The Best Common App Essay Prompt | 2021-2022

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I'm going to let you in on a secret – any Common Application Essay prompt can lead to a great essay. 

I'm going to let you in on another secret. You shouldn't even be reading this article until you've selected what you're going to write about. The secret to a great Common Application Essay is to pick your content first, your prompt second.

Why? Too many students spend too much time thinking about which prompt they’ll write. They try to get clever. They pick #3 Challenging a Belief because fewer students write it. They think admissions officers will appreciate the higher degree of difficulty or the creativity. But then, they end up with worse content. They forgo writing their best content to write about something not quite as compelling. Don’t do this. 

Start with your content. Start by understanding your audience – i.e., what college admissions officers actually care about (hint: it isn’t a higher degree of difficulty or creativity). Then, come back here to select your prompt.

Well, well, well. You’re still reading. That either means you’ve already selected compelling content to write. Or, you’ve ignored our advice and wanted to peek ahead at the Common App Essay prompts. You want to see our thoughts on when to use each prompt. I don’t blame you. It’s good content. Now is your last chance to brainstorm your content before you see our advice on the Common App prompts.

By the way, Prompt’s writing coaches can save you a lot of time and angst. A hand-picked coach will guide you through brainstorming your content, selecting your prompt, writing an outline, and revising your Common App Essay and supplements. Join thousands of other students in getting one-to-one coaching from the best essay coaches in the world. 

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WARNING: The advice below cannot be unseen. Proceed at your own peril and ENJOY!

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As a reminder for those who have not been agonizing over and meticulously contemplating the Common App essays, there are 7 essay prompt choices. The good news is there is a prompt for anything you would ever consider writing about. Essay prompt #7 even allows you to pick a topic of your choice. Here are the 2021-22 Common Application Personal Statement Essay Prompts in all of their glory. The only change from last year is prompt #4, Gratitude. We’ve added names for each to make them easier to discuss and think about.  

  1. Background and Identity. 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. Lessons from Obstacles. 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. Challenging a Belief. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Gratitude. 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? (New for 2021-22.)
  5. Personal Growth. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Intellectual Curiosity. 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. Topic of Choice. 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.

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. We’re going to go out of order. 

We’ll start with the two Common App prompts we like the most (5 and 6). These naturally get students writing about their most compelling content and traits. Then, we’re going to discuss the three Common App prompts we’re neutral on (7, 1, 2). These are popular to write and can lead to compelling content; however, we see students sometimes struggle to make sure they’re including their most compelling content. Finally, we’ll wrap up with the remaining two prompts which we like less and are less used (3, 4). These can actually be awesome but fewer students have the right content to write these well.

Keep in mind. The prompt you choose ultimately doesn’t matter that much. The Common Application Essay is different from supplements. You can write about anything. Most admissions officers don’t even look at which prompt you selected. For supplements, make sure you explicitly answer every part of the prompt. The Common App prompts are meant to be thought-starters that help you identify compelling content to write about and include in your essay.

Common Application Prompts we like the most (5, 6)

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

This is a top-two prompt. It’s also the second most used prompt behind Topic of Choice (not that it matters). It’s a great prompt because it naturally focuses on drive – the most important of the five traits. It also easily allows you to prominently feature one or more of the other four traits: intellectual curiosity, initiative, contribution, and diversity of experiences.  

The key is to use an experience(s) where you can clearly differentiate between who you were BEFORE the time of personal growth and who you are AFTER the time of personal growth. This contrast helps prove you went through an experience and took actions that resulted in a positive change in your skills, actions, and thoughts (e.g., how you view the world and others). Keep in mind you don’t need to use this prompt. Select a different one if your most compelling content doesn’t fit nicely as a time of personal growth.

Use this prompt when…
  • You have a clear “defining experience” where you grew significantly as a person.
  • You can draw a clear contrast between who you were before the defining experience and who you are now.
  • You were an active participant in your defining experience, meaning you took actions to better your situation.
  • Your before and after contrast ties to a good outcome: your skills improved, your actions changed for the better (you do different things now than you did before), or your view of yourself and others changed in a way that has had a lasting and profound impact on you.
  • Example: One of your parents left your family, and you got a job to help support your family. You became a father figure to your siblings while keeping up with your own schoolwork.
  • Example: You volunteered at a hospital as a greeter, helping patients and visitors find their destinations. After 3 months, you started getting a feel for some of the reasons patients come to the hospital. After 6 months, you began to know some doctors and nurses. After a year, you knew you wanted to be a part of this world of healing. Your grades improved because you had a sense of purpose. Your empathy grew. You started connecting news stories with their effects on people’s safety and health. You’re still at the hospital, now as a Patient Care Assistant, a more hands-on role for which a recommendation is needed.  
DO NOT use this prompt when…
  • You do not have a “defining experience” that sparked a period of intense improvement in your skills, changed the actions you now take (i.e., you do very different things), or helped you develop a new understanding of yourself or others.

6) INTELLECTUAL CURIOSITY. 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?

‍This is the other top-two Common App prompt. It is the very essence of intellectual curiosity – a trait colleges love. Students who love learning for fun are more likely to succeed in college and in life. This prompt can also be great for showcasing your drive and diversity of experiences (i.e., a unique set of interests). We’ve also seen this prompt used to great effect showcasing initiative or contribution when the intellectual curiosity involves other people. 

Write this prompt as your intellectual journey. What sparked your interest? Why do you find the topic so fascinating? (Feel free to get nerdy!) How do you engage with your interests? How do you continue to deepen your learning? How does this relate to your future? Keep in mind that the topic, idea, or concept doesn’t need to be related to a school subject. It can be anything you find fascinating and spend significant free time learning deeply.

Use this prompt when…
  • You have a topic or idea on which you spend a significant amount of your free time.
  • You are truly improving your skills, knowledge, or thinking.
  • You actively seek to further your idea or knowledge, and you do it in a deliberate way (i.e., you think deeply about how to get better, further your idea, or learn more).
  • Your topic or idea relates in some way to your future ambitions (optional, but compelling).
DO NOT use this prompt when…
  • You do not spend a significant amount of your free time over months or years on the topic or idea.
  • You cannot write about the way you deliberately go about improving your skills and knowledge or furthering your idea.

Common App Essay Prompts we’re neutral on (7, 1, 2)

7) TOPIC OF CHOICE. 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.


This is the most written prompt. About one in four students use it (not that it matters). It’s a catch-all prompt, meaning it’s a great choice if your content doesn’t neatly fit in one of the other six prompts. The difficulty with Topic of Choice is that it’s too open-ended. Many students writing it select the wrong content that doesn’t match with what colleges are looking for. Their content doesn’t prove they’ll be successful in college and beyond. It doesn’t show the student possesses one or more of the five traits. You can still write a great Topic of Choice essay – you just need to make sure you’re continually evaluating whether your writing matches the goals of your essay.

Use this prompt when…
  • Your content doesn’t fit neatly into one of the other six prompts.
  • You’re feeling creative (optional). Creativity doesn’t get you in by itself. Content is what matters. However, feel free to go for it if you can be creative AND make sure your  content meets the goals of the application AND your writing style is clear. This is hard.
DO NOT use this prompt when…
  • Your content fits nicely within one of the other six prompts. Don’t overthink it. Just use the prompt that best fits your content.

1) BACKGROUND OR IDENTITY. 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 a great prompt. It was the most used before the Common App went from five to seven prompts (not that it matters). It works for students who truly have a story that is core to their identity. Admissions officers love applicants with a strong identity and sense of purpose. These stories, if told right, are memorable and authentic. However, many students fail with this prompt because they don’t write about what admissions officers care about – showing your traits that prove success in college and beyond. Be careful out there if you use this prompt. Make sure you’re continually evaluating whether your content matches the goals of the essay.


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.
  • You can clearly tie your background, identity, interest, or talent to one or more of the five traits colleges look for in applicants.

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…
  • 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.
  • Your story and/or identify does/do not clearly tie to one or more of the five traits. Note: music, band, chorus, athletics, drama, and theater tend to be interests that are difficult to tie to traits that prove success in college and beyond (as these don’t relate specifically to academics). You can still write about these topics, but they should be the setting of your essay, not the theme (e.g., the setting is athletics, but the essay is really about self-improvement or leadership).

2) LESSONS FROM OBSTACLES. 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?

This is a fine prompt to use, but it can be tricky. It’s the third most commonly used prompt (not that it matters). The key to this prompt is having a meaningful enough obstacle AND having meaningful personal growth as a result of the obstacle. Many students struggle with this prompt because they write about an obstacle (challenge, setback, or failure) but are unable to write about the actions they took to get past the obstacle or are now taking in spite of the obstacle. Merely facing an obstacle isn’t compelling. It doesn’t prove you’ll be successful in college. However, succeeding in spite of the obstacle or acting on your learning from the obstacle can be compelling content as it shows your drive, the most important of the five traits colleges look for in applicants. 


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 inauthentic 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.

Common Application Essay Prompts we like less (3, 4)

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


This is the least used prompt. It goes relatively unused because it’s difficult to have compelling content. We suggest avoiding it unless your most compelling content naturally fits it. If it’s a natural fit, go ahead and use this prompt because it can lead to compelling essays.


Be careful using this prompt. Make sure the situation you’re writing about doesn’t reflect poorly on you or be controversial (e.g., abortion). Also, you need to ensure the content ties to one or more of the five traits. Often, content for this essay will fit well with contribution as it’s often about standing up for someone else in the face of criticism. Furthermore, you need to go beyond just one event or moment. Your actions in this situation were hopefully not just a one-time thing, but rather part of a pattern or the start of a pattern of other actions you take based on your beliefs.


Get into the details of the scene when writing this prompt. Show your interpersonal skills by detailing conversations and specific actions you took. What did you do? What did 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. 

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) GRATITUDE. 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?

[New in 2021-2022.]

Try not to use this prompt. Gratitude is a force for good in our lives. However, in an essay, it’s hard to translate feeling thankful into evidence of your potential for success. The second part of this prompt, the actual question, focuses on YOU. If you answer this prompt, follow that lead. Don’t get stuck on the what "someone has done for you" part. Admissions officers are trying to learn about you, not some nice person you know.

Use this prompt when…
  •  Someone's kindness toward you had a momentous effect on your life.
  •  Since that kindness, YOU have taken action, and changed the way you live your life.
  •  Your new way of living or seeing the world since this act of kindness have had a positive impact.

Examples:

  • Your grandmother left you the family bakery in her will when she died. Since then, you've taken on that role with reverence for her legacy, and a fierce determination to see the business thrive, even as you seek to pursue your high school life.
  • A stranger donated bone marrow, saving your life. You're determined to make the most of this gift, dedicating your life to cancer research.
DO NOT use this prompt when…
  • You experienced momentous kindness, but haven't yourself acted on it in a direct way.
  • The act of kindness is more interesting than the subsequent changes you've made in your life — remember, a "personal statement" has got to be personal.
  • The act of kindness is small or potentially uninteresting.


Written by
DT Wang