How To Write the Common App Essay

So, your application is finally starting to come together but the essay is still hanging over your head. Writing a common app essay can seem daunting, especially at first. The goal is to zero in on a fresh topic--to add an additional piece of information--that gives admissions officers an idea of who you are and what differentiates you from the rest of the applicants.

Let’s start with the hardest truths:

  1. Do not reiterate information included in the rest of your application.
  2. Avoid cliches at all costs.
  3. Be authentic.

Here’s how to get started.


When you watch a movie and fall in love with a character, is it because they came on screen and said, “Hi, I am empathetic, generous, and give my leftovers to the homeless?” Probably not. It’s more likely that you saw them in situations and attributed those qualities to them on your own. Watching the character wrap up leftovers from his family barbecue and drop them off to a homeless man on his way home shows the viewer these qualities.

This is called the show don’t tell method and you’ll need to use it in your common app essay. It’s a way to bring the story to life and invite readers into the experience with actions, details, and feelings. Remember, we’re only working with 650 words here, so free yourself from the idea that you need to paint a complete picture. Sticking with the movie metaphor, it’s just a scene.

So, what *exactly* should I show them?


Think of the essay as an opportunity to share a glimpse into your life, and brainstorm sessions as a way to zero in on a kind of anecdote that showcases who you are as a person.

This is the really important part - brainstorming should be fun. Try it without your computer or phone. A few ideas to get you started:

  • Look through old photographs. What memories do they evoke?
  • What does a typical morning look like for you?
  • What makes you angry?
  • Why is it that you always make it home for family dinner?

Remember: you want to settle on one specific characteristic. Ask yourself anything that might help get you there.

Consider yourself an extrovert? It might help to make brainstorming a more social activity. You’ll need to do the writing work yourself but there’s nothing wrong with asking your people a few questions to get the process started. It’s what we do at TKG. There’s a good chance you’re overlooking the most special things. Ask your friends to describe you in 3-5 adjectives. And then ask them why they chose those adjectives.

If the idea of asking your loved ones to describe you in 3-5 words makes you want to run for the hills, know that there’s another way. Brainstorming can also be introspective. Ask yourself a few questions. Why do you think your friends hang out with you? Think about the last five people that called you. What do your friends typically come to you for? There’s great value in understanding what others rely on you for. You might even find a starting point for conversation once you look at what you’ve written down.

At this point, you might start to recognize some patterns. Not everyone has had the opportunity to volunteer, play team sports, or travel the world during summer break. But that’s not what we’re going for in the essay regardless. We’re trying to get at what makes you you and who you are beyond the extracurriculars and grades.


The brainstorming process should have helped you identify a list of qualities you might want to focus on. Pick one. Go back to your notes, go back to your friends. Ask yourself why you’re picking this specific characteristic and make sure it makes the most sense.


Remember your generous and thoughtful movie crush from before? That’s because we saw him in action. What story best exemplifies how (insert adjective here) you are? There should be more than one. The story, or scene, you’ll write about must have a beginning, middle, and end - it’s not a list of unrelated memories strung together.


The first draft can be really fun. At this stage, you want to write freely. Get as many details on paper as possible. Write down everything you remember. In doubt? Type it out. You can (and will) always scale things back, but the goal here is to start with as much information as possible. Forget about length, structure, and perfect grammar. Take a look at some of our favorite ideas here.

This process might take a little longer, but you’ll eventually narrow it down to a more authentic portrait of yourself. If you have to force yourself to think of three reasons as to why you’re disciplined, you might not consider yourself to be disciplined even though your peers do. We want to find a characteristic that resonates deeply with you.

There’s nothing worse than staring at a blank screen without a single idea in mind, so slow down and give yourself the time it takes to brainstorm so you can confidently start writing your essay.

Want to talk about your ideas? So do we.