Common Application Essays: The Complete Guide

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For many high school students, the most dreaded part of applying to college is writing the college application essay. And almost every student who applies to universities in the U.S. will write a Common Application (Common App) essay.

That’s because the Common App is an online college application form used by over 900 colleges. Most of the universities ranked in the top 100 nationally by U.S. News and World Report accept the Common App, including the Ivy League schools.

In this post, we’ll ease your college essay dread by sharing the 2022-2023 Common App essay prompts and tips for answering them successfully. 

Common App Essay Format

Let’s start with some basics about writing your Common App essay! 

  • Essays must be 250-650 words. We recommend aiming for about 500 words. 
  • You can use a standard five-paragraph essay structure for your Common App essay, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. If you’re comfortable branching out from this structure, feel free! As long as your essay is organized and well-written, the number of paragraphs is not important. 
  • The Common App platform will not allow you to indent (tab) your paragraphs, so add an empty line between each paragraph to separate them.
  • Type your essay in a separate Word document, then paste it into the Common App platform. The font should be standardized once you paste your work in. In case it isn’t, use a 12 pt., single space, simple font like Times New Roman or Calibri. 
  • Avoid all caps, bold, underline, and italics because they can look more conversational than professional. The same applies to emojis, hashtags and excessive exclamation points.

Professional, easy-to-read formatting is important. But the content and quality of your writing is even more important. So, let’s look at the Common App essay prompts. There are seven total prompts, and you can choose the one that most inspires you. 

2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts

The seven Common App essay prompts for 2022-2023 are:

  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. 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?
  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.

How to Choose a Common App Essay Topic

With seven prompt options, how do you choose the right one? And once you’ve decided on a prompt, how do you decide what to write about?

After reading through the Common App essay prompts, it’s a good idea to choose three favorites. Then, brainstorm a list of topics for each of your selections. After brainstorming, write to the prompt that produces the best idea.

The best idea will be interesting, meaningful, and engaging or thought-provoking. It should be a topic that’s unique to you, or at least something that will separate your essay from the hundreds or thousands of others the admissions team must read. 

You should also ensure that your chosen topic is a good representation of you and what you bring to a college campus. Perhaps most importantly, it should be something you’re genuinely excited to write about.

Now, we’ll take a deeper dive into each prompt and how to answer them!

Topic 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.

What should you write about?

This is an open-ended essay topic with nearly limitless possibilities. If you choose this topic, write about something that you consider central to who you are as a person. It can be about a hobby, interest, skill, or experience. It can also be about an element of your family, heritage, or culture. Think of this topic as, “Is there anything you really want to tell us about?”

What should you not write about?

Don’t write about a topic that applies to hundreds of other students. For instance, it’s better to avoid writing about the death of a family member or pet, being the captain of your school sports team (unless you can put an interesting spin on it), or your significant other. 

It’s also best to remember that you are the main character of your essay, so don’t focus on another person who’s an inspiration in your life, like one of your parents or grandparents. 

How should you write it?

First, pick something that’s genuinely meaningful to you. Your passion for the topic and its importance in your life should shine through in your writing. 

Once you’ve decided on a topic, think about how to frame it as a story. (Remember that the prompt says to “share your story.”) Your personal story about the topic will give your essay a unique perspective and help you stand out from the crowd. 

Begin the essay with a brief anecdote that highlights your topic. It can showcase how you got into the talent or interest you’re writing about, or a meaningful moment in your life that’s relevant to your selected topic. It can also focus on a challenge you’ve experienced and overcome that’s tied to your identity or background. Use concrete, specific details that bring your story to life.

After the anecdote, reflect on why the topic is so important to you. How has it impacted your life and your growth as a person? What have you learned from it? How has it shaped your identity? Why is it an essential part of who you are? You don’t have to answer all these questions, but make sure to demonstrate your ability to reflect about your experiences in a meaningful way. 

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Topic 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?

What should you write about?

Note that this essay has three parts: 1) A time when you faced a challenge, 2) How it affected you, and 3) What you learned from the experience. Although you will need to explain a challenge you faced, the majority of the essay should focus on what you learned from the experience. 

So, consider if you’ve experienced a failure or setback that has taught you a valuable lesson or made you a better person. Do you respond well to challenges and obstacles, and is there an experience you can share that highlights positive qualities like determination, perseverance, and a positive attitude?

Challenges could include growing up in poverty, having a learning disability or physical disability, or being bullied. It could also mean missing out on an opportunity you really wanted, or being told you wouldn’t achieve something, then going on to accomplish it anyway. 

What should you not write about?

Overused responses to this prompt may include moving around a lot as a child, losing a championship game, or the death of a family member or pet. That doesn’t mean you absolutely can’t write about these topics, but make sure you have something new or insightful to say.

You should also avoid topics that could seem silly to the admissions team, like a break-up, failing your math test, or missing out on the party of the year. Don’t write about anything that calls your morals or judgment into question, such as any type of illegal or inappropriate activity.

How should you write it?

Start by briefly describing the challenge, setback, or failure. Avoid overly negative language or complaining. Instead, state the facts. As always, use concrete details to make the story more unique and engaging.

Spend the rest of your essay discussing what you learned and how you grew. How did you handle the challenge and ultimately overcome it? Show positive qualities like resilience, integrity, courage, and persistence. What lessons will you carry with you into college and the rest of your life? 

Topic 3

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

What should you write about?

This is one of the more challenging Common App essay prompts. It requires a passionate essay about a belief or value that’s important to you, something you’re willing to stand up for, even when it’s difficult to do so. Think about something that truly matters to you. Why does it matter? Have you stood by an unpopular opinion or belief? Why? What happened next?

Successful responses to this prompt have included an essay about a student challenging her self-doubts and insecurities, as well as an essay about a student standing up to her parents’ old-fashioned ideas about feminism. You could also write about challenging beliefs that are racist, ableist, or otherwise discriminatory. 

What should you not write about?

It’s important to avoid topics that are overly controversial or polarizing. You don’t want to write about something that makes the admissions team uncomfortable or offended, or something that they strongly disagree with. Politics and religion are risky. 

How should you write it?

It’s almost always a good idea to launch right into the meat of your story. Describe the time you questioned or challenged an idea or a belief, using vivid details and active verbs. 

Then, discuss the outcome. How did your actions impact the people around you, your community, or your life? Reflect on why you chose to take a stand and why the value or belief you shared is important to you. How will this experience change or affect your actions in the future?

This prompt is risky because you want to sound passionate, but not preachy. Remember that you’re telling a story about an experience you had, rather than writing a persuasive essay about one of your beliefs. You should also demonstrate that you’re able to consider (and sometimes disagree with) other viewpoints without insulting them. Don’t sound rude, angry, or close-minded. Instead, show that you’re principled and have integrity. 

Topic 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?

What should you write about?

This is another broad prompt that gives you the opportunity to write about a time you felt gratitude. Think about how the people in your life have helped you grow. You can write about a small or big gesture that you appreciated. Consider the role of gratitude in your life, and how acknowledging positive experiences can inspire and motivate you. 

You can write about anything from a random act of kindness to something that restored your faith in humanity. It can be a kind gesture from a stranger, an unexpected and meaningful gift from a loved one, or something a person in your life said or did that helped you overcome a challenge or difficult time. 

Once again, remember that the main character of your college application essay is always you. So, you must be able to write about how you expressed your appreciation or responded to the gesture. How did it affect you? How does it continue to motivate you now? Did it inspire you to “pay it forward” to others? In what way?

What should you not write about?

You want to write about an uncommon act of kindness that deeply affected you, something you’ll always remember and draw inspiration from. In most cases, it’s better to avoid writing about something materialistic, like your parents buying you the car you’ve always wanted or getting you an expensive prom dress. If it costs money, but the gesture was personal and meaningful to you, then it’s okay to address it. 

How should you write about it?

Start by sharing the experience or gesture that you appreciate. Use specific details to show (not tell) how the gesture made you feel seen, heard, or acknowledged. What happened that touched your heart and inspired you?

For most of your essay, focus on how you responded and drew inspiration from the experience. What did you realize as a result? How did you express gratitude and appreciation? How did you choose to pay it forward? Is the act of kindness linked to your passions or aspirations for the future? 

Topic 5

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

What should you write about?

Words like “event” and “accomplishment” are open to interpretation. It could be a major life event or a small occurrence that meant a lot to you. Often, the smaller events make for more surprising and memorable Common App essays. Whatever you’d like to write about, make it creative and interesting by sharing your unique perspective. 

Think about the moments, even small ones, that changed you as a person or opened your eyes to new ideas. Have you ever had an “aha” moment that impacted your perspective or actions moving forward? What’s something you’ve learned that made you feel more capable or more adult?

Make sure that the accomplishment, event, or realization is something that helped you learn or grow. Maybe you simply discovered something new about yourself, like leadership skills you didn’t know you had. Perhaps you learned a simple but meaningful life lesson, like the value of being open to feedback or slowing down to appreciate the little things in life. 

What should you not write about?

One overdone topic is sharing a community service experience that made you appreciate your own circumstances more. If you really want to touch on this topic, make it unique by discussing a small moment within the experience that affected you in a specific way, instead of something general like “appreciating life” or “being grateful for what I have.” As usual, you should also steer clear of anything illegal, illicit, or potentially silly. 

How should you write it?

Briefly tell the story of your transformative experience. What happened, what did you accomplish, or what did you realize? 

Then reflect on how this moment in your life led to growth or change. How did it help you understand the world through a new or more mature perspective? What did you think or do differently afterward? Did it influence your values or future goals? Did it spark a new interest? 

By now, you’ve probably noticed a pattern. It’s best to start Common App essays with a brief story or anecdote that includes vivid details and active verbs. You want to make it specific so it’s not a generalized essay that any applicant should write. Then, it’s time to get reflective about how the experience impacted or shaped you. If you can relate it to your passions, aspirations, or identity, even better!

Topic 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?

What should you write about?

This prompt is all about your passions. It’s also an opportunity to showcase your capacity for self-motivated learning. College admissions teams admire applicants who are curious and resourceful. If something captures your attention, how do you go about exploring it and learning more?

Whatever you write about, it should meet two main requirements:

  1. You genuinely love it.
  2. You’ve taken the initiative to pursue more knowledge and more experiences related to this interest.

What sparks your curiosity, inspiration, and appetite for knowledge? Why? When you’re deeply interested in a topic, how do you seek to enrich your knowledge? What is your learning process? 

You can write about your love for dystopian literature, abstract art, chess, coding, the stock market, baseball stats, the culinary arts, or even applying psychology concepts to your favorite TV shows. Are you intrigued by quantum physics, Henry VIII, how to make the perfect cheesecake, or the ripple effects of the Treaty of Versailles? Be specific. 

As long as you can explain how you pursued more knowledge on the topic and continued to challenge yourself, don’t be afraid to get creative. 

What should you not write about?

As long as your topic meets the two requirements described above (you love it and you’ve independently pursued more knowledge), it should work well for this prompt. Of course, it could be tricky to write about your obsession with video games or reality TV. Make sure you can explain why the topic fascinates you and how you’ve enriched your learning in this area.

How should you write it?

Start by discussing how you initially became fascinated by your topic of interest. Alternatively, you can start by describing your typical morning routine of checking the stock market, or describing your favorite corner of the local library. Share why your topic piqued your curiosity or immediately absorbed you.

Then, explain what you do to further your knowledge in this area. Remember to be specific and use concrete details.

Is your topic related to your college major or future goals? If it’s something non-academic, like perfecting your cheesecake recipe, briefly make a connection to more academic pursuits. Is the way you approach cheesecake the same way you approach preparing for a big test or sharpening your writing skills? 

Topic 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.

What should you write about?

In this case, you can write about anything. This prompt is 100% open-ended. It can even be an essay you’ve already written! But for the same reasons this topic is great, it’s also challenging. Responding to a specific prompt is often much easier than responding to a prompt that says, “Write whatever you want.” 

That being said, this is the prompt for you if there’s something you’re dying to share with the admissions team that does not apply to any other Common App essay prompt. What do you have to offer a college campus that no one else can? Is there a story you love to tell that will provide insight into who you are and what matters to you?

What should you not write about?

Any essay will technically fit this prompt. Just be sure to avoid controversial, inappropriate, or overly silly topics. 

How should you write it?

The way you write this essay depends on the topic you choose. However, you can follow the general rules of thumb outlined in our advice for the other essay topics. Start with an engaging anecdote that draws the reader into your topic. Then include some reflection about why it’s important, what you learned, or how it’s impacted your personal growth and future aspirations.

General Essay Tips

For any of the Common App essay prompts, as well as supplemental essays and short answer questions, follow these tips:

  • Share new information. In your essay(s). Provide information that the admissions team won’t find anywhere else in your application. This is an opportunity to highlight aspects of your personality and life that don’t fit anywhere else.
  • Write in your voice. Your essays should “sound” like you. If the schools you’re applying to don’t offer interviews, this is your best chance to let your personality shine. The admissions team wants to know who you are, beyond your GPA and test scores.
  • Use specific details. We’ve said this a lot, but that’s because it’s important. Vivid details and memorable language set your essay apart from the pack, even if your topic is extremely unique or groundbreaking.
  • Be creative. Don’t be afraid to get creative and highlight what makes you unique, within reason. Admissions officers that have read thousands of repetitive essays will appreciate something that’s a little zany. 
  • Proofread carefully. Read over your essay multiple times for clarity, concision, grammar, and spelling. Delete unnecessary or repetitive words and phrases. Try to use active verbs (e.g., “Joe interviewed me” instead of “I was interviewed by Joe,” or “My mom picked me up from school” instead of “I was picked up by my mom”). Ask a trusted friend, family member, or teacher to review your essay too. 

You should also make sure your essay answers the question the prompt asks. Write about something that’s important to you, and always make sure to reflect. You aren’t just telling a story; you’re showing what you learned, how it changed you, and why it’s important enough to be the focus of your college application essay. 

Final Thoughts: Common App Essay Tips

Writing your Common App essay doesn’t have to be scary. Believe it or not, it can even be fun. The key is to choose a topic that you’re excited to write about. Dig into something that’s important to you. Get creative, use specific details, and reflect on your experiences. 

Don’t try too hard to impress or use vocabulary words you’ve never used before. Be yourself – just a more polished, professional version. Write in your voice and let your personality shine. That sounds at least a little fun, doesn’t it?

By following these tips, you’ll reduce your college essay stress and write a memorable essay that college admissions teams will love.

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