7 Tips for Writing Your Common App Essay

How to use narrative devices and intentional editing to write a stand-out essay

Catchy Opener

Keep in mind that admissions officers are reading potentially dozens of essays a day, and your essay comes last when they review your application. That means it’s absolutely vital that you wake them up and grab their attention at the beginning of the essay! Don’t linger too long waiting for dull set ups — get right into your topic and pull your reader in.

Tell a Story

The Common App essay is generally quite different from the majority of essays you will write for school. Despite it being a part of the college application, it actually doesn’t have to sound as academic as one might think. The main purpose of the essay is for admissions officers to be able to get to know you in your voice. It’s up to you to let them know what’s most important in your life. Because the essay is more personal, it can and should lean heavily into narrative. You are ultimately telling them your story, so do just that!

Show Don’t Tell

This phrase is something you may have heard in your English class, and it’s a precious tip no matter the kind of writing you might be doing. It goes well with the idea of spinning a story as well. People connect the most with details, and in the specific lies the universal. Don’t merely tell them that you care about animals, show them that through your story of growing up fostering kittens and nurturing injured birds which fostered your desire to work at an animal rescue. Tell them about the first time you found an injured hummingbird when you were walking in the woods, how you reached out to a local wildlife rescue and learned the right procedure. Let them know how this sparked something within you — reveal what you did, what you thought, how it changed you, why it mattered. By guiding them through your story with these details, they will come to know and feel all that you are hoping they will understand. It will actually feel more natural and intriguing because they are able to feel the depth and span of a story. Through this, they get a deeper connection to you. Merely telling does not always prove the point; if it is stated they want to see how and why that is true and how it unfolds.

Focused Topic / Theme

In some sense, less is more within this particular essay. You should not try to fit in everything you’ve ever done or make a list of your accomplishments. Such essays will lack depth and substance that leads to true connection and meaningful information. This is one reason the brainstorming phase can be so helpful in deciding what story most needs to be told.

Unified Imagery

Because this essay can be creative and personalized, you can add in various narrative embellishments. For instance, you could write about your love of medicine through metaphor and imagery pertaining to art, to highlight its beauty and requirement for consistent practice. This would certainly lend itself well to depicting medicine in a light that is unique to how you view it. However, as you’re writing and you might be interested in using metaphors, similes, or adjectives, try to keep in mind their connotations. (I would do this in edits, don’t bog down your writing flow!) If you’re comparing working in medicine to playing a soccer game and then saying how it is like captaining a ship and then saying that is akin to painting, that may be a bit much. Your reader will start to get lost in some of these details instead of allowing one set of imagery to develop cohesion throughout. Done well, it can help to guide your narrative and add personal flair.

Cut the Clutter

Writing is as much about editing as it is about writing. When writing a first draft, you’ll be full of potential, allowing all your ideas to meet the page, potentially and even ideally unedited. However not everything that appears needs to stay. Perhaps it was only there so that you could get o the next sentence, where the true substance lies. Every sentence, every phrase, and every single word should be working toward the main focus of the essay. In line with some of my advice above, if it isn’t necessary, cut it. If you feel a disruption in the flow when you read it (read it aloud!), something is wrong. Is the sentence too long? Ideas not developed? Redundant phrases? Too many adjectives? Cut it out. Say it one way and keep it moving. Condense five words down to one if it maintains the integrity. The true art of the essay is learning to refine and polish it. This can take multiple drafts to achieve, but is well worth the time editing so that it feels its most eloquent and authentic.

Memorable Outro

Of course, the conclusion is your final impression, so it is important to use it wisely. Here, you should feel resolution to everything that has come before. This is your place to bring everything together, to show the reader what they should take away from what came before, to highlight what you feel is the most important.



With years of admissions experience and professional writing, Christina of Essay with Ease is your go-to guide for all essays related to college admissions.

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Essay with Ease

With years of admissions experience and professional writing, Christina of Essay with Ease is your go-to guide for all essays related to college admissions.