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8 Tips for Writing the Common Application Essay

Marlene Kern Fischer


By Marlene Kern Fischer with Helene Hirsch Wingens

One of the best ways for your rising high school senior to take some pressure off this fall is to write their Common Application essay over the summer.

Completing the Common App general essay is a big box to check off. This is especially key if your student plans to apply Early Decision or Early Action, but even students who are still considering schools and finalizing their list will feel great getting this task done.

Here are our best tips, collected from many years of working as professional essay coaches.

1. Start Early

Good writing takes time. Don’t wait until the week before applications are due to start writing the essays. No matter how terrific a writer you are, the earlier you start, the better the end product will be. That’s a guarantee.

2. Put Words on a Page

Everyone has stories to tell. First, look at the prompts. Except for one new question, they are the same as last year. There are seven choices — choose the two or three that appeal to you most, get comfortable with a pad of paper or your laptop, and brainstorm.

Once you decide on your favorite prompt and have a broad idea of what your narrative will be, just start writing.

It doesn’t have to be beautiful writing. The first draft won’t be. Your primary objective for the first draft is merely to put words on a page. Tell a story and flesh it out with concrete details.

Note: The Common Application is retaining the optional Covid-19 question for 2021–22, intended for students whose lives were seriously impacted by the pandemic or a natural disaster. Click here for information, including where in the application it's located.

3. Don’t Force a Square Peg into a Round Hole

Now that you have your thoughts down, read them over carefully and decide whether or not your answer responds to the prompt. If it does, you can begin rewriting. If it doesn't, start over.

Be prepared to discard several first drafts until you produce one that really speaks to you. I often end up throwing away most of my initial drafts and frequently use my second paragraph as an opener in the next draft because I decide that the first paragraph doesn’t get to the point quickly enough. You may discover a better angle halfway through the essay — even in your conclusion.

4. Don’t Be Dramatic

Don’t try to make forgetting to eat lunch last Monday sound like a life changing or harrowing experience. You need not have cured cancer or battled adversity to produce a narrative that reads well. You don’t even need a “wow” moment; you just need to reveal something about yourself and allow your personality to shine. The best personal statement I ever read was about a young man who had an “aha” moment as a counselor at summer camp when he realized that his campers viewed him as an adult.

5. Be Yourself

If you’re not funny, now is not the moment to start writing comedy. If you’re not Shakespeare, don't attempt iambic pentameter. This is YOUR story and YOUR writing, so be authentically YOU.

6. Get Help Editing

Get help editing but not too much help. Your personal statement needs to be in your voice. If you ask all of your cousins who majored in English to read it, you'll get dozens of revision suggestions, resulting in a discordant symphony of different voices. Pick a few people you trust to help you with the editing process and stick with them.

7. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread

You’ve spent a lot of time thinking and writing and you’ve crafted a solid essay. It would be nothing short of tragic to submit a personal statement with careless grammatical errors and typos. Spend a few dollars to send your essay to an online copy editing service.

In addition, stick to the word count; it’s there for a reason.

8. Put a Fork In It

If you’ve completed all of the above steps, you are DONE. It’s time to declare your personal statement finished. I’ve seen people hold onto an essay and change a word here and a word there until the bitter end. At some point, that will only make you crazy. It’s now time to tackle those supplemental essays!

Co-author Helene Hirsch Wingens is mother of three boys…wife…daughter…friend…writer…retired lawyer…Managing Editor at Grown and Flown.
Marlene Kern Fischer is a wife, mother of three sons and a newly gained daughter, food shopper extraordinaire, blogger and college essay editor. She recently published her first book, “Gained a Daughter But Nearly Lost My Mind: How I Planned a Backyard Wedding During a Pandemic.” A founding contributor at Collegiate Parent, her work has also been featured on Huffington Post, Grown & Flown, The New York Times (Modern Love), Kveller, Her View From Home and The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. Find her on Facebook at “Thoughts From Aisle 4.”
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