7 Easy Steps to Conquer Writer's Block on Your Common App Essay

The Common Application makes it easy to apply to lots of schools without having to duplicate information — over and over and over again.

At present, more than 600 schools accept the Common App, meaning that you can apply to any participating schools, and all you have to do is complete the required supplementary materials for the institutions on your list. This also means, however, that your personal statement — or one of the (up to) three versions that you’re allowed to submit — will be seen by every school to which you apply using the Common App. The pressure of having this one piece of writing figure so importantly in all of your college admissions decisions may be anxiety-producing. But the Common App essay also presents an amazing opportunity to showcase your strengths.

New Essay Prompts, New Opportunities

When the Common App published its new essay prompts, I was especially excited about the fourth of these, which asks about a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. I couldn’t wait to see which problems my high school students would set out to tackle.

Would there be an essay on revamping airport security? Speeding up highway construction and road repair? Tackling identity theft? No such luck.

Instead, the most recent version of the Common App essay ended up steering many applicants toward the first prompt because students tend to be more comfortable writing about themselves: “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.”

Now that my most of my students are fast at work tackling their prompts of choice — they know it’s important to get a draft done before they get deeper into the semester — it hurts to see some of them struggle as they write their personal statements. When they hit a wall, I urge them to think back to the skills they used in the simpler days of essay writing.

Strategies for Conquering the Common App Essay You Choose

Since many of the students I work with ultimately choose prompt 1, let’s use that as an example — though the strategies below can be applied to any of the Common App essay prompts.

Here are 7 rules for writing effective Common App essays:

1. Start by brainstorming.

Resist the urge to jump in and write! Except for the most gifted writers, the tactic of opening a document and pouring out your story can waste time and make you lose focus. For prompt 1, input the keywords background, identity, interest, and talent, and jot down ideas that apply to you in each category. It’s possible that you may not come up with a response to each of these categories, or that one category, such as interest, will have several. Next, narrow down your choices for your essay topic, keeping in mind that that it is often beneficial to select something that isn’t readily apparent from the activities section of the Common App. For example, an academically strong student might disclose something about a favorite hobby, or an athlete might reveal an unexpected appreciation for art.

The best essays usually come from unexpected situations, talents, or interests, or the most sincerely-held passions. Make sure you’re the only one who can tell your story, and you have a good chance of capturing the admission officer’s attention.

2. Construct your thesis, even if you don’t plan on using it in the essay.

Ground yourself in the topic by frequently reminding yourself of your thesis statement: What is the takeaway message of your essay? For the student who selects prompt 1, a thesis might be: “I wouldn’t be who I am today without my background…” Even if you don’t plan to state this particular thesis in your personal statement, use it to get motivated and craft a focused response.

3. Support your thesis with interesting, relevant examples.

Do you remember that the SAT essay (at least through January 2016) asks you to “support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations”? For an effective Common App essay, jot down the anecdotes that support your thesis, and expand on them by adding names and dialogue. This strategy also makes the personal statement easier to read. Using examples rather than stating behaviors (showing vs. telling) is a sure way to make your essay come to life.

4. Organize your essay by organizing your anecdotes.

While the Common App personal statement is not your standard, five-paragraph essay, it should be organized so that it follows a logical progression. Here’s how you can ensure that it will make a compelling read:

  • Pick your favorite anecdote, and try using it as an introduction. For this essay, you need a killer introduction; your admissions officer only has so much time!
  • Next, structure the essay by grouping and sequencing the anecdotes. Depending on the topic, that could mean having a chronological organization — for example, how your ability to appreciate other cultures evolved over the course of high school. Or, anecdotes could be grouped by how your interest in other cultures is reflected not only inside but also outside the classroom. You get the idea!
  • Finally, create a forward-thinking opinion statement to serve as your conclusion. Maybe it’s a pronouncement on how your ability will come into play when you begin college, and it may also refer back to the introduction. Someone interested in other cultures might write, “As I look toward 2016, I am confident that my appreciation of other cultures will go a long way toward easing the transition from high school to college, when I will have the chance to meet students from around the world.”

5. Take advantage of the personal nature of the essay.

The Common App essay is not a research paper, nor is it a persuasive essay. Rather, it is your opportunity to write about yourself and use the word “I” whenever appropriate — something your teachers may have insisted (rightly) you not do for academic essays. Importantly, this form of writing lends itself to an upbeat, conversational tone (though keep in mind: conversational, not censorable). Tell your story in your own voice. An experienced reader can usually tell if a parent or tutor has taken over the process from a student.

6. Check periodically to make sure you are on task.

Just remember that like the SAT or ACT essays, the Common App essay must address the prompt. Don’t tell a story about a fun experience, for example, if it doesn’t relate to your background, identity, interest, or talent.

7. Don’t rule out changing your mind and going in a different direction.

Don’t try to force a particular response to fit prompt 1. It may be that another prompt is better for you. If you can’t come up with enough anecdotes or examples to support your thesis, that can be very telling.

A Final Word

Once you take these steps, your chances of being “stuck” should decrease dramatically. In fact, you’ll have the start of a working draft that you will continually fine-tune. Remember, you want to write an essay that only you can write! In turn, your admissions reader can get to know you — even without necessarily having the benefit of a face-to-face meeting.

An authentic personal statement, one that conveys how you think and act, will help you connect with colleges that understand and support your identity. Even if you are not gifted a storyteller, you can still conquer the Common App personal essay!

Find further advice about applying to college from Nina Berler and Noodle Experts, such as How to Succeed on Holistic Essays.

If you're interested in exploring your options, check out the free Noodle college search tool to find a school that's right for you.