With the 2017-2018 application cycle soon to be underway, the essay team here at CollegeVine has decided to share some of our best tips and strategies on how to write the all-important Common App essays. This year, The Common Application has announced various revisions and additions to its essay prompts. In total, three of the original five prompts have been revised, and two entirely new prompts have been added.
In this blog post, we’ll provide advice on how to break down these prompts, organize your thoughts, and craft a strong, meaningful response that will make admissions committees take notice.
Overview of the Common App
The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to you 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. For this reason, try to treat the essay as an opportunity to tell colleges why you are unique and/or what matters to you.
Since your Common App essay will be seen by numerous colleges, you will want to paint a portrait of yourself that is accessible to a breadth of institutions and admissions officers (for example, if you are only applying to engineering programs at some schools, don’t focus your Common App on STEM at the expense of your other applications — save that for your supplemental essays).
In short, be open and willing to write about a topic you love, whether it is sports, music, politics, food, or watching movies. The Common App essay is more of a conversation than a job interview.
Strategy for Writing the Common App 2017-2018 Essays
Because the Common App essay is 650 words long and includes minimal formal directions, organizing a response can seem daunting. Fortunately, at CollegeVine, we have developed a simple approach to formulating strong, unique responses.
This section outlines how to: 1) Brainstorm, 2) Organize, and 3) Write a Common App essay.
Before reading the Common App prompts, brainstorming is a critical exercise to develop high-level ideas. One way to construct a high-level idea would be to delve into a passion and focus on how you interact with the concept or activity. For example, using “creative writing” as a high-level idea, one could stress their love of world-building, conveying complex emotions, and depicting character interactions, emphasizing how writing stems from real-life experiences.
A different idea that doesn’t involve an extracurricular activity would be to discuss how your personality has developed in relation to your family; maybe one sibling is hot-headed, the other quiet, and you’re in the middle as the voice of reason (or maybe you’re the hot-head). These are simply two examples of infinitely many ideas you may come up with.
To begin developing your own high-level ideas, you should address these Core Four questions that all good Common App essays should answer:
- “Who Am I?”
- “Why Am I Here?”
- “What is Unique About Me?”
- “What Matters to Me?”
The first question focuses on your personality traits — who you are. The second question targets your progression throughout high school (an arc or journey). The third question is more difficult to grasp, but it involves showing why your personality traits, methods of thinking, areas of interest, and tangible skills form a unique combination. The fourth question is a concluding point that can be answered simply, normally in the conclusion paragraph, i.e., “Writing matters to me” or “Family matters to me.”
Overall, there is no single “correct” topic. You will be great as long as you are comfortable and passionate about your idea and it answers the Core Four questions.
Update: Read the latest tips for the 2017-18 Common App.
Late on July 31st, the 2013-14 Common Application went live, enabling thousands of eager students to get a head start on completing their college applications. And while the newly touted design is supposed to provide a more intuitive user-friendly experience, many students are running into unexpected and understandably frustrating difficulties. Common Application officials assure us that they are hard at work trying to fix a host of glitches and errors, especially those revolving around college specific supplements. In the meantime, however, we’ve put together ten tips and suggestions to help you successfully navigate and make the most of the new Common Application.
Our first five tips are listed below; stay tuned for the remaining five later this week. Have a question about strategies around the new Common Application? Post it below, and one of our College Coach admissions experts will answer it!
1. Test scores: to post or not to post?
Earlier this fall, when the Common Application asked students to list all standardized test scores, we recommended that students leave the self-reporting testing section of the application blank. Now that the Common Application has adjusted their language, we feel it is in the best interest of students to complete this page. For students who answer, “Yes,” to the prompt, “Do you wish to self-report standardized test scores,” the Common Application now asks, “Indicate all tests you wish to report.” This means that students who have taken both the SAT and ACT have a clear conscious when reporting one test over the other. This change in the Common Application actually makes it easier for students to personalize the “Testing” page of their application. When applying to colleges that accept Score Choice, students can list their best score results. Then, when applying to schools that require all SAT and ACT scores be submitted (such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Stanford), students can edit the “Testing” page to include this information.
2. Résumé tips
Participated in…led…managed…contributed to. When completing the “Activities” portion of the application, it’s always best to use a variety of “action verbs” to describe your extra-curricular involvement. On the new Common Application, applicants no longer have the benefit of seeing all of their activities on the same page, making it difficult to know if your descriptions sound a bit monotonous. Our suggestion? Draft your activity details in a Word document, and then cut and paste them into the Common Application. This way you can ensure that you’re using a range of colorful verbs. Don’t forget that you have 50 characters to list your position/leadership and 150 characters to describe your details, honors, and accomplishments.
3. Formatting your essay
Gone are days of uploading your personal statement to the body of the Common Application. Now students are simply required to cut and paste their essay into a text box. There are two very important features you should know about this text box. The first is that it will not allow you to enter more than 650 words or fewer than 250 words. This word limit is new for the Common Application. So, too, is the block formatting of paragraphs. New paragraphs will no longer appear indented. Rather, they show up as isolated blocks of text, with one empty line between each paragraph. The new formatting won’t bother colleges, so there’s no need to fret that your once indented paragraphs are now showing up a little differently in the print preview.
If you are having difficulty formatting your essay, and are experiencing odd word counts or no paragraph breaks when viewing the print preview of your application, try cutting and pasting your essay from MS Word (or your word processor of choice) into Notepad (for Windows users) or TextEdit (for Mac users). Then cut and paste your essay again into the “Personal Essay” text box. Notepad and TextEdit will strip your essay of all formatting and make most formatting issues disappear.
Which leads us to:
4. Where is the print preview button?
Alas, it’s gone! I do hope they bring it back, but for now, there’s only one way to see a print preview of your application. And you have to jump through three hoops to get there. First, you need to complete every required field of the Common Application itself. This means you see six green check marks when you’re on the “Common App” tab. Second, any school-specific questions or essays need to be completed. When you’re looking at a school on the “My Colleges” tab, do you see a green check mark next to “Questions” as well as “Writing Supplement”? If not, go back and fill out those sections. Finally, you need to complete the FERPA Release Authorization and assign required recommenders (found on the “Assign Recommenders” link from either the “Dashboard” or “My Colleges” tab). Then, and only then, will you see the “Submit” button from the “Dashboard,” or the “Start Submission” button from the “My Colleges” page. Once you’re looking at the print preview – which, incidentally, looks exactly the way colleges will see it, minus the watermark – you can right click with your mouse to save the PDF to your computer.
5. College requirements grid
Are you looking for an easy way to see college application deadlines and testing requirements all in a simple glance? Enter the Application Requirements Grid! This year, you physically have to log out of your Common Application account in order to find it. From the Common Application homepage, mouse over “Member Colleges” at the top of the screen; then select “Application Requirements”.
UPDATE: It has recently come to our attention that the Common Application had incorrectly reported some of the statistics on their Applications Requirement grid. The University of Colorado–Boulder has an EA deadline of 11/15 (not 12/1), and Colgate’s ED2 deadline is actually 1/15 (not 3/1). As we use this information for AppView, which provides deadlines and essay prompts for the top 200 schools College Coach students apply to, we’ve immediately updated our data. While this chart is still a helpful organization tool, it’s definitely a good idea to double check school-specific information on each college’s website, or on the Common Application’s “My Colleges” tab.
For updated tips for the 2015-16 Common Application, take a look at our latest posts:
For all of our 2013-14 Common App tips, be sure to check out the rest of the posts in this series: