By Elzė Amilevičiūtė
Published 2022 06 14
The Common Application (affectionately known as the Common App) is a college application platform used by the majority of US colleges. One of its most famous components is the essay – a 650-word self-exploration that goes out to all the schools you’re applying to (kind of like your business card for the offices of undergraduate admissions). This article will break down the entire process of writing a successful Common App essay – from choosing a well-fitting topic to sending in the finished product – with plenty of tips and tricks from the personal experiences of Atlas’s trusted mentors.
Before starting the actual writing process, you need to know what you’re writing about. Indeed, many would say that an appropriate topic choice can make or break your essay.
Why is the topic so important?
Well, this 650 word piece is the main one of the limited chances you have to show the admissions committee why you’re the perfect fit for their college. You don’t want to waste this opportunity, not even a single word. Your ideal essay should be focused and deliver a main message: “Look, this is me!” A clear and well-chosen topic is exactly what will help you guide your writing and keep the essay on track – instead of “my entire football career”, think more along the lines of “the football tournament in 6th grade and how it taught me teamwork”.
Where do I start then?
The main “requirement” for a successful topic – it has to be about you. Therefore, a good starting point is self-reflection. Ask yourself: what events, activities or accomplishments define me as a person? What do I want others to know about me? Chances are, you will come up with many potential topics – after all, people cannot be described by just one thing. Although you can only choose one for this main essay, fear not: you have the supplemental essays for most colleges waiting patiently for you. So keep this list of potential topics around – it may come in handy later.
Do you have more tips?
Certainly yes! First of all, you want to start the entire process early, trust me. Creative processes have a tendency to be unpredictable and the last thing you want to be doing a week before the deadline is having only half of your essay and a massive writer’s block. Also, avoid cliche topics: you want your essay to stand out in the sea of thousands. Imagine a conversation between 2 admissions officers discussing your essay: would you rather they refer to you as “the kid that wrote about debating” or “the kid that wrote about their near-death experience with a hamster” (not to say that debating essays are bad – they’re just way more common). And lastly, be as specific as possible. Nothing screams a memorable essay like a clear and descriptive story that can be easily retold in a sentence or a good extended metaphor, like maybe how your skincare routine perfectly describes how you tackle challenges in life.
Now that you have a list of potential topics, it is time to choose one and get to work. First drafts can be immensely easy for some and incredibly difficult for others – wherever you lie on that spectrum, my biggest advice is to get it done as soon as possible and get moving forward.
How do I know if my chosen topic is the right one?
There will be topics that will feel right: maybe they’ll evoke strong emotions and memories, or the writing will flow more smoothly, with more ideas coming to mind. Trust your gut and hang onto those topics, even if they initially didn’t seem like the primary candidates for your essay. After all, unexpected topic choice can also give you additional points in the originality department.
What should I focus on?
Let me be honest with you – your first draft won’t be perfect. Therefore, it is important to allocate your energy efficiently and set out a smaller, more manageable goal for the first try. My advice on what that could be would 100% be: structure. As I already mentioned, it is crucial for your essay to have a clear focus and not waste any of the precious 650 words on tangents and side-stories. Well, one thing to really bring out that focus is a good structure: having a clear introduction, body of the story and conclusion, with all parts coherently linked together.
I suddenly feel like I don’t know how to write anymore.
That’s normal, everyone will feel that way at least once in the process of writing their Common App essays. First drafts can be especially tough because you’re building something from scratch. Trusting the process and simply starting is key here – I promise you, it’ll get easier the deeper you get into it. One important note here: there is a distinction between struggling to write up a first draft and having nothing to say about your topic or feeling uncomfortable with it. In the case of the latter, it might probably be best to go back to your list of potential topics and try again with another one (trust the person who tried out at least 3 different topics before getting to what eventually became my essay).
Congratulations, your first draft is done, which means you’re officially about halfway through the process of writing your Common App essay! Now we’re entering the realm of, in my opinion, the most important part of the process – the editing.
I have the essay already – why am I only halfway?
Having only 650 words to get yourself into your dream school (well, that’s a bit exaggerated, but you get the point) puts a lot of pressure on each word to be perfect. Therefore, editing should take the bulk of the time you’re spending on your essay. While writing the first draft might be more of an intuitive process, editing on the other hand should be incredibly deliberate. Great practice to see whether what you wanted to say “translated well” into written words is getting a trusted person’s opinion. Parents, friends, strangers on the bus – the more the merrier. Just be sure to not lose yourself in the process, it is afterall your essay.
I’ve said all there is to say – what more do I add?
The important part when editing is remembering that it’s not only what you say that matters, it’s also how you say it. If the first draft’s focus was on a clear structure – the backbone – now it is time to decorate it. Think about a tone and style that would fit your personality and the topic. If you’re struggling to name those things, think about it in terms of telling a story to a friend or acquaintance: what would be the differences between you talking about the time you learnt to juggle versus your friend group drama versus your deep family trauma?
At this point it feels like I could recite my essay off by heart.
You’ve reached a stage that can be a little bit dangerous. You probably know your essay so well that, when reading over it, your brain doesn’t actually read anymore. If you continue trying to edit, you’re likely to stop catching errors and glance over some imperfections. I recommend taking a few steps back from the process – try to distract your brain into forgetting the essay. This break can take anywhere from a couple of hours to a couple of weeks, but trust me, give yourself some time, it might really help. (Do you now see why I urged you to start early?)
So there you have it, the entire process of writing an awesome essay, from A to Z. Choose a personal, specific and original topic to best reflect you as an applicant; write a well-structured first draft as soon as you can; and then come back to it many many times editing, refining your content and style to turn it into the best 650 words you’ve ever written.
Still unsure about the entire thing? Atlas Academy mentors have done it themselves and can certainly help you through it.
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