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The Complete Guide to the Common App Personal Statement 2021

Common Application
DT Wang
DT Wang
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    At Prompt, we’ve seen tens of thousands of smart applicants make the same mistakes on the Common Application Personal Statement (aka the Common App Essay).

    • Mistake #1 — spending tens of hours on it, when a great essay takes just 5-6 hours.
    • Mistake #2 — writing about things that admissions officers don’t care about (and leaving out the stuff they’d love to know).
    • Mistake #3 — obsessing over metaphors, flowery language, and descriptive sentences that leave admissions officers cold (without investing the time to make the essays as clear as possible).
    • Mistake #4 — getting derailed by feedback from people who don’t understand what admissions officers want.

    To write a great personal statement, you have to know what admissions officers are looking for. 

    Once you understand your audience, this mystical-seeming process gets surprisingly concrete. And the results are powerful — we’ve found that 3 out of 4 students who use our plan get into one or more of their “reach” schools, where their academic qualifications are below the average admitted student.

    This article is going to share the entire process with you. 

    One note: Use Prompt’s brainstorming and essay building tools – for free – if you’re ready to start your essay now. Just log into our college admission dashboard. You’ll get step-by-step guidance from brainstorming to writing your essay.

    Admission officers read the personal statement for evidence you’ll succeed in college

    Typical personal statement advice says you need to “tell your story,” or say “why you’re unique” and “what matters to you.” You’ll often hear that the essay is an opportunity for admissions to “get to know you.”

    But is this advice helpful? 

    To answer that, we have to get into the minds of the colleges. 

    By the time an admission officer starts on your essay, they’ve seen your academic profile (test scores, GPA, strength of your curriculum). And, chances are, it’s similar to those of most other applicants: students self-select into schools where they have a good chance of admission. So your reader wants more

    Specifically, they’re evaluating your “personal qualities.” Will you be successful in college and beyond? Will you do well in your classes, and graduate? Admissions officers will mine many sources to get this answer: your activities (and how you write about them), your interviews, your recommendations, optional items such as portfolios, and, of course, your essays. 

    All of these things matter a lot. Moreover, at this stage in your high school career, you have more control over these aspects of your application than you do over things like grades (which are mostly in). 

    And the great news is that, when it comes to essays, there’s a simple way to show you’ll be successful — make it clear how you exemplify one or more of 5 key traits that colleges look for in admission essays:

    • Drive — you push yourself to succeed no matter how long the odds.
    • Intellectual Curiosity — you love learning for the fun of it.
    • Initiative — you challenge the status quo, you take the lead to make things better.
    • Contribution — you give back to your community.
    • Diversity of Experiences — you have experiences or a background that give you a unique perspective. 

    You don’t need to exemplify all of the traits. Most students identify with 2-3, and your Common App essay should focus on just 1-2. (Often, as you write about one trait, you’ll naturally also showcase others. For example, essays about Intellectual Curiosity often also show Drive.) 

    For a tool to see which of these traits best describes you, head over to our college admissions page, create an account (it’s free), and take the test

    Bottom line: people aren’t wrong when they say you need to “tell your story” — but that advice leaves a lot out. You have many stories. To ace this essay, you need to tell the one(s) that shows you’ll be successful in college and beyond. 

    Choosing your prompt: Decide what to say, then choose the prompt that lets you say it

    Did you notice that something exciting happened? As you read through the section above, whether or not you got started with our brainstorming tools, you probably came up with the germ of an idea about what you want your essay to say.

    This is the right approach to the Common App essay. Only once you know which of the 5 traits you exemplify, and which experience best illustrate them, should you move on to choosing a prompt. (Luckily, there is literally a Common App prompt for every possible topic — there’s even a “choose your own.”)

    This is counterintuitive. But we’ve seen that doing it the “normal” way (picking the prompt first) leads to a common mistake: choosing the wrong experience(s) to write about. By choosing a prompt you like first, you risk pigeonholing yourself into answering that specific question. 

    What you want to do is choose your very best experiences, the ones that best demonstrate your potential for college success. Optimize on content first, then select the prompt.

    You can read about which of Common App prompts make for the best essays; this article also says which prompt to consider for which types of situations. (We cover our favorite prompts for different types of experiences and traits.)

    Avoiding common essay topic mistakes: Keep the focus on your potential for success

    At Prompt, we review tens of thousands of essays every year. We’ve noticed a few mistakes that students make all the time when they choose what to write about. Consider this section a handy map to the most common traps we hope you’ll avoid.

    Covering too much: 650 words is too short to tell a life story, but you’d be surprised at how many students make the attempt. Students struggle when they start talking about interesting things that unfortunately don’t relate to the 5 traits: their family history, their upbringing.

    To avoid this mistake, keep that admissions reader firmly in mind. Focus on showing that you have the traits necessary to succeed in college and beyond. 

    Too much drama: Students often feel pressure to write about dramatic, unusual or even traumatic moments, such as death, depression, breakups, and bullying. The problem here is that the reader is often left thinking “How is this relevant to being successful?” 

    One way to avoid this mistake is to write about drama only if you can show you came out of it a better person, and have since taken action on what you learned from the experience. (Ex: you mastered anxiety, which enabled you to star in the school play.)

    Also, bear in mind that you can show the 5 traits through things that may feel small — for example, an interaction with peers that provides a glimpse into how you think and add value to your community.

    Your love of [sports/music/theater]: Students often focus their essays on a particular passion. The problem is that a passion alone doesn’t prove much about your potential for future success.

    But, your love of music could form the basis of a great essay if it exemplifies, say, Drive — how you practice for hours every day outside of normal practice; or you’ve learned an instrument on your own; or you’ve written or recorded your own music. 

    Or, you might use music to exemplify Initiative — your high school had no band when you started as a freshman, but you helped get one up and running; or you took it over and raised its profile. If you tie your passion to one of the 5 traits, you’ll do great.

    Writing a resume: Resist the urge to pack in every one of your impressive accomplishments. It’s not just that these are best suited to the common app activities list. It’s also that listing an accomplishment can obscure how you exemplify one or more of the 5 traits. 

    For example, let’s say you won a debate award. Talking about that award alone makes you come off as a natural. That won’t impress college officers — they think things will be harder for you as you enter college and the real world; you’ll probably crumble if you’re used to things coming easy.

    Instead, talk about the hard work and practice that helped you earn your award. That’s shows Drive! Now the officer is seeing you as a gritty and determined person who persevered through challenges to win an award, and will keep doing so to do great in college and life. 

    Save time with an outline that sets you up for success

    Using an outline saves students at least one draft and leads to more compelling essays. In our experience, students using outlines typically need just two drafts, versus three or four for those who don't. (If you like the idea of structuring your essay in these ways, take a look at this complete guide to outlining a personal essay.)

    When it comes to the Common App personal statement, two basic structures work wonders:

    • The Journey — for essays that show a clear progression of personal growth (ie: There was a Before You, now there's an After You). The most important part of this essay is what you went on to do AFTER the experience of growth. Which actions did you take that prove you’re a changed person? (It’s surprisingly common for people to leave the critical post-experience part out.) 
    • The Theme — for essays that show either (a) how you developed one important trait over many distinct experiences or (b) one meaningful passion over time. In this case, the aim is to describe a number of distinct experiences over which you developed or showcased a trait or passion.

    Take a look at our outline blog post for exact, prescriptive descriptions of what to write where, and how long each section should be. 

    Or, if you’re feeling ready to get started, login to the Dashboard for our free Common App brainstorming tool which will provide you with the best outline for the experiences you choose.

    Timeline: You can actually get the whole essay done in a week 

    We have to hide this section down in the blog post. That’s because otherwise it sounds too good to be true. Like we’re selling you on something. But, hopefully, by now you’re catching on to the method behind our madness. 

    Most applicants’ essays take forever to write. That’s because they don’t know what colleges are looking for. They’re stabbing in the dark, trying to be impressive. But you know about the 5 traits; you’ve got our time-saving, essay-shaping outlines; and (as you’ll see soon), you’ve got our advice for getting the right kind of feedback on the right things. 

    All of this is making you into an efficient, essay-writing machine (particularly if you get started through our Dashboard). With time left over to work on the other pieces of your all-important non-academic “personal” score (activities list, recommendations, and all the rest). 

    So here’s our big reveal — the Prompt process in a nutshell:

    • Day 1: Brainstorm content (45 minutes).
    • Day 2: Create an outline (30 minutes).
    • Day 2: Write the first draft (45 minutes).
    • Day 3: Get feedback — focused on content and structure — and revise (75 minutes).
    • Day 5: Get more feedback — focused on writing clarity — and revise again (30 minutes).
    • Day 6: Most students get a third round of feedback — focused on confirming/improving readability. Sometimes, an outside reader can also help you make cuts to get within word count. And revise (30 minutes). 
    • Day 8: Final read-through and polish (60 minutes).

    In terms of the feedback you’ll need, if you want a professional to do it for you, think about having one of our writing coaches help you nail it. 

    Your first draft: Get rid of distractions, use an outline, and don’t worry about the rest (yet)

    To be successful here, go somewhere without distractions. Get away from loud family members, the TV, and most especially your phone!

    The only thing you really need is your outline. To make it even easier, get your draft set up via our outlining tool, once you log-in to Prompt for free.

    Now just write. Don’t worry about:

    • Word count
    • Grammar
    • Spelling errors
    • Perfection. 

    All of those are easy to fix later. Once you’ve done, the important work of feedback and revision can begin. 

    Feedback: Ask guided questions of your reviewers, or they’ll get you off track

    Surprisingly, feedback is a big pitfall. We see essays go off track all the time, as too many reviewers focus on all the wrong things. (Grammar and phrasing, instead of potential to succeed.)

    But feedback is also critical. The trick is to give your reviewer clear instructions. Ask them to answer these questions:

    • What did they learn about you? What traits do they see depicted here? 
    • What didn’t they learn that they wanted to know? (What content do you still need to add in?)
    • How can you restructure the essay to make it clearer? (Is it readable? Easy to follow? Is it clear where this essay is headed from the beginning? Or does the essay take a confusing turn somewhere?)

    Direct your reviewer not to focus on grammar. Tell them instead to circle where they found your writing to be unclear. Explain that you’re probably going to be making substantial changes, so grammar feedback isn’t helpful at this point — that will come later. 

    And choose your reviewer with care. You want someone who’ll stay focused on the task at hand, and not get you bogged down with their ideas about the Oxford comma and splitting infinitives. You want a thoughtful, careful reader. Someone who’ll spot gaps in your logic. And you also want someone who either knows what admissions people are looking for (or can be taught). 

    You might choose a parent or your super-smart aunt, or a teacher you respect. If you think an experienced writing coach might help, take a look at our process, and see if it would work for you. 

    Revising your draft: You may need to start again from scratch, but you can do it

    Armed with excellent, content- and structure-focused feedback, you’ve got what it takes to win the battle of the personal statement. There’s no hiding that this process is hard, but here are a few ways to make it as valuable as possible:

    • Consider all the feedback before you make any changes. 
    • New topic? It’s possible you might want to switch to a new topic that better lets you show off how you exemplify one or more of the 5 traits.
    • New outline? Also, consider whether you should overhaul the structure or write a new outline.

    Finally, many students need a “radical revision” at this early stage. It sounds awful, but it’s actually … not. If you start again, you’ll find that you keep in the good stuff from your first draft, but that your writing flows much better as you write it again. Being radical usually saves time over trying to completely move things around — and gets much better results.

    Get more feedback focused on writing clarity, and revise again

    Now that you’ve got a winning structure and content that compellingly proves you exemplify some of the 5 traits, let’s make sure your admissions officer can follow it.

    If possible, stick with the same reviewer. (It simplifies things to just have one, and you don’t have to retrain them.) 

    You can ask the exact same questions as before, but this time the focus will hopefully be more on the clarity — ask them to circle unclear passages and help you find ways to make your essay flow logically.

    As you revise, now is a good time to think about writing style ... 

    Writing style: Admissions officers love nothing more than clear, straightforward writing

    To repeat the most important insight in this blog post: essays are about showcasing your ability to succeed in college and beyond. Admissions officers are taking notes on what you write about — not grading you on your writing style. 

    Avoid being overly flowery. Beautiful metaphors, clever analogies, and the rest of the literary arsenal tend to get students in trouble. They distract from clearly illustrating the experiences that prove you'll be successful in college and beyond.

    In your writing, think about:

    1. Clarity — your reader gets what you’re trying to say.
    2. Flow — the reader gets where the essay is heading from the start; the ending feels natural.
    3. Engaging style — the reader wants to keep reading because the text is easy to follow thought-by-thought, the sentence structures vary, vocabulary is simple and effective, useful anecdotes illustrate your points, and there are no jarring grammatical errors. 

    Clarity: Probably the most important quality for your writing. As we said above, the best way to know if you have been clear is to get someone who doesn’t live in your head tell you if they can follow along. But always keep clarity in mind as you review and polish your draft.

    Flow: Wouldn’t it be fun to jump on a raft, and watch a beautiful landscape float by, until you got off somewhere nice? Yes, it would. Your essay should be just like that. 

    Take the time to ensure that every thought connects logically to the next. For each sentence, even each phrase, ask yourself: “How is this relevant?” Cut anything irrelevant, and make clear why everything in your essay relates to the main point (about your potential for success). Also look at whether your essay raises any questions that don’t get answered. 

    You want your reader to follow along effortlessly. A few more tips:

    • Intros really matter — begin your essay on a theme that’s directly relevant to the main experience you’re describing. 
    • Use guiding sentences to help give a sense of where the essay is likely heading. 
    • Conclusions matter, too — Your ending shouldn’t come out of nowhere. To assess your conclusion, look back at your intro: while it shouldn’t give away the full ending, the course that your essay will take should be set right at the start. Your ending should feel inevitable. 

    Engaging style: You want your reader to want to keep reading. There are lots of pieces to this, including:

    • Killing adjectives: We talked about avoiding flowery language. One great tip on that comes from Mark Twain who said, “When you catch an adjective, kill it.” Try it. It works.
    • Use everyday vocab: First, this makes your essay easier to read. Your reader will demonstrate gratitude. Just kidding! How annoying was that last sentence? I meant: “Your reader will thank you.” Second, if you misuse a vocab word your reader may lose patience with you.
    • Vary sentence structures: Take a minute to go through your sentences. Are they all kind of long? Throw in a few shorter ones. If they’re all pretty simply, make a few of them a little more complex. And make sure you don’t start every sentence with “I.” In other words, take a moment to introduce some variety. (This is kind of fun, actually.)
    • Grammar kinda matters: Really big errors can have a dramatic affect on readability. Read carefully to catch the big things like subject-verb agreement, missing words (even small ones, such as “to,” “in,” etc. ...), incorrect verb conjugations, fragments or run-ons. On the other hand, don’t lose sleep over more subtle things like commas and hyphens. Do your best, and get a second opinion, but this is more minor. In fact, most admissions types don’t directly evaluate grammar. (See the University of California’s “writing tips” as an example.)

    Final feedback & revision round: Read it out loud and, sure, you can worry about grammar now

    After two rounds of feedback and revision, you should be in the home stretch. Your content, structure, and clarity should all be there at this point.

    Usually, at this point, students are struggling with much more minor issues such as grammar and spelling errors. They’re often still over the word count. So here’s how to handle the last pieces of the process. 


    1. Get within the word count. One way to cut easily is to jot down the most essential elements of your essay. This will help you see — and chop — everything that’s extraneous. The other way is to ask your reviewer to help you see what’s cuttable.
    2. Read the whole thing out loud. This is one of the best ways to expose unclear writing. You’ll probably stumble across long and overly complex sentences. Cut these down — a good hint is to break up any sentence that goes to 3 lines or has more than 4 commas. 
    3. Use a grammar checker to spot remaining errors. Often, a human grammar checker is more trustworthy than one made of code. 

    For more information on the Common App, check out: 

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