Tips for Writing your Common App Essay

Women writing her college admissions essay

Below are some tips for writing your Common App Essay.

  1. Breathe. This essay is a chance for others to get to know you. Just relax and be yourself.
  2. Be specific. Don’t try to write about your whole life, choose one story to tell and stick to that topic.
  3. Start writing. Sometimes taking the first step of getting words down on a piece of paper is the most difficult. Start writing and perfect it later.
  4. Share with only 1 or 2 honest people. You do want feedback but you don’t want ALL of the feedback. Choose 1-2 people you trust to give you honest feedback and to ask you pointed questions to shape your essay.
  5. Be yourself. I know this was in tip 1, but it can’t be said frequently enough. The goal is for the college admissions counselors to hear your voice in your writing and to get to know you. Don’t try to guess what other people want to hear, you need to share your unique story. If a college doesn’t admit you for being you, then it wasn’t a great fit.
  6. Edit, edit, once more – edit. Over several weeks, you will edit your essay many times. Be ready to revisit, answer tough questions, narrow down, expand, explain, and change any aspects to improve it. Also, make sure you are the one to make those changes so they are still in your voice and you are happy with the results.
  7. Be proud. Once you and your trusted editors decide the essay is finished, it is time to be proud of it, leave it alone, and move on. You have plenty to stay busy during senior year, don’t keep revisiting something once it’s done.


Brainstorm College Essay Topics

Deciding on a topic for your college application essay seems daunting but there are ways to make it fun.  Remember to have someone you trust as a sounding board to get feedback.  Here are a few ideas to try to come up with a topic:

  1. Go to a bookstore, walk around until you find the section that interests you. Why are you interested in this section of the store? When did you become interested? Is there something about it that is important in your life? I learned this exercise from a professor when I was getting ready to write my Master’s thesis. He had us all meet at Barnes and Nobles, and while we were there I decided on a topic for my thesis. Applying for college is just as monumental, though I hope you don’t spend as much time writing your essay as I did writing my thesis!
  1. Do you have a specific major in mind? Why do you want to major in that?  Is there a defining moment or period of time that made you want to go into that field?
  2. Think about your favorite place to be and, if possible, go there. What do you love about this place? Is there something that is comforting about it or healing? Was there a time you needed to be in that place for comfort? Does it remind you of something you miss? If there is a story behind this spot, try to tell a friend. If they are intrigued, you may have found your topic.
  3. Who are your favorite people? What traits about those people that stand out to you? Tell them and ask them what they notice about you. Start a conversation and see what you discover, it may help you choose a great topic. If not, you have told people who are important to you something you appreciate about them.
  4. Go for a long walk or run by yourself, enjoy the outdoors, notice the smells, sights, sounds while you spend time letting your mind wander. Sometimes we can learn the most about ourselves by leaving distractions behind. Instead of music or a podcast, listen to the noise outside. You may hear birds and leaves rustling or lawnmowers and construction equipment. Not all of it will be peaceful but it will allow your brain a chance to think.

These may or may not help but exercises that give you a chance to think and reflect will only help you in the long run so try to enjoy the process.

A final thought to keep in mind, you are trying to make sure that the college admissions officers are getting to know YOU.  While each of us has had our struggles and triumphs during this era of COVID-19, the fact that we have missed vacations, weddings, funerals, and school activities is not a unique situation.  If something has changed you and made you a different person, feel free to write about it, but make sure the story is about you as a person and not the situation during COVID-19 that we’re all sick of living.  Admissions counselors have been living it and reading about it frequently and would prefer to hear about what has made you the person you are today.

Calculating College Costs

While narrowing down your college list finances tends to be an important consideration.  How do you take this into consideration before receiving your financial aid package in the spring?

The first step is calculating your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  This will tell you what the college will expect you can pay out of pocket. Subtract that amount from the total cost of the college you’re interested in and that will give you your need base.

Then you have to find out the average (note that this is average and not an exact amount that you will be awarded) percentage of need base aid that the individual college awards.  The amount left after this will still need to be covered.


College A: $85,000                  College B: $45,000

EFC: $15,000                            EFC: $15,000

Need Base Aid: 80%                Need Based Aid: 70%

$85,000                                      $45,000
-$15,000                                     – $15,000 
$70,000                                      $30,000

80% of $70,000=                    70% of $30,000=
$56,000                                     $21,000

$70,000                                      $30,000
-$56,000                                    -$21,000
   $14,000                                       $9,000
+$15,000 (EFC)                       +$15,000 (EFC)
$29,000                                       $24,000              – Total amount at each school you will have to cover

Notice that even with a slightly lower percentage of need based aid covered the less expensive school still saves money.  The total cost is an important factor as well as the amount of need based and merit aid that a school rewards.  All of these factors have to be taken into consideration while approaching college decisions.