How to Write the Common Application Essays

How to Write the Common Application Essays

Common Application Essays: Writing the Perfect Essay

If you’re looking to apply to university, thankfully, technology has made it much easier – it’ll be most convenient for you to apply using the Common Application system. Almost 700 colleges are currently using the Common Application system, making it easy to apply to a multitude of colleges using only a single form. This system can even provide you with an adequate help, financial aid, and relevant information, while streamlining the college application process. Just this year, Common Application (CA) have provided a few different revised essay prompts and amendments to other prompts, with a total of three new prompts revisions and two completely new prompts. You can take these prompts on board and build your essays with them.

We understand that this may be one of the most important essays of your life and so this can be quite a daunting task – it’s as if you have one opportunity to make a difference to the rest of your career here, however, you shouldn’t worry! Fortunately for aspiring students, we’ve come up with some great tips, strategies, and advice to help you with the essay section of the application process. We’ll explore some of the prompts and give you ways in which you can tackle that critical essay. It’s not going to be a walk in the park, but we’ll certainly help walk and talk you through it.

Hopefully, after you’ve read this article, it’ll be smooth sailing to your respective college of choice! Let’s begin.


So what is the purpose of the CA essay? Colleges that you’re applying to will be able to get a good representation of your skills and personal attributes through the prose you’ll supply. Everything from your grades and past results will be available to colleges but the CA essay process is a bit different to this. Rather than a qualitative representation of what you’re about, the CA essay gives you an opportunity to showcase your personality and flare as a potential student. Through the essay, one is able to express their unique qualities and what matters most to them, so you should strive to do just this.

Through the online application system, your essay is going to be shown to various colleges so you won’t be able to tailor it towards different degree applications, making life a lot simpler. This is why you’ll need to write your essay so that it is accessible by a number of universities for a wide range of subjects.

Let’s Talk Strategy

The CA essay is not like an academic paper – it’s only 650 words, not 6500 words. We know that it can appear daunting because you’ll probably want to be shouting at your college with all the wonderful things about you, but soon you’ll find out that college writing is all about refinement and organising text in a clear and thought out manner, so this is what you’ll want to consider.

Develop Ideas

Before you can begin to approach some essay prompts, it’s important to brainstorm your core passions. Concentrate on something you’re passionate about and then think of the ways you connect with it. What makes you resonate with your core passion? If your core passion is creative writing, think about how you can make this come across. Perhaps you love the idea of expressing emotion, creative learning, discovery, portraying characters or bringing your life experiences to the table. Give your core passions scrutiny and a real think.

After you’ve taken a moment to determine your passion, you now have a strong purpose to write a CA essay. For every CA essay, there are four essential things that colleges will be looking to read about:

1. Who you are.

This goes a bit further than your name and contact details – readers are interested in your key personality elements that make you shine. This is above all, a personal showcase.

2. Why you are here.

This is not an indication to discuss existential philosophy. We’re not looking as to answer questions on the origins of life. Whoever is reading wants to know about your journey through high school and how you’ve developed, matured and grown as a person to want to attend college.

3. What makes you unique.

It is important for colleges to understand how you can fit in and how you’ll be able to bring value to a degree programme. Think about your tangible skills, soft skills, problem-solving skills, and any other personality traits that may distinguish you from others – you’ll need to show how you’re unique throughout.

4. What matters to you.

In the end, you’ll need to relate back to where your passions lie. This will help essay recipients understand more about your personality and if you’d fit in at a college.

Every individual is different and every college can be impressed by a multitude of things. The “one true passion” or “correct passion” don’t exist – whatever you’re into, you should express it. Use the four statements above to guide you through this process and through all of the essay prompts we’ll be looking at throughout this article.

Organizing Ideas and Writing

Besides the word count, there are really very limited guidelines for what’s expected of your CA essay, leaving you the freedom to exercise creativity in your approach, writing structure, and style. Obviously, this doesn’t mean you should write a big splurge of text – you’ll need to be logical and the context must follow what the title asks. Ideas need to flow smoothly together to provide that perfect essay that’s going to make you stand out.


Now that you’re a prospective student, or a college graduate in the making, you’re going to need to impress them with a mature level of style in order to set your essay apart from the others. Needless to say, you’ll be expected to write with a good grammatical command and well thought out structure throughout, because the university level is set high. As for your use of language, don’t worry, we’re not talking Ernest Hemingway level here but rather a clear piece of text that’s logically set out and has some creative flair – this is what admissions officers will be looking for.

So how can you write with great style?

  • Show, don’t tell. This is a great stylistic move you can make to get the reader thinking about what you’re trying to tell them. You can use less adjectives and more poetry to guide the reader into trying to interpret ideas in the same way as you. To take an example, “the sun is shining” can be changed to “the enormous heated sphere is blaring in the sky”. A blatantly obvious description can lead to a pointless essay.
  • Avoid using cliches. Readers are hardly going to be impressed with statements such as “I woke up and it was all a dream”. This could have been written by anybody and it doesn’t showcase anything about you as a person. Look up some popular cliches online if you’re not familiar.
  • Avoid using vague statements. It’s time to become refined and demonstrate skill in writing. Plus, you don’t have the number of words to go on forever!
  • Write using the active voice. This is the grammatical rule whereby the subject acts upon a verb. It will bode well in essays rather than numerous passive sentences.
  • Write in a mature tone. You don’t want to come across like a spoilt child, someone who’s a cynic or a pessimist. A positive tone will bode well for an application. You don’t want to be arrogant either and flaunt that you have everything it takes, so if you’ve got a big ego, suppress it for the time being. Think about how to come across in a professional and dignified manner. Your CA essay reader is going to want to see a level of maturity so that you’ll be the best fit for their college.

Whatever you decide to do, do NOT resort to using your thesaurus to colour your language to provide a pointless overly complicated plethora of adjectives. Remember that this essay is not a test to show off an extensive range of vocabulary. An overuse of your thesaurus displays a lack of skill and is easily recognisable by the essay recipient, so if you’re going to use it, use it sparsely. Moreover, if your vocabulary appears to be at a higher level than what’s to be expected of a person of your age, essay recipients may not believe that it’s your work, therefore rejecting your essay outright!

The Prompt That Works for You

Let’s take a look at some of the most common CA essay prompts of 2018. Whilst doing this, you should think about what prompt best works for you and which would be the most interesting to write about. The greatest thing about the CA essay is that there isn’t just one singular topic for all applicants. Each prompt provides a number of new challenges, requiring a different way to think about each, so let’s get going and dive into some of them.

Prompt #1

“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.”

What a great prompt! On the face of it, this prompt gives you a perfect opportunity for your passions and academic interests to come across, so there’s plenty of room to showcase yourself as best as you can. You can come up with a striking narrative that will show your personal development for whatever “incomplete” part you chose. The fact that this prompt is solely about YOU gives you a tall metaphorical platform for you to stand up and display yourself.

So what exactly is something “so meaningful”? It is up to the meaning that you associate with it. Prompt one allows you the chance to talk about something truly unique that you’re passionate about that will separate you. Perhaps you’re the only one who likes to blog about Nordic folk music? You’ll certainly stand out.

Not every passion has to be something completely unique, however. If you’re not into blogging about music, you can talk about anything that you’re passionate about. It’s not some sort of contest where the most outrageous and unique passion will win you a place at your favourite university – don’t lose sight of the meaning of the essay in the application process. Think about what’s made the most significant impact on your life so far.

If you’re writing about your background, you may want to talk about some training experiences you’ve had, your education, and any cultural insights. It's possible to mention any experiences you've had when growing up whether it be interacting with your family or your brother or sister. How have your relationships made you the person you are today? Your background could include a multitude of things such as your interest in the arts, sciences, sport or any other important things. Your background is inclusive of your social environment from which you've come from. How has this environment influenced your thought processes, perceptions, and opinions? It’s even possible to talk about various backgrounds you’ve experienced and how they’ve become meaningful in your life.

If you choose to talk about your identity, this will allow you to discuss any questions about personal identity such as your race, gender, sexual orientation or any other parts that encompass you. What is true to the nature of yourself? Some of these ideas can pose as slightly controversial topics of discussion and writing, so always make sure that you approach them with the highest degree of caution. You won’t want to put anyone off by making any broad statements about stereotypes or any flippant comments. Think about the most dominant identity trait that you have. As an example, if you’re adventurous, you could talk about how this trait has allowed you to experience cultures and how this has made you deal with problems that needed to be solved.

If you’ve gone down the interest side of this prompt, this could pave a path for showcasing your passions – you may find that some of your passions won’t be applicable to talk about in other parts of CA application. As an example, if you’re applying for a mechanical engineering place, talking about your love for skateboarding could provide a nice touch. If you’re looking at a fashion course, writing about your keen interest in mathematics could demonstrate a whole new side of you to the admin officer. Where else would you write about these things? People should know of the great things about you!

Prompt #2

“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?”

This prompt is a true test to your personality. You won’t want to talk about an unequivocally dull failure, e.g. forgetting to bring your textbook to school, or a setback that isn’t really one. Don't be afraid of talking about a true failure, because this prompt is not about making yourself look bad. It is clear that this prompt is a way for the reader to view your personality and see how you can overcome adversity. What a great way to illustrate how you have the personality and wisdom to rise above problems, think of solutions and grow as a person.

Your response to your chosen failure and the actions that you’ve employed to rid yourself of it are things to write about and make clear in this essay. If you’ve lost touch with a member of your closest friends group, analyse why this happened, where you went wrong and how you tried to improve. Even if your friend is still distant and the problem persists, you can always talk about how you haven’t let this ruin you and how this experience has helped you grow. Let the reader see that you’re able to analyse situations – perhaps you could have done something differently as not to have this problem. What solutions worked and what solutions would be better? How could you fix things here? If well written, your thought processes should soon become apparent to the reader, highlighting your critical thinking and reasoning faculties. Working on tackling obstacles is a way to talk about your approach to controversial issues, or even your understanding of ethics.

It’s still possible to talk about a series of smaller or disparate failures that you’ve experienced but have worked positively to overcome. If for example, you’ve always been very shy, you could talk about how you managed to seek help, read about how to overcome your issues and ultimately try and fix your social anxiety. This powerful and thought-provoking prompt could put you in the running in the application process.

Prompt #3

“Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

It’s not typical of students to participate or march in protests, but one could still yield a first-class response from this prompt. Instead of challenging a belief in this sense, you could focus on a time when you took a different stance on some social conventions and questioned some societal norms. In doing so, perhaps you raised some salient points? It’s important that this doesn’t become a crusade against some social issue or a platform for moral superiority, but rather that you can reflect on your experiences and analyse your situations.

Perhaps you felt strongly about some situation and this piqued your curiosity, sparking your train of thought? Whatever you choose to write about, the most important thing is not to lose sight of the essay at hand. In a piece of reflective writing, you want to take the reader on a journey to explore your cognitive processes that lead to making decisions.

If you’re struggling for ideas but like the idea of a reflective essay, brainstorm some ideas by writing a problem down and then looking at different solutions you could use to address it, whilst including justifications for doing so. The more you explain and justify your solutions to the problem, the better your response can be.

In the end, you’ll want to demonstrate that you have some degree of logical thinking and an attitude to do what’s right. This could be a great prompt to showcase your morals and critical faculties. In describing the outcome, you could talk about why that outcome came about and what you could have done better. There is plenty of room for analysis and an intriguing essay here.

Prompt #4

“Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.”

This prompt allows you to choose between three different ideas and gives you quite a broad scope to play with because you can talk about anything as long as it is of importance to you personally. We’re sure, after reading this, you could think of at least ten different problems straight away off the top of your head, but it’s essential that you pick one that is profoundly concerning to you personally so that you can make the reader aware of its personal impact.

There are many ways that you could approach this prompt. It’s possible to tell more of an origin type story about why the problem became interesting to you or you could explain the consequences of the problem at hand plus its resolutions. There’s leeway in writing this essay, depending on the nature of your problem, your solution, and your personal experience.

Describing a problem doesn’t mean you’ll have to shed some light on deep theories and present a detailed explanation involving lots of jargon. Sure, you’re describing the problem, but this will not showcase anything about you. You’ve got to remember that the main reason why you’re writing a CA essay in the first place is that you’re trying to make the reader aware of your personality, skills, and reasons as to why you should be considered. So if you’re going to pick an intellectual challenge, there’s no need to go into a verbal spew of quantum mechanics in order to detail your problem, leaving you with 15 words to spare, after all, what does this say about you?

Along with a description of the problem needs to come an explanation of the experience that led you to realise that it was personally important. Why was this a grave problem? Presumably, you’re going to talk about a grave problem, not forgetting to take the rubbish out in the morning for a month (this wouldn’t offer a very exciting solution). So how do you want to solve the problem after identifying a solution? This is the real showcase of your problem-solving abilities. Evaluate what you could have done better or perhaps your solution was just one of many? Maybe your problem was just a small piece of an even bigger problem that society should try and solve, for example, if you were trying to help your friend through their chronic drug addiction, maybe this raises other issues for other ordinary members of society. Perhaps tackling one case of drug addiction is just a part of an epidemic of drug addiction in the country and you can talk about some of the solutions for this.

The question allows you to expand into the hypothetical territory by considering a problem you’d like to solve. This is a great way to use your imagination, but think carefully about choosing a topic that will give you enough to talk about tangible solutions. Avoid any cliche problems, e.g. solving climate change or bringing about world peace because it will just look like you’ve been lazy in thinking of an idea. Try to avoid any problems that require vague solutions, e.g. to solve the problem of overpopulation, one could repopulate the human race on Mars – how and why? Let’s not get carried away here.

Prompt #5

“Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

Much like the prompt on problem-solving, there is a really broad array of things to choose from and discuss. It seems that the sky’s the limit here! So what kind of things could you choose? Do any formal or informal events come to mind? Perhaps you’ve been a part of a religious event or some other sort of ritual whereby you “rose up in the ranks”, maybe in a spiritual way (e.g. in a Bar Mitzvah) or in a social sense (e.g. being elected the leader of your year). As a brainstorming exercise, consider any moments in your life describing a transgression and note them down – pick which had the most profound change and think about why it was so profound. Again, the essay recipient isn’t going to be interested in the detail of the accomplishment, realization or event in question, but rather in the way you’ve grown.

It isn’t necessarily the case that the particular realization, event or accomplishment needs to be one of enormous grandeur, there’s no need to resort to describing an excerpt of the latest Hollywood drama here. The severity of the situation needn’t be an issue here. Perhaps you have a simple event that really caused you to change your ways of thinking or inspired you in a unique way. For example, perhaps you’ve always followed in the footsteps of your family that have never been particularly enthusiastic about sport, but when you reluctantly accepted a late birthday present of a free kayaking lesson, this immediately sparked an interest and put into reality that you loved kayaking. Upon hitting the water in this kayak, you went out of your way and out of your comfort zone to realise that you need to try new things and open your mind to other experiences in the future.

What’s going to make your essay stand out here is a definition of what has really grown you as a person and then going into detail about the circumstances of this growth and the ways in which it related to an understanding of you and other people. It’s not as important to detail exactly how you grew, but rather why you grew and you’ll need to elaborate on the reasons. There is even room for a bit of analysis for the future – to what degree will you keep on growing as a result of the case you’ve described and are you likely to keep developing because of it for a lot longer in the future?

Prompt #6

“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?”

Let’s not take this literally, of course, you’ll never lose track of time! Here you can expand upon a small idea or concept in a large and profound way, giving you lots to write about. The key is in the words “all track of time”, indicating that you must, and we mean must, talk about something that is intensely meaningful to you.

One idea is to think about your passions and interests – narrow down from these and try and think of the most striking thing about one of your passions. Are you getting nearer to the topic you’ll be discussing? Or perhaps when you read the prompt, an idea came to you instantly. When brainstorming what to write about, put an idea under scrutiny and think about what engaging qualities it may have in order to engage with this idea on a deeper level. If you find many things to discuss, it could prove to be the idea for you to use.

The topic could be broad, for instance, “language”, with a discussion of how it’s evolved and adapted over time. Perhaps you find it so captivating because of the vast differences in languages over the world, from Asian characters, to the multitude of tenses in western languages. You can expand on your topic by finding areas within it that are of particular interest to you and then expanding on them. If it captivates you, it must be intriguing, so explain why it is.

Similarly, your topic could have a narrower focus, but you could really expand on it in a detailed way. If you like cycling, you could discuss the joy of physical movement and the feeling you get when you’re going at full tilt. A top tip is to make use of descriptive writing – use metaphors, paint a picture of the sound of the wind as you’re pedaling downhill or the feel of the road vibrating through your shins. Building up a picture will help you answer exactly why you’re captivated by something. It’s no use saying that you love cycling – you’ll need to put the contents of your thoughts on exhibition and show your true emotional connection. Following on, you could progress on to reveal your passion for the complexity of cycling, all the physics and mechanics of various parts – why do certain bolts and chain-rings trump others? Show off your geeky side and intelligence. There are many things that you could show off your personality and flare.

Prompt #7

“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.”

Wow, a topic of your choice! This prompt actually advocates that you can write your own question, which is a great bonus. If you already have a strong arsenal of previous essays, then you could easily drag one out to help inspire you.

However, this is not to say that you can just rehash a previous essay, because even if it’s the highest graded essay you’ve ever written, the CA essay is all about reaching beyond high grade scores and focusing on you. This prompt isn’t one to just be lazy towards – anyone could simply interpret the prompt to the meaning that you don’t have to think too hard about what’s going to be the best fit for an essay, but you’ll need to give the prompt some serious thought, otherwise, you’re unlikely to succeed.

Instead, as a brainstorming technique, gather up any past essays that you’ve completed. Two words need to be considered: how and why. How is your topic going to impress and why is it a worthy topic? Your writing style will need to be on point here, so that you can showcase a strong personality and voice. The essay needs to make a long-lasting impression. Designing a prompt completely on the fly could prove to be quite a daunting and time-consuming task – it’s best to have something that you can work with.

Avoid topics that can make you look bad and that have negative connotations – it’s a no-brainer. Even if you can write well about your drug use, colleges won’t want to have to deal with illegal activities and the consequences of substance abuse on campus. Equally, admins aren’t going to be thoroughly impressed by your active sex life – these things may seem interesting to your close circle of friends, but they won’t display much maturity and could provide a cringe-worthy piece of text. As previously mentioned, also avoid cliche topics that have been done time and time again, such as your travel journal or a dream sequence.

As a rule of thumb, put yourself in the readers’ shoes and consider how you’d feel if you were reading your essay. Writing can be therapeutic, but the CA essay needn’t be, so refrain from writing about uncomfortable topics that relate to traumatic times in your personal life as they’re likely to inspire discomfort in the reader. It will be difficult to write about such essay topics whilst also conveying a positive message.

Conclusion: Let Them See the Real You

So there you have it. Plenty of great examples and advice to get your CA essay on the move. It can’t be stressed enough that your essay needs to showcase YOU as a person. Meredith Lombardi, the Associate Director of the Common Application programme herself, has mentioned that the CA essay prompts are there to give all applicants the opportunity to share their ideas and voice with colleges all over, telling their unique story and helping bring it to life. You should take these words on board. The CA essay is certainly not a place to list your complex accomplishments, because the college application already gives you a space to do that, so don’t go on about it in the essay. In the same way, this is not the place to list excuses for your failing grades and any mishaps in your high school career!

Write with style and finesse, whilst also putting your identity, personality, interests, character, and aspirations out on display for all recipients to see. Make sure not to rush into it initially, spending plenty of time planning and formulating your ideas in order not to hit any sort of writer’s block. With the following examples and strategies, you’ll be at a key advantage and can be well on your way.

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