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Common App Essay Prompts: 5 Do’s and Don'ts for Mastering the 2021 - 22 Essay Questions

by Mimi Wilmerding, on Jul 22, 2021 12:26:42 PM

The first thing you need to understand is how to pick and answer one of the Common App personal essay questions (aka “prompts”). Your personal statement and supplements are important because they give colleges the unique opportunity to hear directly from you. Here, I want to give juniors and seniors some advice on how to navigate the essay writing process.

3 things you need to know and do to conquer your Common App essays

1.  Focus the essay on your character, not your achievements

There are other places in your college applications to showcase accomplishments: in the Activities + Honors section, in a supplement question that asks about an important activity or accomplishment, or in the Arts or Athletics supplement. But in your 250-650 word personal statement, accomplishments are the wrong currency. Instead, look for stories that reveal who you are as a person. Use StoryBuilder, the Story2 writing platform, to begin exploring moments that reveal your character and help colleges believe in you and your future.

2. Make sure to spend enough time on the supplements for each college 

If you are applying to selective colleges, prepare to write a lot of essays! Make a list of all the essays you’ll need to write for each college and allow plenty of time to plan out your supplements for each college you’re applying to. Here’s an organizer that can help you get on top of your supplemental essays. 

Colleges Supplements Regular Decision
Due Date
Early Options
+ Due Dates
Duke University
- One required
- 2 optional
Jan 4, 2022 Early Decision
Nov 1, 2022
College Name      
College Name      

If a college asks, “Why do you want to attend this college?” do the research to answer in a specific and nuanced way. If they ask about community, figure out what community really means to you. Generic responses like “I fell in love the first time I walked onto the campus” or “Community has always been really important to me” will not help you. 

And, BTW, “optional” essays are not really optional. Each essay is a chance to reveal another part of your story, by showing moments when you have changed or grown or made a difference. Start planning now to avoid a time crunch later.

3. Write the essay yourself

You may be tempted to let other people write your essay. This happens, often innocently at first, with a teacher, advisor, or parent “editing” your essay. If they are putting their pen to your paper or their fingers on your keyboard or making revisions in your Google Doc, then they are writing it for you. Before you know it, your unique voice is lost. 

When I shared my drafted essays with my parents, I was overwhelmed with suggestions that clouded the story that I was trying to tell. Once I started to trust myself, instead of other people, my essays started to feel authentic and true to my own voice. 

2 things you should never do in your Common App essay

1. Write about general ideas that lots of people can say

You may want to tie up your essay with a pretty “and see how perfect I really am” kind of ribbon at the end. This is almost always a mistake. Common App prompt #2 is about failure because colleges want you to reflect on what choices and circumstances have molded you into the person you are today. College essays are not a time to play it safe! 

2. Over-editing

Darryl Jones, Senior Associate Director of Admission at Gettysburg College, says “if you can’t finish it in two drafts, it will never be a great essay.” Many of my friends' unique and authentic spirits were crushed by editing their essays over and over until the spark of their own creativity was lost and their essays sounded just like everyone else’s. 

You want your Common Application essay to be your best work, but you don’t want the essay to be so safe and sanitized that it sounds unreal. Your essay should sound like your unique spoken voice. When in doubt, read them out loud, and cut out everything that sounds flowery, literary, or like you plucked it from a thesaurus.

Ready to get started? Our StoryBuilder software is free and waiting to help you! Want more tips for the Common App? Check out our Ultimate Guide to the Common App.

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE. Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram!

Mimi Wilmerding is a Hong Kong native and a graduate of St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware. She'll be starting college at the University of Virginia this fall, where she hopes to major in psychology. She was the captain of her school's tennis team, a dorm counselor, and a math tutor and mentor at St. Andrew's and in Middletown public schools.

Topics:college admissionscollege essayscommon appessay writing tips