The Common App Essay: What This Expert Wants You to Know

Writing the common app essays can feel daunting so here’s one of our favorite comforting pieces of advice about getting started from the writer Anne Lamott:

Thirty years ago, my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write and it was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, ‘Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.’

Amazing suggestions on how to tackle the common app essays.

Essay by essay, that’s how you do it.

Read on as former high school college advisor Alice Kleeman breaks down the just-released Common App prompts in what one college expert calls a “master class.” And, as a bonus, she looks back at some of her favorite essay topics from over twenty years of advising students.

The seven prompts that will appear on the Common Application should work for nearly any topic you choose. Below, each prompt is broken down into possible academic, extracurricular, and personal topics that might fit neatly into a response. Of course, these are just suggestions, designed to jump-start your thinking, provide a gentle nudge if you feel stumped, and help you decide which prompt might provide the best opportunity for you to show the admission office who you are. Your response to any college-essay prompt should be entirely personal and one that only you could write. These examples are just to get your essay juices flowing!

[More Expert Help For Your College Essays here.]

Common App Essay Prompts With Suggested Tips to Help You Start

1. Essay Prompt One:
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.
Key words:
“background,” “identity,” “interest,” “talent,” “incomplete without”

Possible topics:
• Have you moved from one school to another to pursue greater academic opportunities?
• Has your pursuit of academics been influenced by your parents’ lack of formal education? Or perhaps the reverse: has your family’s path through higher education influenced your own?
• Has your dedication to a particular academic area been shaped by your life experiences (for example, has your interest in medicine stemmed from growing up with a sibling with a chronic illness?)?

• Is your identity entirely tied up in the music you’ve been composing and playing since you were five?
• Has your ethnic background led you to participate deeply and fully in the dance, spiritual, or culinary traditions of your culture?
• Do you spend free time participating in activities through a cultural organization related to your family background?

• Do you come from a bi-cultural family? How would the person you are today be different if you did not have those influences?
• Have you grown up in a family that has been challenged by poverty, illness, or another obstacle? How has this influenced your identity?
• Have your extended family’s values been transmitted to you in a unique and particularly powerful way over the years?

2. Essay Prompt Two:
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?
Key words:
“lessons,” “obstacles,” “later success,” “challenge,” “setback,” “failure,” “affect you,” “learn”

If you choose this prompt, after describing the “challenge, setback, or failure,” be sure to focus on the positive changes that emerged from the situation!

Possible topics:
• Did you challenge yourself in an academic area that is not usually your forte, and find that it didn’t go the way you hoped it might?
Did you seek a summer internship in an academic area you thought you’d like to explore more deeply, and find that you weren’t engaged in the way you wished?
• Have you submitted your writing, art, or lab results to a professional journal for publication, and received your first rejection letter? Or have you received what seemed to be negative feedback from a teacher and had to approach the subject in a new way?

• Did you believe that the serious injury you experienced in your sophomore year would derail your athletic career? Or did you fail to make the team in your sport of choice? (Beware of common athletic clichés [“There is no ‘I’ in team,” “I learned that winning isn’t everything,” etc.])
• Did you decide to try participating in an extracurricular activity, only to discover your family obligations kept you from being a full participant?
• Did it seem like a great idea for you to follow in the footsteps of an older sibling and participate in his or her activities of choice, but you found it didn’t work out so well for you?

[More on Leadership Roles here.]

• Did you challenge yourself to a resolution, goal, or personal promise, and find you weren’t able to stick with it?
• Did you make an effort to reach out to people you hoped would become your friends, only to find they didn’t welcome you?
• Have you ever taken a close look at your character traits and personal qualities and hoped to make fundamental changes, but then realized those traits and qualities were inextricably tied to who you are?

[The College Essay: Why Weird Topics Are Beautiful]

3. Essay Prompt Three:
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Key words:
“challenged,” “belief or idea,” “prompted thinking,” “outcome”

Possible topics:
• Did you decide to offer a different-from-the-accepted and possibly unpopular perspective in your English or history class?
• Was there a school rule or policy relating to your academic path through high school that you challenged because you believed it did not serve you or others well?
• Have you pursued an academic interest that is not often followed by people of your gender or background?

• When you learned that certain students were being bullied or excluded from an activity at your school, did you tackle the inequity?
• Were you ever told by a coach or activity director that you would not be successful in a particular activity, yet you chose to pursue it?
Have your parents felt you couldn’t handle a new passion on top of your other commitments, leading you to seek ways to manage your time so you could prove your ability to balance your busy schedule?

• Have you begun to question the precepts of your religious or cultural upbringing?
• Are you resisting the pressure in your community to do it all—and do it all perfectly—and instead are seeking balance in your life?
• Have you ever made a well-thought-out effort to convince your parents to give you more independence and freedom?

4. Essay Prompt Four:
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.
Key words:
“problem … solved,” “problem … you’d like to solve,” “intellectual,” “research,” “ethical dilemma,” “of personal importance,” “no matter the scale,” “steps you took … or could be taken,” “solution”

Possible topics:
• Did you ever leave a classroom entirely intrigued by a question posed by your teacher—and didn’t stop until you’d mined the internet and the library to come up with answers?
• Have you ever created a technological or communication solution to a common problem? Or do you have career goals that would lead you toward solving a world problem through technology or communication?
Have you had a job or internship in which you worked alongside others to solve challenging intellectual, scientific, or creative problems? Did working as a team make a difference in your problem-solving abilities?

• Have you ever taken the initiative within one of your clubs, sports, or activities to create change and make the organization more equitable or accessible for others?
• In your pursuit of your extracurricular passion, have you encountered financial obstacles to participation, and have you found creative ways to solve them?
• Do your future goals include encouraging others to participate in an activity that has been a passion for you? How would you make that happen?

• Have you ever initiated a change within your own family? For example, if there’s an issue that’s always a source of conflict, did you decide to tackle it?
• Are there stereotypes of teens in your neighborhood? Have you made an effort to change them?
• Is there a challenge in your life—perhaps a physical or learning disability or an illness—for which you hope to advance a cure in your career?

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

Key words:
“accomplishment/event/realization,” “sparked,” “personal growth,” “understanding,” “yourself or others”

Possible topics:
• Did you make your government and economics education come alive by registering to vote on your 18th birthday? Did that milestone connect your academic education with your day-to-day life?
• Have you taken a class on a college campus and lived the life of a college student during that time? Or did you participate in an internship during which you worked as an equal with a group of adults and so matured yourself?
• Did you become a U.S. citizen and experience studying for and taking the test, and then participate in the ceremony that goes along with that milestone? Did your growth through that experience change you as a member of your community?

• Has your talent allowed you to participate at such a high level that your teammates, band-mates, or co-workers are all adults, and they treat you as such?
• Has one of your activities taken you out of your own community, so you learned to travel and cope with new situations on your own?
• Did you come up with the funding for your most meaningful activity on your own, so you’ve assumed a heightened level of responsibility and appreciated the activity all the more for your assertiveness in making it happen?

• Does your family rely on you for responsibilities such as childcare for siblings, translation, transportation, or housework? Have your responsibilities led to a heightened understanding of the adults in your life?
• Have you taken on financial responsibilities to help support your family?
• Did you experience a religious or cultural rite of passage that led to your personal growth?

6. Essay Prompt Six:
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?

Key words:
“topic/idea/concept,” “engaging,” “captivate,” “learn more”

Possible topics:

If you choose this prompt, know that it lends itself best to an academic (intellectual) response.
• When you finished a lab in your science class, did you find that you couldn’t wait to replicate the lab at home, then seek more in-depth information about the principles of the lab, then create another lab to extend your learning?
• Have you used internet resources to teach yourself about an academic subject that is not offered as a class at your school? Have you become so absorbed in its study that you have introduced yourself to people whose career involves that subject?
• Have you felt a special spark when you’ve discovered interdisciplinary connections between readings, assignments, lectures, or other learning in classes that, in theory, are not closely related? How have you pursued those links?

• Are you an activist, dedicated to an issue that calls your name, no matter what else you happen to be doing, to the point that you simply must spend time and energy every day devoted to that cause?
• Have you taken your participation on a team, in a club, or in an activity to the next step, seeking outlets beyond those provided so you can continue to indulge your passion and reach higher levels of skill and commitment?
• Have you developed your own unique time-management strategies that allow you to balance your normal family and school responsibilities with an enormous time and energy commitment to something that is deeply meaningful to you?

• Have you used the internet to teach yourself about a personal interest or passion? Do you spend hours every day following links that deepen your knowledge and understanding? Have you added to this concept/topic by creating your own content?
• Do you believe in creating your own personal history, spending hours divulging your deepest thoughts in your journal or sketchbook and losing yourself in your own thoughts and dreams?
• Is there a certain genre of reading that grabs you? Do you lose yourself for hours in biographies? poetry? historical novels? memoirs? What do you glean from your reading?

7. Essay Prompt Seven:
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.

Key words:
“your choice”
Here’s a great way to think about this open-prompt option: Read your entire application, then ask yourself, “Is there something important about ME the reader will not know from my application?” Your essay can address that omission!

With all the freedom this prompt offers, you’ll still want to be sure that your essay, no matter what its topic:
• leaves the reader with a much clearer understanding of who you are
• focuses on something that matters—remember, this is an important opportunity for you!
• keeps in mind that you do not know who is at the other end reading your essay, so considers the possible reactions of an unknown audience
• follows general advice about college essays (gimmicks are generally not helpful, nor is trying to be funny if that’s not who you are)

As I noted earlier, your response to any college-essay prompt should be entirely personal. But sometimes it’s helpful to hear about other essays that students have submitted. Do remember, though, that the most important thing about the essay is that it should be something only you could write! Here are some examples and snippets from the most memorable essays I have read in over twenty years as a college advisor. You’ll see that they paint a vivid and personal picture of the writer.

My all-time favorite college essay was a student’s account of his work at the local hardware store, and what it meant to him to take care of people’s basic home-and-garden needs. It was simple and straightforward; I knew him well by the time I finished reading the essay.

A similar topic, another student’s after-school job, began, “Working in a library today is not for the faint of heart.” Really? I can’t wait to know why! An essay that began with “I am amazed by what I have learned about myself from children” was a superb and telling little gem about an unexpected experience with young children already feeling academic pressure. Another great essay began with, “It is strange to be grateful for a fractured skull.” Don’t you want to read on?

Another student wrote about her love of … triangles! Yet another focused on the student’s life-long love of reading. A lover of art history who volunteered at the Rodin Sculpture Garden began her essay, “If I’m not at school or at home, I’m likely to be found working behind the Gates of Hell.” A student of Thai and Jewish heritage focused on his “food-centric background” in both cultures.

And finally, who could resist an essay (about a student’s family forays into intellectual curiosity and experimentation) that began, “The baking sheet slides into the oven, pushed by my mother’s careful hands—and on it rest a dozen wadded-up balls of Kleenex, half fresh, half used.” The essays from which all of the above points are excerpted could fit neatly into one or another of the Common App prompts!

Alice Kleeman served as the college advisor for 20 years in the College and Career Center of Menlo-Atherton High School, a public high school of 2,400 students in the San Francisco Bay Area. She also taught for 12 summers on the faculty of the College Board’s Summer Admission Institute for new admission officers. In her retirement, she volunteers her college-counseling services in a variety of not-for-profit settings.


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