All about the Common App Essay


If you’re a student entering grade 12 in the fall and planning to apply to the US for post-secondary, I’ve got a message for you: start working on your Common App essay now. Summer is the ideal time to engage in reflection and brainstorming, set up a writing schedule, and then, yes, get to writing! Below I offer some tips for making this task manageable and rewarding. 

The Common App essay in a nutshell

Most post-secondary institutions in the US require the Common App essay. It’s an essay, 250 to 650 words in length, that communicates an important part of your identity to the admissions committees of the schools to which you’re applying. We all contain multitudes, of course, so it can be tricky knowing what to include. Should you try to cram in your whole life story? This post provides an answer to that question, but if you’re short on time, I’ll tell you here: it’s no. Highlight one aspect of your identity or story and explore it in depth. Don’t talk at your reader, peppering them with facts; instead, draw them in with your  warm and friendly voice. 

Alright, so there’s a pretty important essay to write. How do you get started? 

Give yourself time to brainstorm

Read the Common App essay prompts carefully. What stories or thoughts come to mind when you read each one? Spend some time free writing, perhaps in the morning right after you’ve woken up. What patterns emerge? What do you find yourself thinking about? Make lists of the ways in which you’ve spent your time in high school: yearbook, sports teams, art, music, theatre, robotics, volunteering, student leadership, math competitions, debate, jobs, entrepreneurial ventures, etc. Then think more broadly about your family, friends, teachers, and role models. Think about your values: what do you care about? How does this care influence your actions? Taking the time to brainstorm effectively will allow you to see the big picture view of your life and help you identify the stories that make you who you are. 

Try a few ideas out

Sometimes, students pursue one path and after a few hundred words, they realize it doesn’t quite work. That’s okay! Keeping a few options open reduces the pressure to land on the perfect topic immediately. (Hint: there is no perfect topic.) Try a few things out and see where the writing takes you. 

Be patient 

Success in writing is the result of many drafts. Write, write, write. Then edit and refine. It can be a time-consuming process, but that’s why we’re beginning the Common App essay in the summer!

Writing can be tough, of course. If you need any support with the Common App or any other writing task, get in touch with us at or 604-922-8456. A writing coach will be happy to help you with your brainstorming, planning, and writing process.

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