How to Start Your College Common Application Essay

It’s that fun time of the year to figure out your future. You’re probably reading this as a junior or senior of high school and have plans to go to your dream college and pursue your passion. But first, you have to fill out all those forms, do the dreaded supplements and most importantly, the common app essay. Most colleges want you to write a personal essay focused around one of five options.

But you’re probably sitting there staring at the prompts thinking, "How am I supposed to start? What do I even write about? What the hell is this?" Don’t forget about that beautiful word maximum of 650 words, no more. In case you are struggling like I was, here is how I got my common app essay done with (what I would consider minimal) stress involved.

Getting Started

The common app essay prompts usually come out the summer before senior year begins so you have the summer to supposedly work on it. It is highly recommended to start drafting or thinking about the essay during your summer vacation. You probably will think about it but then end up doing what I did and just wait until two months into the school year to do it. If you are an incoming senior, I highly recommend starting the essay over the summer when you have the time to do it.

It might be hard to do that but I promise you, it is way better than struggling during senior year to finish the common app essay along with however many supplements you have to write as well. Just take a few hours to brainstorm over the summer would be helpful.
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What Should I Write About?

First, if you are a junior, you should try looking over the prompts for the seniors or previous years to try to get a feel for what you would write about. Hey, maybe you’ll have a really good draft that you can use for next year! One less step for you! Practicing will help you figure out more about yourself or what you want to tell your future colleges.

Also, like they always used (and sometimes still do) to tell us, practice makes perfect.

As a senior, my college counselor sent us an email when the prompts came out during the summer telling us what the prompts were. For the class of 2017, the prompts were:

-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.

-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?

-Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

-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.

-Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. alt text

Now What?

I knew for sure when I saw this, I had no clue what to write about or even how to start an essay that is a factor in determining my future. As I went through this process, starting later than I had planned to, I stared at these prompts most of the time, not writing anything down. I was completely drawing a blank. How do they expect us to write all this in under 650 words?!

To be honest, I wrote about three different essays before finding that spark that I wanted to write about and allowed me to convey a part of me to the college admissions offices of various colleges. You might have to write and delete many essays before settling down to that essay that perfectly describes you. I suggest just writing down something you love, something about you, anything that you can possibly think of. Whatever you write about, it will connect to one of the prompts no matter what since they are so open-ended.

Additionally, if you are drawing a complete blank, talk to your friends, talk to your college office at school and ask them for help to brainstorm ideas.


Do not limit yourself to answering the prompts because when you finish the essay, you will have answered one of the prompts given to you. In the past, there was someone who has written about tofu and you’re probably thinking, "How is that supposed to answer one of these prompts?" You can take such an abstract idea and spin it so it describes you as a person and someone who will thrive at whatever colleges you are applying to.

I wrote about the struggle of growing up in an Asian-dominant childhood to a school where I was out of place and my ethnic group was a minority. This was a huge part of my transition to high school and how I grew into the person I am today (sounds so cliche but it is true). It changed how I viewed different aspects of life and helped me grow out of my comfort zone.
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Okay, I'm Ready to Start Writing Now!

To write your essay, you should start by telling a story. Don’t focus on answering the question or the word count just yet. Like I mentioned before, you will end up answering the question in some form or another.

Paint a picture for the admissions counselors to read, so they can see the story from your perspective. Remember they are reading thousands of essays throughout the year, you need to make yours stand out, not boring. By painting a picture, you give them a break from other plain essays that they are trudging through, you make yourself stand out among other essays, and the counselor can be fully immersed in your story, in your life. It gives them a peek into what your life is like, what interests you or how the event has affected you.

After showing, not telling, end your essay by connecting it back to you as a person and how it changed you. Bring it back full circle to what the experience means to you, how it affects you as a person, how it changed your views.

Drafts on Drafts on Drafts

This essay may take many drafts to make it into the essay you want to submit to your colleges, having a college counselor at school or a friend you don’t mind sharing your story with help you read and give you suggestions, make edits. A fresh pair of eyes of someone who doesn’t know you well because they can be objective and they can give you constructive criticism. If they do not know you well, it is better also because the college admissions counselors don’t know you either.

I had about two meetings with my college office interns, the first time was to help me brainstorm ideas for what I should actually write about and the second time, I went in with a draft of my essay.
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Word Count Struggles

With the word count, as you are writing, don’t even think about it. Just keep writing whatever comes to mind then rearrange it and make edits. Some things I did to shorten my essay was have people read it over to see if I was repeating myself. Those are usually most of the deletions that free up your word count.

Also, you are allowed to have contractions in your essay so that helps clear up a few words here and there.

My major edit that allowed me to shorten my essay (and my friends’) was getting rid of “to be” verbs. “To be” verbs are useless, they have no meaning. If you try to define what “to be” means, you can’t. So rewording your sentences to get rid of “to be” verbs allow you to be more direct and be more descriptive. It also shortens your sentence by forcing you to use other words that describe what you are trying to say.

It takes bit of practice but sitting down and circling all those verbs and getting rid of them will do wonders for your essay. I helped my friends fix the “to be” verbs in their essays and it brought their word counts from 800-900 words to 650 and less. It is okay to have a few of them left but getting rid of some will really help your essay.

Almost Done!

When you think your essay is almost complete and ready to be sent out, have one person read it over one last time to make sure there are no grammatical errors and see if the essay flows well. You do not have to do every single edit people suggest throughout this process. This essay encompasses a part of you, you have the choice to do the edits or not. If you believe their suggestions do not match up with your essay, do not do it; they are suggestions after all.

This essay should feel like it describes you well and it shouldn’t just talk about how great you of a student you are or how good you are at something. Humility and showing that you can change or you have faults are what colleges want to see. They want to see your growth as a person or student, not just things you are good at. As a student, almost adult, you don’t know everything and you are not perfect.

You are still growing and learning about the world and who you are as a person. Colleges know that you have faults, make mistakes, struggle so write about those experiences that changed you and helped you grow as a person.