How to Answer the Common App Essay Prompts (2023-2024): The Updated Guide

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The Common Application (usually called the Common App) is a college admissions application accepted by over 700 colleges and universities.

Depending on the schools to which you are applying, the Common App can greatly streamline the admissions process.

For example, you could potentially apply to five schools by filling out only one application — and better yet, writing only one essay!

  • Of course, this makes the application and the essay extra important.
  • The Common App will impact your chances of getting into not just one school, but a variety of colleges and universities.

Luckily, the Common App prompts for 2023-2024 are the same as last year, so you can start preparing now.

In this article, we’ll take a look at each of the seven prompt choices and how you can effectively address them.

Some of these topics have been used in previous years, some are revised versions of previous prompts, and others are entirely new.

The word count for each topic remains at 650.

Here’s the full list of Common App essay prompts:

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.

Now that you know the Common App prompts, which topic should you choose, and how should you get started?

Choosing the Right Common App Prompt

As you read through the prompts, you should choose at least three favorites. For each of these three, you should brainstorm a few ideas. Ultimately, you’ll write an essay for the prompt that yields the best essay idea.

The “best idea” will be:

  • Interesting (something you genuinely want to write about).
  • A good representation of who you are and what you can bring to a college campus.
  • Something that will make you stand out from the thousands of other applicants; an idea that’s fairly unique.
  • Engaging, interesting, or thought-provoking.

Once you find an idea that meets these criteria, you’ll know which prompt you should write!

Now, let’s take a close look at each of the seven Common App prompts to give you some guidance and inspiration.

Common App Prompt 1: Background, Identity, Interest, or Talent

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.

This prompt has long been a Common App favorite, largely because it offers students a great deal of flexibility.

The possibilities for this essay are nearly endless, but ensure that you focus on these keywords: “background, identity, interest or talent” that is extremely “meaningful” to them.

To address this essay effectively, you will need to identify what part of your “background, identity, interest, or talent” is important to you, as well as explaining what makes it so meaningful.

How has it shaped your life or personality?

Consider the following questions:

  • What life experiences, interests, or achievements do I have that set me apart from my peers?
  • What have I achieved or experienced that has influenced my life or shaped me into the person I am?
  • What experiences or interests have shaped my career ambitions, personality, or values?
  • What background, identity, interest, or talent is an essential part of who I am?
  • What do I want admissions officers to know about me that isn’t already on my application?

Answering questions like these can help you decide on a topic for Common App Prompt #1.

This wide-open prompt gives you a chance to address interesting life experiences, a unique family dynamic, interests or talents that have inspired you, etc.

Remember that you only have 650 words, so get specific.

For instance, instead of a vague essay about your love of music, you could write about how attending your first concert inspired you to make music yourself, so you’re now self-taught on several different instruments.

  • It’s also critical to write about how your background or identity has changed, challenged, or motivated you.
  • Don’t simply write about the background without any personal context.
  • For example, if you are writing about your Indian-American heritage, don’t write too much about the heritage itself. There are thousands of other Indian-American students applying to college the same time as you, so you want to stand out.
  • In order to stand out, try to tell a story that features a conflict stemming from your identity, interest, background, or talent.
  • Did you face a challenge and grow from it? What lessons did you learn?
  • Your identity, interest, background, or talent will not help you stand out. It’s your personal story in relation to one of these elements that will help you stand out.

Common App Prompt 2: Learning from Challenges, Setbacks, and Failures

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 has three parts, and an effective essay must address all of them.

First, you must talk about a challenge, setback, or failure you’ve experienced. Next, you must explain how it impacted you and what you learned as a result.

  • It’s best to write a positive essay that focuses less on the problem and more on the solution.

So you can spend some time describing the challenge, setback, or failure, but the majority of the essay should focus on how you overcame it and what you learned.

Your response to the situation should demonstrate positive qualities like persistence, resilience, courage, integrity, humility, etc.

Questions for you to consider include:

  • Do I respond well to challenges and obstacles? Do I keep trying, maintain a positive attitude, etc.? What experiences have I had that demonstrate these qualities?
  • What have been the biggest challenges in my life? Did anything positive come from these experiences? What did I learn?
  • Are there any challenges or failures I’ve faced that made me a better or more successful person in the end?

You can address just about any challenge, big or small. You could write about growing up in poverty or being bullied because of a speech impediment.

Alternatively, you could write about something like missing a penalty kick that resulted in losing the district championship.

At the same time, stay away from topics that may seem overdone, like not earning an “A,” or a little silly, like not getting to go to a friend’s party.

  • Topics that call your judgment into question should also be avoided, as well as anything that points to illegal or illicit activity.

Remember that the focus of this essay should be on your ability to overcome hardships, see the silver lining, and learn important lessons.

  • Don’t fall into the “failure trap.” You might be tempted to write, at length, about your challenge or setback. Giving too much background info on your challenge will take the spotlight off you.
  • Remember to stay focused on growth, values, and lessons learned.
  • Think about how you’ve changed and how those changes will accompany you in college. How will these changes help you contribute to a college campus?

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We've helped thousands of students choose a career and guided them along it to success. Here is what our clients say about us:

"Transizion guided and advised my daughter through her essays for great schools, including NYU, UC Berkeley, USC, GW, and Northwestern. My daughter was independent throughout the process and really enjoyed all the feedback and guidance they gave her. They were always available to answer all of our questions rapidly. They made my life much easier especially since my daughter was a Canadian student and the whole application to US schools was very foreign to our family. I highly recommend Transizion for their professionalism and work ethics!"

Common App Prompt 3: Challenging Beliefs or Ideas

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

This prompt calls for a passionate essay about ideas, values, and beliefs. It’s particularly challenging because it can be hard to write a positive essay that doesn’t get overly preachy.

It can also be difficult to write about a belief or value in just 650 words.

  • Additionally, this prompt is a little risky because you want to avoid overly polarizing topics that may be off-putting to the admissions officer reading the essay.

Done well, however, an essay addressing this prompt can be insightful and demonstrate your ability to stand by your beliefs while still considering the ideas of others.

If you have a specific story to share that’s related to this topic, it can be a good choice.

You should brainstorm using the following questions:

  • Why are you someone who stands up for what you believe in?
  • When have you stood by an unpopular opinion or belief? Why?
  • What ideas, values, and beliefs deeply matter to you? Why?

Successful essays on this prompt have covered a wide range of topics.

  • One student wrote about challenging her parents’ old-fashioned beliefs about feminism, while another wrote about challenging her own self-doubt and insecurities.

Whether the essay focuses on a serious or minor idea or belief, it should be something you strongly believe in.

You should discuss how this belief has impacted your life, rather than preaching about why you’re right and others are wrong, etc.

It’s also good to demonstrate a willingness to consider other beliefs.

  • Don’t denigrate or insult other viewpoints. You’re young, and your perspectives will change as you grow older. You don’t want colleges thinking you’re close-minded.
  • Focus on the outcome. What impact did this challenge or endorsement of a belief have on your life and community?
  • Have a vision. How will this learning process change your actions moving forward?

Common App Prompt 4: 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?

This prompt gives you a chance to demonstrate how you view your past experiences, those you’ve met, and how you’re continuing to grow in the face of new challenges and problems.

It’s also very broad. It can be a large or small gesture that someone has done for you.

Questions for inspiration include:

  • What challenges have you faced in the past, and who has helped you deal with them? How did this person help you? Encouragement? Advice?
  • What is a meaningful problem you’ve faced in the past? Why did you need help with it? What made the situation so tough for you?
  • When have you already solved a problem or helped make a positive change? Who helped you when you were making that positive change?
  • What makes you want to take action and affect change? Who has inspired you to make change?
  • If you could change anything about the world, what would it be? How might you change it? Who would you ask for help?

Whatever you write about in response to this prompt, make sure it’s relevant to you on a personal level. You should quickly explain your problem or the predicament you were in and tell the reader who helped you out.

Ideally, the problem should be linked to your formative experiences, goals, or passions.

Spend no more than 25% of your essay explaining the background of your problem, who helped you, and how they helped you.

Then, spend the rest of your essay telling the reader what you learned and how you are going to apply this lesson to the future.

  • Tell us what you are going to do as a result of the gratitude you have for someone helping you out.
  • Or, better yet, explain what you have done to pay it forward.
  • Explain why it matters to you?

Colleges want to see that you are someone who appreciates help when it’s given to you and that you are someone who will improve from the experience. You want to tell a story that demonstrates how and why you are a better person for having been helped by another generous soul.

Spend 75% of your essay explaining how you’ve changed and what you have done or are going to do to better the world around you. Don’t get stuck in vaguery. Tell the admissions officer specific action steps you have taken or will take to improve your home or community.

Focus on how you can better the lives of others.

Common App Prompt 5: Accomplishment, Event, or Realization Leading to Personal Growth

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

An effective response to this prompt should briefly discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization. The majority of the essay should focus on how you learned and grew as a result.

The event described in this essay can be big or small, and sometimes the smaller events result in essays that are unique and surprising.

You could write about meeting an important person, having an influential volunteer experience, or learning something new while traveling or at camp this summer.

You may want to consider the following questions:

  • What experiences or moments in my life have changed me as a person?
  • What have I realized that has impacted my life and the way I live it?
  • When have I learned something so important that it made me change or grow?

Remember that the focus of this essay should be on some sort of transformation you have experienced, causing you to learn and grow as a person. The event, realization, or accomplishment described should have made you view the world in a different, more mature manner.

  • Have a vision. How will this realization change your actions moving forward?
  • What does your personal growth entail? It’s not enough to state you’ve grown — you must also show the college admissions officer how this growth has changed or will manifest into your actions.
  • Since your realization, how have you treated people differently, embarked on problem-solving adventures, or approach challenges?

Common App Prompt 6: An Engaging Topic, Idea, or Concept

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?

This topic is brand new, and it gives you a chance to show off your talent for self-directed learning.

It also helps admissions officers get to know what is important and intriguing to you.

  • If you choose to write this essay, make sure you write about something that truly excites you, and that this passion comes through in your essay.

To get started, you can think about the following:

  • What do you love? What truly excites you? Why?
  • When something interests you, how do you learn more? Do you go to the library, watch documentaries, talk to a mentor?
  • What makes learning about this topic so satisfying for you?
  • How much time and energy do you devote to the subjects that truly matter to you?

This essay should highlight one of your passions. It should also demonstrate that you enjoy independently exploring information about the ideas and subjects that intrigue you.

This essay should suggest a love of knowledge and new challenges.

As with other Common App prompts, the topic you choose to address can be large or small in scope.

  • You could focus on your love of dystopian literature or your obsession with learning about birds.
  • You could write about a fascination with other cultures or a passion for cooking.

As long as it’s something that interests you and that you learn more about independently, it’s fair game for this essay.

  • It’s important to demonstrate your curiosity in this essay.
  • How do you pursue your passions?
  • What is your work ethic like?
  • What’s the story behind your curiosity, and why is it so important to you?
  • How have you acted on this interest?

Get personalized advice!

We've helped thousands of students choose a career and guided them along it to success. Here is what our clients say about us:

"Transizion guided and advised my daughter through her essays for great schools, including NYU, UC Berkeley, USC, GW, and Northwestern. My daughter was independent throughout the process and really enjoyed all the feedback and guidance they gave her. They were always available to answer all of our questions rapidly. They made my life much easier especially since my daughter was a Canadian student and the whole application to US schools was very foreign to our family. I highly recommend Transizion for their professionalism and work ethics!"

Common App Prompt 7: Any Topic of Your 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.

The meaning of this essay prompt is pretty clear: Write about anything you want.This is both easy (because you don’t have to follow particular instructions and answer multiple question parts) and challenging (because it’s very broad, with no guidance offered).

If you have a pressing topic you would love to write about, and it isn’t covered by any of the other prompt options, then this is the perfect prompt choice.

In addition to the other questions we’ve mentioned here, you can consider:

  • What’s one thing admissions officers really need to know about you?
  • What’s important about you that can’t be found on your transcripts, extracurricular activities, or other application information?
  • Is there an experience you’ve had that admissions officers should know about in order to truly understand you?
  • What’s something you can bring to a college campus that other students probably can’t?

Some students feel that this type of essay prompt offers too much freedom. If that’s the case, you can choose one of the other prompts that offers more guidance.

But if there’s a specific experience or anecdote you would love to share, this prompt provides that opportunity.

Make sure that whatever you talk about, you’re able to relate it to who you are as a person.

The essay should still give admissions officers insight into how you can contribute to a college campus, and what sets you apart from other applicants.

Advice From an Expert

We asked Melissa Richards, vice president for communications and enrollment management at Sweet Briar College, on how to write the best Common App essay.

This is what she had to say:

Tell us a story — an engaging story that is meaningful to you and sheds light on your character, personality, interests, ambitions or resilience. Think through your story structure, just as you would if you were writing a fictional essay with you as the protagonist.

Has there been a compelling event or a goal that was meaningful for you? What challenges did you face, and most importantly, how did you triumph? Was there a moral or lesson that now fuels your passions to achieve great things?

Answering the Common App Essay Prompts

With the new Common Application essay topics, you can write about anything that’s meaningful to you.

  • If Prompts 1-6 don’t cover something that you really want to say, you can choose to address it with Prompt 7.

None of these topics are better than the others. You just need to choose the topic that can best represent who you are and what you will contribute to a college campus, giving admissions officers more insight into your personality and character.

For each of these prompts, make sure you answer all parts of the question, relate the topic to yourself, and follow the guidelines listed above.

Fundamental Tips for the Common App Essays

While different schools may put varying levels of emphasis on the essay, it is your one chance to truly stand out from the crowd.

The rest of your application will be filled with numbers: SAT scores, GPA, class rank, years spent in various extracurricular activities, hours of community service, etc.

Chances are that many students will have similar numbers, so a successful Common App essay is an opportunity to showcase a more complete picture of you and set you apart from applicants with similar qualifications.

Use the eight tips below to help you write the best college essay. Combine these tips with the advice I gave for each prompt above to write an excellent Common App essay.

1. Strive for uniqueness

College admissions officers read thousands of essays, so you want to find something different and memorable about which to write.

Have you mastered a rare skill? Emigrated from another country or learned multiple languages?

  • Started a charity, community service project, or school club? Volunteered in a foreign country?
  • Overcome a hardship?
  • Developed an unusual hobby or interest?
  • Participated in a unique family tradition?

Even if you answered “no,” to all of these questions, you can still present creative ideas and perspectives. For example, students have written successful essays on the following topics:

  • A love of crossword puzzles
  • A failed (and later passed) driving test
  • A favorite place, used as an extended metaphor for the student’s life
  • A mission to fold 1,000 origami cranes
  • A metaphor comparing the student’s college of choice to her favorite food: the hummus-tabouli wrap
  • A daily task: reading the morning announcements at school
  • Growing strawberries in a high school locker

Almost any unique topic, even one that’s seemingly insignificant, can lead to a strong Common App essay.

The essay simply needs to be well-written, and the topic should convey something about you or about your perspective on life.

2. Address the topic

Of course, it’s also important to ensure that your essay is on topic. Carefully read through the topic(s) to make sure you understand the question(s).

  • Most schools will provide multiple prompts, so choose the prompt that you can answer the most creatively while still remaining on topic.

If there are multiple parts to the question, be sure that all parts are addressed.

3. Take time to brainstorm and plan

Instead of settling on the first idea that comes to mind, try brainstorming at least 5-10 ideas for the prompt.

Write down any idea that comes to mind, no matter how silly, just to get the creative juices flowing.

Once a topic has been selected, it’s important to spend time carefully planning the essay. Consider the following:

  • What examples, details, or anecdotes will you include in your essay?
  • What will be the topic or focus of each paragraph?
  • What “hook” will you use in your introduction?
  • How will you conclude your essay?
  • Where can you include figurative language: similes, metaphors, or other creative uses of language?

Planning prior to writing the Common App essay creates a solid foundation for an organized, insightful, and ultimately successful essay.

4. Start writing your Common App essay right now

It’s normal for students to freeze up and get writer’s block when they sit down to write their essay.

Simply start writing, not pausing to edit or agonize over word choice and grammar.

  • The best way to avoid writer’s block is to freely get your ideas on the page.

Later, you can go back and carefully polish your work. However, now is the time to worry about what you want to say instead of exactly how to say it.

5. Begin with an engaging “hook”

If you can immediately think of an engaging hook for your essay, that’s great.

If not, you can go back after writing your rough draft and try to find the perfect catchy beginning for your essay.

A “hook” is something that immediately grabs the reader and makes them want to continue reading.

  • College admissions officers read many, many essays that begin with something like, “I have always loved…” or, “I have always wanted to…” or, “An experience that has shaped my life is…”

A better way to begin the essay is by using an anecdote that paints a vivid picture.

For example, if you are writing about your experience on the track team, you could start with something like, “As I waited for the sound of the starter pistol, the seconds felt infinite.”

Other possibilities include beginning with a surprising statement, asking an intriguing question, or starting with a short sentence that leaves the reader wanting to know more.

6. Show, don’t tell

You’ve probably heard this writing advice before, and it certainly holds true for college essays.

  • Keep in mind that an effective Common App essay is intended to be personal and creative. It’s not a formal academic essay.

With that in mind, use vivid imagery, specific details, and engaging anecdotes to illustrate your points.

  • Instead of telling the admissions officer that you love reading, provide memorable details, like the fact that you can’t even see a cereal box without reading the packaging.

While trying to include plenty of details, also make sure that you explain or analyze each anecdote, clarifying what this says about you as a person (and as a candidate for admission).

7. Let personality and voice shine through

A strong college essay should allow the admissions officer to almost “hear” you speaking as they read.

This doesn’t mean that you should use slang, but it does mean avoiding the excessive use of fancy vocabulary.

If you use high-level vocabulary in everyday life, that’s fine, but don’t push yourself to use a thesaurus or litter the essay with five-syllable words.

  • It’s obvious to an admissions committee when a student is trying too hard, and it makes the essay sound stiff and stilted. (This doesn’t mean not to use any high-level vocabulary at all; just don’t overdo it.)

Be creative or quirky; write as if you’re talking to a favorite relative or teacher, and even use humor when appropriate. You want the admissions officer to read the essay and think, “I’d like to meet this kid.”

Get personalized advice!

We've helped thousands of students choose a career and guided them along it to success. Here is what our clients say about us:

"Transizion guided and advised my daughter through her essays for great schools, including NYU, UC Berkeley, USC, GW, and Northwestern. My daughter was independent throughout the process and really enjoyed all the feedback and guidance they gave her. They were always available to answer all of our questions rapidly. They made my life much easier especially since my daughter was a Canadian student and the whole application to US schools was very foreign to our family. I highly recommend Transizion for their professionalism and work ethics!"

8. Proofread multiple times

Nothing kills a great essay like glaring mistakes in spelling, grammar, and word usage.

Read over your Common App essay, and get a few other sets of eyes on it as well.

  • Show the essay to your English teacher, a friend or relative who’s a skilled writer, the valedictorian of your class, or anyone else that you trust to help find and correct errors.

Aside from language conventions, here are a few other things for which to look:

  • Is your essay well-organized, with transitions smoothly and logically connecting ideas?
  • Does the essay clearly answer the topic or prompt?
  • Do you provide analysis, explaining the significance of your examples, details, and anecdotes?
  • Does the essay “sound” like you and reflect your personality?
  • Does it include a hook that grabs you from the start?
  • Are sentences varied in structure, with a good mix of both short and long sentences?
  • Does the essay end on a powerful and/or memorable note?
  • Is there anything in the essay that seems out of place or off topic?
  • Is the meaning clear?
  • Are any sentences worded awkwardly and in need of revision?

A college essay must be a clear, insightful, and engaging read.

If you follow these eight tips, you are sure to write a stellar and successful college essay.

How to Use Specific Details in Your Common App Essay (Examples Included)

Use your words wisely.

There are a variety of words and phrases that are almost never appropriate to use when you are aiming to be specific.

The worst culprits from this group are “thing” and “stuff.” These two words convey little to no meaning and should definitely be avoided.

Let’s look at two examples:

Example 1: When I traveled abroad I learned many things and saw a lot of cool stuff.

Example 2: When I traveled abroad to Egypt with AFS, my worldview changed significantly. For the first time, I understood what it felt like to be an outsider and not understand the language and customs around me. This experience taught me to ask questions when I felt confused such as when I saw people taking off their shoes before entering their home.

In the first example, the only information the reader learns about you is that you traveled abroad and enjoyed it.

That’s great, but not specific enough for a committee to want you to offer you money to go to school.

  • Conversely, in the second example we learn where you traveled, how you were changed by your experience, a realization you had while abroad, and how you adjusted to a difficult situation.

This is not only more detailed, but it provides your reader with an understanding of what you are passionate about, and how you overcome obstacles (hint: this also clues your reader in on what you might be like as a college student).

Other words and phrases to use cautiously include: “kind of,” “like,” “sort of,” “about,” “whatever,” “whenever,” “something,” “very,” and “basically.”

Examples of Detailed Sentences in College Essays

A student’s love of engineering:

It’s also about being part of the community.  I am interested in activities like the Formula Sae racing and ChemE Car that would allow me to apply my engineering knowledge outside of the classroom.

A student ending her essay that discussed his love for theatre:

Once provoked, any person, even the most hard working and guileless among us, can fall victim to the horrors of violence. As the old conundrum goes, “Does art model life, or does life model art?”

A student writes about his love for current events and politics:

I fostered my love of international affairs and history at a very young age listening to the adventures of a fictional character named Dirk Pitt.  These novels, all of which would begin by describing a global historical event, had me hooked on these disciplines by the age of seven.  As I matured, so did my hunger for history and politics.  I began to love to debate political policy with my teachers.  I would listen to right wing radio with my father, as well as watch CNN with my mother.  This bipartisan upbringing allowed me to foster well informed opinions concerning the way in which our nation was lead.

Another student admits his financial predicament:

My dad is disabled and receives Social Security Disability for me and our family.  Furthermore the Social Security that my family receives on my behalf will expire upon my graduation.  I also receive New York State Child Health Plus Health Insurance which terminates when I leave to go to school, placing further financial burden upon my family.

A student writes about his ability to survive and grow from adversity:

There may be candidates with more decorated applications with sundry extracurricular activities, but my extracurricular activity is survival. I truly believe I can accomplish greatness because I have been pushed down so many times that it is now my nature to force myself up, no matter how broken, and continue onward.

A student talks about her love for a particular field and a professor who teaches in it:

Professor Phillips has a tremendous reputation in the fields of both law and business, and I am greatly interested in the confluences of these fields. Personally, I want to study economics and international relations while assuming a third major in one of the sciences. Science and technology are the basis of many new markets in the business world, and exploring a new product in this field requires scientific, legal, and economic understanding.

Another student describing the international political situation from several years ago:

Russia could breach Georgia truce, top US official warns. Moscou souffle le chaud et le froid sur Kiev. China recalls milk powder amid health scandal: diplomatic source. Chine-Un lait au goût amer pour les autorités locales. These are a few of the titles of news articles that I saw on my daily raiding of Google News, a daily tradition that I have been practicing for the last three years.

How to Use the Right Tone in Your Common App Essay

Tone is what you communicate through the words and phrases you choose in your personal essay.

In speaking, we may change our tone by varying pitch or emphasis to communicate our feelings. In writing, we don’t have those tools, so we have to be very careful with our word choice.

Tone is not what you say, but how you say it.

No matter what your topic, you want to communicate through your tone that you are:

  •      Intelligent
  •      Honest
  •      Genuine
  •      Thoughtful
  •      Reflective
  •      Respectful

Depending on the specific subject, you may want to add other qualities to this list, but the ones above should be a part of every single personal essay written.

Here are a few simple ideas for getting your tone right:

Idea 1: Developing a Genuine Tone

Here is an example of a personal essay’s tone that sends the wrong message:

“On my service trip to Costa Rica, interacting with local families made me realize how bad other people’s lives can be and how lucky I am.”

So what’s wrong with this?

To test, ask yourself this question: what assumptions can I make about this person? First of all, the writer is very judgmental, which we can see when she identifies others’ lives as “bad.”

  • Maybe she meant to discuss a level of poverty, education, or access, but none of that is clear.

The blanket statement “bad” is a flat-out judgment of someone’s character or situation, and is inappropriate for an essay.

Furthermore, this sentence doesn’t show that this writer is very genuine. She mentions being “lucky,” but again, we’re not quite sure what that means.

A college admissions officer might easily interpret this statement as saying “I sure am glad I’m rich, because my life doesn’t suck as much as most other people’s lives.”

  • The author of this sentence has gone to Costa Rica and learned nothing about herself or others.

Let’s rewrite the sentence with a tone that communicates qualities more flattering to the writer:

“Through working on service projects with local families, my trip to Costa Rica taught me the value of helping others through understanding and working to improve their circumstances.”

Better, right? This excerpt shows no value judgment about the lives of others. The writer keeps the focus on herself and shows a genuine understanding of her subject.

Additionally, she shows herself to be helpful, dedicated, and selfless. Focused on action and reflection, this sentence has movement and depth.

Again, this issue of tone is all in the wording.

Idea 2: Practicing Selection of Detail

Here an applicant has written:

“My position as captain of the lacrosse team allowed me, the highest scorer, to lead our team to the state championships.”

Often, tone is a matter of detail selection. In this case, the author is focusing on the wrong details for the message he wants to send. It’s clear he wants to communicate that he is a talented leader.

However, he is undermining the leadership aspect by also adding the detail of being the “highest scorer.” Serving as team captain is all about leadership through teamwork.

  • This author is implying that he single-handedly led a team to state championships because he’s that good.

Any admissions officer will see this sentence as needless bragging.

At its worst, this sentence does not show any sense of what it means to be a captain.

Try this instead:

“My position as captain of the lacrosse team showed me how determination and perseverance could lead our team to the state championships.”

In this sentence, the focus isn’t all on the writer, but it’s also clear that he understands what a leadership position requires.

Importantly, he shows that a team sport is about the team, not about the person, while also emphasizing his critical role.

Idea 3: Communicating What You Learned

You want to show the college admissions officer that you’re a reflective applicant who can learn from diverse situations and people.

After all, that’s part of what the college experience is all about. However, the tone matters in the way you deliver that information.

Consider this sentence:

“Visiting my grandfather in a Florida retirement community taught me how to be a better person and truly understand the world.”

An admissions officer reading this sentence will have the same questions as anyone else:

  • Really? How? In other words, there’s no clear connection between the visit and the understanding.
  • In addition, this author does not sound genuine. Does anyone think that a college applicant “truly understands the world”? If so, there would be no need for college!

While reflecting on an experience, your tone should also make you sound genuine and honest. Try this:

“Visiting my grandfather always reminds me of the value of storytelling, as his personal history gives me insight into the depth of his character.”

In this version, the author avoids exaggeration and gives a clear sense of what she has learned: the value of storytelling.

There is a clear connection between what her grandfather does (he tells personal stories) and the effect (she understands depth of character through stories).

These are all great qualities to have, but only through proper word choice is the message clearly communicated.

Take Time to Plan: A Strong Tone Takes Time to Develop

Remember that your college essay is an opportunity to present the best aspects of your character.

It can show a college the insight, care, and depth of understanding of which you’re capable.

Without the right tone, you risk giving the wrong impression, or missing a major opportunity to get a college interested in you.

Get Started ASAP: Here’s Why

If you are a college-bound student, you know about the key components of a college application: GPA, test scores, extracurricular activities, and the college essay.

Many students spend the majority of their time focused on the first three items on the list and leave the final item—the college essay—until a couple of weeks before applications are due.

  • This is a mistake that you should avoid. One of the most important tips for crafting an excellent college essay is to start preparing early, preferably the spring or summer before senior year.

So if you’re wondering when you should get started on that essay, the answer is right now, and here are 10 reasons why.

1. Avoid exhaustion or burnout later

Once senior year is underway and application deadlines are looming, you will have a lot on your plate: regular schoolwork, filling out college and scholarship applications, possibly taking the SATs and/or ACTs, participating in extracurricular activities, and more.

You don’t want to add the college essay to the already overwhelming demands of senior year.

  • Trying to write the essay while juggling multiple other commitments may result in a rushed, distracted, or poorly written final product.

It’s better to write the essay in the summer or the very beginning of the school year when your mind is still fresh and you can devote the appropriate amount of time and attention to your writing.

Most colleges release applications over the summer, so it’s possible for you to start writing as soon as college essay topics are available.

2. Essays are often the “tip factor”

While some people think that the college essay isn’t important in the grand scheme of the application process, an essay can actually be the “tip factor” that gets you into a prestigious school.

  • When students have comparable numbers (class rank, GPA, test scores, community service hours), the essay can set one candidate apart from the rest.
  • A great college essay can push you into the “Yes” category, while a poor one can, unfortunately, do the opposite.

Essays are a particularly important factor at the more prestigious and selective schools.

In fact, a study from Harvard University found that while most colleges do initial cuts based on academic merit, the majority of “elite colleges and universities” first cut students based on “institutional fit,” including recommendation letters and student essays.

Why? At the most elite colleges, the majority of applicants have substantial academic merit, so that can be weighed later in the application review process.

  • Initially, however, these schools want to create a class that is a great fit for the school, and closely evaluating the essay is one way to do so.

If you want to be admitted to top-quality colleges or universities, it’s crucial that you don’t minimize the importance of the essay or procrastinate. The earlier you start writing, the better!

3. Many scholarships also require essays

Scholarships also typically require an essay or personal statement, so a well-written essay can help offset the consistently rising costs of a college education as well.

According to the College Board, just one year of tuition for a state resident attending a public college is up to $9,650.

  • For out-of-state residents, this number climbs to $24,930, and it jumps to $33,480 for private colleges.

Those numbers represent just one year out of four (or more!), and they don’t even include room and board, textbooks, or other expenses.

For this reason, scholarship money is becoming more important than ever before, and a carefully planned essay can help you earn as much award money as possible.

With both admissions to prestigious institutions and scholarship money on the line, the college essay is a high-stakes piece of writing that should receive plenty of careful, thoughtful consideration and time.

4. Prepare to apply early decision

If you are planning to apply early decision, it’s even more important to get a head start on writing the essay.

Applying early decision means that you are absolutely certain about the school you want to attend, and you are willing to commit to withdrawing all other applications if accepted to this dream school.

  • Most early application deadlines are November 1st, and students typically hear back as early as mid-December.

One benefit of applying early decision is that it can substantially increase your chances of being accepted.

  • For example, Princeton’s early acceptance rate in 2013 was 18.3%, while the regular acceptance rate was just 5.44%. Other Ivy League schools report similar numbers.

If you’re certain a particular school is “the one” and want to boost your chances of admission, applying early decision is an excellent choice, and submitting a high-quality college essay is critical.

With a November 1st deadline, it’s especially important for students applying early decision to begin brainstorming, planning, and writing their college essay as early as possible.

5. Prevent writer’s block

We’ve all experienced writer’s block before: sitting down to write and staring blankly at a blinking cursor or a white sheet of paper. Without the pressure of a deadline, writer’s block isn’t a big deal.

However, if it’s for something as important as acceptance to colleges, a lengthy battle with writer’s block can be disastrous.

Writer’s Digest and SmartBlogger suggest the following techniques to combat writer’s block:

  • Step away from your writing and do anything creative, including painting, scrapbooking, or building something for a few hours or days.
  • Freewrite for 15 minutes a day.
  • Dance, meditate, or practice yoga.
  • Go on a short trip.
  • Read books or magazines for inspiration.

These are nice ideas, but do you notice something they all have in common? They all require time. And if you’re on a very tight deadline, that’s something you just won’t have

Trying to do yoga, taking a trip, or painting when the essay is due in a matter of weeks, or even days, will probably just result in more stress, anxiety, and writer’s block.

If you start early, however, you’ll have time to relax, go for walks, read, and simply let your ideas and words marinate without feeling rushed.

Ultimately, this will result in a much better essay and a greater chance of earning scholarship money and acceptance letters.

6. Brainstorming, planning, writing, editing, and revising

Any piece of writing should go through a multi-step process, but this is especially true for a significant piece of writing like the college essay.

First, you should reflect and brainstorm.

  • Writing about yourself isn’t easy, and it’s not something most of us do on a regular basis, so you may need some time to reflect on yourself and your experiences in order to come up with the perfect topic.

It’s best if you don’t settle on the first topic that pops into your head. Instead, you should spend time brainstorming and outlining several possible topics to find the one that will generate the best essay.

For many students, it’s helpful to spend a week or so simply reflecting and thinking about a topic for the essay before diving into the actual writing.

Of course, this isn’t possible if you wait too long to start writing.

After you have settled on a topic, planning is also essential. You should map out your main points, as well as the examples, evidence, or anecdotes you’ll include to illustrate them.

  • You may also want to plan an excellent “hook” or “grabber” to start your essay, as well as an insightful conclusion. This process, too, can take some time.

Finally, it’s time to get to the writing stage. Of course, this won’t be accomplished in just one draft.

  • For most writers, it’s helpful to write a “rough draft,” where words and ideas are simply spilled onto the page without worrying too much about grammar and word choice.

After you have determined what you want to say, you can go back and polish how you said it.

  • This includes paying close attention to word choice, spelling, punctuation, and grammar. You should also ensure that you vary sentence structure, your essay is well organized, and your points are expressed clearly and concisely.

Once you revise and edit, you still aren’t done.

You’ll also want to have the essay looked at by several other people to ensure that it’s top-notch. Read the essay aloud to verify that everything sounds good and that your voice and personality shine through.

Your parent can also proofread the essay (although we don’t always recommend this).

  • Recruit other friends or relatives who are skilled writers, or even ask your English teacher to take a look.

As the application deadline approaches, your teacher will likely be inundated with requests for letters of recommendation or essay proofreading, so it’s best to ask early in the school year.

If this process sounds time-consuming, that’s because it is!

You may think you can write a stellar essay in a couple of hours, but a truly impressive essay requires brainstorming, planning, writing, revising, editing, and review by others.

Each step can take days or even weeks, so an early start is essential!

7. Writing right now means more time later

It’s no secret that applying to colleges is a stressful experience. Students must pick colleges that are the right fit, fill out applications for schools and scholarships, and ensure that all components of the application are in order.

They also have to juggle a variety of deadlines and commitments.

  • In a “Stress in America” study by the American Psychological Institution, it was reported that teens aged 13-17 are actually more stressed than adults, often at dangerous levels.
  • These teenagers also report that stress negatively impacts their performance at home, work, and school.

Reducing your stress during your hectic senior year will benefit your overall mental and physical health, as well as your ability to continue performing well in school.

Writing the essay early is a great way to help lower your stress levels.

  • Getting the essay completed over the summer, before all of these anxiety-inducing deadlines and requirements start piling on, can be a huge relief.

While other students are agonizing over last-minute essays, you can rest assured that your impressive essay was completed weeks or even months ago.

You will feel confident knowing that you spent plenty of time on your essay and were able to produce a high-quality final product.

This will also allow you to spend more time experiencing and enjoying your final year of high school—and possibly your final year living under your parents’ roof — instead of constantly stressing about college and the future.

8. Stick to the word limit

College essays typically have word limits and these word limits tend to be a bit restrictive.

After all, admissions officers must read hundreds or thousands of essays, so limiting the length of these essays makes sense.

Many high school seniors write a great essay, check the word count, and realize that they’ll need to cut hundreds of words.

These students then struggle to strip the essay down to the essentials.

When you’ve written something you’re proud of, it’s very difficult to delete your carefully crafted words and sentences.

  • It’s also difficult to know which words are necessities and which your essay can do without. For this reason, cutting an essay down to the word limit can be yet another time-consuming process.

You don’t want to wait until the last minute, realize the essay is far too long, and then panic as you try to meet the word count.

  • Selecting the non-essential pieces of an essay should be done thoughtfully. If you rush, you may end up butchering it as you try to cut it down to size.

On the other hand, writing the college essay early allows you plenty of time to play with the word count, ensuring that size requirements are met without compromising the quality of the essay.

9. Attend workshops or seek help from a college essay consultant

Even for the most brilliant students, writing isn’t always a strong suit.

Fortunately, there are opportunities available that can help struggling writers, or even great writers who just need a little extra inspiration.

  • Transizion offers an intensive, expert-taught college admissions essay writing boot camp.
  • It features a 100% success rate and a 100% guarantee. Reserve your seat before time runs out.
  • This boot camp will put you in the best position to succeed.

You can also attend college essay workshops. If you opt to go to a college essay workshop, it’s most helpful to attend with either a completed essay or a solid outline.

This way, you can receive specific feedback and guidance to polish the essay to perfection.

  • Transizion’s boot camp allows you to send your instructors drafts of your college essays, so make sure to take advantage of this as early as possible!

Writing the essay right now can allow you to take full advantage of any essay workshops you’re able to attend.

If you decide to hire a college essay consultant, keep in mind that these professionals are often booked solid once application season draws near.

To ensure that you’re able to make use of such specialists, you’ll need to get an early start on your college essay.

10. Avoid any last-minute disasters on the essay

Imagine that you put the final touches on your college application, which is due tomorrow, and you are just getting ready to submit everything when your computer crashes.

You finally get the computer up and running again, but your college essay is nowhere to be found.

  • This may sound unlikely, but it’s certainly happened before, and you don’t want it to happen to you.
  • Writing the essay early can allow a “cushion” in case the unexpected occurs.

Additional circumstances could include a family emergency, forgotten application passwords, or other technological glitches.

  • In 2013, for example, problems with the Common Application caused mass panic among high school seniors.
  • Students were unable to log in, couldn’t submit forms, or even had entire essays deleted.

You want to avoid the possibility of anxiety, panic, or even missed admissions opportunities if emergencies like these occur.

If you finish the essay several weeks early, and something unfortunate were to happen, there would be plenty of time remaining to still salvage a solid college essay.

If you waited until the last minute, however, these circumstances would be beyond your control, and a life-changing opportunity could be missed.

Conclusion: Writing Your Common Application Essay

We know that you want to have the greatest possible chance of success in life, and that can mean securing admission to a quality college or university.

Writing the essay early will help you avoid stress and burnout, allow enough time to write a high-quality paper, and provide some “cushion” in the case of writer’s block, a word limit disaster, or other emergencies.

Submit an impressive, standout application by preparing for the college essay right now.

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