Essays That Work: How to Write a Strong Common App Personal Statement

As a writer myself, I have always loved the art of storytelling. When executed well, stories have not just the power of capturing a reader’s attention and imparting knowledge, but they often also leave a lasting impression on their readers – which, when you think of a college application, is exactly what you want to do. As a former admissions counselor and admissions reader, I have personally read thousands of college admissions essays, and yet in those roles – only a few have stood out as truly memorable. Perhaps this is why essays are my favorite part of the college application process in my work with students, but working with my students to uncover their voice, to tell their own personal stories in unique and creative ways is both a privilege and an absolute joy. To help you get started in uncovering your own personal narrative, I am going to walk you through what constitutes a strong admissions essay – focusing on the main essay that most students write: The Common Application Personal Statement

Common Application Personal Statement

What is the Common Application?

The Common App is the most popular online system used by colleges and universities to help students apply to their college. Hundreds of colleges and universities accept the Common App, though it’s important to note that some schools do not participate (i.e. the UC schools are one example). As its name implies, the Common App is one centralized application that you can send to all participating colleges and universities who accept it (talk about a time-saver). While each school has the option to ask additional questions (and additional, custom to their school, supplement essays) – the main part of the application, and thus, the main essay – the personal statement, will be sent to almost every school that you apply to.

The Common App Personal Statement

The Common App essay, known as your Personal Statement, has a 650-word maximum word count, and as a writer, you have 7 prompts to pick from. While I will list the prompts for the 2023-2024 application cycle below, I strongly encourage you to write your essay first, and then choose the prompt to match it later – I’ll explain why below. 

Below is the full set of Common App Personal Statement prompts for 2023-2024.

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

So often when we read prompts like these, we can be tempted to respond to the question quite literally. “An accomplishment that sparked a period of personal growth for me was when…”, sound familiar? In reading those prompts, you might have even started to brainstorm your own responses with that exact sort of sentence structure. Imagine how many others also brainstormed in that sort of way, and then began their essay responses in this fashion. This is exactly the reason why I recommend figuring out what prompt your essays responds to, after you have written your essay. Do not trap yourself in such a literal box. Admissions teams are curious to see how you will approach your essays – approaching your writing in the same way as the large majority of applicants, does not set you apart, nor does it do much to show your creativity of thought.

So Then, How Do I Start?

First: Know What Your Reader is Looking For

When I introduce my students to writing college essays, I always try to remind them that their application consists of various pieces of evidence that are all working together to hopefully make a strong case for them to be admitted at the respective schools to which they are applying. Supporting documentation like transcripts, recommendation letters, test scores, etc. all play a role in the review of a file – but how a student represents themselves, in the form of their writing pieces especially, can set the overall tone and narrative of who an applicant really is. 

When evaluating applicants in a sea of strong applications, admissions counselors are looking for top students who also present strong narratives. What exactly does this mean? If a student’s resume has a bunch of different activities that show off several sides of them, and then their essay shows off yet another completely different side of them and doesn’t compliment the rest of their file – the application can feel somewhat disjointed. In these instances, it’s hard to really get a pulse of who this student is, what their actual passions and interests are, nor is it easy to see how the student will contribute to the respective college or university community.  On the contrary, a student with a strong narrative – each piece of the application file works harmoniously together, to paint the scene of who this student is, what this student aims to achieve, and how this student will make a difference in a campus community. When there is this sort of cohesion present, a strong narrative results. Strong narratives allow your admissions reader to truly understand you, which ultimately, is what they need to be able to do, to effectively lobby for you in admissions committee. 

Brainstorming Your Essay Idea

I would encourage you to look at your resume and life story and look at the themes that present. What is your overarching narrative? From that, I would encourage you to think of 3-5 storylines from your life, that best tell how your narrative came to be what it is. Why is it that you are excited about the major you are indicating? How did you get here? Usually, I recommend fleshing out at least 2-3 of these ideas in outline form and see which of the possibilities best represent you as an applicant. I have students talk about everything from feeling helpless as a tourist on vacation but not being a tourist in their own life/community, to the loss of a sibling and how it inspired them in their future endeavors, to the beauty of deer grazing in the backyard. I think that as you are thinking of your idea, it’s important to remember that the goal of this essay is for the admissions team at each of your respective institutions to feel like they know you better at the end of this essay. Pick a storyline that best represents you at your core. They want to see how your passions developed, what motivates/drives you, and they want to get a sense for where you are going.

Note: This is Not a Resume Dump

The personal statement is diving into one storyline – it is not the place to brag about all of the things you have accomplished in life thus far. A common misperception is that you have to use your essay to highlight each of your most impressive accomplishments. This is what the activities and honors list sections of the Common App are for. Your personal statement needs to be a window into your life – it’s not your full autobiography. 

Writing Your Essay

I would encourage you to devote a good portion of time to essay writing and development. This is not something you can wait to do until the last minute – it requires intention and a great deal of effort to really nail this kind of writing. The majority of my students spend 4-6 weeks on writing this essay – if you write yours in a day and call it quits thereafter, it will likely show in your application results. Additionally, this essay is 650-words in length, maximum. I strongly encourage that your essay be between 600-650 words, in its final iteration. It is easier to start with more and then trim down to 650, so don’t limit your writing at first – see how it flows and once you have your essay’s first draft, you can work on trimming it down. I recommend you write and edit in either a Word document or in google docs – do not write and edit your essay within the Common App itself. Once your essay is ready to be added to your Common App – you can add it then but do all work on it outside of the Common App itself.

Recommended Outline for a Personal Statement

A 650-word essay like this is usually about 5 paragraphs in length. As this is a descriptive essay, you want to open your essay in descriptive text. A great idea here is to incorporate the senses – whether that be sights, sounds, tastes, or smells, paint the scene of your story in your opening. Take your reader alongside you in this opening, we want to feel like we are there, experiencing as you are.

In your second, third, and fourth paragraphs – you should zoom out more and introduce us to what your storyline actually is. In the meat of your essay, we should see how you got to where you are in your journey and have a good read on where you plan to go from here. Utilizing details on how you plan to explore this further in college (though remember: this essay goes to all colleges, so don’t put any specific college or university names or information in this essay), allows the admissions team to see how you will quickly assimilate at their school and the impact you will likely have.

Your final paragraph is your summary, and it should always tie back to your opening. Whatever story you kicked your essay off with, you need to refer back to it here. I like to tell my students that this is where you leave the reader with an impact of some kind. A realization or lesson, or some knowledge that could have only resulted thanks to the story you just told, is great. 

Essays That Worked

There are several colleges that share “Essays That Worked” yearly, to serve as an example of what other students have done for their essays. What I particularly like about these is that the college admissions team will also usually give notes on what “worked” about the essays they chose to share. My favorite Essays That Worked pages to explore yearly are:

Johns Hopkins University Essays That Worked

Hamilton College Essays That Worked

Connecticut College Essays That Worked

Need Additional Guidance?

At Solomon, we work with our students on all essays that they will write – the Common App Personal Statement, as well as all of the supplement essays. We help with brainstorming and idea selection, and provide countless rounds of editing guidance throughout the writing process. To discuss how we can help you best prepare for the upcoming college application season, we’d love to help – contact us today.

Former Admissions Reader at Rice University,
3500+ Applications Read and Evaluated
As college admissions professional for the last 16 years, Adrienne has experience working on all sides of the proverbial admissions desk. She has read thousands of applications in her role as an admissions reader for highly selective Rice University, she has aided in the development of admissions and financial aid strategies for colleges and universities worldwide as a higher education enrollment consultant, and she has served as the Director of College Counseling in an elite K-12 school - a role that she was recognized for in 2015 when she was selected as The University of Chicago's Outstanding Educator of the Year.

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