How to Write an Outstanding Common App Essay

Our best advice for impressing admissions officers with your Common App essay.

You probably know that the Common App asks for a personal essay. It’s an essay that matters — almost 1000 schools accept it. (Most make it mandatory; for a few it’s optional, but we still recommend submitting it.)

How do I do well? You’ve got to eloquently cover the one or two experiences that show you’ll succeed in college and beyond. Sadly, that’s a tough trick to pull off. But we’ve got a few tips that can make a big difference.

Check out our free resources, including:

For one-on-one help with your essay, try us at Prompt. We can help you get started, or give you feedback before you submit your final draft, and everything else in between.

Common App Prompts 2020-2021

  1. 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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. 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 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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. 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?
  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.

You choose one of the seven prompts.

Word limit: 650 words.

Which Common App prompts are the most popular?

This graph illustrates the choices made by over 1,500 Prompt clients. According to our data, two essays are by far the most popular — the “Background” essay (#1) and the “Accomplishment” essay (#5), with roughly 30% of our clients choosing each.

Interestingly, the most popular choice according to the Common App’s own data is different. It’s the “choose your own topic” prompt (#7), which is only the fourth-most popular among our students. But, except for that, the Common App reports the same sequence as we do, with the “Accomplishment” essay (#5) also in second position, and the “Obstacle” essay (#2) also in third.

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