How to Write Your Common App Essay

There are a million different ways to write your common app essay, but in this post we’re going to share the process that we use with TKG students. We like this method because it helps us zero in on topics and ideas that students commonly overlook. It works with every personality type and any potential interest, from introverted interior designers to extroverted entrepreneurs.

There’s a long list of steps, but stick with it until you find the gem you’re looking for:

Write down everything you do on paper.

Class list, extracurricular activities, service trips, internships, and jobs. What classes do you excel in? What classes do you actually enjoy? How do you spend your summers? Make a detailed list of how you spend your time.

Look at your list and cross off every single thing that’s already on your application.

If you spent every summer at soccer camp and it’s listed as one of your activities, cross it out. If you’re on the debate team but one of your recommendation letters is from your debate teacher, cross it out. You might be left with a few things, or with nothing.

It’s now time to dig deeper and start the brainstorming process.

How would your friends describe you? Text a few of your friends and ask them to describe you in three words. We call that crowdsourcing. What’s your morning routine like? Is there something you do every night before bed, no matter what? How is your desk organized? What’s your go-to dinner recipe? What are you top ten favorite books (that weren’t assigned by a teacher?) Have you ever stood up for what’s right even though it wasn’t the “cool” thing to do? The more creative the questions you ask yourself, the better. The point of asking yourself (or your friends) these kinds of questions is to get down to who you are as a person.

Let’s say your friends all tell you they go to you for advice, or you can’t stop thinking about the time you put together a piece of IKEA furniture without an instruction manual. If you stick with the brainstorming process for long enough, one or two things always end up standing out. It’s rarely one of the initial ideas you had, and that’s a good sign. Once you have a list of adjectives (characteristics) that you feel good about, double check (again) that you’re not focusing on something that’s already in your application. The idea is to be adding another dimension with your essay. If you’re the captain of the volleyball team, you don’t want to write an essay about how your friends see you as a leader. Start thinking of stories that demonstrate those traits. The best essays tell a story that humanizes you: maybe you made a mistake and learned something, walk home from school every day and listen to a different podcast, or have a very specific way of organizing your closet. 

As long as the characteristic you choose to write about adds another dimension to your application, you can start outlining your first draft. Most of the essays we do with our students break form. We do not use thesis statements, topic sentences, or the traditional five paragraph essay format. The outlines we create with our students are fairly fluid. The sole requirement is that there is a beginning, middle, and end. It doesn’t always need a conflict and a resolution, but it absolutely must be in a story format.

For the first draft we ignore word count, grammar, spelling, and punctuation. The goal is to free write and end up with as many details as possible.

We then revise, edit, revise, and edit some more. Many students underestimate the amount of time it takes it properly edit an essay, so make sure you leave enough time to make revisions.  

If you’re not working with someone, you can still loosely follow this method on your own. Spending the time it takes to settle in on a subject is crucial, so be sure to set aside time for some ~introspection~.

We’re really good at helping with this process, so reach out if you want to talk!