Every year students ask me the same question:
“How long should my Common Application essay be?”
I am never shy about providing them with the response that best summarizes how they need to approach both the Common Application essay and the Common Application in general:
“Go Big or Go Home!”
Despite what the official directions on the Common App indicate, students writing a 250-word essay – the lowest end of the range that is officially acceptable to complete this essay – have a far lower chance of convincing college admissions officers of their admissions-worthiness than students who believe in the maxim, ‘bigger is better.” The official upper limit in acceptable length on the Common App essay is 650 words.
A well-thought out and well-developed essay of any true substance is not only not possible in 250 words, it’s barely possible in 450 words. This is why none of our clients have ever submitted a Common App essay consisting of fewer than 450 words. With that said, the true sweet spot in Common Application essay writing, for this current year’s prompts and prompts going back over a decade, is 500 to 650 words. This was even the case a few years ago when the Common App limited students to a mere 500 words. That experiment lasted for such a short time because colleges were getting such transparently superficial essays that they were a waste of time and effort for students and completely lacking any valuable insight helpful to college admissions officers.
Think of a 500- to 650-word essay as a smooth and enjoyable flight from D.C. to Disney World. In 500 to 650 words students have the space they need to achieve proper cruising altitude: writing a strong introductory paragraph that both grabs readers’ attention and clearly states the essay’s thesis. Next, just as one wants to have an enjoyable in-flight experience with the fasten seatbelt sight off and flight attendants passing out drinks and snacks, so to does a 500- to 650-word essay allow readers to relax a bit. In 500 to 650 words students are able to produce non-rushed, non-turbulent, highly valuable descriptive and specific body paragraphs that go a long way toward proving the essay’s thesis. Finally, landing a plane takes great skill, as does writing a conclusion to a college application essay. It’s not a simple rehash of the lift off (thesis); it should be complementary to it. Students who have 500 to 650 words to work with are able to smoothly touch down in a way that puts the cherry on top of the entire flying/essay reading experience. At the end of the day, admissions officers read your essays because they want to fly the friendly skies with you into your world. 500 to 600 words allows you to give them a proper flying experience and gives you the words necessary to differentiate your world from the world of other applicants.
In order to produce a great final draft essay, your rough drafts should be even longer than 650 words. It’s very common for our clients to create first, second, and third draft essays of nearly 1,000 words. Only through consistent and high quality editing can any essay be ready for submission to colleges and universities, and starting with too few words on initial drafts is a recipe for a puny little final draft essay.
So, the big take-away ideas on the Common App Essay are these:
- Don’t do the minimum because you are officially allowed to do the minimum
- Go big or go home – your final draft should be 500 to 650 words and your first draft should be even longer
- In your final draft, ensure that paragraph transitions are smooth – just as a good pilot and great weather conditions allow a flight to be smooth from lift-off to landing
So, what are you going to be writing about on this year’s Common App? Just before April Fool’s Day 2015 The Common Application, which has more than 500 member colleges and universities, announced its 2015-2016 essay prompts. But, these new questions are no joke; none of the essay prompts are easy, and all require a great deal of time, thought, and drafting before members of the Class of 2016 can confidently hit submit on their applications.
Honestly, I miss the old questions. Though the 2017-2018 Common App will feature some improvements compared to the 2016-2017 version of the Common App, it seems as though the people behind the Common App are less and less interested in reading essays from normal teenagers and more and more interested in pushing teens to appear exceptional, idiosyncratic, or downright eccentric for the purpose of entertaining application readers and putting on a show of some sort of diversity. I would be surprised if many of the admissions officers could portray themselves accurately with these prompts. Yet, this is what students in the Class of 2018 who will apply to Common App colleges and universities have to work with this coming admissions cycle, so they better start brainstorming now.
The 2017-2018 Common Application essay prompts are as follows:
Choose the option below that best helps you write an essay of no more than 650 words.
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. [No change from last year]
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? [Revised from last year]
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised from last year]
4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change from last year]
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised from last year]
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? [New]
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. [New]
Are you ready to start drafting? If you are a member of the Class of 2018, your time to start drafting is now! You should aim to wrap up your Common App essay no later than early August, which will give you plenty of time to draft and perfect your essays for Common Application supplements, the Universal College App, and other institutional applications.
Remember, if you want or need help with any part of your essay brainstorming and drafting, we are here to help you. We help students from around the world, and we are standing by ready to help you compose essays that will help you get into your dream colleges and universities. Schedule a video chat with us to discuss your essay strategy or have one of our experts review and edit your current draft(s) today.
Craig Meister is an international university admissions expert and founder of Admissions Intel, the authoritative online knowledge base and admissions consultancy for students and parents navigating the college admissions process.
The Common App personal essay is the Holy Grail of your college application, but for many, the perfect topic is an elusive target. For those of you who didn’t spend your summer vacation staring at the Common App website, here are a few tips for where to start.
The Common App that the Class of 2018 will become all too familiar with is not the one of years past. One of the biggest changes affects the essay’s word limit. For the first time, the Common App will strictly enforce the limit of 250 to 650 words. Additionally, the 150-word activities and extracurriculars paragraph is now gone, so you can focus your time and energy on thebigger essay.
Take a look at the new essay prompts:
• Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
• Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
• Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
• Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
• Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Despite the significant changes to the essay prompts, Jim Montague, Program Director of Guidance and Support Service at Boston Latin School, said that he hasn’t changed the essay writing advice that he gives to his students. He still advocates early preparation during both a student’s junior year of high school and the summer before senior year.
You’ll notice that the open-ended question is now conspicuously absent from the prompt list. However, if you’re creative enough, almost any essay topic can fit under one of these prompts.
“The question that allows students to choose any topic will be missed. It allowed our students to choose something they really care about and write,” wrote Montague in an email. “There are still many ways to respond to these choices, though. Raising the limit on the number of words allowed is also perceived by students to be helpful and allows them to express themselves more easily and completely.”
And for those who still have no idea where to begin?
“Sit down with someone who knows you well and brainstorm experiences and interests that might form the core of an essay or a direction worth pursuing,” wrote Montague. Get a group of close friends together, bounce ideas off of family members, and don’t be afraid to get creative and express your personality. This is the only part of your essay that isn’t presented as a generic list of achievements, so make it count.
A few personal tips:
• Make the essay about you—sure, your grandmother was an incredibly inspiring person in your life, but college admissions officers want to hear your story and not hers. If your essay includes family members or friends, make sure the focus stays on you.
• Pick a topic that will allow your voice to show through the essay. Use humor, lyricism, or whatever awesome writing skills you’ve been honing for the past two decades. Insider tip: if you’re going for funny, have people read your essay and make sure your brilliance and wit translates on the page. There’s nothing worse than an essay that tries and fails to be funny.
• Keep a notebook or file to write down every idea you have, even if you don’t think you’ll choose it. Scattered thoughts can come together in surprising ways, and you may even stumble across a topic for another essay.
• Picking an event in your life can be dangerous territory if you waste a lot of space on describing what happened instead of how it affected you—just be aware of this pitfall. Show, don’t tell!
• If you’re stuck, take a closer look at the prompts and write down every possibility you can think of for each topic. If you’re still frantically searching for a topic, don’t despair; sometimes, it takes multiple rewrites and several dead-end topics to craft the perfect essay.