The Common App essay word limit is unforgiving—just 650 words! This length drives a lot of students crazy. How is it possible to convey your entire personality and everything that’s important to you in 650 words?
In this guide, we’ll look at two powerful structures that you can adapt to make any topic work within the Common App essay length: the Journey and the Montage. We’ll cover how to use these example structures to create an outline that will help you sit down and start writing— fast!
Wait! Before you pick a structure, make sure you’ve done at least an hour of brainstorming to find the right topic. Our guide on the best Common App essay topics will help.
Now that you have a strong topic, it’s time to decide what structure will fit it best. Which of the following best describes what you are writing about?
- A. A story about a particular incident or time in your life that had an impact on you
- Centered around a change or transformation, tends to fit prompts 2, 3 and 5.
- B. An interest, value or personal quality that you have sustained over time
- Centered around a consistent part of your life, tends to fit prompts 1 and 6.
If you answered A, explore the Journey Structure.
If you answered B, try the Montage Structure.
The Journey Structure
If you’ve decided to write about a single important incident or time in your life, you might be tempted to simply tell your story in chronological order. This is a natural way to tell stories, but not always the best route for a college application essay! You’ll likely end up spending too much time on the story itself, and not enough reflecting on how you’ve learned and grown.
Breaking free and giving yourself permission to jump through time can be very helpful. That’s where the Journey structure comes in!
- Introduction: (The Hook): Your introduction needs to do two things: grab the reader’s attention, and tell them what the rest of the essay is going to be about. So, instead of starting at the beginning, start in the middle, describing a key moment from this important experience. For example, if you are writing about a time when you made a decision to stand up for yourself, you might open by describing the moment right before you made this decision.
- TIP: Keep this section focused on you! Pick a scene where you are actively making a decision or facing up to a challenge.
- Section one: (The Before): Step back and give the reader some context. Describe what you were like before you went through this experience. (Summarizing in this section will allow you to stay within the word count!)
- Section two: (The During): Return to the experience described in your opening and describe what you did. What decision did you make? How did you overcome the challenge?
- Section three: (The After): This is where you can describe how this important experience changed you. This is the section that most students have trouble with, because they forget to offer specific evidence. Ask yourself: “What can I do now that I couldn’t do before I went through this experience?”
- Conclusion: Finish strong by reflecting on the central lesson you learned from this experience. If possible, touch on how this lesson will help you succeed in college and beyond.
The Montage Structure
If you’ve decided to write about a quality or interest that’s been a major part of your life over time, you might find yourself trying to fit too much into one essay. That’s where the Montage structure can help. Much like a montage in a movie, it allows you to stitch together vivid moments to create a strong overall impression.
- Introduction: The introduction to a montage essay should define the overall theme. Try starting with an image. For example, if you are writing about how growing up in a mixed-ethnicity family has defined you, you might start with an image of you and your family at the dinner table.
- Finish your introduction with a sentence that previews the overall theme of your essay. For example: “Negotiating between two cultures at the dinner table has made me into an everyday diplomat, able to shift between points of view and communicate across boundaries.”
- Sections one through three: The middle section of your essay can consist of two to three sections, each providing a snapshot of a different facet of your topic.
- TIP: Try to have each section focus on a positive trait. The “dinner table diplomat” might have a paragraph about empathy, a paragraph about communication, and a paragraph about boundaries.
- Conclusion: Restate your overall message, and reflect on how these qualities might help you in college and beyond.
- TIP: Try returning to your original opening image to create a sense of completion.