7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
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- The Common App college essay is required by most Common App schools.
- This personal essay plays a critical role in many institutions' admission decisions.
- Admissions experts' biggest tips include writing how you speak and focusing on details.
Each year, over a million high school seniors apply for college through the Common Application . This online system enables you to submit one application to multiple schools, meaning you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement .
The Common App essay gives colleges the opportunity to learn more about you as a person and what's important to you. You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality.
Here, we explain what the Common App essay entails before diving into admissions experts' biggest tips for crafting a memorable personal statement.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the Common App and require the essay.
You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.
This statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. You can discuss almost anything you want, provided your topic addresses the prompt you've chosen. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story.
You must submit the Common App essay to all colleges that require it, though some may ask you to submit one or more supplemental essays as well.
The application form provides you with a box in which to type your essay; however, it's strongly recommended that you compose your essay in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or another word processor before copying and pasting your final draft into this box.
How Important Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is a key part of your college application. According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement moderately or considerably important. Highly selective institutions tended to place more emphasis on the essay.
"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, a former Princeton writing instructor and the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc .
Benedict, who spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, has helped students around the world apply to college for over a decade.
"Applying to a hyper-selective college with mediocre or uneven grades and a fabulous essay will likely not get you into that college, [whereas] applying to a hyper-selective college with top grades and scores, outstanding extracurriculars, and a mediocre essay could sink your application," she said.
While most experts agree that a strong Common App essay won't necessarily secure you admission into a highly selective college — especially if your grades and test scores aren't up to par — a well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor.
According to Benedict, this often happens at small liberal arts colleges , which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach .
Experts' Top 7 Common App Essay Tips
Admissions officers, higher education administrators, education consultants, and college admissions advisors like Benedict have many tricks for approaching the Common App essay. Here are some of their biggest tips.
1. Don't Mistake a Rare Topic for an Effective Topic
Many students assume their Common App essay must revolve around a unique topic that no other applicant has ever written about, but this is a myth.
"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," Whitney Soule told U.S. News & World Report . Soule currently serves as Bowdoin College's dean of admissions and student aid.
"It's not just about the topic," echoes Jennifer Gayles , director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, "but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic."
Choosing the right Common App essay topic can be tricky, but it's extremely important. "Students I work with run the gamut from having a good idea to having absolutely no idea what to write about," Benedict said. "Often in our brainstorming session, an idea will pop up in discussion, and I'll say, 'That's a good idea,' and the student will be surprised."
To identify potential essay topics, Benedict proposes asking yourself a series of questions. Have you experienced a turning point in your life? Are you deeply passionate about a particular subject?
Ultimately, your essay should excite and inspire you, as well as those who read it. "If an essay topic makes your heart beat fast, that's a good sign," said Benedict.
2. Pick the Best Essay Prompt for You
Not all Common App essay prompts are created equal. Of the seven prompts, some will no doubt work better for you than others.
Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, asks students to think about what version of themselves they want to present to schools and to trust their instincts.
"Don't just jump on the first prompt you read and start writing," she writes in a blog post for NYU. "Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to us about a specific achievement? Do you want to give us insight into a hardship you faced and conquered?"
In essence, work backward: Start with a topic and then see which essay prompt fits it the best.
This is the same advice given by Thea Hogarth of College Essay Advisors : "Once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you'll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story."
3. Use Your Space Wisely
Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic.
The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words. But just how long should your statement be? Admissions Blog advises aiming for around 500 words. And former Tufts University admissions officer Becky Leichtling concurs.
"The most common 'personal statement' length is in the ballpark of 500 words," Leichtling writes for Bright Horizons College Coach . "I consider 500 the 'sweet spot,' but don't stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 [words] that you're honestly proud of."
4. Fill Your Story With Details
Details are everything when it comes to the Common App essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.
"Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement," Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, writes on his company's website . "Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you."
Meredith Reynolds, associate director of admissions at Tufts, similarly recommends that applicants emphasize specifics in their essays. "By focusing on details, you set yourself apart," she says.
In terms of structure, Benedict advises approaching the Common App essay one step at a time. "Break down the topic to the smallest pieces you can and write a paragraph about each," she said.
In other words, discuss specific moments from your life. Relate conversations you've had. Describe how something felt or looked. It's the details in your story — not the topic itself — that will help you stand out the most.
5. Channel Your Authentic Voice
The Common App essay is unlike most essays you've written for school. Instead of analyzing a piece of literature or a historical event, you must showcase your identity. As such, the words you use should sound like they actually come from you — not a thesaurus or an English teacher.
"[Students] are used to writing academic essays and trying to impress with big words and formal-sounding constructions," Benedict said when asked about the most common mistake students make on the Common App essay. "The best essays have a conversational voice — not a stiff, academic one."
Educational consultant Ian Fisher agrees . In a blog post offering language tips for college essays, Fisher expounds on the importance of writing in a way true to how you talk in real life.
"You're going to have to fight the urge to 'impress' your admissions reader with the big words you've learned from your SAT practice," he writes.
Students should, however, avoid using any derogatory, offensive, or inappropriate language. Fisher recommends using words like "debate" instead of "fight" and "undeveloped" instead of "stupid."
Likewise, students should refrain from relying on cliches. This includes phrases such as "happily ever after," "beggars can't be choosers," and "crack of dawn." Benedict advises getting someone to "cliche-proof" your essay.
6. Get Feedback
Before submitting your Common App essay, show it to someone who will not only offer feedback but also edit and proofread your writing.
Shemmassian suggests giving your draft to "a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor." Meanwhile, Reynolds says you should "show your essay to two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well."
All recommendations from experts share a common thread: Getting feedback on your Common App essay should be a top priority.
7. Don't Neglect Supplemental Essays
Lots of competitive universities require the Common App essay in addition to supplemental essays and/or short answers. If you have other essays to submit, don't spend all your time working on the Common App essay. After all, all essays can impact your admission chances.
"At the most selective colleges and universities, there are usually supplemental essays as well, and those are part of the overall package, and they are very important," Benedict said.
She also discussed how a great Common App essay combined with weak supplemental essays could reflect poorly on your application and increase your risk of getting rejected .
"I can't stress enough the importance of the supplemental essays," Benedict continued. "For the most selective universities, all of the essays taken together present a 'package' of who you are." And how you choose to put together that package is up to you.
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc. , which has been helping students apply to college around the U.S. and all over the world for a dozen years. Elizabeth is a best-selling novelist, a prolific journalist, and an editor of many books. She has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her clients are regularly admitted to top universities and their first-choice colleges.
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How to Write a Common App Personal Statement
Personal statement examples, tips, tricks, and advice.
June 01, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | Essays , Common App , How To , Essays
This article discusses the seven Common App essay prompts, analyzes how to write a Personal Statement, and offers suggestions on how to go about conquering this critical essay.
The Common App Personal Statement is the centerpiece of your college application.
It will be sent to every school to which you apply.*
It is extremely broad, allowing you to write on literally any topic you want.
It is also the longest unfiltered, uninterrupted stream of information in your application (650 words).
This makes the Common App Personal Statement the perfect place to fill in any holes in your application, round yourself out as an applicant, and showcase a side of your personality that doesn't come through elsewhere.
With so much that can be accomplished and such broad license to write whatever you want, however, your Personal Statement for college can seem overwhelming at first glance.
The Personal Statement is an essay of no more than 650 words, and no less than 250 words, that should tell a story about yourself that is not included elsewhere in your application.
As the Common App's instructions for the Personal Statement state:
"The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)"
Right away, the first piece of advice to prospective applicants is to ignore the Common App's obligatory note and use the full range of space .
Of course, there is no need to hit exactly 650 words.
But if you are hitting anything less than 620 words, then you are putting yourself at a substantial disadvantage to students who do fill their entire allotted space.
By not getting as close to 650 as possible, you are potentially leaving out several sentences or descriptive phrases that could add significant weight and polish to your essay.
Thus, you should always write your Common App drafts over the word limit , then cut to get your essay to 650 words.
If you find yourself stuck at, for example, 600 words and can't come up with 50 more words to say about whatever story you are telling, then that is probably a bad sign for how interesting that story is going to be for your admissions reader.
The seven 2020 Common App essay prompts have been reproduced below and grouped together for ease of analysis.
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 #1 is the broadest prompt offered by the Common App, and thus can offer the best launching point for a variety of powerful personal stories.
This Prompt offers a great opportunity to round out your application by discussing something not mentioned elsewhere in your application.
You can talk about your family, your heritage, a hobby, an interpersonal relationship that's impacted you, or any interests that were deemed too "non-academic" to make it into your Extracurriculars List.
Alternatively, you could choose to write about something already covered in your application (e.g. your experience doing research at a hospital, or working a part-time job), but in a way that sheds light on your personal motivations/connection to the subject rather than the scope of your achievement.
A common pitfall with this Prompt is to simply rehash an "interest or talent" that has already been covered in your application.
If you do decide to spend these 650 words on an activity mentioned elsewhere in your application, you need to constantly ask yourself: What new information does the reader gain that couldn't already be inferred from my transcript/rec letters/extracurriculars list?
For example, let's imagine you do debate. A Personal Statement about how you overcame the competition and won the National Championship would be interesting, but likely doesn't break any new ground in the mind of the admissions officer.
They already know you are great at debate, so unless this essay were tweaked to focus more on your personal growth or relationship with others, it likely won't help your admissions chances.
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? 3) Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 5) Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Prompts #2, 3, and 5 all ask for you to describe an episode in your past that spurred some sort of personal growth.
These Prompts may require a bit more brainstorming effort on your part.
However, don't feel stumped if nothing immediately strikes you.
If you've lived on earth for more than 16 years, then I guarantee you have faced and overcome at least one obstacle or challenge that is worth reading a 650-word essay on.
Don't be afraid to ask family members, friends, or teachers/mentors for their thoughts; you'd be surprised how effective the recollections of others are at jogging your memory.
The best part about writing an essay around one of these Prompts is that it naturally avoids the major pitfall of Prompt #1 (re-listing accomplishments detailed elsewhere on your application). It forces you to focus on an instance of adversity you've faced in life, and to build your narrative arc around your own personal growth.
The three universal components of any story are (1) a beginning, (2) a climax, and (3) a resolution.
By using one of these Prompts as a start, you've already guaranteed that your essay will hit at least two of these three core elements of story-telling; namely, the "obstacle" or "time" or "accomplishment, event, or realization" that you discuss will be your Personal Statement's climax, and "what...you learn[ed] from the experience" will be its resolution.
Starting with one of these prompts is more restrictive than starting with Prompt #1.
You may find it limiting at first to brainstorm ideas that fit these Prompts, so it may be helpful to first start brainstorming ideas for Prompt #1 and then seeing if any of them fit under these Prompts.
These types of essays can be among the most compelling when executed properly.
However, there are a couple common mistakes that students commit when writing stories about overcoming personal adversity, pitfalls that you should work hard to avoid when crafting your own essay.
First, at the brainstorming stage:
There are millions of high school students across the US applying to college every year. Relatively speaking, the vast majority of these students will have shared similar experiences and overcome similar challenges.
Did you place first in an athletic competition? Did you win a debate tournament? Did you conquer your fear of public speaking? Odds are, so have millions of other students your age.
That's not to say that your situation wasn't unique, or that the lessons you learned weren't meaningful.
But when an admissions officer is reading 100's of essays a week, the nuances get blurred and only the highest-level themes stay fresh in the mind.
If your essay can be summed up as, "I practiced hard, overcame adversity, and won X competition," then you likely will not stand out from the pack.
So when choosing the "accomplishment, event, or realization" that you discuss, make sure it is unique enough that an admissions officer will not be able to readily group it into an abstract category of essays that other high school-age students have written.
Second, at the execution stage:
The experience of overcoming adversity and subsequently undergoing a period of reflection and personal growth is a very abstract, nuanced phenomenon that can be difficult to properly articulate.
It is also an experience that has been written about by almost every writer on earth. But not every writer has the ability to distill these experiences into words.
Thus, there have been hundreds -- if not thousands -- of cliches, trite imagery, and hackneyed phrases that have been developed in the English language and recycled ad nauseum .
"It was at that moment that I truly understood the saying that you can't judge a book by its cover..."
"But I knew that my actions would speak louder than my words, so I..."
"Losing the Spelling Bee may have knocked me down momentarily, but I understood that failure was only the first step towards success..."
If a phrase in your essay could be trademarked and hung on a motivational poster, you should probably remove it. Make sure to avoid cliches when writing about your experiences, otherwise the full weight of how you are such a unique and special person will not come through in your writing.
Describe an Intellectual Issue
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. 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?
Both of these Prompts ask you to describe an intellectual "problem" or "concept" that you are interested in, as well as your personal connection to that concept.
If you've done academic research, been involved in political advocacy, did debate, founded a business or charity, or developed a product, these could be the perfect Prompts for you.
Prompts #4 and #6 allow you to show the admissions officers what truly makes you tick by showcasing aspects of your personality that might not come through elsewhere in your application.
Is your GPA lower, or do you think you're fighting an uphill battle to show the admissions committee that you're a serious scholar? Use these 650 words to dispel their doubts by showing how knowledgeable about a topic you can be when you've set your mind to it.
Human intelligence takes forms, and the problems you're interested in solving may not be reflected on your transcript. These Prompts allow you to really highlight the "spike" of your application and show why you are THE person for topic X or issue Y.
These essays tend to verge on the impersonal, as students get caught up in describing the minutiae of the intellectual challenges they are tackling.
Given free rein to "describe a topic...so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time," many students also lose track of the word count, and end up with an essay that is 500-words of Wikipedia-summary-level content on an academic topic, and 150 words about the author herself and her passion for the subject.
The admissions reader is not looking to admit a class of textbook authors.
Given the very nature of the Common App Personal Statement (literally a "Personal" Statement), the most important part of Prompts #4 and #6 are actually their second halves; namely, how you relate to and have addressed the topic that you write about.
For example, if you are writing about a controversial topic like immigration or criminal justice reform, remember that you're not writing an Op-Ed for a newspaper advocating for your side.
The Personal Statement is not an exercise in persuasive writing. Rather, you should discuss your own involvement in these issues, the people you've met through your experience, and how they have collectively shaped your worldview.
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.
If you can't think of an essay that falls under any of the other Prompts (which would be quite an accomplishment), then Prompt #7 serves as a catch-all that lets you write about literally anything you want.
You can write about anything.
Unless you already have a very well-written essay that doesn't fit under any of the other Prompts, I would not recommend that you choose this Prompt.
First, it will make it harder for you to focus your essay.
The 6 Prompts offered by the Common App are very good, very broad prompts.
They offer tremendous flexibility while also putting the necessary bumper rails on your essay that ensure it is at least passable.
Writing a Personal Statement that doesn't address anything covered by the 6 aforementioned Prompts means that your essay does not include an instance of personal growth, an interest/passion, an achievement, or an obstacle you've overcome.
If your essay does not have any of these elements, 99.99% of the time it will either be (a) uncompelling to the reader or (b) fail to add positive information to your application.
Another issue with choosing this Prompt is that the admissions officer reading your file will also not know what prompt your essay is trying to address.
Choosing one of Prompts #1-6 will immediately flag for the admissions reader what your essay is about, and what she should be looking for.
Neglecting to specify a Prompt puts an additional burden on the reader to sift through your writing and assess what its key themes are, taking attention away from your actual writing.
* Even for schools that do not require it, you are still given the option to submit your Common App Personal Statement with your application.
If you found this post helpful and want direct feedback on your essays from top Ivy League students, or want to work 1-on-1 with an experienced mentor to craft your application, learn more about us here or click here to schedule a free 20-minute consultation
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How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024 (With Examples)
The Common App essay is one of the most important parts of your application, but it can be extremely daunting if you’re not familiar with creative writing or what admissions officers are looking for.
In this blog post, we’ll provide advice on how to break down these prompts, organize your thoughts, and craft a strong, meaningful response that admissions officers will notice. If you’d like more free personalized help, you can get your essays reviewed and explore school-by-school essay help on CollegeVine.
Why the Common App Essay Matters
Admissions is a human process. While admissions committees look at grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, there are five students that have great qualifications in those areas for every spot in a university’s class. As an applicant, you need an admissions counselor to choose you over everyone else — to advocate specifically for you.
This is where essays come in; they are an opportunity for you to turn an admissions counselor into an advocate for your application! Of your essays, the Common App is the most important since it is seen by most of the colleges to which you apply. It is also your longest essay, which gives you more space to craft a narrative and share your personality, feelings, and perspective.
It’s not hyperbole to say that getting the Common App essay right is the single most important thing you can do to improve your chances of admission as a senior.
Overview of the Common App
The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to know you. While SAT scores, your past course load, and your grades provide a quantitative picture of you as a student, the Common App essay offers adcoms a refreshing glimpse into your identity and personality. For this reason, try to treat the essay as an opportunity to tell colleges why you are unique and what matters to you.
Since your Common App essay will be seen by numerous colleges, you will want to paint a portrait of yourself that is accessible to a breadth of institutions and admissions officers (for example, if you are only applying to engineering programs at some schools, don’t focus your Common App on STEM at the expense of your other applications — save that for your supplemental essays).
In short, be open and willing to write about a topic you love, whether it is sports, music, politics, food, or watching movies. The Common App essay is more of a conversation than a job interview.
What Makes a Great Common App Essay?
A great Common App essay is, first and foremost, deeply personal. You are relying on the admissions committee to choose you over someone else, which they are more likely to do if they feel a personal connection to you. In your essay, you should delve into your feelings, how you think about situations/problems, and how you make decisions.
Good essays also usually avoid cliche topics . A couple overdone themes include an immigrant’s journey (particularly if you’re Asian American), and a sports accomplishment or injury. It’s not that these topics are bad, but rather that many students write about these subjects, so they don’t stand out as much. Of course, some students are able to write a genuine and unique essay about one of these topics, but it’s hard to pull off. You’re better off writing about more nuanced aspects of your identity!
You should also, of course, pay close attention to your grammar and spelling, use varied sentence structure and word choice, and be consistent with your tone/writing style. Take full advantage of the available 650 words, as writing less tends to mean missed opportunities.
Finally, it’s a good practice to be aware of your audience – know who you are writing for! For example, admissions officers at BYU will probably be very religious, while those at Oberlin will be deeply committed to social justice.
See some examples of great Common App essays to get a better idea of what makes a strong essay.
How your Common App Essay Fits with Your Other Essays
The Common App is one part of a portfolio of essays that you send to colleges, along with supplemental essays at individual colleges. With all of your essays for a particular college, you want to create a narrative and tell different parts of your story. So, the topics you write about should be cohesive and complementary, but not repetitive or overlapping.
Before jumping in to write your Common App essay, you should think about the other schools that you’re writing essays for and make sure that you have a strategy for your entire portfolio of essays and cover different topics for each. If you have strong qualifications on paper for the colleges you are targeting, the best narratives tend to humanize you. If you have weaker qualifications on paper for your colleges, the best narratives tend to draw out your passion for the topics or fields of study that are of interest to you and magnify your accomplishments.
Strategy for Writing the Common App Essays
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.
Before reading the prompts, brainstorming is a critical exercise to develop high-level ideas. One way to construct a high-level idea would be to delve into a passion and focus on how you interact with the concept or activity. For example, using “creative writing” as a high-level idea, one could stress their love of world-building, conveying complex emotions, and depicting character interactions, emphasizing how writing stems from real-life experiences.
A different idea that doesn’t involve an activity would be to discuss how your personality has developed in relation to your family; maybe one sibling is hot-headed, the other quiet, and you’re in the middle as the voice of reason (or maybe you’re the hot-head). These are simply two examples of infinitely many ideas you could come up with.
To begin developing your own high-level ideas, you can address these Core Four questions that all good Common App essays should answer:
- “Who Am I?”
- “Why Am I Here?”
- “What is Unique About Me?”
- “What Matters to Me?”
The first question focuses on your personality traits — who you are. The second question targets your progression throughout high school (an arc or journey). The third question is more difficult to grasp, but it involves showing why your personality traits, methods of thinking, areas of interest, and tangible skills form a unique combination. The fourth question is a concluding point that can be answered simply, normally in the conclusion paragraph, i.e., “Running matters to me” or “Ethical fashion matters to me.”
You can brainstorm freeform or start with a specific prompt in mind.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to start by jotting down the 3-5 aspects of your personality or experiences you’ve had on a piece of paper. Play around with narratives that are constructed out of different combinations of these essential attributes before settling on a prompt.
For example, you might note that you are fascinated by environmental justice, have had success in Model Congress, and are now working with a local politician to create a recycling program in your school district. You may also have tried previous initiatives that failed. These experiences could be constructed and applied to a number of Common App prompts. You could address a specific identity or interest you have associated with public advocacy, discuss what you learned from your failed initiatives, explore how you challenged the lack of recycling at your school, fantasize about solving waste management issues, etc.
Selecting a prompt that you identify with
For example, consider the following 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?
Perhaps you had been a dedicated and active member of your school’s debate team until one of your parents lost their jobs, leaving you unable to afford the high membership and travel dues. You decided to help out by getting a job after school, and responded to your familial hardship with grace and understanding (as opposed to anger). A few months later, and after speaking with your former debate coach and your parents, you set up a system to save up for your own trips so that you could still participate in debate!
In general, the most common mistake CollegeVine sees with Common App essays is that they aren’t deeply personal. Your essay should be specific enough that it could be identified as yours even if your name wasn’t attached.
If you get stuck, don’t worry! This is very common as the Common App is often the first personal essay college applicants have ever written. One way of getting unstuck if you feel like you aren’t getting creative or personal enough is to keep asking yourself “why”
For example: I love basketball…
- Because I like having to think on the fly and be creative while running our offense.
It can often help to work with someone and bounce ideas off them. Teachers are often a bad idea – they tend to think of essays in an academic sense, which is to say they often fail to apply the admissions context. Further, it is unlikely that they know you well enough to provide valuable insight. Friends in your own year can be a good idea because they know you, but you should be careful about competitive pressures applying within the same high school. Older friends, siblings, or neighbors who have successfully navigated the admissions process at your target universities (or good universities) strike that medium between no longer being competitive with you for admissions but still being able to help you brainstorm well because they know you.
Overall, there is no single “correct” topic. Your essay will be strong as long as you are comfortable and passionate about your idea and it answers the Core Four questions.
Common App essays are not traditional five-paragraph essays. You are free to be creative in structure, employ dialogue, and use vivid descriptions—and you should! Make sure that context and logic are inherent in your essay, however. From paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, your ideas should be clear and flow naturally. Great ways to ensure this are using a story arc following a few major points, or focusing on cause and effect.
The traditional approach
This involves constructing a narrative out of your experiences and writing a classic personal essay. You are free to be creative in structure, employ dialogue, and use vivid descriptions—and you should! Make sure that context and logic are inherent in your essay, however. From paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, your ideas should be clear and flow naturally. Great ways to ensure this are using a story arc following a few major points, or focusing on cause and effect.
The creative approach
Some students prefer to experiment with an entirely new approach to the personal essay. For example, a student who is passionate about programming could write their essay in alternating lines of Binary and English. A hopeful Literature major could reimagine a moment in their life as a chapter of War and Peace, adopting Tolstoy’s writing style. Or, you could write about a fight with your friend in the form of a third person sports recap to both highlight your interest in journalism and reveal a personal story. Creative essays are incredibly risky and difficult to pull off. However, a creative essay that is well executed may also have the potential for high reward.
Your Common App essay must display excellent writing in terms of grammar and sentence structure. The essay doesn’t need to be a Shakespearean masterpiece, but it should be well-written and clear.
A few tips to accomplish this are:
- Show, don’t tell
- Be specific
- Choose active voice, not passive voice
- Avoid clichés
- Write in a tone that aligns with your goals for the essay. For example, if you are a heavy STEM applicant hoping to use your Common App essay to humanize your application, you will be undermined by writing in a brusque, harsh tone.
“Show, don’t tell” is vital to writing an engaging essay, and this is the point students struggle with most. Instead of saying, “I struggled to make friends when I transferred schools,” you can show your emotions by writing, “I scanned the bustling school cafeteria, feeling more and more forlorn with each unfamiliar face. I found an empty table and ate my lunch alone.”
In many cases, writing can include more specific word choice . For example, “As a kid, I always played basketball,” can be improved to be “Every day after school as a kid, I ran home, laced up my sneakers, and shot a basketball in my driveway until the sun went down and I could barely see.”
To use active voice over passive voice , be sure that your sentence’s subject performs the action indicated by the verb, rather than the action performing onto the subject. Instead of writing “this project was built by my own hands,” you would say “I built this project with my own hands.”
Finally, avoid clichés like adages, sayings, and quotes that do not bring value to your essay. Examples include phrases like “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (it’s also important to know that sayings like these are often seriously misquoted—Gandhi did not actually utter these words) and lavish claims like “it was the greatest experience of my life.”
A few tips for the writing (and re-writing!) process
- If you have enough time, write a 950 word version of your personal statement first and then cut it down to the official word limit of 650. In many cases, the extra writing you do for this draft will contain compelling content. Using this, you can carve out the various sections and information that allow you to tell your story best.
- Revise your draft 3-5 times. Any more, you are probably overthinking and overanalyzing. Any less, you are not putting in the work necessary to optimize your Common App essay.
- It can be easy for you to get lost in your words after reading and rereading, writing and rewriting. It is best to have someone else do your final proofread to help you identify typos or sentences that are unclear.
Deciding on a Prompt
This section provides insights and examples for each of the 7 Common App essay prompts for the 2023-2024 cycle. Each of these prompts lends itself to distinct topics and strategies, so selecting the prompt that best aligns with your idea is essential to writing an effective Common App essay.
Here are this year’s prompts (click the link to jump to the specific 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.
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..
This prompt offers an opportunity to engage with your favorite extracurricular or academic subject, and it allows you to weave a narrative that displays personal growth in that area. An essay that displays your personality and a unique interest can be attention-grabbing, particularly if you have an unconventional passion, such as blogging about Chinese basketball or unicycling.
Don’t feel intimidated if you don’t have a passion that is immediately “unique,” however. Even an interest like “arctic scuba diving” will fail as an essay topic if it’s not written with insight and personality. Instead of attempting to impress the Admissions Officer by making up unusual or shocking things, think about how you spend your free time and ask yourself why you spend it that way. Also think about your upbringing, identity, and experiences and ask yourself, “What has impacted me in a meaningful way?”
Here Are A Few Response Examples:
Background – A person’s background includes experiences, training, education, and culture. You can discuss the experience of growing up, interacting with family, and how relationships have molded who you are. A background can include long-term interactions with arts, music, sciences, sports, writing, and many other learned skills. Background also includes your social environments and how they’ve influenced your perception. In addition, you can highlight intersections between multiple backgrounds and show how each is integral to you.
One student wrote about how growing up in a poor Vietnamese immigrant family inspired her to seize big opportunities, even if they were risky or challenging. She describes the emotional demand of opening and running a family grocery store. (Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects in all the examples.)
The callouses on my mother’s hands formed during the years spent scaling fish at the market in Go Noi, Vietnam. My mother never finished her formal education because she labored on the streets to help six others survive. Her calloused hands not only scaled fish, they also slaved over the stove, mustering a meal from the few items in the pantry. This image resurfaces as I watch my mother’s calloused hands wipe her sweat-beaded forehead while she manages the family business, compiling resources to provide for the family.
Living in an impoverished region of Vietnam pushed my parents to emigrate. My two year-old memory fails me, but my mother vividly recounts my frightened eyes staring up at her on my first plane ride. With life packed into a single suitcase, my mother’s heart, though, trembled more than mine. Knowing only a few words of English, my mother embarked on a journey shrouded in a haze of uncertainty.
Our initial year in America bore an uncanny resemblance to Vietnam – from making one meal last the entire day to wearing the same four shirts over and over again. Through thin walls, I heard my parents debating their decision to come to the United States, a land where they knew no one. My grandparents’ support came in half-hearted whispers cracking through long-distance phone calls. My dad’s scanty income barely kept food on the table. We lived on soup and rice for what seemed an interminable time.
However, an opportunity knocked on my parents’ door: a grocery store in the town of Decatur, Mississippi, was up for rent. My parents took the chance, risking all of their savings. To help my parents, I spent most of my adolescent afternoons stocking shelves, mopping floors, and even translating. My parents’ voices wavered when speaking English; through every attempt to communicate with their customers, a language barrier forged a palpable presence in each transaction. My parents’ spirits faltered as customers grew impatient. A life of poverty awaited us in Vietnam if the business was not successful.
On the first day, the business brought in only twenty dollars. Twenty dollars. My mother and my father wept after they closed the shop. Seeing the business as a failure, my mom commenced her packing that night; returning to Vietnam seemed inevitable.
The next business day, however, sales increased ten-fold. More and more customers came each successive day. My mom’s tears turned into—well, more tears, but they were tears of joy. My mother unpacked a bag each night.
Fifteen years later, my parents now own Blue Bear Grocery. My parents work, work, work to keep the shelves stocked and the customers coming. The grocery store holds a special place in my heart: it is the catalyst for my success. My parents serve as my role-models, teaching me a new lesson with every can placed on the shelf. One lesson that resurfaces is the importance of pursuing a formal education, something that my parents never had the chance of.
When the opportunity to attend the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) presented itself, I took it and ran, as did my parents by leaving Vietnam and by buying the store. Although I am not managing hundreds of products, I am managing hundreds of assignments at MSMS – from Mu Alpha Theta tutoring to lab reports to student government to British literature.
Had I not immigrated, my hands would be calloused from the tight grip of the knife scaling fish rather than from the tight grip on my pencil. My hands would be calloused from scrubbing my clothes covered in fish scales rather than from long hours spent typing a research paper.
Although the opportunities that my parents and I pursued are different, our journey is essentially the same: we walk a road paved with uncertainty and doubt with the prospect of success fortified by our hearts and our hands.
Identity – this can mean racial identity, sexual orientation, gender, or simply one’s place within a specific community (even communities as unique as, say, players of World of Warcraft). With the topic of racial identity, it’s important to remember the audience (college admissions counselors often lean progressive politically), so this might not be the best place to make sweeping claims about today’s state of race relations. However, reflecting on how your culture has shaped your experiences can make for a compelling essay. Alternatively, focusing on a dominant personality trait can also make for a compelling theme. For example, if you’re extremely outgoing, you could explain how your adventurousness has allowed you to learn from a diverse group of friends and the random situations you find yourself in. One important thing to note: the topic of identity can easily lack originality if you cover a common experience such as feeling divided between cultures, or coming out. If such experiences are integral to who you are, you should still write about them, but be sure to show us your unique introspection and reflection.
One student detailed how growing up as an American in Germany led to feelings of displacement. Moving to America in high school only exacerbated her feelings of rootlessness. Her transcultural experiences, however, allowed her to relate to other “New Americans,” particularly refugees. Helping a young refugee girl settle into the US eventually helped the writer find home in America as well:
Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.
My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.
Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deeprooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.
After moving from Berlin to New York state at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.
During my first weeks in Buffalo, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Buffalo.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered New Hope, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with New Hope’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.
It was there that I met Leila, a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl who lived next to Hopeprint. In between games and snacks, Leila would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children New Hope served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.
Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.
The above essay was written by Lydia Schooler, a graduate of Yale University and one of our CollegeVine advisors. If you enjoyed this essay and are looking for expert college essay and admissions advice, consider booking a session with Lydia .
Interests – Interest are basically synonymous to activities, but slightly broader (you could say that interests encompass activities); participation in an interest is often less organized than in an activity. For instance, you might consider cross country an activity, but cooking an interest. Writing about an interest is a way to highlight passions that may not come across in the rest of your application. If you’re a wrestler for example, writing about your interest in stand-up comedy would be a refreshing addition to your application. You should also feel free to use this topic to show what an important activity on your application really means to you. Keep in mind, however, that many schools will ask you to describe one of your activities in their supplemental essays (usually about 250 words), so choose strategically—you don’t want to write twice on the same thing.
Read a successful essay answering this prompt.
This prompt lends itself to consideration of what facets of your personality allow you to overcome adversity. While it’s okay to choose a relatively mundane “failure” such as not winning an award at a Model UN conference, another (perhaps more powerful) tactic is to write about a foundational failure and assess its impact on your development thereafter.
There are times in life when your foundation is uprooted. There are times when you experience failure and you want to give up since you don’t see a solution. This essay is about your response when you are destabilized and your actions when you don’t see an immediate answer.
For example, if you lost a friend due to an argument, you can analyze the positions from both sides, evaluate your decisions, and identify why you were wrong. The key is explaining your thought process and growth following the event to highlight how your thinking has changed. Did you ever admit your fault and seek to fix the problem? Have you treated others differently since then? How has the setback changed the way you view arguments and fights now? Framing the prompt in this way allows you to tackle heavier questions about ethics and demonstrate your self-awareness.
If you haven’t experienced a “big” failure, another angle to take would be to discuss smaller, repeated failures that are either linked or similar thematically. For example, if you used to stutter or get nervous in large social groups, you could discuss the steps you took to find a solution. Even if you don’t have a massive foundational challenge to write about, a recurring challenge can translate to a powerful essay topic, especially if the steps you took to overcome this repeated failure help expose your character.
One student described his ignorance of his brother’s challenges — the writer assumed that because his brother Sam was sociable, Sam was adjusting fine to their family’s move. After an angry outburst from Sam and a long late-night conversation, the writer realizes his need to develop greater sensitivity and empathy. He now strives to recognize and understand others’ struggles, even if they’re not immediately apparent.
“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.
Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.
When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.
As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.
Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.
We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.
We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.
My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.
This prompt is difficult to answer because most high schoolers haven’t participated in the types of iconoclastic protests against societal ills that lend themselves to an awe-inspiring response. A more tenable alternative here could be to discuss a time that you went against social norms, whether it was by becoming friends with someone who seemed like an outcast or by proudly showing off a geeky passion.
And if you ever participated in a situation in tandem with adults and found some success (i.e., by blogging, starting a tutoring organization, or participating in political campaigns), you could discuss your experiences as a young person without a college degree in professional circles. However, avoid sounding morally superior (as if you’re the only person who went against this convention, or that you’re better than your peers for doing so).
Another way to answer this prompt is to discuss a time when you noticed a need for change. For example, if you wondered why medical records are often handwritten, or why a doctor’s visit can be long and awkward, maybe you challenged the norm in healthcare by brainstorming an electronic-recording smartphone app or a telemedicine system. In a similar way, if you led a fundraiser and recognized that advertising on social media would be more effective than the traditional use of printed flyers, you could write about a topic along those lines as well. Focus on what action or experience caused you to recognize the need for change and follow with your actions and resulting outcome.
As a whole, this prompt lends itself to reflective writing, and more specifically, talking the reader through your thought processes. In many cases, the exploration of your thought processes and decision-making is more important than the actual outcome or concept in question. In short, this essay is very much about “thinking,” rumination, and inquisition. A good brainstorming exercise for this prompt would be to write your problem on a sheet of paper and then develop various solutions to the problem, including a brief reason for justification. The more thorough you are in justifying and explaining your solutions in the essay, the more compelling your response will be.
While this prompt may seem to be asking a simple question, your answer has the potential to provide deep insights about who you are to the admissions committee. Explaining what you are grateful for can show them your culture, your community, your philosophical outlook on the world, and what makes you tick.
The first step to writing this essay is to think about the “something” and “someone” of your story. It is imperative to talk about a unique moment in your life, as the prompt asks for gratitude that came about in a surprising way. You will want to write about a story that you are certain no one else would have. To brainstorm, ask yourself: “if I told a stranger that I was grateful for what happened to me without any context, would they be surprised?”
Note that the most common answers to this prompt involve a family member, teacher, or sports coach giving the narrator an arduous task ─ which, by the end of the story, the narrator becomes grateful for because of the lessons they learned through their hard work. Try to avoid writing an essay along these lines unless you feel that your take on it will be truly original.
Begin your essay by telling a creative story about the “something” that your “someone” did that made you thankful. Paint a picture with words here ─ establish who you were in the context of your story and make the character development of your “someone” thorough. Show the admissions committee that you have a clear understanding of yourself and the details of your world.
Keep in mind, however, that the essay is ultimately about you and your growth. While you should set the scene clearly, don’t spend too much time talking about the “something” and “someone.”
Your story should then transition into a part about your unexpected epiphany, e.g. “Six months after Leonard gave me that pogo stick, I started to be grateful for the silly thing…” Explain the why of your gratitude as thoroughly as you can before you begin to talk about how your gratitude affected or motivated you. Have a Socratic seminar with yourself in your head ─ ask yourself, “why am I grateful for the pogo stick?” and continue asking why until you arrive at a philosophical conclusion. Perhaps your reason could be that you eventually got used to the odd looks that people gave you as you were pogoing and gained more self-confidence.
Finally, think about how learning to be grateful for something you would not expect to bring you joy and thankfulness has had a positive impact on your life. Gaining more self-confidence, for example, could motivate you to do an infinite number of things that you were not able to attempt in the past. Try to make a conclusion by connecting this part to your story from the beginning of the essay. You want to ultimately show that had [reference to a snippet of your introduction, ideally an absurd part] never have happened, you would not be who you are today.
Remember to express these lessons implicitly through the experiences in your essay, and not explicitly. Show us your growth through the changes in your life rather than simply stating that you gained confidence. For instance, maybe the pogo stick gift led you to start a pogo dance team at your school, and the team went on to perform at large venues to raise money for charity. But before your pogo days, you had crippling stage fright and hated even giving speeches in your English class. These are the kinds of details that make your essay more engaging.
This prompt is expansive in that you can choose any accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked personal growth or new understanding.
One option is to discuss a formal accomplishment or event (whether it is a religious ritual or social rite of passage) that reflects personal growth. If you go this route, make sure to discuss why the ritual was meaningful and how specific aspects of said ritual contributed to your personal growth. An example of this could be the meaning of becoming an Eagle Scout to you, the accomplishment of being elected to Senior Leadership, or completing a Confirmation. In the case of religious topics, however, be sure to not get carried away with details, and focus on the nature of your personal growth and new understanding — know your audience.
Alternatively, a more relaxed way to address this prompt is using an informal event or realization, which would allow you to show more personality and creativity. An example of this could be learning how to bake with your mother, thus sparking a newfound connection with her, allowing you to learn about her past. Having a long discussion about life or philosophy with your father could also suffice, thus sparking more thoughts about your identity. You could write about a realization that caused you to join a new organization or quit an activity you did not think you would enjoy, as doing so would force you to grow out of your comfort zone to try new things.
The key to answering this prompt is clearly defining what it is that sparked your growth, and then describing in detail the nature of this growth and how it related to your perception of yourself and others. This part of the essay is crucial, as you must dedicate sufficient time to not undersell the description of how you grew instead of simply explaining the experience and then saying, “I grew.” This description of how you grew must be specific, in-depth, and it does not have to be simple. Your growth can also be left open-ended if you are still learning from your experiences today.
One student wrote about how her single mother’s health crisis prompted her to quickly assume greater responsibility as a fourteen-year-old. This essay describes the new tasks she undertook, as well as how the writer now more greatly cherishes her time with her mother.
Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life.
Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.
My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.
Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.
This prompt allows you to expand and deepen a seemingly small or simple idea, topic, or concept. One example could be “stars,” in that you could describe stargazing as a child, counting them, recognizing constellations, and then transforming that initial captivation into a deeper appreciation of the cosmos as a whole, spurring a love of astronomy and physics.
Another example could be “language,” discussing how it has evolved and changed over the course of history, how it allows you to look deeper into different cultures, and how learning different languages stretches the mind. A tip for expanding on these topics and achieving specificity is to select particular details of the topic that you find intriguing and explain why.
For example, if you’re passionate about cooking or baking, you could use specific details by explaining, in depth, the intricate attention and artistry necessary to make a dish or dessert. You can delve into why certain spices or garnishes are superior in different situations, how flavors blend well together and can be mixed creatively, or even the chemistry differences between steaming, searing, and grilling.
Regardless of your topic, this prompt provides a great opportunity to display writing prowess through elegant, specific descriptions that leverage sensory details. Describing the beauty of the night sky, the rhythms and sounds of different languages, or the scent of a crème brûlée shows passion and captivation in a very direct, evocative way.
The key to writing this essay is answering the question of why something captivates you instead of simply ending with “I love surfing.” A tip would be to play off your senses (for applicable topics), think about what you see, feel, smell, hear, and taste.
In the case of surfing, the salty water, weightlessness of bobbing over the waves, and fresh air could cater to senses. Alternatively, for less physical topics, you can use a train of thought and descriptions to show how deeply and vividly your mind dwells on the topic.
Well-executed trains of thought or similar tactics are successful ways to convey passion for a certain topic. To answer what or who you turn to when you want to learn more, you can be authentic and honest—if it’s Wikipedia, a teacher, friend, YouTube Channel, etc., you simply have to show how you interact with the medium.
When brainstorming this particular essay, a tip would be to use a web diagram, placing the topic in the middle and thinking about branching characteristics, themes, or concepts related to the topic that are directly engaging and captivating to you. In doing so, you’ll be able to gauge the depth of the topic and whether it will suffice for this prompt.
In the following example, a student shares their journey as they learn to appreciate a piece of their culture’s cuisine.
As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?
During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice.
Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.
As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.
Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.
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This prompt allows you to express what you want to express if it doesn’t align directly with the other prompts. While this prompt is very open-ended, it doesn’t mean you can adapt any essay you’ve written and think it will suffice. Always refer back to the Strategy section of this article and make sure the topic and essay of your choice addresses the Core Four questions necessary for a good Common App essay.
This prompt, more than the others, poses a high risk but also a high-potential reward. Writing your own question allows you to demonstrate individuality and confidence. Here, you can craft an innovative essay that tackles a difficult topic (for example, whether to raise or lower taxes) or presents information with a unique format (such as a conversation with an historical figure).
We encourage you to try something unconventional for this prompt, like comparing your personality to a Picasso painting, using an extended philosophical metaphor to describe your four years of high school, or writing in a poetic style to display your love of poetry. If you are extremely passionate about a topic or an expert in a certain area, for example Renaissance technology or journalism during World War II, you can use this prompt to show your authority on a subject by discussing it at a high level.
Be careful to frame the essay in a way that is accessible to the average reader while still incorporating quality evidence and content that would qualify you as an expert. As always, exercise caution in writing about controversial social or political topics, and always make sure to consider your audience and what they’re looking for in a student.
Sometimes an unconventional essay can capture Admissions Officers’ attention and move them in a profound way; other times, the concept can fly completely over their heads. Be sure to execute the essay clearly and justify your decision by seeking high-quality feedback from reliable sources. As always, the essay should demonstrate something meaningful about you, whether it is your personality, thought process, or values.
Here’s what the experts have to say about this prompt…
This prompt, like the others, is really asking you to tell the story of who you are. Your essay should be personal and should talk about something significant that has shaped your identity.
Here are a few broad themes that can work well: academic interest; culture, values, and diversity; extracurricular interests; and your impact on the community. You should highlight one of these themes using creative, vividly descriptive narrative. Make sure to not fall into the common pitfall of talking about something else -- an extracurricular activity, for example -- more than yourself.
A student I advised had a great idea to respond to this prompt -- an essay about how they do their best thinking while sitting on a tree branch near their home. Not only was it unique and personal, but it allowed the student to show what they think about, dream about, and value. That's the main goal for any applicant responding to prompt 7.
Alex Oddo Advisor on CollegeVine
All of the Common App prompts are broad in scope, but this one really takes the cake! I typically advise using the first six prompts as guardrails for your brainstorm, but in doing so, you may come up with a topic that doesn’t cleanly fit with any of the first six prompts. That’s where this prompt can come in handy.
Or, you might have an idea that’s really out there (like writing about your love of sonnets as a series of sonnets). Essentially, this prompt is a good fit for essays that are anywhere from slightly unconventional to extremely atypical.
If this all feels a bit confusing - don’t worry! How you write your story is much more important than what prompt you end up choosing. At the end of the day, these are just guides to help you cultivate a topic and are not meant to stress you out.
Priya Desai Advisor on CollegeVine
Students who want to complete the CommonApp’s seventh prompt need to have already gone through the other prompts and determined that their story cannot fit with those. Thus, generally speaking, I advise my students to not use the final prompt unless it is absolutely necessary.
If an admission officer believes that your essay could have been used with one of the other prompts, this may lead them to have a perception about you as a student that might not be accurate.
Nevertheless, as my colleagues have pointed out, what matters is the essay the most and not necessarily the prompt. That being said, the test of whether or not you as a student can follow directions is part of the prompt selection and how well you answer it. If you choose the final prompt and yet your answer could work with another available prompt, this will not put you in your best light.
In conclusion, only use this prompt when absolutely necessary, and remember that the purpose of the personal statement is to give the admissions officers a glimpse into who you are as a person, so you want to use this space to showcase beautiful you.
Veronica Prout Advisor on CollegeVine
Where to get your common app essay edited.
At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application. That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.
Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!
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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, complete strategies: common app essay prompts (2023-24).
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.
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.
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.
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.
#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.
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 it 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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11 Tips For Your Common App Essay
I love the Common App essay. It’s my favorite part of the application process because it’s the one time a student gets to have their voice heard and say what they want to say directly to the person reading their application.
A student’s transcript and Activity List are a reflection of their effort and commitment over the course of the last few years, and letters of recommendation are someone else talking about a student. But the essay is the student’s voice in the exact moment that they are putting their application together. It’s their chance to introduce themselves to someone who hasn’t met them in real life and say, “This is who I am, this is how I think, and this is what’s important to me.”
Easier said than done, right? Maybe that’s why we’re constantly asked for our best tips for the college essay!
If you’ve checked out our webinars page, you know we’ve already covered the 10 things NOT to do in the Common App essay, so here’s 11 more tips for students to write their strongest personal statement.
1. Start early, finish early
There’s nothing stopping a student from writing their Common App essay as soon as the prompts are released. We recommend students work on their essays in the summer before senior year. That way, they aren’t having to balance writing their main essay with working on other parts of the application and the demands of senior year well into the fall.
Most students aren’t thrilled to spend their summer writing an essay, but they always tell me how good it feels to be completely finished when their friends are just starting their essays!
2. Choose a topic that excites you
The Common App essay shouldn’t be the most painful piece of writing a student has ever had to endure. This isn’t a school essay, and it isn’t a research project. Because the essay should reflect things that are important to a student, even students who don’t enjoy writing should try to tap into something that they feel some enthusiasm about.
If the essay feels like torture to write, consider a different topic because if it’s like pulling teeth to write, it probably isn’t going to be very much fun to read!
3. You are the star of this show
It really doesn’t matter what Common App prompt you’ve chosen or what you’ve decided to write about. Because, at the end of the day, the real subject of this essay is YOU!
Don’t forget that the main objective of the essay is for the admissions counselor to get to know students. In order for that to happen, students have to write about themselves.
Regardless of the theme of your essay, can your reader answer questions like, “Who is this student? How do they think? What’s important to them?”
4. Level up your details
There are around 15 million high school students in the United States these days. The odds of coming up with an essay topic that’s never been written about are slim to none. What makes an essay compelling, what makes it stand out and makes it uniquely and completely yours are the details .
No one else has lived your life the way you have lived it. So even if you’re writing about something other people have experienced, write with enough detail (I like sensory details - bring the reader into the moment with you and let them know what it looked, felt, sounded, tasted, smelled like) until it is unquestionably your experience and no one else’s.
Ask yourself, “Could someone else tell the story exactly like this?” If your answer is yes, you need more details.
5. Use your reader’s time wisely
On average, admissions counselors are spending less than 15 minutes on an entire application (and that’s a very generous estimate). Because applications are being evaluated so quickly, students should make the most of their time and not ask their reader to read the same information more than once.
Don’t repeat information from somewhere else in the application in the Common App essay. It’s a wasted opportunity. Use this space to talk about something new or give additional new context that your application would be incomplete without.
6. Make sure your main message is clear
Along the same lines as #5, students shouldn’t make admissions counselors read between the lines to understand the main takeaways of their essays.
Remember that the person who will read this essay doesn’t know you and can’t read your mind, so something that may seem obvious to you may be unclear to someone else. Make sure that your main message can be understood from your essay and from your essay alone.
7. Sound like a teenager
Admissions counselors read thousands and thousands of essays. They know what a teenager sounds like. They also know what an essay written by a teenager’s parents sound like. They also know what a teenager who spent too much time on thesaurus.com sounds like.
The most successful essays are the ones that sound like the person writing them because then the reader really feels like they’re getting to know the student, and that’s the whole point of the essay.
8. Show some growth
A lot of students use the Common App essay as an opportunity to write about a challenge they’ve overcome or a big moment in their life that had a major impact on them or something influential from their childhood. So often, in this kind of essay, we learn a lot about who that student was then. And then the essay ends.
Don’t forget to catch the reader up to the present! The essay is reflective of who you are as you are putting your application, and admissions counselors want to see how you have grown and changed into your present-day self.
9. Write more than one draft
Not to add any more stress to the admissions process, but… this is a pretty important essay. Plan to spend some time on it. I have yet to meet a student whose first draft is submission-ready, so don’t start working on your essay a few hours before the application deadline. Give yourself plenty of time to rework your rough draft into polished essay.
10. Download Grammarly
With tens of thousands of applications coming in each cycle, admissions essays are being read very quickly . This isn’t English class, and the admissions counselor isn’t holding a red pen, docking off points for split infinitives and misplaced commas. Grammar and writing skills aren’t being formally evaluated. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t noticed.
Do yourself a favor. Download Grammarly. It’s free. Enable it to work in Google Docs. Use it on your college application essays. Use it throughout college. Use it for everything. I’m using it to write this blog post.
11. Don’t get too many people involved
Students may want to share their essays with someone for feedback, but we don’t recommend sharing the essay too widely. Too many cooks spoil the broth, and too many well-intentioned editors lose a student’s voice and create a Frankenessay.
When we work with a student on their essay, we want them to create the best essay that that student is capable of writing, and preserving their voice is always our main priority. It’s hard to do, and it takes experience!
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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.
Table of contents
What is the common application essay, prompt 1: background, identity, interest, or talent, prompt 2: overcoming challenges, prompt 3: questioning a belief or idea, prompt 4: appreciating an influential person, prompt 5: transformative event, prompt 6: interest or hobby that inspires learning, prompt 7: free topic, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
The Common Application, or Common App , is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.
Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs. Instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.
Regardless of your prompt choice, admissions officers will look for an ability to clearly and creatively communicate your ideas based on the selected prompt.
We’ve provided seven essay examples, one for each of the Common App prompts. After each essay, we’ve provided a table with commentary on the essay’s narrative, writing style and tone, demonstrated traits, and self-reflection.
Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.
This essay explores the student’s emotional journey toward overcoming her father’s neglect through gymnastics discipline.
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.
When “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” began to play, it was my signal to lay out a winning floor routine. Round off. Back handspring. Double back layout. Stick!
Instead, I jolted off the floor, landing out of bounds. Over the past week, I hadn’t landed that pass once, and regionals were only seven days away. I heaved a heavy sigh and stomped over to the bench.
Coach Farkas saw my consternation. “Mona, get out of your head. You’re way too preoccupied with your tumbling passes. You could do them in your sleep!”
That was the problem. I was dreaming of tumbling and missing my landings, waking up in a cold sweat. The stress felt overwhelming.
“Stretch out. You’re done for tonight.”
I walked home from the gym that had been my second home since fourth grade. Yet my anxiety was increasing every time I practiced.
I startled my mom. “You’re home early! Wait! You walked? Mona, what’s going on?!”
I slumped down at the kitchen table. “Don’t know.”
She sat down across from me. “Does it have anything to do with your father texting you a couple of weeks ago about coming to see you at regionals?”
“So what?! Why does it matter anymore?” He walked out when I was 10 and never looked back. Still, dear ol’ Dad always had a way of resurfacing when I least expected him.
“It still matters because when you hear from him, you tend to crumble. Or have you not noticed?” She offered a knowing wink and a compassionate smile.
I started gymnastics right after Dad left. The coaches said I was a natural: short, muscular, and flexible. All I knew was that the more I improved, the more confident I felt. Gymnastics made me feel powerful, so I gave it my full energy and dedication.
The floor routine became my specialty, and my performances were soon elevating our team score. The mat, solid and stable, became a place to explore and express my internal struggles. Over the years, no matter how angry I felt, the floor mat was there to absorb my frustration.
The bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving because I knew I could fall. My performances in those events were respectable. But, the floor? Sometimes, I had wildly creative and beautiful routines, while other times were disastrous. Sadly, my floor routine had never been consistent.
That Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the empty gym and walked over to the mat. I sat down and touched its carpeted surface. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet with the bitter disappointment of a dad who only showed up when it was convenient for him. I ruminated on the years of practices and meets where I had channeled my resentment into acrobatics and dance moves, resolved to rise higher than his indifference.
I saw then that my deepest wounds were inextricably entangled with my greatest passion. They needed to be permanently separated. While my anger had first served to launch me into gymnastics, before long, I had started serving my anger.
Anger is a cruel master. It corrupts everything it touches, even something as beautiful as a well-choreographed floor routine.
I changed my music days before regionals. “The Devil” no longer had a place in my routine. Instead, I chose an energetic cyberpunk soundtrack that inspired me to perform with passion and laser focus. Dad made an obligatory appearance at regionals, but he left before I could talk to him.
It didn’t matter this time. I stuck every landing in my routine. Anger no longer controlled me. I was finally free.
Word count: 601
This essay shows how the challenges the student faced in caring for her sister with autism resulted in an unexpected path forward in her education.
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?
I never had a choice.
My baby sister was born severely autistic, which meant that every detail of our home life was repeatedly adjusted to manage her condition. I couldn’t go to bed without fearing that Mindy would wake up screaming with that hoarse little voice of hers. I couldn’t have friends over on weekends because we never knew if our entire family would need to shift into crisis mode to help Mindy regain control.
We couldn’t take a family vacation because Mindy would start hitting us during a long car ride when she didn’t want to sit there anymore. We couldn’t even celebrate Christmas like a normal family because Mindy would shriek and run away when we tried to give her presents.
I was five years old when Mindy was born. For the first ten years, I did everything I could to help my mom with Mindy. But Mom was depressed and would often stare out the window, as if transfixed by the view. Dad was no help either. He used his job as an excuse to be away from home. So, I tried to make up for both of them and rescue Mindy however I could whenever she needed it.
However, one day, when I was slowly driving Mindy around with the windows down, trying to lull her into a calmer state, we passed two of my former classmates from middle school. They heard Mindy growling her disapproval as the ride was getting long for her. One of them turned to the other and announced, “Oh my God! Marabeth brought her pet monster out for a drive!” They laughed hysterically and ran down the street.
After that day, I defied my parents at every turn. I also ignored Mindy. I even stopped doing homework. I purposely “got in with the wrong crowd” and did whatever they did.
My high school counselor Ms. Martinez saw through it all. She knew my family’s situation well. It didn’t take her long to guess what had probably happened.
“Marabeth, I get it. My brother has Down syndrome. It was really hard growing up with him as a brother. The other kids were pretty mean about it, especially in high school.”
I doubted she understood. “Yeah. So?”
“I’m guessing something happened that hurt or embarrassed you.”
“I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how you must have felt.”
It must have been the way she said it because I suddenly found myself sobbing into my trembling, cupped hands.
Ms. Martinez and I met every Friday after that for the rest of the year. Her stories of how she struggled to embrace living with and loving her brother created a bridge to my pain and then my healing. She explained that her challenges led her to pursue a degree in counseling so that she could offer other people what no one had given her.
I thought that Mindy was the end of my life, but, because of Ms. Martinez’s example and kindness, I can now see that Mindy is a gift, pointing me toward my future.
Now, I’m applying to study psychology so that I can go on to earn my master’s degree in counseling. I’m learning to forgive my parents for their mistakes, and I’m back in Mindy’s life again, but this time as a sister, not a savior. My choice.
Word Count: 553
This essay illustrates a student’s courage in challenging his culture’s constructs of manhood and changing his course while positively affecting his father in the process.
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
“No son of mine is gonna march around a football field wearing tail feathers while all the real men are playing football!”
I took a step backward and tried not to appear as off-balance as I felt. In my excitement, I had blurted out more information than my father could handle:
“Dad! I made the marching band as a freshman! Nobody does that—I mean nobody!”
As soon as I had said it, I wished I could recall those words. How could I forget that 26 years earlier, he had been the starting wide receiver for the state-champion Tigers on the same field?!
Still, when I opened the email on that scorching hot August afternoon, I was thrilled that five months of practicing every possible major and harmonic minor scale—two octaves up and two octaves down—had made the difference. I had busted reed after reed, trying not to puff my cheeks while moving my fingers in a precise cadence.
I knew he had heard me continually practicing in my room, yet he seemed to ignore all the parts of me that were incongruous with his vision of manhood:
Ford F-150 4x4s. Pheasant hunting. The Nebraska Cornhuskers.
I never had to wonder what he valued. For years, I genuinely shared his interests. But, in the fall of eighth grade, I heard Kyle Wheeling play a saxophone solo during the homecoming marching band halftime show. My dad took me to every football game to teach me the plays, but that night, all I could think about was Kyle’s bluesy improv at halftime.
During Thanksgiving break, I got my mom to drive me into Omaha to rent my instrument at Dietze Music, and, soon after, I started private lessons with Mr. Ken. Before long, I was spending hours in my room, exploring each nuance of my shiny Yamaha alto sax, anticipating my audition for the Marching Tigers at the end of the spring semester.
During those months of practice, I realized that I couldn’t hide my newfound interest forever, especially not from the football players who were going to endlessly taunt me. But not all the guys played football. Some were in choir and theater. Quite a few guys were in the marching band. In fact, the Marching Tigers had won the grand prize in their division at last year’s state showdown in Lincoln.
I was excited! They were the champions, and I was about to become a part of their legacy.
Yet, that afternoon, a sense of anxiety brewed in my belly. I knew I had to talk to him.
He was sweeping the grass clippings off of the sidewalk. He nodded.
“I need to tell you something.”
He looked up.
“I know that you know about my sax because you hear me practicing. I like it a lot, and I’m becoming pretty good at it. I still care about what you like, but I’m starting to like some other things more. I hope you’ll be proud of me whatever I choose.”
He studied the cracks in the driveway. “I am proud of you. I just figured you’d play football.”
We never talked about it again, but that fall, he was in the stands when our marching band won the state championship in Lincoln for the second time. In fact, for the next four years, he never left the stands during halftime until the marching band had performed. He was even in the audience for every performance of “Our Town” at the end of my junior year. I played the Stage Manager who reveals the show’s theme: everything changes gradually.
I know it’s true. Things do change over time, even out here in central Nebraska. I know because I’ve changed, and my dad has changed, too. I just needed the courage to go first.
Word count: 626
The student demonstrates how his teacher giving him an unexpected bad grade was the catalyst for his becoming a better writer.
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?
I stared in disbelief at the big red letter at the top of my paper: D.
Never in my entire high school career had I seen that letter at the top of any paper, unless it was at the beginning of my first name.
I had a 4.796 GPA. I had taken every pre-AP and AP course offered. My teachers had praised my writing skills! However, Mr. Trimble didn’t think so, and he let me know it:
“Darwin, in the future, I believe you can do better if you fully apply yourself.”
I furiously scanned the paper for corrections. Not even one! Grammar and syntax? Perfect. Spelling? Impeccable. Sentence and paragraph structure? Precise and indisputable, as always.
Was he trying to ruin my GPA? Cooper was clearly his favorite, and we were neck and neck for valedictorian, which was only one year away. Maybe they were conspiring to take me down.
Thankfully, AP Composition was my last class. I fled the room and ran to my car. Defiant tears stained my cheeks as I screeched my tires and roared out of the parking lot. When I got home, I shoved in my AirPods, flopped on my bed, and buried my head under the pillow.
I awoke to my sister, Daria, gently shaking my arm. “I know what happened, D. Trimble stopped me in the hall after school.”
“I’m sure he did. He’s trying to ruin my life.”
“That’s not what he told me. You should talk to him, D.”
The next day, although I tried to avoid Mr. Trimble at all costs, I almost tripped over him as I was coming out of the bathroom.
“Darwin, can we talk?”
He walked me down the hall to his room. “Do you know that you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever had in AP Comp?”
“Then why’d you do it?”
“Because you’re better than you know, Darwin. You impress with your perfect presentations, and your teachers reward you with A’s and praise. I do frequent the teacher’s lounge, you know.”
“So I know you’re not trying.”
I locked eyes with him and glared.
“You’ve never had to try because you have a gift. And, in the midst of the acclaim, you’ve never pushed yourself to discover your true capabilities.”
“So you give me a D?!”
“It got your attention.”
“You’re not going to leave it, are you?”
“Oh, the D stands. You didn’t apply yourself. You’ll have to earn your way out with your other papers.”
I gained a new understanding of the meaning of ambivalence. Part of me was furious at the injustice of the situation, but I also felt strangely challenged and intrigued. I joined a local writer’s co-op and studied K. M. Weiland’s artistic writing techniques.
Multiple drafts, track changes, and constructive criticism became my new world. I stopped taking Mr. Trimble’s criticism personally and began to see it as a precious tool to bolster me, not break me down.
Last week, the New York Public Library notified me that I was named one of five finalists for the Young Lions Fiction Award. They described my collection of short stories as “fresh, imaginative, and captivating.”
I never thought I could be grateful for a D, but Mr. Trimble’s insightful courage was the catalyst that transformed my writing and my character. Just because other people applaud you for being the best doesn’t mean you’re doing your best .
AP Composition is now recorded as an A on my high school transcript, and Cooper and I are still locked in a tight race for the finish line. But, thanks to Mr. Trimble, I have developed a different paradigm for evaluation: my best. And the more I apply myself, the better my best becomes.
Word Count: 627
This student narrates how she initially went to church for a boy but instead ended up confronting her selfishness by helping others.
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Originally, I went to church not because I was searching for Jesus but because I liked a boy.
Isaac Ono wasn’t the most athletic boy in our class, nor was he the cutest. But I was amazed by his unusual kindness toward everyone. If someone was alone or left out, he’d walk up to them and say hello or invite them to hang out with him and his friends.
I started waking up at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday morning to attend Grace Hills Presbyterian, where Isaac’s father was the pastor. I would strategically sit in a pew not too close but close enough to Isaac that when the entire congregation was instructed to say “Peace be with you,” I could “happen” to shake Isaac’s hand and make small talk.
One service, as I was staring at the back of Isaac’s head, pondering what to say to him, my hearing suddenly tuned in to his father’s sermon.
“There’s no such thing as a good or bad person.”
My eyes snapped onto Pastor Marcus.
“I used to think I was a good person who came from a respectable family and did nice things. But people aren’t inherently good or bad. They just make good or bad choices.”
My mind raced through a mental checklist of whether my past actions fell mostly into the former or latter category.
“As it says in Deuteronomy 30:15, ‘I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.’ Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and do good.”
I glanced to my left and saw Margaret, underlining passages in her study Bible and taking copious notes.
Months earlier, I had befriended Margaret. We had fourth-period Spanish together but hadn’t interacted much. She was friends with Isaac, so I started hanging out with her to get closer to him. But eventually, the two of us were spending hours in the Starbucks parking lot having intense discussions about religion, boys, and our futures until we had to return home before curfew.
After hearing the pastor’s sermon, I realized that what I had admired about Isaac was also present in Margaret and other people at church: a welcoming spirit. I’m pretty sure Margaret knew of my ulterior motives for befriending her, but she never called me out on it.
After that day, I started paying more attention to Pastor Marcus’s sermons and less attention to Isaac. One year, our youth group served Christmas Eve dinner to the homeless and ate with them. I sat across from a woman named Lila who told me how child services had taken away her four-year-old daughter because of her financial and living situation.
A few days later, as I sat curled up reading the book of James, my heart suddenly felt heavy.
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”
I thought back to Pastor Marcus’s sermon on good and bad actions, Lila and her daughter, and the times I had passed people in need without even saying hello.
I decided to put my faith into action. The next week, I started volunteering at the front desk of a women’s shelter, helping women fill out forms or watching their kids while they talked with social workers.
From working for the past year at the women’s shelter, I now know I want to major in social work, caring for others instead of focusing on myself. I may not be a good person (or a bad one), but I can make good choices, helping others with every opportunity God gives me.
Word count: 622
This essay shows how a student’s natural affinity for solving a Rubik’s cube developed her self-understanding, academic achievement, and inspiration for her future career.
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?
The worst part about writing is putting down my Rubik’s cube so that I can use my hands to type. That’s usually the worst part of tackling my to-do list: setting aside my Rubik’s cube. My parents call it an obsession. But, for me, solving a Rubik’s cube challenges my brain as nothing else can.
It started on my ninth birthday. I invited three friends for a sleepover party, and I waited to open my presents right before bed. Wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows flew through the air as I oohed and aahed over each delightful gift! However, it was the last gift—a 3 x 3 x 3 cube of little squares covered in red, green, blue, yellow, white, and orange—that intrigued me.
I was horrified when Bekka ripped it out of my hands and messed it all up! I had no idea how to make all the sides match again. I waited until my friends were fast asleep. Then, I grabbed that cube and studied it under my blanket with a flashlight, determined to figure out how to restore it to its former pristine state.
Within a few weeks, I had discovered the secret. To practice, I’d take my cube with me to recess and let the other kids time me while I solved it in front of them. The better I became, the more they gathered around. But I soon realized that their attention didn’t matter all that much. I loved solving cubes for hours wherever I was: at lunch, riding in the car, or alone in my room.
Cross. White corners. Middle-layer edges. Yellow cross. Sune and anitsune.
The sequential algorithms became second nature, and with the assistance of a little black digital timer, I strove to solve the cube faster , each time attempting to beat my previous record. I watched speed solvers on YouTube, like Australia’s Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park from Massachusetts, but I wasn’t motivated to compete as they did. I watched their videos to learn how to improve my time. I liked finding new, more efficient ways of mastering the essential 78 separate cube-solving algorithms.
Now, I understand why my passion for my Rubik’s cube has never waned. Learning and applying the various algorithms soothes my brain and centers my emotions, especially when I feel overwhelmed from being around other people. Don’t get me wrong: I like other people—just in doses.
While some people get recharged by spending time with others, I can finally breathe when I’m alone with my cube. Our psychology teacher says the difference between an extrovert and an introvert is the situations that trigger their brains to produce dopamine. For me, it’s time away, alone, flipping through cube patterns to set a new personal best.
Sometimes, the world doesn’t cooperate with introverts, requiring them to interact with many people throughout the day. That’s why you’ll often find me in the stairwell or a library corner attempting to master another one of the 42 quintillion ways to solve a cube. My parents tease me that when I’ve “had enough” of anything, my fingers get a Rubik’s itch, and I suddenly disappear. I’m usually occupied for a while, but when I finally emerge, I feel centered, prepared to tackle my next task.
Secretly, I credit my cube with helping me earn top marks in AP Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics. It’s also responsible for my interest in computer engineering. It seems I just can’t get enough of those algorithms, which is why I want to study the design and implementation of cybersecurity software—all thanks to my Rubik’s cube.
Just don’t tell my parents! It would ruin all the fun!
Word count: 607
In this free topic essay, the student uses a montage structure inspired by the TV show Iron Chef America to demonstrate his best leadership moments.
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.
Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition
The time has come to answer college’s most difficult question: Whose story shows glory?
This is … Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition!
Welcome to Kitchen Stadium! Today we have Chef Brett Lowell. Chef Brett will be put to the test to prove he has what it takes to attend university next fall.
And the secret ingredient is … leadership! He must include leadership in each of his dishes, which will later be evaluated by a panel of admissions judges.
So now, America, with a creative mind and empty paper, I say unto you in the words of my teacher: “Let’s write!”
Appetizer: My first leadership experience
A mountain of mismatched socks, wrinkled jeans, and my dad’s unironed dress shirts sat in front of me. Laundry was just one of many chores that welcomed me home once I returned from my after-school job at Baskin Robbins, a gig I had taken last year to help Dad pay the rent. A few years earlier, I wasn’t prepared to cook dinners, pay utility bills, or pick up and drop off my brothers. I thought those jobs were reserved for parents. However, when my father was working double shifts at the power plant and my mom was living in Tucson with her new husband, Bill, I stepped up and took care of the house and my two younger brothers.
Main course: My best leadership experience
Between waiting for the pasta water to boil and for the next laundry cycle to be finished, I squeezed in solving a few practice precalculus problems to prepare for the following week’s mathletics competition. I liked how the equations always had clear, clean answers, which calmed me among the mounting responsibilities of home life. After leading my team to the Minnesota State Finals for two years in a row, I was voted team captain. Although my home responsibilities often competed with my mathlete duties, I tried to be as productive as possible in my free time. On the bus ride home, I would often tackle 10 to 20 functions or budget the following week’s meals and corresponding grocery list. My junior year was rough, but both my home and my mathlete team needed me.
Dessert: My future leadership hopes
The first thing I ever baked was a chocolate cake in middle school. This was around the time that Mom had just moved out and I was struggling with algebra. Troubles aside, one day my younger brother Simon needed a contribution for his school’s annual bake sale, and the PTA moms wouldn’t accept anything store-bought. So I carefully measured out the teaspoons and cups of various flours, powders, and oils, which resulted in a drooping, too-salty disaster.
Four years later, after a bakery’s worth of confections and many hours of study, I’ve perfected my German chocolate cake and am on my way to mastering Calculus AB. I’ve also thrown out the bitter-tasting parts of my past such as my resentment and anger toward my mom. I still miss having her at home, but whenever I have a baking question or want to update her on my mathlete team’s success, I call her or chat with her over text.
Whether in school or life, I see problems as opportunities, not obstacles, to find a better way to solve them more efficiently. I hope to continue improving my problem-solving skills next fall by majoring in mathematics and statistics.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this tasting of Chef Lowell’s leadership experiences. Next fall, tune in to see him craft new leadership adventures in college. He’s open to refining his technique and discovering new recipes.
Word count: 612
If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Writing process
- Transition words
- Passive voice
- How to end an email
- Ms, mrs, miss
- How to start an email
- I hope this email finds you well
- Hope you are doing well
Parts of speech
- Personal pronouns
The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.
Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.
When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.
No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.
To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:
- Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
- Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories
You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.
A standout college essay has several key ingredients:
- A unique, personally meaningful topic
- A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
- Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
- Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
- Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
- A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
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Common App Essays 2023‒2024
Each year, the Common Application organization releases the prompts for the Common App essays. Often referred to as the “personal statement,” Common App essays are a central part of the college application process. Students can choose from one of seven Common App essay prompts to best showcase who they are to admissions officers.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- All new Common App prompts for the 2023-24 admissions cycle
- What are Common App essays?
How many Common App essays are required?
- How long your Common App essays should be
- What makes a great college essay
- Each of the prompts for the Common App essays
- Some Common App essay tips
- Good college essay topics
- A timeline to help you write your Common App essay
- More Common Application resources from CollegeAdvisor
To learn how to write compelling Common App essays, read on!
New Common App Prompts for 2023-2024
Common App revisits their prompts every year. Over the past several years, Common App has opted not to release any new Common App prompts.
There will be no new Common App prompts in the upcoming admissions cycle. Instead, the prompts for the Common App essays will remain the same as those used in the 2022-23 admissions cycle.
In general, from year to year, the Common Application essay prompts remain fairly similar . In fact, the Common App essay prompts 2021 are the same as the prompts in use today. The last change took place among the Common App essay prompts 2021, which featured a new essay about gratitude.
Since there are seldom any new Common App prompts, students can use previous years’ prompts to start brainstorming and preparing.
Here are the seven Common App prompts from this year :
7 common app 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..
We’ll go deeper into the Common App essay prompts and other Common App essay tips later in this guide. We’ll also discuss some Common App essay ideas, and where to find some Common App essay examples that worked . But first, let’s go over the basics of the Common App essays.
What is the Common App essay?
As you begin applying to college, you’ll likely hear a lot about Common App essays (or personal statements). Of course, you’ll complete other essays during the college application process—namely, school-specific supplemental essays. However, when someone talks about “college essays,” or “personal statements,” they are usually referring to the Common App essays.
But what is the Common App essay?
The Common Application is a platform that helps streamline the college application process. And according to Forbes , the number of students who apply to college using the Common App has surged 20% since 2019.
Using the Common App, you can apply to college more easily— over 1,000 schools accept the Common Application. This figure includes Ivies like Yale and Dartmouth , as well as public state universities like Penn State . Once you create your Common App login, you can complete your personal information for every school at once. The Common Application makes it easy to keep track of college application requirements, deadlines , letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars and awards.
Coalition Application vs. Common Application
There are many different types of college applications, of which the Common Application is only one. Though only accepted by 90 member institutions, the Coalition Application is another popular application platform that allows you to collect your application information in one place. Much of the advice on Common App essays in this guide will also apply to the Coalition Application essay.
The Common App essay
Common App requirements include a list of your extracurricular activities, your self-reported grades, and your personal information. Another key section of the Common App is the Common App essay. You will also use the Common App to submit supplemental essays for particular schools.
The Common App essay, often called the personal statement, is sent to every college that accepts the Common Application. This essay will answer one of the Common App essay prompts to showcase something that makes you who you are. The Common App essay word limit is 650 words.
Since students submit their Common App essays to every school, they should be as strong as possible. In this guide, we’ll share some Common App essay tips to help your personal statement shine. We’ll also review the Common App essay requirements and discuss some Common App essay ideas.
There are seven Common App essay prompts. So, how many Common App essays are required?
Only one Common App essay is required. This means that you’ll respond to only one of the Common App prompts.
As you begin your writing process, read through the Common App essay prompts and see which one appeals to you the most. Try brainstorming answers to different prompts or discussing them with a parent, friend, or advisor.
Again, students only need to select one of the Common App essay prompts for their Common App essays. So, you’ll only need to write one essay that meets the Common App essay word limit.
Supplemental essays and the Common Application
Many schools also require students to write supplemental essays. Most supplemental essays will be shorter —usually 200-400 words as opposed to the Common App essay word limit of 650. You’ll submit these essays through the Common App. However, we don’t generally refer to these supplemental essays as “Common App essays.”
How long should the Common App essay be?
The Common App essay word limit is 650 words maximum. However, according to the official Common App essay requirements, the lower stay Common App essay word limit is 250 words.
As you brainstorm topics for Common App essays, make sure that the story you want to tell fits into the Common App essay word limit. Once you create your Common App login, you can familiarize yourself with the Common App essay requirements, including the word limit.
Students should aim for the higher end of the Common App essay word limit range. After all, admissions officers rely on Common App essays a lot within the admissions process. Therefore, you want your personal statement to offer a comprehensive picture of who you are and what matters to you.
Making the most of the Common App essay word limit
Writing Common App essays can feel like a daunting task, especially given the word count. To make the most of the Common App essay word limit, make sure you start your writing process early. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to edit your personal statement so every word counts.
Also, don’t try to explain your whole life story in the relatively short Common App essay word limit. Instead, try to tell an anecdote that encapsulates some aspect of your personality or your upbringing. Then, connect it to broader themes, including your future goals.
What makes a great college essay?
Now, you understand the basic format of Common App essays. Maybe you’ve even made your Common App login and started brainstorming topics. Next, you might be wondering: how can I write the best Common App essay?
Most good college essays and personal statements include similar features:
- A strong story that highlights a key part of the writer’s identity
- An engaging hook
- Strong structural components
- Clear, well-crafted prose
- Flawless grammar and syntax
Though none of these tips are strict Common App essay requirements, your personal statement should meet these criteria.
Good college essays also depend on your ability to be introspective. The best college admissions essays will reveal something unique about the writer. Often, in order to tell a compelling story about who you are, writers look deeply at their upbringing, identity, and values. The best Common App essay ideas aren’t something you can find in a Common App essay tips blog. Instead, they’ll come from your own unique experiences.
If you’re getting started and can’t think of any Common App essay ideas, try brainstorming without answering one of the prompts. The most important part about the Common Application essay is that it showcases a part of your identity that the admissions team won’t glean from your GPA or scores.
In the next few sections, we’ll go over the prompts for the Common App essays. For each of the Common App essay prompts, we’ll offer Common App essay tips. We’ll discuss how you can approach the Common App essays, including some advice on structure, tone, topic choice, and more. Additionally, we’ll look at some Common App essay ideas and the Common App essay requirements.
Common App Essay #1: Share your background
The first of the Common App essays asks you to share something significant about your background. Here’s the first of the Common App prompts:
All of the Common App essays will allow for a degree of customization. As long as essays address the Common App essay prompts—and stay within the Common App essay word limit—there is no limit to possible topics. In fact, when you read Common App essay examples, you’ll see a ton of variation .
The first of the Common App essay prompts is particularly open to interpretation. For some students, this can be exciting. However, for others, the first of the Common App essay prompts might feel a little overwhelming. So, if you want a more direct question, you might be better served by one of the other prompts.
How to approach this prompt
If you have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is deeply meaningful to you, here’s the place to talk about it!
As with all prompts for the Common App essays, there’s no right answer: maybe you were raised Orthodox Jewish. Perhaps you attended a white majority school as a person of color. Or maybe you learned to play the oboe at 4 years old and have since released an oboe EP on Soundcloud. As long as you share something that your application would be incomplete without, the sky’s the limit.
In general, as you write your Common App essays, think about what topics you might cover in your supplemental essays. Try to avoid writing about the same experience twice—after all, you only have so much space on your college applications. So, pick a topic for your main Common App essay with enough depth to fill the Common App essay word limit. Ideally, this topic won’t necessarily fit into a different section of your application.
Common App Essay #2: Navigating a challenge
Let’s look at some other prompts for Common App essays. The second of the Common App essay prompts relates to how you dealt with a challenge:
Comparing the different Common App essay prompts, this question is a bit narrower than the first. Is there a challenge, setback, or failure that you learned from? If you can’t come up with an answer to this question fairly quickly, you might want to select another of the Common App prompts.
Common App essay topics for this prompt
As compared to other Common App essay prompts, this one threatens to attract more cliché responses. Many students gravitate to similar topics: losses in sports, not getting a particular role in a performance, not winning a specific award.
If you choose a challenge like these, try to ensure your essay offers a new perspective. Many other students will likely select this question from the Common App essay prompts because they experienced a similar setback. In light of this, as you compare the different Common App essay prompts, think critically about potential college essay topics. Make sure your personal statement tells the admissions office something unique about how you face challenges.
The next of the prompts for Common App essays discusses a change in perspective. Read on to learn how to think about these types of Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay #3: Questioning an idea
Has your perspective changed a lot in recent years? Have you had lengthy discussions with your parents or teachers about beliefs of theirs that you might disagree with? If so, the third option for your Common App essays might be a good one for you.
The third of the Common App essay prompts reads:
The best Common App essays often deal with subjects of personal change. These college essay topics may discuss shifts in perspective after learning something new or adjusting to different ideas and beliefs. Overall, colleges want to admit students who are intellectually curious and introspective. So, telling a story about how you developed can show that you embody those ideals.
Choosing the right idea
You don’t have to be politically active or reinvent the wheel to answer this question\ Maybe your guardian(s) is super-athletic and put you on the soccer team, but you fell in love with studio art instead. Challenging expectations is one method of challenging beliefs, so this could be a good framework to discuss your values.
To recap: a strong theme to touch on in any one of these Common App essays is a change in perspective. You can (and should!) also highlight your development in any of the Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay #4: The gratitude essay
Another prompt that students can choose for their Common App essays is the gratitude essay:
This prompt was one of the new Common App essay prompts. It was originally released as one of the Common App essay prompts 2021.
Like some of the other Common App essay prompts, this prompt is fairly open-ended. It provides a chance to reflect on the positive aspects in your life. This prompt also lets you show that you are introspective and humble.
In the Common App essay prompts 2021, this essay replaced a prompt that asked about a problem you would like to solve. The Common App essay prompts 2021 were adjusted to include this prompt in order to “bring some joy into [each student’s] application experience.”
A word of caution
There is one potential pitfall of choosing the gratitude essay over the other Common App essay prompts. This prompt lends itself to focusing too much on someone other than yourself. Remember, good college essays will always center the writer’s identity and experiences.
Even if your essay is about how much a family member has sacrificed for you, remember that you are the one applying to college. Focus more on the second part of the prompt: how has your gratitude affected or motivated you?
Remember, Common App essays are a way to communicate something important about you to the people reading your application. That’s why it’s often referred to as the personal statement—it’s about you!
Common App Essay Prompt #5: A moment of personal growth
Like the second of the Common App prompts, this next question relates to personal growth or change:
The fifth of the Common App prompts asks about an inflection point in your life: a push to grow and shift perspectives. Like the other prompts, this one depends on introspection. Indeed, a key takeaway of these Common App essay tips, is that there’s never too much self-reflection.
Compared to the other Common App prompts, this one also lets you cover something not mentioned elsewhere in your application. Certainly, it’s less likely that answers to this question will pertain solely to one extracurricular or award. In other words, this personal statement topic can be a great place to tell the admissions team something new.
Next, let’s move onto the final two Common App prompts and offer a few more Common App essay tips.
Common App Essay Prompt #6: What captivates you?
Another of the more open-ended Common App prompts, this Common Application question has endless answers. Essays could cover something as straightforward as your potential college major or as non-academic as your favorite episode of Survivor.
Let’s take a look:
The sixth of the Common App prompts asks about what excites you. This isn’t restricted to lofty academic pursuits, either. With that said, a well-composed essay will reveal something about your values or thought process through your interest.
This prompt gives you a chance to go into detail about a passion, whether it be broad or niche, academic or cultural. The best college admissions essays will highlight something that isn’t present anywhere else in the application. Where else can you explain in excruciating detail your lifelong goal of building the tallest Rube Goldberg machine?
Common App Essay #7: A topic of your choice
Now, we’ve reached the last of the Common App prompts: a topic of your choice.
With this personal statement option, remember that it still must be exactly that: a personal statement. It should be about your unique way of navigating the world.
You might think that you could just submit your award-winning English class essay about the early feminist novel The Awakening . However, unless you discuss how its 1899 societal expectations of femininity affects how you interact with your family today… reconsider. The most important of our Common App essay tips is that above all else, this essay needs to be about you .
Therefore, if you think this Common App prompt is the one for you, make sure you’ve considered every other personal statement prompt first. Don’t think of this prompt as a way to get out of talking about yourself. Instead, use this prompt to talk about a part of yourself that the other questions aren’t reaching. The Common App essay questions are constructed to help you think about your life. In other words, don’t dismiss them just because you can’t think of an answer right away.
Keeping the personal in personal statement
When thinking about answering this question, ask yourself: is this essay a “personal statement?” Does it tell the admissions committee something they don’t know about me? Does it demonstrate something unique or dynamic about my identity, upbringing, values, or perspective?
Now that we’ve gone over all of the Common App prompts, let’s go into more detail on how you can write a great college essay. We’ll discuss some Common App essay ideas and provide some brainstorming exercises to jumpstart your writing process. We’ll also review more Common App essay tips, some Common App essay requirements, and other college application requirements. Lastly, we’ll recommend more resources like Common App essay examples that you might need to tackle the Common Application.
How to Write a Great College Essay
We’ve reviewed each of the Common App essay prompts and discussed the Common App essay requirements. Next, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips. You can also apply these guidelines to your Coalition App essay and other college application requirements.
Every great Common App essay starts with a clear strategy. Again, there are no new Common App essay prompts this year—in fact, they haven’t changed since the Common App essay prompts 2021. In short, rather than waiting for any new Common App essay prompts, you can start considering college essay topics now. After all, the earlier you start working on your Common App essay, the stronger it will be.
Below, we’ve outlined our ideal process to help you write the best college admissions essays you can. Use this structure to help you craft strong Common App essays:
Looking for strong college essay topics? Start with a free-write. Choose one of the Common App essay prompts that speaks to you. Then, set a timer for ten minutes and just start writing .
It won’t be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. The goal of this exercise isn’t to write your final personal statement—it’s to flex your writing muscles. Don’t stop, edit, or censor yourself. Instead, just try to represent your experiences in a meaningful and authentic way. At this stage, just get ideas into words without worrying about quality or the Common App essay word limit.
Once you’re finished, take a look at what you wrote. What stands out to you? Are there any elements of your free-write you might want to explore in a draft?
Determining a College Essay Topic: Reflection Exercises to Try
If you’re facing writer’s block, try choosing one of the Common App essay prompts and thinking about its central theme. For instance, for the second of the Common App essay prompts, you might choose the idea of challenges .
Then, grab a sheet of paper, set a timer, and start writing down any meaningful challenges you’ve faced. Feel free to connect them to other elements of your life, including ways you’ve grown or changed. Don’t focus on the writing—instead, just try to think about potential college essay topics. Once the timer ends, evaluate whether anything you’ve listed might be worth drafting for your Common App essays. You can also use this strategy to tackle other college supplemental essays.
Once you’ve decided on a potential topic, it’s time to outline.
Good Common App essays often start with a “hook”—an engaging opening that grabs the reader’s interest. Often, the best hooks come from personal stories. One reliable structure for Common App essays opens with a personal story, then connecting it to your identity or character. You might then return to your original anecdote in your final paragraph or line.
In your outline, include your story and your “stakes”—that is, why your story highlights something critical about who you are. Your writing skills won’t matter if your personal statement isn’t, well, personal.
As you outline, feel free to be as descriptive or minimal as you’d like. Above all, your outline should help you write a draft—don’t craft a beautiful outline if it won’t ultimately serve your writing process. Once again, you can follow the same process in your school-specific supplemental essays.
Write a draft
Don’t feel pressured to write your Common App essay sequentially. For instance, if you know exactly how to approach the anecdote but are struggling with your opening line, feel free to jump ahead. You can always return to fill in the gaps of your personal statement.
As you draft, remember the Common App essay requirements, including the Common App essay word limit of 650 words. While the Common App essay word limit gives you more space than most supplemental essays, it’s still relatively short.
Often, leaving a few days between writing sessions can give you a useful perspective. After all, Common App essays (like any good college essay) won’t appear overnight. And since the college process is so competitive, you want your essay to stand out .
Each time you open your Common App essay, take a look at what you’ve written so far. Does it make sense and flow neatly? More importantly, does it use clear language and strong storytelling to highlight something important about your identity? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.
Revise, revise, revise
After you complete your Common App essay draft, put it away for a day or two. Then, return to your document to start revising .
Of course, you should edit for grammar, syntax, and spelling. However, a solid revision process will take a fair amount more work. As you read over your Common App essay, take a look at every single sentence. Does it contribute to your personal statement’s overall message? Are there any places where your language is clunky or redundant? Since the Common App essay word limit isn’t high, every word counts.
When you revise, pay careful attention to the beginning and end of your Common App essay. Remember, the opening of your essay gives Admissions Officers their first impression of you.
Additionally, as you edit, return to the Common App essay prompts. While the Common App essay prompts may be weighed differently than school-specific supplements, you should still address them comprehensively. So, don’t neglect the Common App essay requirements—namely, that you answer the prompt.
Finally, make sure that your essay highlights something critical about you. Above all, make sure your essay shows admissions teams who you are. Don’t waste your time with flowery language if it doesn’t serve your point—especially given the Common App essay word limit.
Get a second pair of eyes
Once you’ve edited your draft yourself, consider asking a trusted adult to look over your Common App essay. This could be a teacher, parent, counselor, or advisor.
Often, a second reader will notice things that you won’t. They can help you identify unclear language, fix lingering typos, and ensure your story comes through as strongly as possible. This can also help you meet the Common App essay word limit.
Of course, your Common App essay should be entirely your own work. That is to say, while you can absolutely ask for outside guidance, no one else should be writing your essay for you.
Finalize and submit!
After you receive feedback, complete a final round of revisions on your own. Ask yourself: if I read this essay, would I want to meet the student who wrote it?
When you feel ready, upload your essay using your Common App login. If you need help navigating your Common App login, you can visit the Common App YouTube channel for useful tips. Since there are no new Common App prompts this year, it’s never too early to start brainstorming. Plus, abandoned Common App essay ideas might be a great fit for supplemental essays.
What are some good college essay topics?
Overall, there are plenty of good college essay topics out there. You won’t get the chance to submit multiple Common App essays, so you should choose a topic that means something to you.
Here are some Common App essay tips to help you choose a topic:
Common App Essay Tips
1. discuss a challenge that you overcame. .
Maybe you developed a love and talent for poetry despite having severe dyslexia. Or maybe you conquered your fear of public speaking when asked to give a speech about a cause that mattered to you. The challenge itself doesn’t entirely matter; it’s about what this challenge meant to you.
If you write about a challenge, keep several things in mind. First, make sure the challenge you choose matters to you—that is, it should highlight a critical element of your identity and development. At the end of the day, good Common App essays will illustrate how the writer encountered a challenge and came out the other side.
2. Write about an experience that broadened your perspective.
Common App essays can also center around meaningful experiences. For example, maybe your first meeting with your extended family in India provided a new understanding of your heritage. Or maybe a year of volunteering at a children’s hospital taught you what it meant to find joy even amid pain and suffering. Again, the possibilities are endless; just think about which experiences have made you the person you are.
If you write about an external experience, a word of caution: remember that Common App essays should always come back to the writer’s development. For instance, if you’re writing about volunteering in a clinic, don’t spend all of your time discussing the patients’ specific stories. Ultimately, your essay should center around you.
3. Highlight a key feature of your identity or upbringing.
Good Common App essays will teach the admissions team something they don’t know about a given student. Rather than focusing on an interest you highlight elsewhere, you might write your Common App essay simply about who you are.
In this context, “identity” can mean anything: race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or religion, to name a few. Choose a part of your identity that matters to you and write about it with passion and authenticity. Additionally, to make your Common App essay more engaging, you might use an anecdote to introduce your topic.
Overall, students can write good Common App essays about a wide variety of college essay topics. Regardless of which of the Common App prompts you choose, a meaningful topic can make for a powerful personal statement. There are many ways to write strong Common App essays. Above all, be authentic and tell your story, all while staying within the Common App essay word limit.
What should you not write in a college essay?
As you choose between the Common App prompts, you might wonder what bad Common App essays look like. So, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips about what not to write.
Most important, Common App essays should show you in a positive light. So, you should not include any explicit language or discussions of illegal activity. You should also, of course, refrain from including anything that a reader might deem offensive. These are all bad topics for Common App essays.
Avoiding the overly personal
As you consider Common App essay ideas, you should also be wary of just how personal your personal statement is. For instance, writers generally avoid overly intense discussions of traumatic events and mental health topics. Indeed, while often personally meaningful, poorly-written essays about these topics can work against you. Given the rigors of life at top universities, essays should assure Admissions Officers that you can face—if not overcome—challenges.
In general, if you wouldn’t discuss it at dinner, you may want to think twice before putting it in your Common App essay. Common App essays should be personal, but not to the point of discomfort. Think about this as you choose between the Common App prompts.
You should also avoid writing Common App essays about high school drama. Doubtless changing friendships and relationships can influence your development and seem ripe for writing about. However, admissions committees likely won’t be interested.
Highlight your strengths
Your essay should also suggest that you would make a positive contribution to any college campus. In light of that, make sure your essay portrays your development in a positive light. For instance, you shouldn’t write about how you learned that you can’t rely on other people. Instead, use the Common App essay prompts to highlight how you’ll be a good community member on your future campus.
Finally, try to avoid clichés, such as the “sports injury essay” or similarly overused Common App essay topics. This doesn’t mean you can’t use these topics at all. However, if you choose to do so, make sure you spin them in an interesting way. After all, admissions teams will read thousands of Common App essays, and you want yours to stand out. Choose one of the Common App prompts that will let you do just that.
For more guidance, you can always read Common App essay examples. These can help you get a better understanding of the Common App essay requirements.
Common Application Essay Timeline
As we’ve discussed, the earlier you start thinking about your Common App essay, the easier the process will be. However, this doesn’t mean you should start drafting your essays during your sophomore year of high school. You’ll grow and change throughout high school, and you’ll likely find many great Common App essay topics along the way.
Below, we’ve outlined our ideal timeline for brainstorming, drafting, and submitting your Common App essay.
Use the timeline above in planning your writing process, from choosing one of the Common App essay prompts to pressing “submit.” You likely won’t create your Common App login until August of your senior year when you apply to college. However, you can still start preparing your responses to the Common App essay prompts early. That way, you’ll have time to write the best college admissions essays you can.
More Common App Resources from CollegeAdvisor.com
Looking for more Common App essay tips, Common App essay ideas, and other resources on the Common App prompts? CollegeAdvisor.com is here to help you tackle all of your college application requirements.
Watch this free webinar for more about the Common Application, from Common App essays to the extracurriculars list, recommendations, and other key materials. You can also check out this expert-led webinar for a deep dive into the Common Application. There, you’ll find even more advice on writing Common App essays as you apply to college. We also have a comprehensive guide to acing the Common App.
How to ace the Common App this college admissions season
For more Common App essay ideas, check out our masterclass on how to choose Common App essay topics.
CollegeAdvisor Masterclass: Brainstorming Your Common App Personal Statement Topic￼
Additionally, you can read an overview of the Common App essay for juniors written by one of our advisors. We also have plenty of Common App essay examples available on our website . Since there are no new Common App prompts since the Common App essay prompts 2021, you can use these Common App essay examples for this year’s Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay Prompts 2023‒2024: Final Thoughts
Overall, most colleges will accept the Common Application. This makes your Common App essay one of the most critical components of your college applications.
After all, how many Common App essays are required? Just one. So, your Common App essay needs to highlight you in the best possible light. The best college admissions essays can make a huge difference in the application review process.
We hope this guide has given you the tools to write a strong Common App essay that will impress top schools. However, if you want to make the most of your Common App essays, nothing beats personalized support. When you register with CollegeAdvisor.com, you’ll be matched with a hand-picked Admissions Expert who will guide you through every step of the application process, from building your college list to drafting your Common App essay. Click here to schedule a free meeting and learn how CollegeAdvisor can help you maximize your admissions odds.
This guide was written by Rachel Kahn and Abbie Sage. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.
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How to Write a Winning Common App Essay
Including 3 stellar common app essay examples.
The Common App essay, also called a personal statement, is one of the trickiest components of a college application. Many students struggle with how to make their essays stand out from the crowd. After spending years building up an excellent high school resume , getting good grades, and dreaming of college, it could all come down to one 650 word college essay ! That’s a lot of pressure. Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. In this blog, our college essay advisors tell you everything you need to know about the Common App essay, how to brainstorm ideas, how to write it, the biggest challenges, mistakes to avoid, and handy tips to keep in mind. We also provide a few samples to help you understand what types of essays actually impress college admissions committees.
>> Want us to help you get accepted? Schedule a free strategy call here . <<
Article Contents 48 min read
The Common App essay is the personal statement that students have to submit on the Common Application portal. College apps are getting tougher by the minute as students are judged on so many different criteria – academics, of course, but also extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, supplemental essays, and the personal statement. All the hard work you put in towards taking on tough IB and AP classes, servicing your community, committing to your extracurriculars, could all be wasted because of one essay, that most students write in a month!
Many students are intimidated by the concept of the essay, not just because of how important it is, but also because they simply don’t know what to write in it. How personal should they get? What’s the right tone? What are colleges even looking for? With these questions running through your mind, it can be hard to focus and actually start writing.
But the Common App essay is like any other aspect of your application, or in fact, like any other challenge you meet in life. With adequate preparation, strategic planning, and a commitment to excellence, you can produce a Common App essay that’s sure to impress college admissions committees. In fact, if you do it right, writing this essay could actually help you refine and perfect your writing skills and even teach you things about yourself that you didn’t know! Read on to learn failproof tips from our college admissions consulting experts!
The Common Application, often called Common App, is the cornerstone of the college application process for most students in the US and Canada. It’s an online, centralized portal that gathers college application components from students and sends them to colleges. Students only have to submit their application once, and it’s sent to every college they want to apply to. With over 900 participating colleges all over the world, the Common App just makes life so much easier for high school students applying to college, not to mention their parents and teachers. Can you imagine if you had to send an individual application to each and every college you’re applying to? Well, you still might have to send out 2 or 3 different applications since not every college in the US and Canada uses Common App. For instance, UC schools have their own application system and if you’re targeting those, you will have to submit a separate application. But the overwhelming majority of colleges in the US do utilize Common App, which makes it a huge boon during application season. In one portal, you can submit your personal information, transcript, list of activities, letters of recommendation, and the personal statement, which will go out to all the colleges you want to apply to.
So, what is this dreaded Common App essay anyway? If you’re a high school student applying to college, you might know it as your main essay or personal statement. This is the component you submit in the “Writing” tab of the Common App, where you’ll find the 7 Common App prompts for the current application season along with a textbox where you write your essay in response to one of the prompts. It’s strongly recommended that you write your essay in a Google doc, MS Word, or some other reliable word processor with backups, and then copy paste the final draft into the Common App textbox. You should not be typing your first drafts and making revisions directly in Common App! You might end up losing the essay due to a technical glitch or worse, submitting a rough draft by accident.
The great thing about the Common App essay, and one that students frequently forget, is that the same essay goes out to all the colleges. So, you don’t need to write individual essays for each college or tailor your essays to talk about specific courses or universities. In fact, you should aim to keep your Common App essay as general as possible, without reference to any specific schools or degrees. For instance, if you make your Common App essay very focused on your passion for science subjects and talk about your desire to attend a top engineering college, while you’re applying to liberal arts schools as well, you’re tanking your chances of getting an acceptance from the latter. Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to get college-specific when you’re writing your college supplemental essays.
Would you like more tips for how to write a stellar common app essay?
Difference between Common App essay and supplemental essays
As part of your college application, you’re expected to submit a number of different written components, from the descriptions of your extracurricular activities to your personal statement and the supplemental essays. It’s very important that you understand the different requirements and purpose of each of these written components and tailor them as needed. Specifically, make sure you don’t get confused between the Common App essay and the supplemental college essay. As we mentioned above, the Common App essay is your 250-650 word personal statement that you submit with your primary application on Common App. You only need to write one, and it goes out to all the colleges you apply to. The purpose of the Common App essay is to give the college admissions committees a better idea of who you are as a person and what makes you unique. It should be focused on your life and experiences, without any reference to a specific college or bias towards a specific stream (such as STEM, liberal arts, etc.).
Once your primary application is processed and if you make it through (though not all colleges screen primary apps), specific colleges will start reaching out to you with their supplemental application that will include prompts for essays. In these essays, you’re expected to get specific and address why you want to get into that college and reference your academic interests. Colleges can ask for more than one supplemental essay, and the required word count can vary. Some have a maximum word count of 250 words while others match the maximum length of the Common App essay at 650 words.
How do you differentiate between these two essays? How do you even find enough material for all these essays? Well, think of your Common App essay as your broad personal statement, an answer to the question “ Tell me about yourself ” (in relation to specific prompts), while your supplemental essay focuses in on the question of “Why do you want to attend this college?”. The two essays should complement each other, but there should be no overlap.
How can you ensure this? That’s what we’ll explain in this blog. If you do your Common App preparation right, and give yourself enough time to brainstorm, you’ll most likely come away with plenty of raw material, topic ideas, and inspiration for your supplemental essays too. There will be plenty of ideas you might reject as unsuitable for your Common App essay which could work for your secondary app essays.
Why is the Common App essay important?
So, if colleges will be asking for college-specific essays anyway, why is the Common App essay important? Well, in many cases, you won’t even get to the supplemental essays stage without an impressive Common App essay. This essay could count for 10% to 30% of how your primary application is evaluated, and the more elite the college, the more important it is. That’s because elite colleges such as Ivy League schools receive a huge volume of high-caliber applicants. They have plenty of applications from students with top grades, amazing extracurriculars, and references, so the Common App essay really becomes crucial in making an application stand out. Additionally, some schools, such as private liberal arts colleges, favor a more holistic admissions process. These colleges often don’t prioritize standardized test results as much as other schools and give more weight to the students’ extracurriculars and personal statement.
The Common App essay could be the deciding factor between you and another candidate with a similar profile. Many students with the best grades in their class and a roster of impressive extracurricular activities, not to mention top SAT scores, end up rejected from their dream schools because of a poorly-written essay. Having said that, it’s important to remember that no matter how great your personal statement is, it won’t make up for uneven grades and a less than robust resume, especially at elite schools with competitive admissions.
Remember that the Common App essay represents a final chance for you to take your application to the next level. By the time you’re writing and submitting your essay, there’s not much you could do about your transcript, your history of extracurriculars, etc. These components are long-term achievements which can’t be accomplished in a day. But you’re in complete control of your Common App essay and it’s your one chance to advocate for yourself in front of the admissions committee.
In fact, from the students’ perspective, this is what makes the Common App essay so important. Most of your primary application is quantitative, focused on grades, scores, contact information, and so on; your essay is one of the few “qualitative” components of your application. It allows you to speak directly to the admissions committee, and really humanize yourself, help them see you as person rather than just a collection of facts and figures. Your grades and standardizes test scores and all those other application components are certainly important – they indicate your academic prowess, your talents, your abilities – but they don’t represent you as a person. Everybody has a unique story and adding that personal context can really enhance your application.
Common App Essay Prompts
Common App releases the prompts for every admissions cycle around spring. The prompts have stayed more or less constant over the last few years, though a couple of prompts are occasionally changed, so it’s always a good idea to check them when they are released. You can select any 1 of the 7 prompts provided to write a 650 word essay.
These are the latest Common App essay prompts.
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. ","label":"","title":"Prompt 7"}]' code='tab1' template='BlogArticle'>
Colleges have no preference for which prompt you pick. Some students prefer to look at the prompts and get inspired, and that could work, but ideally, you should brainstorm ideas about the best stories and narratives from your life that could work for your Common App essay before picking a prompt. You can then tailor the ideas as per the specific prompt ask. As there are so many open-ended prompts, you’ll have a lot of freedom to choose a topic that works best for you.
Many students believe that Common App essays have to be extremely serious, talk about a traumatic or deeply impactful event, or document amazing achievements. Of course, you can choose to write a serious essay focused on any of these topics (or others) – but they’re not the only kind of essays that get acceptances! Many students write about light-hearted or seemingly trivial topics but are able to make their essays meaningful and unique. You should never sacrifice authenticity and truth for “razzle-dazzle”. Focusing on what the admissions committee wants or prefers is a useless exercise. Not only will it make your essay seem forced and pretentious, but it also has no basis in fact, since admissions committees don’t actually have any “preference” for a specific topic.
Would you like more guidance on how to write stellar college essays?
Common App Essay: Unique Challenges
Essays are a crucial part of any admissions process. If you decide to pursue graduate studies, you’ll undoubtedly have to write a statement of purpose for graduate school , among other types of essays and written submissions. And naturally, grad school level essays are longer and more challenging. At the same time, in some ways it’s easier to write an essay about yourself when you’re older. High school students face unique challenges when writing their essay and that often causes the “blank page panic” when they sit down to actually write their essay.
For one thing, younger students talking about themselves are talking as much about their potential and their dreams, as they are about their actual experiences. You can’t expect that at this early stage in life, students have had some great epiphanies or breakthroughs. High school students are still forming their identity and exploring who they are. It’s difficult to know exactly what to write to make yourself stand out from the crowd when you’re not even sure who you are or what your unique experiences are. That’s why many students experience writer’s block and find it difficult to know where to even start. Moreover, communication skills develop with time, and younger students may find it more difficult to express themselves in a natural, eloquent way, through their writing.
That’s why it’s so, so important that you should give yourself plenty of time to write your essay and break down the process into several steps that will help you logically bridge every fear and uncertainty you might have.
As we mentioned above, the best way to handle your Common App essay is to break down the writing process into several steps and give yourself plenty of time to complete each step. Before we get into the actual timeline, let’s figure out what would be the best time to start writing your essay.
When to start?
Common App applications open in August, but they release their essay prompts as early as March or April. This gives students plenty of time to work on their essay – and not many students make full use of this time!
Our recommendation is that you work backwards from when you want to target sending out your applications and start working on your Common App essay 3 months before that date. This might seem like a huge amount of time for a 650 word essay, but trust me, you’ll need it. We’ll break down the reasons why in a minute. Just know that without spending a few months on your essay, you won’t be able to give it your best shot and truly make it stand out.
If you’re targeting early acceptance deadlines, you’ll probably have to submit your primary application by October and secondaries by November. If you’re targeting regular application timelines, then you have a bit more time as primary deadline is in November and secondaries’ deadlines are in January. Different colleges have different timelines, so you’ll have to check the admission websites of the colleges you’re applying to so you can confirm the exact dates.
You should plan your Common App essay timeline according to these dates. For instance, if you’re targeting early decision admission, then the secondary applications would most likely be due in October or November. So, the ideal time for you start your Common App essay work would be around July. This timeline also works as you can then spend your summer before senior year of high school working on your essay. Even if you’re busy with a summer job or a summer program , you’ll still have more time to devote to writing and brainstorming than you would during your school year.
We suggest that you don’t wait till the last minute to work on your essay. While of course it’s possible to write your essay in a month or even sooner, that will not give you enough time for the “preparation” stage of writing your essay. It will definitely impact the quality of your essay and make it that much harder for you to find your “voice”.
Moreover, leaving your essay-writing till the last minute is just a recipe for chaos. Remember that once your senior year starts, and those application deadlines start approaching, you’ll get busy with all the other submissions that are due for your application, and you’ll have the secondary essays to worry about too. Once school starts, you’ll have to manage all that with keeping up your grades and devoting time to your extracurriculars. You won’t have much time or (more importantly) the mental energy left over to deal with your Common App essay. That’s why we highly recommend that you use the summer before your senior year of high school to do the major work on it.
Starting early will also give you time to seek out feedback on your essay. Specifically, it will give you sufficient time to approach your referees (who will be writing your letter of recommendation) and show them a draft of your Common App essay. This action serves a dual purpose. First, as mentors, they could provide valuable feedback. Second, looking through your essay can help them calibrate their perspective on you, see you in a different light, and influence what they include in your letter.
Remember that if you really want your college application to stand out, you need to tell a consistent story that is supported by all the different elements of your application: the essay, the supplemental essays, the letters, and the extracurriculars. Each component should communicate different aspects of yourself that complement each other and present a picture of a real person with depth and something unique to offer. The synergy between these different elements, and a consistent narrative, can make your application really impressive and prove your clarity of mind and focused ambitions. However, it’s not easy to achieve this effect while also keeping your essay as authentic as possible. So, how do you make the best use of the opportunity the essay presents you, while still presenting evidence-based points that are supported by your experiences and align with the rest of your application? Well, that’s why we recommend starting your essay writing process so early! It’s not a simple matter of picking a prompt and writing a couple of drafts of the first topic that comes to mind. You might get a good essay that way – but if you want a GREAT essay, one that will truly stand out, you’ll need to put in the hard work and advance preparation towards making that happen.
This is the timeline we recommend to help you write a stellar Common App essay.
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As you can see above, it will take you around 3 months, as per the timeline, to create the final draft of your Common App essay. If you start in mid-June or July, you’ll be finishing it up and asking for feedback around September, once school starts. That leaves you a couple of months to work on the rest of your application and secondary essays.
While this timeline represents the ideal amount of time you should be spending on your essay, you can condense it down as it suits you. Make sure you’re aware of the key application deadlines for the colleges you’re applying to, including early admissions deadlines (if applicable), and ensure that your essay and the rest of your Common App components are ready in time.
Next, let’s see how to complete each of the steps we’ve listed above.
Are you looking for help with your college application? Check out this guide:
Preparing for Your Common App Essay
We recommend that before you actually start writing the first draft of your essay, you should spend some time brainstorming and freewriting, exploring different prompts, and reflecting on yourself and your life so far. This kind of pre-writing preparation is a crucial step to writing an effective, meaningful, and memorable essay. Not only will it help you identify topics for your essay, but it’s also a great way to broaden your perspective on yourself and think deeply about who you are and what you want. Moreover, this exercise isn’t just useful for your Common App essay – all your reflections from this period can also be used to help you write your supplementary essays!
Brainstorming Part 1: Self-reflection
We recommend spending a week or 10 days focusing on self-reflection and introspection. This is similar to “journaling”, something you may actually already be doing, but with a greater focus on writing about topics related to your Common App essay.
You should spend 10-15 minutes every day writing in your journal. At this stage, just indulge in some free-wheeling thought association about your life, your experiences, your goals, what makes you unique, what are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced, and so on. Note down any essay topics that come to you but don’t stress out if nothing suggests itself. The important part here is to start the process of self-reflection and to start narrating your experiences.
Life can seem like a random collection of events, but each of us is on our own journey of growth and learning. Don’t get bogged down by expectations and other people’s ideas – this is the time to just focus on yourself and what makes you unique. No idea, experience, or perspective is too silly or strange. Write down whatever comes to your mind as something significant that you’d like to discuss in your Common App essay. To get your self-reflection started, here are 4 questions you can ask yourself:
- Who are you?
- What makes you different?
- What are you passionate about?
- What do you hope to achieve?
While doing this exercise, you should be wary of getting too invested in the college application “checklist” and reducing your life to a series of achievements or key experiences. You’re not writing a resume; you’re just exploring who you are and getting into the habit of thinking and writing about yourself. In fact, the whole point of the personal statement is to provide a perspective of yourself beyond what’s already shared in the other application components.
Brainstorming Part 2: Prompts
Once you’ve done some general self-reflection and identified some important narratives and qualities about yourself that you’d like to highlight, go back to your list of prompts, and see which one jumps out at you. At this stage, for some students, one or the other prompt may seem like an obvious choice. For example, if you’ve found yourself journaling a lot about a significant traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one, prompt no 2, which asks you to talk about a setback or obstacle, might seem like the answer. But don’t be so hasty to fix on a topic. Remember, at this stage, you haven’t even begun to define your topic! Getting too attached to an idea too early is as bad as not knowing what to write about, as it can prejudice you against exploring different ideas and maybe finding a more appropriate one.
Ideally, at this stage, you should be looking at 3 or 4 different prompts and brainstorming specifically in response to them. That way, you’ll have a variety of different experiences and narratives to choose from when you’re ready to write your first draft.
Below, we’ve listed a few key considerations and reflections for each of the prompts, that can serve as a starting point for your brainstorming. Spend some time every day – it could be 10 minutes, or it could be half an hour – just writing down your instinctual responses to the prompts, using our questions and reflections as a guide.
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 is an excellent opportunity for you to talk about any hobbies, talents, extracurriculars, and any other interests that are important to you and that you haven’t got a chance to talk about elsewhere in your application. This includes “useless” hobbies that may not be achievement oriented, but that you’re nevertheless passionate about, such as needlework, playing video games, volunteering at an animal shelter, and so on.
It’s also an opportunity to reflect on your identity, your family, your hometown, and any other aspect of your personal life that’s both unique and important to you. Many students use this prompt to talk about their racial or ethnic identity, their sexuality, their gender, and so on. You can weave a story of personal growth through your interests or identify important influences on yourself and how they interact with each other. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:
- What was your upbringing like? What social environments surround you? How do they impact you?
- Where do you live? What are some key images that would strike a stranger about the area where you live?
- Where are your parents from? Have you ever visited their home town? What impression did it leave on you?
- What do people around you know you for? Do you have a long-term commitment to any specific skills or talents?
- What was your childhood like? Would you describe it as happy? What’s your happiest memory of childhood?
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?
This is the “overcoming obstacles” prompt. If you’ve faced any major adversity in your life, that you think is significant to your story, this is your chance to write about it. Many students also use this prompt to talk about more minor obstacles, and describe a narrative of personal growth, self-reflection, and learning. Whatever the incident or topic you chose to talk about, the key here is to focus on how you dealt with and overcame the failure, challenge, or adversity.
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Prompt 3 : Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Many students avoid this prompt as they believe it’s referring to big-scale, political activism and social service, and they don’t think they’ve ever made any kind of significant impact in this area. In fact, this prompt can be a great opportunity to talk about any time you experienced change in your value system, even if the impact was quite small. It could be as simple as noticing a need for change that prompted a change in your belief systems, for instance, a poor interaction with a doctor that made you think about how the healthcare system can improve. Here, you should focus on your thought process and map out the genesis of the change, and what impact it had on you.
- Think back to your childhood. Do you hold the same values you do today as you did then? If no, what made you change?
- Do you agree with the values and beliefs of your family, friends, and others close to you? If not, why do you hold different beliefs? Have you ever tried to change their mind/have they ever tried to change your mind?
- Think of a time when you questioned yourself or changed your beliefs. How did you change? Why did you start questioning yourself?
- Have you ever gone against the social norms of the people around you? What made you do that?
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?
You can use this prompt to write a more philosophical essay that focuses on the impact another person made on you, and why it stayed with you. Most people would find it difficult to actually think of a material gift that left a philosophical impact on you and significantly changed your life. That’s why many students use this prompt to write about non-material “gifts” in the form of memorable advice, a challenge, an obstacle, or a task, that taught the student a valuable lesson and motivated them to do better.
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Prompt 5 : Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
This is one of the more open-ended prompts that students love to use as it allows them to amplify their achievements and talk more about “impressive” experiences in their life. Actually, it’s a mistake to use this prompt to just talk about the same extracurriculars and academics you’ve already covered in the rest of your application. Even if you do mention an extracurricular activity here that you’ve already covered elsewhere, the important thing is to bring a different perspective and reveal a new side of yourself. It’s not just about saying “I did this amazing thing”. You’ve got to think about how the event or accomplishment impacted you, what led up to it, and what you took away from the experience.
- Have you ever been deeply impacted by someone’s words, advice, or guidance? Describe the experience and how you changed after it.
- Have you ever had a “eureka” moment that changed your life? Did you ever experience a moment of clarity about something you want that helped you define your long-term goals?
- Apart from all the achievements listed in your resume, what’s your biggest accomplishment? Is there a seemingly insignificant moment of your life that you’re truly proud of?
Prompt 6 : Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
This prompt is an ideal opening to help you talk about your more “useless” extracurriculars. The activities or interests that you’re passionate about, but which aren’t achievement oriented and hence don’t make it to your resume. It could be anything as simple as baking or bird-watching, or as abstract as an interest in how language works. If you can tell a story about how you found this interest, how it motivates you, why you love it, how it influences other aspects of your life, and how it helped you grow as a person, then this is the prompt for you. This is a great chance to paint a vivid picture of your inner life and communicate your unique way of thinking to the admissions committee.
- Is there something you’re so good at, people come and ask for your help? This could be really anything, from a musical talent to being good at fixing things around the house.
- If given unlimited leisure time, how would you spend it? What would you do if you didn’t have any obligations to go to school or earn a living? What sparks your passion for life?
Alright, so you’ve done some journaling and brainstormed a few essay ideas in response to the prompts. Don’t jump straight into selecting the idea and writing the essay – spend at least a couple of weeks, ideally 3 weeks, indulging in free writing. Try your hand at writing in response to a few different prompts, or all of them, if you have the necessary inspiration. Don’t think about restrictions such as word count, flow, structure, or any of that just yet. Just let your inspiration run free and write about anything you like.
The goal here is loosen your writing up, shake free the cobwebs from your brains, and get into the habit of writing about yourself. This is when you can work out the little awkward details in your writing and develop a more natural writing style. Some of this raw material, after some editing, could even make it to your essays, but don’t be too concerned at this stage with the “outcome” or this exercise will be wasted. Write without pressurizing yourself to produce brilliance, using the prompts as a kind of starting off point for a free associating exercise. This step is crucial to making sure your final essay sounds authentic, natural, and personal, rather than a formal summary of events or a forced statement of facts.
Give yourself a daily goal – 10 mins, or a few pages, whatever works for you. You should ideally do this activity in the morning, when you’re fresh and have a clear, relaxed head space. Select a cool, quiet corner of your house or a library where no one will interrupt you and sit down with your writing instrument of choice – notebook, laptop, or whichever medium feels most natural and comfortable for you!
If you find yourself facing writer’s block, shake yourself out of the rut by asking yourself “why”. Whatever you’re writing about – an idea, experience, event, or person, ask yourself why is this important to me? Why do I care? Why does it bother me? And keep going.
Another important tip at this stage is not to ask for feedback or show your writing to anyone. This is the time for ideation, not perfection. In fact, step away from your own writing for some time and don’t come to re-read it till after a few days. This is a great way to reap great essay ideas and get around your own anxiety and self-doubt.
What all of this pre-work does is help you avoid time wastage and inefficiency at a later stage. If you simply start off writing an essay based on a prompt without any brainstorming or preparatory work, you might spend a lot of time struggling to write, work late nights trying to get the tone or the style right, and then still feel that it doesn’t quite work without any idea of why. Self-reflection helps you get to the core of the matter, identify the “juiciest” stories and experiences from your life, while brainstorming helps you work through the “bad” writing in a low-pressure environment. When you select a topic after all this work, you’re likely to feel much more confident about your essay and that will reflect in the smoothness and eloquence of your writing.
Selecting a topic
After your more than a month of daily brainstorming and freewriting, take a break for a couple of days and don’t think or write anything related to your Common App essay. Then, come back and go over the results of your journaling, brainstorming, and freewriting with a fresh eye, and select a topic that stands out to you.
Here are some tips to help you select a good topic:
- Anchor your essay to a story, which will be the “hook” that opens the essay and draws the reader in. Focus on this story and which experience you’ll use to build the story, and that will help you select a topic. A personal, meaningful anecdote, such as the first time your mother taught you to make a specific dish, or the time you interacted with a new student who changed your beliefs, is an excellent opening for an essay. Try to think of significant experiences that could be great essay-openers and define your topic around that.
- Pick a “focus” for your essay. Is it a person? An event? An experience? A quality about yourself you want to highlight? Remember, it’s important to give your essay a single focus and do justice to that topic rather than try to crowd in too many elements.
- Connect your experiences to your ambitions and pick a topic that actually helps you show your potential, your ambitions, and your dreams. Sometimes significant experiences in your past don’t really have any connection to your future, though they might give you plenty to write about. Your topic should connect your past, future, and present effectively, and show a consistent narrative.
- Try and balance your application out strategically. Select a topic that shows a different side to yourself than what you’ve already communicated in the rest of your application, for instance, if your extracurriculars are focused on your competitive athletic career, talk about a completely unexpected non-athletic passion such as environmentalism or expand upon how your personal insecurities, and a time you failed, and how you learned to cope with it. Humanize yourself and bring a nuanced perspective to your achievements. On the other hand, if you have inconsistent grades or your extracurriculars aren’t that impressive, amplify your accomplishments and talk about the passions that you devote your time to, even if they aren’t resume-worthy.
You should start by selecting 4 to 5 topics that are most meaningful and personal to you and then narrow it down to the one that’s most suitable for the Common App essay. Don’t throw away the rest! You can use the rest of the topics to get inspired when writing your secondary essays. Moreover, shortlisting multiple topics ensures you always have a back-up if, for whatever reason, your initial essay idea doesn’t work out.
Remember: don’t let self-doubt be your biggest enemy. There is no wrong or cliché or boring or lame topic. When it comes to the Common App essay, the how and why is key, much more so than the what. Do YOU believe in your story? Are you speaking honestly and from your heart? Is there a logical narrative and flow to your essay? Is there a meaningful conclusion that you’ve drawn? These are the questions you should be asking yourself, rather than wondering what the admissions committees will think of your topic!
At the end of the day, admissions committees are not judging your experiences, but rather your way of thinking – they want to get to know you as a person. When you’re writing your essay, you can always monitor your language to make sure it’s not overtly sentimental or emotional, but your topic and the key narrative should be all yours and completely sincere. Even if it’s a so-called “cliché” topic – such as, for example, an immigrant’s story or the obstacles you faced as an athlete and how you overcame them – the important thing is, your essay should have nuance and depth and a well-thought out perspective.
Let’s get into how you can actually write an impressive Common App essay.
Writing the Common App Essay
Writing the first draft.
At this stage, you simply take the plunge and get into the actual writing of your essay. First of all, thanks to all your brainstorming and journaling, you’ll probably find the writing part quite easy! Most students are more challenged by the structure of their essay and figuring out how to create a logical flow with a meaningful conclusion. To help you out, we’ve listed a few common essay types that you can use to structure your essay. We’ll also go over how to outline your essay and create a logical structure.
Selecting a “type” of essay can be helpful as a kind of guide for you during your writing process. The following are the most common essay types students use to write their Common App essay:
Specific Story : This is the classic and most popular type of personal statement. It opens with a personal, meaningful story, which is complete in itself, and sets up the “lesson” or “focus” for the rest of the essay. The essay may go on to discuss other related experiences or how that specific story impacted other areas of the student’s life, or it could expand various facets of the single story, connecting to the student’s present and future. This a is reliable essay style, but you should be careful not to make it to moralistic or fable like. For example, you could open the essay with the story of how you met a patient at an old age home you volunteered at, and how their words or actions had a meaningful impact on you and galvanized you to take action about how people at the old age home were treated. It’s a complete story in itself, and then you could move on to talk about how you are committed to always speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves, and how you did that in other arenas of your life, and how you plan to pursue this goal in your future.
Iterative Pattern : This is a great essay type for those who want to talk about a journey of growth, learning, and self-reflection. Here, you open with an event or incident that may not have a definite conclusion or lesson, and then return throughout the essay to various related incidents that show a progression of a single theme through time. For instance, if there’s a specific issue you’ve struggled with, such as stuttering or public-speaking, you could start with incidents describing past attempts at public speaking and how you failed there, and then go on to describe how you worked towards improving yourself and overcoming your fears, and end with an incident where you actually achieved success in public speaking.
Circular : In this essay, you start with a story or incident, but don’t share the entire story or the final takeaway at the beginning. Instead, you use the rest of the essay to discuss how you felt about the incident, your thought process, the impact it had on you and others, and then you come back to the story and end the essay with a meaningful conclusion. For example, if you’re writing an essay for prompt no 3 (about a time you changed your mind), you could begin the essay describing an incident where you have to make a crucial decision – say, about whether or not you’ll expand the membership of your “boys-only” chess club to invite anyone who wants to join – then provide context about your family background, previous beliefs, and how you’ve changed them, and then come back to the provide the happy ending to the story, explaining how you not only changed the membership rules but took additional steps to make the new members feel welcome and comfortable.
Building Challenges : In this type of essay, you provide a series of different events or experiences in your life that all build on one another to present a kind of obstacle course that you have to overcome. This essay type is most often used to write adversity focused essays. For example, a student from a socio-economically disadvantaged background could start their essay talking about their earliest childhood struggles, how they overcame them, and then go on to expand on other struggles they’ve faced, which could be related to their background or their education or interests. They key with this type of essay is to focus on the “overcoming” adversity aspect, and to emphasize what you’re proud of and what you did well in these different circumstances.
Creative Essay : These are essays that don’t confirm to any conventional formats. Some students chose to go completely off-beat and create a radically different essay structure. For example, you could write the essay in the style of a chapter from your favorite classic novel, but with you as the protagonist. Or, you could create a dialogue between two imaginary people, say, two important historical figures, talking about you. This is a very difficult kind of essay to pull off, but it can be high-risk, high-reward, when done right. Many students use it as a way to showcase their expert knowledge of any specific area or prove their creativity to the admissions committees.
Check out this infographic:
Once you’ve figured out, broadly-speaking, what type of essay you want to write and what you’ll include in it, the next step is to create an outline. Now, some students prefer to start with free writing and create a reverse outline later, but that’s not an ideal way to work. Reverse outlining usually takes up more time and isn’t very efficient.
Your essay should, generally speaking, include 3 to 5 paragraphs. More than 5 paragraphs could make your essay look very cluttered – remember you can’t go beyond 650 words! On the other hand, you’ll need a minimum of 3 paragraphs to cover the beginning, middle, and end, three crucial components in any essay.
Having said that, your essay topic and personal inspiration should always your structure, so if you think more than 5 paragraphs makes sense and is logical within the flow if your essay, go for it. However, we still wouldn’t recommend less than 3 paragraphs. Having a wall of text in front of you is just difficult to read and could get you marked down.
Create the following outline for your essay:
Depending on the type of essay you\u2019re writing, this could include another personal anecdote, or it could be a meaningful takeaway. It\u2019s very important to have a defining, impactful conclusion that sums up your thesis from earlier in the essay and ties up any loose ends. "}]'>
Here are some tips to keep in mind for when you’re writing your essay:
Build the suspense : When you’re telling your anchor story, the one that opens your essay, make sure you keep building the suspense. There should be some mystery about what happens and conflict in the middle to keep it interesting. For instance, if you’re talking about that time that you overcame your fear of water after a swimming injury to finally return to the pool, don’t begin by saying “I got back into the pool after my injury for the first time on 6th September.” That gives away all the drama! Instead, build the story by describing your fears, the previous incident, and encouragement you received from your coach, and then end with the fact that you finally made it back into the pool.
Don’t deal in plain statements : To make your essay engaging, it’s very important not to rely solely on statements of facts and to back up every fact with evidence. This could be in the form of experiences or activities, personal incidents, descriptions of a specific setting, descriptions of your state of mind, and so on. For example, instead of simply saying “I was angry that I had to leave my hometown.”, describe an incident where you confronted your mother about her decision to move you away and talk about how that anger impacted your relationship with your mother. When talking about a meaningful outdoors trip, instead of saying “The forest was very beautiful.”, try giving specific, sensory-based descriptions and talk about how the setting impacted you, for example – “With the trees swaying above me and the leaves rustling in the wind, I found an inner peace and calmness I’d never experienced before.” Make your essay as engaging as possible, with thoughtful analysis, vivid descriptions, and beautifully set scenes.
Answer the prompt : Make sure, as you’re writing, that you’re addressing the prompt you’ve been given. Try and understand the prompt at a deeper level and don’t just create a surface level connection because it suits your topic. Remember, prompt no 7 is essentially a “free topic” so if you really want to create your own topic, that’s the one you should go for.
Be deliberate, authentic, and humble : Every sentence should have a clear reason for being included in your essay. At the same time, your voice should be as natural and authentic as possible. Don’t drop in pretentious references or brag about your achievements if they don’t belong in the essay. Keep your central topic in mind and only include details and events and relevant to it.
Beginning/middle/end : Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is a fundamental rule of essay writing and is crucial to making sure your essay has a logical, coherent flow.
End with a key takeaway : Your essay should always have a learning, an epiphany, a moral, or talk about a new perspective you gained. You could introduce it earlier in your essay, but it should be reiterated in the concluding paragraph.
Revising your essay: 2/3/4 drafts
We really cannot emphasize enough the importance of revisions and editing when it comes to writing your Common App essay. This is when you get your critical monocle out, place it over your eye, and give your essay a really thorough analysis. Most students satisfy themselves with just 2 drafts – the initial one, and the second one that they create after seeking feedback from their teachers or mentors – but you should ideally work on 3 or 4 drafts by yourself, before even showing the essay to anyone else. When you’re revising your essay, make sure you keep the following things in mind:
Is it too much? This is where you check yourself – remember that you simply cannot communicate every single thing about yourself in one essay. The key is to find one theme you want to expand on and focus on that. If there’s too many incidents, events, experiences, with no clearly defined conclusion or connection between them, it might be time to re-write your essay. As writers say, sometimes you have to “kill your darlings”, which means, you shouldn’t get too attached to specific ideas or sentences if they don’t fit in with the rest of your essay.
Is it too little? At the same time, it’s also possible to get too specific and be bogged down with unimportant details that don’t really add to your story. Ask yourself if your essay has a broader perspective or lesson to offer and if not, you need to add that in.
Show don’t tell : As we mentioned before, you should not be making unsupported statements and piling facts on facts. Check your essay to make sure your statements are all supported by accompanying examples, descriptions, or stories.
Use your outline : Keep coming back to your outline to improve you’re the structure and flow of your essay. It’s easy to get carried away with writing the introduction and making it too long, and the outline should help you stay on top of how much time you’re spending on each sub-section of your essay. Additionally, sometimes, a great description or line can be incorrectly placed in the essay, and your outline will help you identify that. For instance, your essay should never begin with your “key takeaway”, no matter how important it is. You need to build to it. So don’t be afraid to move things around. As you’re working, define the purpose of each paragraph and keep checking if your writing is aligning with that purpose.
Check for clarity : All essays should have a few key elements. That includes your anchor story, your central thesis or declarative statement, and your key takeaway. Is your essay communicating everything you want it to? Or is the message getting lost in a sea of words?
Trim the excess : Students are often tempted to include braggy details in their personal statement that are not relevant to the rest of the essay. This is a bad idea – it certainly won’t impress anyone and could make you seem pretentious and insincere. Similarly, students sometimes add personal details in their personal anecdotes that don’t add to the story and only editing will help you catch these little details. For instance, you really don’t need to add details of your appearance in any of your anecdotes, unless it’s directly relevant to the story.
Check grammar and spelling : Don’t just rely on auto-correct! Make sure you go over your essay with a fine-toothed comb, catching every spelling or grammatical error. Leaving these in is the best way to get yourself marked down by admissions committees.
Use varied sentence lengths and structure : Sometimes, when you’re writing in your natural style, you may end up repeating certain sentence structures that come most easily to you. Make sure you include a variety of sentence lengths. This makes your essay more readable and engaging.
Use active voice : Always use active voice wherever you can, rather than passive voice. For instance, instead of saying “The dance class was run by me from Monday to Saturday.”, try “I ran the dance class from Monday to Saturday.”.
Once you’ve thoroughly revised your essay and got it as perfect as you can from your perspective, it’s time to invite other people to take a look at it. Who should you seek feedback from? There are many options: friends, peers, parents, teachers, and older mentors. There’s always a risk with certain types of feedback, for example, parents may sometimes over-edit your work, making you lose your natural voice, whereas teachers could view your essay from an academic perspective and ask you to make it more formal. Ideal reviewers are older mentors, friends who have recently and successfully been through the admissions process, guidance counsellors, or admissions experts.
The most important thing is that you trust your reviewers and that they know you well enough to give you genuine, well-meaning feedback. Keep an open mind to all the feedback you receive, but remember, don’t sacrifice your voice. In case of a serious disagreement with someone over a critical point in your essay, always back yourself, because no one knows you better than you!
Also, try and get feedback from varied sources. Friends and family can comment on the personal experiences you talk about in the essay while teachers and counselors can help you perfect the tone, format, and language of the essay.
Once you’ve gathered all the feedback, go back to your essay, and complete a final revision keeping in mind the feedback you’re received. After this, do a final check of your outline, flow, grammar, spelling, and so on.
But wait! Don’t submit it yet. Before your final submission, you should always have someone else – a trusted advisor or friend – take a look at your essay. After going over the same piece of writing so many times, re-read fatigue can make you miss out on obvious errors. So, make someone else proofreads your draft before you submit it on Common App. Remember, Common App does not allow you to make any updates to the submitted essay. You really need to be sure that you’re happy with the final draft before submitting.
Next, let’s put some of these tips, tricks, and strategies into action and see some examples of great Common App essays.
Sample #1: Rina
The fragrance of cloves mingles with the potent smell of green chilis to fill the kitchen with a delicious and familiar scent. After hours of chopping, peeling, and stirring, some overnight marinating and a couple of disastrous attempts at frying onions, I’d finally managed to re-create my grandmother’s biryani recipe from scratch. But the final test was still to come. Would my mother approve of my efforts? After all, I’d done all of this as a surprise for her birthday. As I stood there, watching my mother gingerly lift the spoon to her mouth, I couldn’t believe that I’d actually spent an entire day and night working so hard to recreate one of my family’s traditional Indian recipes. I’d come a long way from the scared girl who couldn’t run away fast enough from my bi-cultural background.
Growing up, what I wanted more than anything else was to blend in with my peers. I remember every year during the annual school fundraiser, all students were asked to contribute something for the baked goods sale. A typical American event – and one that I dreaded. My mother always insisted on preparing elaborate Indian sweets, syrupy gulab jamuns and golden jalebis, and I always felt so out of place standing next to that stand in school. It took me a long time to realize that my greatest source of discomfort was my own insecurity.
The distance I felt from my mother only increased with time, as I grew up to be a regular American teenager who preferred my friends’ company to my mother’s and who listened to all the wrong kinds of music. That all changed two summers ago, when we got the news that my grandmother in India had passed away. I noticed a great change in my mother after she came back from the funeral. She was quiet, sad, and withdrawn, and most importantly, she’d stopped cooking altogether. One day, I asked her why. She told me that her mother was the one who had taught her how to cook, and now that she was gone, she felt some crucial emotional connect was gone from her cooking and she couldn’t find any joy in it. This revelation made me think deeply about my own disconnect from my Indian roots and how hurt my mother must be my continuous rejection. What for me was just a natural desire to “fit in”, for her represented a rejection of so much that was important to her. Eventually, to my mother’s delight and surprise, I asked her if she would teach me how to cook Indian food like her mother had taught her. Though I’d started the exercise as a way to help my mother with her grief, I was happy to discover that I enjoyed cooking thoroughly and soon developed a taste for Indian food I’d never had before. I took on more and more complicated recipes and felt a great sense of accomplishment at every one that I mastered.
This experience made me realize how important it was to embrace every part of yourself and to keep an open mind to new experiences, and new perspectives. This is a lesson I’ll carry with me as I enter the next stage of my life, and I’m glad I learned it before it was too late for me to mend my relationship with my mother.
So that’s how I ended up in my kitchen that day, covered in flour and oil splatters, awaiting my mother’s judgment with trepidation. And as my mother’s face lit up with a smile of delight, giving her stamp of approval to my difficult culinary feat, I felt I’d finally found that sense of belonging I’d been searching for all my life. (621 words)
Why it works : This essay is a great example of the “circular” style of essay. It opens with a story that hooks the reader in, builds suspense about what the conclusion could be, and ends with a meaningful takeaway that brings the story full circle. Though the setting is simple, the stakes are high, and that is clearly communicated in the way the story unfolds and the subsequent experiences shared. Additionally, the writer narrates experiences and events that add context to the central thesis – that of finding belonging and accepting your self – and does not include any unnecessary details that could clutter the narrative. She also includes evocative descriptions that make the essay an engaging read.
Sample #2: Robert
9 pm on a school night, the radio blasting The Weeknd, I was cruising down the N-75, feeling that I could keep going forever. No, I wasn’t out for a wild night with friends – right beside me was my father, looking at me with pride. After spending months terrified of getting behind the wheel, I’d finally gotten over my fear. That day, I was actually driving on the highway at night, a combination of circumstances that would have given me nightmares just a few weeks ago.
Most teenagers dream of the day they can finally get behind the wheel and be the masters of their own destiny, and I was the same. Unlike most teenagers, my parents felt no trepidation handing me the keys to their car when the time came for me to start practicing. I was the responsible, mature, and capable oldest child and had quickly mastered the basics of driving in my theoretical lessons. So, what could go wrong? I found that out within a month of starting actual driving lessons with my father. It was one disaster after another. I’d turn to the wrong side. I’d take too long to brake. And sometimes I’d just freeze, too anxious to move or do anything. As my father tried to tell me, it was a very dangerous maneuver to undertake in the middle of a busy intersection! It all culminated in a small accident that resulted in some minor damage to my father’s car and some major damage to Mrs. Waterford’s pea beds.
To everyone’s astonishment, including my own, this small accident completely traumatized me, to the point that I gave up my driving lessons and stopped practicing. All of my friends had also experienced some kind of bumps in their driving journey, but none of them had been deterred. Moreover, I’d always prided myself on being the kind of person who could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I’d taken on a full roster of STEM-oriented AP classes and maintained a 4.0 GPA all through junior year, and I’d played on an injured ankle to get my football team to victory in freshman year. But when it came to driving, all my gumption seemed to desert me.
I remember the day my friend got her license, and we went for a drive together. She asked me why I was so scared of driving and joked that it’s the first time I’d ever failed a class. Her lightly spoken words struck a chord in me as I realized that she’d actually pinpointed the source of my fear. I’d always had a natural aptitude and affinity for the two main interests of my life: science and football. I’d found it easy to do well in school and on the field, and never really explored interests beyond these safe arenas. That’s why I didn’t really know what to do when faced with something that didn’t come naturally to me. Driving was the first time I’d had to face up to my failure, and it had spooked me completely.
Once I had that realization, I spent some time reflecting on how I could move past this fear. I soon got back behind the wheel, and I took extra classes with a trained instructor so I could get really confident in my driving. With my license finally in hand, the first thing I did was call my friend to tell her I’d passed!
I’m now committed to challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone, whether it’s expanding my roster of subjects to include more humanities courses or auditioning for our school play. Not every new experience has been a “success”, but as I know now, that’s not the point! My fear of failure has now transformed into a fear of stagnation, and this has helped me see life in a whole new perspective. (645 words)
Why it works : Robert’s essay is a great example of an “overcoming obstacles” essay that focuses on a personal obstacle and provides the necessary context to make it a compelling narrative for a personal statement. The key in any essay about overcoming a challenge is to document your journey from obstacle to learning to growth, and Robert’s does that very clearly. In any personal statement that has a “growth narrative” there also needs to be a focus on the writer’s inner thoughts and evolving thinking. In this essay, Robert walks his audience through how we felt at each stage of dealing with this obstacle. Finally, he ends with a memorable takeaway that reiterates the lesson he learned and explains how he plans to implement this lesson in his life.
Sample #3: Sarah
“Sarah. Sarah! Wake up!” My mother’s voice woke me with a start, and I raised a bleary head from my drool-covered book. Once again, I’d lost track of time and fallen asleep reading a Thomas Hardy novel. My mother watched me bewildered and asked me, “I guess you really love your new English Literature class, huh?”. My mother’s bewilderment stemmed from the fact not very long ago, I had a clear trifecta of interests – my friends, cheerleading, and fashion designing – and reading stories about things that happened to people very far away, 200 years ago, did not figure in my list of priorities. And now here I was, obsessively working my way through Hardy’s entire body of work, not long after I’d finished all the completed Austen novels. And I was already planning which Bronte sisters’ works I’d be reading next!
I have Mr. Smithers to thank for starting me on my astonishing journey of discovering, and falling in love with, 19th century British literature. While we were studying Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for our Lit class, he assigned each of us a specific assignment about different aspects of Regency era life. In my case, knowing my predilection for fashion, he asked me to work on a project about the trending women’s fashions when Jane Austen was alive. What started as a routine assignment for class soon transformed into one of the most fascinating explorations of my life. I found myself completely absorbed in the tiniest little details of Regency fashion: the imported textiles, the use of chemises, what types of slippers they wore. From exploring the “what”, I soon found myself asking how and why. I borrowed books from our school library about the politics and economy of Regency era England. I began to see the deeper connections between the socio-economic climate, and prevalent cultural trends, and how that all manifested in the form of major fashion trends. Before, I’d only ever thought of Napoleon as a short, angry French man from some distant era in history! Now, I found out how close he had come to actually conquering England, and how his rejection of extravagant court fashions in favor of ancient Greek philosophies actually popularized the empire waisted gowns that dominated Regency era England ballrooms.
With Mr. Smither’s encouragement and guidance, I found more and more novels to help me continue exploring this new interest. Under the sunlight streaming through the windows of our dusty little school library, I absorbed myself in these stories of people from a long gone era. Yet every story I read only revealed to me how humans, across time and space, have a treasury of common experiences. Reading Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, I found myself sympathizing with the double standards that Tess was dealt just because she was a woman. It also made me think deeply about how I had also internalized and sometimes acted upon sexist ideas. Like any high school, our school too was a rumor factory that most often targeted girls. I decided, from that moment, to stop participating in forwarding any gossip or rumors. I also spoke to some of my friends who had thoughtlessly spread unkind gossip about a new girl. It was a tiny act of kindness and change, but it helped me grow as a person and re-define my perspective on what matters.
The most wonderful thing about literature is the power it has to take us beyond ourselves and show us a different way of thinking than we ever imagined. Today, I not only have a new interest, but also a new perspective on life, and a new avenue to growth and learning. I can’t wait to see what new perspectives, ideas, and theories are waiting for me between the pages of a book. (629 words)
Why it works : Sarah’s essay focuses on her interest in a specific subject and takes the reader on a journey of discovery along with her. Essays responding to prompt no 6 can sometimes be tricky to write, since it’s more difficult to set up a conflict or expand upon lessons learnt when talking about a technical topic or a specific subject. Sarah manages to create conflict by showing us a contrast between who she used to be and who she is now and leading us through the steps that led to her transformation. She also has a clear takeaway – the power of literature and its personal impact on her – and that ties back in with her initial set up of how much she had changed thanks to her new-found interest. It gives a clear idea of who she is and how she thinks, and presents a unique perspective on a regular hobby.
The Common App essay should be between 250 to 650 words. Ideally, you should write an essay of at least 500 words to ensure your narrative is substantial and meaningful.
No – once you’ve submitted your Common App essay, it is locked for editing. Make sure you’ve triple-checked your final draft, and get someone else to proofread it, before you submit it.
Yes, the Common App essay is a very important admissions component. It can count for up to 30% of your application review. The more elite and competitive the college, the more importance they’ll give to the Common App essay. As the only qualitative component of your primary application, your essay is a great opportunity to make yourself stand out from the crowd and humanize your “checklist” of achievements for the admissions committee. A great essay could help you edge out other applicants with similar profiles in terms of academic record and extracurriculars.
Ideally, you should spend 3 months writing your Common App essay, giving yourself plenty of time for brainstorming, free writing, selecting a topic, writing multiple drafts (at least 3), seeking out feedback, and finalizing your essay. You can compress these activities down into a shorter timeline, but this could make the process that much more difficult and could impact the final quality of your essay. Starting and finishing your Common App essay early also leaves you free to deal with all the other application components closer to the actual college app deadlines. Remember, you’ll also have to write secondary essays for multiple colleges in a short period of time – a month or less – and your Common App essay prep could be very useful in writing secondary essays as well. So, it’s best to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for and write your Common App essay.
If you’re struggling to find a topic for your Common App essay, start with journaling and brainstorming before you get into actually writing the essay. Just write down your free-association responses to 3 or 4 of the prompts. Ask yourself a few key questions to guide your brainstorming such as: who am I? What do I hope to achieve? What is my passion? What makes me unique? Find the experiences, events, ideas, and people in your life that are the most meaningful to you, personally, and then select a topic that corresponds to those events.
A great Common App essay is one that demonstrates your excellent writing skills, shows depth and breadth of thought, a clear journey of self-reflection, and truly expresses who you are as a person. Your essay should not be a repetition of the items already seen in your resume. Instead, it should provide a new and refreshing perspective on you, and should clearly communicate what makes you special.
Ideally, you should ask at least two people to review your Common App essay. Select someone close to you, such as a parent or a friend, who can give you genuine, well-meaning feedback about the personal aspects of your essay. You should also ask an experienced mentor to review your essay, such as an English teacher or guidance counsellor. If you’re really struggling with it, you can get the help of admissions consultants who can give you expert feedback.
The Common App essay is your personal statement, and you only need to write one essay that goes out to all colleges along with your primary application. You can select from 1 of 7 prompts and write an essay about any meaningful, personal achievements or experiences that you’d like admissions committees to know. The Common App essay should be general and should not reference any specific colleges. On the other hand, supplemental essays are written in response to college-specific prompts and should directly address why you want to go to a particular college. These essays are a part of your secondary application and colleges can share 1 or more prompts to help them get to know you better.
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How to Answer the 2023/24 Common App Essay Prompts
Importance of Common App Essay
Common App Prompts for 23/24
How to Answer the Common App Prompts
Common App Essay Guidelines
Navigating the Common App essay prompts for 2023/24? This guide breaks down each prompt, offering insights, tips, and strategies to craft a compelling narrative. Plus, learn about the unchanged prompts from last year and how Crimson Education's mentors — graduates from top universities — can guide you in telling your unique story. Dive in to enhance your application and stand out in the admissions process.
The Importance of the Common App Essay
The college application process can be a whirlwind of forms, deadlines, and decisions. At the heart of this journey for many students is the Common Application, a uniform application form accepted by numerous colleges and universities.
The Common App streamlines the application process, allowing students to apply to multiple institutions using a single platform. One of the most crucial components of the Common App is the personal essay .
The essay isn't just another box to tick off in the application process ; it's a pivotal opportunity for submitting a more compelling and memorable application.
While grades, test scores, and extracurriculars provide a quantitative view of an applicant, the essay offers a qualitative glimpse into their character, aspirations, and experiences . It's the space where students can transcend numbers and voice their unique stories, challenges, and dreams.
The Common App essay can account for up to 30% of the importance of a college application, based on its weight amongst all other factors.
In a sea of applications, the essay is the student's chance to showcase their personality, values, and the experiences that have shaped them . It's a canvas where they can paint a vivid picture of who they are and what they bring to the table.
In essence, the Common App essay is more than just words on a page; it's a reflection of the individual behind the application. Your essay is a vital opportunity to stand out as an applicant — with the power to turn an application from ordinary to extraordinary.
What’s new in 2023/24?
You might notice that the 2023/24 essay prompts have remained unchanged from the previous year . This consistency offers an advantage, as students can draw from a wealth of advice and examples from past years.
5 Common App Essay Tips
Overview of the 2023/24 Common App Essay Prompts
The Common App essay prompts serve as a lens through which applicants can share their unique stories, experiences, and perspectives. For the 2023/24 application cycle, the prompts are as follows:
- Personal Background or Talent : 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.
- Learning from Challenges : 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?
- Questioning Beliefs : Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Acts of Kindness : 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?
- Personal Growth : Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Passion and Curiosity : 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?
- Topic of 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.
Additionally, the Common App will retain the optional COVID-19 question within the Additional Information section . In this section you can share any meaningful personal experiences related to the pandemic and relevant to your applicant profile or background, which might include:
- Illness or loss within your family or support network
- Employment or housing disruptions within your family
- Food insecurity
- Challenges to mental and emotional health
- New responsibilities, such as part-time work or caring for family members
- Difficulties in accessing necessary technology or a conducive study environment
- Shifts in your major or career interests due to the pandemic's influence
How to Answer the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023/24
For a detailed look at each prompt, visiting the official Common App website is always a good way to make sure you’re following the most accurate and up-to-date information and guidelines before you spend lots of time writing!
How Do You Answer Common App Essay 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.
Delving into Your Roots
This prompt beckons you to explore your cultural roots, upbringing, and defining experiences . To spark ideas, consider:
- Where is your family from, and where did you grow up?
- Were there cultural elements that played a significant role in your life?
- What were the defining moments in your upbringing that shaped your identity?
- Were there specific individuals, artworks, or philosophies that influenced your growth?
- How did your environment or community mold your interests or talents?
Self-Reflection and Personal Evolution
Reflecting on your identity and its evolution can offer rich material for your essay. If you've experienced shifts in your identity or perspective, delve into the reasons behind these changes and their implications for your future aspirations . A significant event or realization that altered your worldview can be a compelling narrative focus.
Descriptive Lists as Brainstorming Tools
If you're grappling with where to start, jot down phrases or values that resonate with your identity . Words like "compassion," "resilience," or "innovation" can serve as anchors for your essay, guiding your narrative around pivotal experiences that exemplify these traits.
Narrative Depth Through Personal Stories
Select a story or incident from your life that encapsulates the essence of the chosen descriptive word . For instance, if "cooperation" resonates with you, narrate an instance where teamwork within your family or community led to a significant achievement.
Distinguishing Your Narrative
While the overarching theme of identity might be common, your unique experiences and reflections will set your essay apart . Remember, this essay is an opportunity to showcase aspects of your life and character not evident elsewhere in your application . Avoid redundancy and strive for fresh, engaging content.
Prompt 1 of the Common App essay challenges you to introspect and articulate how background circumstances or experiences have had a unique impact in shaping your identity, self-awareness, character, or goals .
While covering a broad spectrum is tempting, focusing on poignant moments and genuine reflections will make for a more compelling narrative. As you craft your essay, remember to be authentic and let your individual voice shine through.
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The Essay That Got Me Into Brown University
How Do You Answer Common App 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?
Prompt 2 requires identifying meaningful obstacles in your life, articulating lessons learned from them, and sharing how the lessons pave the way for future success.
Identifying Genuine Challenges
While it's tempting to narrate minor setbacks, such as narrowly avoiding tardiness, these stories often lack depth and don't offer insights into your character or values. Instead, focus on significant challenges that had a profound impact on your life:
- Did you experience a major culture shock, like relocating to an unfamiliar place?
- Were there struggles in building connections or finding friends in a new environment?
- Did you grapple with personal tragedies, health issues, or other profound challenges?
It's natural to want to present your best self, but genuine growth often stems from acknowledging failures and setbacks . Demonstrating how you initially struggled, made mistakes, or even failed but then learned and grew from those experiences showcases maturity and resilience.
Highlighting Personal Growth
Detail how you navigated the challenge. What catalyzed your transformation? Instead of merely stating that you overcame an obstacle, delve into the lessons it taught you .
- How have these lessons equipped you for future challenges?
- Would you approach similar situations differently now?
Expanding the Horizon
Challenges aren't always personal. They can encompass broader issues affecting your community, nation, or even globally. Discussing how you and those near to you collectively navigated such challenges, supported one another, and emerged stronger can offer a unique perspective.
Prompt 2 offers an opportunity to demonstrate personal growth, resilience, and the ability to derive lessons from challenges . While the obstacle itself is significant, the focus should be on your journey of navigating it, the lessons it taught you, and how those lessons have shaped your outlook and approach to future challenges.
How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 3?
"Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Prompt 3 is an opportunity to highlight a decisive realization that led you to question or challenge established beliefs while showcasing your ability to act with courage and in accordance with a deep conviction.
Challenging Authority and Norms
This essay explores your journey in standing up against established norms or beliefs . It could be a personal belief ingrained since childhood or a societal norm you felt needed challenging.
- Did you confront a deeply-rooted cultural or religious belief?
- Were you influenced by literature, cinema, or personal interactions that made you question your long-held views?
Courting Controversy with Care
While the prompt encourages you to delve into potentially controversial topics, it's essential to approach them with sensitivity and respect . Whether it's politics, culture, or religion, ensure your narrative remains personal, focusing on your journey of introspection and growth.
This prompt is as much about the questions as it is about the answers. Reflect on:
- How did you grapple with the uncertainty that came with challenging established beliefs?
- Who were your pillars of support or guidance during this period?
- Are you still on a journey of discovery, or have you found a new perspective?
Attributes of Open-mindedness
Your response will give admissions officers insights into your ability to think critically, remain open-minded, and evolve in your beliefs – qualities highly valued in the academic world.
Prompt 3 offers a unique opportunity to discuss personal growth stemming from challenging established norms or beliefs . While the topic you choose is significant, the emphasis should be on your journey of introspection, the challenges you faced, and how it has shaped your current perspective.
Common App Essay Guide Part 1: Ideation
How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 4?
"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?
Prompt 4 allows you to turn positivity in your life circumstances — as opposed to adversity — into an opportunity to showcase your capacity for gratitude and how gratitude shapes your character and actions.
The Element of Surprise:
Begin by reflecting on moments when someone's unexpected act of kindness caught you off guard.
- Was it the sheer selflessness of the act, or was it the combination of the gesture and its unexpected nature that evoked gratitude?
- How did this act redefine your understanding of family, friendship, community, or even the benevolence of strangers?
Delving Deeper into the Impact
While the act itself is significant, the emphasis should be on its ripple effect on your life .
- How did this gesture reshape your worldview, actions, or aspirations?
- Did it inspire you to pay forward the kindness or make changes in your life?
Reflect Beyond the Surface
While narrating the act and your immediate feelings is essential, delve deeper into introspection . Reflect on:
- The broader implications of the act on your understanding of human nature.
- How did it influence your interactions with others or your contributions to your community?
- The long-term impact on your values, beliefs, and aspirations.
Prompt 4 offers a unique opportunity to discuss the transformative power of unexpected acts of kindness. While the act itself is the starting point, your essay should focus on your journey of introspection, the lessons learned, and how your capacity to cultivate gratitude impacted your character, perspectives, and actions in meaningful ways.
What I wrote about for my Common App Essay
How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 5?
"Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Prompt 5 specifically focuses on moments of realization and their profound impact on shaping one's understanding of self and others.
Choosing the Right Story
Begin by reflecting on pivotal moments in your life .
- Was there a significant challenge you overcame or an event that reshaped your perspective?
- Perhaps a seemingly small realization had profound implications for your worldview.
- While you can choose any event, ensure it's a story that hasn't been extensively covered in other parts of your application.
Depth Over Breadth
While the event or accomplishment is the starting point, delve deeper into its implications.
- How did this experience reshape your values, beliefs, or aspirations?
- What lessons did you derive, and how have they influenced your subsequent actions or decisions?
- Remember, it's not about having all the answers but about showcasing your ability to introspect and grow from experiences.
Navigating the Grey Areas
Life is complex, and personal growth often stems from navigating its intricacies.
- Avoid painting a picture of having achieved complete clarity or understanding.
- Emphasize the ongoing nature of personal growth and the continuous journey of understanding.
Prompt 5 offers a unique opportunity to discuss the transformative power of experiences, accomplishments, or realizations . While the event itself is the catalyst, the focus should be on your journey of introspection, the lessons learned, and how it has influenced your perspective and actions.
How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 6?
"Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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 6 focuses on topics or ideas that captivate you to the point that you lose track of time — perhaps as evidence of what kind of topics and lines of inquiry and thought align with your passions, are most natural and compelling for you personally.
Selecting the Right Passion
Begin by reflecting on what genuinely excites you.
- Is it an ideology that resonates with your core beliefs?
- An academic topic that you've delved deep into?
- A fascination with a particular artist, book, or historical event? Ensure that your chosen topic is something you're truly passionate about, allowing your genuine enthusiasm to shine through.
Authenticity Over Pretense
Avoid the trap of selecting a topic merely because it sounds impressive. Admissions officers can discern genuine passion from pretense. The essay should be a reflection of your true interests , not a showcase of academic prowess.
Delving into Personal Experiences
Discuss how your chosen topic has influenced various facets of your life.
- How has it shaped your daily routines, conversations, or even dreams?
- Have you taken specific actions or initiatives to further explore this interest?
- How has this passion influenced your personal growth or future aspirations?
Prompt 6 offers a unique opportunity to discuss what genuinely captivates you . While the topic itself is the starting point, the emphasis should be on your personal connection to it, the experiences it has given you, and how it has influenced your perspective and aspirations.
5 Common App Personal Essay Red Flags
How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 7?
"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.
Prompt 7 is the most open-ended of all, allowing you to venture into any topic of your choice, making it both an exciting and challenging option.
Embracing the Freedom
This prompt offers unparalleled freedom, but with that comes the responsibility of selecting a topic that is both engaging and meaningful .
- Reflect on experiences or ideas that have profoundly impacted you.
- Consider moments of personal growth, challenges overcome, or unique perspectives you hold.
While the temptation might be to cover a broad topic, focus on specific moments or ideas . Dive deep into introspection, exploring how these moments have shaped your worldview and aspirations.
Engaging Your Personal Voice
Your unique voice is your most potent tool here.
- Ensure your narrative is genuine and resonates with your personal experiences and beliefs.
- Avoid trying to fit into a mold or writing what you think admissions officers want to hear.
The Journey of Growth
Colleges value growth and potential. Reflect on:
- How your chosen topic or experience has influenced your personal growth.
- The lessons you've derived and how they've shaped your aspirations and future endeavors.
Prompt 7 offers a unique opportunity to venture into any topic of your choice . While the freedom is exhilarating, ensure your essay remains focused, personal, and reflective of your growth and unique perspective.
General Guidelines for Answering Common App Essay Questions
- Word Count : The Common App essay has a word limit of 650 words. It's essential to stay within this limit to ensure your essay is read in its entirety. While brevity is key, make sure you provide enough depth and insight into your chosen topic.
- Be Authentic : Admissions officers read thousands of essays. What stands out is authenticity. Write in your voice and be true to your experiences. Avoid trying to write what you think they want to hear.
- Proofread : Spelling and grammar mistakes can detract from the content of your essay. Always proofread your work, and consider having a teacher, mentor, or trusted individual review it.
- Avoid Repetition : Your essay should provide new information or insights that aren't found in other parts of your application. It's an opportunity to showcase a different side of you.
- Stay Focused : While it might be tempting to cover multiple topics, it's better to focus on a single story or idea and delve deep into it. This provides clarity and depth to your narrative.
- Reflect : The best essays not only narrate an event or idea but also reflect on its significance. Discussing how it influenced your beliefs, values, or future aspirations adds depth to your essay.
- Draft and Revise : Rarely is the first draft the best version. Write multiple drafts, refining your story and message with each iteration.
- Avoid Controversial Topics : While it's essential to be genuine, be cautious about discussing highly controversial topics unless you can approach them with sensitivity and depth.
- Answer the Prompt : It might seem obvious, but ensure your essay answers the prompt. Admissions officers want to see that you can follow instructions while also showcasing your unique perspective.
- Start Early : Don't wait until the last minute. Starting early gives you time to think, draft, and revise, ensuring your essay is the best representation of you.
The college application process is a unique opportunity to showcase who you are beyond grades and test scores. The Common App essay is a testament to your journey, passions, and the experiences that have molded you.
Everyone has a distinct story; this platform is your chance to narrate yours. Approach it with authenticity, introspection, and a genuine desire to convey your essence.
Not sure if your essay captures your essence? Want to ensure it stands out in a sea of applications? Get your essay reviewed by our team of experts to ensure it resonates with admissions officers.
And if you're at the beginning stages of your college application journey, consider booking a free consultation with our seasoned college counselors.
We're here to guide you in building a holistic application that amplifies your chances of acceptance at top-tier universities. Your dream college is within reach; let us help you get there.
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Guide to Writin Common App Personal Statements
Table of Contents
The Common App is a Godsend to students worldwide. It eases the application process by allowing students to apply to multiple schools and colleges. Whether applying through the app or traditionally, learning how to write common app personal statements is a foundational skill.
This article will explain the importance of personal statements and give tips for writing common app personal statements. But before we delve into them, it’s essential to understand the Common App and how it fits into modern academic life.
What is the Common App?
The Common App is an online platform that enables students to apply to more than 900 colleges and universities worldwide. It allows users to fill out a single application for applications to multiple institutions.
By streamlining the college admissions process, this invaluable tool helps reduce the stress associated with gathering various application materials for each school application. It also provides much-needed transparency into the college acceptance process.
While the common app alleviates many of the stresses encountered in college applications, it raises the stakes. Since you’ll be using the same materials across all your applications, a single mistake can affect all your prospects.
This is why it’s crucial to get everything sorted in the best possible way.
The Importance of Personal Statements
Personal statements are special essays that showcase your personality. They help recruiters and admissions board representatives gain a deeper understanding of a candidate beyond numbers and bullet points.
Common app personal statements are crucial in college applications because they allow applicants to share their experiences, qualities, and character creatively. How you write can influence the impression you leave on your readers.
More importantly, personal statements allow you to give a vivid depiction of your ideas and introduce the human touch to your application. They can make you relatable and likable, unlike resumes and transcripts that have only a limited mode of expression.
If you want to take full advantage of personal statements, here are a few tips you can apply.
Related: Common App Essay Prompts
A common application would be incomplete without its different prompts. These angles of approach provide structure to your common app essay and allow you to focus on one aspect of your background.
Essay prompts are also a way to check your ability to read and understand instructions. They provide the admissions officer with a basis for evaluating the relevancy of your writing. Here are some prompts that you’re likely to encounter:
Prompt 1: Share Your Story
This prompt encourages students to tell their personal stories. It is an exercise that helps readers gain a new understanding of a person. Make sure to write about things that are so meaningful to you that they are part of your personality.
Prompt 2: Learning From Obstacles
Prompt 2 encourages students to talk about a failure they suffered and how they turned it into a learning experience. It should showcase their struggle and how the lesson they learned helped them go on to become better with other future goals. You can make your essay personal by sharing personal experiences, obstacles you had to overcome, or uplifting experiences you have had.
Prompt 3: Challenging a Belief
This prompt focuses on a student’s experience when they challenged a belief or idea. Their essay should reflect their experience and reasoning behind their disagreement. Challenging a belief without resorting to overt acts is a fundamental skill. It allows us to engage people with different perspectives and to see new ways of thinking.
Prompt 4: Solving a Problem
This prompt lets students share an essay about when they were tasked with solving hard problems. The way a student approaches issues can be fundamental to later success because it demonstrates their thinking ability.
Prompt 5: Personal Growth
This college essay prompt asks students to discuss a period of personal growth. Make sure to discuss an accomplishment or realization that helped begin a period of personal growth that changed the course of your future. Recount how this experience was instrumental to your development into the person you are today.
Prompt 6: What Captivates You?
This prompt focuses on the things that motivate and inspire you. It focuses on the type of culture you are immersed in. Talk about something that sparks your interest and is so engaging you lose all track of time. Explain its importance and how it forms part of your identity.
Prompt 7: Topic of Your Choice
This prompt gives the writer a reasonable degree of freedom to pick any topic they want to raise. You can choose any topic from the list of prompts to draw from or create your own with the same prompt! The point is to make it a personal reflection in which you can shine a light on any aspect of your story.
Tips for Writing Personal Statements
Brainstorm and Create an Outline
Before writing, it is essential to brainstorm ideas that would best suit the personal statement . This allows writers to frame their words deliberately and express their views clearly. An outline also helps writers focus on crucial points of their content and improve the logical flow between topics.
An effective way of doing this is by creating a comprehensive outline detailing which topics should be included in the essay. Make sure to include the main argument and the specific points that need to be discussed. This will guide the writer through their essay and make sure nothing is missed or left out.
Showcase Your Experience
Since the writer has relevant experience on the topic, it is vital to showcase these experiences throughout the essay. Using concrete examples can give your essay credibility and illustrate points that could have been difficult to explain.
Make sure to include only the experiences most related to the program you’re applying to. If you don’t have any relevant experience, use your experiences to showcase your character instead.
Use Clear and Concise Language
To get your point across effectively, use simple language. Avoid using big words or technical jargon unless necessary. Also, include variety within your sentence structure while maintaining clarity of thought. An expansive vocabulary will not only showcase your communication skills but will also help you write vivid descriptions. Remember that profound ideas require equally-profound words to represent them. Do not mar your message by using bland words or unnecessarily complex words.
Write with Emotion
Writing an effective common app personal statement requires the writer to tap into their emotional side. While facts are important, expressing thoughts and feelings accompanying them adds depth and substance to the essay. Moreover, people are more likely to remember the way they felt rather than the exact details of an experience. The same Psychology principle rings true for the things we read.
Words are powerful tools that allow us to convey ideas and evoke emotions. Use them well.
When appropriate, add anecdotes or details about how specific experiences made you feel – this will make the reader more invested in reading further.
Incorporate Uncommon Words
A great way to demonstrate expertise on a topic is by including uncommon words or terminology throughout the essay. However, care must be taken not to overuse these words as they may take away from the overall message being conveyed. Your words should fit naturally into the context of the sentence; if it doesn’t, then it should be replaced.
Sample Common App Personal Statements
I have a long-standing passion for exploring the unknown, which I have developed through my involvement in various extracurricular activities throughout high school. My appreciation for knowledge has prompted me to delve into areas of study far from traditional learning systems. I find myself drawn to the search for spiritual truths within all facets of life. This leads me to ponder seemingly impossible questions about existence and meaning that can sometimes leave me perplexed and frustrated.
But no matter how difficult things get, I always manage to persevere due to my unwavering enthusiasm and determination. As an individual who relishes discovery and adventure, I am eager to continue my journey of self-discovery in college.
I’ve been fascinated with innovation and engineering ever since I was a child. Growing up, my family instilled in me an appreciation for the science behind how things work and the importance of never settling for mediocrity. While this curiosity has kept me intrigued throughout my academic career, it has also pushed me to explore opportunities beyond what is expected. It pushed me to participate in research projects involving solving complex problems with innovative solutions.
My passion for problem-solving led me to join the Robotics Club in high school, where I worked diligently on several difficult projects. Our team had to devise efficient algorithms to power our robot and address technical issues with coding and circuitry. Although our project encountered a few roadblocks due to its complexity, we persevered and ultimately succeeded in producing a functional device that exceeded expectations. It was during this process that I developed a newfound admiration for technology and its potential to revolutionize our world.
Through my experiences, I’ve come to understand the vital role creativity plays in any form of progress or success. As such, I’m committed to using my expertise to make meaningful contributions to society. This commitment motivates me daily and encourages me to strive for excellence in everything I do.
I have always believed in the power of my own design to accomplish great things. As a student, this concept allows me to combine knowledge from multiple sources to create something new. My drive to push beyond what is expected has allowed me to take on projects that others may consider too difficult or complex. This willingness to embrace challenges has opened doors for further personal growth as well as professional achievement.
Falling short of expectations was once a source of shame for me, but now I use failure as fuel for improvement. Whenever I face obstacles, I remind myself that little can be done without first taking a bite out of the unknown. The open-endedness of these moments offers insight into how much more there is to discover. This awareness motivates me to act on my desire to learn more. Taking the initiative despite feeling incomplete has led to excellent outcomes and experiences shaping my belief system and who I am today.
My passion for learning and appreciation for books, classes, and community engagement helps foster an ever-evolving personal development process.
Each accomplishment brings me closer to understanding who I am meant to be and how I might best offer myself to those around me. These experiences keep pushing me forward, allowing me to positively impact wherever I go. Finally, this unyielding determination compels me towards greater self-discovery and, ultimately, better days ahead.
I had never thought of myself as a leader until I joined my high school football team. Here, where I followed the example of our coach and strived to be an inspiration for my teammates. This experience taught me how to identify opportunities in challenging situations and use them to further my goals and create new possibilities for success.
Later on, I found exciting ways to apply this same approach while volunteering at homeless shelters and after-school programs.
I’m excited about exploring my future in college, where I will take the knowledge gained from these experiences into the classroom and beyond. I aim to become more proficient in synthesizing information to develop creative game plans that enable others to achieve their dreams.
The main purpose of a personal statement is to showcase your suitability for a job or program . Unlike a resume, it allows writers to demonstrate their qualifications creatively. It will enable them to connect with a reader and establish a strong positive impression.
Interesting common app personal statements are imperative because they impact multiple applications simultaneously. It is a piece that reveals your writing skills and showcases your value.
Remember to practice writing your essays and apply the simple tips in this guide. Respond directly to prompts, and answer questions clearly.
Abir is a data analyst and researcher. Among her interests are artificial intelligence, machine learning, and natural language processing. As a humanitarian and educator, she actively supports women in tech and promotes diversity.
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How to Write the Common App Personal Statement Prompts 2023-2024
June 30, 2023
Are you feeling overwhelmed by the task of writing your Common App Personal Statement? Don't worry, you're not alone. Many students find the idea of writing a compelling essay to be daunting. Where should you start? Which experiences are truly compelling to share? How can you condense your life story into a mere 650 words? There's a lot of pressure to find the perfect topic that will make you stand out but that's where the Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024 come in handy.
To help you navigate this year's questions, I've outlined each prompt and provided tips on how to tackle them. I’ve also included strategic techniques that allow you to leverage your creative freedom and write about a topic of your choice, instead of selecting from the Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024.
The Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024
Let’s start with the basics. You only have to write about one of the prompts provided by the Common App. The word limit is 650 words, which is a scant number to narrate a powerful story without leaving out too many important details. Let’s take a closer look at each of the Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024 alongside some suggestions and ideas of how you might answer them:
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 topic is the most open-ended of the pre-assigned questions in the Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024 . You can pretty much go any direction with this question since it’s asking about your background, identity, or interests. You might want to write about how you hold certain beliefs that have defined the course of your life. You can choose to elaborate on a cultural tradition that you look forward to and how the ways you’ve celebrated it changed with time. You can focus your essay on your career interest—for example, is there a compelling story that changed everything for you and developed your desire to pursue a career in politics after college?
Take note of the second part of the question though, because you have to believe that your application would be incomplete without it. After you’ve written your first draft, ask yourself whether admissions officers could have evaluated your application just fine without knowing about what you’ve written. Colleges don’t need to know what your favorite television show is to decide whether you’re a top candidate—unless your connection to the show truly impacted your decision to pursue your passion.
Since you already have an activities list on the Common App, it’s important not to address topics that are already covered elsewhere. Your essay should not just repeat what you’ve already said.
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?
You should be careful when answering a question about your greatest setback. Since top schools receive applications from students of all backgrounds, the definition of a “challenge” will vary from person to person. A setback is not one C on your report card in ninth grade after a lifetime of A’s. Admissions officers read essays from students who’ve experienced homelessness, debilitating illness, domestic violence, or actual disasters. Does your definition of a challenge seem relatively minor when you think about these issues? If so, choose a different topic.
It’s important that you don’t exaggerate adversity. Don’t write an essay about a minor soccer injury you received that had few repercussions, but is really a way for you to talk about your awesome team travel experiences. Find a topic that speaks to the best sides of you.
Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
There’s no definition in the Common App Personal statement prompts 2023-2024 about how grand the idea you’re challenging has to be. If you have a compelling story about arranging a protest in your neighborhood or school that tried to change the authorities’ minds, that’s awesome, and definitely something you should write about. But even something less tangible—such as changing your parents’ minds on why the women’s national soccer team deserves equal pay—could also be spun into a powerful story about what drives you to act and policies you’re passionate about.
Remember to answer the second and third questions within the prompt—don’t spend all 650 words describing the idea. Why are you passionate about this cause? Was there an incident that changed how you viewed the belief yourself? And when thinking about the outcome—you don’t always have to succeed. You can frame your essay in such a way that shows you remain passionate and committed to pursuing your own understanding of truth, justice—whatever you have been inspired to challenge. Colleges appreciate students who are dedicated to their ideas and aren’t afraid to speak up. If tackled right, this topic could lead to a stellar essay.
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?
This prompt was introduced in the last couple of years as a chance to allow students to be positive and express gratitude. As with most of the Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024 , this prompt is less about the grandness of what someone might have done for you, and more about getting to know what’s important to you and how you’ve been affected or motivated by the situation—especially in these tough circumstances. The gratitude does not have to reflect your academic interest, but rather demonstrate your humility and connections with others in your community. Did a friend help you when you were at your lowest? Has a teacher supported you through thick and thin? Have you and a sibling started an initiative together—and you were glad they were there for you?
Focus less on what happened and dedicate more time to discussing how you’ve carried this gratitude forward. And remember, this should center around the high school you. If someone helped you out as a toddler, that story won’t intrigue admissions officers.
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Over your four years in high school, you meet a lot of new people and go through a lot of new experiences. It’s not unheard of for someone to feel like a completely different person by the end of those four years. This topic among the Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024 is the place to reflect on that kind of growth.
Like the other prompts, there’s no one way to interpret what the question asks. You could have gone from the weakest link in your football team or the member of your a capella group without solos. If you found yourself working hard to practice and improve, the end result may have been a happy one.
Don’t forget to highlight what you understood about yourself through the experience. It could be about your own grit and never-give-up attitude. You could have learned who your true friends were in a time of struggle. Whatever it may be, make sure to exemplify how your actions have changed since the growth—is there anything different that you’ve noticed in your behavior or approach to matters? Colleges value students who demonstrate self-awareness.
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?
If you’ve got a niche interest that is more nuanced than most people realize—whether it’s the impact of teen girls on pop culture or the hidden meaning behind Gucci’s suits over the ages, tell admissions officers about it! Once you’ve explained the topic in a sentence or two, you should use the rest of the essay to talk about how you act on your interest and share it with others.
The other good thing about this prompt is that nothing is too small. There’s no right answer—it’s what you think about and what you find interesting. Just be certain that you explain properly just why you’re so intrigued by the topic. It doesn’t have to be extremely deep like the history of the universe or how to find the cure to cancer. Explain why the topic matters to you—does it make you feel seen or represented in a way nothing else ever has? Does it inspire you to get out of bed every morning and drive towards change? Explore more than just the surface of the topic and show admissions officers your perspective. Who knows, you could teach them something new that makes them go, “that’s incredible!”
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.
It’s important to note that the six essay prompts I have previously outlined exist simply to give you an idea of what you might write about. You don’t have to religiously stick to any of them because there is this one last option among the Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024. Interestingly enough, the topic of choice is often the most popular choice. If you choose this option, make sure that the topic you’ve chosen doesn’t fall under any of the previous prompts. Yes, you may write about anything . Well, anything as long as it’s a story that is unique to you—you shouldn’t use your “personal” statement to talk about how proud you are of your best friend’s achievements as a basketball state champion.
Don’t Let the Prompts Restrict You
Due to the final option allowing you to write on any topic, ultimately you have a lot of freedom when choosing from the Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024 . While the suggested prompts serve as helpful brainstorming catalysts and provide you with ideas of what schools generally look for when thinking about the personal statement, if you don’t want to write about a time you encountered a challenge or a topic that makes you lose track of time, that is more than okay. If you thought you were writing an essay about a problem you’d like to solve, but the final product ends up being about how you realized you want to dedicate your life to helping animals and starting your own pet adoption center, and you feel that it fits none of the pre-assigned prompts, you can just change your topic selection.
When you select which topic you’ve chosen on the Common App, you can change your selection as long as you haven’t sent it in.
Regardless of which prompt you choose, it’s important to answer all of the questions. It can be very easy to get carried away with narrating the focal point of your story scene by scene, but remember to save some words for other parts of the prompt. As you’ve seen above, all of the Common Application personal statement prompt s 2023-2024 have an analysis element. Once you’ve finished your first draft, re-read the prompt and make sure you’ve addressed each part of the question. If you’ve written on a topic of your choice, ensure that your essay hits on a bigger picture. How did the event help you grow? Why is the issue important to you?
Although it is just one piece of your application, your personal statement could be the transformative factor that determines whether you get that acceptance letter. So don't underestimate the power of selecting the right topic. When choosing from the Common App personal statement prompts 2023-2024 , your goal is to create a well-written and well-edited essay that convinces admissions officers to send you that coveted acceptance letter.
If you are still feeling stuck on how to approach your Common App personal statement, schedule a free strategy call today . From brainstorming to crafting a compelling essay, our team of college admissions experts can help you put together the perfect Common App personal statement to maximize your chances of getting into your dream college.
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The Common App: Everything You Need to Know
The Common App makes it easy to apply to multiple colleges and universities.
Students need to give themselves at least six weeks to get everything they need for college applications. (Getty Images)
Applying to college can be a tedious and stressful process for students and their parents. In addition to doing the research and paperwork associated with applications, teens may also be juggling the SAT or ACT , college tours and a tough senior year course load.
The Common Application, which is accepted by more than 1,000 schools, including some colleges outside the U.S., helps streamline an essential part of the admissions process for students.
Through the platform, first-time and transfer applicants can apply to multiple colleges at once. So students only have to fill out details that most schools require – such as name, address and extracurricular activities – one time.
"The idea behind the Common App is to try and reduce the barriers that students face when applying to college ," says Jenny Rickard, president and CEO of Common App, the nonprofit that manages the application.
Despite its popularity, the Common App may be confusing for some families who are new to the college application process . The guide below can help ease students and parents through the application.
When Can I Start Working on My College Application Through the Common App?
The new edition of the Common App opens Aug. 1 every year. Given the variance in college application deadlines, students should pay close attention to when they need to submit their materials.
For example, students who are applying for early action or early decision may need to submit an application in November or December, whereas the regular decision deadline is more likely to be Jan. 1. Prospective students should treat these ranges as a general rule of thumb and check with individual colleges on deadlines.
Students don't have to wait until Aug. 1 to get started on the Common App. They can create an account at any time and transfer their information into the new app when it opens. College admissions counselors suggest students start completing application tasks as early as possible, including during the summer before their senior year.
"Don’t wait until the deadline day to complete your application," says Keri Risic, executive director of admissions at the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities. " You may have questions or need help that may not be possible at the last minute."
How to Complete the Common Application
Here are steps for how students can work on an application through the platform:
- Go to commonapp.org and click on the "Start your application" button to get details about how to create an account and log in. Students also can download the Common App's mobile app to keep track of deadlines, invite recommenders and set reminders.
- Choose the first-year student or transfer student option.
- Add user information such as name, email, phone number, address, date of birth and prospective enrollment year.
- Fill out the user profile with requested details on education, extracurriculars, demographic data, household information and more.
- Add collaborators such as teachers, counselors and others providing letters of recommendation or other supporting documents.
- Search for and add schools to "My Colleges."
- Get familiar with each college's application requirements and follow those accordingly when applying.
How Long Does It Take to Fill Out an Application?
The time it takes to fill out an application varies based on a school's requirements, experts say. However, students need to give themselves at least two months to complete their college applications, says Christine Chu, a premier college admissions counselor with IvyWise, an education consulting company.
That includes time to fill out background information, gather the required documents, and write the personal statement and any supplemental essays that might be required by schools. Applicants can find the various writing requirements for each school in the Common App's Student Solutions Center.
"Given the increase in the number of applications for some students and the number of supplemental essays that students have to write, I would suggest even longer to work on all the essays," Chu says. "Writing is an iterative process, and with revisions, which take time, students can write good essays."
In addition to any optional parental information needed – such as employer details and educational background – many schools require first-year applicants to submit recommendation letters and transcripts. Students need to give teachers and counselors enough time to submit those materials to the Common App before deadlines.
High school counselors encourage students to ask their teachers for recommendation letters before the end of their junior year so that educators can work on them during the summer. Seniors who need recommendation letters should ask for them early in the school year, experts say.
What Are the Common App Essay Prompts and Where Can I Find Them?
There are seven Common App first-year essay prompts for the 2023-2024 school year, and they are the same as the ones used for the 2022-2023- application. Students need to choose only one prompt.
The prompts ask students to, for instance, "reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth." Applicants have a maximum of 650 words for the essay.
An optional non-essay question added in 2020 on how the coronavirus pandemic affected students will remain on the Common App this year. Answers to this question are limited to 250 words. Roughly 14% of all applicants in the 2022-23 admissions cycle provided a response to the COVID-19 question, per figures provided by Emma Steele, director of media and external affairs for Common App.
Not all schools require students to submit an essay . And some institutions may require students to submit a supplemental essay or additional information. Applicants can see the requirements for all schools on the Common App when they log in to their student accounts or download a PDF from the Common App's website.
Applicants can also preview supplemental questions for schools before they start their applications through the platform's Student Solutions Center.
What Should I Do if I Run Into Problems With the Common App?
Students who have questions about filling out the application can ask their high school counselor and admissions officers at the colleges they're applying to for help, experts say. Common App provides resources in English and Spanish for counselors and those writing recommendation letters.
The Common App also has a variety of resources for applicants to help make the application process easier, such as financial aid and scholarship information.
In addition to video tutorials throughout the application, the platform has year-round technical support 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Applicants can find answers to frequently asked questions or submit a question in the Student Solutions Center. Response times vary, but the average wait time is 20 minutes, according to Common App representatives.
"Don’t be afraid to ask questions of each school’s admissions representatives," Risic says. "They are there to help you as you work through your applications."
Can I Get Fee Waivers for the Common App?
The Common App is free to use but individual schools can charge application fees, which students pay when they submit their applications. About half of member schools don't charge application fees for first-year students, according to data provided by the organization.
Applicants who qualify for fee waivers – those who meet the standards set by the National Association for College Admission Counseling – will be able to make that known through the application.
"A student only needs to indicate that they have financial hardship once in the application, and that fee waiver can be applied to any school they apply to," Rickard says.
Students who have questions about whether they qualify for fee waivers can reach out to their high school counselors or directly to the colleges that they are applying to, experts say.
What Tips Can Make Filling Out the Common App Easier?
Don't wait until 11:59 p.m. on Jan. 1 to finish applications as some students do, experts say. Schools will still accept applications that are a few minutes late, according to Common App representatives, but the stress that comes with fighting against the clock – and the increased potential for typos and other mistakes – isn't worth it.
Besides starting early, experts encourage students to take advantage of the Common App preview that allows students to review their application prior to submission.
Students can also assign advisers who can see parts of an application and the progress they've made.
Do I Have to Use the Common App to Apply to College?
Students are not required to use the Common App. While the platform is popular, it isn't the only one for college applications.
Many schools allow students to apply online through their websites. Some states have application systems that students can or must use in order to apply to colleges. For example, Texas has a statewide system for submitting applications, though some Texas schools also accept the Common App.
Some well-known private institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., accept applications only through their school websites. Many other competitive colleges and universities, such as Harvard University and Amherst College , both in Massachusetts, accept applications through the Common App.
Other platforms accepted by some schools include the Coalition Application and the Common Black College Application , which serves historically Black colleges and universities. Many schools that use those platforms also use the Common App.
Do Colleges Care if I Use the Common App or a Different Platform?
Colleges that allow students to submit applications through multiple platforms don't have a preference on which one is used, but high school counselors might. The Common App's integration with Naviance, a college and career readiness software provider, makes it easy for counselors to submit documentation for colleges, experts say.
But students should submit one application per college using the platform that works best for them.
“As a student selects which application platform to use, we recommend they think about their full list of schools and consider what each school requires for an application," Risic says. " Going in with that information could help them streamline their application approach and reduce some of the stress we know students feel at this stage."
How Does the Common App Work for Transfer Students?
The transfer portion of the Common App works in much the same way as it does for first-time applicants, with some differences. More than 600 schools accept the Common App for transfer.
Unlike first-time applicants, transfer students will have additional information to submit from colleges attended. The Common App asks them to list any college or university attended, dates of enrollment, college coursework completed and GPA.
An essay for transfer students is also required. Common App updated the transfer essay requirement last year, making the question prompts the same as for first-time applicants.
Changes for the 2023-2024 Common App
There are several updates in the 2023-24 Common App, including information related to gender identity and race. Common App will add "X or another legal sex" as an option in addition to "female" and "male." This change follows the 2022-23 addition of “Mx.” and “other” options for counselor, parent, recommender, teacher and advisor prefix options. It also added “legal” to the first/given name question label during the previous admissions cycle.
Following the Supreme Court’s ruling striking down the use of race in college admissions decisions , Common App "will provide its member colleges the option to hide the self-disclosed race and ethnicity data on the application," according to the website .
Common App also added nearly 50 new member colleges and universities, including 15 minority-serving institutions, to its platform.
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2023-2024 Common App essay prompts
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We are pleased to announce that the Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2023-2024.
It’s not just for the sake of consistency that we have chosen to keep the essay prompts the same for the upcoming application year. Our past research has shown that overall satisfaction with the prompts exceeded 95% across our constituent groups - students, counselors, advisors, teachers, and member colleges. Moving forward, we want to learn more about who is choosing certain prompts to see if there are any noteworthy differences among student populations.
We know some schools are beginning to have conversations with juniors and transfer students about their college options. As we’ve always said, this is not a call for students to begin writing. We hope that by sharing the prompts now, students will have the time they need to reflect on their own personal stories and begin thinking about what they want to share with colleges. As you assist students with their planning, feel free to share our Common App Ready resource on approaching the essay (in English and Spanish ). You can also visit our YouTube channel to view our breakdown of all 7 Common App essay prompts .
"Moving forward, we want to learn more about who is choosing certain prompts to see if there are any noteworthy differences among student populations." Meredith Lombardi, Director, Education and Training, Common App
Students who are ready to start exploring the application can create their Common App account prior to August 1. With account rollover , we will retain any responses to questions on the Common App tab, including the personal essay.
Below is the full set of essay prompts for 2023-2024.
- 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.
We will retain the optional community disruption question within the Writing section.
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How to Write a Personal Statement
A personal statement can be a key part of your college application, and you can really make yours shine by following a few tips.
When you're applying to college—either to an undergraduate or graduate program—you may be asked to submit a personal statement. It's an essay that gives you the chance to share more about who you are and why you'd like to attend the university you're applying to.
The information you provide in your personal statement can help build on your other application materials, like your transcripts and letters of recommendation, and build a more cohesive picture to help the admissions committee understand your goals.
In this article, we'll go over more about personal statements, including why they're important, what to include in one, and tips for strengthening yours.
What is a personal statement?
A personal statement—sometimes known as a college essay —is a brief written essay you submit along with other materials when you're applying to college or university. Personal statements tend to be most common for undergraduate applications, and they're a great opportunity for an admissions committee to hear your voice directly.
Many colleges and universities in the US, especially those using Common App , provide prompts for you to use. For example, "Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea" or "Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time" [ 1 ]. If the school you're interested in attending doesn't require prompts, you will likely want to craft a response that touches on your story, your values, and your goals if possible.
In grad school, personal statements are sometimes known as letters of intent , and go into more detail about your academic and professional background, while expressing interest in attending the particular program you're applying to.
Why is a personal statement important?
Personal statements are important for a number of reasons. Whereas other materials you submit in an application can address your academic abilities (like your transcripts) or how you perform as a student (like your letters of recommendation), a personal statement is a chance to do exactly that: get more personal.
Personal statements typically:
Permit you to share things that don't fit on your resume, such as personal stories, motivations, and values
Offer schools a chance to see why you're interested in a particular field of study and what you hope to accomplish after you graduate
Provide an opportunity for you to talk about past employment, volunteer experiences, or skills you have that complement your studies
Allow colleges to evaluate your writing skills
Bring life to a college application package otherwise filled with facts and figures
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How to write a personal statement
As we mentioned earlier, you may have to respond to a prompt when drafting your personal statement—or a college or university may invite you to respond however you'd like. In either case, use the steps below to begin building your response.
Create a solid hook .
To capture the attention of an admissions committee member, start your personal statement with a hook that relates to the topic of your essay. A hook tends to be a colorful sentence or two at the very beginning that compels the reader to continue reading.
To create a captivating hook, try one of these methods:
Pose a rhetorical question.
Provide an interesting statistic.
Insert a quote from a well-known person.
Challenge the reader with a common misconception.
Use an anecdote, which is a short story that can be true or imaginary.
Credibility is crucial when writing a personal statement as part of your college application process. If you choose a statistic, quote, or misconception for your hook, make sure it comes from a reliable source.
Follow a narrative.
The best personal statements typically read like a story: they have a common theme, as well as a beginning, middle, and end. This type of format also helps keep your thoughts organized and improves the flow of your essay.
Common themes to consider for your personal statement include:
Special role models from your past
Life-altering events you've experienced
Unusual challenges you've faced
Accomplishments you're especially proud of
Service to others and why you enjoy it
What you've learned from traveling to a particular place
Unique ways you stand out from other candidates
Admissions committees read thousands of personal statements every year, which is why being specific on yours is important. Back up your statements with examples or anecdotes.
For instance, avoid vague assertions like, "I'm interested in your school counseling program because I care about children." Instead, point out experiences you've had with children that emphasize how much you care. For instance, you might mention your summer job as a day camp counselor or your volunteer experience mentoring younger children.
Don't forget to include detail and vibrancy to keep your statement interesting. The use of detail shows how your unique voice and experiences can add value to the college or university you're applying to.
Stay on topic.
It's natural to want to impress the members of the admissions committee that will read your personal statement. The best way to do this is to lead your readers through a cohesive, informative, and descriptive essay.
If you feel you might be going astray, check to make sure each paragraph in the body of your essay supports your introduction. Here are a few more strategies that can help keep you on track:
Know what you want to say and do research if needed.
Create an outline listing the key points you want to share.
Read your outline aloud to confirm it makes logical sense before proceeding.
Read your essay aloud while you're writing to confirm you're staying on topic.
Ask a trusted friend or family member to read your essay and make suggestions.
Be true to your own voice
Because of the importance of your personal statement, you could be tempted to be very formal with structure and language. However, it's better to use a more relaxed tone than you would for a classroom writing assignment.
Remember: admissions committees really want to hear from you . Writing in your own voice will help accomplish this. To ensure your tone isn't too relaxed, write your statement as if you were speaking to an older relative or trusted teacher. This way, you'll come across as respectful, confident, and honest.
Tips for drafting an effective personal statement
Now that you've learned a little about personal statements and how to craft them, here are a few more tips you can follow to strengthen your essay:
1. Customize your statement.
You don't have to completely rewrite your personal statement every time you apply to a new college, but you do want to make sure that you tailor it as much as possible. For instance, if you talk about wanting to take a certain class or study a certain subject, make sure you adjust any specifics for each application.
2. Avoid cliches.
Admissions committees are ultimately looking for students who will fit the school, and who the school can help guide toward their larger goals. In that case, cliches can get in the way of a reviewer understanding what it is you want from a college education. Watch out for cliches like "making a difference," "broadening my horizons," or "the best thing that ever happened to me."
3. Stay focused.
Try to avoid getting off-track or including tangents in your personal statement. Stay focused by writing a first draft and then re-reading what you've written. Does every paragraph flow from one point to the next? Are the ideas you're presenting cohesive?
4. Stick to topics that aren't controversial
It's best not to talk about political beliefs or inappropriate topics in your personal essay. These can be controversial, and ideally you want to share something goals-driven or values-driven with an admissions committee.
Polish your writing skills on Coursera
A stellar personal statement starts with stellar writing skills. Enhance your writing ability with a writing course from a top university, like Good with Words: Writing and Editing from the University of Michigan or Writing a Personal Essay from Wesleyan University. Get started for free to level up your writing.
1. Common App. " 2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts , https://www.commonapp.org/blog/2022-2023-common-app-essay-prompts." Accessed June 9, 2023.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.
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Writing the Personal Statement
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This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.
The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:
1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:
This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.
2. The response to very specific questions:
Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.
Questions to ask yourself before you write:
- What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
- What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
- When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
- How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
- If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
- What are your career goals?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
- Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
- What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
- What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
- Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
- What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Answer the questions that are asked
- If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
- Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
Tell a story
- Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
- Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
Find an angle
- If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.
Concentrate on your opening paragraph
- The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.
Tell what you know
- The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.
Don't include some subjects
- There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).
Do some research, if needed
- If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.
Write well and correctly
- Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.
- A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.
For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast .