The Do’s and Don’ts for a Winning Common App Essay

Before prom, graduation, and other fun high school milestones, senior year begins with the rigorous college application season. As intimidating as it may feel, there’s no need to panic! After 3 years of test preparation, club meetings, and late night study sessions, your application is full of great achievements and potential. Now, the hard (but fun) part: it’s time to write your personal statement. Unfortunately, we cannot write it for you but we’ve provided some Do’s and Don’ts of personal writing for your common app that will help you make the most of those 650 words.


While this task may be referred to as a personal “essay” or personal “statement,” you are in fact writing a story. The admissions committee is looking for insight into your life, the way you think, and what is important to you. Make a list of experiences and events that are meaningful to you and map out what happened, why it matters, and how it affected your life. Once you have all your options listed in front of you, it will be easier for you to pick an appropriate topic that will showcase who you are.


This is a very common mistake that many applicants make because they feel like they need to emphasize how accomplished they are but please remember that all your achievements are already listed in the rest of your application. The personal statement is your one opportunity to let the admissions committee learn something new about you that isn’t an award you won or a class you took. By restating things already listed in your application, you may come off as one-dimensional or defined by achievements.


After years and years of writing literary analyses and persuasive essays, its unsurprising if you’ve learned to approach writing in a more analytical way and have developed a formal tone. Consider journaling the summer before senior year or throughout the college application process. This will help you become more comfortable with writing personal essays and telling compelling stories. If you think of this personal statement as a polished diary entry, you’ll be more aware of where to throw in a joke and how to be more casual while still being thoughtful and reflective. 


With the number of college applicants increasing every year, seniors are feeling more pressured than ever to stand out and sell themselves to an admissions committee instead of being genuine. When writing this essay, keep in mind that you don’t need some strange topic that no one’s ever written about nor do you need to convince the committee that you are a perfect model citizen. This essay is for you to tell admissions what you want them to know about you, not tell them what you think they want to hear. 


Now if you choose the last prompt of the Common Application questions, which is essentially no prompt, then this does not apply to you. However, if you choose one of the 6 other prompts, make sure your essay actually answers the question. Creating an outline before beginning writing will help you stay on track but it is very possible to go off on a tangent in the writing process. Losing focus will make it seem like you don’t care, haven’t put in 100% effort, and that you are, well, someone who loses focus. Remember to proofread, edit, and ask for others’ opinions to make sure your essay is on point.


There are probably a million sample essays online and in college prep books so you may be thinking, “Well, there’s so many out there! What are the odds my admissions committee is going to have read the one that I copy?” It’s definitely tempting to pass a stolen essay as your own (especially if the website reads “ESSAY OF NEW HARVARD ADMITTEE”) however dishonesty will get you nowhere but in trouble. If getting caught plagiarizing on campus leads to expulsion, ‘borrowing’ someone else’s essay will only get you a rejection. Believe in yourself! You’ve got a unique story to tell and don’t need to pretend to be someone else.

Hopefully these tips will help you get the ball rolling with brainstorming and writing! Here are some additional small things to remember throughout the process:

  • DO ask for feedback from friends, family, and counselors!
  • DON’T procrastinate and wait until the last minute to start.
  • DO proofread for typos and errors before submitting!
  • DON’T exceed the word limit.

With that, we wish you the best of luck in the college application process! You’ve got this. As always, leave a comment or shoot us an email if you want help with anything in the admissions process. We’re here to help!

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