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4 Steps to Write Common Application Essays 2021-2022

4 Steps to Write Common Application Essays 2023-2024

Master the common application essays with Aralia’s detailed step-by-step guide! Today, we will provide suggestions and advice on how to write an impactful essay that will capture the admission officer’s attention.

This year, The Common Application released a new prompt in the list (Prompt 4). The rest of the prompts remained unchanged for this application cycle. So, let’s dive right in and look at the prompts for this year:

  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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. 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? 
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  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?
  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.

In this article, we will discuss the general strategy and approach to Common App essays. We go into details about writing each prompt in the next article. With a word limit of only 650 words (which is around 1.3 pages single spaced or 2.6 pages double spaced), students will have to consider every detail and word choice to make their essay unique.

There are 4 main steps when it comes to writing common app essays: Brainstorming, Freewriting, Writing, and Review.

1. Brainstorming for the Common Application Essays

When it comes to brainstorming, you can either do general brainstorming without finalizing a prompt, or brainstorm ideas for each prompt. Depending on personal preferences, you can choose to use the first or second approach.

If you decide to go on the first approach, we recommend not reading the prompts before developing your idea. A helpful way to brainstorm is to write down your answers to these four questions:

  • Who are you? This question will help you have insights into your personality and your background.
  • How did You become You? This question targets your journey of how you developed into the person you are today.
  • What is unique about you? This dives deeper into your personal experiences and helps you identify why you are unique. Unique traits are the combination of your personality, your experience, your thinking process, and your areas of interest. This is the hardest and the most challenging question for many students.
  • What do you care about? This question helps you narrow down your areas of interest and expertise to give you an edge in writing the common app essay.

Once you answer these questions, you will likely notice common themes/aspects in what you wrote. Let’s read this example to understand how you can better brainstorm for your common app essays.

  • Who are you: I am a first-generation minority student who grew up in a small town, and my point of view is heavily influenced by family religious expectations to get married when I turn 18. However, I know the world is so much bigger than I can imagine. I want to spread my wings and start this amazing venture of life after high school.
  • How did you become you: Everything was supposed to be planned out for me, since I started to be aware of my surroundings. After I had the chance to talk with exchange students from Australia attending my school, I couldn’t imagine how people have such different opinions and perspectives despite being the same age as me. I desire to understand what has influenced their thoughts and behavior.
  • What is unique about you: I have the fortune to realize my interest in psychology from a young age, through the conversations I have with different people. I enjoy talking with people and I unconsciously adjust my speaking style and my conversations depending on who I talk with.
  • Who do you care about the most: I’m fascinated by Psychological issues and I have worked toward exploring more about the areas through internships, independent research and local initiatives.

From these answers, you can see that this student is interested in psychology – the study of human behavior due to her exposure to international perspectives. In the essay, this student can dive deeper into how her family’s religious expectations have shaped her point of view, and how these views hinder her from developing as an independent person. She can also describe the topic of psychology she is the most interested in and how she wants to learn more about it. Once you actually write it down, you will be able to organize and visualize your thought process to develop a strong common app essay.

If you decide to go with the second approach, which is brainstorming for each prompt or for the prompt that you are most interested in…

A common brainstorming strategy we suggest to students who are going with this approach is to draw a mind map of 5 questions: Why, What, How, When, Where?

Let’s tackle one example prompt to give you a detailed idea of the brainstorming process!

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.

For example: I am a first-generation Asian student who is interested in Psychology.

  • Why – Why are you fascinated by Psychology: I’m fascinated with Psychology because being brought up in a traditional Asian family in the American environment, I’ve never seen my parents show affection to me like the parents of my peers do. I want to understand why they act that way instead of always comparing my parents to American parents.
  • What – What challenges have you faced so far during your life? My parents were against the idea of me going into Psychology because they wanted me to study a more practical and prestigious major like Computer Science, Nursing, Engineering, Pharmacy, or focus on a Pre-Med or Pre-Law track. I understand their concerns because I am the first person in my family to be attending college. However, I want to persuade them and let them understand my interests.
  • How – How did you dive deeper into your interests: When I started to become interested in the subject, I took Psychology classes in school and reached out to a local college hoping to do more research to explore which aspects of Psychology I want to further my education in.
  • Where – Where do you think you will be in 5 years? In 5 years, I want to gain more knowledge about psychology through doing more research about parental psychology and developmental psychology.

You can dive deeper and ask yourself more than 5 questions based on the initial answers, to truly discover what’s unique about you and why you should include this background, identity, interest, or talent in the common app application. If you are stuck, it’s helpful to ask your friends or family members and bounce ideas off of them to see their opinions.

2. Freewriting

Freewriting is probably the most fun part of this essay writing process, because you can write about anything and literally everything that you want. Don’t try to fancify or polish your words to present yourself in a certain way. Freewriting is a process that helps you become comfortable with writing down whatever idea that comes to mind.

For the freewriting process, we strongly recommend you use a notebook instead of a laptop to write. Edouard Gentaz, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Geneva said “Handwriting is a complex task which requires various skills – feeling the pen and paper, moving the writing implement, and directing movement by thought.” Furthermore, Masterclass noted that “writing longhand notes gives you the graphic freedom to easily sketch an infographic, word web, or another non-traditional layout to put your thoughts down and visualize connections.” Since handwriting has no delete button, it helps the writer see what they are unsure of and work on discovering that uncertainty.

Another tip for freewriting is that you don’t have to spend 5+ hours sitting down while trying to come up with something beneficial to put in your essay. With freewriting, you can spend only 10 to 30 minutes per day writing whatever you want. With the low time commitment, you won’t be pressured to write something outstanding or something unique when you first start. Another low-time commitment method is to write something in only 10 minutes. During those 10 minutes, you can flush out any ideas you have in mind and keep writing until the timer alerts you. Before sitting down and writing, you should think about what you want to write about. Examples can be: What I love, Who am I, What are some obstacles in my way, etc.

After you finish writing, refrain from reading it again and trying to edit. Since this is just a rough draft of ideas, editing will require a lot of time and effort. Give yourself a week of doing this freewriting activity every day, then go back and check for the main events and event progression that you can consider using in your final essay.

College Application Essay Bootcamp
3. Write

After you finish the freewriting process, it’s now time to organize your ideas and combine them into one essay. Once you finalize your main ideas, you can start finding the prompt that resonates the most with you, or that feels most suitable for the ideas you are developing. We have provided the 7 essay prompts above, or you can click here to check them out.

Before writing your essay, there are several tips we want to provide you:

  • Don’t try to squeeze everything into 650 words

It’s nearly impossible to tell the admission officer your entire life story in 650 words or less. If you decide to do so, you will spread yourself too thin and leave no significant impression. Writing 650 words essay is like networking. Your main goal is to create a memorable first impression for the other person. Therefore, you want to tell enough to express your personality, while invoking curiosity so they want to keep in contact and get to know you more. So, with 650 words, we suggest finding a story or a significant event that is meaningful to you and is representative of your identity, personal development, your unique attributes, and your topic of interest.

  • Show, don’t tell

Show, don’t tell is probably the most common advice when it comes to writing, especially with narrative and descriptive essays like the common app. Show, don’t tell is a writing technique showing illustrations of the story and character, rather than stating the fact. Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.” This method of writing allows the reader to be immersed into the story and feel that they are actually in the room with the character while everything is happening.

This is an example from Reedsy Blog:

Showing: As his mother switched off the light and left the room, Michael tensed. He huddled under the covers, gripped the sheets, and held his breath as the wind brushed past the curtain

Telling: Michael was terribly afraid of the dark.

  • Make everything about you

Sometimes, students can focus too much on writing about a specific event and what happened and get lost in clarifying their emotions and struggles. In that situation, we suggest that you should make everything about you. Yes, you can discuss the event and how it is influential to you. However, remember to dive deeply into your emotions, and write with enough details to help the reader visualize an image about you. Once you finish writing your first draft, pretend like you are the admission officer who will be evaluating your essay. Then, write down what points about you stand out throughout the essay. This test will help you know how effective your essay is in delivering your personality and your growth.

4. Review

The last and final step before submitting your common app essay is reviewing. Before sending the essay to other people, you should do a two-level review: a big picture review and a detailed review. The big picture review is to make sure you can find your main point and purpose, in other words, what you are trying to say in the essay. Once you are confident the flow and main points are expressed, move onto a detailed review. The detailed review checks for mistakes in grammar and usage; any problems with grammar, punctuation, or spelling should be identified here. Your essay content doesn’t need to be Shakespeare level but at least should be coherent and free of grammatical errors.

After the self-review, you can now send your essay to get feedback. It’s critical that you show this essay to someone with expertise that you trust, because they will offer important feedback and advice. You should send the essay to two people — someone who is an expert in writing and someone who knows you very well. You should not send your essay to too many people. Even though more feedback is always appreciated, people normally have different writing styles. Therefore, your voice and authentic self can be lost during the feedback process if you make too many changes to the essay based on differing feedback from many people.

These are the four critical steps that will help you significantly in the personal statement writing process. Depending on the time constraints, you may need to speed up one or two steps, but remember to follow through with every single one to make sure your college essay is strong and outstanding. We hope your personality and ambitions will shine brightly through your essay. Good luck with your essay!


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