On one hand, the Common Application has seven essay prompts to choose from, which 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 want to double-check your maturity level, assess 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 showing only superficial details or, even worse, a façade.
Disclosing your closest-held secrets is not the goal of a college essay; however, you do want to share enough information to give the admissions staff a sense of your personality, motivations, and values.
How to Brainstorm Ideas for Each Common App Prompt
There are two big-picture ways of coming up with essay ideas.
First, maybe you already know the story you want to tell. Perhaps you experienced something so momentous, so exciting, or so dramatic that you have no doubt 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, such as a crisis, a danger you overcame, or 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? Did you live 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?
If you've experienced a dramatic event that changed your life or face unusual obstacles on a daily basis, approach #1 may work well for you.
Approach #2: Brainstorming for Each Prompt
If you don't have an unusual life experience or a story that you absolutely know needs to be told, don't worry! Some of the very best personal essays are about much more mundane 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 experience 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 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 five different countries and had gone to nine 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 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.
If you want to write about the importance of performing music in your life, think carefully of an angle that will distinguish your essay from that of other applicants.
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?
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. Don't diminish 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.
You'll want to balance your descriptions of failure and subsequent success in your essay.
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, or 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 (e.g., about athletes having interesting thoughts about philosophy)?
Pitfalls to Avoid
Causing offense. If you have a story that deals with super hot-button issues, such as 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.
Prompt #3 is not limited to those who participate in speech and debate classes. Think about ideas or beliefs you may have challenged in other courses, among friends and family, or within your community.
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 keywords 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 in which the act of kindness or the person who performed it was unexpected is a great option 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?
Pitfalls to Avoid
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.
An essay in which you authentically describe your sense of gratitude for the help someone provided you and your motivation to pay it forward can illuminate aspects of your personality for an admissions committee.
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 because 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 grown-up.
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.
Having to make a significant decision that impacted your life could be a rich topic to explore in an essay about personal growth.
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 because your passion should come across on the page. Pay special attention to the "What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?" aspect of this prompt; 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 that de-stress 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 questions you can ask yourself to find a topic include the following: What unique hobbies or interests do you have? What challenges have you overcome in pursuing this topic, idea, or concept? What have you discovered about yourself in relation to this topic, idea, or concept?
Pitfalls to Avoid
Don't miss the overall meaning. Even if something is captivating to you, it's not necessarily captivating to others. Make sure you focus on what the topic, idea, or concept means to you and why that matters rather than getting 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 is one of the most popular prompts from the Common App. Remember that even though this prompt is open-ended, you should discuss something meaningful that shows growth, reflection, 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 OK 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 events from 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, event, or person that has stuck with you and what it or they 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?
Pitfalls to Avoid
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. That said, it can be tough to boil down an experience that's really significant, like being an Olympic athlete, into a short essay. Personal and insightful are the key.
How to Turn 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, or a seemingly unsolvable problem you face. Or it could come from a before–after scenario: you used to be, think, or act in one way, but now you've changed into a different or better person.
Dramatic set piece. In good movies, the conflict or transformation isn'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 descriptive scene. Think spoken dialogue, sensory description (i.e., what did you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch?), action verbs, and 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 up: 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 emotions 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.
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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.