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8 best Common App Essay writing tips

Excerpted From My Blog: Applying to College.Org

For over 15 years, I've been teaching students how to write standout college application essays. My students have been admitted to colleges from the University of Michigan to Yale to UTAustin to UCLA. 

The Common Application essay (also known as Common App) is all about finding your best story, writing it well, and using it to show colleges who you are and what matters to you. That’s the basis of a memorable essay and taking direct aim at your dream school. 

Today, I want to share writing tips to help you write a strong and successful Common Application essay.

Here are 8 Best Common App Essay Writing Tips:



1. Make a List of Your Positive Qualities. 

If you’re not sure about all your positive qualities, download my Positive Qualities Worksheet.


You'll want to put lots of your positive qualities into your essay.

2. Take Time to Brainstorm


Thinking is a big part of the essay writing process. The Common App provides prompts to inspire you. That's the start. Now it's up to you to decide what story you want to tell.

Here are some ways you can brainstorm:

Think about the times in your life you've exhibited each of the positive qualities you've identified. One or more of those experiences might be an idea for an essay.

Think about the times you've faced a failure or problem, had to figure out a difficulty, or got around an obstacle. How did you do that? Which personal qualities did you use or develop in the process? 


Think about the small moments in your life that have impacted you. Why?

Think about what matters to you. What do you care about? Why?

Think about your goals and how they've been shaped over time. Where are you headed? Why?


Don't stop! Keep asking yourself questions and keep brainstorming.

3. Show How You Think

Colleges love to know what’s happening inside your head. They want to see how you make a decision, react to a situation, come to a realization, or think your way through something. So show them your thought process. It's another way to be unique.

4. Reflect

Reflection is essential. Why?

Reflection shows you can think critically and analyze, and that’s what you’ll have to do in college.

When you reflect, always ask yourself WHY why did this matter to me...why did I feel the need to do something…why did I make the choices I did? Writing about “why” makes your essay personal and helps you explore your topic in greater depth.

5. Paint a Picture With Details

Details bring your essay to life. When you’re writing, use sensory details: how something looks, feels, tastes, smells, and sounds.


Did the fallen leaves crunch under your feet? Could you hear the bacon sizzling in the kitchen? 

Sensory details put the reader directly into your environment and paint a picture of your world.

6. Sound Like You

This isn't an English paper. Your essay should sound like a conversation you’re having with a favorite uncle, aunt, or grandparent. Not like you've memorized the thesaurus. Include strong words, interesting descriptions, and write well, but make it sound like you.

7. Be Authentic

When Marc Harding, head of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Pittsburgh, was asked what he looked for in an essay, he said, “I’m looking for that authentic student.” Then he added, “It’s different for every student.”

Here’s the takeaway about being authentic: Doing worry about sounding like other essays you’ve read. Don’t worry about being “perfect.” Write an essay that’s about you and that means something to you.

How do you do that? Reveal something about you -- your personality, hopes, passions, dreams, craziest moments, biggest failure, a secret you’ve never told anyone...

Take a moment to be a little bit vulnerable.

Think of it like peeling away the layers of an onion –  show the reader what’s happening below the surface, not just on top.

As long as your essay shows off some of your best qualities or values and gives the reader a window into how you think, feel, and what matters to you, then you’ve probably got authentic nailed.

8. Polish and Proofread

Proofreading is must. Make sure your spelling is correct and you've got commas and periods in the right places. Don't rely on Spell Check -- If you write Scared Heart University, instead of Sacred Heart University, Spell Check won't know. This is a good time to ask for help from an adult who is good with grammar and spelling.

Here's a great tip: Read your essay out loud. This helps you catch missed words and other errors.

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