A large number of institutions of higher education use the Common Application across the United States and in many countries around the world. 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. These institutions are united in their commitment to a holistic approach to the admissions process. This commitment means they want to evaluate you based on more than just numbers — test scores and GPA. They promise to consider your essay responses as a significant factor in your overall application assessment. Your required and supplemental essays are your chance to tell these schools more about you.
The ideal time to write your Common Application essay is during the summer before your senior year. For most of you reading this post, that means now. Writing over the summer will allow you the time needed to focus on your essay(s).
Remember, your essays help round out the picture of who you are, what is important to you, and why. They also provide insight into the sort of student you might be in college. This year, there are some subtle changes to the previous prompts from 2016/2017 that serve to expand and clarify the questions. In addition, two new essay options were created to allow more opportunities for you to express your character, community, identity, and aspirations. Regardless of which essay prompt you address, it is essential to give yourself time to think about the information you are conveying and what it reveals about you. It is also important to invest the energy to revise your responses. Although it may feel time consuming, each rendition of your essay should work to clarify your intentions while projecting something meaningful about yourself. Your goal is to tell the admission committees something that is not already conveyed elsewhere in your application and express your individuality.
In addition to the main Common Application essay, many schools require additional supplemental essay responses. Those essays are the subjects of other blog posts.
• 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.
Describe your unique background, identity, interest, or talent and explain in detail what it reveals about what you value. Why is it so meaningful to you? This is an opportunity to talk about various topics that are unique to you—cultural heritage, burning interests, outstanding talents, sense of identity, or unusual circumstances. Then discuss how this information/revelation/reflection/experience/talent/interest plays out in who you are and the way you look at the world. In short, why is the information you selected significant to you and how is it central to the way you view yourself? How does the meaningful information you shared help to prepare you for your future? How does it influence how you interact with the world?
• 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?
This was previously the prompt that asked about what you learned from failure that might be fundamental to later success. At the core of this question: How do you deal with adversity and what does that say about you? Clearly describe the specific challenge, setback or failure you experienced. Discuss what you learned from the experience and how it affects you in your day-to-day life as well as its impact on your way of thinking. Don’t focus on the setback itself; rather emphasize what you learned about yourself and how that event changed your perspective or behavior. What lessons can you apply that might lead to success in the future? 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? If you can, discuss how you handled a similar subsequent obstacle using the lessons learned and with a different, far more positive outcome.
As you reflect on this experience remember your goal in this response is to demonstrate resilience.
• Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This is a more open-ended version of the previous prompt. It allows you to address something that didn’t sit right with your values, but doesn’t require you to have actively challenged the belief or idea. The focus of this prompt is on your way of thinking and processing the world around you. You can either talk about your actions and impact or explain your rationale for not taking action. Recount a time when you stood up for something or seriously thought about it. Explain what created the conflict that motivated you to consider action. What was your thought process? What factors came into play as you pondered the issue? What was the outcome and how did it impact yourself and others? Discuss why this is so meaningful to you. Remember to convey your passion for the issue. What do your actions and rationale 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. What did you learn from this experience?
• 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 take to identify a solution.
Clearly articulate the problem. Remember the scale is not a factor, it is important to focus on why it is significant to you. Why did/does this problem need to be solved? This could be an issue on a personal level, in a local community, or with worldwide impact. Did you learn anything in particular about yourself as you reflect on this problem? Consider what your concerns about this problem reveal about the kind of person you are or hope to be. Discuss what you did or what you might do to find a solution. The essence of this question relates to your values, character, creativity and sense of identity. It also examines how you problem-solve and your ability to conceive solutions. Your response demonstrates a number of personal characteristics—What is important to you? How do you process the world around you? What are some of your perceptions and assumptions? To what extent do you actively engage issues? How do you overcome challenges? Can you come up with creative/effective/unique solutions to problems?
• Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
This revised prompt expands your options for discussing personal growth. It asks you to reflect on yourself, to identify how you were prior to a period of significant personal growth and then consider that impact on your perceptions of yourself and those around you (family, community, world). Think about how you might have gained independence, became more self-aware, or internalized a sense of personal responsibility. Provide a rich context as you detail your selected accomplishment, event, or realization and then focus on how it demonstrates a significant transition in your life. Why was this event so important to you? You can consider this in respect to your culture, community, and/or family. Take it a step further and discuss how this new understanding of yourself or others can serve as a foundation in the future.
• 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 new prompt provides the opportunity for you to discuss something that completely enthralls you. The scope is endless but the underlying question gets at what you find interesting, as well as why and how you go about growing intellectual competence. Are there people/mentors in your life to support you? What sparked your interest? How do you go about acquiring new knowledge? How do you gather and synthesize information? You need to make a case for why this topic, idea, or concept is so captivating to you. Your discussion should convey your enthusiasm, wonder and passion! Consider how you might explore or delve deeper into this topic/idea/concept in the future. How might your plans for the future support your efforts?
• 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 really is an opportunity to write about anything you want! A word of caution to those who view this new essay prompt as an easy way out of writing a new essay by selecting a previous work to use for this option— do not simply upload the last essay you earned an “A” on in your English or History class. No matter what topic you choose, allow some time for additional editing. This essay should be an excellent example of your writing abilities and should also demonstrate something significant to or about you. Think about what you want the admissions committee to know about you. Consider what the content of the essay might say about you as a person. What does it reveal about your way of thinking, values, character and perspective on the world? How might it enhance the other portions of your application?
Regardless of the prompt you respond to, the word limit for the essay is 650 words.
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 you. 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. This is your opportunity to differentiate yourself from other applicants. Be thoughtful and remember this is your chance to make a compelling impression. Keep in mind; all the Common Application member schools are interested in learning more about you through your essays!By Marie Todd, Accepted's college admissions specialist. Marie has worked in college admissions for over twenty years. She has both counseled applicants and evaluated applications. Most recently she evaluated 5000+ applications for the University of Michigan’s College of Literature, Science and the Arts; College of Engineering; School of Kinesiology. She is available to assist you (or your child) with your applications. Want Marie to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!
• From Example to Exemplary, a free guide to writing outstanding essays
• How to Choose X Essay Questions to Answer from Y Choices
• 5 Elements to Telling an Attention-Grabbing Story