Are you writing your Common App essay? Wondering about the Common App essay prompts?
If so, you've come to the right place. Let's start with what success on the Common App essay could look like.
In 2016, Brittany Stinson was accepted into five Ivy League schools—Yale, Columbia, UPenn, Dartmouth, and Cornell. These schools have less than a 14% applicant acceptance rate.
Oh yeah, and she got into Stanford, which has a 4.69% acceptance rate.
Smart lady? For sure. Talented young woman? Absolutely.
But what sold the readers of her app from all these prestigious schools was her absolutely brilliant college essay!
In an age of digital applications facilitated by the Common App, there's no shortage of brilliant people to stock the halls of the Ivy League, not to mention other colleges and universities, and it's never been easier or less time-consuming to apply to college.
That said, it's never been easier to apply for colleges, so you should do it too. And when you do, you're going to need to stand out!
At College Choice, we're about helping you get in to the right school—your top pick, for your best future.
With this goal in mind, using Brittany Stinson's wonderful essay, we'll teach you how to write a killer piece from the Common App that will get you picked up by the school of your choice.
Stick with us kid! You'll get into that college yet 😉
How Do I Write a Common App Essay?
The most successful Common App Essays pay attention to the word count, the organization, the unique theme, character development, the prompt, and the vocab, all the while showcasing the author’s talents and interests through words.
Heady task, of course, but we’re here to help. It’s really quite simple, actually.
Like our other time-saving and super helpful writing guides, How to Cut Your Research Time in Half and How to Write a Research Paper and Get an A+, we’ll show you how to unlock your writing skills in service to success.
Overall, it’s important to remember that Stinson thought outside of the traditional box, relying on her own imagination, creative potential, and interests as a student to create something readable and interesting.
More than likely, her essay went through several drafts, so don’t be discouraged if your first crack isn’t perfect! The important thing is to get something down!
Looking over Ms. Stintson’s essay, it’s not hard to see why she was a top pick for the top schools. The essay is playful, engaging, funny, and—perhaps best of all—insightful.
We’re going to examine how Stinson made a killer common app essay, and give you some ideas to get you started on the right track for your own essay.
Here, we’ll provide you with pictures of her text as examples, and explanations on how you can write a similarly wonderful piece and get into a great college.
If you want to see her essay in context, take a look at this link.
Otherwise, let’s get this writing party started—quick and easy.
The Word Count
If you count, this essay is only 665 words.
Super-short, eh? In fact, it’s short for a long-form Common App essay at all.
Some questions on the Common App only want a 200 or 250 word answer, so be sure you stay inside the desired boundary.
But, some schools will want a longer essay, though not more than 800 words. The submission system won’t allow you to submit more that the allowed amount of words.
But your mind may play tricks on you.
You might be thinking that your essay will appear too short, and that if the essay is too short then you risk looking foolish.
Not so! In fact, it may be just the opposite.
Imagine being a reader for one of these universities, culling over thousands of essays that max-out the word limit. Wouldn’t seeing a short, concise, and powerful essay be a breath of fresh air? Yep!
Perhaps your best move might even be to stop a hundred or so words short of that max word count.
A small word count provides you with a few advantages:
#1 You limit yourself to only saying exactly what you must.
Just like a poet, who does in a few lines what a novelist does over a hundred pages, you have to keep things on track—no sidebars, rambling, or wordiness!
#2 Less is almost always more.
If you take time to boil down your wordy essay into it’s most essential language, you will entertain the reader by demonstrating your respect for their time.
#3 You’re already wired to write this way.
In an age of tweets, posts, and pic-based communication, you’re prepared to say what you have to quickly—your mind naturally goes there!
So take advantage of your ability to say things fast. Trust it!
Your ability to be exact is necessary for keeping the word count low.
Next, the author of the essay maintains focus by managing to control her content.
Each of this essay’s paragraphs deals with a succinct idea or concept.
For example, here’s what each paragraph is doing in this essay:
She sets the scene using hyperbolic language and sensory details:
And then she introduces a theme, but gently…
The language is rich and metaphorical. Stinson is setting herself up as an explorer, and she’s using her words to take the reader with her.
She introduces a deeper theme which she will revisit throughout the essay:
See, she even comes out and says it: consumerism.
She then unpacks this idea by explaining how Costco reinforces consumerist ideals, using vocabulary (“habit,” “ponder,” and “curiosity”)
And rich descriptions:
Here, she expands her ideas about consumerism into something far more specific: the areas of philosophy, science, and history.
The author demonstrates her knowledge of these disciplines in the humanities and science by introducing them:
And then undercutting those deep concepts with doses of humor that reinforce her personality:
All beef goodness… silly.
A little teasing.
And a little more.
The author returns to the explorer theme and begins wrapping up the essay. But she’s introduced a twist!
We can now see that #3 was simply a transition into #4 where the author unpacks what the reading committee has been looking for all along.
In this case, how a particularity of character is essential to her application, and thus will be an asset to the school.
The author demonstrates how consumerism has shaped her as a creative and critical thinker:
Not the reinforcement of the metaphor.
Integrating her electives and school activities (the extracurriculars)
And she’s discussed some of her accolades with subtlety.
What she’s shown the readers of her application is that she’s extremely curious. She hasn’t told them.
Using rich language, engaging metaphor, and delicate humor, Stinson has made a real humdinger of an essay.
A Unique Theme
After reading the essay prompt begin by choosing a couple words—abstract words—that broadly apply to the prompt you’d like to answer.
For example, responding to the prompt for this essay…
The trick is to be indirect at first… For a question like this, avoid the typical answers, like where you’re from, your race, your gender, or your religion.
Those things are part of you, but they aren’t the embodiment of who you are.
You might come up with the following words:
Once you’ve got a few words to play with, begin trying to attach those words to specific things about your life.
Next, avoid the following obvious, or cliché, topic ideas.
Here’s what NOT to write about:
- Traveling to foreign lands and how the trip changed you.
- Hobbies that are really wonderful but not very interesting. All hobbies, really.
- Service projects/mission trips and the revelations you had while on them.
- A loved one who made a difference (and might now be dead).
- Winning the big game or contest, getting the girl/boy, and otherwise succeeding in relatively conventional ways.
In her essay, Ms. Stinson really kicked it up a notch… She chose to write about something really quirky: Costco.
How many essays about Costco do you think were in the essay pile?
Then she did some thinking, which ultimately shaped her essay, perhaps answering questions.
Here are questions she probably asked herself:
- How has Costco shaped me?
- How am I like this box store?
- How am I different from the average consumer?
- What does where I shop say about me?
- What does Costco teach me about being a student?
These might seem like silly questions, but they are at the core of Stinson’s essay, and it shows.
What should you write about?
Here are a couple of unorthodox theme offerings to get you thinking in the right direction:
- What fruit or vegetable am I most like and why?
- If I were any American president in history, how would I make a different decision?
- If I could have any visual artist make my portrait, who would it be?
- Describe yourself based upon an item found under your kitchen sink.
- What element or compound from the periodic table of elements best describes my relationship with school?
This isn’t a comprehensive list, but one to get you thinking in an unorthodox direction.
Strong Character Development
Obviously, Ms. Stinson is speaking as a character. No one actually goes around talking this way, lavishly highlighting the ecstasy of their curiosity.
There’s nothing wrong with creating a persona to go along with your app to illustrate how creative and interesting you can be.
Some might think this is insincere, but it isn’t—it’s simply good writing.
Think back to English class… How many of those poems, pieces of short fiction, and satirical essays were sincere? Only a handful. But how many were true? All of them.
Often, it takes a bit of creativity to get at the truth, so you shouldn’t be shy about turning up your narrative or lyrical brain.
Perhaps the most subtle part of her essay, her response to the prompt at hand is delicately creative. She indirectly responds to the question
Here’s how her essay doesn’t begin:
I’m a naturally curious person.
When I was young, I was very curious.
My work as a student has been an act of cultivating curiosity.
All of these things would be telling not showing. Instead, she demonstrates her curiosity in the first sentence:
And again here:
All of these ideas reinforce what the reader is experiencing: that the author is both a capable and engaged learner that will be an asset to the campus community.
And that she has not simply stated it, but modeled it by responding creatively to the prompt in a way that makes the reader curious as well!
If you’re saying to yourself, “Hey wait a sec! She does some telling there in the last paragraph!” You’re not wrong, but take a look at the placement…
The last paragraph.
She’s earned the right to tell you something by showing you so many things before the end!
Trust us—it’s a Writing 101 technique: SHOW DON’T TELL!
The author walks a fine line between sounding intelligent and sounding pretentious.
In this essay, the author doesn’t use overly technical language to illustrate her points, but does use lyrical words to keep the text engaging.
First, see how her word choices strengthen her ideas. Look at some of these adjectives:
Descriptive, flowery, and—well—intelligent sounding. They enrich her ideas though intentionality. She uses them sparingly, especially compared to verbs.
Now, how about the verbs she uses to describe narrative action?
These words are forceful and descriptive, moving the reader though the essay by keeping the action going.
Or, how about her specific nouns and serialized lists of things?
Quite a list!
All of these things are familiar and tangible. The reader can smell, taste, see, hear, or feel all of them on some level. They’re tactile.
There are a few essential things that go into a great Common App essay. Above, we showed you how Stinson made her perfect eye-catching essay that covered her interests in a unique way.
So, what are you waiting for? Get going! Take a look at the Stinson essay here. Read it through a time or two, and then get to thinking about how you can write something that gets you into five colleges at once!