Tips for Answering Common Application Essay Prompts

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Tell the adcom something that is not already conveyed in your app.

If you are beginning your senior year of high school, this is the prime time to write your Common Application essay. The sooner you get started, the better. There are over 500 Common Application members in 47 states and the District of Columbia, as well as in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, France, Germany, Italy, Latvia, Qatar, Singapore, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom. All these institutions have in common a commitment to a holistic approach to the admissions process. This commitment means they will look at more than just your test scores and GPA. They give significant weight to your essay responses.

Keep in mind that your essays help round out the picture of who you are and what is important to you. Regardless of which essay prompt you address, it is essential to give yourself time to think about the information you are conveying and what specifically it reveals about you. It is also important to invest the energy to revise your responses. Each rendition of your essay should work to clarify your intentions while projecting something meaningful about yourself. You want to tell the admission committees something that is not already conveyed elsewhere in your application.

In addition to the main Common Application essay, many of these schools require additional supplemental essay responses. But they will be the subject of other blog posts.

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Describe your unique background or story and explain in detail what it reveals about your sense of identity. Then discuss how this information/revelation/reflection/experience plays out in who you are and the way you look at the world. In short, why is the background or story you shared significant and how is it central to the way you view yourself?

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

How do you deal with adversity and what does that say about you? Clearly describe the specific failure you experienced. Discuss what you learned from the experience and how it affects you in your day-to-day life. Don’t focus on the setback itself but rather emphasize what you learned about yourself and how that changed your perspective or behavior. Maybe you learned that hard work pays off? Or that balance is important in your life? Or that you want to make different decisions in the future? You want to demonstrate resilience.

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Recount a time when you stood up for something. Discuss what created the conflict that motivated you to take action. What do your actions reveal about you? Then think about whether or not you would make the same decision again and why. Make sure you clearly communicate your values and beliefs.

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Briefly describe the place or environment where you are perfectly content. Then focus on your experiences there and why they are significant to you. How do you feel? What are you thinking? What do these emotions/reactions reveal about your character/values/perceptions/assumptions? And can you apply this self-knowledge to your life?

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

This prompt asks how you gained independence and became more self-aware. Provide a rich context as you detail your selected accomplishment or event and then focus on how it demonstrates a significant transition in your life. Take it a step further and discuss how this new phase or different status can serve as a foundation in the future.

If none of the essay prompts immediately jump out at you, give yourself some time to reflect on your life experiences. Talk with your parents and teachers about your ideas. Eventually you will discover a topic that excites you and reveals something significant about yourself. The subject of your essay doesn’t have to be completely novel. However, it should reflect your unique perspective while clearly communicating your best self. Think about what is important to you and why. Remember, all the Common Application member schools are interested in learning more about you through your essays!

Download 5 Fatal Flaws to Avoid to learn how to eliminate the most common flaws in your application essays.

Marie Todd By  who served for over 20 years in higher education as an Instructor, Mentor, Academic Advisor and Undergraduate Admissions Specialist at top universities including the University of Michigan. At Michigan, she reviewed over 5000 applications. She would be happy to help you with your or your child’s college application.

Related Resources:

Ivy League and Common Application Tips: How to Get Accepted
Important Admissions Tip: Be Yourself
• School-Specific Common App Supplemental Essay Tips

Common App Supplemental Essay Tips

For each college that you apply to via the Common Application, you’re going to need to create a supplemental essay that answers that school’s specific questions while showcasing your talents and telling your story in a way that demonstrates your unique fit for that particular program. Please explore the tips below to learn how to compose a Common Application supplemental essay that clearly indicates why your chosen school is perfect for you…and why you are perfect for it as well.

Or access them all at once in Ivy League and Common Application Tips: How to Get Accepted, a free special report that includes all these tips in one instantly downloadable PDF.

Penn Sees Huge Increase in Early Decision Applications

A Daily Pennsylvanian article notes Penn’s new high in early decision applications. This year, 5,133 students applied to Penn early decision, an increase of 6.6% from last year and of 41% since 2008 when only 3,631 applicants applied early decision.

This year, Penn extended its early decision undergraduate application deadline by ten days after applicants experienced technical glitches with the common app’s CA4 platform. The university also extended its deadline last year (due to Hurricane Sandy) and two years ago (also weather-related).

Check out college admissions 101!

(Image from the Daily Pennsylvanian article, “Penn Admissions sees new high in ED applicants”)

2014 Common Application Advice



The newest version of the Common Application ( launches this week, on August 1. Certainly some students and counselors are anxiously waiting for the opportunity to login and look around and begin applications. Many other students have taken the lack of application accessibility as sanctioned procrastination. (“The supplemental essay questions aren’t even available yet!”) The wizards at work on the finishing touches of CA4 assure us that the new version will make applications easier, not just change the essay prompts.

The new essay prompts were released several months ago. In my opinion, the new prompts provide more structure while still allowing an applicant plenty of latitude to construct an essay that is personal and relevant to his or her application. The new Common Application does enforce a strict word limit of no more than 650 words; no longer does an applicant need to worry that her carefully constructed 540 word essay is over the “soft” 500 word limit.

The 2013-2014 Common Application essay prompt choices are here.

The Common Application Facebook page has been adding daily helpful tips, a few of which are particularly critical to applicants in the early stages of this process.

1) Your username is your email address. Easy, right? Yes, but, given the number of contacts a college makes and the number of colleges who are tracking interest indicators, it’s best if this email address is the same one you have been using for your entire college application process. Use the same address you provided to colleges at your high school college fair last year, on the SAT or ACT and on your college visits.

2) When you register, you will be given the opportunity to allow colleges you select as “my colleges” in the Common Application to email you prior to application submission. Again, consistency in your email address will save you from duplicates.

3) You will gain access to the supplements for relevant colleges as soon as you have added them to the “my colleges” section. Consider adding all colleges early in the process so that you can have an overall sense of the writing you need to complete over the coming months.

4) Additional information: the Common Application will still allow for adding additional information. This does not mean that all applicants should have additional information to add. The newest version of the Common Application also allows students to invite additional recommenders beyond the teacher and Counselor that are required. Again, the ability to do so does not mean that you must add these. In fact, many colleges discourage addition recommendations. Check with your colleges or your counselor before adding additional information.

The college application process can be long and sometimes overwhelming. Take it one step at a time and don’t panic!