Want to Submit A Killer Common App Essay? Here's How You Should Respond to Each Prompt

Want to Submit A Killer Common App Essay? Here's How You Should Respond to Each Prompt

More than 800 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 students in the world 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 smaller 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 class 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 smaller. Write about a small failure, such as how you once forgot to tip your waiter, you slipped in the rain, or you were ten minutes late for an appointment. Write about something that happens to everyone in a mock epic.

- Go "insignificant." Write about an instance that seemed small when it happened, but you later realized had an impact on you.

- Include a plot twist. Surprise the reader by reacting to your failure in an unpredictable way.

- 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 take-aways.

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 the potential to show off your values. However, you must avoid controversy and stay humble.

Want to write about how you disagree with this political stance or that religious belief? Don't do it. This prompt is not an invitation to discuss controversial topics.

Want to write about a belief or idea your feel passionately about? That's wonderful. But don't preach your ideas, and don't come across as all-knowing.

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 take to identify a solution.

The trap many students fall into with this essay prompt is the desire to attack large world problems. Everyone wants world peace and to reverse climate change; your thoughts on these matters (most likely) are not unique.

To be successful with this essay prompt, you should keep it personal and show that you are a person of action.

Talk about yourself and your connection to the problem / dilemma. Don't make sweeping statements about the problem itself. Admissions officers want to know about you. Consider writing about a small or insignificant problem - especially it it's one you have already solved.

Admissions officers want to see that you are a doer - a person who takes initiative. If you haven't already solved the problem, focus on what you will (not might, WILL) do to solve it.

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 weird. 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 even? 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 brag about how smart you. 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.


Do you want personalized help with your applications? Contact me to arrange a free consultation to discuss how I can help you gain admission into the school of your dreams. I have helped more than 300 clients successfully attend university in the United States, including Ivy League institutions, and I can help you do the same.

Good luck, applicants!