Can you provide a snapshot of the Common App essay?

By Maxine Seya

“Can you provide a snapshot of the Common App essay? My son is stressing over it and it would be helpful to understand how I can support him.”

– Rhonda, a parent from Huntington Beach, Calif.

When it comes to Common App college essays, there’s the Personal Essay, or what some people call the “main essay,” and there are the school-specific Writing Questions, or what people call “supplements.”

What’s the difference?

The Common App Essay (the personal essay)

The Common App “Personal Essay” is a 250- to 650-word personal statement sent to every school on your son’s list that answers one of seven prompts, typically recycled from year to year. The Common App 650-word length is a firm limit and so is the 250-word minimum. As admissions officers have thousands of essays to read in very little time, they can’t waste time reading more than 650 words per applicant. In fact, the fewer words your son can use to wow the admissions officer, the better. As the Common App website says, “650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so.”

The seven Common App prompts are similar in that they test a student’s ability to be introspective and reflective. But they seven questions differ from each other in that they allow a student to choose an area of his experience to highlight: previous accomplishments, problem-solving abilities, overcoming challenges, or self-identity, for example.

The 2020-2021 admissions cycle questions were simply recycled from the previous year. Just to give you an idea of what the Common App wants to read, here’s a staple prompt that the centralized college app site has kept on its list for years: “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?”

The good news is that almost anything your child wants to write about can be tailored to answer one of the existing seven prompts. (After all, one of the seven prompts is a “pick your own prompt” option if none of the others suit him.) This Common App Personal Essay is the singular masterpiece that will be sent to all of his chosen schools that use the Common App, which is how it earned its nickname of “main essay.” Because multiple schools will read the same essay, students shouldn’t name-drop any specific school in this section. After all, NYU doesn’t want to know how interested you are in attending Northwestern.

The Supplements

Unlike the Common App Personal Essay or “main essay,” the school-specific supplement is a question asked by the individual institution and will only be read by that institution that asks for it. Instead of asking a student about himself generally, these shorter supplemental essays try to gauge the student’s fit at that specific institution. Because of that, the school-specific questions tend to ask students to answer questions directly related to the school, like “Why Northwestern?” or questions related to an applicant’s major choice or extracurriculars.

On the Common App website, these prompts are listed under “Writing Questions” if that specific university requests supplements. The word limit for school-specific supplementary essays range typically between 150 to 300 words, making them less like essays and more like short responses. This section is where your son can name-drop and sing praises about that school because their admissions office will be the only ones who read it.

The Common App “Writing Questions” section is also where a school demonstrates its personality, giving applicants a peek into the university culture and the type of students they seek. UChicago, for example, is known for its quirky supplement questions, like this one from the 2020-2021 admissions cycle: “Do you feel lucky? Well, do ya, punk?” – Eleanor Roosevelt. Misattribute a famous quote and explore the implications of doing so.” By reading your son’s response to this supplementary question, UChicago is clearly testing to see if he’s, well, weird enough to fit in with his classmates.

Does it matter?

Now that we’ve picked apart the main differences between the Common App Personal Essay and the school-specific “Writing Questions,” let’s go back to the significance of the Personal Essay. The Common App Personal Essay’s “multiple birds with one stone” system is convenient because your son won’t have to rewrite a personal statement for every school on his list. But the weighty importance of this singular essay can also stress him out.

After all, the Common App essay is supposed to be the one reflective, personal, and engaging masterpiece that will be scrutinized by possibly hundreds of eyes. And now that most universities have removed test scores from admissions criteria, admissions officers will be spending more time evaluating the essay, among other aspects of the app like GPA and recommendations. This essay could be the reason your child gets accepted. Or rejected.

From our interviews with application evaluators and admissions officers who read thousands of essays, here’s curated list of expert advice and best practices to get your son started on a winning Common App personal essay.

Hi there.

No one spotlights the human stories of college admissions like we do.

But we're independent journalists who need support from readers like you.

Your subscription keeps us going -- completely ad-free.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Maxine Seya
Maxine Seya is a former investigative journalist, college consultant, and admissions interviewer. She studied at Peking University (Beijing, China) and Université Paul-Valéry (Montpellier, France) and investigated for CNN and Huffington Post before graduating from Northwestern University. She founded SocratesPost to share the human stories behind the admission gates and offer parents clarity as they help their teens with college.