Tips for Writing the College Common App Essay

Helping students with their college Common App essay is one of my favorite jobs as a writing teacher. It’s a great way to learn more about my students-even those I have been working with for years, and for most students, it is a valuable place to explore and communicate (in 650 words!) some essential aspect of what makes them “them,” distinct from the facts and stats conveyed in transcripts, test scores and activity lists.

And I love to see the essay topics they come up with: 

    • Overcoming Sensory Processing Disorder (which the student managed to make hilarious, with vivid descriptions of freaking out about a band-aid in a pool). 
    • The importance of opening doors for people. (One university actually called the student to commend her, telling her they liked the essay so much).
    • The perils of having a twin. (Humorous and honest, a fresh perspective).
    • A swimsuit that was supposed to yield a competitive advantage in an important meet, but wouldn’t stay up. (Again, hilarious, but conveying a valuable lesson about “no magic fixes.”)
    • Skateboarding down a long winding hill and the camaraderie of a shared interest. (I learned a lot of technical skate terms on this one!)

All of these essays, no matter how unlikely the subject initially seemed, worked. Well-written and surprisingly unique, each conveyed their writers’ personality and values, and all got the writers where they wanted to go.

Over the years I have learned a few things about what makes a student essay work: 

  1. Write where the energy is.  Although some topics are deemed better or worse by college counselors, and some topics should probably be avoided, generally students (anybody, really), writes best when they are invested. Writing comes alive with an unmistakable energy when it has the passion of the writer behind it. For this, there is no substitute; energy springs off the page. So, I always feel the writer out and see where they have the most to say, where the light comes on in their eyes, where they perk up. Go there. Write that story. 

2. Write vividly: The better the description, the more you will have your readers eating out of the palm of your hand. What color was the swimsuit that wouldn’t stay up?  Tell us it was bright red.  Describe that skateboarding move, the placement of your feet, don’t just tell us you did it. And what was the name of the sports team your twin loves, that you rooted against just to get his goat? Say it. Detail is the staple of all good story tellers and conveys mastery of language and form, as well as being entertaining and engaging. 

3. Start Strong:  Having a good hook is like having a firm handshake. You won’t get another chance to make a strong first impression. Start with a vivid description, anecdote or gripping statement about you or your future or past. Don’t overdo it or be melodramatic. Try a few different introduction strategies and start where you have the most energy.  

4. Work in stories: A story can be as long as the whole essay, or as short as six words. It can take up a whole paragraph or only one sentence.  Learning how to weave narrative and examples into your essay is key, and to do that you need to know how to expand and compress stories. Which ones are your major examples (requiring a paragraph or two), which ones could you toss in using one or two sentences to provide an emphatic counterpoint. 

The best thing about writing the Common App essay, is that these skills are the same, basic all-around good skills required for almost all writing. Honing them in this format almost always takes students to another level of writing, so it is worth investing in, and seeing the common app essay not just as a task to get done, but an opportunity for taking your writing to the next level. 

For help, on the college Common App Essay, check out our course: College Essay for the Win


for individual tutoring