Seven Tips for Writing the Common Application Essay

By Huntington Learning Center

More than 800 colleges and universities in the United States use the Common Application, which keeps the entire application process organized. Many colleges require students to submit an essay using one of the Common Application essay prompts. For 2019-2020, there are seven prompts to choose from, one of which is to share an essay on any topic of the student’s choice—even one they have written for another essay prompt.

The other six essay prompts cover a range of topics:

  1. A student’s background, identity, interest or talent
  2. Lessons learned from obstacles, setbacks, and failures
  3. A time when a student questioned a belief or idea
  4. Problem(s) a student would like to solve (intellectual, research, ethical or other)
  5. An accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth
  6. A topic or idea the student finds engaging and captivating

While some teens might immediately gravitate to one of these topics, others find the process of writing an essay overwhelming. Here are seven tips to help your teen approach the task methodically and create a poignant, powerful essay:

  1. Read all prompts thoroughly. We described the Common Application’s 2019-2020 essay prompts briefly above, but the first thing your teen should do is read them in full— and allow some time for them to simmer. Encourage your teen to have a pencil on hand in case any possible ideas pop into his head right away.
  2. Develop a schedule. The essay takes time and finesse. Remind your teen that it should not be the task that she puts off until a couple of weeks before the application is due. Encourage your teen to put together a detailed timeline that allows sufficient time for outlining, multiple first drafts, editing, getting feedback from a teacher and/or you or another family member, revising and proofreading.
  3. Too often, teens run with a topic because it is the first one for which they had a tangible idea. Many students select the “choose a previous essay” topic because it seems easiest. Encourage your teen to build in some brainstorming time. The point of the essay, after all, is to share a little about who your teen is and the qualities he possesses that would be valuable to the colleges to which he’s applying.
  4. Put pen to paper. Or fingers to keyboard! The point is that your teen should let some ideas flow before trying to write or edit too much. Yes, an outline is important, but for many students, it’s easier to get a few ideas out before circling back to what they have to create a logical flow.
  5. Infuse some structure. As mentioned, an outline is important once your teen has a topic idea and a few thoughts going. Encourage your teen to plan out 1) the overarching desired takeaway 2) the “hook” at the beginning 3) the supporting details that articulate the values or traits about your teen he wants to share 4) the conclusion of the story that brings things full circle.
  6. Show, don’t tell. Your teen has anxiety and has learned how to manage it? He should show how rather than simply say so—perhaps he found peace in the yoga mat. Remind your teen that the details of the essay are what make it special and unique. Whatever he is trying to share about himself and his experience, he should do so by using specific, vivid examples vs. generalities that could sound like any other student.
  7. Re-read after setting it aside for at least a few days. That timeline your teen develops is important for several reasons, but a big one is that it allows for reflection time. Your teen needs to read a close-to-final draft of the essay with fresh eyes to check for important things like:
    • How it flows.
    • How readable it is.
    • Whether it is entertaining/interesting to read.
    • Whether it has any obvious clichés.
    • Whether it is memorable.

The college admissions essay might not make or break your teen’s application package, but it can certainly set your teen apart. Encourage your teen to approach it thoughtfully and give it her best effort. When she’s holding a college acceptance letter in her hands, the hard work will have been worth it.