Selecting Your Common App Essay Prompt

Rock Your College Application

We've helped students get into nearly every top-50 university and earn millions in scholarships!
It's easy to know when you have to write formally.

Selecting Your Common App Essay Prompt

Thank goodness for the Common Application. You only need to write one essay to apply to every school. Then again, everyone else only needs to write one essay to apply to every school. This increased competition may hurt your chances of getting into your dream school. So, is the Common App a blessing or a curse?

Pick the right essay prompt and it is a blessing. Pick the wrong one and you will fail to differentiate yourself from everyone else. Let’s talk about how to pick the right prompt for your essay. Once you are done writing your essay, submit your essay to Prompt to get great feedback and edits!

As a reminder for those who have not been agonizing over and meticulously contemplating the Common App essays, here are the prompt choices:

  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 failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Depending on your experiences, there are better prompt choices than others. Let’s walk through the situations in which you should consider using each prompt. When reading through these, make sure you keep in mind The Three Keys to Writing the Perfect College Application Essay: be memorable, be authentic, and flow, flow, flow, grammar.

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 is the best prompt to use; however, only use it if you truly have a story that is core to your identity. Admissions officers love people with a strong identity and sense of purpose. These stories, if told right, score very highly on being memorable and being authentic.

Use this prompt when…
  • You have a background, story, or series of life events that defines you as a person.
  • Your core identity is impressive, inspirational, and/or defines your future career path.
  • Examples:
    • You had a loved one who was a victim of gang violence and your life mission is to become a law enforcement agent and stamp out crime
    • Your grandfather was a well-known local politician, you helped with his campaigns growing up, and you now want to follow in his footsteps by serving your community
    • You love technology, you met and were inspired by a startup CEO, and now you dream of being an entrepreneur and are learning to code
    • You had a loved one succumb to cancer or some other rare disease and now you want to be a healthcare professional or scientist
DO NOT use this prompt when…
  • A story does not easily come to mind as being a defining moment in generating your identity.
  • Your story and/or identity is/are unimpressive or not memorable.
  • Your story and/or identity does/do not link to what you want to do in your future career.
  • Your story and/or identity does/do not come across as authentic.

2) The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Try not to use this prompt; however, if you can actually come up with a good answer for this prompt, just do it, because it can impress the admissions officers as most people will shy away from it. Chances are that you have not experienced a significant enough failure in your life that has a strong enough lesson to impress the admissions officers. If you have experience such a failure, it might not be a good idea to tell about it as your questionable decision-making may have caused the failure. Getting a bad grade, losing a sports game or match, and getting arrested are generally bad examples to use.

Use this prompt when…
  • You experienced a failure significant enough that the lessons you learned were meaningful.
  • You acted on the lessons learned to achieve a positive result.
  • Your failure seems reasonable and would not negatively affect the admissions officers’ opinion of you.
  • Example: You lost the student council election. You learned from your mistakes and succeeded in being elected Senior Class President.
DO NOT use this prompt when…
  • Your failure is unimpressive, making your lessons learned seem unauthentic and the story not memorable (e.g., you got a bad grade, you figured out you needed to study, you studied hard and got a better grade).
  • You did not act on the lessons that you learned from your failure.
  • Your failure was caused by poor judgment and/or questionable decisions.

3) Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Use this prompt if you cannot think of a good story to use for one of the other prompts. This might be the least exciting of the prompts, but it provides enough freedom for nearly anyone to answer it. Think of a time when you held a different point of view to someone else, you made that point of view known, and you performed some sort of action. This prompt provides you with an opportunity to showcase your interpersonal skills and your ability to empathize with and/or persuade others. Make sure you focus in on the details of the conversations and actions in the story. What did you do? What did the other people do? Make sure to reflect on your actions including lessons learned and what you would do or did do differently in the future. Try not use an example that involves politically sensitive topics (e.g., abortion, immigration) as some admissions officers may have an adverse reaction.

Use this prompt when…
  • You do not have a memorable and authentic answer for one of the other prompts.
  • You have a story that showcases your ability to empathize with and/or persuade others while simultaneously displaying interpersonal skills (e.g., conflict resolution within a group of peers or superiors).
  • You have a belief that is core to your identity that someone challenged which made you feel compelled to act.
  • Example: A classmate with special needs was being picked on and you felt compelled to stand up for your classmate.
DO NOT use this prompt when…
  • You have a memorable and authentic answer for any of the other prompts.

 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.

This prompt is ideal for showing passion and expertise in a certain area, preferably in what you intend to major in if you already have an idea of what that is. You can get the most out of this prompt by presenting a creative and original solution that you have used to solve or could use to solve an interesting or difficult problem that is relevant to your life and/or interests (preferably both).

If your solution is not creative or original, or if the problem is not interesting or relevant to your life or interests, then your essay will be a harmful liability to your application. For example, do not write your essay about the time that you and your friend disagreed on what to prepare a presentation on, and how you resolved the issue by compromising. While learning to compromise in a team setting is a desirable quality in applicants, the problem of having a disagreement with a friend is common and easily solvable, and the solution of compromise is neither creative nor original, leading to a forgettable essay.

Some applicants may be tempted by the prompt’s mention of “an ethical dilemma” to rant about their philosophical views for 650 words. In our experience, this is a disastrous option that almost always leads to cringe-worthy essays about applicants’ questionable, potentially controversial views on trivial dilemmas. Do not write about how you much you dislike your hometown or a celebrity, or about your musings on the ethics behind dating your friend’s ex-partner. Even if you have strong opinions on a more substantial moral question, like whether or not torture is ever acceptable, it is inadvisable to write your essay about it due to the risk that your reader will disagree with you and throw your application in the rejection pile. Make sure that your essay focuses on a concrete problem and how to solve that problem.

For good examples of how to approach this prompt, see Understanding Yourself or Decoding the Prompt.

Use this prompt when…
  • You feel that you are able to address a certain topic without letting your controversial views drown out the rest of your essay.
  • You are passionate about an ongoing societal issue and have original thoughts on how to approach the problem.
  • You have the knowledge on a certain topic to propose a creative solution to a technical and/or relevant problem, or have already solved such a problem in the past with a creative solution.
  • You have encountered a trying obstacle in your life, and are able to write a personal, lucid essay about how you overcame the obstacle or how you are currently overcoming the obstacle.
  • Example: You were dissatisfied with the way your high school’s student government was organized, and put changes in place as an officer to improve it.
DO NOT use this prompt when…
  • You are trying to promote your philosophical views for the sake of preaching your political stance or showing how brilliant and edgy your views are.
  • Other people have already proposed and applied the solution to the problem you are addressing.
  • You are thinking of writing about a day-to-day problem that is easy to solve.

5) Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

This is the second best prompt to use, although it is the most difficult to work with and most rarely used. You need to have a “defining moment” of your transition to adulthood. If a defining moment does not immediately come to mind, use a different prompt. The key here is not as much to discuss the moment itself, but rather to discuss the events leading up to the moment (childhood) and the events coming after the moment (adulthood). What caused this stark change? When did you realize the change happened? How did you cope with it? Did others in your community perceive you differently?

Use this prompt when…
  • A clear “defining moment” pops into your head as soon as you read the prompt.
  • There is a stark contrast between your perception of yourself and your community’s perception of you prior to and after the “defining moment.”
  • Your “defining moment” is memorable and your explanation of it is clearly authentic.
  • Example: One of your parents left your family and you needed to get a job to help support your family while being a father figure to your siblings and keeping up with your schoolwork
DO NOT use this prompt when…
  • You cannot quickly think of a clear “defining moment” when your adulthood began.

Write down some ideas for each of the prompts. Then, read through the “The Three Keys to Writing the Perfect College Application Essay” (chapter 14). Select a prompt and write a draft. After you are done, make sure to have someone read your draft and provide feedback, especially on the topic of your essay.

Write well and prosper, my friends.

user-gravatar
Brad Schiller
2 Comments
  • Posted at 8:05 am, November 25, 2014

    I really like it when folks come together and share thoughts.
    Great website, stick with it!

  • Posted at 7:18 pm, November 25, 2014

    Can I just say what a comfort to discover a person that genuinely knows what
    they’re talking about on the internet. You actually know how to bring an issue to light and make it important.
    More and more people need to look at this and understand this side
    of your story. I can’t believe you are not more popular since
    you certainly have the gift.

Post a Comment

Comment
Name
Email
Website