Are you applying to two or more private universities across the US? If the answer is yes, the likelihood of you needing to write a Common Application essay is fairly high. Writing one common essay for all the private universities on your application is convenient. However, once it becomes clear that your admissions result for various colleges may come down to one essay, for many students, the panic sets in.

Fear not! By the end of this guide, you will know how to breakdown each prompt, how to choose the topic, and what the admissions officer is hoping to learn from your essay.

Also Read: The Ultimate Guide to UC Personal Statements

What is the Purpose of the Common App Essay?

When your intended major has nothing to do with humanities, it can be annoying to have to write an essay. Your command of the written word may not be something you care about. As a result, writing a personal narrative for the Common App is sometimes a daunting and tedious task. However, this personal narrative is an opportunity for you to show the admissions officers who you are. While you may believe your GPA and test scores should be enough to base your admissions result off of, most admissions offices practice holistic review. For example, universities like Harvard will look beyond the numbers to see your growth potential, your personality as well as what you may be able to contribute to their campus. In reality, every college wants to know if you will be a good fit. You may be a straight A student but will you fit in at a campus that celebrates diversity and inclusion?

To be precise, your personal narrative gives you the opportunity to distinguish yourself. A successful Common Application essay will do that by being deeply introspective and personal. By the end of your essay, the admissions officer should have an idea of what makes you who you are. More importantly, they will see the importance of who you are when considering the rest of your application.

By now, you are aware of the significance of this essay. Here’s how to make it work for you.

What are the Common Application Prompts?

According to a recent survey that the Common Application conducted among its member universities, the question you choose really does not matter. Most member universities believe that the questions are fairly open-ended. This means that it might be more helpful to choose an experience you would like to share (and tells a lot about you!) before fitting it to a question. Whether you have a topic in mind or not, go ahead and take a look at the Common Application prompts for the year 2019-2020.

The 2019-2020 Common App Prompts:

  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.

How to Choose the Best Topic for You:

Now that you have had a quick look at the prompts, let’s discuss how you can choose a meaningful topic for your essay. Remember to take your time when you are choosing your topic. Once you choose a great topic, the writing will become much easier.

Personal, Personal, Personal!

We cannot stress this enough! This is a personal statement. It should be written like a personal narrative. This means that the topic at hand must be significant or meaningful to you. Do not write about something you think you are supposed to write about. You should be genuinely excited or at least motivated to write about this experience.

To ensure that your topic is also meaningful to the admissions officer, frame your experience in a manner that highlights a particular aspect of your personality or character. Remember, they need to be able to learn something positive about you through your essay. To do this, you will need to introspective and dive deep into why this specific topic is significant to who you are.

Avoid Broad Experiences

Many students played a sport in high school or participated in debate teams or school plays. When you are talking about a topic that other students may also write about, you need to be specific to you. The details and framing of your topic matters. Getting on the football team after years of preparation for that specific goal is an incredibly different personal statement than beating your obesity by learning and training for the sport. Therefore, be specific! It will help you with adding expository details that enhance the quality of your narrative.

Tell Them Something New

Avoid repeating information that the admissions officer can find elsewhere on your application. Each part of your application gives them a puzzle piece to fit to the bigger picture of you. This personal statement should be a new piece that contributes to solving the puzzle. It should not be a supplementary piece in case its counterpart is lost.

How Should You Write Each Essay?

Get ready to deep-dive into each of the prompts. We’ll go over what the prompt is asking, what sort of topics work, and what the admissions officer is hoping to learn from your response.

Before we begin, please remember that all of these essays consist of two parts. The first part will consist of what actually happened. The second will be explaining why it is significant to you, your environment, or your future.

Deep-Dive into Prompt #1

Prompt:
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.
What Answers the Prompt?

This prompt is quite open-ended. Anything that you feel is a significant aspect of who you are, your aspirations or motivation in your life, or how you see the world is fair game for this question. That being said, you need to justify why this particular piece of you is vital with respect to your college application. Remember, the question specifically states that your “application would be incomplete without” you sharing this about you.

What Topics Work?

Like we mentioned above, anything that is important to you is fair game. However, you will need to be specific! Use your 650 words wisely to create the greatest impression on the admissions officer. The topic can range from how your obsession with the wands from the Harry Potter series led to creating products to sell on Etsy to how living in a single parent household led to you sacrificing some of your interests to make ends meet. From the examples we’ve given you, it is clear the topic cannot be broad or generic. Even if the overarching topic is broad or generic, frame it to make it specific to your life experiences. The more unique, the better!

What is the Admissions Officer Hoping to Learn?

By answering this prompt, you are telling the admissions officer what you believe to be your most significant qualifying factor. For the Harry Potter example, the admissions officer could learn that you value your ingenuity and creativity the most. Perhaps if you write about teaching young children to be unafraid of their immigrant heritage, the admissions officer could learn that you value your own sense of identity as well as taking the mantle of leader to bring about change. In other words, they want to know how you perceive yourself with respect to your background and personal growth.

Deep-Dive into Prompt #2

Prompt:
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
What Answers the Prompt?

This prompt is not complicated. It consists of three parts. In the first part, you will need to talk about facing a challenge, overcoming an obstacle, or failing at something as well as how you handled whichever situation you choose. Once you’ve discussed that, you will then need to provide insight on how you grew from the experience. Finally, to make this Common Application essay outstanding, you can explain how the lessons you’ve learned affect the decisions you make now.

What Topics Work?

Again, the best topics will be the ones that are specific. They should also help you clearly elaborate on how this particular experience changed you. A change in you can be anything you define. However, it will be important to talk about how your perspective and attitude in respect to this change. More on this later.

Some example topics include:

  • Failing your Karate grading examination and retaking it months later taught you discipline and focus
  • Leading your school’s submission to a tech fair and staying levelheaded when the project breaks two weeks before the fair.
  • Fumbling your way through a mandatory presentation and learning how to deal with stage fright
What is the Admissions Officer Hoping to Learn?

Maturity is an incredibly important quality in successful students. The admissions officer will want to know how you handle difficult situations and whether you work to learn from your mistakes. They want to learn that you:

  • Persevere through hard situations
  • Take positive lessons from your setbacks
  • Deal with failure in a mature fashion

Deep-Dive into Prompt #3

Prompt:
Reflect on a time when you questioned a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
What Answers the Prompt?

There are two ways to approach this prompt. You can either talk about a situation where you questioned someone else’s idea or belief or a situation where something happened to convince you to question your own beliefs or ideas. To properly write a response to this prompt, you will need to first explain why you chose to question the belief and what actually happened. Then, you will need to reflect on your actions.

What Topics Work?

For this prompt, you will already have a relevant moment in your mind immediately after reading it. If you do not, then this prompt is not for you.

What is the Admissions Officer Hoping to Learn?

Do you have a set of values? What are they? Do you stand up for your beliefs and principles? These are some of questions the admissions officer wants answers to. If you have challenged your own or someone else’s beliefs, it shows the admissions officer that you truly examine and put thought into the things you believe in.

However, they also want to know if you are respectful of people with different beliefs than yours. Are you open-minded? Can you question someone’s beliefs without condescension? You will be meeting all sorts of people in college. Admissions officers need to ensure that you are a thoughtful addition to their campus.

Deep-Dive into Prompt #4

Prompt:
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 Answers the Prompt?

There’s not much to elaborate on for this prompt. Have you or would you like to solve a problem? If the answer is yes, then talk about that. Secondly, you must also “explain its significance to you,”. In laymen terms, why is it important for you to solve?

What Topics Work?

Don’t worry about the size of the problem. Anything goes as long as it is a problem that has significance to you. The topic you choose need not be serious. The tone you set is truly up to you.

Although the prompt offers the option of writing about a problem you would like to solve, we suggest you only respond to this prompt if you have already solved a problem. While being imaginative and creative is worthwhile, it is difficult to give concrete solutions to hypotheticals. When you something worked it is a lot easier to write about.

Moreover, specificity is key! Do not choose topics that are broad or generic. Want to solve world hunger? That’s commendable but there are a plethora of factors playing into world hunger. To ensure a strong Common Application essay, talk about how you solved a specific part of the larger problem if you choose to write something like this.

What is the Admissions Officer Hoping to Learn?

Again, the main themes here is maturity and perseverance. They want to know what you care about and your problem-solving capabilities. By the time you finish university, you will have faced numerous problems. The admissions officer needs to know that you are up for that particular challenge.

Deep-Dive into Prompt #5

Prompt:
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
What Answers the Prompt?

The prompt wants you to relay a moment where you displayed personal growth and maturity. Choose something you did or happened as the particular catalyst to the change. Then, you will also need to expand upon how that affected your understand of yourself or others.

What Topics Work?

Like prompt 3, you either have a story in mind for this prompt or you don’t. To help you think about possible experiences, we’ll leave you with one crucial piece of advice. Your topic should lead to a Common Application essay focused on the process of the positive change in you as a person. No one changes in a second. Reflect on that tipping point.

What is the Admissions Officer Hoping to Learn?

Well, maturity is definitely a buzzword when it comes to college admissions. That being said, you need to show that you are aware of your own concept of self and how that has changed with respect to yourself and others. The admissions officer wants to know that you recognize your own personal growth. To them, this will suggest that you will also be looking for opportunities to grow as a person throughout your college career.

Deep-Dive into Prompt #6

Prompt:
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?
What Answers the Prompt?

Are you passionate about any intellectual endeavor? This is your opportunity to talk about it. It is incredibly important for you to elaborate on the lengths you go to, to pursue this intellectual passion. In other words, what do you do to increase your understanding of the topic at hand?

What Topics Work?

This is a fairly open-ended prompt. As long as you can put an intellectual spin on it and can illustrate how you pursue a greater understanding of it, any topic will work well. Don’t make the mistake of choosing a subject that you think will be more appealing to the admissions officer. Your passion needs to shine through your writing.

What is the Admissions Officer Hoping to Learn?

As a college student, you will need to be passionate about the pursuit of knowledge and enthusiastically engage in the academic world. Moreover, you need to be self-motivated and driven when it comes to your intellectual pursuits. Thus, through this Common Application essay, the admissions officer wants to know that you:

  • Have a true passion for intellectual pursuits
  • Are self-motivated when pursuing knowledge
  • Can find the necessary materials through your own resourcefulness

Deep-Dive into Prompt #7

Prompt:
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.
What Answers the Prompt?

You get to decide!

What Topics Work?

Anything that does not fit in the other prompts is fair game for this prompt. If you know you want to write about something specific, go ahead and write it for this prompt. However, ensure that you are not sending an AP English Literature and Composition essay as your submission for the Common Application essay. The topic still needs to relate to you in some way as well as work well as a personal narrative.

What is the Admissions Officer Hoping to Learn?

Although this is a prompt that gives you free reign, remember to display a combination of the qualities and factors that the admissions officer looks for in the other prompts. You still need to prove that you will be a successful college student at their university.

What now?

Now that you have a concrete understanding on all the Common Application essay prompts, you can proceed to the actual writing. Remember to choose topics that clearly display a piece of who you are as a person. With 650 words, you have adequate space for story-building and deep introspection. Take advantage of this space and give your admissions officers a lot to figure out the big picture of you. Hopefully, this gives you a strong beginning to your college application journey. Good luck writing and remember it will all be worth it in the spring!

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Posted by Irfhana Zakir Hussain