With college admissions as competitive as it is today, the application essay can mean the difference between an acceptance or rejection letter.
Admissions officers are increasingly turning to the essay as a means of evaluating students. Many applicants fail to take advantage of the essay—they choose the wrong question, write about an inappropriate topic, or just fail to put together a compelling essay.
So, what should applicants write about? Here, we breakdown the six questions from this year’s Common Application, an online application accepted by more than 450 colleges and universities. (Even colleges that don’t accept the Common App tend to have essay prompts that are the same or similar.)
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1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk, or ethical dilemma and its impact on you.
Consider any experience or achievement that is significant to you—it can be big or small. Perhaps you found working with children rewarding because you want to be a teacher someday, or perhaps you created your own workout regimen to get fit. Make sure not to dwell on the experience—instead, talk about how you or your outlook changed because of it. Fewer students will talk about a risk they’ve taken, but remember: It doesn’t have to be bungee jumping! It can be saying no to peer pressure and risking your friendships. If you choose to write about an ethical dilemma, use caution—you don’t want admissions officers questioning your moral integrity.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
Here’s a chance to give more context about you. If the matter is personal, that’s easy to do. But if it’s a national or international issue, then it’s tempting to talk about the environment or the war-torn Middle East, for example. But do we learn about you? Make sure the issue ties into your personal experiences and interests.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
Don’t tell admissions officers too much about your “influential person.” Instead, talk a little bit about the person, but mostly about how you have changed or reacted because of that person. Maybe you found an academic passion or hobby because of favorite teacher or coach; maybe you changed how you treat others because of the character of a family member or close friend.
4. Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work that has had an influence on you, and explain why.
This is a hard question for most students to answer—again, you don’t want to talk too much about that character, historical figure, or creative work, but instead, describe their influence on you. Perhaps a building’s unique design influenced your desire to study architecture. Maybe a lead character’s actions in a movie or novel oddly paralleled your own actions. Note: If you’re going to write about a fictional character, avoid very common novels that most students read in high school, and instead use a novel that you read independently—it’ll help you stand out.
5. Describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
Consider diversity in many ways—your geography, academic interests, family background, religion, race, and ethnicity. How would you contribute to a college? Or what do you hope to learn from others who are different from you at that school?
6. The topic of your choice.
If you’re applying to a college that does not accept the Common App, you’ll have to answer their specific essay questions. However, keep in mind that you can simply use that essay for your other applications as well. If it is an open-ended prompt, ask and then answer your own question—it’ll show off your creative side.
Colleges want to get to know more about you. Write clearly and show colleges how you think and what you will contribute to the campus. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter which question you choose—it’s what you do with the answer that matters most.
Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.
The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).
2018-19 Common App Essays
Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application, which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:
- 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.
Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts
Prompt #1: Share your story.
Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.
Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.
You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.
Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.
Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.
Prompt #4: Solving a problem.
This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!
Prompt #5: Personal growth.
Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth.
Prompt #6: What captivates you?
This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.
Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.
This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.
More College Essay Topics
Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:
Describe a person you admire.
Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .
Why do you want to attend this school?
Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.
What is a book you love?
Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?
Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.
What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?
Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.
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