Common Application Essay Strategies

Essays are a crucial step in the college admissions process for most students. Seniors completing the Common Application need to choose from one of seven different essay prompts. There are no good or bad essay prompts, but there are prompts that fit individual students better than others. Take the time to really read and understand the prompts before you make your choice. Use the prompt as the foundation of telling a compelling and effective story that will improve your odds of admissions.

Strategies for 2017-2018 Common Application Essays
Common Application Essay Choice 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.

Strategy:  This is a fairly broad-sweeping and general prompt.  In a survey of college admissions officers this was chosen as the prompt that was considered “most effective” in allowing students to tell a compelling story in their essay. Key words to note are “so meaningful” and “application would be incomplete without it.” In other words, this is not the place for a cute little story about something funny that happened one day unless the story reveals something really meaningful about you. If you choose this prompt, be sure you are talking about something that has truly shaped who you are.

Common Application Essay Choice 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?

Strategy: This prompt has been slightly reworded from the previous admissions cycles. The prompt encourages students to look at obstacles and to be specific about the challenge, setback, or failure. Often students get the balance in this essay wrong. It is easy to get caught up in telling details of what, where, and how details in your story. What admissions is really looking for here is how students interpret their experiences and how they learn and grow from them. If all you can write about is a minor or common problem this is probably not the prompt for you. Writing about the time you got a bad grade or didn’t win the big game may make you sound indulged and fragile. If the problem came about as a result of your bad choices, make sure you put sufficient emphasis on the resolution and lessons learned.  It is preferred if the resolution came about due to your actions rather than someone someone imposed on you. In most cases it is best to avoid anything that makes you look like a bad college candidate (drunk driving, shoplifting, cheating, etc.)

Common Application Essay Choice 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Strategy: In my experience this tends to be an unpopular choice for most applicants, but for the teen with the right story this prompt can lead to a compelling essay. Part of being successful in college is having an open mind and a willingness to think critically. This prompt can provide an opportunity to explore your thought processes and demonstrate you are capable of thinking critically and changing your mind.  One thing that can be tricky about this essay is that most of us tend to adjust our beliefs or opinions a bit at a time. A dramatic “lightbulb moment” may seem like it would make for a better story, but if that’s not how it really happened it will sound forced. Be sure that the story you are telling is significant and authentic. Avoid the temptation to make up or embellish a story.

Common Application Essay Choice 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.

Strategy: This prompt is unchanged from the 2015-2016 application season when it debuted. This essay may be especially well-suited to intellectually engaged and socially-minded students.  One pitfall of this essay may be the temptation of some students to oversell their story in an misguided attempt to give admissions officers what they think they want to hear. Reality – no one person, especially a teenager, is going to cure cancer or solve climate change. A realistic and specific story of what you are doing is better than a promise of what you will.

Common Application Essay Choice 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Strategy: Again you’ll want to watch out for potential cliched interpretations here. Common topics include Eagle Scout project, Bar Mitzvah, Quinceañera and the day I got my driver’s license. The best essays on this topic will feature something more personal or more unique. It may be a smaller story or a special tradition in your family. It might even be a moment you did not recognize the significance of at the time it happened but in retrospect was meaningful. This prompt can be an excellent opportunity to give admissions a window into your thinking process and life history.

Common Application Essay Choice 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?

Strategy: This prompt is new for this season and it will be exciting to see what applicants do with this prompt. One challenge with this prompt is that often intellectual work isn’t dramatic or exciting. Plodding away hour after hour at computer code or math proofs can be incredibly challenging, but it can take real talent to turn that into a captivating essay. Applicants selecting this prompt should think carefully about striking the balance of providing enough detail about their topic of interest to establish themselves as an authority, but not so much that their reader tunes out. “What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?” is an opportunity for applicants to demonstrate that they aren’t just passive recipients or information, but instead they will actively seek out resources. Homeschool applicants should be aware this may be an opportunity to situate themselves as a learner in a social context such as in a classroom or discussion group.

Common Application Essay Choice 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.

Strategy: This is a new prompt for the 2017-2018 cycle. In the past many students have used the first prompt on background story essentially as a “topic of choice,” but in this season it is official, and students can really write about whatever they wish. The Coalition Application also includes a topic of choice so this prompt is worth consideration for students completing both applications.

Common Application: One of Many Essays
While the Common Application is the standard application form for over 600 colleges, this single essay will not be the only essay most students write. Some colleges are not a member of the Common Application. Many schools have opted for the 2017-2018 season to join the Coalition Application. Many colleges also assign additional supplemental essay topics. While this main essay won’t be the only college admissions essay most students write, it is for many their most important essay. Take time to really think through your plan and be prepared to try more than one topic before you settle on the one that fits you best. Remember that writing personal essays can be tough, so it is okay if you struggle. Hang in there and keep plugging along until you write an essay you can be proud of.

Additional Tips for College Essays
Be Original

Remember that admissions officers are reading hundreds and hundreds of essays and your essay will be most successful if it is original. Often the first theme that comes to your mind may be the exact same one that comes to other students’ minds. That’s not to say a great essay can’t be written on winning the big game, learning to love engineering by playing with LEGO, feeling victory when you climb to the top of a mountain, or learning to care about the poor through service. Good essays have probably been written on all of these topics. But if you choose a topic that has been written about many times before, the bar will be higher for you.

Remember Your Audience
Think about who will be reading the essay and what they hope to learn about you. Admissions officers are human beings and they get bored just like everybody else, so learn about what admissions officers are looking for. Put some time and effort into crafting an essay your audience will enjoy and you may improve your odds of admissions.

Rewrite and Proofread
A well-written essay usually takes multiple drafts. Teens sometimes want to believe that they write best under pressure so procrastination makes for a better essay. This really isn’t how it works. Quality essays take time and revision. Giving an essay time to rest helps you avoid spelling and grammar mistakes. Consider having at least two people proofread your essay, and listen with an open mind to their feedback. Both the Common Application and Coalition Application prompts are available in early summer so you have plenty of time to work on your essays. Students who take time for revisions end up with better essays.

You may also be interested in
Tips for the Common Application Activities Section
Admissions Essay Tips: Think About Your Audience
College Essay Traps to Avoid
Admissions Essays: The Importance of Originality

 

 

51 comments

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    • karan k on July 28, 2013 at 11:57 am
    • Reply

    hi,
    i am currently in the midst of my essay writing process. i have brainstormed over many potential topics and am not finding it so easy to get one that sticks. unfortunately i’m just a normal 17 year old kid who hasn’t really gone through any major life changing experiences, how simple can the incident i write about be? does it have to be anything major, or can it just be a simple incident like boosting up my little brothers confidence before a soccer game for example?
    thanks,
    karan

    1. Hi Karan,
      It really can be a very small thing. This experience doesn’t have to have rocked the world or transformed your life. I read a great essay once about a burrito. Yes, a burrito. What is important is that you choose a topic you feel comfortable with and allows you to share something about yourself. Good luck with your essays!

  1. Hi Karan,
    Thanks for your question. Yes, often the best essays come from the little moments of life. It doesn’t have to be a major life transformation. What is important is what the reader learns about you. It may help to start by telling a friend the story – try to include sensory details that help your reader experience the moment with you.
    Good luck!

    • John Larkin on August 18, 2013 at 11:38 am
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    Since the word count is 650, should we strive for it to be around 500 words?

    1. Hi John,
      While it is certainly possible to write a strong 500 word essay, another well developed example can really strengthen the essay. So, don’t be afraid to use the full 650, or close to it, to fully develop your ideas.

    • Liz on September 10, 2013 at 6:18 pm
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    Hi,
    It was really hard for me to start my essay. Just like many other kids I haven’t had many life changing experiences. I decided on essay #5. My topic is about my grandma and her passing. I talk about how she got sick and moved in with my family when I was 11. The essay also mentions how my life changed during the time she lived with us. For example how I would spend almost all of my time with her instead of having sleep overs with my friends. I also mention how I would give her insulin and check her blood sugar. Its a very serious essay and is even kind of sad. I’m noticing that a lot of websites say that humor is good for essays. Now I feel like mine is too serious. Do you think I should stick with my topic (if so how could I make it better?) or change essays to a less serious topic?
    Thanks!
    Liz

    1. Hi Liz,
      Funny essays can be great, but so can serious essays. There really is no right or wrong topics, it is about what you you have to say and how well you express your thoughts. The important thing about your essay is what it helps admissions officers learn about you. So make sure it is your thoughts and feelings that are at the center of your story. If you haven’t already done so, I’d suggest sharing your essay with a couple of trusted friends to get their opinions.
      Best wishes!

    • Amoge on October 14, 2013 at 3:54 pm
    • Reply

    Hi,
    I picked essay no 4. I decided to write about my imagination as the place where I’m perfectly content. Do you think doing so will portray me as a whimsical person?

    1. I’m sure a good essay could be written on that topic. Don’t just choose a topic because you think it will make you sound a particular way though. Choose it because it is honest and you feel comfortable writing on that topic. After you finish be sure to share your essay with a parent or friend and get their opinions. Happy writing!

    • PM on October 17, 2013 at 8:26 am
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    Hi,
    I want to write about an experience I had when I was studying overseas. It’s sort of like an Adventure Camp. I think it probably fits in topic 5. I was impressed with the things I got to do there, and how things in that country was so different from my own. However, there were just too many things that happened that I don’t know which particular activity to pick. I fear I would use up my 650 words describing those “interesting” activities, and not focusing on answering the question.
    What do you think of my choice of topic, and the experience(s)? How long/short/specific should the experience be? And what should I be most focusing on?
    Thank you 🙂

    1. Hi PM,
      The best essays usually focus on small stories within a bigger theme. You can’t discuss everything and that’s okay. Maybe sit down with a friend and brainstorm some of stories you might include. Once you’ve done that, maybe just jump in and start writing. Your final essay may be quite different than your first draft but that’s just part of the process.
      Good luck!

    • BSD on October 29, 2013 at 5:28 am
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    Just wondering…I wrote an essay about one of my teachers that has influenced me in many ways. Would this still work for essay #1? Please advise. thank you

    1. Hello,
      That prompt asks for a story that is so central to your identity that your application would be incomplete without it. Is your teacher that essential to the story of your life? If so, it fits. If not, look for another topic. It can be really tricky to write an essay about someone who has influenced you. Remember colleges aren’t considering admitting your teacher, they are considering admitting YOU. Make sure the essay is really about you.

    • sammruth on November 4, 2013 at 3:34 am
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    I was planning on doing the first prompt with the background on my concussion I got when I was younger. Would that be a good topic? Is it too broad, like would it fall under the generic “changed my life” experience?

    1. I suggest you just start writing and see how it goes. Sometimes I find students struggle to write about experiences that happened a long time ago but the only way to find out is to start writing.

      Best wishes!

    • Nadia N. on November 9, 2013 at 2:49 pm
    • Reply

    Hi,
    I plan on writing about the 4th prompt. I thought about all these places I feel comfortable, like my bedroom, but they seem too generic. I plan on writing about how I feel perfectly content anywhere as long as I have a book with me, because that is definitely true. Do you think that will be a good topic?
    Thank you!

    • SP on December 19, 2013 at 1:03 am
    • Reply

    Hello,
    I really haven’t quite started my essay, and i fear i won’t finish it by the deadline. I do not have anything interesting experiences – i am sure i am gonna bore the admission committee people with the topics now that i have in my mind. I am an average student, and my family income is less – which i find, prevents me from experiencing the adventures of life, visiting new places, hanging out with friends – which I am longing to have after I become financially stable. What do you suggest?? I really can’t think of any experiences to share. I know experiences don’t need to be a big one, even though I don’t have anything to share that can amuse the admission committee in reading my essay.

    1. SP,
      Everyone has an interesting story. My suggestion is that you set a timer for thirty minutes and just make yourself write. Then share what you’ve written with a friend and ask for their feedback.
      Good luck!

    • Shivani on December 23, 2013 at 2:13 am
    • Reply

    Hi,
    I wrote my commonapp essay about my mother’s illness. I know it’s common and can get really monotonous but it actually focuses on how that led to me spending time with my mother and learning from her life stories, me becoming more responsible and taking over household chores and yes…how it led to developing an interest in the culinary world.
    But still, it starts off with her illness. Should I be worried??

    • Heather D on March 6, 2014 at 1:36 pm
    • Reply

    Hi, I want to write my essay about my experience with Bible Quizzing (including how we won the National Championship last summer) since that activity has defined my middle school and high school years. Would this fit for essay prompt 1 or should I look for a different topic?

    1. Hi Heather,
      Congrats on winning the National Championship! Prompt one is very broad. If this is something that is very central to your identity then that fits the prompt. The key is to make it clear not just what you’ve achieved but how that experience has shaped the person you are today. Best wishes!
      Barbara

    • Princess on July 4, 2014 at 3:59 pm
    • Reply

    mine is about my dads death and how his advice has shaped my life…should i go for #5 or #1

    1. Hello,
      Really the choice of prompt is less important than the topic. Maybe it would be a good idea to try to the draft both way and see how it fits best.

    • Neonla on July 14, 2014 at 6:47 am
    • Reply

    Hello
    I am a bit confused about what to write. I want to write about my life experience how I moved from one country to another in which the other country I went to live with my aunt and how this changed my perspective of life is it okay to write about such thing?

    1. Hello,
      This certainly could be a good topic. I encourage you to start writing and see how it goes.

    • Amar on August 11, 2014 at 9:10 pm
    • Reply

    Hi!
    Regarding prompt 4, i was wondering if an experience doing a specific action would work without straying from the ‘place’ concept of this prompt. For example, an essay about someone being contempt refereeing, or coaching, being a mock-trial attorney, etc. Keeping in mind a place isn’t being given. Just a description being at ease in this environment, or with these experiences.
    Thanks!

    1. Sure, it can be within an activity more than a physical place.
      Happy writing!

    • Emily on August 14, 2014 at 8:55 pm
    • Reply

    Hi!
    I was thinking about prompt 1. I was diagnosed with celiac disease a few years ago and it has really affected me. I did a gold award project helping gluten free people in my community and I am looking to be a nutritionist. Is this an ok topic? Does talking about my project sound too braggy??
    Thanks!

    1. Hi Emily,
      It sounds like you found a way to turn a challenge into positive action that helps others. That’s a great topic for an essay. Remember the admissions office will be able to see your awards on your application. So, you want your essay to go beyond just telling what you accomplished and to focus more on your thoughts and feelings – what did you learn? how did it change you? how will this affect the way you think about the world?

    • Lauren on August 18, 2014 at 11:29 am
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    I was wondering if there was anywhere we could submit our essays to see if they are good or just terrible? As many other students, I am really stuck on what to write or I don’t know if my actual essay if good.

    1. Hi Lauren,
      I would suggest sharing your essay with a teacher, counselor, or a trusted person like an aunt. It is always good to get the perspective of another reader. I work individually with students as an independent counselor. Feel free to get in touch through my the contact tab above. Best wishes.
      Barbara

    • M on September 7, 2014 at 3:23 pm
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    I was wondering if it would be a good topic for prompt no. 1 to write about the fact that I have an identical twin sister. is this a topic that would be good to write about?

    1. Megan,
      I can imagine a good essay on this topic. One thing you might want to start with is brainstorming what you’d like the reader to learn about you. Having a twin isn’t something you did. How you react to this circumstance is where the interesting part might come in.
      Good luck,
      Barbara

    • Carmine Marie on September 17, 2014 at 2:29 pm
    • Reply

    Are pictures allowed in your essay? I wanted to write about an event that transitioned me from childhood to adulthood but feel that the picture is needed to really put the reader where I was. Is this allowed?

    1. Hello,
      No pictures. It will be up to you as the writer to provide the details through your writing. As a warm up to writing it might be good to start by describing a picture aloud and notice the details you include.
      Good luck!

    • Celita G. on October 7, 2014 at 9:06 am
    • Reply

    Hi, I am terribly stuck on what to write about for my essay. I have had an ordinary life and have not experienced many big events. I was thinking of writing about my parent’s divorce but I have read that it is not recommended to write about divorce. I wanted to write about how that experience forced me to take care of my little brother and sister and help them through it. What do you think about having that as the topic?

    1. Hi Celita,
      It is fine to write about something “small”. It doesn’t have to be a major life event to be a good essay. With any topic make sure that you are an active character in your story. In other words, don’t just write what happened to you. Write what YOU felt and did as a result.
      Good luck!

    • Colleen on October 26, 2014 at 1:47 pm
    • Reply

    I’m having a really difficult time coming up with a topic. I was diagnosed with two different diseases when I was younger, so whenever I ask anyone’s opinion they tell me to write about one of those. However, I don’t want people to feel bad for me or for me to make something more dramatic than it is. I was thinking of writing little paragraphs on a bunch of small things that define me but I’m not sure if it fits into any of the prompts. What do you think?

    1. Colleen,
      Those are big questions and it is tough for me to answer without knowing more about your profile and the way you write. I find students often prefer not to write about illness for exactly the reasons you mentioned. Write about what YOU want to write about not what your friends/parents think you should write about.
      Best of luck
      Barbara

    • Ryan on October 26, 2014 at 5:28 pm
    • Reply

    Hi,
    I chose essay prompt #5 and I chose to write about my experiences in ARMY Basic training. The prompt states: “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood”. I am stuck on how I should write this out. I wanted to start out with describing the setting during graduation day, and how a realized at that moment, I made that transition from childhood to adulthood. Then for the next two paragraphs I wanted to write about the two specific experiences during basic that taught me values such as leadership and patience. Is this a good way to write my essay?

    1. Ryan,
      That sounds like a well chosen topic and approach for your essay. Remember the rule to “show not tell” – it is best if your reader can see your message through the examples.
      Barbara

    • Jina on August 9, 2015 at 5:20 pm
    • Reply

    Hi Barbara, I have just started to brainstorm essay ideas and I had a lot of difficulty coming up with one. But I had an idea of writing about my first day of kindergarten because that’s when I had just moved from a different country and didn’t know how to speak english. Do you think thats a good topic to write about and do you think that goes under prompt #5 or #1? Thanks

    1. Dear Jina,
      The best way to see if an idea will work for your essay is to just start writing! Sometimes it can be hard for students to write essays about something that happened a long time ago because they don’t recall enough rich details. But that is an individual thing and your experience may be different.

      On the prompts, number 5 asks about an event that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood. So, unless this ties into a more contemporary event kindergarten would probably not fit with a transition to adulthood. Does that make sense?

      Good luck with your essay!
      Barbara

    • daniel on August 19, 2015 at 10:14 pm
    • Reply

    Hi
    I started writing about how living in dubai has gave me passion about engineering and made me love it. I will also mention two internships i had in dubai and how they made me gain more knowledge about engineering. Does that fit prompt1 ?

    just wandering, do i have to discuss my major in my essays

    thanks

    1. Dear Daniel,
      Internship experiences can be a very effective topic for essays and yes, that could fit in the first prompt. As far as talking about your major that’s not at all required. Many students enter college undecided about their majors and many who think they know for sure what they will study change their minds anyway.
      Good luck with your writing,
      Barbara

    • destiny on August 27, 2015 at 2:24 pm
    • Reply

    hi

    i started to write about my job over the summer with working with children and teaching them , and how that has lead me to want to work with children in the future and what this experience has taught me in being more patient responsible and quiet. Is this a good topic for prompt 1

    1. Dear Destiny,
      It is great you enjoy working with children and it sounds like you’ve got a good start on your essay. Way to go!
      Barbara

    • Jeshurun on September 23, 2017 at 9:06 am
    • Reply

    Hi I am thinking of writing about how my bone genetic disorder fueled my passion to become an orthopedist would this be a good example for topic 1 or should I change it to something else

    1. Hello – It sounds like this is a topic you feel strongly about and have something to say about. Essays are always strongest with specific examples so talking about you’ve done to develop your skills and interests is a great focus for an essay.

    • AT on November 5, 2017 at 11:58 pm
    • Reply

    I try to write an essay about my internship this past summer in a law firm. Durring these 2 weeks’ experience with other intern and office enviornment which helped me discovered my weaknesses and strengthened my belief to be a laywer. I had a lot of self-reflection about myself. It was so much things to talk. don’t know how to start and end.

    1. Hi Amy,
      That sounds like a valuable experience and a great topic for an essay. Sometimes if you are feeling overwhelmed with too many ideas it can help to just do a huge brainstorm – get out paper and free write everything you can think of and then walk away for a while and come back to it. Often with a little distance you’ll find the themes that are most interesting to explore. If you like to process by talking with another person you can try out this same process talking with a friend or parent. I hope that helps!

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