Five ways the US Common App essay differs from the UCAS Personal Statement

I work with many students and schools who understand how a UK UCAS Personal Statement should be structured, but who find the US Common App essay to be quite baffling. If you are in a system which prepares you to write an academically-based essay, then writing something different can be quite confusing.

If you are completely news to this process, then having a quick read of some ‘essays that worked’ (such as these from Tufts University) can be a good idea, before focusing on these three key differences:

  1. In the US, you aren’t necessarily being admitted to study one particular subject or course, so rather than prove to the reader that you are qualified to study that subject, the Common App essay needs to show the sort of person you would be on their campus. What motivates you? What life experiences have made you who you are? How are you different from others?

  2. The essay needs to tell the readers something about you that they don’t already know. They have your biographical information and your academic data, they don’t know you. I like to think that all the other information is like a ‘join the dots’ picture portrait of you - it’s recognisably you, but it doesn’t tell the whole picture. The Common App essay is like filling that outline in with an oil painting: beyond the biography and the data, who are you really?

  3. I was once told by a UK admissions tutor that they don’t care about rugby or outdoor activities like Duke of Edinburgh, because “you don’t write essays in teams up a mountain.” In the US, they do care about those things. Broadly speaking, when applying to the UK they are interested in what’s in your head; in the US, they are interested in what’s in your head an in your heart together. That’s what the Common App essay is supposed to show.

  4. The Common App essay has to be about you as a person, and sum you up. A good aim is to get to the point where you think you could leave a copy of your essay without your name on somewhere at your school, and a teacher or friend could pick it up and know it was by you.

  5. Finally, remember that this is still an academic piece of writing which you are submitting to an academic institution: it needs to have all the usual rules of spelling, punctuation and grammar, but also needs to show that you are able to construct a piece of writing of the appropriate level for the institution you are applying for.

Supporting students with US application essays is one of the most enjoyable pieces of my work, so if you are interested in some essay support, please do get in touch.

USADavid Hawkins