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How to Write the Perfect Common App Essay (Formula!)

Updated: May 19

A whimsical collage of two upraised hands, with flowers blooming from a finger, with a castle and various shapes in the background.

With college admissions season in full swing, it’s time to talk about one of the most important components of the application: your essay.

A requirement of the Common App, the essay is what makes you a person in the eyes of admissions officers, setting you apart from the countless other students who have taken the same classes, played the same sports, and done the same required service hours.

Unfortunately, this essay is wildly different than the ones you probably write in school. Having spent years learning to prove a thesis, you’re now wading blind into “personal statement” territory.

For many students, this can (understandably!) cause enormous confusion. Where should you start?

Here, I’m going to give you a formula for a high-quality Common App essay. Obviously not every essay needs to follow this formula, so don’t panic if yours doesn’t. However, if you’re stuck getting started, it’s an excellent place to begin.

The Formula:

  1. Story-in-progress (hint at theme/lesson)

  2. Background/explanation

  3. Connect to prompt

  4. Circle back to story/make sure lesson is clear

I’m a fan of examples, so let’s break this down using my own (!) college admissions essay.

Having selected your subject (preferably something that will make you stand out from the crowd), I suggest beginning with a story-in-progress. My essay was about the year I spent studying abroad in Italy with School Year Abroad, and it began…

1. Story-in-Progress

I am sitting on a rapidly deflating beach toy surrounded by thousands of sweaty Italians, and my legs are making the plastic slippery. Strategically positioned on Via Cavour, I am sandwiched between four smoking men in light pink, v-necked shirts and three animated teenagers playing Texas Hold’em. After wiping flying cigarette ash off of my dress for the fifth time, I squirm to a standing position, nearly falling on “Angelo,” so nicknamed by my host sister because of his angelic appearance, and wind my way through the labyrinth of bodies to find her. I briefly worry that I’m being too impatient—a personality trait I have been hyperconscious of since my arrival in Italy not one week ago—but decide an eight-hour wait is excessive even by relaxed Italian standards. With a timid smile, I ask for the third time when the festival starts, just in case I misunderstood. “Around nine,” she responds. I look at my watch. It’s just after one pm.

Takeaway: Lead with something unique, and begin to hint at the big-picture lesson/prompt.

2. Background/Explanation

We have staked out the side of Piazza Fontana Grande waiting for the Festa di Santa Rosa, the most important event of the year in Viterbo, Italy, to begin. A structure roughly 30 meters tall called the Macchina, gilded and dazzling, is carried through the city on the backs of 100 men called the Facchini. Brave men who receive their last rites before the daunting but honorable job, the Facchini are told to trample a fellow man should he trip and fall. If he doesn’t, the entire structure could collapse, crushing not only the men below it, but also the countless spectators it falls on. The entire city prepares for weeks, and dedicates the entire day to nothing but the festival.

I am thrilled to be experiencing such an important part of the local culture, but assume we are going to explore the city or sample some of the country’s famed gelato while waiting. I am wrong. When I suggest that half the group save our prized “seats” — the aforementioned beach toys — while the other half walks around, my Italian peers look at me as if I’ve lost my mind. Why? Do I have somewhere in particular I’d like to go, they ask? Then why can’t I just stay and relax? Everyone is perfectly content to enjoy the moment with friends and loved ones; not a single text message is rapidly written, and the music is put on speakers so the entire group can listen.

Takeaway: Elaborate on the hook, and begin transitioning into lesson/takeaway.

3. Connect to Prompt

As time fades, and bottles of wine and wrapped prosciutto are pulled out of oversized designer bags, the familiar itch to check the time diminishes. I began to enjoy the calm feeling of simply “being.” I normally thoroughly enjoy my companions’ company, but other thoughts are ever-present in the back of my mind. What am I doing later? Do I have any papers due soon?

I don’t forget my responsibilities entirely, but I begin learning how to achieve tranquility when matters aren’t flawlessly in order. One will always have chores and deadlines, so it is crucial to be able to enjoy life before they are completed, for they will never cease to arrive.

Takeaway: Focus on the takeaway, making sure it’s the same one you hinted at in the beginning of the essay.

4. Circle back to initial story/make sure lesson is clear

Give your companions 100% of yourself, savor every cappuccino, and if you find yourself waiting eight hours for a festival to start, consider yourself fortunate (if a little sunburned). When else will you be able to step into another culture so thoroughly?

Takeaway: Good writing comes full circle; it makes the reader feel they’ve been on a journey with you. Don’t start with a story about computer programming and end with an unrelated anecdote about your dog.

Not every essay needs to follow this formula. However, I’ve found it can be a helpful jumping-off point. And it should go without saying that proper grammar, spelling, etc. are crucial!


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