The Common App has seven essay prompts from which to choose. All of them ask you to respond to broad, open-ended questions or statements that relate to a period of personal growth, intellectual challenge, and/or problem-solving capacities. Note of the prompts seen as better or worse in the college admissions process.
Regardless of which prompt you choose, there are key elements that should appear in your essay. The most important is to tell a story of real personal importance, an event or experience that was truly meaningful to you. Then, you’ll need to explain why it mattered so much.
Beyond that, keep in mind the following:
For the 2020-2021 college application cycle, there are seven different prompts for the Common App personal essay. Read on to understand what admissions officers are expecting from each prompt, as well as tips to ensure that you’ve written a truly great essay.
On its face, Prompt #1 seems like a straightforward diversity question, and high school students who don’t see themselves as having a diverse identity—or not wanting to write about it—may skip right over it. Yet, while certainly highlighting a particular identity is a valid and promising way to respond to this question, it’s actually much broader than the buzzwords suggest. Yes, the core of the essay is identity, but that is much broader than race, gender, or creed.
Background, identity, interest, and talent can encompass any and all aspect of a student’s life, from their family’s particular quirks to their favorite hobby. If there’s something about you that you feel is intrinsic—whether it’s where you’re from, what you look like, what you do for fun, what you’re passionate about, even your name—consider writing about it here.
When responding to Prompt #1, consider the following:
As you can tell from these essay questions, college admissions officers love reading about personal growth, and there’s no more direct way than to tackle head-on a story about a time that you failed and then got back up and tried again. While it seems counterintuitive to talk about a time you failed, this prompt actually offers a way to truly stand out. Admissions officers read about accomplishments for hours on end—how often do they hear about failures?
As you brainstorm, think about moments where you didn’t succeed, and then really consider how you eventually overcame, or are still trying. But remember: the central point of this essay should NOT be the ultimate triumph, but the process of learning and improving.
When responding to Prompt #2, consider the following:
(Note: The most common type of essay admissions officers see for this prompt is the sports injury essay, a narrative of setback and eventual victory that is so common to have become a cliché. If you have a unique version of this, go for it, but otherwise beware!)
In some ways this essay is a variation on Prompt #2, but instead of asking you to talk about a failure, it’s asking you to reflect on a time you were wrong. Like Prompt #2, Prompt #3 offers a golden opportunity to show your growth in a meaningful, introspective way. Higher education is all about being exposed to new ideas and questioning what you thought you knew, so there’s a lot of value in showing an admissions committee that you know how to do that.
While you may feel a temptation to write this essay entirely about discovering your intellectual passion, admissions officers prefer to see more introspection than that. This prompt is asking you to reflect on a time that one of your core beliefs about society was challenged by someone or something, and how you responded in the moment and afterward.
When responding to Prompt #3, consider the following:
If you’re a student who feels more comfortable writing about academics in his or her college application essays, this might be a good prompt for you. You’re free to write about any problem you’ve solved or hope to solve, whether something very small but meaningful or something literally world-changing. What matters is that it’s of personal importance to you.
In general, this essay prompt is best approached from the extremes – either a tiny problem you solved that fundamentally reshaped your worldview, or your big picture aspirations to solve one of the world’s most pressing problems. As elsewhere, this is not the place to recap your resume or talk about a single project. The focus of the essay should be you and your goals.
When responding to Prompt #4, consider the following:
Even though it’s buried at number five, this is the classic Common App prompt. Regardless of which prompt you answer, anything you write should basically follow the format of this one: a particular event or realization that led to personal growth. Although you may find inspiration in other prompts, the key words in this one – realization, personal growth, understanding of yourself – are themes that are essential to any successful Common App essay.
What distinguishes this prompt from the others is the focus on the moment. Whereas essays for other prompts might use a series of moments or a gradual realization, this prompt asks you to narrate a singular event that ultimately had a significant impact on the way you think and act. Thus, it’s the right prompt for you if you want to focus on one especially rich anecdote.
When responding to Prompt #5, consider the following:
This prompt is one of the newest entries to the Common Application, and it has the benefit of being both broad and creative. This is a prompt for students who can speak and write rapturously about something that interests them, whether it’s their area of academic focus or just something they find fascinating, from chess matches to bird watching.
There is a lot of room in this prompt to be creative, but keep in mind that by the end, college admissions officers need to have learned something about you, not just the topic. That means that, in addition to writing about why the subject is so captivating, you also need to explain why it’s meaningful to you, and what this passion says about your personality.
When responding to Prompt #6, consider the following:
The “topic of your choice” prompt was reintroduced to the Common Application in 2017 after a brief hiatus. This is the perfect choice for students who have a clear idea of the story they want to tell, but don’t see any other prompts that are a good fit for it. As stated previously, the most important thing a Common App essay can do is tell an authentic, personal, introspective story as well as you can. If it doesn’t fit into any of the prompts, so be it!
What you should not do for Prompt #7, even though it seems like it would fit, is submit an essay that you wrote for class, especially an analytical or research-based one. You certainly can revise something you wrote for a class if it meets the goals of a personal essay, but don’t shoehorn something else in. The best course of action is nearly always to write a new essay specifically tailored to the expectations of admissions committees.
If you decide to write an essay without using a prompt, just bear in mind the core strategies for a successful Common App essay:
The Common Application essay isn’t the only writing you’ll be doing for your college applications; most schools also require supplemental essays that ask specific questions about the school or your background. But the Common App essay goes to every school on your list, and is often one of the first things admissions officers see. You only get one chance to make a first impression, and in many cases, the Common App essay is it.
That means you need to brainstorm many ideas; don’t necessarily settle for the first thing that comes to mind. Then, you’ll need to take some real time to draft it, making sure that you’ve presented a thoughtful and interesting piece. After that, be prepared to write several drafts. It takes time and effort to get this piece right. Consider getting some advice from someone who knows what admissions committees are looking for.
Finally, don’t get discouraged looking at these prompts! You may be thinking, I’m still in high school, what am I going to write about? But don’t worry – every person has a story to tell. Your Common App essay doesn’t have to deal with the biggest and most serious issues. In most cases, it’s actually better if it doesn’t. Instead, focus on what’s unique and distinctive about you, then find the best way to present it. And if you need help, just give us a call!
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