Common App Essay Format Issues

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!

Check Out These Related Posts!

The much heralded Common App V.4 (CA4) went into effect early last month. In the months leading up to the release of the new application, we wrote about some of the changes and offered a webinar to go over the new format (the webinar is available On Demand in our Webinar Catalog).

Now, several weeks into the new application, it’s apparent that the new Common App has a few glitches. Some college counselors have bemoaned these glitches as proof of a broken system, but it’s hardly surprising that a technological overhaul of this magnitude isn’t quite perfect. Until the folks over at Common App figure out how to fix the glitches, it’s up to students to figure out how to deal with them.

Here is a rundown of some of the most commonly noticed glitches and how to avoid them:

Common App 4.0 appears to have personal issues with certain browsers. Many Mac users have noticed that the new Common App doesn’t seem to like Safari. If you run into tech glitches, try using Mozilla or Internet Explorer.

My entire application got deleted! We’ve all run into a situation in which we’ve spent many frustrating minutes completing an online form only to have that form crash and lose everything. The new Common App seems fairly prone to this problem. The solution: Save CONSTANTLY!

I participated in 843 clubs, teams, and activities, but the Common App will only let me list 10! Yes, the new Common App only provides space for you to list and describe ten of your activities. Many students will be fine with this. Others will not. If you’re one of those students who participated in many different activities, you will have to narrow your list down to the top ten. Focus on activities in which you held a leadership position, participated for several years, or were particularly passionate about. These ten activities will be more than enough to demonstrate your interests and involvement to your potential colleges!

I breezed right through the application and got green checks in every section. I’m done, right? NOOOOO! One of the most common complaints about the new platform is that the Common App gives you a green check for any section you’ve looked at, not necessarily only for sections you’ve completed. It’s up to you to go back and double (and triple) check that each and every section is 100% complete. Don’t rely on Common App’s little green checks.

The colleges I’m applying for don’t have any supplemental essays – awesome! Nope! While it’s true that some member schools don’t require a supplemental writing section, many schools – especially top-rated schools – do. Those supplements don’t appear in your application until you’ve completed ALL college-specific questions, including (where applicable) which school you are applying for within a given college or university. Undecided isn’t an option, so if you want to apply to, say, Cornell, and you aren’t sure whether you want to attend the College of Arts and Sciences or the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning, you’ll have to apply to both. And until you select one of the undergraduate schools, none of the writing supplements will appear. And if you don’t complete the required writing supplements, your submitted application will be tossed out for being incomplete.

Aren’t there essays for honors programs and scholarships? I don’t see any… Many schools also have writing supplements for specific programs or scholarships, but these also won’t appear until you actually click the box indicating that you want to apply for these things.

My essay looks terrible when I paste it into that essay box. Yes, this will happen. The new Common App actually counts how many words are in your essay. The old one just put you on the honor system. For whatever reason, it appears that the technology behind the new Common App can’t accurately count words if there are spaces and/or indentations between your paragraphs. So, yeah, your essay isn’t going to look well formatted when you submit your application. But then, neither will anyone else’s, so don’t stress too much. Microsoft Word formatting seems to do the worst with the new Common App, so consider copy/pasting your essay into Notepad and fixing the formatting issues there before pasting the essay into the Common App.


Look at the print preview of your application before you submit it. Look at it two or three times. Go through it with a fine toothed comb. Make sure you:

  • Filled out every question in every section
  • Fix any spelling, grammar, or usage mistakes
  • Fix any typos
  • Thoroughly edit your essays
  • Filled out every question in every section (this one’s important enough to mention twice)

For more help with college apps, check out these recent posts:

/by C2 Education

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