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The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay That Will Get You Accepted

Common App essay - magoosh

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably started the very exciting process of applying to college—and chances are you may be a little overwhelmed at times. That’s OK! The key to getting into the right college for you is taking each step of the application process in stride, and one of those steps is completing the Common App and the Common App essay.

In this post, you’ll learn what the Common Application essay is, how to write one (including a free checklist to help you with the process), example essays, and much more. Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

What is the Common App, and More Importantly, What is the Common App Essay? Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay? What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common Application Essay FAQs

What is the common app, and more importantly, what is the common app essay.

What is the Common App essay - magoosh

The “Common App,” short for the Common Application , is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once. It’s accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally.

The idea is that the Common App is a “one-stop shop” so you don’t have to complete a million separate applications. That said, plenty of colleges still require their own application components, and the Common App, as user-friendly as it aims to be, can still feel like a bit of a challenge to complete.

Part of the reason the Common App can seem intimidating is because of the Common App essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application this way. But never fear! In reality, the Common App essay is easy to ace if you know how to approach it and you give it your best.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at anything and everything you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay in order to help you get into the school of your dreams. We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay.

Button to download 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Common App essay facts - magoosh

Below are just a few of the short and sweet things you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay, but we’ll elaborate on some of this content later in this post.

How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

How to write a Common App essay - magoosh

The million dollar question about the Common App essay is obviously, “How do I actually write it?!”

Now there’s something to keep in mind before exploring how to compose the Common App essay, and that’s the purpose of this task. You may be wondering:

  • What are college admissions boards actually looking for?
  • Why are you being asked to write this essay?

College admissions boards want to see that you can compose a compelling, well-crafted essay. After four years of high school, you’re expected to be able to craft a clear and concise piece of writing that addresses a specific subject.

So yes, you’re actually being evaluated on your essay writing skills, but the purpose of the Common Application essay is deeper than that—it’s to present the type of person and thinker that you are.

Regardless of which prompt you choose, colleges are trying to get a sense of how thoughtfully and critically you can reflect on your life and the world around you .

And furthermore, they want to get a sense of who you are—your interests, your personality, your values—the dimensional aspects of you as an applicant that simply can’t be expressed in transcripts and test scores . In short, you want to stand out and be memorable.

That said, there is no exact formula for “cracking the case” of the Common App essay, but there are plenty of useful steps and tips that can help you write a great essay.

(In a hurry? Download our quick and concise handout that sums up some of the keys to the Common App essay!)

1) Familiarize Yourself With the Common App Prompts and How to Approach Them

The Common App recently released the 2021-2022 essay prompts , which are almost the same as last year’s prompts, but with one BIG difference.

The prompt about problem solving (formerly prompt #4) has been replaced with a prompt about gratitude and how it has motivated you. According to Common App President and CEO Jenny Rickard, this change was inspired by new scientific research on the benefits of writing about gratitude and the positive impact others have had on our lives.

Additionally, the Common App now includes an optional Covid-19 prompt where you can discuss how you’ve personally been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, let’s take a look at each 2021-2022 Common App prompt individually. You’ll notice that every prompt really has two parts to it:

  • share, explain and describe a narrative, and
  • reflect on, analyze, and draw meaning from it.

Let’s take a look.

  Prompt #1: A snapshot of your story

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss a background, identity, or interest that you feel is meaningful to who you are and/or that or sets you apart from others.
  • Reflect on why this attribute is meaningful and how it has shaped you as a person.

  Prompt #2: An obstacle you overcame

Prompt: 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?

  • Recount a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
  • Reflect on how this affected you, what you learned from it, and if it led to any successes later down the line.

  Prompt #3: A belief or idea you questioned or challenged

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

  • Explain a time that you questioned a particular belief or way of thinking.
  • Elaborate on what prompted this questioning, what the outcome was, and why this outcome was significant.

  Prompt #4: An experience of gratitude that has motivated you

Prompt: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

  • Describe the specific experience or interaction that made you feel a sense of gratitude. Make sure to explain who did something nice for you and why it was surprising or unexpected.
  • Explain, as specifically as possible, how this feeling of gratitude changed or motivated you. What actions did you take a result? How did your mindset change?

  Prompt #5: An accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth

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

  • Describe an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth for you.
  • Reflect on the nature of this growth and/or a new understanding you gained in the process.

  Prompt #6: An interest so engaging you lose track of time

Prompt: 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?

  • Discuss a topic, idea, or interest that is so engaging to you that you lose track of time when focused on it.
  • Reflect on and explain why this interest is so important to you, and your method of learning more about it.

  Prompt #7: An essay topic of your choice

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss any subject matter or philosophical question of interest to you.
  • Reflect on the implications of this subject or question, and how it has shaped you, transformed you, impacted your life, etc.

  Now keep in mind that to some degree, it doesn’t actually matter which prompt you choose to answer, so long as you write and present yourself well. But you obviously want to pick whichever Common App essay prompt speaks to you most, and the one you think will provide you the meatiest and most meaningful material.

This is an outstanding guide to choosing the right Common App essay prompt, but as a rule of thumb, the “right” prompt will probably stand out to you. If you have to rack your brain, for example, to think of a challenge you’ve overcome and how the experience has shaped you, then that prompt probably isn’t the right one.

Authenticity is key, so choose the prompt you can answer thoroughly.

2) Brainstorm

Whether you know immediately which prompt you’re going to choose or not, do yourself a huge favor and brainstorm . Take out a notebook and jot down or free write all of the ideas that spring to your mind for as many of the prompts that you’re considering. You might be surprised what ideas you generate as you start doing this, and you might be surprised which ideas seem to have the most content and examples to elaborate on.

Also, it’s important to note that your subject matter doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or spectacular. You don’t have to recount a near-death experience, an epic overseas adventure, a 180-degree turn of faith, etc. Your ordinary life, when reflected upon thoughtfully, is interesting and profound.

3) Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)

This may sound painfully obvious, but for some of us, it can be hard to stay on topic. Each prompt is posed as a question , so don’t lose sight of that and let your essay devolve into a story about yourself that never really gets at the heart of the prompt.

As you’re drafting your essay—say after each paragraph—pause and refer back to the question, making sure each paragraph plays some part in actually responding to the prompt.

4) Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively

The Common App essay isn’t like many of the other argumentative essays you’ve been taught to write in school. It is argumentative in that you are essentially arguing for why you are a good candidate for a particular college, using your personal experience as support, but it’s more than that.

The Common Application essay is essentially a narrative essay that is reflective and analytical by nature. This means that regardless of which prompt you select, you’ll be sharing something personal about yourself, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what you shared is important.

And even if this isn’t an essay format that you’re accustomed to writing, you can still rely on your knowledge of basic essay structures to help you. You’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.

Let’s talk about those three pieces now.


The purpose of an introduction is 1) to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading, and 2) to introduce the reader to the general subject at hand.

So the most important part of the introduction is a unique attention-getter that establishes your personal voice and tone while piquing the reader’s interest. An example of a good hook could be a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, and so on.

Now, you may be wondering, “Do I need a thesis statement?” This is a great question and the simple answer is no.

This is because some students prefer to hook their reader with a bit of mystery and let their story unfold organically without a thesis sentence “spoiling” what is to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a thesis sentence, it just means you don’t need one. It just depends on how you want to build your personal narrative, and what serves you best.

That said, your essay does need a greater message or lesson in it, which is another way of saying a thesis . You just don’t necessarily have to write it out in the introduction paragraph.

It might help you to keep a thesis in mind or even write it down just for your own sake, even if you don’t explicitly use it in your introduction. Doing so can help you stay on track and help you build up to a stronger reflection.

Here are some examples of narrative thesis statements:

  • I moved a lot as a child on account of having a parent in the military, which led me to become highly adaptable to change.
  • The greatest obstacle I’ve overcome is my battle with leukemia, which has taught me both incredible resilience and reverence for the present.
  • An accomplishment that I achieved was making the varsity volleyball team, which has made me grow tremendously as a person, specifically in the areas of self-confidence and collaboration.

As discussed earlier, there are two parts to each prompt: explanation and reflection . Each part should be addressed throughout the essay, but how you organize your content is up to you.

A good rule of thumb for structuring the body of your essay is as follows:

  • Situate your reader: provide context for your story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details. For example, you may frame an essay about an internship at the zoo with the phrase, “Elephants make the best friends.” Your reader knows immediately that the subject matter involves your interaction with animals, specifically elephants.
  • Explain more about your topic and how it affected you, using specific examples and key details.
  • Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.

Note that while there are no set rules for how many paragraphs you should use for your essay, be mindful of breaking paragraphs whenever you naturally shift gears, and be mindful of too-long paragraphs that just feel like walls of text for the reader.

Your conclusion should flow nicely from your elaboration, really driving home your message or what you learned. Be careful not to just dead-end your essay abruptly.

This is a great place to speculate on how you see the subject matter informing your future, especially as a college student and beyond. For example, what might you want to continue to learn about? What problems do you anticipate being able to solve given your experience?

5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly

It may go without saying, but tell your own story, without borrowing from someone else’s or embellishing. Profound reflection, insight, and wisdom can be gleaned from the seemingly simplest experiences, so don’t feel the need to stray from the truth of your unique personal experiences.

Also, make sure to laser in on a highly specific event, obstacle, interest, etc. It is better to go “narrower and deeper” than to go “wider and shallower,” because the more specific you are, the more vivid and engrossing your essay will naturally be.

For example, if you were a camp counselor every summer for the last few years, avoid sharing several summers’ worth of content in your essay. Focus instead on one summer , and even better, on one incident during that summer at camp.

And on that note, remember to be vivid! Follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell . Provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for your readers.

6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone

Unlike in most academic essays, you can sound a bit less stuffy and a bit more like yourself in the Common App essay. Your essay should be professional, but can be conversational. Try reading it aloud; does it sound like you? That’s good!

Be mindful, however, of not getting too casual or colloquial in it. This means avoiding slang, contractions, or “text speak” abbreviations (e.g. “lol”), at least without deliberate context in your story (for example, if you’re recounting dialogue).

You’re still appealing to academic institutions here, so avoid profanity at all costs, and make sure you’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.

7) Revise and Proofread

This one is a biggie. Give yourself time during your application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite your essay several times. Let it grow and change and become the best version it can be. After you write your first draft, walk away from it for a couple days, and return to it with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you feel like adding, removing, or changing.

And of course, make sure your essay is pristine before you submit it. Triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc. Since this isn’t a timed essay you have to sit for (like the ACT essay test , for example), the college admissions readers will expect your essay to be polished and sparkling.

A tried and true method for both ensuring flow and catching errors is reading your essay aloud. You may sound a little silly, but it really works!

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay?

What to avoid in Common App essay - magoosh

Resume Material

Your Common App essay is your chance to provide a deeper insight into you as a person, so avoid just repeating what you’d put on a resume. This is not to say you can’t discuss something mentioned briefly on your resume in greater depth, but the best essays offer something new that helps round out the whole college application.


Okay, now this one is a bit tricky. On the one hand, you should write boldly and honestly, and some of the prompts (the one about challenging a particular belief, for example) are appropriate for addressing potentially contentious topics.

But that said, avoid being controversial or edgy for the sake of being controversial or edgy. Be steadfast in your beliefs for the greater sake of the narrative and your essay will be naturally compelling without being alienating to your readers.

Vague Stories

If you have a personal story that you’re not entirely comfortable sharing, avoid it, even if it would make a great essay topic in theory. This is because if you’re not comfortable writing on the subject matter, you’ll end up being too vague, which won’t do your story or overall application justice. So choose a subject matter you’re familiar with and comfortable discussing in specifics.

Unless they really, truly serve your essay, avoid general platitudes and cliches in your language. It is definitely encouraged to have an essay with a moral, lesson, or greater takeaway, but try to avoid summing up what you’ve learned with reductive phrases like “slow and steady wins the race,” “good things come in small packages,” “actions speak louder than words,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on.

What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common App essay examples - magoosh

There are tons of Common App essays out there, including these Common App essay examples accepted at Connecticut College, which include explanations from admissions readers about why they were chosen.

But let’s take a look here at two versions of an example essay, one that is just okay and one that is great.

Both Common App essay examples are crafted in response to prompt #2, which is:

Essay Version #1, Satisfactory Essay:

During my sophomore year of high school, I tore my ACL, which stands for “anterior cruciate ligament,” and is the kiss of death for most athletic careers. This injury ended up being one of the greatest obstacles of my life. It was also, however, a turning point that taught me to see opportunity amidst adversity.

It was particularly awful that I was just about to score a winning goal during a championship hockey game when I was checked by a guy on the opposing team and came crashing down on my knee. It was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I knew immediately that this was going to be bad.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, not really knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class for those students who wanted to continue studying art beyond what was already offered. I had taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed and excelled at them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my scheduled, as required.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began feeling better. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at. I wanted to share the world around me as I saw it with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before. I met and made friends with many new people in that art class, people I would have never known if I hadn’t taken it, which also opened me up to all kinds of new mindsets and experiences.

We’re all familiar with the common adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” and this is exactly what happened for me. I might never have pursued art more seriously if I hadn’t been taken out of hockey. This has served as a great reminder for me to stay open to new opportunities. We never know what will unexpectedly bring us joy and make us more well-rounded people.

Areas for Improvement in Version #1:

  • It lacks a compelling hook.
  • The discussion of the obstacle and reflection upon it are both a bit rushed.
  • It could use more vivid and evocative language.
  • It uses a cliche (“one door closes”).
  • It is somewhat vague at times (e.g. what kinds of “new mindsets and experiences” did the writer experience? In what ways are they now more “well-rounded”?).

Now let’s apply this feedback and revise the essay.

Essay Version #2, Excellent Essay:

My body was splayed out on the ice and I was simultaneously right there, in searing pain, and watching everything from above, outside of myself. It wasn’t actually a “near death” experience, but it was certainly disorienting, considering that just seconds before, I was flying down the ice in possession of the puck, about to score the winning goal of our championship game.

Instead, I had taken a check from an opposing team member, and had torn my ACL (or anterior cruciate ligament), which is the kiss of death for most athletic careers.

My road to recovery included two major surgeries, a couple months on crutches, a year of physical therapy, and absolutely zero athletic activity. I would heal, thankfully, and regain movement in my knee and leg, but I was told by doctors that I may never play hockey again, which was devastating to me. Hockey wasn’t just my passion—it was my life’s goal to play professionally.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, feeling like a ghost haunting my own life, watching everything but unable to participate. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally, and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class after school for those students who wanted to study art more seriously. I had already taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my schedule, as required. And, because of hockey, I certainly had never had afternoons open.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began to feel alive again, like “myself” but renewed, more awake and aware of everything around me. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at, to bring everything I saw to life. It wasn’t just that I’d adopted a new hobby or passion, it was that I began looking more closely and critically at the world around me. I wanted to share what I saw with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before.

My art teacher selected a charcoal portrait of mine to be showcased in a local art show and I’ve never been more proud of myself for anything. Many of my friends, family members, and teammates came to see the show, which blew me away, but also I realized then just how much of my own self worth had been attached to people’s perception of me as a successful athlete. I learned how much better it feels to gain self worth from within. Unlike hockey, which I’d trained to be good at since I was a toddler, art is something that made me much more vulnerable. I didn’t do it to try to be the best, I did it because it felt good. And getting out of my comfort zone in this way gave me a sense of confidence I had never known prior, despite all my time on the ice during high-stakes games.

Today, I’m back in skates and able to play hockey, but will probably not play professionally; while I am disappointed, I’m also at peace with it. We make plans in life, and sometimes life has other plans for us that we have to adapt to and embrace, which is the more profound lesson I’ve learned in the healing process. We can crumple in the face of obstacles, or we can look for a silver lining and allow ourselves to grow into more complex, dynamic, well-rounded people. I don’t know what the rest of life holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to keep making art, and I’m going to keep opening myself up to new opportunities and experiences.

Strengths of Version #2:

  • It has a compelling hook that draws the reader in.
  • It has a clear beginning, middle, and end (expressed as an introduction, body, and conclusion).
  • It directly addresses the prompt at hand and sticks to it.
  • It focuses on one specific incident.
  • It is well balanced in its explanation of and reflection on a given experience.
  • It uses a clear, unique voice and tone as well as vivid, evocative language.
  • It has a logical and cohesive flow.
  • It is highly personal while also polished and professional.

Hopefully these examples have given you ideas of how you can take your Common App essay from good to great. If you have more questions about how to write a Common App essay, keep reading our FAQs below.

Common App essay FAQs - magoosh

How much do I actually have to write for the Common App essay?

Last year, the Common App essay was capped at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words required. The best essays tend to range between 500-650 words.

Think of it this way as you start to draft: 500 words is one single-spaced page (250 words is one double-spaced page), so you should write roughly a page to page and half of typed, single-spaced content.

Where can I find the official Common App essay prompts?

Here are the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts , which are the same as last year’s, with the exception of a new prompt #4 and the addition of a Covid-19 Common App prompt .

Do I need a title for the Common App essay?

A title is not required for the Common App essay, but you are, of course, more than welcome to include one if you’d like.

Where can I go for more information about the Common App essay?

All of the necessary information for the Common App and the Common App essay can be found on the Common Application home page.

For further reading, here are some posts that tackle and dispel common myths about the Common App essay:

Myth: The Common App essay must sound professional. Myth: Colleges can’t tell if someone helps write a common app essay.

If you haven’t already, you can download our free Common App essay checklist .

Happy Writing!

There you have it! The Common App essay can actually be quite rewarding to write if you give yourself enough time to prepare for it thoroughly. Remember, it’s all about you, and you’re the authority on that! So hunker down and don’t forget to have fun in the writing process.

We’d also love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you still have about the Common Application essay? What are you thinking about writing on?

Comment below, and good luck!

Nadyja Von Ebers

Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions . Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn !

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The 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts

Tips and Guidance for the 7 Essay Options on the New Common Application

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For the 2021-22 application cycle, the Common Application  essay prompts remain unchanged from the 2020-21 cycle with the exception of an all new option #4. As in the past, with the inclusion of the popular "Topic of Your Choice" option, you have the opportunity to write about anything you want to share with the folks in the admissions office.

The current prompts are the result of much discussion and debate from the member institutions who use the Common Application. The essay length limit stands at 650 words (the minimum is 250 words), and students will need to choose from the seven options below. The essay prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. The best essays focus on self-analysis, rather than spending a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student. If your essay doesn't include some self-analysis, you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.

According to the folks at the Common Application , in the 2018-19 admissions cycle, Option #7 (topic of your choice) was the most popular and was used by 24.1% of applicants. The second most popular was Option #5 (discuss an accomplishment) with 23.7% of applicants. In third place was Option #2 on a setback or failure. 21.1% of applicants chose that option.

From the Admissions Desk

"While the transcript and grades will always be the most important piece in the review of an application, essays can help a student stand out. The stories and information shared in an essay are what the Admissions Officer will use to advocate for the student in the admissions committee."

–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania

Always keep in mind why colleges are asking for an essay: they want to get to know you better. Nearly all selective colleges and universities (as well as many that aren't overly selective) have holistic admissions, and they consider many factors in addition to numerical measures such as grades and standardized test scores. Your essay is an important tool for presenting something you find important that may not come across elsewhere in your application. Make sure your essay presents you as the type of person a college will want to invite to join their community.

Below are the seven options with some general tips for each:

Option #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.

"Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write a story about your "background, identity, interest, or talent." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. You could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your "interest" or "talent" could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why  the story you tell is so meaningful. 

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #1
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Handiwork" by Vanessa
  • Sample essay for option #1: "My Dads" by Charlie
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Give Goth a Chance"
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Wallflower"

Option #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?

This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss setbacks and failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question—how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty are key with this prompt.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #2
  • Sample essay for option #2: "Striking Out" by Richard
  • Sample essay for option #2: "Student Teacher" by Max

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief. The answer to the final question about the "outcome" of your challenge need not be a success story. Sometimes in retrospection, we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #3
  • Sample essay for option #3: "Gym Class Hero" by Jennifer

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

Here, again, the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question since it is entirely up to you to decide what the "something" and "someone" will be. This prompt was added to the Common Application in the 2021-22 admissions cycle in part because it gives students the opportunity to write something heartfelt and uplifting after all the challenges of the previous year. The best essays for this prompt show that you are a generous person who recognizes the contributions others have made to your personal journey. Unlike many essays that are all about "me, me, me," this essay shows your ability to appreciate others. This type of generosity is an important character trait that schools look for when inviting people to join their campus communities.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #4

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

This question was reworded in 2017-18 admissions cycle, and the current language is a huge improvement. The prompt use to talk about transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but the new language about a "period of personal growth" is a much better articulation of how we actually learn and mature (no single event makes us adults). Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). This prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay—admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play (see the list of bad essay topics for more about this issue). These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #5
  • Sample essay for option #5: "Buck Up" by Jill

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 option was entirely new in 2017, and it's a wonderfully broad prompt. In essence, it's asking you to identify and discuss something that enthralls you. The question gives you an opportunity to identify something that kicks your brain into high gear, reflect on why it is so stimulating, and reveal your process for digging deeper into something that you are passionate about. Note that the central words here—"topic, idea, or concept"—all have rather academic connotations. While you may lose track of time when running or playing football, sports are probably not the best choice for this particular question.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #6

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 popular "topic of your choice" option had been removed from the Common Application between 2013 and 2016, but it returned again with the 2017-18 admissions cycle. Use this option if you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first six topics are extremely broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you. Cleverness is fine, but don't be clever at the expense of meaningful content.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #7
  • Sample essay for option #7: "My Hero Harpo" by Alexis
  • Sample essay for option #7: "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"

Final Thoughts

Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis rather than merely describing a place or event.

The folks at The Common Application have cast a wide net with these questions, and nearly anything you want to write about could fit under at least one of the options. If your essay could fit under more than one option, it really doesn't matter which one you choose. Many admissions officers, in fact, don't even look at which prompt you chose—they just want to see that you have written a good essay.

  • Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth
  • Tips for the Pre-2013 Personal Essay Options on the Common Application
  • Common Application Essay Option 2 Tips: Learning from Failure
  • Topic of Your Choice: Common Application Essay Tips
  • Common Application Essay Option 4—Gratitude
  • Common Application Essay Option 3 Tips: Challenging a Belief
  • Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place
  • A Sample Essay for Common Application Option #7: Topic of Your Choice
  • 2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem
  • Common Application Essay, Option 1: Share Your Story
  • "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"—Sample Common Application Essay, Option #4
  • "Gym Class Hero" - a Common Application Essay Sample for Option #3
  • 5 Tips for a College Admissions Essay on an Important Issue
  • Common Application Essay Option 6: Losing Track of Time
  • Tips for an Application Essay on a Significant Experience
  • "My Dads" - Sample Common Application Essay for Option #1


Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, complete strategies: common app essay prompts (2023-24).

College Essays


If you're applying to more than one or two colleges, there's a good chance you'll have to use the Common Application, and that means you'll probably have to write a Common App essay .

In this guide, I'll cover everything you need to know about the essay. I'll break down every single Common App essay prompt by going over the following:

  • What is the question asking?
  • What do college admissions officers want to hear from you?
  • What topics can you write about effectively?
  • What should you avoid at all costs?

This will be your complete starting guide for Common App essays. After reading this, you should have a lot of ideas for your own essays and directions to write a really strong personal statement .

What Is the Common App Essay? Overview

Before we dig into the nitty-gritty of the individual prompts, let's quickly go over the logistics of the Common App essay and some general tips to keep in mind.

Most—but Not All—Schools Require the Essay

Keep in mind that the Common App essay is optional for some schools.

Here are a few examples of schools that do not require the Common App essay (note that some may require a school-specific writing supplement instead):

  • Arizona State University
  • Clemson University
  • DePaul University
  • Eastern Michigan University
  • Georgia State University
  • Old Dominion University
  • Pratt Institute
  • University of Idaho

If you're applying to more than one or two schools through the Common App, you'll almost certainly need to write a response to the Common App prompts. As such, we recommend sending your essay to schools even if they don't explicitly require it. You're writing it anyways, and it's the best way for the school to get to know you as a person.

It's also worth noting that because of the way this system is set up, you could theoretically send a different essay to each school. However, doing so isn't a good use of your time : if schools want to know something more specific about you, they'll require a supplement. Focus on writing a single great personal statement.

Pay Attention to the Word Limit

The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words . You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650.

Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of your essay. Don't do this. No matter how tempting it might be, stick to the word limit . Otherwise, you risk seeming self-indulgent.

In general, we advise shooting for an essay between 500 and 650 words long . You want to have enough space to really explore one specific idea, but you don't need to include everything. Editing is an important part of the essay-writing process, after all!


Don't Stress Too Much About the Question

As you'll see, the Common App prompts are very general and leave a lot of room for interpretation.

Moreover, colleges interpret the questions generously —they're more concerned with learning something interesting about you than with whether your topic perfectly fits the question.

Per a Common App survey from 2015 , 85% of member schools " feel the prompts should be left open to broad interpretation."

You can write about almost anything and make it work, so if you have an idea, don't let the fact that it doesn't fit neatly into one of these categories stop you. Treat these breakdowns as jumping-off points to help you start brainstorming , not the final word in how you need to approach the essay.

Make Sure You Look at This Year's Prompts

The Common App changes its prompts fairly frequently , so make sure you're familiar with the most up-to-date versions of the Common App essay questions . If you have friends or siblings who applied in past years, don't assume that you can take the exact same approaches they did.

This guide will go over the details of all seven current prompts, but first let's talk about some overall advice.

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4 Tips For Finding Your Best Common App Essay Topic

As you're brainstorming and preparing to write your Common App essay, you'll want to keep these tips in mind.


#1: Make It Personal

The point of a personal statement is to, well, make a personal statement , that is to say, tell the reader something about yourself . As such, your topic needs to be something meaningful to you.

What does it mean for a topic to be "meaningful to you"?

First, it means that you genuinely care about the topic and want to write your college essay on it— no one ever wrote a great essay on a topic that they felt they had to write about .

Second, it means that the topic shows off a quality or trait you want to highlight for the admissions committee . For example, say I wanted to write about my summer job with the Parks Department. It's not enough to simply tell a story about my feud with a raccoon that kept destroying all the progress I made repairing a bench; I would need to make it clear what that experience ;shows about my character (perseverance) and explain what it ;taught me (that there are some things in life you simply can't control).

Remember that the most important thing is that your essay is about you . This advice might sound obvious, but when you're used to writing academic essays, it can be tricky to dive deep into your own perspective.

#2: Take Your Time

Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write so you don't feel rushed into jotting down the first thing you can come up with and sending it right off. We recommend starting the writing process two months in advance of your first college application deadline .

On a similar note, you should take the essay seriously: it's an important part of your application and worth investing the time in to get right. If you just dash something off thoughtlessly, admissions officers will recognize that and consider it evidence that you aren't really interested in their school.

#3: Avoid Repetition

Your essay should illustrate something about you beyond what's in the rest of your application . Try to write about a topic you haven't talked about elsewhere, or take a different angle on it.

A college essay is not a resume —it's the best opportunity to show off your unique personality to admissions committees. Pick your topic accordingly.

#4: Get Specific

The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you.

Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story . These would make for very different essays, even though they're on basically the same topic.

Another benefit of a specific topic is that it makes coming up with supporting details much easier. Specific, sensory details make the reader feel as if they're seeing the experience through your eyes, giving them a better sense of who you are.

Take a look at this example sentence:

General: I was nervous as I waited for my turn to audition.

Specific: As I waited for my name to be called, I tapped the rhythm of "America" on the hard plastic chair, going through the beats of my audition song over and over in my head.

The first version could be written by almost anyone; the second version has a specific perspective—it's also intriguing and makes you want to know more.

The more specific your essay topic is, the more clearly your unique voice will come through and the more engaging your essay will be.

Breaking Down the 2022-23 Common App Essay Prompts

Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm, let's go through the 2022-23 Common App essay questions one at a time and break down what admissions committees are looking for in responses.

Keep in mind that for each of these questions, there are really two parts . The first is describing something you did or something that happened to you. The second is explaining what that event, action, or activity means to you . No essay is complete without addressing both sides of the topic.


Common App Essay Prompt 1: A Key Piece of Your Story

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.

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is very broad. Is there something you do or love, or something that happened to you, that isn't reflected elsewhere in your application but that you feel is vital to your personal story ? Then this prompt could be a good one for you.

The key is that whatever you write about needs to be genuinely important to you personally, not just something you think will look good to the admissions committee. You need to clarify why this story is so important that you couldn't leave it off your application.

What Do They Want to Know?

This question is really about showing admissions officers how your background has shaped you . Can you learn and grow from your experiences?

By identifying an experience or trait that is vital to your story, you're also showing what kind of person you see yourself as. Do you value your leadership abilities or your determination to overcome challenges? Your intellectual curiosity or your artistic talent?

Everyone has more than one important trait, but in answering this prompt, you're telling admissions officers what you think is your most significant quality .

What Kinds of Topics Could Work?

You could write about almost anything for this prompt: an unexpected interest, a particularly consuming hobby, a part of your family history, or a life-changing event. Make sure to narrow in on something specific, though. You don't have room to tell your whole life story!

Your topic can be serious or silly, as long as it's important to you. Just remember that it needs to showcase a deeper quality of yours.

For example, if I were writing an essay on this topic, I would probably write about my life-long obsession with books. I'd start with a story about how my parents worried I read too much as a kid, give some specific examples of things I've learned from particular books, and talk about how my enthusiasm for reading was so extreme it sometimes interfered with my actual life (like the time I tripped and fell because I couldn't be bothered to put down my book long enough to walk from my room to the kitchen).

Then I would tie it all together by explaining how my love of reading has taught me to look for ideas in unexpected places.

What Should You Avoid?

You don't want your essay to read like a resume: it shouldn't be a list of accomplishments. Your essay needs to add something to the rest of your application, so it also shouldn't focus on something you've already covered unless you have a really different take on it.

In addition, try to avoid generic and broad topics: you don't want your essay to feel as though it could've been written by any student.

As we touched on above, one way to avoid this problem is to be very  specific —rather than writing generally about your experience as the child of immigrants, you might tell a story about a specific family ritual or meaningful moment.

Common App Essay Prompt 2: Coping With Obstacles

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

This prompt is pretty straightforward. It's asking you to describe a challenge or obstacle you faced or a time you failed, and how you dealt with it .

The part many students forget is the second half: what lessons did you learn from your challenge or failure ? If you take on this question, you must show how you grew from the experience and, ideally, how you incorporated what you learned into other endeavors.

This question really raises two issues: how you handle difficult situations and whether you're capable of learning from your mistakes.

You'll face a lot of challenges in college, both academic and social. In addressing this prompt, you have the opportunity to show admissions officers that you can deal with hardships without just giving up .

You also need to show that you can learn from challenges and mistakes. Can you find a positive lesson in a negative experience? Colleges want to see an example of how you've done so.

Good topics will be specific and have a clearly explained impact on your perspective . You need to address both parts of the question: the experience of facing the challenge and what you learned from it.

However, almost any kind of obstacle, challenge, or failure—large or small—can work:

  • Doing poorly at a job interview and how that taught you to deal with nerves
  • Failing a class and how retaking it taught you better study skills
  • Directing a school play when the set collapsed and how it taught you to stay cool under pressure and think on your feet

Make sure you pick an actual failure or challenge—don't turn your essay into a humblebrag. How you failed at procrastination because you're just so organized or how you've been challenged by the high expectations of teachers at school because everyone knows you are so smart are not appropriate topics.

Also, don't write about something completely negative . Your response needs to show that you got something out of your challenge or failure and that you've learned skills you can apply to other situations.


Spilling your coffee is not an appropriate failure, no matter how disastrous it may feel.

Common App Essay Prompt 3: Challenging a Belief

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

There are two ways to approach this question. The first is to talk about a time you questioned a person or group on an idea of theirs. The second is to talk about a time that something caused you to reconsider a belief of your own.

In either case, you need to explain why you decided the belief should be challenged, what you actually did —if your story is just that someone gave you a new piece of information and you changed your mind, you should probably find a different topic— and how you feel about your actions in hindsight .

The obvious question this prompt raises is what your values are and whether you're willing to stand up for what you believe . Whether you've reconsidered your own beliefs or asked others to reconsider theirs, it shows you've put genuine thought into what you value and why.

However, colleges also want to see that you're open minded and able to be fair and kind toward those who have different beliefs than you do. Can you question someone else's beliefs without belittling them? If not, don't choose this prompt.

This prompt is really one where you either have a relevant story or you don't . If there's a belief or idea that's particularly important to you, whether political or personal, this might be a good question for you to address.

The main pitfall with this question is that it lends itself to very abstract answers . It's not that interesting to read about how you used to believe chocolate is the best ice cream flavor but then changed your mind and decided the best flavor is actually strawberry. (Seriously, though, what is wrong with you!?) Make sure there's clear conflict and action in your essay.

Divisive political issues, such as abortion and gun rights, are tricky to write about (although not impossible) because people feel very strongly about them and often have a hard time accepting the opposite viewpoint. In general, I would avoid these kinds of topics unless you have a highly compelling story.

Also, keep in mind that most people who work at colleges are liberal, so if you have a conservative viewpoint, you'll need to tread more carefully. Regardless of what you're writing about, don't assume that the reader shares your views .

Finally, you want to avoid coming off as petty or inflexible , especially if you're writing about a controversial topic. It's great to have strong beliefs, but you also want to show that you're open to listening to other people's perspectives, even if they don't change your mind.

Common App Essay Prompt 4: Gratitude Reflection

Reflect on something that someone had done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

The first part is straightforward: describe a time someone did something positive for you that made you happy or thankful  in a surprising way.  So it can't have been something you expected to happen (i.e. your parents gave you the birthday present you were hoping for).

Next, you need to explain how that surprising gratitude affected or motivated you. So, what was the result of this positive feeling?  How did you keep it going?

This prompt helps admissions officers see both what your expectations are for certain situations and how you react when things go differently than expected. Did you take it in stride when you were pleasantly surprised? Were you too shocked to speak? Why? What about the situation wasn't what you were expecting?  Additionally, it shows them what you personally are grateful for. Gratitude is an important personal characteristic to have. What in life makes you thankful and happy? Your answer will show admissions officers a lot about what you value and how you think.

Finally—and this is the key part—they want to know the larger impact of this gratitude. Did you decide to pay it forward? Use it as motivation to better yourself/your world? When something good happens to you, how do you react?

Because this is a reflection prompt, it's a great way to show admissions officers the kind of person you are and what you value. You'll have a lot of surprising moments, both good and bad, in college, and they want to know how you deal with them and how you spread the happiness you come across.

You can choose any event, even a minor one, as long as your reaction is  unexpected happiness/gratefulness. The "unexpected" part is key. You need to choose a situation where things didn't go the way you expected. So if your uncle, who has always been a great mentor, gives you great advice, that likely won't work because you'd be expecting it.

Next, it had to have had some sort of real impact so you can explain how your gratefulness affected you. This means that, even if the event itself was small, it had to have brought about some sort of lasting change in how you live your life.

To start, brainstorm times when something went better than expected/you were happily surprised by an outcome/you were especially grateful/someone restored your faith in humanity. Remember, this has to be, overall, a positive situation, as you're being asked about an event that made you happy or grateful. This is in contrast to prompts 2 and 3 which focus more on challenges you've faced.

Once you have your list, eliminate any instances that didn't affect or motivate you. The key part of this prompt is explaining the impact of your gratitude, so you need to write about a time when gratitude made you do something you normally wouldn't have done. This could be focusing on self-care/self-improvement, paying it forward by helping someone else, shifting your values, etc. Colleges want to see how you changed because of this event.

For example, say you decide to write about your first time traveling through an airport alone. You're not sure where to go, and all the workers look busy and like they're just waiting for their break. You're wandering around, lost, too shy to ask someone for help, when a gruff-looking employee comes up and asks if you need something. When you admit you don't know how to find your gate, they take the time to walk you to it, show you which screen to watch so you know when to board, and tell you to come get them if you need any more help. It's much more help than you thought anyone would give you.

Because of that person's actions (and this is the key part), you now always keep an eye out for people who look lost or confused and try to help them because you know how intimidating it can be to be out of your depth. You also know that many times people feel embarrassed to ask for help, so you need to make the first move to help them. If you have a specific example of you helping someone in need as a result, including that will make the essay even stronger.

Avoid scenarios where you were the first person to help another. The prompt is asking about a time someone was kind to you, and  then  you reacted in response to that. You need to have the grateful moment first, then the change in behavior.

Additionally, avoid examples where someone treated you badly but you rose above it. This is a situation where someone was kind to you, and you decided to keep that kindness going.


Look at those dummies, solving a problem!

Common App Essay Prompt 5: Personal Growth and Maturity

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Like Prompt 1, this one is very general. It's asking you to talk about something you did or something that happened that caused you to grow or mature as a person.

The other key point to remember when addressing this question is that you need to explain how this event changed or enriched your understanding of yourself or other people.

In short: when and how have you grown as a person ? Personal growth and maturity are complicated issues. Your essay might touch on themes such as personal responsibility and your role in the world and your community.

You don't have to explain your whole worldview, but you need to give readers a sense of why this particular event caused significant growth for you as a person.

This prompt can also help you show either your own sense of self-concept or how you relate to others.

Much like Prompt 3, this question likely either appeals to you or doesn't . Nonetheless, here are some potential topics:

  • A time you had to step up in your household
  • A common milestone (such as voting for the first time or getting your driver's license) that was particularly meaningful to you
  • A big change in your life, such as becoming an older sibling or moving to a new place

It's important that your topic describes a transition that led to real positive growth or change in you as a person .

However, personal growth is a gradual process, and you can definitely still approach this topic if you feel you have more maturing to do. (Fun fact: most adults feel they have more maturing to do, too!) Just focus on a specific step in the process of growing up and explain what it meant to you and how you've changed.

Almost any topic could theoretically make a good essay about personal growth, but it's important that the overall message conveys maturity . If the main point of your essay about junior prom is that you learned you look bad in purple and now you know not to wear it, you'll seem like you just haven't had a lot of meaningful growth experiences in your life.

You also want the personal growth and new understanding(s) you describe in your essay to be positive in nature . If the conclusion of your essay is "and that's how I matured and realized that everyone in the world is terrible," that's not going to work very well with admissions committees, as you'll seem pessimistic and unable to cope with challenges.

Common App Essay Prompt 6: Your Passion

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 asking you to describe something you're intellectually passionate about .

But in addition to describing a topic of personal fascination and why you're so interested in it, you need to detail how you have pursued furthering your own knowledge of the topic . Did you undertake extra study? Hole yourself up in the library? Ask your math team coach for more practice problems?

Colleges want to admit students who are intellectually engaged with the world. They want you to show that you have a genuine love for the pursuit of knowledge .

Additionally, by describing how you've learned more about your chosen topic, concept, or idea, you can prove that you are self-motivated and resourceful .

Pretty much any topic you're really interested in and passionate about could make a good essay here, just as long as you can put can put an intellectual spin on it and demonstrate that you've gone out of your way to learn about the topic.

So It's fine to say that the topic that engages you most is football, but talk about what interests you in an academic sense about the sport. Have you learned everything there is to know about the history of the sport? Are you an expert on football statistics? Emphasize how the topic you are writing about engages your brain.

Don't pick something you don't actually care about just because you think it would sound good.

If you say you love black holes but actually hate them and tortured yourself with astronomy books in the library for a weekend to glean enough knowledge to write your essay, your lack of enthusiasm will definitely come through.

Common App Essay Prompt 7: Your Choice

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.

You can write about anything for this one!

Since this is a choose-your-own-adventure prompt, colleges aren't looking for anything specific to this prompt .

However, you'll want to demonstrate some of the same qualities that colleges are looking for in all college essays: things like academic passion, maturity, resourcefulness, and persistence. What are your values? How do you face setbacks? These are all things you can consider touching on in your essay.

If you already have a topic in mind for this one that doesn't really fit with any of the other prompts, go for it!

Avoid essays that aren't really about you as a person. So no submitting your rhetorical close-reading of the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" you wrote for AP English!

However, if you want to write about the way that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" made you reconsider your entire approach to life, go ahead.

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The Common App Essay Questions: 5 Key Takeaways

We've covered a lot of ground, but don't panic. I've collected the main ideas you should keep in mind as you plan your Common App essay below.


#1: A Prompt 1 Topic Must Go Beyond What's in the Rest of Your Application

For prompt 1, it's absolutely vital that your topic be something genuinely meaningful to you . Don't write about something just because you think it's impressive. Big achievements and leadership roles, such as serving as captain of a team or winning a journalism award, can certainly be used as topics, but only if you can explain why they mattered to you beyond that it was cool to be in charge or that you liked winning.

It's better if you can pick out something smaller and more individual , like helping your team rally after a particularly rough loss or laboring over a specific article to make sure you got every detail right.

#2: Prompts 2, 4, and 6 Are Generally the Simplest Options

Most students have an experience or interest that will work for either Prompt 2, Prompt 4, or Prompt 6. If you're uncertain what you want to write about, think about challenges you've faced, a time you were grateful, or your major intellectual passions.

These prompts are slightly easier to approach than the others because they lend themselves to very specific and concrete topics that show clear growth. Describing a failure and what you learned from it is much simpler than trying to clarify why an event is a vital part of your identity.

#3: Prompts 3 and 5 Can Be Trickier—but You Don't Need to Avoid Them

These questions ask about specific types of experiences that not every high school student has had. If they don't speak to you, don't feel compelled to answer them.

If you do want to take on Prompt 3 or 5, however, remember to clearly explain your perspective to the reader , even if it seems obvious to you.

For Prompt 3, you have to establish not just what you believe but why you believe it and why that belief matters to you, too. For prompt 5, you need to clarify how you moved from childhood to adulthood and what that means to both you and others.

These prompts elicit some of the most personal responses , which can make for great essays but also feel too revealing to many students. Trust your instincts and don't pick a topic you're not comfortable writing about.

At the same time, don't hesitate to take on a difficult or controversial topic if you're excited about it and think you can treat it with the necessary nuance.

#4: Make Sure to Explain What Your Experience Taught You

I've tried to emphasize this idea throughout this guide: it's not enough to simply describe what you did—you also have to explain what it meant to you .

Pushing past the surface level while avoiding clichés and generalizations is a big challenge, but it's ultimately what will make your essay stand out. Make sure you know what personal quality you want to emphasize before you start and keep it in mind as you write.

Try to avoid boring generalizations in favor of more specific and personal insights.

Bad: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me a lot.

Better: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me that I love puzzles and made me wonder what other problems I could solve.

Best: When I finally twisted the last piece of the Rubik's cube into place after months of work, I was almost disappointed. I'd solved the puzzle; what would I do now? But then I started to wonder if I could use what I'd learned to do the whole thing faster. Upon solving one problem, I had immediately moved onto the next one, as I do with most things in life.

As you go back through your essay to edit, every step of the way ask yourself, "So what?" Why does the reader need to know this? What does it show about me? How can I go one step deeper?

#5: Don't Worry About What You Think You're Supposed to Write

There is no single right answer to these prompts , and if you try to find one, you'll end up doing yourself a disservice. What's important is to tell your story—and no one can tell you what that means because it's unique to you.

Many students believe that they should write about resume-padding activities that look especially impressive, such as volunteering abroad. These essays are often boring and derivative because the writer doesn't really have anything to say on the topic and assumes it'll speak for itself.

But the point of a personal statement isn't to explain what you've done; it's to show who you are .

Take the time to brainstorm and figure out what you want to show colleges about yourself and what story or interest best exemplifies that quality.

What's Next?

For more background on college essays and tips for crafting a great one, check out our complete explanation of the basics of the personal statement .

Make sure you're prepared for the rest of the college application process as well with our guides to asking for recommendations , writing about extracurriculars , taking the SAT , and researching colleges .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

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common app essay format 2021

How To Write Effective Common Essay 2021 (With Examples)

common app essay format 2021

Most of the colleges expect you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application .

It may sound like a burden, and it will undoubtedly take a solid amount of work. But it gives you an excellent opportunity to make a difference at decision time. 

Admissions committees put the utmost weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, some colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.

What would you like to showcase before the college admission staff if they are looking beyond your high school grades and standardized test scores?

Significance of the Common Application Essay

By now, you will know what a common application, a.k.a. common app, is.

It is an application accessed by over seven hundred colleges in the US, including the Ivy League and many other reputed colleges. So when you fill in all your academic and personal details like your name, high school name, extracurricular activities, etc., on the Common App , all colleges who use it can get your details from there. This is where you will also find the Common App Essay, a.k.a. the Personal Statement.

This entire topic is devoted to this Common App Essay.

Not all colleges reach out for the Common App as they will have their processes in place for getting this information. All the effort you put into compiling the Common App Essay will undoubtedly assist you – whether your college application is through the Common or non-Common App. It will further ease your efforts when you also have to compile additional or minor essays.

Those colleges that fall into the non-Common App using category also require essays or brief answers to questions.

But what is the significance of the Common App Essay?

Many colleges believe that it is impractical to gauge a student’s aptitude and college readiness by simply reviewing his high school grades, standardized test scores, how many challenging courses were taken, etc. So they don’t have any ‘grade/score requirement’ to be eligible to apply.

Rather than just looking at an applicant’s statistics, they endeavor to see each applicant as a person. College admission staff are human too and would be crushed with a lack of enthusiasm if their task primarily comprised going through high school grades, SAT/ACT scores, TOEFL scores, and AP/IB scores all the time.

Just ensuring that your grades and standardized test scores are outstanding is not a sure ticket to your favorite college. You must also have a stunning Personal Statement to complement your academic performance.

Are you wondering why?

Your Personal Statement talks about you – the real you and not about your grades and other statistics. It is the single document in your application that communicates naturally without putting down cold figures by which you can be assessed. This is the only route available to you to speak to the college admissions staff about yourself so that they see you as a person and not just someone with a bunch of numbers.

There is a shortage of students with excellent grades and test scores who apply to the US’s best colleges. So every college has the luxury of having their pick when considering the academic capabilities. Still, they need to identify the student for his talents and potential and not just by his grades. They will be looking for information about the natural person with all those excellent scores.

You may have your reservations about how vital the Personal Statement is – if it can be a game-changer. Your essay is of great significance, and you should spend considerable time – ideally a few months, in putting it together. How influential your essay is will differ from one college to another.

Experienced counselors reckon that the essay can corner up to 30% of the selection process. So can you imagine! You put in so much time and effort for excellent high school grades, SAT/ACT, TOEFL, AP/IB scores, internship, volunteering, community service, etc., but it will add up to 70% or a little more on your chances of being accepted.

How do you get an idea of how effective your essay is and that you must spend time on it like you will on the other academic and extracurricular Statement so that you write one that will help you get accepted at your favorite college?

The College Essay is no enigma!

Let’s be clear on what these essays are.

The Personal Statement

This is a 600-650-word essay Common Application Essay that will be part of your Common App and can be viewed by those colleges who access it. This Personal Statement is the only means for the college admission staff to know you as an individual. So both Personal Statement and Common App Essay are the same.

Secondary or Supplemental Essays

Some colleges request essays with specific guidelines that will be an added document besides the Personal Statement. It can range from discussing one of your extracurricular activities or considering a famous quote and discuss it.

Listed below are Common App Essay Cues. These cues are more or less what colleges have been asking over the last couple of years. We’ll discuss these cues in detail subsequently.

  • A student’s social circumstances, family environment, individuality, aptitude, or passions are perhaps so significant that he strongly feels that his application will be half-done without mentioning it.

Does this sound like you? If yes, tell us all about it.

All hardships come with a silver lining. They offer us the wisdom and experience that help us deal with future situations successfully.

Describe a situation or event when you had to confront a problem, difficult situation, or debacle. Were you broken, or did you meet the challenge head-on? What did this event teach you?

There must have been an instance when you disputed or protested against an opinion or point of view. why did you take such a stance and what came out of the stand you took.

Narrate a difficult situation you’ve overcome or that you’d like to sort out. It could be a cerebral poser, a social problem, or even something very close to your heart – however small or big it may be.

Discuss why it is significant to you and how you resolved it, or what can be done to see it through.

Narrate an occurrence, achievement, or newfound awareness that set off your personal development and helped you see people and the things around you in a new light., discuss a subject, belief, or issue that you can get so engrossed with that you forget about everything else. why do you find it fascinating what do you do to feed your curiosity and hunger to know more about it.

  • Write an essay on a subject of your liking. It’s acceptable if you had written it earlier or it was something you wrote to a cue given by someone.
  • What fires your imagination? Or thrills you? Or conveys what you are? Put down your thoughts in 650 words.

Then, your Personal Statement should steer clear of putting down all the information that is already there in your resume or Common App Activity section . You should by no means attempt to project yourself as some kind of superhero who accomplished the impossible at such a young age. Don’t use melodrama to magnify what you may have endured. You needn’t bring in your family or your views on ethnicity, class, or gender into your essay. It is necessary to try to show the college admissions staff that side of your personality that only your family, friends, teachers, and peers are familiar with.

Whatever you choose to write, ensure that it is relevant and sincere.

The above-mentioned Common App Essay Cues are a mixed bag, and you have an option to write about any of them. You should mull over the stories you can share and then choose which one to go with. It is usually an available choice, and you’ve nothing to lose with the choice you make.

Get acquainted with these students.

We will now walk you through some students’ situations and how they dealt with putting together an outstanding Personal Statement and got accepted at reputed colleges in the US.

Student#1 Robbie

Robbie plans to pursue pre-med at college. She is however, still in two minds about it. She has always been a multitasker and has participated in many unrelated activities. Robbie participated in numerous singing events but never won any prizes. She played golf, was in the school debate team, and participated in the theatre too.

But what is missing from Robbie’s CV?

She dreams of participating in the US Women’s Open (Golf), adores her mother, and has more best friends than she can count.

Student#2 Agnes

Agnes has a way with words. She finds writing so easy that she can’t imagine how anyone can flounder for words. However, she is not part of the school bulletin team. She has never dared to send in any of her poems or articles to publications, so she can’t confidently admit that she is a writer.

She is also a keen mock trial participant, and she’s very good at it – her friends tell her that she has it in her to become an excellent lawyer. However, Agnes has reservations about pursuing Law, Philosophy, or Political Science and isn’t sure she wants to become a lawyer.

But what is missing from Agnes’ CV?

She loves trekking and loves even more to draw and paint landscapes that come as a package deal with trekking.

Student#3 Ryan

Ryan is good at his studies – his grades are good, but none of the subjects excite him, so he’s pretty undecided about what he should pursue. Whenever he has some spare time, Ryan teaches math at the local orphanage. He plays cricket and is in the dance troupe too.

But what is missing from Ryan’s CV?

Ryan plays the violin that he pursues only because his mother wants him to. He’s very close to his younger brother and is in awe of his older sister, who’s now away at college.

Student#4 Sam

Sam studies at the best public school in his small mountain town. His family is comfortably off, but Sam chooses to work at the local café after school. This leaves him with little time to pursue any extracurricular activities, and in any case, his school doesn’t have much to offer there.

Sam likes biology but isn’t sure if he wants to attend pre-med at college. He doesn’t see himself pursuing medicine and is quite bewildered about what program to follow at college.

Sam loves mountain climbing and has been doing it with his Uncle as a young boy. His father doesn’t like mountain climbing, and he’s very close to his Uncle.

Taking the first step to write

Staring at a blank sheet and wondering how to begin writing is a barrier that even a well-versed author has to struggle with. As a high school student, it is reasonably expected when you feel uncertain about getting going with writing.

You have so much to say and are bursting with enthusiasm to make an impression. Right? But how do you express yourself without going over the top with your narrative?

The only remedy to combat such anxiety – of not knowing how to begin and what tone of voice to use in your narrative, is to compose yourself, charge your creative cells, and then get down to writing.

We’ll handhold you to take charge of putting together your Common App Essay, secondary, and supplemental essays long before they are needed. We recommend trashing procrastination right away. June is the best time to get started. Wondering why?

You must be already sighing at the thought of spending your summer working hard on this. But treat this as a warm-up to get into the groove and accomplish the most challenging part of your applications before August. By then, you will have thought through what you want to put down.

The added benefit of attending to this task as early as June is that you will have the first draft of your Personal Statement ready to share with the teachers you will request college recommendation letters. Your recommenders will have something to connect with within their notes by having early access to your Common App Essay.

This small effort will go a long way in ensuring that your application doesn’t just mention details about you but gives a peek into the natural person you are, your aspirations, your beliefs, etc. Therefore each document in your Common App will complement each other and work as a part of the whole story that is you.

Work with the suggested timelines to match your schedules, but you must begin working hard on this in the summer.

Discussing and ideating essay themes and using cues (2-3 weeks)

To begin, you should peruse the Common App cues to identify which of them excites you and you can relate to. We’ve listed signals to help you further ideate and begin the initial writing during summer.

Let’s begin with Cue #7 since it’s not specific but more comprehensive. We will, after that, go by numerical order.

You are free to choose the theme of your essay – it could be something that you’ve written in the past or something you wrote to another cue, or something that is of your thinking.

  • What are the things that matter to you? Enumerate on all those subjects or themes. What is it that is the prime subject of conversation amongst your family and your friends?

(This is not about mentioning your extracurricular activities). Narrate an event or story that summarizes this subject that is important to you.

  • Which relative who lives with you is dear and important to you? Narrate a situation when this family member helped you in sailing through rough waters. Is there a significant heart-to-heart talk that you had with him? Tell us about it.
  • Reflect for a minute – which person in your family, a friend, or teacher is essential to you? How did you both connect? When and where did you meet? Tell us about it. Was there a time when you discussed something of relevance and significance to you? Tell us about it.
  • Discuss incidents that are significant to you. These circumstances may not necessarily have been substantial, shocking, disastrous, or show how you impacted the community. It could be a particular time that is significant – like one summer, perhaps? It could even be what you encountered when you were with a friend or relative on a given day or during a few weeks or months.

Something to note:

Such distinct experiences or situations come in handy when you are putting down your first thoughts on your Common App Essay. You should narrate an incident that you’ve spoken about to others in the past.

The wisest advice we can give you is always to use such instances, experiences, or events to convey your story in your Common App Essay.

A student’s social circumstances, family environment, individuality, aptitude, or passions are maybe so significant that he strongly feels that his application will be half-done without a mention about it. Do you fit into this picture? Tell us about it.

  • Recount your childhood – where did you live and grow up? Tell us about your community, surroundings, town, or even city. Was it a quiet place or a bustling metropolis? Why do you feel it is special and unique? What impact has this place had on you? If you were asked to describe something distinct about this place to a person who has never been there, what would you say? E.g., does it have a nature trail, amusement park, regattas?
  • Where did your parents live? Does it influence your everyday life? What was it like when you visited the place? Tell us about your reaction to seeing it for the first time.
  • Is there someplace that is dearer to you than your own home? Narrate to us what your first impressions of that place were. Was it a place you visited in the summer? How did that place become significant in your life? Tell us about it.
  • What is the one thing that makes you unforgettable? What is it that the people in your neighborhood associate you with? When did you do this thing that people remember you by? What was significant about this thing that you did? Did you sing non-stop for three hours? Or did you step back when you felt your friend should win the singing competition?
  • Describe what you did during summers when you were a kid and later when you were in high school. Narrate the one summer day that you still remember. Why do you still remember it? Did what happened that day impact how you presently are? Tell us about it.
  • Have you ever been faced with significant life changes? Moving to a new neighborhood or city? Switching school? Faced with the passing away of a loved one or a dear friend? (It’s best to leave out your romantic failures.)

Describe that one day when you had to come to terms with that change – when you moved to a different house, your last day at your old school, or the first day at your new school when you were told of the passing away dear one.

  • Was there an instance when you gave up an extracurricular activity or a part-time job? What happened? Tell us why you made such a decision.
  • Which was the most challenging class in high school for you? Why was it difficult? Describe a class project that you found challenging.

Also, describe a class project that helped you break barriers and made you rethink your views about something.

  • Were you ever compelled to participate in something that you were not very good at? What happened eventually? Narrate how you went about participating in it and who encouraged you in your effort.
  • Have you encountered a mental or physical disability? Or did you ever have to deal with a serious challenge? Reflect on that happening and how glad you are with yourself at how you dealt with the situation.
  • What moral code that you imbibed as a child do you cherish? Are they still dear to you? Describe how you learned and made them your own? Was it something you saw your grandpa do? Or was it something your mother taught you?

On the other hand, have your views on this changed since? How did the change come about? Did a teacher influence you? Or a friend?

  • Does your family believe in something quite the opposite of yours? What caused the dissent? Narrate a difference of opinion that you had with somebody – it could have been a friendly squabble or more than that. Describe an instance when you were glad how you conducted yourself in the argument.
  • In what instance were you far off the mark about something? Describe how it dawned on you that you were incorrect? Did anybody help you see the light?
  • Has there been a class project that has kept you awake late into the night? Was it challenging? Tell us about it.
  • Have you been influenced by a book or an article? Has it put before you some brutal truths about the world? What was your takeaway? What do you plan to do about it? What was your first reaction when you read this book/article? Who shared this book/article with you? Have you discussed it subsequently with anybody? Have you reviewed and revisited the book/article?
  • Are there instances at home when there is an argument at the dinner table? Does this happen often? Do you have thoughts on how it can be resolved? Narrate one such instance. You could even narrate any other memorable dinner.
  • Is there something happening in the world that leaves you furious and fuming? Was there an event that triggered this fury? Recount the event visually and your responses to what you saw.
  • Generally, people believe that a small figment of imagination can change things forever. Has there been such an instance in your life? Describe it. Narrate it like you were telling us a story.
  • Has something dawned on you out of the blue? How did it happen? Where were you? What were you doing? Who else was with you – or were you alone?
  • Set aside all your awards, trophies, grades – all the material proof of your accomplishments. Describe something about yourself that makes you feel highly gratified and which is so intangible.
  • What if your family went away for the weekend and left you to your own devices over a weekend? How would you start your day? Even if this is pure conjecture, narrate what happened like it’s a story. Describe in which room you spent time, what you did? Or did you opt to get out of the empty house? Where did you go? What did you do?
  • Is there an instance when you began doing something without anybody suggesting that you do it? Are you self-motivated? Narrate how you started doing something by yourself without goading.
  • In what instances do your friends seek you out for assistance? Narrate a model that you feel you acted well and could be of sound aid to a friend. Also, narrate an instance when someone else was of immense help to you.

By now, with all these discussions and ideating, Robbie, Agnes, Ryan, and Sam will have found so many exciting things about themselves that are not on their CV, which they can elaborate upon.

Writing without reservation (3-4 weeks)

The cues shared above should help you begin writing – but before getting down to even drafting your Personal Statement, simply write without worrying about spelling or grammatical errors. The idea is to overcome any blocks or inhibitions that you may have about writing.

Such writing can loosen you up into writing freely, and you can even enjoy writing when you write without reservation.

Your Personal Statement should read like you are talking to the reader. The reader shouldn’t feel that you are trying hard to impress and sound mature or knowledgeable. This is a possibility if you are all clammed up and tense while writing.

Listed below are a few tips to help you in writing without reservation:

Invest in a few notebooks

Yes, that’s right. You should use a pen to write on paper. Writing by hand nudges your sensibilities in a different way that no computer keyboard can match. You cannot delete what you’ve written – even if you strike it out, it’ll still be there for posterity, legible for future reference. Also, because you can’t delete it, writing itself will feel natural.

Allocate 6 minutes to write without reservation every morning

Get into to habit of spending 6 minutes writing every morning. Set a reminder alarm and a timer when you start, so there is no room for delay. Simply register – this is about writing without reservation for the whole time. If you are at a loss for words, write those very words or anything to keep up writing continuity.

If you are unsure of what to write, peruse the Common App essay cues mentioned above – they are so comprehensive that one of them will help you begin on something.

For instance, when Agnes puts pen to paper, she will not be discussing how participating in a mock trial and excelling in it helped her decide to pursue law. Instead, when she begins writing, she’ll start re-living that day. She will describe the atmospherics, what she was wearing, who accompanied her, and perhaps overate at lunch and feel uncomfortable. She’ll possibly question why she even agreed to participate in the trial. Was it because she wanted to have an argument that wouldn’t lead to much unpleasantness, or was it the theatrics and excitement that appealed to her?

Instead of setting a time limit – if you feel the burden of six minutes, set yourself a target of writing three pages. Initially, you can put it down in powerful writing, so you feel at ease.

Neither discuss nor go over what you’ve written with anybody

Although it will be very tempting, do not share what you’ve registered with your family or teachers. You shouldn’t review it either, as you will want to edit or improve on what you wrote. For now, let what you’ve written stay dormant.

In doing this, you will allow the story to speak instead of bull-dozing what you think the story should be. This is one of the gravest blunders while writing – including your Personal Statement, pushing your way into an account that only needs to be stated.

Let’s explain this.

For instance, let’s discuss Sam, who learned mountain climbing from his Uncle – an eventful summer and that particular person in his life. As the experience and the relationship means so much to him, Sam is enthusiastic and would instead plunge right away into drafting his story. Even as he’s writing, he begins questioning his choice – mountaineering is just a summer passion, and he’s nowhere near being an expert at it. Then, maybe he shows what he has written to his teacher. The teacher reacts to it at face value – not realizing it is not even a draft yet and asks him to write about something else as this is not flying.

So give due regard to the methods we suggest and let what you’ve written rest in your notebook for a bit.

When you begin early, it will give you the luxury of having time on your side. Writing every day through summer will prepare you for the all-important task of writing your Personal Statement. By July-end, you will be able to review what you’ve written without reservation.

Timeframes for writing your Common App Essay – in six months, three months, one month, or less than a month

You should begin working on your college essays during the summer before your final high school year. But setting aside six months (June-December) for such a task may be difficult if you are already busy with other activities.

Listed below are other timeframes within which you can plan to ideate and write without reservation and accomplish your task.

Six months – June-December (best suited for early decision application deadline)

  • June: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues for 2-3 weeks
  • July: Write without reservation for 3-4 weeks
  • July-end/early August: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
  • Mid-August: Finish editing your first draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it
  • The second half of August: Write out further drafts – draft#3 and draft#4
  • Early September: Show your fourth draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
  • September-end: Finish your final draft

Finish the secondary essays in October since November is usually the deadline for early decision applications. In November, finish with any remaining secondary pieces for colleges with December/January deadlines for submitting regular decision applications.

Three months – August-October (pushing hard to meet the early decision application deadline)

  • The first fortnight of August: Ideate, discuss and write with the cues
  • The second half of August: Write without reservation
  • Early September: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
  • Week 2 of September: Finish editing your first draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it
  • Week 3 and 4 of September: Write out further drafts – draft#3 and draft#4
  • Early October: Show your fourth draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
  • By mid-October: Finish your final draft

Finish the secondary essays in the latter part of October since November is usually the deadline for early decision applications. In November, finish with any remaining secondary essays for colleges with December/January deadlines for submitting regular decision applications.

One month – October-November (to meet the regular decision application deadline)

  • Early October: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues second week of October: Write without reservation third week of October: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
  • Last week of October: Finish editing your first draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it.
  • The first fortnight of November: Write out further drafts – draft#3 and draft#4
  • Mid-November: Show your fourth draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
  • Last week of November: Finish your final draft.

Finish the secondary essays in December for colleges with December/January deadlines for submitting regular decision applications.

Crushed for time – Beginning in November (if you have begun your application process very late and have less than a month to submit applications)

  • 2-4 days: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues.
  • 2-3: Write without reservation.
  • Two days after writing without reservation: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay.
  • Three days after finishing the first draft: Finish your second draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it. And then, show your draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback.
  • Two days after getting feedback: Finish writing draft#3
  • Two days after finishing draft#3: Finish fourth and your final draft if you still have time on your hands

The application deadlines vary in some colleges. For instance, the University of California, Los Angeles – a reputed college, has a November application submission deadline. So you must compile your college list along with the list of all application deadlines and admission requirements by the end September  of so that you do not miss the bus and have to sit out for a year.

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The Common App 2020-2021 essay prompts

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Common App Essay Prompts

Let’s not bury the lede: the Common App first-year essay prompts will remain the same for 2020-2021.

As part of our commitment to making sure the essay prompts continue to serve students and Common App member colleges well, we invited feedback through a survey. Over the course of three weeks in December, over 10,000 people--two-thirds of them students--shared their thoughts. Here’s what we learned:

The current prompts do their job well.

Over 95% of every group who responded to the survey--students, counselors, teachers, admission officers--agree that the current prompts spark effective essays. That’s a testament to you. Over the last 8 years, based on your feedback and the indispensable counsel of our advisory committees, we’ve revised and refined the prompts so they guide students toward stories that will help Common App members make informed admission decisions.

Opinions about individual prompts are as diverse as the people who write and read the essays they inspire.

Aside from the agreement about general effectiveness, there was only one other area of consensus: people value the prompt inviting students to share a story about a meaningful background, identity, interest, or talent. Over 50% of respondents in each group identified this prompt as effective. And the rest? When asked what prompt they would like to see removed or replaced, respondents were all over the map, with no one prompt getting more than 35% thumbs down. Moreover, the groups didn’t agree with one another. Students love Topic of Your Choice. Members and counselors? Not so much. And while students aren’t inclined to discuss a time when they challenged a belief or idea, members appreciate what those essays reveal about the students who write them. What this feedback suggests is that no one likes everything, but everyone likes something. And that has been our goal since day one: making sure that all students can find a home in the prompts.

There’s always room for improvement, even if the prompts stay the same.

As we were reviewing the survey results with our counselor advisory committee, it became clear that how students approach an essay is just as important as what prompt they choose, if not more so. We have an opportunity to guide students, not in what they write but in how they think about what they write. To this end, we will develop new resources to support students through this part of the application.

Transfer essay prompts need some love too.

While the majority of feedback we received pertained to the first-year prompts, many of you also shared valuable insights about the transfer essays--feedback about both content and process. We continue to look for ways to improve the transfer application process, and we will have more to share about the transfer essay in the coming months.

Sharing the essay prompts so far in advance of the next application year is always a tricky dance. On the one hand, people are curious. Rising seniors want to know what they’ll be asked to write about, and counselors and teachers want to make sure they are prepared to guide their students. On the other hand, releasing the prompts can send a tacit message that the college application process starts now. That’s not our intent. Everyone approaches this experience from their own angle and at their own pace, and we’ll be there to support you along the way.

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The New 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompt

In this article, College Advisor Julia discusses the new Common App essay prompt. For more guidance on your personal essays and the college application process in general,  sign up for to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.

If you are planning on applying to college, you likely know that most colleges require applicants to submit a personal essay in response to one of seven prompts provided by .

On February 16th, 2021,  published the  Common App Essay Prompts  for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle with one notable change. Common App changes tend to be relatively limited from year to year; generally, students in each admissions cycle are provided with same 6 topics in addition to one topic of choice for their personal essay submission.

Read on to find out how the 2021-2022 Common App changes might affect your college applications and how you can best take advantage of the new prompt on your Common App essay.

The New Common App Essay Prompt

This year’s prompts are listed below, with the new prompt in bold:.

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

Prompt #4 is the only prompt that has changed during the 2021-2022 admissions cycle.

The previous Common App essay 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 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.”

The new Common App essay prompt #4 for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle:

“Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?”

Why is there a new Common App prompt?

Note the distinct change in tone to this prompt—while the previous prompt asked students to consider a dilemma or challenge, this year’s prompt foregrounds happiness and gratitude. After a long year of challenges including (but not limited to) the COVID-19 pandemic, this question prompts students to reflect positively on the people in their lives.

According to , prompt #4 was “inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically the benefits of writing about the positive influence of other people in our lives.” The organization describes the new prompt as “an invitation to bring some joy into [each student’s] application experience.”  also quotes Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard on the decision to add a new essay prompt, stating, “Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives. And we can do it explicitly.”

Why is the new Common App essay prompt important? How can this help me and my college application?

In your Common Application profile, you will fill out an activities/honors sheet, write and submit supplemental essays, manage your letter recommendations, and more. The CommonApp plays a huge role in your college admissions process, so it’s important to understand it inside and out. This includes any changes that are made to the essay prompts.

This new Common App essay prompt has never been seen before by Admissions Officers. If you choose to write on this topic, your essay can present a fresh outlook that they may not have previously encountered.

This new prompt also gives you the opportunity to showcase your gratitude, your interactions with others, and your growth. These traits will help Admissions Officers consider how you will contribute to their college communities.

So, should  I  write on this prompt? What should I write about?

If you’d like to discuss this how to approach this essay prompt (or any of the Common App essay prompts) with a college admissions expert, consider working with a personal advisor at . A mentor can work with you one-on-one to ensure that your application stands out to the Admissions Officers and can answer any questions that you have regarding the Common App.

The Admissions Experts at  understand that the CommonApp website can be tricky to navigate, especially if you’re the first in your family or peer group to apply to college. Our team of over 100 advisors includes recent graduates and current college students from schools across the nation—including top Ivy League universities—so we know first-hand how the college process works as well as how any changes to this process can affect your application.

This article was written by Julia Riew, Harvard University ‘22. If you want to get help with your college applications from  Admissions Experts ,  register with today.

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Below are a number of links that provide examples of Common App essays. We hope they inspire you and help you to write your own unique essay for your college application . Please do not copy them, as this is plagiarism.

Essay Example #1 - Japanese Puzzle

Watching the news with my parents one night, I heard a story about Japan, which included an interview with a man speaking Japanese. Suddenly entranced, I struggled to make sense of the incredible sounds tumbling out of his mouth and immediately knew that the language was a puzzle I needed to solve. Read more >

Essay Example #2 - Camping Lesson

The 90-degree summer heat beat down on my shoulders, but that was the least of my problems. A six-year old boy had just disrupted a yellow jacket nest by the lake and children were getting stung left and right. If it had been any other summer I would have sat back and let an adult take care of the problem, but as the only camp counselor in the vicinity, I was suddenly the closest grown up around. Read more >

Essay Example #3 - EMT Efficiency

Patience has never been my strong suit, and while I have always wanted to be a healer, I could never imagine waiting to finish college and medical school before actually working with patients. So after a lifetime of hearing stories from my mom’s best friend about life in the ambulance as an emergency medical technician, I decided to jump in and sign up for my local training program last year. Read more >

Essay Example #4 - Trigonometry Trouble

While not everything in life is within our control, that doesn’t mean we should let those things hold us back from success. I have never been particularly adept at math, but always managed to do well enough with a little extra effort. That is, until I signed up for trigonometry. I managed to keep a grasp on the lessons for the first few weeks, but my understanding of the topic slowly ebbed away as the semester wore on. Read more >

Essay Example #5 - A Shakespearean Shambles

A “C+” might not constitute a technical failure, but for an honors student with a constant eye on my GPA, my grade on the English group project certainly felt like an “F.” I should start from the beginning. Last year, I was excited when my English teacher announced that she was assigning a group project for our Shakespeare unit. Read more >

Essay Example #6 - The Substitute

Sitting outside of the principal’s office, my stomach lurched and my palms felt sweaty. I wasn’t about to get in trouble; in fact, the situation was the exact opposite. I sat there waiting to report what had just happened in my history class.

90 minutes earlier, I arrived at class to discover we had a substitute teacher for the period. Admittedly, I felt a moment of relief at the thought of a less taxing lesson than usual. Some of my classmates thought the same thing, but chose to express it a little more vocally. Slamming his fist on the teacher’s desk, the substitute responded by screaming to be heard over the din of the class. Read more >

Essay Example #7 - A Catholic Conundrum

Raised in a proud, traditional Catholic family, I wasn’t sure where to turn when I began to question the Church two years ago. There was no cataclysmic event that caused me to do so; rather, some of the dogma began to feel exclusionary and overly judgmental. I just couldn’t imagine God caring about much that the Church espoused as doctrine.

The first time I voiced a challenge was in my weekly catechism class. The teacher stated that anyone who didn’t believe in God would go to hell. “What about people in Africa?” I asked. Read more >

Essay Example #8 - Refugee Report

Immigration is an enormous issue in America, with people arguing about every possible angle to the challenges facing successful policy reform. The recent ISIS attacks in Paris helped to fuel anti-refugee sentiments throughout the U.S., despite there being no evidence that accepting Syrian refugees would pose any real threat to our nation. Read more >

Essay Example #9 - Driving License Journey

Many of my friends seem to be in no rush to get their driver’s license, with many of their 16th birthdays passing by without even mention of beginning to drive. I, on the other hand, viewed my driver’s license as the next step in becoming an adult. Read more >

Essay Example #10 - A Mexican Affair

Forget MTV’s images of spoiled girls picking out multi-thousand dollar dresses. That was not my quinceañera. Yes, many girls I know in my Mexican American community hold ostentatious events that look like they should be on the cover of a magazine. But when I celebrated my 15th birthday, it was a deeply-rooted cultural affair celebrating my transition into adulthood alongside my family and closest friends. Read more >

Essay Example #11 - The Teachings of Employment

I would have loved to be on the high school yearbook staff, work on the school paper, run for student government, play a sport, or have enough time to devote to my studies.  But my high school experience was much different.   I worked twenty to thirty hours a week from the time I was fourteen to help support my family and save for college.  My father died when I was ten leaving my mother with three children to support and so, as the oldest, I tried my best to help. Read more >>

Essay Example #12 - Tough Game

I love the game of football and in sixth grade I decided I wanted to play on a team.   I was sure it would be great.  I picked up my equipment a few days before the first practice and strolled in thinking this would be easy. However, it was a disaster!  I was out of shape, the coach yelled all the time, and I was completely unprepared.  I went home devastated and refused to go back. Read more >>

Essay Example #13 - Jeep Journey

I grew up tinkering with anything I could get my hands on.  At a young age, I took apart radios, toasters, and other household items to learn how they worked.  As I got older, I moved on to small motors and engines, and rebuilt our lawn mower.  But, at fourteen, I received my greatest challenge that not only taught me how to solve some complex problems, but helped me understand what I want to do for a career. Read more >>

Essay Example #14 - Truth & Politics

I am a politically disenfranchised Millennial.   I want to believe that my vote matters.  I want to believe that politicians are dedicated to public service and intellectualism, and the media is more than another self-interested business pushing its own agenda.  However, I do not believe these things.  So what is the answer?  Am I forced to accept this “reality” or is there some way to make a difference? Read more >>

Essay Example #15 - Dance Dilemma

I have heard many of my fellow students say it would be nice to join a high school club or activity, but they frequently find an excuse for not getting involved.  As a freshman, I decided that I did not want to be one of those people, but instead wanted to live my high school life to its fullest.  I learned about the many options available and purposely choose four activities that were different from each other and would help me to meet a diverse group of people. Read more >>

Further information

For more tips and advice on putting together your common application for college, please see:

  • Common Essay Prompts
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  • Common App Essay Introduction
  • Common App Essay Conclusion
  • Editing Your Essay

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2021-2022 Common Application Essay Prompts & Tips

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2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts

February 26, 2021

common app essay format 2021

The decision-makers at the Common Application have officially announced that the Common App essay prompt menu for the upcoming 2021-22 admissions cycle will be slightly different than in 2020-21. In the opinion of the College Transitions staff, the choice for nothing more than minor tinkering was a wise one. A quick look at the data shows that the prompts, as presently constituted, received rave reviews across the board—more than 95% of admissions officers, guidance counselors, parents, and students rated the selections positively.

In this blog we will review:

  • What’s new in 2021-22?
  • The COVID-19 essay
  • A look at all 2021-22 Common App essay prompts
  • The most popular Common App prompts that students choose
  • Advice on brainstorming/writing your Common App essay

What’s New for 2021-22?

The Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2021-2022 with one exception. The following prompt will be clearing out its desk and entering an early retirement:

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.

Replacing Ex-Prompt #4 will be New Prompt #4:

  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

According to the folks at the Common App, this one was inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically the benefits of writing about the positive influence of other people in our lives.

The COVID-19 Optional Essay

The optional COVID-19 question will remain within the Additional Information section. For tips on whether to/how to best utilize this space, check out our blog on the topic — How to Answer the COVID-19 Question on the Common App.

All 2021-22 Common App Essay Prompts

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

Which prompts are most popular?

In most recent cycle reported by the Common App, the most frequently selected topic was #7, the “topic of your choice” essay. This prompt was chosen by 24.1% of applicants. Prompt #5, the “discuss an accomplishment” essay was a close second, attracting 23.7% of seniors. The bronze medal went to prompt #2, the “challenge, setback, or failure” themed essay, which netted 21.1% of Common App filers. Overall, the three most popular prompts accounted for 68.9% of applicants.

Advice on brainstorming/writing your essay

The basic rules for writing a stellar college essay vary little from the general guidelines for producing any strong piece of written work: be authentic, tell a story that is personal and compelling, and diligently edit, revise, and polish your product.

Writing an essay that is compelling doesn’t mean that you need to have wrestled a puma, grown up in a cult, or discovered a new galaxy at age seven.  A great college essay can take place on a grand stage but it can just as effectively take place in everyday life.  There is a ready supply of drama, tension, and conflict in the course of a typical day.  Over the course of your life you have undoubtedly had experiences that constitute worthy topics.  Think it over.  Talk to family and friends.  Your compelling story will emerge.

We also invite you to review the following resources to help with your college essay writing:

  • Advice on what to do is useful, but tips on what not to do are of equal importance. Check out our Five Essay Topics to Avoid to discover what topics admissions officers are sure to find unappealing, off-putting, or downright gross.
  • If you are a real go-getter, you may also wish to get a start on the most prevalent Common App supplement required by colleges—the “Why this College?” essay. Reference our guide for mastering the “Why this College?” essay .
  • If you are also applying to a school in the University of California system, you’ll also need tips on answering the UC Personal Insight Questions .
  • Are you a transfer applicant? Don’t worry, we have advice for you too in our blog entitled How to Write a Winning Transfer Essay.
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Dave Bergman

Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).

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How to Answer the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023-2024

common app essay format 2021

In 2023, the Common Application announced that the Common App essay prompts will remain unchanged from the 2022-2023 school year. The Common App essay prompts have remained almost the same for the past five years, but crafting a strong and compelling essay to respond to these prompts has remained as important as ever to getting into top schools

This article will explain how to choose the Common App prompts, organize your essay outline, and craft a compelling, concise response that college admissions officers will love. We also provide links to additional articles with details about writing the Common App essay for each specific prompt.

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Which Common Application Essay prompt is best to choose? 

One truth that most colleges won’t tell you is that the Common App essay prompts don’t matter that much to your admissions success. What actually matters choosing a compelling story and telling it in a compelling way. Whether they believe it or not, every college applicant has an interesting story to relay to admissions officers. 

An important rule to keep in mind is to leave room in your essay to discuss the things you love and what drives you, both as a student and as a unique person. The Common App essay is similar to an open-ended job interview question like “How would you define yourself?” It isn’t just an answer on a test or job application.

So let’s look at the 2022-2023 Common App essay prompts, get an idea about what they are all about, and decide how to choose the best prompt that will allow you to communicate your personal story.

Common App Essay Prompts for 202 3-2024

The Common App essay prompts for the 2023-2024 cycle have not changed from previous years, with the exception of prompt #4. Each allows writers to take a different path and perspective on their lives and issues. Choosing the prompt that lines up best with the personal story of yourself you want to tell is the key to writing a great Common App essay.

Here are this year’s Common App essay prompts:

  • 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.

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?

  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

How To Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Identity, Interest, or Talent

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.

Common App Prompt #1 has been around for many years and gives applicants as much flexibility as they could ask for in an essay prompt, with just enough direction to provide a scaffolding for their ideas. It is often known as the “choose your own adventure” prompt.

Focus on the keywords, “background,” “identity,” “interest,” and “talent,” and use them as launch points for your brainstorming. Does anything in your personality, hobbies, history, or personal accomplishments come to mind as being worthy of highlighting to an admissions officer? These categories could be something as minor as seeing a profoundly powerful film or as large as the struggle of acclimating to a new school, state, and/or country. The most important factor to consider for this prompt is that your subject and/or perspective is dynamic and specific to YOU and your narrative and to no other students.

Questions to ask yourself for Prompt #1:

  • How does my background or history set me apart from my peers?
  • What have I achieved that has been central to creating the person I am today?
  • How do I define myself? How would my friends, family, and peers define me?

Examples to consider for Prompt #1:

  • Has your family’s love of travel taken you to new places and shaped you as a “worldly scholar” wise for your age and subgroup? 
  • Does your love of old jazz define how you fit into society at large?
  • Did going to a Warhol art exhibit inspire you to start an art collection that you have turned into a more expansive hobby or calling?
  • What are the challenges and rewards of having biracial parents in your small town? Or of being an adoptee or a member of a family made up of non-traditional members?

How To Write Common App Prompt #2: The Setback Essay

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?

Essays about overcoming obstacles should focus more on solutions and mindset than on the problems themselves. Accordingly, Common App Essay Prompt #2 essays should focus on the student’s mental and emotional response, as well as the actions they took when confronted with a difficulty or hurdle. Showcase your qualities like determination, humility, and growth. The difficulties you choose to explore can be diverse, especially considering the addition of “challenges and setbacks” in addition to “failures.” They could be as serious as a death in the family, as practical and material as the financial issues that you or your family have faced, or as banal as a stupid mistake that cost you the winning place at a school contest. 

However, students should avoid choosing challenges that are too trivial (not getting tickets to your favorite concert) or that illustrate dangerous or risky behavior (illegal activities or those that hurt others would certainly NOT be good topics for this essay prompt). But if you can isolate an event or trial in your life and show what you learned from it and how you grew, this prompt can encourage a powerful essay.

Questions to consider for Prompt #2:

  • How do you usually respond to and deal with hardships or difficulties?
  • What is your personal idea of a “setback or difficulty”? 
  • Do you rebound easily and turn your experiences into learning opportunities? Think of experiences that might highlight such qualities.
  • Brainstorm and list some major challenges you’ve encountered in your life.

A few examples for your reference:

  • Has a lifelong battle with seizures or another neurodivergent condition raised your overall confidence and allowed you to participate in activities without judging yourself too harshly?
  • Did a long-term or serious health situation challenge you to take on more responsibilities than the average middle- or high-school student?
  • Did several setbacks on your road to becoming a violin prodigy introduce you to public relations, being your own manager, and dealing with different kinds of people in the industry?

Keep your personal story as positive as possible and again, focus on how you overcame the challenge. You ultimately want to provide evidence to the admissions officials that you are more than ready for the challenges that college presents.

How To Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenging a Belief or Idea

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

Ironically, the “challenge” essay is one of the most challenging prompts the Common App essay presents, though it is now slightly easier with the addition of the option to discuss a time you merely questioned an idea instead of directly challenging it. The student must speak passionately about their beliefs and worldview, which are often difficult subjects to fit into short narratives. Thus, Common App Essay Prompt #3 can be one of the hardest questions to aim in a positive direction without making yourself sound condescending or judgmental of other views. 

That being said, you can respond to this prompt in a way that is insightful and personal, as it was for a student who stood up to parents’ staunch position on one’s public expression of sexual identity. If you can articulate your thoughts and feelings while showing your willingness to earnestly consider the ideas of others, you will stand out as an excellent addition to any college campus. If this prompt jumps out at you and you can think of a time you challenged a belief and it made a difference, go for it!

Questions to consider while brainstorming:

  • Was there a specific time you held an opinion that was unpopular among your family or peers?
  • Why are you the type of person willing to stand up for your positions or values?
  • What morals and values are most important to you on a fundamental level?
  • What drives your interest in and position on these topics? Philosophy, your own religious background or culture, a popular media channel?

Some examples to get you started:

  • Are you the only atheist member in a deeply religious household? How did this impact your personal relationships and interactions?
  • Did you work as an intern on a campaign caught in a big scandal? Did your reaction show your values as an active member of the community?
  • Did you challenge the notion that modern dance or art is not “artistic” by crafting an extensive research paper on the subject in a way that impressed (or horrified) your teachers?

You don’t need to focus on a fundamentally serious or controversial issue. What matters most when responding to this prompt is that you plainly show your strong convictions about the belief or idea you are trying to convey and examine how this position impacts your thinking and your actions. Prompt #3 can be useful in showcasing your argumentation, persuasive skills, and critical thinking to admissions officers.

How To Write Common App Prompt #4: Showing Gratitude 

PROMPT #4: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

Common App Essay Prompt #4 asks students to talk about a time when they felt gratitude for something someone did. Gratitude has become a quality that individuals are encouraged to connect to and reflect on, which explains the commonality of essays on gratitude in college classes. This question offers students the opportunity to reflect on how gratitude impacts or directs their own lives, as well as how giving thanks for the little things in life can inspire and energize them. 

Think about times when you have personally felt heard or seen as an individual. These could be moments when you felt an immense about of pride or encouragement. Think hard about what you appreciate in your life: material gifts, individual actions, or even simply a set of feelings someone aimed in your direction. The bestower of these feelings could be someone you know well, or it could be a public figure you have never met you has nevertheless changed your life for the better. Remember that this essay should primarily focus on how you process, appreciate and respond to the actions of others, which means you need to focus more on YOU than on the generous act or words themselves. 

Consider these questions for Prompt #4:

  • Do you ever “pay it forward” in your daily life? How, when, and why do you do this?
  • How do you usually express thanks in your own life?
  • Do you have any random acts of kindness that inspire you?
  • Have you ever had your faith in humanity restored by someone’s deeds or speech?
  • Is karma a driving force for your actions, or do you have some other cosmic reason for doing good?

Examples to use as guidance:

  • Did a gesture from a stranger inspire you to continue doing good acts for others? How do you actually do these acts and how has it changed how you view giving?
  • Do you feel appreciative of a public figure for the work they have done to raise awareness about issues that are important to you? How do you give back?
  • Have you ever received a gift or token of value from someone that was completely unexpected? Why was this meaningful to you? How did you show gratitude? Did the unexpected, non-transactional aspect of the gift impact your perception of helping or encouraging others?

Link your story to your life and world in a concrete and meaningful way. Don’t forget to detail how this gift or act of kindness affected and motivates you today. After choosing your essay prompt, be sure to follow the instructions and answer all substantive parts of the question.

How To Write Common App Prompt #5: The Accomplishment Essay

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

In Common App Essay Prompt #5 , the words “accomplishment” and “event” are somewhat open to interpretation. Therefore, an essay inspired by this question could address anything from a minor event to a major occurrence in your life. An event accomplishment might include birthdays or weddings, or perhaps big achievements like winning a competition or earning an esteemed award. 

Informal examples could include meeting a person in your life who ended up being special; taking a fateful bus or train ride; or participating in a meal or social event that opened up your mind to other realities you hadn’t considered. Events that are smaller or less formal can actually lead to more surprising and memorable essays, but these must also be written with originality and add a personal or unique twist. The art of storytelling is important in this essay prompt.

Some other things to consider:

  • How do periods of transition impact you in general? Are there actions or events that have inspired a change of heart or thought in your mind?
  • Have you ever had a “eureka” moment that has fundamentally shifted how you view the world in some way?
  • Did you ever learn a fact or hear a viewpoint that made you feel more capable or confident in voicing your own opinion and position?

Some example topics for this prompt:

  • Did your expansion of a lemonade stand into a successful small business motivate you into raising funds for a friend or relative’s illness or encourage you to pay off a debt?
  • Do you love sports playback video that forces you to examine your mistakes and take criticism that leads to self-improvement?
  • How did serving soup each week at a homeless shelter for half a year help ground your views of social opportunity and giving? How did this impact how you connect with and serve other people?

Keep in the front of your mind the central elements of growth, understanding, and transformation. The realization or activity you write about should be something that helped you mature in your understanding of the world and other people.

How To Write Common App Prompt #6: an Engaging Topic, Idea, or Concept

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?

Since college is at root (at least historically) the pursuit of knowledge to enlighten yourself as an individual, it might be beneficial for an admissions officer to have an understanding of how you demonstrate self-motivated learning, as well as the reasons for why you pay attention to topics that fascinate you. Common App Essay Prompt #6 is a kind of window into your mind, showing how you process information and search for new sources of content and inspiration–or new positions to analyze and critique. 

How does your interest demonstrate your willingness to investigate deeper into a given topic or idea? Your essay answer should also reveal the scope and depth of your intellectual or artistic interests. For example, if you’re interested in studying biochemistry, you might discuss a concept that illustrates how far your knowledge in this core domain extends to actual current findings and dialogues in science. How does this passion impact what you are choosing to pursue academically?

Some key questions to think about:

  • What engages you generally? Do you have a thirst for some specific kind of knowledge? Or, what do you love to think about or engage in insofar as it nearly defines you as a person and thinker?
  • What exact steps have you taken to acquire new information about or experiences that are related to your topic of interest? Have you gone out of your way to turn your interest into an activity or even a kind of profession?
  • How do you actively enrich your knowledge when you find some appealing idea or topic? Hours spent weekly in the school library or with a teacher or mentor who can guide you in your academic pursuit could be great examples of this active enrichment.
  • What is so satisfying about the process of learning and applying your knowledge to the conversation or to the discipline itself?

And a few examples to get those wheels turning:

  • Did your learning about open source code move you to create a startup with a few like-minded peers? What related projects are you prepared to work on next?
  • Did your advertising firm internship experience inspire you to do benchmarking and market research to create your own ads (even if they were only for yourself)? 
  • On a Saturday afternoon, could you be found perusing the classics and learning Latin at the same time? How else have you interacted with this literature and language?
  • Perhaps you have an obsession with Italian food that is so strong it led you to study Italian cooking online through a master class. How is Italian food actually more scientific and interesting than the average person might think?

Whatever category or topic drives you to learn more and DO more, reflect on it, and then share it in colorful detail. This prompt deals with pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but also how this knowledge stokes your desire to challenge yourself in concrete ways.

How To Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

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.

This prompt was first introduced to the 2017-2018 Common App prompts. Although Prompt #1 is similar to “choosing a topic of your choice,” Common App Essay Prompt #7 offers students a lot of freedom and flexibility to illustrate their character, background, growth, worldview, or any other important central facets important to being a college student. You could really take any number of directions with this essay prompt–but as always, be sure that you are addressing the prompt fully and not being too trivial (or cliche) in your subject matter and how you tell your narrative.

More brainstorming questions to consider:

What should admissions know about you that they couldn’t gather from your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars?

  • Are there stories or issues that pop up often in your daily life that might give admissions officials some insight into who you are and what you stand for?
  • What is your “elevator pitch”? If you had five minutes in a room alone with an admissions officer, what are the key points you would relay to them to convince them you are the best candidate?
  • What would you bring to the campus of your target school that almost no other student could?

Some examples of potential subjects and their related prompts:

  • Do you have a health defect that impacts how you view or interact with the world and people around you? ( Q:Why is your personal perspective unique and special?)
  • Do you spend your free time teaching guitar lessons for free to children at the community center in your town? What do these interactions look like, what do they mean to you, and how have they affected your goals and direction? ( Q: Why is self-sacrifice a virtue and benefit in a college candidate?)
  • Did your parents give you a highly unusual name that has colored how you are seen and how you move about the world? What were their reasons for giving this name to you? How has it made you a better student and person?  ( Q: What does origin have to do with excellence?)

Some students find that choosing a “topic of your choice” is quite difficult because it offers too many options to choose from. But this should not prevent you from attempting this essay prompt if you have something interesting to say. You can use the other prompts as starting points to brainstorm ideas and free-write first. 

Now that you have read our handy-dandy prompt guide and understand what admissions is looking for from these prompts, you could very well have a notebook filled with ideas that are ripe for expansion by the time you sit down to write.

So don’t worry about having too many ideas, or not having enough ideas, especially at the beginning of the topic selection process. Once you figure out what you’d like to say (and maybe even after you draft the crux of the essay itself), see if your concept fits one of the first six prompts. Trying to tailor your essay to a more specific prompt option may inspire an interesting spin on the story you are trying to tell—one you may not have thought of otherwise. Form influences content. If, after careful consideration, your magic essay topic does not work within the confines of Prompts 1-6, you are in luck. The glorious, all-encompassing Prompt #7 will be here to catch you.

A Detailed Plan for Writing the 2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts

The Common App essay has a maximum word count of 650 words, and the Common Application site does not provide any further instructions on how to write the essays, such as organization and amount of time to spend on each essay section. Fortunately, we at Wordvice have some experience with crafting impactful essays. The following is a brief summary of how to approach the Common App essay, regardless of which essay prompt you ultimately choose to write on.

1. Brainstorming your Common App essay topics 

Brainstorming is crucial to writing any creative or personal essay. Before you even pick an essay prompt, consider a “high level” passion you have and all the ways in which you interact with it and how it shapes you as a person. For example, using “computer programming” as a central idea, you could stress your love of coding for various reasons and how that has impacted the projects you have done and continues to shape your self-identity (i.e., as a “programmer”). 

Another idea might be to discuss how you have developed in relation to your other family members. Perhaps you have a relationship with two of your siblings that has come to define you and how to interact with people in general: maybe your younger sister is a “dreamer,” while your older brother is a “technician,” and as a middle child, finding out where you belong in this family dynamic led you to a way of thinking that differentiates you from most other candidates. Formative stories could be quite interesting and instantly give the reader a window into who you are. 

To develop your own central idea, answer the four essential questions that apply to all Common App essay prompts:

  • Address your personality traits and anything else about you that tells something about who you are. This question can be answered in any number of ways: discussing a formative event or circumstance, a hobby, a time you overcame great difficulty, or a profound learning experience. 
  • Distinguish yourself by showing your uniqueness. You don’t need to explicitly state why you are different from others–rather, show this in your story details.
  • In paragraph form and using concrete details, give the reader a strong idea about what is important to you: family, work ethic, success, money, etc.
  • Don’t forget to include some of the essential qualities that will make you a great student: time management, great communication, interest in topics, etc. Again, you can evidence these strengths in your story details rather than telling the reader THAT you are good at X, Y, and Z.

Start brainstorming by writing down a few aspects of your personality or experiences you find central to your development. Think about some basic narratives you could tell that use different combinations of these aspects before you actually choose a prompt.

For instance, you could note that you are in love with classical philosophy, made varsity on the debate team, and are now working with a local community organizer on a political issue that is important to you. Then organize these experiences into a very rough structure that will make it easier for you to choose the best Common App prompt.

An example narrative from these aspects: You discuss a specific interest you currently have associated with this community work; discuss what you have learned and the failures and successes you have had; explore how you could make a bigger difference, if only you were a lawyer or official advocate, etc. In contemplating these personal aspects, you are already beginning the organization step, which is crucial to composing a great essay.

2. Choosing a Common App essay prompt that best fits you

There is no “best” common app essay prompt that will guarantee your acceptance into top schools. However, choosing a prompt that first you well will help you craft a more convincing narrative for admissions committees.

Consider the following prompt for instance (Common App Essay Prompt # 2):

This is a prompt that might work great if you can think of any salient challenges or obstacles that helped shape who you are today. Perhaps you were a high-profile member of your high school’s speech team, but you were sidelined by a financial crisis in your household. To help your family overcome this hardship, you got a part-time job and had to quit the speech team. However, your speech coach recognized your talent and dedication and allowed you to practice on your own time. 

This story would show that you are a dedicated son or daughter willing to help out your struggling parents and sacrifice your time to do so. It also shows that you have negotiation skills that help you overcome difficulties–a valuable personal trait for a college student.

Remember to show who you are in your essay!

One of the most common mistakes that students writing the Common App Essay make is not including enough of themselves in their essay content. Your admissions essay should be personal enough that a reader who knows you would identify the applicant as you even without looking at your name or application form details.

If you find yourself getting lost in what to write, don’t panic. This is a common feeling, as an admissions essay is often the first REALLY important personal essay candidates will have written. One method of removing your essay writer’s block is to ask yourself “why?” whenever you might not know what you write next.

For example, here is what your inner monologue might look like as you walk yourself through some questions: 

“I have always loved biology.”

  • Why do I love biology?

“Because I enjoy learning facts about living organisms.”

  • Why do I enjoy this?

“Because I have always wanted to take things apart and see how they work from the inside.”

  • Why is this important to who I am?

“It is indicative of my approach to all of my passions, including academic interests.” 

By following this kind of “stream-of-consciousness” dialogue, you can get to the bottom of some of your motivations, actions, fears, and other aspects that define a person’s identity. 

It can also help to bounce your essay ideas off of a friend or family member. Closer friends can make for a good sounding board since they know a lot about your personality, likes, skills, drives, and ambitions. This might help you choose the most appropriate essay prompt for you. 

3. Organizing your essay’s story

There are a couple of different approaches to take when it comes to organizing and outlining your essay. Feel free to be creative with your structure and use descriptions. You could even employ dialogue if it helps you tell a story better. 

However, your essay still needs to flow logically and naturally at the level of the sentence and even paragraph. You can achieve this by structuring chronologically, making a story arc, or beginning en media res (in the middle of your story) to hook the reader, and then moving back to a former period to unveil your complete narrative.

Some applicants prefer to take a wholly different and “experimental” approach to writing a personal essay. For instance, a student with a passion for theatre and fiction writing could write a “scene” in dialogue form (like a Samual Beckett play) that represents two parts of their personality. A mathematics expert could use an algorithm or algebraic formula as a metaphor for their life and draft their essay using that structure. 

Writing a more creative essay can certainly be risky, and it isn’t easy for most writers to pull off–even for professional authors! However, this just means that if your essay is well-executed and gets your point across, and shows the reader who you are, you will be highly rewarded for it in the end with high marks from adcoms.

4. Write a Common App essay that is clear and focused

  • Show, don’t tell–rather than telling the reader simply that you “love science,” prove it by describing how many hours you spend per week in your room reading science books.
  • Use lots of concrete detail–the more vivid detail, the better
  • Avoid using cliched language or stories–using a tired personal essay story is one of the most application essay errors writers make.
  • Make your tone fit the goals of the essay. For instance, if you are a straight-A student with no extracurriculars, you might want to use your essay to show the officials how much of a laid-back person you are in real life.

Final Thoughts on the Common App Essay Prompts and Answers

The main objective of any Common App essay is to impart a lasting, authentic portrayal of yourself on your reader. Whenever you feel stuck, refer back to the four Core Questions that a Common App essay must answer. And above all, always make sure that the ideas and analysis in your essay reflect the characteristics you want to reflect to the admissions officers at your target schools. 

We hope these essay-writing strategies and tips help you write a powerful and winning admission essay. And remember that, as one of the best admissions editing services out there, Wordvice is there for you after your draft with essay editing services to ensure that your essay is compelling and makes the maximum impact on college admissions officers. Check out the complete list of English editing and proofreading services we offer.

Best of luck writing your Common Application essay for the 2023-2024 school year! 

common app essay format 2021

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This resource provides guidance to students on what writing questions they can expect within individual college questions!

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mary's college of california, saint mary's college, notre dame, indiana, saint mary's university of minnesota, saint mary-of-the-woods college, saint michael's college, saint peter's university, saint vincent college, saint xavier university, salem college, salem state university, salisbury university, salve regina university, samford university, san francisco bay university, santa clara university, sarah lawrence college, savannah college of art and design, savannah state university, school of the art institute of chicago, schreiner university, scripps college, seattle pacific university, seattle university, seton hall university, seton hill university, sewanee: the university of the south, shaw university, shawnee state university, shenandoah university, shepherd university, shippensburg university of pennsylvania, siena college, simmons university, simpson college, simpson university, skema business school - us campus, skidmore college, smith college, soka university of america, 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of houston, university of idaho, university of illinois chicago, university of illinois springfield, university of illinois urbana-champaign, university of indianapolis, university of iowa, university of kansas, university of kentucky, university of la verne, university of limerick, university of louisville, university of lynchburg, university of maine, university of maine at augusta, university of maine at farmington, university of maine at fort kent, university of maine at machias, university of maine at presque isle, university of mary washington, university of maryland, university of maryland eastern shore, university of massachusetts amherst, university of massachusetts boston, university of massachusetts dartmouth, university of massachusetts lowell, university of miami, university of michigan, university of michigan - shanghai jiao tong university joint institute, university of michigan-dearborn, university of michigan-flint, university of minnesota crookston, university of 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university of pittsburgh, university of plymouth, university of portland, university of puget sound, university of redlands, university of rhode island, university of richmond, university of rochester, university of roehampton, london, university of saint francis-fort wayne indiana, university of saint joseph, university of saint katherine, university of san diego, university of san francisco, university of sioux falls, university of south carolina columbia, university of south dakota, university of south florida, university of southern california, university of southern indiana, university of southern maine, university of southern mississippi, university of st andrews, university of st. francis (il), university of st. thomas (mn), university of st. thomas - houston, university of stirling, university of tampa, university of texas arlington, university of the district of columbia, university of the incarnate word, university of the pacific, university of the virgin islands, university of the west, university of the west of england, bristol, university of vermont, university of virginia, university of washington, university of washington bothell, university of washington tacoma, university of wisconsin - river falls, university of wisconsin-eau claire, university of wisconsin-madison, university of wisconsin-milwaukee, university of wisconsin-stevens point, university of wisconsin-stout, university of wisconsin-whitewater, university of worcester (uk), university of wyoming, ursinus college, ursuline college, utica university, valparaiso university, vanderbilt university, vassar college, vaughn college of aeronautics and technology, vermont state university, villa maria college, villanova university, vincennes university, virginia commonwealth university, virginia military institute, virginia tech, virginia wesleyan university, viterbo university, wabash college, wagner college, wake forest university, walsh university, warner pacific university, warren wilson college, wartburg college, washington & jefferson college, washington adventist university, washington and lee university, washington college, washington state university, washington university in st. louis, wayne state university, waynesburg university, webb institute, webber international university, webster university, wellesley college, wells college, wentworth institute of technology, wesleyan college, wesleyan university, west chester university of pennsylvania, west virginia state university, west virginia university, west virginia wesleyan college, western carolina university, western colorado university, western connecticut state university, western illinois university, western kentucky university, western michigan university, western new england university, western washington university, westfield state university, westlake university, westminster college (missouri), westminster college (pennsylvania), westminster university (utah), westmont college, wheaton college (il), wheaton college, massachusetts, wheeling university, whitman college, whittier college, whitworth university, wichita state university, widener university, wilberforce university, wilkes honors college of fau, wilkes university, willamette university, william & mary, william jewell college, william paterson university of nj, william peace university, william woods university, williams college, wilmington college, wilson college, wingate university, winston-salem state university, winthrop university, wisconsin lutheran college, wittenberg university, wofford college, woodbury university, worcester polytechnic institute, worcester state university, wright state university, xavier university, xavier university of louisiana, yale university, york college of pennsylvania, youngstown state university, zaytuna college.

This resource will be available in late August.

How to Write the 2022-23 Common App Essay

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common app essay format 2021

Learn how to write an awesome Common App essay for every single prompt.

Vinay will provide an in-depth breakdown of each of the Common App essay prompts, discussing how to write a great essay in response to each one. He’ll also share his take on the essays and topics you shouldn’t write about for each prompt.

common app essay format 2021

Vinay Bhaskara

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common app essay format 2021

The 2020-2021 Common Application Essay Prompts Are Here

common app essay format 2021

The Common Application has just announced that the essay prompts will be the same as those used in 2019-2020. Every cycle, the Common App offers six prompts that students can use to brainstorm great essay topics. There is also a seventh prompt to write on any topic of your choosing.

New to college applications? Keep reading this article to learn why these prompts matter, when to start your essay, and how you can be preparing for college applications now.

2020-2021 Common Application Essay Prompts

Here are the essay prompts from last year, which will be used again in this upcoming application cycle. Since we have worked with these prompts extensively in the past, we can confirm that these can inspire some pretty great essays.

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.

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?

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

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.

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

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?

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.

What is the Purpose of the Common App Essay?

By the time you apply to college, you have gathered a long list of grades, test scores, and extracurricular accomplishments. But, while admissions officers are interested in seeing what you have done with your high school years, what they really want to know is who you are. When people read your college application, they want to know, “Is this someone who will succeed at our school?”

In your essay, you get to tell a story or two that introduces admissions officers to you as a candidate for their school. In your introduction, you want to come across as smart, thoughtful, and mature. Your essay should be deeply personal, error-free, and written in language that demonstrates you are prepared for the academic challenge of college.

What you choose to write about does not matter nearly as much as how you address the topic. We have seen winning essays on the alarm clock, Robotics Club, death, and home cooking. The commonality that all these essays shared was that they portrayed the author as a thoughtful person of good character. Just about any strong college essay will answer these four questions:

  • Why Am I Here?
  • What is Unique About Me?
  • What Matters to Me?

While the essay can be about any topic, the Common App provides a few suggestions to help students start out on the right foot. Whether you write to a prompt or brainstorm a fresh idea, make sure your essay addresses these for key questions. Before you begin writing essays, we recommend checking out our post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2019-2020 .

Ways to Prepare for College Applications Now

We recommend waiting until late summer or early fall of your Senior year before you begin writing personal essays. Those few months actually make a big difference in how students reflect on their lives and what anecdotes they choose to highlight. 

If you are eager to get a head start on the college application process, here are some goals you can shoot for now as a Junior:

1. Build an epic extracurricular profile.

If your goal is to ace your college applications, the single most important thing you can be doing (besides keeping your grades up) is to cultivate a crowning achievement of your extracurricular profile. Your Junior summer is your chance to demonstrate that you care deeply about these out-of-school interests. It’s your opportunity to show that you know how to maximize available resources to create something meaningful.

Take time as a Junior to think about what impact you want to have outside of the classroom. Think of positive experiences you have had leading up to this point when it comes to ECs. The more substantial of an impact your extracurricular endeavors make, the more competitive your application on the whole will be. 

Impact will look different for everybody. Some students have breadth of impact by planning a large event. Others accomplish depth of impact through a service project that supports a few people in a big way. Still others trailblaze, taking the first steps in the uncharted territories of an extracurricular activity that few students in their community pursue.

If you’re concerned about your extracurricular profile because you haven’t developed it much up until this point, there are still steps you can take to improve your ECs. See our post How to Improve Your Extracurriculars Junior and Senior Year for tips on how to make the most of the time you have left.

For more advice on how to craft a successful extracurricular profile, check out these CollegeVine posts:

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2. Ask 2-3 people to write your letters of recommendation.

Think carefully about who should write these letters for you, and give them plenty of advance warning before your earliest deadline (at least one month). You should ideally ask teachers who know you both as a student, and in an extracurricular context; for example, your math teacher and debate advisor could be a good pick. This isn’t always possible of course, so you should always just aim for teachers who know you well and can speak very positively of you. You should also try to ask teachers you’ve had recently.

You can learn more about connecting with recommenders by checking out these related articles:

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3. Complete all standardized testing.

While you will have opportunities to take your SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests in your Senior fall, it pays to wrap up this process as a Junior. You will want the time your Senior year to focus on essays and extracurricular activities.

Here are a few additional resources for those looking to wrap up their standardized testing by the end of their Junior year:

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4. Familiarize yourself with the Common App and begin brainstorming essay ideas.

The Common App allows you to build one application and send it to hundreds of schools. Filling out the form is fairly straightforward, and most sections take less than a half-hour to complete. You can create an account today, and the Common App will let you roll over any information you have submitted when the 2020-2021 application cycle opens in August.

Beginning this process early ensures that little details will not slip through the cracks. For example, one student of ours practiced piano for ten years but almost forgot to note that extracurricular on her application. Luckily, she had been updating the form for months, so when she remembered this important extracurricular activity, it was easy for her to log on and update her file.

Additionally, the Common App lets you start brainstorming essay ideas. We recommend keeping a journal or running Google Doc of ideas so that you have a plethora of good ideas to choose from once it is time to start writing your essays. For more on brainstorming essay topics and the Common App in general, check out these links:

A User’s Guide to the Common App

What Is a Personal College Essay?

How Important Is the College Essay?

Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises

Why This Common App Essay Worked: Prompt 2: “The Lessons We Take…”

Want access to expert college guidance — for free? When you create your free CollegeVine account, you will find out your real admissions chances, build a best-fit school list, learn how to improve your profile, and get your questions answered by experts and peers—all for free. Sign up for your CollegeVine account today to get a boost on your college journey.

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  1. Common App Essays

    Common App Essays | 7 Strong Examples with Commentary. Published on November 19, 2021 by Kirsten Courault.Revised on May 31, 2023. If you're applying for college via the Common App, you'll have to write an essay in response to one of seven prompts.. Here's a brief overview of the Common App essay and seven examples of effective Common App essays, along with explanations of why they work.

  2. How to Write an Amazing Common App Essay (2024-2025)

    Common App Essay Prompts 2024-2025. Part 2: Pre-writing your Common App Essay. Brainstorming Common App Essay topics. Freewriting. Essay writing timelines: how to write your Common App personal statement if you have six months, three months, one month, or even less. Part 3: Choosing your Common App Essay topic Part 4: Writing your Common App ...

  3. The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay ...

    The "Common App," short for the Common Application, is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once.It's accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally. The idea is that the Common App is a "one-stop shop" so you don't have to complete a million separate applications.

  4. How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024 ...

    Because the Common App essay is 650 words long and has few formal directions, organizing a response might seem daunting. Fortunately, at CollegeVine, we've developed a straightforward approach to formulating strong, unique responses. This section outlines how to: 1) Brainstorm, 2) Organize, and 3) Write a Common App essay.

  5. 21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

    Common App Essay Examples. Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts. Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without ...

  6. 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts

    By Scott Anderson. February 16, 2021. The Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2021-2022 with one exception. We will retire the seldom used option about solving a problem and replace it with the following: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way.

  7. How to Write the Common App Essay-Examples for 2023-2024

    Common App Essay Examples: 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. This prompt asks applicants to write about what makes them uniquely them.

  8. 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts: Tips, Samples

    For the 2021-22 application cycle, the Common Application essay prompts remain unchanged from the 2020-21 cycle with the exception of an all new option #4. As in the past, with the inclusion of the popular "Topic of Your Choice" option, you have the opportunity to write about anything you want to share with the folks in the admissions office.

  9. The 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts Are Here

    2021-2022 Common App Prompts. Here is a list of the prompts for this cycle. While they are largely unchanged, Prompt #4 is different this year (which is kind of a big deal, considering that the prompts have been the same since 2017). Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe ...

  10. Common App Essay Prompts

    Below is the complete list of the Common App essay prompts. 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. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success ...

  11. Complete Strategies: Common App Essay Prompts (2023-24)

    The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650. Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of ...

  12. How To Write Effective Common Essay 2021 (With Examples)

    July: Write without reservation for 3-4 weeks. July-end/early August: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay. Mid-August: Finish editing your first draft - this is when you will have to work hard on it. The second half of August: Write out further drafts - draft#3 and draft#4.

  13. The Common App 2020-2021 essay prompts

    January 29, 2020. Let's not bury the lede: the Common App first-year essay prompts will remain the same for 2020-2021. As part of our commitment to making sure the essay prompts continue to serve students and Common App member colleges well, we invited feedback through a survey. Over the course of three weeks in December, over 10,000 people ...

  14. The New 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompt

    If you are planning on applying to college, you likely know that most colleges require applicants to submit a personal essay in response to one of seven prompts provided by On February 16th, 2021, published the Common App Essay Prompts for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle with one notable change. Common App changes tend to be relatively limited from year to year ...

  15. Common App Essay Examples

    Essay Example #5 - A Shakespearean Shambles. A "C+" might not constitute a technical failure, but for an honors student with a constant eye on my GPA, my grade on the English group project certainly felt like an "F.". I should start from the beginning. Last year, I was excited when my English teacher announced that she was assigning a ...

  16. 2021-2022 Common Application Essay Prompts & Tips

    Do not wait to write your essay. It will take longer than you think. The sooner you start, the better the result, and the prouder you will be of the final piece. For more help on answering the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts, or for information on college admissions, contact us at 1-954-414-9986 or

  17. 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts

    The decision-makers at the Common Application have officially announced that the Common App essay prompt menu for the upcoming 2021-22 admissions cycle will be slightly different than in 2020-21. In the opinion of the College Transitions staff, the choice for nothing more than minor tinkering was a wise one.

  18. How to Write the Common App Essay for 2021-2022

    How To Write Common App Prompt #5: The Accomplishment Essay. PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. In Common App Essay Prompt #5, the words "accomplishment" and "event" are somewhat open to interpretation.

  19. Writing requirements by college

    This resource provides guidance to students on what writing questions they can expect within individual college questions!

  20. How to Write the 2022-23 Common App Essay

    Vinay Bhaskara. University of Chicago. Vinay graduated with a 4.0 GPA and a 2400 (single sitting) on his SAT. Throughout his studies, Vinay genuinely enjoyed a wide range of subjects, ultimately leading him to take 19 AP exams (a school record), earning a score of 5 on all of them. In 2013, Vinay was named the State AP Scholar for the state of ...

  21. 2021

    There are seven 2021-2022 Common App Essay topics, of which you pick one to submit in your Common Application. There is no word limit, but Common App does not recommend exceeding 650 words. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.

  22. The 2020-2021 Common Application Essay Prompts Are Here

    2020-2021 Common Application Essay Prompts. Here are the essay prompts from last year, which will be used again in this upcoming application cycle. Since we have worked with these prompts extensively in the past, we can confirm that these can inspire some pretty great essays. Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or ...

  23. How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt #4, 2021-2022

    Most prompts follow a similar structure: one sentence about reflection, and a second question that asks you to explain things further. Rather than answering the second question, infuse your response to it into the story. A lot of people come to us with a common app essay that looks like this: there's a story, and then there's a 100-word ...

  24. 2024 AP Exam Dates

    2024 AP Exam Dates. The 2024 AP Exams will be administered in schools over two weeks in May: May 6-10 and May 13-17. AP coordinators are responsible for notifying students when and where to report for the exams. Early testing or testing at times other than those published by College Board is not permitted under any circumstances.