How to Format Your Common Application Essay

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: take a look at 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, even though 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:

  1. 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.
  2. The Common Application essay text box does not allow tabbing. So make your paragraphs with block formatting (have a space in between each paragraph rather than 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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 create it clear it’s a title.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. Double check word counts. The Common App text box and text boxes for the supplemental essays show the minimum and maximum word counts, that is very helpful. After you copy and paste an essay, always scroll through it to make sure everything copies (and your formatting carried over) making sure it’s within the word count requirement shown under the box.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

between the world and me thesis statement

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, allow me to 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.

The brand new York occasions ran an article yesterday called ‘Why Kids Can’t Write.’

Great piece, but I didn’t agree with the title.

They can write. ( Click bait.)

However, as the article chronicled at length, most students have not been taught how to write. The writing experts debated if the problem was at the mechanics end (lack of instruction on writing rules) or the other end with creative writing (lack of opportunity for personal expression through writing.)

I don’t think it’s an either-or issue.

Students need to first learn the rules of the road with writing and develop a basic skill set with grammar, syntax, vocabulary building, punctuations, etc. They also need to learn early on why these skills matter and are relevant.

Everybody knows the only way to learn writing is to do it a lot. If students don’t care about it, or lack something they want to say or express through their writing, they will never do it and they won’t get better.

You need two things to write: Something to say and the skills to say it.

As a writing coach, I have the privilege of working with students who are highly motivated to write, possibly for the first time in their life they need to write outstanding college application essays to help get them into their dream school.

When they come to me, however, most are not prepared. They either don’t know what to say in their essays (about themselves and who they are), or if they do have ideas about their topics, they are ill-prepared on how to frame and express them effectively (so others care).

Does this mean they can’t write?


As long as they have their most basic writing skills down and yes, most do by their senior year of high school these students mainly need specific guidance on how to think about themselves (what they value, how they learn, why it matters…) and direction on how to frame and structure their piece.

Toss in specific writing techniques, ideas and devices (found all over this blog and in my books!), and they are off.


Yes, if those same students had more opportunities and efficacious writing instruction during their English classes over the years, especially sophomore and junior year, of course they would have more confidence when it came to these college application essays.

The more you write, the better you get at it.

Like all other skills tennis, throwing pots, hacking computers, etc. the combination of good instruction and practice is the only way to get better.

Same with writing. It’s not a gift, although some people catch on faster for whatever reason (again, not that different from tennis stars and hackers). But even the pros practice like maniacs.

If you took the time to read the The New York Times piece on Why Kids Can’t Write, they quoted several experts who were at the helm of efforts to improve student writing.

Some believed the ‘problem’ was with the mechanics, and promote solutions, such as returning to sentence diagramming. (I actually did that in 7th grade with an ancient English teacher and thought it was fun, but I still suck at grammar and I don’t think that held back my writing career.)

Others made the case for setting students loose to write that is free find their voice. I think free writing is a great exercise to flesh out ideas, but I also think structure can be very freeing in writing and gives students a productive framework for expression. You can free write for a month straight and still not be able to kick out a meaningful personal essay.

And, of course, all of them lamented the lack of reading.

I join their despairing chorus.

You can write even if you don’t read a lot. It’s possible. But chances are your ideas won’t be as wide and informed, and your ear for language will be on the flat side.

Also, the best way to learn is to see how others do it. (This goes for writing college application essays: Read sample essays by other students to see how it works, and borrow ideas and techniques from the ones you like.)

As far as ‘bad writing’ crisis discussed in this article, there’s no easy fix.

If the brand new York Times had asked me about students and writing, this is what I would have said:

First, we need to value writing as one of the most important skills most students need both in their education journey and the workplace.

Second, we need to train our English teachers how to write well themselves, and then how to teach writing. This is not happening in most high schools.

(I believe people from teachers to administrators to policy-makers are scared of writing because it’s such an intangible skill, hard to quantify and a pain to review, and are happy to not have to deal with it.)

Teachers are time-strapped, burdened and overwhelmed by the mandates of excelling at those stupid standardized tests (AP classes and SAT/ACT). There’s literally no time to allow lessons on different types of writing, including personal and creative writing.

So, of course, kids can’t write very well, and lack confidence in their ability. They are not taught how to do it, and they aren’t given time to practice it. Also, most of what they have had to write about is irrelevant to their world and BORING.

And as non-readers in a culture that doesn’t prize writing, they have little reason to value it.

Until then one day, usually in the summer or fall of their senior year, they are tasked with writing an essay about themselves that could make or break their college dreams.

To me, it’s a golden moment. They suddenly care about writing.

And most are willing to scramble to find something meaningful to say and learn how to write about it.

Most students surprise themselves that they do have something to say. That they have things they care deeply about and opinions they want to express.

For the first time, they have a chance to hear their unique writing voice.

The New York Times article mentioned my favorite writing exercise to help students capture their voice and write about their background. It’s called ‘Where I’m From,’ according to using a template from a poem by George Ella Lyons.

I mentioned it in my post of College Application Essay Lesson Plans for English Teachers (at the bottom.) I also just used these exercises working with high school sophomores attending a collegebound camp here in Orange County, sponsored by Girls, Inc. And I used it with students at another collegebound program down by the border in the Rio Grande Valley last year.

It’s almost magic when they read their poems out loud and experience the power of simple, everyday details and images from their childhood.

For a few minutes, they felt like writers, because they were, plus they liked it. They got a glimpse at the impact of their own words and background. They cared. And wanted to learn more.

All students deserve opportunities like this to learn how to write for a purpose other than pleasing their teachers or standardized mandates.

It’s not fair that for most students, the one time they will care about a writing assignment is when it feels too late to learn how to do it.

( Good news If this is you: It isn’t too late to learn. That’s why I started this blog to share loads of advice and tips on how to learn writing skills and techniques to craft standout essays about yourself! Read more posts!!!)

We can change this. But first, we all need to care more. About writing.