How to Answer Each Common App Prompt
Every year, over one million students apply to college using the Common Application. 900 colleges and universities accept the Common Application, including all eight of the Ivy Leagues. By the time you begin filling out their Common App, your GPA, extracurriculars, and test scores are all more or less set in stone. That’s why writing a compelling personal statement is crucial. Your Common App essay has the power to set you apart from all of the other students who have a similar academic profile as you. And for schools like Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, where thousands of qualified applicants are up against a single digit percentage acceptance rate, a stellar essay can actually make or break your chances.
So, how exactly do you write an exceptional essay that’s mature, personal, engaging, and unique… in under 650 words? Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all hack to writing the perfect Common App essay. You might be tempted to write what you think your admissions officer wants to read. But that’s a guessing game that you’ll lose most of the time. What admissions officers really want to see is how you express your ideas and feelings in your own voice.
That being said, knowing the do’s and don’ts of each prompt can help you to avoid making classic mistakes and help you to write an essay your admissions officers won’t soon forget.
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.
Do: Tell a story only you can tell. This is your chance to show that you’re more than numbers on paper and demonstrate other aspects of your personality. When you set out to tell this story, make sure to be specific and choose a particular topic to hone in on. You can write about a physical feature, a certain food, or part of your history that sets you apart from other people. The key to this essay is to latch onto a concrete object or idea, and then transition to a more abstract discussion about it. Your essay should provide a narrative that is grounded in this main idea, but weaves in other details which reveal other facets of your identity and personality.
Don’t: There are several classic pitfalls for this prompt. Number one is confusing the word “story” for “autobiography.” Don’t start this essay with the moment you were born and end it with you sitting at your desk writing this essay. 650 words is not enough time to tell your whole life story well. Not only will you not be able to recount your whole life story, but a sharper focus will shed more light on your values than a chronological life story might. The essay will end up feeling rushed and your reader won’t know much more about you by the end of it. Another common mistake with this prompt is latching onto the “background” or “identity” portion of the prompt and writing a classic, self-pitying narrative of struggle and triumph. While your race, ethnicity, gender identity, and sexuality are all essential components to your story, if you choose to write about one of these, you most likely won’t end up with a story only you can tell. Lastly, should you choose to write about an “interest or talent,” avoid bragging about it. With any prompt, strive to balance humility with confidence.
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?
Do: Focus on recent history rather than on an obstacle you overcame when you were young and may not remember with as much clarity. Once you choose the obstacle or setback you want to discuss, talk about your feelings in a mature and emotionally intelligent way, selecting an experience that demonstrates your potential to thrive in and learn from difficult situations. As with any other prompt, try to show, rather than tell, this growth. You could potentially juxtapose two situations: one in which you failed, and a later one in which you implemented what you learned the first time around in order to succeed.
Don’t: You might shy away from this topic because you think your life has been easy, or you haven’t overcome an enormous challenge–don’t! If this prompt jumps out at you, focus on a challenge that may seem small but made a huge difference in your character development. Sometimes the most insignificant instances make for the best stories. There are, however, some topics you might want to avoid. You want your reader to know you better after reading this essay, but you don’t want to get too personal to the extent that you make your reader feel uncomfortable. You can avoid this by avoiding issues which you haven’t fully processed and still view with bitterness or hopelessness. Remember, you are trying to demonstrate growth, not wallow or complain. You should also avoid writing about things you know many other people will write about (like COVID-19). If you do choose to write a common narrative, work hard to give it a unique twist. Tell it the way only you can. Lastly, if you choose to write about setback or failure, don’t deny the part you played. Self-awareness is a trait admissions officers love to see, and you can demonstrate that by being as unbiased and reflective as possible.
PROMPT #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Do: Take this as an opportunity to share something about your ideology as well as demonstrate maturity, independence, and critical thinking skills. Include a healthy amount of conflict leading up to the resolution, so that this reads more like a story and less like an essay.
Don’t: Try not to write in a combative tone, because you never know what views of your reader will hold. Certain topics, like civil rights or gender equality, are pretty cliche; unless those hot topics have personally affected you in a significant and unique way, steer clear of them. Don’t feel like you have to get political or philosophical either. You can write about a time you convinced all of your friends that neapolitan is the best ice cream flavor by conducting a blind taste test at lunch every day for a week!
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?
Do: Begin with a narrative describing one specific instance that made you happy or thankful, even if the event or action occurred multiple times. Focus your essay on how the kind action itself was surprising or how your realization of your own gratitude surprised you. Something as small as a sibling making you food when you were feeling down can speak volumes about your values and personal life. Did your sibling’s unexpected kindness surprise you or were you surprised that you did not appreciate their actions until that particular moment? When discussing how your gratitude has motivated you, try to show how you’ve been affected through your writing rather than directly telling your reader how your thinking has changed.
Don’t: Tell a story that can be written identically by thousands of other applicants. A seemingly mundane action can still make for a fantastic essay, but the details and impact of that action should be unique to you. Many students can talk about their supportive parents driving them to all of their activities, but only you can describe the discussions you had, the music that played, and specifically why those drives made you happy or thankful. Dig deep here — a Hallmark card can describe anyone’s gratitude, your essay should not!
PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Do: Focus on the second half of this prompt that asks you to describe “a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” While this prompt might invite you to describe a major event or accomplishment, what you really want to show is a transformative period, and the resulting reflection. Your college years are all about transitions and transformations. Show your admissions officer that you are not only capable of growth, but also embrace change and strive to keep an open mind about yourself and others.
Don’t: Most importantly here, if you do choose to focus on an accomplishment, don’t brag. Much like prompt #2, avoid writing about events that everyone experiences or has experienced. If you do, be very careful not to write a generic-sounding essay.
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?
Do: First of all, you should consider saving this essay topic for a supplement, since it’s a common theme in those. If you do choose to respond to this prompt, take it as an opportunity to delve deeper into an activity mentioned elsewhere in your application that didn’t receive the attention it deserved. Also, feel free to embrace your nerdiness. No need to play it cool. In fact, the more passionately you write about your nerdy obsession, the better!
Don’t: As tempting as it may be, don’t try to impress your reader with something obscure or complicated. If your passion in life really is quantum physics, just make sure you explain it in layman’s terms. Don’t get too abstract either; make sure to include a concrete example of how this fits into your life, so that your reader knows more about you, (not just quantum physics) by the end of the paper. Additionally, make sure to avoid turning this into a “I want to major in physics because…” paper. This is an especially tricky issue for international students applying to American universities. Most international universities want students to describe their academic interests, rather than their personality, in their college application essay. However, this Common App prompt is designed to help you tell your reader who you are, not just what you do.
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.
Do: Get creative! Take advantage of the flexibility of this prompt and tell your story in a captivating, unique fashion. Carefully choose a story that demonstrates growth or an important character trait that you want colleges to know about
Don’t: Since it’s so open ended, the don’ts for this prompt are the same don’ts of every other prompt combined. However, there are some particular challenges this prompt poses as well. Due to this prompt’s extreme flexibility, you should be careful not to write an unfocused and somewhat irrelevant story. Don’t write a broad story about your past or your future, instead chose a moment or several moments
N.B. This prompt is our personal recommendation! It’s the catchall prompt. If you’re having trouble getting started, just approach the personal statement like a journal entry and just start writing. If it doesn’t end up fitting in with any of the prompts, you can submit it as a response to prompt #7.
In general, prompts are there to help you, not hinder you. You should use a prompt if it will help you put words to paper, but you should not try so hard to fit an essay to a prompt that you end up procrastinating.
If you want personalized help to figure out which prompt is best suited for your story, or to help write and polish your essay, Command Education has a variety of services for you!
- Under the guidance of our senior mentors, all of whom are graduates of Ivy League and other top tier universities, students who join our Digital College Application Booster® Camp tackle the college application process months before their peers, allowing them to direct their focus towards their academics and testing in the coming months. Over the course of six sessions, students will meet with their mentors over video calls to brainstorm, draft, edit, and polish their College List and Personal Essay.
- Command Education’s digital essay review service is a great way for seniors to get immediate, high-quality feedback on their essays. We do all of our editing on a shared platform, so students can see our comments and suggestions step by step. While in-person meetings are also effective, they also take up more of the student’s valuable time that could be spent writing and revising their college essay.
- Our Premier Senior Package™ is designed to take a high school senior through all aspects of the college application process, from choosing the perfect list of schools to apply to, to writing the most compelling college essays, to acing alumni interviews. The process of applying to university has many important components, and we’re here to walk your student through every step of the way.
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