Top Tips for Writing a Standout Common App Personal Statement

A girl typing her Common App personal statement.

Writing a standout Common App personal statement can be daunting, and it’s no wonder students everywhere feel overwhelmed when they have to start. The prompts may seem vague, leaving you unsure what to write about. And once you choose a topic, you might wonder how much of your true personality should shine through. Then comes the challenge of refining and perfecting your essay to make it the best.

Now, the Common App personal statement is no ordinary piece of writing. It’s your golden opportunity to show colleges who you are and unveil your personality’s layers. So, get ready to dive deep because we’ve got some fantastic tips to help you write a standout personal statement.

Introduction to the Common Application system

The Common Application, also known as the Common App, is a convenient application system accepted by over 900 colleges, including big shots like the Ivy League schools, Stanford, Caltech, and the University of Chicago. It’s a one-stop shop where you can enter all your essential info, like your name, background, and extracurricular activities you’re involved in.

The best part? You only have to fill out the general information once. It will automatically send to every school you apply to through the Common App.

In this post, we’re focusing on the Common App personal statement. It’s your chance to shine and show colleges who you are.

Now, if you are wondering what the prompts are for the Common App, here they are for the 2023-2024:

  1. Share a story about something deeply meaningful to you—a background, identity, interest, or talent—without which your application would feel incomplete.
  2. Describe a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure, and explain how it impacted you and what you learned from it.
  3. Recount an experience when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted this reflection, and what was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on an act of kindness or support that brought you unexpected happiness or gratitude. How did this expression of gratitude impact and motivate you?
  5. Discuss a personal accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked your growth and led to a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept that captivates you to the point where you lose track of time. Explain why it fascinates you and who or what you turn to for further exploration.

Try to pick a few that resonate the most with you, then brainstorm ideas of what you could potentially write about. You don’t have to have the perfect idea right off the bat. This is a process and your ideas will develop. If you need some inspiration, go through some of these brainstorming exercises.

What makes a Common App personal statement stand out?

Student working on their common app personal statement

Image by Freepik

Here are some writing tips that make your essay stand out:

Your essay structure

First, start with a captivating opening that hooks the reader and introduces your essay’s central theme or story. Then, provide some background information to set the stage and help the reader understand the context of your story.

In the core narrative, you delve into the heart of your story. Share a personal experience or a significant event that profoundly impacted you. Also, connect your personal statements story to your future aspirations and goals. Wrap up your college admission essay by reinforcing the central message or theme. Leave the reader with a lasting impression and a sense of closure.

Storytelling devices

The next tip is to paint a vivid picture with your words to help the reader visualize the scene and experience the emotions. For example, instead of simply saying, “I was nervous,” you could describe it as: “My heart was racing as if I was a marathon runner sprinting towards the finish line.” Or, “Butterflies were performing acrobatics in the pit of my stomach.”

Also, you can incorporate dialogue to bring your story to life and add authenticity. This allows the reader to hear the characters’ voices and engage in the conversation. For instance, you could include a dialogue between yourself and someone else that reveals important insights or adds depth to your narrative.

Imagery devices

Furthermore, use similes to make comparisons that evoke strong imagery. For example, “Her laughter rang out like a chorus of birds, filling the room with joy.” Or you can employ metaphors to create imaginative associations and deepen the reader’s understanding. For instance, “Time was a treacherous river, pulling me forward with its relentless current.”

Tips for writing an effective Common App personal statement

Pick the best essay prompt for you

Not all Common App essay prompts are created equal. Among the seven prompts, there are bound to be some that resonate with you more than others.

According to Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, students must consider the version of themselves they want to present to colleges and trust their instincts.

“Don’t just jump at the first prompt you come across and start writing,” she advises in a blog post for NYU. “Ask yourself: Are you eager to discuss a specific achievement? Do you wish to offer us a glimpse into a hardship you’ve faced and overcome?”

Grab the reader’s attention from the start

You’ve probably heard this advice countless times from your high school English teacher, but it holds even more weight now as a college applicant. Admissions counselors sift through a sea of Common App personal statements every day, so it’s crucial to make them genuinely excited to read yours.

Now, we understand this can be easier said than done, so we have a valuable tip: kick off your essay right in the middle of the action. Opening paragraphs often tend to be lackluster and fail to contribute to the captivating story you’re about to tell. Make sure to do some heavy editing.

The power of details: Bringing your essay to life

It may seem counterintuitive, but the details will set you apart from other applicants. Even if your chosen topic isn’t exceptionally unique, the little things will make your essay shine. Some of the most remarkable essays revolve around seemingly insignificant moments rather than grand, life-changing events. It’s the meticulous attention to detail that elevates these essays to greatness.

For instance, instead of merely stating that you volunteered at a local animal shelter, vividly describe the playful wag of a dog’s tail as you took them for a walk or the soft purr of a contented kitten you held in your arms. These small, evocative details breathe life into your essay, enabling the reader to envision themselves in your shoes and creating a lasting impression.

Embrace your authentic voice: Be YOU!

Regarding the Common App personal statement, it’s time to break free from the confines of formal academic writing and embrace your unique voice in the application process. This essay is an opportunity to showcase your true identity. So, it’s important to let your words reflect who you are rather than attempting to impress with many big, fancy words or adopting a stiff, academic tone.

According to Benedict, a seasoned admissions expert, one of the most common mistakes students make is trying too hard to sound impressive using complex vocabulary and formal sentence structures. Instead, the most compelling essays possess a conversational tone that feels natural and genuine.

Examples of three successful Common App personal statements for different prompts

Example 1: “Home” (anonymous author)

Source: The College Essay Guy

“The smell of freshly rolled biscuits hits me almost instantly as I enter the double doors. I trace the fan blades as they swing above me, emitting a low, repetitive hum resembling a faint melody. After bringing our usual order, the “Tailgate Special,” to the table, my father begins discussing the recent performance of Apple stock with my mother, myself, and my older eleven-year-old sister. Bojangles, a Southern establishment well known for its fried chicken and reliable, fast food, is my family’s Friday night restaurant, often accompanied by trips to Eva Perry, the nearby library. With one hand on my breaded chicken and the other on Nancy Drew: Mystery of Crocodile Island, I can barely sit still as the thriller unfolds. They’re imprisoned! Reptiles! Not the enemy’s boat! I feel at home as I delve into the narrative with a sip of sweet tea.

“Five, six, seven, eight!” As I shout the counts, nineteen dancers grab and spin the tassels attached to their swords while walking heel-to-toe to the next classical Chinese sword dance formation. My notebook reveals a collection of worn pages covered with meticulously planned formations, counts, and movements. I deepen my relationship with my parents, heritage, and community by sharing videos of my performances with my relatives or discovering and choreographing the nuances of certain regional dances and their reflections on the region’s distinct culture. When I step on stage, the hours I’ve spent choreographing, creating poses, teaching, and polishing are all worthwhile, and the stage becomes my home.

Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. This pulse mimics the beating of my heart, a subtle rhythm that persists each day I come into the lab. Whether working under the fume hood with platinum nanoparticles, manipulating raw integration data, or spraying a thin platinum film over pieces of copper, I first feel the distinct sensation in Lab 304 in Hudson Hall, and I’m home. After spending several weeks attempting to synthesize platinum nanoparticles with a diameter between 10 and 16 nm, I finally achieved nanoparticles with a diameter of 14.6 nm after carefully monitoring the sulfuric acid bath. That unmistakable tingling sensation dances up my arm as I scribble into my notebook: I am overcome with unbridled joy.

Styled in a t-shirt, shorts, and a worn, dark green lanyard, I sprint across the quad from the elective ‘Speaking Arabic through the Rassias Method’ to ‘Knitting Nirvana.’ This afternoon is just one of many at Governor’s School East, where I have been transformed from a high school student into a philosopher, a thinker, and an avid learner. While I attend GS at Meredith College for Natural Science, the lessons learned and experiences gained extend far beyond physics concepts, serial dilutions, and toxicity. I learn to trust myself to have difficult yet necessary conversations about the political and economic climate. Governor’s School breeds a culture of inclusivity and multidimensionality. I am transformed from a “girl who is hardworking” or “science girl” to someone who indulges in the sciences, debates about psychology and the economy, and loves swing and salsa dance. I’m at home as I form a slip knot and cast on.

My home is a dynamic and eclectic entity. Although I’ve lived in the same house in Cary, North Carolina, for ten years, I have found and carved homes and communities filled with and enriched by tradition, artists, researchers, and intellectuals. While I may not always live within a 5-mile radius of a Bojangles or near Lab 304, learning to become a more perceptive daughter and sister, to share the beauty of my heritage, and to take risks and redefine scientific and personal expectations will continue to impact my sense of home.”

Example 2 – Prompt #1 (anonymous author)

Source: College Vine

“Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.

My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As my few memories of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began identifying as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage between the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch,” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary when the holiday was just gaining popularity outside of the American Sector.

Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-­rooted sense of rootlessness. While discussing World War II with my grandmother, I stopped feeling American when I said, “The US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me, caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar.

After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one if not both, cultures.

During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.

There, I met Emily, a twelve­-year-­old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. Between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging. 

Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I could adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and a home in America, I could finally find those same things for myself.”

Example 3 – Coffee (anonymous author)

Source: Essays that worked

“I was 4.

With the blue blanket in one hand and the cookie monster in the other, I stumbled down the steps to fill my sippy cup with coffee. My diplomatic self gulped down his caffeine while admiring his Harry Potter wands. My father and I watched the sunrise through the trees and windows. I cherished this small moment before my father left, disappearing in and out of my life at the wave of a wand, harassing my seemingly broken but stronger family.

I was 10, and my relationship with coffee flourished as my father vanished. I admired the average yet complex beverage and may have been the only ten-year-old to ask for a French press for his birthday. Nonetheless, learning to craft intricate cups of coffee became my favorite pastime. I spent hours studying how to “bloom” the grounds in a Chemex or pour a swan. Each holiday, I would ask for an aeropress, an espresso machine. I became a coffee connoisseur, infinitely perfecting my own form of art.

As the years went by–I was 11, 12, 13–I began to explore the cafes in Pittsburgh with my grandmother, capturing them through our shared love for photography. Coffee (one of my few positive memories of my father) is also the bridge that allows my grandmother and I to converge our distinctly different backgrounds into one harmonious relationship. Inside quaint coffee shops, we would discuss pop culture, fashion, and the meaning of life. We made it our mission to visit every cafe and document them through the camera lens and the conversations we shared.

I was 16 years old and working at a family-owned coffee shop, training other employees to pour latte art. Making coffee became an artistic outlet that I had never had before. I always loved math, but once I explored the complexities of coffee, I began to delve into a more creative realm–photography and writing–and exposed myself to the arts–something foreign and intriguing.

When my father left, and my world exploded, coffee remained a light in the darkness. As the steam permeates my nostrils and the bitterness tickles my tongue, I learn more about myself. Pouring water over the grounds allows me to slow down momentarily and reflect upon my day, life, dreams, and future. When I dive into a morning cup, I plunge into the sea of the self, and as I sip, I am struck with the feeling that coffee is a universal link between cultures. I picture my great-grandmother sitting on her front porch in Rome, slurping LaVazza and eating her coffee-soaked biscotti. Every cup takes me back to my heritage, forces me to reflect upon where I came from and where I must go, and who else, in another world, is sipping the same drink and reflecting upon the same principles. You see, coffee is like the ocean. It bridges two cultures, lands, and brains through conversation, exposure, and exploration, but by one medium. I do not see it as a beverage but as a vehicle for much more.

At 18, coffee is a part of who I am–humble yet important, simple yet complex, and rudimentary yet developed. As I explore new coffee shops, I explore a new part of myself, once hidden beneath my persona’s surface. My grandmother and I–we are conquistadors of the cafe scene, conquering the world one coffee shop at a time and, in the process, growing endlessly closer to each other and ourselves. Coffee has allowed our relationship to flourish into a perpetual story of exploration and self-reflection.

Now, I often think about my father and how someone I resent so much could have introduced me to something I love. It is crazy to think that it took losing him for me to find my true self.”

How to get feedback on your Common App personal statment

Getting feedback on your Common App personal statement is crucial to refining and improving your writing. Here are some effective ways to seek feedback and make your essay shine:

Reach out to teachers or mentors

Approach your English teacher, guidance counselor, or a trusted mentor who can provide valuable insights and feedback on your essay. Their expertise can help you identify areas for improvement and strengthen your overall message.

Seek input from peers

Share your essay with friends or classmates who can offer a fresh perspective. They can provide feedback on clarity, coherence, and the overall impact of your writing. Consider forming a small writing group where you can exchange essays and provide constructive criticism to one another.

Utilize online platforms

Take advantage of online platforms like Lessonpal, where you can connect with experienced tutors specializing in college essay guidance.

Lessonpal tutors are well-versed in the Common App personal statement requirements. They can assist you at any stage of the writing process. They can provide feedback on structure, content, and grammar and help you fine-tune your essay to make it stand out.

The Common App big picture

Crafting a standout Common App personal statement requires careful thought, creativity, and feedback. Follow the tips we’ve outlined, and go through the examples. This will give you an idea of what a great essay sounds like. Brainstorm like crazy, narrow down your options, and start writing! Get feedback and iterate until you’re satisfied.

And again, if you’re looking for supportive guidance throughout the writing process, consider utilizing Lessonpal’s awesome College Essay Writing tutors!

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