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Everything You Need to Know About the Common App Essay

Student reviewing essay with essay tutor

The Common Application is an undergraduate college admission application. Applicants may use Common App to apply to any of the nearly 900 member colleges and universities in the U.S., as well as in Canada, China, and many European countries. Common App requires one primary essay to be sent to all colleges and universities you are applying to. For many students, the Common App essay is the most important essay for college applications. Students should make sure to put their best foot forward as the number of colleges and universities one can reach is so high.

It’s also worth noting that within Common App you have the option of sending a different essay to each college. However, we don’t recommend this level of micro-tailoring. Focus your time on writing one great personal statement, with only minor tweaking for specific colleges if necessary. We also recommend sending essays to schools even if they don’t explicitly require it, or list it as optional.

Word Limit

The Common App essay is limited to 250 - 650 words, which roughly translates to a maximum of one single-spaced page of text. You must stay in this word range. In fact, the online portal for essay submission will not let you proceed if you don’t. In general, we advise writing an essay between 500 and 600 words. This should allow ample room to get your main idea across.

How to Approach the Essay Prompts

Before even reading the available prompts, we always suggest that you think of what you want to say. Did a certain event profoundly impact you? How did you grow as a person? Where did you excel? Whatever it is, you want to choose a topic that is engaging, interesting, and screams you. The essay is a chance to tell a story about yourself. The story is what matters, not the prompt. The writing community likes to call this “reverse brainstorming.” Once you identify your most powerful story, you then go and choose the prompt that allows for the most effective telling of that story. The prompts cover a wide range of topics and are framed in a very open-ended manner. So whatever story you choose, you will find a prompt that fits.

Common App Prompts

1. 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 prompt is the oldest Common App prompt of the list. It has been offered for years for good reason. The prompt is all-purpose, and would fit a wide variety of personal stories. The operative words of the prompt are “background,” “identity,” “interest,” and “talent.” When reverse brainstorming, you may want to select this prompt if your story deals heavily with any of these four words. Another key word of this prompt is “incomplete”. Whatever story you choose to share, it tells who you are and who you want to become.

Do you come from an immigrant family? Background and Identity. Have you been playing tennis for 10 years? Interest and talent. We urge you to think both big and small. You may not have some all-encompassing experience as the ones listed above. Maybe you’re quick witted and like to tell jokes. Maybe you enjoy word games and work on crossword puzzles religiously. Whatever you feel best encapsulates a good story and is specific to you.


  • What about my background, identity, talent, or interest that sets me apart from others?

  • How would I define myself in a short speech or story?

  • What have been the biggest factors in the shaping of my personality?

  • What have I achieved that can be best told in a story?

It’s no wonder why this prompt is the first listed. It has the broadest range and would be a good bet after a reverse brainstorming session.

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?

Don’t fall for the trap of simply describing an obstacle. You don’t want pity; you want an admission letter! The real meat and potatoes of a response to this prompt would involve how you found a solution or means to overcome said obstacle. Negative language should be avoided, as you don’t want to sound bitter or angry. The obstacle should be described as succinctly as possible to make room for positive storytelling. If your story has to do with resilience, determination, or humility, this is the prompt you want to select.

Like in the first prompt, don’t be scared to think both big and small. Small incidences can still make for compelling stories. Your family may have been plagued by financial issues your whole life. Maybe you had a serious injury while competing on your sports team. But be sure not to immediately neglect everyday occurrences. Maybe your obstacle was time—not enough time in the day to accomplish what you set out to accomplish. The possibilities here are varied. If through reverse brainstorming you’ve isolated your most compelling story to be one of trial and triumph, this is the prompt to answer.


  • How do you deal with the stressors in your life?

  • What is an obstacle or trial in your life?

  • Are you the kind of person who can turn a negative experience into a positive, learning one?

It’s absolutely crucial that you stay away from overly negative language. Admission essays are about putting your best foot forward. Don’t spend too much time describing how horrible it felt, or the myriad of injustices that were dealt to you. Keep the description of the obstacle brief, with the story of how you discovered a solution detailed.

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

This prompt is a bit of a double-edged sword. Questioning or challenging a belief or idea requires the student to have passionate ideals, which translates into a balancing act when writing a composed response. Too bold and you may come off as arrogant or bigoted. Too cautious and you may strike as weak or ambivalent. Like Prompt #2, students may fall victim to the trap of speaking at length about all the negatives of their opposition. It may become overly didactic, zealous, or aggressive. Even more precarious is the fact that you don’t know where the admission officer reading your essay stands on a particular issue. You may end up offending the very person responsible for your admission.

On the other hand, a response to this prompt offers the opportunity to tell a deeply personal story. It inherently highlights the strengths of your character. If done with grace and a committed focus to the positive side of the ordeal, it can turn into a triumphant tale. Applicants who can articulate their thoughts and feelings while showing a willingness to consider the other side will undoubtedly be viewed as a welcome addition to any campus.


  • How have you become the kind of person to stand up for what you believe in?

  • What are the pillars of your character?

  • How passionate are you about the things you care for?

Again, we urge you to think big and small. The confrontation doesn’t have to be straight out of a movie about lawyers. It can range from challenging your parents’ regressive beliefs, to fighting stereotypes you have faced, to standing up to someone who cuts in line. What’s important is how you tell your story, how you describe what you learned from the experience, and how clearly you organize your thoughts on the matter. This prompt can be great for those who want to showcase your critical thinking, negotiation, persuasion, and passions.

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 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 prompt is similar to Prompt #2 in that its purpose is to draw out a student’s problem-solving and perspective on the world. This prompt also lends itself well to more creative expression, something that is lacking in the previous prompts.

What makes this prompt an interesting choice is found in the wording of the first sentence. “...You’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve.” This gives the applicant significant wiggle room in deciding what to write about. The essay can be used to describe a scenario in which you solved a problem. It can also be used as an aspirational topic, discussing a problem you encounter in the world that you wish to solve.

In the aspirational variant, this prompt allows you to discuss your values. Maybe you see problems with the way your local government is run. Maybe you take issue with the way automation is being implemented. Maybe you have been pondering issues surrounding information technology and privacy. Whatever it is, what you define as a problem that needs solving will say much about what you believe in.


  • What inspires you to problem-solve?

  • How have you been proactive in tackling an issue?

  • Why are certain problems so important to you?

It’s important that you really choose a problem that affects you and links you to the wider world. The entire purpose of choosing this prompt is to reveal your values to a college’s admissions board. As with the other prompts, don’t spend too much time or negative wording describing the problem. Spend the majority of your 650 word limit on the positives: solutions, ideals, virtues.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

The wording of this prompt allows for several interpretations of how to best answer. An accomplishment, event, or realization can all be drastically different in each individual applicant’s experience, big and small. Maybe you saw roadkill on a local street. Maybe you gave a speech to a symposium on robotics. The real weight of the essay comes from describing the growth and the new understanding that you experience after the fact. In describing how you grew, you’ll give significant insight into how you think about events and how you’re open to change.

The organization of the essay will depend heavily on which of the three “markers” (accomplishments, events, realizations) you choose to recognize. Describing your metamorphosis can be a very creative outlet for some applicants. For others it can be a way of emphasizing an area of your academic career that you take great pride in.

A lot of the students we have worked with choose the accomplishment story. It might be tempting to describe the accomplishment and how significant it is. However, what makes a compelling story is the effort that leads to the accomplishment. Think about the roadblocks you have removed along the way.

Your intimate musings on what you have learned and how you have grown will be a source of significant insight to admissions, and you want to be sure to highlight your intangible qualities that can’t be found elsewhere in your application.


  • How do you react to significant happenings?

  • What kinds of things change your perspective?

  • What were some moments that have changed you fundamentally?

The event, accomplishment, or realization you detail should be something that helped you grow to understand the world through a different, more nuanced lens.

6. 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?

This prompt is largely about the pursuit of knowledge and your motivation for learning. It provides a window into how you parse information, how you discover new fields, and how you determine what qualifies as inspiration. One of the greatest strengths of a response to this prompt is the opportunity to express strong interest in a specific major or program at a college.


  • What is your appetite for knowledge like?

  • Why do you love what you love?

  • How do you go about satiating your thirst for this specific kind of knowledge?

  • What about the process of discovery excites you?

There’s no need to be shy when responding to this essay prompt. Your interests may be esoteric and unique, all the better! Some of the most memorable essays can be found in responses that involve something that really stands out as different.

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.

This is the most popular prompt by a longshot. For one, it doesn’t require much more effort. You may choose from any number of essays you’ve already written for classes or other applications.

However, we usually advise students not to be blindsided by its popularity and avoid this prompt. If you have to choose this prompt, we warn that you stray away from overly academic essays. The whole premise of the essay is to reveal elements of yourself that otherwise are hidden in the rest of your application.

We only advise students to use a previous piece of writing if that writing was stellar in a number of ways. Did you win an award or competition for the piece? Was it published and has accumulated substantial readership? Is it something you’ve been working on for a long time in your free time because of sheer passion? Is there a story that you find yourself telling over and over that doesn’t match the first six prompts? Only consider Prompt #7 if you can answer yes to one of these questions.

Again, we urge you to first engage in a reverse brainstorming session to see if you have a story that fits an available prompt. If after careful consideration you decide your story is best told in a manner that does not fit Prompts #1-6, Prompt #7 is your go-to, best bet.

Final Takeaways

Personalize It

There’s a reason why these essays are often called personal statements. No one has had the experiences you’ve had. Sure, they may have competed in the same event or taken the same class, but what about your experience makes it meaningful to you? Your essay should be an experience, a feeling, an event, a realization that you care deeply and want to share with others. It should come from a willingness to share something personal, not from a feeling of obligation or requirement.

Spend Time Choosing and Writing Your Story

You need to give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write so you don’t feel rushed to recycle old content or write about what’s most obvious. Sometimes the best essay is not about what’s most obvious on your application. We often tell students to take at least two months for preparation and writing.

In the same vein, you should absolutely take the essay seriously: it’s one of the most important parts of your application. As such, it’s worth investing the time for polish and refinement. If you’re feeling rushed, it will come off in your writing. Admissions officers have often been doing this for a long time, and are able to tell which essays are works of passion and purpose versus obligation and meeting deadlines.

Details, Details, Details

The best responses are the ones that are most specific. Essays that focus on a single event, trait, experience, or interaction gives laser focus to your response. Writing in broad strokes opens up far too many avenues, and makes choosing between options a drain on your brain. The more specific your topic is, the clearer your voice will be heard.


Get Started Today

Feeling stuck in your essay writing or unsure about the direction you are heading? Our essay coaches are here to help you and can work with you to brainstorm ideas and identify the right themes and experiences for admissions essays. Learn more about our essay editing program today.


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