High School Students & BS/MD

What Makes a Common App Essay Compelling?

The Common App essay plays a significant role in college admissions. While your academic and extracurricular profile brings your application to the table for serious consideration, an admissions committee needs more before they can make a final decision. They are looking for someone interesting who will be an excellent fit for their student body, engage and contribute to their college community, and be a great representative of the college’s “brand” when they leave. Your essay can provide the information needed, and those who stand out in character, engagement, diversity, and talent will be among the strongest applicants. So how do you write an essay that accomplishes all those goals?

Select the Perfect Prompt, Developing a Theme, and Building Content

Selecting a Common App essay prompt that resonates with you and inspires you to write with confidence is essential. However, instead of selecting a prompt first, allow your experiences and unique qualities to guide you to the prompt that is best for you. Take some time to reflect on your high school experience and childhood. Did a particular experience impact your identity, personality, or character? Why was it important to you? You should also consider any challenges or significant events that may have affected you and how they have positively influenced your growth. Then, narrow the topic to a central idea that effectively represents who you are.

Next, you should develop a central theme. Gather your ideas and try to identify patterns or a national progression of a journey from beginning to end. Also, think about how you would market yourself or what your “brand” would be. This can be key in developing your theme so that it is more unique to you. Engage in reflective writing on your potential topics, as it can give you personal meaning and reveal the impact events, memories, and experiences had on you. It can also help you better express your beliefs, values, and principles, which can help set you apart from other applicants.

As you develop the theme and content for your essay, be sure that you always take “center-stage” and remember who will be reading your essay and why. Do not be afraid to share your impressive achievements! Your essay should showcase your unique qualities, hobbies, and interests while also demonstrating growth through challenges, exploration, influence, and talents.

If you decide to include information about your academics, focus on your chosen field and its significance to you, including how you became interested in it and how your interest has developed over time. Avoid discussing how much you like a subject or your proficiency in it. Remember, this is a time to guide the admissions committees on a deep-dive of you! Leave the stats and surface level information for other areas of your application.

Organize Your Essay

If you want to write a compelling essay, it’s helpful to remember some basic guidelines. Your essay should have four main parts: an introduction (including a “hook” and main point), a setting (where you describe what happened), a “turn” (when things changed and why), and a reflection (the impact on you).

Focus on more recent experiences than those from your early life, unless you can clearly demonstrate how those early experiences affect you now. When considering adversity, ask yourself if it qualifies as such; it is important to consider that some applicants may have faced significant challenges such as homelessness, poverty, loss, discrimination and/or traumatic events, so be sure to give any challenges you face the appropriate amount of gravitas. Also, a compelling essay does not need to include facing something terrible or traumatizing. Understanding your journey and growth is key.


Start with an anecdote or a clear statement that centers on your theme and showcases your personality, character, values, or principles. It’s essential to capture your reader’s attention right from the beginning. Consider this text:

“Another day, another homework assignment. I gave it diligent attention and turned it in, but that nagging question haunted me. Why?”

This short anecdote prompts the reader’s curiosity and immediately grabs their attention, making them want to continue reading.

Use your hook to lead into the main point of your essay. Think of it almost as the thesis. The hook and main point are the focus of your personal story, and everything else you write should support it.


The body is where you establish the setting of what happened, how you got there, why it matters, and the evidence to support your view. If you are thinking of writing about adversity, for example, you must tell your reader about the hardship through your lived experience and why it was challenging. The best way to do that is to give examples and provide evidence. When and where did this happen? Show the reader the details and actions you took. How did it make you feel? Describe that emotion, so your reader can feel the degree of your challenge. Were others affected and, if so, how? What problems did it create?

On the other hand, if you are writing about being thankful or grateful, you must demonstrate how gratitude is a valued trait and a vital part of your personal story. It’s not just about expressing gratitude for one experience but explaining that it is part of who you are and why it matters.


When and how did the situation shift, and why was it crucial for that change to happen? How did you feel about it, and what emotions did you have? Consider this turn:

“As the game progressed, I thought more about my opponent than the game itself. How did this teen, who played soccer so well, wind up in this situation? I noticed a large, brutal scar on her left leg.”

The writer is beginning to question her experience and, perhaps, values, creating anticipation for what comes next in the story.


In the reflection, or conclusion, section of your essay, summarize how you responded to your experiences and what personal growth or life lessons you gained. Did you gain a new perspective? For example, perhaps you found out that failure is essential to success. Did you learn to express your views about the world, build connections, gain confidence, or better understand your identity or interests? Your conclusion is an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to adapt to change, your resilience, and how much you have matured and grown. Regardless of your topic, summarize what you have learned. For example:

“Since that day on the soccer field a few years ago, I have been striving to see the world more broadly and understand other people’s perspectives.”

The writer of this short abstract would like the admissions officer to know that they are open-minded and value diverse perspectives, which is essential for success in college.

Showcase Your Persona in Your Common App Essay

Admissions officers want to look beyond your academic achievements to understand who you are. They also want to know if you can succeed in a diverse and challenging environment and if you have self-awareness and an understanding of others. The Common App is the perfect place to give them this perspective of you. To make the most of this opportunity, give yourself enough time to revise and refine your writing before submitting your final draft. And remember that, while the writing process takes time and effort, the result will be worth it.

Our colleagues at MedSchoolCoach are ready to assist in maximizing your chances of college acceptance.

Our team of Physician Advisors, with their deep understanding of the college admissions landscape, can provide valuable guidance through the application process. Their expertise is aimed at securing your spot in your desired college.

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Rita Bennett

Rita Bennett, an expert College Advisor at MedSchoolCoach, brings over 25 years of admissions experience to her role. With a background in higher education administration and a pre-med curriculum from Cornell University, Rita has reviewed thousands of competitive applications and served on admissions committees at esteemed universities. Known for her patience and insightful guidance, she helps students develop strategies to make their college applications more competitive.

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