A Great Common App Essay — Can You Write One?

A great Common App essay--tough to compose on a typewriter

You: “What makes a great Common App essay?” Me: “It’s wide open. Colleges want to know who you are. What drives you, makes you tick, gets you revved up.”

Striving for the excellent Common App essay — or the Best Common App essay — has become a national pursuit. So when parents and students get in touch with me, they’re often frantic. They’re overwhelmed, certain they will never figure it out. 

In case you haven’t (yet) memorized the Common App Essay prompts for 2022-23, here they are.

My advice starts here: “Write about what you love. What you care about. What you find fascinating. What’s on your mind — or what in your background has shaped you, inspired you, gotten in your way, and made you who you are.”

Write about a situation in your life that sets you apart. About an event that made a difference. A subject you absolutely love. A time you messed up badly and what you learned from it. Or something that matters to you as a student or a citizen of the world.   

Or take a look at my post that breaks down the Common App essay prompts.  See what events, insights, and important moments come to mind. Which one has the most energy? A story with energy you can feel can turn into a great Common App essay. 

A Great Common App Essay Isn’t Everything

College admissions offices will look at ALL of you, not just your application essays. Your essay is one piece of the pie, so it does not need to include everything about you. Your grades, scores, teacher recommendations and extra curricular activities give the colleges a lot of information that’s crucial in evaluating you. The essay is something extra.  It’s the sense of your beating heart, your enthusiasms, your struggles.

Keep your language simple. It should not sound like an academic paper but a letter to a friend, maybe even a conversation with someone who wants to know you better. It needs specific details, precise language, and some serious reflection about your subject, whether it’s the story of:

  • your first job scooping ice cream and how it helped you grow;

  • why you love math;

  • how growing up as the only child of two much older parents has affected you;

  • why you love old-fashioned paper maps — and where they’ve taken you;

  • what being Jewish in a very non-Jewish town has meant to you;

  • how moving from one region of the country to another affected you — from conservative Houston to liberal Boston or vice versa;

  • the weekend-long leadership conference that changed your outlook and ambitions.

A Few More Tips for Your Great Common App Essay

Make sure your essay matches the rest of your record. If you’re a top student with stellar grades, many AP courses, and impressive extra-curricular activities, your essay should sound like the person we see elsewhere in the application. If your record is uneven and you’ve struggled through high school, it can be good to write about a subject you love. 

Facing the blank page can be terrifying. Writers have a few tricks for avoiding that: if you have an idea what you want to write but don’t know how to get started, don’t sit at the computer with your eyes firmly on the screen in a state of panic. Instead:

  • Carry around a notebook or your phone, and jot down notes whenever they come to you, even if it’s just a word.

  • Do some free writing either by hand or on the screen. Forget about sentences and paragraphs and just write out whatever comes to mind on the subject

  • An hour later – or a day – go over what you’ve written and underline the strongest phrases and sentences.  Underline what you want to keep and start your essay on another page or farther down the screen. And then tell the next line of the story you’re telling.

An excellent Common App essay does not have to be about a topic no one has ever written. In a personal statement, colleges are not looking for originality but authenticity – your real voice, your real concerns, your ability to reflect and express yourself. 

 I work with students at all stages of the process of the admissions process. If you’ve written an essay and want a review, I can do that. If you’ve written an essay and need an editor, ditto. Or if you’re groping around in the dark unsure about where to start, I can help you find your way.

To find out more about what I can do for you and your essays, Please click here. To learn more about my values as a college essay coach, please click here. If you’re already thinking about supplements, read my comments about Princeton’s here and the University of Chicago here.

Yes, you CAN write a great Common App essay. I’ve worked with hundreds of students who were as unsure about this as you are right now. It may not be a walk in the park or a piece of cake (avoid clichés!), but you’ll have fun and produce essays you’re proud of.



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