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How to Write a Common App Essay Part 1: The Common App Essay Topics that Will Get You Into College

 

The Common Application personal statement is the most important college admissions essay for anyone who wants to attend an American university. This one 650-word piece of writing can be sent to over 800 schools! For applicants, that’s both convenient and intimidating. How do you know what to write about, or what prompt to pick?

The answer is simple but counterintuitive. Instead of starting by picking a prompt, start by brainstorming about your own values, goals and experiences. Then, once you’ve come up with the perfect topic, you can choose a prompt to fit the topic.

In this guide, we’ll help you find a common app essay topic that is both compelling and unique— the essay only you can write!


The most important part of understanding how to write a common app essay is understanding its purpose. The goal of your personal statement (the goal of your entire application, actually!) is to prove that you will be successful in college and beyond.

The key here is identifying what will make you successful— and different people have different routes to success! We’ve identified five traits that predict a successful college experience. You don’t have to possess all of these traits. Most successful students will identify with two or three traits, and in your common app essay, you should only focus on one or two.

 

As you read about these traits, feel free to jot down answers to the questions, or anything else that comes to mind!

Drive: Also known as grit! Driven students push themselves to succeed no matter how long the odds. They have been through difficult situations and come out a better person.

  • If you’ve got drive, ask yourself: What is the most significant challenge you’ve faced and what steps did you take to overcome it? How did the experience change you? What is your greatest skill? What actions did you take to develop or grow this skill?

 

Intellectual Curiosity: Students motivated by intellectual curiosity spend their free time learning for the fun of it, going above and beyond their coursework to gain a deeper understanding of subjects that interest them.

  • If you’ve got intellectual curiosity, ask yourself: What is a subject or topic you learn just for the fun of it? Describe a time you found yourself immersed in a topic. What did you learn? How did it change how you think about the world, yourself, or others?

 

Initiative: These students are not willing to accept the status quo, but instead are willing to challenge it, do things to improve, and generate outcomes. They like to take the lead, or at last the first step!

  • If you’ve got initiative, ask yourself: Was there a time when you had to lead? What did you do and what was the impact of what you did? Describe a time you saw a problem that needed to be solved. What actions did you take to solve it?

 

Contribution: Students with this quality (otherwise known as a social conscience) give back, making their communities, schools, and organizations better places. They want to help!

  • If you’ve got contribution, ask yourself: Can you think of a time where you made one or more people’s lives better? How did it make you feel? What is something you frequently do that others will miss in your community when you are in college?

 

Diversity of Experiences: These students have life experiences and backgrounds that set them apart from the vast majority of college applicants. They’ll be able to add unique perspectives to the student body!

  • If you’ve got diversity of experience, ask yourself: What have you done or experienced in your life that is different than other applicants? How have these experiences affected who you are? What do you know more about than anyone else in the room?

 

Remember, you can’t just tell colleges that you have drive, or intellectual curiosity. You have to prove it by talking about specific experiences that you’ve gone through. As you read about the five traits, do any experiences come to mind?

We recommend that you spend at least an hour brainstorming topics before you sit down to write. Spending that time now can save you a lot of rewriting later!

  • If you need a little more help, we’ve provided a set of free brainstorming tools on our platform.Get started with our free brainstorming tools!

Here are a few examples of common app essay topics that tie to the five traits:

  • After becoming obsessed with election data analysis, I noticed that participation in my school’s student government election was low, and set out to change it.
    • Ties to: Intellectual curiosity, contribution
  • I am the only mixed-race student in my Irish dance class. Although my presence raises eyebrows, I love the artform and am determined to succeed.
    • Ties to: Diversity of experience, drive
  • In my afterschool job at Whataburger, I realized that new employees weren’t getting the right kind of training. I came up with a plan to fix it, and successfully presented it to my boss.
    • Ties to: Initiative

 

Common Mistakes

At Prompt, we review thousands of essays every year, and we’ve noticed a few mistakes that students make time and time again. Here are a few common app essay topic traps to avoid!

  • Covering too much: In 650 words, you can’t fit in absolutely everything about your life. Instead, write a common app essay about a single experience or topic that will reveal one of your strongest traits, using it as a lense to help the reader to get to know you
  • Too much drama: Sometimes, students think they have to write about something very dramatic and very different from their everyday lives, like a mission trip or a traumatic event. But many of the most compelling essays are about things that might seem small or trivial- a hobby, a fandom, or a small moment. If the event you’re considering writing about didn’t have a positive impact on who you are now, it might not be the best common app essay topic for you.
  • Writing a resume: You don’t have to pack in every single one of your impressive accomplishments— that’s what the common app activities list is for! Instead, be honest, and tell a story that shows you as a person who fails sometimes, but knows how to learn and grow.

 

Once you’ve done your brainstorming and chosen your topic, it’s time for the next step: outlining! Check out our guide to the common app essay structures that will help you tell your story in 650 words.

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