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.
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We’re in the thick of college application season, which is why I’ve been getting questions lately about the Common Application. Today I’m providing you with answers to some of the most frequent questions.
There are 456 colleges that use the Common Application, which is intended to make applying to colleges easier. With the Common App, you fill in information about yourself and your family only once.
If you are applying to lots of schools, it’s convenient to only have to fill in such things your contact information, your coursework, extracurricular activities and your parents’ background one time. Each school, however, inserts its own supplemental questions into the application so applying to each school will take extra effort.
If you’re curious what the document looks like, you can see the PDF of the Common Application here. Here is the list of Common Application colleges and universities.
Common Application Answers
While the premise of the Common App is simple, it generates a lot of questions. Consequently, I asked Scott Anderson, the director of outreach at The Common Application, Inc., to field some of the issues that students often encounter. Here are his answers:
1. You can create more than one application.
Students can create up to 10 versions of their application, but 97% of applicants generate three or fewer. Ninety percent of students stick with the original application.
2. You can upload a new essay.
Students can create an alternate version to update or correct an essay (or any other part of the application). The process is explained in detail on the main instructions page of the student’s account. Students should NOT use alternate versions to tailor essays to individual colleges. That is what the supplements are for.
3. Watch the essay word count.
Because the essay is an uploaded document, the online system cannot enforce a word count. Nonetheless, applicants are expected to adhere to the instructions specifying a range of 250-500 words.”
Note from Lynn: Here is a recent article from The New York Times about the Common App’s new 500-word maximum for the college essay:
College Application Essay as Haiku? For Some, 500 Words Aren’t Enough
And here is a neat illustration from the newspaper that suggests how a student can cut their college essay down to 500 words.
4. No need to update an application to add the latest ACT or SAT scores.
There is no need to update testing via the application itself. Students are asked to self-report testing already taken and indicate future tests to be taken. Thus colleges know if a student has new scores pending, and the student should send those scores directly to the colleges from the testing agencies.
5. Don’t forget to preview.
Students often forget to preview the application, which allows them to see exactly what the college will see. Once they hit submit, they cannot retrieve the application. If they discover errors afterward, it’s too late for that application.
6. Make sure you really did submit the application.
The application, supplement, and payment submissions are three distinct processes. Students sometimes misunderstand this and think that submitting a payment or supplement also submits the application. Their My Colleges page will always show the correct status for each submission at each college, but some students fail to check this information and incorrectly assume a college has received an application when in fact it has not.
Note from Lynn: This happened to us when my son was applying to a college in 2010, but luckily I caught it in time.
7. Communicate with your high school counselor.
If counselors are submitting their school forms online, the forms will not arrive at their destination college until and unless the student submits a Common App to that college. About two thirds of our members accept alternate applications, so it is important for students to communicate with counselors if they elect not to submit a Common App.
8. You can mix online and snail mail forms.
Students want to know if they can submit online if their counselors and teachers elect to mail school forms, and the answer is absolutely yes. They also want to know if the submission sequence matters (app before school forms or school forms before app), and the answer is no.
9. If you don’t know, ask.
Have a question, just ask by heading to the Common Application’s Support Center.
All of our support emails come from the commonapp.net domain. We always respond to requests for help–usually within about 35 minutes–but SPAM filters can get in the way. This is especially problematic for AOL users. All applicants and school officials should make sure that email domain is on their safe list.
10. Low-income students can obtain fee waivers for their applications.
All schools that use the Common App accept both the NACAC and College Board fee waivers. As long as students meet the criteria outlines by these organizations, members will accept the waiver. Students indicate their intent to submit a fee waiver in the Payment section of the application. From there, students need to consult with their counselors, who need to verify eligibility.
11. It’s best not to wait until the last minute to apply.
December 31 is the single busiest day of the year. Our servers have ample capacity to handle the volume of that day or any other. One of my colleagues likes to refer to the system as a Ferrari that sits in the garage 364 days a year.
Despite urban myths to the contrary, the system has never slowed or crashed because of the volume. The big downside to waiting until (literally) the 11th hour comes when students find they need help. Our support team will be ready to assist them, but there is no guarantee that we’ll be able to help them resolve their problem before the clock strikes midnight.