Should Format My Common App Essay

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:

  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 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.
  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 make 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, 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.
  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.

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.

Good luck!

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Update: Read the latest tips for the 2017-18 Common App.

Late on July 31st, the 2013-14 Common Application went live, enabling thousands of eager students to get a head start on completing their college applications. And while the newly touted design is supposed to provide a more intuitive user-friendly experience, many students are running into unexpected and understandably frustrating difficulties. Common Application officials assure us that they are hard at work trying to fix a host of glitches and errors, especially those revolving around college specific supplements. In the meantime, however, we’ve put together ten tips and suggestions to help you successfully navigate and make the most of the new Common Application.

Our first five tips are listed below; stay tuned for the remaining five later this week. Have a question about strategies around the new Common Application? Post it below, and one of our College Coach admissions experts will answer it!

1. Test scores: to post or not to post?

Earlier this fall, when the Common Application asked students to list all standardized test scores, we recommended that students leave the self-reporting testing section of the application blank. Now that the Common Application has adjusted their language, we feel it is in the best interest of students to complete this page. For students who answer, “Yes,” to the prompt, “Do you wish to self-report standardized test scores,” the Common Application now asks, “Indicate all tests you wish to report.” This means that students who have taken both the SAT and ACT have a clear conscious when reporting one test over the other. This change in the Common Application actually makes it easier for students to personalize the “Testing” page of their application. When applying to colleges that accept Score Choice, students can list their best score results. Then, when applying to schools that require all SAT and ACT scores be submitted (such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Stanford), students can edit the “Testing” page to include this information.

2. Résumé tips

Participated in…led…managed…contributed to.  When completing the “Activities” portion of the application, it’s always best to use a variety of “action verbs” to describe your extra-curricular involvement. On the new Common Application, applicants no longer have the benefit of seeing all of their activities on the same page, making it difficult to know if your descriptions sound a bit monotonous. Our suggestion? Draft your activity details in a Word document, and then cut and paste them into the Common Application. This way you can ensure that you’re using a range of colorful verbs. Don’t forget that you have 50 characters to list your position/leadership and 150 characters to describe your details, honors, and accomplishments.

3. Formatting your essay

Gone are days of uploading your personal statement to the body of the Common Application. Now students are simply required to cut and paste their essay into a text box. There are two very important features you should know about this text box. The first is that it will not allow you to enter more than 650 words or fewer than 250 words. This word limit is new for the Common Application.  So, too, is the block formatting of paragraphs. New paragraphs will no longer appear indented. Rather, they show up as isolated blocks of text, with one empty line between each paragraph. The new formatting won’t bother colleges, so there’s no need to fret that your once indented paragraphs are now showing up a little differently in the print preview.

If you are having difficulty formatting your essay, and are experiencing odd word counts or no paragraph breaks when viewing the print preview of your application, try cutting and pasting your essay from MS Word (or your word processor of choice) into Notepad (for Windows users) or TextEdit (for Mac users). Then cut and paste your essay again into the “Personal Essay” text box. Notepad and TextEdit will strip your essay of all formatting and make most formatting issues disappear.

Which leads us to:

4. Where is the print preview button?

Alas, it’s gone! I do hope they bring it back, but for now, there’s only one way to see a print preview of your application. And you have to jump through three hoops to get there. First, you need to complete every required field of the Common Application itself. This means you see six green check marks when you’re on the “Common App” tab. Second, any school-specific questions or essays need to be completed. When you’re looking at a school on the “My Colleges” tab, do you see a green check mark next to “Questions” as well as “Writing Supplement”?  If not, go back and fill out those sections. Finally, you need to complete the FERPA Release Authorization and assign required recommenders (found on the “Assign Recommenders” link from either the “Dashboard” or “My Colleges” tab). Then, and only then, will you see the “Submit” button from the “Dashboard,” or the “Start Submission” button from the “My Colleges” page. Once you’re looking at the print preview – which, incidentally, looks exactly the way colleges will see it, minus the watermark – you can right click with your mouse to save the PDF to your computer.

5. College requirements grid

Are you looking for an easy way to see college application deadlines and testing requirements all in a simple glance? Enter the Application Requirements Grid! This year, you physically have to log out of your Common Application account in order to find it. From the Common Application homepage, mouse over “Member Colleges” at the top of the screen; then select “Application Requirements”.

UPDATE: It has recently come to our attention that the Common Application had incorrectly reported some of the statistics on their Applications Requirement grid. The University of Colorado–Boulder has an EA deadline of 11/15 (not 12/1), and Colgate’s ED2 deadline is actually 1/15 (not 3/1). As we use this information for AppView, which provides deadlines and essay prompts for the top 200 schools College Coach students apply to, we’ve immediately updated our data. While this chart is still a helpful organization tool, it’s definitely a good idea to double check school-specific information on each college’s website, or on the Common Application’s “My Colleges” tab.

For updated tips for the 2015-16 Common Application, take a look at our latest posts:

For all of our 2013-14 Common App tips, be sure to check out the rest of the posts in this series:




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