, but it helped me grow as a person and re-define my perspective on what matters.

The most wonderful thing about literature is the power it has to take us beyond ourselves and show us a different way of thinking than we ever imagined. Today, I not only have a new interest, but also a new perspective on life, and a new avenue to growth and learning. I can’t wait to see what new perspectives, ideas, and theories are waiting for me between the pages of a book. (629 words) 

Why it works : Sarah’s essay focuses on her interest in a specific subject and takes the reader on a journey of discovery along with her. Essays responding to prompt no 6 can sometimes be tricky to write, since it’s more difficult to set up a conflict or expand upon lessons learnt when talking about a technical topic or a specific subject. Sarah manages to create conflict by showing us a contrast between who she used to be and who she is now and leading us through the steps that led to her transformation. She also has a clear takeaway – the power of literature and its personal impact on her – and that ties back in with her initial set up of how much she had changed thanks to her new-found interest. It gives a clear idea of who she is and how she thinks, and presents a unique perspective on a regular hobby.

The Common App essay should be between 250 to 650 words. Ideally, you should write an essay of at least 500 words to ensure your narrative is substantial and meaningful.

No – once you’ve submitted your Common App essay, it is locked for editing. Make sure you’ve triple-checked your final draft, and get someone else to proofread it, before you submit it.

Yes, the Common App essay is a very important admissions component. It can count for up to 30% of your application review. The more elite and competitive the college, the more importance they’ll give to the Common App essay. As the only qualitative component of your primary application, your essay is a great opportunity to make yourself stand out from the crowd and humanize your “checklist” of achievements for the admissions committee. A great essay could help you edge out other applicants with similar profiles in terms of academic record and extracurriculars.

Ideally, you should spend 3 months writing your Common App essay, giving yourself plenty of time for brainstorming, free writing, selecting a topic, writing multiple drafts (at least 3), seeking out feedback, and finalizing your essay. You can compress these activities down into a shorter timeline, but this could make the process that much more difficult and could impact the final quality of your essay. Starting and finishing your Common App essay early also leaves you free to deal with all the other application components closer to the actual college app deadlines. Remember, you’ll also have to write secondary essays for multiple colleges in a short period of time – a month or less – and your Common App essay prep could be very useful in writing secondary essays as well. So, it’s best to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for and write your Common App essay.

If you’re struggling to find a topic for your Common App essay, start with journaling and brainstorming before you get into actually writing the essay. Just write down your free-association responses to  3 or 4 of the prompts. Ask yourself a few key questions to guide your brainstorming such as: who am I? What do I hope to achieve? What is my passion? What makes me unique? Find the experiences, events, ideas, and people in your life that are the most meaningful to you, personally, and then select a topic that corresponds to those events.

A great Common App essay is one that demonstrates your excellent writing skills, shows depth and breadth of thought, a clear journey of self-reflection, and truly expresses who you are as a person. Your essay should not be a repetition of the items already seen in your resume. Instead, it should provide a new and refreshing perspective on you, and should clearly communicate what makes you special.

Ideally, you should ask at least two people to review your Common App essay. Select someone close to you, such as a parent or a friend, who can give you genuine, well-meaning feedback about the personal aspects of your essay. You should also ask an experienced mentor to review your essay, such as an English teacher or guidance counsellor. If you’re really struggling with it, you can get the help of admissions consultants who can give you expert feedback.

The Common App essay is your personal statement, and you only need to write one essay that goes out to all colleges along with your primary application. You can select from 1 of 7 prompts and write an essay about any meaningful, personal achievements or experiences that you’d like admissions committees to know. The Common App essay should be general and should not reference any specific colleges. On the other hand, supplemental essays are written in response to college-specific prompts and should directly address why you want to go to a particular college. These essays are a part of your secondary application and colleges can share 1 or more prompts to help them get to know you better.

Want more free tips? Subscribe to our channels for more free and useful content!

Apple Podcasts

Like our blog? Write for us ! >>

Have a question ask our admissions experts below and we'll answer your questions, get started now.

Talk to one of our admissions experts

Our site uses cookies. By using our website, you agree with our cookie policy .

FREE Training Webinar:

How to make your college applications stand out, (and avoid the top 5 mistakes that get most rejected).

Time Sensitive. Limited Spots Available:

We guarantee you'll get into your dream college or university or you don't pay.

Swipe up to see a great offer!

how to write the best common app essay

How to Write the 2022-23 Common App Essay

The recording will load in a moment., about this livestream.

how to write the best common app essay

Learn how to write an awesome Common App essay for every single prompt.

Vinay will provide an in-depth breakdown of each of the Common App essay prompts, discussing how to write a great essay in response to each one. He’ll also share his take on the essays and topics you shouldn’t write about for each prompt.

how to write the best common app essay

Vinay Bhaskara

Other recordings by vinay bhaskara.

how to write the best common app essay

The Ultimate Guide to UC Essays

how to write the best common app essay

Parents Series: What parents need to know about college admissions in 2022

how to write the best common app essay

Elite Admissions Series: How to get into an Ivy League college

how to write the best common app essay

How to Get Into Tech Without a Degree

how to write the best common app essay

Make the Most of Your Summer Break with the NSLC!

how to write the best common app essay

Popular recent recordings

how to write the best common app essay

2024 Admissions Lessons and Falsehoods for the 2025 Applicant

how to write the best common app essay

Stand Out: Strategies for Resume Building

how to write the best common app essay

Try Before You Buy - The Benefits of Pre-College Residential Experiences

how to write the best common app essay

How to do research in high school

How to Answer the 2024-25 Common App Essay Questions

how to write the best common app essay

An outstanding college essay can be the x-factor that gets you accepted to the school of your choice – particularly if you’re hoping to attend a prestigious university . As the emphasis on test scores declines , recent data shows that over 56% of colleges place considerable or moderate importance on students’ supplemental essays. So the Common Application, with its variety of essay prompts , can help you showcase your personality, achievements, and aspirations. 

While writing essays about yourself may be an art form, how you approach your answer can be more scientific. Here are our best strategies to select and answer the Common App essay questions for the 2023-2024 admissions year. 

How do you know which prompt to pick? 

Before you start brainstorming, consider the following criteria to choose an essay topic.

  • Instinct – When writing a college essay made its way onto your to-do list , was there a personal story that jumped to mind? If so, test out how it feels to trust that instinct. Is there a prompt that this idea aligns with? 
  • Passion – Can you write about this topic with excitement? If you’re leaning toward a topic because it feels like the one you “should” choose rather than one you’re amped about, don’t fall for that common mistake . Admissions officers read a ton of essays. If you’re not passionate about your subject matter, it’ll be clear. 
  • Understanding – While the Common App essay questions seem fairly straightforward, ensure you understand your prompt and can answer all parts of it. Another mistake students make is forcing something they want to talk about into an existing essay topic. If you have an idea that doesn’t address one of their specific questions, consider prompt 7, which allows you free rein to explore the topic of your choice.
  • Dimension – Does your essay give insight into who you are, outside of your GPA, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation? For example, if you were the captain of your school’s varsity soccer team, an essay about soccer may not be your best choice.

The Common App Essay Topics 

According to a study from Yale , the most important thing to college admissions officers isn’t which prompt you choose, but that you write a great essay. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Craft a compelling, cohesive narrative that relates back to who you are as a person and a student. 
  • Be honest , and don’t embellish details nor use AI .
  • Avoid clichés that college counselors have seen before .
  • Start early , and give yourself plenty of time to perfect your essay.
  • Proofread your essay , and ask a friend, teacher, or family member to read it too. 

Common App Prompt #1: Identity essay 

“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.”

Students who have a unique aspect of their identity that isn’t otherwise represented in their application might enjoy this prompt. And remember: identity doesn’t just mean your ethnic background. 

  • Choose an aspect of your identity that makes you who you are. Are you the first in your family to go to college? Were you educated outside of a traditional school system? Are you a member of a religious group that has shaped your worldview? Each of these examples represents an aspect of identity that might be interesting to explore.
  • Be specific about your background, identity, or interest that you’ve chosen. Explain how your personal experience deviates from the norm. 
  • Describe the impact of this facet of your identity on who you are. Reflect on how this has related to your growth and perspective on yourself, your community, and your future. For example, if English wasn’t your first language, how did learning the language influence your interests? Did you turn to movies and television and discover a love of cinema that influenced you to pursue a career in entertainment? 

Get your creative juices flowing by reading other Common App essay prompt 1 examples that worked.

Common App Prompt #2: Overcoming obstacles essay 

“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?”

Don’t think you can only write on this topic if you’ve experienced some type of significant hardship. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you’ve had to overcome obstacles to get to where you are today. Adversity breeds resilience, which is a great quality to highlight to a college admissions committee. 

  • Identify an obstacle that has impacted you. Think back on experiences that required you to persevere. This could be something big, like the loss of a parent or a natural disaster, or something less severe, like a failing grade on an important assignment or losing an election for class president. 
  • Detail the experience and your role in it. How did you feel when you first encountered this challenge? If you were overwhelmed or scared, be honest. Specificity around details, emotions, and your mindset will create empathy and paint a full picture. Then, complete the story. How did this event unfold? How did your mindset shift? 
  • Highlight what you learned and your eventual success. As you brainstorm, make a list of your takeaways. If you experienced a major illness, did you find a renewed sense of gratitude for your physical health? Then, connect your learnings to some success. If you got fired from a part-time job, did the experience help you identify the career path you actually want to pursue and put you in a position to pursue it? 

Study up on how other determined students have aced Common App essay prompt 2 . 

Common App Prompt #3: Individuality essay 

“Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

College campuses are full of students who are eager to expand their horizons and reassess previously held worldviews. If this sounds like you, prompt three might be perfect. 

  • Choose a belief or idea that you questioned at some point. This could be anything from your approach to mental health, to your perspective on gender roles or religious beliefs. Explain why you held this belief and the importance of this idea in your life. 
  • Explain what prompted you to explore . Was it a book? An article? A conversation with a teacher? Describe the scene – what happened, where you were, and how you felt.
  • Detail the experience of your reflection . Did you turn to books to better understand the other side of this issue? Did you engage in conversation with people who thought differently from you? Get into the weeds of your exploration.
  • Present your conclusion . If you changed your perspective, what was the evidence that caused this shift? And if you discovered an even greater sense of certainty around your original opinion, how does that feel? Or, if you’re still not sure but continuing to explore, that’s a great answer, too.

Read how other curious high school students explored beliefs in Common App Prompt #3 essay examples . 

Common App Prompt #4: The gratitude essay 

“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?”

Gratitude can be a powerful source of motivation, particularly when we’re feeling defeated or down. If you’ve experienced an act of kindness that impacted your life in some significant way, reflect on it in prompt #4.

  • Pinpoint an act of kindness that someone has done on your behalf. This could be something monumental, like a family member donating an organ, or a small, everyday gesture, like a stranger paying for your coffee. 
  • Set the stage for your story. What happened? Why did you need this act of kindness? If you ran out of gas in the middle of the highway, what did that feel like? Then, present the act of kindness in as much detail as you can while staying within the word limit. What prompted the kind stranger to pull over with their gas can? What conversation ensued? 
  • Explore your gratitude and reflect upon how the experience affected you. Did this random act of kindness change your perspective? Did you pay it forward through community service? Show how this experience caused you to change in some way, big or small. Don’t stop at gratitude; push yourself to action. 

Read about times other high school students felt inspired by the empathy shown to them.

Common App Prompt #5: The personal growth essay 

“Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

High school is a period of deep personal growth. Use this prompt to highlight ways you’ve grown that might not be captured by your GPA or extracurricular activities. 

  • Reflect on periods of personal growth and pinpoint the events that might have triggered them. Make a list of these types of occurrences. For example, traveling abroad to a new country, being selected to write for the school newspaper, or overcoming a fear of public speaking to compete in a debate. 
  • Narrate your experience . You might think of this as your “before” and “during” snapshot. If you weren’t the best student in your science class, but had an exciting hypothesis to tackle in a science fair project, describe how you approached this project. Then, tell the reader about what happened. Did you succeed? Did you fail? Did you uncover a new skill?  
  • Expand on your shift in perspective and how this experience caused you to look at yourself and those around you differently. Think of this as your “after.” If your project went on to win your local science fair, how did this shift your view of your scientific abilities? Underline how you grew from this experience and how it shaped your perspective. 

For inspiration, here are examples of Essay #5 responses from high school students just like you. 

Common App Prompt #6: The passion essay 

“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?”

Every student, no matter their GPA or collegiate aspirations, has a hobby or pastime they enjoy. Are you particularly passionate about yours? Take this opportunity to write about it, particularly if your passion is unique.

  • List the things you love . Ideally, your greatest passion came to mind as soon as you read this prompt. But if you have an affinity for more than one thing, make a list. This could be anything from making pottery to playing chess or trying out new recipes in the kitchen.
  • Explain why you have such an affinity for this hobby or pastime. Delve into the history behind this passion. How did you first get interested in rescuing animals? Did a parent or mentor expose you to this work? Did the experience of finding a lonely cat on the street spark your passion? 
  • Expand upon your learning process and how you developed your knowledge of this topic. If you love astronomy, what steps did you take to learn about the night sky and types of stars? Did you immerse yourself in YouTube videos about space? Or visit local observatories? Demonstrate your thirst for knowledge and ability to self-motivate. 

Read other passionate essays here that have captivated admissions officers. 

Common App Prompt #7: Topic of your choice 

“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.”

Prompt 7 can be divisive. For some, this open-ended prompt is a great opportunity to write a unique, personal essay. Since there are no rules (other than the word limit), there are several ways to approach Prompt 7.

You could choose a topic that is unique to you, write a personal statement, or tell a compelling story that has some broader appeal. Or, you could think totally outside the box and turn your essay into a screenplay, newspaper article, or other artistic form. 

If you’re considering this prompt, try not to recycle an essay you’ve previously written for a high school class. The admissions officer will recognize your junior year English essay on Othello and, most likely, will find this choice lazy. Moreover, the Common App essays are meant to offer insight into who you are – not how you perform academically. 

That said, this prompt does offer you the opportunity to reuse a prior essay as a base and then tweak it. Just be careful. The college admissions process is high-stakes. Don’t ruin your chances because you’re trying to save time on your essay. 

To find inspiration, check out other students’ essays on Prompt 7 . 

Pay less for college with Going Merry

The Common App essays give students an opportunity to inject some personality into their college applications. No matter which prompt you choose, write with passion and honesty. And then recycle some of those essays in your scholarship applications on Going Merry , to win some cash for college.  Going Merry is a comprehensive college prep platform that helps students get into college and afford it without student loans. We provide tips to make your college applications shine; we curate thousands of high-quality scholarships and help you win them; and we make it easier to compare colleges through our (free!) college cost insights tool. Take the next step to realizing your collegiate aspirations when you sign up for Going Merry today .

Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.

  • Recent Posts

goingmerry

  • Early Action vs Early Decision: Which Should I Choose? - May 7, 2024
  • How to Answer the 2024-25 Common App Essay Questions - May 2, 2024
  • How to Write a Strong Letter of Recommendation for College - April 30, 2024

Ready to find scholarships that are a match for you?

PrepScholar

Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, which common app essay prompt should you choose.

author image

College Essays

feature_candy

On one hand, the Common Application has seven essay prompts to choose from, which is great news: No matter what your story, you're sure to find a good fit! On the other hand, having seven prompts means you can write seven different kinds of essays, each with its own potential pitfalls and clichés to steer around.

In this article, I'll outline two totally different approaches to figuring out which Common App essay prompt is right for you and help you brainstorm possible ideas for each. I'll also talk about what makes great college essays great and give examples of what you want to avoid when crafting your essay.

What Are Application Essays for, Anyway?

Before you can choose an essay prompt, before you figure out what you're going to write about, it helps to know what the goal of your writing is. Think about it: if your goal were to give someone instructions, you'd write really differently than if your goal were to describe a landscape.

So What Is the College Essay Supposed to Do?

Admissions officers want to know the things they can't find in the numbers that make up the rest of your application. They want to know about your background, where you come from, and what has shaped you into the person you are today. They want to see your personality, your character, and your traits as a person. They want to learn your thinking style and perspective on the world. They want to make sure you have the ability to creatively problem-solve. And finally, they want to double-check your maturity level, assess your judgment, and get a general sense of whether you would be a good college student—whether you would thrive in an environment where you have to be independent and self-reliant.

So think about the college essay as a way of letting the admissions office get to know you the way a close acquaintance would. You have to let them in and share real thoughts, feelings, and some vulnerabilities. You definitely don't need to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets, but you should avoid showing only superficial details or, even worse, a façade.

body_gossip

Disclosing your closest-held secrets is not the goal of a college essay; however, you  do want to share enough information to give the admissions staff a sense of your personality, motivations, and values.

How to Brainstorm Ideas for Each Common App Prompt

There are two big-picture ways of coming up with essay ideas.

First, maybe you already know the story you want to tell. Perhaps you experienced something so momentous, so exciting, or so dramatic that you have no doubt it needs to be in your college application.

Or maybe you need to approach finding a topic with some more directed brainstorming. There's nothing wrong with not having a go-to adventure! Instead, you can use the prompts themselves to jog your memory about your interesting accomplishments.

Approach #1: Narrating Your Exciting Life

Does something from your life immediately jump into your head as the thing you would have to tell anyone who wanted to know the real you? If you already know exactly which of your life experiences you are going to write about, you can develop this idea before even looking at the prompts themselves.

You can ask yourself a few questions to see whether this is your best brainstorming option:

Is there something that makes you very different from the people around you?

This could be something like being LGBT in a conservative community, having a disability, being biracial, or belonging to a minority group that is underrepresented in your community.

Has your life had a watershed moment? Do you think of yourself as before X and after X ?

For example, did you meet a childhood hero who has had an outsized impact on your life? Did you suddenly find your academic passion? Did you win an award or get recognized in a way you were not expecting to? Did you find yourself in a position of leadership in an unusual time or place?

Did you live through something dramatic, such as a crisis, a danger you overcame, or the complete upheaval of your circumstances?

Maybe you lived through a natural disaster, made your way home after being lost in the woods, or moved from one country to another?

Was your childhood or young adulthood out of the ordinary? Were you particularly underprivileged or overprivileged in some unusual way?

For instance, did you grow up very poor or as the child of a celebrity? Did you live on a boat rather than in a house or as part of a family that never stayed long in one place because of your parents' work or other circumstances?

body_stunt

If you've experienced a dramatic event that changed your life or face unusual obstacles on a daily basis, approach #1 may work well for you.

Approach #2: Brainstorming for Each Prompt

If you don't have an unusual life experience or a story that you absolutely know needs to be told, don't worry! Some of the very best personal essays are about much more mundane situations that people face. In fact, it's better to err on the side of small and insightful if you don't have a really dramatic and unusual experience to write about.

Let's go through the prompts one by one and think of some ways to use more ordinary life events to answer them.

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.

This is the broadest of the seven prompts. Almost any life experience that you write about could fit in this category, but you need to be careful to avoid writing the same essay as every other applicant.

Brainstorming Ideas

Background. Did a family member or friend have a significant influence on your life? Did you grow up in a particularly supportive and tolerant—or narrow-minded and intolerant—community? Were your parents not able to provide for you in the expected way? Did you have an unusual home life?

For example, my family came to the U.S. as refugees from Russia. By the time I went to college, I had lived in five different countries and had gone to nine different schools. This wasn't a traumatic experience, but it certainly did shape me as a person, and I wrote about it for my graduate school application essay.

Identity. Are you a member of an interesting subculture (keep in mind that violent or illegal subcultures are probably best left off your college application)? Do you strongly identify with your ethnic or national heritage? Are you a committed fan of something that someone like you would be expected to dislike?

Interest. In this category, esoteric interests are probably better than more generic ones because you don't want your essay to be the hundredth essay an admissions officer sees about how much you like English class. Do you like working with your hands to fix up old cars? Do you cook elaborate food? Are you a history buff and know everything there is to know about the War of 1812?

Talent. This doesn't have to be some epic ability or skill. Are you really good at negotiating peace between your many siblings? Do you have the uncanny ability to explain math to the math challenged? Are you a dog or horse whisperer? Are you an unparalleled mushroom forager?

Pitfalls to Avoid

Insignificance. The thing you describe has to be "so meaningful" the application "would be incomplete without it."

Redundancy. If the interest you write about is a pretty common one, like playing a musical instrument or reading books, make sure you have an original angle on how this interest has affected you. Otherwise, your essay runs the risk of being a cliché, and you might want to think about skipping this idea.

Bragging. If you decide to write about your talent, be aware that by focusing on how very good you are at playing the cello, you run the risk of bragging and coming off as unlikable. It's much better if you describe a talent a little more off the beaten path. Or if you do end up writing about your excellent pitching arm, you may want to focus on a time when your athleticism failed you in some way or was unsuccessful.

feature_pianopractice

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

In essence, you're being asked to demonstrate resilience. Can you get back on the horse after falling off? Can you pick yourself up and dust yourself off? This quality is really important to colleges, so it's great if you have a story that shows off your ability to do this.

The key to this essay is the "later success" part. If all you went through was failure and you learned no lesson and changed no approach in the future, then don't use that experience here.

Did you lose a game because of a new and poorly rehearsed strategy, but later tweak that strategy to create success? Did you not get the lead in the play, but then have a great experience playing a smaller part? Did you try a new medium only to completely ruin your artwork, but later find a great use for that medium or a way to reconceptualize your art? Did you try your best to convince an authority figure of something only to have your idea rejected but then use a different approach to get your idea implemented?

Too much failure. Don't focus so much time on the "failure" half of the equation that you end up not giving enough space to the "later success" and "learn from the experience" parts.

Too little failure. Don't diminish the negative emotions of failure because of a fear of seeming vulnerable.

Playing the victim. Avoid whining, blaming others for your failure, or relying on others to create your success. You should be the story's hero here.

feature_failuresuccesssign

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

The key to this prompt is the reflection or insight that comes from the question, "What was the outcome?" Challenging deeply held views is not always a good idea. Writing about a negative outcome and how you reacted could demonstrate your maturity level and ability to tolerate views different from your own.

Remember, the belief or idea could be anyone's: yours, a peer group's, or an authority figure's. Did you stand up to your parents' conservative or traditional values, for instance, about gender norms? Did you get your friends to stop bullying someone?

Also, the belief or idea doesn't have to be extremely serious or big in scope. Did you make dressing up for Halloween cool for teenagers in your town? Did you transform your own prejudice or bias (e.g., about athletes having interesting thoughts about philosophy)?

Causing offense. If you have a story that deals with super hot-button issues, such as abortion or gun control, you need to be careful to keep your essay's tone respectful and unaggressive. This is a good thing to check by letting other people read your drafts and respond.

Avoiding negative feelings. Challenging beliefs means pointing out that what a person thinks now is wrong. It can also be quite lonely and isolating to be on an unpopular side of an issue. It's important to include these negatives into the story if they fit.

body_actsciencedebatefinal

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?

“Reflect” and “surprising” are the keywords in this prompt. You need to write about a specific thing that another person (or persons!) has done for you that made you feel grateful—but your response shouldn’t stop there. To make your response really shine, you also need to reflect on the experience or, in other words, explain what it meant to you, why your feelings about it surprised you, and why. From there, you’ll need to round out your essay by connecting what that person did for you to the person you are today. Did that surprising act change you in some way? Did it make you a better person? This is your chance to show colleges what your values are when it comes to connecting with other people.

Remember how the prompt specifies that you should write about something someone did for you that made you happy or thankful in a surprising way? That wording is nudging you to think outside the box. For instance, most people are thankful for birthday presents or a friend who picks up the check at lunch. You need to think of something more out-of-the-box—something you didn’t necessarily expect to make you feel gratitude.

It’s entirely possible, for instance, that someone helped you out of an ethical dilemma or really difficult situation. Has someone ever helped you when you didn’t necessarily want help? Have you ever been in a situation where, if someone else hadn’t stepped in, something bad could have happened? Did that event motivate you to change your behavior in the future? Were you persuaded to own up to your mistake and do better next time?

An event in which the act of kindness or the person who performed it was unexpected is a great option here as well. Did someone you dislike do something kind for you? Did a stranger help your family out financially? Did your best friend come in from out of town when you had a bad injury to throw you a surprise party? Did a student who’s more popular than you invite you into their group at school?

Being disingenuous. Don’t exaggerate the effects of the surprising act of kindness you choose to write about. Similarly, you don’t want to write about an event that didn’t truly mean something to you and affect your life in a tangible way. Stick to writing about the truth of what happened in the situation and how you felt about it, and your response will be gold.

body_help

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Going from childhood to adulthood doesn't usually happen after one accomplishment or event but is more of a process. This question is asking you to find one step along the process and explain how it fits into the long thread of your growing up.

You don't necessarily need to tell the story of some big, official ceremony. Instead, you can focus on a small moment that showed you that you were older, more mature, and more responsible than you had been before.

Did your family make up its own adulthood initiation ceremony? Were you finally able to beat your mom in chess or shooting hoops, and did that change how she treated you? Did your dad cry in front of you for the first time, making you realize that you were old enough to handle it? Were you suddenly left in charge of younger siblings, and did you rise to the task instead of panicking? Were you allowed to make a big financial decision for the first time and found yourself taking it very seriously?

For example, during my junior and senior year, my mom traveled extensively for work, and my dad lived several states away, so I lived by myself for weeks at a time. It was exhilarating and made me feel independent and mature. But it was also lonely and burdensome because I had to take care of everything in the house by myself. Living alone was a huge part of my life, shaped me into the person I was, and made me see myself in a new light as a grown-up.

Sameness. Avoid the milestones that happen to everyone: driver's license, bar/bat mitzvah, etc., unless they happened to you in some extraordinary way.

body-choice-signs-cc0-1

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?

The idea of this prompt is to discuss something you're passionate about. It's a great opportunity to showcase a skill and show off your writing skills because your passion should come across on the page. Pay special attention to the "What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?" aspect of this prompt; how you learn and from who can say a lot about you.

Hopefully, you should know the things that captivate you right off the bat. Try to think of the things that you turn to not just for fun but that de-stress you or give you the ability to learn.

More importantly, understand why this topic, idea, or concept is important to you. It should have a deeper meaning in your life and say something about who you are as a person.

Some other questions you can ask yourself to find a topic include the following: What unique hobbies or interests do you have? What challenges have you overcome in pursuing this topic, idea, or concept? What have you discovered about yourself in relation to this topic, idea, or concept?

Don't miss the overall meaning. Even if something is captivating to you, it's not necessarily captivating to others. Make sure you focus on what the topic, idea, or concept means to you and why that matters rather than getting lost in explaining it and how you feel about it.

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.

This is one of the most popular prompts from the Common App. Remember that even though this prompt is open-ended, you should discuss something meaningful that shows growth, reflection, or something unique about you.

A lot of students have unique experiences that have influenced them throughout their lives. Try to think of people or events that have changed your perspective in a big way.

However, the topic itself doesn't have to be about a big moment. Lots of things can be life-changing, and it's perfectly OK to write about something that happened in your daily life as long as it moved you and has affected you in a way that you can put on paper.

In this prompt, insight is key to a great essay. Reflect on the moments that defined your perspective or events from which you learned something. This prompt should be about something personal to you and can be about family, friends, or an experience.

Ask yourself if there's a time, event, or person that has stuck with you and what it or they meant to you. Once you have some ideas, ask yourself why. What does it say about you to have changed as a result of that experience, and how might others relate?

Being too general. Insight can be found in moments both big and small. But for this prompt, try to avoid going too big and going too small. You don't want to write about something mundane and have to stretch it to make it mean something. That said, it can be tough to boil down an experience that's really significant, like being an Olympic athlete, into a short essay. Personal and insightful are the key.

How to Turn Your Idea into an Essay

Now that you've come up with some possible ideas, how do you go about actually writing the essay? Before you write, you need to have a plan. I like to think about planning out personal essays that I've written by first imagining them as enjoyable movies. You want your reader to walk away entertained, to remember the characters and story, and to want to see more from the same creator. So how do good movies do those things?

Character arc. Good movies have main characters that undergo some kind of change or transformation. Who is the main character of your essay? It's you! The you of your essay has to start one way and end up another: more mature, with a different mindset, or having learned a lesson.

Conflict or transformation. Good movies also have challenges. The main character doesn't simply succeed and then keep on succeeding; that's boring. Instead, the main character either overcomes an external obstacle or changes in some way from beginning to end. Your essay also needs this kind of story drive. This can come from an obstacle you overcame, an outside force that stood in your way, a disability or weakness you experience, or a seemingly unsolvable problem you face. Or it could come from a before–after scenario: you used to be, think, or act in one way, but now you've changed into a different or better person.

Dramatic set piece. In good movies, the conflict or transformation isn't just told to the audience. They are acted out in scenes set in specific locations, with dialogue, character close-ups, and different camera angles. In your essay, your story also needs to show you dealing with the conflict or transformation you face in a small, zoomed-in, and descriptive scene. Think spoken dialogue, sensory description (i.e., what did you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch?), action verbs, and feelings. This scene should function as one illuminating example of what you overcame or how you changed.

Happy ending. Movies that are fun to watch tend to have happy endings. The hero resolves the conflict, emerges a better person, and looks forward to future accomplishments. Your essay also needs to have this kind of closure. This is really not the time to trot out your nihilism or cynicism. Instead, your essay should end on a moment of self-understanding and awareness. You lived through something or you did something, and it affected you in a way that you can verbalize and be insightful about.

body_movietheater

Coming up: the story of you, starring you, written and directed by you.

Which Prompt Should You Choose?

So now that you've brainstormed some topic ideas and a game plan for turning those ideas into an essay, how do you narrow it down to the one ?

Reverse-Engineer the Perfect Prompt

If you used the first brainstorming approach, try to formulate a big-picture idea about the story you're telling.  

Is the character arc primarily you learning something about yourself or making peace with your background? Sounds like a good fit for prompt #1.

Is the conflict about you struggling to do something but eventually succeeding? That goes well with prompt #2.

Does the story focus on a mind being changed about an idea? You want to go with prompt #3.

Does your happy ending involve you changing something for the better, fixing something, or solving a problem? Then your essay is ready for prompt #4.

Is your character arc about growing up, gaining wisdom, or becoming more mature? Then you're probably answering prompt #5.

Look in Your Heart

If you used the second brainstorming approach, get ready to get a little cheesy. Really listen to what your gut feelings are telling you about which of your ideas is most compelling and which will get your emotions flowing on the page. Readers can tell when you're writing about something you care deeply about, so it's worth it to find the topic that has the most meaning to you.

Not sure how to tell? Then this is the time to ask your parents, teachers you are close to, or some good friends for their input. Which of your ideas grabs their attention the most? Which do they want to hear more about? Chances are that's the one that an admissions officer will also find the most memorable.

What's Next?

Want a detailed explanation of why colleges ask you to write essays? Check out our explanation of what application essays are for .

If you're in the middle of your essay writing process, you'll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid .

When you start working on the rest of your application, don't miss what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

Get eBook: 5 Tips for 160+ Points

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

Ask a Question Below

Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!

Improve With Our Famous Guides

  • For All Students

The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 160+ SAT Points

How to Get a Perfect 1600, by a Perfect Scorer

Series: How to Get 800 on Each SAT Section:

Score 800 on SAT Math

Score 800 on SAT Reading

Score 800 on SAT Writing

Series: How to Get to 600 on Each SAT Section:

Score 600 on SAT Math

Score 600 on SAT Reading

Score 600 on SAT Writing

Free Complete Official SAT Practice Tests

What SAT Target Score Should You Be Aiming For?

15 Strategies to Improve Your SAT Essay

The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 4+ ACT Points

How to Get a Perfect 36 ACT, by a Perfect Scorer

Series: How to Get 36 on Each ACT Section:

36 on ACT English

36 on ACT Math

36 on ACT Reading

36 on ACT Science

Series: How to Get to 24 on Each ACT Section:

24 on ACT English

24 on ACT Math

24 on ACT Reading

24 on ACT Science

What ACT target score should you be aiming for?

ACT Vocabulary You Must Know

ACT Writing: 15 Tips to Raise Your Essay Score

How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League

How to Get a Perfect 4.0 GPA

How to Write an Amazing College Essay

What Exactly Are Colleges Looking For?

Is the ACT easier than the SAT? A Comprehensive Guide

Should you retake your SAT or ACT?

When should you take the SAT or ACT?

Stay Informed

how to write the best common app essay

Get the latest articles and test prep tips!

Looking for Graduate School Test Prep?

Check out our top-rated graduate blogs here:

GRE Online Prep Blog

GMAT Online Prep Blog

TOEFL Online Prep Blog

Holly R. "I am absolutely overjoyed and cannot thank you enough for helping me!”
  • Applying to Uni
  • Apprenticeships
  • Health & Relationships
  • Money & Finance

Personal Statements

  • Postgraduate
  • U.S Universities

University Interviews

  • Vocational Qualifications
  • Accommodation
  • ​​​​​​​Budgeting, Money & Finance
  • ​​​​​​​Health & Relationships
  • ​​​​​​​Jobs & Careers
  • ​​​​​​​Socialising

Studying Abroad

  • ​​​​​​​Studying & Revision
  • ​​​​​​​Technology
  • ​​​​​​​University & College Admissions

Guide to GCSE Results Day

Finding a job after school or college

Retaking GCSEs

In this section

Choosing GCSE Subjects

Post-GCSE Options

GCSE Work Experience

GCSE Revision Tips

Why take an Apprenticeship?

Applying for an Apprenticeship

Apprenticeships Interviews

Apprenticeship Wage

Engineering Apprenticeships

What is an Apprenticeship?

Choosing an Apprenticeship

Real Life Apprentices

Degree Apprenticeships

Higher Apprenticeships

A Level Results Day 2024

AS Levels 2024

Clearing Guide 2024

Applying to University

SQA Results Day Guide 2024

BTEC Results Day Guide

Vocational Qualifications Guide

Sixth Form or College

International Baccalaureate

Post 18 options

Finding a Job

Should I take a Gap Year?

Travel Planning

Volunteering

Gap Year Guide

Gap Year Blogs

Applying to Oxbridge

Applying to US Universities

Choosing a Degree

Choosing a University or College

Personal Statement Editing and Review Service

Guide to Freshers' Week

Student Guides

Student Cooking

Student Blogs

Top Rated Personal Statements

Personal Statement Examples

Writing Your Personal Statement

Postgraduate Personal Statements

International Student Personal Statements

Gap Year Personal Statements

Personal Statement Length Checker

Personal Statement Examples By University

Personal Statement Changes 2025

Personal Statement Template

Job Interviews

Types of Postgraduate Course

Writing a Postgraduate Personal Statement

Postgraduate Funding

Postgraduate Study

Internships

  • Choosing A College

Ivy League Universities

  • Common App Essay Examples
  • Universal College Application Guide

How To Write A College Admissions Essay

  • College Rankings
  • Admissions Tests

Fees & Funding

  • Scholarships
  • Budgeting For College

Online Degree

Platinum Express Editing and Review Service

Gold Editing and Review Service

Silver Express Editing and Review Service

UCAS Personal Statement Editing and Review Service

Oxbridge Personal Statement Editing and Review Service

Postgraduate Personal Statement Editing and Review Service

You are here

  • Choosing A Major
  • Ivy League Universities Guide
  • USA College Fees
  • What is the Common App?
  • Filling Out The Common Application
  • Common App Deadlines
  • Common App FAQs
  • Common App Essay Prompts
  • Choosing a Common App Essay Topic
  • Common App Essay Brainstorming

Writing The Common App Essay Introduction

  • Writing The Common App Essay Conclusion
  • Common App Essay Format
  • Common App Essay Structure
  • Common App Essay Word Limit
  • Common App Essay Editing
  • Common App Essay Tips
  • Common App Essay FAQs
  • How To Write A College Essay
  • College Essay Examples
  • Online Degrees
  • Applying For College Graduation
  • Graduate School
  • Applying to UK universities

It’s thrilling and nerve wracking at the same time. Your first words on your Common Application essay . Your introduction is one of the most important parts of the Common Application essay. Your introduction needs to have a three way focus: grab the reader’s attention, highlight you as an individual and identify which topic you’re writing about. For example a great introduction could be: “ Last month I organized a street car wash for the special kids fund charity ”. This great introductory sentence links to prompt 5 about an informal event, highlights your organizational skills in leading the event and grabs the reader’s attention as they want to know why you chose that charity. It may be because you have a sibling who needs a wheelchair. However don’t give the whole answer in the introduction as you need to create curiosity and a desire for the reader (the admissions tutor) to read more of your essay, rather than answering all their questions at once. Another great introduction could be “ For the last 2 years I’ve been learning the guitar with the aim of joining a rock band. I auditioned for a rock band last year after 12 months playing the guitar but found I still had more to learn. ” This introductory sentence links to prompt 2 about the lessons we take from failure. It highlights your resilience to keep going, immediately identifies the theme and keeps the reader wanting to know more in the hope that you succeeded this year. Don’t make your introduction too generic, because it won’t identify you as an individual. For example “ When I go on holiday with my family, I like to visit museums to understand history. ” Thousands of families visit museums on holiday and this isn’t a personal story. A better alternative for a topic linked to prompt 1 could be, “ When I travel to New York on holiday with my mother, I always visit The Jewish Museum to learn more about my German Jewish family’s history as immigrants. ”

Top tips for a great introduction

There are several other do’s and don’ts for your essay introduction worth considering: 1. Do be realistic and honest rather than exaggerating. It is about your own personal journey. This doesn’t mean your achievements have to outshine every other student. If you’re not the top scorer in your basketball team, don’t imply you are. Instead, focus on why you’re in the team and what your unique strengths are. 2. Don’t say what you’re going to be writing about. For example don’t say “ I’m going to be writing about my science club .” The reader will pick this up from your first words. Instead be creative and launch straight into your story, e.g. “ My recent, puzzling science club experiment on recycling food waste, had an unexpected twist in the tail. ” 3. Do proof check and re-read your introduction for spelling and grammar at least twice and ask family or friends to second check it for you. Admission tutors will pick up on any anomaly and you don’t want to give them an easy excuse to reject your application. 4. Don’t start with restating the essay prompt you’ve chosen. This uses up your word count while adding no value and you’ve already ticked the box to say which prompt you’re writing about. 5. Do use active words as much as you can to describe feelings and behaviors, as again this will make your essay introduction more personal. “ Gained an award ” creates a feeling of achievement much more than “ got an award ”, as does “ elated that my neighbor loved my fence painting ” when compared to “ My neighbor told me he liked my fence painting. ” Remember that your introduction is your first opportunity to show how unique and original you are. Jump right in and let your creative juices flow. Once you've got a draft of your introduction that you're reasonably happy with, try to move on to the main bulk of the essay.

Further information

For more tips and advice on putting together your common application for college, please see:

  • Common Essay Prompts
  • Choosing A Common App Essay Topic
  • Common App Essay Conclusion
  • Editing Your Essay

Our Services

College Admissions Counseling

UK University Admissions Counseling

EU University Admissions Counseling

College Athletic Recruitment

Crimson Rise: College Prep for Middle Schoolers

Indigo Research: Online Research Opportunities for High Schoolers

Delta Institute: Work Experience Programs For High Schoolers

Graduate School Admissions Counseling

Private Boarding & Day School Admissions

Online Tutoring

Essay Review

Financial Aid & Merit Scholarships

Our Leaders and Counselors

Our Student Success

Crimson Student Alumni

Our Reviews

Our Scholarships

Careers at Crimson

University Profiles

US College Admissions Calculator

GPA Calculator

Practice Standardized Tests

SAT Practice Test

ACT Practice Tests

Personal Essay Topic Generator

eBooks and Infographics

Crimson YouTube Channel

Summer Apply - Best Summer Programs

Top of the Class Podcast

ACCEPTED! Book by Jamie Beaton

Crimson Global Academy

+1 (646) 419-3178

Go back to all articles

Common App vs. Coalition App: Which One Is Best for Your College Journey?

Common App vs. Coalition App: Which One Is Best for Your College Journey?

The Value of a Common Application

Key Similarities

Key Differences

Deciding Which One to Use

Expert Insights

This post will answer whatever questions you have about the Common App and Coalition App and guide you on deciding which to use. From key similarities to pivotal differences, along with a run down of what to consider when choosing between the two, this blog will home in on important features of these two high-profile application platforms and sum up their respective pros and cons so you can decide which one is best for your college journey.

Navigating the college application process can be daunting, but choosing the right platform can make all the difference. In this blog post, we'll compare the Common App and the Coalition App. These application platforms are the two dominant players in the college admissions landscape. But when you're faced with two platforms with so much in common (no pun intended), it can leave you wondering which one to choose, or why it even matters…

A bit like red apples and green apples, the Common App and Coalition app could be said to fall from similar trees, but they also have prominent differences — differences you can align with your own goals and circumstances in order to decide which application platform is best for you.

Whether you're looking to maximize your reach with the widely accepted Common App or benefit from the supportive features of the Coalition App, this guide is designed to help you make an informed decision.

Did you know that the average college-bound high school student will apply to six colleges, on average ? And, depending on personal circumstances and college interests, many students will apply to more than six , with some students sending out upwards of 10, 15, or more applications!

National statistics also show that the number of young people applying to college in the US is on the rise, along with the number of colleges they’re applying to. That said, don't be fooled by current trends or the notion that more is better... When deciding how many colleges to apply to , it's important to consider your target schools, college goals, and your personal circumstances.

That said, most students want to improve their chances by applying to a number of schools — such as reach , target , and safety schools. But, considering the time it takes to fill out just one college application, I probably don’t need to explain why having a common application is going to save you tons of time and energy!

By allowing you to fill out just one application and use it again and again, for all the schools you’re applying to, both the Common App and Coalition App exist, in large measure, to simplify and streamline your college application efforts.

But while the Common App was clearly designed for efficiency and uniformity, the Coalition App was created to provide greater opportunities for first-generation students and students from lower-income households.

Keeping this distinction in mind, you'll quickly make sense of many of the key similarities and differences between both platforms.

Interested in learning more? Attend one of our free events

Build your application strategy with the latest 2023-24 admissions trends & analysis.

Friday, May 31, 2024 12:00 AM CUT

Join this exclusive webinar to learn about the latest trends in college admissions and discover the key to getting accepted to top universities in upcoming application cycles!

REGISTER NOW

Common vs. Coalition: Key Similarities

A streamlined application process.

Both the Common App and the Coalition App work the same way, serving as a common application form that allows you to fill out one application and then submit it to multiple schools, streamlining the admissions process.

But before you make plans to apply to dozens of schools, keep in mind the Common App caps your applications at twenty maximum. The Coalition App has no limit, but is also less widely accepted.

Widely, but not universally, accepted

While the idea of doing one application to use for all of the schools you’re applying to sounds great, the problem is that some schools only want to use their own application form, not a common one. Therefore, neither the Common App nor the Coalition app is accepted by all colleges and universities .

About 900+ institutions accept the Common App, and 150+ accept the Coalition app. This means that students first have to verify which of their prospective schools do indeed accept the Common App, the Coalition App, both, or neither.

Free to use, but application fees still apply

Both the Common App and Coalition App are free to use, but that doesn’t mean you can apply for free when you use them, because you’ll still have to pay any application fees required by the prospective school.

In short, using either the Common App or Coalition App won’t cost you more and can save you time, but neither will save you money. That said, both platforms do allow you to take advantage of application fee waivers if you qualify.

Among the 889 ranked colleges who participated in U.S. News' annual survey, the average application fee was nearly $45. The 64 schools with the highest application fees – all at least $75 – charged an average of about $78

- u.s. news and world report, a streamlined essay submission process.

Both the Common App and the Coalition App give you a chance to share a single application essay with multiple schools. The Common App offers seven essay prompts to choose from, but you'll only choose one and write one essay, with specific prompts periodically updated for subsequent admissions cycles. Whichever prompt you choose, you’ll have a word limit of 650 words.

The Coalition Application essay prompts are very similar, but may specify different length limits or requirements, depending on what the college set as its preference.

Efficient but not all inclusive

While both the Common App and Coalition App can significantly streamline your application process, individual schools may still ask you to submit numerous documents in addition to the uniform application document .

For example, many schools require applicants using the Common App or Coalition App to tackle one or more 'supplemental essays' guided by school-specific essay prompts.

Likewise, guidelines for letters of recommendation can differ from one university to another, and you’ll need to provide academic transcripts too in most cases.

The good news is that both platforms have features that enable you and your high school counselors and administrators to upload letters, transcripts, and other supporting documents.

Made for flexibility and convenience

Schools can choose to accept only their own application form, but many give students the option to use either a school-specific application, and/ or the Common App, and/or the Coalition App.

Some schools accept either the Common or Coalition App; others accept both. Whatever the case, consider all of the schools you'll be applying to when deciding which platform to use or not use, since the job of applying will be more streamlined the more times you can use the same application .

All that said, flexibility is a great benefit. For example, it's fine to use one platform for some applications and the other platform for other applications, if wish to or need to for some reason.

Likewise, as long as you're using an application form approved by your prospective school, selecting one option over another should not have any favorable or unfavorable impact on how admissions officers evaluate you or your application!

Important Differences

A pivotal difference between the Common App and the Coalition App is that the Common App is designed for the widest possible use, while the core purpose of the Coalition App is to connect underrepresented students with a coalition of schools offering financial and academic support to underrepresented students.

These distinct purposes will help you make sense of other key differences between the Common App and Coalition App.

KEY DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE COMMON APP & COALTION APP

Deciding which app to use.

You now know a lot about the essential similarities and differences offered by these two prominent college application platforms. Next, let’s zero in on a few pivotal pros and cons to consider as you choose which App best suits your own circumstances.

Advantages:

  • Broad Reach: The Common App is accepted by over 900 institutions worldwide, including a diverse range of schools, from highly selective universities to smaller liberal arts colleges.
  • User-Friendly Interface: An intuitive design simplifies the application process, making it easier for students to navigate their application components.
  • Extensive Resources: With a wealth of application guides, a virtual counselor, and even a mobile app, the Common App provides a comprehensive toolkit to assist students throughout their application journey.

Disadvantages:

  • Generic Approach: Given its wide usage, the Common App can sometimes feel less personalized, which might be a drawback for students seeking to highlight unique aspects of their background or experiences.
  • Overwhelming Options: The sheer volume of member colleges combined with the limited college search resources can daunt students. This means students without access to other college search resources and admissions advising may want to keep in mind that the Common App has only very broad and generic search tools and resources.

Coalition App

  • Focus on Accessibility: Founded with a commitment to access, affordability, and success, the Coalition App is particularly friendly to students requiring financial aid, emphasizing support for lower-income households.
  • Planning Tools: Beyond the application, the platform offers a set of free planning tools encouraging students to begin the college preparation process as early as their freshman year in high school.
  • Portfolio Feature: Students can use the digital Locker to build a portfolio over time, a unique aspect that allows for a more comprehensive presentation of a student's achievements and experiences.
  • More Detailed Activity Descriptions: For students with less traditional activities, or whose activity roster emphasizes depth of involvement over quantity, having a bit more space to describe activities could be a noteworthy advantage.
  • Limited Scope: It’s accepted by over 150 colleges, significantly fewer than the Common App, which could limit options for students looking at a broader range of schools.
  • Newer Platform: Being newer, the platform's features and interface are less familiar to many counselors, potentially steepening the learning curve.

Making Your Decision

When determining which platform to use, consider not only the technical differences but also how each aligns with your individual application strategy:

  • Individual College Preferences: Research to see if your schools of interest accept both applications or have a preference. Some colleges might be exclusive to one platform.
  • Ease of Use: While both platforms aim to ease the application process, your individual level of comfort with their interfaces can influence your experience. Exploring each platform directly could give you a better sense of which one you prefer.
  • Support and Resources: Evaluate what kind of support and resources you foresee needing. We've seen that the Common App and Coalition App have some fundamentally different design purposes and orientations, so it makes sense to consider each option in light of your own preferences and needs.
  • Application Philosophy: Reflect on your values and educational philosophy. If access and affordability are priorities, the Coalition App’s emphasis on these values is something you'll want to consider specifically when making your decision.

We wouldn’t want to end without providing some more nuanced insights from Jeremy Parks, the US Admissions Strategist assisting with this blog post.

Don’t assume using the Common App or Coalition App will be enough

While both the Common App and Coalition App have significant reach and popularity, some very selective and popular institutions don’t accept either. Here are some high-profile universities in this category:

  • All ten University of California Campuses

For these schools, says Jeremy, in addition to having to use a completely different application portal, you may find significant components in your common application form don’t fit either, in terms of content or format — so it’s good to plan ahead, leaving time to fill out additional applications for schools like these, if needed.

Understand the role academic components play in your application

While the Common App and Coalition App both support holistic evaluation, academic components often matter more than others. Jeremy told us that even in a holistic admissions framework, grades and course rigor typically reign supreme in the evaluation process, especially at the more selective schools:

Academics are the first and foremost factor for being competitive at any top college here in the United States, so if you don't have the grades you'll be fighting more of an uphill battle. When thinking about what ‘academics’ comprises, it's both rigor and the actual course grade.

If you’re logging into either the Common App or Coalition App platform to get a head start a year or more in advance of sending out applications, consider enrolling in courses with a level of challenge that’s right for you and that will demonstrate a sequence of increasing rigor from one school year to the next.

Be smart about what you include or omit from your list of extracurriculars

The Common App offers you a chance to include 10 extracurriculars on your activities list, but only about 150 characters for describing the activity and your role. You can only list 8 extracurriculars on the Coalition App, but get a bit more room for your descriptions. In addition to keeping these factors in mind, Jeremy recommends (whichever App you use) curating your final activities selections for optimal breadth and coherence .

Aligning activities for breadth

One crucial strategy is to think about breadth not just in terms of varied activities — like sports vs. clubs — but in terms of how specific activities spotlight different skills, traits, and aptitudes. As you select which high school extracurriculars to include, try to select ones from your high school career that spotlight traits like these:

  • An innovation mindset , with descriptions that foreground independent thinking and initiative-taking
  • Leadership , with descriptions that enumerate specific leadership skills and quantitative outcomes resulting from your actions or decisions
  • Public service , with descriptions highlighting compassion or altruism
  • Creativity , with descriptions that spotlight introspection, imagination, or originality
  • Employment experiences , with descriptions highlighting maturity, dependability, soft skills, and/or a positive work ethic
  • Determination and commitment , with descriptions that foreground perseverance or an ability to overcome obstacles or challenges

Aligning activities for coherence

Selecting and spotlighting extracurriculars that deepen key strengths that figure elsewhere in your application makes for a more coherent profile, says Jeremy:

When I read your [activities] list it's one of my first insights into whether or not you kind of match what your major says on paper. So if you say you want to be a mechanical engineer and I go into your extracurricular list and see it's just sports teams and a Quiz Bowl Tournament that’s not going to have a whole lot of insight on an engineer. If I see that you've gone to an engineering camp or you’re on a robotics team… that's a tinkerer, that's an engineer!

Jeremy also advises students not to limit their activities to traditional extracurriculars such as football, band, or debate teams. Anything constructive you did outside of your classes that’s part of your story and your personal growth are worth mentioning (unless you run out of room of course).

When it comes to deciding which activities to consider, do not spare yourself anything. If you think it's an extracurricular, it probably is, and we admissions officers want to know about it so that we can tell the best that we can about who you are... If you don't tell us we can't read between the lines… We can only advocate for your admissions based on what you choose to share.

- jeremy parks, us admissions strategist, crimson education.

These expert tips are a reminder that picking which App to use is important, but it’s just a first step. Whichever platform you end up choosing, be it the Common App or Coalition App, insights like these will help you complete your application like a pro.

Blog Banner

Final Thoughts

Both the Common App and the Coalition App have a principal benefit for college-bound students — helping to streamline the application process.

That said, the Common App is clearly designed to be as universal a platform as possible, making it popular and widely used and understood.

The Coalition App, by contrast, is accepted at far fewer schools, making it a second choice for the majority of college applicants. But students seeking a more supportive pathway to college or connections to schools with more academic and financial support may find the Coalition App a more compelling option.

Remember, an application platform is merely a tool. Your own unique interests, qualifications, and goals are the most important touchpoints guiding your college journey, including your selection process and how you craft your individual application, regardless of the application platform you choose.

If you want leading insights that will sharpen your college journey, Crimson Education offers unparalleled expertise and a superior track record.

Whether you have questions about us, or about your own college planning, a friendly and skilled advisor is just a call away. Book a free consultation today and discover why students and families around the world partner with Crimson counselors and mentors for outstanding results!

What Makes Crimson Different

Key Resources & Further Reading

  • Join our free webinars on US university applications
  • Free eBooks and guides to help with the college application process

More Articles

A comprehensive guide to the common app: strategies and tips from an admissions expert.

A Comprehensive Guide to the Common App: Strategies and Tips from an Admissions Expert

How to Ace the Common App Activities List: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Ace the Common App Activities List: A Step-by-Step Guide

How to Answer the 2023/24 Common App Essay Prompts

How to Answer the 2023/24 Common App Essay Prompts

US COLLEGE ADMISSIONS CALCULATOR

Find a university that best suits you!

Try it out below to view a list of Colleges.

Enter your score

Crimson students are 7x more likely to gain acceptance to their dream college, remember, you don't have to navigate this journey alone. crimson provides a comprehensive suite of services, from academic mentoring and test prep to essay assistance, extracurricular guidance, and career mentoring, ensuring a holistic approach to your college preparation journey..

Enter your SAT or ACT score to discover some schools for you!

Purdue Online Writing Lab Purdue OWL® College of Liberal Arts

Welcome to the Purdue Online Writing Lab

OWL logo

Welcome to the Purdue OWL

This page is brought to you by the OWL at Purdue University. When printing this page, you must include the entire legal notice.

Copyright ©1995-2018 by The Writing Lab & The OWL at Purdue and Purdue University. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, reproduced, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed without permission. Use of this site constitutes acceptance of our terms and conditions of fair use.

The Online Writing Lab at Purdue University houses writing resources and instructional material, and we provide these as a free service of the Writing Lab at Purdue. Students, members of the community, and users worldwide will find information to assist with many writing projects. Teachers and trainers may use this material for in-class and out-of-class instruction.

The Purdue On-Campus Writing Lab and Purdue Online Writing Lab assist clients in their development as writers—no matter what their skill level—with on-campus consultations, online participation, and community engagement. The Purdue Writing Lab serves the Purdue, West Lafayette, campus and coordinates with local literacy initiatives. The Purdue OWL offers global support through online reference materials and services.

A Message From the Assistant Director of Content Development 

The Purdue OWL® is committed to supporting  students, instructors, and writers by offering a wide range of resources that are developed and revised with them in mind. To do this, the OWL team is always exploring possibilties for a better design, allowing accessibility and user experience to guide our process. As the OWL undergoes some changes, we welcome your feedback and suggestions by email at any time.

Please don't hesitate to contact us via our contact page  if you have any questions or comments.

All the best,

Social Media

Facebook twitter.

IMAGES

  1. how to write your ENTIRE common app essay (step by step guide)

    how to write the best common app essay

  2. How to Write a Common App Essay

    how to write the best common app essay

  3. How To Write A College Application Essay

    how to write the best common app essay

  4. How to Write a Common App Essay

    how to write the best common app essay

  5. 📚 Common App Essay Example

    how to write the best common app essay

  6. How to WRITE THE BEST COMMON APP ESSAY

    how to write the best common app essay

VIDEO

  1. Write a Stellar Common App Essay with LumiSource

  2. Cracking the Common App Part 1: Common App Overview

  3. Common Application Essay Tips!

  4. How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt #2 2022

  5. How To Write A College Essay in 7 Minutes

  6. Rating YOUR College Essays (Part 2!)

COMMENTS

  1. How to Write an Amazing Common App Essay (2024-2025)

    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 write on top of the core Common App Essay. They might invite you to talk more about an extracurricular activity on your resumé ...

  2. How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024 (With Examples)

    Overview of the Common App The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to know you. While SAT scores, your past course load, and your grades provide a quantitative picture of you as a student, the Common App essay offers adcoms a refreshing glimpse into your identity and personality. ... Organize, and 3) Write a Common ...

  3. Common App Essays

    What is the Common Application essay? The Common Application, or Common App, is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.. Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any ...

  4. 21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

    Common App Essay Examples. Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts. Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without ...

  5. 25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)

    Common App Essay Example #1: Seeds of Immigration. This student was admitted to Dartmouth College. In this Common App essay, they discuss their immigrant family background that motivates them. Although family is a commonly used topic, this student makes sure to have unique ideas and write in a genuine way.

  6. 12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

    Common App Prompt #5. I always imagined my band's first show would take place on a stage. Maybe not in front of a packed amphitheater, but a stage. One with lights, a sound system, a curtain behind it, and some mixture of friends, family, and strangers ready to hear us play.

  7. Complete Strategies: Common App Essay Prompts (2023-24)

    The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650. Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of ...

  8. 7 Expert Common App Essay Tips

    3. Use Your Space Wisely. Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic. The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words.

  9. How to Write the Common App Essay-Examples for 2023-2024

    Common App Essay Examples: 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. This prompt asks applicants to write about what makes them uniquely them.

  10. How to Write the Best Common App Essay

    Admissions officers look for clarity of thought, coherence in the flow of ideas, and grammatical accuracy. Intellectual rigor, creativity, and originality in expressing your ideas are valued. When writing your essay, take the time to revise and edit your work. Pay attention to the structure and organization of your ideas, ensuring that your ...

  11. Common App Essay Examples

    The best Common App essay examples showcase traits that are both true to the author and appealing to colleges. Think about how to do this as you craft your own essays. Sample Common App Essay #5. Personal statement sample examples are incredibly personal, and this next example is no different.

  12. How to Write the Common App Essay

    The Common App essay provides colleges with this holistic view of you as a person, not just a student. It is a window into your personality, character, values, and life experiences. Through the Common App essay, admissions officers gain insight into your passions, motivations, and the unique qualities that set you apart from other applicants.

  13. 10+ Outstanding Common App Essay Examples 2024

    Brainstorm (I think it's the most important step). Structure your essay according to your topic. Draft. Revise. Repeat. Common App essay word limit. The word limit for the Common App essay is 650. That doesn't mean you need to use all 650 words—many of the great example essays below don't.

  14. 5 Tips on How to Write The Perfect Common App Essay

    Always put yourself in your reader's shoes and see what initial thoughts or judgments you think they'd form based on what you're saying. Also, let your essay breathe for a bit and come back to it a few weeks later with a fresh mindset. See what you think of it then. 5. Use Your Space Wisely.

  15. The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay ...

    The "Common App," short for the Common Application, is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once.It's accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally. The idea is that the Common App is a "one-stop shop" so you don't have to complete a million separate applications.

  16. How to Write an Effective Common App Essay (2023-2024 Guide)

    Revising and editing are essential steps in the writing process that can help ensure your common app essay is clear, coherent, and free of grammatical errors. Revising involves making major changes to your essay's content, structure, and organization, while editing focuses on making sentence-level changes. To ensure your essay is of the ...

  17. How to Write a Winning Common App Essay

    The Common App Essay Common App Essay Prompts Common App Essay: Unique Challenges Recommended Timelines Preparing for Your Common App Essay Writing the Common App Essay Sample #1: Rina Sample #2: Robert Sample #3: Sarah FAQs. The Common App essay is the personal statement that students have to submit on the Common Application portal.

  18. The 2023-2024 Common App Prompts (7 Example Essays & Analysis)

    The Common App can allow students to submit essays, recommendation letters, and numeric measures like test scores and class rank. Below, we'll talk through the prompts, how to brainstorm and write your essay, and offer example essays and analysis. Let's dive in.

  19. 5 Steps For Writing a College Common App Essay (Plus Tips)

    Writing a Common App essay requires significant thought on what to include, how to structure the essay and what tone or style to use. Here are five steps for how to write a great Common App essay: 1. Choose a writing prompt. The first step to writing a great Common App essay is choosing a writing prompt. The prompt helps provide a guide for ...

  20. How to Start a Common App Essay

    Starting a Common App essay involves more than grabbing the reader's attention. It's about building a narrative bridge from the first line that connects the reader to the heart of your story. The goal is to create a compelling introduction that not only reflects your individuality but also resonates with the reader's curiosity, making ...

  21. How to Write the 2022-23 Common App Essay

    Description. Learn how to write an awesome Common App essay for every single prompt. Vinay will provide an in-depth breakdown of each of the Common App essay prompts, discussing how to write a great essay in response to each one. He'll also share his take on the essays and topics you shouldn't write about for each prompt.

  22. How to Answer the 2024-25 Common App Essay Questions

    For example, if you were the captain of your school's varsity soccer team, an essay about soccer may not be your best choice. The Common App Essay Topics . According to a study from Yale, the most important thing to college admissions officers isn't which prompt you choose, but that you write a great essay. Here are a few pointers to keep ...

  23. Which Common App Essay Prompt Should You Choose?

    In this prompt, insight is key to a great essay. Reflect on the moments that defined your perspective or events from which you learned something. This prompt should be about something personal to you and can be about family, friends, or an experience. Ask yourself if there's a time, event, or person that has stuck with you and what it or they ...

  24. Common App Essay Introduction

    Your first words on your Common Application essay. Your introduction is one of the most important parts of the Common Application essay. Your introduction needs to have a three way focus: grab the reader's attention, highlight you as an individual and identify which topic you're writing about. For example a great introduction could be ...

  25. College Application Essay Guide: A How-to With Samples!

    Below are some samples in a few different essay lengths that are common to apps: 200 Word Essay Sample. This sample could answer the Common App prompt: 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 ...

  26. How to Choose: Common App vs. Coalition App

    A streamlined essay submission process. Both the Common App and the Coalition App give you a chance to share a single application essay with multiple schools. The Common App offers seven essay prompts to choose from, but you'll only choose one and write one essay, with specific prompts periodically updated for subsequent admissions cycles ...

  27. Welcome to the Purdue Online Writing Lab

    The Purdue On-Campus Writing Lab and Purdue Online Writing Lab assist clients in their development as writers—no matter what their skill level—with on-campus consultations, online participation, and community engagement. The Purdue Writing Lab serves the Purdue, West Lafayette, campus and coordinates with local literacy initiatives.

  28. Home

    SAT Practice on Khan Academy® is free, comprehensive, and available to all students. With personalized plans, practice tests and more, Khan Academy is good preparation for any test in the SAT Suite.