On the one hand, the fact that the Common Application has five 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 five prompts means you can write five 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.
OMG, Dean of Admissions, I totally have to tell you about the time I singlehandedly hurricane-proofed the local pet shelter. Ok, pinkie-promise you won't tell anyone.
How to Brainstorm Ideas for Each Common App Prompt
There are two big-picture ways of coming up with essay ideas.
Maybe you may 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?
Can I write an essay about my daily commute? I think it's a little more involved than most people's.
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 air 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.
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 the broadest of the five 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.
Dear Admissions Committee, my skills as a platform designer for balancing acrobats are sought far and wide...
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?
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?
Pitfalls to Avoid
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.
It was the 10th ice cream I had dropped that day. I vowed then and there to never again get ice cream in a cone. I would only rely on cups from now on.
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
The key to this prompt is the reflection or insight that comes from the question “Would you make the same decision again?” Challenging deeply held views is not always a good idea. Writing about why your answer to this question is "No," could well 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 also 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?
Pitfalls to Avoid
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.
And in conclusion, I now see that trying to convince the Queen to no longer use the Queen's Guard at the palace was a mistake.
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.
“Describe” here means analyze, not just complain. If you can identify a problem, make sure you fully explore all of its aspects. Who is it actually a problem for? Whom does it benefit? Why is the situation the way that it is? What contributes to the problem? This is a chance to show off your creative thinking and your ability to reason logically.
Notice that the question includes the phrase “no matter the scale.” Your essay doesn’t necessarily have to be about the global refugee crisis or the intractable problem of child soldiers. If these are not problems you have found solutions to, focus on the things you have actually worked on and fixed (or could see yourself fixing).
Intellectual challenge. Did you finally solve the New York Times Sunday crossword in pen? Did you devise an ingenious organization system for your chronically disorganized brother? Do you want to get to the bottom of how birds use magnetic fields to navigate?
Research query. Did you meticulously trace your family tree back six, seven, eight generations? Did you solve the mystery of the provenance of an heirloom? Did you uncover the historical significance of a neighborhood building and save it from demolition? Will you study the way voting districts have been determined in your area to solve low voter turnout?
Ethical dilemma. Did you calculate a fair way to divide your mom’s comic book collection between you and your siblings? Did you create an emergency evacuation plan for your home that includes both humans and pets? Do you plan on figuring out a way to convince local restaurants to switch to humanely produced meat?
Pitfalls to Avoid
Overly ambitious predictions. Watch out for overreach if you go with the future-problem aspect of this question. No single person is going to cure cancer or generate world peace, so make sure there is at least some realism to your predictions.
So after extensive research, I can conclude that Elmer's glue does not in fact have the adhesive power to repair PVC pipe.
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
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.
Notice that the event you describe can be “formal or informal.” This means that you don’t need necessarily 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.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Sameness. Avoid the milestones that happen to everyone: driver’s license, bar/bat mitzvah, etc., unless they happened to you in some extraordinary way.
And on the day I could finally fit all three pigeons on my arm, I knew that I was ready to go out into the world and to face my destiny.
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.
Coming soon: the story of you, starring you, written and directed by you.
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 you parents, teacher 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.
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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.