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Crafting a Winning Common App Essay: Tips and Tricks for High School Seniors

As you prepare to apply for colleges, you’re likely feeling a mix of excitement and anxiety. Between choosing the right schools, gathering transcripts, and securing recommendations, it can be easy to overlook your Common App essay. But make no mistake: this essay is your chance to stand out from the pack and show admissions committees what makes you special. With that in mind, we’ve put together this guide to help you craft a winning essay that showcases your unique personality and skills.

Selecting the Right Prompt

The Common App essay prompts for 2016-17 are as follows:

  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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
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Each prompt is designed to showcase a different aspect of your personality or experiences. When selecting a prompt, think about which one best fits with the story you want to tell about yourself. Consider which prompt resonates with you most and allows you to share your strengths, accomplishments, and values in a unique and compelling way.

Crafting Your Personal Narrative

Once you’ve selected a prompt, it’s time to start crafting your personal narrative. The essay should focus on a specific story or experience that highlights your strengths and personality. To make your essay stand out, try to focus on what makes you unique rather than simply regurgitating your resume. Talk about your passions, your goals, and your values, and how they’ve been shaped by your experiences.

Be sure to use vivid language and sensory details to help your readers feel like they’re part of the story. And don’t be afraid to show vulnerability or admit to weaknesses – this will make you more relatable and help the admissions committee get a better sense of who you are.

Avoiding Common Pitfalls

There are a few common pitfalls that students fall into when writing their Common App essays. One is failing to stay focused on the prompt, which can make your essay seem disjointed or unfocused. Another is using overly complicated language or trying to sound smarter than you actually are. Remember, your goal is to communicate your story clearly and effectively, not to impress the admissions committee with your vocabulary.

To avoid these pitfalls, make sure you stay focused on the prompt throughout the essay. Use clear and concise language that is easy for anyone to understand. And don’t be afraid to enlist the help of an English teacher, tutor, or friend to revise and edit your essay.

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Taking Risks

One of the most important things to remember when crafting your Common App essay is to take risks. Don’t be afraid to write candidly about issues that matter to you, even if they are unconventional or controversial. For example, one student wrote an essay about her love of ordering pizza toppings in a spiral pattern – this essay was unique and memorable, and helped her stand out from other applicants.

Of course, you don’t want to be offensive or controversial just for the sake of it. And it’s important to remember that the essay should ultimately be about showcasing your unique personality, not just trying to shock or entertain the admissions committee.

Overcoming Writer’s Block

If you’re struggling to come up with an idea for your Common App essay, don’t panic. There are plenty of strategies you can use to overcome writer’s block and generate new ideas. Some students find that going for a walk or run can help stimulate their creativity. Others like to change their environment, or to write in a different medium (e.g. in a notebook instead of on a computer) to spark new ideas.

Editing Your Essay

Once you’ve finished your essay draft, it’s important to go over it with a fine-toothed comb to ensure that it’s perfect before you hit “submit.” Some tips for editing your essay include seeking feedback from trusted sources, proofreading for spelling and grammatical errors, and refining the essay to match the tone and messaging of the college or university to which you’re applying.

Above all, remember that the Common App essay is an opportunity for you to showcase your unique strengths and experiences, and to stand out in a crowded field of other applicants. Take the time to craft a thoughtful and engaging essay that showcases who you are – it could make all the difference in the college admissions process.

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Key Takeaways

  • Choose the Common App essay prompt that best fits your story
  • Focus on your personal narrative and what makes you unique
  • Avoid common essay pitfalls such as lack of focus and complicated language
  • Take risks and write candidly about issues that matter to you
  • Use techniques like changing your environment to overcome writer’s block
  • Edit your essay thoroughly before submission
  • Remember to showcase your unique strengths and experiences


What’s the ideal length for a Common App essay?

There’s no set length for a Common App essay – it can be as short as 250 words or as long as 650 words. That being said, it’s important to remember that admissions committees read hundreds or even thousands of essays, so brevity is usually appreciated. As a general rule, aim for an essay that is between 500 and 650 words, but don’t sacrifice quality for the sake of length.

Should I get feedback on my essay before submitting it?

Yes – getting feedback from trusted sources can be incredibly helpful in improving your essay. Consider asking a parent, teacher, or mentor to read your essay and provide feedback. They can help you identify any areas where your essay is unclear, where the tone is off, or where you need to elaborate more.

Can I use the same essay for multiple colleges?

Yes and no – you can use the same essay for multiple colleges, but we’d recommend against it. Remember, the essay is a chance for you to show why you’re a good fit for a specific program or school. By using the same essay for multiple applications, you risk coming across as generic or disinterested. Take the time to tailor your essay to each school, highlighting why you’d be a good fit for that particular program.

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