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Articles / Applying to College / Planning Your Common Application Essay

Planning Your Common Application Essay

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | Sept. 21, 2017

I would be willing to bet that essay writing is not among high school seniors' favorite pastimes. That becomes quite clear this time of year when their thoughts turn toward the Common Application, which requires a major written statement. That's not to mention all the writing that many schools require in their annoying supplements. So, what's a frustrated senior to do?

My answer: Plan your writing and then write according to your plan. "That's great, Dave, but how the heck do you do that?"

Okay. Listen up! Here's how ...

I though that perhaps the best way to demonstrate planning a Common App essay would be to show you how I advised one of my essay clients who was having a hard time getting started. So here's a peek into that process. First, some background on this young man:

He comes from a small family that was economically disadvantaged during his youth. The family was quite mobile during his formative years and his father was focused on a long-term quest for higher education. When I asked him for some background about this situation, he wrote to me, in part ...

... We used to live in the basement of a family friend's home. My dad would work long hours as he was getting his MBA and my mom would work for minimum wage at a local convenience store. We shared one mattress that stayed on the floor. Eventually, we moved out of that basement and traveled across the country to Kansas, where we lived in student housing as my dad got his PhD. He eventually got a job in Michigan, and we were uprooted once again as I changed schools and lifestyles. But, for the first time, we finally owned a home. My story is hard to fathom, yet it defines me and helped me become who I am today – someone who believes in education and hard work, not to mention luck! ...

Although (let's call him) "Henry" had quite a bit of good essay material within the description he sent to me, he was having a hard time mining it for a Common App essay idea. Once I saw what he wrote, though, I quickly sensed an approach. Here, then, is what I wrote to him about starting his draft:

... So, Henry, let's get started on developing your draft.

In reviewing the latest Common App prompts, I think your essay could fit possibly three of them -- #1, #2, or #7. However, I think the best one to choose would be #1:

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. [No change from last year]

This one works, I think, because you'll be detailing your background, the "backstory" of your life, which has led to who you are today, with all your talents and aspirations. Your father will be a central part of your story, but the focus should be on you -- what makes you who you are and how you think about your circumstances and the world around you.

I'd like you to keep this thesis statement front and center as you begin your draft:

My family comes from humble beginnings, but my father has shown me what can be achieved through higher education, and I intend to follow his example.

So, keeping that in mind, here's an outline of paragraph structure to get you started:

- Attention-grabbing introductory paragraph: (~50-75 words). This is where you give a very brief glimpse of what you're going to be telling your readers. You'll want to keep this short, maybe just a couple sentences, but they should be hard-hitting, to draw in your readers. Something like:

"When I was [age], we lived in the basement of a friend's home. Our family slept on one mattress on the floor. These humble beginnings paved the way for my current dreams."

That's the tone I think you should set. This should create expectancy in your readers. They'll want to know what happened between that basement floor and the formulating of your current aspirations. Keep it short, to the point, and dramatic.

- Early childhood memories: (~125 words). Here's a good place for some humor. Focus on your "humble" beginnings. What about those early times and their "humbleness" do you recall most? Not having many necessities? Bad food? No trips to get ice cream? A beat-up car? Ugly clothes? Spiders in that basement? Etc.

Additionally, do you have any positive memories about those humble days? Also, mention what your parents were doing and how that affected you. If you can boil all that down into a paragraph of around 125 words, which would include a humorous observation or two, that would keep your readers involved.

- Grade school/middle school & moving: (also ~125 words or so). I don't have any details about this period of your life, but stay focused on your thesis' elements: humble beginnings, father's educational quest, moving, and your desire for higher education. A touch of humor here would be appropriate too.

- High school: (sticking with the ~125 words guideline). Here's where you can write about your higher education goals coming into focus, as well as your awareness of who you are and what you want from life. The tone of this paragraph should be serious.

- Thoughts about college: (~125 words). This should be a recap of how your father's example has inspired you and what you're looking for, in general terms, in a college. Maybe you can mention how you can see some of your father's traits manifesting in yourself. The thrust of this paragraph should be about how you're eager to make the transition from high school to the much greater opportunity -- and challenge -- of college.

- Brief, memorable closing paragraph: (<75 words). This is where you leave your readers with something to remember about you, something that they can take to committee and read aloud so everyone can see what a great applicant you are. This is where you succinctly wrap up and capture your thesis points. Sometimes this very brief closing paragraph is best left until after doing several editorial passes through the preceding draft.

Note: Let's not forget Mom! You can write about her in any of the main paragraphs. Although your thesis focuses on your Dad, your Mom is an important part of your developmental life. Feel free to include her within the limits of a paragraph or two.

This should be enough to get you started, Henry. Just to keep the ball rolling, let's set a deadline for me to see your draft ...


Deadlines are important, so set one for yourself as you begin working on this and other application essays. To thine own deadline be true!

I hope that this detailed organizational approach will help you get over what is usually the biggest hurdle of essay writing: getting started. Check my other Admit This! articles for more essay writing advice, particularly about finding a topic. They will save you valuable time during the stressful college process.


Be sure to check out all my other articles on College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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