Topic-By-Topic Guide to Common App Essay


When was the last time you wrote an essay about yourself in 650 words (or less) and made it unique and compelling?

It’s okay if you can’t remember, because you may be doing it very soon!

Why’s that?

Because many colleges across the U.S. require prospective students to submit the Common Application for admissions, and for the Common Application, you must choose an essay topic from a list of seven prompts and write a response that does not exceed 650 words.

[Note: This essay is called the “main” Common Application essay because colleges often require students to respond to supplemental essays. I’ll discuss some of those specific cases in a different post.]

Each year, the Common Application releases the essay prompts for the upcoming college admissions season at the beginning of the year. These are the Common Application prompts for 2018-2019:

  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.

  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 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.

  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 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?

  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.

Notice that the prompts contain multiple questions and have varying layers of complexity. In this post I’ll talk about the pros and cons of each prompt and provide examples of good and bad topics. Here is what you should consider for each of the prompts:

[Note: When it comes to recommending "good" or "bad" topics, I try to recommend topics that are more unique or lend themselves to more interesting stories that can reveal qualities that admissions officers want to see. Technically any topic can be used, if done well.]

Final thoughts...

While no prompt is necessarily better than another, there are prompts that can more readily position you to write an essay that is interesting and will be seen more favorably by admissions officers. For all the creativity you can put into college admissions essays, just remember that you should still be showcasing maturity and growth whenever possible. The larger the risk you take with your topic, the more room you have for failure, so weigh your options carefully.

Not sure how to approach your Common Application essay? Just now starting to think about college admissions? Have no fear! We have several services available for juniors and seniors as they start to work on their Common Application. Check out our 1:1 options as well as our all-inclusive programs before registration closes and tutors get booked!

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