Writing a Great Common App Essay: 10 Do's and Don'ts

Application season is about to be officially underway, which means rising seniors around the nation are about to embark on one of the biggest pieces of the application--the college essay. Writing the Common App essay can strike fear in the hearts of some students. The broad, open-ended topic selections are welcome for students who enjoy creative writing or know what story they want to tell; for others, such freedom can be stressful. No matter which topic you choose, a few handy do's and don'ts can help you craft a winning Common App essay:


  • Make sure the essay sounds like YOU (not your brother, not a thesaurus, and definitely not your mom)
  • Choose a topic that is interesting or meaningful to you
  • Use the essay to show off something about yourself that isn't on your resume or the rest of your application
  • Consider highlighting a small moment or memory that ultimately reveals something bigger about yourself
  • Be aware of overused topics (travel abroad, mission trips, big sports win/loss) 


  • Make your essay sound too formal (this means writing like you are writing a report or trying too hard to sound intellectual)
  • Choose a topic just because you think it's something the admissions officers will want to hear
  • Regurgitate your activities or resume
  • Get advice/feedback from too many people; this can make an essay wind up jumbled or unfocused
  • Be generic, cheesy or cliché 

College Spotlight: Baylor University

College Spotlight: Baylor University

If the new business building and football stadium are any indication, Baylor has other wealthy alums happy to give back to their beloved alma mater. The recently opened Paul L. Foster Campus for Business Innovation, for example, is the nicest university building I’ve ever seen. It feels like a cross between an Apple store and a Scandinavian airport. Its open design is meant to encourage collaboration. Unique majors such as S3 (Sports, Strategy and Sales) and Professional Selling are just some of the innovative programs that draw students to Baylor’s Hankamer School of Business.

Submitting Your Rec Letters

You’ve got teachers lined up to write amazing rec letters--great! But then what? When it’s time to get them sent to schools, where are are teachers supposed to send them? Or upload them? The answer is, it depends on a few things, starting with which application you are using.

In general, students never see their rec letters. These are private between the college and the teacher. One exception: Rec letters submitted to UT from students directly via the Document Upload System will be seen by students. UT also welcomes letters from teachers or other people who have worked with the student such as a coach, scout leader, or internship supervisor. These additional letters, if sent, should not come from people who do not really know the student.

Common App schools will receive the recs online directly from the teacher. From the school-specific page, a student invites the teacher via the Common App and the teacher completes the rec online. If your school uses Naviance (and Common App knows which high schools do), then you do not need to do anything from the Common App side of things, as the teachers will upload via Naviance. You can find answers to most questions about adding recommenders in Common App here.

Public colleges often do not have an online system, so you have to send those requested rec letters via mail. The student will give the teacher an addressed and stamped envelope for the teacher to send directly to the college's admission department. We recommend that you give the teacher all the envelopes he/she will need for rec letters at the same time.

Remember, you only need to use envelopes for colleges that don't use an online system.

ApplyTexas: Letters of recommendation for UT may be submitted via the Document Upload System (which you can access ONLY after submitting your application) or you may use the system to ask someone to submit their recommendation to us directly. Track upload status by logging in to the Document Upload System from your UT portal. Again, you will receive an email with a link to this portal after submitting your application.

You may also submit recommendations by mailing or hand-delivering them to the Office of Admissions, although this is NOT the prefered delivery method for UT.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Students do NOT need to wait until rec letters have been submitted to hit “submit” on ApplyTexas or Common App--while teachers should be sure to submit everything before deadlines, there is no need for a student to wait. Once you are done with an application, submit it!