Confused on How to Format Your
Common Application Essay?
Here are 9 Hot Tips
The 2017-18 Common Application opened for business earlier this week (August. 1). Chances are you will soon need to know how to format your common application essay.
If you are on the ball, you might be ready to apply to specific colleges and universities and need to submit your core Common Application essay, as well as other shorter essays required by certain schools (often called Supplemental Essays).
Or you are still getting ready or working on writing them, but will need to know how to format your common application essay(s) in upcoming weeks or months.
The first step is to get an account with The Common Application.
Then figure out your list of colleges you will be applying to, and start searching the site for additional shorter essays they want you to write.
Under each college or university, you will see a tab called Writing Requirements. You can find these additional short essays either under the College Questions or the Writing Supplements.
Every school is different, so really root around all the tabs and drop-down options. For example, some schools will ask you to write about an extracurricular activity (in 150 words or so) under the College Questions section, under one of the drop down tabs, such the Activities or Essay Questions tab.
Confusing, yes. But it will make more sense once you get logged on and explore the site.
RELATED: 10 Hot Tips to Power your Supplemental Essays
I like to advise my students to collect all the supplemental essays (by prompt and word count) in one place (such as a Word or Google doc file). That way they know what they will need to write about at the start, and also be able to see which ones are the same or similar. (For example, many schools have supplemental essays about “Why are you a fit?” or writing about your intended major.)
RELATED: Check out this short Slideshare to Learn How to Write Short Essays.
Of course, the most important essay you will write is the core Common Application essay, although some schools do not require it—and you can determine which ones do as you read through the application site. (Even if you only have one of your target schools that requires the main Common App essays, you will need to write one–and learn how to format your common application essay.)
Nine Hot Tips to Format Your Common Application Essay
If you do need to submit a core Common App essay (you pick from one of 7 prompts; 250-650 words), here are some tips on how to format your common application essay:
- Compose your draft in either a Word file or Google docs. Do not craft it directly in the Common Application text box (You could lose your work)! If you use Word or Google docs, you can use their word count and, most importantly, the spell check feature. The Common App now allows you to upload Google docs directly from Google Drive. (Hint: If you want to use this feature, you might want to get a Gmail account that you use exclusively for these essays.) You can also copy and paste your Word or Google doc directly into the Common App text box.
- The Common Application essay text box does not allow tabbing. So make your paragraphs with block formatting (have a space in between each paragraph instead of an indentation.) You can format this way in your Word or Google doc, but make sure it translates after you either upload your Google doc, or copy and paste from the Word or Google doc.
- The Common Application essay text box only has formatting for Bold, Underline and Italics. I would format your essay along MLA guidelines (using italics for things like book titles, foreign words, those types of copyediting rules.), and then make sure they translate or carry over after you upload or copy and paste. If you lose the italics, use the Common App italics formatting to add them inside the text box. I see no reason to use either Bold or Underlining in your essays. Avoid gimmicky formatting, such as ALL CAPS, emojis or #hashtags.
- Avoid titles. Even though I think a snappy title can enhance an essay, I see no way to format it at the top of the Common App essay that would center it, and think it could be more of a distraction. If you really love your title, feel free to give it a try, but I think it will only stick on the far left of the first line. (If you go for it that way, maybe put it in Bold to make it clear it’s a title.)
- Do NOT include the prompt at the top of your essay. That only eats up precious words. With your Common App essay, you simply check the box that your essay lines up with the best.
- Supplemental (shorter) essays have similar formatting options. Use the same rules as above for these. Some do not provide a text box and require you to upload from Google docs or attach a Word file (converting it to a PDF.)
- Double check word counts. The Common App text box and text boxes for the supplemental essays show the minimum and maximum word counts, which is very helpful. After you copy and paste an essay, always scroll through it to make sure everything copies (and your formatting carried over) and make sure it’s within the word count requirement shown under the box.
- You can go back and make edits after you have submitted your essays. Even after you submit, go back and review to make sure it’s exactly how you wanted it.
- General rules for formatting drafts in Word or Google docs: Use a common font (Times New Roman, Arial, Cambria…), write in 12 pt font, double space.
I hope this helps you format your Common Application essay, and not sweat it.
If you are still working on finding a hot topic for your essay, read my Five Top Tips on Finding Topics.
If you have more questions on how to format your common application essay, let me know in the Comments box below. If I don’t know the answer, I will do my best to find a credible source to answer you.
Check Out These Related Posts!
If you are just starting to write your four short UC essays (called Personal Insight Questions), here are ten simple tips that can help you crank them out.
I’ve written longer posts on how to brainstorm and map out answers for each of these questions for the University of California application, if you have the time and inclination. Find them here.
Too busy to read all those posts? No worries.
Start with these 10 basic tips to make sure
your UC essays hit the mark:
- Content: Use these essays to share more about your talents, accomplishments and experiences, and explain what they meant to you (eg What you learned about yourself). Pick prompts that allow you to feature what you want to add to your overall application; not simply ones that are easiest to answer. Say you worked as an intern in a science lab; this is your chance to explain what you did and learned. Or that you played classical piano since age six; this is where you can go deeper and share how that shaped you somehow beyond your playing ability.
- Impact: The best trick to making your essay engaging and meaningful is to include some type of related problem. For example, if you are writing about leadership (#1), look for examples from your past where you tackled some type of problem in a leadership role. (Problems=challenges, mistake, obstacle, setback, conflict, phobia, flaw, obsession, change, etc.) This can work for all eight prompts.
- Substance: Always include specific examples (moments, incidents or experiences from your life) to support your main points in these UC essays. If you don’t have at least one of these real-life details in each essay, it’s almost a done deal that your essay is far too general and will lack meaning. If possible, start your essay with one of these specific examples to grab your reader at the start; then explain their larger meaning and go from there. (Example: If you are talking about leadership, start with a specific “time” you acted as a leader in a group setting. Then explain what qualities you used, your thoughts about what leadership means to you, and why, and what you learned.)
- Meaning: In the second half of any of these UC essays you can’t go wrong if you shift from explaining your answer, and supporting it with real-life examples, into explaining WHAT YOUR LEARNED about YOURSELF in the process. This is how you can share something you did, and what you love, or how you are, and also expand into WHAT YOUR LEARNED in the process. If you want to shift even deeper, include a sentence or two on WHY IT MATTERS to you and the world that you learned that lesson.
- Hardship: If you have experienced any type of hardship in your life, such as a major financial setback in your family due to job loss, low income, deportation, mental or physical illness, or other reasons, make sure to use at least one of these prompts to share that with the UCs. The best one (in fact, it’s designed for this purpose) is #4, at least the second half asking about an “educational barrier you have faced.” You can also use #5 about a “significant challenge,” just make sure to include second part about how it affected your academics. The UCs want to know if it has been more difficult for you to achieve your success so far, and why. Also, if you will be a first-gen student (first in your family to attend college), tell them! (You can also use the “Additional Comments” section in the Other Academic History section to share personal obstacles to your success.)
- Majors: If you know what field you want to study or major in at the UCs, it would be a good idea to use one of these prompts to showcase that, and include what inspired you and why you want to pursue it, and how. (Colleges like to see this.) You could use almost any of the eight UC essays to share your intended field of study or major, or even the general field that interests you at this point. Find the prompts that most naturally allows you to work what you want to say into your related topic.
- Effort: These prompts can feel overwhelming at first. Read through all eight so you get a sense of the different topics and options. If any of them spark an idea of a related experience or point you want to showcase about yourself, consider writing about that one. At the same time, you can make a list of the experiences, accomplishments, talents or whatever you want to share with the UCs, and then find the prompt that makes it the easiest to write about them.
- Strategy: When you pick your four prompts for your UC essays, make sure the points you make, or the major experiences you share, don’t overlap. Ideally, you want these to highlight a variety of your experiences, accomplishments and talents, but also your defining qualities and values. Look for variety and balance among the four your write about. Make sure your essays are about YOU, and YOUR experiences, and not general discussions about your topic or others.
- Style: The UCs have made a huge effort to get out the word that these short essays do not need to be literary masterpieces. Of course, try to know the MAIN POINT you want to make in each one so they have a focus, and support that with specific details and real-life examples. Start with something specific, if possible, and then state the more general main point, and finally, share what you learned. Write in a casual, familiar tone; don’t try to impress with fancy descriptive language or big words; get out a rough draft and then go back and trim under 350 words and proof it for errors. Don’t sweat these!
- Formatting: When you copy and paste your four Personal Insight Question UC essays into the application, it only accepts plain text. That means any formatting you did will be lost. So, for indicating paragraphs, do not indent and instead break them up with a double space. Instead of italics (which won’t show), use quotation marks to indicate things like titles, foreign words, etc. Bolding also doesn’t show; instead use CAPS, but sparingly.
Extra Tip: If you need to explain anything about your academic performance (such as issues related to your grades or performance), don’t necessarily use these UC essays to explain why. Instead, there are two places to share these explanations in the “Additional Comments” section of the UC application: One is under “Other Academic History” and the other with the “Personal Insight Questions.” (Read how UC Berkeley advises applicants to use the Additional Comments section.)
In general, only use these two sections to explain unusual circumstances that you didn’t address in the four Personal Insight Question essays. Examples: changes in your grade patterns; a move in high school that prevented you from taking higher level courses; medical or psychological issues that affected your performance; financial issues (parental job loss; homelessness; low-income); immigration status issues, such as you are first generation (first in your family to attend college: MENTION THIS!) or deportation of family members; unexplained gaps in educational history, such as gap year or other absence. They are not essays so be direct and succinct; bullets points often work well.
If you want more help on specific Personal Insight Questions and UC essa, check out these 21 Tips for UC Personal Insight Questions that I wrote last year when they first came out. All the info and advice is still relevant and helpful.