Your Complete Guide to writing the Common App
Before we talk about writing a Common App college application, let’s talk about reading one.
The first thing to know is that admission officers don’t score each component separately. Rather, everything you write (personal statement, supplements, activities list, COVID-10 response, and recs) feeds into one “personal” score.
The personal score is basically the college’s guess about how you’ll perform academically and contribute to the college’s community when you get on campus.
You should also know that colleges struggle to make the pieces fit for many applicants. It can be like building Mr. Potato Head from the stuff at the bottom of an old toy chest. Mrs. Potato Head might come out wearing something that looks like a stethoscope, so … I guess she’s pre-med? She might have a trombone, so … maybe she’s a member of the band?
There’s a better way. This article will show you how to write each Common App section so that they form a picture of you succeeding on campus. Colleges want to know that you’ll fit in; that you and the school will be a good match. To convince them, you need to write your application holistically, and make sure your content fits together into a personal brand.
Our aim is to craft great puzzle pieces that come together to produce a magnificent picture — you, succeeding in your BioChem major and helping to revive the school’s lackluster band in your free time.
Here are the Common App insights we learned by working as essay coaches and tutors for tens of thousands of applicants:
Know what colleges are looking for: proof you’ll succeed in college
You want every piece of your Common App to say: “I’m going to succeed in college and beyond.” That’s what college admission readers are looking for.
Please don’t let it scare you. This is easier than you think. First, let’s get into their minds as they come to your application in the pile.
By the time they start reading the written components of your Common App, they will have reviewed your academic profile (grades, SAT/ACT scores, curriculum). They’ll know how you stack up academically with other candidates. That’s why admissions officers need your essays, recommendations, activities list, and additional information. They use these to distinguish which academically similar students seem to have the most potential for college success.
How can an essay show “potential for success”? By spotlighting experiences you’ve had where you’ve shown potential. More specifically, colleges look for experiences that show one or more of 5 special traits:
- Drive [going above and beyond what’s expected] — ex: When the pandemic canceled your planned bake sale, you changed it to a virtual fundraiser. You did research about holding virtual fundraisers, put in many hours of hard work, and ended up raising over $500 more than expected.
- Intellectual curiosity — ex: You’ve gotten so interested in robotics that you asked for your very own copy of Springer Handbook of Robotics for your birthday. And you’re taking a beginner’s course at the local college because your school doesn’t have one. And you’ve designed 5 different robots, one of which won a special prize.
- Initiative [changing the status quo] — ex: You founded a robotics club at your school because it didn’t have one. You lobbied Ms. Swanson to teach the school’s first robotics class because she taught one at her old school. You started a fundraiser to help defray the costs of robotics equipment.
- Contribution — ex: You revived a literary magazine that had been dormant for a year before you. It now has over 20 contributors. Or — you’re leading the Central Square Warm Meals initiative at your church, filling volunteer slots and ensuring anyone has access to free meals on Wednesday nights.
- Diversity of experiences — ex: Your love of fashion pushed you to get a job as a stock boy at a fancy department store. You’ve had an inside window into the lives of the clients, and your knowledge of designers has become encyclopedic. Or — you were raised by your Honduran grandparents for five years because your mother was struggling to regulate her U.S. immigration status and to divorce an abusive partner. Despite this upheaval, you always put your studies first.
Before you move on to the Common App elements below, decide 1 to 3 of the traits that resonate most with you. You can create a free Prompt account to take our 5 traits test. The writing that follows relies on your knowing which traits you should be putting at the center of your writing.
Think about your Common App holistically
Once you know about the 5 traits, you’ve got everything you need to succeed in your Common App writing. Here’s our 2-step process to distinguish yourself (and make writing the application a lot easier):
- Brainstorm all your most compelling content related to the 5 traits.
- Match that content with each part of the Common App for each school.
This process will take 1-2 hours. It takes time to brainstorm all the many times you’ve shown some of the 5 traits, thinking through all the many meaningful experiences you’ve had in high school.
But by the end, you’ll have a big pile of great experiences from which you can build your application. Ideally, you want all your most compelling content to fit within each application. That is, for each school, you’ll map it to the Common App essays and questions (including Additional Information), as well as to each school’s supplemental questions.
The easiest way to brainstorm is by using our free brainstorming tools (just create an account). However you do it, be sure to get a second opinion about what experiences really are your most compelling. This is part of our coaching and feedback process and you should get that second opinion, whether or not you use our services.
Personal Statement: Build it around your strongest experiences
Often, colleges say things along the lines of: The personal statement is a place for us to get to know you. And now you know how unintentionally misleading that can be.
They mean they want to know what kind of person you are behind those SAT scores and grades. Are you the type of student to whom it all came easy and who will just drift in college? Or are you a student who made interesting things happen around them? The type of student who is going to do well in college and beyond?
Meanwhile, most students take them at their word. They think:
- I’ve got an interesting background I can share. That will help the college get to know me!
- I’ll let them in on some of my deep, philosophical thoughts about life. My musing in this essay will show them the real me.
- I’ll tell an interesting story that happened to me in a really “artistic,” “writerly” way. They’ll love getting to know my creative soul.
These are extremely common mistakes. The issue is you’re not showing the real you colleges want to see. Not to repeat ourselves, but they’re only interested in the real you that does things. The real you that shows potential for success.
Personal Statement: 10 steps for writing a great one
If you’re following along in our College Admissions Dashboard, it walks you through how to transform your best experiences into a powerful Common App essay.
Or you can read our comprehensive How to Write the Common App Essay guide.
However, if you just want the gist, here it is:
- Step 1: Know what colleges are looking for. Hey, you can check this one off — you read about 10 times above that it’s evidence you’ll succeed in college.
- Step 2: Know what you’re going to say. Brainstorm your best experiences. You know how to do that because we just covered it above. Nice!
- Step 2a: Squash your metaphors; smother your philosophical bent. As we’ve mentioned, writing this essay often brings out the poets in applicants. Remember the admissions officers, looking for potential for success. Deliver that to them straightforwardly. Some students can succeed by integrating creativity with their potential for success. But, it’s hard and you may miss the mark. Consider leaving metaphors and philosophy for another day.
- Step 2b: Double-check that your essay is about you and the actions you’ve taken. Students also often write about their upbringing, family backgrounds, traumatic events, or their love of sports/music/theater. Those topics only work if they show actions you’ve taken that relate to one or more of the Five Traits. Your experiences and actions must show your potential to succeed in college and beyond.
- Step 3: Choose your prompt. You can’t let the prompt decide what you’re going to say. That’s why we advise choosing the prompt after you know what 5-trait-demonstrating experience(s) you need to show the admissions officers.
- Step 4: Use an outline. Do you like saving time? Do you like doing a great job? Outlines save you time and help you do a great job. Here’s a short overview of how to outline for the Common App essay. The Prompt Dashboard offers an interactive Common App essay outline experience.
- Step 5: Write a first draft in 1 distraction-free hour. No phone, no TikTok, no younger siblings. Get away and write for an hour, without worrying about length, spelling, or grammar. Congrats, you’ve got a first draft!
- Step 6: Get feedback only on your content, structure, and clarity. Find someone who’ll focus on content (not someone who’ll harp on grammar. You’re not there yet.) Ask: What did they learn about you? What did they not learn that they wanted to know? Where were they confused? (You can also use experts like us if you want to get the most targeted and actionable advice.)
- Step 7: Revise based on feedback. At this stage, a revision is often a radical start-all-over-again thing. You can do it!
- Step 8: Yup, you need a 2nd round of feedback. Try to stick with the same reviewer. Ask the exact same questions as before.
- Sept 9: Revise again, focusing on clear writing. There’s a lot to say on Common App writing style. (You can read our full guide here.) What it boils down to is: flowery language is bad; straightforward, easy-to-understand language is good.
- Step 10: Finishing touches. In your final revision round, you can now work on getting it below the word count (650 words). Reading it aloud is a great way to home in on clarity. Ask that grammar-obsessed person in your life to get all persnickety.
- Step 11: Celebrate. People don’t celebrate enough. You wrote a great essay in less than a week. Why not celebrate?
Again, we spell these 10* steps out in more detail in our comprehensive guide.
* It doesn’t say much more about celebrating. But you don’t need us for that.
Personal Statement: The best prompts you can choose
One more thing on the Common App essay. Some prompts tend to produce better essays than others. Here’s a little more guidance for choosing your prompt.
This year’s 7 prompt choices are:
- Background and Identity. 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.
- Lessons from Obstacles. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Challenging a Belief. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Gratitude. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? (New for 2021-22.)
- Personal Growth. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Intellectual Curiosity. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Topic of Choice. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
We discuss how helpful each of these is (and what to be careful of with the others) in fully our guide The Best Common App Essay Prompt.
- Best: Because choices #5 and #6 directly reflect values related to the 5 traits, we think they make for the best essays IF AND ONLY IF your experiences fit authentically within them.
- Good: Choices #1, #2, and #7 can all lead to excellent, winning essays. Use them if your experiences fit authentically within them. (Of course they will for #7.) Be sure to keep the focus on your actions and which of the 5 traits you exhibit.
- Tricky: Choices #3 and #4 can also lead to great content. But there are major pitfalls you should be aware of. Be sure to read our guidance if your experiences seem a natural fit for either of these.
Ultimately, the hard work here should be in brainstorming what experiences you want to write about. Not choosing the prompt. A great way to help you get the very best essay content is to ask for feedback, either from someone who knows you well (parent?) or from college essay experts (like us), or both.
For each school, know what supplements they ask
Many colleges have supplemental essays — extra essays for just their school. They include common ones, such as Why Us, Why Major, and Describe an Activity, as well as idiosyncratic ones, unique to each school.
These contribute to your personal score just as much as your personal statement and activities list do. They matter. The best way to tackle them is to look at the supplements you’ll need to write for each school. Then, map the content you brainstormed to the supplements, so you don’t miss anything you must cover.
You can access a list of every supplement for every college on your Prompt dashboard, including ones required or optional for specific majors, programs, and scholarships offered by a college.
COVID-19 Question: Answer it only if you've experience a major life disruption
While we do have 2 small exceptions to this rule (see our full Covid-19 question guide), generally, only write this response if you experienced a major life disruption as a result of Covid or a natural disaster.
By “major disruptions,” we mean things like family members who became extremely ill or even passed away; family members losing their jobs; experiencing housing or food insecurity; or having to take care of siblings (perhaps helping them with Zoom elementary school); limited access to learning resources, such as the internet; or even needing to take a job. These kinds of things do, unfortunately, continue to happen to students in 2021.
Things that don’t qualify as “major disruptions” include struggles with distance learning or having projects/internships/classes canceled. Most students experienced struggles like that, and those experiences are unlikely to form the basis of a strong response in this section.
If you think you might want to tackle the Covid-19 prompt, we walk you through how to make the decision and how to structure your response in our guide.
Activities List: Fill your list with evidence of impact
If there’s one section that we’ve heard pains admissions officers every year, it’s the activities list. Applicants tend to rush this part of the application. Don’t do it!
Their loss can be your gain — if you spend some time here, you can really differentiate yourself with your effort and thoughtfulness.
Extracurriculars are the best place to show off the 5 traits. For example:
- drive (writes outstanding articles for the paper),
- intellectual curiosity (has learned everything there is to know about Emily Dickinson),
- initiative (founded the astronomy club),
- contribution (regularly volunteers at the soup kitchen), and
- diversity of experiences (has competed at the national level in horse jumping).
The easiest way is to login to our College Admissions Dashboard, which contains a guided tool for putting together your Activities List.
If you’d rather our full guide to acing the Activities List, check out our post.
If you want a nutshell version, here it is:
Focus on impact. Besides the 5 traits, colleges also want to see sustained engagement, leadership (whether official or unofficial), and impact. Prioritize your list based on these 3 factors. Do your best to quantify the impact you had, and to show concretely the leadership actions you took.
Top 3 tips for writing strong descriptions. There’s much more to say here, but this is a solid start.
- Use strong verbs, short phrases. “I was the head of the quidditch team.” Oh yeah? How uninteresting. “Led early-morning practices.” Wow! Forcing teens to do things first thing in the morning is hard, but this kid did it. Let me add points to her personal score.
- Quantify your impact, use quotes, and mention awards whenever possible. “Oversaw victorious quidditch season.” Meaningless. “Introduced new practices, co-created more aggressive game strategy that led to a 10-7 record, a 40% improvement over last year.” Though I know nothing about quidditch, I know that this student has tons of winning potential.
- Explain what the activity was, and what you did. For any activities that the officers won’t know about, describe (1) what the activity is (its purpose) and (2) its size (number of students in it). Often, it’s helpful to spell out your responsibilities. (Spell out what being quidditch “captain” actually entails — those early morning practices, for example).
Examples of great descriptions.
- Demystified new junior curriculum requirements in a newspaper article an advisor called “best of the semester.”
- Raised over $1000 to help all debate members travel to the state tournament.
- Led team in goals. Voted most valuable player.
For many, many more examples, hop over to our activities list guide.
Think creatively about what activities to include. What matters is not that the activity has a formal title. What matters, as you know, is that you had impact and demonstrated some of the 5 traits. Here’s a list of non-traditional activities you might include:
- Jobs. You can learn and have impact in any job, no matter the skills required (babysitting, mowing lawns, paper route).
- Taking care of siblings or other relatives; taking on household tasks or household management. You can often expand on this in the Additional Information section.
- Self-learning. Examples: trading stocks, taking a MOOC, honing advanced knitting skills, or learning a foreign language.
- Creative projects. Be sure to emphasize the metrics that show what you achieved in blogging, YouTube channels with original music, Etsy stores, or whatever else.
You may need to use the Additional Information section. Some students have good reasons why their Activities Lists are short — their commute may be hours long, or they may have suffered from a debilitating illness, or something else.
Similarly, some activities need more than 150 characters to describe fully. If you practice gymnastics at an exceptionally high level, to the exclusion of almost everything else, you might need to explain that more fully here.
Bottom line: if you need to explain something, add “(See add’l info.)” to your description, and say a little more there.
Get feedback from an impartial person. Yeah, this is a common refrain of ours. That’s because it’s really hard to evaluate your own contributions without an outside perspective.
In our experience, students often inflate less-than-stellar accomplishments, while totally ignoring unique and fascinating achievements that colleges would love to see. Get someone else to think your list through with you. We’re experts at uncovering and finding the best way to present student experiences or work on this with a parent or guidance counselor.
Additional Information: Avoid excuses, add context
If you’ve followed our process, you matched your brainstormed comment into the essay and question “slots” available for each school to which you’re applying. Include the Additional Information section in that mapping — as we’ll show below, it’s a great place to provide more context about problems you’ve faced, or to clarify things that might otherwise be confusing, or even to share a little something extra about yourself.
However, only start on this section after you’ve written everything else.
At that point, you’ll be able to see if there are great items you’d wanted to use elsewhere, but that just didn’t fit — maybe Additional Info is the place. Or, maybe the thing you intended to talk about here got incorporated into other essays. Great news: it’s absolutely acceptable to leave this section blank if you don’t have anything compelling to say.
For most students, it’s not an easy call. Get another perspective on this one. Call in admissions experts, or make yet another appointment with your college counselor.
What to avoid in the additional information section. The common errors we see basically boil down to:
- Another personal statement
- Another essay
Writing style: short, short, short: Related to the above, keep whatever you add to this section succinct. You can turn a great, non-redundant essay you’ve got in your pocket into a list of interesting bullets, but don’t cut and paste it in. The admissions people have read a lot of essays by this point, and will likely appreciate simpler nuggets of information.
Include any important but missing context about your potential to succeed.
Here are the main ones students often use:
- Additional context on your activities list (as we saw above).
- Health concerns. Don’t tug on heartstrings, just concretely detail what impact the issue had on your time and energy, and what you did to overcome the ordeal.
- Potential red flags. Anticipate questions that could arise from your application. Did you suddenly drop an activity? Did you have one really bad grade? Don’t make excuses; do provide information.
- Intense family obligations. If anything has made it difficult for you to get involved in extracurriculars, here’s a good place to explain why. Keep it excuse-free, of course.
- Home difficulties. You might face other stressors or difficulties at home, such as not having reliable internet or a device.
- Difficult family issues (ex: disability, unemployment). Give context as to how these issues may have impacted your spare time and academics.
- Physical or learning disabilities. This can be a tricky one, so have a counselor or other expert weigh in. While a health professional can disclose your disability, you could use this space to say more about the effect it has on your academics, and what you’ve done to overcome it.
- Unusual school systems. If you switched high schools, or if your school follows an unusual schedule, or if there’s anything else that might confuse admissions officers, you could provide a brief explanation here.
- Cool stuff. Maybe you took an unusual class that the admissions officer might not know about (Senior Project, for instance), or an online course that was more rigorous than they might know from the name. Why not explain how cool, rigorous, or interesting it really was?
Recommendations: Ask people with whom you have a strong, personal relationship
Colleges want a fair assessment of your quality of character and of mind — something you just can’t do for yourself. That’s where letters of recommendation come in.
The problem is that recommenders often write vague, impersonal letters. Common mistakes include giving an overview of your transcript, talking about your future plans (for a high school student?), and filling in the rest of the page with cliches.
Here’s an example of the bland stuff that does nobody any favors:
“She was a strong student, worked well with others, and impressed me with her consistent effort.”
Yikes! How can you avoid sounding so boring?
The easiest thing to control is who you choose as a recommender. Your job is to find the people who can shed light on:
- Your academic success and history
- Any special circumstances
- Areas in which you’ve made an impact
- And any distinctive qualities of yours — the ability to share a few memorable anecdotes.
What all this points to is choosing someone who knows you well. Ideally, they’ve known you for more than a semester. Examples might be teachers you’ve had for (ideally) more than one class; coaches; guidance counselors, and even work supervisors. You might have been a teacher’s best student ever. But if they didn’t get to know you well, it could be hard for them to be your advocate.
Someone who has a strong personal relationship with you will be more likely to give specifics, to talk admiringly about a few ways in which you really shone, and even pepper in those great anecdotes that might make your whole application spring to life. They don’t need to give a laundry list of accolades, just a few vivid examples.
That being said, it’s also great if the person had a front-row seat to your moment(s) of glory. Ask yourself: Who has seen me achieve, excel, overcome adversity, or outperform? So long as they’re invested in you, these people should do splendidly.
In addition, think about using your recommenders to show off the diversity of your academic strengths. For example, if you’re strong in math, instead of picking two STEM teachers, pick another in humanities or social sciences, to show off your range.
Recommendations: Provide an outline of your strengths
Besides choosing your recommender, you can also give them a little help. Ask them if they’d like you to provide an outline. They may say no, but they’re likely to be grateful for some help — as will your admission readers when they get a much better letter.
For this, keep it simple. List out the points you’d like your recommenders to include with specific examples of what you’ve done. Avoid any general platitudes (i.e., don't ask your teacher to say you were the best student they ever had).
You can use this list as a guiding framework, providing 2-3 specific examples that the recommender can include in each category:
- Your academic success and history
- Any special circumstances
- Areas in which you’ve made an impact
- And any distinctive qualities of yours — the ability to share a few memorable anecdotes.
Asking people for favors is hard. As always, pull in that loving grownup or advice-spewing college essay expert (yes, I’m talking about us) to give you a second opinion, and tell you you can do it.
Mr. Potato Head photo by samantha celera — we hope you'll create a more compelling image than this in your application (no disrespect intended to Mr. Potato Head).