The Elements of the Common Application Essay
The Common App essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. The Common App prompts provide a structure that will help you stand out from the crowd. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question. Then write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)
Generally, we see these essays, or “personal statements,” as having two primary components. First is the story. You have to tell your reader a story in which you are the main character. Always remember that you must be at the center of whatever you write since the goal is for the essay to provide a multi-dimensional picture of who you are beyond the basic information that is captured on the rest of the application. Each of the prompts requires that you relay a short narrative that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.
The second component is your reflection or analysis of your story. What does the story mean? How should we, your readers, interpret your story? Share the lessons you derived from your story, and help your reader to understand how this small event shows your values, your priorities, and your plans for the future.
So, as you read through these prompts and our description of how to address the prompts, think about those stories, those events, those anecdotes, those snippets of your own personal history that relate to the prompt. And as you remind yourself of these stories, begin to analyze what these stories say about you as a human being.
It may seem daunting at first, but remember that each of us has a unique story to tell. In fact, each of us has hundreds, even thousands of stories that make up our lives—even when we are young. So, don’t hesitate to share. In fact, some of our experiences that seem, at first, to be relatively insignificant can actually carry great weight and can help illustrate who we are, what we care about, and where we’re headed.
Watch This Video: The Elements of the Common App Essay
You and your counselor will spend much more time brainstorming and discussing possible ideas and responses to these Common App prompts, but we wanted to get you thinking to give you a running start. If you have some ideas, be sure to jot them down and share them with your counselor when the time comes to dig into the crafting of your personal essay.
In the following sections, we will examine each of the prompts for the Common Application essay and give you detailed guidance for success.
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Prompt 1: The “About You” Common App Essay
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 Common App essay prompt is sort of a catch-all prompt for essays that might not easily fit another one of the prompts below. However, it is important to focus on the key words.
Incomplete Without It
Generally, you want to use your essay to bring something new to your application—something that is not already evident in the other elements (transcript, recommendations, honors, activities, and the like). The focus of this essay, then, should be something that is meaningful to you but that is not obvious. The pivot of the essay should be something that reveals something personal or unusual about you that helps the reader put you in a new perspective, or that brings to light a hidden truth about you that will give context to the rest of your application.
Your background includes the context in which you live: your parentage, your community, your collective experiences.
This is how you define yourself—the labels you might use to describe who you are as a person. Again, this identity may not be readily visible, but sharing it with your reader will provide context to your application and help her understand the “real you.”
Here you might share an interest that does not appear on your list of activities or in your honors. It might be something that none of your teachers—or even your best friends—might not know about you. For example, perhaps you are hooked on zombie movies and have watched hundreds of them. Maybe you have an interest in antique automobiles or have a collection of coins or painted elephants. Absolutely anything that attracts your time and attention could be the focus of your essay.
This is similar to an interest, but it usually entails developing some sort of expertise or ability. Perhaps you have taught yourself origami or how to knit—and you make things for your family and friends. Perhaps you do woodworking or calligraphy, and have used this talent in some sort of interesting way. Here again, the interest would likely be invisible on your application unless you brought it up here.
Note that the last word of the prompt requests that you share a story. So even in identifying the background, identity, interest, or talent that helps your reader to understand the “real you,” your essay will be considerably strengthened if you are able to relay an anecdote or short vignette that illustrates this key attribute about yourself.
Watch This Video: The “About You” Common App Essay
Prompt 2: The “Failure” Essay
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?
This prompt has been around for quite a while. It can be found on a variety of college essay platforms. An essay on this topic gives you an excellent opportunity to tell an interesting story, but also demonstrate your resilience and grit. We all fail at one point or another. And while writing about failure can sometimes be painful, the process of working through some sort of challenge can help you demonstrate that you are ready for future challenges that you will face in college and beyond.
Let’s look at the keywords of this prompt as a way to help address it effectively.
Obstacle / Challenge / Setback / Failure
The key word here is obstacle, along with its various synonyms that appear in the prompt: challenge, setback, failure. Very few things we achieve in life come easily on the first try. Often, something impedes our smooth movement toward our goals. Sometimes we are able to overcome the obstacle. Sometimes we are not: we fail. Thus, the first order of business in addressing this prompt is to clearly identify the goal you were trying to achieve. What was it you wanted? What was the objective? Hopes you have? Then the second order of business is to clearly identify the obstacle (or challenge or setback or failure) that rendered the achievement of your goal more difficult—or even impossible.
Incident or Time
As with any essay, you need to tell a story. Whereas the previous prompt uses the word “story”, this prompt invites you to “recount” this process of setting a goal and having trouble meeting it. This is the story of how things did not go according to plan. Your story should have a beginning, middle, and end. But it must be brief.
Learning from the Experience
Whenever we fail—and we all do—we have to figure out how to respond to that failure. Often we gain something from the experience. Perhaps we learned a valuable lesson. Or, we redirected our energies in a new way. Perhaps we have developed a greater understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses. The key element to successfully answering this prompt is to reflect on how this failure affected you and what you did as a result of it. So, after you have told your (brief) story, you should do quite a bit of reflecting on how this experience led to personal growth or greater understanding of the world around you.
Watch This Video: The “Failure” Common App Essay
Prompt 3: The “Belief” Essay
Reflect on a time when you questions or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Belief or Idea
This prompt hinges on some belief, idea, or value that you hold dear. At the core of the story, you must be able to identify this closely-held belief or idea, and explain why it is important to you.
Questioned or Challenged
At various times in our lives, we are called upon to defend our ideals or our principles, either because others don’t share these beliefs, or because you may hold a view that is unpopular or out of the ordinary. Your story in this essay revolves around a time when you were called upon to defend your belief or idea against some countervailing force. This force could come from a particular person, a small group of people, or maybe even a very large group of people. What animates this essay, then, is the tension between your belief or idea and the beliefs or ideas of others.
The “story” that is at the heart of this essay is the genesis of the tension, how you came to realize it, and how you came to a decision to do or say something in response (or not). Given that your values were under fire, did you do or say something to defend those values? Why or why not? You want to make the effort to explain your thought processes that eventually led to some sort of decision, action, or realization.
The decision, action, or realization you made is the outcome of the story. You want to be sure to describe the outcome. Don’t stop there, however: explain and analyze that outcome. Was the decision the right one? Did you act to defend your values, and if so, what was the result? Or, perhaps, you acted in a way that did not defend those values, and you later regretted your inability to stand up for your beliefs. Either way, you are asked in this prompt to reflect upon what you did (or did not do) to defend your beliefs or ideas, and to determine whether you would approach a similar conflict of beliefs or ideas in the same way in the future.
Watch This Video: The “Belief” Common App Essay
Prompt 4: The “Problem” Essay
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.
This Common App essay prompt can be tricky, at least at first glance. The most important aspect of the prompt is the problem at the center of it, and the explanation for why this problem is so important to you.
The core of this essay is a puzzle, a riddle, or a difficult question that begs an answer. Education, after all, is the process of gaining knowledge, skills, and understanding that will help us solve problems of all types, whether personal, political, ethical, economic, social, technological, or scientific. Central to this prompt is your curiosity. What puzzles or fascinates you—or bothers you? Define the problem carefully and clearly, and describe it so the reader can feel your fascination.
Personal Importance and Significance to You
Why is this puzzle interesting to you? This piece of the prompt invites you to tell the story of how or why this puzzle occupies your mind, your body, or your spirit. From where does your interest emanate? Tell the story of how your fascination developed, and why this problem became significant to you. To be clear, this idea of significance is based on your own intellectual, spiritual, ethical, or personal experience. For this essay to work, you have to really care about the problem in a personal way.
This Common App prompt makes it clear that there is another “story” in this essay: the narrative describing what you did—or what you will do—to address this problem. If the problem at the center of this essay is something you have tried (and perhaps succeeded?) in solving in the past, then you need to recount the sequence of events that led to that solution. If, instead, you have not yet tackled this problem, then you need to imagine and describe the actions you could take in the future to find a solution—or at least whittle away at the problem and move toward a solution.
Watch This Video: The “Problem” Common App Essay
Prompt 5: The “Personal Growth” Essay
Discuss an accomplishment or event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
I sometimes call this Common App prompt the “Aha!” prompt. Your life was coasting along, and then something happens that forces you to recognize that suddenly you feel differently or think differently. We all have these “Aha!” moments from time to time, and when they do occur, we reorient ourselves in our world. This is an opportunity to share one of your “Aha!” moments
Personal Growth and Understanding
As we grow older, we find that in some situations we feel—or are treated—as children, while in other situations we feel more like adults. Sometimes this transition is subtle, as in how other adults begin to treat you with greater seriousness in restaurants, at the post office, and in other public places. Sometimes, however, this transition can seem more abrupt, as in the day you get your driver’s license or register to vote for the first time. Religion often marks this transition (first communions, bar mitzvahs), as do particular cultures (quinceañeras, debutante balls). This prompt asks you to more closely examine your own transition from childhood to adulthood. Granted, for all of us, this transition is slow and gradual (and frankly, sometimes even we are not sure we have completely transitioned to adulthood!). But no matter our age, religion, or culture, this transition is punctuated by some memorable stories—stories that you are being asked to share with your readers.
Accomplishment or Event
The transition to adulthood is marked by both accomplishments and events. An accomplishment is something that you achieved through hard work. An event, on the other hand, is a happening in which you may have been more passive, but nonetheless marks a very important milestone in your life. Some of these accomplishments and events are formal (e.g., learning Hebrew and reciting the Torah before your congregation in a ceremony before your friends and family). Some of these accomplishments and events are informal (e.g., you finally looked old enough that when you entered a restaurant with your parents, the hostess no longer gave you the kiddie menu). College admissions folks do not care so much about the exact nature of these accomplishments or events; rather they care about how you tell an interesting story about your transition to adulthood.
Unlike an accomplishment or event, a realization can have no outward manifestation that others can see or experience. You may, instead, experience some sort of internal “Aha!” moment. Your understanding changes. You see yourself—or others—in a completely new light. Perhaps you shared this realization with others, or perhaps it is one that is intensely private. But the change or transition is real, because it leads to a new and different understanding of yourself and the world around you.
At first glance, this Common App prompt doesn’t seem to have a story at the heart of it. However, the focus is on a transition, which implies a description of “before” and “after” this event, accomplishment, or realization. So you should retell the story briefly to help your reader understand the transition. As with the other prompts, you should then go on to put this event, accomplishment, or realization into a larger context. You need to interpret this story for your reader through analysis and synthesis. By focusing your “discussion” of what happened after this event, accomplishment, or realization, you can give your reader a sense of your increasing maturity and your priorities, values, and personality.
Watch This Video: The “Personal Growth” Essay
Prompt 6: The “Obsession” Essay
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engageing 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?
Sometimes I jokingly refer this to the “wet your pants” Common App essay prompt: you become so engrossed in something that you forget to meet your own most basic needs. Colleges love to hear about what occupies your mind–after all, colleges are places where you expand and train your mind. This prompt offers an opportunity to talk about the ideas that excite you.
Topic, Idea, or Concept
This Common App prompt gives you broad latitude to discuss pretty much anything you’d like to discuss. However, it’s important to remember that colleges and universities are places where the focus is academic and intellectual. It would be entirely possible to write an essay on something as seemingly silly as “Hello, Kitty” or model airplanes or even on multiplayer computer games (my students have written successful essays on all three of these topics in the past). Notice, however, that the prompt does not use the word “activity.” As we will see, certain activities are related to the topic, idea, or concept, but the prompt asks you to keep your description focused on the academic or intellectual foundations that underlie the things you do. Your chosen focus for this essay could be just about anything, but what matters is the thought that may lead to the activity—and not on the activity itself.
Even as you get excited about the social aspects of college, don’t forget that the primary focus is on learning. This phrase also keeps the focus on an intellectual or academic plane. Colleges and universities are communities of learners, first and foremost. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that this is your first priority in going to college.
Engaging and Captivating
The topic, idea, or concept you choose implies some sort of action that demonstrates your interest. What do you do to activate or express your interest? The prompt sets a high bar: you find this interest so appealing that you sometimes get lost in it. And this is your story for this particular prompt: give an anecdote that demonstrates the depth of your interest, that shows the reader that you can become completely engrossed and lose track of time.
This word is the key to the essay. You need to justify—in some way—your devotion to this particular idea, topic, or concept. If you have chosen the right subject for your essay, your level of interest is so high that it is infectious. Your aim, then, is to explain the reasons for your interest, and to convey the reasons for that interest to your reader. You will have done your job well if your reader comes away with a newfound appreciation for an idea, topic, or concept that she has never considered to be so engaging or captivating. Share your enthusiasm by explaining the why behind your interest.
Watch This Video: The “Obsession” Essay
Prompt 7: The “Your Choice” Common App Essay
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.
Your choice! Anything you want! This prompt offers you the freedom to write about anything you want. But be careful, as not every possible topic you could dream up will make for a solid college essay.
The nice thing about this Common App prompt is that the admissions folks leave the choice of topic entirely to you. And therein lies some of the danger of deviating from the other prompts. You are free—and encouraged—to go beyond the limitations of these other prompts, but at the same time, you want to consider the fundamental commonalities found in the above prompts.
–Ideas and Concepts
Your college essay should represent you as a student and as a learner. Not every topic has to be entirely serious, but you should consider whether your chosen topic has any intellectual or academic depth.
The heart of many of these prompts is some sort of change in your mindset, perspective, or understanding. Admissions folks are looking for young people who have made some sort of transition that demonstrates their maturity, depth of thought, or newfound ability to see the world in a new light.
You must have some sort of anecdote animating your essay that helps your reader to see your point. This is where you will “show” your reader your fundamental point. You are the main character of this essay in which you can demonstrate aspects of your personality, your values, and your point of view.
–Analysis and Reflection
Every other Common App prompt requires you to dig underneath the surface, to go beyond superficialities and to uncover the important truths at the center of your story. It is not enough to tell your reader the story: you must demonstrate the fundamental importance of the story to you. The story is the vehicle to convey a deeper understanding of you as a person.
Some colleges encourage the submission of essays you have written as part of a class or other assignment. These essays may represent you very well as a student and demonstrate some of your intellectual abilities and academic depth. If you choose to submit an academic paper, it is sometimes best to do so as an additional or supplemental essay to your application. In some cases, you may have written some sort of personal essay or narrative as part of a creative writing assignment. If this personal memoir has most of the elements described above, it could be an excellent college essay.
It is perfectly acceptable to experiment with the form of the Common App essay. Admissions folks want to encourage your creativity, and they are looking for unique approaches. I have seen students write very successful poems in response to the prompts, and a couple have written mini-plays or screenplays. You are welcome to experiment with the form. However, you will want to keep in mind the elements described above. While the form can be highly creative, it is important to keep the purpose of the college essay in mind: to communicate to your reader something important, something fundamental about who you are as a person, as a citizen, and as a learner.
Watch This Video: The “Your Choice” Essay
Choosing the Right Common App Essay Topic
When faced with seven prompts–including that allows you to write about “anything you want,” it can be hard to choose a prompt to focus upon.
Generally we encourage our students to outline responses to as many of the prompts as possible. These outlines are not full drafts–rather they are bare-bones sketches of main points you might make in a fuller response.
Your outline should contain the two primary elements of a good Common App essay: the story and the reflections.
For the story, try to give basic parameters of the story or anecdote in no more than a sentence or two.
For the reflections, make a list of bullet points that explain the meaning or moral of the story. A solid response to a prompt should have at least three reflections or take-aways from the story.
As you are developing these reflections, be as deep and introspective as you can be. These reflections are an opportunity to share with your reader your values and priorities. And these values and priorities are what will make your application more revealing and more compelling. So don’t be afraid to share!
Once you’ve completed these outlines, you can share them with teachers, parents, peers, and your college counselor. Gradually a topic or two will rise to the top of the list, and you can begin to draft those “winners” in greater detail. As you draft, you’ll be able to assess the viability of the topic. Often you’ll simply find that one topic flows better than another.
Finding the right topic is the hardest part of writing your college essay. The prompts are the best way to start. But you’ll know you’re on the right track when you begin to feel your personality shine through your prose. It can be an organic process, but once you have the right topic, you’ll know it.
So enjoy the process of self-discovery as you explore the many possible essay topics that will help you present yourself in the best light in the admissions office.
About Mark A. Montgomery, Ph.D.
About Mark A. Montgomery, Ph.D.