Ideas For Your Common App Essay

We recently received this email from one our readers:

“Hi Caroline! I am STRUGGLING to get an idea for what to write about for my common app essay. I'm over the whole "overcome challenges, and solving problems". I think they're overdone and I'm looking to try something new. Any ideas?”

As you well know, we love getting emails from our readers and try to answer the questions we get when possible. When people ask questions that could potentially help others, we often turn that into a blog post.

Brainstorming ideas for your common app is something that we’ve covered often. You should read “Creative Ideas for Common App Essays”, “Best Common App Essay Ideas”, “Common App Essay Requirements”, and “Good Common App College Essays.” You can also find a lot of helpful material by searching “common app” on the blog.

But this particular question hints at something that we see often with our clients and readers of the blog, which is the desire to “try something new.” We’re all for breaking the mold and playing with structure (more on that later) but the creative process of actually writing your common app essay must come AFTER you’ve settled on a good topic. A fun or fancy structure won’t make up for a poor topic. So, before you start figuring out how to write your essay, you need to figure out what you’re going to write about.

We relate writing your common app essay to a Thanksgiving table spread. In an ideal world, you’ll have a lot to choose from: turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, etc. Thanksgiving would be pretty boring and repetitive if everyone brought a turkey. There would be no variety. As it relates to your common app essay, you need to think of those 650 words as an opportunity to show something new about yourself as opposed to doubling down on something that’s already represented in the rest of your application. If you’re president of the debate team, the reader of your application knows that because it’s listed in your activities. So, writing your common app essay about the challenges of running the debate team would be doubling down on that fact. Aka, two turkeys. You’re not showing something new. And that’s not good.

A lot of students that we work with think that they have to prove something huge about themselves, or their nuanced view of the world with their common app essay. That is not the direction to go in. Really, it’s just a chance for the admissions committee to get to know you a little better. We understand that it can be scary writing for that audience and that you want to impress them, but they really just want to know more about who you are a person. Without the grades, test scores, and extracurricular activities. The person reading your essay might not have had the opportunity to do a study abroad program, volunteer in another country, or travel the world. Those essays scream privilege. But, just like you, they’re a regular person. We like writing about the mundane, but in a way that’s interesting. Humans like hearing and reading about relatable things, like why you like to go to museums alone or that time you used salt instead of sugar in your Christmas cookies.

With all of that being said, the goal of your common app essay is to show a personality characteristic. And then illustrate that trait by telling a story. If you’re struggling to come up with a personality trait, text 5 friends and ask them to describe you. We all like to think of ourselves as compassionate and caring, but describing yourself isn’t always the best way to get down to you really are. You might be surprised with the responses you get.

Let’s say you end up with two traits. Your friends tell you (and you agree) that you’re empathetic and the person they call when they need advice. Now, and only now, can you start “trying something new.” This is the time to get creative. Don’t skimp on the brainstorming process or pick a topic just because it lends itself to being written as a play. The substance has to be there first.  

Once you’re narrowed it down to one trait, think of stories that illustrate the fact you’re empathetic, a good listener, or any other trait you decide on. There are multiple ways that you can showcase your personality characteristic. Maybe you tell a story with three vignettes, in the form of a poem, with a secondary character, or with a flashback sequence.  The sky’s the limit, and you’ll find many others structural ideas the posts linked above.

If you take one thing away from this post, it’s that the brainstorming process and coming up with a solid topic is just as important as the way you choose to write your essay. Make sure you give yourself enough time to settle in on a topic that you’re comfortable with before you start writing, and then have fun figuring out how you’re going to get creative with structure.

We love helping students craft essays that stand out. Contact us here if you want to work with someone one-on-one.