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Nadira Berman

The Common Application Essay: Finding a Topic

The Common App essay can be the scariest part of applying to colleges. 650 words seems like a lot, but never fear, if you pick the right topic, those words will fly right by and you’ll wish you had more. I know, shocking, right?

What’s the number one thing you want colleges to know about you?

Tell colleges what you need them to know. This is especially important if that number one piece of information you need them to know doesn’t fit anywhere else on the application. Sports and musical instruments can go in the extracurricular section but there’s not another place on the application where you can tell the story of the summer that changed your life or explain how your family’s cultural history impacted your identity. Use the essay to communicate this unique information that your application would be incomplete without. Allow this section to stand out by reviewing these tips on how to write a Common App activities list.

What occupies most of your time?

If you spend most of your time doing a certain activity and it has really come to define you, write about that. You’ll have a lot to say about doing the thing you love, whether it’s community service, writing, or soccer. That enthusiasm will shine through.

Don’t start with the prompt

Start with the topic you want to write about. Don’t look at the list of prompts. Write the whole essay. Get to roughly 650 words. Then, adapt it to the prompt that works best. They will be pretty broad so you’ll be able to find one that works for your essay.

I say this because you shouldn’t get stuck on the wording of the prompt. Again, writing about what you need to write about is the most important thing. In other words, the topic you picked comes first.

Write in your own voice

Don’t try too hard to impress by being overly formal. Just be you! Write in the same way you would normally speak. Colleges like to see honest essays. There are plenty of applicants who are obviously trying to be someone they’re not.

Writing in your own voice will also help you to reach that word limit. It will be more comfortable. It’s less likely that you’ll be stuck trying to figure out what to say next.

If you’re having trouble writing in your own voice, maybe you’ve picked a prompt that isn’t “you” enough and you should reconsider. When you’re tempted to be formal, it probably means you’re writing to impress and you’re not being true to yourself.

Want more essay advice? Don’t miss Common Mistakes That Will Kill Your College Essay, and our checklist for the Common App essay. 🙂


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About Nadira Berman

As a Summer Marketing Intern, Nadira is excited to help high schoolers prepare for the SAT and ACT. As a freshman at the University of Pennsylvania, she is considering studying economics. In her free time, she reports for the school newspaper and styles photo shoots for the school's fashion magazine. Besides fashion and journalism, her passions include bagels, smoothies and Netflix.

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