How to Write a Common App Essay Part 2: Word Limit & Structure

How to Write a Common App Essay Part 2: Word Limit & Structure

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Updated on Dec 12, 2022 14:41 IST

Example Structures that fit the Common App Essay Word Limit

The Common app essay word limit is quite stringent at 650 words only. This length drives a lot of students crazy. They wonder how to convey their entire personality and/or background, and everything that is important to them, in just 650 words. You might want to refer to the importance of word limits in a college essay here.

Common App Essay

In this guide, we will look at two powerful structures that you can adapt, to make any topic work, within the Common App essay length:

  • The Journey
  • The Montage

We will cover how to use these example structures to create an outline that will help prepare you to start writing quickly. However, before you pick a structure, make sure you have done at least an hour of brainstorming to zero in on the right topic. Our guide on the Best Common App Essay Topics will help you. Now that you have a strong topic, it is time to decide what structure will fit it best.

Which of the following best describes what you are writing about?

  1. A story about a particular incident or time in your life that had an impact on you

This is centered on a change or transformation; tends to fit prompts 2, 3 and 5

  1. An interest, value, or personal quality that you have sustained over time

This is centered on a consistent part of your life; tends to fit prompts 1 and 6

If Point No.1 suits you, explore the Journey Structure

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If you have chosen Point No. 2, try the Montage Structure

Check out the other types of college essays.

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The Journey Structure

If you have decided to write about a single important incident or time in your life, you might be tempted to tell your story in chronological order simply. This is a natural way to tell stories, but not always the best route for a college application essay! You will most likely end up spending too much time on the story itself, and not enough reflecting on what you have learned and how it has helped you grow.

Breaking free and giving yourself permission to jump through time can be very helpful. That is where the Journey Structure comes in! 

  • Introduction:(the ‘Hook’) - Your introduction needs to do two things: grab the reader’s attention, and tell them what the rest of the essay is going to be about. So, instead of starting at the beginning, start in the middle, describing a key moment from this important experience. For example, if you are writing about a time when you made a decision to stand up for yourself, you might open by describing the moment right before you made this decision.

TIP: Keep this section focused on you! Pick a scene where you are actively making a decision or facing up to a challenge.

  • Section one: (the ‘Before’) - Step back and give the reader some context. Describe what you were like before you went through this experience. (Summarizing in this section will allow you to stay within the word count!)
  • Section two: (the ‘During’) - Return to the experience described in your opening and describe what you did. What decision did you make? How did you overcome the challenge? 
  • Section three: (the ‘After’) - This is where you can describe how this important experience changed you. This is the section that most students have trouble with because they forget to offer specific evidence. Ask yourself - “What can I do now that I could not do before I went through this experience?”
  • Conclusion: Finish strongly by reflecting on the lesson you learned from this experience. If possible, touch on how this lesson will help you succeed in college and beyond.

Also Read:

The Montage Structure

If you have decided to write about quality or interest that has been a major part of your life over time, you might find yourself trying to fit too much into one essay. That is where the Montage Structure can help. Much like a montage in a film, it allows you to stitch together vivid moments to create a strong overall impression. 

  • Introduction: The introduction to a montage essay should define the overall theme. Try starting with an image. For example, if you are writing about how growing up in a mixed-ethnicity family has defined you, you might start with an image of you and your family at the dinner table. Finish your introduction with a sentence that previews the overall theme of your essay. For example: “Negotiating between two cultures, at the dinner table, has made me into an everyday diplomat, able to shift between points of view, and communicate across boundaries.” 
  • Sections one to three: The middle section of your essay can consist of two to three sections, each providing a snapshot of a different facet of your topic. 

TIP: Try to have each section focus on a positive trait.  The ‘dinner table diplomat’ might have a paragraph about empathy, a paragraph about communication, and a paragraph about boundaries. 

  • Conclusion: Restate your overall message, and reflect on how these qualities might help you in college and beyond. 

TIP: Try returning to your original opening image to create a sense of completion.

Related articleHow to Write a Common App Essay Part 1

About the Author

Brad is a Co-founder and the CEO of Prompt – the #1 provider of admissions essay feedback in the world. Prompt's 150 writing coaches provide instructional, actionable feedback to help students improve their essays' content, structure, clarity, and grammar. He has advised hundreds of students who gained acceptance at highly-selective universities, and his team works with over 5,000 students per year on admissions essays. Brad is a former McKinsey Consultant and holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science from MIT.







Q. What happens if your college essay is over the word limit?

A. If you exceed the word limit of an essay and write 600 words within 500 words limit then the admissions counselor can stop reading your essay past that point. He/She only read the easy to 500 words.

Q. What are the tips to follow while writing a Common App essay?

A. The things you should always avoid while writing a Common App essay: Never rehash your academic and extracurricular accomplishments, Never write about a "topic", Never start with a preamble, Never end with a “happily ever after” conclusion, Never pontificate, Never retreat into your thoughts, Never hold back, etc.

Q. What is the best line spacing for an essay?

A. You must use 1.5 line space; often, double spacing is preferred for writing an essay. This is to give your grader enough room to make corrections or write comments for you in the spaces in between if they are grading on hard copy.

Q. How do I format my Common App essay?

A. Word limit must be 250-650 words, a five-paragraph essay structure for your Common App essay, add an empty line between each paragraph to separate them, Type your essay in a separate Word document and use a 12 pt., single-space, simple fonts like Times New Roman or Calibri, and Avoid all caps, bold, underline, and italics.

Q. Is the Common App essay limited to 650 words?

A. You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.
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