The Common App Personal Statement

The Common App Personal Statement is the one essay that gets sent to every school your student is applying to through the Common Application. That means your student should not make this essay school-specific. They wouldn't want an admissions officer at Williams College reading about their love for Boston University's dining halls — can't imagine that going over well.

The essay itself has a word limit of 650 words and your student is given seven different prompts to choose from.

Picking a Question for Your College Essay

Deciding what to write about can be the most challenging aspect of the essay. Because it is the only essay that colleges without a secondary application will see, it needs to stand on its own. We suggest starting by first taking a look over all of the questions. We've copied them below:

The questions are all fairly broad, meaning your student could write about almost anything. Your student should jot down a couple ideas of things they think they could write a compelling essay about. Next they should narrow down those topics based on how well they fit the question and which topics interest them the most. Then just start writing.

Writing the Actual Essay

Different colleges will give advice on how to write the personal statement. While it's helpful to browse these for ideas, remember that there is no one right way to write the essay. Here are a few examples:

We suggest following a few steps throughout your student's writing process to make sure their finished product is an essay they're proud of:

The best way for your student to stand out is by being personal and talking about their own unique experiences, rather than trying to be gimicky.

Supplement / Secondary Application Essays

In addition to the main Common App Personal Statement, many colleges will also ask students to write one or more college-specific supplemental essays. These vary by college in terms of style and word limit. Make sure to check the website of the school your student is interested in attending to find their requirements.

The “Why Us?” Essay

The most common supplemental essay question is some variation of: “Why do you want to go to our college?”. Other variations may include: “What do you like best about our college?” or “Why are you a good fit for our college?”. In general each of these questions is asking about three things:

Unlike the common app essay, these essays should be school-specific. Your student should spend some time doing research on each school they are applying to and identify unique features that appeal to them. Make sure they highlight these specifics in their essay — show off that they've done their homework!

It may be tempting to copy-paste sections from other supplemental essays, especially when the question is so similar. But don't. Advise your student to start every supplemental essay from scratch. This will force them to really think through what they're writing and not just regurgitate the same story. This will also prevent mentioning the wrong college name in the essay (cringe!).

Tackling “Uncommon” Essay Prompts

Sometimes, the supplemental essay questions will go beyond the standard. These may come in the form of a few short questions that give you a chance to show off your creativity. Here's an example on Yale's supplement:

Supplemental essay questions may also come in the form of an extended essay (650 words) that gives admissions officers a deeper look into how you think. UChicago is most notoriously known for asking very thought-provoking supplemental essay questions. This year's essay questions from UChicago are listed below:

A few important pieces of advice in tackling these types of questions:

Start Your College Essays Early!

As you can probably tell by now, the best essays require a lot of time and thought. Make sure your student gets an early start on the essay so they don't feel rushed or pressured for time. This way they'll have the time to draft and edit their essays to make sure it shows the best side of themselves.

In the next chapter, we'll talk about the many different components that go into building your application and how you can use them to strengthen your application. This will include things like extracurriculars, community service, interviews, the mid-year update and the SAT IIs.

Chapter Six