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Complete Strategies: Common App Essay Prompts (2016-17)

Posted by Alex Heimbach | Oct 17, 2015 9:00:00 AM

College Essays

 

If you’re applying to more than one or two colleges, there's a good chance you'll have to use the Common Application, and that means you’ll probably have to write a Common App essay.

In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about the essay. I'll break down every single Common App essay prompt by covering:

  • What is the question asking?
  • What do college admissions officers want to hear from you?
  • What topics can you write about effectively?
  • What should you avoid at all costs?

This will be your complete starting guide for Common App essays. At the end of reading this, you should have a lot of ideas for your own essays and directions to write a really strong personal statement.

 

Basic Info on the Common App Essay

Before we dig into the nitty gritty of the individual prompts, let's quickly go over the logistics of the Common App essay and some general tips to keep in mind.

 

Most — but Not All — Schools Require the Essay

Although not every school in the US requires an essay as part of their application, the Common Application has traditionally required you to submit a blanket personal statement. That policy changed last year, and the essay is now optional for some schools.

However, this policy has been adopted by only a handful of schools, including DePaul University, Georgia State University, Hampshire College, Old Dominion University, The New School, and the University of Idaho, and some of them require an additional writing supplement instead.

If you’re applying to more than one or two schools on the Common App, you'll almost certainly need to write a response to the Common App prompts. As such, I would recommend sending your essay to schools even if they don't explicitly require it. You’re writing it anyways and it’s the best way for the school to get to know you as a person.

It's also worth noting that because of the way this system is set up, you could theoretically send a different essay to each school. However, doing so isn't a good use of your time: if schools want to know something more specific about you they’ll require a supplement. Focus on writing a single great personal statement.

 

Pay Attention to the Word Limit

The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650.

Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of your essay. Don't do this. No matter how tempting it may be, stick to the word limit. Otherwise, you risk seeming self-indulgent.

In general, I would recommend shooting for an essay between 500 and 650 words long. You want to have enough space to really explore one specific idea, but you don't need to include everything. Editing is an important part of the essay writing process.

 

The word limit is like this barbed wire — you shouldn't cross it, no matter how tempted you are.

 

Don't Stress Too Much About the Question

As you'll see, the Common App prompts are very general and leave a lot of room for interpretation. Moreover, colleges interpret the questions generously — they're more concerned with learning something interesting about you than with whether your topic fits the question perfectly. Per a Common App survey, 85% of member schools "feel the prompts should be left open to broad interpretation."

You can write about almost anything and make it work, so if you have an idea, don’t let the fact that it doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories stop you. Treat these breakdowns as jumping off points to help you start brainstorming, not the final word in how you need to approach the essay.

 

Make Sure You Look at This Year's Prompts

The Common App change to the prompts fairly frequently, so make sure you're familiar with the most up-to-date versions of the Common App essay questions. If you have friends or siblings who applied in past years, don't assume that you can take the exact same approach they did.

 

This guide will go over the details of all five current prompts, but first let's talk about some overall advice.

 

4 Tips For Finding Your Best Essay Topic

As you're brainstorming and preparing to write your essay, you'll want to keep these tips in mind.

 

You'll have to search for the best topic, just like this bird is searching for food.

 

Make It Personal

The point of a personal statement is to, well, make a personal statement, that is to say, tell the reader something about yourself. As such, your topic needs to be something meaningful to you. 

What does it mean for a topic to be "meaningful to you"? First, it means that you genuinely care about the topic and want to write your college essay on it — no one ever wrote a great essay on a topic that they felt they had to write about.

Second, it means that the topic shows off a quality or trait you want to highlight for the admissions committee. For example, say I wanted to write about my summer job with the Parks Department. It's not enough to simply tell a story about my feud with a raccoon that kept destroying all the progress I made repairing a bench; I would need to make it clear what that experience shows about my character (perseverance) and explain what it taught me (that there are some things in life you simply can't control).

Remember that the most important thing is that your essay is about you. This advice may sound obvious, but when you're used to writing academic essays it can be tricky to dive deep into your own perspective.

 

Take Your Time

Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write, so you don't feel rushed into jotting something down about the first thing you can come up with and sending it right off. I recommend starting the writing process 2 months in advance of your first deadline. 

On a similar note, you should take the essay seriously: it's an important part of your application and worth investing the time in to get right. If you just dash something off thoughtlessly, admissions officers will recognize that and consider it evidence that you aren't really interested in their school.

 

Avoid Repetition

Your essay should illustrate something about you beyond what's in the rest of your application. Try to write about a topic you haven't talked about elsewhere, or take a different angle on it. 

A college essay is not a resume — it's the best opportunity to show off your unique personality to admissions committees. Pick your topic accordingly.

 

Get Specific

The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you. Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story. These would make very different essays, even though they're on basically  the same topic.

Another benefit of a specific topic is that it makes coming up with supporting details much easier. Specific, sensory details make the reader feel like they're seeing the experience through your eyes, giving them a better sense of who you are. Take a look at this example sentence.

General: I was nervous as I waited for my turn to audition.

Specific: As I waited for my name to be called, I tapped the rhythm of "America" on the hard plastic chair, going through the beats of my audition song over and over in my head.

The first version could be written by almost anyone; the second version has a specific perspective — it's also intriguing and makes you want to know more. The more specific your essay topic is, the more clearly your unique voice will come through and the more engaging your essay will be.

 

Breaking Down the Common App Essay Prompts

Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm, let's go through the Common App essay questions one at a time and break down what admissions committees are looking for in responses.

Keep in mind that for each of these questions, there are really two parts. The first is describing something you did, or something that happened to you. The second is explaining what that event, action, or activity means to you. No essay is complete without addressing both of sides of the topic.

 

 

Prompt 1: A Key Piece of Your Story

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.

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is very broad. Is there something you do or love, or something that happened to you, that isn’t reflected elsewhere in your application but that you feel is vital to your personal story? Then this prompt could be a good one for you.

The key is that whatever you write about needs to be genuinely important to you personally, not just something you think will look good to the admissions committee. You need to clarify why this story is so important that you couldn't leave it out of your application.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This question is really about showing admissions officers how your background has shaped you. Can you learn and grow from your experiences? 

By identifying an experience or trait that is vital to your story, you're also showing what kind of person you see yourself as — do you value your leadership abilities or your determination to overcome challenges? Your intellectual curiosity or your artistic talent? Everyone has more than one important trait, but in answering this prompt, you're telling admissions officers what you think is your most significant quality.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

You could write about almost anything for this prompt: an unexpected interest, a particularly consuming hobby, a part of your family history, or a life-changing event. Make sure to narrow in on something specific, though. You don't have room to tell your whole life story.

Your topic can be serious or silly, as long as it's important to you. Just remember that it needs to showcase a deeper quality of yours. 

For example, if I were writing an essay on this topic, I would probably write about my life-long obsession with books. I'd start with a story about how my parents worried I read to much as a kid, give some specific examples of things I've learned from particular books, and talk about how my enthusiasm for reading was so extreme it sometimes interfered with my actual life (like the time I tripped and fell because I couldn't be bothered to put down my book long enough to walk from my room to the kitchen). Then I would tie it all together by explaining how my love of reading has taught me to look for ideas in unexpected places.

 

What Should You Avoid?

You don't want your essay to read like a resume: it shouldn't be a list of accomplishments. Remember that your essay needs to add something to the rest of your application, so it also shouldn't focus on something you've already covered unless you have a really different take on it.

Also try to avoid generic and broad topics: you don't want your essay to feel like it could've been written by any student. As I touched on above, one way to avoid this problem is to be very specific — rather than writing generally about your experience as the child of immigrants you might tell a story about a specific family ritual or meaningful moment.

 

Prompt 2: Coping With Failure

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is pretty straightforward. It's asking you describe a time you failed and how you coped with that failure.

The part many students forget is the second half: what lessons did you learn from your failure? If you take on this question you must show how you grew from the experience of failing and, ideally, how you incorporated what you learned into other endeavors.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This question really raises two issues: how you handle difficult situations and whether you are capable of learning from your mistakes.

You'll face a lot of challenges in college, both academic and social. In addressing this prompt, you have the opportunity to show admissions officers that you can deal with hardships without just giving up.

You also need to show that you can learn from challenges and mistakes. Can you find a positive lesson in a negative experience? Colleges want to see an example of how you've done so.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Good topics will be specific and have a clearly explained affect on your perspective. You need to address both parts of the question: how did you fail and what did you learn from it.

However, almost any kind of failure, large or small, can work:

  • Doing poorly at a job interview and how that taught you to deal with nerves
  • Failing a class and how retaking it taught you better study skills
  • Failing at whistling and how you figured out an other way to contribute to camp sing-a-longs

 

What Should You Avoid?

Make sure you pick an actual failure — don't turn your essay into a humblebrag.  How you failed at procrastination because you're just so organized is not an appropriate topic.

Also, don't write about something completely negative. Your response needs to show that you got something out of your failure and that you've learned how to do better in other situations.

 

Spilling your coffee is not an appropriate failure, no matter how disastrous it may feel.

 

Prompt 3: Challenging a Belief

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

 

What Is It Asking?

There are two ways to approach this question. The first is to talk about a time you challenged a person or group on an idea of theirs. The second is to talk about a time that something caused you to reconsider a belief of your own.

In either case, you need to explain why you decided the belief needed to be changed, what you actually did — if your story is just that someone gave you a new piece of information and you changed your mind, you should probably find a different topic — and how you feel about your actions in hindsight.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

The obvious question this prompt raises is what your values are and whether you're willing to stand up for what you believe. Whether you've reconsidered your own beliefs or asked others to reconsider theirs, it shows you've put genuine thought into what you value and why. 

However, colleges also want to see that you're open-minded and able to be fair and kind towards those who have different beliefs than you do. Can you challenge someone else beliefs without belittling them? If not, don't write about this question.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

This prompt is really one where you either have a relevant story or you don't. If there's a belief or idea that's particularly important to you, whether political or personal, this might be a good question for you to address. 

 

What Should You Avoid?

The main pitfall with this question is that lends itself to very abstract answers. It's not very interesting to read about how you used to believe chocolate is the best ice cream flavor but then you changed your mind and decided the best flavor is actually strawberry. (Seriously, though, what is wrong with you!?) Make sure there's clear conflict and action in your essay.

Divisive political issues, like abortion and gun rights, are tricky to write about (although not impossible) because people feel very strongly about them and often have a hard time accepting the opposite viewpoint. In general, I would avoid these kinds of topics unless you have a very compelling story. Also keep in mind that most people who work at colleges are liberal, so if you have a conservative viewpoint you'll need to tread more carefully. Regardless of what you're writing about, don't assume the reader shares your views.

You also want to avoid coming off as petty or inflexible, especially if you're writing about a controversial topic. It's great to have strong beliefs, but you also want to show that you're open to listening to other people's perspectives, even if they don't change your mind. 

 

Prompt 4: Solving a Problem

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.

 

What Is It Asking?

The first part is very straightforward: how have you or would you solve a problem? 

However, you also need to "explain its significance to you." In other words, why this problem?

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This prompt helps admissions officers see both what you care about and how you solve problems. Even if you pick something seemingly minor to talk about, like fixing a dishwasher on your own, explaining why you wanted to do it yourself (maybe because you like knowing how things work) and how you did so (maybe by asking other people for advice of maybe by looking up videos on YouTube) will show admissions officers a lot about what you value and how you think.

Answering this question is also an opportunity for you to show the maturity and perseverance you'll need to face the challenges of college. You will face inevitably face problems, both academic and personal, in these four years, and admissions officers want to see that you're capable of taking them on.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Any kind of problem (“no matter the scale”) is fine — it just has to be important to you.

Like number 3, it will be easier if you can focus in on a specific event or occurrence. You can write about something funny, like how you figured out how to care for your pet hedgehog, or something more serious, like how you resolved a family conflict.

Writing about a problem you want to solve, rather than one you've already found a solution to, is much harder because it's more abstract. You certainly can do it, however; just make sure to have a compelling and concrete explanation for why this problem is important to you and how you came upon the solution you're proposing. 

For example, say a student, Tommy, wanted to solve the problem of homelessness. First of all, because this is a very big problem that no one person or solution is going to fix, he would need to describe specifically what problem within the larger issue he wants to address. Then, in writing his essay, he might focus on telling a story about how a man he met while volunteering in a homeless shelter inspired his idea to hire men and women living in shelters to work as liaisons in public spaces like libraries and parks to help homeless people get access to the services they need.

 

What Should You Avoid?

Avoid anything sweeping or general: for example, "How I plan to solve world hunger" is probably not going work. As I mentioned above, you want to stick to concrete ideas and solutions that clearly relate to your own experiences.

Simply writing down some of your ideas, no matter how great they are, isn't going to make for a very interesting essay.

 

Look at those dummies, solving a problem!

 

Prompt 5: Transition to Adulthood

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

 

What Is It Asking?

Like prompt 1, this one is very general. It's asking you to talk about something you did or something that happened to you that somehow marked you as an adult in the eyes of others. Your topic shouldn't be something that only has meaning to you, although explaining why the transition was important both to you and to others.

The other key point to remember when addressing this question is that you need to explain how this event changed things for you. How was your life or perspective different after you became an adult?

 

What Do They Want to Know?

In short: what does adulthood mean to you? Of course, that's a complicated question that touches on themes like personal responsibility and your role in the world and your community. You don't have to explain your whole worldview, but you need to give readers a sense of why this particular transition made you feel like an adult.

This prompt is also an opportunity to show your capacity for personal growth. A transition implies change, and you need to show how the event or accomplishment you're discussing effected you.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Much like prompt 3, this question likely either appeals to you or doesn't. Nonetheless, here are some potential topics:

  • A time you had to step up in your household
  • A common milestone (like voting for the first time or getting your driver's license) that was particularly meaningful to you
  • A big achievement

It's important that your topic is a transition that represents real growth or change. Lots of 17-year-olds don't feel like adults, and that's totally okay. Growing up is a gradual process, and you can still approach this topic if you don't feel perfectly mature and responsible all the time. (Fun fact: most adults don't feel that way either.) Just focus in on a specific step in the process of maturing and explain why it meant something to you.

 

What Should You Avoid?

You shouldn't write about an arbitrary marker of adulthood (like turning 18), unless it has some special meaning to you. 

 

5 Key Takeaways About the Common App Essay Questions

We've covered a lot of ground, but don't panic. I've collected the main ideas you should keep in mind as you plan your Common App essay below.

 

Neatly packaged takeaways. (Henry Faber/Flickr)

 

A Topic for Prompt 1 Must Be Something Beyond What’s in the Rest of Your Application

For prompt 1, it's absolutely vital that your topic be something genuinely meaningful to you. Don’t write about something just because you think it’s impressive. Big achievements and leadership roles, like serving as captain of a team or winning a journalism award, can certainly be used as topics, but only if you can explain why they mattered to you beyond that it was cool to be in charge or that you liked winning.

It's better if you can pick out something smaller and more individual, like helping your team rally after a particularly rough loss or laboring over a specific article to make sure you get every detail right.

 

Prompts 2 and 4 Are Generally the Simplest Options

Most students have an experience that will work for either prompt 2 or prompt 4. If you’re uncertain what you want to write about, think about whether there’s a time you failed or a problem you solved or want to solve.

These prompts are slightly easier to approach than the others because they lend themselves to very specific and concrete topics that show clear growth. Describing a failure and what you learned  from it is much simpler than trying to clarify why an event is a vital part of your identity.

 

Prompts 3 and 5 Can Be Trickier, but That Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t Write About Them

These questions ask about specific types of experiences that not every high school student has had. If they don't speak to you, don't feel compelled to write about them. 

If you do want to take on prompt 3 or 5, however, remember to clearly explain your perspective to the reader, even if it seems obvious to you. For prompt 3, you have to establish not just what you believe but why you believe it and why that belief matters to you. For prompt 5, you need to clarify how you moved from childhood to adulthood and what that means to both you and others.

These prompts elicit some of the most personal responses, which can make for great essays but also feel too revealing to many students. Trust your instincts and don’t pick a topic you’re not comfortable writing about, but don't hesitate to take on a difficult or controversial topic if you're excited about it and think you can treat it with the necessary nuance.

 

Make Sure to Explain What Your Experience Taught You

I've tried to emphasize this idea throughout this guide: it's not enough to simply describe what you did, you have to explain what it meant to you.

Pushing past the surface level while avoiding cliches and generalizations is a big challenge, but it's also what will make your essay stand out. Make sure you know what personal quality you want to emphasize before you start and keep it in mind as you write. Try to avoid boring generalizations in favor of more specific and personal insights.

Bad: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me a lot.

Better: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me that I love puzzles and made me wonder what other problems I could solve. 

Best: When I finally twisted the last piece of the Rubik's cube into place after months of work, I was almost disappointed. I'd solved the puzzle; what would I do now? But then I started to wonder if I could use what I'd learned to do the whole thing faster. Upon solving one problem, I had immediately moved onto the next one, as I do with most things in life.

Then, as you go back through your essay to edit, every step of the way ask yourself, "so what?" Why does the reader need to know this? What does it show about me? How can I go one step deeper?

 

Don't Worry About What You Think You're Supposed to Write

There is no single right answer to these prompts, and if you try to find one you'll end up doing yourself a disservice. What's important is to tell your story — and no one can tell you what that means because it's unique to you.

Many students believe that they should right about resume-padding activities that look especially impressive, like volunteering abroad. These essays are often boring and derivative because the writer doesn't really have anything to say on the topic and assumes that it will speak for itself. But the point of a personal statement isn't to explain what you've done, it's to show who you are.

Take the time to brainstorm and figure out what you want to show colleges about yourself and what story or interest best exemplifies that quality. 

 

What's Next?

For more background on college essays and tips for crafting a great one, check out our complete explanation of the basics of the personal statement.

Make sure you're prepared for the rest of the college application process as well, with our guides to asking for recommendations, writing about extracurriculars, taking the SAT, and researching colleges.


 

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Alex Heimbach
About the Author

Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.



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