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We are living in mid-September now, which means that the lovely, dreaded college application season is upon us! Now it’s the perfect time to start thinking about your Common App essay.

It can truly make or break your chances to get into your dream school.

Check out the article below on the common app from one of our college admissions mentor, Rosanna Kataja:

Essay review

If you are the best and most motivated student ever but have a poor Common App essay, it’s harder to convince the admissions people that you are, in fact, the best and most student ever. 

Or in my situation, I didn’t have the best SAT, grades or achievements, but my Common App essay was “one of the most touching they have read."

Now that we know that the college application essay is so important, how do we make it outstanding?

Note! What I’m covering here is the US college application essay for the Common App, not the personal statement for UCAS, the application system in the UK.


  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

To note, the prompts are pretty much the same every year, so you can already start to prepare even if you’re not applying right away. I applied in 2019 with Prompt 1, and it was exactly the same as this year. 


This might be one of the most important ones. Basically, it means that whenever you are making a claim, you need to show evidence. Even better if the evidence can speak for itself, and you don’t have to make any claims about yourself. 

What do I mean by this?

Don’t just say for example that “I’m hard working and responsible.” Instead, describe a situation where you showed those qualities. For example, in my Common App Essay, I was describing how I take care of my brother. I didn’t have to mention that it required responsibility or hard work because you could understand that on your own. 

Here is a paragraph from my Common App essay:

At home, I am also the head of the peacekeeping department. In our big, eclectic family, occasional conflicts are inevitable. Whenever those disputes overheat my brother, he storms into my room, his safe haven. I always let him stay with me and rage his anxiety away, even when I am studying for the most crucial exams or reading the most thrilling philosophy articles on phenomenology.

Based on that, how would you characterize me, or the person who wrote this, if we pretend it’s not me? Probably responsible, caring, and family-oriented. You won’t make a compelling story just by stating your characteristics, but instead, let them come alive through stories like the one I had written above for my essay. 


This is also very important. First of all, if you lie in your essay or any parts of your application, you are at serious risk of getting your offer rescinded.

Second of all, the school will admit you if they think you are a great fit. If you have lied in your application, you might not be a great fit and not have a great time during your studies. No matter how famous and wanted a school is, not everyone will feel happy there. It’s not worth spending years at a place you will hate. 

These reasons should be obvious enough to convince you that being authentic is key in your application, including your essay.

If you go back to the paragraph from my essay, would you say it’s authentic? It truly is. It’s a real story from my life, nothing added or subtracted. Yours should be like that, too. It doesn’t have to be a time you saved the world and stopped climate change, just real stuff from your own life. 


I came across this idea when I was a trainer at an event helping high schoolers to prepare for their applications. Your essay is like a puzzle: you need to create it piece by piece so that everything fits together. Your essay is also one piece that fits your application overall. Think about what you can say in your application that doesn’t come up anywhere else in your application and fits well into your narrative.

An example: let’s say you are really into studying physics. In your letters of recommendation, academic honors, grades, etc. you provide all the information about how good you are at that subject. In the essay, it would make the most sense to write about why you are into physics. Maybe you experienced something interesting physics-related thing when you were a child, you had a teacher who was so good at teaching that you fell in love with the subject, or what have you. 

If you have made physics your narrative, you should elaborate on that in your essay. It wouldn’t fit the puzzle if you write your essay about e.g. theatre if you don’t have it anywhere else in your application.

I’m definitely not saying you should only focus on one thing! However, keep the big picture in mind and how things are connected in your application so that it is cohesive and brings out the best in you. The essay is an important piece in the puzzle to tie everything together. It brings the human out of you from all the grades and achievements. 


Now you should have a good idea about what the essay should contain. But how should you write it? 

Everyone is different and has different writing abilities and styles. What I recommend, though, and what was really helpful for me, was to start by finding and reading other successful essays. It’s inspiring to realize that there is no one perfect essay, and truly the best ones are authentic and unique. 

That being said, when you read enough successful essays, you start to notice certain patterns that emerge. Usually, they have a really interesting hook right in the beginning so that you really want to read more.

Many also get you really emotional, and they are written so well that you can imagine yourself in the writer’s shoes. They are well-written and easy to read. After finishing the essay, you just think to yourself, “this was a really good essay, I’m glad they got in.” 


After reading some amazing essays from other people, it’s easy to get a little disheartened. How can someone write so well, I’m never going to reach that level!

One tip: don’t compare your drafts to someone’s final version. 

When you start writing, it’s going to sound bad, terrible even. It was like that for me too. 

Usually, when people submit their essays, it’s their 5th to 10th draft usually. Even more, if writing isn’t their strongest suit. The point is, it’s going to take a lot of time and a lot of revision. 

You also should spend some time away from your writing at some point, so you can come back to it with new ideas. 


Spending weeks writing that 1-2 page long essay will make you pretty frustrated, I’m sure. Looking at the same words and sentences day in and day out, it will become difficult to try to change any of them. That’s when you should ask for feedback. I asked my family and friends to go over my essay many times, but I also made sure to have someone “more qualified” to look over it. Maybe one of your teachers, or someone who got into the school you are applying to. 

Getting feedback is really important! You may just love this sentence structure you used for your first paragraph, but someone else says it sounds tacky and hard to understand. You get a new perspective and helpful ideas, but also once you are starting to have your finalized essay, it can make you feel more confident when you get positive feedback too. 

Take feedback with a grain of salt, though.

Remember, one of the earlier points was about authenticity. It’s good to get feedback on things like grammar and readability, but make sure the actual ideas and content are by you. Your friends are not you, so if one says they would write about another topic, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to change your topic. You have to use your judgment there, but using your own judgment is a key skill in university anyway. 

Hope you found my tips helpful!


Article originally posted here.


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