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

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Updated on Jan 21, 2022 11:16 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 you, in just 650 words. You might want to refer to the importance of word limit in a college essay here.

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 centred 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 centred on a consistent part of your life; tends to fit prompts 1 and 6

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

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

Check out the other types of college essays.

The Journey Structure

If you have decided to write about a single important incident or time in your life, you might be tempted to simply tell your story in chronological order. 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 learnt and how it has helped you grow.

Breaking free and giving yourself the 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 central lesson you learnt 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 a 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 article: How 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.


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