The article image
On Writing a Compelling Common App Essay
Aman Majmudar
University of Chicago 2024

A convincing Common App essay reveals your personality and how you could add value to a college’s community. This community is what admissions officers look at when reading applications. How well will you fit in? How will you contribute to student life? How will you be an asset to the school and society?

You need to answer these questions—compellingly—in your Common App essay to be accepted. Here are some principles you should follow when writing the essay:

Tell a Story

Describe in your essay a single problem in your life that you solved and grew from. The problem can be anything: a personal inhibition, family difficulties, a need in your community.

The first half of your essay should elucidate the problem. What caused it or how did it affect you? How did you approach solving or overcoming it, and what setbacks did you face? The second half can explain the solution: After you circumvented the problem, what kind of person did you become—or what did you discover about yourself? How will this lesson impact your approach to future problems?

When answering these questions, use concrete examples of what you did and its impact on yourself or others.

Get Personal and Be Vulnerable

To connect with the admissions officers, write with humanity. Avoid exaggerations: Convey your struggles and successes as they happened. Describe how you felt during critical moments of facing the problem and overcoming it. But show, don’t tell. Instead of saying you felt frustrated and angry or inspired and daring, illustrate how those emotions changed your behavior. Were you so angry and frustrated that you quit school for a few days? Were you so inspired and daring that you did something you never thought you could? These illustrations will give your readers an image of how you respond to various circumstances.

Stress Personal Qualities like Initiative, Ambition, and Intellectual Curiosity

You should stress qualities like these—instead of conveying that you are hardworking, conscientious, and disciplined—in your essay’s examples and descriptions of your thought process. Why? Because colleges already know you’re hardworking from your good grades and test scores. And if you stress that you’re hardworking, you won’t add color to your application and distinguish yourself. Admission officers want to admit a “person¸” not an “application” of numerical values.

Avoid Clichés

Clichés kill essays. They make you sound silly—that you couldn’t write something original. Clichés include any idea that is obvious and uninsightful, such as being the change you want to see, making the world a better place, and eradicating the evil and inequitable of society. While these can still be implicit themes in your essay, don’t let the admissions officers read clichés.

Ask for Feedback

Get two to three people who know you well to read your essay. And ask them these questions:

  • Is my essay easy to read and understand?
  • Does my essay flow well?
  • Are there parts that bore you?
  • Do I over- or underexplain anywhere?
  • Are my examples persuasive?
  • Does my essay sound genuine?
  • Did you learn something new about me?
  • Would you read this essay for pleasure?
  • Did I influence your perspective on something about the world?

The questions will let people give feedback that is less about their personal preference. But don’t ask too many people, as that might overwhelm you.