Common Application Essay Strategies

Essay TipsStudents completing their college applications in the fall of 2014 will be choosing from the Common Application essay topics. The prompts which first premiered last fall received generally positive feedback, so the Common Application decided to stick with the same prompts. In this article, we’ll review each one of the prompts and discuss strategies for effective essays.

The Basics of Good Essay Writing

Keep it Real
Too often students write what they think admissions officers want to hear or what they believe essays are supposed to sound like.  These essays end up sounding boring and fake. The purpose of an admissions essay is to let admissions get to know you, so be authentic. Personal statements are really tough for a lot of students so don’t be hard on yourself if it takes some time and struggle to feel comfortable with really being yourself.

Be Original
Remember admissions officers are reading hundreds and hundreds of essays and your essay will be most successful if it is original. Often the first theme that comes to your mind may be the exact same one that comes to other students’ minds. That’s not to say a great essay can’t be written on winning the big game, learning to love engineering by playing with LEGO, feeling victory when you climb to the top of a mountain, or learning to care about the poor through service. Good essays have probably been written on all of these topics. But know that if it has been covered before, the bar will be higher for you.

Remember Your Audience
Think about who will be reading the essay and what they hope to learn about you.  Learn more about what admissions officers are looking for.

Rewrite and Proofread
A good essay usually takes multiple drafts. Be prepared to rewrite. Avoid spelling and grammar mistakes. Have at least two people proofread your essay and listen with an open mind to their feedback. One nice thing with the Common Application prompts is they are available early so you have plenty of time over the summer to work on your essay. Students who take time for revisions end up with better essays.

Strategies for Common Application Essays
Common Application Essay Choice 1: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Strategy: This is the most broad-sweeping and general of the prompts. In previous years students have had the option to write an essay on the “topic of your choice” and this was a very popular option. While this prompt is a bit different from “topic of your choice,” students should be able to fit a very wide range of essay themes into this prompt. So if none of the other prompts feel like exactly what you are looking for, see if you can fit what you’d like to write about in this prompt.

Common Application Essay Choice 2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Strategy: Make sure the problem you choose is actually a real problem. Writing about the one and only time you got a B or didn’t win the big game may make you sound indulged and fragile.  If the problem was that you made stupid choices, what’s stopping you from continuing to make them in new situations? Avoid anything that makes you look like a bad college candidate (drunk driving, shoplifting, cheating, etc.)   Finally, I suggest you choose a problem that was solved primarily through your own action.

Common Application Essay Choice 3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Strategy: This is a topic that will great for students who genuinely have had a significant change and are able to articulate that experience. If you haven’t, however, avoid the temptation to make something up. It never works.

Common Application Essay Choice 4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Strategy: Remember you should be at the center of your essay. The place or environment should be described, but you should remain the star.  Contentment doesn’t necessarily offer a lot in the way of plot or action, so you’ll want to be sure that you have a solid story. As many teens have similar experiences that bring contentment (hiking, soccer field, being in your own room). You’ll want to tread carefully and avoid cliches. Make sure you’ve got a story line and a fresh way to approach this topic.

Common Application Essay Choice 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Strategy: Again you’ll want to watch out for potential cliched interpretations here. Common topics include Bar Mitzvah, Quiñceaera, and the day I got my driver’s license essays. Some of these essays will be great, some will be lousy. Make sure you’ve got a unique interpretation if you choose this topic.

Bottom Line
While the Common Application is the standard application form for nearly 500 colleges, this single essay will not be the only essay most students write. Some colleges are not a member of the Common Application and many members also assign additional essay topics. While this essay won’t be the only college admissions essay most students write, it is most often the most important topic. Take time to really think through your plan and be prepared to try more than one topic before you settle on the one that fits you best. Remember writing personal essays can be tough, so it is okay if you struggle. Hang in there and keep plugging along until you write an essay you can be proud of.

For more essay tips see:
Admissions Essay Tips: Think About Your Audience
College Essay Traps to Avoid
Admissions Essays: The Importance of Originality

Individual essay coaching services are also available.


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  1. karan k

    i am currently in the midst of my essay writing process. i have brainstormed over many potential topics and am not finding it so easy to get one that sticks. unfortunately i’m just a normal 17 year old kid who hasn’t really gone through any major life changing experiences, how simple can the incident i write about be? does it have to be anything major, or can it just be a simple incident like boosting up my little brothers confidence before a soccer game for example?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Hi Karan,
      It really can be a very small thing. This experience doesn’t have to have rocked the world or transformed your life. I read a great essay once about a burrito. Yes, a burrito. What is important is that you choose a topic you feel comfortable with and allows you to share something about yourself. Good luck with your essays!

  2. Barbara Hettle

    Hi Karan,
    Thanks for your question. Yes, often the best essays come from the little moments of life. It doesn’t have to be a major life transformation. What is important is what the reader learns about you. It may help to start by telling a friend the story – try to include sensory details that help your reader experience the moment with you.
    Good luck!

  3. John Larkin

    Since the word count is 650, should we strive for it to be around 500 words?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Hi John,
      While it is certainly possible to write a strong 500 word essay, another well developed example can really strengthen the essay. So, don’t be afraid to use the full 650, or close to it, to fully develop your ideas.

  4. Liz

    It was really hard for me to start my essay. Just like many other kids I haven’t had many life changing experiences. I decided on essay #5. My topic is about my grandma and her passing. I talk about how she got sick and moved in with my family when I was 11. The essay also mentions how my life changed during the time she lived with us. For example how I would spend almost all of my time with her instead of having sleep overs with my friends. I also mention how I would give her insulin and check her blood sugar. Its a very serious essay and is even kind of sad. I’m noticing that a lot of websites say that humor is good for essays. Now I feel like mine is too serious. Do you think I should stick with my topic (if so how could I make it better?) or change essays to a less serious topic?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Hi Liz,
      Funny essays can be great, but so can serious essays. There really is no right or wrong topics, it is about what you you have to say and how well you express your thoughts. The important thing about your essay is what it helps admissions officers learn about you. So make sure it is your thoughts and feelings that are at the center of your story. If you haven’t already done so, I’d suggest sharing your essay with a couple of trusted friends to get their opinions.
      Best wishes!

  5. Amoge

    I picked essay no 4. I decided to write about my imagination as the place where I’m perfectly content. Do you think doing so will portray me as a whimsical person?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      I’m sure a good essay could be written on that topic. Don’t just choose a topic because you think it will make you sound a particular way though. Choose it because it is honest and you feel comfortable writing on that topic. After you finish be sure to share your essay with a parent or friend and get their opinions. Happy writing!

  6. PM

    I want to write about an experience I had when I was studying overseas. It’s sort of like an Adventure Camp. I think it probably fits in topic 5. I was impressed with the things I got to do there, and how things in that country was so different from my own. However, there were just too many things that happened that I don’t know which particular activity to pick. I fear I would use up my 650 words describing those “interesting” activities, and not focusing on answering the question.
    What do you think of my choice of topic, and the experience(s)? How long/short/specific should the experience be? And what should I be most focusing on?
    Thank you :)

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Hi PM,
      The best essays usually focus on small stories within a bigger theme. You can’t discuss everything and that’s okay. Maybe sit down with a friend and brainstorm some of stories you might include. Once you’ve done that, maybe just jump in and start writing. Your final essay may be quite different than your first draft but that’s just part of the process.
      Good luck!

  7. BSD

    Just wondering…I wrote an essay about one of my teachers that has influenced me in many ways. Would this still work for essay #1? Please advise. thank you

    1. Barbara Hettle

      That prompt asks for a story that is so central to your identity that your application would be incomplete without it. Is your teacher that essential to the story of your life? If so, it fits. If not, look for another topic. It can be really tricky to write an essay about someone who has influenced you. Remember colleges aren’t considering admitting your teacher, they are considering admitting YOU. Make sure the essay is really about you.

  8. sammruth

    I was planning on doing the first prompt with the background on my concussion I got when I was younger. Would that be a good topic? Is it too broad, like would it fall under the generic “changed my life” experience?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      I suggest you just start writing and see how it goes. Sometimes I find students struggle to write about experiences that happened a long time ago but the only way to find out is to start writing.

      Best wishes!

  9. Nadia N.

    I plan on writing about the 4th prompt. I thought about all these places I feel comfortable, like my bedroom, but they seem too generic. I plan on writing about how I feel perfectly content anywhere as long as I have a book with me, because that is definitely true. Do you think that will be a good topic?
    Thank you!

  10. SP

    I really haven’t quite started my essay, and i fear i won’t finish it by the deadline. I do not have anything interesting experiences – i am sure i am gonna bore the admission committee people with the topics now that i have in my mind. I am an average student, and my family income is less – which i find, prevents me from experiencing the adventures of life, visiting new places, hanging out with friends – which I am longing to have after I become financially stable. What do you suggest?? I really can’t think of any experiences to share. I know experiences don’t need to be a big one, even though I don’t have anything to share that can amuse the admission committee in reading my essay.

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Everyone has an interesting story. My suggestion is that you set a timer for thirty minutes and just make yourself write. Then share what you’ve written with a friend and ask for their feedback.
      Good luck!

  11. Shivani

    I wrote my commonapp essay about my mother’s illness. I know it’s common and can get really monotonous but it actually focuses on how that led to me spending time with my mother and learning from her life stories, me becoming more responsible and taking over household chores and yes…how it led to developing an interest in the culinary world.
    But still, it starts off with her illness. Should I be worried??

  12. Heather D

    Hi, I want to write my essay about my experience with Bible Quizzing (including how we won the National Championship last summer) since that activity has defined my middle school and high school years. Would this fit for essay prompt 1 or should I look for a different topic?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Hi Heather,
      Congrats on winning the National Championship! Prompt one is very broad. If this is something that is very central to your identity then that fits the prompt. The key is to make it clear not just what you’ve achieved but how that experience has shaped the person you are today. Best wishes!

  13. Princess

    mine is about my dads death and how his advice has shaped my life…should i go for #5 or #1

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Really the choice of prompt is less important than the topic. Maybe it would be a good idea to try to the draft both way and see how it fits best.

  14. Neonla

    I am a bit confused about what to write. I want to write about my life experience how I moved from one country to another in which the other country I went to live with my aunt and how this changed my perspective of life is it okay to write about such thing?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      This certainly could be a good topic. I encourage you to start writing and see how it goes.

  15. Amar

    Regarding prompt 4, i was wondering if an experience doing a specific action would work without straying from the ‘place’ concept of this prompt. For example, an essay about someone being contempt refereeing, or coaching, being a mock-trial attorney, etc. Keeping in mind a place isn’t being given. Just a description being at ease in this environment, or with these experiences.

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Sure, it can be within an activity more than a physical place.
      Happy writing!

  16. Emily

    I was thinking about prompt 1. I was diagnosed with celiac disease a few years ago and it has really affected me. I did a gold award project helping gluten free people in my community and I am looking to be a nutritionist. Is this an ok topic? Does talking about my project sound too braggy??

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Hi Emily,
      It sounds like you found a way to turn a challenge into positive action that helps others. That’s a great topic for an essay. Remember the admissions office will be able to see your awards on your application. So, you want your essay to go beyond just telling what you accomplished and to focus more on your thoughts and feelings – what did you learn? how did it change you? how will this affect the way you think about the world?

  17. Lauren

    I was wondering if there was anywhere we could submit our essays to see if they are good or just terrible? As many other students, I am really stuck on what to write or I don’t know if my actual essay if good.

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Hi Lauren,
      I would suggest sharing your essay with a teacher, counselor, or a trusted person like an aunt. It is always good to get the perspective of another reader. I work individually with students as an independent counselor. Feel free to get in touch through my the contact tab above. Best wishes.

  18. M

    I was wondering if it would be a good topic for prompt no. 1 to write about the fact that I have an identical twin sister. is this a topic that would be good to write about?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      I can imagine a good essay on this topic. One thing you might want to start with is brainstorming what you’d like the reader to learn about you. Having a twin isn’t something you did. How you react to this circumstance is where the interesting part might come in.
      Good luck,

  19. Carmine Marie

    Are pictures allowed in your essay? I wanted to write about an event that transitioned me from childhood to adulthood but feel that the picture is needed to really put the reader where I was. Is this allowed?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      No pictures. It will be up to you as the writer to provide the details through your writing. As a warm up to writing it might be good to start by describing a picture aloud and notice the details you include.
      Good luck!

  20. Celita G.

    Hi, I am terribly stuck on what to write about for my essay. I have had an ordinary life and have not experienced many big events. I was thinking of writing about my parent’s divorce but I have read that it is not recommended to write about divorce. I wanted to write about how that experience forced me to take care of my little brother and sister and help them through it. What do you think about having that as the topic?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Hi Celita,
      It is fine to write about something “small”. It doesn’t have to be a major life event to be a good essay. With any topic make sure that you are an active character in your story. In other words, don’t just write what happened to you. Write what YOU felt and did as a result.
      Good luck!

  21. Colleen

    I’m having a really difficult time coming up with a topic. I was diagnosed with two different diseases when I was younger, so whenever I ask anyone’s opinion they tell me to write about one of those. However, I don’t want people to feel bad for me or for me to make something more dramatic than it is. I was thinking of writing little paragraphs on a bunch of small things that define me but I’m not sure if it fits into any of the prompts. What do you think?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      Those are big questions and it is tough for me to answer without knowing more about your profile and the way you write. I find students often prefer not to write about illness for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Write about what YOU want to write about not what your friends/parents think you should write about.
      Best of luck

  22. Ryan

    I chose essay prompt #5 and I chose to write about my experiences in ARMY Basic training. The prompt states: “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood”. I am stuck on how I should write this out. I wanted to start out with describing the setting during graduation day, and how a realized at that moment, I made that transition from childhood to adulthood. Then for the next two paragraphs I wanted to write about the two specific experiences during basic that taught me values such as leadership and patience. Is this a good way to write my essay?

    1. Barbara Hettle

      That sounds like a well chosen topic and approach for your essay. Remember the rule to “show not tell” – it is best if your reader can see your message through the examples.

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