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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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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!
Related CollegeVine Blog Posts
First-year essay prompts
Common App has announced the 2023-2024 essay prompts.
Below is the complete set of common app 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 also retain the optional community disruption question within the Writing section.
Looking for tips on how to approach the essay? Check out our blog !
Starting your Common App essay can be hard. Jen and Emma are here to help.
Solutions center for first-year students
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Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay
How to Write an Effective Essay
Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.
Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.
Tips for Essay Writing
A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.
1. Start Early.
Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.
You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.
2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.
Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.
3. Create a Strong Opener.
Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.
Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.
4. Stay on Topic.
One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.
A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.
5. Think About Your Response.
Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.
6. Focus on You.
Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.
7. Stay True to Your Voice.
Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.
8. Be Specific and Factual.
Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.
9. Edit and Proofread.
When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.
Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.
What is the format of a college application essay?
Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.
Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.
How do you start an essay?
The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.
You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.
What should an essay include?
Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.
What shouldn’t be included in an essay?
When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.
How can you make your essay personal and interesting?
The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.
Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?
Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.
- How to Write a College Essay
College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Getty Images
For college applicants, the essay is the place to showcase their writing skills and let their unique voice shine through.
"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.
Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.
This can feel like a lot of pressure.
"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."
That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test optional in recent years, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.
But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.
"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."
On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against college admissions policies that consider an applicant's race. The ruling, though, does not prohibit students from writing essays on how their race has affected them, which experts say could significantly affect how students approach this portion of their applications.
Essay-writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, unique, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.
From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college application essay.
Getting Started on the College Essay
How long should a college essay be, how to pick a college essay topic, writing the college essay, how the affirmative action ruling could change college essays, editing and submitting the college essay.
A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.
Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .
Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Students can submit that application to multiple schools.
Another option is the Coalition Application, an application platform accepted by more than 130 schools. Students applying through this application choose from one of six essay prompts to complete and include with their application.
In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.
Students should budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.
"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says.
Though the Common App notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 650 words.
"While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.
The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.
The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.
There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.
The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.
Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. These are the types of essays that typically stand out to admissions officers, experts say. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.
Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay – a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.
What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.
"Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials," Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. "After reading your essay, the reader won't fully know you – at least not entirely. Your objective is to evoke the reader's curiosity and make them eager to get to know you."
If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics, they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Klein Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What are the things you think I do well?" Or, "What are my quirks?"
The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say.
Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing, though of course everyone's writing process differs.
The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."
If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.
Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:
"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."
"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."
The key to a good college essay is striking a balance between being creative and not overdoing it, Huguet says. He advises students to keep it simple.
"The college essay is not a fiction writing contest," Huguet says. "Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel."
He adds that students should write in the voice they use to discuss meaningful topics with someone they trust. It's also wise to avoid hyperbole, as that can lose the readers' trust, as well as extraneous adverbs and adjectives, Huguet says.
"Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways," he says. "It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you."
The Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action has left some students feeling in limbo with how to approach their essays. Some are unsure whether to include racial identifiers while others feel pressure to exclude it, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company.
"For instance, some of our Asian students have been concerned that referencing their culture or race in their essay could negatively impact them (even moreso than before)," Rim wrote in an email. He noted that many students he works with had already begun crafting their essays before the ruling came. "Some of our other students have felt pressure to disclose their race or share a story of discrimination or struggle because they expect those stories to be received better by admissions officers."
Some of the uneasiness stems from what feels like a contradictory message from the court, Rim says. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., said the ruling shouldn't be construed "as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But he added that colleges may consider race only if it's tied to an applicant’s individual experiences or qualities, such as demonstrating courage against discrimination.
Personal essays shouldn't serve as a way for universities to ask students about their race as a means to admit them on such basis, Roberts added.
Rim says he expects there to be a lot of confusion from parents and students as they navigate that line when writing their essay. He says his guidance will vary with each student depending on their specific situation.
"For a student from an immigrant family, sharing their racial and cultural background may be integral to understanding their identity and values and therefore should be included in the essay," he says. "On the other hand, a student who has never meaningfully considered ways in which their race has shaped their life experience and worldview should not push themselves to do so in their essay simply because they believe it will better their chances."
While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.
"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."
When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Huguet says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do. Doing so is like explaining a joke to someone who's already laughed at it, he says.
"Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, 'And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,' she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet," Huguet says. "Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to."
After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees. Some providers may offer scholarships or other financial aid for their services.
The availability and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.
Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.
Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay. Huguet says it's typically wise to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to seeking feedback on essays. Too many perspectives can become counterproductive, he says.
"While it can be valuable to have different perspectives, it's best to seek out individuals who are experts in the writing process," he says. "Instructors or professors can be helpful, particularly if they possess subject expertise and can provide guidance on refining arguments, structure and overall coherence."
Proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.
And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else write your essay is not.
When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.
Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."
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Common application essays: the complete guide (2023-2024).
For many high school students, the most dreaded part of applying to college is writing the college application essay. And almost every student who applies to universities in the U.S. will write a Common Application (Common App) essay.
That’s because the Common App is an online college application form used by over 900 colleges. Most of the universities ranked in the top 100 nationally by U.S. News and World Report accept the Common App, including the Ivy League schools.
In this post, we’ll ease your college essay dread by sharing the 2023-2024 Common App essay prompts and tips for answering them successfully.
Common App Essay Format
Let’s start with some basics about writing your Common App essay!
- Essays must be 250-650 words. We recommend aiming for about 500 words.
- You can use a standard five-paragraph essay structure for your Common App essay, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. If you’re comfortable branching out from this structure, feel free! As long as your essay is organized and well-written, the number of paragraphs is not important.
- The Common App platform will not allow you to indent (tab) your paragraphs, so add an empty line between each paragraph to separate them.
- Type your essay in a separate Word document, then paste it into the Common App platform. The font should be standardized once you paste your work in. In case it isn’t, use a 12 pt., single space, simple font like Times New Roman or Calibri.
- Avoid all caps, bold, underline, and italics because they can look more conversational than professional. The same applies to emojis, hashtags and excessive exclamation points.
Professional, easy-to-read formatting is important. But the content and quality of your writing is even more i mportant. So, let’s look at the Common App essay prompts. There are seven total prompts, and you can choose the one that most inspires you.
2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts
The seven Common App essay prompts for 2023-2024 are:
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
How to Choose a Common App Essay Topic
With seven prompt options, how do you choose the right one? And once you’ve decided on a prompt, how do you decide what to write about?
After reading through the Common App essay prompts, it’s a good idea to choose three favorites. Then, brainstorm a list of topics for each of your selections. After brainstorming, write to the prompt that produces the best idea.
The best idea will be interesting, meaningful, engaging, or thought-provoking. It should be a topic that’s unique to you, or at least something that will separate your essay from the hundreds or thousands of others the admissions team must read.
You should also ensure that your chosen topic is a good representation of you and what you bring to a college campus. Perhaps most importantly, it should be something you’re genuinely excited to write about.
Now, we’ll dive deeper into each prompt and how to answer them!
What should you write about?
This is an open-ended essay topic with nearly limitless possibilities. If you choose this topic, write about something that you consider central to who you are as a person. It can be about a hobby, interest, skill, or experience. It can also be about an element of your family, heritage, or culture. Think of this topic as, “Is there anything you really want to tell us about?”
What should you not write about?
Don’t write about a topic that applies to hundreds of other students. For instance, it’s better to avoid writing about the death of a family member or pet, being the captain of your school sports team (unless you can put an interesting spin on it), or your significant other.
It’s also best to remember that you are the main character of your essay, so don’t focus on another person who’s an inspiration in your life, like one of your parents or grandparents.
How should you write it?
First, pick something that’s genuinely meaningful to you. Your passion for the topic and its importance in your life should shine through in your writing.
Once you’ve decided on a topic, think about how to frame it as a story. (Remember that the prompt says to “share your story.”) Your personal story about the topic will give your essay a unique perspective and help you stand out from the crowd.
Begin the essay with a brief anecdote that highlights your topic. It can showcase how you got into the talent or interest you’re writing about or a meaningful moment in your life that’s relevant to your selected topic. It can also focus on a challenge you’ve experienced and overcome that’s tied to your identity or background. Use concrete, specific details that bring your story to life.
After the anecdote, reflect on why the topic is so important to you. How has it impacted your life and your growth as a person? What have you learned from it? How has it shaped your identity? Why is it an essential part of who you are? You don’t have to answer all these questions, but make sure to demonstrate your ability to reflect about your experiences in a meaningful way.
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Note that this essay has three parts: 1) A time when you faced a challenge, 2) How it affected you, and 3) What you learned from the experience. Although you will need to explain a challenge you faced, the majority of the essay should focus on what you learned from the experience.
So, consider if you’ve experienced a failure or setback that has taught you a valuable lesson or made you a better person. Do you respond well to challenges and obstacles, and is there an experience you can share that highlights positive qualities like determination, perseverance, and a positive attitude?
Challenges could include growing up in poverty, having a learning disability or physical disability, or being bullied. It could also mean missing out on an opportunity you really wanted, or being told you wouldn’t achieve something, then going on to accomplish it anyway.
Overused responses to this prompt may include moving around a lot as a child, losing a championship game, or the death of a family member or pet. That doesn’t mean you absolutely can’t write about these topics, but make sure you have something new or insightful to say.
You should also avoid topics that could seem silly to the admissions team, like a break-up, failing your math test, or missing out on the party of the year. Don’t write about anything that calls your morals or judgment into question, such as any type of illegal or inappropriate activity.
Start by briefly describing the challenge, setback, or failure. Avoid overly negative language or complaining. Instead, state the facts. As always, use concrete details to make the story more unique and engaging.
Spend the rest of your essay discussing what you learned and how you grew. How did you handle the challenge and ultimately overcome it? Show positive qualities like resilience, integrity, courage, and persistence. What lessons will you carry with you into college and the rest of your life?
This is one of the more challenging Common App essay prompts. It requires a passionate essay about a belief or value that’s important to you, something you’re willing to stand up for, even when it’s difficult to do so. Think about something that truly matters to you. Why does it matter? Have you stood by an unpopular opinion or belief? Why? What happened next?
Successful responses to this prompt have included an essay about a student challenging her self-doubts and insecurities, as well as an essay about a student standing up to her parents’ old-fashioned ideas about feminism. You could also write about challenging beliefs that are racist, ableist, or otherwise discriminatory.
It’s important to avoid topics that are overly controversial or polarizing. You don’t want to write about something that makes the admissions team uncomfortable or offended, or something that they strongly disagree with. Politics and religion are risky.
It’s almost always a good idea to launch right into the meat of your story. Describe the time you questioned or challenged an idea or a belief, using vivid details and active verbs.
Then, discuss the outcome. How did your actions impact the people around you, your community, or your life? Reflect on why you chose to take a stand and why the value or belief you shared is important to you. How will this experience change or affect your actions in the future?
This prompt is risky because you want to sound passionate, but not preachy. Remember that you’re telling a story about an experience you had, rather than writing a persuasive essay about one of your beliefs. You should also demonstrate that you’re able to consider (and sometimes disagree with) other viewpoints without insulting them. Don’t sound rude, angry, or close-minded. Instead, show that you’re principled and have integrity.
This is another broad prompt that gives you the opportunity to write about a time you felt gratitude. Think about how the people in your life have helped you grow. You can write about a small or big gesture that you appreciated. Consider the role of gratitude in your life, and how acknowledging positive experiences can inspire and motivate you.
You can write about anything from a random act of kindness to something that restored your faith in humanity. It can be a kind gesture from a stranger, an unexpected and meaningful gift from a loved one, or something a person in your life said or did that helped you overcome a challenge or difficult time.
Once again, remember that the main character of your college application essay is always you. So, you must be able to write about how you expressed your appreciation or responded to the gesture. How did it affect you? How does it continue to motivate you now? Did it inspire you to “pay it forward” to others? In what way?
You want to write about an uncommon act of kindness that deeply affected you, something you’ll always remember and draw inspiration from. In most cases, it’s better to avoid writing about something materialistic, like your parents buying you the car you’ve always wanted or getting you an expensive prom dress. If it costs money, but the gesture was personal and meaningful to you, then it’s okay to address it.
How should you write about it?
Start by sharing the experience or gesture that you appreciate. Use specific details to show (not tell) how the gesture made you feel seen, heard, or acknowledged. What happened that touched your heart and inspired you?
For most of your essay, focus on how you responded and drew inspiration from the experience. What did you realize as a result? How did you express gratitude and appreciation? How did you choose to pay it forward? Is the act of kindness linked to your passions or aspirations for the future?
Words like “event” and “accomplishment” are open to interpretation. It could be a major life event or a small occurrence that meant a lot to you. Often, the smaller events make for more surprising and memorable Common App essays. Whatever you’d like to write about, make it creative and interesting by sharing your unique perspective.
Think about the moments, even small ones, that changed you as a person or opened your eyes to new ideas. Have you ever had an “aha” moment that impacted your perspective or actions moving forward? What’s something you’ve learned that made you feel more capable or more adult?
Make sure that the accomplishment, event, or realization is something that helped you learn or grow. Maybe you simply discovered something new about yourself, like leadership skills you didn’t know you had. Perhaps you learned a simple but meaningful life lesson, like the value of being open to feedback or slowing down to appreciate the little things in life.
One overdone topic is sharing a community service experience that made you appreciate your own circumstances more. If you really want to touch on this topic, make it unique by discussing a small moment within the experience that affected you in a specific way, instead of something general like “appreciating life” or “being grateful for what I have.” As usual, you should also steer clear of anything illegal, illicit, or potentially silly.
Briefly tell the story of your transformative experience. What happened, what did you accomplish, or what did you realize?
Then reflect on how this moment in your life led to growth or change. How did it help you understand the world through a new or more mature perspective? What did you think or do differently afterward? Did it influence your values or future goals? Did it spark a new interest?
By now, you’ve probably noticed a pattern. It’s best to start Common App essays with a brief story or anecdote that includes vivid details and active verbs. You want to make it specific so it’s not a generalized essay that any applicant should write. Then, it’s time to get reflective about how the experience impacted or shaped you. If you can relate it to your passions, aspirations, or identity, even better!
This prompt is all about your passions. It’s also an opportunity to showcase your capacity for self-motivated learning. College admissions teams admire applicants who are curious and resourceful. If something captures your attention, how do you go about exploring it and learning more?
Whatever you write about, it should meet two main requirements:
- You genuinely love it.
- You’ve taken the initiative to pursue more knowledge and more experiences related to this interest.
What sparks your curiosity, inspiration, and appetite for knowledge? Why? When you’re deeply interested in a topic, how do you seek to enrich your knowledge? What is your learning process?
You can write about your love for dystopian literature, abstract art, chess, coding, the stock market, baseball stats, the culinary arts, or even applying psychology concepts to your favorite TV shows. Are you intrigued by quantum physics, Henry VIII, how to make the perfect cheesecake, or the ripple effects of the Treaty of Versailles? Be specific.
As long as you can explain how you pursued more knowledge on the topic and continued to challenge yourself, don’t be afraid to get creative.
As long as your topic meets the two requirements described above (you love it and you’ve independently pursued more knowledge), it should work well for this prompt. Of course, it could be tricky to write about your obsession with video games or reality TV. Make sure you can explain why the topic fascinates you and how you’ve enriched your learning in this area.
Start by discussing how you initially became fascinated by your topic of interest. Alternatively, you can start by describing your typical morning routine of checking the stock market, or describing your favorite corner of the local library. Share why your topic piqued your curiosity or immediately absorbed you.
Then, explain what you do to further your knowledge in this area. Remember to be specific and use concrete details.
Is your topic related to your college major or future goals? If it’s something non-academic, like perfecting your cheesecake recipe, briefly make a connection to more academic pursuits. Is the way you approach cheesecake the same way you approach preparing for a big test or sharpening your writing skills?
In this case, you can write about anything . This prompt is 100% open-ended. It can even be an essay you’ve already written! But for the same reasons this topic is great, it’s also challenging. Responding to a specific prompt is often much easier than responding to a prompt that says, “Write whatever you want.”
That being said, this is the prompt for you if there’s something you’re dying to share with the admissions team that does not apply to any other Common App essay prompt. What do you have to offer a college campus that no one else can? Is there a story you love to tell that will provide insight into who you are and what matters to you?
Any essay will technically fit this prompt. Just be sure to avoid controversial, inappropriate, or overly silly topics.
The way you write this essay depends on the topic you choose. However, you can follow the general rules of thumb outlined in our advice for the other essay topics. Start with an engaging anecdote that draws the reader into your topic. Then include some reflection about why it’s important, what you learned, or how it’s impacted your personal growth and future aspirations.
General Essay Tips
For any of the Common App essay prompts, as well as supplemental essays and short answer questions, follow these tips:
- Share new information. In your essay(s). Provide information that the admissions team won’t find anywhere else in your application. This is an opportunity to highlight aspects of your personality and life that don’t fit anywhere else.
- Write in your voice . Your essays should “sound” like you. If the schools you’re applying to don’t offer interviews, this is your best chance to let your personality shine. The admissions team wants to know who you are, beyond your GPA and test scores.
- Use specific details. We’ve said this a lot, but that’s because it’s important. Vivid details and memorable language set your essay apart from the pack, even if your topic is extremely unique or groundbreaking.
- Be creative. Don’t be afraid to get creative and highlight what makes you unique, within reason. Admissions officers that have read thousands of repetitive essays will appreciate something that’s a little zany.
- Proofread carefully. Read over your essay multiple times for clarity, concision, grammar, and spelling. Delete unnecessary or repetitive words and phrases. Try to use active verbs (e.g., “Joe interviewed me” instead of “I was interviewed by Joe,” or “My mom picked me up from school” instead of “I was picked up by my mom”). Ask a trusted friend, family member, or teacher to review your essay too.
You should also make sure your essay answers the question the prompt asks. Write about something that’s important to you, and always make sure to reflect. You aren’t just telling a story; you’re showing what you learned, how it changed you, and why it’s important enough to be the focus of your college application essay.
Final Thoughts: Common App Essay Tips
Writing your Common App essay doesn’t have to be scary. Believe it or not, it can even be fun. The key is to choose a topic that you’re excited to write about. Dig into something that’s important to you. Get creative, use specific details, and reflect on your experiences.
Don’t try too hard to impress or use vocabulary words you’ve never used before. Be yourself – just a more polished, professional version. Write in your voice and let your personality shine. That sounds at least a little fun, doesn’t it?
By following these tips, you’ll reduce your college essay stress and write a memorable essay that college admissions teams will love.
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- College application essays allow students to showcase their strengths and uniqueness.
- A well-written college essay could tip an admission decision in your favor.
- Students should spend time editing and proofreading their application essays.
- Your college application essay should focus on you and a meaningful topic.
Many colleges and universities require a college admissions essay as part of the application process. These personal statements allow students to describe their academic achievements, their strengths, and other personal aspects that can help admissions officers see them as unique individuals.
The essay also demonstrates a student's readiness for college and likelihood of success. While an applicant's GPA, SAT or ACT scores, and transcripts are important, a college application essay can offer an admissions department insights that these metrics don't reveal.
How Important Is the College Application Essay?
Many schools strongly emphasize the college application essay during admissions.
Although universities consider other elements such as GPA and recommendation letters , an outstanding personal essay for college can help you stand out from other applicants. If you have a similar GPA and test scores to those of other applicants, an essay can allow you to differentiate yourself.
According to a 2018-19 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of admissions counselors reported that their institutions placed "considerable" or "moderate" importance on the college application essay when making admission decisions.
The report also found that private schools and more selective colleges tended to put the most weight on admissions essays.
How Long Should a College Essay Be?
Most effective college essay topics tend to reflect conciseness. Students who don't know how to write a personal statement for college might lose their readers' attention if they take too long to make their point. Applicants should remember that they get only a few hundred words to leave a favorable impression.
The Common App essay , for example, allows applicants to write a maximum of 650 words and a minimum of 250 words. Most supplemental essays submitted through this application system should be around 250 words or less.
With the Coalition Application, essays should be 500-650 words long .
What Kinds of College Essay Prompts Are There?
College essay prompts typically consist of broad, open-ended questions. They intend to focus students' writing while allowing for some freedom when addressing a topic. Depending on the school, students might respond to one prompt or pick from several.
Students should pay attention to what a prompt asks and stay on topic. Failing to answer the prompt directly is a common mistake when writing a personal statement for college.
Both the Common App and Coalition for College provide several prompts. Students should read their chosen question carefully as they develop their response. Creating outlines can help applicants stay on topic.
Common App Essay Prompts, 2021-22
- 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.
Coalition App Essay Prompts, 2021-22
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
- Has there been a time when you've had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
- What is the hardest part of being a student now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
What Are Some Examples of Good College Essay Topics?
Good college essay topics enable concise, transparent, honest, and meaningful writing. Because personal statements should differentiate applicants from their peers, topics should include compelling details and anecdotes.
Students should think carefully before writing about a negative experience or personal weakness. A college essay should portray the applicant positively, and dwelling on difficult or taboo topics could detract from your strengths.
You might look for college application essay examples to help you brainstorm topics. Students can also consider asking family members and peers to comment on their strengths and unique qualities. They may have insight to offer about what makes an applicant a good fit for a particular major or area of study.
Below are some examples of good college essay topics:
- A Defining Moment, Experience, or Realization: An experience that changed your perspective; a strong belief you no longer hold
- Someone Who Has Greatly Influenced You: Your most important mentor; a person who changed your life for the better
- A Key Part of Your Identity: An important aspect about you that you wish more people knew; your best characteristic
- Your Biggest Passion: A cause for which you have sacrificed; how your passion helped shape your identity
- A Problem You Solved: A significant obstacle you overcame; a solution you developed that achieved results
- A Unique Hobby: Your most enjoyable pastime; a time when your hobby taught you a valuable lesson
How to Write a Personal Statement for College: 6 Tips
A key characteristic of an excellent college application essay is writing quality. The personal statement can weigh heavily on some admission decisions. With this in mind, students can employ several strategies to make their essays stand out.
1. Pick a Meaningful Topic
Compelling college essay topics enable applicants to tell memorable and relatable stories. Students choosing subjects that hold personal meaning for them will likely write with more authenticity and enthusiasm, maintaining readers' interest.
Applicants should focus more on writing something they care about rather than what they think will impress admissions officers.
2. Keep the Focus on You
Unlike test scores or letters of recommendation, good college essay topics give students considerable control over how they express their best selves. Therefore, the essay should focus on them and not on other people.
Even personal statements that discuss an influential teacher or mentor should keep the story's focus on the applicant, such as how that person drove you to change or take action.
3. Use Specific Details and Examples
College essays ideally illustrate students' potential by outlining their achievements. These statements should include detailed descriptions and examples that portray experiences rather than future goals.
For instance, students who want to convey their leadership skills might describe specific incidents when they inspired others or helped a group achieve a tangible output.
4. Reveal Something Unique About Yourself
A student should write a college application essay that distinguishes them from other applicants. For example, writing about playing a niche instrument or winning an Olympic medal can help students stand out from other applicants. Doing so also demonstrates how your distinctive qualities will add to campus life.
5. Tell a Story
Students should use their college admissions essays to tell stories, striving for quality instead of quantity. In other words, you should avoid discussing your entire life and instead focus on one or two strong anecdotes that reveal your true self.
Applicants may write about specific hobbies or work experiences that highlight their values, skills, or proficiencies.
6. Edit and Proofread
Editing involves fine-tuning a draft to improve its organization and clarity. Proofreading typically follows editing and entails checking for errors. Once applicants have edited and proofread their essays, they'll benefit from at least one more read-through.
You should also strongly consider asking someone else to review your draft to catch additional errors and provide constructive feedback.
What Should You Avoid in Your Personal Essay for College?
Although a personal essay for college can demonstrate excellent writing and topic choice, it can still leave an unfavorable impression if it contains inappropriate or repetitive information. Here are some examples of topics to leave out of your statement.
Your Grades, Test Scores, and Academic Achievements
Successful college essays typically include information that does not appear anywhere else in the application. When reviewing other submission documents, admissions officers can learn about students' grades, previous courses, and scholarly achievements. As such, the essay should not focus on these kinds of details.
Your Life of Privilege
Steer clear of topics that highlight a privileged lifestyle. For example, framing a relatively common athletic injury as the hardest challenge you've faced may not demonstrate resilience as effectively as you'd like it to. It also suggests a lack of awareness of more serious obstacles others your age have faced.
In your eyes, Fido and Fluffy may be the most amazing creatures on the planet. But we all love our pets. You want your college essay to stand out by focusing on a topic or experience that's unique to you rather than something universal.
Cliches and Trite Quotations
A college admissions essay presents an opportunity for students to express their creativity and originality of thought. Using cliches and trite expressions makes writers appear lazy or unimaginative. Also, some sayings may be relevant to specific cultures, alienating or confusing some readers.
Your Criminal Record
Everybody admires an underdog who overcomes adversity, but illuminating past missteps with the law isn't exactly the best way to make a good first impression on college admissions officers. While you shouldn't sanitize reality for the benefit of your readers, choose a college essay topic that at the very least presents you in a positive light.
Grammar and Spelling Mistakes
Knowing how to write a college application essay includes detecting spelling, punctuation, and grammar mistakes. Error-free personal statements go far to illustrate applicants' excellent writing skills. Students might ask teachers, mentors, or others they trust to read their essays to catch any mistakes before submitting them.
College Application Essay Example
I planned my high school career carefully: marching band, honors courses, and three dual-credit college classes. My senior year should have been a smooth glide to graduation, with multiple electives to fill out the seven-hour day.
As a member of the Class of 2011, however, I became part of the first group of students to fall under the Texas Education Agency's new "4x4 plan." High school graduation requirements for Texas students expanded to include four years of four core subjects: mathematics, social studies, English, and science.
Under the new plan, despite careful planning, I was one year short on science. Due to the limited curriculum options of my small school, the only course on my prescribed registration list was Biology II. Enrolling in Biology II meant participating in the final project: dissecting cats.
I had avoided the course in the past for this exact reason. Being a longtime animal lover and advocate, there was simply no way I would — or could — take a scalpel to the body of a nameless shelter cat — killed in a gas chamber, its limbs stiff, fur matted with embalming fluid.
If all else failed, I was ready to sacrifice my 4.0 GPA. I was prepared to sit out for the project and take a dozen failing grades.
But first, I decided to put up a fight.
I drafted a formal letter to the principal and the biology teacher, discussing my reservations. I sent a second letter to the school's anatomy teacher. Her courses were over capacity, strictly limited to students interested in pursuing a health major in college, and the only other science option available at my grade level.
I let them know how the sudden introduction of the 4x4 plan felt like a punishment to students like me who had painstakingly planned their high school years from the start. I told them of my compassion for all living creatures, my concern with the use of cruel carbon monoxide euthanasia in Texas shelters, and the availability of modern computer programs that required no desecration of beloved companion animals.
When my senior year arrived, I had a seat in the crowded anatomy classroom — a future music major, alongside two dozen students with their eyes set on nursing, physical therapy, and medical school.
Presenting my views in a clear, respectful way prompted three adults in authority to make a positive change on my behalf. I was further informed that, in the years to follow, shelter cats would be phased out of Biology II and replaced with virtual dissection labs.
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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay
College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.
When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.
Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.
So, what does this mean for you?
Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.
A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.
A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.
Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.
More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.
Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.
Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.
Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.
Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.
Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.
Grab the Reader From the Start
You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.
Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.
Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.
Focus on Deeper Themes
Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.
College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.
Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?
Show Don’t Tell
As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.
The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.
Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.
Try Doing Something Different
If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?
If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.
You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.
However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.
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Write With the Reader in Mind
Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.
Use transitions between paragraphs.
Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?
Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?
Write Several Drafts
Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.
Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.
Read It Aloud
Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.
If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.
Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.
Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.
Ask Others to Read Your Essay
Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.
Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.
Pay Attention to Form
Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.
“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.
In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.
End Your Essay With a “Kicker”
In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.
It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.
So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.
While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.
Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!
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19 College Essay Topics and Prompts
Not sure what to write for your college essay? We've got you covered with a number of topics and prompts to help shape your unique story.
As part of your college application materials, you'll likely be asked to submit a college essay. These tend to be between 250 and 650 words , and are a unique opportunity to showcase your personality. Admissions panels are typically looking for students who will positively represent the school as a whole. In the end, your goal is to show them that you and the college are a good match.
When drafting your college essay, you may be expected to answer a prompt or come up with a topic on your own. In this article, we've rounded up several ideas to get you thinking—and writing.
19 college essay topics
Each school sets different requirements around the college essay, so it's important to review the expectations around every application you intend to submit. Some give you creative freedom, while others expect you to respond to a pre-developed prompt. Either way, a strong college essay conveys to the admissions team who you are, why you want to attend that particular school, and what matters to you. It's a way to personalize an application that often focuses on quantitative data, such as GPA and SAT scores.
If you're given the creative freedom to write about whatever you want, consider a college essay topic that allows you to be honest and original. We've compiled the following ideas to help you brainstorm:
What's an important issue you care about? How have you gotten involved?
Have you changed your mind about something in recent years? What was it and why?
What's a situation that caused you to grow?
Explain a time when you failed. What did you learn from that moment?
Share a surprising pastime or hobby and what interested you about it.
What extracurricular activity are you involved in that speaks to your personality?
Detail a meaningful volunteer experience.
Dive into a meaningful travel experience.
Who do you most admire and why?
If you have a unique background, share a bit about it. How did you get where you are?
What's the best advice you've ever received?
Was there ever a time when you had to stand up for something—or someone?
What's something you might change about the world to make it better?
What do you hope to accomplish by attending college?
Is there something you want to do after graduating college?
Have you ever made or created something? Talk about it.
Do you have a big idea that could potentially impact your community?
What is most valuable to you? Dive into your values and share an example.
What are you most passionate about? Why?
Pre-developed college essay prompts
Some colleges and universities will give you a series of prompts to choose from. These will vary from school to school, and can either be questions or statements. Here are a few examples of both.
Sample question prompts:
What excites your intellectual curiosity?
How has your upbringing shaped the person you are today?
Sample statement prompts:
Talk about an unusual circumstance in your life
Share how you hope to use your college education
Discuss a list of books you have read in the last year
Common App essay prompts
Common App is an online platform designed to simplify the college application process. Over 900 colleges use Common App, making it possible for you to fill out one application that's then submitted to multiple schools.
If you choose to complete the Common App, you'll have a choice of several distinctive prompts that change every academic year. Here's a sample of the 2022-2023 essay prompts [ 1 ]:
Stick to the prompt.
No matter what type of prompt you receive, it's your job to stick to it. The admissions team has a lot of essays to read, so you'll have a better chance of standing out if you develop a cohesive response that stays on topic.
Start by identifying the prompt's main topic, then spend some time brainstorming to find the idea that resonates most with you. For many people, it's the topic that makes them feel some sort of emotion or reminds them of an entertaining story. Understanding what you're being asked to write about should make staying on topic throughout the entire composition easier.
5 additional college essay tips
Once you decide what you'd like to write, follow the tips below to craft a standout essay. You can also find more advice about college essays in our article College Essay Format: Writing and Editing Tips .
1. Be considerate with humor.
Showing off your sense of humor lets your personality show through your words and can make reading the essay more entertaining. Try including a few sentences that you think will bring a smile to the reader's face, or use adjectives to insert some colorful comedy.
2. Offer insight.
Beyond recounting an event, experience, or memory, a great essay shows insight aka an ability to highlight meaningful takeaways. For example, if you choose to write about your unique hobby, try to discuss what you've learned from that pastime—or how you've grown as a result of it.
3. Add details
Great essays also invite the reader to connect with the story on an emotional level. With that in mind, it can help to recount a specific memory rather than answer a prompt without those colorful details. More than discussing something on a surface level—or vaguely—you want to provide enough particulars to keep your readers engaged. For example, if you choose to write about the best advice you ever received, set the scene and take the reader back to that moment.
4. Have an editor.
Your essay should ideally be error-free. Ask a trusted friend or family member to review your essay and suggest edits. An editor can help you catch grammatical errors or points out ways to better develop your response.
Avoid passing your paper along to too many people, though, so you don't lose your own voice amid all of the edits and suggestions. The admissions team wants to get to know you through your writing and not your sister or best friend who edited your paper.
5. Revise your essay.
Your first draft is just that: a draft. Give yourself plenty of time to read and revise your first pass and make sure you fully developed your response, stayed on topic, and shared your personality.
When revising your essay, you may find it helpful to read it aloud so you hear the words as you're saying them. Some people prefer to print a copy on paper and write notes by hand. Both options give your brain a new way to process the information to catch details you may miss if you keep everything in your head and on the computer.
Watch to find out why the essay many admission counselor's favorite part of the application:
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How to Write a Personal Essay for Your College Application
What does it take to land in the “accept” (instead of “reject”) pile?
How can you write an essay that helps advance you in the eyes of the admissions officers and makes a real impression? Here are some tips to get you started.
- Start early. Do not leave it until the last minute. Give yourself time when you don’t have other homework or extracurriculars hanging over your head to work on the essay.
- Keep the focus narrow. Your essay does not have to cover a massive, earth-shattering event. Some people in their teens haven’t experienced a major life event. Some people have. Either way, it’s okay.
- Be yourself. Whether writing about a painful experience or a more simple experience, use the narrative to be vulnerable and honest about who you are. Use words you would normally use. Trust your voice and the fact that your story is interesting enough in that no one else has lived it.
- Be creative. “Show, don’t tell,” and that applies here — to an extent. The best essays typically do both. You can help your reader see and feel what you are describing by using some figurative language throughout your piece.
- Make a point. As you finish your final body paragraphs ask yourself “So what?” This will help you hone in on how to end your essay in a way that elevates it into a story about an insight or discovery you made about yourself, rather than just being about an experience you had.
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We’ve all heard about the dreaded “college essay,” the bane of every high school senior’s existence. This daunting element of the college application is something that can create angst for even the most accomplished students.
- AA Amy Allen is a writer, educator, and lifelong learner. Her freelance writing business, All of the Write Words , focuses on providing high school students with one-on-one feedback to guide them through the college application process and with crafting a thoughtful personal essay. A dedicated poet, Amy’s work has also been published in several journals including Pine Row Press , Months to Years, and Atlanta Review .
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Common App Prompts and How to Write a Killer Essay
Plus sample essays for every common app prompt.
Featured Expert: Sophia Xian, Cornell University
Curious about the Common App essay prompts? Your Common App essay is one of the most important parts of your college application, but many students struggle with how to approach the essay writing prompts included in the application. In this blog, we’ll share the 7 Common App essay prompts you can choose from, and tips on how to brainstorm ideas and approach each prompt. Plus, read some Common App sample essays for each prompt to get inspired to write your own!
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Article Contents 7 min read
Common app essay prompts.
The Common App is one of the biggest parts of your college application. But, the essay writing prompts provided can be vague and intimidating to students who aren’t sure what to write about or are stumped when it comes to brainstorming. In this guide, we’ll go over each prompt with tips on how to write your essay, plus sample essays to give you inspiration.
If you’re not sure if you’ll need to write a Common App essay, check which schools use the Common App.
Here are the 7 Common App essay prompts you can choose from for your application:
- 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.
Students are encouraged to use this optional question to discuss the effects the pandemic had on their personal lives and learning environment. It\u2019s not meant to be a supplemental college essay . The instructions from the Common App instructions are here . ","label":"Note!","title":"Note!"}]' code='tab1' template='BlogArticle'>
Let’s dive into these 7 Common App essay prompts, including tips on how to approach these prompts and how to write a college essay , and examples of essays written in response to these prompts. Don’t forget to start brainstorming for your Common App activities section , too!
Common App Essay Prompt #1
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 first Common App essay prompt can be a little confusing, because it is quite vague and open. But what this prompt is essentially asking, what is most meaningful to YOU? It’s asking you to personalize this question to you own personal experiences and background.
For instance, you can discuss your family, culture, community, language, achievements or history. Think about any experiences you have that stand out or that you consider to be life-changing.
Keep in mind these life-changing experiences don’t need to be “huge” or impressive. You don’t need to be an Olympic-level athlete to make an impression on a college essay. Maybe your life-changing moment was winning a high school dance competition, because it affirmed your passion for the art of dance and was the end of a meaningful journey to become a great dancer.
While college essay tips can help you structure and organize your response to this prompt, the key here is to do some brainstorming and self-reflection.
This prompt boils down to: what is most meaningful and important to you, and why?
Taekwondo is the heartbeat of my identity, the rhythm that underscores the melody of my life. Without Taekwondo, my application would be incomplete because it is not just a hobby; it is an essential part of who I am, guiding me on the path of personal growth and success. (538 words) ","label":"Common App Essay Prompt #1 Sample","title":"Common App Essay Prompt #1 Sample"}]' code='tab2' template='BlogArticle'>
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?
We all face obstacles, setbacks and disappointments in our lives. Just as we all experience triumphs and overcome those obstacles. College admissions committees want to know: what adversity have you overcome in your life?
Once again, these obstacles can be big or small. Maybe you’re the first person in your family to apply to college, and there were several significant hurdles you needed to meet. Or your adversity was of a more personal nature, where you’ve struggled with social anxiety and meeting new people.
It can be any obstacle that was significant or meaningful to you. The purpose of this essay is to discuss how you overcame it. In some cases, your setback might a challenge you are still struggling with or one that hasn’t been resolved yet. This is great, too. In your essay, discuss how you have worked on this problem so far and what you’re doing now to resolve it.
As I continue to pursue my passion for acting, I do so with the knowledge that success is not guaranteed, but the pursuit of excellence is its own reward. This apparent failure has become a beacon of resilience, guiding me through the spotlight and shadows of the dramatic world, and for that, I am forever grateful. (527 words) ","label":"Common App Essay Prompt #2 Sample","title":"Common App Essay Prompt #2 Sample"}]' code='tab3' template='BlogArticle'>
Common App Essay Prompt #3
Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Again, this prompt can be open to some interpretation. The belief or idea that you questioned or challenged can be a belief that you yourself have, or a belief held by someone else.
To get started, think about the people in your sphere of influence. Your parents, your family, your friends, your teachers, your co-workers. Even your idols or mentors, anyone you look up to or admire. What are beliefs or opinions they have that disagree with, that changed your perspective or made you think twice about your own beliefs?
You can probably think of a specific incident or conversation that made you think differently about a person or idea. Tap a little deeper into this experience. Again, it can be a small idea that was changed or a larger belief. For example, you discovered that a classmate everyone else avoided for being weird or different was actually someone you befriended. Or you met someone who changed the way you see yourself.
This prompt is about self-awareness, self-growth and self-reflection. It will demand that you think about what it is that you believe and why.
This experience allowed me to honor my family's traditions while also embracing the principles that resonate with me. It is a reminder that change, when approached with respect and empathy, can strengthen family bonds and help us evolve into more authentic versions of ourselves. (523 words) ","label":"Common App Essay Prompt #3 Sample","title":"Common App Essay Prompt #3 Sample"}]' code='tab4' template='BlogArticle'>
Here are some more sample college essays to get started!
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?
This is the “gratitude prompt”. The key words in this prompt as “gratitude”, “surprising” and “motivation”. It’s asking you to write about a specific experience or situation in which an act of kindness or gratitude surprised you or was unexpected. The second part of this prompt asks how this experience motivated you or affected you.
First, think about any positive memories you have where someone expressed kindness or gratitude towards you. Think about your family, friends, teachers or even a stranger who helped you out on a tough day or in a hard situation. Why was the action surprising? How did it make you feel? Did it inspire you to pass on a small act of kindness or good feeling? How?
His compassionate actions transformed me into a more resilient and empathetic individual, determined to be a source of support for others. This experience serves as a reminder that even in the face of adversity, kindness and compassion can be powerful tools for change and personal growth. (469 words) ","label":"Common App Essay Prompt #4 Sample","title":"Common App Essay Prompt #4 Sample"}]' code='tab5' template='BlogArticle'>
Common App Essay Prompt #5
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Personal growth comes in many forms. Think about the meaningful experiences where you had that “a-ha!” moment or sudden realization. What were the circumstances surrounding it? What sparked your realization?
What did you do after having this realization? How did it change your thinking or behavior? What did you do to maintain this personal growth or share it with others?
For this essay prompt you’ll need a good hook to reel your reader in. If you’re not sure how to start a college essay , look at some college essay introduction examples to spark some inspiration.
The journey of transformation was not without its challenges. It involved confronting the discomfort of self-discovery and facing the consequences of my actions. It required me to continually remind myself of the impact my words could have on others and to resist the urge to revert to old habits. I learned that confronting one's own flaws and taking responsibility for one's actions is a necessary step toward personal growth and redemption. (588 words) ","label":"Common App Essay Prompt #5 Sample","title":"Common App Essay Prompt #5 Sample"}]' code='tab6' template='BlogArticle'>
Common App Essay Prompt #6
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?
Think about your biggest interests or passions. How did it start? What do you love about it? What does it say about you or how has it shaped you? For the last part of this prompt, think about how you have developed this interest or learned more about it. What specific steps did you take to expand your passion. Did you take classes? Find a mentor? Take on a new challenge? Take your reader on a journey through your passion from the first spark to your present experience with it.
It instills in me the importance of continuous learning and the need to stay current in a rapidly evolving world. In engineering, I find not just a field of study but a lifelong passion, a path that beckons me to shape the future through creativity, knowledge, and a relentless pursuit of solutions. (496 words) ","label":"Common App Essay Prompt #6 Sample","title":"Common App Essay Prompt #6 Sample"}]' code='tab7' template='BlogArticle'>
Prompt 7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
This prompt has a couple of different options for you. You can either submit an essay you’ve already written, provided it fits the word count and intent of the Common App essay, or you can write a response to a different personal essay prompt.
If you choose to submit an essay you’ve already written and save yourself some work on your application, just be sure it is under 650 words and is a personal essay . Your essay needs to reveal something about yourself and be specific to you, it can’t be a strong essay you wrote on just any topic. You might think about submitting a personal essay you wrote that won an award or that you were very proud of. Just make sure it is personal to you!
If you want to write an essay in response to a different prompt or write your own essay prompt and response, the same rules apply. Include the prompt with your essay and make sure your essay is still personal and revealing of who you are and what motivates you.
My father is a source of admiration and inspiration, not only for his resilience and determination but also for his boundless kindness and commitment to family and community. His life journey has provided me with invaluable lessons in perseverance, maintaining a positive perspective in the face of adversity, and the transformative power of generosity and compassion. (629 words) ","label":"Common App Essay Prompt #7 Sample","title":"Common App Essay Prompt #7 Sample"}]' code='tab8' template='BlogArticle'>
The Common App essay prompts are:
Prompt 7 is the Common App prompt chosen most often by students, as it allows you to submit an essay you’ve already written or choose your own prompt.
There are many resources to help you with your essay, including college essay advisors , your guidance counselor or teachers, or college essay writing tips!
The common app essay has a word count range of 250-650 words. However, the recommended length is around 500 words, which gives you a little more space to really develop the ideas in your essay and get your main points across. Any longer and you risk losing your reader, any shorter and your essay will lack impact.
To get started, read all the Common App prompts and decide which one is best for you. Start brainstorming and write down ideas of what to include in your essay. Create an outline so you can determine how to structure your essay and what key ideas to include. Then, write a first draft. After that, revise your essay a few times or ask someone to review your college essay and give you feedback. Read some Common App essay examples to get started!
The Common App essay prompt that is best will depend on you. Each one is fairly vague and open-ended, designed to spark students’ creativity and ask them to write about their own unique personal experiences. Some students prefer to write about certain topics while others might choose to write on a topic of their choosing.
To choose a Common App prompt, read over all of them and see if any of them speak to you or spark an idea for your essay. Do some reflection and brainstorming, and see which prompt has the most for you to work with or is the most interesting to you. Take your time and consider each prompt carefully, the right one will come to you.
What makes a Common App essay great is good writing, strong details and a captivating narrative. Your writing needs to be polished and free of errors, but it also needs to have a logical flow and good structure. The content of your essay should be personalized to your story, and include the right details and anecdotes that capture a reader’s attention and draw them in. Most of all, it needs to be about a topic you want to write about and that you are passionate about.
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College Admissions , College Essays
The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.
In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article will be a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!
What Excellent College Essays Have in Common
Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.
Visible Signs of Planning
Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.
Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.
A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!
A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.
Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.
And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.
Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!
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Links to Full College Essay Examples
Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.
Common App Essay Samples
Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:
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. 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? 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? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 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?
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.
Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts.
- 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
- 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
- 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007
These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).
- 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
- 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
- 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
- 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
- 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
- 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020
Essay Examples Published by Other Websites
- 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia
Other Sample College Essays
Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.
- 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020
- 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
- 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out
University of Georgia
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
- 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
- 10 Harvard essays from 2023
- 10 Harvard essays from 2022
- 10 Harvard essays from 2021
- 10 Harvard essays from 2020
- 10 Harvard essays from 2019
- 10 Harvard essays from 2018
- 6 essays from admitted MIT students
- 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018
Books of College Essays
If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.
College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.
50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .
50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.
Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.
Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked
I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.
Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)
I had never broken into a car before.
We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.
Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.
"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"
"Why me?" I thought.
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.
Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.
But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.
Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.
Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.
What Makes This Essay Tick?
It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!
An Opening Line That Draws You In
In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).
Great, Detailed Opening Story
More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.
It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.
Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.
Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight
Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.
Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."
Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims
My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.
"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.
Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice
My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.
Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."
The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.
An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future
But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"
The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.
This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.
What Could This Essay Do Even Better?
Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?
Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.
Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.
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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.
Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.
I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.
In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).
I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.
A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.
It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.
Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.
One Clear Governing Metaphor
This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.
But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:
This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.
Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:
While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.
An Engaging, Individual Voice
This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.
Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).
My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.
I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.
Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.
Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!
For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:
Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.
Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.
Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.
Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.
In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.
The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.
Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.
Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.” The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.
Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.
4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay
How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.
#1: Get Help From the Experts
Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings . If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale. If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .
#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own
As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:
- Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
- Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
- Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
- Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?
Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.
#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment
All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.
Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.
#4: Start Early, Revise Often
Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.
Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!
For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .
Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.
Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .
Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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My Davidson | A Student Blog Student-to-Student: Advice from Davidson College Students on the College Essay
Current Davidson College students share their tips and tricks for navigating and writing the college essay.
About the Authors
This piece was written by Senior Fellows in Davidson College's Office of Admission & Financial Aid; Zaynab Abuhakema ’24, Nathanael Bagonza ’24, Chloe Boissy Stauffer ’24, Kelsey Chase ’24, Amanda Fuenzalida ’24, Olivia Howard ’24 (she/her), Ann Nishida ’24, Lilly Sirover ’24, Samuel Waithira ’24 and Ruby Zhou ’24.
Learn more about them below.
Zaynab Abuhakema ’24 (she/her) is a physics major and theatre minor from Summerville, South Carolina.
“Just be honest! We want to know more about YOU and why you can see yourself at Davidson. Tell us about your passions in the way that makes the most sense to you. Have someone read over it if you want, but don’t worry too much about the technical part. Just show us who you are the best way you can on a page.”
Nathanael Bagonza ’24 (he/him) is an English major from Haverhill, Massachusetts.
“Don’t worry about if your writing is ‘great’ or not; rather, be intentional in ensuring that your essays demonstrate who you are and what you are passionate about! I ended up becoming an English major writing a collection of essays for my senior honors thesis, but what made my application essays work from day one was telling stories that really spoke to my true, authentic self.”
Chloe Boissy Stauffer ’24 (she/her) is an environmental studies and political science double major from Lake Atitlan, Guatemala.
“A couple pages of writing will never capture your whole story- admissions counselors understand this. In order to communicate an accurate snapshot of who you are, try thinking of one hobby, one accomplishment, or one interaction that you think best reflects your overall skill set and worldview. By using one or two examples to ‘anchor’ your story, you can frame your personality, backstory and values. Whatever you write, make sure it’s authentic to who you are because that’s who we want to get to know.”
Kelsey Chase ’24 (she/her) is a political science major from Concord, New Hampshire.
“I read a lot of Common App essays during my college process, not because I wanted to study them or compare them to my own, but because I genuinely thought they were fascinating to read. This helped me realize that it’s helpful to think about writing the essays for a peer rather than an admissions officer. Don’t worry about what you think the admissions officers want to hear; rather, write an essay that you think would help potential friends understand you at your core. I would also advise against your parents or adults taking too much editorial control over your essay — you want your essay to sound like you, which is someone who’s 17 or 18 years old, not a professional. It can definitely be helpful to have someone read over it just to catch grammar mistakes or awkward phrasing, but what matters most is that you feel like it really conveys something important about who you are.”
Amanda Fuenzalida ’24 (she/her) is a biology major from Naples, Florida and Santiago, Chile.
“When I think about the personal essay, I always think about growth, because that is what life is, a continuous growing process. And at 17–18 years, you do not have to have everything figured out or have decided what you want to for the rest of your life. But what you can do well is reflect on the experiences that have made you the person you are at this very moment. And thinking about this personal statement, I would think maybe what are key major parts of my life that have shaped me to be who I am, that make you proud of yourself. Reading back your essay, you should feel that sense of pride, that this essay reflects the person you (not anyone else) are proud you have become.”
Olivia Howard ’24 (she/her) is a biology and German Studies double major from Dacula, Georgia.
“I do not consider writing to be my strong suit, and I remember the dread and fear I had when I was writing my college essays. Essays are intimidating, and you might feel lost trying to fit your story into the limits that are set. My advice to you is to be patient with yourself and allow who you are to come through on the page. Do not over stress about having the most complex grammar and sentence structure, but rather focus on writing what matters to you. It is okay to not be an award-winning writer who uses metaphors and various literary devices. A lot of times it is better to tell your story in a simple way rather than using flowery language and fluff that does not get your point across.”
Ann Nishida ’24 (she/her) is a biology major and music minor from Ridgewood, New Jersey.
“The focus is on you . The essay portion is a chance for the admission counselors to see a side of you that a transcript or test score won’t fully represent. A good starting point in discovering your unique qualities may be to ask yourself Why ? Why am I passionate about certain activities, why do I interact with my environment in a certain way, why do I want to go to Davidson, etc. Good luck!”
Lilly Sirover ’24 (she/her) is a biology major and public health minor on the premedicine track from Haddonfield, New Jersey.
“As someone who prefers speaking over writing, I highly recommend using a voice recording app to talk through your essay ideas as you begin the writing process. Talking through your unique strengths, challenges you have navigated, a personal experience that changed your perspective, a topic that you are endlessly curious about, or something else personal to you allows your story to develop naturally.”
Samuel Waithira ’24 (he/him) is an economics major and applied mathematics minor from Nairobi, Kenya.
“Be genuine with every aspect of your application. Do not try to mold your application into what you believe the college wants. When you present your true self, you build trust with the admissions team, showing that you have confidence in who you are. Remember that each applicant is unique, and colleges are often looking for a diverse student body. By being genuine, you can showcase your individuality and the qualities that set you apart from other applicants.”
Ruby Zhou ’24 (she/her) is an English major on the predental track from Houston, Texas.
“Start writing. I have a tendency to procrastinate whenever I have a daunting task looming over me, and I just need to start writing or I’ll never get it done. The writing might sound horrible and you might feel embarrassed, but if you think about it, the earlier you start, the more time you have to change “bad” writing to something beautiful.”
Looking for More Student Stories?
Check out more student-written blog posts like this one at My Davidson, Davidson College's blog for students, by students.
- My Davidson
Considering Applying to Davidson College?
Learn more about dates and deadlines, ways to apply, the holistic admission review and more.
Applying to Davidson
- November 2, 2023
Published November 01, 2023
Dear High School Seniors…
Class of 2026
My fellow Admissions Ambassadors and me during the 2023 Weekend on the Square!
Hey there, future NYU Violets! This is Andrew! A second-year student at NYU, majoring in Music Theory and Composition with a concentration in concert music, while also navigating the prehealth track. OK! First of all, congrats on getting this far. You made it to senior year—give yourself a big cheer! Time really does fly. I’ve definitely been in your shoes before…the stress, the excitement, the suspense. But breathe, and maybe let me help you make this process a bit easier for you. So grab a snack, get comfy, and READ THIS.
Choosing Your Major vs. Liberal Studies
Choosing your major: the world is yours.
It is completely OK if you don’t have your entire life planned out yet. NYU offers more than 250 areas of study . That’s a playground of opportunities, y’all! If you’re confused, think about what subjects or activities interest you or make you lose track of time. Trust me, the “right” major is out there waiting for you. Also, feel free to scroll through Meet NYU and browse the articles from each NYU school or follow along on Instagram takeovers so you can learn what life is like for students across a variety of majors.
Liberal Studies: Navigating a Multifaceted World
NYU Liberal Studies (LS) is a great option for incoming students! It’s designed for those who want a strong academic foundation in the liberal arts before choosing a major. You’ll take the core curriculum for the first two years and then transition to a major in another NYU school. Also, the First Year Away program sets LS apart. Imagine spending your first year in cities like London, Madrid, Florence, or Washington, DC, while earning credits toward your degree. This unique experience allows you to expand your horizons and analyze your field of study from a global perspective right from year one.
The Essays: Yes, We Want to Know Your Story!
Well, let’s get into the nitty-gritty: essays! If you’re like me, the thought of writing an essay about yourself might be a bit…well, let me just say that it is not the most pleasant thing to do. But let’s shift that mindset, shall we? The application essays are your opportunity to step into the spotlight. No filter, just you, as a high school senior or first-year applicant!
The Common Application Essay
Think of the Common App essay as the opening act of your play, the intro of your music, and the teaser trailer of your film. This is where you set the stage and give us a glimpse of who you are. It’s not just about listing your accomplishments or backstory. NOPE. Dive into an experience, a lesson, or a moment that shaped you. Make it personal.
The NYU Supplemental Essay
Next up, the NYU supplemental essay . This is where you have to shine again. This year, the NYU supplemental essay question asks you to respond to quotations from commencement speakers. Also, you are more than welcome to pick your own quote!
Recommendation Letter(s): The More Personal, the Better
One letter is required, but submitting two or, at most, three works as well if each letter paints a fuller picture of who you are as an applicant. Aim for someone (e.g., high school teacher, counselor, coach, supervisor, or anyone else in a position of authority) who knows you well and can write to your strengths passionately. Do not, and I repeat, DO NOT, just pick someone who gave you an A for everything. For more information regarding recommendation letters, read this article written by an admissions counselor !
Let’s Cover GPA, Test Scores, and All Those EXTRAcurriculars
So, you might be wondering, “Is my GPA good enough? Do I need a perfect SAT score?” Let’s set the record straight: while your GPA matters, it’s not the be-all and end-all. NYU gets it; you’re so much more than just numbers on paper. Remember, we are test optional. That means NYU analyzes your academic performance in the context of who you are as a person. To learn more about NYU’s test optional policy, read “Test Optional at NYU: What It is and Isn’t.”
Now, for those extracurriculars. You don’t need to be a jack-of-all-trades, but you definitely want to show some spark outside of academics. Whether you’re the high school newspaper editor, a music club star, a science competition winner, an organizer of community service events, or someone who helps do chores for the family, it all counts! Also, it’s better to be really involved in a focused amount of things, rather than spreading yourself so thin over a dozen clubs. Love, there are only 24 hours in a day—it’s OK to admit that we can’t do everything.
You've Got This!
As we wrap this up, I want you to know that I get it. As a high school senior, the stress, the late nights, that feeling like you’re carrying the weight of your entire future on your shoulders, it’s a lot. College applications make everyone a bundle of nerves, myself included. But here’s the thing: you’re more resilient than you give yourself credit for .
Remember, this stressful journey of applying is just a single moment in the bigger picture of your life. So don’t sweat it too much; you’re way more than just an application.
And when you finally press that “submit” button, take a moment. Tell yourself, “I’m reaching for the life I want, and yeah, it does involve taking some risks, but I’m up for it.” Trust me, life has a funny way of working itself out. As someone navigating NYU who has gone through the whole application process, I’m rooting for you, every single step of the way! You’ve got this! You are amazing!
Sincerely, Andrew Zihao Wang
PS: I’d like to shout-out my family, parents, friends, and mentors, especially my super supportive mother during my high school senior year. Yes, it really takes a whole village to get to where you are! Like my mother always told me, “Remember, always be a blessing to others.”
HI Y’ALL! My name is Andrew and hope you are having an awesome day! I am a sophomore at NYU studying Music Composition and Theory in Concert Music while pursuing my interests in Pre-Health. I’m an Admissions Ambassador, Hall Council Member (22-23), Composer Collective E-Board Member, Music Tutor at a Music Academy, Hospital Emergency Room Volunteer, Medical Assistant, and proud NYU Student. Outside of class, I love traveling, listing to music and grab food and coffee with my friends and family! I hope my articles can shine a light to help people navigating through their Pre-NYU, During-NYU, and Post-NYU Journey! Thanks!
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