25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)

Essay Examples: Writing the Common App Essay

Applying to competitive colleges? You'll need to have a stand-out Common App essay.

In this article, I'm going to share with you:

  • 25 outstanding Common App essay examples
  • Links to tons of personal statement examples
  • Why these Common App essays worked

If you're looking for outstanding Common App essay examples, you've found the right place.

Ryan

If you're applying to colleges in 2024, you're going to write some form of a Common App essay.

Writing a great Common App personal essay is key if you want to maximize your chances of getting admitted.

Whether you're a student working on your Common App essay, or a parent wondering what it takes, this article will help you master the Common App Essay.

What are the Common App Essay Prompts for 2024?

There are seven prompts for the Common App essay. Remember that the prompts are simply to help get you started thinking.

You don't have to answer any of the prompts if you don't want (see prompt #7 ).

Here's the seven Common App essay questions for 2022, which are the same as previous years:

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • 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?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

The last prompt is a catch-all prompt, which means you can submit an essay on any topic you want.

Use the Common App prompts as brainstorming questions and to get you thinking.

But ultimately, you should write about any topic you meaningfully care about.

What makes an outstanding Common App personal essay?

I've read thousands of Common App essays from highly motivated students over the past years.

And if I had to choose the top 2 things that makes for incredible Common App essays it's these:

1. Being Genuine

Sounds simple enough. But it's something that is incredibly rare in admissions.

Authenticity is something we all know when we see it, but can be hard to define.

Instead of focus on what you think sounds the best to admissions officers, focus on what you have to say—what interests you.

2. Having Unique Ideas

The best ideas come about while you're writing.

You can't just sit down and say, "I'll think really hard of good essay ideas."

I wish that worked, but it sadly doesn't. And neither do most brainstorming questions.

The ideas you come up with from these surface-level tactics are cheap, because no effort was put in.

As they say,

"Writing is thinking"

By choosing a general topic (e.g. my leadership experience in choir) and writing on it, you'll naturally come to ideas.

As you write, continue asking yourself questions that make you reflect.

It is more of an artistic process than technical one, so you'll have to feel what ideas are most interesting.

25 Common App Essay Examples from Top Schools

With that, here's 25 examples as Common App essay inspiration to get you started.

These examples aren't perfect—nor should you expect yours to be—but they are stand-out essays.

I've handpicked these examples of personal statements from admitted students because they showcase a variety of topics and writing levels.

These students got into top schools and Ivy League colleges in recent years:

Table of Contents

  • 1. Seeds of Immigration
  • 2. Color Guard
  • 3. Big Eater
  • 4. Love for Medicine
  • 5. Cultural Confusion
  • 6. Football Manager
  • 9. Mountaineering
  • 10. Boarding School
  • 11. My Father
  • 12. DMV Trials
  • 13. Ice Cream Fridays
  • 14. Key to Happiness
  • 15. Discovering Passion
  • 16. Girl Things
  • 17. Robotics
  • 18. Lab Research
  • 19. Carioca Dance
  • 20. Chinese Language
  • 21. Kiki's Delivery Service
  • 22. Museum of Life
  • 23. French Horn
  • 24. Dear My Younger Self
  • 25. Monopoly

Common App Essay Example #1: Seeds of Immigration

This student was admitted to Dartmouth College . In this Common App essay, they discuss their immigrant family background that motivates them.

Although family is a commonly used topic, this student makes sure to have unique ideas and write in a genuine way.

Common App Prompt #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. (250-650 words)

I placed three tiny seeds, imagining the corn stalk growing while the pumpkin vines wrapped around it; both sprouting, trying to bear fruit. I clenched a fistful of dirt and placed it on them. “Más,” my grandpa told me as he quickly flooded the seeds with life-giving dirt.

Covered. Completely trapped.

Why This Essay Works:

Everyone has a unique family history and story, and often that can make for a strong central theme of a personal statement. In this essay, the student does a great job of sharing aspects of his family's culture by using specific Spanish words like "yunta" and by describing their unique immigration story. Regardless of your background, sharing your culture and what it means to you can be a powerful tool for reflection.

This student focuses on reflecting on what their culture and immigrant background means to them. By focusing on what something represents, rather than just what it literally is, you can connect to more interesting ideas. This essay uses the metaphor of their family's history as farmers to connect to their own motivation for succeeding in life.

This essay has an overall tone of immense gratitude, by recognizing the hard work that this student's family has put in to afford them certain opportunities. By recognizing the efforts of others in your life—especially efforts which benefit you—you can create a powerful sense of gratitude. Showing gratitude is effective because it implies that you'll take full advantage of future opportunities (such as college) and not take them for granted. This student also demonstrates a mature worldview, by recognizing the difficulty in their family's past and how things easily could have turned out differently for this student.

This essay uses three moments of short, one-sentence long paragraphs. These moments create emphasis and are more impactful because they standalone. In general, paragraph breaks are your friend and you should use them liberally because they help keep the reader engaged. Long, dense paragraphs are easy to gloss over and ideas can lose focus within them. By using a variety of shorter and longer paragraphs (as well as shorter and longer sentences) you can create moments of emphasis and a more interesting structure.

What They Might Improve:

This conclusion is somewhat off-putting because it focuses on "other students" rather than the author themself. By saying it "fills me with pride" for having achieved without the same advantages, it could create the tone of "I'm better than those other students" which is distasteful. In general, avoid putting down others (unless they egregiously deserve it) and even subtle phrasings that imply you're better than others could create a negative tone. Always approach your writing with an attitude of optimism, understanding, and err on the side of positivity.

Common App Essay Example #2: Color Guard

This student was admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill . Check out their Common App essay that focuses on an extracurricular:

Sweaty from the hot lights, the feeling of nervousness and excitement return as I take my place on the 30-yard line. For 10 short minutes, everyone is watching me. The first note of the opening song begins, and I’m off. Spinning flags, tossing rifles, and dancing across the football field. Being one of only two people on the colorguard means everyone will see everything. It’s amazing and terrifying. And just like that, the performance is over.

Flashback to almost four years ago, when I walked into the guard room for the first time. I saw flyers for a “dance/flag team” hanging in the bland school hallway, and because I am a dancer, I decided to go. This was not a dance team at all. Spinning flags and being part of the marching band did not sound like how I wanted to spend my free time. After the first day, I considered not going back. But, for some unknown reason, I stayed. And after that, I began to fall in love with color guard. It is such an unknown activity, and maybe that’s part of what captivated me. How could people not know about something so amazing? I learned everything about flags and dancing in that year. And something interesting happened- I noticed my confidence begin to grow. I had never thought I was that good at anything, there was always someone better. However, color guard was something I truly loved, and I was good at it.

The next year, I was thrown into an interesting position. Our current captain quit in the middle of the season, and I was named the new captain of a team of six. At first, this was quite a daunting task. I was only a sophomore, and I was supposed to lead people two years older than me? Someone must’ve really believed in me. Being captain sounded impossible to me at first, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing my best. This is where my confidence really shot up. I learned how to be a captain. Of course I was timid at first, but slowly, I began to become a true leader.

The next marching season, it paid off. I choreographed many pieces of our show, and helped teach the other part of my guard, which at the time was only one other person. Having a small guard, we had to be spectacular, especially for band competitions. We ended up winning first place and second place trophies, something that had never been done before at our school, especially for such a small guard. That season is still one of my favorite memories. The grueling hours of learning routines, making changes, and learning how to be a leader finally paid off.

Looking back on it as I exit the field after halftime once again, I am so proud of myself. Not only has color guard helped the band succeed, I’ve also grown. I am now confident in what my skills are. Of course there is always more to be done, but I now I have the confidence to share my ideas, which is something I can’t say I had before color guard. Every Friday night we perform, I think about the growth I’ve made, and I feel on top of the world. That feeling never gets old.

Common App Essay Example #3: Big Eater

This Common App essay is a successful Northwestern essay from an admitted student. It has a unique take using the topic of eating habits—an example of how "mundane" topics can make for interesting ideas.

This essay uses their relationship with food to explore how their perspective has changed through moving high schools far away. Having a central theme is often a good strategy because it allows you to explore ideas while making them feel connected and cohesive. This essay shows how even a "simple" topic like food can show a lot about your character because you can extrapolate what it represents, rather than just what it literally is. With every topic, you can analyze on two levels: what it literally is, and what it represents.

Admissions officers want to get a sense of who you are, and one way to convey that is by using natural-sounding language and being somewhat informal. In this essay, the student writes as they'd speak, which creates a "voice" that you as the reader can easily hear. Phrases like "I kind of got used to it" may be informal, but work to show a sense of character. Referring to their parents as "Ma" and "Papa" also bring the reader into their world. If you come from a non-English speaking country or household, it can also be beneficial to use words from your language, such as "chiemo" in this essay. Using foreign language words helps share your unique culture with admissions.

Rather than "telling" the reader what they have to say, this student does a great job of "showing" them through specific imagery and anecdotes. Using short but descriptive phrases like "whether it was a sum or Sam the bully" are able to capture bigger ideas in a more memorable way. Showing your points through anecdotes and examples is always more effective than simply telling them, because showing allows the reader to come to their own conclusion, rather than having to believe what you're saying.

This student's first language is not English, which does make it challenging to express ideas with the best clarity. Although this student does an overall great job in writing despite this hindrance, there are moments where their ideas are not easily understood. In particular, when discussing substance addiction, it isn't clear: Was the student's relationship with food a disorder, or was that a metaphor? When drafting your essay, focus first on expressing your points as clearly and plainly as possible (it's harder than you may think). Simplicity is often better, but if you'd like, afterwards you can add creative details and stylistic changes.

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Common App Essay Example #4: Love for Medicine

Here's another Common App essay which is an accepted Dartmouth essay . This student talks about their range of experiences as an emergency medical responder:

I never knew I had the courage to talk a suicidal sixteen-year-old boy down from the edge of a bridge, knowing that he could jump and take his life at any moment.

I never knew I had the confidence to stand my ground and defend my treatment plan to those who saw me as less than capable because of my age or gender.

This essay has lots of detailed moments and descriptions. These anecdotes help back up their main idea by showing, rather than just telling. It's always important to include relevant examples because they are the "proof in the pudding" for what you're trying to say.

This topic deals with a lot of sensitive issues, and at certain points the writing could be interpreted as insensitive or not humble. It's especially important when writing about tragedies that you focus on others, rather than yourself. Don't try to play up your accomplishments or role; let them speak for themselves. By doing so, you'll actually achieve what you're trying to do: create an image of an honorable and inspirational person.

This essay touches on a lot of challenging and difficult moments, but it lacks a deep level of reflection upon those moments. When analyzing your essay, ask yourself: what is the deepest idea in it? In this case, there are some interesting ideas (e.g. "when they were on my stretcher, socioeconomic status...fell away"), but they are not fully developed or fleshed out.

Common App Essay Example #5: Cultural Confusion

This student's Common App was accepted to Pomona College , among other schools. Although this essay uses a common topic of discussing cultural background, this student writes a compelling take.

This student uses the theme of cultural confusion to explain their interests and identity:

Common App Essay Example #6: Football Manager

Here's a UPenn essay that worked for the Common App:

This essay has lighthearted moments in it, such as recognizing how being a football manager "does not sound glamorous" and how "we managers go by many names: watergirls..." Using moments of humor can be appropriate for contrasting with moments of serious reflection. Being lighthearted also shows a sense of personality and that you are able to take things with stride.

The reflections in this essay are far too generic overall and ultimately lack meaning because they are unspecific. Using buzzwords like "hard work" and "valuable lessons" comes off as unoriginal, so avoid using them at all costs. Your reflections need to be specific to you to be most meaningful. If you could (in theory) pluck out sentences from your essay and drop them into another student's essay, then chances are those sentences are not very insightful. Your ideas should be only have been able to been written by you: specific to your experiences, personal in nature, and show deep reflection.

Although this essay uses the topic of "being a football manager," by the end of the essay it isn't clear what that role even constitutes. Avoid over-relying on other people or other's ideas when writing your essay. That is, most of the reflections in this essay are based on what the author witnessed the football team doing, rather than what they experienced for themselves in their role. Focus on your own experiences first, and be as specific and tangible as possible when describing your ideas. Rather than saying "hard work," show that hard work through an anecdote.

More important than your stories is the "So what?" behind them. Avoid writing stories that don't have a clear purpose besides "setting the scene." Although most fiction writing describes people and places as exposition, for your essays you want to avoid that unless it specifically contributes to your main point. In this essay, the first two paragraphs are almost entirely unnecessary, as the point of them can be captured in one sentence: "I joined to be a football manager one summer." The details of how that happened aren't necessary because they aren't reflected upon.

In typical academic writing, we're taught to "tell them what you're going to tell them" before telling them. But for college essays, every word is highly valuable. Avoid prefacing your statements and preparing the reader for them. Instead of saying "XYZ would prove to be an unforgettable experience," just dive right into the experience itself. Think of admissions officers as "being in a rush," and give them what they want: your interesting ideas and experiences.

Common App Essay Example #7: Coffee

This student was admitted to several selective colleges, including Emory University, Northwestern University , Tufts University, and the University of Southern California . Here's their Common Application they submitted to these schools:

I was 16 years old, and working at a family-owned coffee shop training other employees to pour latte art. Making coffee became an artistic outlet that I never had before. I always loved math, but once I explored the complexities of coffee, I began to delve into a more creative realm--photography and writing--and exposed myself to the arts--something foreign and intriguing.

This essay uses coffee as a metaphor for this student's self-growth, especially in dealing with the absence of their father. Showing the change of their relationship with coffee works well as a structure because it allows the student to explore various activities and ideas while making them seem connected.

This student does a great job of including specifics, such as coffee terminology ("bloom the grounds" and "pour a swan"). Using specific and "nerdy" language shows your interests effectively. Don't worry if they won't understand all the references exactly, as long as there is context around them.

While coffee is the central topic, the author also references their father extensively throughout. It isn't clear until the conclusion how these topics relate, which makes the essay feel disjointed. In addition, there is no strong main idea, but instead a few different ideas. In general, it is better to focus on one interesting idea and delve deeply, rather than focus on many and be surface-level.

Near the conclusion, this student tells about their character: "humble, yet important, simple, yet complex..." You should avoid describing yourself to admissions officers, as it is less convincing. Instead, use stories, anecdotes, and ideas to demonstrate these qualities. For example, don't say "I'm curious," but show them by asking questions. Don't say, "I'm humble," but show them with how you reacted after a success or failure.

Common App Essay Example #8: Chicago

Here's another Northwestern essay . Northwestern is a quite popular school with lots of strong essay-focused applicants, which makes your "Why Northwestern?" essay important.

To write a strong Why Northwestern essay, try to answer these questions: What does NU represent to you? What does NU offer for you (and your interests) that other schools don't?

This essay uses a variety of descriptive and compelling words, without seeming forced or unnatural. It is important that you use your best vocabulary, but don't go reaching for a thesaurus. Instead, use words that are the most descriptive, while remaining true to how you'd actually write.

This essay is one big metaphor: the "L" train serves as a vehicle to explore this student's intellectual curiosity. Throughout the essay, the student also incorporates creative metaphors like "the belly of a gargantuan silver beast" and "seventy-five cent silver chariot" that show a keen sense of expression. If a metaphor sounds like one you've heard before, you probably shouldn't use it.

This student does a fantastic job of naturally talking about their activities. By connecting their activities to a common theme—in this case the "L" train—you can more easily move from one activity to the next, without seeming like you're just listing activities. This serves as an engaging way of introducing your extracurriculars and achievements, while still having the focus of your essay be on your interesting ideas.

Admissions officers are ultimately trying to get a sense of who you are. This student does a great job of taking the reader into their world. By sharing quirks and colloquialisms (i.e. specific language you use), you can create an authentic sense of personality.

Common App Essay Example #9: Mountaineering

Here's a liberal arts college Common App essay from Colby College . Colby is a highly ranked liberal arts college.

As with all colleges—but especially liberal arts schools—your personal essay will be a considerable factor.

In this essay, the student describes their experience climbing Mount Adams, and the physical and logistical preparations that went into it. They describe how they overcame some initial setbacks by using their organizational skills from previous expeditions.

This Colby student explains how the process of preparation can lead to success in academics and other endeavours, but with the potential for negative unintended consequences.

Common App Prompt #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? (250-650 words)

This essay does a great job of having a cohesive theme: mountaineering. Often times, great essay topics can be something simple on the surface, such as your favorite extracurricular activity or a notable experience. Consider using the literal activity as a sort of metaphor, like this essay does. This student uses mountaineering as a metaphor for preparation in the face of upcoming challenge. Using an overarching metaphor along with a central theme can be effective because it allows you to explore various ideas while having them all feel connected and cohesive.

Admissions officers want to see your self-growth, which doesn't always mean your successes. Often times, being vulnerable by expressing your struggles is powerful because it makes you more human and relatable, while providing the opportunity to reflect on what you learned. The best lessons from come failures, and writing about challenge can also make your later successes feel more impactful. Everyone loves to hear an underdog or zero-to-hero story. But counterintuitively, your failures are actually more important than your successes.

This essay has some nice ideas about focusing only on what's in your control: your attitude and your effort. However, these ideas are ultimately somewhat generic as they have been used countless times in admissions essays. Although ideas like this can be a good foundation, you should strive to reach deeper ideas. Deeper ideas are ones that are specific to you, unique, and interesting. You can reach deeper ideas by continually asking yourself "How" and "Why" questions that cause you to think deeper about a topic. Don't be satisfied with surface-level reflections. Think about what they represent more deeply, or how you can connect to other ideas or areas of your life.

Common App Essay Example #10: Boarding School

This personal essay was accepted to Claremont McKenna College . See how this student wrote a vulnerable essay about boarding school experience and their family relationship:

I began attending boarding school aged nine.

Obviously, this is not particularly unusual – my school dorms were comprised of boys and girls in the same position as me. However, for me it was difficult – or perhaps it was for all of us; I don’t know. We certainly never discussed it.

I felt utterly alone, as though my family had abruptly withdrawn the love and support thatI so desperately needed. At first, I did try to open up to them during weekly phone calls, but what could they do? As months slipped by, the number of calls reduced. I felt they had forgotten me. Maybe they felt I had withdrawn from them. A vast chasm of distance was cracking open between us.

At first, I shared my hurt feelings with my peers, who were amazingly supportive, but there was a limit to how much help they could offer. After a while, I realized that by opening up, I was burdening them, perhaps even irritating them. The feelings I was sharing should have been reserved for family. So, I withdrew into myself. I started storing up my emotions and became a man of few words. In the classroom or on the sports field, people saw a self-confident and cheerful character, but behind that facade was someone who yearned for someone to understand him and accept him as he was.

Years went past.

Then came the phone call which was about to change my life. “Just come home Aryan, it’s really important!” My mother’s voice was odd, brittle. I told her I had important exams the following week, so needed to study. “Aryan, why don’t you listen to me? There is no other option, okay? You are coming home.”

Concerned, I arranged to fly home. When I got there, my sister didn’t say hi to me, my grandmother didn’t seem overly enthusiastic to see me and my mother was nowhere to be seen. I wanted to be told why I was called back so suddenly just to be greeted as though I wasn’t even welcome.

Then my mother then came out of her room and saw me. To my immense incredulity, she ran to me and hugged me, and started crying in my arms.

Then came the revelation, “Your father had a heart attack.”

My father. The man I hadn’t really talked to in years. A man who didn’t even know who I was anymore. I’d spent so long being disappointed in him and suspecting he was disappointed in me, I sunk under a flood of emotions.

I opened the door to his room and there he was sitting on his bed with a weak smile on his face. I felt shaken to my core. All at once it was clear to me how self-centered I had become. A feeling of humiliation engulfed me, but finally I realized that rather than wallow in it, I needed to appreciate I was not alone in having feelings.

I remained at home that week. I understood that my family needed me. I worked with my uncle to ensure my family business was running smoothly and often invited relatives or friends over to cheer my father up.

Most importantly, I spent time with my family. It had been years since I’d last wanted to do this – I had actively built the distance between us – but really, I’d never stopped craving it. Sitting together in the living room, I realized how badly I needed them.

Seeing happiness in my father’s eyes, I felt I was finally being the son he had always needed me to be: A strong, capable young man equipped to take over the family business if need be.

Common App Essay Example #11: My Father

This Cornell University essay is an example of writing about a tragedy, which can be a tricky topic to write about well.

Family and tragedy essays are a commonly used topic, so it can be harder to come up with a unique essay idea using these topics.

Let me know what you think of this essay for Cornell:

My father was wise, reserved, hardworking, and above all, caring. I idolized his humility and pragmatism, and I cherish it today. But after his death, I was emotionally raw. I could barely get through class without staving off a breakdown.

Writing about tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, is a tricky topic because it has been used countless times in college admissions. It is difficult to not come off as a "victim" or that you're trying to garner sympathy by using the topic (i.e. a "sob story"). This essay does a great job of writing about a personal tragedy in a meaningful and unique way by connecting to values and ideas, rather than staying focused on what literally happened. By connecting tragedy to lessons and takeaways, you can show how—despite the difficulty and sorrow—you have gained something positive from it, however small that may be. Don't write about personal tragedy because you think "you should." As with any topic, only write about it if you have a meaningful point to make.

This essay is effective at making the reader feel the similar emotions as the author does and in bringing the reader into their "world." Even small remarks like noting the the "firsts" without their loved one are powerful because it is relatable and something that is apparent, but not commonly talked about. Using short phrases like "That was it. No goodbye, no I love you..." create emphasis and again a sense of relatability. As the reader, you can vividly imagine how the author must have felt during these moments. The author also uses questions, such as "What did I last say to him?" which showcase their thought process, another powerful way to bring the reader into your world.

Admissions officers are looking for self-growth, which can come in a variety of forms. Showing a new perspective is one way to convey that you've developed over time, learned something new, or gained new understanding or appreciation. In this essay, the student uses the "sticker of a black and white eye" to represent how they viewed their father differently before and after his passing. By using a static, unchanging object like this, and showing how you now view it differently over time, you convey a change in perspective that can make for interesting reflections.

Common App Essay Example #12: DMV Trials

Here's a funny Common App essay from a Northwestern admitted student about getting their driver's license.

This topic has been used before—as many "topics" have—but what's important is having a unique take or idea.

What do you think of this Northwestern essay ?

Breath, Emily, breath. I drive to the exit and face a four-lane roadway. “Turn left,” my passenger says.

On July 29, [Date] , I finally got my license. After the April debacle, I practiced driving almost every week. I learned to stop at stop signs and look both ways before crossing streets, the things I apparently didn’t know how to do during my first two tests. When pulling into the parking lot with the examiner for the last time, a wave of relief washed over me.

This essay does a good job of having a compelling narrative. By setting the scene descriptively, it is easy to follow and makes for a pleasant reading experience. However, avoid excessive storytelling, as it can overshadow your reflections, which are ultimately most important.

This essay has some moments where the author may come off as being overly critical, of either themselves or of others. Although it is okay (and good) to recognize your flaws, you don't want to portray yourself in a negative manner. Avoid being too negative, and instead try to find the positive aspects when possible.

More important than your stories is the answer to "So what?" and why they matter. Avoid writing a personal statement that is entirely story-based, because this leaves little room for reflection and to share your ideas. In this essay, the reflections are delayed to the end and not as developed as they could be.

In this essay, it comes across that failure is negative. Although the conclusion ultimately has a change of perspective in that "failure is inevitable and essential to moving forward," it doesn't address that failure is ultimately a positive thing. Admissions officers want to see failure and your challenges, because overcoming those challenges is what demonstrates personal growth.

Common App Essay Example #13: Ice Cream Fridays

This Columbia essay starts off with a vulnerable moment of running for school president. The student goes on to show their growth through Model UN, using detailed anecdotes and selected moments.

My fascination with geopolitical and economic issues were what kept me committed to MUN. But by the end of sophomore year, the co-presidents were fed up. “Henry, we know how hard you try, but there are only so many spots for each conference...” said one. “You’re wasting space, you should quit,” said the other.

This essay has a compelling story, starting from this author's early struggles with public speaking and developing into their later successes with Model UN. Using a central theme—in this case public speaking—is an effective way of creating a cohesive essay. By having a main idea, you can tie in multiple moments or achievements without them coming across unrelated.

This student talks about their achievements with a humble attitude. To reference your successes, it's equally important to address your failures. By expressing your challenges, it will make your later achievements seem more impactful in contrast. This student also is less "me-focused" and instead is interested in others dealing with the same struggles. By connecting to people in your life, values, or interesting ideas, you can reference your accomplishments without coming off as bragging.

This essay has moments of reflection, such as "math and programming made sense... people didn't". However, most of these ideas are cut short, without going much deeper. When you strike upon a potentially interesting idea, keep going with it. Try to explain the nuances, or broaden your idea to more universal themes. Find what is most interesting about your experience and share that with admissions.

Stories are important, but make sure all your descriptions are critical for the story. In this essay, the author describes things that don't add to the story, such as the appearance of other people or what they were wearing. These ultimately don't relate to their main idea—overcoming public speaking challenges—and instead are distracting.

Common App Essay Example #14: Key to Happiness

Here's a Brown University application essay that does a great job of a broad timeline essay. This student shows the change in their thinking and motivations over a period of time, which makes for an interesting topic.

Let me know what you think of this Brown essay:

Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (250-650 words)

This student's first language is not English, which provides some insight into why the phrasing may not seem as natural or show as much personality. Admissions officers are holistic in determining who to admit, meaning they take into account many different factors when judging your essays. While this essay may not be the strongest, the applicant probably had other qualities or "hooks" that helped them get accepted, such as awards, activities, unique background, etc. Plus, there is some leniency granted to students who don't speak English as their first language, because writing essays in a foreign language is tough in and of itself.

It's good to be confident in your achievements, but you don't want to come across as boastful or self-assured. In this essay, some of the phrasing such as "when I was the best at everything" seems exaggerated and is off-putting. Instead of boosting your accomplishments, write about them in a way that almost "diminishes" them. Connect your achievements to something bigger than you: an interesting idea, a passionate cause, another person or group. By not inflating your achievements, you'll come across more humble and your achievements will actually seem more impactful. We all have heard of a highly successful person who thinks "it's no big deal," which actually makes their talents seem far more impressive.

This essay has some takeaways and reflections, as your essay should too, but ultimately these ideas are unoriginal and potentially cliché. Ideas like "what makes you happy is pursing your passion" are overused and have been heard thousands of times by admissions officers. Instead, focus on getting to unique and "deep" ideas: ideas that are specific to you and that have meaningful implications. It's okay to start off with more surface-level ideas, but you want to keep asking questions to yourself like "Why" and "How" to push yourself to think deeper. Try making connections, asking what something represents more broadly, or analyzing something from a different perspective.

You don't need to preface your ideas in your essay. Don't say things like "I later found out this would be life-changing, and here's why." Instead, just jump into the details that are most compelling. In this essay, there are moments that seem repetitive and redundant because they don't add new ideas and instead restate what's already been said in different words. When editing your essay, be critical of every sentence (and even words) by asking: Does this add something new to my essay? Does it have a clear, distinct purpose? If the answer is no, you should probably remove that sentence.

Common App Essay Example #15: Discovering Passion

Here's a Johns Hopkins essay that shows how the student had a change in attitude and perspective after taking a summer job at a care facility.

It may seem odd to write about your potential drawbacks or weaknesses—such as having a bad attitude towards something—but it's real and can help demonstrate personal growth.

So tell me your thoughts on this JHU Common App essay:

Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (250-650 words)

This student uses vulnerability in admitting that they held preconceived notions about the elderly before this experience. The quote introduces these preconceived notions well, while the description of how this student got their job in the care facility is also engaging.

Admission officers love to see your interactions with others. Showing how you interact reveals a lot about your character, and this essay benefits from reflecting upon the student's relationship with a particular elderly individual.

It is good to be descriptive, but only when it supports your expression of ideas. In this essay, the author uses adjectives and adverbs excessively, without introducing new ideas. Your ideas are more important than having a diverse vocabulary, and the realizations in this essay are muddled by rephrasing similar ideas using seemingly "impressive," but ultimately somewhat meaningless, vocabulary.

This essay touches on some interesting ideas, but on multiple occasions these ideas are repeated just in different phrasing. If you have already expressed an idea, don't repeat it unless you're adding something new: a deeper context, a new angle, a broadened application, etc. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of each sentence, and have I expressed it already?

It's true that almost any topic can make for a strong essay, but certain topics are trickier because they make it easy to write about overly used ideas. In this essay, the main idea can be summarized as: "I realized the elderly were worthy humans too." It touches upon more interesting ideas, such as how people can be reduced down to their afflictions rather than their true character, but the main idea is somewhat surface-level.

Common App Essay Example #16: "A Cow Gave Birth"

This Common App essay for the University of Pennsylvania centers on the theme of womanhood. Not only is it well-written, but this essay has interesting and unique ideas that relate to the student's interests.

Common App Essay Example #17: Robotics

This Common App essay was for Washington University in St. Louis .

This student writes about their experience creating and using an engineering notebook to better document their robotics progress. They share the story of how their dedication and perseverance led to winning awards and qualifying for the national championships.

Lastly, they reflect on the importance of following one's passions in life and decision to pursue a business degree instead of a engineering one.

This essay touches on various lessons that they've learned as a result of their experience doing robotics. However, these lessons are ultimately surface-level and generic, such as "I embraced new challenges." Although these could be a starting point for deeper ideas, on their own they come off as unoriginal and overused. Having interesting ideas is what makes an essay the most compelling, and you need to delve deeply into reflection, past the surface-level takeaways. When drafting and brainstorming, keep asking yourself questions like "How" and "Why" to dig deeper. Ask "What does this represent? How does it connect to other things? What does this show about myself/the world/society/etc.?"

Although this essay is focused on "VEX robotics," the details of what that activity involves are not elaborated. Rather than focusing on the surface-level descriptions like "We competed and won," it would be more engaging to delve into the details. What did your robot do? How did you compete? What were the specific challenges in "lacking building materials"? Use visuals and imagery to create a more engaging picture of what you were doing.

The hook and ending sentences of "drifting off to sleep" feel arbitrary and not at all connected to any ideas throughout the essay. Instead, it comes off as a contrived choice to create a "full circle" essay. Although coming full circle is often a good strategy, there should be a specific purpose in doing so. For your intro, try using a short sentence that creates emphasis on something interesting. For the conclusion, try using similar language to the intro, expanding upon your ideas to more universal takeaways, or connecting back to previous ideas with a new nuance.

Common App Essay Example #18: Lab Research

Common app essay example #19: carioca dance.

Having a natural-sounding style of writing can be a great way of conveying personality. This student does a fantastic job of writing as they'd speak, which lets admissions officers create a clear "image" of who you are in their head. By writing naturally and not robotically, you can create a "voice" and add character to your essay.

This student chooses a unique activity, the Carioca drill, as their main topic. By choosing a "theme" like this, it allows you to easily and naturally talk about other activities too, without seeming like you're simply listing activities. This student uses the Carioca as a metaphor for overcoming difficulties and relates it to their other activities and academics—public speaking and their job experience.

Showing a sense of humor can indicate wit, which not only makes you seem more likeable, but also conveys self-awareness. By not always taking yourself 100% seriously, you can be more relatable to the reader. This student acknowledges their struggles in conjunction with using humor ("the drills were not named after me—'Saads'"), which shows a recognition that they have room to improve, while not being overly self-critical.

Common App Essay Example #20: Chinese Language

The list of languages that Lincoln offered startled me. “There’s so many,” I thought, “Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and French.”

As soon as I stepped off the plane, and set my eyes upon the beautiful city of Shanghai, I fell in love. In that moment, I had an epiphany. China was made for me, and I wanted to give it all my first; first job and first apartment.

Using creative metaphors can be an effective way of conveying ideas. In this essay, the metaphor of "Chinese characters...were the names of my best friends" tells a lot about this student's relationship with the language. When coming up with metaphors, a good rule of thumb is: if you've heard it before, don't use it. Only use metaphors that are specific, make sense for what you're trying to say, and are highly unique.

Whenever you "tell" something, you should try and back it up with anecdotes, examples, or experiences. Instead of saying that "I made conversation," this student exemplifies it by listing who they talked to. Showing is always going to be more compelling than telling because it allows the reader to come to the conclusion on their own, which makes them believe it much stronger. Use specific, tangible examples to back up your points and convince the reader of what you're saying.

Although this essay has reflections, they tend to be more surface-level, rather than unique and compelling. Admissions officers have read thousands of application essays and are familiar with most of the ideas students write about. To stand out, you'll need to dive deeper into your ideas. To do this, keep asking yourself questions whenever you have an interesting idea. Ask "Why" and "How" repeatedly until you reach something that is unique, specific to you, and super interesting.

Avoid writing a conclusion that only "sounds nice," but lacks real meaning. Often times, students write conclusions that go full circle, or have an interesting quote, but they still don't connect to the main idea of the essay. Your conclusion should be your strongest, most interesting idea. It should say something new: a new perspective, a new takeaway, a new aspect of your main point. End your essay strongly by staying on topic, but taking your idea one step further to the deepest it can go.

Common App Essay Example #21: Kiki's Delivery Service

Common App Prompt #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? (250-650 words)

I spent much of my childhood watching movies. I became absolutely engrossed in many different films, TV shows, and animations. From the movie theatres to the TV, I spent my hours enjoying the beauty of visual media. One place that was special to me was the car. My parents purchased a special screen that could be mounted on the back of the headrest, so that I could watch movies on trips. This benefited both parties, as I was occupied, and they had peace. Looking back, I realize this screen played a crucial role in my childhood. It was an integral part of many journeys. I remember taking a drive to Washington D.C, with my visiting relatives from Poland, and spending my time with my eyes on the screen. I remember packing up my possessions and moving to my current home from Queens, watching my cartoons the whole time. I can comfortably say that watching movies in the car has been an familiar anchor during times of change in my life.

I used to watch many different cartoons, nature documentaries, and other products in the car, yet there has been one movie that I have rewatched constantly. It is called “Kiki’s Delivery Service” by Hayao Miyazaki. My parents picked it up at a garage sale one day, and I fell in love. The style of the animations were beautiful, and the captivating story of a thirteen year old witch leaving home really appealed to me. To be honest, the initial times I watched it, I didn’t fully understand the story but the magic and beauty just made me happy. Then, the more I watched it, I began to see that it was more about independence, including the need to get away from home and establish yourself as your own person. This mirrors how I felt during that period of my life,with mehaving a little rebellious streak; I didn’t agree with my parents on certain topics. That is not the end of the story though. As the years passed, and I watched it a couple more times, although with less frequency than before, my view of this movie evolved yet again.

Instead of solely thinking about the need for independence, I began to think the movie was more about the balance of independence and reliance. In the movie, the girl finds herself struggling until she begins to accept help from others. Looking back, this also follows my own philosophy during this time. As I began to mature, I began to realize the value of family, and accept all the help I can get from them. I appreciate all the hard work they had done for me, and I recognize their experience in life and take advantage of it. I passed through my rebellious phase, and this reflected in my analysis of the movie. I believe that this is common, and if I look through the rest of my life I am sure I would find other similar examples of my thoughts evolving based on the stage in my life. This movie is one of the most important to me throughout my life.

Common App Essay Example #22: Museum of Life

Using visuals can be a way to add interesting moments to your essay. Avoid being overly descriptive, however, as it can be distracting from your main point. When drafting, start by focusing on your ideas (your reflections and takeaways). Once you have a rough draft, then you can consider ways to incorporate imagery that can add character and flavor to your essay.

Admissions officers are people, just like you, and therefore are drawn to personalities that exhibit positive qualities. Some of the most important qualities to portray are: humility, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and passion. In this essay, there are several moments that could be interpreted as potentially self-centered or arrogant. Avoid trying to make yourself out to be "better" or "greater" than other people. Instead, focus on having unique and interesting ideas first, and this will show you as a likeable, insightful person. Although this is a "personal" statement, you should also avoid over using "I" in your essay. When you have lots of "I" sentences, it starts to feel somewhat ego-centric, rather than humble and interested in something greater than you.

This essay does a lot of "telling" about the author's character. Instead, you want to provide evidence—through examples, anecdotes, and moments—that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about who you are. Avoid surface-level takeaways like "I am open-minded and have a thirst for knowledge." These types of statements are meaningless because anyone can write them. Instead, focus on backing up your points by "showing," and then reflect genuinely and deeply on those topics.

This essay is focused on art museums and tries to tie in a connection to studying medicine. However, because this connection is very brief and not elaborated, the connection seems weak. To connect to your area of study when writing about a different topic, try reflecting on your topic first. Go deep into interesting ideas by asking "How" and "Why" questions. Then, take those ideas and broaden them. Think of ways they could differ or parallel your desired area of study. The best connections between a topic (such as an extracurricular) and your area of study (i.e. your major) is through having interesting ideas.

Common App Essay Example #23: French Horn

This student chose the creative idea of personifying their French horn as their central theme. Using this personification, they are able to write about a multitude of moments while making them all feel connected. This unique approach also makes for a more engaging essay, as it is not overly straightforward and generic.

It can be challenging to reference your achievements without seeming boastful or coming across too plainly. This student manages to write about their successes ("acceptance into the Julliard Pre-College program") by using them as moments part of a broader story. The focus isn't necessarily on the accomplishments themselves, but the role they play in this relationship with their instrument. By connecting more subtly like this, it shows humility. Often, "diminishing" your achievements will actually make them stand out more, because it shows you're focused on the greater meaning behind them, rather than just "what you did."

This student does a good job of exemplifying each of their ideas. Rather than just saying "I experienced failure," they show it through imagery ("dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances"). Similarly, with their idea "no success comes without sacrifice," they exemplify it using examples of sacrifice. Always try to back up your points using examples, because showing is much more convincing than telling. Anyone can "tell" things, but showing requires proof.

This essay has a decent conclusion, but it could be stronger by adding nuance to their main idea or connecting to the beginning with a new perspective. Rather than repeating what you've established previously, make sure your conclusion has a different "angle" or new aspect. This can be connecting your main idea to more universal values, showing how you now view something differently, or emphasizing a particular aspect of your main idea that was earlier introduced.

Common App Essay Example #24: Dear My Younger Self

Common App Prompt #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. (250-650 words)

Younger Anna,

  • Don’t live your life as if you're constantly being watched and criticized. Chances are, no one is even paying attention to you.
  • Wear your retainer.
  • Empathy makes your life easier. People who are inexplicably cruel are suffering just as much as the recipients of their abuse. Understanding this makes your interactions with these people less painful.
  • Comparing yourself to your classmates is counterproductive. Sometimes you will forge ahead, other times you will lag behind. But ultimately, you’re only racing yourself.
  • Speak up to your stepmom.
  • Always eat the cake. I couldn't tell you how many times I’ve turned away a slice of cake, only to regret it the next day. If you really can’t commit, do yourself a favor and take a slice home with you.
  • Cherish your grandparents.
  • Forgive your mother. Harboring resentment hurts you just as much as her. All the time I spent being angry at her could’ve been spent discovering her strengths.

This essay chose a unique structure in the form of a letter addressed to themselves with a list of lessons they've learned. This structure is unique, and also allows the student to explore a variety of topics and ideas while making them all feel connected. It is tricky to not seem "gimmicky" when choosing a creative structure like this, but the key is to make your essay well thought-out. Show that you've put effort into reflecting deeply, and that you aren't choosing a unique structure just to stand out.

This essay is highly focused on lessons they've learned, which shows a deep level of reflection. Your ideas and takeaways from life experience are ultimately most compelling to admissions officers, and this essay succeeds because it is focused almost entirely on those reflections. This student also manages to incorporate anecdotes and mini stories where appropriate, which makes their reflections more memorable by being tangible.

Showing humility and self-awareness are two highly attractive traits in college admissions. Being able to recognize your own flaws and strengths, while not making yourself out to be more than what you are, shows that you are mature and thoughtful. Avoid trying to "boost yourself up" by exaggerating your accomplishments or over-emphasizing your strengths. Instead, let your ideas speak for themselves, and by focusing on genuine, meaningful ideas, you'll convey a persona that is both humble and insightful.

The drawback of having a structure like this, where lots of different ideas are examined, is that no one idea is examined in-depth. As a result, some ideas (such as "intelligence is not defined by your grades") come across as trite and overused. In general, avoid touching on lots of ideas while being surface-level. Instead, it's almost always better to choose a handful (or even just one main idea) and go as in-depth as possible by continually asking probing questions—"How" and "Why"—that force yourself to think deeper and be more critical. Having depth of ideas shows inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and ultimately are more interesting because they are ideas that only you could have written.

Common App Essay Example #25: Monopoly

Feeling a bit weary from my last roll of the dice, I cross my fingers with the “FREE PARKING” square in sight. As luck has it, I smoothly glide past the hotels to have my best horse show yet- earning multiple wins against stiff competition and gaining points to qualify for five different national finals this year.

This essay uses the board game "Monopoly" as a metaphor for their life. By using a metaphor as your main topic, you can connect to different ideas and activities in a cohesive way. However, make sure the metaphor isn't chosen arbitrarily. In this essay, it isn't completely clear why Monopoly is an apt metaphor for their life, because the specific qualities that make Monopoly unique aren't explained or elaborated. Lots of games require "strategy and precision, with a hint of luck and a tremendous amount of challenge," so it'd be better to focus on the unique aspects of the game to make a more clear connection. For example, moving around the board in a "repetitive" fashion, but each time you go around with a different perspective. When choosing a metaphor, first make sure that it is fitting for what you're trying to describe.

You want to avoid listing your activities or referencing them without a clear connection to something greater. Since you have an activities list already, referencing your activities in your essay should have a specific purpose, rather than just emphasizing your achievements. In this essay, the student connects their activities by connecting them to a specific idea: how each activity is like a mini challenge that they must encounter to progress in life. Make sure your activities connect to something specifically: an idea, a value, an aspect of your character.

This essay lacks depth in their reflections by not delving deeply into their main takeaways. In this essay, the main "idea" is that they've learned to be persistent with whatever comes their way. This idea could be a good starting point, but on its own is too generic and not unique enough. Your idea should be deep and specific, meaning that it should be something only you could have written about. If your takeaway could be used in another student's essay without much modification, chances are it is a surface-level takeaway and you want to go more in-depth. To go in-depth, keep asking probing questions like "How" and "Why" or try making more abstract connections between topics.

In the final two paragraphs, this essay does a lot of "telling" about the lessons they've learned. They write "I know that in moments of doubt...I can rise to the occasion." Although this could be interesting, it would be far more effective if this idea is shown through anecdotes or experiences. The previous examples in the essay don't "show" this idea. When drafting, take your ideas and think of ways you can represent them without having to state them outright. By showing your points, you will create a more engaging and convincing essay because you'll allow the reader to come to the conclusion themselves, rather than having to believe what you've told them.

What Can You Learn from These Common App Essay Examples?

With these 25 Common App essay examples, you can get inspired and improve your own personal statement.

If you want to get accepted into selective colleges this year, your Common App essays needs to be its best possible.

What makes a good Common App essay isn't easy to define. There aren't any rules or steps.

But using these samples from real students, you can understand what it takes to write an outstanding personal statement .

Let me know, which Common App essay did you think was the best?

Ryan Chiang , Founder of EssaysThatWorked.com

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Princeton Admitted Essay

People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M.—where did you get that cat? Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is... uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable...

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Her baking is not confined to an amalgamation of sugar, butter, and flour. It's an outstretched hand, an open invitation, a makeshift bridge thrown across the divides of age and culture. Thanks to Buni, the reason I bake has evolved. What started as stress relief is now a lifeline to my heritage, a language that allows me to communicate with my family in ways my tongue cannot. By rolling dough for saratele and crushing walnuts for cornulete, my baking speaks more fluently to my Romanian heritage than my broken Romanian ever could....

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UPenn Admitted Essay

A cow gave birth and I watched. Staring from the window of our stopped car, I experienced two beginnings that day: the small bovine life and my future. Both emerged when I was only 10 years old and cruising along the twisting roads of rural Maryland...

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Blog > Common App , Essay Examples , Personal Statement > 12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University

Written by Alex McNeil, MA Admissions Consultant

Key Takeaway

If you’re applying to college, chances are you’re using the Common Application. And if you’re using the Common Application, then you’re definitely writing a Common Application essay.

But how do you write a Common App essay? More specifically, how do you write a good one that stands out to admissions officers? And hey—what does a good Common App essay even look like?

Ah, there it is. That last question is one nearly all students applying to college ask. That’s why example essays are so important. They help you sort through all the noise of the college admissions process to see exactly what a Common App essay can and should be.

We’ve compiled some of our favorite college essays for you to read. Even better, our team of former admissions officers has commented on and graded every single essay to guide you through what works (and doesn’t).

Let’s get to it.

The 2022-2023 Common Application Essay Prompts

First, we should start out by looking at the Common Application essay prompts. Sometimes the prompts change slightly from year to year, but they tend to remain fairly similar.

The Common App essay prompts are just that. Prompts. They prompt you to write an essay by giving you a place to start. They ask questions to help you reflect on important moments in your life. You only have to choose one prompt to answer.

Here they are, listed in the order provided by the Common App:

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • 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?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

The prompts cover a range of topics that’s broad enough to let you write about just about anything.

But let us let you in on a little secret: how you answer the Common Application prompt matters less than the quality of the essay you write. After all, you can always choose the open-ended Prompt #7 option.

So our advice is to start with the essay and then choose a prompt to fit. Identifying a topic that resonates with you, regardless of the prompt, will produce the best essay possible. (And if you need some guidance about how to choose a Common App essay topic, check out our college essay writing guide .)

3 Tips for Writing Your Common Application Essay

Overall, your Common App essay should be the centerpiece of your college application. It should work to tie together your cohesive application narrative , and it should give admissions officers a genuine sense of who you are. Let's take a look at a few specific tips for writing a good Common App essay.

Write about a meaningful topic.

Think about the purpose of a Common App essay. It’s really your one chance to communicate directly with your admissions officers. Sure, your application has all your grades and classes and activities, but none of those things is actually you. The Common App essay exists so you can tell admissions officers information they can’t find anywhere else in your application. Think of it like a poetic introduction to who you are. Because you only have 650 words to make your impression, your essay should get straight to it. Choose a topic that reflects something deeply meaningful to who you are.

Write about a strength.

If your Common App essay is like an introduction, then you also want to make a good impression. That means that your essay should communicate one of your core strengths . Maybe you're the most compassionate person in the world. Maybe you’re so inventive that you can make anything out of a paperclip and a rock. Or maybe you’re so wise that everyone comes to you for advice. Whatever strength makes you who you are, let it shine through in your Common Application essay.

Pay attention to the structure of your essay.

As you’ll see in the “Bad” Common App Essay Examples section below, unorganized essays are hard to read. Admissions officers read hundreds to thousands of applications in a single year, so they go through them fast. That means that your essay needs to grab their attention and easily guide them through your narrative. Try your best to organize your ideas in a way that logically draws your reader through the story you’re telling.

Now keep those tips in mind as we go through each of these example essays.

Best Common App Essay Examples

There’s no single correct way to write a Common App essay, but the best ones grab your attention and keep it. They raise interesting questions, stories, and solutions. Writers reflect meaningfully on important topics, and they do so with a kind of elegance that’s hard to pinpoint. Writers use specific details and examples to set the scene. The best essays have narratives cohere perfectly and guide readers seamlessly through the story at hand.

Reading outstanding Common App essays can help you know what to aim for. Not every winning Common App essay has to look like the ones in this section, but they’ll give you a place to get started.

In particular, take note of the admissions officers’ comments and begin thinking about how you can apply these lessons to your own Common App essay.

Example #1: Board Game Family

Common App Prompt #1

“Professor Plum in the kitchen with the candlestick!”(( Opening with dialogue can be a risky choice, especially if it distracts the reader instead of drawing them in. But this essay uses opening dialogue as an effective hook to compel the reader to read on.)) My sister triumphed. I begrudgingly set down my clue tracker and opened the CONFIDENTIAL envelope. Indeed, her theory was correct. The thing about growing up in a board game family is that you quickly learn how to be a sore loser. In my home, countless sibling wars have been waged over an unjust hand of Gin Rummy or an out-of-bounds toe in Twister. But what I lack in sibling sportsmanship I make up for in wits. Playing board games with my family has taught me that the key to winning any game is resilience, sound strategy, and a little bit of charm(( This introduction has some fun language. And with this sentence, the writer gets straight to the heart of their essay. )) .

Candy Land was my gateway game, and it remains one of my favorites to play with my younger siblings. The game itself is simple: pick a card and move to the corresponding color on the board. First one to King Candy’s Castle wins. But, like life, the journey to the castle is full of setbacks. One unlucky draw, and you’ll lose half your progress. Having made many journeys up Candy Mountain, I grew accustomed to these setbacks. As I entered high school, I began facing real-world roadblocks that threatened to send me ten steps backward. My family moved towns, and the transition proved difficult. I felt behind in the new curriculum and lonely at a new school. Establishing a Board Game club helped me find friends and start my journey back toward Candy Castle.

As I grew older, I gravitated toward more difficult games like Risk. Unlike Candy Land, Risk requires strategy. Sure, randomly conquering territories might get you somewhere, but I learned that the most successful crusades are those that feature careful planning. Risk takes up our entire kitchen table, and we’ll play for hours at a time. My brother and I like to establish secret ententes. With whispered asides and unnoticed bathroom breaks, we work together to ensure victory. And when something doesn’t go our way, we revise our strategy and prepare for the next round. Risk isn’t just about taking risks–it’s about learning when to act, what to do, and who to align yourself with. It’s a lesson that applies to life outside the kitchen table, too.

While I’ve learned from every game I’ve played, the most impactful has been Scrabble(( This excerpt shows great personality, reflection, and personal growth.)) . When I started studying for the SATs, my family took up Scrabble. At first, Scrabble almost broke us. Dictionaries were slammed shut, points miscalculated, and tiles mysteriously lost. But with each new game, the board set anew, we remembered our mission: to help me practice vocabulary. With this fresh perspective, we began to work together. Instead of playing to win, we played to challenge each other and ourselves. For every non-word word I put on the board, I had to plead my case. Arguments like “Ahot” is synonymous with cold because of the root “a,” meaning “without” and “Truc” is a fun French word that we should have anglicized a long time ago anyway earned me both eyerolls and points. The more charming I was, the more sound my defense became, and the more likely my family was to concede. Together, we made our own rules and unforgettable memories.

I’ve summited Candy Mountain thousands of times and founded more countries than I can count. Our Scrabble games don’t look like everyone else’s, but these moments around my kitchen table, filled with laughter and rivalries, white lies and trusted alliances, are ones I will always cherish. They have made me into the thoughtful and strategic person I am today. More importantly, they’ve taught me that there’s a lot to learn when you’re having fun(( The writer concludes with this intentional reflection that leaves no question in the reader’s mind about what the main takeaway from the essay should be.)) .

AO Notes on Board Game Family

This essay takes a fun topic, board games, and turns it into a fun college essay. Most importantly, the writer doesn’t spend too much time focusing on the games themselves. Instead, they use the games as a way to talk about themself. That’s the key in an essay like this.

Why this essay stands out:

  • Humor: We get a strong sense of the writer’s personality through their humor. It’s okay to show some personality in your college essays!
  • Meaning : Through each of these stories, we learn a lot about the writer’s family background. There’s a clear picture of what their home looked like growing up, so we can easily see how they developed into who they are today.
  • Action steps: The writer doesn’t just describe fun family game nights. They explicitly connect these game nights to their determination as a player, sibling, and student. We see the steps they took to make new friends, win alongside their brother, and study for the SATs.

Example #2: The Bowl That Taught Me Not to Quit

Common App Prompt #2

The clay felt cold against my skin as my knees hugged the wheel for dear life(( With this opening, we jump right into the writer’s emotions. They don’t have to tell us explicitly what they’re feeling—we can feel that they are anxious from their description alone. It’s a wonderful example of “show, not tell.”)) . Don’t. Fall. Over. I begged the clay to stay put. In the back of my mind, I heard the instructor saying, “The clay will mirror what you do. If you are steady, the clay will be steady.” I planted my feet firmly on the floor and stared my bowl-to-be dead in the eye.

My journey as a ceramicist began as many journeys do: with a scolding from my mother. She said that I was wasting my summer. I needed a hobby. Flipping through the community center catalog, my gaze landed on Ceramics 101: Beginners. I decided to take on the wheel.

Soon, I was captivated. For the last three thousand years, ceramicists have been throwing clay to create pottery that is quicker to make and more reliable than hand-crafted pottery. This past summer, as I developed my pottery skills, I learned about more than clay. I learned about myself.

To start any project, there’s the matter of choosing which clay to use. When it came time for my first throw, I chose stoneware clay for its durability. I grabbed a slab, dabbed it with water, and tossed it on the wheel, just as the teacher had instructed. My foot gently pressed the wheel’s pedal, a vehicle for which I was certainly not licensed. Covered in wet clay, I pressed my hands against the slab, trying to shape it. But it wobbled(( And here we have the main conflict: things did not go as expected. As readers, we ask ourselves: what will the writer do now?)) . It spun completely out of control. I had clay in my hair and up my sleeves. My project, it seemed, was already ruined.

While I didn’t expect to be a ceramics savant, I did expect to make it through the first class without a mud bath. I felt like a failure as I watched all the other students, whose clay was taking shape on gracefully spinning wheels. I was embarrassed. I wanted to quit. And I was used to quitting, having never been able to hold down an extracurricular activity throughout high school(( With this simple sentence, we learn that the writer has struggled with overcoming challenges in the past. )) . Cutting my losses would be quicker than cleaning the clay from my clothes, so I began to wipe off my hands and pack up my things. The instructor approached me, explaining that what had just happened was perfectly normal. She urged me to try again. I didn’t want to, but her presence made me stay.

For the rest of the class, the instructor hovered by my wheel. She was ready to lend a hand when necessary. She was my safety net, and I felt more confident to continue. I squeezed my clay out and down with the care of a first-time mom. It began to look more like a bowl and less like a mound of dirt. As I watched the bowl come into being, I felt tears prick my eyes. I felt silly for crying at something so simple, but it wasn’t so simple after all. A bowl materialized from my bare hands, all because I didn’t quit.

Quitting(( This paragraph has wonderful reflection.)) is easy, and I’ve taken the easy road more times than I can count. But it ended the day of that ceramics class. If you leave clay untended, it will dry out and become useless. Before ceramics, I hadn’t been tending to myself. I grew dry, cracking under the weight of any external pressures. But my teacher taught me that a little more persistence, time, and effort can yield something beautiful and useful.

When my bowl was done, I carried it to the shelf to be fired. The instructor explained that she’d put our projects in the kiln, and we could pick them up at our next class. I returned the following week and saw my bowl sitting on my wheel. It was imperfect but sturdy, messy yet intricate. It was exactly right. I set it aside and grabbed another block of clay, foot hovering over the pedal(( This conclusion ties up the essay with a bow. It calls back to the beginning and emphasizes that the writer will keep overcoming whatever obstacles arise.)) .

AO Notes on The Bowl that Taught Me Not to Quit

In this essay, the writer goes on a journey learning to do ceramics. We see that they experience failure but can learn from it. Their strengths of creativity and resilience shine through.

  • Positive spin: Writing college essays about challenges is difficult because it’s easy to get wrapped up in hardship. But this essay does a great job moving on from the failure and focusing on the lessons learned.
  • Explaining an underwhelming resume: It happens so quickly that you might miss it if you blink, but this writer very subtly explains why they don’t have many resume items . Accounting for an insufficient resume in this way comes across as taking responsibility rather than making excuses. We also see that the writer has learned from these challenges and is moving forward in a new direction.

Example #3: ENFP

Common App Prompt #6

“You know how whenever you want to plan out your weekend there are too many fun things to do and too many people to do them with? And how it’s impossible to commit to doing anything next Saturday, let alone next month? What if something even more exciting comes up? Ugh!”

“I have literally no idea what you’re talking about. That sounds stressful.”

My friend’s response confused me.

“Stressful!? It’s fun! And stressful. But mostly fun.”

We’ve all had realizations that remind us we are not the same as the people around us(( After that fun introduction, this sentence brings our attention directly to the main point of the essay.)) . Our brains and our tendencies are ours, and they aren’t necessarily shared by others–even close friends and family.

This conversation was one of those times. I was a sophomore and truly did not consider that my peers would follow routines, carefully planning out their weekends while I relied on vibes, group texts, and parental reminders of homework to get me through. Every day is a new experience and I wake up energized for the excitement of a new beginning. Fun, right?

Apparently, some people find my way stressful.

The first week of junior year, my English teacher surprised us with a test. Not an academic one–she administered the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. I didn’t know what that meant, but she explained it was a personality assessment. Then she looked directly at me and pointed.

“YOU! YOU are an ENFP!”

I’d been called a lot of things, but this was a new one. She was absolutely certain that this string of meaningless letters described me. As if anyone could possibly define me!

Sure enough, I took the assessment and got my results. E-N-F-P. Extraverted-iNtuitive-Feeling-Perceiving. I learned that each variable was one of two possibilities that describe people’s preferences about how they interact with their external and internal world. Each person exists on a spectrum between each set of variables.

I was pretty extreme on all four. Suddenly, I understood why people said I had a “big personality”.

This was just the start of my journey into psychology to better understand myself and others(( This paragraph ties together the personality test story with the writer’s personal journey of seeing the world through new perspectives.)) . I knew I was an extrovert–that was the easy one. But now I felt like I had language to explain why my arguments in debate were naturally grounded in emotion (common for Feeling types) rather than the data of a Thinker. I understood why my Judgment (J, rather than P) friends couldn’t stand my inability to commit to a plan. I needed to Perceive all of my options before committing to just one of them.

I delved into writers, psychologists, and researchers like Adam Grant, Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, and Gretchen Rubin. I even embraced my own (very ENFP) preference to listen to their audiobooks rather than read in quiet solitude. I listen to books with one ear bud in while walking around my small town. That way I can learn while staying open to meeting a new friend, stopping by a shop, or petting a cute dog.

My INTJ friend didn’t understand how I could listen to a book while actively striking up conversations with strangers. To each their own.

Part of learning about myself was understanding that I love to learn about how people think and form habits. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. That is true for planning a weekend, maintaining relationships, or even writing a college essay.

I want to study psychology (and about 100 other subjects) and create a career where I can help people understand themselves and build positive habits around who they are(( I like how the writer connects these relations to their academic and career goals.)) , rather than try to change themselves to fit the expectations of others. Sure, maybe that will lead me to become a psychologist. But I think teachers, doctors, writers, and business leaders have an opportunity to do this as well.

All I know for sure is that, just like each new day, college is the next adventure. I’m excited to see what happens.

AO Notes on ENFP

Most of us know about personality tests, but this writer is able to make the topic a deeply personal one. We learn about their personality and habits. We learn about how they interact with others. Overall, the topic really helps us see the world from their perspective.

  • Creative topic: The topic itself isn’t one an admissions officer will see every day. But it’s not so out-there that it comes across as hokey.
  • Perspective: Admissions officers appreciate when students can see the world from perspectives other than their own. This writer shows a lot of maturity when explaining how their personality test sparked a realization that they don’t see the world the same way their friends do.
  • Connections to future goals: The writer doesn’t just present the topic without speaking to its greater meaning. They show that personality tests are meaningful to them because they are related to an academic interest in psychology.

Example #4: Warhammer 40k Miniatures

Carefully(( This introduction has great vivid language.)) dipping the microscopic end of my horse hair brush into the pot of citadel paint, I can feel my excitement building. Gunmetal grey—my favorite primer color. Next comes the white and gold highlights that edge the armor. I'm about to bring one of my favorite Orcs to life, adding tactful details and shading to his green skin and menacing scowl. This is my passion, my obsession: painting Warhammer 40k miniatures.

Now, I’m well aware of the reputation Warhammer has—nerdy. As a tabletop miniature war game set in a dystopian future(( The writer subtly explains this hobby just in case admissions officers aren’t familiar with it.)) , players collect and paint miniatures to represent their armies. They then battle it out on a tabletop strewn with miniature trees, structures, and other terrains. I've been a fan of the game for years, but it's the painting that I love most. There’s something about taking a tiny, unpainted model and turning it into a work of art that I find incredibly satisfying. Nerd, guilty as charged.

I've always been drawn to the Orcs in particular, with their sheer strength and ferocity. But lately, I've been getting more into the Necrons, these ancient, robotic warriors that have been resurrected after millions of years of dormancy. And let's not forget the noble Tau, with their advanced technology and futuristic design. The story of each people goes deep, too. There are dozens of books written about the broader universe of Warhammer—a shared world that spans tens of thousands of years of lore. I’ve read almost every one of them. No matter the character I’m painting, no matter the story they’ll take place in, I watch in awe as each brushstroke brings the character to life in front of my eyes.

As my obsession with miniature painting has grown, I've started entering painting competitions(( This detail shows the magnitude and impact of the activity.)) . It's nerve-wracking showing off my work to a panel of judges, but it's also incredibly rewarding when they appreciate my hard work. I’ve received accolades and even small prizes for my artistry. After every competition, I choose my favorite miniature to display on a shelf in my room. I still have some of the earliest miniatures on my shelf, looking a little rough around the edges but still serving as a reminder of where I started.

But painting miniatures isn't just a hobby for me; it's also been a gateway for other forms of art. I've started dabbling in oil painting, using the same attention to detail and skillful brushwork that I use on my miniatures. While making the transition to a new medium has been challenging, I’ve slowly I’ve built a small collection of paintings. Some of them are as epic as my miniatures—depictions of battles and important moments from the 40k universe. But others are more tranquil, like a recent landscape I painted for my mom’s birthday of the stream behind our house(( We also learn how the writer’s obsession has expanded to other areas of their life. I like this detail because it’s an endearing story of the writer making art for their mom.)) . Becoming more dynamic with my art has made me a better artist, which has in turn made my miniatures even more lifelike.

Warhammer has been the biggest portal into a world of imagination and creativity. But it’s also unlocked my belief in myself as someone capable of succeeding in art(( And here it is—a central point of the essay. Painting these miniatures isn’t just about the miniatures. It’s also about the writer’s growth as an artist.)) . I’ve transcended the level of hobbyist and, over the years I’ve been painting, I’ve learned to call myself an artist. That title is a lot to carry, but it’s one that I can’t wait to continue growing into, figure by figure, painting by painting. And I can’t wait to bring the world of 40k to my dorm—sharing the universe with my friends and classmates. You’ll know where to find me. Just look for the nerdy artist with the dense wooden play table, toting around an army of skeletal warriors and hulking orcs. I can’t wait to share my world with you.

AO Notes on Warhammer 40k Miniatures

This essay is a great example of how to write about a hobby in a college essay. Notice how the writer explains their hobby in vivid detail, but the core of the essay is still about the writer themself.

  • Vivid details: Personal statements can be wonderful exercises in creative writing. While that can be difficult for some students, this writer did it exactly right.
  • Narrative structure: The writer seamlessly transitions readers between each paragraph. They slowly reveal how their journey has progressed. And, most importantly, they incorporate loads of good reflection.
  • Personal meaning: It’s clear that Warhammer itself is meaningful to the writer. But I also like how they draw the focus inward to discuss how painting miniatures “unlocked” a belief in themself.

Example #5: The Band

Common App Prompt #5

I always imagined my band’s first show would take place on a stage. Maybe not in front of a packed amphitheater, but a stage. One with lights, a sound system, a curtain behind it, and some mixture of friends, family, and strangers ready to hear us play.

But there I was, holding a guitar in the women’s section of JC Penney at the mall(( This sentence is so unexpected that it’s sure to make most admissions officers stop, do a double take, and chuckle.)) . We fumbled through a cover of “Mr. Brightside” while middle-aged women shopped for sundresses.

Not exactly what I had in mind.

Our drummer’s mom managed the shoe section at JC Penney and said her boss wanted a creative way to get younger people excited about shopping there. She suggested that her son’s band would be perfect for this opportunity. They paid us in pizza and asked us to perform for two hours–a tall order for four high school sophomores who knew about five and a half songs.

It wasn’t evident to us that we would learn anything from our musical endeavors, or that our music would take us beyond the local mall. I’ve always known writing and performing pop-rock songs isn’t a likely career path. But a recent late night conversation with my bandmates-turned-best-friends showed us all how much we have grown and learned through music(( This reflection is great.)) . What started as a way to spend time with friends on a hobby turned into an accidental entrepreneurial venture and surprisingly poignant lessons.

For one thing, writing music with others is hard. Getting four new musicians to agree on everything from tempo to lyrics to how many verses each song should have isn’t easy. We figured it out as we went along, fueled by copious amounts of Mountain Dew and Bagel Bites.

We eventually created a system where each member learned the lyrics to each song and at least one other person’s part. Sharing original lyrics–poetry–between friends is uncomfortable. But we became more cohesive once everyone was on the same page with the story we were telling. When the bass player, who can’t play drums, learned just enough to understand that the kick drum hits on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on the 2 and 4, our rhythm section began to play more in sync. Once our drummer got over his fear of singing, we were able to incorporate simple harmonies, which led to him improving our lyrics.

Most surprising was making money and feeling like we were running a small (very small) business(( By expanding the focus to talk about music as a business venture, the writer also shows the extent of their activity’s impact.)) . Our second show after the infamous JC Penney incident was a battle of the bands at the public pool that June. We placed fourth–no prize. By August, we played another battle of the bands and won first place, largely thanks to our efforts to publicize the event to everyone in our network (some might call it begging our friends to come). To our surprise, we won $800 on one of those comically large checks.

We decided to allocate some of the money to equipment we needed–cables, cymbal stands, and more Bagel Bites–and put the rest towards professional recording. The process of contacting local studios, negotiating rates, and working with professionals in the industry was completely new to all of us.

A year before, we thought agreeing on lyrics was tough. But the sonic experience of hearing your own music back and agreeing on the tone and effects of every instrument can bring out differences you didn’t know existed. I’d read about arguments between bands from the Beatles to Kings of Leon, and now the four of us had to work out our differences together in real time. Thankfully, we navigated that challenge without losing our sanity for more than a few brief moments.

I am grateful for the lessons we have learned over the past three years(( And with this conclusion, the writer really drives home the essay’s main theme.)) . Not only do we have music and memories to show for our efforts, but we have all learned about creative collaboration, budgeting, and marketing our art.

AO Notes on The Band

This essay makes me want to sing! It’s full of personality, but it still manages to be vulnerable and reflective. By the conclusion , we really see what the writer has learned from being in a band.

  • Humor: The writer immediately draws us in with an introduction that is funny, surprising, and full of personality. The introduction alone makes me want to keep reading. And right as we’re through the introduction, the writer drives home their main point: they learned a lot through music. Then, to our delight, the humor continues throughout. It’s subtle enough to keep our attention and not be overwhelming or inauthentic.
  • Strengths: I can see that the writer is very collaborative and entrepreneurial. I also like how they give insight into their relationship with their friends and bandmates—we learn a lot about them through their interactions with others.
  • Accomplishments: This essay is a solid example of how to write about accomplishments in a personal and meaningful way. The writer could have just opened with the accomplishments, but that wouldn’t have been very interesting or vulnerable. By nesting those accomplishments within a broader story about music, the writer is able to convey greater meaning.

Good Common App Essay Examples

If you’re feeling intimated by all the outstanding essays you’ve seen online, fear not. You don’t have to have a Pulitzer to get into college.

What you do need is a good, meaningful essay, even if it’s not perfect. The essays in this section represent what the majority of Common App essays look like. They aren’t necessarily perfect, but they’re written strategically and with verve. You can tell that their writers genuinely care about the essay they’ve been tasked with.

Putting in a similar effort with your own Common App essay will get you far. Let’s take a look.

Example #6: Herb

I stood in the dimly lit garage, staring at the child-sized pile of metal and wires in front of me. I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe. This was our creation(( This introduction reveals the product of the journey the writer is about to go on: building a robot.)) , a robot that my father and I had spent months designing and building with meticulous care.

It all started on a slow Sunday afternoon, when my dad suggested we take on a new project. He wanted to build a robot. At first, I was hesitant. I was skeptical that we had the know-how to even construct the body of the robot, much less one that actually worked. But my dad, a tinkerer and inventor, was determined to try. So we got everything set up in the garage and got to work. As it turns out, building a robot wouldn’t just improve our technical abilities. It would bring us closer together along the way.

Before this project, my dad and I tended to argue and disagree(( I appreciate this clear transition and description of the “before” state that the writer and their father are growing from.)) . But in the garage with our robot materials, we were both so invested in building the robot that we collaborated perfectly. We bounced ideas off each other, read books and online forums, and even got advice from friends who were more experienced in robotics. For what seemed like the first time, my dad thought of me as an equal. Usually I was just there to hand him wrenches and screwdrivers as he worked on his latest creation. This time was different. We were a team. And with each passing day, our robot began to come alive.

We spent months in the garage, building and troubleshooting. My dad worked on the mechanics. He carefully assembled the joints and servos that would give the robot its movement. While he did that, I focused on the design. I drew mock-ups on my iPad and researched different exterior materials to use. I clumsily constructed our prototypes before my dad helped me put all the pieces together.

The final result was a beautiful machine. It was almost four feet tall and towered over our family dog. And it actually worked. The exterior gleamed—the sensors we used added visual flair and extreme function. But the most impressive aspect of our robot was its artificial intelligence system, which we had spent weeks programming and refining together. It was still fairly rudimentary as far as robots go, but we were proud of such a major accomplishment.

We decided to name our creation Herb, after my father’s beloved herb garden. We liked the irony of mixing a machine with a garden. He was perfect.

After working on him for months, it was time to enter Herb into a local show for machine enthusiasts. Our entry was accepted(( This detail also shows the magnitude of their accomplishment.)) . The show will take place next spring, so my dad and I are polishing Herb’s exterior, tweaking bugs that arise in his artificial intelligence, and preparing him for his out-of-garage debut.

While I’m proud that we will finally get to show Herb off to the world, what I’m more proud of is how far my father and I have come. Working on Herb brought us closer together, and the process helped my dad see me as a fellow tinkerer and inventor rather than just an assistant. In our garage, as we constructed something entirely un-human, we found the human in ourselves. Our father-son love came to life through a robot. I wouldn’t trade it for anything(( I really like this poetic conclusion that neatly ties together the essay’s theme.)) .

AO Notes on Herb:

This essay is an endearing story about how the writer’s relationship with their father improved while working on a robot together. We learn a lot about the student and their interests as we accompany them on this journey.

What makes this essay good:

  • Organization: There’s some back and forth with narrative and reflection in this essay that gives it a pretty complex structure. But the writer does an awesome job keeping readers on track by using very clear signposting. Phrases like “before this project” and “after working on him for months” help readers navigate the complexity.
  • Reflection: The writer incorporates great reflection throughout. The third paragraph shows us the “before state” that the writer is growing from, and by the end of the essay, we really see where they’ve ended up mentally, emotionally, and personally.

What the writer could do to level up:

  • More focus on the writer : While this essay isn’t too bad about this, there is some room for improvement. The main descriptive parts of the essay all focus on the robot. We do learn about the writer and their goals through these descriptions. But the essay is approaching being too much about the robot and not enough about the writer.

Example #7: Laughter & Acceptance

"Why was the transgender person so bad at math? Because they always had to trans-late equations!"

Okay, okay, that was a terrible joke. But let me tell you, finding self-acceptance as a transgender person ain't no joke. It's a struggle, a battle, a war. But it's a war that can be won, and I'm here to tell you how(( From the start, we get a clear sense of the writer’s personality. This sentence also tells us exactly what the essay is about.)) .

I grew up in a world that told me being trans was wrong, that it was something to be ashamed of. And I believed it. I tried to hide who I was, to pretend like I was someone else. But it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just didn't work.

But then something happened. I don't know what it was—maybe a shift in the universe, maybe a sign from God. But something changed, and I realized that I couldn't keep living a lie. I had to be true to myself, regardless of what misery and consequences that might bring down around my head.

After telling my younger sister, who cried tears of joy and support, bless her, I decided to come out to the rest of my family. Let me tell you, it was not pretty. They didn't understand what I meant. They told me I was going to hell, that I was a disgrace to our family. And it hurt, oh man it hurt. But through the pain I saw a glimmer of something—was that hope?(( The writer does an excellent job reflecting and taking the “more phoenix, less ashes” approach.)) For the first time, I was being honest with myself and with the world. The whips and lashes of my parents’ words were more painful than I could have anticipated, but I left the room with my head held up and a barely-perceptible feeling of lightness around my shoulders.

And that's when the real work began. See, coming out is one thing, but accepting yourself is another. It's not easy, trust me. It's like trying to walk on a tightrope, one wrong step and you're a gonner. But I didn't give up, I kept going.

And you know what? It started to get easier. I started to find people who accepted me for who I was, who supported me and loved me. I started to feel confident in my own skin. And it was a good feeling—a great feeling. The best feeling.

But my life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are still moments every day when I feel down, when the weight of the world feels like it's crushing me. But even in those moments, I've learned to find strength in myself, to remind myself that I am worthy and deserving of love and respect.

And that's what self-acceptance is all about. No one can avoid feeling sad, angry, or frustrated all the time. But if those feelings only crop up now and again? You’re doing pretty good. Most of all, it’s about letting those negative emotions pass when they come, roll over you like a wave before they go on their way. It's about laughing at the absurdity of it all(( With this philosophy, we really see how much the writer has grown.)) , and finding joy and humor in the midst of the pain.

So, dear reader(( Addressing your reader in a college essay is a pretty risky stylistic choice that we would generally advise against.)) , if you're struggling with self-acceptance, you're not alone. I’m there with you. And remember: it's okay to laugh at yourself, to find the humor in the situation. It's not always easy, but it's worth it. Because when you can accept yourself, you can be proud of who you are, and that's something to be truly grateful for. Tell a joke about yourself and laugh it off. You’ll feel better, I promise(( I like these sentiments, but they could be more focused on the writer instead of the reader.)) .

AO Notes on Laughter & Acceptance

This essay does a wonderful job maintaining sight of the writer’s strengths and positivity in light of really tough challenges. The writer isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. Because of that, we learn a lot about them.

  • Authenticity : I’d guess that this essay couldn’t have been written by anyone other than its writer. Its voice is so clear and authentic that I truly feel like the writer is talking straight to me. Since Common App essays are one of the only places where you get to speak straight to an admissions officer, authenticity is key.
  • Positivity : Let’s face it. This essay is about a really serious topic that was clearly challenging for the writer. But what makes it so great is that in spite of all the challenges, the writer is able to find positivity and light. They don’t dwell on the hardships but look forward to the future. That’s exactly what a college essay about a challenging topic should do.
  • Tone : Balancing your personal tone and voice with the conventions of Common App essay writing can be tricky. It’s hard to predict how an admissions officer will react to what you write. Some might love the fact that this essay truly sounds like the student who wrote it, while others might be put off by its informality. The writer could clean up just a few areas of informal language to play it a little safer.

Example #8: The Old iPhone

Common App Prompt #3

I unscrewed the tiny Phillips-head screws and wedged open my iPhone 5. I cringed as the material cracked out of place. Despite my nervousness, I felt curious. I had always been fascinated by technology and machines, but this was the first time I had ever taken apart a device as complex as an iPhone.

And it wasn’t just any iPhone. It was my very first—my most prized possession until I bought my new phone a few months ago. Since then, it had been sitting in the back of my desk drawer, collecting dust and taking up space. I just didn’t have the heart to sell, recycle, or trade it in. On a day when my ADHD was particularly affecting me, I decided to tinker with my phone to calm myself down.

Working with machines and technology had become my biggest strategy for dealing with my ADHD on those difficult days(( This is an excellent transition.)) . I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was thirteen. I’d been struggling to pay attention in class, and my teachers and parents thought it would be best to get me tested. After I started taking medication, my symptoms improved a lot. But the whole process made me feel like something was off about the way my brain worked naturally. That’s why on the days my medication just isn’t cutting it I center myself by playing with machinery and technology. Even though I can’t fully understand my brain, I can understand a machine. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to get me back on track.

At my desk while disassembling the phone, I carefully removed each piece and set them aside on a bathroom hand towel beside me. I felt calm and focused. As someone with ADHD, it can be difficult for me to concentrate on a single task. But with every part I removed, my mind grew more and more focused. I didn’t feel pulled to passing thoughts and distractions like I normally do.

Working on the phone was like meditating. The parts were so small and delicate that it took all of my attention not to lose or break any. As I examined each component, I thought about all the hard work that goes into designing, manufacturing, and selling the millions of iPhones sold each year.

Taking apart the iPhone improved my technical knowledge, but it was more than that. It also helped me to understand my own mind in a new way(( This is an important shift back to the writer’s own experience. If it weren’t here, the essay would be too much about the iPhone and not enough about the writer.)) . While working my way through this small but magnificent machine, I realized that I could think of my own brain as a kind of machine. It has a complex network of circuits and pathways that control my thoughts and actions. It requires energy to work. It is made up of smaller components that allow it to function. I can’t tinker around with my brain, but I can appreciate it for the incredible machine that it is. I just need to learn more about how my brain works and adapt accordingly.

In many ways, my ADHD has always felt like a kind of malfunction, like something is wrong with me. But as I took apart the iPhone, I began to see that even the most advanced technology isn’t perfect—there’s dust and glitches and grime and bugs. And just as Apple does software updates and new product releases to improve the iPhone, I can find ways to improve how I function with my own brain(( With this comment, the essay ends on a very positive and hopeful note—exactly what you want in a college essay. )) .

AO Notes on My Old iPhone

In this essay, the writer describes how tinkering with an iPhone affected their personal journey with ADHD. I especially like how the writer takes two quite different topics and weaves them together seamlessly.

  • Creative take: The core of this essay topic is a good one. The writer uses a hobby to talk about a deeper personal topic they’re wrestling with. As a result, we learn quite a bit about both.
  • Strengths: We always say that you should write your college essays around core strengths. This writer does exactly that. As readers, we can tell that the writer is a problem-solver. They figured out a way to help themselves when their medication wasn’t working, and they also used that activity to do some reflection.
  • Personal meaning: The writer could have just written about how they tinker with machines to help with their ADHD. But they went beyond that. They reflect more deeply on what the experience of having ADHD means to them.
  • More connections: This essay is quite good. But as a reader, I’m still left wondering why the writer is drawn to tinkering and machines in the first place. It seems like there is room for the student to write a bit more about how the activity resonates with them personally.

Example #9: My Partner in Music

Built from a dark, mocha-colored wood and strung with the best strings my mom could afford, my viola has been with me through a lot. The first time I held the instrument in my hands, I knew it was made just for me. Sure, my viola had had previous owners. But they were only caring for it until it made its way home. My instrument is who I spend the most time with, who I know the closest, and who I’ve invested so much time in. With my viola, I’ve experienced my greatest accomplishments.

I come from a family of prodders rather than pushers(( This paragraph and the following dive too deeply into the writer’s past without making clear why the information is necessary to the narrative.)) . My loved ones have never pushed me to do anything, but I’ve been prodded in certain directions. At a mere year old, I began swim lessons. At age two, I took up soccer. At two and a half, I experimented with gymnastics. None of those activities ever stuck. But my true calling came at age three when my parents started me on viola lessons.

At first, I struggled to even hold my tiny, almost toy-like viola in place. Barely able to hold my own fork for dinner, I wrestled to place my fingers correctly on the fingerboard. When it was finally time for me to use my bow, it kept falling under its own weight, my small arm not strong enough to balance it.

But I was enthralled by the sounds I was able to make. I watched in awe as my teacher conjured up the most beautiful music I’d ever heard from her instrument. Unlike swimming, soccer, and gymnastics, music made sense to me. The ability to make something so engaging from wood and metal captured my attention.

When I got my new instrument, I had been playing the viola for exactly twelve years. Between the age of three and fifteen, my skills had grown exponentially. All those nights and weekends practicing, the blisters, and the hours and hours of lessons had paid off.

This past year, I earned a spot in the American Youth Symphony, one of the most prestigious youth symphonies in the world(( It’s not until this paragraph that we get to the heart of the essay: the writer’s big accomplishment, and the challenges they overcome to get there.)) . With the symphony’s minimum age of fifteen and average age in the early twenties, I’m one of the youngest musicians in the ensemble.

It wasn’t always so clear that playing viola was my destiny. When I was a sophomore in high school, I auditioned for my regional youth symphony. I had practiced my solo for months. I had played the piece so many times that it practically became part of me. With an imaginary metronome ticking away inside of me, my fingers knew exactly how to race across my strings, and my bow hand followed along in perfect time.

When it came time for my regional orchestra audition, however, the song completely vanished. I walked up to the stage, judges behind a partition. I sat down, brought my viola up to my chin, and froze. What had been muscle memory evaporated into thin air, and I was left with a blank mind and a silent instrument. I panicked, unsure of what to do.

I stared down at the scroll of my instrument and took a deep breath. We had played this piece a thousand times. We were ready. Most importantly, I wasn’t doing this alone. My viola and I were in it together. I raised my bow to the strings and began. The song emerged from my fingers, bow, and instrument. It was beautiful. It was perfect. That audition earned me regional first chair, and I learned a valuable lesson: I have to believe in myself(( And here we get to the theme of the essay. It’s not just about the viola. It’s about the writer—a musician.)) .

Now, as a member of the American Youth Symphony, I return to this lesson every day. It’s easy to get intimated when you’re playing alongside the country’s best young musicians. But, with my viola in hand, I know that I am a musician, too.

AO Notes on My Partner in Music

This writer tells us about their prized instrument. But the essay isn’t just about the instrument. It’s about the writer. The essay does an excellent job detailing a challenge the writer overcame. By the end, we see that the writer has grown and has achieved a huge accomplishment.

  • Contextualizing a great achievement: The writer’s strengths shine through in this essay because of their achievement. But throughout the essay, we also see that the writer has had to work hard to get to where they’re at today. That context adds great dimension to our understanding of them.
  • Voice: Through all the events that happen in this essay, the writer’s voice remains consistent. They have a solid tone that shows their work ethic and unwillingness to give up.
  • Get to the main idea quicker: Notice how the first few paragraphs of this essay are simple setup. We learn a lot about who the student was as a child before we get to the heart of the essay. The central conflict doesn’t come until almost the last paragraph. In general, college essays should be primarily about things that have happened in your life since starting high school. Brief mentions of previous events are fine, but they take up a touch too much space in this essay. It takes a while for us, the readers, to really see what the essay is about.

Example #10: The Laundromat

As the son of Chinese immigrants, I grew up working in my parents' laundromat(( Sometimes straightforward “statement” hooks work. This one does the job well.)) . It wasn't glamorous, but it was a good way to earn some extra money and help out my family. Over the years, I got to know a lot of the regulars who came in to use the machines. Some were friendly, some were angry, and some were just plain weird. But one thing they all had in common was that they had stories to tell. And I learned from every single one of them.

There was Mrs. Nguyen, an older Vietnamese woman who came in every week with a small load of clothes. She always greeted me warmly and snuck me a hard strawberry candy. We mostly talked about me—my schoolwork, friends, and sports. But one day, she opened up. She told me about her experiences fleeing Vietnam in the aftermath of the war. She described the dangers she faced and the sacrifices she made to keep her family safe. I was stunned that someone I had grown so close to had experienced such a challenge. What shocked me most was Mrs. Nguyen’s kindness in spite of everything she had been through. Before learning this about Mrs. Nguyen, I let small problems like late homework and friend arguments really upset me. But hearing her story put things into perspective for me, and I’m so grateful that she felt comfortable enough to share it with me(( Perspective: always a good lesson to learn. This example shows some good maturity.)) .

Carlos came every Tuesday and Thursday. He was a thirteen-year-old who always seemed to be practicing for the spelling bee. He went to my sister’s school and was shy and quiet. But after seeing him multiple times a week, I learned that he was also incredibly smart and dedicated. He would come into the laundromat with a stack of flashcards and a dictionary, looking for somewhere quiet to practice. He’d close his eyes and mouth the letters to himself before peeking to see if he was right. After months of watching him, I finally went up to him and offered to help(( With this “show, not tell” example, we see our writer exhibiting generosity and kindness. I also like the humor and personality in the following two sentences.)) . I started quizzing him on words that I couldn’t even really pronounce myself. I relied heavily on his dictionary! But after practicing together, Carlos won his school spelling bee and eventually went on to regionals. I was so proud of him. I learned that it if you want to succeed, you have to put in the work like Carlos did. Every time I think of quitting something, I remind myself of his determination, and I keep going.

And finally, there was Gary, a nurse who worked in the emergency room at our local hospital. He was always rushing through his laundry because of his busy schedule, but he was never too busy to sit down and talk with us kids. Gary inspired my interest in pursuing medicine. He told me countless stories about what he saw in the ER. But what I always appreciated most was when he would explain the science behind what was happening. Gary was a talented teacher who could always break down complex concepts into something even a kid could understand. By my junior year, Gary encouraged me to take AP Chemistry and Biology and now he’s helping me look at pre-medicine programs(( Nice—we get some background about the student’s academic interests.)) . Gary has sparked in me an interest in caring for people through medicine.

I could have chosen to ignore all these people and hide away in the back of the laundromat. But instead I chose to talk with them, even though it was sometimes scary and intimidating. Being around so many people, hearing all their stories, it’s really shown me that everyone has a story to tell. More importantly, everyone can learn from those around them. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the regulars at the laundromat, and I hope I inspired them in some way too.

AO Notes on The Laundromat

In this classic “understanding self through others” essay, we get to know the writer through their interactions with others. The writer does a pretty good job walking the (sometimes dangerous) line between saying too much about others and not enough about themself.

  • Personality: One of the best parts of “understanding self through others” essays is that we get to see who the writer is without them having to tell us. Through each of these small interactions, the writer—and their personality, values, beliefs—shines through.
  • Maturity: This writer shows several strengths. I think one of the most salient is their maturity. The way they were able to learn from Mrs. Nguyen, help Carlos, and be inspired by Gary took a lot of maturity. As an AO, that would tell me that this student is ready for the college classroom.
  • Connection to academic interests: Not all personal essays need to connect to an academic interest. Most probably don’t. But it was a natural connection for this writer, and I’m glad they made it. It raises the stakes of their interactions and leads beautifully into their conclusion.
  • Streamline: With the three different examples, the essay reads a bit choppy. The writer could put better transitions in between each person, or they could weave the examples together into a cohesive narrative. Streamlining would also help emphasize the essay’s focus on the writer rather than the laundromat patrons.

“Bad” Common App Essay Examples

Okay, these essays aren’t necessarily “bad” as essays. But if we’re being honest, they’re not great Common App essays either.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t have the potential to become great Common App essays, though. As you’ll see in the notes from our Admissions Officers, these essays contain the seeds of good essays. They just need some reorganization and refinement.

Let’s take a look.

Example #11: What I’ve Learned About Life

We all know that life is short so you have to make the most of it. I always try to do my best and live every day to the fullest(( These sentences are both cliches. It’s always better to hook readers in with your own words.)) . Well, I did that until I broke my arm in 8th grade. I used to be not afraid to do anything, but it turns out that’s what got me in trouble. I was riding my bike home from school one day and saw a stump. I thought about what we talked about in English class that day. It was something about “carpe diem” and so I decided, “You know what? I’m gonna jump that stump.”(( This story makes for a good concrete example.)) And I did. Almost. My bike tire caught on the stump and flipped me over the handle bars. A bystander had to help me call my mom to take me to the hospital and it was fractured in four places pretty bad it actually hurt a lot. So after that I still learned to live every day to the fullest but I also learned that you need to make good decisions when doing so.

My mom always tells me that I need to be more patient because it’s a virtue and I am not patient at all. But I have decided that the most important thing to me is to try hard no matter what. I’ll work until the ends of the earth to prove myself because those who work hard succeed. So when I realized that I tried to listen to my mom. Now when I get impatient I take a deep breath and remember my goal of being successful and sometimes it is hard to be patient and I can get angry or frustrated but then I think about what my mom said. It’s a virtue and I want to be as virtuous as possible. My mom has worked so hard in this life to give me a better life and all I want to do is make her proud(( These are fantastic sentiments that could be drawn out more clearly.)) . I really think that’s what it means to be a good person. I’ll always work hard so I can be successful and she can watch me shine.

AO Notes on What I’ve Learned About Life

This essay, while short, gives an honest effort at conveying something deeply meaningful. I especially like the very last sentence, which tells us a lot about who the writer is as a person. But there are a few areas this essay could improve.

What this essay does well:

  • Authenticity: It’s clear that the writer is discussing something very meaningful. I have no doubt that these lessons have played a big role in their life.

What could be improved on:

  • Too short: The maximum word count for the Common Application essay is 650 words. We like to encourage students to get to at least 80% of the word count, which means that your Common App essays should be at least 520 words. This essay is only 361.
  • The topic is too vague and full of generalities: The writer is communicating something meaningful about what they’ve learned throughout their life, but they do so only through generalities. Being too vague makes it hard for admissions officers to see who you really are. Instead, the writer could use concrete experiences and reflect specifically on how those experiences impacted them.

Example #12: Clean Slate

Common App Prompt #7

Bubbles, foam, and the sweet smell of chemicals. Shiny surfaces free of streaks and grime. I cleaned the entire house in three hours flat. I never really learned how to clean growing up, but I started seeing cleaning videos online. The cleaning videos always relax me, so I thought I’d give it a try(( This shows the writer’s initiative.)) .

First I needed to figure out what kinds of supplies to buy. After watching a few more videos, I made a list of the most commonly used items. Since I was on a limited budget, so I could only get the basics. I turned to coupons to find the best bargains possible. I bought disinfectant, a multi-purpose cleaner, and a window and mirror spray. I also found a mop, sponges, and a scrubber brush. It all cost me only fifteen dollars!

My family was shocked when I came home with these supplies in a shopping bag. They didn’t understand why I cared so much. We vacuumed and used disinfectant wipes every so often to keep things manageable, but none of us knew that you are supposed to deep clean your house every month or so until I told everyone based on what I saw online. I showed them each product I bought and told them what the purpose of each one was. They were proud of me for taking initiative and learning something new. They also couldn’t wait to see the results.

Then it was time for me to get to work. To strike inspiration, I put on another cleaning video in the background. I began with the bathroom. It was tidy, but it sure wasn’t clean. There was dust on all the surfaces, soap scum, and rust. I grabbed the disinfectant spray first because it has to sit for a while to actually disinfect. Then I used the mirror spray to clean toothpaste off the mirror. I scrubbed all the surfaces with my new sponge until they were squeaky clean. Then I moved on to the floors. My mop is a spray mop, so it was a quick job.

Next I moved on to the kitchen. That was much harder because it was more complex. There are several appliances, dishes to do, and food to put away. I wiped down the cabinets, which had a dark grime that you couldn’t even see before. I felt accomplished because I was actually cleaning. Once the kitchen was done, I moved on to the living room and the bedrooms. It took forever, but I did it(( By this point, we should have some more reflection from the writer about why this story is personally meaningful.)) .

I gave my family a tour around the house, showing them all the nooks and crannies I had cleaned. They were impressed and I felt so proud. I stood back, admiring my work. The house glistened like a diamond with cleanliness.

The next day I got up and decided to take a look around, excited to see my handiwork again. I was in shock when I stepped into the kitchen. It was a disaster. There was food and dishes everywhere. I ran to the bathroom. It wasn’t any better. There were dirty clothes and an open toothpaste tube. The baseboards already had a small bit of dust. I was devastated. All my hard work was gone just like that.

I told my family how upset I was. They understood and said that they would try to be better next time. But I also learned that that’s just how cleaning goes. You can try to keep things tidy, but we actually live in this house and sometimes that means making a mess. I hugged my family members and felt better after their apology(( I really like the picture we get of the writer here. I can tell that they are very mature and thoughtful!)) . We made up, they picked up a few things to pitch in, and I put my cleaning supplies back in the closet until next time.

AO Notes on Clean Slate

In this essay, we go on a cleaning journey with the writer. We see their successes and disappointments. We learn a bit about their family background, and we cheer them on as they overcome challenges.

  • Writing and organization: This essay is well-written, and the narrative easily holds a reader’s interest. There’s a good sense of the plot, and the paragraphs are clearly organized and easy to read through.
  • Strengths: We really see the writer’s initiative through this story. They did their research, got their supplies, and put their interest into action.
  • More significance: While this is a fun topic, it doesn’t convey much meaning about the writer’s life. The writer could make the topic more significant by adding more reflection throughout to show explicitly how this story has changed them as a person. Or they could select a different topic that relates to something more deeply meaningful about their life.

Key Takeaways

Hopefully these Common App essay examples have shown you what to do (and what not to do). More importantly, we hope that the commentary from our former admissions officers has helped you analyze the why behind what makes an effective Common App essay.

Absorbing these lessons and applying them to your own Common Application essay will help take your writing to the next level. No matter what you write about, your goal should be to create a seamless application narrative that speaks to your strengths.

If you’re not sure what step to take next, we've got you covered. The Essay Academy — our comprehensive digital college essay course — walks you through every step. 

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Common App Essays | 7 Strong Examples with Commentary

Published on November 19, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on May 31, 2023.

If you’re applying for college via the Common App , you’ll have to write an essay in response to one of seven prompts.

Table of contents

What is the common application essay, prompt 1: background, identity, interest, or talent, prompt 2: overcoming challenges, prompt 3: questioning a belief or idea, prompt 4: appreciating an influential person, prompt 5: transformative event, prompt 6: interest or hobby that inspires learning, prompt 7: free topic, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

The Common Application, or Common App , is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.

Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs. Instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Regardless of your prompt choice, admissions officers will look for an ability to clearly and creatively communicate your ideas based on the selected prompt.

We’ve provided seven essay examples, one for each of the Common App prompts. After each essay, we’ve provided a table with commentary on the essay’s narrative, writing style and tone, demonstrated traits, and self-reflection.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

This essay explores the student’s emotional journey toward overcoming her father’s neglect through gymnastics discipline.

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.

When “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” began to play, it was my signal to lay out a winning floor routine. Round off. Back handspring. Double back layout. Stick!

Instead, I jolted off the floor, landing out of bounds. Over the past week, I hadn’t landed that pass once, and regionals were only seven days away. I heaved a heavy sigh and stomped over to the bench.

Coach Farkas saw my consternation. “Mona, get out of your head. You’re way too preoccupied with your tumbling passes. You could do them in your sleep!”

That was the problem. I was dreaming of tumbling and missing my landings, waking up in a cold sweat. The stress felt overwhelming.

“Stretch out. You’re done for tonight.”

I walked home from the gym that had been my second home since fourth grade. Yet my anxiety was increasing every time I practiced.

I startled my mom. “You’re home early! Wait! You walked? Mona, what’s going on?!”

I slumped down at the kitchen table. “Don’t know.”

She sat down across from me. “Does it have anything to do with your father texting you a couple of weeks ago about coming to see you at regionals?”

“So what?! Why does it matter anymore?” He walked out when I was 10 and never looked back. Still, dear ol’ Dad always had a way of resurfacing when I least expected him.

“It still matters because when you hear from him, you tend to crumble. Or have you not noticed?” She offered a knowing wink and a compassionate smile.

I started gymnastics right after Dad left. The coaches said I was a natural: short, muscular, and flexible. All I knew was that the more I improved, the more confident I felt. Gymnastics made me feel powerful, so I gave it my full energy and dedication.

The floor routine became my specialty, and my performances were soon elevating our team score. The mat, solid and stable, became a place to explore and express my internal struggles. Over the years, no matter how angry I felt, the floor mat was there to absorb my frustration.

The bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving because I knew I could fall. My performances in those events were respectable. But, the floor? Sometimes, I had wildly creative and beautiful routines, while other times were disastrous. Sadly, my floor routine had never been consistent.

That Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the empty gym and walked over to the mat. I sat down and touched its carpeted surface. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet with the bitter disappointment of a dad who only showed up when it was convenient for him. I ruminated on the years of practices and meets where I had channeled my resentment into acrobatics and dance moves, resolved to rise higher than his indifference.

I saw then that my deepest wounds were inextricably entangled with my greatest passion. They needed to be permanently separated. While my anger had first served to launch me into gymnastics, before long, I had started serving my anger.

Anger is a cruel master. It corrupts everything it touches, even something as beautiful as a well-choreographed floor routine.

I changed my music days before regionals. “The Devil” no longer had a place in my routine. Instead, I chose an energetic cyberpunk soundtrack that inspired me to perform with passion and laser focus. Dad made an obligatory appearance at regionals, but he left before I could talk to him.

It didn’t matter this time. I stuck every landing in my routine. Anger no longer controlled me. I was finally free.

Word count: 601

College essay checklist
The student makes a unique connection, showing how her troubled relationship with her floor routine is connected to her anger at her absent father. However, rather than focusing on her difficult past, she highlights a key moment when she overcame her anger and made peace with her relationships with her dad and with gymnastics.
The essay uses a conversational tone but selectively employs elevated language that fits the student’s vocabulary range. The student uses personification to illustrate her close relationship to anger and gymnastics, such as “anger is a cruel master” and “the bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving.”
Through showing, not telling, the student clearly demonstrates dedication, hard work, and resilience. She also displays her commitment to emotional growth and character.
In the final paragraphs, the student contemplates her troubled relationship with her floor routine and realizes its connection to her absent father. She explains how this insight healed her and allowed her to freely perform without anger.

This essay shows how the challenges the student faced in caring for her sister with autism resulted in an unexpected path forward in her education.

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?

I never had a choice.

My baby sister was born severely autistic, which meant that every detail of our home life was repeatedly adjusted to manage her condition. I couldn’t go to bed without fearing that Mindy would wake up screaming with that hoarse little voice of hers. I couldn’t have friends over on weekends because we never knew if our entire family would need to shift into crisis mode to help Mindy regain control.

We couldn’t take a family vacation because Mindy would start hitting us during a long car ride when she didn’t want to sit there anymore. We couldn’t even celebrate Christmas like a normal family because Mindy would shriek and run away when we tried to give her presents.

I was five years old when Mindy was born. For the first ten years, I did everything I could to help my mom with Mindy. But Mom was depressed and would often stare out the window, as if transfixed by the view. Dad was no help either. He used his job as an excuse to be away from home. So, I tried to make up for both of them and rescue Mindy however I could whenever she needed it.

However, one day, when I was slowly driving Mindy around with the windows down, trying to lull her into a calmer state, we passed two of my former classmates from middle school. They heard Mindy growling her disapproval as the ride was getting long for her. One of them turned to the other and announced, “Oh my God! Marabeth brought her pet monster out for a drive!” They laughed hysterically and ran down the street.

After that day, I defied my parents at every turn. I also ignored Mindy. I even stopped doing homework. I purposely “got in with the wrong crowd” and did whatever they did.

My high school counselor Ms. Martinez saw through it all. She knew my family’s situation well. It didn’t take her long to guess what had probably happened.

“Marabeth, I get it. My brother has Down syndrome. It was really hard growing up with him as a brother. The other kids were pretty mean about it, especially in high school.”

I doubted she understood. “Yeah. So?”

“I’m guessing something happened that hurt or embarrassed you.”

“I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how you must have felt.”

It must have been the way she said it because I suddenly found myself sobbing into my trembling, cupped hands.

Ms. Martinez and I met every Friday after that for the rest of the year. Her stories of how she struggled to embrace living with and loving her brother created a bridge to my pain and then my healing. She explained that her challenges led her to pursue a degree in counseling so that she could offer other people what no one had given her.

I thought that Mindy was the end of my life, but, because of Ms. Martinez’s example and kindness, I can now see that Mindy is a gift, pointing me toward my future.

Now, I’m applying to study psychology so that I can go on to earn my master’s degree in counseling. I’m learning to forgive my parents for their mistakes, and I’m back in Mindy’s life again, but this time as a sister, not a savior. My choice.

Word Count: 553

College essay checklist
The essay has a logical flow. It starts by explaining the student’s challenges as her sister’s caretaker, describes her breaking point, and then shows how her counselor pointed her toward a new perspective and career path. It also avoids dwelling on negative details and concludes with a positive outlook and action.
The student’s tone is appropriately conversational to illustrate her feelings with vulnerability.
The essay clearly shows the student’s commitment, resilience, and sacrifice through the narrative of her caring for her sister.
The student reveals her honest thoughts and feelings. She also explains how her counselor helped her see her sister as a gift who motivated her to pursue a meaningful career path.

This essay illustrates a student’s courage in challenging his culture’s constructs of manhood and changing his course while positively affecting his father in the process.

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

“No son of mine is gonna march around a football field wearing tail feathers while all the real men are playing football!”

I took a step backward and tried not to appear as off-balance as I felt. In my excitement, I had blurted out more information than my father could handle:

“Dad! I made the marching band as a freshman! Nobody does that—I mean nobody!”

As soon as I had said it, I wished I could recall those words. How could I forget that 26 years earlier, he had been the starting wide receiver for the state-champion Tigers on the same field?!

Still, when I opened the email on that scorching hot August afternoon, I was thrilled that five months of practicing every possible major and harmonic minor scale—two octaves up and two octaves down—had made the difference. I had busted reed after reed, trying not to puff my cheeks while moving my fingers in a precise cadence.

I knew he had heard me continually practicing in my room, yet he seemed to ignore all the parts of me that were incongruous with his vision of manhood:

Ford F-150 4x4s. Pheasant hunting. The Nebraska Cornhuskers.

I never had to wonder what he valued. For years, I genuinely shared his interests. But, in the fall of eighth grade, I heard Kyle Wheeling play a saxophone solo during the homecoming marching band halftime show. My dad took me to every football game to teach me the plays, but that night, all I could think about was Kyle’s bluesy improv at halftime.

During Thanksgiving break, I got my mom to drive me into Omaha to rent my instrument at Dietze Music, and, soon after, I started private lessons with Mr. Ken. Before long, I was spending hours in my room, exploring each nuance of my shiny Yamaha alto sax, anticipating my audition for the Marching Tigers at the end of the spring semester.

During those months of practice, I realized that I couldn’t hide my newfound interest forever, especially not from the football players who were going to endlessly taunt me. But not all the guys played football. Some were in choir and theater. Quite a few guys were in the marching band. In fact, the Marching Tigers had won the grand prize in their division at last year’s state showdown in Lincoln.

I was excited! They were the champions, and I was about to become a part of their legacy.

Yet, that afternoon, a sense of anxiety brewed in my belly. I knew I had to talk to him.

He was sweeping the grass clippings off of the sidewalk. He nodded.

“I need to tell you something.”

He looked up.

“I know that you know about my sax because you hear me practicing. I like it a lot, and I’m becoming pretty good at it. I still care about what you like, but I’m starting to like some other things more. I hope you’ll be proud of me whatever I choose.”

He studied the cracks in the driveway. “I am proud of you. I just figured you’d play football.”

We never talked about it again, but that fall, he was in the stands when our marching band won the state championship in Lincoln for the second time. In fact, for the next four years, he never left the stands during halftime until the marching band had performed. He was even in the audience for every performance of “Our Town” at the end of my junior year. I played the Stage Manager who reveals the show’s theme: everything changes gradually.

I know it’s true. Things do change over time, even out here in central Nebraska. I know because I’ve changed, and my dad has changed, too. I just needed the courage to go first.

Word count: 626

College essay checklist
The essay starts with a picture of confrontation that directly reflects the prompt. It then paints a chronological narrative of the student’s journey toward change, while using the literary device of flashback in the middle to add background and clarity to the story.
The student uses a conversational yet respectful tone for a college essay. He effectively uses dialogue to highlight important moments of conflict and mutual understanding throughout the story.
The student clearly demonstrates the qualities of self-reflection, courage, and integrity without directly claiming to have them (show, don’t tell).
The student offers an honest assessment of his culture’s traditional views of manhood, his reasons for challenging them, and his appreciation for his father’s acceptance of his choices.

The student demonstrates how his teacher giving him an unexpected bad grade was the catalyst for his becoming a better writer.

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?

I stared in disbelief at the big red letter at the top of my paper: D. 

Never in my entire high school career had I seen that letter at the top of any paper, unless it was at the beginning of my first name. 

I had a 4.796 GPA. I had taken every pre-AP and AP course offered. My teachers had praised my writing skills! However, Mr. Trimble didn’t think so, and he let me know it:

“Darwin, in the future, I believe you can do better if you fully apply yourself.” 

I furiously scanned the paper for corrections. Not even one! Grammar and syntax? Perfect. Spelling? Impeccable. Sentence and paragraph structure? Precise and indisputable, as always. 

Was he trying to ruin my GPA? Cooper was clearly his favorite, and we were neck and neck for valedictorian, which was only one year away. Maybe they were conspiring to take me down. 

Thankfully, AP Composition was my last class. I fled the room and ran to my car. Defiant tears stained my cheeks as I screeched my tires and roared out of the parking lot. When I got home, I shoved in my AirPods, flopped on my bed, and buried my head under the pillow. 

I awoke to my sister, Daria, gently shaking my arm. “I know what happened, D. Trimble stopped me in the hall after school.”

“I’m sure he did. He’s trying to ruin my life.”

“That’s not what he told me. You should talk to him, D.”

The next day, although I tried to avoid Mr. Trimble at all costs, I almost tripped over him as I was coming out of the bathroom.

“Darwin, can we talk?” 

He walked me down the hall to his room. “Do you know that you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever had in AP Comp?” 

“Then why’d you do it?” 

“Because you’re better than you know, Darwin. You impress with your perfect presentations, and your teachers reward you with A’s and praise. I do frequent the teacher’s lounge, you know.” 

“So I know you’re not trying.”

I locked eyes with him and glared. 

“You’ve never had to try because you have a gift. And, in the midst of the acclaim, you’ve never pushed yourself to discover your true capabilities.”

“So you give me a D?!”

“It got your attention.”

“You’re not going to leave it, are you?”

“Oh, the D stands. You didn’t apply yourself. You’ll have to earn your way out with your other papers.” 

I gained a new understanding of the meaning of ambivalence. Part of me was furious at the injustice of the situation, but I also felt strangely challenged and intrigued. I joined a local writer’s co-op and studied K. M. Weiland’s artistic writing techniques. 

Multiple drafts, track changes, and constructive criticism became my new world. I stopped taking Mr. Trimble’s criticism personally and began to see it as a precious tool to bolster me, not break me down. 

Last week, the New York Public Library notified me that I was named one of five finalists for the Young Lions Fiction Award. They described my collection of short stories as “fresh, imaginative, and captivating.” 

I never thought I could be grateful for a D, but Mr. Trimble’s insightful courage was the catalyst that transformed my writing and my character. Just because other people applaud you for being the best doesn’t mean you’re doing your best . 

AP Composition is now recorded as an A on my high school transcript, and Cooper and I are still locked in a tight race for the finish line. But, thanks to Mr. Trimble, I have developed a different paradigm for evaluation: my best. And the more I apply myself, the better my best becomes. 

Word Count: 627

College essay checklist
The essay begins with an attention-grabbing statement that immediately captures the essence of surprise requested in the prompt. The story then unfolds in a logical sequence, taking the reader on a journey of unexpected transformation.
The student uses an accessible, casual tone that works well in light of his expertise in writing. His use of dialogue with nicknames and colloquialism brings a conversational tone to the storyline.
The student openly shows his motivation for success and his feelings toward his peers and teacher. However, he demonstrates humility in accepting criticism, responding with a diligent attempt to improve his writing skills.
The essay concludes with growth in the student’s character and self-discipline while his circumstances remained the same. He brings the prompt full circle, expressing his gratitude toward his teacher.

This student narrates how she initially went to church for a boy but instead ended up confronting her selfishness by helping others.

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

Originally, I went to church not because I was searching for Jesus but because I liked a boy.

Isaac Ono wasn’t the most athletic boy in our class, nor was he the cutest. But I was amazed by his unusual kindness toward everyone. If someone was alone or left out, he’d walk up to them and say hello or invite them to hang out with him and his friends.

I started waking up at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday morning to attend Grace Hills Presbyterian, where Isaac’s father was the pastor. I would strategically sit in a pew not too close but close enough to Isaac that when the entire congregation was instructed to say “Peace be with you,” I could “happen” to shake Isaac’s hand and make small talk.

One service, as I was staring at the back of Isaac’s head, pondering what to say to him, my hearing suddenly tuned in to his father’s sermon.

“There’s no such thing as a good or bad person.”

My eyes snapped onto Pastor Marcus.

“I used to think I was a good person who came from a respectable family and did nice things. But people aren’t inherently good or bad. They just make good or bad choices.”

My mind raced through a mental checklist of whether my past actions fell mostly into the former or latter category.

“As it says in Deuteronomy 30:15, ‘I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.’ Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and do good.”

I glanced to my left and saw Margaret, underlining passages in her study Bible and taking copious notes.

Months earlier, I had befriended Margaret. We had fourth-period Spanish together but hadn’t interacted much. She was friends with Isaac, so I started hanging out with her to get closer to him. But eventually, the two of us were spending hours in the Starbucks parking lot having intense discussions about religion, boys, and our futures until we had to return home before curfew.

After hearing the pastor’s sermon, I realized that what I had admired about Isaac was also present in Margaret and other people at church: a welcoming spirit. I’m pretty sure Margaret knew of my ulterior motives for befriending her, but she never called me out on it.

After that day, I started paying more attention to Pastor Marcus’s sermons and less attention to Isaac. One year, our youth group served Christmas Eve dinner to the homeless and ate with them. I sat across from a woman named Lila who told me how child services had taken away her four-year-old daughter because of her financial and living situation.

A few days later, as I sat curled up reading the book of James, my heart suddenly felt heavy.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

I thought back to Pastor Marcus’s sermon on good and bad actions, Lila and her daughter, and the times I had passed people in need without even saying hello.

I decided to put my faith into action. The next week, I started volunteering at the front desk of a women’s shelter, helping women fill out forms or watching their kids while they talked with social workers.

From working for the past year at the women’s shelter, I now know I want to major in social work, caring for others instead of focusing on myself. I may not be a good person (or a bad one), but I can make good choices, helping others with every opportunity God gives me.

Word count: 622

College essay checklist
The narrative begins by clearly identifying the prompt: the event of church attendance. It has a clear story arc, starting with the student’s church experiences, moving on to her self-examination, and concluding with the changes she made to her behavior and goals to serve others.
The student uses dialogue to highlight key moments of realization and transformation. The essay’s tone is casual, helping the reader feel comfortable in the student’s thoughts and memory.
The student displays an unusual level of self-awareness and maturity by revealing an ulterior motive, the ability to self-reflect, and a desire to authentically apply theoretical teachings in a real-world setting.
While the topic of church and conversion is common, the student’s narrative weaves in unexpected elements to create interest while clearly answering the prompt.

This essay shows how a student’s natural affinity for solving a Rubik’s cube developed her self-understanding, academic achievement, and inspiration for her future career.

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?

The worst part about writing is putting down my Rubik’s cube so that I can use my hands to type. That’s usually the worst part of tackling my to-do list: setting aside my Rubik’s cube. My parents call it an obsession. But, for me, solving a Rubik’s cube challenges my brain as nothing else can.

It started on my ninth birthday. I invited three friends for a sleepover party, and I waited to open my presents right before bed. Wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows flew through the air as I oohed and aahed over each delightful gift! However, it was the last gift—a 3 x 3 x 3 cube of little squares covered in red, green, blue, yellow, white, and orange—that intrigued me.

I was horrified when Bekka ripped it out of my hands and messed it all up! I had no idea how to make all the sides match again. I waited until my friends were fast asleep. Then, I grabbed that cube and studied it under my blanket with a flashlight, determined to figure out how to restore it to its former pristine state.

Within a few weeks, I had discovered the secret. To practice, I’d take my cube with me to recess and let the other kids time me while I solved it in front of them. The better I became, the more they gathered around. But I soon realized that their attention didn’t matter all that much. I loved solving cubes for hours wherever I was: at lunch, riding in the car, or alone in my room.

Cross. White corners. Middle-layer edges. Yellow cross. Sune and anitsune. 

The sequential algorithms became second nature, and with the assistance of a little black digital timer, I strove to solve the cube faster , each time attempting to beat my previous record. I watched speed solvers on YouTube, like Australia’s Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park from Massachusetts, but I wasn’t motivated to compete as they did. I watched their videos to learn how to improve my time. I liked finding new, more efficient ways of mastering the essential 78 separate cube-solving algorithms.

Now, I understand why my passion for my Rubik’s cube has never waned. Learning and applying the various algorithms soothes my brain and centers my emotions, especially when I feel overwhelmed from being around other people. Don’t get me wrong: I like other people—just in doses.

While some people get recharged by spending time with others, I can finally breathe when I’m alone with my cube. Our psychology teacher says the difference between an extrovert and an introvert is the situations that trigger their brains to produce dopamine. For me, it’s time away, alone, flipping through cube patterns to set a new personal best.

Sometimes, the world doesn’t cooperate with introverts, requiring them to interact with many people throughout the day. That’s why you’ll often find me in the stairwell or a library corner attempting to master another one of the 42 quintillion ways to solve a cube. My parents tease me that when I’ve “had enough” of anything, my fingers get a Rubik’s itch, and I suddenly disappear. I’m usually occupied for a while, but when I finally emerge, I feel centered, prepared to tackle my next task.

Secretly, I credit my cube with helping me earn top marks in AP Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics. It’s also responsible for my interest in computer engineering. It seems I just can’t get enough of those algorithms, which is why I want to study the design and implementation of cybersecurity software—all thanks to my Rubik’s cube.

Just don’t tell my parents! It would ruin all the fun!

Word count: 607

College essay checklist
The student immediately captures the reader’s attention with an unexpected statement that captures the prompt’s focus on captivation. Her writing clearly illustrates her love for the Rubik’s cube, showing how the cube has helped her emotionally and academically and inspired her choice of major.
The student uses a conversational tone while inserting elevated language and concepts that surround her field of interest. She also uses the “I” to personalize her experience.
Through her detailed narrative of her Rubik’s cube hobby, the student demonstrates perseverance, focus, curiosity, and an uncanny ability to solve problems.
The student shows awareness of her introversion by explaining how the Rubik’s cube helps her emotionally recharge. She also credits her hobby with helping her in her studies and inspiring her intended major.

In this free topic essay, the student uses a montage structure inspired by the TV show Iron Chef America to demonstrate his best leadership moments.

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.

Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition

The time has come to answer college’s most difficult question: Whose story shows glory?

This is … Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition!

Welcome to Kitchen Stadium! Today we have Chef Brett Lowell. Chef Brett will be put to the test to prove he has what it takes to attend university next fall.

And the secret ingredient is … leadership! He must include leadership in each of his dishes, which will later be evaluated by a panel of admissions judges.

So now, America, with a creative mind and empty paper, I say unto you in the words of my teacher: “Let’s write!”

Appetizer: My first leadership experience

A mountain of mismatched socks, wrinkled jeans, and my dad’s unironed dress shirts sat in front of me. Laundry was just one of many chores that welcomed me home once I returned from my after-school job at Baskin Robbins, a gig I had taken last year to help Dad pay the rent. A few years earlier, I wasn’t prepared to cook dinners, pay utility bills, or pick up and drop off my brothers. I thought those jobs were reserved for parents. However, when my father was working double shifts at the power plant and my mom was living in Tucson with her new husband, Bill, I stepped up and took care of the house and my two younger brothers.

Main course: My best leadership experience

Between waiting for the pasta water to boil and for the next laundry cycle to be finished, I squeezed in solving a few practice precalculus problems to prepare for the following week’s mathletics competition. I liked how the equations always had clear, clean answers, which calmed me among the mounting responsibilities of home life. After leading my team to the Minnesota State Finals for two years in a row, I was voted team captain. Although my home responsibilities often competed with my mathlete duties, I tried to be as productive as possible in my free time. On the bus ride home, I would often tackle 10 to 20 functions or budget the following week’s meals and corresponding grocery list. My junior year was rough, but both my home and my mathlete team needed me.

Dessert: My future leadership hopes 

The first thing I ever baked was a chocolate cake in middle school. This was around the time that Mom had just moved out and I was struggling with algebra. Troubles aside, one day my younger brother Simon needed a contribution for his school’s annual bake sale, and the PTA moms wouldn’t accept anything store-bought. So I carefully measured out the teaspoons and cups of various flours, powders, and oils, which resulted in a drooping, too-salty disaster.

Four years later, after a bakery’s worth of confections and many hours of study, I’ve perfected my German chocolate cake and am on my way to mastering Calculus AB. I’ve also thrown out the bitter-tasting parts of my past such as my resentment and anger toward my mom. I still miss having her at home, but whenever I have a baking question or want to update her on my mathlete team’s success, I call her or chat with her over text.

Whether in school or life, I see problems as opportunities, not obstacles, to find a better way to solve them more efficiently. I hope to continue improving my problem-solving skills next fall by majoring in mathematics and statistics.

Time’s up! 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tasting of Chef Lowell’s leadership experiences. Next fall, tune in to see him craft new leadership adventures in college. He’s open to refining his technique and discovering new recipes.

Word count: 612

College essay checklist
The student uses a popular TV cooking show as an unexpected concept to display his leadership abilities. Since the prompt is open-ended, the student has more room to craft his response.
The essay juxtaposes the contrived nature of a TV show’s script with a conversational narrative of the student’s leadership stories.
Each story effectively showcases the student’s leadership by showing, not telling. Rather than saying “I’m a great leader,” he provides specific instances of his best moments of demonstrated leadership.
The student honestly shares his reservations about his mother’s new life but shows how he was able to reconcile aspects of their relationship as time passed.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.

Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.

No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

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The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay That Will Get You Accepted

Common App essay - magoosh

If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably started the very exciting process of applying to college—and chances are you may be a little overwhelmed at times. That’s OK! The key to getting into the right college for you is taking each step of the application process in stride, and one of those steps is completing the Common App and the Common App essay.

In this post, you’ll learn what the Common Application essay is, how to write one (including a free checklist to help you with the process), example essays, and much more. Let’s get started!

Table of Contents

What is the Common App, and More Importantly, What is the Common App Essay? Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay? What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common Application Essay FAQs

What is the common app, and more importantly, what is the common app essay.

What is the Common App essay - magoosh

The “Common App,” short for the Common Application , is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once. It’s accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally.

The idea is that the Common App is a “one-stop shop” so you don’t have to complete a million separate applications. That said, plenty of colleges still require their own application components, and the Common App, as user-friendly as it aims to be, can still feel like a bit of a challenge to complete.

Part of the reason the Common App can seem intimidating is because of the Common App essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application this way. But never fear! In reality, the Common App essay is easy to ace if you know how to approach it and you give it your best.

So without further ado, let’s take a look at anything and everything you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay in order to help you get into the school of your dreams. We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay.

Button to download 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay

Common App essay facts - magoosh

Below are just a few of the short and sweet things you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay, but we’ll elaborate on some of this content later in this post.

There is no fee to complete the Common App, but nearly every college has its own set of necessary submissions fees.
250-650 words
One (but specific colleges may request more than that in their applications)
You have until 11:50 pm in your timezone on the day a college application is due to submit the Common App, including the Common App essay.
(more on this below!)

How Do You Write a Common App Essay?

How to write a Common App essay - magoosh

The million dollar question about the Common App essay is obviously, “How do I actually write it?!”

Now there’s something to keep in mind before exploring how to compose the Common App essay, and that’s the purpose of this task. You may be wondering:

  • What are college admissions boards actually looking for?
  • Why are you being asked to write this essay?

College admissions boards want to see that you can compose a compelling, well-crafted essay. After four years of high school, you’re expected to be able to craft a clear and concise piece of writing that addresses a specific subject.

So yes, you’re actually being evaluated on your essay writing skills, but the purpose of the Common Application essay is deeper than that—it’s to present the type of person and thinker that you are.

Regardless of which prompt you choose, colleges are trying to get a sense of how thoughtfully and critically you can reflect on your life and the world around you .

And furthermore, they want to get a sense of who you are—your interests, your personality, your values—the dimensional aspects of you as an applicant that simply can’t be expressed in transcripts and test scores . In short, you want to stand out and be memorable.

That said, there is no exact formula for “cracking the case” of the Common App essay, but there are plenty of useful steps and tips that can help you write a great essay.

(In a hurry? Download our quick and concise handout that sums up some of the keys to the Common App essay!)

1) Familiarize Yourself With the Common App Prompts and How to Approach Them

The Common App recently released the 2021-2022 essay prompts , which are almost the same as last year’s prompts, but with one BIG difference.

The prompt about problem solving (formerly prompt #4) has been replaced with a prompt about gratitude and how it has motivated you. According to Common App President and CEO Jenny Rickard, this change was inspired by new scientific research on the benefits of writing about gratitude and the positive impact others have had on our lives.

Additionally, the Common App now includes an optional Covid-19 prompt where you can discuss how you’ve personally been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

Now, let’s take a look at each 2021-2022 Common App prompt individually. You’ll notice that every prompt really has two parts to it:

  • share, explain and describe a narrative, and
  • reflect on, analyze, and draw meaning from it.

Let’s take a look.

  Prompt #1: A snapshot of your story

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss a background, identity, or interest that you feel is meaningful to who you are and/or that or sets you apart from others.
  • Reflect on why this attribute is meaningful and how it has shaped you as a person.

  Prompt #2: An obstacle you overcame

Prompt: 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?

  • Recount a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
  • Reflect on how this affected you, what you learned from it, and if it led to any successes later down the line.

  Prompt #3: A belief or idea you questioned or challenged

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

  • Explain a time that you questioned a particular belief or way of thinking.
  • Elaborate on what prompted this questioning, what the outcome was, and why this outcome was significant.

  Prompt #4: An experience of gratitude that has motivated you

Prompt: 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?

  • Describe the specific experience or interaction that made you feel a sense of gratitude. Make sure to explain who did something nice for you and why it was surprising or unexpected.
  • Explain, as specifically as possible, how this feeling of gratitude changed or motivated you. What actions did you take a result? How did your mindset change?

  Prompt #5: An accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth

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

  • Describe an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth for you.
  • Reflect on the nature of this growth and/or a new understanding you gained in the process.

  Prompt #6: An interest so engaging you lose track of time

Prompt: 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?

  • Discuss a topic, idea, or interest that is so engaging to you that you lose track of time when focused on it.
  • Reflect on and explain why this interest is so important to you, and your method of learning more about it.

  Prompt #7: An essay topic of your choice

Prompt: 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.

  • Discuss any subject matter or philosophical question of interest to you.
  • Reflect on the implications of this subject or question, and how it has shaped you, transformed you, impacted your life, etc.

  Now keep in mind that to some degree, it doesn’t actually matter which prompt you choose to answer, so long as you write and present yourself well. But you obviously want to pick whichever Common App essay prompt speaks to you most, and the one you think will provide you the meatiest and most meaningful material.

This is an outstanding guide to choosing the right Common App essay prompt, but as a rule of thumb, the “right” prompt will probably stand out to you. If you have to rack your brain, for example, to think of a challenge you’ve overcome and how the experience has shaped you, then that prompt probably isn’t the right one.

Authenticity is key, so choose the prompt you can answer thoroughly.

2) Brainstorm

Whether you know immediately which prompt you’re going to choose or not, do yourself a huge favor and brainstorm . Take out a notebook and jot down or free write all of the ideas that spring to your mind for as many of the prompts that you’re considering. You might be surprised what ideas you generate as you start doing this, and you might be surprised which ideas seem to have the most content and examples to elaborate on.

Also, it’s important to note that your subject matter doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or spectacular. You don’t have to recount a near-death experience, an epic overseas adventure, a 180-degree turn of faith, etc. Your ordinary life, when reflected upon thoughtfully, is interesting and profound.

3) Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)

This may sound painfully obvious, but for some of us, it can be hard to stay on topic. Each prompt is posed as a question , so don’t lose sight of that and let your essay devolve into a story about yourself that never really gets at the heart of the prompt.

As you’re drafting your essay—say after each paragraph—pause and refer back to the question, making sure each paragraph plays some part in actually responding to the prompt.

4) Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively

The Common App essay isn’t like many of the other argumentative essays you’ve been taught to write in school. It is argumentative in that you are essentially arguing for why you are a good candidate for a particular college, using your personal experience as support, but it’s more than that.

The Common Application essay is essentially a narrative essay that is reflective and analytical by nature. This means that regardless of which prompt you select, you’ll be sharing something personal about yourself, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what you shared is important.

And even if this isn’t an essay format that you’re accustomed to writing, you can still rely on your knowledge of basic essay structures to help you. You’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.

Let’s talk about those three pieces now.

Introduction

The purpose of an introduction is 1) to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading, and 2) to introduce the reader to the general subject at hand.

So the most important part of the introduction is a unique attention-getter that establishes your personal voice and tone while piquing the reader’s interest. An example of a good hook could be a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, and so on.

Now, you may be wondering, “Do I need a thesis statement?” This is a great question and the simple answer is no.

This is because some students prefer to hook their reader with a bit of mystery and let their story unfold organically without a thesis sentence “spoiling” what is to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a thesis sentence, it just means you don’t need one. It just depends on how you want to build your personal narrative, and what serves you best.

That said, your essay does need a greater message or lesson in it, which is another way of saying a thesis . You just don’t necessarily have to write it out in the introduction paragraph.

It might help you to keep a thesis in mind or even write it down just for your own sake, even if you don’t explicitly use it in your introduction. Doing so can help you stay on track and help you build up to a stronger reflection.

Here are some examples of narrative thesis statements:

  • I moved a lot as a child on account of having a parent in the military, which led me to become highly adaptable to change.
  • The greatest obstacle I’ve overcome is my battle with leukemia, which has taught me both incredible resilience and reverence for the present.
  • An accomplishment that I achieved was making the varsity volleyball team, which has made me grow tremendously as a person, specifically in the areas of self-confidence and collaboration.

As discussed earlier, there are two parts to each prompt: explanation and reflection . Each part should be addressed throughout the essay, but how you organize your content is up to you.

A good rule of thumb for structuring the body of your essay is as follows:

  • Situate your reader: provide context for your story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details. For example, you may frame an essay about an internship at the zoo with the phrase, “Elephants make the best friends.” Your reader knows immediately that the subject matter involves your interaction with animals, specifically elephants.
  • Explain more about your topic and how it affected you, using specific examples and key details.
  • Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.

Note that while there are no set rules for how many paragraphs you should use for your essay, be mindful of breaking paragraphs whenever you naturally shift gears, and be mindful of too-long paragraphs that just feel like walls of text for the reader.

Your conclusion should flow nicely from your elaboration, really driving home your message or what you learned. Be careful not to just dead-end your essay abruptly.

This is a great place to speculate on how you see the subject matter informing your future, especially as a college student and beyond. For example, what might you want to continue to learn about? What problems do you anticipate being able to solve given your experience?

5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly

It may go without saying, but tell your own story, without borrowing from someone else’s or embellishing. Profound reflection, insight, and wisdom can be gleaned from the seemingly simplest experiences, so don’t feel the need to stray from the truth of your unique personal experiences.

Also, make sure to laser in on a highly specific event, obstacle, interest, etc. It is better to go “narrower and deeper” than to go “wider and shallower,” because the more specific you are, the more vivid and engrossing your essay will naturally be.

For example, if you were a camp counselor every summer for the last few years, avoid sharing several summers’ worth of content in your essay. Focus instead on one summer , and even better, on one incident during that summer at camp.

And on that note, remember to be vivid! Follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell . Provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for your readers.

6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone

Unlike in most academic essays, you can sound a bit less stuffy and a bit more like yourself in the Common App essay. Your essay should be professional, but can be conversational. Try reading it aloud; does it sound like you? That’s good!

Be mindful, however, of not getting too casual or colloquial in it. This means avoiding slang, contractions, or “text speak” abbreviations (e.g. “lol”), at least without deliberate context in your story (for example, if you’re recounting dialogue).

You’re still appealing to academic institutions here, so avoid profanity at all costs, and make sure you’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.

7) Revise and Proofread

This one is a biggie. Give yourself time during your application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite your essay several times. Let it grow and change and become the best version it can be. After you write your first draft, walk away from it for a couple days, and return to it with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you feel like adding, removing, or changing.

And of course, make sure your essay is pristine before you submit it. Triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc. Since this isn’t a timed essay you have to sit for (like the ACT essay test , for example), the college admissions readers will expect your essay to be polished and sparkling.

A tried and true method for both ensuring flow and catching errors is reading your essay aloud. You may sound a little silly, but it really works!

What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay?

What to avoid in Common App essay - magoosh

Resume Material

Your Common App essay is your chance to provide a deeper insight into you as a person, so avoid just repeating what you’d put on a resume. This is not to say you can’t discuss something mentioned briefly on your resume in greater depth, but the best essays offer something new that helps round out the whole college application.

Controversy

Okay, now this one is a bit tricky. On the one hand, you should write boldly and honestly, and some of the prompts (the one about challenging a particular belief, for example) are appropriate for addressing potentially contentious topics.

But that said, avoid being controversial or edgy for the sake of being controversial or edgy. Be steadfast in your beliefs for the greater sake of the narrative and your essay will be naturally compelling without being alienating to your readers.

Vague Stories

If you have a personal story that you’re not entirely comfortable sharing, avoid it, even if it would make a great essay topic in theory. This is because if you’re not comfortable writing on the subject matter, you’ll end up being too vague, which won’t do your story or overall application justice. So choose a subject matter you’re familiar with and comfortable discussing in specifics.

Unless they really, truly serve your essay, avoid general platitudes and cliches in your language. It is definitely encouraged to have an essay with a moral, lesson, or greater takeaway, but try to avoid summing up what you’ve learned with reductive phrases like “slow and steady wins the race,” “good things come in small packages,” “actions speak louder than words,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on.

What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?

Common App essay examples - magoosh

There are tons of Common App essays out there, including these Common App essay examples accepted at Connecticut College, which include explanations from admissions readers about why they were chosen.

But let’s take a look here at two versions of an example essay, one that is just okay and one that is great.

Both Common App essay examples are crafted in response to prompt #2, which is:

Essay Version #1, Satisfactory Essay:

During my sophomore year of high school, I tore my ACL, which stands for “anterior cruciate ligament,” and is the kiss of death for most athletic careers. This injury ended up being one of the greatest obstacles of my life. It was also, however, a turning point that taught me to see opportunity amidst adversity.

It was particularly awful that I was just about to score a winning goal during a championship hockey game when I was checked by a guy on the opposing team and came crashing down on my knee. It was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I knew immediately that this was going to be bad.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, not really knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class for those students who wanted to continue studying art beyond what was already offered. I had taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed and excelled at them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my scheduled, as required.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began feeling better. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at. I wanted to share the world around me as I saw it with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before. I met and made friends with many new people in that art class, people I would have never known if I hadn’t taken it, which also opened me up to all kinds of new mindsets and experiences.

We’re all familiar with the common adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” and this is exactly what happened for me. I might never have pursued art more seriously if I hadn’t been taken out of hockey. This has served as a great reminder for me to stay open to new opportunities. We never know what will unexpectedly bring us joy and make us more well-rounded people.

Areas for Improvement in Version #1:

  • It lacks a compelling hook.
  • The discussion of the obstacle and reflection upon it are both a bit rushed.
  • It could use more vivid and evocative language.
  • It uses a cliche (“one door closes”).
  • It is somewhat vague at times (e.g. what kinds of “new mindsets and experiences” did the writer experience? In what ways are they now more “well-rounded”?).

Now let’s apply this feedback and revise the essay.

Essay Version #2, Excellent Essay:

My body was splayed out on the ice and I was simultaneously right there, in searing pain, and watching everything from above, outside of myself. It wasn’t actually a “near death” experience, but it was certainly disorienting, considering that just seconds before, I was flying down the ice in possession of the puck, about to score the winning goal of our championship game.

Instead, I had taken a check from an opposing team member, and had torn my ACL (or anterior cruciate ligament), which is the kiss of death for most athletic careers.

My road to recovery included two major surgeries, a couple months on crutches, a year of physical therapy, and absolutely zero athletic activity. I would heal, thankfully, and regain movement in my knee and leg, but I was told by doctors that I may never play hockey again, which was devastating to me. Hockey wasn’t just my passion—it was my life’s goal to play professionally.

For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, feeling like a ghost haunting my own life, watching everything but unable to participate. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally, and I grew lethargic and depressed.

And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class after school for those students who wanted to study art more seriously. I had already taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my schedule, as required. And, because of hockey, I certainly had never had afternoons open.

After a couple of weeks of the class, I began to feel alive again, like “myself” but renewed, more awake and aware of everything around me. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at, to bring everything I saw to life. It wasn’t just that I’d adopted a new hobby or passion, it was that I began looking more closely and critically at the world around me. I wanted to share what I saw with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before.

My art teacher selected a charcoal portrait of mine to be showcased in a local art show and I’ve never been more proud of myself for anything. Many of my friends, family members, and teammates came to see the show, which blew me away, but also I realized then just how much of my own self worth had been attached to people’s perception of me as a successful athlete. I learned how much better it feels to gain self worth from within. Unlike hockey, which I’d trained to be good at since I was a toddler, art is something that made me much more vulnerable. I didn’t do it to try to be the best, I did it because it felt good. And getting out of my comfort zone in this way gave me a sense of confidence I had never known prior, despite all my time on the ice during high-stakes games.

Today, I’m back in skates and able to play hockey, but will probably not play professionally; while I am disappointed, I’m also at peace with it. We make plans in life, and sometimes life has other plans for us that we have to adapt to and embrace, which is the more profound lesson I’ve learned in the healing process. We can crumple in the face of obstacles, or we can look for a silver lining and allow ourselves to grow into more complex, dynamic, well-rounded people. I don’t know what the rest of life holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to keep making art, and I’m going to keep opening myself up to new opportunities and experiences.

Strengths of Version #2:

  • It has a compelling hook that draws the reader in.
  • It has a clear beginning, middle, and end (expressed as an introduction, body, and conclusion).
  • It directly addresses the prompt at hand and sticks to it.
  • It focuses on one specific incident.
  • It is well balanced in its explanation of and reflection on a given experience.
  • It uses a clear, unique voice and tone as well as vivid, evocative language.
  • It has a logical and cohesive flow.
  • It is highly personal while also polished and professional.

Hopefully these examples have given you ideas of how you can take your Common App essay from good to great. If you have more questions about how to write a Common App essay, keep reading our FAQs below.

Common App essay FAQs - magoosh

How much do I actually have to write for the Common App essay?

Last year, the Common App essay was capped at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words required. The best essays tend to range between 500-650 words.

Think of it this way as you start to draft: 500 words is one single-spaced page (250 words is one double-spaced page), so you should write roughly a page to page and half of typed, single-spaced content.

Where can I find the official Common App essay prompts?

Here are the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts , which are the same as last year’s, with the exception of a new prompt #4 and the addition of a Covid-19 Common App prompt .

Do I need a title for the Common App essay?

A title is not required for the Common App essay, but you are, of course, more than welcome to include one if you’d like.

Where can I go for more information about the Common App essay?

All of the necessary information for the Common App and the Common App essay can be found on the Common Application home page.

For further reading, here are some posts that tackle and dispel common myths about the Common App essay:

Myth: The Common App essay must sound professional. Myth: Colleges can’t tell if someone helps write a common app essay.

If you haven’t already, you can download our free Common App essay checklist .

Happy Writing!

There you have it! The Common App essay can actually be quite rewarding to write if you give yourself enough time to prepare for it thoroughly. Remember, it’s all about you, and you’re the authority on that! So hunker down and don’t forget to have fun in the writing process.

We’d also love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you still have about the Common Application essay? What are you thinking about writing on?

Comment below, and good luck!

Nadyja Von Ebers

Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions . Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn !

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How to Write the Common App Essay–Examples for 2023-2024

what should i write my common app essay about

So, you’re applying to college and are probably panicking about how to write the hardest part of your application: the Common Application essay. Don’t panic! We’re here to help. If you keep the following tips in mind, we’re confident that you’ll be well on your way to drafting a strong application essay that screams out, “Dear College, this is who I am, and here’s why you want me!”

So, let’s start with some basics.

What is the Common Application Essay?

The Common Application centralizes the admissions process for over 900 schools. These participating colleges and universities all use the same common biographical and academic information forms. Most of the schools also require or accept the Common Application essay. Neat, huh? Essentially, you choose the schools you want to apply to, add them to your application list, fill in the general demographic and biographical information, upload or input academic records and standardized testing information, designate people to write you recommendations, and upload the Common Application essay. All of this is done in one place. That’s it. Simple, right?

Now, many of the top-tiered schools require additional information and essays, but most of these documents can be uploaded into the Common Application. If you’re applying to art schools, the schools will provide extra links on their Common Application sites. Those links will lead you to a website where you can upload your art portfolio and additional documents.  We’ll discuss such additional requirements in another post.

What do I need to include in the Common App Essay?

While the Common Application essay regularly makes adjustments to its essay prompts, for the 2022-2023 college application season, the prompts will remain exactly the same as last year, when the rarely used prompt about solving a problem was replaced with one that was inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, to, according to Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard, “help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives.” The 2023-2024 Common App Essay prompts also still contain the optional COVID-19 prompt that appeared in 2020.

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
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?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
  • 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.

Did you notice a common theme among these questions? At its core, the Common Application essay is designed to make you answer the question, “WHO are you?”  What colleges and universities want to know is (1) how your experiences or background have shaped you into the person you are today and (2) how who you are today is going to affect your future academic performance.

Why is the Common App Essay important?

This essay is one of the most important parts of your application, and in some cases, especially for top-tiered schools, it is weighed as much as, or more than, your grades and test scores—estimates say that they can account for anywhere from 10 to 30% of admission decisions. Why? Well, think about it. If most of the applicants applying to a top college have similar academic profiles, how can the schools distinguish one candidate from another? It’s all in the story you craft, and we’re here to help you present the best version of you !

Preparing to Write Your Common App Essay

A good starting point for writing a successful application essay is reading Common App essay examples that got other students admitted to their schools of choice. However, keep in mind that you do that for inspiration only and that your goal is not to copy anyone—ultimately, you’ll have to come up with your very own story and present it in your very own way. The tips and “dos and don’ts” below can help you do exactly that as you prepare to write or rewrite your Common Application essay.

You are also well advised to ask your teachers, counselors, and other mentors for advice at any step of the process: Maybe come up with a list of potential topics and let someone who knows you and is aware of your goal (to get into your school of choice) give you feedback on what they think suits or doesn’t suit you. Or make a draft of your story (maybe just in your head) and call your mentor to ask them if they would choose you as a prospective student based on that story. You can of course also seek out professional proofreaders like us to help you revise your personal statement and make it shine!

The two main points of getting yourself ready for writing your Common App essay are (1) that admissions committees have no preference for which prompt you choose and (2) that your essay is not a place to restate what you already said on your resumé or in the Common App “activities” section. You also don’t have to prove that you somehow changed the world or did something heroic. Instead, the essay is a chance for you to show the admissions committee the “you” that your friends, classmates, teachers, and family know. Our advice for where to start is to brainstorm the best (most interesting, most meaningful, most unique…) stories about your life that you can think of, and then look at the question prompts and decide which one your story could be an answer to.

Common App Essay Writing Timelines

Now that we agree on how important your Common App essay is, you will not be surprised if we recommend that you start working on it several months before the actual deadline. Why so early? Because you don’t want to rush or force it or regret your choice of topic when it’s too late to change. If you see this as a creative process that needs time, you’ll make the most out of it and also learn a lot along the way that will help you with writing other essays and assignments once you got into your school of choice!

Timeline 1: Write a Common App Essay in three months

Don’t try to write anything—just brainstorm all the stories you could tell about your life, ask friends/family/advisors/mentors for input, and see how your stories could fit into the question prompts.
Freewriting: Choose one prompt and one story every day, set a timer, and just write down everything that comes to your mind until the alarm goes off. Keep it light, and don’t show anything to anyone during this period. You don’t want to be too conscious about your writing yet. Just play around.
Choose a story and a prompt and complete your first draft of your Common App personal statement.
Complete your second draft (this is the revision/editing phase).
Complete your third and fourth drafts.
Ask for feedback from advisors, mentors, or teachers.
Complete your final draft.

Now you have one finished essay to apply with and two more weeks to show it around for more feedback in case you get second thoughts or to change it up again after sleeping on it for a couple of days.

If this seems like way too much time to invest in and focus on your essay, then try this:

Timeline 2: Write your Common App Essay in one month

Brainstorm and play around with the question prompts.
Freewriting: Write down any ideas that come to mind; don’t limit yourself with specific structure or content.
Complete the first draft of your Common App Essay.
Complete the second draft (this is the revision/editing phase), ask for feedback, and complete the final draft of your essay. Edit and proofread your essay before submitting to admissions officials.

Since you don’t have much time for feedback if you start that late, make sure you contact your advisors/teachers well in advance to let them know when you’ll be ready so that they can schedule you in or tell you when they are available. You don’t want to pressure people and step on their toes when you need their valuable input!

Great Common App Essay Examples for 2023-2024

We found some of the best Common App essay examples from this year and years past to give you a sense of what kinds of essays work best to captivate admissions officials. We have listed essay examples in each section by their corresponding essay prompt to help you understand what kinds of responses are most suitable. Although your essay will be unique and might vary significantly from the examples below, read through each one to get an overall idea.

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #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 prompt asks applicants to write about what makes them uniquely them. Whether you’re writing about a hobby, your background, or how you define yourself, it’s important to tell a story so central to who you are that your application would be incomplete without it.

When answering this prompt, it’s easy to repeat information that you are already presenting outside of the essay. Avoid this at all costs. Remember: the essay is supposed to add a new dimension to your application.

See this sample essay to get a sense of what a great response to this prompt could look like.

  • Handiwork – An essay about interest in creating crafts. This student expertly illustrates their dedication to a hobby by presenting anecdotes packed with sensory details.

Excerpt from “Handiwork”

I’ve always been a crafter. From the early days of Kindergarten macaroni ornaments, to making my own prom dress last year, I’ve had a knack for creating things. For drafting sketches, drawing plans, making calculations, gathering supplies, adding finishing touches. There is something so satisfying about holding something you, and you alone, have made—something that was just an image in your mind until you set about to bring it into existence, to create something new, something different. I’m sure there are hundreds of doll furniture sets out there in that same gray and pink, but there is only one with fitted (albeit with sloppy stitching) navy blue covers. There’s a sense of pride there, however small.

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #2 

This is one of the more challenging prompts. It can be difficult to demonstrate strength and potential while writing about failure. However, if you’re comfortable with introspection and making yourself a bit more vulnerable, this prompt is a great option.

A good response to this prompt demonstrates a high level of confidence and maturity as well as humility and a willingness to learn. Simply writing about a failure does nothing; students should focus on how they handled their failures in positive ways.

This essay example demonstrates how to approach this prompt.

  • Striking Out – An essay about setbacks and overcoming obstacles. Note the effectiveness of this kind of narrative in showing your abilities and perseverance.

Excerpt from “Striking Out”

About a week later, some of my friends from the team got together at the park to hang out. When I arrived, I was a little surprised that no one seemed to be mad at me – after all, I’d lost us the game, and they had to be disappointed about not making it to the semifinals. It wasn’t until we split into teams for an impromptu pickup game that I started to realize why no one was upset. Maybe it was the excitement of reaching the playoffs or the pressure of living up to my brothers’ examples, but sometime during that game, I’d lost sight of why most of us played summer league baseball. It wasn’t to win the championship, as cool as that would have been. It was because we all loved to play. I didn’t need a trophy or a Hollywood come-from-behind win to have fun playing baseball with my friends, but maybe I needed to strike out to remember that.

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #3

This is an extremely broad question – students could write about nearly anything they have ever questioned. It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all ideas and beliefs make great essays.

Students should not write about something superficial; they should write about ideas and beliefs that are central to their identities. A response to this prompt should demonstrate thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, and an ability to think analytically.

The following essay demonstrates what it takes to address this prompt effectively.

  • Gym Class Hero – An essay about challenging an idea despite all the odds being stacked against you. Note the author’s use of internal monologue to move the narrative along and captivate the reader.

Excerpt from “Gym Class Hero”

Where did my doubt come from? No one ever said to me, “Oh, you can’t run a mile.” I don’t even remember any askance looks, any raised eyebrows implying I was out of my depth. Middle-schoolers can be a cruel bunch, but not that day. There was just that voice in my head, as clear as a bell: “You’ll never be able to run a mile. You can’t even climb stairs without getting winded. It’s going to hurt. You’ll probably pass out. You could never run a mile.’ A whole mile? That voice was right. It was, in my mind, impossibly long. What was I going to do?

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #4 

As mentioned above, this prompt was added last year and inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically, by research on the benefits of writing about the positive influence that other people have on our lives.

While this prompt may seem to be asking a simple question, your answer has the potential to provide deep insights into who you are to the admissions committee. Explaining what you are grateful for can show them your culture, your community, your philosophical outlook on the world, and what makes you tick.

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #5 

We all have had experiences that helped us grow and mature, and this prompt is therefore a good option for most—if not all—applicants.

The key here is to choose the “right” accomplishment, event, or realization and then write about it in a way that showcases depth and self-analytical skills. When identifying a period of personal growth, try to stay within the past few years. You want to show the admissions officers who you are now, and a childhood story is not likely to accomplish this as effectively.

This essay is a great example of how to properly approach this prompt.

  • Student Teacher – An essay about an event that sparked personal growth. This essay example shows how demonstrating mental growth and wisdom can be just as effective as retelling how you overcame a difficulty. 

Excerpt from “Student Teacher”

Anthony’s success wasn’t just his plane. He had succeeded in making me aware of my own failures. Here was a student who was never taken seriously and had developed a bunch of behavioral issues as a result. I never stopped to look for his potential, discover his interests, or get to know the kid beneath the facade. I had grossly underestimated Anthony, and I am grateful that he was able to disillusion me. I like to think that I’m an open-minded, liberal, and non-judgmental person. Anthony taught me that I’m not there yet.

Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #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?

Like Prompt 3, Prompt 6 is very broad, and allows students to write about nearly any interest they might have. The purpose of this question is to learn what excites and motivates an applicant. Therefore, this option is ideal for students with concrete and established passions. On the other hand, students who are not sure what they are enthusiastic about should probably consider a different prompt.

To approach this prompt, start by listing all the topics, ideas, and concepts you care most about and then narrow those down to those you can describe, justify, and explain .

See the following essay, taken from this collection of “essays that worked” , to get a sense of what makes a great response to this prompt about passion for a hobby.

Excerpt from “Left and Right Don’t Exist”

Through flying, I began to consider all points of view, regardless of my personal perspective. Perhaps it was my ability to scan the horizon to communicate a single story, uniting contrasting outlooks, that drew me to my love for journalism and the diverse melting pot that was my community. To me, journalism modernizes the ancient power of storytelling, filled with imperfect characters and intricate conflicts to which I am the narrator. As editor-in-chief for my school newspaper, The Wildcat’s Tale, I aim to share the uncensored perspective of all students and encourage my editorial groups to talk — and listen — to those with whom they disagree. Starting each newspaper edition with a socratic, round-table discussion, I ask the other journalists to pursue stories that answer the questions: why did this happen and where will it lead?

Additional Common App Essay Writing Tips

Write about a topic you are passionate about. When you have a lot to say about a topic, readers can quickly see the enthusiasm you have for the subject matter.Don’t pick a topic you care little about. Your lack of passion will be evident in your writing. So don’t pick a topic because everyone else is writing about it, especially if that subject is meaningless to you. If you do so, your essay will look lifeless—that’s not what you want admissions officers to think of you!
How do you choose the best topic for yourself? Make a list (List 1) of hobbies, achievements, skills, and personality traits. Make another list (List 2) of ordinary routines you do—things that, when noticed, would make the people closest to you say, “That’s definitely you.”Pick an aspect from each list and combine them in a way that tells an interesting story. Select two to three events that can best highlight the two items you chose. For example, one student wrote about how her daily makeup routine and the colors she chose reflected how her confidence (both academically and personally) developed over the years. Another student wrote about how quitting one musical instrument and trying another one taught him how changing perspectives can improve a seemingly miserable situation. Now you try. What combinations can you make from your two lists?Don’t write about potentially offensive topics. You don’t know who the admissions officers who will be reviewing your essay are. Play it safe and avoid subjects such as religion, politics, death, or any other emotionally charged topic that might make certain readers uncomfortable. Remember, you’re trying to make them like you.
Answer the question. That is, make sure your topic focuses on WHO YOU ARE.Do NOT write about some amazingly interesting topic that has nothing to do with you. Remember, admissions officers want to know about YOU. So if you want to talk about the latest environmental disaster or the plight of a local ethnic tribe, make sure that story is about how that issue impacted you and shaped you as a person.
Skip generalized information. Instead, provide real, specific examples to support your statements. Your attention to detail will help make you more memorable to an admissions officer who has to read hundreds, if not thousands, of essays. For example, instead of “I love hiking,” you could say, “After reaching the summit of Mt. Kilimanjaro, I decided my next adventure would be climbing Mt. Everest.” What’s the difference between these two sentences? The first you like something, while the second one that you do—but not only that, it also shows your level of commitment and your desire for challenge. Of the two example sentences, which do you think maximizes your use of words and would be more interesting to admissions officers?Don’t be generic. If someone else can pick up your draft and say, “Hey, that’s about me, too,” then you know something is wrong. Your essay should be unique. You’re trying to distinguish yourself from all the other applicants, remember?
Watch the word count! Your Common Application essay cannot be longer than 650 words.Don’t write a novel or be too short. As you start writing, you’ll soon realize that the 650-word limit does not give you a lot of space to talk about you. But that’s the point. You are NOT supposed to write an autobiography cataloging everything in your life. Instead, choosing a couple of specific events is all it takes to write a rich and powerful essay. Make those words count!
Edit, edit, edit!  Did we say edit already? This essay is not something you should write in one sitting and call it a day. Instead, do the following. Draft it without editing (this way you get all your thoughts down on paper and can trim/adjust later). Read your draft. For each sentence ask if it is adding more information about who you are. If it doesn’t, it’s probably good to cut it. Check spelling and grammar. Ask some adults who know you well to read for flow and organization and to make sure your essay is substantively sound. Revise again if needed.Don’t use clichés or antiquated language. This is why sharing your essay with a peer or editor and asking them to give you feedback on your language and tone can be of huge help—they will definitely notice all such platitudes and tell you to cut them out!

DO NOT WRITE YOUR ESSAY AT THE LAST MINUTE. We know you’re busy with tests and life, but, hey, this is your college application we’re talking about. Make sure you give yourself enough time to draft it, let it simmer for a bit, and then revise it as necessary. If you struggle with organization and time management, have a look at the suggested timelines above!

There are a few other common essay mistakes you should avoid, and reading about these in advance might help you steer clear of making a fundamental error when it comes to choosing your application essay topic.

Preparing Your Common App Essay for Submission

We know we keep repeating ourselves, but after writing your application essay, be sure to have it reviewed by a trusted friend or colleague, and edited by a professional editing service like Wordvice before you finally hand it in. And while writing, make use of our hundreds of admissions resources on making your way through the college and university admissions process.

An outstanding admissions essay should have a great topic. However, it should also use clear, crisp, engaging language and be free of errors. If you require further help on this front, check out Wordvice’s full suite of English editing and proofreading services , including our essay editing services . These services are ideal for international students who struggle with English or any students who want to take their essays to the next level. 

Wordvice essay editors not only correct grammatical and stylistic errors but also provide suggestions on how you can improve the content of your essays. We are proud to say that we were ranked best admissions essay editing service by Wired.com. Check out Wordvice’s free AI Proofreading Tool and admissions editing services to learn how our editors can elevate your writing and help you get into your dream school.

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  • What is the Common App?
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Common App Essay Prompts

Choosing a common app essay topic, common app essay brainstorming.

  • Writing The Common App Essay Introduction
  • Writing The Common App Essay Conclusion

Common App Essay Format

Common app essay structure, common app essay word limit.

  • Common App Essay Editing

Common App Essay Tips

Common app essay faqs.

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The Common App Essay Guide

Common App Essay Prompts

What are the prompts for the Common App in 2022-23?

Find out more

Choosing a Common App Essay Topic

How to choose which of the seven topics provided to write your essay on.

Common App Essay Brainstorming

How to carry out a successful brainstorming session to kick-start your essay writing.

Common App Essay Introduction

Writing the Common App Essay introduction

How to write an introduction to your essay that will grab the admission tutor’s attention.

Common App Essay Conclusion

Writing the Common App Essay conclusion

Make your essay stand out from the crowd with a memorable conclusion.

Common App Essay Examples

Read some example Common App essays to inspire you and get your creative side in gear.

Common App Essay format

How to format your essay correctly and avoid any errors when uploading your essay.

Common App Essay structure

How to plan the structure of your essay and produce something that flows well throughout.

Common App Essay word limit

Find out the word limit for a Common App essay, and how to stick to it.

Editing your Common App Essay

Editing your Common App Essay

How to edit your final essay ready for submission.

Common App Essay Tips and Advice

Further information on how to produce a winning Common App essay.

Common App Essay FAQs

Answers to popular queries about the Common App essay.

What are the common app essay prompts for 2022?

The common app essay prompts for 2022-23 are:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, 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. 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 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, 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 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 do I choose a common app essay topic?

To choose the best common app essay topic for you, follow our recommended steps:

  • Read through the topics carefully
  • Make some notes on what you could write about for each prompt
  • Seek advice from family and friends to get their thoughts
  • Expand your ideas by writing down a few more sentences for each topic.

Hopefully this should give you an idea of which prompt you feel you could write most about.

This is the topic you should probably go with, as it's easier to write too much and cut it down, than not have enough to write about in the first place.

How should I start my common app essay?

Whichever common app essay prompt you have chosen, we suggest you start putting together your answer by doing some brainstorming.

For example, for prompt #1 you might think about any after school clubs or activities you're involved in, trips you have taken with your family or friends, and/or any hobbies you have and what you want to achieve from them.

Take a look at our common app brainstorming guide for more detailed advice on each prompt.

How do I write my common app essay introduction?

A great common app essay introduction should have a three way focus: grab the reader’s attention, highlight you as an individual and identify which topic you’re writing about. For example a good introduction could be: “ Last month I organized a street car wash for the special kids fund charity ”.

Make sure you are realistic and honest, and use active words to describe feelings and behaviours.

For more detailed advice, please read our common app essay introduction guide.

How do I write my common app essay conclusion?

To write a great common app essay conclusion, we recommend you:

  • Make it memorable
  • Include your future career plans
  • Avoid making jokes or using other humour
  • Ask for feedback from family, friends and teachers to see how it might be improved further.

For more detailed tips and advice, please see our common app essay conclusion guide.

Where can I look at some common app essay examples?

You can see some common app essay examples for all the current prompts here .

These should give you a good idea of what a successful common app essay looks like, and inspire you to write your own.

Please do not plagiarise any sentences or paragraphs from these examples - your essay should be your own work, written in your own unique voice.

It's possible your application will be penalised if you are caught copying someone else's work.

How do I format my common app essay?

Once you have a final, polished draft of your common app essay, you need to make sure it is formatted correctly.

To do this, we recommend you simply use a word processor to format it into clear, logical paragraphs.

This means you can also check your spelling, grammar and word count, before copying and pasting it into the common application form online.

Make sure you preview your essay to check you're happy with the formatting before clicking Continue, and remember that if you struggle to upload your essay correctly, try a different browser, e.g. Chrome, Firefox or IE.

How do I structure my common app essay?

To help you structure your common app essay, we recommend you:

  • Make a plan of what you're going to include in each paragraph
  • Start writing your introduction to set the scene
  • Work through your paragraphs one by one and make sure they flow together nicely
  • Round off your essay with a memorable conclusion that summarises your essay and explains your next steps after university.

For more detailed advice, please see our Structuring Your Common App Essay guide.

What's the common app essay word limit?

The maximum number of words you can submit for your common app essay is 650 . It must also be a minimum of 250 words .

If your essays do not adhere to these guidelines, you will not be able to submit your essay online using the common application system.

How do I edit my common app essay?

Since 2015/16, applicants can edit their Common Application essay as many times as they would like after submitting it (in previous years a maximum of three edits was allowed).

We recommend you follow these steps to edit your essay once you have a final draft in place:

  • Check for spelling and grammar (don't just rely on a word processor for this, read it through yourself several times).
  • Look at the punctuation - has it been used correctly throughout?
  • See if all the paragraphs flow naturally together
  • Does it make an impact on the reader and make them want to read the whole essay?
  • Is it a maximum of 650 words long?
  • Have you used active, rather than passive, language in your essay?
  • Proofread it carefully.

For more detailed tips and advice, please see our common app essay editing guide.

Where can I find some common app essay tips?

For more advice on writing your common app essay, please read our tips and FAQs guide, which have lots more information to help you with this stage of the common application form.

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How to Write a Winning Common App Essay

Including 3 stellar common app essay examples.

Guide to Writing a Common App Essay

The Common App essay, also called a personal statement, is one of the trickiest components of a college application. Many students struggle with how to make their essays stand out from the crowd. After spending years building up an excellent high school resume , getting good grades, and dreaming of college, it could all come down to one 650 word college essay ! That’s a lot of pressure. Don’t worry – we’ve got you covered. In this blog, our college essay advisors tell you everything you need to know about the Common App essay, how to brainstorm ideas, how to write it, the biggest challenges, mistakes to avoid, and handy tips to keep in mind. We also provide a few samples to help you understand what types of essays actually impress college admissions committees.

>> Want us to help you get accepted? Schedule a free initial consultation here <<

Article Contents 48 min read

The Common App essay is the personal statement that students have to submit on the Common Application portal. College apps are getting tougher by the minute as students are judged on so many different criteria – academics, of course, but also extracurriculars, letters of recommendation, supplemental essays, and the personal statement. All the hard work you put in towards taking on tough IB and AP classes, servicing your community, committing to your extracurriculars, could all be wasted because of one essay, that most students write in a month!

Many students are intimidated by the concept of the essay, not just because of how important it is, but also because they simply don’t know what to write in it. How personal should they get? What’s the right tone? What are colleges even looking for? With these questions running through your mind, it can be hard to focus and actually start writing.

But the Common App essay is like any other aspect of your application, or in fact, like any other challenge you meet in life. With adequate preparation, strategic planning, and a commitment to excellence, you can produce a Common App essay that’s sure to impress college admissions committees. In fact, if you do it right, writing this essay could actually help you refine and perfect your writing skills and even teach you things about yourself that you didn’t know! Read on to learn failproof tips from our college admissions consulting experts!

The Common Application, often called Common App, is the cornerstone of the college application process for most students in the US and Canada. It’s an online, centralized portal that gathers college application components from students and sends them to colleges. Students only have to submit their application once, and it’s sent to every college they want to apply to. With over 900 participating colleges all over the world, the Common App just makes life so much easier for high school students applying to college, not to mention their parents and teachers. Can you imagine if you had to send an individual application to each and every college you’re applying to? Well, you still might have to send out 2 or 3 different applications since not every college in the US and Canada uses Common App. For instance, UC schools have their own application system and if you’re targeting those, you will have to submit a separate application. But the overwhelming majority of colleges in the US do utilize Common App, which makes it a huge boon during application season. In one portal, you can submit your personal information, transcript, list of activities, letters of recommendation, and the personal statement, which will go out to all the colleges you want to apply to.

So, what is this dreaded Common App essay anyway? If you’re a high school student applying to college, you might know it as your main essay or personal statement. This is the component you submit in the “Writing” tab of the Common App, where you’ll find the 7 Common App prompts for the current application season along with a textbox where you write your essay in response to one of the prompts. It’s strongly recommended that you write your essay in a Google doc, MS Word, or some other reliable word processor with backups, and then copy paste the final draft into the Common App textbox. You should not be typing your first drafts and making revisions directly in Common App! You might end up losing the essay due to a technical glitch or worse, submitting a rough draft by accident.

The great thing about the Common App essay, and one that students frequently forget, is that the same essay goes out to all the colleges. So, you don’t need to write individual essays for each college or tailor your essays to talk about specific courses or universities. In fact, you should aim to keep your Common App essay as general as possible, without reference to any specific schools or degrees. For instance, if you make your Common App essay very focused on your passion for science subjects and talk about your desire to attend a top engineering college, while you’re applying to liberal arts schools as well, you’re tanking your chances of getting an acceptance from the latter. Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance to get college-specific when you’re writing your college supplemental essays.

Difference between Common App essay and supplemental essays

As part of your college application, you’re expected to submit a number of different written components, from the descriptions of your extracurricular activities to your personal statement and the supplemental essays. It’s very important that you understand the different requirements and purpose of each of these written components and tailor them as needed. Specifically, make sure you don’t get confused between the Common App essay and the supplemental college essay. As we mentioned above, the Common App essay is your 250-650 word personal statement that you submit with your primary application on Common App. You only need to write one, and it goes out to all the colleges you apply to. The purpose of the Common App essay is to give the college admissions committees a better idea of who you are as a person and what makes you unique. It should be focused on your life and experiences, without any reference to a specific college or bias towards a specific stream (such as STEM, liberal arts, etc.).

Once your primary application is processed and if you make it through (though not all colleges screen primary apps), specific colleges will start reaching out to you with their supplemental application that will include prompts for essays. In these essays, you’re expected to get specific and address why you want to get into that college and reference your academic interests. Colleges can ask for more than one supplemental essay, and the required word count can vary. Some have a maximum word count of 250 words while others match the maximum length of the Common App essay at 650 words.

How do you differentiate between these two essays? How do you even find enough material for all these essays? Well, think of your Common App essay as your broad personal statement, an answer to the question “ Tell me about yourself ” (in relation to specific prompts), while your supplemental essay focuses in on the question of “Why do you want to attend this college?”. The two essays should complement each other, but there should be no overlap.

How can you ensure this? That’s what we’ll explain in this blog. If you do your Common App preparation right, and give yourself enough time to brainstorm, you’ll most likely come away with plenty of raw material, topic ideas, and inspiration for your supplemental essays too. There will be plenty of ideas you might reject as unsuitable for your Common App essay which could work for your secondary app essays.

Why is the Common App essay important?

So, if colleges will be asking for college-specific essays anyway, why is the Common App essay important? Well, in many cases, you won’t even get to the supplemental essays stage without an impressive Common App essay. This essay could count for 10% to 30% of how your primary application is evaluated, and the more elite the college, the more important it is. That’s because elite colleges such as Ivy League schools receive a huge volume of high-caliber applicants. They have plenty of applications from students with top grades, amazing extracurriculars, and references, so the Common App essay really becomes crucial in making an application stand out. Additionally, some schools, such as private liberal arts colleges, favor a more holistic admissions process. These colleges often don’t prioritize standardized test results as much as other schools and give more weight to the students’ extracurriculars and personal statement.

The Common App essay could be the deciding factor between you and another candidate with a similar profile. Many students with the best grades in their class and a roster of impressive extracurricular activities, not to mention top SAT scores, end up rejected from their dream schools because of a poorly-written essay. Having said that, it’s important to remember that no matter how great your personal statement is, it won’t make up for uneven grades and a less than robust resume, especially at elite schools with competitive admissions.

Remember that the Common App essay represents a final chance for you to take your application to the next level. By the time you’re writing and submitting your essay, there’s not much you could do about your transcript, your history of extracurriculars, etc. These components are long-term achievements which can’t be accomplished in a day. But you’re in complete control of your Common App essay and it’s your one chance to advocate for yourself in front of the admissions committee.

In fact, from the students’ perspective, this is what makes the Common App essay so important. Most of your primary application is quantitative, focused on grades, scores, contact information, and so on; your essay is one of the few “qualitative” components of your application. It allows you to speak directly to the admissions committee, and really humanize yourself, help them see you as person rather than just a collection of facts and figures. Your grades and standardizes test scores and all those other application components are certainly important – they indicate your academic prowess, your talents, your abilities – but they don’t represent you as a person. Everybody has a unique story and adding that personal context can really enhance your application.

Common App Essay Prompts

Common App releases the prompts for every admissions cycle around spring. The prompts have stayed more or less constant over the last few years, though a couple of prompts are occasionally changed, so it’s always a good idea to check them when they are released. You can select any 1 of the 7 prompts provided to write a 650 word essay.

These are the latest Common App essay prompts.

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. ","label":"","title":"Prompt 7"}]" code="tab1" template="BlogArticle">

Colleges have no preference for which prompt you pick. Some students prefer to look at the prompts and get inspired, and that could work, but ideally, you should brainstorm ideas about the best stories and narratives from your life that could work for your Common App essay before picking a prompt. You can then tailor the ideas as per the specific prompt ask. As there are so many open-ended prompts, you’ll have a lot of freedom to choose a topic that works best for you.

Many students believe that Common App essays have to be extremely serious, talk about a traumatic or deeply impactful event, or document amazing achievements. Of course, you can choose to write a serious essay focused on any of these topics (or others) – but they’re not the only kind of essays that get acceptances! Many students write about light-hearted or seemingly trivial topics but are able to make their essays meaningful and unique. You should never sacrifice authenticity and truth for “razzle-dazzle”. Focusing on what the admissions committee wants or prefers is a useless exercise. Not only will it make your essay seem forced and pretentious, but it also has no basis in fact, since admissions committees don’t actually have any “preference” for a specific topic.

Common App Essay: Unique Challenges

Essays are a crucial part of any admissions process. If you decide to pursue graduate studies, you’ll undoubtedly have to write a statement of purpose for graduate school , among other types of essays and written submissions. And naturally, grad school level essays are longer and more challenging. At the same time, in some ways it’s easier to write an essay about yourself when you’re older. High school students face unique challenges when writing their essay and that often causes the “blank page panic” when they sit down to actually write their essay.

For one thing, younger students talking about themselves are talking as much about their potential and their dreams, as they are about their actual experiences. You can’t expect that at this early stage in life, students have had some great epiphanies or breakthroughs. High school students are still forming their identity and exploring who they are. It’s difficult to know exactly what to write to make yourself stand out from the crowd when you’re not even sure who you are or what your unique experiences are. That’s why many students experience writer’s block and find it difficult to know where to even start. Moreover, communication skills develop with time, and younger students may find it more difficult to express themselves in a natural, eloquent way, through their writing.

That’s why it’s so, so important that you should give yourself plenty of time to write your essay and break down the process into several steps that will help you logically bridge every fear and uncertainty you might have.

Recommended Timeline

As we mentioned above, the best way to handle your Common App essay is to break down the writing process into several steps and give yourself plenty of time to complete each step. Before we get into the actual timeline, let’s figure out what would be the best time to start writing your essay.

When to start?

Common App applications open in August, but they release their essay prompts as early as March or April. This gives students plenty of time to work on their essay – and not many students make full use of this time!

Our recommendation is that you work backwards from when you want to target sending out your applications and start working on your Common App essay 3 months before that date. This might seem like a huge amount of time for a 650 word essay, but trust me, you’ll need it. We’ll break down the reasons why in a minute. Just know that without spending a few months on your essay, you won’t be able to give it your best shot and truly make it stand out.

If you’re targeting early acceptance deadlines, you’ll probably have to submit your primary application by October and secondaries by November. If you’re targeting regular application timelines, then you have a bit more time as primary deadline is in November and secondaries’ deadlines are in January. Different colleges have different timelines, so you’ll have to check the admission websites of the colleges you’re applying to so you can confirm the exact dates.

You should plan your Common App essay timeline according to these dates. For instance, if you’re targeting early decision admission, then the secondary applications would most likely be due in October or November. So, the ideal time for you start your Common App essay work would be around July. This timeline also works as you can then spend your summer before senior year of high school working on your essay. Even if you’re busy with a summer job or a summer program , you’ll still have more time to devote to writing and brainstorming than you would during your school year.

We suggest that you don’t wait till the last minute to work on your essay. While of course it’s possible to write your essay in a month or even sooner, that will not give you enough time for the “preparation” stage of writing your essay. It will definitely impact the quality of your essay and make it that much harder for you to find your “voice”.

Moreover, leaving your essay-writing till the last minute is just a recipe for chaos. Remember that once your senior year starts, and those application deadlines start approaching, you’ll get busy with all the other submissions that are due for your application, and you’ll have the secondary essays to worry about too. Once school starts, you’ll have to manage all that with keeping up your grades and devoting time to your extracurriculars. You won’t have much time or (more importantly) the mental energy left over to deal with your Common App essay. That’s why we highly recommend that you use the summer before your senior year of high school to do the major work on it.

Starting early will also give you time to seek out feedback on your essay. Specifically, it will give you sufficient time to approach your referees (who will be writing your letter of recommendation) and show them a draft of your Common App essay. This action serves a dual purpose. First, as mentors, they could provide valuable feedback. Second, looking through your essay can help them calibrate their perspective on you, see you in a different light, and influence what they include in your letter.

Remember that if you really want your college application to stand out, you need to tell a consistent story that is supported by all the different elements of your application: the essay, the supplemental essays, the letters, and the extracurriculars. Each component should communicate different aspects of yourself that complement each other and present a picture of a real person with depth and something unique to offer. The synergy between these different elements, and a consistent narrative, can make your application really impressive and prove your clarity of mind and focused ambitions. However, it’s not easy to achieve this effect while also keeping your essay as authentic as possible. So, how do you make the best use of the opportunity the essay presents you, while still presenting evidence-based points that are supported by your experiences and align with the rest of your application? Well, that’s why we recommend starting your essay writing process so early! It’s not a simple matter of picking a prompt and writing a couple of drafts of the first topic that comes to mind. You might get a good essay that way – but if you want a GREAT essay, one that will truly stand out, you’ll need to put in the hard work and advance preparation towards making that happen.

This is the timeline we recommend to help you write a stellar Common App essay.

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As you can see above, it will take you around 3 months, as per the timeline, to create the final draft of your Common App essay. If you start in mid-June or July, you’ll be finishing it up and asking for feedback around September, once school starts. That leaves you a couple of months to work on the rest of your application and secondary essays.

While this timeline represents the ideal amount of time you should be spending on your essay, you can condense it down as it suits you. Make sure you’re aware of the key application deadlines for the colleges you’re applying to, including early admissions deadlines (if applicable), and ensure that your essay and the rest of your Common App components are ready in time.

Next, let’s see how to complete each of the steps we’ve listed above. 

Preparing for Your Common App Essay

We recommend that before you actually start writing the first draft of your essay, you should spend some time brainstorming and freewriting, exploring different prompts, and reflecting on yourself and your life so far. This kind of pre-writing preparation is a crucial step to writing an effective, meaningful, and memorable essay. Not only will it help you identify topics for your essay, but it’s also a great way to broaden your perspective on yourself and think deeply about who you are and what you want. Moreover, this exercise isn’t just useful for your Common App essay – all your reflections from this period can also be used to help you write your supplementary essays!

Brainstorming Part 1: Self-reflection

We recommend spending a week or 10 days focusing on self-reflection and introspection. This is similar to “journaling”, something you may actually already be doing, but with a greater focus on writing about topics related to your Common App essay.

You should spend 10-15 minutes every day writing in your journal. At this stage, just indulge in some free-wheeling thought association about your life, your experiences, your goals, what makes you unique, what are the biggest obstacles you’ve faced, and so on. Note down any essay topics that come to you but don’t stress out if nothing suggests itself. The important part here is to start the process of self-reflection and to start narrating your experiences.

Life can seem like a random collection of events, but each of us is on our own journey of growth and learning. Don’t get bogged down by expectations and other people’s ideas – this is the time to just focus on yourself and what makes you unique. No idea, experience, or perspective is too silly or strange. Write down whatever comes to your mind as something significant that you’d like to discuss in your Common App essay. To get your self-reflection started, here are 4 questions you can ask yourself:

  • Who are you?
  • What makes you different?
  • What are you passionate about?
  • What do you hope to achieve?

While doing this exercise, you should be wary of getting too invested in the college application “checklist” and reducing your life to a series of achievements or key experiences. You’re not writing a resume; you’re just exploring who you are and getting into the habit of thinking and writing about yourself. In fact, the whole point of the personal statement is to provide a perspective of yourself beyond what’s already shared in the other application components.

Brainstorming Part 2: Prompts

Once you’ve done some general self-reflection and identified some important narratives and qualities about yourself that you’d like to highlight, go back to your list of prompts, and see which one jumps out at you. At this stage, for some students, one or the other prompt may seem like an obvious choice. For example, if you’ve found yourself journaling a lot about a significant traumatic event such as the loss of a loved one, prompt no 2, which asks you to talk about a setback or obstacle, might seem like the answer. But don’t be so hasty to fix on a topic. Remember, at this stage, you haven’t even begun to define your topic! Getting too attached to an idea too early is as bad as not knowing what to write about, as it can prejudice you against exploring different ideas and maybe finding a more appropriate one.

Ideally, at this stage, you should be looking at 3 or 4 different prompts and brainstorming specifically in response to them. That way, you’ll have a variety of different experiences and narratives to choose from when you’re ready to write your first draft.

Below, we’ve listed a few key considerations and reflections for each of the prompts, that can serve as a starting point for your brainstorming. Spend some time every day – it could be 10 minutes, or it could be half an hour – just writing down your instinctual responses to the prompts, using our questions and reflections as a guide.

Prompt 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 prompt is an excellent opportunity for you to talk about any hobbies, talents, extracurriculars, and any other interests that are important to you and that you haven’t got a chance to talk about elsewhere in your application. This includes “useless” hobbies that may not be achievement oriented, but that you’re nevertheless passionate about, such as needlework, playing video games, volunteering at an animal shelter, and so on.

It’s also an opportunity to reflect on your identity, your family, your hometown, and any other aspect of your personal life that’s both unique and important to you. Many students use this prompt to talk about their racial or ethnic identity, their sexuality, their gender, and so on. You can weave a story of personal growth through your interests or identify important influences on yourself and how they interact with each other. Here are some questions you can ask yourself:

  • What was your upbringing like? What social environments surround you? How do they impact you?
  • Where do you live? What are some key images that would strike a stranger about the area where you live?
  • Where are your parents from? Have you ever visited their home town? What impression did it leave on you?
  • What do people around you know you for? Do you have a long-term commitment to any specific skills or talents?
  • What was your childhood like? Would you describe it as happy? What’s your happiest memory of childhood?

Prompt 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?

This is the “overcoming obstacles” prompt. If you’ve faced any major adversity in your life, that you think is significant to your story, this is your chance to write about it. Many students also use this prompt to talk about more minor obstacles, and describe a narrative of personal growth, self-reflection, and learning. Whatever the incident or topic you chose to talk about, the key here is to focus on how you dealt with and overcame the failure, challenge, or adversity.

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

Many students avoid this prompt as they believe it’s referring to big-scale, political activism and social service, and they don’t think they’ve ever made any kind of significant impact in this area. In fact, this prompt can be a great opportunity to talk about any time you experienced change in your value system, even if the impact was quite small. It could be as simple as noticing a need for change that prompted a change in your belief systems, for instance, a poor interaction with a doctor that made you think about how the healthcare system can improve. Here, you should focus on your thought process and map out the genesis of the change, and what impact it had on you.

  • Think back to your childhood. Do you hold the same values you do today as you did then? If no, what made you change?
  • Do you agree with the values and beliefs of your family, friends, and others close to you? If not, why do you hold different beliefs? Have you ever tried to change their mind/have they ever tried to change your mind?
  • Think of a time when you questioned yourself or changed your beliefs. How did you change? Why did you start questioning yourself?
  • Have you ever gone against the social norms of the people around you? What made you do that?

Prompt 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?

You can use this prompt to write a more philosophical essay that focuses on the impact another person made on you, and why it stayed with you. Most people would find it difficult to actually think of a material gift that left a philosophical impact on you and significantly changed your life. That’s why many students use this prompt to write about non-material “gifts” in the form of memorable advice, a challenge, an obstacle, or a task, that taught the student a valuable lesson and motivated them to do better.

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

This is one of the more open-ended prompts that students love to use as it allows them to amplify their achievements and talk more about “impressive” experiences in their life. Actually, it’s a mistake to use this prompt to just talk about the same extracurriculars and academics you’ve already covered in the rest of your application. Even if you do mention an extracurricular activity here that you’ve already covered elsewhere, the important thing is to bring a different perspective and reveal a new side of yourself. It’s not just about saying “I did this amazing thing”. You’ve got to think about how the event or accomplishment impacted you, what led up to it, and what you took away from the experience.

  • Have you ever been deeply impacted by someone’s words, advice, or guidance? Describe the experience and how you changed after it.
  • Have you ever had a “eureka” moment that changed your life? Did you ever experience a moment of clarity about something you want that helped you define your long-term goals?
  • Apart from all the achievements listed in your resume, what’s your biggest accomplishment? Is there a seemingly insignificant moment of your life that you’re truly proud of? 

Prompt 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?

This prompt is an ideal opening to help you talk about your more “useless” extracurriculars. The activities or interests that you’re passionate about, but which aren’t achievement oriented and hence don’t make it to your resume. It could be anything as simple as baking or bird-watching, or as abstract as an interest in how language works. If you can tell a story about how you found this interest, how it motivates you, why you love it, how it influences other aspects of your life, and how it helped you grow as a person, then this is the prompt for you. This is a great chance to paint a vivid picture of your inner life and communicate your unique way of thinking to the admissions committee.

  • Is there something you’re so good at, people come and ask for your help? This could be really anything, from a musical talent to being good at fixing things around the house.
  • If given unlimited leisure time, how would you spend it? What would you do if you didn’t have any obligations to go to school or earn a living? What sparks your passion for life?

Alright, so you’ve done some journaling and brainstormed a few essay ideas in response to the prompts. Don’t jump straight into selecting the idea and writing the essay – spend at least a couple of weeks, ideally 3 weeks, indulging in free writing. Try your hand at writing in response to a few different prompts, or all of them, if you have the necessary inspiration. Don’t think about restrictions such as word count, flow, structure, or any of that just yet. Just let your inspiration run free and write about anything you like.

The goal here is loosen your writing up, shake free the cobwebs from your brains, and get into the habit of writing about yourself. This is when you can work out the little awkward details in your writing and develop a more natural writing style. Some of this raw material, after some editing, could even make it to your essays, but don’t be too concerned at this stage with the “outcome” or this exercise will be wasted. Write without pressurizing yourself to produce brilliance, using the prompts as a kind of starting off point for a free associating exercise. This step is crucial to making sure your final essay sounds authentic, natural, and personal, rather than a formal summary of events or a forced statement of facts.

Give yourself a daily goal – 10 mins, or a few pages, whatever works for you. You should ideally do this activity in the morning, when you’re fresh and have a clear, relaxed head space. Select a cool, quiet corner of your house or a library where no one will interrupt you and sit down with your writing instrument of choice – notebook, laptop, or whichever medium feels most natural and comfortable for you!

If you find yourself facing writer’s block, shake yourself out of the rut by asking yourself “why”. Whatever you’re writing about – an idea, experience, event, or person, ask yourself why is this important to me? Why do I care? Why does it bother me? And keep going.

Another important tip at this stage is not to ask for feedback or show your writing to anyone. This is the time for ideation, not perfection. In fact, step away from your own writing for some time and don’t come to re-read it till after a few days. This is a great way to reap great essay ideas and get around your own anxiety and self-doubt.

What all of this pre-work does is help you avoid time wastage and inefficiency at a later stage. If you simply start off writing an essay based on a prompt without any brainstorming or preparatory work, you might spend a lot of time struggling to write, work late nights trying to get the tone or the style right, and then still feel that it doesn’t quite work without any idea of why. Self-reflection helps you get to the core of the matter, identify the “juiciest” stories and experiences from your life, while brainstorming helps you work through the “bad” writing in a low-pressure environment. When you select a topic after all this work, you’re likely to feel much more confident about your essay and that will reflect in the smoothness and eloquence of your writing.

Selecting a topic

After your more than a month of daily brainstorming and freewriting, take a break for a couple of days and don’t think or write anything related to your Common App essay. Then, come back and go over the results of your journaling, brainstorming, and freewriting with a fresh eye, and select a topic that stands out to you. 

Here are some tips to help you select a good topic:

  • Anchor your essay to a story, which will be the “hook” that opens the essay and draws the reader in. Focus on this story and which experience you’ll use to build the story, and that will help you select a topic. A personal, meaningful anecdote, such as the first time your mother taught you to make a specific dish, or the time you interacted with a new student who changed your beliefs, is an excellent opening for an essay. Try to think of significant experiences that could be great essay-openers and define your topic around that.
  • Pick a “focus” for your essay. Is it a person? An event? An experience? A quality about yourself you want to highlight? Remember, it’s important to give your essay a single focus and do justice to that topic rather than try to crowd in too many elements.
  • Connect your experiences to your ambitions and pick a topic that actually helps you show your potential, your ambitions, and your dreams. Sometimes significant experiences in your past don’t really have any connection to your future, though they might give you plenty to write about. Your topic should connect your past, future, and present effectively, and show a consistent narrative.
  • Try and balance your application out strategically. Select a topic that shows a different side to yourself than what you’ve already communicated in the rest of your application, for instance, if your extracurriculars are focused on your competitive athletic career, talk about a completely unexpected non-athletic passion such as environmentalism or expand upon how your personal insecurities, and a time you failed, and how you learned to cope with it. Humanize yourself and bring a nuanced perspective to your achievements. On the other hand, if you have inconsistent grades or your extracurriculars aren’t that impressive, amplify your accomplishments and talk about the passions that you devote your time to, even if they aren’t resume-worthy.

You should start by selecting 4 to 5 topics that are most meaningful and personal to you and then narrow it down to the one that’s most suitable for the Common App essay. Don’t throw away the rest! You can use the rest of the topics to get inspired when writing your secondary essays. Moreover, shortlisting multiple topics ensures you always have a back-up if, for whatever reason, your initial essay idea doesn’t work out.

Remember: don’t let self-doubt be your biggest enemy. There is no wrong or cliché or boring or lame topic. When it comes to the Common App essay, the how and why is key, much more so than the what. Do YOU believe in your story? Are you speaking honestly and from your heart? Is there a logical narrative and flow to your essay? Is there a meaningful conclusion that you’ve drawn? These are the questions you should be asking yourself, rather than wondering what the admissions committees will think of your topic!

At the end of the day, admissions committees are not judging your experiences, but rather your way of thinking – they want to get to know you as a person. When you’re writing your essay, you can always monitor your language to make sure it’s not overtly sentimental or emotional, but your topic and the key narrative should be all yours and completely sincere. Even if it’s a so-called “cliché” topic – such as, for example, an immigrant’s story or the obstacles you faced as an athlete and how you overcame them – the important thing is, your essay should have nuance and depth and a well-thought out perspective.

Let’s get into how you can actually write an impressive Common App essay.

Writing the Common App Essay

Writing the first draft.

At this stage, you simply take the plunge and get into the actual writing of your essay. First of all, thanks to all your brainstorming and journaling, you’ll probably find the writing part quite easy! Most students are more challenged by the structure of their essay and figuring out how to create a logical flow with a meaningful conclusion. To help you out, we’ve listed a few common essay types that you can use to structure your essay. We’ll also go over how to outline your essay and create a logical structure.

Essay types

Selecting a “type” of essay can be helpful as a kind of guide for you during your writing process. The following are the most common essay types students use to write their Common App essay:

Specific Story : This is the classic and most popular type of personal statement. It opens with a personal, meaningful story, which is complete in itself, and sets up the “lesson” or “focus” for the rest of the essay. The essay may go on to discuss other related experiences or how that specific story impacted other areas of the student’s life, or it could expand various facets of the single story, connecting to the student’s present and future. This a is reliable essay style, but you should be careful not to make it to moralistic or fable like. For example, you could open the essay with the story of how you met a patient at an old age home you volunteered at, and how their words or actions had a meaningful impact on you and galvanized you to take action about how people at the old age home were treated. It’s a complete story in itself, and then you could move on to talk about how you are committed to always speaking up for those who can’t speak for themselves, and how you did that in other arenas of your life, and how you plan to pursue this goal in your future.

Iterative Pattern : This is a great essay type for those who want to talk about a journey of growth, learning, and self-reflection. Here, you open with an event or incident that may not have a definite conclusion or lesson, and then return throughout the essay to various related incidents that show a progression of a single theme through time. For instance, if there’s a specific issue you’ve struggled with, such as stuttering or public-speaking, you could start with incidents describing past attempts at public speaking and how you failed there, and then go on to describe how you worked towards improving yourself and overcoming your fears, and end with an incident where you actually achieved success in public speaking.

Circular : In this essay, you start with a story or incident, but don’t share the entire story or the final takeaway at the beginning. Instead, you use the rest of the essay to discuss how you felt about the incident, your thought process, the impact it had on you and others, and then you come back to the story and end the essay with a meaningful conclusion. For example, if you’re writing an essay for prompt no 3 (about a time you changed your mind), you could begin the essay describing an incident where you have to make a crucial decision – say, about whether or not you’ll expand the membership of your “boys-only” chess club to invite anyone who wants to join – then provide context about your family background, previous beliefs, and how you’ve changed them, and then come back to the provide the happy ending to the story, explaining how you not only changed the membership rules but took additional steps to make the new members feel welcome and comfortable.

Building Challenges : In this type of essay, you provide a series of different events or experiences in your life that all build on one another to present a kind of obstacle course that you have to overcome. This essay type is most often used to write adversity focused essays. For example, a student from a socio-economically disadvantaged background could start their essay talking about their earliest childhood struggles, how they overcame them, and then go on to expand on other struggles they’ve faced, which could be related to their background or their education or interests. They key with this type of essay is to focus on the “overcoming” adversity aspect, and to emphasize what you’re proud of and what you did well in these different circumstances. 

Creative Essay : These are essays that don’t confirm to any conventional formats. Some students chose to go completely off-beat and create a radically different essay structure. For example, you could write the essay in the style of a chapter from your favorite classic novel, but with you as the protagonist. Or, you could create a dialogue between two imaginary people, say, two important historical figures, talking about you. This is a very difficult kind of essay to pull off, but it can be high-risk, high-reward, when done right. Many students use it as a way to showcase their expert knowledge of any specific area or prove their creativity to the admissions committees.

Check out this infographic:

Essay structure

Once you’ve figured out, broadly-speaking, what type of essay you want to write and what you’ll include in it, the next step is to create an outline. Now, some students prefer to start with free writing and create a reverse outline later, but that’s not an ideal way to work. Reverse outlining usually takes up more time and isn’t very efficient.

Your essay should, generally speaking, include 3 to 5 paragraphs. More than 5 paragraphs could make your essay look very cluttered – remember you can’t go beyond 650 words! On the other hand, you’ll need a minimum of 3 paragraphs to cover the beginning, middle, and end, three crucial components in any essay.

Having said that, your essay topic and personal inspiration should always your structure, so if you think more than 5 paragraphs makes sense and is logical within the flow if your essay, go for it. However, we still wouldn’t recommend less than 3 paragraphs. Having a wall of text in front of you is just difficult to read and could get you marked down.

Create the following outline for your essay:

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Here are some tips to keep in mind for when you’re writing your essay:

Build the suspense : When you’re telling your anchor story, the one that opens your essay, make sure you keep building the suspense. There should be some mystery about what happens and conflict in the middle to keep it interesting. For instance, if you’re talking about that time that you overcame your fear of water after a swimming injury to finally return to the pool, don’t begin by saying “I got back into the pool after my injury for the first time on 6th September.” That gives away all the drama! Instead, build the story by describing your fears, the previous incident, and encouragement you received from your coach, and then end with the fact that you finally made it back into the pool.

Don’t deal in plain statements : To make your essay engaging, it’s very important not to rely solely on statements of facts and to back up every fact with evidence. This could be in the form of experiences or activities, personal incidents, descriptions of a specific setting, descriptions of your state of mind, and so on. For example, instead of simply saying “I was angry that I had to leave my hometown.”, describe an incident where you confronted your mother about her decision to move you away and talk about how that anger impacted your relationship with your mother. When talking about a meaningful outdoors trip, instead of saying “The forest was very beautiful.”, try giving specific, sensory-based descriptions and talk about how the setting impacted you, for example – “With the trees swaying above me and the leaves rustling in the wind, I found an inner peace and calmness I’d never experienced before.” Make your essay as engaging as possible, with thoughtful analysis, vivid descriptions, and beautifully set scenes.

Answer the prompt : Make sure, as you’re writing, that you’re addressing the prompt you’ve been given. Try and understand the prompt at a deeper level and don’t just create a surface level connection because it suits your topic. Remember, prompt no 7 is essentially a “free topic” so if you really want to create your own topic, that’s the one you should go for.

Be deliberate, authentic, and humble : Every sentence should have a clear reason for being included in your essay. At the same time, your voice should be as natural and authentic as possible. Don’t drop in pretentious references or brag about your achievements if they don’t belong in the essay. Keep your central topic in mind and only include details and events and relevant to it.

Beginning/middle/end : Your story should have a clear beginning, middle, and end. This is a fundamental rule of essay writing and is crucial to making sure your essay has a logical, coherent flow.

End with a key takeaway : Your essay should always have a learning, an epiphany, a moral, or talk about a new perspective you gained. You could introduce it earlier in your essay, but it should be reiterated in the concluding paragraph. 

Revising your essay: 2/3/4 drafts

We really cannot emphasize enough the importance of revisions and editing when it comes to writing your Common App essay. This is when you get your critical monocle out, place it over your eye, and give your essay a really thorough analysis. Most students satisfy themselves with just 2 drafts – the initial one, and the second one that they create after seeking feedback from their teachers or mentors – but you should ideally work on 3 or 4 drafts by yourself, before even showing the essay to anyone else. When you’re revising your essay, make sure you keep the following things in mind:

Is it too much? This is where you check yourself – remember that you simply cannot communicate every single thing about yourself in one essay. The key is to find one theme you want to expand on and focus on that. If there’s too many incidents, events, experiences, with no clearly defined conclusion or connection between them, it might be time to re-write your essay. As writers say, sometimes you have to “kill your darlings”, which means, you shouldn’t get too attached to specific ideas or sentences if they don’t fit in with the rest of your essay.

Is it too little? At the same time, it’s also possible to get too specific and be bogged down with unimportant details that don’t really add to your story. Ask yourself if your essay has a broader perspective or lesson to offer and if not, you need to add that in.

Show don’t tell : As we mentioned before, you should not be making unsupported statements and piling facts on facts. Check your essay to make sure your statements are all supported by accompanying examples, descriptions, or stories.

Use your outline : Keep coming back to your outline to improve you’re the structure and flow of your essay. It’s easy to get carried away with writing the introduction and making it too long, and the outline should help you stay on top of how much time you’re spending on each sub-section of your essay. Additionally, sometimes, a great description or line can be incorrectly placed in the essay, and your outline will help you identify that. For instance, your essay should never begin with your “key takeaway”, no matter how important it is. You need to build to it. So don’t be afraid to move things around. As you’re working, define the purpose of each paragraph and keep checking if your writing is aligning with that purpose.

Check for clarity : All essays should have a few key elements. That includes your anchor story, your central thesis or declarative statement, and your key takeaway. Is your essay communicating everything you want it to? Or is the message getting lost in a sea of words?

Trim the excess : Students are often tempted to include braggy details in their personal statement that are not relevant to the rest of the essay. This is a bad idea – it certainly won’t impress anyone and could make you seem pretentious and insincere. Similarly, students sometimes add personal details in their personal anecdotes that don’t add to the story and only editing will help you catch these little details. For instance, you really don’t need to add details of your appearance in any of your anecdotes, unless it’s directly relevant to the story.

Check grammar and spelling : Don’t just rely on auto-correct! Make sure you go over your essay with a fine-toothed comb, catching every spelling or grammatical error. Leaving these in is the best way to get yourself marked down by admissions committees.

Use varied sentence lengths and structure : Sometimes, when you’re writing in your natural style, you may end up repeating certain sentence structures that come most easily to you. Make sure you include a variety of sentence lengths. This makes your essay more readable and engaging.

Use active voice : Always use active voice wherever you can, rather than passive voice. For instance, instead of saying “The dance class was run by me from Monday to Saturday.”, try “I ran the dance class from Monday to Saturday.”.

Once you’ve thoroughly revised your essay and got it as perfect as you can from your perspective, it’s time to invite other people to take a look at it. Who should you seek feedback from? There are many options: friends, peers, parents, teachers, and older mentors. There’s always a risk with certain types of feedback, for example, parents may sometimes over-edit your work, making you lose your natural voice, whereas teachers could view your essay from an academic perspective and ask you to make it more formal. Ideal reviewers are older mentors, friends who have recently and successfully been through the admissions process, guidance counsellors, or admissions experts.

The most important thing is that you trust your reviewers and that they know you well enough to give you genuine, well-meaning feedback. Keep an open mind to all the feedback you receive, but remember, don’t sacrifice your voice. In case of a serious disagreement with someone over a critical point in your essay, always back yourself, because no one knows you better than you!

Also, try and get feedback from varied sources. Friends and family can comment on the personal experiences you talk about in the essay while teachers and counselors can help you perfect the tone, format, and language of the essay.

Once you’ve gathered all the feedback, go back to your essay, and complete a final revision keeping in mind the feedback you’re received. After this, do a final check of your outline, flow, grammar, spelling, and so on.

But wait! Don’t submit it yet. Before your final submission, you should always have someone else – a trusted advisor or friend – take a look at your essay. After going over the same piece of writing so many times, re-read fatigue can make you miss out on obvious errors. So, make someone else proofreads your draft before you submit it on Common App. Remember, Common App does not allow you to make any updates to the submitted essay. You really need to be sure that you’re happy with the final draft before submitting.

Next, let’s put some of these tips, tricks, and strategies into action and see some examples of great Common App essays.

Sample #1: Rina

The fragrance of cloves mingles with the potent smell of green chilis to fill the kitchen with a delicious and familiar scent. After hours of chopping, peeling, and stirring, some overnight marinating and a couple of disastrous attempts at frying onions, I’d finally managed to re-create my grandmother’s biryani recipe from scratch. But the final test was still to come. Would my mother approve of my efforts? After all, I’d done all of this as a surprise for her birthday. As I stood there, watching my mother gingerly lift the spoon to her mouth, I couldn’t believe that I’d actually spent an entire day and night working so hard to recreate one of my family’s traditional Indian recipes. I’d come a long way from the scared girl who couldn’t run away fast enough from my bi-cultural background.

Growing up, what I wanted more than anything else was to blend in with my peers. I remember every year during the annual school fundraiser, all students were asked to contribute something for the baked goods sale. A typical American event – and one that I dreaded. My mother always insisted on preparing elaborate Indian sweets, syrupy gulab jamuns and golden jalebis, and I always felt so out of place standing next to that stand in school. It took me a long time to realize that my greatest source of discomfort was my own insecurity.

The distance I felt from my mother only increased with time, as I grew up to be a regular American teenager who preferred my friends’ company to my mother’s and who listened to all the wrong kinds of music. That all changed two summers ago, when we got the news that my grandmother in India had passed away. I noticed a great change in my mother after she came back from the funeral. She was quiet, sad, and withdrawn, and most importantly, she’d stopped cooking altogether. One day, I asked her why. She told me that her mother was the one who had taught her how to cook, and now that she was gone, she felt some crucial emotional connect was gone from her cooking and she couldn’t find any joy in it. This revelation made me think deeply about my own disconnect from my Indian roots and how hurt my mother must be my continuous rejection. What for me was just a natural desire to “fit in”, for her represented a rejection of so much that was important to her. Eventually, to my mother’s delight and surprise, I asked her if she would teach me how to cook Indian food like her mother had taught her. Though I’d started the exercise as a way to help my mother with her grief, I was happy to discover that I enjoyed cooking thoroughly and soon developed a taste for Indian food I’d never had before. I took on more and more complicated recipes and felt a great sense of accomplishment at every one that I mastered.

This experience made me realize how important it was to embrace every part of yourself and to keep an open mind to new experiences, and new perspectives. This is a lesson I’ll carry with me as I enter the next stage of my life, and I’m glad I learned it before it was too late for me to mend my relationship with my mother.

So that’s how I ended up in my kitchen that day, covered in flour and oil splatters, awaiting my mother’s judgment with trepidation. And as my mother’s face lit up with a smile of delight, giving her stamp of approval to my difficult culinary feat, I felt I’d finally found that sense of belonging I’d been searching for all my life. (621 words)

Why it works : This essay is a great example of the “circular” style of essay. It opens with a story that hooks the reader in, builds suspense about what the conclusion could be, and ends with a meaningful takeaway that brings the story full circle. Though the setting is simple, the stakes are high, and that is clearly communicated in the way the story unfolds and the subsequent experiences shared. Additionally, the writer narrates experiences and events that add context to the central thesis – that of finding belonging and accepting your self – and does not include any unnecessary details that could clutter the narrative. She also includes evocative descriptions that make the essay an engaging read. 

Sample #2: Robert

9 pm on a school night, the radio blasting The Weeknd, I was cruising down the N-75, feeling that I could keep going forever. No, I wasn’t out for a wild night with friends – right beside me was my father, looking at me with pride. After spending months terrified of getting behind the wheel, I’d finally gotten over my fear. That day, I was actually driving on the highway at night, a combination of circumstances that would have given me nightmares just a few weeks ago.

Most teenagers dream of the day they can finally get behind the wheel and be the masters of their own destiny, and I was the same. Unlike most teenagers, my parents felt no trepidation handing me the keys to their car when the time came for me to start practicing. I was the responsible, mature, and capable oldest child and had quickly mastered the basics of driving in my theoretical lessons. So, what could go wrong? I found that out within a month of starting actual driving lessons with my father. It was one disaster after another. I’d turn to the wrong side. I’d take too long to brake. And sometimes I’d just freeze, too anxious to move or do anything. As my father tried to tell me, it was a very dangerous maneuver to undertake in the middle of a busy intersection! It all culminated in a small accident that resulted in some minor damage to my father’s car and some major damage to Mrs. Waterford’s pea beds.

To everyone’s astonishment, including my own, this small accident completely traumatized me, to the point that I gave up my driving lessons and stopped practicing. All of my friends had also experienced some kind of bumps in their driving journey, but none of them had been deterred. Moreover, I’d always prided myself on being the kind of person who could accomplish anything I set my mind to. I’d taken on a full roster of STEM-oriented AP classes and maintained a 4.0 GPA all through junior year, and I’d played on an injured ankle to get my football team to victory in freshman year. But when it came to driving, all my gumption seemed to desert me.

I remember the day my friend got her license, and we went for a drive together. She asked me why I was so scared of driving and joked that it’s the first time I’d ever failed a class. Her lightly spoken words struck a chord in me as I realized that she’d actually pinpointed the source of my fear. I’d always had a natural aptitude and affinity for the two main interests of my life: science and football. I’d found it easy to do well in school and on the field, and never really explored interests beyond these safe arenas. That’s why I didn’t really know what to do when faced with something that didn’t come naturally to me. Driving was the first time I’d had to face up to my failure, and it had spooked me completely.

Once I had that realization, I spent some time reflecting on how I could move past this fear. I soon got back behind the wheel, and I took extra classes with a trained instructor so I could get really confident in my driving. With my license finally in hand, the first thing I did was call my friend to tell her I’d passed!

I’m now committed to challenging myself and getting out of my comfort zone, whether it’s expanding my roster of subjects to include more humanities courses or auditioning for our school play. Not every new experience has been a “success”, but as I know now, that’s not the point! My fear of failure has now transformed into a fear of stagnation, and this has helped me see life in a whole new perspective. (645 words)

Why it works : Robert’s essay is a great example of an “overcoming obstacles” essay that focuses on a personal obstacle and provides the necessary context to make it a compelling narrative for a personal statement. The key in any essay about overcoming a challenge is to document your journey from obstacle to learning to growth, and Robert’s does that very clearly. In any personal statement that has a “growth narrative” there also needs to be a focus on the writer’s inner thoughts and evolving thinking. In this essay, Robert walks his audience through how we felt at each stage of dealing with this obstacle. Finally, he ends with a memorable takeaway that reiterates the lesson he learned and explains how he plans to implement this lesson in his life.

Sample #3: Sarah

“Sarah. Sarah! Wake up!” My mother’s voice woke me with a start, and I raised a bleary head from my drool-covered book. Once again, I’d lost track of time and fallen asleep reading a Thomas Hardy novel. My mother watched me bewildered and asked me, “I guess you really love your new English Literature class, huh?”. My mother’s bewilderment stemmed from the fact not very long ago, I had a clear trifecta of interests – my friends, cheerleading, and fashion designing – and reading stories about things that happened to people very far away, 200 years ago, did not figure in my list of priorities. And now here I was, obsessively working my way through Hardy’s entire body of work, not long after I’d finished all the completed Austen novels. And I was already planning which Bronte sisters’ works I’d be reading next!

I have Mr. Smithers to thank for starting me on my astonishing journey of discovering, and falling in love with, 19th century British literature. While we were studying Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice for our Lit class, he assigned each of us a specific assignment about different aspects of Regency era life. In my case, knowing my predilection for fashion, he asked me to work on a project about the trending women’s fashions when Jane Austen was alive. What started as a routine assignment for class soon transformed into one of the most fascinating explorations of my life. I found myself completely absorbed in the tiniest little details of Regency fashion: the imported textiles, the use of chemises, what types of slippers they wore. From exploring the “what”, I soon found myself asking how and why. I borrowed books from our school library about the politics and economy of Regency era England. I began to see the deeper connections between the socio-economic climate, and prevalent cultural trends, and how that all manifested in the form of major fashion trends. Before, I’d only ever thought of Napoleon as a short, angry French man from some distant era in history! Now, I found out how close he had come to actually conquering England, and how his rejection of extravagant court fashions in favor of ancient Greek philosophies actually popularized the empire waisted gowns that dominated Regency era England ballrooms.

With Mr. Smither’s encouragement and guidance, I found more and more novels to help me continue exploring this new interest. Under the sunlight streaming through the windows of our dusty little school library, I absorbed myself in these stories of people from a long gone era. Yet every story I read only revealed to me how humans, across time and space, have a treasury of common experiences. Reading Hardy’s Tess of d’Urbervilles, I found myself sympathizing with the double standards that Tess was dealt just because she was a woman. It also made me think deeply about how I had also internalized and sometimes acted upon sexist ideas. Like any high school, our school too was a rumor factory that most often targeted girls. I decided, from that moment, to stop participating in forwarding any gossip or rumors. I also spoke to some of my friends who had thoughtlessly spread unkind gossip about a new girl. It was a tiny act of kindness and change, but it helped me grow as a person and re-define my perspective on what matters.

The most wonderful thing about literature is the power it has to take us beyond ourselves and show us a different way of thinking than we ever imagined. Today, I not only have a new interest, but also a new perspective on life, and a new avenue to growth and learning. I can’t wait to see what new perspectives, ideas, and theories are waiting for me between the pages of a book. (629 words) 

Why it works : Sarah’s essay focuses on her interest in a specific subject and takes the reader on a journey of discovery along with her. Essays responding to prompt no 6 can sometimes be tricky to write, since it’s more difficult to set up a conflict or expand upon lessons learnt when talking about a technical topic or a specific subject. Sarah manages to create conflict by showing us a contrast between who she used to be and who she is now and leading us through the steps that led to her transformation. She also has a clear takeaway – the power of literature and its personal impact on her – and that ties back in with her initial set up of how much she had changed thanks to her new-found interest. It gives a clear idea of who she is and how she thinks, and presents a unique perspective on a regular hobby.

The Common App essay should be between 250 to 650 words. Ideally, you should write an essay of at least 500 words to ensure your narrative is substantial and meaningful.

No – once you’ve submitted your Common App essay, it is locked for editing. Make sure you’ve triple-checked your final draft, and get someone else to proofread it, before you submit it.

Yes, the Common App essay is a very important admissions component. It can count for up to 30% of your application review. The more elite and competitive the college, the more importance they’ll give to the Common App essay. As the only qualitative component of your primary application, your essay is a great opportunity to make yourself stand out from the crowd and humanize your “checklist” of achievements for the admissions committee. A great essay could help you edge out other applicants with similar profiles in terms of academic record and extracurriculars.

Ideally, you should spend 3 months writing your Common App essay, giving yourself plenty of time for brainstorming, free writing, selecting a topic, writing multiple drafts (at least 3), seeking out feedback, and finalizing your essay. You can compress these activities down into a shorter timeline, but this could make the process that much more difficult and could impact the final quality of your essay. Starting and finishing your Common App essay early also leaves you free to deal with all the other application components closer to the actual college app deadlines. Remember, you’ll also have to write secondary essays for multiple colleges in a short period of time – a month or less – and your Common App essay prep could be very useful in writing secondary essays as well. So, it’s best to give yourself plenty of time to prepare for and write your Common App essay.

If you’re struggling to find a topic for your Common App essay, start with journaling and brainstorming before you get into actually writing the essay. Just write down your free-association responses to  3 or 4 of the prompts. Ask yourself a few key questions to guide your brainstorming such as: who am I? What do I hope to achieve? What is my passion? What makes me unique? Find the experiences, events, ideas, and people in your life that are the most meaningful to you, personally, and then select a topic that corresponds to those events.

A great Common App essay is one that demonstrates your excellent writing skills, shows depth and breadth of thought, a clear journey of self-reflection, and truly expresses who you are as a person. Your essay should not be a repetition of the items already seen in your resume. Instead, it should provide a new and refreshing perspective on you, and should clearly communicate what makes you special.

Ideally, you should ask at least two people to review your Common App essay. Select someone close to you, such as a parent or a friend, who can give you genuine, well-meaning feedback about the personal aspects of your essay. You should also ask an experienced mentor to review your essay, such as an English teacher or guidance counsellor. If you’re really struggling with it, you can get the help of admissions consultants who can give you expert feedback.

The Common App essay is your personal statement, and you only need to write one essay that goes out to all colleges along with your primary application. You can select from 1 of 7 prompts and write an essay about any meaningful, personal achievements or experiences that you’d like admissions committees to know. The Common App essay should be general and should not reference any specific colleges. On the other hand, supplemental essays are written in response to college-specific prompts and should directly address why you want to go to a particular college. These essays are a part of your secondary application and colleges can share 1 or more prompts to help them get to know you better.

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10 Instructive Common App Essay Examples — 2024

March 26, 2024

Examples are integral to the learning process in just about every subject. In writing, they’re particularly important, especially when working with abstract concepts or attempting to master a new genre. Imagine how lost you’d feel if you had to write a poem without ever reading one, or craft a thesis statement without being shown a few models! Accordingly, it stands to reason that reading Common App essay examples should be an essential part of the college personal statement writing process as well.

However, we’ve noticed that reading Common App essay examples can sometimes hinder more than help, creating self-esteem pitfalls and leading students to unhelpful conclusions about the college application process. It doesn’t have to be this way, though! When you understand how essays are used in the admissions process as well as the hallmarks of a strong personal essay, you can read Common App essay examples more objectively, noticing their similarities rather than their differences. Ultimately, embracing those similarities is what will allow you to produce your strongest work. In today’s blog, we’ll review how all Common App essays are similar and teach you how to objectively evaluate examples so that they are a useful–rather than stress-inducing—tool during your writing process.

What are the pitfalls of reading Common App essay examples?

Think about what typically happens when you work on an assignment in English class. Let’s say you’re doing a short story unit. Your teacher might give you a short story (or several) written by a professional writer, which you read and analyze for specific elements. She then lets you loose to start your own story, but it’s unlikely you’re comparing yourself to the short story author while you write. That person is an expert, after all, and this is your very first piece of fiction!

College essays, though, are different. They’re not written by professional writers; they’re written by your peers (peers who might even be applying to the same selective institutions that you are). As such, the fact that you’ve never written a college essay before offers little reassurance. Everyone else seems to manage to produce amazing essays, right? So why shouldn’t you?

After years of working with students on their writing, we have some theories…

Why Reading Common App Essay Examples Can Feel Especially Loaded

  • It’s easy to arrive at inaccurate conclusions . “If so-and-so got into Harvard by theming all their essays about chicken soup, then I should do the same!” or “This person was accepted to Stanford after writing about their earliest childhood memory, so that must be the way to do it!”
  • You compare your writing style and life experiences to the examples , falsely concluding that yours can’t possibly be interesting or good enough. Worse, these conclusions might derail your initial drafts altogether.
  • After reading several examples, you decide that you’re going to “break the mold” of the Common App essay and do something “unique.” However, to be quite frank, your chance of presenting admissions officers with something that they’ve never seen before has approximately the same probability as seeing a velociraptor in your backyard. Remember, they read thousands of applications per year. Their objective is not to be surprised but to get to know you .

What are the best practices for reading Common App essay examples?

Before you dive into reading Common App essay examples, consider beginning your journey with personal essays written by professional writers. Their objective is different than yours, sure. However, you can pay close attention to how they craft their stories, how and when they reflect, how they begin, and how they conclude.

Ask yourself: What stayed with me? What did I enjoy? What did I learn about the writer?

The New York Times “ Lives ” section is especially perfect for this assignment, as the essays are typically under 700-800 words. Here are a few to get started with, but browse around (there are hundreds to choose from):

Running into Danger on an Alaskan Trail , by Cinthia Ritchie

Safe on the Southbank, by Elliot Ackerman

Familiar Ground , by Mark Montinaro

What do I do next?

Before you proceed any further, it’s important to understand the Common App essay’s purpose. Every piece of writing has a purpose, whether that’s to argue a thesis, persuade someone to buy a product, provide information, or entertain. Let’s go back to our short story example—if you’re writing a story solely for English class, your purpose might be to show your teacher that you understand the elements of short fiction. If you want the story to be published in a literary magazine, though, your purpose will be much different.

So, let’s review the purpose of a college personal statement: to add dimension to the rest of your application. As such, your personal statement should:

  • Immerse the reader into your world
  • Provide insight into something you value or think is important
  • Allow the reader to connect with you

In addition to your essay’s purpose, it’s also important to understand 1) who your Common App personal statement will be read by and 2) how it will be evaluated.

Common App Essay Examples (Continued)

Firstly, your Common App essay does not get sucked into a black hole, never to be seen by human eyeballs again. It will be read in full by admissions officers at each college—real people who want to connect with you (and whose job it is to give due diligence to every part of your application). They’re not reading your essay to circle wonky sentences with a red pen or find reasons to fast-track your application to the circular file. Instead, they are reading your work with a focus on discovery. What can they learn about you that will tell them more about what kind of student, person, community member, and/or campus contributor you’ll be?

Moreover, many admissions offices utilize a multi-step holistic decision-making process. Although your essay will likely be read several times by several different readers, the first round of review is typically focused on whether you have sufficient academic preparation and/or potential to succeed as a student. Later rounds—if your application makes it to that point—are when admissions officers typically look more closely at subjective elements like teacher recommendations and essays.

That said, know that essays are not deciding factors in admissions decisions. They can be a strong factor, particularly if your application falls in the middle of the pool at any given institution, because they help an admissions committee understand more about you and what qualities or experiences you would bring to campus if admitted. However, your essay alone will not get you admitted to or rejected from any given college.

What are the elements of a strong Common App essay?

A piece of writing’s purpose will give you essential insight into what elements are most important within that piece of writing. For example, fiction is supposed to immerse the reader into the world of the author’s creation, ultimately offering new perspectives and insights. As such, setting and character development are two major elements of any fiction piece.

Accordingly, a Common App essay’s purpose gives us insight into its most important elements. Remember, a strong Common App essay:

  • Immerses the reader into your world
  • Provides insight into something you value or think is important
  • Allows the reader to connect with you

…which means that the major elements to focus on are:

  • Positive voice/tone

Reading Common App essay examples with a focus on the above three elements can be a highly effective way to understand the genre. Doing so will give you the building blocks you need for your own essay.

Before we look at a set of examples, though, let’s delve a little more deeply into the writing process as well as each of the above three elements.

How do I write a strong Common App essay?

Before you can start writing, you’ll need to choose a topic (or potential topic). When it comes to topics, the way you write about any given topic often outweighs the topic itself. ( See exceptions here . ) Accordingly, the topic that is often the most successful is one that:

  • You feel most excited or inspired to write about
  • Allows you to immerse the reader in your world/experiences
  • Gives you the opportunity to reflect

Once you’ve chosen a topic, ask yourself the following question before/as you write:

Why does this story matter to me?

This question is the big kahuna. Why this story? You don’t have to know how your essay will unfold or what conclusions you will arrive at, but you should have a sense of why this topic is important to you to explore in the first place. Try jotting it down at the top of your page:

I want to write about how art helped me deal with my mom’s cancer diagnosis. It matters to me because art is a huge part of who I am. I want colleges to know that my passion for art is something I’m very serious about.

I’m planning to write about my ACL tear last year. It made me realize that I no longer want to play soccer competitively. Instead, I want to pursue politics! I think this shows that I’m able to turn obstacles into opportunities and adapt to change. I want colleges to know that about me.

The “big picture” is important. Let it guide and inform your early outlines and drafts.

Once you’ve nailed down why this story matters to you, it’s time to start thinking about how you want to tell it. You might want to make a list of specific anecdotes, memories, or experiences related to your story and see which one(s) you feel most drawn to. For example:

Why this story matters to me

Related Stories

  • Getting my art box for my birthday
  • When my brother scratched his bike and I repainted it
  • The first time I went to Art Club
  • Working on my art show submission
  • Painting mailboxes in my neighborhood

Ultimately, you might incorporate more than one story into your essay, but for now, you’ll just want to choose one to begin with. Close your eyes and pick the first story or image that comes to mind. Start writing it down with the goal of being as specific and descriptive as possible. Ask yourself:

  • What did I see, hear, smell, and/or feel?

For example, consider the following three sentences:

  • There’s a stream behind my house.
  • A sluggish, polluted stream winds through the woods behind my house.
  • A crystal-clear brook gurgles over rocks in my mother’s garden.

The first sentence doesn’t provide much detail, right? Consequently, you’ll automatically insert your own images, picturing a stream that you know versus the stream behind my house. My job is to immerse you in my world, though, which means that I need to be more specific!

In contrast, the second and third sentences each describe a very specific stream. Notice how much power I have as the writer to evoke different images and strike a particular tone. Use this to your advantage! Either sentence would immerse you into my world, help you connect with me, and reinforce theme.

It’s completely fine if your early drafts include a surplus of details. As you refine your drafts, focus on preserving details that enhance the narrative and removing details that may be distracting. For example:

A sluggish, polluted stream winds through the woods behind my house. There’s a tree next to it that towers thirty feet high, housing chattering birds and squirrels. The stream originates from a reservoir several miles away, and when we visited several months ago after noticing the worsening water quality, we noticed that the reservoir’s beaches were littered with trash and that it was being used as a dumping ground by a local construction company. This is when I threw myself into creating a proposal to bring before the town council that would protect the reservoir.

The focus of this essay is clearly on the writer’s efforts to protect and clean the reservoir. As such, the tree near her house may be a detail that the writer could remove. However, is there anything else she could add about the reservoir’s surrounding area that would paint an even clearer picture of what’s at stake? Is there a dearth of wildlife? Suffering plant life? A moratorium on fishing? Those details could vivify this paragraph.

You’ve written out your story and included lots of detail. Great! Now, you must balance the descriptive, storytelling elements of your essay with an appropriate level of interiority and reflection. To do so, you’ll want to ask yourself:

Where could I reflect on my experience or reveal my thoughts and feelings?

Raise your hand if you’ve heard “Show, don’t tell” your whole life. However, did you know that almost every piece of writing incorporates both showing and telling? In personal essays, the balance between both elements is essential. While you should certainly “show” readers what your experience was like via the use of details and description, you should also “tell” them why it matters. Reflect on your experience—what was hard? What did you learn or wonder, think or feel? Which lessons are you taking forward?

In addition to demonstrating how you think and process information, your reflection also gives your reader another opportunity to connect with you on a personal level. We’ll point out specific examples of interiority and reflection in the example essays below, but be on the lookout for where writers use statements like these: “I thought…” “I felt…” “I wondered…” “I decided…” which often signal reflective moments.

Check Your Tone

The concept of voice feels nebulous to many writers. Essentially, readers hear your writing voice through what you choose to write about and how you choose to write about it. If you’re providing specific details as well as an appropriate level of reflection and writing in a style that feels comfortable and natural to you, trust that your voice is shining through, even if it doesn’t feel that way as you write!

As for tone, we suggest aiming for general positivity. However, positive doesn’t mean that you have to hype yourself up, slap a shiny bow on an unresolved issue, or arrive at a forced ending. It simply means that your essay should have some sort of upward trajectory and arrive at a hopeful or forward-thinking conclusion.

Let’s look at three examples of tone:

In the end, my reservoir proposal didn’t go through. It left me feeling annoyed and depressed. I was mad for a pretty long time about this outcome, but I think I’m ready to move forward.

This tone feels fairly negative, ending the essay on an unresolved note and potentially causing the reader to wonder: is this writer really ready to move forward?

My proposal made it to the last round, which shows how hard I worked. Making it to the last round was the greatest thing to happen to me—it made me a stronger person in the long run!

Too much! Too much! Being excessively upbeat and self-congratulatory can send red flags of its own.

In the end, my proposal made it to the last round but didn’t go through. This was a tough outcome. However, I decided to re-evaluate my motivation and priorities, which helped me overhaul my strategy. After more research, practice, and preparation, I’m more than ready to try again. Most importantly, I’m confident I’ll be able to handle future setbacks with grace and tact.

Much improved. While the writer is honest about being disappointed, she also shares how she adjusted and how she’d like to move forward. There isn’t a clear resolution per se, but that’s okay—there’s still plenty of positive momentum and a sense of how she’d handle future challenges.

Okay, I’ve written a draft. How do I make sure it’s still on track?

Remember that your Common App essay’s purpose is to:

  • Connect with the reader

…which means that you’ll need to focus on the following elements:

Accordingly, after you complete a draft, ask yourself the following:

  • Which details immerse the reader in my world? Do I need to add more?
  • Did I reflect on my experience or reveal my thoughts?
  • What do admissions officers learn about me?

To get into each element more deeply, let’s dive into our example essays.

First, Examples #1-6 will highlight where writers incorporated detail and reflection as well as the overall final takeaway that a reader may walk away with.

Next, Examples #7-8 will explain where writers could incorporate more detail and/or reflection for a stronger essay.

Finally, Examples #9-10 are early, in-progress drafts. We’ll share what developmental feedback we would give these writers to help them move forward.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #1

On a hot day last summer, my brother ran his bike into the mailbox. He skinned his knee, but was less worried about that and more worried about the chipped paint on his new red bike. Tears welling in his eyes, he rubbed the chip with his finger and even more paint flaked off.

“Wait,” I said. “Wait here for just one minute.”

I had taken my brother outside because my mom was sleeping after a chemo treatment, but I ran upstairs as quickly and quietly as I could to get my box of paints. It’s a wooden box, smudged with charcoal fingerprints and streaks of acrylics. I hadn’t always been an artist, but when my art teacher noticed the designs in my notebook margins and asked if I wanted to come to an art club meeting, I decided to try it.

At that first meeting, my teacher taught us how to create a mountain sunrise. As the painting took shape, I marveled at the techniques–using my thumbprint to create the sun, crafting shadows with surprising colors, creating different effects by applying varying types of pressure to my brush. I was also surprised that focusing on my piece felt so meditative–it was the first time since my mom’s diagnosis that I hadn’t been preoccupied with whether her treatments would work or what I was going to cook my brother for dinner.

“What do you want on your bike?” I asked my brother. “Instead of the scratch.” I opened up my box and pointed toward his bike. His eyes widened.

“Anything I want?” he asked.

He chose a baseball bat, and crouched next to me as I painted. When I was done, he said, “Can you paint a baseball, too? Over here.” He pointed to the other end of the bike.

“I’ll show you how.” I dipped his thumb in white and pressed it on the bike’s frame, then showed him how to use my thinnest brush to add curved red stitching.

Word spread quickly about my bike designs. My brother’s friends stopped by the house with pictures of designs that they wanted, and my neighbor’s little girls shyly approached when I was outside with my brother, asking for butterflies. I started carrying my paints around just in case. The kids always gave me something–a shiny rock they’d found, a few quarters, a special feather. It makes me smile when I look out the window and see those bikes pedaling around the neighborhood, my brother’s among them. It makes my mom smile, too. I asked what she would want painted on her bike if she had one, and she said a sunflower. I painted one on our mailbox, cheery and yellow, its stem curling around the handle and down the post.

There are always new techniques to learn and improvements to strive toward, but I feel that art is about trying to create meaning within a chosen medium. There’s so much I can’t control, but what I can do is create beauty in my life and in the lives of others. It’s why I started teaching an afterschool art class at my brother’s elementary school, why I’m currently working on a wall mural in the children’s room at the library, why I’ve taught myself graphic design skills to create posters for art club events and shows. Also, my mailbox paint creations gained so much popularity that my entire street commissioned me to do their boxes. I donated the money to cancer research, but more importantly, the designs are a beacon of support to my mom each day that she feels strong enough to walk outside and check the mail.

Although college will bring new challenges, I also know it will bring a new collection of scratched-up bikes and bare mailboxes, waiting to be painted with brightly colored designs that allow me to express myself and impact others.

What we can learn from this example:

Let’s run down our list of questions:

Which details immerse you in the writer’s world?

This essay is loaded with specific details: her brother’s bike, her art box, her first art club meeting, and her drawings/designs, to name a few. These details help us picture her environment and connect with her experience.

Where did she reflect on her experience or reveal her thoughts?

She provides the most significant reflection in the final two paragraphs, where she tells us why art is so important to her, how she stays involved, and that she wants to continue using art to engage & connect with others in college. However, she also provides small moments of reflection throughout the essay, such as in paragraph four: “I was also surprised that focusing on my piece felt so meditative–it was the first time since my mom’s diagnosis that I hadn’t been preoccupied with whether her treatments would work or what I was going to cook my brother for dinner.” Without that sentence, it might be difficult to understand why art became so important to her.

What will admissions officers learn about her?

She’s creative, dedicated, and empathetic. She’s also clearly a leader who takes initiative, both within her family and in her community.

In sum, this writer used details and reflection to help readers understand what she finds important—in the process, she’s given her essay a positive tone and clear voice.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #2

By some people’s standards, my grandma might be considered a hoarder. When I say there is stuff everywhere at our house, I mean it: broken crystal glasses from a hundred years ago, old watch straps, a shockingly large collection of thumbtacks. Three coffee makers that haven’t worked since before I was born. A broom no one uses because it doesn’t actually sweep anything up.

Whenever I make a motion to throw something out–an empty spice jar for example, or socks with holes in them, my grandma acts personally insulted. (She has also been known to survey the trash can for offending items.) She’ll take it from me grouchily and remind me of its potential uses–spice jars can be cinnamon and sugar shakers! Socks are free dusters! Sometimes, though, she doesn’t have a reason beyond “I might need it someday.”

College Essay Examples (Continued)

At first, I thought this statement was weird. What could we possibly need a cracked Tupperware container for? But then I learned that her attitude stems, in part, from growing up on a rural farm. Everything was repurposed, and it was common to keep things that may not have direct uses, knowing you’d likely find one at some point or another. For example, a large plastic container with a broken lid could be turned on its side and stuffed with hay for the cat in the winter, or plastic bread bags could be used to pack school lunches. Dried-up markers? Homemade watercolor paint. Egg cartons and dryer lint? Fire starters. Chipped bowl? Bird bath.

Her attitude made me interested in our collective willingness to sentence an item to the trash before finding a reuse for it. We buy cheap clothes knowing they might only last us a year. Single-use plastic still dominates, even though the vast majority of it heads to the landfill instead of being recycled. Old jeans are tossed instead of patched up and used as gardening pants, like my grandma does. The worst part is that we do all this knowing that our planet is undergoing irreversible shifts as a result of climate change. The world we’re heading toward is a world none of us can possibly be prepared for.

But what if people could be convinced to adopt my grandma’s mindset? And what would it take to inspire such behavioral changes on a large scale? I started learning about the field of neuroeconomics through books, podcasts, and a summer course at our local college, and became fascinated with the neuroscience behind decision-making. Could principles of neuroeconomics influence environmental policy? What factors could help people make long-lasting, environmentally conscious changes, and how we might facilitate them? These are massive, long-term questions. For now, was there a way to inspire my friends to start being more mindful of their consumption? To start reusing spaghetti jars and dusting with hole-y socks? And what might people be willing to donate or repurpose when there was a community effort to do so?

So, me and my grandma started advertising our services, and the response was unlike anything I could have possibly imagined. We now have a garage full of items that we either donate, sell, or repair, everything from antique dresses that my grandma soaks the stains out of to custom-patched jeans to dressers and wooden toys that need a quick sanding and fresh coat of paint. Our yard sales have become legendary and I’m the go-to kid when people have an old end table with Buzz Lightyear on it that they don’t know what to do with. “Drop it off at my grandma’s,” I say, and they do. Until I can figure out how to effect the kind of large-scale change I’d like to make, I’ll start small and keep going, hopeful that I’m making a difference one revitalized sock at a time.

There’s the coffeemakers, the broom that doesn’t sweep, the socks, the jeans, the repairable items…we could go on. Since this essay is about this writer’s interest in sustainability, notice that he exclusively focuses on specific examples of repurposable items. Such a move supports the narrative rather than acting as filler.

Where did he reflect on his experience or reveal his thoughts?

This writer reflects throughout the essay by using “I” statements (“I thought…”) and asking direct questions, both of which are powerful ways to let readers in on his thought process—and show how it changed.

What will admissions officers learn about him?

This writer is intellectually curious, open-minded, and humorous. It’s also clear that he’s passionate about sustainability and the environment, and is committed to exploring new initiatives and possibilities in college.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #3

My life has always been punctuated by my father’s military deployments, like periods placed in the middle of sentences. I often measured time in relation to them: before, during, or after , holding my breath for my father’s departure or homecoming, for the inevitable extensions and sporadic phone calls, for the unexpected emotions and responsibilities. By the time I was in high school, my father had been gone for more of my childhood than he had been present, and in tenth grade, my parents decided to divorce.

Until then, I had always been surrounded by friends who also had an active duty parent. We didn’t have to explain to each other what the ups and downs felt like. We just knew. I knew that when Mariela’s father’s deployment got extended, she could use a trip to the beach, her favorite place, knew that one of the most painful parts of the whole deployment cycle was the anticipation, and would check in with my friends more frequently during that time, knew that the first week often felt the most discombobulated, and was usually when my mom would offer to drop off meals or help ferry kids to after-school activities. That first week was also the time when things usually went wrong: a burst pipe, a dead car battery, a broken washing machine. Murphy’s Law , my mom always said.

I had spent my entire life existing within this predictably unpredictable cycle. So, when my mom and I moved right before my junior year to a small condo ten minutes from my grandparents but 2,000 miles away from my father’s last duty station, I assumed it wouldn’t be that much different from other moves. I’d join new clubs, make new friends, get to know our neighbors.

But I was immediately confronted by a sense of otherness in a community of kids who had known each other since kindergarten. Explaining where I’d lived before–and why–either solicited shocked reactions “You’ve moved six times?” or prying questions “Why didn’t you stay with your dad?” Mentioning a deployment received a blank stare.  I felt like the previous version of me, the way I’d always thought of myself–as a military kid–was no longer true, or had somehow evaporated into thin air.

Then, last spring, I had an unexpected breakthrough. My chemistry lab partner struggled with some of the steps. As I explained them to her, she visibly relaxed and shot me a thankful smile. I grinned too, because in that moment, I felt more like myself than I had in months.

Later that week, I applied for a peer tutoring position and was accepted. I feel passionate about trying to make personal connections with my students so that I can try to understand and anticipate their needs. I notice whether some students like to brainstorm ideas aloud before writing them down, or prefer when I use pictures to explain concepts. Some students appreciate small talk for a few minutes before we get started, and others need to be more efficient, trying to squeeze in a tutoring session before their after-school job. Not only that, but as I got to know my fellow tutors, I found friendship and connection. When Sophia’s brother was in the hospital, I picked her up for an afternoon movie. On the night of my piano recital, Olivia and Mary were in the front row cheering me on.

I’ve come to understand that my previous identity is still part of me, even though I now live a very different lifestyle than I did several years ago. Sometimes, I still miss being a military kid. But all the lessons I learned from that time in my life–the importance of a supportive community, empathy, kindness, and anticipating others’ needs–are always with me, informing everything I do.

What we can learn from this college essay example:

Writing about significant challenges is one circumstance where you can choose to be somewhat less descriptive. Notice that the writer contains her challenges in the first half of the essay and only includes need-to-know details. For example, we don’t need to know the reason for her parents’ divorce, or every nitty-gritty deployment detail. She sticks to the facts.

However, she incorporates more specifics into the second half of the essay, including details about particular conversations/comments, her tutoring experience, and her friends.

In an essay about a challenge, reflection is almost always placed toward the end of the essay. You can see that this writer reflected on her experiences in the final few paragraphs, taking time to appreciate where she’s been and where she’s going. However, she uses “I” statements throughout to let us in on what she was thinking and feeling, ex. “I assumed it wouldn’t be much different from other moves…” “I felt like the previous version of me…”

She’s resilient and adaptable, which she’s conveyed through her mature and positive tone. Remember, a positive tone isn’t forced or fake—it simply means that your essay has forward momentum or a positive future outlook. At the end of this essay, one has the overall sense that, even though this writer sometimes struggles with her new lifestyle, she’s ready to take on new challenges. It’s also clear that she values and prioritizes being part of a community.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #4

The scent of crushed garlic permeates the air, mingling with tamari and sesame oil. The nutty smell of brown butter hits my nose next, followed by earthy sage. Something sweet and spicy—sweet potatoes tossed in cinnamon and gochujang.

Most Saturday mornings, the kitchen counter is a mess of ingredients, whisks, and hot pans with my parents shuffling around in the middle, kneading bread or marinating meat. They’re rarely home for dinner during the week, but Saturdays are when we try our hand at everything from my Italian great-grandmother’s tomato-stained lasagna recipe to new dishes like bulgogi, potstickers, and garlic naan.

Often, the recipes fail miserably the first time. A few months ago, our naan dough was so sticky that it was difficult to knead and then impossible to flip in the pan. Our raviolis split open when we dropped them in boiling water; our lemon curd always broke. Without fail, though, there was some special trick we were missing. My mom’s best friend, who gave us the naan recipe, showed us how to oil our hands before kneading the dough and brush the back of each naan with water before dropping it into the pan. The result? Perfectly chewy and easy-to-flip bread. YouTube tutorials fixed our ravioli problem—turns out we needed to turn down the heat and avoid overloading the pot. (We’re still figuring out the lemon curd.)

I always write down the adjustments in the margins of our recipe notebook, adjustments that are sometimes happy accidents, like when we successfully thickened a soup with cashews instead of butter or accidentally added cinnamon to a chocolate chip cookie recipe. It made me embrace the mindset that whatever problem we were facing could always be creatively solved.

It was this sense of possibility that helped me navigate new territory last year. After extensive testing and many years of chronic stomach problems and headaches, I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. I felt both relieved and nervous as I wondered whether our cooking Saturdays would be more difficult. My mom, however, seemed undeterred and immediately started researching gluten-free substitutes and flours. We quickly found that there were an overwhelming number of flour possibilities—tapioca, rice, coconut, almond, oat—all combined in various ratios and used for differing purposes.

We decided to test the flours one by one, quickly finding that coconut flour cannot be directly substituted for regular flour, almond flour naturally creates a chewier cookie, and gluten-free flours almost always need more moisture than regular flour. Every time we successfully modified one of our “old” recipes, I felt both energized and encouraged that I didn’t have to give up foods I loved just because I was gluten-free.

My experiences have made me realize that food inclusivity can be an underrated yet simple way to show kindness to others. After multiple events and birthday parties where I brought my own snacks or avoided the food table, I’ve become more mindful of people’s food traditions and considerations. For example, one of my Indian friends eats exclusively vegetarian while my Muslim friend doesn’t eat pork. My cousin has an anaphylactic peanut allergy, and my neighbor recently became vegan for environmental reasons. When they come over to study or hang out, I love the smile I get when they realize they can eat whatever snack or baked good I’ve made (especially if it’s brownies).

In addition to empathy, all those Saturday mornings cooking with my parents—and the food knowledge I’ve gained from our friends and family—have encouraged my adaptability. Instead of focusing on what might go wrong, I focus on how I can always learn something new if I’m open-minded enough to do it. Making perfect ravioli might just mean turning down the heat, unsticking my naan might just require a little sprinkle of water, and finding new friends in college might just take a warm plate of nut-free, vegan, gluten-free brownies.

This writer used quite a few sensory food details and specifics throughout, from what the food tasted and smelled like to details about recipes. As such, the focal point of her essay—food—comes to life for us in a way we can easily envision.

She also grouped her details in threes. When you have a number of potential examples to share—as this writer did—consider embracing the rule of three. Our brains like patterns, and three is typically the sweet spot of effectiveness and memorability. Notice that this writer uses three examples in several areas: the opening paragraph, third paragraph, sixth paragraph, and final paragraph. Limiting yourself to three can be an excellent way to increase your writing’s power and simultaneously reduce words. Win-win!

This writer reflected in several places, mostly in the second half of the essay. She uses “I” statements to signal how her thoughts evolved—“I felt nervous…” “I wondered…” “My experiences made me realize…” In addition, she specifically discusses two values that are the most important to her: empathy and adaptability.

She’s empathetic, adaptable, and family-oriented. She’s also perseverant, willing to try new things, and values connection with others.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #5

I’ve always been obsessed with the ocean. Bioluminescent plankton. Killer whales. Alien-like creatures that only exist in the abyssal zone, a place less explored than outer space. As a child, I spent summer beach days observing tide pools and writing down what I saw in a notebook. I learned about scientists like Eugenie Clark and Sylvia Earle, fearless crusaders who explored the ocean through scuba diving and deep-sea expeditions. Although many jobs within marine biology don’t require diving ability, I dreamed of being the type of scientist who boldly investigates underwater caves and cascades down to the bottom of the ocean in a submersible with bizarre and never-before-seen fish flashing past the tiny windows.

Even though the cold waters near our home weren’t exactly a diving mecca, I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was learn. I started saving up money to pay for lessons and was so excited when I finally had enough to take an introductory course. The class started out in a pool, and once we mastered a certain set of skills, we’d be able to do our first open-water dive.

Since I loved the ocean so much, I thought diving would come naturally to me. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I managed to keep up until it came time to work on clearing our masks underwater, which is when you rinse the inside of the mask while you’re diving rather than have to re-surface every time the glass fogs. However, whenever I loosened my mask to flood it with water, I couldn’t push away the nagging sense of panic. I kept sucking water up my nose instead of blowing out and would immediately need to surface, choking and gasping.

I tried again. And again. And again. Over and over, the mask clearing went sideways: I’d press on the seal, tilt my head up, and attempt to blow through my nose, only to inhale instead of exhale or become overwhelmed by the water clouding my vision. After several weeks and little improvement, my instructor sat me down to discuss taking a break.

Honestly, rather than feeling a sense of failure, all I felt was a sense of relief. However, as soon as I got home, that instant relief was replaced by intense disappointment. Diving was my dream, and I couldn’t let myself give up that easily.

I knew that there must be something mentally preventing me from enjoying diving and being able to complete certain skills. To figure out what that “something” was, I started talking to both beginning and experienced divers on online forums, who were quick to share their own experiences of struggling on their first dives. They emphasized water comfort as well as mindfulness techniques, such as yoga and meditation. Instead of diving, I started heading to the pool multiple days per week, doing laps and getting more comfortable in the water, in addition to taking a yoga class and meditating every morning.

Several months ago, I went back to my diving class with renewed purpose and confidence. I successfully cleared my mask underwater and quickly mastered the next set of skills. And two weeks ago, when I lowered myself beneath the surface of the ocean on my first open-water dive, it was nothing short of magical.

Diving is about more than my childhood dream—it’s about my confidence in myself. Although it was a longer journey than I anticipated, I’m proud of myself for committing to my goal. Rather than allowing myself to believe that my fears can’t be overcome and that I have to live with limited opportunities, I choose to embrace the belief that having fears—and confronting them—will only make me a stronger diver and a more resilient scientist.

In addition to her specific childhood interests, the writer also goes into detail about her scuba diving classes—what they were like, what went wrong (particularly in regard to mask-clearing), and what she did to overcome her fears. For example, in the sixth paragraph, she gives us detailed specifics about the actions she took: “Instead of diving, I started heading to the pool multiple days per week, doing laps and getting more comfortable in the water, in addition to taking a yoga class and meditating every morning.” Imagine how much less effective that paragraph might be if she instead wrote “I decided to try out some of their suggestions, and they worked.”

If you’re writing an essay about a particular failure or struggle, think about why it felt so significant, and be sure to incorporate that “why” into your essay. This writer does so in the final paragraph, where she discusses why overcoming her diving-related obstacles was such a significant step for her.

They’ll learn that she has grit, perseverance, resilience, and self-awareness. She’s willing to fail and try again. Not only that, she’s willing to reflect on her experience and use what she learned to continue growing.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #6

It happened quickly. One minute, I was wide open, waiting to catch a throw during my family’s annual Thanksgiving football game. The next minute, I was being tackled to the ground by my cousin and felt something pop.

At first, I thought the pop was something benign. Air cracking through a joint, maybe. I rolled over to stand up, but my right leg gave out beneath me as soon as I tried to put weight on it. My cousin helped me limp inside and my mom piled frozen corn bags on my knee. Within an hour, it had swelled to the size of baseball and I was in too much pain to move.

Several specialists and an MRI later, I was diagnosed with an ACL tear and scheduled for surgery. This news would have been difficult enough without the fear that now ballooned in my mind: what about soccer ?

I’d been a competitive soccer player since I was three, and I loved the game. Actually, I didn’t just love it, I lived and breathed for it. Singularly focused on my dream of becoming a professional athlete, I dedicated multiple hours per week to improving my skills on and off the field.

But the ACL tear changed everything. It would be at least nine months before I could play soccer again, and I was terrified about what that would mean. Would I now be passed over during the college recruiting process? Was this the beginning of the end?

I felt sorry for myself for several weeks before deciding that I had a choice in how the next steps played out. College soccer or no college soccer, my team now was important to me. While I was recovering at home, I convinced my coach to send me videos of soccer practices so I could stay up to date on our team’s strategy, and I was disciplined about physical therapy as soon as I could after the surgery.

However, I also started pouring my extra time into an unexpected place: history. I’d always been interested in the Cold War, and had listened to a few podcasts about it, but digging in even further made me obsessed with McCarthyism as well as the psychological manipulation that occurred at various levels of government during that time. I wondered: how does peer pressure influence adults, particularly at the highest levels of government? How do people perceive threats to their political survival? Is it possible for politicians to sacrifice themselves on the altar of their morals, or is it more likely that they’ll always act in their own best interests? I could even see these same questions playing out in the political landscape today.

When I went back to school post-surgery, a new ritual began: before hobbling over to the field to watch my team’s soccer practice, I’d be in my AP History teacher’s classroom, picking his brain about whatever topic had claimed my attention that week. He ultimately recommended me for a summer program at a local college that investigated political ethics, where I found a group of friends who shared my interests. To this day, we’re constantly sharing political articles in our group text and discussing them together spiritedly.

Giving myself the space to go in new directions, and to learn more about who I am now, changed everything. I realized I had never challenged my dream of being a professional soccer player, never asked myself if that was what I really wanted until I had to. I’ll always love soccer, and always bring my all to any field I’m on. But I love other things, too, and I now am looking for a space where I can be curious, ask new questions, and push what I think I know in new ways. Where will my current interests lead me? I can’t wait to find out.

For starters, this writer provides a solid level of detail about the injury itself. Rather than saying “I tore my ACL playing football” he gives us some context and detail about where he was, who he was playing with, and what happened. It might seem small, but these details allow us to envision his experience. In the second half of the essay, he also provides specifics about his political interests, including his current questions and curiosities.

Moreover, his essay includes a number of small details that alert us to his drive and dedication. For example, in the eighth paragraph, he could have said, “…a new ritual began: I stopped in to see my AP History teacher before soccer practice.” Instead, he wrote: “…. a new ritual began: before hobbling over to the field to watch my team’s soccer practice, I’d be in my AP History teacher’s classroom….” His language communicates that it was difficult for him to get to both places, even though he doesn’t expressly tell us that.

This writer reflects at the beginning and end of the essay. In the first few paragraphs, he shares what he was thinking and feeling during the aftermath of the ACL tear, which helps us empathize with his situation and understand why it felt so significant. In the final paragraph, he then arrives at some conclusions about the “big picture” and where he plans to go from here.

You may have heard the advice to avoid writing about sports or sports injuries in your college essay, but we’ve seen many students write powerful essays about sports when they lean deeply into how the event or injury affected them on a personal level. This writer did just that, using his injury to demonstrate his resilience, ability to overcome challenges, and willingness to challenge his beliefs. In addition, by asking open-ended questions, he also showcases his intellectual passions/curiosities.

Okay, time to put our skills to the test! The following two essays could use some additional tweaking. Let’s figure out where:

Common app essay examples: essay #7.

Beep. As the cashier passes each item over the scanner, she rolls it in my direction, where I have a growing collection of produce, soup cans, and chip bags. Beep. I sort through the heap, automatically stacking cans and moving eggs and bread to the side. Beep.

“Paper, plastic, or reusable?” I ask.

I started my job as a grocery bagger last summer, and at first, it seemed like it would be easy money. However, on my first day, I quickly learned that bagging groceries was part art, part science.

How hard could this be? I assumed the goal should be to load each bag with as many items as possible, and so placed three jars of spaghetti sauce, canned vegetables, and a half-gallon of milk in one bag, confident that I was being efficient.

Wrong. So, so wrong.

As soon as I lifted the bag toward the cart, the handles ripped off and the entire thing crashed to the floor. The cans rolled in multiple directions; the milk skidded across the tiles in what seemed like slow motion.

No spills. Phew .

I breathed a sigh of relief about those glass jars of sauce…until I picked up the bag. The inside was now a crime scene of tomatoes and broken glass. The cashier rolled her eyes at me and other customers stopped to crane their necks and see what was happening. I wanted to disappear.

“Hey, kid.” An older man limped over to where I was standing and took the bag from my hands. “Why don’t you go grab this lady some new sauce?”

I scurried off to the spaghetti sauce aisle, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. How could I have messed up something as simple as bagging groceries?

I got the sauce and went back. Gerry—as I would soon come to know him—was standing at my bagging station, patiently sorting the customer’s pile of food. When he saw me, he gestured me over.

“Now,” he said. “Here’s what you do. Cans on the bottom, around the outside, see? But only a couple.” He watched me load some in. “No, no, that’s too many.” He took one out. “You should be able to easily lift it, see?” He picked up the bag with one hand.

“Cans around the outside. Good. Now glass in the middle. Take one of these—” he took a spaghetti sauce jar out of my hands and deposited it snugly between the cans. “Good. Now, what else we got? Put the boxes and crushable items on top—look, she’s got granola bars, popcorn. Yep, just like that.”

Gerry supervised me for the rest of the week, teaching me how to handle all kinds of bagging conundrums, like fresh meat (put it in a separate bag); cleaning supplies (don’t put them with the food, in case they leak); recently-misted produce (put another plastic bag over it to keep it from getting the rest of the groceries wet); and eggs (either on top of a mid-weight bag or at the bottom of a light bag. Oh, and tell the customer which bag the eggs are in!).

I’ve quickly learned our customers’ bagging preferences, and cashiers now often request me as their bagger. I’ve also learned that these interactions mean a lot to people, as properly bagged groceries make it easier for people to transport their food home efficiently and in one piece. Most importantly, Gerry taught me that nothing is more essential than your willingness to learn and do your best, no matter what job you find yourself doing.

Gerry retired last month, but I think of him whenever I’m training a new bagger or navigating ripped-bag catastrophes. And when I see a jar of spaghetti sauce coming down the conveyor belt, I can’t help but grin as I place it safely between a few cans.

How this writer could improve his essay:

Which details immerse you in the writer’s world? Do they need to add more?

This writer is doing great with details, making use of imagery to bring us into the narrative. We can clearly envision the groceries coming down the conveyor belt, the cans and jars being packed into bags, and even the writer’s horror at the bags ripping!

There is some reflection at the end of the essay, when the writer tells us what he’s learned. However, we’d love to see this writer do a little more digging. It’s clear that he learned some significant life lessons from Gerry that he’s tried to apply at work and beyond. However, the reflection feels a bit rushed. To strengthen, this writer might consider expanding on how he’s applied the lessons he’s learned as well as what he’s specifically discovered about himself or others in the process of doing so.

He’s willing to learn, is dependable and dedicated, and is committed to mastering new skills. If he could spend a little more time focusing on why his newfound life lessons felt so significant and how he applied them, it would help give admissions officers a better sense of him as both a person and a prospective member of their community.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #8

I needed a four-letter word for “angry” that started with R, a type of eagle most commonly found in the Western United States, and a movie from the 1980s that featured characters named Allison, Brian, and Claire. I tapped my pencil on the side of my father’s hospital bed and then tried a few possibilities. “Rude”? No, the second letter needed to be A. “Rash”?

With my father on dialysis, my mother and I spent hours with him at the treatment center. Several days a week, I’d go straight there after school and do my homework in his room. Once, when I arrived, he had a small crossword puzzle book sitting on the bed and handed it to me with a weak smile.

He fell asleep halfway through the first one, but in the chaos and noise of beeping machines and nurses filtering in and out, and of my brain working overtime wondering how much the treatments would help, the crosswords were a simple yet challenging way to keep me busy. I’d often solve as many clues as I could and then save a few for when he woke up, particularly ones about bands from the 80s, old actors and TV shows, or comic book characters.

The crosswords soon infiltrated every area of my life. I’d work on one on the bus on the way to the hospital, between classes, while I was eating lunch. At first, my friends eyed me strangely, but they caught on to the addictiveness soon enough. There would usually be a group of us crowded around a half-solved puzzle at lunch, shouting out answers and penciling in possibilities.

Unexpectedly, crosswords also became a way to learn more about people I loved. A “Dubai” answer led one of my friends to excitedly share that she had been born there. Another friend enjoyed strategizing which section to attempt first. And I also noticed that my dad had an endless knowledge of politics, recalling past presidential candidates with ease. When I asked him how he could remember all of that, it led to stories about his younger days, doing door-to-door campaigning for local candidates. I was surprised because we’re both introverts, and I would feel so nervous to knock on doors. I asked him if anyone ever got upset about his political beliefs.

He took a minute to answer. “In my experience,” he said slowly. “If someone was upset, it meant that they cared. And if they cared, it meant we had something in common.”

After that conversation, I realized I should be pushing myself past what I thought I was capable of, both in and outside of my puzzles. I now try to take risks that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise, talk to people who I may not have tried to be friends with, and sign myself up for new experiences. In all of these situations, I do my best to learn about other people, just like my father did. It’s my goal to continue doing that in college.

How this writer could improve her essay:

This writer has already included a number of excellent details—specific crossword puzzle clues, the struggle of commuting back and forth to her father’s treatments, etc. She also helps us envision her lunchtime crossword gatherings as well as the new connections she began to make with her friends. However, she could add more details in the final paragraph—what risks has she tried to take? What new experiences has she taken on?

In this essay, notice that one reflection organically leads to another. In paragraph five, the writer tells us that crosswords helped her learn more about people she loved, which leads to additional insights about taking risks and pushing herself outside her comfort zone. However, these realizations don’t quite feel connected yet.

As such, this writer might elect to dig a little deeper into why it’s important to her to learn more about others and take risks. Outside of crossword puzzles, what specific examples can she share? In the process, she might uncover new connections.

Alternatively, she might decide that she wants to focus on one particular direction. Currently, she discusses her relationship with her friends as well as her father. However, she might decide that she wanted to write exclusively about how her deepened connection with her father inspired her to change and broaden her perspective.

They’ll learn that she’s intellectual, likes to challenge herself, and appreciates connection. However, as noted in the previous section, her essay is just starting to connect the dots between experiences and insights. Accordingly, this writer would do well to think about what she would like admissions officers to know and then structure her content more intuitively around that goal.

You’re basically a Common App essay expert now, so let’s switch gears and look at two early-stage freewrites. To strengthen their work, what could these students do next?

Common app essay examples: essay #9.

Last summer, I worked as a camp counselor, and by the last week, I could navigate multiple issues with ease. Between lost shoes, runny noses, and separation anxiety, I felt like I could handle anything that came my way. It hadn’t always been like this, though.

When I first started working as a summer camp counselor, I thought my main objective was to make sure that the campers were always having a positive experience. “Don’t cry!” I would say. “Your mom will be back to pick you up later!” Or “Why are you sad? We’re going to have so much fun today!” But it rarely helped. Sometimes, my advice would only make the kids more upset. Other times, they would look at me accusingly as if I couldn’t possibly have any idea what they were experiencing. I struggled with why my efforts to connect were falling flat.

With the help of my sister, I finally realized that trying to empathize with my campers instead of trying to make them feel happy all the time allowed me to connect with them on a deeper level. I was able to do this by thinking about my own summer camp experiences, and trying to remember how it felt to miss my mom or struggle during a certain activity.

Dealing with our own feelings—and other people’s feelings—is complicated and sometimes doesn’t make any sense. By approaching my campers, my friends, and my family members with empathy and a goal to try to relate to them, I am doing my best to create stronger relationships.

Where this writer could go from here:

First, what does this writer want to share about herself with colleges?

She wants to share how much she values building meaningful connections with others.

Right now, this writer is painting with very broad strokes, and we’d encourage her to add more detail! To bring us into her experience, this writer might try “showing” rather than “telling,” particularly at the beginning of the essay. What types of details could “show” us how she handles different situations as a camp counselor? For example, “Between lost shoes, runny noses, and separation anxiety, I felt like I could handle anything that came my way” might evolve into:

“Miss, do you have a tissue?”

“I’m hungry!”

“I can’t find my shoe…”

There were two packs of tissues in my back pocket, and I handed one to Julian. I reassured Anna that snack time was in ten minutes. And I had seen Michelle’s shoe somewhere…yes! There it was, tucked behind the plant.  

Michelle stuck her shoe on and ran off; Anna begrudgingly joined a group playing hide and seek. But Julian kept crying. I sat down next to him and asked him if he was okay. He told me he missed his mom.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I remember missing my mom at summer camp, too.”

Julian cried for a few more minutes and blew his nose. I asked him if he wanted a drink of water. He shook his head…

Where did this writer reflect on her experience or reveal her thoughts?

Although this writer reflects briefly at the end of the essay, notice that it doesn’t feel earned yet because we haven’t yet learned how she ultimately arrived there. How exactly did she practice and build empathy? How and why has her experience as a summer camp counselor changed the way that she approaches other relationships? If she could lean into specific experiences as well as her own thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities, she’d be on her way to a significantly stronger piece.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #10

For my seventh birthday, my parents got me a chia pet. (I had been asking for a dog, but no such luck.) The chia pet came in a cute gray pot that looked like a hedgehog, and once you planted the seeds and they sprouted, the grass was supposed to look like hair. My parents said if I took this responsibility seriously I could potentially get a more interesting pet (maybe not a dog, but a fish or a Venus fly trap was on the table) so seven-year-old me dove in head-first.

I planted the seeds, set the pot on my window sill, and spritzed it dutifully with a small spray bottle daily. If you’ve ever grown chia seeds, you know that they sprout like crazy. Before I knew it, my chia pet needed a haircut every other day, and my parents were instantly regretting their promise to upgrade my pet roster.

But now, I didn’t want a fish or a dog. I wanted more plants. Soon enough, my window sill was covered with plants, and I’ve spent the past ten years growing my collection even larger. I’ve taken my efforts outside, too, redoing my family’s garden and teaching my friends and family about how to choose plants for their yards.

My seven-year-old self merely wanted a pet to take care of, and had no idea that my first chia pet would lead me to where it has today. I still remember the excitement I felt about the possibility of expanding my collection, an excitement that I continue to feel as I learn about plants.  In college, I want to major in horticulture, with an emphasis on sustainable spaces. I’ve found that a lot of people want to make changes to their space and be more sustainable, but they’re not sure how to do that. If I could be the one who teaches them how, I’d absolutely love it.

First, what does this writer want to share about himself with colleges?

He’s passionate about growing plants, which has not only shaped his extracurricular activities (he interns at a greenhouse) but also what he wants to study in college.

This writer starts off very strong, with a humorous and very specific anecdote about his very first plant. To continue bringing readers into his story and help them connect with who he is now , he’ll want to continue incorporating that same level of detail throughout the essay. At the moment, a whole ten-year period of his life is summarized rather quickly. Providing specific examples that help us understand how his journey unfolded over time would be a powerful addition.

Writing about formative childhood memories in college essays is completely fine as long as approximately half the essay—and the reflection in particular—centers on who you are now and how you’ve grown. Notice that his current reflection focuses heavily on what he was thinking and feeling as a seven-year-old. Instead, he’ll want to lean into the excitement that he currently feels. Why is his plant collection so meaningful to him, and what about horticulture continues to interest and excite him? Are there particular topics that he’s passionate about or has had the opportunity to explore further during his internship? How does he know that he wants to work with people to create sustainable spaces?

Note: if this student’s love of plants had stayed firmly rooted in the past (i.e., the love of plants hadn’t progressed past age seven and had no bearing on current interests), we would have advised against this essay topic.

Final Thoughts – Common App Essay Examples

The college personal statement is an important part of the application that can reveal more about who you are and what you’ll bring to a college campus. Studying the genre is an essential part of being well-prepared to do your best writing, an exercise that includes understanding the essay’s purpose as well as its essential elements. When used appropriately, Common App essay examples can be an insightful addition to any writing process. Relax, be yourself, and know that admissions officers are eager to get to know you –the real, multidimensional, interesting person–behind the application.

  • College Essay

Kelsea Conlin

Kelsea holds a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Tufts University, a graduate certificate in College Counseling from UCLA, and an MA in Teaching Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Chautauqua .

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Which Common App Essay Prompt Should You Choose?

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College Essays

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On one hand, the Common Application has seven essay prompts to choose from, which is great news: No matter what your story, you're sure to find a good fit! On the other hand, having seven prompts means you can write seven different kinds of essays, each with its own potential pitfalls and clichés to steer around.

In this article, I'll outline two totally different approaches to figuring out which Common App essay prompt is right for you and help you brainstorm possible ideas for each. I'll also talk about what makes great college essays great and give examples of what you want to avoid when crafting your essay.

What Are Application Essays for, Anyway?

Before you can choose an essay prompt, before you figure out what you're going to write about, it helps to know what the goal of your writing is. Think about it: if your goal were to give someone instructions, you'd write really differently than if your goal were to describe a landscape.

So What Is the College Essay Supposed to Do?

Admissions officers want to know the things they can't find in the numbers that make up the rest of your application. They want to know about your background, where you come from, and what has shaped you into the person you are today. They want to see your personality, your character, and your traits as a person. They want to learn your thinking style and perspective on the world. They want to make sure you have the ability to creatively problem-solve. And finally, they want to double-check your maturity level, assess your judgment, and get a general sense of whether you would be a good college student—whether you would thrive in an environment where you have to be independent and self-reliant.

So think about the college essay as a way of letting the admissions office get to know you the way a close acquaintance would. You have to let them in and share real thoughts, feelings, and some vulnerabilities. You definitely don't need to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets, but you should avoid showing only superficial details or, even worse, a façade.

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Disclosing your closest-held secrets is not the goal of a college essay; however, you  do want to share enough information to give the admissions staff a sense of your personality, motivations, and values.

How to Brainstorm Ideas for Each Common App Prompt

There are two big-picture ways of coming up with essay ideas.

First, maybe you already know the story you want to tell. Perhaps you experienced something so momentous, so exciting, or so dramatic that you have no doubt it needs to be in your college application.

Or maybe you need to approach finding a topic with some more directed brainstorming. There's nothing wrong with not having a go-to adventure! Instead, you can use the prompts themselves to jog your memory about your interesting accomplishments.

Approach #1: Narrating Your Exciting Life

Does something from your life immediately jump into your head as the thing you would have to tell anyone who wanted to know the real you? If you already know exactly which of your life experiences you are going to write about, you can develop this idea before even looking at the prompts themselves.

You can ask yourself a few questions to see whether this is your best brainstorming option:

Is there something that makes you very different from the people around you?

This could be something like being LGBT in a conservative community, having a disability, being biracial, or belonging to a minority group that is underrepresented in your community.

Has your life had a watershed moment? Do you think of yourself as before X and after X ?

For example, did you meet a childhood hero who has had an outsized impact on your life? Did you suddenly find your academic passion? Did you win an award or get recognized in a way you were not expecting to? Did you find yourself in a position of leadership in an unusual time or place?

Did you live through something dramatic, such as a crisis, a danger you overcame, or the complete upheaval of your circumstances?

Maybe you lived through a natural disaster, made your way home after being lost in the woods, or moved from one country to another?

Was your childhood or young adulthood out of the ordinary? Were you particularly underprivileged or overprivileged in some unusual way?

For instance, did you grow up very poor or as the child of a celebrity? Did you live on a boat rather than in a house or as part of a family that never stayed long in one place because of your parents' work or other circumstances?

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If you've experienced a dramatic event that changed your life or face unusual obstacles on a daily basis, approach #1 may work well for you.

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

Approach #2: Brainstorming for Each Prompt

If you don't have an unusual life experience or a story that you absolutely know needs to be told, don't worry! Some of the very best personal essays are about much more mundane situations that people face. In fact, it's better to err on the side of small and insightful if you don't have a really dramatic and unusual experience to write about.

Let's go through the prompts one by one and think of some ways to use more ordinary life events to answer them.

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 broadest of the seven prompts. Almost any life experience that you write about could fit in this category, but you need to be careful to avoid writing the same essay as every other applicant.

Brainstorming Ideas

Background. Did a family member or friend have a significant influence on your life? Did you grow up in a particularly supportive and tolerant—or narrow-minded and intolerant—community? Were your parents not able to provide for you in the expected way? Did you have an unusual home life?

For example, my family came to the U.S. as refugees from Russia. By the time I went to college, I had lived in five different countries and had gone to nine different schools. This wasn't a traumatic experience, but it certainly did shape me as a person, and I wrote about it for my graduate school application essay.

Identity. Are you a member of an interesting subculture (keep in mind that violent or illegal subcultures are probably best left off your college application)? Do you strongly identify with your ethnic or national heritage? Are you a committed fan of something that someone like you would be expected to dislike?

Interest. In this category, esoteric interests are probably better than more generic ones because you don't want your essay to be the hundredth essay an admissions officer sees about how much you like English class. Do you like working with your hands to fix up old cars? Do you cook elaborate food? Are you a history buff and know everything there is to know about the War of 1812?

Talent. This doesn't have to be some epic ability or skill. Are you really good at negotiating peace between your many siblings? Do you have the uncanny ability to explain math to the math challenged? Are you a dog or horse whisperer? Are you an unparalleled mushroom forager?

Pitfalls to Avoid

Insignificance. The thing you describe has to be "so meaningful" the application "would be incomplete without it."

Redundancy. If the interest you write about is a pretty common one, like playing a musical instrument or reading books, make sure you have an original angle on how this interest has affected you. Otherwise, your essay runs the risk of being a cliché, and you might want to think about skipping this idea.

Bragging. If you decide to write about your talent, be aware that by focusing on how very good you are at playing the cello, you run the risk of bragging and coming off as unlikable. It's much better if you describe a talent a little more off the beaten path. Or if you do end up writing about your excellent pitching arm, you may want to focus on a time when your athleticism failed you in some way or was unsuccessful.

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The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

In essence, you're being asked to demonstrate resilience. Can you get back on the horse after falling off? Can you pick yourself up and dust yourself off? This quality is really important to colleges, so it's great if you have a story that shows off your ability to do this.

The key to this essay is the "later success" part. If all you went through was failure and you learned no lesson and changed no approach in the future, then don't use that experience here.

Did you lose a game because of a new and poorly rehearsed strategy, but later tweak that strategy to create success? Did you not get the lead in the play, but then have a great experience playing a smaller part? Did you try a new medium only to completely ruin your artwork, but later find a great use for that medium or a way to reconceptualize your art? Did you try your best to convince an authority figure of something only to have your idea rejected but then use a different approach to get your idea implemented?

Too much failure. Don't focus so much time on the "failure" half of the equation that you end up not giving enough space to the "later success" and "learn from the experience" parts.

Too little failure. Don't diminish the negative emotions of failure because of a fear of seeming vulnerable.

Playing the victim. Avoid whining, blaming others for your failure, or relying on others to create your success. You should be the story's hero here.

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

The key to this prompt is the reflection or insight that comes from the question, "What was the outcome?" Challenging deeply held views is not always a good idea. Writing about a negative outcome and how you reacted could demonstrate your maturity level and ability to tolerate views different from your own.

Remember, the belief or idea could be anyone's: yours, a peer group's, or an authority figure's. Did you stand up to your parents' conservative or traditional values, for instance, about gender norms? Did you get your friends to stop bullying someone?

Also, the belief or idea doesn't have to be extremely serious or big in scope. Did you make dressing up for Halloween cool for teenagers in your town? Did you transform your own prejudice or bias (e.g., about athletes having interesting thoughts about philosophy)?

Causing offense. If you have a story that deals with super hot-button issues, such as abortion or gun control, you need to be careful to keep your essay's tone respectful and unaggressive. This is a good thing to check by letting other people read your drafts and respond.

Avoiding negative feelings. Challenging beliefs means pointing out that what a person thinks now is wrong. It can also be quite lonely and isolating to be on an unpopular side of an issue. It's important to include these negatives into the story if they fit.

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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?

“Reflect” and “surprising” are the keywords in this prompt. You need to write about a specific thing that another person (or persons!) has done for you that made you feel grateful—but your response shouldn’t stop there. To make your response really shine, you also need to reflect on the experience or, in other words, explain what it meant to you, why your feelings about it surprised you, and why. From there, you’ll need to round out your essay by connecting what that person did for you to the person you are today. Did that surprising act change you in some way? Did it make you a better person? This is your chance to show colleges what your values are when it comes to connecting with other people.

Remember how the prompt specifies that you should write about something someone did for you that made you happy or thankful in a surprising way? That wording is nudging you to think outside the box. For instance, most people are thankful for birthday presents or a friend who picks up the check at lunch. You need to think of something more out-of-the-box—something you didn’t necessarily expect to make you feel gratitude.

It’s entirely possible, for instance, that someone helped you out of an ethical dilemma or really difficult situation. Has someone ever helped you when you didn’t necessarily want help? Have you ever been in a situation where, if someone else hadn’t stepped in, something bad could have happened? Did that event motivate you to change your behavior in the future? Were you persuaded to own up to your mistake and do better next time?

An event in which the act of kindness or the person who performed it was unexpected is a great option here as well. Did someone you dislike do something kind for you? Did a stranger help your family out financially? Did your best friend come in from out of town when you had a bad injury to throw you a surprise party? Did a student who’s more popular than you invite you into their group at school?

Being disingenuous. Don’t exaggerate the effects of the surprising act of kindness you choose to write about. Similarly, you don’t want to write about an event that didn’t truly mean something to you and affect your life in a tangible way. Stick to writing about the truth of what happened in the situation and how you felt about it, and your response will be gold.

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

Going from childhood to adulthood doesn't usually happen after one accomplishment or event but is more of a process. This question is asking you to find one step along the process and explain how it fits into the long thread of your growing up.

You don't necessarily need to tell the story of some big, official ceremony. Instead, you can focus on a small moment that showed you that you were older, more mature, and more responsible than you had been before.

Did your family make up its own adulthood initiation ceremony? Were you finally able to beat your mom in chess or shooting hoops, and did that change how she treated you? Did your dad cry in front of you for the first time, making you realize that you were old enough to handle it? Were you suddenly left in charge of younger siblings, and did you rise to the task instead of panicking? Were you allowed to make a big financial decision for the first time and found yourself taking it very seriously?

For example, during my junior and senior year, my mom traveled extensively for work, and my dad lived several states away, so I lived by myself for weeks at a time. It was exhilarating and made me feel independent and mature. But it was also lonely and burdensome because I had to take care of everything in the house by myself. Living alone was a huge part of my life, shaped me into the person I was, and made me see myself in a new light as a grown-up.

Sameness. Avoid the milestones that happen to everyone: driver's license, bar/bat mitzvah, etc., unless they happened to you in some extraordinary way.

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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?

The idea of this prompt is to discuss something you're passionate about. It's a great opportunity to showcase a skill and show off your writing skills because your passion should come across on the page. Pay special attention to the "What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?" aspect of this prompt; how you learn and from who can say a lot about you.

Hopefully, you should know the things that captivate you right off the bat. Try to think of the things that you turn to not just for fun but that de-stress you or give you the ability to learn.

More importantly, understand why this topic, idea, or concept is important to you. It should have a deeper meaning in your life and say something about who you are as a person.

Some other questions you can ask yourself to find a topic include the following: What unique hobbies or interests do you have? What challenges have you overcome in pursuing this topic, idea, or concept? What have you discovered about yourself in relation to this topic, idea, or concept?

Don't miss the overall meaning. Even if something is captivating to you, it's not necessarily captivating to others. Make sure you focus on what the topic, idea, or concept means to you and why that matters rather than getting lost in explaining it and how you feel about it.

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 one of the most popular prompts from the Common App. Remember that even though this prompt is open-ended, you should discuss something meaningful that shows growth, reflection, or something unique about you.

A lot of students have unique experiences that have influenced them throughout their lives. Try to think of people or events that have changed your perspective in a big way.

However, the topic itself doesn't have to be about a big moment. Lots of things can be life-changing, and it's perfectly OK to write about something that happened in your daily life as long as it moved you and has affected you in a way that you can put on paper.

In this prompt, insight is key to a great essay. Reflect on the moments that defined your perspective or events from which you learned something. This prompt should be about something personal to you and can be about family, friends, or an experience.

Ask yourself if there's a time, event, or person that has stuck with you and what it or they meant to you. Once you have some ideas, ask yourself why. What does it say about you to have changed as a result of that experience, and how might others relate?

Being too general. Insight can be found in moments both big and small. But for this prompt, try to avoid going too big and going too small. You don't want to write about something mundane and have to stretch it to make it mean something. That said, it can be tough to boil down an experience that's really significant, like being an Olympic athlete, into a short essay. Personal and insightful are the key.

How to Turn Your Idea into an Essay

Now that you've come up with some possible ideas, how do you go about actually writing the essay? Before you write, you need to have a plan. I like to think about planning out personal essays that I've written by first imagining them as enjoyable movies. You want your reader to walk away entertained, to remember the characters and story, and to want to see more from the same creator. So how do good movies do those things?

Character arc. Good movies have main characters that undergo some kind of change or transformation. Who is the main character of your essay? It's you! The you of your essay has to start one way and end up another: more mature, with a different mindset, or having learned a lesson.

Conflict or transformation. Good movies also have challenges. The main character doesn't simply succeed and then keep on succeeding; that's boring. Instead, the main character either overcomes an external obstacle or changes in some way from beginning to end. Your essay also needs this kind of story drive. This can come from an obstacle you overcame, an outside force that stood in your way, a disability or weakness you experience, or a seemingly unsolvable problem you face. Or it could come from a before–after scenario: you used to be, think, or act in one way, but now you've changed into a different or better person.

Dramatic set piece. In good movies, the conflict or transformation isn't just told to the audience. They are acted out in scenes set in specific locations, with dialogue, character close-ups, and different camera angles. In your essay, your story also needs to show you dealing with the conflict or transformation you face in a small, zoomed-in, and descriptive scene. Think spoken dialogue, sensory description (i.e., what did you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch?), action verbs, and feelings. This scene should function as one illuminating example of what you overcame or how you changed.

Happy ending. Movies that are fun to watch tend to have happy endings. The hero resolves the conflict, emerges a better person, and looks forward to future accomplishments. Your essay also needs to have this kind of closure. This is really not the time to trot out your nihilism or cynicism. Instead, your essay should end on a moment of self-understanding and awareness. You lived through something or you did something, and it affected you in a way that you can verbalize and be insightful about.

body_movietheater

Coming up: the story of you, starring you, written and directed by you.

Which Prompt Should You Choose?

So now that you've brainstormed some topic ideas and a game plan for turning those ideas into an essay, how do you narrow it down to the one ?

Reverse-Engineer the Perfect Prompt

If you used the first brainstorming approach, try to formulate a big-picture idea about the story you're telling.  

Is the character arc primarily you learning something about yourself or making peace with your background? Sounds like a good fit for prompt #1.

Is the conflict about you struggling to do something but eventually succeeding? That goes well with prompt #2.

Does the story focus on a mind being changed about an idea? You want to go with prompt #3.

Does your happy ending involve you changing something for the better, fixing something, or solving a problem? Then your essay is ready for prompt #4.

Is your character arc about growing up, gaining wisdom, or becoming more mature? Then you're probably answering prompt #5.

Look in Your Heart

If you used the second brainstorming approach, get ready to get a little cheesy. Really listen to what your gut feelings are telling you about which of your ideas is most compelling and which will get your emotions flowing on the page. Readers can tell when you're writing about something you care deeply about, so it's worth it to find the topic that has the most meaning to you.

Not sure how to tell? Then this is the time to ask your parents, teachers you are close to, or some good friends for their input. Which of your ideas grabs their attention the most? Which do they want to hear more about? Chances are that's the one that an admissions officer will also find the most memorable.

What's Next?

Want a detailed explanation of why colleges ask you to write essays? Check out our explanation of what application essays are for .

If you're in the middle of your essay writing process, you'll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid .

When you start working on the rest of your application, don't miss what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

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what should i write my common app essay about

How to Write Common App Essay Prompt #7

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Hale Jaeger in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.

What’s Covered:

What is prompt #7, creating ideas for prompt #7.

  • Why Does This Essay Matter ?

How To Perfect Your Prompt #7 Essay

Prompt seven is broader than any of the other prompt options for the essay. If you don’t feel like your essay addresses any of the other six prompts, this may be a good choice. The prompt reads as follows:

​​ 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.

Despite the prompt being very open ended, it doesn’t mean that you can just write about anything.Always refer back to who you are and core values that you hold. Will this essay let somebody get to know you? Make sure the topic and essay address these questions. For this prompt more so than the others, you’re more likely to be rewarded by writing your own questions, allowing you to demonstrate individuality and confidence in your essay.

Examples and Ideas

You can innovate and tackle a difficult topic, and you can present something with a unique format. Whether you write it as a script, or a conversation with a historical figure, or even a rhyming poem, just go and try something unconventional. 

For example, if you’re writing for this prompt, try comparing your personality to a Picasso painting or using extended philosophical metaphors to describe your four years of high school. You could even try writing in a poetic style to display your love of poetry. 

If you are extremely passionate about something or an expert in a certain area, you can use this prompt to show your authority by discussing it at a high level, but be careful to frame the essay in a way that is accessible to the average reader, while still incorporating quality evidence and content that would qualify you as an expert.

Check Your Sources

Additionally, always exercise caution in writing about controversial social or political topics, and always make sure to consider your audience and what they’re looking for in a student. Sometimes unconventional essays capture admission’s attention and move them in a profound way, other times it flies completely over their heads. Therefore, be sure that even with this open-ended prompt, to execute the essay clearly and justify your decision by seeking high quality feedback from reliable sources, teachers, guidance, counselors, or your parents.

Why Does This Essay Matter?

The admissions process is very human and subjective. While they’re looking at your test scores, your extracurriculars, your grades, and other metrics, there are still other students in the lineup for that school too.

As an applicant, you need somebody to choose you over those other students and to advocate specifically for you; this is where the essays come in. They’re an opportunity for you to turn an admissions counselor into an advocate for your application, and the common app essay is the most important since it’s seen by the most colleges. It’s also typically your longest essay, which gives you the most space to craft a narrative and share your personality, feelings, and perspective effectively. So it’s not hyperbolic to say that getting the common app essay right is probably the most important thing you can do as part of the application process to become a successful and interesting applicant!

A great way to check how your essay stacks up to the requirements of admissions for your dream school, is to try out our Peer Essay Review Tool , where you’ll get a free and anonymous review of your essay from another student! You can also earn CollegeVine Karma by reviewing other essays!

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what should i write my common app essay about

Common App Essays 2023‒2024

Each year, the Common Application organization releases the prompts for the Common App essays. Often referred to as the “personal statement,” Common App essays are a central part of the college application process. Students can choose from one of seven Common App essay prompts to best showcase who they are to admissions officers.

In this guide, we’ll cover:

  • All new Common App prompts for the 2023-24 admissions cycle
  • What are Common App essays?

How many Common App essays are required?

  • How long your Common App essays should be
  • What makes a great college essay
  • Each of the prompts for the Common App essays
  • Some Common App essay tips
  • Good college essay topics
  • A timeline to help you write your Common App essay
  • More Common Application resources from CollegeAdvisor

 To learn how to write compelling Common App essays, read on!

New Common App Prompts for 2023-2024

Common App revisits their prompts every year. Over the past several years, Common App has opted not to release any new Common App prompts. 

There will be no new Common App prompts in the upcoming admissions cycle. Instead, the prompts for the Common App essays will remain the same as those used in the 2022-23 admissions cycle. 

In general, from year to year, the Common Application essay prompts remain fairly similar . In fact, the Common App essay prompts 2021 are the same as the prompts in use today. The last change took place among the Common App essay prompts 2021, which featured a new essay about gratitude. 

Since there are seldom any new Common App prompts, students can use previous years’ prompts to start brainstorming and preparing. 

Here are the seven Common App prompts from this year :

7 common app prompts, 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., 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, reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. what prompted your thinking what was the outcome, 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, discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others., 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, 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..

We’ll go deeper into the Common App essay prompts and other Common App essay tips later in this guide. We’ll also discuss some Common App essay ideas, and where to find some Common App essay examples that worked . But first, let’s go over the basics of the Common App essays.

What is the Common App essay?

As you begin applying to college, you’ll likely hear a lot about Common App essays (or personal statements). Of course, you’ll complete other essays during the college application process—namely, school-specific supplemental essays. However, when someone talks about “college essays,” or  “personal statements,” they are usually referring to the Common App essays. 

But what is the Common App essay?

The Common Application is a platform that helps streamline the college application process. And according to Forbes , the number of students who apply to college using the Common App has surged 20% since 2019.

Using the Common App, you can apply to college more easily— over 1,000 schools accept the Common Application. This figure includes Ivies like Yale and Dartmouth , as well as public state universities like Penn State . Once you create your Common App login, you can complete your personal information for every school at once. The Common Application makes it easy to keep track of college application requirements, deadlines , letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars and awards. 

Coalition Application vs. Common Application

There are many different types of college applications, of which the Common Application is only one. Though only accepted by 90 member institutions, the Coalition Application is another popular application platform that allows you to collect your application information in one place. Much of the advice on Common App essays in this guide will also apply to the Coalition Application essay. 

The Common App essay

Common App requirements include a list of your extracurricular activities, your self-reported grades, and your personal information. Another key section of the Common App is the Common App essay. You will also use the Common App to submit supplemental essays for particular schools.

The Common App essay, often called the personal statement, is sent to every college that accepts the Common Application. This essay will answer one of the Common App essay prompts to showcase something that makes you who you are. The Common App essay word limit is 650 words.

Since students submit their Common App essays to every school, they should be as strong as possible. In this guide, we’ll share some Common App essay tips to help your personal statement shine. We’ll also review the Common App essay requirements and discuss some Common App essay ideas.

There are seven Common App essay prompts. So, how many Common App essays are required?

Only one Common App essay is required. This means that you’ll respond to only one of the Common App prompts. 

As you begin your writing process, read through the Common App essay prompts and see which one appeals to you the most. Try brainstorming answers to different prompts or discussing them with a parent, friend, or advisor.

Again, students only need to select one of the Common App essay prompts for their Common App essays. So, you’ll only need to write one essay that meets the Common App essay word limit.

Supplemental essays and the Common Application

Many schools also require students to write supplemental essays. Most supplemental essays will be shorter —usually 200-400 words as opposed to the Common App essay word limit of 650. You’ll submit these essays through the Common App. However, we don’t generally refer to these supplemental essays as “Common App essays.”  As you can tell, mastering your college applications is all about learning the nuances of the process. Take our quiz below to put your knowledge to the test!

How long should the Common App essay be?

The Common App essay word limit is 650 words maximum. However, according to the official Common App essay requirements, the lower stay Common App essay word limit is 250 words. 

As you brainstorm topics for Common App essays, make sure that the story you want to tell fits into the Common App essay word limit. Once you create your Common App login, you can familiarize yourself with the Common App essay requirements, including the word limit. 

Students should aim for the higher end of the Common App essay word limit range. After all, admissions officers rely on Common App essays a lot within the admissions process. Therefore, you want your personal statement to offer a comprehensive picture of who you are and what matters to you. 

Making the most of the Common App essay word limit

Writing Common App essays can feel like a daunting task, especially given the word count. To make the most of the Common App essay word limit, make sure you start your writing process early. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to edit your personal statement so every word counts. 

Also, don’t try to explain your whole life story in the relatively short Common App essay word limit. Instead, try to tell an anecdote that encapsulates some aspect of your personality or your upbringing. Then, connect it to broader themes, including your future goals. 

What makes a great college essay?

Now, you understand the basic format of Common App essays. Maybe you’ve even made your Common App login and started brainstorming topics. Next, you might be wondering: how can I write the best Common App essay?

Most good college essays and personal statements include similar features: 

  • A strong story that highlights a key part of the writer’s identity
  • An engaging hook 
  • Strong structural components
  • Clear, well-crafted prose
  • Flawless grammar and syntax

Though none of these tips are strict Common App essay requirements, your personal statement should meet these criteria.  

Getting personal

Good college essays also depend on your ability to be introspective. The best college admissions essays will reveal something unique about the writer. Often, in order to tell a compelling story about who you are, writers look deeply at their upbringing, identity, and values. The best Common App essay ideas aren’t something you can find in a Common App essay tips blog. Instead, they’ll come from your own unique experiences.  

If you’re getting started and can’t think of any Common App essay ideas, try brainstorming without answering one of the prompts. The most important part about the Common Application essay is that it showcases a part of your identity that the admissions team won’t glean from your GPA or scores.

In the next few sections, we’ll go over the prompts for the Common App essays. For each of the Common App essay prompts, we’ll offer Common App essay tips. We’ll discuss how you can approach the Common App essays, including some advice on structure, tone, topic choice, and more. Additionally, we’ll look at some Common App essay ideas and the Common App essay requirements. 

Common App Essay #1: Share your background

The first of the Common App essays asks you to share something significant about your background. Here’s the first of the Common App prompts: 

All of the Common App essays will allow for a degree of customization. As long as essays address the Common App essay prompts—and stay within the Common App essay word limit—there is no limit to possible topics. In fact, when you read Common App essay examples, you’ll see a ton of variation .

The first of the Common App essay prompts is particularly open to interpretation. For some students, this can be exciting. However, for others, the first of the Common App essay prompts might feel a little overwhelming. So, if you want a more direct question, you might be better served by one of the other prompts. 

How to approach this prompt

If you have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is deeply meaningful to you, here’s the place to talk about it! 

As with all prompts for the Common App essays, there’s no right answer: maybe you were raised Orthodox Jewish. Perhaps you attended a white majority school as a person of color. Or maybe you learned to play the oboe at 4 years old and have since released an oboe EP on Soundcloud. As long as you share something that your application would be incomplete without, the sky’s the limit. 

In general, as you write your Common App essays, think about what topics you might cover in your supplemental essays. Try to avoid writing about the same experience twice—after all, you only have so much space on your college applications. So, pick a topic for your main Common App essay with enough depth to fill the Common App essay word limit. Ideally, this topic won’t necessarily fit into a different section of your application. 

Common App Essay #2: Navigating a challenge

Let’s look at some other prompts for Common App essays. The second of the Common App essay prompts relates to how you dealt with a challenge: 

Comparing the different Common App essay prompts, this question is a bit narrower than the first. Is there a challenge, setback, or failure that you learned from? If you can’t come up with an answer to this question fairly quickly, you might want to select another of the Common App prompts.

Common App essay topics for this prompt

As compared to other Common App essay prompts, this one threatens to attract more cliché responses. Many students gravitate to similar topics: losses in sports, not getting a particular role in a performance, not winning a specific award. 

If you choose a challenge like these, try to ensure your essay offers a new perspective. Many other students will likely select this question from the Common App essay prompts because they experienced a similar setback. In light of this, as you compare the different Common App essay prompts, think critically about potential college essay topics. Make sure your personal statement tells the admissions office something unique about how you face challenges. 

The next of the prompts for Common App essays discusses a change in perspective. Read on to learn how to think about these types of Common App essay prompts.

Common App Essay #3: Questioning an idea

Has your perspective changed a lot in recent years? Have you had lengthy discussions with your parents or teachers about beliefs of theirs that you might disagree with? If so, the third option for your Common App essays might be a good one for you.

The third of the Common App essay prompts reads: 

The best Common App essays often deal with subjects of personal change. These college essay topics may discuss shifts in perspective after learning something new or adjusting to different ideas and beliefs. Overall, colleges want to admit students who are intellectually curious and introspective. So, telling a story about how you developed can show that you embody those ideals. 

Choosing the right idea

You don’t have to be politically active or reinvent the wheel to answer this question\ Maybe your guardian(s) is super-athletic and put you on the soccer team, but you fell in love with studio art instead. Challenging expectations is one method of challenging beliefs, so this could be a good framework to discuss your values. 

To recap: a strong theme to touch on in any one of these Common App essays is a change in perspective. You can (and should!) also highlight your development in any of the Common App essay prompts. 

Common App Essay #4: The gratitude essay

Another prompt that students can choose for their Common App essays is the gratitude essay: 

This prompt was one of the new Common App essay prompts. It was originally released as one of the Common App essay prompts 2021. 

Like some of the other Common App essay prompts, this prompt is fairly open-ended. It provides a chance to reflect on the positive aspects in your life. This prompt also lets you show that you are introspective and humble. 

In the Common App essay prompts 2021, this essay replaced a prompt that asked about a problem you would like to solve. The Common App essay prompts 2021 were adjusted to include this prompt in order to “bring some joy into [each student’s] application experience.”

A word of caution

There is one potential pitfall of choosing the gratitude essay over the other Common App essay prompts. This prompt lends itself to focusing too much on someone other than yourself. Remember, good college essays will always center the writer’s identity and experiences. 

Even if your essay is about how much a family member has sacrificed for you, remember that you are the one applying to college. Focus more on the second part of the prompt: how has your gratitude affected or motivated you?

Remember, Common App essays are a way to communicate something important about you to the people reading your application. That’s why it’s often referred to as the personal statement—it’s about you! 

Common App Essay Prompt #5: A moment of personal growth

Like the second of the Common App prompts, this next question relates to personal growth or change:

The fifth of the Common App prompts asks about an inflection point in your life: a push to grow and shift perspectives. Like the other prompts, this one depends on introspection. Indeed, a key takeaway of these Common App essay tips, is that there’s never too much self-reflection.

Compared to the other Common App prompts, this one also lets you cover something not mentioned elsewhere in your application. Certainly, it’s less likely that answers to this question will pertain solely to one extracurricular or award. In other words, this personal statement topic can be a great place to tell the admissions team something new. 

Next, let’s move onto the final two Common App prompts and offer a few more Common App essay tips.

Common App Essay Prompt #6: What captivates you?

Another of the more open-ended Common App prompts, this Common Application question has endless answers. Essays could cover something as straightforward as your potential college major or as non-academic as your favorite episode of Survivor. 

Let’s take a look:

The sixth of the Common App prompts asks about what excites you. This isn’t restricted to lofty academic pursuits, either. With that said, a well-composed essay will reveal something about your values or thought process through your interest.

This prompt gives you a chance to go into detail about a passion, whether it be broad or niche, academic or cultural. The best college admissions essays will highlight something that isn’t present anywhere else in the application. Where else can you explain in excruciating detail your lifelong goal of building the tallest Rube Goldberg machine?

Common App Essay #7: A topic of your choice

Now, we’ve reached the last of the Common App prompts: a topic of your choice. 

With this personal statement option, remember that it still must be exactly that: a personal statement. It should be about your unique way of navigating the world.

You might think that you could just submit your award-winning English class essay about the early feminist novel The Awakening . However, unless you discuss how its 1899 societal expectations of femininity affects how you interact with your family today… reconsider. The most important of our Common App essay tips is that above all else, this essay needs to be about you . 

Therefore, if you think this Common App prompt is the one for you, make sure you’ve considered every other personal statement prompt first. Don’t think of this prompt as a way to get out of talking about  yourself. Instead, use this prompt to talk about a part of yourself that the other questions aren’t reaching. The Common App essay questions are constructed to help you think about your life. In other words, don’t dismiss them just because you can’t think of an answer right away.

Keeping the personal in personal statement

When thinking about answering this question, ask yourself: is this essay a “personal statement?” Does it tell the admissions committee something they don’t know about me? Does it demonstrate something unique or dynamic about my identity, upbringing, values, or perspective? 

Now that we’ve gone over all of the Common App prompts, let’s go into more detail on how you can write a great college essay. We’ll discuss some Common App essay ideas and provide some brainstorming exercises to jumpstart your writing process. We’ll also review more Common App essay tips, some Common App essay requirements, and other college application requirements. Lastly, we’ll recommend more resources like Common App essay examples that you might need to tackle the Common Application.

How to Write a Great College Essay

We’ve reviewed each of the Common App essay prompts and discussed the Common App essay requirements. Next, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips. You can also apply these guidelines to your Coalition App essay and other college application requirements. 

Every great Common App essay starts with a clear strategy. Again, there are no new Common App essay prompts this year—in fact, they haven’t changed since the Common App essay prompts 2021. In short, rather than waiting for any new Common App essay prompts, you can start considering college essay topics now. After all, the earlier you start working on your Common App essay, the stronger it will be. 

Below, we’ve outlined our ideal process to help you write the best college admissions essays you can. Use this structure to help you craft strong Common App essays:  

Looking for strong college essay topics? Start with a free-write. Choose one of the Common App essay prompts that speaks to you. Then, set a timer for ten minutes and just start writing . 

It won’t be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. The goal of this exercise isn’t to write your final personal statement—it’s to flex your writing muscles. Don’t stop, edit, or censor yourself. Instead, just try to represent your experiences in a meaningful and authentic way. At this stage, just get ideas into words without worrying about quality or the Common App essay word limit.

Once you’re finished, take a look at what you wrote. What stands out to you? Are there any elements of your free-write you might want to explore in a draft? 

Determining a College Essay Topic: Reflection Exercises to Try

If you’re facing writer’s block, try choosing one of the Common App essay prompts and thinking about its central theme. For instance, for the second of the Common App essay prompts, you might choose the idea of challenges . 

Then, grab a sheet of paper, set a timer, and start writing down any meaningful challenges you’ve faced. Feel free to connect them to other elements of your life, including ways you’ve grown or changed. Don’t focus on the writing—instead, just try to think about potential college essay topics. Once the timer ends, evaluate whether anything you’ve listed might be worth drafting for your Common App essays. You can also use this strategy to tackle other college supplemental essays. 

Once you’ve decided on a potential topic, it’s time to outline. 

Good Common App essays often start with a “hook”—an engaging opening that grabs the reader’s interest. Often, the best hooks come from personal stories. One reliable structure for Common App essays opens with  a personal story, then connecting it to your identity or character. You might then return to your original anecdote in your final paragraph or line. 

In your outline, include your story and your “stakes”—that is, why your story highlights something critical about who you are. Your writing skills won’t matter if your personal statement isn’t, well, personal. 

As you outline, feel free to be as descriptive or minimal as you’d like. Above all, your outline should help you write a draft—don’t craft a beautiful outline if it won’t ultimately serve your writing process. Once again, you can follow the same process in your school-specific supplemental essays. 

Write a draft

Don’t feel pressured to write your Common App essay sequentially. For instance, if you know exactly how to approach the anecdote but are struggling with your opening line, feel free to jump ahead. You can always return to fill in the gaps of your personal statement. 

As you draft, remember the Common App essay requirements, including the Common App essay word limit of 650 words. While the Common App essay word limit gives you more space than most supplemental essays, it’s still relatively short. 

Often, leaving a few days between writing sessions can give you a useful perspective. After all, Common App essays (like any good college essay) won’t appear overnight. And since the college process is so competitive, you want your essay to stand out . 

Each time you open your Common App essay, take a look at what you’ve written so far. Does it make sense and flow neatly? More importantly, does it use clear language and strong storytelling to highlight something important about your identity? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track. 

Revise, revise, revise

After you complete your Common App essay draft, put it away for a day or two. Then, return to your document to start revising . 

Of course, you should edit for grammar, syntax, and spelling. However, a solid revision process will take a fair amount more work. As you read over your Common App essay, take a look at every single sentence. Does it contribute to your personal statement’s overall message? Are there any places where your language is clunky or redundant? Since the Common App essay word limit isn’t high, every word counts. 

When you revise, pay careful attention to the beginning and end of your Common App essay. Remember, the opening of your essay gives Admissions Officers their first impression of you. 

Additionally, as you edit, return to the Common App essay prompts. While the Common App essay prompts may be weighed differently than school-specific supplements, you should still address them comprehensively. So, don’t neglect the Common App essay requirements—namely, that you answer the prompt. 

Finally, make sure that your essay highlights something critical about you. Above all, make sure your essay shows admissions teams who you are. Don’t waste your time with flowery language if it doesn’t serve your point—especially given the Common App essay word limit. 

Get a second pair of eyes

Once you’ve edited your draft yourself, consider asking a trusted adult to look over your Common App essay. This could be a teacher, parent, counselor, or advisor. 

Often, a second reader will notice things that you won’t. They can help you identify unclear language, fix lingering typos, and ensure your story comes through as strongly as possible. This can also help you meet the Common App essay word limit. 

Of course, your Common App essay should be entirely your own work. That is to say, while you can absolutely ask for outside guidance, no one else should be writing your essay for you. 

Finalize and submit!

After you receive feedback, complete a final round of revisions on your own. Ask yourself: if I read this essay, would I want to meet the student who wrote it? 

When you feel ready, upload your essay using your Common App login. If you need help navigating your Common App login, you can visit the Common App YouTube channel for useful tips. Since there are no new Common App prompts this year, it’s never too early to start brainstorming. Plus, abandoned Common App essay ideas might be a great fit for supplemental essays.

What are some good college essay topics?

Overall, there are plenty of good college essay topics out there. You won’t get the chance to submit multiple Common App essays, so you should choose a topic that means something to you. 

Here are some Common App essay tips to help you choose a topic:

Common App Essay Tips

1. discuss a challenge that you overcame. .

Maybe you developed a love and talent for poetry despite having severe dyslexia. Or maybe you conquered your fear of public speaking when asked to give a speech about a cause that mattered to you. The challenge itself doesn’t entirely matter; it’s about what this challenge meant to you. 

If you write about a challenge, keep several things in mind. First, make sure the challenge you choose matters to you—that is, it should highlight a critical element of your identity and development. At the end of the day, good Common App essays will illustrate how the writer encountered a challenge and came out the other side. 

2. Write about an experience that broadened your perspective.  

Common App essays can also center around meaningful experiences. For example, maybe your first meeting with your extended family in India provided a new understanding of your heritage. Or maybe a year of volunteering at a children’s hospital taught you what it meant to find joy even amid pain and suffering. Again, the possibilities are endless; just think about which experiences have made you the person you are. 

If you write about an external experience, a word of caution: remember that Common App essays should always come back to the writer’s development. For instance, if you’re writing about volunteering in a clinic, don’t spend all of your time discussing the patients’ specific stories. Ultimately, your essay should center around you. 

3. Highlight a key feature of your identity or upbringing. 

Good Common App essays will teach the admissions team something they don’t know about a given student. Rather than focusing on an interest you highlight elsewhere, you might write your Common App essay simply about who you are.

In this context, “identity” can mean anything: race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or religion, to name a few. Choose a part of your identity that matters to you and write about it with passion and authenticity. Additionally, to make your Common App essay more engaging, you might use an anecdote to introduce your topic. 

Overall, students can write good Common App essays about a wide variety of college essay topics. Regardless of which of the Common App prompts you choose, a meaningful topic can make for a powerful personal statement. There are many ways to write strong Common App essays. Above all, be authentic and tell your story, all while staying within the Common App essay word limit. 

What should you not write in a college essay?

As you choose between the Common App prompts, you might wonder what bad Common App essays look like. So, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips about what not to write. 

Most important, Common App essays should show you in a positive light. So, you should not include any explicit language or discussions of illegal activity. You should also, of course, refrain from including anything that a reader might deem offensive. These are all bad topics for Common App essays. 

Avoiding the overly personal

As you consider Common App essay ideas, you should also be wary of just how personal your personal statement is. For instance, writers generally avoid overly intense discussions of traumatic events and mental health topics. Indeed, while often personally meaningful, poorly-written essays about these topics can work against you. Given the rigors of life at top universities, essays should assure Admissions Officers that you can face—if not overcome—challenges.

In general, if you wouldn’t discuss it at dinner, you may want to think twice before putting it in your Common App essay. Common App essays should be personal, but not to the point of discomfort. Think about this as you choose between the Common App prompts. 

You should also avoid writing Common App essays about high school drama. Doubtless changing friendships and relationships can influence your development and seem ripe for writing about. However, admissions committees likely won’t be interested. 

Highlight your strengths

Your essay should also suggest that you would make a positive contribution to any college campus. In light of that, make sure your essay portrays your development in a positive light. For instance, you shouldn’t write about how you learned that you can’t rely on other people. Instead, use the Common App essay prompts to highlight how you’ll be a good community member on your future campus.

Finally, try to avoid clichés, such as the “sports injury essay” or similarly overused Common App essay topics. This doesn’t mean you can’t use these topics at all. However, if you choose to do so, make sure you spin them in an interesting way. After all, admissions teams will read thousands of Common App essays, and you want yours to stand out. Choose one of the Common App prompts that will let you do just that. 

For more guidance, you can always read Common App essay examples. These can help you get a better understanding of the Common App essay requirements. 

Common Application Essay Timeline

As we’ve discussed, the earlier you start thinking about your Common App essay, the easier the process will be. However, this doesn’t mean you should start drafting your essays during your sophomore year of high school. You’ll grow and change throughout high school, and you’ll likely find many great Common App essay topics along the way. 

Below, we’ve outlined our ideal timeline for brainstorming, drafting, and submitting your Common App essay. 

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Use the timeline above in planning your writing process, from choosing one of the Common App essay prompts to pressing “submit.” You likely won’t create your Common App login until August of your senior year when you apply to college. However, you can still start preparing your responses to the Common App essay prompts early. That way, you’ll have time to write the best college admissions essays you can. 

More Common App Resources from CollegeAdvisor.com

Looking for more Common App essay tips, Common App essay ideas, and other resources on the Common App prompts? CollegeAdvisor.com is here to help you tackle all of your college application requirements. 

Watch this free webinar for more about the Common Application, from Common App essays to the extracurriculars list, recommendations, and other key materials. You can also check out this expert-led webinar for a deep dive into the Common Application. There, you’ll find even more advice on writing Common App essays as you apply to college. We also have a comprehensive guide to acing the Common App.

How to ace the Common App this college admissions season

For more Common App essay ideas, check out our masterclass on how to choose Common App essay topics. 

CollegeAdvisor Masterclass: Brainstorming Your Common App Personal Statement Topic

Additionally, you can read an overview of the Common App essay for juniors written by one of our advisors. We also have plenty of Common App essay examples available on our website . Since there are no new Common App prompts since the Common App essay prompts 2021, you can use these Common App essay examples for this year’s Common App essay prompts. 

Common App Essay Prompts 2023‒2024: Final Thoughts

Overall, most colleges will accept the Common Application. This makes your Common App essay one of the most critical components of your college applications. 

After all, how many Common App essays are required? Just one. So, your Common App essay needs to highlight you in the best possible light. The best college admissions essays can make a huge difference in the application review process. 

We hope this guide has given you the tools to write a strong Common App essay that will impress top schools. However, if you want to make the most of your Common App essays, nothing beats personalized support. When you register with CollegeAdvisor.com, you’ll be matched with a hand-picked Admissions Expert who will guide you through every step of the application process, from building your college list to drafting your Common App essay. Click here to schedule a free meeting and learn how CollegeAdvisor can help you maximize your admissions odds.

This guide was written by Rachel Kahn and Abbie Sage. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.

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what should i write my common app essay about

Application guide for first-year students

Get tips and best practices to give yourself the best chance at success.

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What is Common App?

Each year, more than 1 million students apply to more than 1,000 Common App member colleges worldwide through our online college application platform. Learn more about applying through our first-year application by following our step-by-step guide below.

Gather materials

The information you’ll need to complete your applications

Filling out your application takes time.

In the Education section you will enter your high school grades and current courses. Some colleges also need you to self report your high school transcript. You can check out your Courses & Grades section to learn more.

You can share your interests and who you are outside of the classroom in the activities section. You can share information about things like work, hobbies, clubs, and community engagement. And don't forget, family responsibilities can be important to share as well. This is the place to show colleges what makes you unique!

You may self-report scores for any standardized tests in the Testing section. Every college has different testing requirements. Some colleges will always need your test scores. Other colleges may be flexible or have a test optional policy. Be sure to check the Testing policy of the colleges on your list.

Many colleges collect this information in the Family section for demographic purposes. We will ask for your parents occupation, employment status, and education level. If applicable, we will also ask which college(s) they attended and how many degrees they have earned.

The Activities section isn't the only place to show your passion and where you excel! You will also have the chance to share any academic honors or achievements from high school.

Create an account

Get started at any time

Creating a Common App account is easy and should only take a few minutes.

Account rollover.

Common App accounts can roll over from year to year!

With account rollover , you can start exploring Common App and save answers to questions in the Common App tab at any time.

Add colleges

Start building your My Colleges list

Once you’ve created your account and explored the colleges that accept the Common App, you're ready to start adding colleges.

A request to the college to remove the application fee. Using either the Common App fee waiver, which your counselor must confirm, or a college-specific fee waiver, you will not be required to pay the fee to submit your application.

Coed is a term used to describe a college or university that offers the integrated education of male and female students in same environment.

Engage supporters

Collaborate with counselors, teachers, and more

All colleges need things like official school forms. Many colleges will also ask for letters of recommendation.

Counselors share their perspective using the context of the entire graduating class. They also submit the School Report and transcripts.

Parents will only need to submit a form if you apply using a college's early decision deadline. They will fill out part of your early decision agreement.

Teachers give a firsthand account of your intellectual curiosity and creative thought.

Other recommenders are usually non academic recommenders like coaches, employers, and peers. They give insight into your interests and activities outside of the classroom.

Advisors do not submit any forms. They track and check in on your application progress.

Every college gets to choose their own recommendation requirements. You can find more details on each college's "College Information" page.

Understanding requirements.

Keep track of each college’s unique application requirements

It's important to stay organized as you work on your applications.

Each college's Explore Colleges profile provides lots of information about the college. You can find details on application information, campus culture, scheduling visits, and more.

In the My Colleges or College Search tab, you can learn more using a school's college information page. Here you can see requirements for testing, writing, deadlines, and more.

The  requirements grid is a comprehensive PDF that lists all the colleges that use the Common App and their requirements. You can also find the grid within the application.

We maintain a list of all Common App colleges and  their essay prompts . This resource will help as you begin planning your essays. For more help on planning essays, check out our essay planning worksheet.

You can save answers to Common App tab questions year over year. So you can get started on things like your personal essay or the activities section at any time.

Responses to questions in your My Colleges do not stay year over year. Only get started on things like college-specific questions, writing supplements, or portfolios if you intend to apply this school year. For more info, check out our account rollover FAQ .

Plan essays

Organize and plan for your writing prompts

Sometimes writings essays can feel like the biggest part of your application. With a little bit of planning, organizing, and drafting, we can help you make this task more manageable.

Colleges can either make the personal essay optional or required. In the writing section of your Common App tab, you will see a table that lists each college's requirements.

Many colleges include short answer questions or essay prompts within this section. You can find specific information about each college's individual writing prompts  here .

Some colleges use a separate writing supplement. Not all colleges have a writing supplement. Some colleges only request this supplement based on how you answer other questions. You can find more information about writing supplements on the Dashboard or your My Colleges tab.

Counselor tip

Tools like Google Drive can be very helpful when planning or writing essays. When you’re ready to apply, you can upload the text of your essay(s) using the Google Drive icon in any of Common App’s writing questions.

Use our essay best practices FAQ for more help.

Submit your application

Review and submit your application

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Walk through the application with us before you apply.

what should i write my common app essay about

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Top 6 Common Application Essay Tips

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Parents and students often ask us for our most valuable Common Application essay tips, so our savvy team of advisors compiled a list of simple, effective tricks to use as guidelines while you navigate the tricky waters of college essay writing. Try to use them for good and not for evil.

1. Think small: When writing the Common Application essay, too many students feel compelled to try and squeeze their entire life story into 650 words. This, friends, is impossible. It is almost always better to think small first. Find a story or event in your life that really meant something to you.  Did you win a competition at the last second?  Was your family stranded on vacation with no power for five days? Have you read something recently that blew your mind?  Now ask yourself- are any of these stories representative of my larger, most valuable qualities?  The perfect essay topic showcases your personality, passions and/or ambitions without trying to do too much at once. Talking about your family’s adoption of a three-legged dog and how your pet’s perseverance and quirky attitude influenced the way you live your life, will make a better essay than a super general diatribe on why you like dogs, for example. If you find yourself getting lost while writing, ask: what am I trying to say about myself, and am I using a specific, compelling example to tell my story?

2. Write first, edit later:  When it comes to writing, we are almost always our own worst critics.  So many students want and expect themselves to produce pure, uninhibited brilliance the first time their fingers hit the keys, but that is almost never the way good essay writing works. Writing a compelling essay is a process, and the best writing can often be plucked from our stream-of-consciousness efforts. Don’t edit yourself before you allow your creativity to warm up and pour onto the page. Never judge your writing until you have a few paragraphs written down first. You can always cut what doesn’t work and it is much easier to work with an overabundance of words and ideas than nothing at all.

3. Kill those clichés: We’re not going to beat around the bush here: clichés really get our goats . When you take that trip down memory lane , telling us about the time you were a mover and a shaker putting your nose to the grindstone it makes our blood boil . We’re content and grammar snobs, so we find clichés to be extra unappealing, but we also have enough confidence in your creativity to know that you can do better. Admissions essay readers know it too, and expect you to think out of the box without using phrases like “think out of the box.” So strike those tired sentences from your essay and do it now. Never put off tomorrow what you can do today . It actually hurt us to write that.

4. It’s all in the details:  What is the difference between these two sentences? 1. My favorite activities included fishing and cooking my daily catch. 2. My friends and I woke up early every morning to catch bass on Lake Michigan, cooking our spoils with herbs picked from a local farm. In the first sentence, we understand that you enjoyed certain activities. In the second, yes, we know you like fishing but we also understand your commitment to an activity you engaged in every day and recognize that your fishing trips are a social effort. There is a sense of time and place- we can see the setting, smell the herbs. With a few extra words, sentence two tells us much more about your fishing experience. Many students have a tendency to skew generic in the telling of their personal stories.  What makes an essay memorable is often the sum of the little things. If you can paint a clear picture for your reader by providing details, you are much more likely to lodge a marker in their memories.

5. If Nothing Else, Entertain: Imagine you’re a college essay reader at an upstanding academic institution and it is your job to read dozens of essays a day, every day, for weeks on end. Ninety percent of the essays that pass your desk are stone-cold boring, and maybe ten percent break through the fuzz and force you to pay attention. As an applicant, you want your essay to shine a bright light in the face of that oft-bored reader. No matter what your subject, serious, uplifting, sentimental or pithy, your essay should aim to entertain. This will require many elements working together in harmony. You will need a compelling subject, a direct and powerful narrative, impeccable grammar and a memorable style. A little laughter never hurts either. It is often hard to know whether an essay is truly entertaining until the end stages of writing, but when you are reading over your drafts, the question should always be in the back of your mind: Is this essay fun to read? Some students achieve entertainment value by being controversial. Others load their pieces with comic relief. Some are able to describe events in such detail that a reader simply must get to the end of the essay. No matter what tactics you end up using, your goal should be effortless and compelling readability.

6. Brand yourself:  In order for your essay to be truly effective, a reader should be able to summarize your subject in a simple sentence. You accomplish this self-branding by choosing a creative topic (or a creative twist on a common topic), and writing about it with enough detail to burn an image of yourself in the reader’s brain. When it comes down to you and another similarly qualified candidate, you want an admissions officer to be able to stand up with your application in his/her hand and say, “I like the girl who performed trapeze in the circus,” or “How about the girl who saved her grandfather’s life?” It will be much harder to remember “the girl who practiced the trapeze, and was also good at riding bikes, and who got an A on every test and who generally worked very hard,” or “the girl who really loved her late grandfather and who feels like she embodies a lot of his core characteristics.” Focus your story. When you finish writing your first draft, do a branding test- try to label yourself based on your essay and see what you come up with. If you can’t easily narrow it down to a punchy description, you probably need to alter or simplify your essay.

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COMMENTS

  1. How to Write an Amazing Common App Essay (2024-2025)

    Common App Essay Prompts 2024-2025. Part 2: Pre-writing your Common App Essay. Brainstorming Common App Essay topics. Freewriting. Essay writing timelines: how to write your Common App personal statement if you have six months, three months, one month, or even less. Part 3: Choosing your Common App Essay topic Part 4: Writing your Common App ...

  2. 25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)

    Common App Essay Example #1: Seeds of Immigration. This student was admitted to Dartmouth College. In this Common App essay, they discuss their immigrant family background that motivates them. Although family is a commonly used topic, this student makes sure to have unique ideas and write in a genuine way.

  3. 12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

    3 Tips for Writing Your Common Application Essay. Overall, your Common App essay should be the centerpiece of your college application. It should work to tie together your cohesive application narrative, and it should give admissions officers a genuine sense of who you are. Let's take a look at a few specific tips for writing a good Common App ...

  4. 21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

    Common App Essay Examples. Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts. Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without ...

  5. Common App Essays

    What is the Common Application essay? The Common Application, or Common App, is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.. Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any ...

  6. How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024 ...

    Write in a tone that aligns with your goals for the essay. For example, if you are a heavy STEM applicant hoping to use your Common App essay to humanize your application, you will be undermined by writing in a brusque, harsh tone. "Show, don't tell" is vital to writing an engaging essay, and this is the point students struggle with most ...

  7. Complete Strategies: Common App Essay Prompts (2023-24)

    The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650. Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of ...

  8. The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay ...

    The "Common App," short for the Common Application, is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once.It's accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally. The idea is that the Common App is a "one-stop shop" so you don't have to complete a million separate applications.

  9. 7 Expert Common App Essay Tips

    3. Use Your Space Wisely. Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic. The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words.

  10. How to Write the Common App Essay-Examples for 2023-2024

    Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #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 prompt asks applicants to write about what makes them uniquely them.

  11. 5 Tips on How to Write The Perfect Common App Essay

    Always put yourself in your reader's shoes and see what initial thoughts or judgments you think they'd form based on what you're saying. Also, let your essay breathe for a bit and come back to it a few weeks later with a fresh mindset. See what you think of it then. 5. Use Your Space Wisely.

  12. 5 Steps For Writing a College Common App Essay (Plus Tips)

    Writing a Common App essay requires significant thought on what to include, how to structure the essay and what tone or style to use. Here are five steps for how to write a great Common App essay: 1. Choose a writing prompt. The first step to writing a great Common App essay is choosing a writing prompt. The prompt helps provide a guide for ...

  13. The Common App Essay Guide

    To help you structure your common app essay, we recommend you: Make a plan of what you're going to include in each paragraph. Start writing your introduction to set the scene. Work through your paragraphs one by one and make sure they flow together nicely. Round off your essay with a memorable conclusion that summarises your essay and explains ...

  14. How to Write a Winning Common App Essay

    The Common App Essay Common App Essay Prompts Common App Essay: Unique Challenges Recommended Timelines Preparing for Your Common App Essay Writing the Common App Essay Sample #1: Rina Sample #2: Robert Sample #3: Sarah FAQs. The Common App essay is the personal statement that students have to submit on the Common Application portal.

  15. 10 Instructive Common App Essay Examples

    Common App Essay Examples: Essay #4. The scent of crushed garlic permeates the air, mingling with tamari and sesame oil. The nutty smell of brown butter hits my nose next, followed by earthy sage. Something sweet and spicy—sweet potatoes tossed in cinnamon and gochujang.

  16. The 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts Are Here

    Tips for Writing Your Common App Essay 1. Get a head start The topics are out, so you should consider drafting your Common App essay before the rush of the fall semester. Once senior year begins, you'll be dealing with schoolwork, supplemental essays, extracurriculars, and other responsibilities.

  17. Which Common App Essay Prompt Should You Choose?

    In this prompt, insight is key to a great essay. Reflect on the moments that defined your perspective or events from which you learned something. This prompt should be about something personal to you and can be about family, friends, or an experience. Ask yourself if there's a time, event, or person that has stuck with you and what it or they ...

  18. The 2023-2024 Common App Prompts (7 Example Essays & Analysis)

    According to the 2023/2024 Common Application, the Common App essay prompts are as follows: 1. Background Essay. 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.

  19. Official Common App Essay Guide 2024-2025

    Before we get into how to write the Common App essay, let's rapid-fire through each prompt and give you our hot take on whether or not it's worth your time:. Prompt #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.

  20. Common App Essay Examples

    Sample Common App Essay #2. The second of our Common App essay examples takes the unique—and potentially challenging—approach of talking about another person. In this essay, the author describes her relationship with Sophia, a child with special needs that she meets while volunteering.

  21. 10+ Outstanding Common App Essay Examples 2024

    Brainstorm (I think it's the most important step). Structure your essay according to your topic. Draft. Revise. Repeat. Common App essay word limit. The word limit for the Common App essay is 650. That doesn't mean you need to use all 650 words—many of the great example essays below don't.

  22. How to Write Common App Essay Prompt #7

    What is Prompt #7. Prompt seven is broader than any of the other prompt options for the essay. If you don't feel like your essay addresses any of the other six prompts, this may be a good choice. The prompt reads as follows: . Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different ...

  23. Common App Essays 2023-2024

    Making the most of the Common App essay word limit. Writing Common App essays can feel like a daunting task, especially given the word count. To make the most of the Common App essay word limit, make sure you start your writing process early. That way, you'll have plenty of time to edit your personal statement so every word counts.

  24. Application guide for first-year students

    Each year, more than 1 million students apply to more than 1,000 Common App member colleges worldwide through our online college application platform. Learn more about applying through our first-year application by following our step-by-step guide below. Create a Common App account. 1. Gather materials. 2.

  25. 6 Tips For Writing The Common Application Essay

    1. Think small: When writing the Common Application essay, too many students feel compelled to try and squeeze their entire life story into 650 words. This, friends, is impossible. It is almost always better to think small first. Find a story or event in your life that really meant something to you.