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!
IMPORTANT: The UT has NEW prompts for 2017-18, so much of the information in this post is now outdated.
Here’s the link to the update-to-date information on UT prompts:New Essay Requirements for UT.
Former Admissions Counselor
at University of Texas-Austin
Shares Insider Advice
Are you planning on applying to any of the 14 University of Texas institutions, including the most popular in Austin, Texas?
(Or Texas A&M, and even some private Texas colleges, such as SMU, TCU, Baylor and Trinity College.)
I’m excited to share some tips from a former college admissions officer at UT-Austin with you. His name is Kevin Martin, founder of TexAdmissions, and he focused these tips on the one of the 3 required essays he believes is by far the most important, based on his experience.
Kevin Martin of TexAdmissions
The University of Texas essay is called Topic C, and the prompts asks:
“Considering your lifetime goals, discuss how your current and future academic and extra-curricular activities might help you achieve your goals.”
Here is what Kevin has to say about writing your college application essay for this prompt for the University of Texas essays:
Top 10 Tips for Writing University of Texas Essays
It’s all about Essay C – For universities like UT-Austin, which requires essay C, this is where you should spend the most effort. Here, they are looking to see if you are a good “fit” for your intended area of study. This means that you should focus on why they should invest in offering you a space in their program.
Only your first choice matters – When applying to UT, you are given options for a first and a second choice major.
This is an illusion; they only consider your first choice. One hundred percent of your essay should reflect on your past experiences and skills that show how you would contribute in the classroom and the overall university community.
Treat your essays like an argument – Provide proof! The biggest problem I saw when I reviewed files for UT were vague or cliché statements.
Instead of, “A strong foundation in math is important for success in engineering,” transform this statement into a “me-focused” sentence: “Because of my internship at Texas Instruments and my strong performance in calculus, I am well suited for studies in electrical engineering.”
Each sentence should tie back to the idea of “fit” – With each sentence in your essay, ask yourself: “Does this sentence contribute to my argument that I deserve a space in their program?
Does this sentence help continue the thought from the ones before and set up my argument in later sentences?
Is this sentence absolutely necessary?
If not, can I take it out and not hurt my argument?”
This is your chance to interview – UT and other Apply Texas universities do not conduct interviews as part of their admissions process. Instead, this is your only opportunity to introduce yourself to the admissions committee.
You want the reviewer to walk away thinking, “This is a pretty neat student. We want them here!”
How many essays should I write? – UT has a somewhat confusing system where they require two essays.
You must submit the Essay Topic C, and then your choice among Essays Topic A on diversity, Essay Topic B on overcoming an obstacle, or a special circumstances essay.
Sometimes students write all four thinking it will help them.
Don’t do this!
Unless you have a very compelling reason, only submit Essay C and your choice of one of the remaining three.
Should my second essay also focus on fit? – If you can relate your second essay to why you are a good fit for your major, then I would go for it.
I worked with a student who selected electrical engineering.
His essay C was a strong piece arguing why he had the skills and experience to contribute, but his essay B told an entertaining and insightful story of how him and his friend accidentally broke some computers they were repairing and managed to fix them just in time.
What if I am undecided? – That’s okay! Most students are undecided, even those who swear they know they are going to medical school before they enroll in freshman biology.
You can still demonstrate curiosity and passion by reflecting on one or two things that capture your interest and creative energies.
How am I evaluated? – In short, you are scored on a scale of 1-6 – whether to recommend you for admission or not.
Most students receive a 3 or a 4 with only the most exceptional students scoring a 6.
The admissions reviewer looks at everything you have submitted (resume, essays, recommendation letters, coursework, etc.). If the reviewer is on the fence about giving you a 4 or a 5, you want your essay to argue decisively that you are a good fit and an interesting person.
Essays, more so than recommendation letters, are often what tips the scale where the admissions reviewer can reward you with a higher score and improve your admissions chances.
Relax! – There comes a point where your essays are “done.”
Over-editing can cause a lot of unneeded stress and be counterproductive for the quality of your essays.
Once you submit your application, it is best just to forget about it until you receive your decision in the spring.
Excessive refreshing of your My Status page never does any good. ; )
Here’s a video that Kevin put together
with more great insider advice and tips
on writing essays for the University of Texas: