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2020-2021 Common App Essay Prompts (Tips & Examples)

March 25, 2020
Written by Taylor

CA Essay Prompts

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:

  • Narrate the story so readers know what you were thinking at the time, not just what the story means to you now; really let readers inside your head.
  • Don't recap your resume; your extracurricular activities and transcript appear elsewhere in the application, and it's a missed opportunity to just repeat them here.
  • Look for moments of conflict rather than immediate triumph; admissions officers want to read about ethical dilemmas, moments of learning, and perseverance.
  • Consider how your college essay will read to an admissions committee. They don't know you at all, so make sure you're coming across as friendly, likable, and thoughtful.
  • Avoid clichés whenever possible. The best way to do that is to stick to specifics; writing about your individual experiences will keep your essay original.
  • Finally, despite all this, don't worry too much about the essay prompts! They may be helpful to brainstorm, but all of them are broad enough to encompass whatever story you most want to tell. Figure out what your story is, then choose the best fit prompt later. You may find a good match, but if not, there's always "topic of your choice" (#7).


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.

 

Common App Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

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.


Tips for Common Application Essay Prompt #1

When responding to Prompt #1, consider the following:

  • What makes you, you? What factors of your identity are most important?
  • Where did you come from, and why is that important to you now?
  • What is a meaningful community in your life, one that is essential to your identity?
  • What's something you do that makes you feel the most like you?
  • Why are you personally passionate about your area of academic interest?


Examples of Strong Essay Topics for Prompt #1

  • A moment or series of moments related to your unusual familial background that had a profound effect on the way you approach and experience the world today.
  • The (unexpected?) discovery of a hobby or talent that fundamentally reshaped your personal growth and/or started your journey of intellectual discovery.
  • A meaningful anecdote about realizing that a particular piece of your identity, one that once felt awkward or uncomfortable, has made you stronger and wiser.

 

Common App Prompt #2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

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.


Tips for Common Application Essay Prompt #2

When responding to Prompt #2, consider the following:

  • What is something that you have genuinely struggled with?
  • What is a time you felt truly proud of yourself? When and why?
  • What's the hardest you ever worked at something, and what did you learn?
  • Have your expectations for yourself changed over the years? How and why?
  • How do you handle frustration? Where did you learn those skills?


Examples of Strong Essay Topics for Prompt #2

  • A story about realizing that something important in your life was not working as you expected or hoped, and you made a change of your own accord.
  • A period in which your life at home or at school was fundamentally disrupted and you learned essential coping, mediation, and/or leadership skills.
  • A moment in which you hurt or offended someone close to you, and the subsequent period during which you improved yourself and made amends.

(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!)

 

Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

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.


Tips for Common Application Essay Prompt #3

When responding to Prompt #3, consider the following:

  • Has a friend or peer ever said you were wrong about something?
  • Has a teacher ever said something that caused you to reconsider your beliefs?
  • Have you ever had a crisis of faith, whether politically or spiritually?
  • What's an experience you had that wasn't at all what you were expecting?
  • Is there a question or idea that you're still wrestling with today?


Examples of Strong Essay Topics for Prompt #3

  • The first time you encountered a person or group of people who you expected to be one way, and the actual experience made you reconsider a much larger belief.
  • Something you learned, in or outside the classroom, that challenged your previously held ideas and caused you to continue reading and exploring to learn more.
  • An experience you had with a friend, peer, colleague, or even stranger that raised uncomfortable questions for you that you may still be wrestling with.

 

Common App Prompt #4: Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma--anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

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.


Tips for Common Application Essay Prompt #4

When responding to Prompt #4, consider the following:

  • What big picture problems do you aspire to help solve someday?
  • What's the most satisfying solution you've ever devised for a problem?
  • What kind of research do you envision undertaking in college, and why?
  • How do you solve problems? What does that tell us about you?
  • What do you enjoy about solving problems or puzzles?


Examples of Strong Essay Topics for Prompt #4

  • A story about how solving your first crossword/sudoku/Rubik's cube sparked your interest and excitement about a particular field of knowledge.
  • An explanation of why a particular social or political problem is meaningful to you and hope you hope to become someone who helps find a solution.
  • A time when you took responsibility for something, big or small, and learned something new about yourself and your approach to life and learning.

 

Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

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.


Tips for Common App Essay Prompt #5

When responding to Prompt #5, consider the following:

  • What small but unexpected event has stuck in your mind over time?
  • What's the most meaningful conversation you ever had with a friend?
  • Have you ever made a small decision that turned out to have a big impact?
  • What do you know now that you didn't before? How did you learn?
  • How have you changed during the last year? Why is that?


Examples of Strong Essay Topics for Prompt #5

  • A story about a time you decided to do something on a whim, only to ultimately find that it led you to one of the most profound learning experiences of your life.
  • A conversation you had with a friend or family member that led to a bigger project, one that became especially meaningful and impactful to you or your community.
  • The moment that a question or dilemma came into real focus for you, and you decided to undertake further research or service to pursue new, better answers.

 

Common App Prompt #6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

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.


Tips for Common App Essay Prompt #6

When responding to Prompt #6, consider the following:

  • When did you last lose yourself in an activity or hobby?
  • What do you read or watch when you have total freedom to decide?
  • What's something you and your friends can talk about for hours on end?
  • What big questions do you frequently find yourself pondering?
  • What do you do to unwind and de-stress?


Examples of Strong Essay Topics for Prompt #6

  • A reflection on how a particular activity that you can do for hours on end (hiking, doing puzzles, etc.) allows you to clear your mind and/or reenergize your body.
  • A story about a time you completely lost yourself in a book or project, and how that experience changed the way you think about learning or knowledge.
  • A meditation on an intellectual problem that you find especially fascinating, one that gives readers a sense of why it matters so much to you personally.

 

Prompt #7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

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.


Tips for Common Application Essay Prompt #7

If you decide to write an essay without using a prompt, just bear in mind the core strategies for a successful Common App essay:

  • Tell a story with specific detail (sights, sounds) as well as your feelings at the time;
  • Reflect on why this moment, event, passion, realization, etc., was meaningful to you;
  • Look to the future and articulate how this experience will shape you going forward.

 

Final Thoughts

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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