What are your chances of acceptance?
Calculate for all schools, your chance of acceptance.
Your chancing factors
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.
Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story
We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools!
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
7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
Editor & Writer
www.bestcolleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
Turn Your Dreams Into Reality
Take our quiz and we'll do the homework for you! Compare your school matches and apply to your top choice today.
- The Common App college essay is required by most Common App schools.
- This personal essay plays a critical role in many institutions' admission decisions.
- Admissions experts' biggest tips include writing how you speak and focusing on details.
Each year, over a million high school seniors apply for college through the Common Application . This online system enables you to submit one application to multiple schools, meaning you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement .
The Common App essay gives colleges the opportunity to learn more about you as a person and what's important to you. You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality.
Here, we explain what the Common App essay entails before diving into admissions experts' biggest tips for crafting a memorable personal statement.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the Common App and require the essay.
You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.
This statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. You can discuss almost anything you want, provided your topic addresses the prompt you've chosen. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story.
You must submit the Common App essay to all colleges that require it, though some may ask you to submit one or more supplemental essays as well.
The application form provides you with a box in which to type your essay; however, it's strongly recommended that you compose your essay in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or another word processor before copying and pasting your final draft into this box.
How Important Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is a key part of your college application. According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement moderately or considerably important. Highly selective institutions tended to place more emphasis on the essay.
"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, a former Princeton writing instructor and the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc .
Benedict, who spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, has helped students around the world apply to college for over a decade.
"Applying to a hyper-selective college with mediocre or uneven grades and a fabulous essay will likely not get you into that college, [whereas] applying to a hyper-selective college with top grades and scores, outstanding extracurriculars, and a mediocre essay could sink your application," she said.
While most experts agree that a strong Common App essay won't necessarily secure you admission into a highly selective college — especially if your grades and test scores aren't up to par — a well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor.
According to Benedict, this often happens at small liberal arts colleges , which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach .
Experts' Top 7 Common App Essay Tips
Admissions officers, higher education administrators, education consultants, and college admissions advisors like Benedict have many tricks for approaching the Common App essay. Here are some of their biggest tips.
1. Don't Mistake a Rare Topic for an Effective Topic
Many students assume their Common App essay must revolve around a unique topic that no other applicant has ever written about, but this is a myth.
"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," Whitney Soule told U.S. News & World Report . Soule currently serves as Bowdoin College's dean of admissions and student aid.
"It's not just about the topic," echoes Jennifer Gayles , director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, "but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic."
Choosing the right Common App essay topic can be tricky, but it's extremely important. "Students I work with run the gamut from having a good idea to having absolutely no idea what to write about," Benedict said. "Often in our brainstorming session, an idea will pop up in discussion, and I'll say, 'That's a good idea,' and the student will be surprised."
To identify potential essay topics, Benedict proposes asking yourself a series of questions. Have you experienced a turning point in your life? Are you deeply passionate about a particular subject?
Ultimately, your essay should excite and inspire you, as well as those who read it. "If an essay topic makes your heart beat fast, that's a good sign," said Benedict.
2. Pick the Best Essay Prompt for You
Not all Common App essay prompts are created equal. Of the seven prompts, some will no doubt work better for you than others.
Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, asks students to think about what version of themselves they want to present to schools and to trust their instincts.
"Don't just jump on the first prompt you read and start writing," she writes in a blog post for NYU. "Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to us about a specific achievement? Do you want to give us insight into a hardship you faced and conquered?"
In essence, work backward: Start with a topic and then see which essay prompt fits it the best.
This is the same advice given by Thea Hogarth of College Essay Advisors : "Once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you'll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story."
3. Use Your Space Wisely
Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic.
The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words. But just how long should your statement be? Admissions Blog advises aiming for around 500 words. And former Tufts University admissions officer Becky Leichtling concurs.
"The most common 'personal statement' length is in the ballpark of 500 words," Leichtling writes for Bright Horizons College Coach . "I consider 500 the 'sweet spot,' but don't stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 [words] that you're honestly proud of."
4. Fill Your Story With Details
Details are everything when it comes to the Common App essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.
"Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement," Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, writes on his company's website . "Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you."
Meredith Reynolds, associate director of admissions at Tufts, similarly recommends that applicants emphasize specifics in their essays. "By focusing on details, you set yourself apart," she says.
In terms of structure, Benedict advises approaching the Common App essay one step at a time. "Break down the topic to the smallest pieces you can and write a paragraph about each," she said.
In other words, discuss specific moments from your life. Relate conversations you've had. Describe how something felt or looked. It's the details in your story — not the topic itself — that will help you stand out the most.
5. Channel Your Authentic Voice
The Common App essay is unlike most essays you've written for school. Instead of analyzing a piece of literature or a historical event, you must showcase your identity. As such, the words you use should sound like they actually come from you — not a thesaurus or an English teacher.
"[Students] are used to writing academic essays and trying to impress with big words and formal-sounding constructions," Benedict said when asked about the most common mistake students make on the Common App essay. "The best essays have a conversational voice — not a stiff, academic one."
Educational consultant Ian Fisher agrees . In a blog post offering language tips for college essays, Fisher expounds on the importance of writing in a way true to how you talk in real life.
"You're going to have to fight the urge to 'impress' your admissions reader with the big words you've learned from your SAT practice," he writes.
Students should, however, avoid using any derogatory, offensive, or inappropriate language. Fisher recommends using words like "debate" instead of "fight" and "undeveloped" instead of "stupid."
Likewise, students should refrain from relying on cliches. This includes phrases such as "happily ever after," "beggars can't be choosers," and "crack of dawn." Benedict advises getting someone to "cliche-proof" your essay.
6. Get Feedback
Before submitting your Common App essay, show it to someone who will not only offer feedback but also edit and proofread your writing.
Shemmassian suggests giving your draft to "a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor." Meanwhile, Reynolds says you should "show your essay to two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well."
All recommendations from experts share a common thread: Getting feedback on your Common App essay should be a top priority.
7. Don't Neglect Supplemental Essays
Lots of competitive universities require the Common App essay in addition to supplemental essays and/or short answers. If you have other essays to submit, don't spend all your time working on the Common App essay. After all, all essays can impact your admission chances.
"At the most selective colleges and universities, there are usually supplemental essays as well, and those are part of the overall package, and they are very important," Benedict said.
She also discussed how a great Common App essay combined with weak supplemental essays could reflect poorly on your application and increase your risk of getting rejected .
"I can't stress enough the importance of the supplemental essays," Benedict continued. "For the most selective universities, all of the essays taken together present a 'package' of who you are." And how you choose to put together that package is up to you.
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc. , which has been helping students apply to college around the U.S. and all over the world for a dozen years. Elizabeth is a best-selling novelist, a prolific journalist, and an editor of many books. She has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her clients are regularly admitted to top universities and their first-choice colleges.
Feature Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images
Explore More College Resources
How to Write a Body Paragraph for a College Essay
College application deadlines for fall 2024 admission.
BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
Compare Your School Options
View the most relevant schools for your interests and compare them by tuition, programs, acceptance rate, and other factors important to finding your college home.
How to Write the Common App Essay [With Examples]
- What are the Common App Essay prompts 2023/24?
- How to write the Common App essay [top tips for your students
Writing the Common App essay: final checklist
Join 10,000 other counsellors & educators & get exclusive resources delivered straight to your inbox.
Our updated guide on how to write the Common App essay contains everything you need to steer your students through the 2023/24 application cycle, including annotated examples.
One of the most effective ways of learning is by seeing things in action. And that’s no different when it comes to university applications. That’s why so many students – and their advisers – are keen to see things like Common App examples of essays and other application materials.
Well, you’re in luck. We’ve got just that, and much more advice and guidance, in this handy guide!
If you have students who are looking to study at a university in the US, then there is a high probability they will submit some of their applications through the Common App. After all, it’s the most widely used admissions platform for US university applicants (though it’s also possible to apply to destinations outside the US).
Over 800 higher education institutions accept applications through the Common App. This helps to speed up the admissions process , since students only have to submit relevant personal information once.
Download your free Common App essay worksheet
Download our free worksheet, complete with templates and tips designed to help your students plan and write a truly original and individual Common App essay.
In addition to relevant high school transcripts, test scores, information on extra-curricular activities and parent/legal guardian information, all students applying to university through the Common App must submit a standard application essay.
The Common App essay prompts changed back in 2021 for the first time since 2017 , reminding us just how important it is to stay up-to-date with the latest developments.
But don’t worry, we’ve got your back!
In our updated guide to the Common App essay for the 2023/24 application cycle, we’ll explore the updated essay prompts and explain how you can support your students as they write their applications. We’ve also included some Common App examples for maximum clarity!
What are the Common App Essay Prompts 2023/24?
There are seven Common App essay prompts for 2023/24. Each is designed to give students the opportunity to explore who they are, what they want from a college education, and their core beliefs and values.
Each of the Common App essay prompts will encourage students to explore a different facet of their background and their personality.
Let’s explore each in more detail
How to write Common App Essay Prompt 1
“some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. if this sounds like you, then please share your story.”.
This is a wonderfully open Common App essay prompt.
What’s it asking? In short, it’s inviting students to talk about any aspect of their culture, experiences or education that they feel is deeply meaningful to them.
Specifically, college admissions committees want to know how student’s experiences have shaped them and defined them. Let’s break up each component part of this essay prompt, and look at how students could approach them.
In short, this is anything about a student’s background that they feel has shaped them. It could be something about their family history, background or lineage. It might be a sport, interest or talent they had when they were younger that has informed them as a teenager.
This could be racial identity, sexual orientation, or even a religious belief. But students shouldn’t be afraid to expand their definition. Being a member of a sports team, a band, or even an online gamer could constitute an ‘identity’ for some of your students.
Again, a student’s interests can cover all manner of things. What’s most important when writing about interests is that it has to be something without which their application would be incomplete .
To use an example, you may have a student who is an avid bookworm. This is quite a general interest, so it would be necessary for students to talk about something very specific. What have they learned from their favourite books? How has reading shaped their worldview, or their sense of themselves?
How to write Common App Essay Prompt 2
“the lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. how did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience”.
This prompt, fundamentally, is trying to get students to think about how they overcome adversity and how they learn from their mistakes. Can students prove that they confront setbacks without giving up?
There are a number of ways students can approach this prompt. They could talk about one, big failure that completely redefined who they are, or a series of smaller, inter-connected failures that are somehow linked.
Examples of ways that students could answer this question are by talking about a class they failed, or a subject at school they have continually failed to master.
Alternatively, encourage students to think about a more social/emotional failure. Maybe they’ve had a falling out with a friend because they failed to consider the other person’s point of view or feelings, or maybe they’ve fallen out with a family member.
Again, the key here is specificity. Students who opt for this prompt shouldn’t spend a lot of time sweating what failure they pick – they need to focus on the specificity of what they learned, and how it changed them as a person.
How to Write Common App Essay Prompt 3
“reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. what prompted your thinking what was the outcome” .
Some students might be put off by this prompt because they may (mistakenly) feel that they haven’t been sufficiently politically active or championed a particular social cause.
But it’s important not to misunderstand this prompt. As with all of the Common App essay questions, this is an invitation for a student to talk about a more personal, singular worldview.
There are arguably two ways a student could approach this prompt.
- By discussing a time they took a minority view against the majority opinion.
- By reflecting on a time that their own deeply-held belief was challenged or placed under scrutiny.
Again, you should encourage your students to look for very specific, real-world ways that they can answer this question.
For example, it may be that they have done some voluntary or community work that has affected how they feel about political issues like homelessness or care for the elderly. They might have completed an internship that has taught them something about how to run/operate a business. They could even have run a social media campaign for a school event, and learned something about the power of marketing!
In short, there’s probably a story in their recent past somewhere, they just need to know where to look!
But here’s the most important thing to remember: this prompt is about the writer going on a journey. In a relatively short space of time, a student needs to tell a story of change, reflection and growth.
Our advice? Don’t tackle this prompt unless there’s a good story in there somewhere!
How to write Common App Essay Prompt 4
“reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. how has this gratitude affected or motivated you”.
This was a new prompt added in the 2021/22 application cycle and it replaces the old prompt 4 from previous application cycles.
“Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.”
The Common App recently explained that they retired the old prompt because it wasn’t being widely chosen by college applicants.
Common App introduced this new prompt by explaining that it was “inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically the benefits of writing about the positive influence of other people in our lives,” with President and CEO Jenny Rickard adding: “particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives. And we can do it explicitly.”
In other words, this prompt is designed to encourage students to think about the role gratitude has played in their lives!
Particularly at this challenging time, we can help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives. And we can do it explicitly.”
Jenny Rickard: President & CEO, The Common App
“But, as with all of the Common App essay prompts, it’s important for them to reflect on how this gratitude has changed them. Remember that, as with all of the Common App essay prompts, it’s important for students to tell a story.
As ever with Common App essay prompts, you should encourage your students to be creative in their definition of something they’re grateful for.
For example, it could be a physical gift or a gesture of kindness, support or selflessness from someone. They could have learned a valuable or life-altering lesson from a significant person in their lives – and this person could be someone they’re very close to (e.g. a family member or close friend) or even a stranger or passing acquaintance who has shaped their life in some way.
But it’s important for any of your students tackling this prompt to remember that the ‘something’ or the ‘someone’ of their story isn’t the point of the story. Instead they should reflect on how that something or someone, that unique moment of kindness or inspiration has affected their personal growth.
And don’t forget that the prompt asks students to reflect on a moment that made them “happy or thankful in a surprising way”. The key word here is ‘surprising’. So encourage your students to think about a story that’s really unique to them.
Finally, remember that this story, whatever it may be, has to relate back to the sort of person that your student is today! How did this unexpected moment of gratitude impact their life?
Let’s say that one of your students decided to write about a time that a teacher was particularly harsh about an assignment or piece of schoolwork they handed in.
Perhaps the teacher’s feedback was so negative, it made the student feel very deflated or demoralised at that moment in time. Perhaps they worried that they were going to fail in this particular class, or questioned their ability.
But then this setback had the effect of making the student work harder, set their standards higher and meant that they really improved in that particular class or subject.
The student’s unexpected gratitude could come from the fact that their teacher taught them a resilience or a commitment to high standards, that they’ve found useful in their subsequent time at school. Maybe this newfound resilience defines who they are today – and has informed their higher education aspirations.
How to write Common App Essay Prompt 5
“discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”.
Prompt 5 is designed to get students to talk about a key milestone in their life, and how it affected them. In short, this question is asking a student – “when and how have they grown as a person?”
Again, situations that are as specific and meaningful as possible will really help an essay stand out. Some examples of some useful milestones students could write about for this prompt include:
- Voting for the first time.
- Passing an important test or exam.
- Becoming an older sibling.
- A religious ceremony or rite of passage, e.g. a baptism or Bar-Mitzvah.
It doesn’t have to be a big milestone either. Students could equally write about a small, but nonetheless significant moment in their lives, such as the moment that a parent or family member taught them to cook, or even just a memorable birthday.
How to write Common App 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”.
This is a great prompt to encourage students to share their intellectual passions and interests. After all, it’s important to remember that US universities and colleges are interested in students who are intellectually engaged!
For students interested in this topic, the world is their oyster! But it’s important that, if they choose to answer this prompt, they approach it from an intellectual perspective. A student could write about their love of the Star Wars universe if they want to – but they need to explain why they find this intellectually stimulating or engaging.
For this prompt, it’s also important that students pick a topic that they are genuinely passionate about. It’s important they don’t choose this question because they want to show off!
How to write Common App Essay 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.”.
As you can see from this prompt, it gives students an inordinate amount of freedom to talk about whatever they want!
If you are working with students who want to use this as a topic, then make sure that they are linking their essay back to them, their intellectual interests, personal achievements and background.
It’s important to remember some of the secrets to success in Prompts 1-6. Students should keep their answers specific, personal to them and, most importantly, find a way to tell a good story.
Tips for students brainstorming the Common App essay
Before your students start their Common App essay, it’s worth encouraging them to make notes on how they can demonstrate the core qualities which admissions officers will look for in any application. Students need to think about how they can demonstrate the following.
The ability to collaborate, and demonstrate teamwork is something which university admissions staff will be looking for. Encourage your students to think about a moment where they learned the value of teamwork.
Work Experience & Extracurricular Activities
Ask your students to make a note of any extracurricular activities which may connect with their academic passions and interests. Extracurricular activities are a great way for students to demonstrate relevant leadership and organisational skills and reflect on any experiences or challenges which they have overcome.
Leadership & entrepreneurial activities
The Common App essay needs to be a truly individual piece of work, and the ability to demonstrate leadership, or entrepreneurial drive, will in turn help students to illustrate that they have the ability to be innovative and forward thinking. Ask students to make notes on the following:
- Can they demonstrate the ability to put an idea into action?
- Can they name a time when they’ve started something (a business venture, a club, a creative project), and/or pushed it to be bigger and better?
- Have they achieved something noteworthy or unusual?
Students should think about how they can demonstrate a care for the wider community and/or the welfare of others, whether it’s through volunteering or any of their other extracurricular activities. Community service is a great way to demonstrate citizenship and a sense of social responsibility.
Students writing their Common App essay will be asked to demonstrate an understanding of other cultures, or the ability to speak another language. Encourage your students to think about any traveling or time abroad which may inform their university application.
Download our free worksheet and template that will help your students plan and write a truly original and individual Common App essay.
How to write the Common App essay [top tips for your students]
Whilst students have a range of essay topics to choose from, it’s also worth remembering that all the Common App essay prompts are designed to encourage respondents to cover several important themes.
So, as your students prepare to write their Common App essay , it’s important that they ask the following questions.
- Which personal experience from my life will make an interesting story?
- How can my essay tell a story and keep a reader interested?
- How can I best illustrate moments in my life which have changed/defined me?
- Will this story show me in my best light?
These questions should inform every section of the Common App essay, and will allow students’ responses to be that much more structured and coherent.
How to get the opening line right
The importance of the opening line in the Common App essay can’t be understated. It’s a chance for applicants to demonstrate flair, originality and wit, and to really grab the reader’s attention. That’s why brainstorming the opening line is an important exercise in itself.
Check out these powerful Common App opening lines from students at some of our BridgeU partner schools. These openers also come highly rated from US admissions staff .
“I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001 – Stanford University
“ I have a secret. Every day, after school, I come home late.” – Harvard University
Both these opening lines have short, sharp sentences which instantly grab the reader’s attention and offer intrigue as to the potential topic the essay could be covering. Both immediately offer the promise of an essay which will be story-driven and dramatic. Both openings also suggest a story which will be about a life-changing event in the writer’s life.
In short, these opening lines make the reader want to know more.
How to tell a vivid story
Vivid storytelling, and the ability to hone a narrative is vital when writing the Common App essay. Here are some essential components of a great essay which are worth considering and practicing.
Descriptive language and vivid imagery
“Swinging open the door of my sheltered dorm room, I dashed through the corridor, veering towards the lounge. My sister, intermittently coherent, was acquainting me with the morning’s events. It was the 7th of July, and four suicide bombs had detonated in London. The city itself, typically a bustling, urban jungle, had been paralysed ; tourists, office-workers, and residents were trapped like foxes in their holes .”
This is a sample from an essay that discusses the terrorist attack in London on July 7, 2005. Not only does this essay tell a compelling story of the applicant’s experience of what was a traumatic and newsworthy event, but its use of vivid imagery and descriptive language is very powerful.
For example, consider the description that London “had been paralysed”; personifying the city of London in this way helps to demonstrate the writer’s empathy and awareness. It’s also a much more effective use of imagery than simply saying something like “London was at a standstill”.
Getting personal – sharing passions/things that are important to the writer
Each day, I was used to reading and talking about current events. Understanding world events is my passion . Evaluating their importance is my responsibility. Today, however, these same events were threatening to tear my life apart.
I tried to imagine how any religion could not only condone but encourage these actions . I thought about how our Western culture had become irredeemably intertwined with other cultures, all of which seemed mutually uncomprehending. Wasn’t achieving a greater level of cross-culturalism meant to be a good thing?
These are two further excerpts from the same essay. In this extract, we gain an insight into the writer’s personal passions. These two extracts tell us about a time where the writer realised that something they were normally passionate about could, in their own words, tear their life apart.
The writer prides themself on their ability to make sense of world events – this was an event they struggled to make sense of, a moment when their status quo was challenged.
Collapsed on the sofa, I realised that the mission I had chosen, to convince my school community to connect with the rest of the world, to some extent was no longer necessary. July 7th, like September 11th, would do the job for me. I got through that day, as did my family, physically unscathed, but emotionally charged. We all have a choice: to connect with the rest of the world or to cut it off . The events of that morning reaffirmed my choice. Non-interventionism is no alternative. Hell is not other people.
The writer uses powerful storytelling techniques to end their essay, and shows that they end their account of the July 7 having gone on a journey. Having faced a moment where their life was thrown into chaos, the writer reaffirms their decision to connect with the rest of the world.
So why is this Common App essay so successful?
Put simply, it creates a compelling picture of both the writer’s worldview, and their aspirations for the future. It effectively demonstrates the writer’s core values by dramatising a moment when those values were called into question.
Did You Know? – BridgeU is integrated with the Common App
BridgeU’s integration with the Common App allows for an easier transfer of data, enabling counsellors to more easily send supporting documents, via BridgeU, to Common App institutions. This will help to smooth the application journey for students wishing to study at a Common App university.
As your students prepare to submit their Common App essays, make sure that they are paying attention to the following checklist.
- Is their Common App essay telling a compelling story about them?
- Does their essay contain a powerful opening line?
- Are they using descriptive language and vivid imagery?
- Are they writing with passion?
- Is the essay portraying them in the best possible light?
Book a free demo
Learn how BridgeU can help deliver better outcomes for your students and improved results for your school
Leave a Reply Cancel reply
Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *
Save my name, email, and website in this browser for the next time I comment.
Skip to content
The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay That Will Get You Accepted
If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably started the very exciting process of applying to college—and chances are you may be a little overwhelmed at times. That’s OK! The key to getting into the right college for you is taking each step of the application process in stride, and one of those steps is completing the Common App and the Common App essay.
In this post, you’ll learn what the Common Application essay is, how to write one (including a free checklist to help you with the process), example essays, and much more. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
What is the Common App, and More Importantly, What is the Common App Essay? Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay How Do You Write a Common App Essay?
What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay? What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?
Common Application Essay FAQs
What is the common app, and more importantly, what is the common app essay.
The “Common App,” short for the Common Application , is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once. It’s accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally.
The idea is that the Common App is a “one-stop shop” so you don’t have to complete a million separate applications. That said, plenty of colleges still require their own application components, and the Common App, as user-friendly as it aims to be, can still feel like a bit of a challenge to complete.
Part of the reason the Common App can seem intimidating is because of the Common App essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application this way. But never fear! In reality, the Common App essay is easy to ace if you know how to approach it and you give it your best.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at anything and everything you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay in order to help you get into the school of your dreams. We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay.
Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay
Below are just a few of the short and sweet things you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay, but we’ll elaborate on some of this content later in this post.
How Do You Write a Common App Essay?
The million dollar question about the Common App essay is obviously, “How do I actually write it?!”
Now there’s something to keep in mind before exploring how to compose the Common App essay, and that’s the purpose of this task. You may be wondering:
- What are college admissions boards actually looking for?
- Why are you being asked to write this essay?
College admissions boards want to see that you can compose a compelling, well-crafted essay. After four years of high school, you’re expected to be able to craft a clear and concise piece of writing that addresses a specific subject.
So yes, you’re actually being evaluated on your essay writing skills, but the purpose of the Common Application essay is deeper than that—it’s to present the type of person and thinker that you are.
Regardless of which prompt you choose, colleges are trying to get a sense of how thoughtfully and critically you can reflect on your life and the world around you .
And furthermore, they want to get a sense of who you are—your interests, your personality, your values—the dimensional aspects of you as an applicant that simply can’t be expressed in transcripts and test scores . In short, you want to stand out and be memorable.
That said, there is no exact formula for “cracking the case” of the Common App essay, but there are plenty of useful steps and tips that can help you write a great essay.
(In a hurry? Download our quick and concise handout that sums up some of the keys to the Common App essay!)
1) Familiarize Yourself With the Common App Prompts and How to Approach Them
The Common App recently released the 2021-2022 essay prompts , which are almost the same as last year’s prompts, but with one BIG difference.
The prompt about problem solving (formerly prompt #4) has been replaced with a prompt about gratitude and how it has motivated you. According to Common App President and CEO Jenny Rickard, this change was inspired by new scientific research on the benefits of writing about gratitude and the positive impact others have had on our lives.
Additionally, the Common App now includes an optional Covid-19 prompt where you can discuss how you’ve personally been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, let’s take a look at each 2021-2022 Common App prompt individually. You’ll notice that every prompt really has two parts to it:
- share, explain and describe a narrative, and
- reflect on, analyze, and draw meaning from it.
Let’s take a look.
Prompt #1: A snapshot of your story
Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Discuss a background, identity, or interest that you feel is meaningful to who you are and/or that or sets you apart from others.
- Reflect on why this attribute is meaningful and how it has shaped you as a person.
Prompt #2: An obstacle you overcame
Prompt: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Recount a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
- Reflect on how this affected you, what you learned from it, and if it led to any successes later down the line.
Prompt #3: A belief or idea you questioned or challenged
Prompt: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Explain a time that you questioned a particular belief or way of thinking.
- Elaborate on what prompted this questioning, what the outcome was, and why this outcome was significant.
Prompt #4: An experience of gratitude that has motivated you
Prompt: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Describe the specific experience or interaction that made you feel a sense of gratitude. Make sure to explain who did something nice for you and why it was surprising or unexpected.
- Explain, as specifically as possible, how this feeling of gratitude changed or motivated you. What actions did you take a result? How did your mindset change?
Prompt #5: An accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth
Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth for you.
- Reflect on the nature of this growth and/or a new understanding you gained in the process.
Prompt #6: An interest so engaging you lose track of time
Prompt: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Discuss a topic, idea, or interest that is so engaging to you that you lose track of time when focused on it.
- Reflect on and explain why this interest is so important to you, and your method of learning more about it.
Prompt #7: An essay topic of your choice
Prompt: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
- Discuss any subject matter or philosophical question of interest to you.
- Reflect on the implications of this subject or question, and how it has shaped you, transformed you, impacted your life, etc.
Now keep in mind that to some degree, it doesn’t actually matter which prompt you choose to answer, so long as you write and present yourself well. But you obviously want to pick whichever Common App essay prompt speaks to you most, and the one you think will provide you the meatiest and most meaningful material.
This is an outstanding guide to choosing the right Common App essay prompt, but as a rule of thumb, the “right” prompt will probably stand out to you. If you have to rack your brain, for example, to think of a challenge you’ve overcome and how the experience has shaped you, then that prompt probably isn’t the right one.
Authenticity is key, so choose the prompt you can answer thoroughly.
Whether you know immediately which prompt you’re going to choose or not, do yourself a huge favor and brainstorm . Take out a notebook and jot down or free write all of the ideas that spring to your mind for as many of the prompts that you’re considering. You might be surprised what ideas you generate as you start doing this, and you might be surprised which ideas seem to have the most content and examples to elaborate on.
Also, it’s important to note that your subject matter doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or spectacular. You don’t have to recount a near-death experience, an epic overseas adventure, a 180-degree turn of faith, etc. Your ordinary life, when reflected upon thoughtfully, is interesting and profound.
3) Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)
This may sound painfully obvious, but for some of us, it can be hard to stay on topic. Each prompt is posed as a question , so don’t lose sight of that and let your essay devolve into a story about yourself that never really gets at the heart of the prompt.
As you’re drafting your essay—say after each paragraph—pause and refer back to the question, making sure each paragraph plays some part in actually responding to the prompt.
4) Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively
The Common App essay isn’t like many of the other argumentative essays you’ve been taught to write in school. It is argumentative in that you are essentially arguing for why you are a good candidate for a particular college, using your personal experience as support, but it’s more than that.
The Common Application essay is essentially a narrative essay that is reflective and analytical by nature. This means that regardless of which prompt you select, you’ll be sharing something personal about yourself, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what you shared is important.
And even if this isn’t an essay format that you’re accustomed to writing, you can still rely on your knowledge of basic essay structures to help you. You’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.
Let’s talk about those three pieces now.
The purpose of an introduction is 1) to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading, and 2) to introduce the reader to the general subject at hand.
So the most important part of the introduction is a unique attention-getter that establishes your personal voice and tone while piquing the reader’s interest. An example of a good hook could be a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, and so on.
Now, you may be wondering, “Do I need a thesis statement?” This is a great question and the simple answer is no.
This is because some students prefer to hook their reader with a bit of mystery and let their story unfold organically without a thesis sentence “spoiling” what is to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a thesis sentence, it just means you don’t need one. It just depends on how you want to build your personal narrative, and what serves you best.
That said, your essay does need a greater message or lesson in it, which is another way of saying a thesis . You just don’t necessarily have to write it out in the introduction paragraph.
It might help you to keep a thesis in mind or even write it down just for your own sake, even if you don’t explicitly use it in your introduction. Doing so can help you stay on track and help you build up to a stronger reflection.
Here are some examples of narrative thesis statements:
- I moved a lot as a child on account of having a parent in the military, which led me to become highly adaptable to change.
- The greatest obstacle I’ve overcome is my battle with leukemia, which has taught me both incredible resilience and reverence for the present.
- An accomplishment that I achieved was making the varsity volleyball team, which has made me grow tremendously as a person, specifically in the areas of self-confidence and collaboration.
As discussed earlier, there are two parts to each prompt: explanation and reflection . Each part should be addressed throughout the essay, but how you organize your content is up to you.
A good rule of thumb for structuring the body of your essay is as follows:
- Situate your reader: provide context for your story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details. For example, you may frame an essay about an internship at the zoo with the phrase, “Elephants make the best friends.” Your reader knows immediately that the subject matter involves your interaction with animals, specifically elephants.
- Explain more about your topic and how it affected you, using specific examples and key details.
- Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.
Note that while there are no set rules for how many paragraphs you should use for your essay, be mindful of breaking paragraphs whenever you naturally shift gears, and be mindful of too-long paragraphs that just feel like walls of text for the reader.
Your conclusion should flow nicely from your elaboration, really driving home your message or what you learned. Be careful not to just dead-end your essay abruptly.
This is a great place to speculate on how you see the subject matter informing your future, especially as a college student and beyond. For example, what might you want to continue to learn about? What problems do you anticipate being able to solve given your experience?
5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly
It may go without saying, but tell your own story, without borrowing from someone else’s or embellishing. Profound reflection, insight, and wisdom can be gleaned from the seemingly simplest experiences, so don’t feel the need to stray from the truth of your unique personal experiences.
Also, make sure to laser in on a highly specific event, obstacle, interest, etc. It is better to go “narrower and deeper” than to go “wider and shallower,” because the more specific you are, the more vivid and engrossing your essay will naturally be.
For example, if you were a camp counselor every summer for the last few years, avoid sharing several summers’ worth of content in your essay. Focus instead on one summer , and even better, on one incident during that summer at camp.
And on that note, remember to be vivid! Follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell . Provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for your readers.
6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone
Unlike in most academic essays, you can sound a bit less stuffy and a bit more like yourself in the Common App essay. Your essay should be professional, but can be conversational. Try reading it aloud; does it sound like you? That’s good!
Be mindful, however, of not getting too casual or colloquial in it. This means avoiding slang, contractions, or “text speak” abbreviations (e.g. “lol”), at least without deliberate context in your story (for example, if you’re recounting dialogue).
You’re still appealing to academic institutions here, so avoid profanity at all costs, and make sure you’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.
7) Revise and Proofread
This one is a biggie. Give yourself time during your application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite your essay several times. Let it grow and change and become the best version it can be. After you write your first draft, walk away from it for a couple days, and return to it with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you feel like adding, removing, or changing.
And of course, make sure your essay is pristine before you submit it. Triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc. Since this isn’t a timed essay you have to sit for (like the ACT essay test , for example), the college admissions readers will expect your essay to be polished and sparkling.
A tried and true method for both ensuring flow and catching errors is reading your essay aloud. You may sound a little silly, but it really works!
What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay?
Your Common App essay is your chance to provide a deeper insight into you as a person, so avoid just repeating what you’d put on a resume. This is not to say you can’t discuss something mentioned briefly on your resume in greater depth, but the best essays offer something new that helps round out the whole college application.
Okay, now this one is a bit tricky. On the one hand, you should write boldly and honestly, and some of the prompts (the one about challenging a particular belief, for example) are appropriate for addressing potentially contentious topics.
But that said, avoid being controversial or edgy for the sake of being controversial or edgy. Be steadfast in your beliefs for the greater sake of the narrative and your essay will be naturally compelling without being alienating to your readers.
If you have a personal story that you’re not entirely comfortable sharing, avoid it, even if it would make a great essay topic in theory. This is because if you’re not comfortable writing on the subject matter, you’ll end up being too vague, which won’t do your story or overall application justice. So choose a subject matter you’re familiar with and comfortable discussing in specifics.
Unless they really, truly serve your essay, avoid general platitudes and cliches in your language. It is definitely encouraged to have an essay with a moral, lesson, or greater takeaway, but try to avoid summing up what you’ve learned with reductive phrases like “slow and steady wins the race,” “good things come in small packages,” “actions speak louder than words,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on.
What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?
There are tons of Common App essays out there, including these Common App essay examples accepted at Connecticut College, which include explanations from admissions readers about why they were chosen.
But let’s take a look here at two versions of an example essay, one that is just okay and one that is great.
Both Common App essay examples are crafted in response to prompt #2, which is:
Essay Version #1, Satisfactory Essay:
During my sophomore year of high school, I tore my ACL, which stands for “anterior cruciate ligament,” and is the kiss of death for most athletic careers. This injury ended up being one of the greatest obstacles of my life. It was also, however, a turning point that taught me to see opportunity amidst adversity.
It was particularly awful that I was just about to score a winning goal during a championship hockey game when I was checked by a guy on the opposing team and came crashing down on my knee. It was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I knew immediately that this was going to be bad.
For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, not really knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally and I grew lethargic and depressed.
And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class for those students who wanted to continue studying art beyond what was already offered. I had taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed and excelled at them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my scheduled, as required.
After a couple of weeks of the class, I began feeling better. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at. I wanted to share the world around me as I saw it with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before. I met and made friends with many new people in that art class, people I would have never known if I hadn’t taken it, which also opened me up to all kinds of new mindsets and experiences.
We’re all familiar with the common adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” and this is exactly what happened for me. I might never have pursued art more seriously if I hadn’t been taken out of hockey. This has served as a great reminder for me to stay open to new opportunities. We never know what will unexpectedly bring us joy and make us more well-rounded people.
Areas for Improvement in Version #1:
- It lacks a compelling hook.
- The discussion of the obstacle and reflection upon it are both a bit rushed.
- It could use more vivid and evocative language.
- It uses a cliche (“one door closes”).
- It is somewhat vague at times (e.g. what kinds of “new mindsets and experiences” did the writer experience? In what ways are they now more “well-rounded”?).
Now let’s apply this feedback and revise the essay.
Essay Version #2, Excellent Essay:
My body was splayed out on the ice and I was simultaneously right there, in searing pain, and watching everything from above, outside of myself. It wasn’t actually a “near death” experience, but it was certainly disorienting, considering that just seconds before, I was flying down the ice in possession of the puck, about to score the winning goal of our championship game.
Instead, I had taken a check from an opposing team member, and had torn my ACL (or anterior cruciate ligament), which is the kiss of death for most athletic careers.
My road to recovery included two major surgeries, a couple months on crutches, a year of physical therapy, and absolutely zero athletic activity. I would heal, thankfully, and regain movement in my knee and leg, but I was told by doctors that I may never play hockey again, which was devastating to me. Hockey wasn’t just my passion—it was my life’s goal to play professionally.
For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, feeling like a ghost haunting my own life, watching everything but unable to participate. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally, and I grew lethargic and depressed.
And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class after school for those students who wanted to study art more seriously. I had already taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my schedule, as required. And, because of hockey, I certainly had never had afternoons open.
After a couple of weeks of the class, I began to feel alive again, like “myself” but renewed, more awake and aware of everything around me. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at, to bring everything I saw to life. It wasn’t just that I’d adopted a new hobby or passion, it was that I began looking more closely and critically at the world around me. I wanted to share what I saw with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before.
My art teacher selected a charcoal portrait of mine to be showcased in a local art show and I’ve never been more proud of myself for anything. Many of my friends, family members, and teammates came to see the show, which blew me away, but also I realized then just how much of my own self worth had been attached to people’s perception of me as a successful athlete. I learned how much better it feels to gain self worth from within. Unlike hockey, which I’d trained to be good at since I was a toddler, art is something that made me much more vulnerable. I didn’t do it to try to be the best, I did it because it felt good. And getting out of my comfort zone in this way gave me a sense of confidence I had never known prior, despite all my time on the ice during high-stakes games.
Today, I’m back in skates and able to play hockey, but will probably not play professionally; while I am disappointed, I’m also at peace with it. We make plans in life, and sometimes life has other plans for us that we have to adapt to and embrace, which is the more profound lesson I’ve learned in the healing process. We can crumple in the face of obstacles, or we can look for a silver lining and allow ourselves to grow into more complex, dynamic, well-rounded people. I don’t know what the rest of life holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to keep making art, and I’m going to keep opening myself up to new opportunities and experiences.
Strengths of Version #2:
- It has a compelling hook that draws the reader in.
- It has a clear beginning, middle, and end (expressed as an introduction, body, and conclusion).
- It directly addresses the prompt at hand and sticks to it.
- It focuses on one specific incident.
- It is well balanced in its explanation of and reflection on a given experience.
- It uses a clear, unique voice and tone as well as vivid, evocative language.
- It has a logical and cohesive flow.
- It is highly personal while also polished and professional.
Hopefully these examples have given you ideas of how you can take your Common App essay from good to great. If you have more questions about how to write a Common App essay, keep reading our FAQs below.
How much do I actually have to write for the Common App essay?
Last year, the Common App essay was capped at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words required. The best essays tend to range between 500-650 words.
Think of it this way as you start to draft: 500 words is one single-spaced page (250 words is one double-spaced page), so you should write roughly a page to page and half of typed, single-spaced content.
Where can I find the official Common App essay prompts?
Here are the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts , which are the same as last year’s, with the exception of a new prompt #4 and the addition of a Covid-19 Common App prompt .
Do I need a title for the Common App essay?
A title is not required for the Common App essay, but you are, of course, more than welcome to include one if you’d like.
Where can I go for more information about the Common App essay?
All of the necessary information for the Common App and the Common App essay can be found on the Common Application home page.
For further reading, here are some posts that tackle and dispel common myths about the Common App essay:
Myth: The Common App essay must sound professional. Myth: Colleges can’t tell if someone helps write a common app essay.
If you haven’t already, you can download our free Common App essay checklist .
There you have it! The Common App essay can actually be quite rewarding to write if you give yourself enough time to prepare for it thoroughly. Remember, it’s all about you, and you’re the authority on that! So hunker down and don’t forget to have fun in the writing process.
We’d also love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you still have about the Common Application essay? What are you thinking about writing on?
Comment below, and good luck!
Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions . Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she's not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn !
View all posts
More from Magoosh
By the way, Magoosh can help you study for both the SAT and ACT exams. Click here to learn more!
No comments yet.
Magoosh blog comment policy : To create the best experience for our readers, we will only approve comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! 😄 Due to the high volume of comments across all of our blogs, we cannot promise that all comments will receive responses from our instructors. We highly encourage students to help each other out and respond to other students' comments if you can! If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service from our instructors, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!
Leave a Reply Click here to cancel reply.
Email (will not be published) (required)
What should I write about in the Common App Essay
Can you express who you are in 650-words or fewer? Learn here about how to tackle this incredibly important college essay.
By NOELLE COMPTON
When preparing to apply to college, one of the first tasks is figuring out what to write about in the Common App Essay. The Common App Essay is, some say, among the most important documents that you will ever write. It is the face of your application, and in its brief 650 word limit, you are expected to share your best, most personal self. No pressure, right?
In this guide, you will learn a strategy for determining what to write about in the Common App Essay. This guide will cover five sections:
Understanding the Common App Essay
Demonstrating your best qualities, what to write about, what not to write about, demonstrating grit.
At the end of this article, you should feel empowered to brainstorm your own story to make the admissions officers say, “yes!”
What is the Common App Essay?
The Common App Essay is a 650-word (or fewer) personal statement that comes with the Common App , the streamlined online application that most colleges in America accept. Your main essay is not specific to any particular college, but every college will see it, so it’s got to be good.
When the admissions officer reads your main essay, they will want you to answer the question, “Who are you?” This is pretty hard to show someone in 650-words, so applicants will need to have a discerning eye. To help narrow it down, the Common App offers you a choice of seven prompts to guide you in the right direction:
Common App Essay prompts
Here are the seven essay prompts for 2020-2021, courtesy of the Common App .
- 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?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Which Common App prompt is the best?
To the admissions officer, it truly doesn’t matter which prompt you choose to answer. Their only goal is to understand you better, and it is likely they won’t even look to see which prompt you chose to answer before they start reading. The best strategy that you can employ when choosing a prompt is to think of the story that you want to tell, then see which prompt best fits the story.
As far as popularity goes, here is the run-down for the 2018-2019 application season : :
- 24.1% of students used: “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.”
- 23.7% of students used: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
- 21.1% of students used: “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?”
- 31.1% of students used the remaining four prompts.
So if you want to be unique, you could try to go for one of the lesser-used prompts. But given that nearly a quarter of all students eschewed the offered prompts entirely, it’s difficult to say whether that could make a difference.
As mentioned already, the Common App Essay strives to answer, in 650 words or fewer, who are you? This is tough since you might not even know the answer to that question yourself. So when thinking of a story that you want to tell in your essay, it can help to tackle a smaller question first: what do I want to demonstrate to the admissions officers about myself?
To be clear, you are not going to start your essay by saying, “I am an (insert adjective) person.” Rather, you are going to use your story to demonstrate a good quality about yourself that shows the admissions officer who you are rather than tells them. This might seem like a cliche writing tip but trust us. It’s what they want.
What is a defining characteristic?
A defining characteristic is something notable about you, something that makes you special. To start, check out the list of 100 characteristics below and try to think of two or three words that you think describe you well:
As you can see, this list is far from complete, and many of the words would require substantial explanation, or even additional characteristics, to make sense. For example, if you want the admissions officer to know that you are easy-going, you are going to have to make the case that this is a good thing. Similarly, if you want the admissions officer to know that you’re altruistic, you’ll need to make the case that you’re authentic, as well.
How do we use our defining characteristic?
You will be using your characteristics to inspire a story about a time in which you proved yourself to be the embodiment of your characteristics. In order to start doing this, try making a list like this one:
My characteristic is resourceful .
Times when I was resourceful : The time I got a flat tire on the way to basketball practice and instead of calling my mom, I Youtubed how to change a tire myself. Or, the time that my little sister was having trouble memorizing the order of the planets, so I wrote a rap song to help her learn.
My characteristic is flexible .
Times when I was flexible : The time that my chemistry group chose to pursue a different research topic after I’d already done my work, but since I knew the topic was better, I agreed to make the change. Or, the time that my coworker’s child was sick and I had to cover her shift, even though I was exhausted.
You use the defining characteristic to provide the kernel of inspiration for the story you will tell. It will also give your story direction and give you a feeling that you can continually circle back to.
A word of caution
While it can be tempting to choose a characteristic that is controversial, counterintuitive, or shocking, I would advise against this. For example, if you want to demonstrate that you are lazy in order to tell a story about a time everything turned out perfectly in spite of your minimal effort, this gives your admissions officer the impression that you might not do well in college. If you want to demonstrate that you are a great leader but your story makes you sound more like a great dictator, this is similarly bad.
You want to be honest when you’re writing your main essay, but not too honest. Remember, you have only 650-words to give the admissions officer a complete look at who you are. You don’t get the opportunity to explain or equivocate, so it’s best to play it safe and choose 2-3 solid, positive characteristics.
Once you’ve chosen your characteristics, you are ready for the next part, what to write about. If you haven’t thought of your characteristics, or if you already have a story in mind, then try working backward. To give your story a good direction, use a characteristic to drive your introduction and conclusion. After reading your essay, you want the admissions officer to say, “wow, this sounds like a really (insert your characteristic) student.”
College Admissions Services
Schedule a free consultation.
Meet with a mentor one-on-one via video chat to talk about your son/daughter’s admissions plan. Afterwards, receive a no-obligation Customized College Roadmap (CCR) with advice on courses, extracurricular activities, standardized tests, and Admissions Angle strategy.
Start with a problem
The secret to a good essay is the same as the secret to any good story: problems. Everyone’s got problems, and they’re the perfect thing to talk about. Why? Because it is through our handling of problems that we demonstrate our deepest, most resilient selves.
Now that you have a list of stories that you are considering, look for a problem at the heart of each story. Here are some basic types of problems that everyone encounters:
- Failure I tried really hard to qualify for the state chess championship, but I didn’t.
- Mistake I accidentally sprayed weed-killer on my neighbor’s flowers and killed all her plants.
- Challenge I wanted to get my best swimming time before the county meet.
- Move My dad got a new job and I had to change schools.
- Obstacle I had to give a speech in front of my classmates as part of my final grade.
- Flaw I was too stubborn on my Math team, and as a result, we lost the competition.
- Obsession – I became consumed with learning how to do a backflip.
- Change – My brother left for college and I had to take over his responsibilities.
- Phobia I had to confront my fear of open water to go on the class boat trip.
- Conflict My best friend and I started working at the same summer job and our relationship changed.
- Misunderstanding I spent six months setting the tables wrong at the restaurant where I work before I learned that I was doing it wrong.
Places to look for problems
Problems are all around us, all the time. But for your problem to pique the interest of an admissions officer, you should strive to think outside the classroom. Why? It’s not that a school story is inherently wrong or that your problem is illegitimate. Rather, it’s the case that almost every person applying to college has undergone a similar classroom experience. This is your big opportunity to set yourself apart and show how you are unique, so why not let your setting set the pace?
Here are some places to look for inspiration for problems:
- Extracurricular activities dance, yoga, pool
- Hobbies chess, gardening, programming
- Summer jobs bussing tables, lifeguarding, working retail
- Family activities cooking, playing cards, driving
- Times with friends at the beach, eating froyo
- School clubs FFA, Spanish
- Your bedroom Posters on your wall, mementos
- The Internet Photos on Facebook, bookmarks
It’s not what you write about, it’s how you write about it
These last couple of examples demonstrate that your topic of choice does not need to be profound . In fact, it shouldn’t be. It is not through our outlying experiences that we learn to be ourselves. It is through daily challenges and the problems that they present. Instead of choosing a profound experience, try to focus on a profound truth that was revealed by your response to your problem.
Good stories are everywhere, and though you might not recognize it at first, the best stories are often in the mundane. Consider the following examples of main essay topics:
- Washing cars
- Having frizzy hair
- Collecting junk
- Your TI calculator
- A broken thumb
- Riding a public bus
Things to note
Although everyday, slice-of-life stories are ideal, be mindful about how the overall story ties into your Admissions Angle . Your application materials require a degree of synergy so that the admissions officer gets a good idea of who you are as a person and isn’t left with questions about your interests, motivations, and goals. Consider how your story can connect to your Admissions Angle and if it doesn’t, it might be good to choose a different story.
Another quality to consider when choosing your story is leadership. The best essays are those that demonstrate a degree of leadership, even if it’s indirect. Think about how your story reflects upon your ability to take charge of a situation and collaborate with others.
Not all topics are created equal
Knowing what topics to avoid is just as important as knowing what topics to pursue. College admissions officers read stacks of essays every day during the admissions process, and based on our experience, some subjects work better than others. We have included those topics below along with explanations for why these subjects don’t work well. Please note that these rules are not hard and fast. Rather, they are meant to serve as guidance for you as you narrow down your topic.
List of accomplishments
Some students turn their Common App Essay into an extended resume. They list accomplishments and add insight and context, but together, they fail to tell a story. Avoid doing this for two reasons: First, it sounds braggy, which is probably not the quality you chose to highlight in Part 1. Second, it does little to answer the question “who are you.” You are not the sum of your accomplishments.
Many students are tempted to talk about life-defining tragedies, like divorces or deaths. These experiences are absolutely formative and legitimate, but they don’t make for great Common App Essays. Again, rather than answering “who are you”, these topics tend to involve a lot of circumstantial explanation, which uses up valuable word space. But besides that, you want to leave your admissions officer nodding in interest when they put down your essay, not saying, “oof.”
Consider that many colleges have an additional information section in which you can discuss any important factors you want the admissions officers to consider while they read your essay. If you have suffered a profound loss, especially one that influenced your grades or academic performance, it is a good idea to explain that in the optional essay.
“The most important thing/person in my life”
These subjects are a great way to demonstrate passion about the things you care about, but ultimately they tend to focus on something else, rather than you and your experience. You are the star of this story, not your role model.
Sports are not inherently bad to write about, but be extra mindful of cliche subjects. “My whole team was counting on me to score the winning goal, and when I did, I felt happy” is just as boring and irritating as “My whole team was counting on me to score the winning goal and when I didn’t, I was sad.” Themes of teamwork, discipline, and perseverance are all excellent, but consider how you can manipulate your sports story to be unique and avoid cliches.
So many students want to write about Habitat for Humanity , tutoring kids, caroling at nursing homes, or mission trips to developing parts of the country or the world. These essays often have the same conclusion: “I thought that I was going to (place) to (perform act of service), but in the end, I got way more than I gave.” Unless these trips are part of an ongoing service effort that you can demonstrate over a period of time, admissions officers are skeptical of them. Many students use service trips to ‘check a box’ on their college resume, so mentioning it feels insincere. Moreover, it’s hard to not make them sound either self-congratulatory or fake-humble.
However, this is not to say that a service trip can’t serve as a setting for your story. If you went to build a school in Cambodia and want to tie your observations to your overall study of the socioeconomics of the Khmer Rouge, then of course it makes a good setting. Likewise, if you were inspired to action by something you saw at the tutoring center, then it’s okay to talk about the birth of this inspiration.
“I’m so lucky”
While keeping a journal of gratitude is a great life practice, it’s not great for the Common App Essay. It can come across as privileged to make a list of all the things that have gone well in your life, so the central premise of your essay should not be that you are a lucky person.
However, if you are a student who comes from a family of means, you might have struggled with the following question: Are my problems significant enough to write about? They seem very stupid compared to other people’s problems. First of all, everyone has valid problems, you included. But second of all, it’s good that you are thinking this way, because being self-aware is very important in your main essay, especially if you’re going to talk about something like a rare opportunity, horseback riding, a fancy internship, or other similarly exclusive experience. In this case, it is good to acknowledge the “I’m so lucky” aspect of your story, but be brief. Demonstrate some self-awareness and self-discovery , then proceed with your story.
Humor is awesome and so are funny people, but not everyone’s sense of humor is the same, so telling a funny story is a risk. If the admissions officer doesn’t think it’s funny, then your ship has sunk. The Common App Essay is a place for you to demonstrate sophistication and maturity as a student, so building a story around humor may undermine these aspects of your personality. You don’t want the officer questioning whether you are mature enough to handle college. However, one or two small quips can be a great way to show your personality. Just make sure that your jokes can’t be perceived as offensive in any way.
For your Common App Essay, “ dinner conversation ” rules apply. It’s risky to talk about polarizing topics like politics or religion, and don’t say anything that would make your great grandmother blush. Something like political activism might be a great thing to talk about, but avoid turning your main essay into your manifesto. While the admissions officers are meant to be impartial, they are also human beings, and you’d hate for a disagreement of beliefs to be the reason you are rejected.
The time you were arrested or almost arrested is a bad thing to write about. Similarly, the time you tried or didn’t try drugs or alcohol is a bad thing to write about. Likewise, the time you stole something (even though you felt super bad about it and came clean later) is a bad thing to write about. are you sensing the pattern? Don’t do it!
These days, students are always trying to set themselves apart. They think that the best way to stand out is to take a non-traditional approach, like turning their essay into a screenplay, an interview, or a piece of code. We discourage these approaches. First, you are far from the first to try such things, so it will not be perceived as unique. Second, it’s very difficult to do well. Third, you are often sacrificing quality of content for novelty of form. There are times to play it safe in life– your main essay is one of them.
An essay about how essays are stupid
Yes, we know that it’s hard to condense your whole being into 650-words, and it’s even harder to use these words to argue for why you should be allowed to go to college. This is implicit in the process and you do not need to point out the faults in the admissions process. To do so makes you seem angsty and immature, not wise and aloof as you hope it does.
Remember that these rules are not hard and fast, and there will always be circumstances that call for you to write about one of the things on the no-no list. These examples are here to help give you direction, not crush your dreams. If you are unsure about the story you’ve chosen, talk about it with your family, teachers, mentors, or friends. They know you well and might have great ideas about how to show off your best self.
Before we start planning our draft, there is one last aspect to consider in your essay…
What is grit?
By now, you have most likely encountered Angela Duckworth’s revolutionary TEDTalk from back in 2013, called Grit: The power of passion and perseverance (note: If you haven’t watched it, we highly recommend it). In her talk, Duckworth describes how metrics like IQ and school performance are not good indicators of future success. Rather, she discovered that independently of how academically clever or how financially well off a student is, grit is the most powerful indicator of how a student will perform . Since then, colleges, who were long bound by the fallibility of test scores and GPAs, have also begun to explore the power of grit and factor it into their decision making process.
So first of all, what is grit? Grit is a non-cognitive personality trait based on an individual’s perseverance of effort combined with the passion for a particular long-term goal or end state. We can break this down into two parts: passion and perseverance.
Passion is a word that has always personally irritated me because it is used so noncommittally. I hear people say “I’m passionate about dogs/cooking/working out/you name it” all the time, but if we are digging to the core essence of what passion is all about, you should only have space for one or two true, passionate interests. This is what admissions officers want to see, and it is what you should strive to offer them in your main essay.
Now, a couple of notes: First, it is helpful if your passion serves others in a way. For example, if you are really into entrepreneurship, then you should consider how your innovations will help the world. If you are passionate about ballet, then you should consider how artistic expression is good for the world in general. Second, it is helpful if your passion serves a larger goal that is somehow attainable through the path you are choosing. If you are passionate about cooking but applying for a mathematics major, then take care to connect the mathematical aspects of cooking to the theme of your essay. If you are passionate about working with kids but you are applying for a psychology major, then demonstrate how the two go hand in hand.
The key here is longevity ; passion should not be viewed as a fleeting or newfound interest. The only way to demonstrate grit is to show that you have been chipping away at some larger goal for an extended period of time. In doing so, you will have demonstrated perseverance, or “stick-to-it-ness”. Perseverance is an incredibly valuable quality in a candidate because it gives admissions officers the peace of mind that you will see your attendance through to graduation and go on to build a meaningful career in something that you care about. If you can show that you will provide four years of solid attendance, good grades, participation, and tuition, then you are a dream candidate.
As you can see, those who chose an Admissions Angle early in their high school careers are at a distinct advantage when it comes to demonstrating perseverance, longevity, and grit. But any interest that has held your attention for at least two years should be good enough to mention.
Showing that you are gritty
As you have probably figured out, the secret to demonstrating grit is showing that you have been passionate about something for a while and that you have worked hard to explore and grow this passion. However, this does not need to be the main essence of your essay. It is okay if you only bring it up tangentially.
For example: If your essay is about how you spent a summer building a canoe with your Grandfather, this in and of itself demonstrates the grit to see a large project to completion. But you can apply this experience further by showing that the lessons you learned (like measure twice, cut once) were helpful when you went on to found the Blockchain Club at your school. Just by mentioning your Admissions Angle (in this case, blockchain), you will reinforce your interests in the mind of the admissions officer. Then, you can drop similar references in your supplemental essays and, of course, your resume.
Through what to talk about, what not to talk about, and demonstrating grit, we have offered you a lot of criteria for what we believe forms the perfect essay. However, you may be struggling to keep track at this point, or you might feel that the window is too narrow to achieve.
Remember that the Common App Essay is meant to require a great deal of thought. It is meant to require a great deal of effort. The process of writing the Common App Essay should take a long time, if you are following a good essay timeline .
Our number one advice for deciding what to write about in the Common App Essay is to talk to people who know you well. Ask your mom or dad! Talk to your teachers, coaches, mentors, or… dare I say… siblings! They have unique insight on you that you don’t have on yourself. In the meantime, collect essay samples, engage in college research , and enjoy your senior year.
- Affiliate Program
- UNITED STATES
- 台灣 (TAIWAN)
- TÜRKIYE (TURKEY)
- Academic Editing Services
- - Research Paper
- - Journal Manuscript
- - Dissertation
- - College & University Assignments
- Admissions Editing Services
- - Application Essay
- - Personal Statement
- - Recommendation Letter
- - Cover Letter
- - CV/Resume
- Business Editing Services
- - Business Documents
- - Report & Brochure
- - Website & Blog
- Writer Editing Services
- - Script & Screenplay
- Our Editors
- Client Reviews
- Editing & Proofreading Prices
- Wordvice Points
- Partner Discount
- Plagiarism Checker
- APA Citation Generator
- MLA Citation Generator
- Chicago Citation Generator
- Vancouver Citation Generator
- - APA Style
- - MLA Style
- - Chicago Style
- - Vancouver Style
- Writing & Editing Guide
- Academic Resources
- Admissions Resources
How to Write the Common App Essay–Examples for 2023-2024
So, you’re applying to college and are probably panicking about how to write the hardest part of your application: the Common Application essay. Don’t panic! We’re here to help. If you keep the following tips in mind, we’re confident that you’ll be well on your way to drafting a strong application essay that screams out, “Dear College, this is who I am, and here’s why you want me!”
So, let’s start with some basics.
What is the Common Application Essay?
The Common Application centralizes the admissions process for over 900 schools. These participating colleges and universities all use the same common biographical and academic information forms. Most of the schools also require or accept the Common Application essay. Neat, huh? Essentially, you choose the schools you want to apply to, add them to your application list, fill in the general demographic and biographical information, upload or input academic records and standardized testing information, designate people to write you recommendations, and upload the Common Application essay. All of this is done in one place. That’s it. Simple, right?
Now, many of the top-tiered schools require additional information and essays, but most of these documents can be uploaded into the Common Application. If you’re applying to art schools, the schools will provide extra links on their Common Application sites. Those links will lead you to a website where you can upload your art portfolio and additional documents. We’ll discuss such additional requirements in another post.
What do I need to include in the Common App Essay?
While the Common Application essay regularly makes adjustments to its essay prompts, for the 2022-2023 college application season, the prompts will remain exactly the same as last year, when the rarely used prompt about solving a problem was replaced with one that was inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, to, according to Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard, “help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives.” The 2023-2024 Common App Essay prompts also still contain the optional COVID-19 prompt that appeared in 2020.
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, 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 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.
Did you notice a common theme among these questions? At its core, the Common Application essay is designed to make you answer the question, “WHO are you?” What colleges and universities want to know is (1) how your experiences or background have shaped you into the person you are today and (2) how who you are today is going to affect your future academic performance.
Why is the Common App Essay important?
This essay is one of the most important parts of your application, and in some cases, especially for top-tiered schools, it is weighed as much as, or more than, your grades and test scores—estimates say that they can account for anywhere from 10 to 30% of admission decisions. Why? Well, think about it. If most of the applicants applying to a top college have similar academic profiles, how can the schools distinguish one candidate from another? It’s all in the story you craft, and we’re here to help you present the best version of you !
Preparing to Write Your Common App Essay
A good starting point for writing a successful application essay is reading Common App essay examples that got other students admitted to their schools of choice. However, keep in mind that you do that for inspiration only and that your goal is not to copy anyone—ultimately, you’ll have to come up with your very own story and present it in your very own way. The tips and “dos and don’ts” below can help you do exactly that as you prepare to write or rewrite your Common Application essay.
You are also well advised to ask your teachers, counselors, and other mentors for advice at any step of the process: Maybe come up with a list of potential topics and let someone who knows you and is aware of your goal (to get into your school of choice) give you feedback on what they think suits or doesn’t suit you. Or make a draft of your story (maybe just in your head) and call your mentor to ask them if they would choose you as a prospective student based on that story. You can of course also seek out professional proofreaders like us to help you revise your personal statement and make it shine!
The two main points of getting yourself ready for writing your Common App essay are (1) that admissions committees have no preference for which prompt you choose and (2) that your essay is not a place to restate what you already said on your resumé or in the Common App “activities” section. You also don’t have to prove that you somehow changed the world or did something heroic. Instead, the essay is a chance for you to show the admissions committee the “you” that your friends, classmates, teachers, and family know. Our advice for where to start is to brainstorm the best (most interesting, most meaningful, most unique…) stories about your life that you can think of, and then look at the question prompts and decide which one your story could be an answer to.
Common App Essay Writing Timelines
Now that we agree on how important your Common App essay is, you will not be surprised if we recommend that you start working on it several months before the actual deadline. Why so early? Because you don’t want to rush or force it or regret your choice of topic when it’s too late to change. If you see this as a creative process that needs time, you’ll make the most out of it and also learn a lot along the way that will help you with writing other essays and assignments once you got into your school of choice!
Timeline 1: Write a Common App Essay in three months
Now you have one finished essay to apply with and two more weeks to show it around for more feedback in case you get second thoughts or to change it up again after sleeping on it for a couple of days.
If this seems like way too much time to invest in and focus on your essay, then try this:
Timeline 2: Write your Common App Essay in one month
Since you don’t have much time for feedback if you start that late, make sure you contact your advisors/teachers well in advance to let them know when you’ll be ready so that they can schedule you in or tell you when they are available. You don’t want to pressure people and step on their toes when you need their valuable input!
Great Common App Essay Examples for 2023-2024
We found some of the best Common App essay examples from this year and years past to give you a sense of what kinds of essays work best to captivate admissions officials. We have listed essay examples in each section by their corresponding essay prompt to help you understand what kinds of responses are most suitable. Although your essay will be unique and might vary significantly from the examples below, read through each one to get an overall idea.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #1
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
This prompt asks applicants to write about what makes them uniquely them. Whether you’re writing about a hobby, your background, or how you define yourself, it’s important to tell a story so central to who you are that your application would be incomplete without it.
When answering this prompt, it’s easy to repeat information that you are already presenting outside of the essay. Avoid this at all costs. Remember: the essay is supposed to add a new dimension to your application.
See this sample essay to get a sense of what a great response to this prompt could look like.
- Handiwork – An essay about interest in creating crafts. This student expertly illustrates their dedication to a hobby by presenting anecdotes packed with sensory details.
Excerpt from “Handiwork”
I’ve always been a crafter. From the early days of Kindergarten macaroni ornaments, to making my own prom dress last year, I’ve had a knack for creating things. For drafting sketches, drawing plans, making calculations, gathering supplies, adding finishing touches. There is something so satisfying about holding something you, and you alone, have made—something that was just an image in your mind until you set about to bring it into existence, to create something new, something different. I’m sure there are hundreds of doll furniture sets out there in that same gray and pink, but there is only one with fitted (albeit with sloppy stitching) navy blue covers. There’s a sense of pride there, however small.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #2
This is one of the more challenging prompts. It can be difficult to demonstrate strength and potential while writing about failure. However, if you’re comfortable with introspection and making yourself a bit more vulnerable, this prompt is a great option.
A good response to this prompt demonstrates a high level of confidence and maturity as well as humility and a willingness to learn. Simply writing about a failure does nothing; students should focus on how they handled their failures in positive ways.
This essay example demonstrates how to approach this prompt.
- Striking Out – An essay about setbacks and overcoming obstacles. Note the effectiveness of this kind of narrative in showing your abilities and perseverance.
Excerpt from “Striking Out”
About a week later, some of my friends from the team got together at the park to hang out. When I arrived, I was a little surprised that no one seemed to be mad at me – after all, I’d lost us the game, and they had to be disappointed about not making it to the semifinals. It wasn’t until we split into teams for an impromptu pickup game that I started to realize why no one was upset. Maybe it was the excitement of reaching the playoffs or the pressure of living up to my brothers’ examples, but sometime during that game, I’d lost sight of why most of us played summer league baseball. It wasn’t to win the championship, as cool as that would have been. It was because we all loved to play. I didn’t need a trophy or a Hollywood come-from-behind win to have fun playing baseball with my friends, but maybe I needed to strike out to remember that.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #3
This is an extremely broad question – students could write about nearly anything they have ever questioned. It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all ideas and beliefs make great essays.
Students should not write about something superficial; they should write about ideas and beliefs that are central to their identities. A response to this prompt should demonstrate thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, and an ability to think analytically.
The following essay demonstrates what it takes to address this prompt effectively.
- Gym Class Hero – An essay about challenging an idea despite all the odds being stacked against you. Note the author’s use of internal monologue to move the narrative along and captivate the reader.
Excerpt from “Gym Class Hero”
Where did my doubt come from? No one ever said to me, “Oh, you can’t run a mile.” I don’t even remember any askance looks, any raised eyebrows implying I was out of my depth. Middle-schoolers can be a cruel bunch, but not that day. There was just that voice in my head, as clear as a bell: “You’ll never be able to run a mile. You can’t even climb stairs without getting winded. It’s going to hurt. You’ll probably pass out. You could never run a mile.’ A whole mile? That voice was right. It was, in my mind, impossibly long. What was I going to do?
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #4
As mentioned above, this prompt was added last year and inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically, by research on the benefits of writing about the positive influence that other people have on our lives.
While this prompt may seem to be asking a simple question, your answer has the potential to provide deep insights into 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.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #5
We all have had experiences that helped us grow and mature, and this prompt is therefore a good option for most—if not all—applicants.
The key here is to choose the “right” accomplishment, event, or realization and then write about it in a way that showcases depth and self-analytical skills. When identifying a period of personal growth, try to stay within the past few years. You want to show the admissions officers who you are now, and a childhood story is not likely to accomplish this as effectively.
This essay is a great example of how to properly approach this prompt.
- Student Teacher – An essay about an event that sparked personal growth. This essay example shows how demonstrating mental growth and wisdom can be just as effective as retelling how you overcame a difficulty.
Excerpt from “Student Teacher”
Anthony’s success wasn’t just his plane. He had succeeded in making me aware of my own failures. Here was a student who was never taken seriously and had developed a bunch of behavioral issues as a result. I never stopped to look for his potential, discover his interests, or get to know the kid beneath the facade. I had grossly underestimated Anthony, and I am grateful that he was able to disillusion me. I like to think that I’m an open-minded, liberal, and non-judgmental person. Anthony taught me that I’m not there yet.
Common App Essay Examples: 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?
Like Prompt 3, Prompt 6 is very broad, and allows students to write about nearly any interest they might have. The purpose of this question is to learn what excites and motivates an applicant. Therefore, this option is ideal for students with concrete and established passions. On the other hand, students who are not sure what they are enthusiastic about should probably consider a different prompt.
To approach this prompt, start by listing all the topics, ideas, and concepts you care most about and then narrow those down to those you can describe, justify, and explain .
See the following essay, taken from this collection of “essays that worked” , to get a sense of what makes a great response to this prompt about passion for a hobby.
Excerpt from “Left and Right Don’t Exist”
Through flying, I began to consider all points of view, regardless of my personal perspective. Perhaps it was my ability to scan the horizon to communicate a single story, uniting contrasting outlooks, that drew me to my love for journalism and the diverse melting pot that was my community. To me, journalism modernizes the ancient power of storytelling, filled with imperfect characters and intricate conflicts to which I am the narrator. As editor-in-chief for my school newspaper, The Wildcat’s Tale, I aim to share the uncensored perspective of all students and encourage my editorial groups to talk — and listen — to those with whom they disagree. Starting each newspaper edition with a socratic, round-table discussion, I ask the other journalists to pursue stories that answer the questions: why did this happen and where will it lead?
Additional Common App Essay Writing Tips
There are a few other common essay mistakes you should avoid, and reading about these in advance might help you steer clear of making a fundamental error when it comes to choosing your application essay topic.
Preparing Your Common App Essay for Submission
We know we keep repeating ourselves, but after writing your application essay, be sure to have it reviewed by a trusted friend or colleague, and edited by a professional editing service like Wordvice before you finally hand it in. And while writing, make use of our hundreds of admissions resources on making your way through the college and university admissions process.
An outstanding admissions essay should have a great topic. However, it should also use clear, crisp, engaging language and be free of errors. If you require further help on this front, check out Wordvice’s full suite of English editing and proofreading services , including our essay editing services . These services are ideal for international students who struggle with English or any students who want to take their essays to the next level.
Wordvice essay editors not only correct grammatical and stylistic errors but also provide suggestions on how you can improve the content of your essays. We are proud to say that we were ranked best admissions essay editing service by Wired.com. Check out Wordvice’s AI proofreading tool and admissions editing services to learn how our editors can elevate your writing and help you get into your dream school.
Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, which common app essay prompt should you choose.
On the one hand, the fact that the Common Application has seven essay prompts to choose from is great news! No matter what your story, you're sure to find a good fit. On the other hand, having seven prompts means you can write seven different kinds of essays, each with its own potential pitfalls and clichés to steer around.
In this article, I'll outline two totally different approaches to figuring out which Common App essay prompt is right for you and help you brainstorm possible ideas for each. I'll also talk about what makes great college essays great, and give examples of what you want to avoid when crafting your essay.
What Are Application Essays for, Anyway?
Before you can choose an essay prompt, before you figure out what you're going to write about, it helps to know what the goal of your writing is. Think about it: if your goal were to give someone instructions, you'd write really differently than if your goal were to describe a landscape.
So What is the College Essay Supposed to Do?
Admissions officers want to know the things they can't find in the numbers that make up the rest of your application. They want to know about your background, where you come from, and what has shaped you into the person you are today. They want to see your personality, your character, and your traits as a person. They want to learn your thinking style and perspective on the world. They want to make sure you have the ability to creatively problem solve. And finally, they also want to double check your maturity level, your judgment, and get a general sense of whether you would be a good college student—whether you would thrive in an environment where you have to be independent and self-reliant.
So think about the college essay as a way of letting the admissions office get to know you the way a close acquaintance would. You have to let them in and share real thoughts, feelings, and some vulnerabilities. You definitely don't need to reveal your deepest darkest secrets, but you should avoid only showing your surface façade.
How to Brainstorm Ideas for Each Common App Prompt
There are two big-picture ways of coming up with essay ideas.
Maybe you already know the story you want to tell. There is something so momentous, so exciting, or so dramatic about your life experience, that there is no doubt that it needs to be in your college application.
Or maybe you need to approach finding a topic with some more directed brainstorming. There's nothing wrong with not having a go-to adventure! Instead, you can use the prompts themselves to jog your memory about your interesting accomplishments.
Approach #1: Narrating Your Exciting Life
Does something from your life immediately jump into your head as the thing you would have to tell anyone who wanted to know the real you? If you already know exactly which of your life experiences you are going to write about, you can develop this idea before even looking at the prompts themselves.
You can ask yourself a few questions to see whether this is your best brainstorming option.
Is there something that makes you very different from the people around you?
This could be something like being LGBT in a conservative community, having a disability, being biracial, or belonging to a minority group that is underrepresented in your community.
Has your life had a watershed moment? Do you think of yourself as before X and after X?
For example, did you meet a childhood hero who has had an outsized impact on your life? Did you suddenly find your academic passion? Did you win an award or get recognized in a way you were not expecting to? Did you find yourself in a position of leadership in an unusual time or place?
Did you live through something dramatic? A crisis you faced, a danger you overcame, the complete upheaval of your circumstances?
Maybe you lived through a natural disaster, made your way home after being lost in the woods, or moved from one country to another?
Was your childhood or young adulthood out of the ordinary? Were you particularly underprivileged, or overprivileged in some unusual way?
For instance, did you grow up very poor, or as the child of a celebrity? On a boat rather than in a house, or as part of a family that never stayed long in one place because of your parents' work or other circumstances?
Approach #2: Brainstorming for Each Prompt
If you don't have an unusual life experience or a story that you absolutely know needs to get told, don't worry! Some of the very best personal essays are about much more mundane, everyday, and small situations that people face. In fact, it's better to err on the side of small and insightful if you don't have a really dramatic and unusual big thing to write about.
Let's go through the prompts one by one, and think of some ways to use more ordinary life events to answer them.
This is the broadest of the seven prompts. Almost any life experience that you write about could fit in this category, but you need to be careful to avoid writing the same essay as every other applicant.
Background. Did a family member or friend have a significant influence on your life? Did you grow up in a particularly supportive and tolerant, or narrow-minded and intolerant community? Were your parents not able to provide for you in the expected way? Did you have an unusual home life?
For example, my family came to the U.S. as refugees from Russia. By the time I went to college, I had lived in 5 different countries and had gone to 9 different schools. This wasn't a traumatic experience, but it certainly did shape me as a person, and I wrote about it for my graduate school application essay.
Identity. Are you a member of an interesting subculture (keep in mind that violent or illegal subcultures are probably best left off your college application)? Do you strongly identify with your ethnic or national heritage? Are you a committed fan of something that someone like you would be expected to dislike?
Interest. In this category, esoteric interests are probably better than more generic ones because you don't want your essay to be the hundredth essay an admissions officer sees about how much you like English class. Do you like working with your hands to fix up old cars? Do you cook elaborate food? Are you a history buff and know everything there is to know about the war of 1812?
Talent. This doesn't have to be some epic ability or skill. Are you really good at negotiating peace between your many siblings? Do you have the uncanny ability to explain math to the math challenged? Are you a dog or horse whisperer? Are you an unparalleled mushroom forager?
Pitfalls to Avoid
Insignificance. The thing you describe has to be "so meaningful" the application "would be incomplete without it."
Redundancy. If the interest you write about is a pretty common one, like playing a musical instrument or reading books, make sure you have an original angle on how this interest has affected you. Otherwise, your essay runs the risk of being a cliché, and you might want to think about skipping this idea.
Bragging. If you decide to write about your talent, be aware that by focusing on how very good you are at playing the cello, you run the risk of bragging and coming off as unlikable. It's much better if you either describe a talent a little more off the beaten path. Or if you do end up writing about your excellent pitching arm, you may want to focus on a time when your athleticism failed you in some way or was unsuccessful.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
In essence, you're being asked to demonstrate resilience. Can you get back on the horse after falling off? Can you pick yourself up and dust yourself off? This quality is really important to colleges, so it's great if you have a story that shows off your ability to do this.
The key to this essay is the "later success" part. If all you went through was failure, and you learned no lesson and changed no approach in the future, then don't use that experience here.
Did you lose a game because of a new and poorly rehearsed strategy, but later tweak that strategy to create success? Did you not get the lead in the play, but then have a great experience playing a smaller part? Did you try a new medium only to completely ruin your artwork, but later find a great use for that medium or a way to reconceptualize your art? Did you try your best to convince an authority figure of something only to have your idea rejected, but then use a different approach to get your idea implemented?
Too much failure. Don't focus so much time on the "failure" half of the equation that you end up not giving enough space to the "later success" and "learn from the experience" parts.
Too little failure. On the other hand, don't down the negative emotions of failure because of a fear of seeming vulnerable.
Playing the victim. Avoid whining, blaming others for your failure, or relying on others to create your success. You should be the story's hero here.
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
The key to this prompt is the reflection or insight that comes from the question, "What was the outcome?" Challenging deeply held views is not always a good idea. Writing about a negative outcome and how you reacted could demonstrate your maturity level and ability to tolerate views different from your own.
Remember, the belief or idea could be anyone's: yours, a peer group's, an authority figure's. Did you stand up to your parents' conservative or traditional values, for instance about gender norms? Did you get your friends to stop bullying someone?
Also, the belief or idea doesn't have to be extremely serious or big in scope. Did you make dressing up for Halloween cool for teenagers in your town? Did you transform your own prejudice or bias, for example about athletes having interesting thoughts about philosophy?
Causing offense. If you have a story that deals with super hot button issues—for example, abortion or gun control—you need to be careful to keep your essay's tone respectful and unaggressive. This is a good thing to check by letting other people read your drafts and respond.
Avoiding negative feelings. Challenging beliefs means pointing out that what a person thinks now is wrong. It can also be quite lonely and isolating to be on an unpopular side of an issue. It's important to include these negatives into the story, if they fit.
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?
“Reflect” and “surprising” are the key words in this prompt. You need to write about a specific thing that another person (or persons!) has done for you that made you feel grateful--but your response shouldn’t stop there. To make your response really shine, you also need to reflect on the experience or, in other words, explain what it meant to you, why your feelings about it surprised you, and why. From there, you’ll need to round out your essay by connecting what that person did for you to the person you are today. Did that surprising act change you in some way? Did it make you a better person? This is your chance to show colleges what your values are when it comes to connecting with other people.
Remember how the prompt specifies that you should write about something someone did for you that made you happy or thankful in a surprising way? That wording is nudging you to think outside the box. For instance, most people are thankful for birthday presents or a friend who picks up the check at lunch. You need to think of something more out-of-the-box--something you didn’t necessarily expect to make you feel gratitude.
It’s entirely possible, for instance, that someone helped you out of an ethical dilemma or really difficult situation. Has someone ever helped you when you didn’t necessarily want help? Have you ever been in a situation where, if someone else hadn’t stepped in, something bad could have happened? Did that event motivate you to change your behavior in the future? Were you persuaded to own up to your mistake and do better next time?
An event where the act of kindness or the person who performed it were unexpected are great options here as well. Did someone you dislike do something kind for you? Did a stranger help your family out financially? Did your best friend come in from out of town when you had a bad injury to throw you a surprise party? Did a student who’s more popular than you invite you into their group at school?
Being disingenuous. Don’t exaggerate the effects of the surprising act of kindness you choose to write about. Similarly, you don’t want to write about an event that didn’t truly mean something to you and affect your life in a tangible way. Stick to writing about the truth of what happened in the situation and how you felt about it, and your response will be gold.
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Going from childhood to adulthood doesn't usually happen after one accomplishment or event, but is more of a process. This question is asking you to find one step along the process and explain how it fits into the long thread of your growing up.
You don't necessarily need to tell the story of some big, official ceremony. Instead, you can focus on a small moment that showed you that you were older, more mature, and more responsible than you had been before.
Did your family make up its own adulthood initiation ceremony? Were you finally able to beat your mom in chess or shooting hoops, and did that change how she treated you? Did your dad cry in front of you for the first time, making you realize that you were old enough to handle it? Were you suddenly left in charge of younger siblings, and did you rise to the task instead of panicking? Were you allowed to make a big financial decision for the first time and found yourself taking it very seriously?
For example, during my junior and senior year, my mom traveled extensively for work and my dad lived several states away, so I lived by myself for weeks at a time. It was exhilarating and made me feel independent and mature. But it was also lonely and burdensome, since I had to take care of everything in the house by myself. Living alone was a huge part of my life, shaped me into the person I was, and made me see myself in a new light as a grownup.
Sameness. Avoid the milestones that happen to everyone: driver's license, bar/bat mitzvah, etc., unless they happened to you in some extraordinary way.
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 idea of this prompt is to discuss something you're passionate about. It's a great opportunity to showcase a skill and show off your writing skills, since your passion should come across on the page. Pay attention to the "What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more" aspect of this prompt, since how you learn and from who can say a lot about you.
Hopefully, you should know the things that captivate you right off the bat. Try to think of the things that you turn to not just for fun, but things that destress you or give you the ability to learn.
More importantly, understand why this topic, idea, or concept is important to you. It should have a deeper meaning in your life and say something about who you are as a person.
Some other things you can ask yourself to find a topic are: Do you have any hobbies or interests that are unique? Are there any challenges that you've overcome in pursuing this topic, idea, or concept? Have you discovered something about yourself in relation to this topic, idea, or concept?
Don't miss the overall meaning. Even if something is captivating to you doesn't mean it's captivating to others. Make sure you focus on what the topic, idea, or concept means to you and why that matters, rather than get lost in explaining it and how you feel about it.
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 was the most popular prompt of the 2018-2019 application period . Remember that even though this prompt is open-ended, you want to make sure you discuss something meaningful that shows growth, reflection, and/or something unique about you.
A lot of students have unique experiences that have influenced them throughout their lives. Try to think of people or events that have changed your perspective in a big way.
However, the topic itself doesn't have to be about a big moment. Lots of things can be life-changing, and it's perfectly okay to write about something that happened in your daily life as long as it moved you and has affected you in a way that you can put on paper.
In this prompt, insight is key to a great essay. Reflect on the moments that defined your perspective, or ones in which you learned something. This prompt should be about something personal to you, and can be about family, friends, or an experience.
Ask yourself if there's a time or event or person that has stuck with you, and what it meant to you. Once you have some ideas, ask yourself why. What does it say about you to have changed as a result of that experience, and how might others relate?
Being too general. Insight can be found in moments both big and small. But for this prompt, try to avoid going too big and going too small. You don't want to write about something mundane and have to stretch it to make it mean something. On the other hand, it can be tough to boil down an experience that's really huge, like being an Olympic athlete, into a short essay. Personal and insightful is the key.
How to Make Your Idea Into an Essay
Now that you've come up with some possible ideas, how do you go about actually writing the essay? Before you write, you need to have a plan. I like to think about planning out personal essays that I've written by first imagining them as enjoyable movies. You want your reader to walk away entertained, to remember the characters and story, and to want to see more from the same creator. So how do good movies do those things?
Character arc. Good movies have main characters that undergo some kind of change or transformation. Who is the main character of your essay? It's you! The you of your essay has to start one way and end up another: more mature, with a different mindset, or having learned a lesson.
Conflict or transformation. Good movies also have challenges. The main character doesn't simply succeed and then keep on succeeding—that's boring. Instead, the main character either overcomes an external obstacle or changes in some way from beginning to end. Your essay also needs this kind of story drive. This can come from an obstacle you overcame, an outside force that stood in your way, a disability or weakness you experience, a seemingly unsolvable problem you face. Or it could come from a before/after scenario: you used to be/think/act in one way, but now you've changed into a different/better person.
Dramatic set-piece. In good movies, the conflict or transformation aren't just told to the audience. They are acted out in scenes set in specific locations, with dialogue, character close-ups, and different camera angles. In your essay, your story also needs to show you dealing with the conflict or transformation you face in a small, zoomed in, and very descriptive scene. Think spoken dialog, think sensory description (what did you see, smell, hear, touch?), think action verbs, think feelings. This scene should function as one illuminating example of what you overcame, or how you changed.
Happy ending. Movies that are fun to watch tend to have happy endings. The hero resolves the conflict, emerges a better person, and looks forward to future accomplishments. Your essay also needs to have this kind of closure. This is really not the time to trot out your nihilism or cynicism. Instead, your essay should end on a moment of self understanding and awareness. You lived through something, or you did something, and it affected you in a way that you can verbalize and be insightful about.
Which Prompt Should You Choose?
So now that you've brainstormed some topic ideas and a game plan for turning those ideas into an essay, how do you narrow it down to the one ?
Reverse-Engineer the Perfect Prompt
If you used the first brainstorming approach, try to formulate a big picture idea about the story you're telling.
Is the character arc primarily you learning something about yourself or making peace with your background? Sounds like a good fit for prompt #1.
Is the conflict about you struggling to do something but eventually succeeding? That goes well with prompt #2.
Does the story focus on a mind being changed about an idea? You want to go with prompt #3.
Does your happy ending involve you changing something for the better, fixing something, or solving a problem? Then your essay is ready for prompt #4.
Is your character arc about growing up, gaining wisdom, or becoming more mature? Then you're probably answering prompt #5.
Look in Your Heart
If you used the second brainstorming approach, get ready to get a little cheesy. Really listen to what your gut feelings are telling you about which of your ideas is most compelling, and which will get your emotional juices flowing on the page. Readers can tell when you're writing about something you care deeply about, so it's worth it to find the topic that has the most meaning to you.
Not sure how to tell? Then this is the time to ask your parents, teachers you are close to, or some good friends for their input. Which of your ideas grabs their attention the most? Which do they want to hear more about? Chances are, that's the one that an admissions officer will also find the most memorable.
Want a detailed explanation of why colleges ask you to write essays? Check out our explanation of what application essays are for .
If you're in the middle of your essay writing process, you'll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid .
When you start working on the rest of your application, don't miss what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
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.
Student and Parent Forum
Our new student and parent forum, at ExpertHub.PrepScholar.com , allow you to interact with your peers and the PrepScholar staff. See how other students and parents are navigating high school, college, and the college admissions process. Ask questions; get answers.
Ask a Question Below
Have any questions about this article or other topics? Ask below and we'll reply!
Improve With Our Famous Guides
- For All Students
The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 160+ SAT Points
How to Get a Perfect 1600, by a Perfect Scorer
Series: How to Get 800 on Each SAT Section:
Score 800 on SAT Math
Score 800 on SAT Reading
Score 800 on SAT Writing
Series: How to Get to 600 on Each SAT Section:
Score 600 on SAT Math
Score 600 on SAT Reading
Score 600 on SAT Writing
Free Complete Official SAT Practice Tests
What SAT Target Score Should You Be Aiming For?
15 Strategies to Improve Your SAT Essay
The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 4+ ACT Points
How to Get a Perfect 36 ACT, by a Perfect Scorer
Series: How to Get 36 on Each ACT Section:
36 on ACT English
36 on ACT Math
36 on ACT Reading
36 on ACT Science
Series: How to Get to 24 on Each ACT Section:
24 on ACT English
24 on ACT Math
24 on ACT Reading
24 on ACT Science
What ACT target score should you be aiming for?
ACT Vocabulary You Must Know
ACT Writing: 15 Tips to Raise Your Essay Score
How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League
How to Get a Perfect 4.0 GPA
How to Write an Amazing College Essay
What Exactly Are Colleges Looking For?
Is the ACT easier than the SAT? A Comprehensive Guide
Should you retake your SAT or ACT?
When should you take the SAT or ACT?
Get the latest articles and test prep tips!
Looking for Graduate School Test Prep?
Check out our top-rated graduate blogs here:
GRE Online Prep Blog
GMAT Online Prep Blog
TOEFL Online Prep Blog
Holly R. "I am absolutely overjoyed and cannot thank you enough for helping me!”
- High School
- College Search
- College Admissions
- Financial Aid
- College Life
How to Write the Common App Essay
The Common Application , commonly referred to as “the Common App”, is just what it sounds like— a single application that you can use to apply to multiple schools. Over 700 schools accept the Common App , so it’s more than likely you’ll be able to apply to most, if not all, of the schools on your list through just a single application.
But that’s not all — you’ll still have to write an essay as part of your application. Here’s everything you need to know about the Common App essay and how to complete it.
The Common App Essay Basics
You are required to write one personal essay for the Common App (plus any supplementary essays required by individual schools — more on that later), and the length must be 650 words or less.
Luckily, you get to choose from 7 different essay prompts, which were strategically chosen to allow students to express their character, community, identity, and aspirations.
Here are the 2019-2020 Common App Essay Prompts:
- 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?
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- 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.
Schools know full well that the numbers and grades on an application don’t give the full story about an applicant, so essays serve as a great opportunity for you to talk about your life and let your personality shine.
Colleges aren’t expecting you to have won an Oscar or started your own nonprofit at age 12— they just want to get to know you, so have fun with your essay and focus on expressing yourself!
Common App Essay Tips
The whole purpose of the essay is for the admissions staff to get to know the person behind the application, so be authentic in your writing and try to tell your story honestly.
Your application will be one of potentially thousands of essays that the admissions staff must read, and here’s the secret they’ll all tell you: don’t write what you think they want you to write . College admissions staff don’t expect you to be a published author at the age of 8 or the CEO of a start-up before 18— they’re realistic.
Mainly, admissions staff are looking for your personality fit for the school and for the major (e.g. if you’re applying to the engineering school , are you analytical and drawn to problem-solving?).
Last, but not least, double and triple check your essay for spelling and grammar errors. Not all spell checks will catch mistakes!
Supplementary Essays on the Common App
In addition to the personal essay, you may have to complete an extra essay or essays required by individual schools on your list. The prompts for these supplementary essays vary from school to school, but typically fall within these categories:
- A discussion of an extracurricular activity or something you’re proud of
- Why you want to go to that particular college
- Unique, off-the-wall questions, such as talking about a personality quirk or what you would do with a million dollars.
Tackling the “Why I want to go to College XYZ” question
This is a very common question to get stuck on since it requires some serious reflection. Here are some ways to think about your answer:
- Yes, you’re applying to a school because it’s close to home or it has your program or it’s the cheapest option , but there’s a reason you’ve chosen these criteria. Think about why the criteria you use to decide on schools is important to you.
- Spend some time on Niche researching the schools you’re interested in by looking at student reviews, campus life stats, and student polls on the different aspects of life at that college. What initially caught your eye about the school? What does that school have that none of the other schools on your list have?
- Most importantly, this is still a part of the application where you’re best served expressing yourself honestly, injecting your personal experience into your reasons for applying to this school.
Spend some time reflecting on what makes you the person you are, what motivates you, and what makes you want to go to college. The more you relax and have fun with these essays, the better they’ll be.
Author: Alex Caffee
Former Marketing and Business Analyst at Niche. Dessert aficionado. Currently living and working in New York City.
More Articles By Niche
When it comes to extracurricular activities, there’s no set rule concerning how many you should be involved in or how involved you must be.
Here you’ll find information about how best to be prepared to meet with your college/career counselor so that they can help you achieve your goals. They were really helpful when I was going through the college application process.
Direct admissions is all about colleges coming to students instead of the other way around. If a college knows they would welcome a student like you based on your grades and other credentials, you shouldn’t have to bend over backwards to get in.
Frequently asked questions
What is the common application essay.
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.
Frequently asked questions: College admissions essays
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.
Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.
Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.
When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding your message and content. Then, check for flow, tone, style , and clarity. Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors .
If your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.
If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.
If you’ve got to write your college essay fast , don’t panic. First, set yourself deadlines: you should spend about 10% of your remaining time on brainstorming, 10% on outlining, 40% writing, 30% revising, and 10% taking breaks in between stages.
Second, brainstorm stories and values based on your essay prompt.
Third, outline your essay based on the montage or narrative essay structure .
Fourth, write specific, personal, and unique stories that would be hard for other students to replicate.
Fifth, revise your essay and make sure it’s clearly written.
Last, if possible, get feedback from an essay coach . Scribbr essay editors can help you revise your essay in 12 hours or less.
Avoid swearing in a college essay , since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.
If you have bad grades on your transcript, you may want to use your college admissions essay to explain the challenging circumstances that led to them. Make sure to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects and highlight how you overcame the situation or learned an important lesson.
However, some college applications offer an additional information section where you can explain your bad grades, allowing you to choose another meaningful topic for your college essay.
Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:
- Extracurriculars, especially sports
- Role models
- Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
- Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
- Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
- Overcoming a difficult class
- Using a common object as an extended metaphor
It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.
Yes. The college application essay is less formal than other academic writing —though of course it’s not mandatory to use contractions in your essay.
In a college essay , you can be creative with your language . When writing about the past, you can use the present tense to make the reader feel as if they were there in the moment with you. But make sure to maintain consistency and when in doubt, default to the correct verb tense according to the time you’re writing about.
The college admissions essay gives admissions officers a different perspective on you beyond your academic achievements, test scores, and extracurriculars. It’s your chance to stand out from other applicants with similar academic profiles by telling a unique, personal, and specific story.
Use a standard font such as Times New Roman or Arial to avoid distracting the reader from your college essay’s content.
A college application essay is less formal than most academic writing . Instead of citing sources formally with in-text citations and a reference list, you can cite them informally in your text.
For example, “In her research paper on genetics, Quinn Roberts explores …”
There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay . College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count .
Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:
- Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
- Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
- Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
- Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
- Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)
To write an effective diversity essay , include vulnerable, authentic stories about your unique identity, background, or perspective. Provide insight into how your lived experience has influenced your outlook, activities, and goals. If relevant, you should also mention how your background has led you to apply for this university and why you’re a good fit.
Many universities believe a student body composed of different perspectives, beliefs, identities, and backgrounds will enhance the campus learning and community experience.
Admissions officers are interested in hearing about how your unique background, identity, beliefs, culture, or characteristics will enrich the campus community, which is why they assign a diversity essay .
In addition to your main college essay , some schools and scholarships may ask for a supplementary essay focused on an aspect of your identity or background. This is sometimes called a diversity essay .
You can use humor in a college essay , but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.
Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.
Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.
You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.
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.
Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .
There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic
- Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
- Focuses on you and your experiences
- Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
- Is creative and original
Unlike a five-paragraph essay, your admissions essay should not end by summarizing the points you’ve already made. It’s better to be creative and aim for a strong final impression.
You should also avoid stating the obvious (for example, saying that you hope to be accepted).
There are a few strategies you can use for a memorable ending to your college essay :
- Return to the beginning with a “full circle” structure
- Reveal the main point or insight in your story
- Look to the future
- End on an action
The best technique will depend on your topic choice, essay outline, and writing style. You can write several endings using different techniques to see which works best.
College deadlines vary depending on the schools you’re applying to and your application plan:
- For early action applications and the first round of early decision applications, the deadline is on November 1 or 15. Decisions are released by mid-December.
- For the second round of early decision applications, the deadline is January 1 or 15. Decisions are released in January or February.
- Regular decision deadlines usually fall between late November and mid-March, and decisions are released in March or April.
- Rolling admission deadlines run from July to April, and decisions are released around four to eight weeks after submission.
Depending on your prospective schools’ requirements, you may need to submit scores for the SAT or ACT as part of your college application .
Some schools now no longer require students to submit test scores; however, you should still take the SAT or ACT and aim to get a high score to strengthen your application package.
Aim to take the SAT or ACT in the spring of your junior year to give yourself enough time to retake it in the fall of your senior year if necessary.
Apply early for federal student aid and application fee waivers. You can also look for scholarships from schools, corporations, and charitable foundations.
To maximize your options, you should aim to apply to about eight schools:
- Two reach schools that might be difficult to get into
- Four match schools that you have a good chance of getting into
- Two safety schools that you feel confident you’ll get into
The college admissions essay accounts for roughly 25% of the weight of your application .
At highly selective schools, there are four qualified candidates for every spot. While your academic achievements are important, your college admissions essay can help you stand out from other applicants with similar profiles.
In general, for your college application you will need to submit all of the following:
- Your personal information
- List of extracurriculars and awards
- College application essays
- Standardized test scores
- Recommendation letters.
Different colleges may have specific requirements, so make sure you check exactly what’s expected in the application guidance.
You should start thinking about your college applications the summer before your junior year to give you sufficient time for college visits, taking standardized tests, applying for financial aid , writing essays, and collecting application material.
Yes, but make sure your essay directly addresses the prompt, respects the word count , and demonstrates the organization’s values.
If you plan ahead, you can save time by writing one scholarship essay for multiple prompts with similar questions. In a scholarship tracker spreadsheet, you can group or color-code overlapping essay prompts; then, write a single essay for multiple scholarships. Sometimes, you can even reuse or adapt your main college essay .
You can start applying for scholarships as early as your junior year. Continue applying throughout your senior year.
Invest time in applying for various scholarships , especially local ones with small dollar amounts, which are likely easier to win and more reflective of your background and interests. It will be easier for you to write an authentic and compelling essay if the scholarship topic is meaningful to you.
You can find scholarships through your school counselor, community network, or an internet search.
A scholarship essay requires you to demonstrate your values and qualities while answering the prompt’s specific question.
After researching the scholarship organization, identify a personal experience that embodies its values and exemplifies how you will be a successful student.
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
While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.
You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.
Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.
In most cases, quoting other people isn’t a good way to start your college essay . Admissions officers want to hear your thoughts about yourself, and quotes often don’t achieve that. Unless a quote truly adds something important to your essay that it otherwise wouldn’t have, you probably shouldn’t include it.
Cliché openers in a college essay introduction are usually general and applicable to many students and situations. Most successful introductions are specific: they only work for the unique essay that follows.
The key to a strong college essay introduction is not to give too much away. Try to start with a surprising statement or image that raises questions and compels the reader to find out more.
The introduction of your college essay is the first thing admissions officers will read and therefore your most important opportunity to stand out. An excellent introduction will keep admissions officers reading, allowing you to tell them what you want them to know.
You can speed up this process by shortening and smoothing your writing with a paraphrasing tool . After that, you can use the summarizer to shorten it even more.
If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.
Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.
You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.
If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.
In your application essay , admissions officers are looking for particular features : they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.
Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.
You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay , but you can include one if you think it adds something important.
Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:
- Use a standard, readable font
- Use 1.5 or double spacing
- If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
- Stick to the word count
- Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches
There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:
- A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
- A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.
Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.
Campus visits are always helpful, but if you can’t make it in person, the college website will have plenty of information for you to explore. You should look through the course catalog and even reach out to current faculty with any questions about the school.
Colleges set a “Why this college?” essay because they want to see that you’ve done your research. You must prove that you know what makes the school unique and can connect that to your own personal goals and academic interests.
Depending on your writing, you may go through several rounds of revision . Make sure to put aside your essay for a little while after each editing stage to return with a fresh perspective.
Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your language, tone, and content . Ask for their help at least one to two months before the submission deadline, as many other students will also want their help.
Friends and family are a good resource to check for authenticity. It’s best to seek help from family members with a strong writing or English educational background, or from older siblings and cousins who have been through the college admissions process.
If possible, get help from an essay coach or editor ; they’ll have specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and be able to give objective expert feedback.
When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.
Include specific, personal details and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.
Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.
When writing about yourself , including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.
First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character . You can start with these questions:
- What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
- Whom do you admire most and why?
- What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?
However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.
In a college application essay , you can occasionally bend grammatical rules if doing so adds value to the storytelling process and the essay maintains clarity.
However, use standard language rules if your stylistic choices would otherwise distract the reader from your overall narrative or could be easily interpreted as unintentional errors.
Write concisely and use the active voice to maintain a quick pace throughout your essay and make sure it’s the right length . Avoid adding definitions unless they provide necessary explanation.
Use first-person “I” statements to speak from your perspective . Use appropriate word choices that show off your vocabulary but don’t sound like you used a thesaurus. Avoid using idioms or cliché expressions by rewriting them in a creative, original way.
If you’re an international student applying to a US college and you’re comfortable using American idioms or cultural references , you can. But instead of potentially using them incorrectly, don’t be afraid to write in detail about yourself within your own culture.
Provide context for any words, customs, or places that an American admissions officer might be unfamiliar with.
College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing . Use a conversational yet respectful tone , as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.
Aim to write in your authentic voice , with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.
Admissions officers use college admissions essays to evaluate your character, writing skills , and ability to self-reflect . The essay is your chance to show what you will add to the academic community.
The college essay may be the deciding factor in your application , especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.
Some colleges also require supplemental essays about specific topics, such as why you chose that specific college . Scholarship essays are often required to obtain financial aid .
Ask our team
Want to contact us directly? No problem. We are always here for you.
- Email [email protected]
- Start live chat
- Call +1 (510) 822-8066
- WhatsApp +31 20 261 6040
Our team helps students graduate by offering:
- A world-class citation generator
- Plagiarism Checker software powered by Turnitin
- Innovative Citation Checker software
- Professional proofreading services
- Over 300 helpful articles about academic writing, citing sources, plagiarism, and more
Scribbr specializes in editing study-related documents . We proofread:
- PhD dissertations
- Research proposals
- Personal statements
- Admission essays
- Motivation letters
- Reflection papers
- Journal articles
- Capstone projects
The Scribbr Plagiarism Checker is powered by elements of Turnitin’s Similarity Checker , namely the plagiarism detection software and the Internet Archive and Premium Scholarly Publications content databases .
The Scribbr Citation Generator is developed using the open-source Citation Style Language (CSL) project and Frank Bennett’s citeproc-js . It’s the same technology used by dozens of other popular citation tools, including Mendeley and Zotero.
You can find all the citation styles and locales used in the Scribbr Citation Generator in our publicly accessible repository on Github .
- Admission Guides
- Admission Writing Tips
- Common App Essay: How to Write It Step-By-Step & Examples
Common App Essay: How to Write It Step-By-Step & Examples
Table of contents
The Common Application essay is a required component of the Common Application used by over 900 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad. The Common Application essay is an opportunity for applicants to showcase their writing abilities and share a meaningful experience that highlights their personality, values, and goals.
It may not be the easiest task, but it is always useful to take such an option when submitting via Common App system. It gives you an opportunity to make a good impression with your writing skills. This article will help you with such preparations. We’ve collected basic information about this essay type and picked several helpful tips on how to start and how to complete it. Read them carefully, and it should be easier for you to come up with an excellent composition your college would approve. Let’s go!
Common App Essay: What it Means?
Common App is a system that lets students prepare standard applications that can be accepted by many different colleges in different US states and abroad. Over 900 institutions in North America, China, Japan, and Europe participate in it. A Common App essay is a part of the application process. It serves as your personal statement and can be mandatory or optional, depending on a school. When starting the Common Application process, you can typically find information about an essay, particularly the suggested prompts, in an assignment. After you upload an essay, all institutions participating in this system will be able to access it, which is useful when applying to multiple schools at once. In a rush? Try our admission essay writing service for the best results.
Common App Essays: Importance
As shown above, Common App essay is a unique opportunity to improve your chances of admission as a senior. If done right, writing and submitting such a personal presentation could help you make a strong positive impression on the admissions officers. What makes it even better is that you can use the same essay when applying to different schools of your choice. All colleges participating in this system get access to essays that have been uploaded there. That is why you need to invest your time into coming up with a top-notch essay!
Common App Essay Word Limit
Recommended Common App essay length is 650 words. However, some schools might recommend using between 250 and 650 words. Anyway, it would be wise to use the whole limit. If your personal statement is too short, it won’t stand out much. At the same time you shouldn’t write much more than that, so take your time and plan it carefully. There are several prompts for writing this type of essay. Some of them might be easier for you than others. So take the word limit into account before choosing one.
How to Write Common App Essay Step-By-Step
Now let’s discuss the main thing: how to write a college application essay that will help your application stand out? Try thinking like one of the admissions commission officers when you write it. What kind of a student’s self-presentation would impress you in a positive way? Do you feel this person would fit in your college? A general rule of a good Common App essay is to be concise, well readable, original, and interesting. Below you’ll find a brief guide where we explain each step to you in detail.
Step 1. Brainstorm: Answer Common App Essay Questions
First, spend some time to come up with some good ideas and choose the best one. The goal is highlighting your strength and experience and showing that you really can fit in a college of your choice. Here are several core common app essay questions to be addressed in your work:
- Why am I here?
- What is unique about me?
- What matters to me?
Make sure your topic will allow you to answer all of them without being too wordy. It should be related to something both important for you and for those who will read an essay. If you have doubts, best pay for college application essay to play it safe.
Step 2. Choosing Your Common App Essay Topic
After you’ve decided on the general idea, it is time for choosing from common app essay topics. You might get several prompts suggested for you in the assignment. They can be helpful for a topic selection. It is better to choose something relatable for your personal statement. Something you are ready to stand for. Your topic should be well familiar to you. At the same time it should look original for the commissions in universities you are applying to. Choosing a strong topic is a key step towards success of your application.
Step 3. Structure Your Common App Essay According to Your Topic
Build your Common App college essay ‘around’ your topic. It should highlight your main idea best. Of course, a traditional 5 paragraph essay system can be used here. But feel free to adjust it to the situation. For example, start with questions, then answer them one by one in your text. Does your essay focus on your background? Put some basic facts into an introduction and explain your scholarly progress below. Does it tell about challenges you’ve overcome or confrontations you participated in? Start with some tension, some culminating scenes to make it engaging for readers.
Step 4. Writing Your Common App Essay
After you’ve composed your plan or outline, proceed with writing the full text. Students’ Common App essays should deliver strong messages that highlight their authors’ strengths and capabilities, as well as demonstrate their writing skills. This is why you should make yours interesting to read. Spend some time composing a concise and logical text. Make sure its conclusion matches its introduction. Proofread it at least once before submission. You wouldn’t want some obvious mistakes to ruin its success.
Common App Essay Tips
We’ve picked some tips for Common App essay, which could help compose a winning one to apply for colleges . They are based on the fundamental rule of writing such essays. Developing a strong personal statement while keeping it concise. Keep these tips in mind when writing and reviewing your text:
- Show, don’t tell – back your claims with strong arguments;
- Be specific: this essay is about you as a person;
- Choose active voice, not passive voice;
- Be original, avoid clichés – otherwise, your essay won’t stand out;
- Focus on your goals, don’t turn away from the main line.
Common App Essays: Final Thoughts
In this article we’ve summarized general information about writing common app essays. A strong essay should be concise, original, focused on your own experience as an author, and make a good impression on readers at the end. Keep in mind the tips we’ve given you and good luck with your application! Order essays online at StudyCrumb whenever you need any type of help – informational and practical alike.
Or struggling with tight deadlines? Check out our academic writing services! We are a team of former students with vast expertise in different academic areas. Our mission is to help others overcome typical study challenges. We provide top quality texts – always on time!
Frequently Asked Questions About Common App Essays
1. how many common app essays are required in 2022.
Common Application requires just one general Common App essay that is then sent to any colleges using the app. You don’t have to write multiple essays for multiple applications. And this is what the main advantage of this system is. Spending much less time and effort while securing your chances of success.
2. Is a common app essay the same thing as a personal statement?
The common app essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the common app and require the essay. Your personal statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. As you can see, there is no significant opposition between ‘common app essay vs personal statement’. The latter is just a more general concept.
3. What is the format for the Common App essay?
There are no strict requirements for the Common App essay format. There is an essay text box where you can submit your work. It only has formatting for bold, underlines and italics. No subheadings or separate sections are available. If you include quotes in your paper, it is better to add some basic references to them. But keep in mind that using sources isn’t necessary.
4. How many paragraphs should a common app essay be?
There are no strict requirements or limitations for Common App essay paragraphs. Just keep in mind the overall limit of 650 words. It is, however, recommended to follow the standard five-paragraph paper structure. Make an introduction containing at least one paragraph and a conclusion of the same size. The main part should contain at least three ones but can also have many more if needed.
How to Write Your Common App Essay: 8 Tips to Stand Out
Written by marketing knovva.
The Common Application has a way of bringing up a feeling of dread in high schools everywhere. There are some aspects of the Common App that are great. You only have to fill in your personal information once; it’s a streamlined way to get recommendation letters, and it helps you keep track of all your applications in one place. But one part of the process that college-going students struggle with each year is how to write a Common App essay.
The questions feel vague, and it’s hard to know what, exactly, you should write about. When you do choose a topic, how much of your personality should shine through? Once it’s written, how can you tweak it to ensure it’s the best it can be?
There is a lot of emphasis on crafting the perfect college essay. Although it may feel complicated and scary, we’re here to break it down for you.
What is the Common App Essay?
The Common Application is a streamlined application system that many colleges use. Not all schools use it, but most college-going seniors will end up applying to at least one school that requires the Common App.
The Common App essay is the primary personal statement that will accompany your college application. It’s a fairly open-ended essay, with seven prompts to choose from that leave the door open for you to write about pretty much anything.
Your Common App essay should be between 250 and 650 words long, but we’d recommend using all the space you have. Think of writing a college essay as your chance to show your personality and life experience beyond what your application will provide.
How Important is the Common App Essay?
Your college essay is one of the main components of your application. A study done by the National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) in 2019 revealed that 56.4% of colleges surveyed consider the essay moderately to considerably important.
A lot of it comes down to a question of how selective the schools are that you’re applying to. Every piece of your application takes on more weight as the selectivity of colleges increases.
Think of it this way – your Common App essay is a way for your admissions counselor to get to know you, beyond how you perform in the classroom and what clubs you’re a part of. It’s an important way for you to not only show off your impressive writing skills, but also make a personal impact on your application reader.
Now that you’re convinced of your college essay’s importance, let’s get into tips on how to make your Common App essay stand out.
8 Common App Essay Writing Tips to Stand Out
1. take your time when choosing a topic. .
Before you begin writing your Common App essay, you need to decide on a topic. Many students rush this process and start writing about the first thing that comes to mind. Instead, marinate on several potential topics before you commit to one. Discuss your potential topic ideas with your guidance counselor, English teacher, or parents.
If you’re having a hard time choosing between several ideas, consider writing an outline of each contender. These outlines should roughly sketch out the flow of the essay, the main points you’ll cover, and how that essay reflects your personality.
Your essay should tell a story, regardless of which prompt you choose. Think long and hard about all of your college essay ideas. Ask yourself: does this story have a beginning, middle and end? Am I excited about this essay topic? Does this topic somehow connect to a bigger picture – whether that be my future goals, a past lesson, or a present struggle I’ve overcome?
2. Engage the reader immediately.
You’ve heard this advice from your high school English teacher before, but it’s even more true now as a college applicant. Admissions counselors read dozens of Common App essays every day. Make them excited to keep reading yours.
We know that’s easier said than done, so here’s a tip: start your essay in the middle of the action. Opening paragraphs have a tendency to be dull and don’t add to the story you are telling. If you find yourself providing too much exposition, get back to the action. On editing rounds, challenge yourself to cut out anything that doesn’t draw the reader further into the story.
3. Let your personality come through.
Admission counselors can tell when an essay is written in a student’s authentic voice, and when it’s been edited so many times it sounds robotic. Let your personality shine through when writing a college essay! It’s the part of the application where your reader will really get a sense of who you are, beyond the numbers and achievements listed on the page.
Of course, you should still write in a respectful, professional manner, demonstrating your maturity as a young adult. But that doesn’t mean your essay can’t have humor if you’re a funny person, or sarcasm if that’s who you are.
4. Be concise.
In high school, you may be used to padding your essays with extra adjectives and redundant sentences to achieve an arbitrary word count. When writing a college essay, leave that habit behind.
Your Common App essay should be between 250 and 650 words. That might sound like a lot, but it’s really not much, especially when you’re trying to tell a descriptive story about your life. Use your space wisely. Edit your draft to make it as concise as possible, without missing opportunities to infuse detail and personality.
5. Details are key.
This point might feel counterintuitive after reading our last tip, but trust us when we say details will make or break your Common App essay. Find ways to pepper your essay with relevant details that will make your application reader feel like they really know you.
The details are what will set you apart from other applicants. Even if your topic isn’t super unique, the little things will help you stand out. Some of the best essays are about the smallest of moments, not life-changing events. It’s the details that make those essays so great.
6. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable.
They may feel like scary, faceless judges who will determine the course of your future, but your college admissions counselors are actually just people. And they like to see their applicants as human, too. Don’t try to come off as too polished or perfect in your essay. In fact, do the opposite. Show your humanity by being vulnerable and portraying genuine emotions through your words.
It’s not a ploy for sympathy or attention. It’s a chance to show your counselor a piece of who you are. And you don’t have to have been through a traumatic life event to follow this advice, either. Showing any genuine emotion – whether that be joy, passion, pain, or anything else – is what matters.
7. Show your intelligence.
You’ve written countless essays in history class making connections from the past to modern-day, so you know how to think critically. Consider if there are any real-world events you could tie into your essay to show that you’re thinking about the bigger picture.
Placing your essay within a larger framework is a great way to show off your intelligence and ability to think outside of yourself. Brainstorm historical, cultural, or current events you can draw from to make your essay stand out. The important part to remember here is that your essay shouldn’t stray too far from the main topic, which is you. This strategy requires nuance and creative thinking, but if you can nail it, you’ll distinguish yourself in a big way.
8. Get help with an essay tutor.
The good news about writing a college essay is that you don’t have to do it alone. Asking for help from professionals who’ve done it before is a wise move when it comes to writing your Common App essay.
Knovva Academy offers one-on-one college essay tutoring . Instead of going through the process by yourself, you’ll work with a tutor from concept to completion. You’ll receive personalized guidance that a blog post can’t give you to make you stand out from the crowd.
24 School St., 2nd Floor, Boston, MA 02108
Join Our Newsletter
25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)
Applying to competitive colleges? You'll need to have a stand-out Common App essay.
In this article, I'm going to share with you:
- 25 outstanding Common App essay examples
- Links to tons of personal statement examples
- Why these Common App essays worked
If you're looking for outstanding Common App essay examples, you've found the right place.
If you're applying to colleges in 2023, you're going to write some form of a Common App essay.
Writing a great Common App personal essay is key if you want to maximize your chances of getting admitted.
Whether you're a student working on your Common App essay, or a parent wondering what it takes, this article will help you master the Common App Essay.
What are the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023?
There are seven prompts for the Common App essay. Remember that the prompts are simply to help get you started thinking.
You don't have to answer any of the prompts if you don't want (see prompt #7 ).
Here's the seven Common App essay questions for 2022, which are the same as previous years:
- 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?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
The last prompt is a catch-all prompt, which means you can submit an essay on any topic you want.
Use the Common App prompts as brainstorming questions and to get you thinking.
But ultimately, you should write about any topic you meaningfully care about.
What makes an outstanding Common App personal essay?
I've read thousands of Common App essays from highly motivated students over the past years.
And if I had to choose the top 2 things that makes for incredible Common App essays it's these:
1. Being Genuine
Sounds simple enough. But it's something that is incredibly rare in admissions.
Authenticity is something we all know when we see it, but can be hard to define.
Instead of focus on what you think sounds the best to admissions officers, focus on what you have to say—what interests you.
2. Having Unique Ideas
The best ideas come about while you're writing.
You can't just sit down and say, "I'll think really hard of good essay ideas."
I wish that worked, but it sadly doesn't. And neither do most brainstorming questions.
The ideas you come up with from these surface-level tactics are cheap, because no effort was put in.
As they say,
"Writing is thinking"
By choosing a general topic (e.g. my leadership experience in choir) and writing on it, you'll naturally come to ideas.
As you write, continue asking yourself questions that make you reflect.
It is more of an artistic process than technical one, so you'll have to feel what ideas are most interesting.
25 Common App Essay Examples from Top Schools
With that, here's 25 examples as Common App essay inspiration to get you started.
These examples aren't perfect—nor should you expect yours to be—but they are stand-out essays.
I've handpicked these examples of personal statements from admitted students because they showcase a variety of topics and writing levels.
These students got into top schools and Ivy League colleges in recent years:
Table of Contents
- 1. Seeds of Immigration
- 2. Color Guard
- 3. Big Eater
- 4. Love for Medicine
- 5. Cultural Confusion
- 6. Football Manager
- 9. Mountaineering
- 10. Boarding School
- 11. My Father
- 12. DMV Trials
- 13. Ice Cream Fridays
- 14. Key to Happiness
- 15. Discovering Passion
- 16. Girl Things
- 17. Robotics
- 18. Lab Research
- 19. Carioca Dance
- 20. Chinese Language
- 21. Kiki's Delivery Service
- 22. Museum of Life
- 23. French Horn
- 24. Dear My Younger Self
- 25. Monopoly
Common App Essay Example #1: Seeds of Immigration
This student was admitted to Dartmouth College . In this Common App essay, they discuss their immigrant family background that motivates them.
Although family is a commonly used topic, this student makes sure to have unique ideas and write in a genuine way.
Common App 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. (250-650 words)
The three, small, purple seeds sat on the brown soil. Ten feet from me I could see my grandpa with his yunta and donkeys. They were in unison: the two donkeys, the plow, and him. My grandpa commanded; the donkeys obeyed. I began to feel tired. Exhausted. My neck was being pierced by the Mexican sun as I dropped seeds for hours.
I can’t complain; I wanted to do this.
I placed three tiny seeds, imagining the corn stalk growing while the pumpkin vines wrapped around it; both sprouting, trying to bear fruit. I clenched a fistful of dirt and placed it on them. “Más,” my grandpa told me as he quickly flooded the seeds with life-giving dirt.
Covered. Completely trapped.
My grandfather has been doing this ever since he was a little boy. Fifty-five years later and he still works hard on the field. There isn’t much else to do in the small town of Temalac, Guerrero. All he could do was adapt; something my parents never did. They sacrificed everything and left their home, never to return again. With no knowledge of what would come tomorrow, with only their clothes on their backs, they immigrated to the US. They had to work on unknown soil, hoping their dedication will help sprout the new seeds they’d soon plant. They did this for me. They wanted me to worry about my education, not if there would be enough rain to satisfy the thirst of the crops.
I have a thirst.
A thirst to be the vessel for my family into a better future. I must be the crop that feeds them. All these thoughts rushed into my soul as I looked back down the aluminum bucket. I could never be a farmer. I’m grateful my parents were.
They planted a seed. A tiny seed with no instructions but to succeed. I’m the first-born son of two immigrant parents. I had a clean sheet to become anything. I could’ve fallen into my town’s influence, joined a gang, and become another statistic. Regardless of the dirt I come from, I began to sprout. Ever since I was eight years old I was entrusted with responsibilities. We were lucky that school was a three-minute walk; yet it was a stressful journey for a child. I had to wake up my brother, give him breakfast, make sure his clothes were ready, and that he was doing well in school.
Growing up, I always fell behind in school. I had to take summer classes to match my peers’ intellect; while others were reading to learn, I was merely learning to read. My parents weren’t able to teach me English; I grew up solely developing my Spanish accent . My bilingual brain hadn't yet matured and lacked the English tongue. Entrusting a child to be the translator-of-all-matters for his parents robs him of his childhood. I had to help my parents navigate an English system unknown to them. From the day I learned to speak I had to learn to advocate not just for myself, but for my parents.
I’m the type of person my family tree hasn’t seen. Staying in high school, getting good grades, and being a responsible individual are aspects that make people around me think that I have sprouted. But I have not yet bloomed into the being I wish to become. In fact, I have merely tunneled my roots onto the Earth; roots that have been solidified by the determination my parents instilled in me as a child. Nothing I ever accomplished was handed to me. It’s the fact that I have come this far without the advantages other students have that fills me with pride.
Why This Essay Works:
Everyone has a unique family history and story, and often that can make for a strong central theme of a personal statement. In this essay, the student does a great job of sharing aspects of his family's culture by using specific Spanish words like "yunta" and by describing their unique immigration story. Regardless of your background, sharing your culture and what it means to you can be a powerful tool for reflection.
This student focuses on reflecting on what their culture and immigrant background means to them. By focusing on what something represents, rather than just what it literally is, you can connect to more interesting ideas. This essay uses the metaphor of their family's history as farmers to connect to their own motivation for succeeding in life.
This essay has an overall tone of immense gratitude, by recognizing the hard work that this student's family has put in to afford them certain opportunities. By recognizing the efforts of others in your life—especially efforts which benefit you—you can create a powerful sense of gratitude. Showing gratitude is effective because it implies that you'll take full advantage of future opportunities (such as college) and not take them for granted. This student also demonstrates a mature worldview, by recognizing the difficulty in their family's past and how things easily could have turned out differently for this student.
This essay uses three moments of short, one-sentence long paragraphs. These moments create emphasis and are more impactful because they standalone. In general, paragraph breaks are your friend and you should use them liberally because they help keep the reader engaged. Long, dense paragraphs are easy to gloss over and ideas can lose focus within them. By using a variety of shorter and longer paragraphs (as well as shorter and longer sentences) you can create moments of emphasis and a more interesting structure.
What They Might Improve:
This conclusion is somewhat off-putting because it focuses on "other students" rather than the author themself. By saying it "fills me with pride" for having achieved without the same advantages, it could create the tone of "I'm better than those other students" which is distasteful. In general, avoid putting down others (unless they egregiously deserve it) and even subtle phrasings that imply you're better than others could create a negative tone. Always approach your writing with an attitude of optimism, understanding, and err on the side of positivity.
Common App Essay Example #2: Color Guard
This student was admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill . Check out their Common App essay that focuses on an extracurricular:
Sweaty from the hot lights, the feeling of nervousness and excitement return as I take my place on the 30-yard line. For 10 short minutes, everyone is watching me. The first note of the opening song begins, and I’m off. Spinning flags, tossing rifles, and dancing across the football field. Being one of only two people on the colorguard means everyone will see everything. It’s amazing and terrifying. And just like that, the performance is over.
Flashback to almost four years ago, when I walked into the guard room for the first time. I saw flyers for a “dance/flag team” hanging in the bland school hallway, and because I am a dancer, I decided to go. This was not a dance team at all. Spinning flags and being part of the marching band did not sound like how I wanted to spend my free time. After the first day, I considered not going back. But, for some unknown reason, I stayed. And after that, I began to fall in love with color guard. It is such an unknown activity, and maybe that’s part of what captivated me. How could people not know about something so amazing? I learned everything about flags and dancing in that year. And something interesting happened- I noticed my confidence begin to grow. I had never thought I was that good at anything, there was always someone better. However, color guard was something I truly loved, and I was good at it.
The next year, I was thrown into an interesting position. Our current captain quit in the middle of the season, and I was named the new captain of a team of six. At first, this was quite a daunting task. I was only a sophomore, and I was supposed to lead people two years older than me? Someone must’ve really believed in me. Being captain sounded impossible to me at first, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing my best. This is where my confidence really shot up. I learned how to be a captain. Of course I was timid at first, but slowly, I began to become a true leader.
The next marching season, it paid off. I choreographed many pieces of our show, and helped teach the other part of my guard, which at the time was only one other person. Having a small guard, we had to be spectacular, especially for band competitions. We ended up winning first place and second place trophies, something that had never been done before at our school, especially for such a small guard. That season is still one of my favorite memories. The grueling hours of learning routines, making changes, and learning how to be a leader finally paid off.
Looking back on it as I exit the field after halftime once again, I am so proud of myself. Not only has color guard helped the band succeed, I’ve also grown. I am now confident in what my skills are. Of course there is always more to be done, but I now I have the confidence to share my ideas, which is something I can’t say I had before color guard. Every Friday night we perform, I think about the growth I’ve made, and I feel on top of the world. That feeling never gets old.
Common App Essay Example #3: Big Eater
This Common App essay is a successful Northwestern essay from an admitted student. It has a unique take using the topic of eating habits—an example of how "mundane" topics can make for interesting ideas.
" A plate of spaghetti, six pieces of chicken nuggets, a bowl of fish soup, and a plate of French fries covered in chili sauce. And, don't forget the dessert, make it warm chocolate with milk. Oh... I could also use that 500ml lemonade as you process the order please."
The disbelief printed in the face of the waiter as he scribbled my order confirmed to me that he definitely heard me right. I get that look a lot and I kind of got used to it. In fact most of my friends have teased that my extremely huge appetite is a genetic disorder. Well if you ask me, I think they just envy me.
I come from a family that most people would refer to as humble although I think we eat as "Royalty". Ma spends her day either preparing for the next meal or cleaning up after the previous one. Meals are the only time, if you were lucky enough, you could slip in a request to Papa and at least get a promise. Further, when anyone got sick, they would first be served with twice their average consumption as the first medication ; if symptoms persisted then you could see a physician. The "chiemo", Ma's name for our meals , was guided by one rule, "Your plate had to be cleared regardless of how much food you were served." Probably that and Ma's belief that food consumption was directly proportional to physical and intellectual growth, are responsible for my eating tendencies.
As I grew older and started going to school, I picked up a habit that anytime something made me uncomfortable, whether it was a sum or Sam the bully , I would seclude myself and devour whatever Ma had packed in my lunch box. Surprisingly once I was satisfied, my mind was composed and I could think straight or face my fears. I rode under this without noticing any oddity till I got to high school.
School was thousands of miles from home. All my conscious childhood memories were made inside our camp bubble and I hadn't as much as stepped out the camp let alone travelled that far. Papa and Ma hadn't gone to high school and had no advice whatsoever to help me cope. I remember Ma looking into my teary eyes promising to bring me as much food as she could the next time she was allowed into the school.
The subsequent weeks were rough as I not only kept unsuccessfully asking for extra portions but also had to bear the perplexed stares from fellow students. When I eventually adapted to the rations , I had a change of perspective. I got a deeper understanding of addictions as mind illusions that we are totally dependent on some amounts of different substances which couldn't be further than the truth. That prompted me to join my school's guidance and counselling team where I shared my story to counsel fellow students who were reported to be drug addicts.
Since then through my appetite for different taste of food I have learnt to identify and appreciate different cultures in my country. For instance when served beef I could identify the economic activity, geographic location, and even guess the mood of the cook by looking at the sizes, the amount of soup in the stew, and how precisely the spices have been added respectively. This has led me to appreciate our different cultures in defining who we are and celebrating our diversity.
However, control over my appetite doesn't mean it got any smaller. When I miss home, I eat. When I code, I eat. When I am worried, I eat. When people get worried that I eat too much, I eat. The only difference is I have a choice, but mostly I still chose to eat.
This essay uses their relationship with food to explore how their perspective has changed through moving high schools far away. Having a central theme is often a good strategy because it allows you to explore ideas while making them feel connected and cohesive. This essay shows how even a "simple" topic like food can show a lot about your character because you can extrapolate what it represents, rather than just what it literally is. With every topic, you can analyze on two levels: what it literally is, and what it represents.
Admissions officers want to get a sense of who you are, and one way to convey that is by using natural-sounding language and being somewhat informal. In this essay, the student writes as they'd speak, which creates a "voice" that you as the reader can easily hear. Phrases like "I kind of got used to it" may be informal, but work to show a sense of character. Referring to their parents as "Ma" and "Papa" also bring the reader into their world. If you come from a non-English speaking country or household, it can also be beneficial to use words from your language, such as "chiemo" in this essay. Using foreign language words helps share your unique culture with admissions.
Rather than "telling" the reader what they have to say, this student does a great job of "showing" them through specific imagery and anecdotes. Using short but descriptive phrases like "whether it was a sum or Sam the bully" are able to capture bigger ideas in a more memorable way. Showing your points through anecdotes and examples is always more effective than simply telling them, because showing allows the reader to come to their own conclusion, rather than having to believe what you're saying.
This student's first language is not English, which does make it challenging to express ideas with the best clarity. Although this student does an overall great job in writing despite this hindrance, there are moments where their ideas are not easily understood. In particular, when discussing substance addiction, it isn't clear: Was the student's relationship with food a disorder, or was that a metaphor? When drafting your essay, focus first on expressing your points as clearly and plainly as possible (it's harder than you may think). Simplicity is often better, but if you'd like, afterwards you can add creative details and stylistic changes.
Learn the secrets of successful top-20 college essays
Join 4,000+ students and parents that already receive our 5-minute free newsletter , packed with top-20 essay examples, writing tips & tricks, and step-by-step guides.
Common App Essay Example #4: Love for Medicine
Here's another Common App essay which is an accepted Dartmouth essay . This student talks about their range of experiences as an emergency medical responder:
“How do you keep going after days like this?” a tear-stricken woman asked me after watching me put all my effort into attempting to resuscitate her husband after he had committed suicide. I‘ve grappled with my answer to her question for many years, but I may finally have one.
I wish I could truthfully say that I have grown accustomed to the catastrophic calls. I wish I could say the weight of the words “I’m sorry for your loss” lessens after saying them countless times to heartbroken families. But that is not the reality.
“Days like this” come often in emergency medicine; people call 911 on the worst day of their lives, when their baby stops breathing or their loved one suddenly collapses. Being one of the youngest medical responders ever certified in [Location] , I have spent the majority of my adolescence running toward car crashes, flaming buildings, and into ditches while most sane people bolt in the opposite direction. While I am no stranger to cardiac arrest, severed limbs, and failing organs, it isn’t the mutilated patients that stand out in my memory, but the moments when I get a pulse back during CPR, the hugs from grateful family members, and the few, but treasured “thank you’s.”
This steel box that flies down the road at seventy miles per hour is where I grew up, where I fell in love with emergency medicine. It was a whole new world of insatiable curiosity and gut-wrenching adrenaline; where I became fascinated by the actions of presents a new puzzle—a new person to heal.
I never knew I had the courage to talk a suicidal sixteen-year-old boy down from the edge of a bridge, knowing that he could jump and take his life at any moment.
I never knew I had the strength to hold the hand of a dying man encased in the wreckage of his car while he spoke his last words to me.
I never knew I had the confidence to stand my ground and defend my treatment plan to those who saw me as less than capable because of my age or gender.
The emergency services brought me to places that I never could have imagined and introduced me to patients and people who broadened my worldview. I found myself in frigid rivers pulling unresponsive people into boats and laughing at the incredible sense of humor of a homeless man. It didn’t matter where people came from or who they were when they were on my stretcher, socioeconomic status and labels fell away. Whether I was performing CPR or helping a frail old woman off her kitchen floor, I knew I was changing a stranger’s life even if all I could offer was a hand to hold.
I have an innate passion to heal. I am continuously enthralled by the complexity and endless beauty of the human body and I could spend my whole life studying it, but I will only scrape the surface of its wonders. I could engineer cells to produce missing proteins; I could grow stem cell hearts, livers, and kidneys; I could create tumor destroying medications; I can heal people one person at a time until I help eliminate the word ‘incurable’ from the dictionary. I answer that catastrophic call day after day because to love medicine is to love humanity and no one has ever really lived until they have done something for someone who can never repay them.
This essay has lots of detailed moments and descriptions. These anecdotes help back up their main idea by showing, rather than just telling. It's always important to include relevant examples because they are the "proof in the pudding" for what you're trying to say.
This topic deals with a lot of sensitive issues, and at certain points the writing could be interpreted as insensitive or not humble. It's especially important when writing about tragedies that you focus on others, rather than yourself. Don't try to play up your accomplishments or role; let them speak for themselves. By doing so, you'll actually achieve what you're trying to do: create an image of an honorable and inspirational person.
This essay touches on a lot of challenging and difficult moments, but it lacks a deep level of reflection upon those moments. When analyzing your essay, ask yourself: what is the deepest idea in it? In this case, there are some interesting ideas (e.g. "when they were on my stretcher, socioeconomic status...fell away"), but they are not fully developed or fleshed out.
Common App Essay Example #5: Cultural Confusion
This student's Common App was accepted to Pomona College , among other schools. Although this essay uses a common topic of discussing cultural background, this student writes a compelling take.
This student uses the theme of cultural confusion to explain their interests and identity:
An obnoxiously red banner with Chinese characters hangs in front of a small, unassuming diner close to home. I stroll inside Grand Lake, this bustling hive with waitresses scuttling hurriedly and tables shaking lightly, the din of laughter from families mixing with the aromas of Chinese food. A lady with a notepad impatiently beckons my family to sit at one of the free tables, and as soon as we’re all settled in, she begins addressing me in Mandarin - possibly asking what I wanted for a drink. I look at her blankly, and she returns the confused expression. “I don’t speak Chinese,” I laugh forcibly after a tense moment. She doesn’t find the humor in my apology. From thereafter, our order is taken in broken English, our chopsticks switched out for the standard fork and knife , and I feel the burning gaze of the waitresses judging my family as we eat our Sunday brunch in silence.
Cultural confusion is commonplace. Being born in Peru and raised in Venezuela makes no difference in how most people see and treat us. Focusing on my slanted, almond eyes and ebony hair, I’m automatically pegged as an Asian wherever I go. Touring Peruvian artisan markets is always a test of wit and cleverness, as vendors try to over-price items we’re interested in simply because we look Asian , and therefore must also have Crazy Rich Asian bank accounts. Pulling out a simple credit card at a Caracas mall once got us chased by three armed motorcyclists on the highway, and my mother risked collision as she wove in and out of the cramped lanes like a Formula One race car driver. Since when did my appearance jeopardize my life?
My ancestry traces back to both Chinese and Japanese roots, its imprint burrowed deep in my face and DNA. But I’m a third generation, Peruvian-born girl with the fire to prove it. Over time, our Asian culture diluted and was replaced with a vibrant, Latino lifestyle. With each generation, the immigrant language faded, folktales blurred, spices dulled, and all things Asian abandoned. I celebrated Noche Buena as a kid, not Chinese New Year’s. My favorite childhood dishes were anticuchos and papa huancaína, not onigiri rice balls or sushi rolls . Everyone assumes that I am a math prodigy, shy and antisocial, a black belt karate master, and a laughingstock on the dance floor . But actually, I struggle hardest in my math class, studying twice as much as others for the same grade. My personality, although sweet, is bold and gregarious. I am a three-year kickboxer and a five-year Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu competitor. Turn on Marc Anthony and I may just get a spot on So You Think You Can Dance. I’m Latina, just packed in a cute, little Bento box .
There is one Asian stereotype that I fit into, even though its backstory is completely misguided: playing the piano . In reality, piano musician culture was not developed in any Asian region, rather in European countries with pioneers such as Bach and Haydn. Statistically, there is an equal amount of Asian and non-Asian musicians in the professional world. I came across the piano through my own curiosity and will, not through my parents bludgeoning me to play it like it’s portrayed with all young Asians. I actually studied South American music for an international piano competition in Peru, finished as a finalist, and grew to love the radiant and eccentric style of Latino modern music. But I digress-- my potential should be evaluated separately from my appearance.
I am a musician born by passion, not by race. I am a human defined by my achievements and experiences, not physical assumptions. Leave your preconceptions by the welcome mat and size me up by the sound of my Rachmaninoff sonata or Enrique Iturriaga solos , and let my character sing your first and final impressions of me.
Common App Essay Example #6: Football Manager
Here's a UPenn essay that worked for the Common App:
When I watched the Patriots and Falcons play in the Super Bowl in February of [Date] , I had no idea that the next time I watched a football game I would be on the sidelines, right in the middle of all the action. However, that’s exactly what happened, and my experience as a football manager is not one that I will ever forget.
At the end of my junior year, the head football coach, Coach Cotter (who was also my AP Government teacher), asked me if I wanted to be a manager for the football team. He told me I would have to be at all the practices and games during the summer and throughout the school year. He made a compelling offer, but I turned him down because I didn't think I would have enough time during the summer with my classes, work, and vacation. One of my friends, however, took him up on his offer. In the middle of July, after hearing her talk about how much she enjoyed it, I asked her if she thought I would be able to join. After we spent a little bit talking about it , she asked if I wanted to go with her and see what it was like. I agreed, and I loved it. I asked Coach Cotter if he would mind if I joined, and I can still hear him saying, "Absolutely, the more the merrier!" in my head. The weeks of practice that followed, and then eventually the long Friday nights, proved to be an unforgettable experience.
The job of a football manager does not sound glamorous. Being at football practice for six hours every day during the summer and then three hours after school, surrounded by 47 sweaty football players and seven coaches who are constantly shouting is not how I planned to spend my summer and the fall of my senior year. But there was no way for me to know that this experience would teach me valuable lessons about life, regarding teamwork, hard work, and discipline.
In late July it was evident that some of the players were new and unsure of what to do. I watched as day after day the upperclassmen helped them learn their positions and become better players. This demonstration of teamwork impressed me, because instead of laughing at the younger players for not knowing what to do, they helped them become the best players they could be to make the team stronger. Once, three of our seniors got in trouble for some off field activities, and they had to sit out the first game, along with losing their helmet stickers that are given out for exceptional performances. I witnessed the effect that the consequences had on these players, and I heard one of our coaches after we lost the game tell them “Now you see how the consequences of your actions affected the entire team. Don't ever underestimate your importance to this team.” After that game, I saw the hard work that those boys put in to earn back their reputations and their helmet stickers. They taught me that even if I make mistakes, I will always learn from them no matter how much hard work it takes.
We managers go by many names: watergirls, team managers, hydration specialists. But none of these monikers can capture the rush of emotion I feel after a hard fought game, or the feeling of connectedness that comes every time we celebrate as a team after a victory, ringing our bell and blasting “Party in the USA.” My sense of school spirit has never been stronger. Throughout the summer, the three hours after school, and the seven hours I spend on game days with the players, I have learned lessons and developed relationships that I will never forget.
This essay has lighthearted moments in it, such as recognizing how being a football manager "does not sound glamorous" and how "we managers go by many names: watergirls..." Using moments of humor can be appropriate for contrasting with moments of serious reflection. Being lighthearted also shows a sense of personality and that you are able to take things with stride.
The reflections in this essay are far too generic overall and ultimately lack meaning because they are unspecific. Using buzzwords like "hard work" and "valuable lessons" comes off as unoriginal, so avoid using them at all costs. Your reflections need to be specific to you to be most meaningful. If you could (in theory) pluck out sentences from your essay and drop them into another student's essay, then chances are those sentences are not very insightful. Your ideas should be only have been able to been written by you: specific to your experiences, personal in nature, and show deep reflection.
Although this essay uses the topic of "being a football manager," by the end of the essay it isn't clear what that role even constitutes. Avoid over-relying on other people or other's ideas when writing your essay. That is, most of the reflections in this essay are based on what the author witnessed the football team doing, rather than what they experienced for themselves in their role. Focus on your own experiences first, and be as specific and tangible as possible when describing your ideas. Rather than saying "hard work," show that hard work through an anecdote.
More important than your stories is the "So what?" behind them. Avoid writing stories that don't have a clear purpose besides "setting the scene." Although most fiction writing describes people and places as exposition, for your essays you want to avoid that unless it specifically contributes to your main point. In this essay, the first two paragraphs are almost entirely unnecessary, as the point of them can be captured in one sentence: "I joined to be a football manager one summer." The details of how that happened aren't necessary because they aren't reflected upon.
In typical academic writing, we're taught to "tell them what you're going to tell them" before telling them. But for college essays, every word is highly valuable. Avoid prefacing your statements and preparing the reader for them. Instead of saying "XYZ would prove to be an unforgettable experience," just dive right into the experience itself. Think of admissions officers as "being in a rush," and give them what they want: your interesting ideas and experiences.
Common App Essay Example #7: Coffee
This student was admitted to several selective colleges, including Emory University, Northwestern University , Tufts University, and the University of Southern California . Here's their Common Application they submitted to these schools:
Blue blanket in one hand, cookie monster in the other, I stumbled down the steps to fill my sippy cup with coffee. My diplomatic self gulped down his caffeine while admiring his Harry Potter wands. My father and I watched the sunrise through the trees and windows. I cherished this small moment before my father left, disappearing in and out of my life at the wave of a wand, harassing my seemingly broken, but nevertheless, stronger, family.
I was 10, and my relationship with coffee flourished as my father vanished. I admired the average, yet complex beverage and may have been the only ten-year-old to ask for a French-press for his birthday. Nonetheless, learning to craft intricate cups of coffee became my favorite pastime. I spent hours studying how to “bloom” the grounds in a Chemex or pour a swan. Each holiday, I would ask for an aeropress, an espresso machine. I became a coffee connoisseur, infinitely perfecting my own form of art.
As the years went by--I was 11, 12, 13--I began to explore the cafes in Pittsburgh with my grandmother, capturing them through our shared love for photography. Coffee (one of the few positive memories I have of my father) is also the bridge that allows my grandmother and I to converge our distinctly different backgrounds into one harmonious relationship. Inside quaint coffee shops, we would discuss pop culture, fashion, and the meaning of life. We made it our mission to visit every cafe and document them not only through the camera lens, but also through the conversations we shared.
I was 16 years old, and working at a family-owned coffee shop training other employees to pour latte art. Making coffee became an artistic outlet that I never had before. I always loved math, but once I explored the complexities of coffee, I began to delve into a more creative realm--photography and writing--and exposed myself to the arts--something foreign and intriguing.
When my father left and my world exploded , coffee remained a light amongst the darkness. As the steam permeates my nostrils and the bitterness tickles my tongue, I learn a little more about myself. The act of pouring water over grounds allows me to slow down time for a moment, and reflect upon my day, my life, my dreams, and my future. When I dive into a morning cup, I take a plunge into the sea of the self, and as I sip, am struck with the feeling that coffee is a universal link between cultures. I picture my great grandmother sitting on her front porch in Rome, slurping LaVazza and eating her coffee-soaked biscotti. Every cup takes me back to my heritage, forces me to reflect upon where I came from and where I must go, and who else, in another world, is sipping the same drink and reflecting upon the same principles. You see, coffee is like the ocean. It bridges two culture, two lands, two brains, all through conversation, exposure, exploration, but by one medium. I do not see it as simply a beverage, but rather, a vehicle for so much more.
At 18, coffee is a part of who I am-- humble, yet important , simple, yet complex, and rudimentary, yet developed. As I explore new coffee shops, I explore a new part of myself, one once hidden beneath the surface of my persona. My grandmother and I--we are conquistadors of the cafe scene, conquering the world one coffee shop at a time and, in the process, growing endlessly closer to each other and ourselves. Coffee has allowed our relationship to flourish into a perpetual story of exploration and self-reflection.
Now, I often think about my father and how someone whom I resent so much could have introduced me to something I love so much. It is crazy to think that it took losing him for me to find my true self.
This essay uses coffee as a metaphor for this student's self-growth, especially in dealing with the absence of their father. Showing the change of their relationship with coffee works well as a structure because it allows the student to explore various activities and ideas while making them seem connected.
This student does a great job of including specifics, such as coffee terminology ("bloom the grounds" and "pour a swan"). Using specific and "nerdy" language shows your interests effectively. Don't worry if they won't understand all the references exactly, as long as there is context around them.
While coffee is the central topic, the author also references their father extensively throughout. It isn't clear until the conclusion how these topics relate, which makes the essay feel disjointed. In addition, there is no strong main idea, but instead a few different ideas. In general, it is better to focus on one interesting idea and delve deeply, rather than focus on many and be surface-level.
Near the conclusion, this student tells about their character: "humble, yet important, simple, yet complex..." You should avoid describing yourself to admissions officers, as it is less convincing. Instead, use stories, anecdotes, and ideas to demonstrate these qualities. For example, don't say "I'm curious," but show them by asking questions. Don't say, "I'm humble," but show them with how you reacted after a success or failure.
Common App Essay Example #8: Chicago
Here's another Northwestern essay . Northwestern is a quite popular school with lots of strong essay-focused applicants, which makes your "Why Northwestern?" essay important.
To write a strong Why Northwestern essay, try to answer these questions: What does NU represent to you? What does NU offer for you (and your interests) that other schools don't?
Chubby fingers outstretched and round cheeks flattened against the window, I leaned further into the plexiglass. Although I could feel a firm hand tugging at my shirt, urging me to sit back in my seat - at ten, I possessed little concept of manners (or sanitary awareness) , both of which I abandoned as I refused to cease standing on the chair of the CTA train - at the moment, all that mattered was that I was soaring above the streets of Chicago. Eyes darting across the ever changing expanses of the city, I refused to lift my gaze in fear of missing anything.
For the first time, I was taking a trip in the belly of a gargantuan silver beast, known familiarly to most Chicagoans as the “L.” What distinguishes the L from its relatives - the Tube, le Métro, the MTA - is its ability to burst through concrete and asphalt streets to rise above, guided only by wood and steel, and glide through the towering skyscrapers that dot the Chicago skyline. It elevates and cultivates a sense of infinite wonder in its riders, from the all-too-serious businessmen I’ve caught gazing dreamily out the windows to the young children futilely yet passionately attempting to balance in the center of the car as the train weaves throughout the city. From that first ride to the present day, my fascination with the inner and outer workings of the L and its passengers has refined itself to an infatuation.
Each ride presents a chance to ponder the overlooked, to question the seemingly mundane : You can quantify the number of people that find themselves teeming through the L’s sliding doors, but can you quantify their experiences? Who is that woman, man, student, small rodent, and what is their story? I adopt the lenses of journalists, economists, marketers, sociologists, historians, and the mere fellow passenger to analyze: the placement of an ad for Planet Fitness adjacent to an ad for Pizza Hut, the change in the racial makeup of passengers as the train travels North to South, the origin of unassuming stains or abandoned books. More recently I pondered, if they say the beat of a butterfly’s wings can induce a hurricane halfway across the world, can a five minute train delay get me into college?
The L is a catalyst between my vim mind and the seemingly elusive outer world, a seventy-five cent silver chariot that I can ride to whatever adventure I see fit . Since that first ride, I persist in search of the optimal collection of train stops, forging a mental map of Chicago shaped by my life experiences - all accessible by a simple swipe of a ventra card. The multitude of train lines that branch from the L’s “Loop” are dotted with my discoveries. The boathouse, where I strain my vocal chords from hours of training (and hours of laughing with my teammates).
The school, where I test the waters of political responsibility, explore the depths of socioeconomic research, and conquer the wakes of edits delivered on my reporting for the newspaper. The small urban farm, located in a former project, that I help create and cultivate each spring and summer.
My thirst and and hunger for the knowledge of anything and everything was, and remains, insatiable. This train, this beating artery, pumping from the birthplace of the city to its outer reaches, is what quenches my thirst and satiates my hunger. Riding the L not only gave me the access to pursue rowing, a liberal education, and volunteerism; it forged a sense of adventurousness deep into the synapses of my nerves, a sense driving me into the intersections of journalism, student government, fashion, and aiding my beautiful city. That first L ride instilled the interests that lie within me, passions that subsist on experiencing life at its fullest and engaging my sponge-like intellectuality. I thrive on discovery; It defines who I am.
This essay uses a variety of descriptive and compelling words, without seeming forced or unnatural. It is important that you use your best vocabulary, but don't go reaching for a thesaurus. Instead, use words that are the most descriptive, while remaining true to how you'd actually write.
This essay is one big metaphor: the "L" train serves as a vehicle to explore this student's intellectual curiosity. Throughout the essay, the student also incorporates creative metaphors like "the belly of a gargantuan silver beast" and "seventy-five cent silver chariot" that show a keen sense of expression. If a metaphor sounds like one you've heard before, you probably shouldn't use it.
This student does a fantastic job of naturally talking about their activities. By connecting their activities to a common theme—in this case the "L" train—you can more easily move from one activity to the next, without seeming like you're just listing activities. This serves as an engaging way of introducing your extracurriculars and achievements, while still having the focus of your essay be on your interesting ideas.
Admissions officers are ultimately trying to get a sense of who you are. This student does a great job of taking the reader into their world. By sharing quirks and colloquialisms (i.e. specific language you use), you can create an authentic sense of personality.
Common App Essay Example #9: Mountaineering
Here's a liberal arts college Common App essay from Colby College . Colby is a highly ranked liberal arts college.
As with all colleges—but especially liberal arts schools—your personal essay will be a considerable factor.
In this essay, the student describes their experience climbing Mount Adams, and the physical and logistical preparations that went into it. They describe how they overcame some initial setbacks by using their organizational skills from previous expeditions.
This Colby student explains how the process of preparation can lead to success in academics and other endeavours, but with the potential for negative unintended consequences.
Common App 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? (250-650 words)
The night before I climb to the summit, I pack my bag carefully, making sure all my equipment is in its rightful place. Headlamp in the left pocket. Clif Bar (nauseating but necessary) next to my sleeping bag. Three unlocked carabiners on my harness. Extra layers, ropes, and ice axes diligently packed away. After a few hours of sleep, I wake up under the midnight moon, my brain foggy in the high altitude and grateful for the extra preparation.
Although I would love to say this sense of organization comes naturally , it only became habit after my first major mountaineering expedition. The summer after freshman year, I flew to Washington to climb Mt. Adams, a lofty 12,000-foot peak in the shadow of Rainier. My backpacking, rock climbing, and skiing experience gave me the technical skills I would need for mountaineering, which is essentially a combination of those three sports. But physical skills alone could not compensate for the logistical skills I lacked. Just twenty minutes before starting the climb, I scrambled to pack under the faint beam of my headlamp. My one a.m. brain betrayed me; I left all my food at base camp. I climbed as far as I could, but had to descend to camp before long. It was not safe for me to continue on without food.
This anecdote was not unique to one summit attempt, or the outdoors in general. In middle school, I constantly neglected to make flashcards and write down homework, and my grades, though good, suffered as a result. I left behind a trail of forgotten ski coats and misplaced textbooks, and few were surprised when parent-teacher conferences revolved around the word ‘careless’. But after that failed summit attempt, I created organizational systems for every subsequent kayaking, hiking, and mountaineering trip, and began to apply them beyond the trailhead. While high school isn’t exactly comparable to climbing mountains, I pack my backpack the night before, make flashcards weeks before tests, and always stash extra snacks for cross country. The preparation steals a few precious minutes of sleep, but in return, means honors societies and academic excellence.
These processes have led to academic success, but weren’t without flaw. I spent hours preparing for each challenge, and in return expected an A on every test and a successful summit of each mountain. I felt that the outcome should be in exact proportion to my effort. I failed to recognize that I can’t control every variable. Heading into a difficult summit attempt of Mount Olympus, the tallest peak in Washington’s Olympic Range, I was certain it would go my way. I was in great shape, had practiced all my knots and rope skills, and, of course, had packed the night before. Despite it being the most difficult mountain, I had attempted, I thought that due to the work I had put in, it was my right to summit. I was wrong.
The glacier leading up to the summit was calving, or shedding ice, too quickly. These glacial avalanches would be deadly, there was no other way to the summit, and it was totally out of my control. I was devastated. We ate Snickers, normally enjoyed on the summit, on the glacier staring up at the peak. Below our feet, swimming through the glacial crevasses, were ice worms: tiny, endemic invertebrates. I transformed my disappointment into an opportunity to slow down and research glaciers and their tiny microorganisms. Looking back, I’m not upset I didn’t summit. I learned about ice worms and watermelon snow algae, but more importantly that while I can’t control every outcome, I can always control my attitude. I won’t reach the peak of every mountain, ace every test, or win every cross-country race, no matter how hard I prepare. But I can do my best, enjoy the process, and embrace the outcome, even if it’s not exactly what I expected.
This essay does a great job of having a cohesive theme: mountaineering. Often times, great essay topics can be something simple on the surface, such as your favorite extracurricular activity or a notable experience. Consider using the literal activity as a sort of metaphor, like this essay does. This student uses mountaineering as a metaphor for preparation in the face of upcoming challenge. Using an overarching metaphor along with a central theme can be effective because it allows you to explore various ideas while having them all feel connected and cohesive.
Admissions officers want to see your self-growth, which doesn't always mean your successes. Often times, being vulnerable by expressing your struggles is powerful because it makes you more human and relatable, while providing the opportunity to reflect on what you learned. The best lessons from come failures, and writing about challenge can also make your later successes feel more impactful. Everyone loves to hear an underdog or zero-to-hero story. But counterintuitively, your failures are actually more important than your successes.
This essay has some nice ideas about focusing only on what's in your control: your attitude and your effort. However, these ideas are ultimately somewhat generic as they have been used countless times in admissions essays. Although ideas like this can be a good foundation, you should strive to reach deeper ideas. Deeper ideas are ones that are specific to you, unique, and interesting. You can reach deeper ideas by continually asking yourself "How" and "Why" questions that cause you to think deeper about a topic. Don't be satisfied with surface-level reflections. Think about what they represent more deeply, or how you can connect to other ideas or areas of your life.
Common App Essay Example #10: Boarding School
This personal essay was accepted to Claremont McKenna College . See how this student wrote a vulnerable essay about boarding school experience and their family relationship:
I began attending boarding school aged nine.
Obviously, this is not particularly unusual – my school dorms were comprised of boys and girls in the same position as me. However, for me it was difficult – or perhaps it was for all of us; I don’t know. We certainly never discussed it.
I felt utterly alone, as though my family had abruptly withdrawn the love and support thatI so desperately needed. At first, I did try to open up to them during weekly phone calls, but what could they do? As months slipped by, the number of calls reduced. I felt they had forgotten me. Maybe they felt I had withdrawn from them. A vast chasm of distance was cracking open between us.
At first, I shared my hurt feelings with my peers, who were amazingly supportive, but there was a limit to how much help they could offer. After a while, I realized that by opening up, I was burdening them, perhaps even irritating them. The feelings I was sharing should have been reserved for family. So, I withdrew into myself. I started storing up my emotions and became a man of few words. In the classroom or on the sports field, people saw a self-confident and cheerful character, but behind that facade was someone who yearned for someone to understand him and accept him as he was.
Years went past.
Then came the phone call which was about to change my life. “Just come home Aryan, it’s really important!” My mother’s voice was odd, brittle. I told her I had important exams the following week, so needed to study. “Aryan, why don’t you listen to me? There is no other option, okay? You are coming home.”
Concerned, I arranged to fly home. When I got there, my sister didn’t say hi to me, my grandmother didn’t seem overly enthusiastic to see me and my mother was nowhere to be seen. I wanted to be told why I was called back so suddenly just to be greeted as though I wasn’t even welcome.
Then my mother then came out of her room and saw me. To my immense incredulity, she ran to me and hugged me, and started crying in my arms.
Then came the revelation, “Your father had a heart attack.”
My father. The man I hadn’t really talked to in years. A man who didn’t even know who I was anymore. I’d spent so long being disappointed in him and suspecting he was disappointed in me, I sunk under a flood of emotions.
I opened the door to his room and there he was sitting on his bed with a weak smile on his face. I felt shaken to my core. All at once it was clear to me how self-centered I had become. A feeling of humiliation engulfed me, but finally I realized that rather than wallow in it, I needed to appreciate I was not alone in having feelings.
I remained at home that week. I understood that my family needed me. I worked with my uncle to ensure my family business was running smoothly and often invited relatives or friends over to cheer my father up.
Most importantly, I spent time with my family. It had been years since I’d last wanted to do this – I had actively built the distance between us – but really, I’d never stopped craving it. Sitting together in the living room, I realized how badly I needed them.
Seeing happiness in my father’s eyes, I felt I was finally being the son he had always needed me to be: A strong, capable young man equipped to take over the family business if need be.
Common App Essay Example #11: My Father
This Cornell University essay is an example of writing about a tragedy, which can be a tricky topic to write about well.
Family and tragedy essays are a commonly used topic, so it can be harder to come up with a unique essay idea using these topics.
Let me know what you think of this essay for Cornell:
One in three victims of a heart attack don’t show any symptoms before it happens. Ninety-five percent of cardiac arrests that occur outside a hospital are fatal. These are not merely statistics. A heart attack redefined my life on November 21st, [Date] .
It was a warm autumn morning, and I was raking leaves with my Boy Scout Troop to fundraise for our high adventure patrol’s 50-mile hike to summit Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I had left my house on my bike early, without telling my mom—she was asleep, and my dad was at work.
About an hour into raking, I saw my mother park nearby, and braced myself for a lecture about how my absence had freaked her out. No part of me imagined why she was actually there. Two words, delivered with the force of a Mack truck, “Dad died.” That morning on his routine break, his cardiac arteries became terminally obstructed. A heart attack and subsequent cardiac arrest ensued. That was it. No goodbye, no I love you, none of that.
From there, my mind spiraled downward into an emotional void. I began to question my entire life—and how my father played into it. What did I last say to him? Did he know how much I loved him? I wanted to pinch myself and end the nightmare. But no, it was real life. In the subsequent weeks, there was no clarity or closure. The path I was travelling on was engulfed by thick fog. I questioned everything about life as I knew it: why do bad things happen to good people?—what does life mean?—how can I move forward?—how can the universe be so cruel? Three years later, I’m still searching for answers.
My father was wise, reserved, hardworking, and above all, caring. I idolized his humility and pragmatism, and I cherish it today. But after his death, I was emotionally raw. I could barely get through class without staving off a breakdown.
Looking at my reflection in my dresser mirror one afternoon, I was examining my bloodshot, teary eyes when I noticed an old sticker of a black and white eye. When I was ten or eleven, I had gotten into trouble for playing video games too much, cursing, or some other youthful infraction. I was in my room as punishment after being scolded, when my dad came in. He placed this simple sticker on the mirror, and said, “Just remember, I’m always watching over you, no matter where I am.” When this happened, I knew he was being contextual about making sure I didn’t misbehave— but after his death, it seemed so omniscient and transcendental. When I look at that sticker, I know he’s with me.
One of my dad’s favorite adages was, “If you really think you’re doing your best—and it’s still not enough—make your best better.” When he would scold me about my grades, I always thought he was just being a “stickler,” demanding perfection. I know now that he was just encouraging me to do and be my best. His words have become my credo. During the entire year after his death, there were more than a few “firsts without dad”—first Christmas, first birthday, first Father’s Day, but also the first time I truly motivated myself. I think of my dad often, but never more than when I am pushing myself to succeed.
One in three victims are unaware they’re about to have a heart attack? Ninety five percent of cardiac arrest victims die? These statistics are just not good enough for me. As my dad would say, it’s time to make our best better to combat heart disease. My father is more than a statistic. His wisdom lives within me. When I face life’s obstacles, I know I can conquer them with him on my side.
Writing about tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, is a tricky topic because it has been used countless times in college admissions. It is difficult to not come off as a "victim" or that you're trying to garner sympathy by using the topic (i.e. a "sob story"). This essay does a great job of writing about a personal tragedy in a meaningful and unique way by connecting to values and ideas, rather than staying focused on what literally happened. By connecting tragedy to lessons and takeaways, you can show how—despite the difficulty and sorrow—you have gained something positive from it, however small that may be. Don't write about personal tragedy because you think "you should." As with any topic, only write about it if you have a meaningful point to make.
This essay is effective at making the reader feel the similar emotions as the author does and in bringing the reader into their "world." Even small remarks like noting the the "firsts" without their loved one are powerful because it is relatable and something that is apparent, but not commonly talked about. Using short phrases like "That was it. No goodbye, no I love you..." create emphasis and again a sense of relatability. As the reader, you can vividly imagine how the author must have felt during these moments. The author also uses questions, such as "What did I last say to him?" which showcase their thought process, another powerful way to bring the reader into your world.
Admissions officers are looking for self-growth, which can come in a variety of forms. Showing a new perspective is one way to convey that you've developed over time, learned something new, or gained new understanding or appreciation. In this essay, the student uses the "sticker of a black and white eye" to represent how they viewed their father differently before and after his passing. By using a static, unchanging object like this, and showing how you now view it differently over time, you convey a change in perspective that can make for interesting reflections.
Common App Essay Example #12: DMV Trials
Here's a funny Common App essay from a Northwestern admitted student about getting their driver's license.
This topic has been used before—as many "topics" have—but what's important is having a unique take or idea.
What do you think of this Northwestern essay ?
Seatbelt on. Mirrors adjusted. Key in the ignition. I am ready to roll. I am sitting in the parking lot of a DMV with a small Hispanic lady with overly drawn-on eyebrows in the passenger seat. In her hands, she holds a beige clipboard and a pen that looks as though it has been half-eaten by some underfed pomeranian. Oh wait, it’s not the pomeranian, it’s her. She is now gnawing on her pen. Oh gosh, Emily don’t focus on that; focus on how you’re going to pull out of this parking lot. I am panting heavily. All of the sweat that was once flowing from my body is now on the steering wheel.
Breath, Emily, breath. I drive to the exit and face a four-lane roadway. “Turn left,” my passenger says.
“Okay,” I mutter back. I can do this. I can totally do this. I am Emily [Name] for goodness sake. The Emily [Name] who is president of student council, Failure is not in my vocabulary; it never has been, and it never will be. I proceed in driving. “Stop!” Oh no. I look to my right to see the examiner grip the ceiling handle with all her might; her eyes simulate the expression her penciled-on eyebrows were portraying all along. I am in the middle of the roadway; cars are heading towards me in all directions. At that moment, I know I failed.
March 25, [Date] , is a day that will live in infamy. The day I experienced failure. Unaccepting of my loss, I blamed my driving incompetence on my mother’s Chrysler minivan, which had what I liked to call “touchy brakes.” My father was good at agreeing with me, adding on with “it’s too foggy out” and “maybe you’re wearing the wrong shoes.” Assigning responsibility for my ineptitude to a pair of sneakers was far easier than admitting that I just wasn’t good at driving. So, with my ego still at large, I decided to take the driver’s test again the following weekend.
April 1, [Date] , is another day that will live in infamy. The day I experienced failure for the second time. I failed my road test again, but not for the same reason as before. This time I actually made it out of the parking lot. However, I did in fact run over a curb and blow a stop sign. I didn’t receive as much sympathy as I did for my earlier attempt. It wasn’t the car nor the shoes this time. It was me. I failed my driver’s test all on my own. Now, any normal, rational human being would probably call this “not a big deal,” but to my high-strung sixteen-year old-self, it was a big deal. How could I have failed something that ninety percent of my class mastered on their first try?
My entire life, I had been accustomed to excelling in whatever I did. Whether it was in school work or extracurriculars, my life ran on a simple input-output system. I would put the hard work in and out would come immediate success.
On July 29, [Date] , I finally got my license. After the April debacle, I practiced driving almost every week. I learned to stop at stop signs and look both ways before crossing streets, the things I apparently didn’t know how to do during my first two tests. When pulling into the parking lot with the examiner for the last time, a wave of relief washed over me.
“Third time’s the charm,” the lazy-eyed instructor told me. I was ecstatic! For the first time in my life, I was licensed in driving as well as licensed in resilience. My experiences at the DMV taught me that failure is inevitable and essential to moving forward. As I peer down the long road ahead, I am no longer afraid to conquer any bump in my path.
This essay does a good job of having a compelling narrative. By setting the scene descriptively, it is easy to follow and makes for a pleasant reading experience. However, avoid excessive storytelling, as it can overshadow your reflections, which are ultimately most important.
This essay has some moments where the author may come off as being overly critical, of either themselves or of others. Although it is okay (and good) to recognize your flaws, you don't want to portray yourself in a negative manner. Avoid being too negative, and instead try to find the positive aspects when possible.
More important than your stories is the answer to "So what?" and why they matter. Avoid writing a personal statement that is entirely story-based, because this leaves little room for reflection and to share your ideas. In this essay, the reflections are delayed to the end and not as developed as they could be.
In this essay, it comes across that failure is negative. Although the conclusion ultimately has a change of perspective in that "failure is inevitable and essential to moving forward," it doesn't address that failure is ultimately a positive thing. Admissions officers want to see failure and your challenges, because overcoming those challenges is what demonstrates personal growth.
Common App Essay Example #13: Ice Cream Fridays
This Columbia essay starts off with a vulnerable moment of running for school president. The student goes on to show their growth through Model UN, using detailed anecdotes and selected moments.
“Ice cream Fridays!” “Two hours of recess!” 500 middle schoolers stood and cheered, pounding their feet on the bleachers. Declan was the popular star quarterback and my opponent for school president. He looked like an adult in a tailored suit, gesturing with his hands, never checking his notes, casting looks at the girls sitting in the front row. He had long wavy hair, a smooth complexion, and charisma. I sat in my polyester blue blazer and rumpled khakis. I was becoming more emasculated and filled with self-doubt with each chant.
I had the best platform ideas and my aunt helped paint two dozen campaign posters. The year before, I carried the weight in student council while Declan skipped half our meetings. I was sure I could win. I clomped to the mic in my dad’s dress shoes. I read my long speech from my notes without enthusiasm. My only applause came from a couple of friends who felt bad for me.
Later, in high school, math and programming made sense to me — people didn’t. At a Model UN meeting, confident upperclassmen talked about the power of persuasion and public speaking. I felt like I didn’t belong, but their command of the stage made me want to be a part of it. At my first conference, representing Brazil’s humanitarian policies, I had developed what I thought was a brilliant proposal. I was confident and was the first to raise my placard. I had so many ideas but when I took the mic, I didn’t know where to start. I rambled on about background and never got to my main points. I felt foolish for thinking I was going to be so effective. My highwater pants and my sleeves hanging over my fingers added to my insecurity.
I continued this pattern of my speaking skills not matching my confidence in the quality of my ideas. To compensate, I increased the intensity of my preparation. I’d fill a binder with hundreds of research documents, I immersed myself in my roles. I mistakenly assumed that good ideas alone would be enough to win. At one conference, two delegates asked me to join their bloc to get access to my ideas with no intention of giving me a meaningful role. They saw me purely as a policy wonk.
My fascination with geopolitical and economic issues were what kept me committed to MUN. But by the end of sophomore year, the co-presidents were fed up. “Henry, we know how hard you try, but there are only so many spots for each conference...” said one. “You’re wasting space, you should quit,” said the other.
Nevertheless, I persisted. My junior year I ran for club secretary. Automating attendance and quantitative projects were my inclination. But members saw me as a younger, less intimidating officer, and started coming to me for guidance. When Gabby, a freshman, came to me for advice, I tried to pass her off to the co-presidents. She was terrified of speaking at conferences, and I didn’t know how to express my empathy. “They aren’t going to take me seriously, I don’t have charisma, I’m too short!” I saw my own insecurities in her. I didn’t feel like I was qualified to help, but I reminded her of the passion she had shown in meetings. Gradually, I became a mentor to her and many others. I was enjoying supporting them and was gratified by guiding their growth as delegates. One sophomore even anointed me “MUN soccer mom.”
On the bus to her first conference, Gabby was in a panic, but throughout the day I saw her confidence grow. When she won Outstanding Delegate, beyond anyone’s expectations, our whole row erupted in wild cheers. When my name was also called shortly after, it felt anticlimactic. I was far more proud of succeeding in my new role as a mentor than I was of my own award.
This essay has a compelling story, starting from this author's early struggles with public speaking and developing into their later successes with Model UN. Using a central theme—in this case public speaking—is an effective way of creating a cohesive essay. By having a main idea, you can tie in multiple moments or achievements without them coming across unrelated.
This student talks about their achievements with a humble attitude. To reference your successes, it's equally important to address your failures. By expressing your challenges, it will make your later achievements seem more impactful in contrast. This student also is less "me-focused" and instead is interested in others dealing with the same struggles. By connecting to people in your life, values, or interesting ideas, you can reference your accomplishments without coming off as bragging.
This essay has moments of reflection, such as "math and programming made sense... people didn't". However, most of these ideas are cut short, without going much deeper. When you strike upon a potentially interesting idea, keep going with it. Try to explain the nuances, or broaden your idea to more universal themes. Find what is most interesting about your experience and share that with admissions.
Stories are important, but make sure all your descriptions are critical for the story. In this essay, the author describes things that don't add to the story, such as the appearance of other people or what they were wearing. These ultimately don't relate to their main idea—overcoming public speaking challenges—and instead are distracting.
Common App Essay Example #14: Key to Happiness
Here's a Brown University application essay that does a great job of a broad timeline essay. This student shows the change in their thinking and motivations over a period of time, which makes for an interesting topic.
Let me know what you think of this Brown essay:
Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (250-650 words)
If you are not the first, you are one of the rest. I always thought this was the key to happiness. Even when I was an infant, my mom used to say that I chose the people who could carry me. There were only two people: my mom and my sister, not even my dad.
Growing up, I always wanted to be the best in everything. And I was for the most part. I have a bunch of certificates: first in elocution competition, debates, patriotic song competitions, fancy dress, story narration, top 1% in the Macmillan math Olympiad, etc. In all the parent-teacher meetings, every teacher would say that my parents were blessed to have such a child and no one else stood a chance.
Everything went great until I came second in the fifth grade in the annual examination. I just could not admit that I got defeated, that someone else was better than me. As the middle school period is when “who is the prettiest girl in class” came up, I lost there as well. Since that mattered a lot during the puberty stage, that cost me my confidence. I stopped talking to my friends because I thought they had this perception of me being ugly. It went to such an extent that I thought my parents felt the same way, so I’d never let them attend the parent-teacher meetings. I stopped participating in many activities.
Then the ultimate burst: my sister, the one whom I’d let hold me, moved to the United States. That was the rock bottom; I felt so lonely and lost. I just isolated myself because I felt so insecure. I was afraid to be with myself. Still, I lingered on and immersed myself in something I knew I was good at and did not have to be social: academics. Then came the eighth grade. This was the most crucial period of my life. Just keep reading and you’ll know why.
This was when I was introduced to programming, and since I was always inclined to problem-solving and logical analysis, I was fascinated. When I could solve the problems my tutor gave me, I felt like I was solving problems in my real life and started to regain control (as I was when I was a baby) . That’s how my passion for programming started. I delved further into this. This made me come out of that pitch-black pit. In my tenth-grade board exam, I was one among the few to get the perfect score in computer science. But I wasn’t ready to let this go after the tenth grade. I gave up a relaxed life for the Android development classes during my tenth-grade summer vacations.
When I published my first app in the Google play store, I realized that this was the happiest I had ever been. So, does it make you happy if you are the best at everything? When was I the happiest— when I was the best at everything or when I was programming? The truth is that the former happiness was fleeting. It was for those few words of my teachers or my peers, but the latter was real. It’s true, that was harder to achieve but when I did come past all those little runtime errors and crashes, it made my day. So, the answer to the question is ‘no’. What makes you happy is you pursuing your passion.
The outcome: my attitude towards life changed. Nothing could pull me down anymore. Even if I didn’t top my class, I was happy because I knew my happiness was independent. The sheer spirit of chasing my dreams makes me happy. I will work hard to achieve them. You create your own destiny.
This student's first language is not English, which provides some insight into why the phrasing may not seem as natural or show as much personality. Admissions officers are holistic in determining who to admit, meaning they take into account many different factors when judging your essays. While this essay may not be the strongest, the applicant probably had other qualities or "hooks" that helped them get accepted, such as awards, activities, unique background, etc. Plus, there is some leniency granted to students who don't speak English as their first language, because writing essays in a foreign language is tough in and of itself.
It's good to be confident in your achievements, but you don't want to come across as boastful or self-assured. In this essay, some of the phrasing such as "when I was the best at everything" seems exaggerated and is off-putting. Instead of boosting your accomplishments, write about them in a way that almost "diminishes" them. Connect your achievements to something bigger than you: an interesting idea, a passionate cause, another person or group. By not inflating your achievements, you'll come across more humble and your achievements will actually seem more impactful. We all have heard of a highly successful person who thinks "it's no big deal," which actually makes their talents seem far more impressive.
This essay has some takeaways and reflections, as your essay should too, but ultimately these ideas are unoriginal and potentially cliché. Ideas like "what makes you happy is pursing your passion" are overused and have been heard thousands of times by admissions officers. Instead, focus on getting to unique and "deep" ideas: ideas that are specific to you and that have meaningful implications. It's okay to start off with more surface-level ideas, but you want to keep asking questions to yourself like "Why" and "How" to push yourself to think deeper. Try making connections, asking what something represents more broadly, or analyzing something from a different perspective.
You don't need to preface your ideas in your essay. Don't say things like "I later found out this would be life-changing, and here's why." Instead, just jump into the details that are most compelling. In this essay, there are moments that seem repetitive and redundant because they don't add new ideas and instead restate what's already been said in different words. When editing your essay, be critical of every sentence (and even words) by asking: Does this add something new to my essay? Does it have a clear, distinct purpose? If the answer is no, you should probably remove that sentence.
Common App Essay Example #15: Discovering Passion
Here's a Johns Hopkins essay that shows how the student had a change in attitude and perspective after taking a summer job at a care facility.
It may seem odd to write about your potential drawbacks or weaknesses—such as having a bad attitude towards something—but it's real and can help demonstrate personal growth.
So tell me your thoughts on this JHU Common App essay:
Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (250-650 words)
"If I'll have to be around the old people, I'm not working there. I just don't feel comfortable around them. I mean, I can't even understand what they're saying half the time!"
Dismissively, I rejected my father's nagging proposal that I apply for a summer job at a local long-term care center, arguing that I'd lose my patience much too quickly in attempting to interact with elderly residents. However, with my father being, well, my father, I reluctantly filled out a job application, reluctantly attended an interview, and, 5 days later , reluctantly commuted to an orientation for my position as a 'resident partner'. Although I initially viewed the job as a prison sentence which I had been condemned to serve for 8 hours per day, the care center would eventually come to serve as a clarion call, challenging each and every preconceived notion I held in regards to a globally misunderstood population, and by extension facilitate the development of a more socially conscious personal character.
From the moment I stepped foot in the care center that would soon become a home-away-from-home for the length of my summer, the entirety of my perspective concerning senior citizens was entirely turned upon its head. These elderly persons were nothing near the stereotypical portrayals of the generational group which I had taken at face value and had accepted to be unalterably true; these individuals appeared to be exactly that: individuals. These individuals laughed as if no-one were watching, grinning from ear to ear. These individuals wore expressions of abandonment, fighting against tears of sorrow. These individuals engaged in enthusiastic conversation with acquaintances, recounting the latest achievement of a granddaughter. These individuals engaged in solitary introspection, attempting (albeit unsuccessfully) to piece together distant memories of a late wife. Where I had inserted my simplistic view of senior citizens as a static monolith, these individuals showcased a mosaic of human emotion , destroying the ideological box I had structured around their collective identity.
Nonetheless, while the past notions which I had nurtured were quickly deprived of their vitality as a direct consequence of the myriad behaviors exhibited by the care center's residents , I developed a more comprehensive and impactful understanding of the elderly population through my interactions with residents suffering from neural afflictions, namely a frail, endearing woman named Constance.
Resultant of the frequency with which Constance and her wheelchair seemed to bump into me, it happened that a friendship blossomed between she and I. Revealing to me one afternoon that she had endured a stroke decades ago, Constance passively lamented the implications of such an experience, among which existed a speech impediment compromising the ease with which she could engage in conversation. For some odd reason or another, this confession served as a catalyst, utterly decimating any remnant of my elementary view in regards to this social demographic. Perhaps owing to the intimate nature of such a statement, or perhaps owing to the period of introspection such a statement encouraged within me, Constance's words facilitated a realization of the depth of the innumerably varied experiences undergone by senior citizens. Not only did Constance demonstrate to me the dynamic, rounded character of elderly individuals ; Constance unwittingly offered me a glimpse into the unfortunate reality that neural diseases are deeply misunderstood, resulting in the reduction of afflicted persons to the definition and symptoms of their disease .
Armed with a newfound awareness of the subtle dehumanization suffered by those found in circumstances mirroring Constance's, my interest in the function and coordination of the brain and its activity was magnified. Moreover, my tentative decision to pursue a career in neurology—in order to reduce the marginalization of elderly individuals by means of amplifying general knowledge concerning neurological diseases—was solidified.
Regardless of whether this aspiration comes to pass, or I head down a different path , it will remain true that I left my summer job with so much more than a paycheck.
This student uses vulnerability in admitting that they held preconceived notions about the elderly before this experience. The quote introduces these preconceived notions well, while the description of how this student got their job in the care facility is also engaging.
Admission officers love to see your interactions with others. Showing how you interact reveals a lot about your character, and this essay benefits from reflecting upon the student's relationship with a particular elderly individual.
It is good to be descriptive, but only when it supports your expression of ideas. In this essay, the author uses adjectives and adverbs excessively, without introducing new ideas. Your ideas are more important than having a diverse vocabulary, and the realizations in this essay are muddled by rephrasing similar ideas using seemingly "impressive," but ultimately somewhat meaningless, vocabulary.
This essay touches on some interesting ideas, but on multiple occasions these ideas are repeated just in different phrasing. If you have already expressed an idea, don't repeat it unless you're adding something new: a deeper context, a new angle, a broadened application, etc. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of each sentence, and have I expressed it already?
It's true that almost any topic can make for a strong essay, but certain topics are trickier because they make it easy to write about overly used ideas. In this essay, the main idea can be summarized as: "I realized the elderly were worthy humans too." It touches upon more interesting ideas, such as how people can be reduced down to their afflictions rather than their true character, but the main idea is somewhat surface-level.
Common App Essay Example #16: "A Cow Gave Birth"
This Common App essay for the University of Pennsylvania centers on the theme of womanhood. Not only is it well-written, but this essay has interesting and unique ideas that relate to the student's interests.
A cow gave birth and I watched. Staring from the window of our stopped car, I experienced two beginnings that day: the small bovine life and my future. Both emerged when I was only 10 years old and cruising along the twisting roads of rural Maryland. While my country-bound aunt and cousin were barely phased, the scene struck my young and sheltered eyes. Along with a whirlwind of emotions, the unrestrained act of parturition triggered a feeling of warmth I will never forget.
Years later I learned in biology that all women are biologically nurturing, physically and emotionally. What did that mean? At that point in my life, I could truly make no connection. My idea of femininity was locked in what society had shown me thus far. Femininity was wearing dresses, applying makeup, cheerleading, and giggling near the most popular jock in the entire middle school. In other words, things I did not exactly partake in.
But as I sat in the classroom, I didn’t think about my gender or how I relate to what society considers to be female. Rather, the discussion brought me back to that hot car, parked in front of that special birthing cow. I witnessed the essence of biological femininity as that cow radiated love and affection to her calf immediately after his arrival into the world. The cow represented the epitome of femininity: nurturement and selflessness.
As I have considered the idea of “biological femininity”, I have for years questioned how I fit in with that term. Admittedly, I stray far from the stereotypical female. However, according to developmental neuroscience, evolutionary biology, and studies of sex-based cognitive differences, I am empathetic and intuitive, and prefer language over logic— and that was all I needed. Through the birth of a calf, I realized that I did not need to be interested in “girl things” to be a girl. I did not need a characterized maternal figure to show me how to be a young lady. I certainly did not need a man to tell me how to be a woman. The qualities I possess internally give me all the femininity I need to be a female. There was no definition beyond that, nothing society could paint. That, I believed, was absolutely beautiful.
The future is female. Now that I am beginning to understand the fluidity of femininity, hearing those words empowers me. There are endless ways to live the female experience, no one experience more valid than another. Creativity, intuition, kindness, and love are the roots of femininity, while whatever blooms is up to the individual. With my roots firmly planted, I only need the opportunity to grow to create my future.
When I began thinking of a future field of study and career, I didn’t hesitate; I knew I wanted to work with women. After my struggle with femininity, nothing else intrigued me more. The birth of the cow seven years ago was my inciting incident. My story must include the love, warmth, and beauty of that day. To be a part of the birth story of others entering this world and to study the life and love that preceded is my goal. Eventually, through whatever it takes, I will become an OB/GYN so I can work with women daily , helping teenagers through puberty and educating on sexuality, supporting women through their personal challenges, and assisting in the life-changing act of childbirth. I am dedicated to the future of women.
A cow gave birth and I watched. That experience helped me to become the powerful, strong-minded, and passionate young woman I am today. In pursuing a doctorate I hope to encourage and guide other women to be their own best self and show through my actions and story that there is no one version of womanhood that is “right”, perhaps influencing a new generation.
Common App Essay Example #17: Robotics
This Common App essay was for Washington University in St. Louis .
This student writes about their experience creating and using an engineering notebook to better document their robotics progress. They share the story of how their dedication and perseverance led to winning awards and qualifying for the national championships.
Lastly, they reflect on the importance of following one's passions in life and decision to pursue a business degree instead of a engineering one.
My drooping eyes fluttered, biding time before my inevitable descent into a well-deserved slumber. My hand scratched on with determination as I reflected on the past VEX robotics season in my engineering notebook. As I penned my final entry, the once heavy strokes of ink regressed into nothingness, and the cartridge breathed its last, one final victim of my notebook. With an internal salute, I disposed of the pen and retrieved another to finish my reflection. When finally content with my writings, I clicked my pen shut and let out a deep sigh of closure before sauntering up to my bed. As I lay down, I realized that my dedication to my engineering notebook had concluded a crucial leg in my journey toward further education and adulthood. My mind wandered back to the beginning.
Going into my freshman year, my high school's VEX Robotics program personified the proverbial David facing other organizations’ Goliaths. With only one adviser, our poorly funded team struggled to compete with the private clubs who could access high-tech engineering rooms stocked abundantly with building materials. Despite the program’s frugality, my team successfully qualified for the Wisconsin State Championship in my freshman and, then, sophomore year. During those years we earned respect throughout the VEX community , but we never procured any awards that would solidify our program’s competitiveness. To win awards, teams must document their robotics progress in an engineering notebook. During my junior year, with the desire to improve my VEX club’s prestige, I volunteered to create the notebook. At the time, I feared the commitment, never anticipating the unforeseen rewards.
As I progressed through my junior year, I crafted the engineering notebook assiduously ; I set timetables, documented brainstorming sessions, and sketched potential designs all in hopes of winning an award to validate my team. With the first competition approaching, my team spent countless hours building and coding the robot, constantly overcoming the challenges presented by our lack of building materials. In spare moments between schoolwork and VEX, I worked feverishly on the notebook. When competition day arrived, I worried that all our hard work would be unavailing. Despite my apprehensions, we performed exceptionally , and we went on to win the tournament.
Furthermore, my team won the Design Award, which recognizes the best engineering notebook. I felt momentarily overjoyed, but I realized that perseverance could potentially multiply our success. Upon arriving home, I withdrew to my room and continued my meticulous work in my engineering notebook. By the time the State Championship arrived, teams from around Wisconsin respected our program . We were no longer underdogs; rather, we were fierce competitors. At State, we won the CREATE Award for a well-documented and creative design solution, and we qualified for the CREATE US Open Championship. Representing Wisconsin at the national level was the greatest honor of my life. Reshuffling my pillow, my reverie ceased as I considered how my experience creating the engineering notebook taught me invaluable life lessons of tenacity and diligence. I thought about how I no longer bore a childish fear of commitments; instead, I embraced new challenges. Moreover, I realized the notebook enhanced my time management skills both in the short-term and in the long-term. I often worked ahead on homework to leave time for writing, and I learned to make decisions about the overall timeline of our project.
Above all, however, the notebook helped me realize that I should study business instead of following the typical VEX participant’s engineering path. I found my niche when I focused on project management with the notebook instead of concentrating on the specifics of the robot. In a final wink of consciousness, I felt true happiness knowing that my hard work had paid off. Then I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep.
This essay touches on various lessons that they've learned as a result of their experience doing robotics. However, these lessons are ultimately surface-level and generic, such as "I embraced new challenges." Although these could be a starting point for deeper ideas, on their own they come off as unoriginal and overused. Having interesting ideas is what makes an essay the most compelling, and you need to delve deeply into reflection, past the surface-level takeaways. When drafting and brainstorming, keep asking yourself questions like "How" and "Why" to dig deeper. Ask "What does this represent? How does it connect to other things? What does this show about myself/the world/society/etc.?"
Although this essay is focused on "VEX robotics," the details of what that activity involves are not elaborated. Rather than focusing on the surface-level descriptions like "We competed and won," it would be more engaging to delve into the details. What did your robot do? How did you compete? What were the specific challenges in "lacking building materials"? Use visuals and imagery to create a more engaging picture of what you were doing.
The hook and ending sentences of "drifting off to sleep" feel arbitrary and not at all connected to any ideas throughout the essay. Instead, it comes off as a contrived choice to create a "full circle" essay. Although coming full circle is often a good strategy, there should be a specific purpose in doing so. For your intro, try using a short sentence that creates emphasis on something interesting. For the conclusion, try using similar language to the intro, expanding upon your ideas to more universal takeaways, or connecting back to previous ideas with a new nuance.
Common App Essay Example #18: Lab Research
I remove the latex gloves from my hands. I oscillate between looking at the rats enclosed in the acoustic startle chambers to my right, and my team project advisor to my left. A silver lab table, cluttered with syringes, vials, and countless notes, separates me and him. A lab rat’s cage sits at the center like a cornucopia. I begin to sit on a cold lab stool, and upon confirming that the Startle Reflex software is indeed running, I settle into my seat. Though the atmosphere smells faintly of urine, I am comfortable.
These lazy afternoons collecting data defined my experience at the Governor’s School in the Sciences. Our team would spend hours with the acoustic startle chambers, startling rats in the presence of anxiogenic pheromones from other rodent urine in order to evaluate their altered behavioral responses — freezing, excessive grooming, urination, that sort of thing. Turns out, scaring rats enough to pee their pants takes a long time.
My team project advisor, Zach, made these long hours, not only bearable, but pivotal in my understanding of the applied sciences. Zach was the youngest counselor at GSS and was definitely the easiest to talk to. He would always entertain me and my peers with tales of his college club’s calls for divestment in the fossil fuel industry. He relayed to us an inspiring tale: one day, while completing some organic chemistry assignment, Zach felt the commanding urge to start a protest. Against the backdrop of the divisive presidential election of 2016, Zach felt increasingly frustrated by a general feeling of listlessness amid a rapidly transforming world. He eventually found environmental activism, drawing on his scientific background, as a vehicle to make tangible change in the global landscape. And while Zach’s angsty musings were easy to tease, always ornamented with quintessential frat-boy idiosyncrasies, like the overuse of the words “bro” and “yo,” they forced me to consider my own passions in the context of scientific inquiry. Zach, motivated by the pregnant intersection between environmental science and civic engagement, oriented my own career goals in a very profound way.
Prior to GSS, I had always found myself trying to mediate between my interests in public policy and science, from obsessively reading about America’s diplomatic relations to Middle East, to madly teaching myself about the neuroscientific underpinnings of behavior. Zach’s endeavors, his involvement in activism while studying science, revealed an entire sphere between two worlds where my own passions in both could finally coincide. The fruitful conversations I had with Zach demanded that I consider the pragmatic applications of the research we were doing, engaging with the real world in the same manner he had.
Researching chemical signaling in rodents was an exploration of the social transmission of fear in humans — a study with numerous political applications, especially in today’s age of demagogic political rhetoric. Indeed, a rat gaining awareness of a fearful situation is analogous to a human’s awareness of a fearful situation; hysteria in large groups has often lent to social chaos, falling victim to the same conspecific negotiations as in our rodent study. Application of our study in a political context made me realize that my interests are interwoven, though kaleidoscopic.
At GSS, whether it be in the lectures I listened to or the labs I did, my professors borrowed ideas from all fields alike; political implications arising in neuroscientific research, cultural anthropology in human evolution — even philosophical inquiries appeared in courses on special relativity. I loved every academic excursion onto these intellectual, peripheral avenues, as they always contextualized science in a broader sense. This interdisciplinary way of thinking is where I have found my passions to reside, inspired by Zach’s ruminations on activism amid a place of such intellectual vitality ; I know this is, not only where complex solutions to the world's problems reside, but where my future does too.
Common App Essay Example #19: Carioca Dance
Watching my coach demonstrate the drill, it seemed so simple. But when I tried to do the Carioca drill (it sounds like “karaoke”, but doesn’t involve wailing into a microphone - it’s more like shuffling sideways while doing the Irish jig) , everything fell apart.
Left foot back, right foot in front, left foot... where does it go again? Too late, I realized - I tripped over my feet and fell flat on my face as my teammates started laughing. “Saad, let’s see you dance again!” my teammate called out to me as we got ready to repeat the drill on the way back.
Everyone grinned and watched in anticipation. I swallowed my pride and tried to Carioca in the other direction and stumbled yet again, as my teammates continued to laugh. “There’s no way I’m going to be able to do this drill”, I thought to myself.
As the practices wore on, the drill changed. Instead of being called Cariocas, the drills were now named after me - “Saads”. Pretty ironic, right? At the start of every practice, I would try the Carioca like everybody else and miserably fail. I would stumble, or trip, or, worse, I would end up doing a full frontal.
In order to avoid embarrassment, I began doing the drills as fast as possible. My “diving in head first” approach (literally and figuratively) definitely wasn’t working. Then at the start of the new season, I tried something different. As everyone quickly did the Carioca across the field, I slowly put each foot in front of the next. It was painstakingly slow, and everyone laughed as I practically crawled across the field. I began doing this every practice. It was a painful process - everyone laughed day after day as I tried to slowly work on perfecting Cariocas. With each practice, I got better. I gradually began stumbling over my own feet less. Until one day, I was doing them at full speed.
I’ve become more flexible and quicker on my feet now that I can do Cariocas and It was like the pattern of the Cariocas, but instead of my feet, it was my mouth that made me afraid I would look clumsy. Like the Cariocas, avoiding or rushing through the problem wasn’t helping me. Instead, I practiced talking in front of stuffed animals, then in front of the mirror, and before I knew it, I was giving a presentation at a Future Business Leaders of America conference in front of judges who gave me great reviews.
Other places off of the lacrosse field, I found myself stumbling there also – interacting with customers at Kohl’s or with patients at the hospital. Instead of tripping over my feet with customers, now working at Kohl’s I find myself being able to connect and assist customers much better – something that seemed so easy to do, but I always tried to rush through because of my fear of embarrassment. I had become a robot programmed to ask how someone's day was , instead of actually engaging and meeting new, interesting, complex people.
Now, I can “Carioca” with them , as well as all of the patients at the hospital I volunteer at. I’ve stopped tripping over my own feet, and it’s led to me not being afraid to connect and interact with patients and customers or present in front of large crowds. Life is just one long Carioca – you might stumble at first, but if you keep pushing, the right feet will find themselves in the right place.
Having a natural-sounding style of writing can be a great way of conveying personality. This student does a fantastic job of writing as they'd speak, which lets admissions officers create a clear "image" of who you are in their head. By writing naturally and not robotically, you can create a "voice" and add character to your essay.
This student chooses a unique activity, the Carioca drill, as their main topic. By choosing a "theme" like this, it allows you to easily and naturally talk about other activities too, without seeming like you're simply listing activities. This student uses the Carioca as a metaphor for overcoming difficulties and relates it to their other activities and academics—public speaking and their job experience.
Showing a sense of humor can indicate wit, which not only makes you seem more likeable, but also conveys self-awareness. By not always taking yourself 100% seriously, you can be more relatable to the reader. This student acknowledges their struggles in conjunction with using humor ("the drills were not named after me—'Saads'"), which shows a recognition that they have room to improve, while not being overly self-critical.
Common App Essay Example #20: Chinese Language
A few weeks before freshman year of high school, I stood and stared wide eyed in front of the fortress that is Lincoln. I was there on a mission. Today, I would choose the language I’d take for the next four years.
The list of languages that Lincoln offered startled me. “There’s so many,” I thought, “Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and French.”
About an hour prior, my mom told me, “You need to take Spanish! You could do so much with it.” A couple days before that, multitudes of people advised me that I would regret taking anything other than Spanish.
There’s nothing wrong with Spanish, but I didn’t have a hunger for it. It didn’t seem appetizing. At first glance, I knew what I wanted. I wanted Chinese, and it was mine the moment I laid eyes on it.
I excelled in Chinese class. I passed every test with flying colors. I remembered Chinese characters like they were the names of my best friends. I could converse. Chinese attached itself to every part of my life. I translated anything I could get my hands on, like magazines and menus. It even infiltrated my dreams. I dreamt of radicals and the past life of every character. The only thing I had to do now was visit China.
China was like a far off wish, though. Until it wasn’t. A trip to China was in our school’s future. My mom couldn’t pay for a trip, though. She can’t work because of her disabilities, and I have three other siblings as well as a nephew all in one house. But I didn’t let that dissuade me, because China was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I wasn’t going to let slip away. I started a GoFundMe page, did other fundraisers, and asked for personal donations until I finally reached the whopping total of $ 5,500 . That money covered a passport, visa, plane ticket, and a 9-day guided educational tour as well as extra spending money.
As soon as I stepped off the plane, and set my eyes upon the beautiful city of Shanghai, I fell in love. In that moment, I had an epiphany. China was made for me, and I wanted to give it all my first; first job and first apartment.
Everywhere I looked there were people who spoke the language I loved, Mandarin, so I did what any rational person would do. I made conversation. I talked to moms, kids, seniors, middle schoolers, high schoolers, store clerks, food vendors, and grocery attendants. The list could go on.
Being able to talk with people who had a completely different background than I did astounded me. Some of us had nothing in common but this wonderful language. I shared stories and personal views with so many people I didn’t know, and in return I got innumerable ones from them. The Chinese gave me a piece of their culture and accepted me with open arms. There were so many things in the world that I had never experienced, but these people had . Their stories would be the ones I’d share with my children and grandchildren.
This trip helped me realized how I’m just one person--one small speck--in this world. There is so much more to learn and experience. My trip to China is the reason I want to teach English abroad. The connections I made were because I was able to communicate. Having a second or third language at your disposal makes you an asset. Whole new cultures are open to you. I want kids and adults to be able to make lifelong connections just as I did when I was in China.
“Junzi zhi xin bù sheng qí xiao, ér qìliàng hángài yish.” (Géyán lián bì) is a Chinese proverb that reminds us that we should not act for our own selfish desires, but rather try to serve the greater good.
Using creative metaphors can be an effective way of conveying ideas. In this essay, the metaphor of "Chinese characters...were the names of my best friends" tells a lot about this student's relationship with the language. When coming up with metaphors, a good rule of thumb is: if you've heard it before, don't use it. Only use metaphors that are specific, make sense for what you're trying to say, and are highly unique.
Whenever you "tell" something, you should try and back it up with anecdotes, examples, or experiences. Instead of saying that "I made conversation," this student exemplifies it by listing who they talked to. Showing is always going to be more compelling than telling because it allows the reader to come to the conclusion on their own, which makes them believe it much stronger. Use specific, tangible examples to back up your points and convince the reader of what you're saying.
Although this essay has reflections, they tend to be more surface-level, rather than unique and compelling. Admissions officers have read thousands of application essays and are familiar with most of the ideas students write about. To stand out, you'll need to dive deeper into your ideas. To do this, keep asking yourself questions whenever you have an interesting idea. Ask "Why" and "How" repeatedly until you reach something that is unique, specific to you, and super interesting.
Avoid writing a conclusion that only "sounds nice," but lacks real meaning. Often times, students write conclusions that go full circle, or have an interesting quote, but they still don't connect to the main idea of the essay. Your conclusion should be your strongest, most interesting idea. It should say something new: a new perspective, a new takeaway, a new aspect of your main point. End your essay strongly by staying on topic, but taking your idea one step further to the deepest it can go.
Common App Essay Example #21: Kiki's Delivery Service
Common App 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? (250-650 words)
I spent much of my childhood watching movies. I became absolutely engrossed in many different films, TV shows, and animations. From the movie theatres to the TV, I spent my hours enjoying the beauty of visual media. One place that was special to me was the car. My parents purchased a special screen that could be mounted on the back of the headrest, so that I could watch movies on trips. This benefited both parties, as I was occupied, and they had peace. Looking back, I realize this screen played a crucial role in my childhood. It was an integral part of many journeys. I remember taking a drive to Washington D.C, with my visiting relatives from Poland, and spending my time with my eyes on the screen. I remember packing up my possessions and moving to my current home from Queens, watching my cartoons the whole time. I can comfortably say that watching movies in the car has been an familiar anchor during times of change in my life.
I used to watch many different cartoons, nature documentaries, and other products in the car, yet there has been one movie that I have rewatched constantly. It is called “Kiki’s Delivery Service” by Hayao Miyazaki. My parents picked it up at a garage sale one day, and I fell in love. The style of the animations were beautiful, and the captivating story of a thirteen year old witch leaving home really appealed to me. To be honest, the initial times I watched it, I didn’t fully understand the story but the magic and beauty just made me happy. Then, the more I watched it, I began to see that it was more about independence, including the need to get away from home and establish yourself as your own person. This mirrors how I felt during that period of my life,with mehaving a little rebellious streak; I didn’t agree with my parents on certain topics. That is not the end of the story though. As the years passed, and I watched it a couple more times, although with less frequency than before, my view of this movie evolved yet again.
Instead of solely thinking about the need for independence, I began to think the movie was more about the balance of independence and reliance. In the movie, the girl finds herself struggling until she begins to accept help from others. Looking back, this also follows my own philosophy during this time. As I began to mature, I began to realize the value of family, and accept all the help I can get from them. I appreciate all the hard work they had done for me, and I recognize their experience in life and take advantage of it. I passed through my rebellious phase, and this reflected in my analysis of the movie. I believe that this is common, and if I look through the rest of my life I am sure I would find other similar examples of my thoughts evolving based on the stage in my life. This movie is one of the most important to me throughout my life.
Common App Essay Example #22: Museum of Life
Stepping inside the converted railway station, I am transported to another world. Amidst gorgeous Beaux-Arts architecture, statues pose on pedestals, and thousands of paintings line the adjacent rooms. The Musée d’Orsay is one of the most magical museums on Earth. I am immediately drawn to the impressionist exhibits to explore the land of Degas and Monet. Dancers stand in rehearsal. Water lilies bask in a pond. The sun sets on Notre Dame. The Little Dancer sculpture I have always dreamed of seeing stands in its glass case. I am overwhelmed with beauty, moments in time painted into immortality and hung up on the wall. Close enough to marvel at the brush strokes taken by the artists who painted my favorite famous works of art in existence , I am seeing dreams that have come to fruition, paintings that have impacted the world with their presence.
A naturalistic observation at an art museum may not sound like it would be effective , but art museums are the best place to observe and learn about a person. My exploration of one gives insight into my aptitude for working in the medical field.
Some people cannot stand art museums. They find no value in looking at pictures on a wall for hours and trying to interpret their meaning. These people prefer more concrete ideas in life rather than the abstract and do not enjoy the unknown or the unsolved. Others go to say that they went. They simply take a picture with the most famous work in the museum and call it a day. Some are lucky enough to appreciate the art’s meaning , but many of these people are most concerned with their appearance and others' opinions on it. Finally, some spend hours absorbing the stories, culture, and beauty that hang on the walls.
I take time interpreting new ideas and perspectives and appreciating the history that lies before me. This reflects my open-mindedness, my thirst for knowledge, and simply my appreciation for art. I am proud to call myself one of the creatives of the world : an imaginative, curious soul.
If people were to watch me experience the art museum, they would see me pass half of the exhibits to get to the ones I am truly enamored by, where I can feel my heart beating out of my chest and the gears of my brain going into overload to take in all of the history and frozen moments in time that surround me. I carefully examine and stop to ponder at the works that truly strike me, and simply take a glance at others. If they were to attempt to create a summary of me based on their observations, I am sure they would be perplexed .
I always gravitate towards what matters most to me, the impressionist exhibits of life: my passions, the people I love, and discovering new things at every chance I get. I live to collect moments, just as the moments in paintings hang on the wall for everyone to see for themself. I enjoy when topics are up for interpretation but find comfort in knowing the fundamentals and studying what is already known. Above all, I want to help others and bring smiles to their faces. I would love to see my impact on the world through the happiness of those I touch around me. This is why pursuing medicine is the perfect future for me.
Like solving a puzzle from the inside-out to give patients a fresh canvas, it is a scientific art . I want to carry my love for art into my practice of medicine, to find creative ways to interpret issues that most would say are unsolvable . My painting, my impact on the world, will be creating those blank canvases for others to continue to paint on, working to give others their own chance to walk through the art museum we call life.
Using visuals can be a way to add interesting moments to your essay. Avoid being overly descriptive, however, as it can be distracting from your main point. When drafting, start by focusing on your ideas (your reflections and takeaways). Once you have a rough draft, then you can consider ways to incorporate imagery that can add character and flavor to your essay.
Admissions officers are people, just like you, and therefore are drawn to personalities that exhibit positive qualities. Some of the most important qualities to portray are: humility, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and passion. In this essay, there are several moments that could be interpreted as potentially self-centered or arrogant. Avoid trying to make yourself out to be "better" or "greater" than other people. Instead, focus on having unique and interesting ideas first, and this will show you as a likeable, insightful person. Although this is a "personal" statement, you should also avoid over using "I" in your essay. When you have lots of "I" sentences, it starts to feel somewhat ego-centric, rather than humble and interested in something greater than you.
This essay does a lot of "telling" about the author's character. Instead, you want to provide evidence—through examples, anecdotes, and moments—that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about who you are. Avoid surface-level takeaways like "I am open-minded and have a thirst for knowledge." These types of statements are meaningless because anyone can write them. Instead, focus on backing up your points by "showing," and then reflect genuinely and deeply on those topics.
This essay is focused on art museums and tries to tie in a connection to studying medicine. However, because this connection is very brief and not elaborated, the connection seems weak. To connect to your area of study when writing about a different topic, try reflecting on your topic first. Go deep into interesting ideas by asking "How" and "Why" questions. Then, take those ideas and broaden them. Think of ways they could differ or parallel your desired area of study. The best connections between a topic (such as an extracurricular) and your area of study (i.e. your major) is through having interesting ideas.
Common App Essay Example #23: French Horn
Holton is my best friend. He may be a bit worn down, but he is an old soul with a story to tell. With him, I have enjoyed Russian folklore, romantic escapades, and renowned classics. With him, I have succeeded and failed. At times, we have had arguments, but when I look back on our time together, it’s the magical moments that resound. When I moved schools, I lost contact with many of my old friends, but I never lost Holton.
At first, I was a bit hesitant about our relationship, but my teacher advised me that Holton and I would grow into great friends if we just gave each other a chance. How could I say no? Since then, I have never looked back. We have taken trips to New York City every weekend, with each passing day bringing a new adventure. Eventually, people began to express worry that all the time we spent together would hinder my academics and hold me back from other pursuits; I didn’t care. Nothing could break our bond.
Sometimes I reminisce about the day I first met Holton. The old adage goes, gold is first and silver is second. With Holton, this notion was turned upside down. When I walked into the shop, it was all gold. It was as if King Midas had touched everything in the store. However, something out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. Was that a silver among the golds? He is not your standard image of perfection without that golden shine. However, I knew not to judge anything at face value but rather by the story that it tells; it was this silver horn that possessed the hauntingly golden sound.
Holton is my french horn. Not a shiny new one, but one that has travelled far and experienced much. He has been with me under the bright lights of Lincoln Center and Peter Jay Sharp Theater, and has always given my right arm a good workout as I carry him from class to class, rehearsal to rehearsal, performance to performance.
Through Holton, I have experienced failure. My failed New Jersey Youth Symphony audition as a sixth grader fueled my motivation to practice harder. I still remember my dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances. Such failures invariably led to success. Acceptance into the Juilliard Pre-College program will always be one of my happiest memories. However, no success comes without sacrifice. In my early childhood, I participated in every activity that I liked. Basketball, choir, piano...if I enjoyed it, I did it. Mandatory all-day attendance every Saturday at Juilliard with my friend Holton in company, meant I had to give up some other things that I loved. I could no longer be a part of the New Jersey Youth Chorus, the beloved choir in which I had sung for seven years. I would not be able to try out for freshman basketball, one of my high school goals. I would not be able to participate on the debate team in earnest, something that I fell in love in my freshman year. But Holton has been worth these sacrifices and more.
The journey I am experiencing with him more than makes up for anything else I had to give up, and I cannot wait to continue our journey in my college years.
Soon, my high school experience will be over, and as I bid adieu to the friendly walls of [School] , I will hit the road to wherever this application process takes me. Among all the suitcases in the trunk will be a black, worn-down horn case; inside will be Holton, ready for more adventures. Many college-bound seniors wish for good roommates. I know that in Holton I will have, at the very least, one great one. He will always hold a special place in my life and in my heart as my first prize silver.
This student chose the creative idea of personifying their French horn as their central theme. Using this personification, they are able to write about a multitude of moments while making them all feel connected. This unique approach also makes for a more engaging essay, as it is not overly straightforward and generic.
It can be challenging to reference your achievements without seeming boastful or coming across too plainly. This student manages to write about their successes ("acceptance into the Julliard Pre-College program") by using them as moments part of a broader story. The focus isn't necessarily on the accomplishments themselves, but the role they play in this relationship with their instrument. By connecting more subtly like this, it shows humility. Often, "diminishing" your achievements will actually make them stand out more, because it shows you're focused on the greater meaning behind them, rather than just "what you did."
This student does a good job of exemplifying each of their ideas. Rather than just saying "I experienced failure," they show it through imagery ("dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances"). Similarly, with their idea "no success comes without sacrifice," they exemplify it using examples of sacrifice. Always try to back up your points using examples, because showing is much more convincing than telling. Anyone can "tell" things, but showing requires proof.
This essay has a decent conclusion, but it could be stronger by adding nuance to their main idea or connecting to the beginning with a new perspective. Rather than repeating what you've established previously, make sure your conclusion has a different "angle" or new aspect. This can be connecting your main idea to more universal values, showing how you now view something differently, or emphasizing a particular aspect of your main idea that was earlier introduced.
Common App Essay Example #24: Dear My Younger Self
Common App 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. (250-650 words)
My advice is not scientifically-proven, mother-tested, or kid-approved. However, I think it will make your life easier. But take this advice — as anyone would from a 17 year old — with a grain of salt. It is only as reliable as my own experiences. So here it is:
- Speak Portuguese. It’s frustrating to know that I lost such a valuable skill because I deemed it too “embarrassing” to use in front of my kindergarten classmates. Fluency in another language is not only uncommon, but it also would have allowed you to communicate with your Brazilian relatives.
- Don’t live your life as if you're constantly being watched and criticized. Chances are, no one is even paying attention to you.
- Experiment with your interests early. Now is the perfect time to try different interests and see which ones you like. Take up something that pushes you out of your comfort zone: bagpipes, rock climbing, musical theater, literally anything. Eventually, you will find something you love.
- Take comfort in the fact that no matter what obstacle you encounter, it’s happened to everyone. You’re not the first person to get a 70 on your paper, trip in public, or rip your pants. Although, try to keep the pants-ripping to minimum.
- You don’t need to be exactly like your father. I am a spitting image of him. I may have inherited his intelligence, but that came with his ego as well. You can learn just as much from his mistakes as his achievements.
- Wear your retainer.
- Empathy makes your life easier. People who are inexplicably cruel are suffering just as much as the recipients of their abuse. Understanding this makes your interactions with these people less painful.
- Skip the “I want to be an anesthesiologist” phase — you don’t.
- Comparing yourself to your classmates is counterproductive. Sometimes you will forge ahead, other times you will lag behind. But ultimately, you’re only racing yourself.
- Your intelligence is not defined by your grades and test scores.
- I am passive aggressive when I lack the confidence to express something that upsets me. Learn to communicate effectively. It saves you from the endless “what if” contemplations that keep you awake at night. If you are successful, tell me how.
- Speak up to your stepmom.
- Try not to identify too strongly with material items. I ran into this issue when my hair defined me: friends often stated that they just couldn’t imagine me without my large and poofy hair. When it started falling out after a stressful period, I had to reestablish the image my hair had made.
- Always eat the cake. I couldn't tell you how many times I’ve turned away a slice of cake, only to regret it the next day. If you really can’t commit, do yourself a favor and take a slice home with you.
- Recognize and appreciate your privilege. There is no limit to the opportunities you have and that amazes me.
- Cherish your grandparents.
- Forgive your mother. Harboring resentment hurts you just as much as her. All the time I spent being angry at her could’ve been spent discovering her strengths.
- Cut off worried thoughts with “what if things work out?” In periods of change, acknowledge the fact that things may go according to plan. This isn’t an ignorant overlook of reality. Anticipate that this change will be bring some good with it.
- Accept inevitable truths: You will get older. Your friends will come and go. You will struggle and triumph. You will encounter heartache, joy, and everything in between. This list will continue to grow.
This essay chose a unique structure in the form of a letter addressed to themselves with a list of lessons they've learned. This structure is unique, and also allows the student to explore a variety of topics and ideas while making them all feel connected. It is tricky to not seem "gimmicky" when choosing a creative structure like this, but the key is to make your essay well thought-out. Show that you've put effort into reflecting deeply, and that you aren't choosing a unique structure just to stand out.
This essay is highly focused on lessons they've learned, which shows a deep level of reflection. Your ideas and takeaways from life experience are ultimately most compelling to admissions officers, and this essay succeeds because it is focused almost entirely on those reflections. This student also manages to incorporate anecdotes and mini stories where appropriate, which makes their reflections more memorable by being tangible.
Showing humility and self-awareness are two highly attractive traits in college admissions. Being able to recognize your own flaws and strengths, while not making yourself out to be more than what you are, shows that you are mature and thoughtful. Avoid trying to "boost yourself up" by exaggerating your accomplishments or over-emphasizing your strengths. Instead, let your ideas speak for themselves, and by focusing on genuine, meaningful ideas, you'll convey a persona that is both humble and insightful.
The drawback of having a structure like this, where lots of different ideas are examined, is that no one idea is examined in-depth. As a result, some ideas (such as "intelligence is not defined by your grades") come across as trite and overused. In general, avoid touching on lots of ideas while being surface-level. Instead, it's almost always better to choose a handful (or even just one main idea) and go as in-depth as possible by continually asking probing questions—"How" and "Why"—that force yourself to think deeper and be more critical. Having depth of ideas shows inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and ultimately are more interesting because they are ideas that only you could have written.
Common App Essay Example #25: Monopoly
Sliding the scottie dog across “Go!” past Boardwalk and Park Place , I immediately exhale. I am safe for another round; far more importantly, though, my younger brothers have not surpassed me.
After passing by the weekend of “GO,” I begin the next lap around the board of challenge, success, and strategy. My next turn stops me at a chance card that reads: “Psychology project, physics assignment, and precalc test tomorrow. You will not be home from riding until 10 PM, but be at school at 6:30 a.m. for an NHS meeting. Go.” Solving for f’(x) atop a tack trunk in between riding my horses, Cinda and Coco, and writing about Milgram’s prison experiment by the light of my phone on the way back home, I’ve managed to make it through this round, but not before falling asleep, pencil in hand.
My next turn is greeted with a bit more docility as I land on my brother’s property, and begrudgingly pay my rent of driving him to and from lacrosse practice. I return home to finish updating a client’s website, and complete my homework before re-organizing my closet to be sorted chromatically (I suppose I am the slightest bit type A...) . Later, I pass out while on FaceTime with my bestfriend, Stephen, only to have a nightmare filled unsolvable physics problems: which way does the pulley go?! The world may never know!
However, my next roll is not as kind: I land on the tile that reads “GO TO JAIL!” The night before the most important math test of the year, I discover that my dad, with whom I have a very distant relationship, has become homeless. Questioning what I was doing as I continued to study—and consuming an entire bag of jolly ranchers in the process—I remind myself that I cannot control what others around me choose to do. With luck on my side and doubles on the first role, I take the test the next day to discover I have studied all of the right problems and receive a 98%. I am still in the game for another turn.
Feeling a bit weary from my last roll of the dice, I cross my fingers with the “FREE PARKING” square in sight. As luck has it, I smoothly glide past the hotels to have my best horse show yet- earning multiple wins against stiff competition and gaining points to qualify for five different national finals this year.
The game of Monopoly runs parallel to my life in many ways. It is a game of strategy and precision, with a hint of luck and a tremendous amount of challenge. These factors result in a game filled with tests and questions around every corner, keeping me on my toes. Through good and bad “turns,” I have learned when to multitask and when to focus, when to take risks and when to play it safe, when to have a poker face and when to ask for help. Most importantly, I know that in moments of doubt or confusion, I can rise to the occasion. Whether I am faced with a befuddling essay prompt, a difficult course in the horse show ring, or even unfortunate decisions by people in my life, I know I can always attack any situation with confidence and vigor.
As I embark on my next trip around the board, I reflect on the past properties I have purchased, taxes I have paid, and hotels I have built. Through the rounds I have played thus far, I learned how to deal with whatever numbers I roll and spaces I land on, whether that be “GO TO JAIL” or “FREE PARKING”. I pick up the chance card from my last turn with confidence: “Take what comes and enjoy the ride” I smile. I am ready.
This essay uses the board game "Monopoly" as a metaphor for their life. By using a metaphor as your main topic, you can connect to different ideas and activities in a cohesive way. However, make sure the metaphor isn't chosen arbitrarily. In this essay, it isn't completely clear why Monopoly is an apt metaphor for their life, because the specific qualities that make Monopoly unique aren't explained or elaborated. Lots of games require "strategy and precision, with a hint of luck and a tremendous amount of challenge," so it'd be better to focus on the unique aspects of the game to make a more clear connection. For example, moving around the board in a "repetitive" fashion, but each time you go around with a different perspective. When choosing a metaphor, first make sure that it is fitting for what you're trying to describe.
You want to avoid listing your activities or referencing them without a clear connection to something greater. Since you have an activities list already, referencing your activities in your essay should have a specific purpose, rather than just emphasizing your achievements. In this essay, the student connects their activities by connecting them to a specific idea: how each activity is like a mini challenge that they must encounter to progress in life. Make sure your activities connect to something specifically: an idea, a value, an aspect of your character.
This essay lacks depth in their reflections by not delving deeply into their main takeaways. In this essay, the main "idea" is that they've learned to be persistent with whatever comes their way. This idea could be a good starting point, but on its own is too generic and not unique enough. Your idea should be deep and specific, meaning that it should be something only you could have written about. If your takeaway could be used in another student's essay without much modification, chances are it is a surface-level takeaway and you want to go more in-depth. To go in-depth, keep asking probing questions like "How" and "Why" or try making more abstract connections between topics.
In the final two paragraphs, this essay does a lot of "telling" about the lessons they've learned. They write "I know that in moments of doubt...I can rise to the occasion." Although this could be interesting, it would be far more effective if this idea is shown through anecdotes or experiences. The previous examples in the essay don't "show" this idea. When drafting, take your ideas and think of ways you can represent them without having to state them outright. By showing your points, you will create a more engaging and convincing essay because you'll allow the reader to come to the conclusion themselves, rather than having to believe what you've told them.
What Can You Learn from These Common App Essay Examples?
With these 25 Common App essay examples, you can get inspired and improve your own personal statement.
If you want to get accepted into selective colleges this year, your Common App essays needs to be its best possible.
What makes a good Common App essay isn't easy to define. There aren't any rules or steps.
But using these samples from real students, you can understand what it takes to write an outstanding personal statement .
Let me know, which Common App essay did you think was the best?
Ryan Chiang , Founder of EssaysThatWorked
Want to read more amazing essays that worked for top schools?
Hey! 👋 I'm Ryan Chiang, the founder of EssaysThatWorked.
Get our 5-minute free newsletter packed with essay tips and college admissions resources, backed by real-life examples from admitted students at top-20 schools.
Meet the Author
I'm Ryan Chiang and I created EssaysThatWorked - a website dedicated to helping students write college essays they're proud of. We publish the best college admissions essays from successful applicants every year to inspire and teach future students.
You might also like:
20 Successful College Essay Examples + Why They Worked (2023)
20 Brilliant Personal Statement Examples + Why They Work
UCLA Acceptance Rate (By Major): Official Common Data Set 2023
37 Unique "Why This College" Essay Examples for Top-20 Colleges
What do outstanding essays have in common? Here are our 23 most effective strategies based on lessons from admitted students.
No spam. Unsubscribe anytime.
Now available for August 2023 ...
The College Essay Workshop
Join my on-demand step-by-step course for crafting outstanding college admissions essays, plus 1-on-1 help.
Here's everything needed to write essays worthy of Top-20 colleges.
Join our students who have earned acceptances to schools like...
See exactly how students wrote admitted essays for top schools.
Our 231 essay examples show you how ordinary students wrote outstanding essays that helped their applications - all in their own words.
These aren’t just essay examples - but real acceptance stories, from real students who share their most intimate details with you - down to their real essays and exact profiel stats.
How do I find a unique topic? How do I write a great essay? And how do I stand out?
Our 231 essay examples break down these exact questions. Every type of essay prompt, student, and school.
You’ll realize these students are just like you - and that, deep down, you can do it too.
Princeton Admitted Essay
People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M.—where did you get that cat? Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is... uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable...
MIT Admitted Essay
Her baking is not confined to an amalgamation of sugar, butter, and flour. It's an outstretched hand, an open invitation, a makeshift bridge thrown across the divides of age and culture. Thanks to Buni, the reason I bake has evolved. What started as stress relief is now a lifeline to my heritage, a language that allows me to communicate with my family in ways my tongue cannot. By rolling dough for saratele and crushing walnuts for cornulete, my baking speaks more fluently to my Romanian heritage than my broken Romanian ever could....
UPenn Admitted Essay
A cow gave birth and I watched. Staring from the window of our stopped car, I experienced two beginnings that day: the small bovine life and my future. Both emerged when I was only 10 years old and cruising along the twisting roads of rural Maryland...
Over 200 more admitted essays like these...
Learn the secrets behind outstanding application essays.
College essays are confusing. And it's not your fault. You're not taught how to write them in school.
How should I structure my essay? Can I use humor? What makes a truly great essay?
There's so much conflicting advice out there.
And with people selling "magic formulas" and "structures" to follow... it's easy to be led astray.
You’ll get access to courses, live events, a dedicated essay coach, and countless resources to help you write your best essays.
You finally have a place where you can ask these questions, get advice, and see exactly how admitted students before you did it.
You’re no longer figuring out everything on your own. You're no longer stuck wondering.
Everything you get
231 essays analyzed
Explore our database of 200+ admitted essays from top-20 colleges. Filter by prompt, school, topic, word count, and more. Get expert insights into why they worked and what you can learn from them.
Exclusive access to essay editing
You'll get access to our essay editing services, which is only offered for members. You can get your essays reviewed personally by me (Ryan). I'll give you detailed feedback on how to improve your essays and make them stand out.
Dedicated essay coach & support
You'll get access to our private community, where you can ask questions and get help from me directly. I'll be there to answer your questions and provide unlimited personalized advice.
44 in-depth video lessons
Learn the secrets behind outstanding essays. We break down the entire process, from brainstorming to writing and editing. You'll learn how to write amazing college essays for any prompt, with step-by-step guides and actionable tips.
26 downloadable guides
Get our best tips and tricks in easy-to-read guides. Learn what makes great essays, how to brainstorm your best topics, and how to write specific parts like a powerful hook and memorable ending.
Tons of bonuses
Get the Ultimate College Application Planner, my 154-Point Essay Checklist, and more. You'll also get a free copy of my eBooks, including 23 College Essay Tips to Stand Out and more.
Don't take our word for it
Some names have been changed to protect the privacy of our students and parents.
" Ryan, I want to express our great appreciation to you for your help on George's application essays. You have provided invaluable resources! P.S. I will certainly recommend you to our friends. "
" Ryan—David got into The University of Michigan!!! Only 4 kids got in out of 200 that applied at his school!!! Thank you so so much for everything "
" Thank you for the incredible help Ryan - both Hannah and I have said repeatedly that we could not have done it without you! "
" Thank you for your help with my essays back in November, including my Yale supplements. Just wanted to let you know I ended up getting into and committing to Yale! "
" I feel so much more reassured to press the submit button now. I wish I knew about your site sooner! "
" ... Invaluable to me during the college admissions process! It gave me a different perspective to look at my essays. "
" Initially I was skeptical about my essay's idea and whether it was properly reflected in my writing. This gave me a clear direction! "
Don't miss out on writing your best college essays.
© 2018- 2023 Essays That Worked . All rights reserved.
We have no affiliation with any university or colleges on this site. All product names, logos, and brands are the property of their respective owners.