The college essay is an opportunity to accomplish two things:
1. To show an admissions committee how well you can write
2. To speak in your own voice about a topic/event/activity that
is important to you, i.e. to tell the admissions committee
something about yourself that isn’t in the rest of your
Common Application Essay Prompts:
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete
without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
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?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
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.
Choosing a topic:
It is usually wise to brainstorm around several options to see which ends up
yielding the best opportunity to write about something that matters to you.
Talking through your ideas with a trusted friend, family member, or teacher
can often help you think broadly about range of possible topics.
In the end, your choice should be guided by three questions:
1. Is my topic original?, i.e. This particular essay could only be written by
2. Does my topic highlight personal traits/growth/experiences that I am
proud of and would make me a great addition to a college?
3. Does my topic focus on specific, rich, anecdotal detail (rather than
broad, sweeping generalizations/observations?, i.e. Do I SHOW rather
than tell my story?
Drafting the essay:
Expect many drafts. Start with a brain dump of ideas before you worry too much
about writing a polished essay.
Your opening sentence needs to “hook” the reader. Admissions officers read so
many essays; you want to grab their attention with an imaginative opening.
Often the best college essays are about the smallest moments. Avoid a laundry
list of accomplishments.
The Common App essay allows a maximum of 650 words. Usually the challenge
is NOT not writing enough, but rather choosing your words judiciously to
maximize their effect – active verbs, rich detail, vivid description, and thoughtful
analysis will reveal your promise as a future college student.
Polishing the essay:
Do not allow too many cooks to become involved in the writing process,
other than as proofreaders. Your authentic voice is most important.
Generally, feedback from one or maybe two trusted resources (parent,
teacher, advisor, friend, college counselor, etc.) is plenty.
Spelling, punctuation, grammar, clarity, and neatness all matter, and they
can sabotage an otherwise competent and compelling essay. In particular,
if you choose to mention the name of a college in your essay, double and
triple-check that it is the correct college each time you submit.
Allow plenty of time to write your essay(s). Edit, re-edit, and proofread
again and again! If you wait until the last minute, it will show.
Many colleges require one or more shorter supplemental essays in addition to the main
Common App essay.
Supplemental essay prompts are usually more college-specific. They can be used to
gauge demonstrated interest by asking “why us?” Or they can be questions that ask you
to delve more deeply into a specific interest, value, perspective that you will share with
your college community.
Some important things to keep in mind:
• Answer the question. Don’t try to adapt or reuse an essay written for another
• Make sure you are not repeating something already covered in your main essay.
• Narrow your focus. Most supplemental essays have very limited word counts, so
don’t try to cover too much.
As always, be yourself. Sometimes the topics are so quirky that you can be tempted to
respond in ways that aren’t really “you.” Be original but maintain your voice throughout.
Optional Covid-19 prompt:
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting
impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects
on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including
access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.
The question will be optional and will appear in the Additional Information section of the application.
The response length will be limited to 250 words.
The question will be accompanied by a more detailed FAQ to help students consider the kinds of
impacts they may wish to report, including illness and loss, housing and employment disruptions, and
shifting family obligations.
Start now! No matter what your application timeline is (early, rolling,
regular decision, etc.), you will be very busy next fall, and you will be
extremely happy if your Common App essay is not still on your list of
things to do.
A DRAFT OF YOUR COMMON APP ESSAY WILL BE DUE ON THE FIRST DAY
OF YOUR SENIOR-YEAR ENGLISH CLASS.