Ask An Expert: On Writing the Common Application Essay

August 01, 2017

Our resident admissions expert Robert Schwartz from YourBestCollegeEssay is back with his insight on writing the Common Application essay.

As you read this, your browser is exploding with the search results of googling, “help with my college essay,” or “college application essay help.” or, “OMG! Help me with my college essay!” And after reading what everyone and their college application consultant brother have to say on the subject — you’re more confused than ever.

This time of year, my phone rings off the hook with distressed, frantic parents trying to figure out how to help their kid write these things. And the first thing I tell them to do is what I am telling you to do — sit back, take a deep breath, don’t over-think it, and always, always, always remember — a simple story, well told, will get an applicant further than a complicated one that a college or university admissions person has read a million times before.

So here are a few, no-nonsense, guaranteed steps to make the writing process easier for both overwhelmed applicant and anxious parent alike.

Step 1: Focus only on the Common Application Essay

Let’s set aside the supplemental essay’s (“Why Harvard… “ or, “What do you bring to Stanford… “) and focus only on the Common Application essay, which offers 6 essay choices. The first 5 are fairly middle-of-the road queries, a one-size-fits-all, if you will. If they truly speak to you and your experiences, these topics — “Significant relationships,” “An issue of personal or social significance,” “Describe how you would bring diversity to your college or university” — will serve you well. The only problem is that an admissions officer has read all of these stories before a million and one times. It’s difficult to convince them your “bullying brother story” is any more interesting or unique than “the bullying brother story” they read before yours — or even the next “bullying brother story” they will read after yours.

So if one of those first 5 choices doesn’t get you excited, I often suggest to my students that they go with choice #6 — “topic of your choice.” Sure, it might be a scary proposition to fly without a net, but your odds of telling them a unique story is significantly greater. This is where you can shine.

Step 2: Find a Smart, Trusted, Objective Friend

If you don’t have access to a college application essay consultant, choose one smart, trusted friend (and not your parent) to be your editor. This is vital, because an interested and inquisitive outsider can get to the heart of you, the subject, faster and easier than someone who sees you simply as their child. Objectivity is tantamount! Once you have chosen someone — outline your story. Even though the common application essay may be as short as 250 words, I highly recommend using all 500. Break up your story into four paragraphs of 125 words (or 5 paragraphs of 100 words) using bullet points.

Write down what you wish to accomplish in each paragraph. It’s so much easier to build a house with blueprints than to start pouring a foundation, building walls, and putting up a roof without one. Once that’s done, go ahead and start writing a draft. Don’t worry about going over the word count, because you will have plenty of opportunities to edit with later drafts.

Step 3: Be Open to Suggestions & Comments

Once a first draft is complete, give it to that trusted friend and be open to their suggestions and comments. Take the comments you agree with, ignore the ones you do not. This is where your convictions take over. Before you start another draft, set your essay aside for a day or so and let it breathe. Better to come back to it with a clear head and a fresh set of eyes than to rush through a rewrite you might not be ready to tackle.

Step 4: Review Your Second Draft

Once a second draft is complete, give it back to that trusted friend, then sit back and wait for the inevitable good news/bad news. As with the first draft, he or she will like some of what you wrote but might also have more notes or comments. Again, you might not agree with what they think, but you are now knee deep into the process and keeping an objective eye will get increasingly difficult.

Step 5: Take Your Essay from “Very Good” to “Incredible”

Finally, take that last pass. This is perhaps your final chance to elevate it from very good to really incredible. When you think you have done the best job you can, hand it off to your friend and let them tell you how great it is, or where they think the problems still exist. Again, put the essay down for a day or so and give yourself some more distance from it. Once you’re ready to come back to it, now it’s time to do a line edit, correcting for punctuation, grammar and spelling.

The college application essay is really your last and best chance to show a college admissions officer who you really are. Some think of the essay as a “tie-breaker,” something they use when they want to see beyond grades or test scores, which will push an applicant “over the top.” Tell a great story. Tell it very, very well. Enjoy the process of edifying the reader. Be smart, be interesting, be yourself. And in the words of Steve Martin — “be so good they can’t ignore you.”

Applying to college?
View the app files and essays of accepted students.

​Follow these instructions, and you’ll find yourself with a genuine, stellar common application essay. If you’re still deciding which essay prompt to respond to, here are the 2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts! 

About The Author

Robert Schwartz
Robert Schwartz

​Robert Schwartz is the expert behind YourBestCollegeEssay. With his 20+ experience as a writer, journalist and educator, Robert is now helping students get into their dream college. Memorable and effective college application essays demonstrate an applicant’s ability to communicate their personality and passion to differentiate them from the thousands of other applicants vying for a select few spots. Our highly personalized, one-on-one, proven process guides an applicant from brainstorm to final draft, showing admissions officers that they are much more than simply grades and test scores. We encourage the authentic, original written voice of every applicant. Dig deep! Be original! 

Browse Successful Application Files

Williams ‘19

Accepted to Williams, Claremont (CMC), Amherst, Swarthmore, Pitzer, Northwestern, Tufts, WashU, Grinnell, Rice, Emory, LMU

Hi! I'm a Williams '19 transfer who's passionate about social justice, tech, and STEM education. I'd love to share what I learned from navigating this hectic process twice!
UPenn ‘20

Accepted to UPenn

Hello! I'm a Freshman at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School. I plan on concentrating in finance, marketing and social impact. In high school I was active in LGBTQ advocacy and music. I can help with any questions you have about admissions
Stanford ‘19

Accepted to Cambridge, Stanford, Princeton, Yale, Brown, UPenn, Columbia, UC Berkeley, UCLA, Swarthmore, Barnard, Wellesley, Duke, NYU, BU

overly ambitious, passionately curious, helplessly perfectionistic
Stanford ‘20

Accepted to Stanford, UC Berkeley, UCSD, UCLA, UC Davis

I am a Frosh at Stanford studying studying engineering (computer science or other types) with a (possible) minor in the humanities. Go Trees!!!

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