2021 UPDATE: How to Answer the Common App Prompts So You Stand Out
More than 900 colleges and universities work with the Common Application, so you can expect to complete this online application if you plan to study in the United States. Of course each institution has slightly different requirements, but they all require the Common App essay. With 7 choices, you will need to select the best prompt for you and your story, which you will then submit to every school in your application list. Needless to say, writing a strong essay is very important. The primary challenge with admissions essays is making them stand out. Because admissions officers read essays all day long, year-after-year, it is difficult to find an original angle.
Many students read a prompt and go, "Oh! I know exactly how to answer that prompt! I have the perfect story!" However, in all likelihood, there are many other applicants thinking the same thing about a similar instance in their lives. This isn't to say that your experiences aren't important or meaningful to you, but you must be creative.
As a study abroad consultant, I have a very good idea of what makes a successful application essay. Here is how I suggest you tackle each Common App essay prompt:
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 really gives you the leeway to write about anything you want. The danger is in telling a common story. You must find a way to spin it differently . Want to write about a unique talent or interest you have? That's fine, but consider all of the other people who share your talent or interest. How is your story different? Find that difference and then write your essay from that angle. Want to write about a personal struggle you had making friends, improving a grade, or winning a competition? Tread carefully. These stories are a dime-a-dozen: everybody has one. That said, if you can find a way that your resilience is unique, it can be a compelling story. Ask yourself-how are you different? Want to write about a particularly painful experience in your life, such as a death in the family or a struggle with mental illness? Go ahead. But you must end on a positive note. Admissions officers want to see that you are resilient — not seeking sympathy admission.
👉👉 Consider going small with your essay. Do you have any idiosyncrasies or weird loves? Feel free to write about them. This angle, while seemingly less deep, can grab admissions officers' attention for being different.
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? The challenges with this prompt are similar to the first. No admissions officer wants to read another "I failed a test but studied hard and turned it around" or "I lost a competition so I practiced more and got better" essay. If you want to go with this prompt, you need to do one of four things:
👉👉 Go Small. Write about a small failure, such as how you forgot to tip your server, slipped in the rain, or were ten minutes late for an appointment. Turn this small failure into a parody or satirical piece. 👉👉 Go “insignificant". Write about an instance that seemed small when it happened but later ended up having a big impact on you. 👉👉 Surprise the reader by presenting an unpredictable reaction to your challenge. 👉👉 Use a unique theme or format.
But don't forget — this essay is about how you learned from your failure. The majority of your essay must focus on your growth.
3) Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? This essay prompt has real potential to show off your personal qualities and values. However, no one likes a braggart. So stay humble and, because you never know who will be reading your essay, avoid controversial topics.
Want to write about a belief or idea you feel passionately about? That's wonderful. But don't preach your ideas, and don't come across as all-knowing.
Want to write about how you disagree with this political stance or that religious belief? Just don't do it. Find a topic that is less contentious.
4) Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? The trap students fall into with this prompt fall into one (or more) of three categories: 1) Waxing philosophical about the importance of gratitude, 2) Focusing on a trite person, object, or experience, 3) Spending too much of the essay in summary mode.
To tackle this essay successfully, keep the story personal and focused on you, and avoid excessive summarization. Admissions officers don’t care so much about the object, scenario, or person you choose to write about; they care about how it has impacted you and your place in the world.
👉👉 Go small. Write about an interaction you witnessed, a seemingly insignificant event, or a conversation you had. 👉👉 Use a unique format or framing device. 👉👉 Take the reader in an unexpected direction.
5) Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. This is another prompt that lends itself to a common, boring essay. Don't summarize your story. Instead, write so that the reader feels as though it is happening to them. Make the reader invested in the outcome . Want to write about a formal event? Make sure it is unique. For example, if you and your friends hold an annual beach party in which everyone competes to see who can eat an entire watermelon first, feel free to write about it. However, if your formal event is a common occurrence (such as a religious or cultural right of passage) you will want to use an unique theme or format.
Want to write about an informal event? You will have an easier time making it interesting, but your ultimate goal is still to grab the reader's attention and keep it.
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 essay prompt presents a great opportunity to show off your values and passions. The key is to keep it genuine.
Do not use this prompt to brag about how smart you are. Instead, show admissions officers that you are intellectually curious. They want to see that you can (and enjoy) thinking about complex topics.
Or you can use this prompt to show off your quirky interests, such as your desire to learn Old Norse or your passion for drawing anatomically correct flowers.
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. And this is it — the prompt that will let you write about anything you want. Have fun! Just make sure your essay is about you. Keep it personal. Keep it positive. Make sure it reveals your values, passions, and qualities you want admissions officers to know about you.
Want help writing one of these prompts in a compelling way? Let World Awaits help! We will start by getting to know you — your unique qualities, interests, values, and goals — to narrow down the perfect prompt. We will then guide you step-by-step through the brainstorming, outlining, and editing processes to create a captivating essay that encapsulates you and your accomplishments. Reach out to us today!