Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, complete strategies: common app essay prompts (2023-24).
You can write about almost anything and make it work, so if you have an idea, don't let the fact that it doesn't fit neatly into one of these categories stop you. Treat these breakdowns as jumping-off points to help you start brainstorming , not the final word in how you need to approach the essay.
Make Sure You Look at This Year's Prompts
The Common App changes its prompts fairly frequently , so make sure you're familiar with the most up-to-date versions of the Common App essay questions . If you have friends or siblings who applied in past years, don't assume that you can take the exact same approaches they did.
This guide will go over the details of all seven current prompts, but first let's talk about some overall advice.
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4 Tips For Finding Your Best Common App Essay Topic
As you're brainstorming and preparing to write your Common App essay, you'll want to keep these tips in mind.
First, it means that you genuinely care about the topic and want to write your college essay on it— no one ever wrote a great essay on a topic that they felt they had to write about .
Second, it means that the topic shows off a quality or trait you want to highlight for the admissions committee . For example, say I wanted to write about my summer job with the Parks Department. It's not enough to simply tell a story about my feud with a raccoon that kept destroying all the progress I made repairing a bench; I would need to make it clear what that experience ;shows about my character (perseverance) and explain what it ;taught me (that there are some things in life you simply can't control).
Remember that the most important thing is that your essay is about you . This advice might sound obvious, but when you're used to writing academic essays, it can be tricky to dive deep into your own perspective.
#2: Take Your Time
Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write so you don't feel rushed into jotting down the first thing you can come up with and sending it right off. We recommend starting the writing process two months in advance of your first college application deadline .
On a similar note, you should take the essay seriously: it's an important part of your application and worth investing the time in to get right. If you just dash something off thoughtlessly, admissions officers will recognize that and consider it evidence that you aren't really interested in their school.
#3: Avoid Repetition
Your essay should illustrate something about you beyond what's in the rest of your application . Try to write about a topic you haven't talked about elsewhere, or take a different angle on it.
A college essay is not a resume —it's the best opportunity to show off your unique personality to admissions committees. Pick your topic accordingly.
#4: Get Specific
The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you.
Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story . These would make for very different essays, even though they're on basically the same topic.
Another benefit of a specific topic is that it makes coming up with supporting details much easier. Specific, sensory details make the reader feel as if they're seeing the experience through your eyes, giving them a better sense of who you are.
Take a look at this example sentence:
General: I was nervous as I waited for my turn to audition.
Specific: As I waited for my name to be called, I tapped the rhythm of "America" on the hard plastic chair, going through the beats of my audition song over and over in my head.
The first version could be written by almost anyone; the second version has a specific perspective—it's also intriguing and makes you want to know more.
The more specific your essay topic is, the more clearly your unique voice will come through and the more engaging your essay will be.
Breaking Down the 2022-23 Common App Essay Prompts
Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm, let's go through the 2022-23 Common App essay questions one at a time and break down what admissions committees are looking for in responses.
Keep in mind that for each of these questions, there are really two parts . The first is describing something you did or something that happened to you. The second is explaining what that event, action, or activity means to you . No essay is complete without addressing both sides of the topic.
Next, it had to have had some sort of real impact so you can explain how your gratefulness affected you. This means that, even if the event itself was small, it had to have brought about some sort of lasting change in how you live your life.
To start, brainstorm times when something went better than expected/you were happily surprised by an outcome/you were especially grateful/someone restored your faith in humanity. Remember, this has to be, overall, a positive situation, as you're being asked about an event that made you happy or grateful. This is in contrast to prompts 2 and 3 which focus more on challenges you've faced.
Once you have your list, eliminate any instances that didn't affect or motivate you. The key part of this prompt is explaining the impact of your gratitude, so you need to write about a time when gratitude made you do something you normally wouldn't have done. This could be focusing on self-care/self-improvement, paying it forward by helping someone else, shifting your values, etc. Colleges want to see how you changed because of this event.
For example, say you decide to write about your first time traveling through an airport alone. You're not sure where to go, and all the workers look busy and like they're just waiting for their break. You're wandering around, lost, too shy to ask someone for help, when a gruff-looking employee comes up and asks if you need something. When you admit you don't know how to find your gate, they take the time to walk you to it, show you which screen to watch so you know when to board, and tell you to come get them if you need any more help. It's much more help than you thought anyone would give you.
Because of that person's actions (and this is the key part), you now always keep an eye out for people who look lost or confused and try to help them because you know how intimidating it can be to be out of your depth. You also know that many times people feel embarrassed to ask for help, so you need to make the first move to help them. If you have a specific example of you helping someone in need as a result, including that will make the essay even stronger.
Avoid scenarios where you were the first person to help another. The prompt is asking about a time someone was kind to you, and then you reacted in response to that. You need to have the grateful moment first, then the change in behavior.
Additionally, avoid examples where someone treated you badly but you rose above it. This is a situation where someone was kind to you, and you decided to keep that kindness going.
Common App Essay Prompt 6: Your Passion
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 asking you to describe something you're intellectually passionate about .
But in addition to describing a topic of personal fascination and why you're so interested in it, you need to detail how you have pursued furthering your own knowledge of the topic . Did you undertake extra study? Hole yourself up in the library? Ask your math team coach for more practice problems?
Colleges want to admit students who are intellectually engaged with the world. They want you to show that you have a genuine love for the pursuit of knowledge .
Additionally, by describing how you've learned more about your chosen topic, concept, or idea, you can prove that you are self-motivated and resourceful .
Pretty much any topic you're really interested in and passionate about could make a good essay here, just as long as you can put can put an intellectual spin on it and demonstrate that you've gone out of your way to learn about the topic.
So It's fine to say that the topic that engages you most is football, but talk about what interests you in an academic sense about the sport. Have you learned everything there is to know about the history of the sport? Are you an expert on football statistics? Emphasize how the topic you are writing about engages your brain.
Don't pick something you don't actually care about just because you think it would sound good.
If you say you love black holes but actually hate them and tortured yourself with astronomy books in the library for a weekend to glean enough knowledge to write your essay, your lack of enthusiasm will definitely come through.
Common App Essay Prompt 7: Your Choice
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
You can write about anything for this one!
Since this is a choose-your-own-adventure prompt, colleges aren't looking for anything specific to this prompt .
However, you'll want to demonstrate some of the same qualities that colleges are looking for in all college essays: things like academic passion, maturity, resourcefulness, and persistence. What are your values? How do you face setbacks? These are all things you can consider touching on in your essay.
If you already have a topic in mind for this one that doesn't really fit with any of the other prompts, go for it!
Avoid essays that aren't really about you as a person. So no submitting your rhetorical close-reading of the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" you wrote for AP English!
However, if you want to write about the way that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" made you reconsider your entire approach to life, go ahead.
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The Common App Essay Questions: 5 Key Takeaways
We've covered a lot of ground, but don't panic. I've collected the main ideas you should keep in mind as you plan your Common App essay below.
#5: Don't Worry About What You Think You're Supposed to Write
There is no single right answer to these prompts , and if you try to find one, you'll end up doing yourself a disservice. What's important is to tell your story—and no one can tell you what that means because it's unique to you.
Many students believe that they should write about resume-padding activities that look especially impressive, such as volunteering abroad. These essays are often boring and derivative because the writer doesn't really have anything to say on the topic and assumes it'll speak for itself.
But the point of a personal statement isn't to explain what you've done; it's to show who you are .
Take the time to brainstorm and figure out what you want to show colleges about yourself and what story or interest best exemplifies that quality.
For more background on college essays and tips for crafting a great one, check out our complete explanation of the basics of the personal statement .
Make sure you're prepared for the rest of the college application process as well with our guides to asking for recommendations , writing about extracurriculars , taking the SAT , and researching colleges .
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 it for free now:
Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.
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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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.
- Writing process
- Transition words
- Passive voice
- 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
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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7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
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- The Common App college essay is required by most Common App schools.
- This personal essay plays a critical role in many institutions' admission decisions.
- Admissions experts' biggest tips include writing how you speak and focusing on details.
Each year, over a million high school seniors apply for college through the Common Application . This online system enables you to submit one application to multiple schools, meaning you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement .
The Common App essay gives colleges the opportunity to learn more about you as a person and what's important to you. You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality.
Here, we explain what the Common App essay entails before diving into admissions experts' biggest tips for crafting a memorable personal statement.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the Common App and require the essay.
You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.
This statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. You can discuss almost anything you want, provided your topic addresses the prompt you've chosen. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story.
You must submit the Common App essay to all colleges that require it, though some may ask you to submit one or more supplemental essays as well.
The application form provides you with a box in which to type your essay; however, it's strongly recommended that you compose your essay in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or another word processor before copying and pasting your final draft into this box.
How Important Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is a key part of your college application. According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement moderately or considerably important. Highly selective institutions tended to place more emphasis on the essay.
"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, a former Princeton writing instructor and the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc .
Benedict, who spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, has helped students around the world apply to college for over a decade.
"Applying to a hyper-selective college with mediocre or uneven grades and a fabulous essay will likely not get you into that college, [whereas] applying to a hyper-selective college with top grades and scores, outstanding extracurriculars, and a mediocre essay could sink your application," she said.
While most experts agree that a strong Common App essay won't necessarily secure you admission into a highly selective college — especially if your grades and test scores aren't up to par — a well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor.
According to Benedict, this often happens at small liberal arts colleges , which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach .
Experts' Top 7 Common App Essay Tips
Admissions officers, higher education administrators, education consultants, and college admissions advisors like Benedict have many tricks for approaching the Common App essay. Here are some of their biggest tips.
1. Don't Mistake a Rare Topic for an Effective Topic
Many students assume their Common App essay must revolve around a unique topic that no other applicant has ever written about, but this is a myth.
"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," Whitney Soule told U.S. News & World Report . Soule currently serves as Bowdoin College's dean of admissions and student aid.
"It's not just about the topic," echoes Jennifer Gayles , director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, "but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic."
Choosing the right Common App essay topic can be tricky, but it's extremely important. "Students I work with run the gamut from having a good idea to having absolutely no idea what to write about," Benedict said. "Often in our brainstorming session, an idea will pop up in discussion, and I'll say, 'That's a good idea,' and the student will be surprised."
To identify potential essay topics, Benedict proposes asking yourself a series of questions. Have you experienced a turning point in your life? Are you deeply passionate about a particular subject?
Ultimately, your essay should excite and inspire you, as well as those who read it. "If an essay topic makes your heart beat fast, that's a good sign," said Benedict.
2. Pick the Best Essay Prompt for You
Not all Common App essay prompts are created equal. Of the seven prompts, some will no doubt work better for you than others.
Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, asks students to think about what version of themselves they want to present to schools and to trust their instincts.
"Don't just jump on the first prompt you read and start writing," she writes in a blog post for NYU. "Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to us about a specific achievement? Do you want to give us insight into a hardship you faced and conquered?"
In essence, work backward: Start with a topic and then see which essay prompt fits it the best.
This is the same advice given by Thea Hogarth of College Essay Advisors : "Once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you'll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story."
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. But just how long should your statement be? Admissions Blog advises aiming for around 500 words. And former Tufts University admissions officer Becky Leichtling concurs.
"The most common 'personal statement' length is in the ballpark of 500 words," Leichtling writes for Bright Horizons College Coach . "I consider 500 the 'sweet spot,' but don't stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 [words] that you're honestly proud of."
4. Fill Your Story With Details
Details are everything when it comes to the Common App essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.
"Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement," Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, writes on his company's website . "Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you."
Meredith Reynolds, associate director of admissions at Tufts, similarly recommends that applicants emphasize specifics in their essays. "By focusing on details, you set yourself apart," she says.
In terms of structure, Benedict advises approaching the Common App essay one step at a time. "Break down the topic to the smallest pieces you can and write a paragraph about each," she said.
In other words, discuss specific moments from your life. Relate conversations you've had. Describe how something felt or looked. It's the details in your story — not the topic itself — that will help you stand out the most.
5. Channel Your Authentic Voice
The Common App essay is unlike most essays you've written for school. Instead of analyzing a piece of literature or a historical event, you must showcase your identity. As such, the words you use should sound like they actually come from you — not a thesaurus or an English teacher.
"[Students] are used to writing academic essays and trying to impress with big words and formal-sounding constructions," Benedict said when asked about the most common mistake students make on the Common App essay. "The best essays have a conversational voice — not a stiff, academic one."
Educational consultant Ian Fisher agrees . In a blog post offering language tips for college essays, Fisher expounds on the importance of writing in a way true to how you talk in real life.
"You're going to have to fight the urge to 'impress' your admissions reader with the big words you've learned from your SAT practice," he writes.
Students should, however, avoid using any derogatory, offensive, or inappropriate language. Fisher recommends using words like "debate" instead of "fight" and "undeveloped" instead of "stupid."
Likewise, students should refrain from relying on cliches. This includes phrases such as "happily ever after," "beggars can't be choosers," and "crack of dawn." Benedict advises getting someone to "cliche-proof" your essay.
6. Get Feedback
Before submitting your Common App essay, show it to someone who will not only offer feedback but also edit and proofread your writing.
Shemmassian suggests giving your draft to "a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor." Meanwhile, Reynolds says you should "show your essay to two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well."
All recommendations from experts share a common thread: Getting feedback on your Common App essay should be a top priority.
7. Don't Neglect Supplemental Essays
Lots of competitive universities require the Common App essay in addition to supplemental essays and/or short answers. If you have other essays to submit, don't spend all your time working on the Common App essay. After all, all essays can impact your admission chances.
"At the most selective colleges and universities, there are usually supplemental essays as well, and those are part of the overall package, and they are very important," Benedict said.
She also discussed how a great Common App essay combined with weak supplemental essays could reflect poorly on your application and increase your risk of getting rejected .
"I can't stress enough the importance of the supplemental essays," Benedict continued. "For the most selective universities, all of the essays taken together present a 'package' of who you are." And how you choose to put together that package is up to you.
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc. , which has been helping students apply to college around the U.S. and all over the world for a dozen years. Elizabeth is a best-selling novelist, a prolific journalist, and an editor of many books. She has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her clients are regularly admitted to top universities and their first-choice colleges.
Feature Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images
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How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024 (With Examples)
The Common App essay is one of the most important parts of your application, but it can be extremely daunting if you’re not familiar with creative writing or what admissions officers are looking for.
In this blog post, we’ll provide advice on how to break down these prompts, organize your thoughts, and craft a strong, meaningful response that admissions officers will notice. If you’d like more free personalized help, you can get your essays reviewed and explore school-by-school essay help on CollegeVine.
Why the Common App Essay Matters
Admissions is a human process. While admissions committees look at grades, test scores, and extracurriculars, there are five students that have great qualifications in those areas for every spot in a university’s class. As an applicant, you need an admissions counselor to choose you over everyone else — to advocate specifically for you.
This is where essays come in; they are an opportunity for you to turn an admissions counselor into an advocate for your application! Of your essays, the Common App is the most important since it is seen by most of the colleges to which you apply. It is also your longest essay, which gives you more space to craft a narrative and share your personality, feelings, and perspective.
It’s not hyperbole to say that getting the Common App essay right is the single most important thing you can do to improve your chances of admission as a senior.
Overview of the Common App
The Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to know you. While SAT scores, your past course load, and your grades provide a quantitative picture of you as a student, the Common App essay offers adcoms a refreshing glimpse into your identity and personality. For this reason, try to treat the essay as an opportunity to tell colleges why you are unique and what matters to you.
Since your Common App essay will be seen by numerous colleges, you will want to paint a portrait of yourself that is accessible to a breadth of institutions and admissions officers (for example, if you are only applying to engineering programs at some schools, don’t focus your Common App on STEM at the expense of your other applications — save that for your supplemental essays).
In short, be open and willing to write about a topic you love, whether it is sports, music, politics, food, or watching movies. The Common App essay is more of a conversation than a job interview.
What Makes a Great Common App Essay?
A great Common App essay is, first and foremost, deeply personal. You are relying on the admissions committee to choose you over someone else, which they are more likely to do if they feel a personal connection to you. In your essay, you should delve into your feelings, how you think about situations/problems, and how you make decisions.
Good essays also usually avoid cliche topics . A couple overdone themes include an immigrant’s journey (particularly if you’re Asian American), and a sports accomplishment or injury. It’s not that these topics are bad, but rather that many students write about these subjects, so they don’t stand out as much. Of course, some students are able to write a genuine and unique essay about one of these topics, but it’s hard to pull off. You’re better off writing about more nuanced aspects of your identity!
You should also, of course, pay close attention to your grammar and spelling, use varied sentence structure and word choice, and be consistent with your tone/writing style. Take full advantage of the available 650 words, as writing less tends to mean missed opportunities.
Finally, it’s a good practice to be aware of your audience – know who you are writing for! For example, admissions officers at BYU will probably be very religious, while those at Oberlin will be deeply committed to social justice.
See some examples of great Common App essays to get a better idea of what makes a strong essay.
How your Common App Essay Fits with Your Other Essays
The Common App is one part of a portfolio of essays that you send to colleges, along with supplemental essays at individual colleges. With all of your essays for a particular college, you want to create a narrative and tell different parts of your story. So, the topics you write about should be cohesive and complementary, but not repetitive or overlapping.
Before jumping in to write your Common App essay, you should think about the other schools that you’re writing essays for and make sure that you have a strategy for your entire portfolio of essays and cover different topics for each. If you have strong qualifications on paper for the colleges you are targeting, the best narratives tend to humanize you. If you have weaker qualifications on paper for your colleges, the best narratives tend to draw out your passion for the topics or fields of study that are of interest to you and magnify your accomplishments.
Strategy for Writing the Common App Essays
Because the Common App essay is 650 words long and has few formal directions, organizing a response might seem daunting. Fortunately, at CollegeVine, we’ve developed a straightforward approach to formulating strong, unique responses.
This section outlines how to: 1) Brainstorm , 2) Organize , and 3) Write a Common App essay.
Before reading the prompts, brainstorming is a critical exercise to develop high-level ideas. One way to construct a high-level idea would be to delve into a passion and focus on how you interact with the concept or activity. For example, using “creative writing” as a high-level idea, one could stress their love of world-building, conveying complex emotions, and depicting character interactions, emphasizing how writing stems from real-life experiences.
A different idea that doesn’t involve an activity would be to discuss how your personality has developed in relation to your family; maybe one sibling is hot-headed, the other quiet, and you’re in the middle as the voice of reason (or maybe you’re the hot-head). These are simply two examples of infinitely many ideas you could come up with.
To begin developing your own high-level ideas, you can address these Core Four questions that all good Common App essays should answer:
- “Who Am I?”
- “Why Am I Here?”
- “What is Unique About Me?”
- “What Matters to Me?”
The first question focuses on your personality traits — who you are. The second question targets your progression throughout high school (an arc or journey). The third question is more difficult to grasp, but it involves showing why your personality traits, methods of thinking, areas of interest, and tangible skills form a unique combination. The fourth question is a concluding point that can be answered simply, normally in the conclusion paragraph, i.e., “Running matters to me” or “Ethical fashion matters to me.”
You can brainstorm freeform or start with a specific prompt in mind.
Sometimes, it can be helpful to start by jotting down the 3-5 aspects of your personality or experiences you’ve had on a piece of paper. Play around with narratives that are constructed out of different combinations of these essential attributes before settling on a prompt.
For example, you might note that you are fascinated by environmental justice, have had success in Model Congress, and are now working with a local politician to create a recycling program in your school district. You may also have tried previous initiatives that failed. These experiences could be constructed and applied to a number of Common App prompts. You could address a specific identity or interest you have associated with public advocacy, discuss what you learned from your failed initiatives, explore how you challenged the lack of recycling at your school, fantasize about solving waste management issues, etc.
Selecting a prompt that you identify with
For example, consider the following 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?
Perhaps you had been a dedicated and active member of your school’s debate team until one of your parents lost their jobs, leaving you unable to afford the high membership and travel dues. You decided to help out by getting a job after school, and responded to your familial hardship with grace and understanding (as opposed to anger). A few months later, and after speaking with your former debate coach and your parents, you set up a system to save up for your own trips so that you could still participate in debate!
In general, the most common mistake CollegeVine sees with Common App essays is that they aren’t deeply personal. Your essay should be specific enough that it could be identified as yours even if your name wasn’t attached.
If you get stuck, don’t worry! This is very common as the Common App is often the first personal essay college applicants have ever written. One way of getting unstuck if you feel like you aren’t getting creative or personal enough is to keep asking yourself “why”
For example: I love basketball…
- Because I like having to think on the fly and be creative while running our offense.
It can often help to work with someone and bounce ideas off them. Teachers are often a bad idea – they tend to think of essays in an academic sense, which is to say they often fail to apply the admissions context. Further, it is unlikely that they know you well enough to provide valuable insight. Friends in your own year can be a good idea because they know you, but you should be careful about competitive pressures applying within the same high school. Older friends, siblings, or neighbors who have successfully navigated the admissions process at your target universities (or good universities) strike that medium between no longer being competitive with you for admissions but still being able to help you brainstorm well because they know you.
Overall, there is no single “correct” topic. Your essay will be strong as long as you are comfortable and passionate about your idea and it answers the Core Four questions.
Common App essays are not traditional five-paragraph essays. You are free to be creative in structure, employ dialogue, and use vivid descriptions—and you should! Make sure that context and logic are inherent in your essay, however. From paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, your ideas should be clear and flow naturally. Great ways to ensure this are using a story arc following a few major points, or focusing on cause and effect.
The traditional approach
This involves constructing a narrative out of your experiences and writing a classic personal essay. You are free to be creative in structure, employ dialogue, and use vivid descriptions—and you should! Make sure that context and logic are inherent in your essay, however. From paragraph to paragraph, sentence to sentence, your ideas should be clear and flow naturally. Great ways to ensure this are using a story arc following a few major points, or focusing on cause and effect.
The creative approach
Some students prefer to experiment with an entirely new approach to the personal essay. For example, a student who is passionate about programming could write their essay in alternating lines of Binary and English. A hopeful Literature major could reimagine a moment in their life as a chapter of War and Peace, adopting Tolstoy’s writing style. Or, you could write about a fight with your friend in the form of a third person sports recap to both highlight your interest in journalism and reveal a personal story. Creative essays are incredibly risky and difficult to pull off. However, a creative essay that is well executed may also have the potential for high reward.
Your Common App essay must display excellent writing in terms of grammar and sentence structure. The essay doesn’t need to be a Shakespearean masterpiece, but it should be well-written and clear.
A few tips to accomplish this are:
- Show, don’t tell
- Be specific
- Choose active voice, not passive voice
- Avoid clichés
- 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. Instead of saying, “I struggled to make friends when I transferred schools,” you can show your emotions by writing, “I scanned the bustling school cafeteria, feeling more and more forlorn with each unfamiliar face. I found an empty table and ate my lunch alone.”
In many cases, writing can include more specific word choice . For example, “As a kid, I always played basketball,” can be improved to be “Every day after school as a kid, I ran home, laced up my sneakers, and shot a basketball in my driveway until the sun went down and I could barely see.”
To use active voice over passive voice , be sure that your sentence’s subject performs the action indicated by the verb, rather than the action performing onto the subject. Instead of writing “this project was built by my own hands,” you would say “I built this project with my own hands.”
Finally, avoid clichés like adages, sayings, and quotes that do not bring value to your essay. Examples include phrases like “Be the change you wish to see in the world” (it’s also important to know that sayings like these are often seriously misquoted—Gandhi did not actually utter these words) and lavish claims like “it was the greatest experience of my life.”
A few tips for the writing (and re-writing!) process
- If you have enough time, write a 950 word version of your personal statement first and then cut it down to the official word limit of 650. In many cases, the extra writing you do for this draft will contain compelling content. Using this, you can carve out the various sections and information that allow you to tell your story best.
- Revise your draft 3-5 times. Any more, you are probably overthinking and overanalyzing. Any less, you are not putting in the work necessary to optimize your Common App essay.
- It can be easy for you to get lost in your words after reading and rereading, writing and rewriting. It is best to have someone else do your final proofread to help you identify typos or sentences that are unclear.
Deciding on a Prompt
This section provides insights and examples for each of the 7 Common App essay prompts for the 2023-2024 cycle. Each of these prompts lends itself to distinct topics and strategies, so selecting the prompt that best aligns with your idea is essential to writing an effective Common App essay.
Here are this year’s prompts (click the link to jump to the specific 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.
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..
This prompt offers an opportunity to engage with your favorite extracurricular or academic subject, and it allows you to weave a narrative that displays personal growth in that area. An essay that displays your personality and a unique interest can be attention-grabbing, particularly if you have an unconventional passion, such as blogging about Chinese basketball or unicycling.
Don’t feel intimidated if you don’t have a passion that is immediately “unique,” however. Even an interest like “arctic scuba diving” will fail as an essay topic if it’s not written with insight and personality. Instead of attempting to impress the Admissions Officer by making up unusual or shocking things, think about how you spend your free time and ask yourself why you spend it that way. Also think about your upbringing, identity, and experiences and ask yourself, “What has impacted me in a meaningful way?”
Here Are A Few Response Examples:
Background – A person’s background includes experiences, training, education, and culture. You can discuss the experience of growing up, interacting with family, and how relationships have molded who you are. A background can include long-term interactions with arts, music, sciences, sports, writing, and many other learned skills. Background also includes your social environments and how they’ve influenced your perception. In addition, you can highlight intersections between multiple backgrounds and show how each is integral to you.
One student wrote about how growing up in a poor Vietnamese immigrant family inspired her to seize big opportunities, even if they were risky or challenging. She describes the emotional demand of opening and running a family grocery store. (Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects in all the examples.)
The callouses on my mother’s hands formed during the years spent scaling fish at the market in Go Noi, Vietnam. My mother never finished her formal education because she labored on the streets to help six others survive. Her calloused hands not only scaled fish, they also slaved over the stove, mustering a meal from the few items in the pantry. This image resurfaces as I watch my mother’s calloused hands wipe her sweat-beaded forehead while she manages the family business, compiling resources to provide for the family.
Living in an impoverished region of Vietnam pushed my parents to emigrate. My two year-old memory fails me, but my mother vividly recounts my frightened eyes staring up at her on my first plane ride. With life packed into a single suitcase, my mother’s heart, though, trembled more than mine. Knowing only a few words of English, my mother embarked on a journey shrouded in a haze of uncertainty.
Our initial year in America bore an uncanny resemblance to Vietnam – from making one meal last the entire day to wearing the same four shirts over and over again. Through thin walls, I heard my parents debating their decision to come to the United States, a land where they knew no one. My grandparents’ support came in half-hearted whispers cracking through long-distance phone calls. My dad’s scanty income barely kept food on the table. We lived on soup and rice for what seemed an interminable time.
However, an opportunity knocked on my parents’ door: a grocery store in the town of Decatur, Mississippi, was up for rent. My parents took the chance, risking all of their savings. To help my parents, I spent most of my adolescent afternoons stocking shelves, mopping floors, and even translating. My parents’ voices wavered when speaking English; through every attempt to communicate with their customers, a language barrier forged a palpable presence in each transaction. My parents’ spirits faltered as customers grew impatient. A life of poverty awaited us in Vietnam if the business was not successful.
On the first day, the business brought in only twenty dollars. Twenty dollars. My mother and my father wept after they closed the shop. Seeing the business as a failure, my mom commenced her packing that night; returning to Vietnam seemed inevitable.
The next business day, however, sales increased ten-fold. More and more customers came each successive day. My mom’s tears turned into—well, more tears, but they were tears of joy. My mother unpacked a bag each night.
Fifteen years later, my parents now own Blue Bear Grocery. My parents work, work, work to keep the shelves stocked and the customers coming. The grocery store holds a special place in my heart: it is the catalyst for my success. My parents serve as my role-models, teaching me a new lesson with every can placed on the shelf. One lesson that resurfaces is the importance of pursuing a formal education, something that my parents never had the chance of.
When the opportunity to attend the Mississippi School for Mathematics and Science (MSMS) presented itself, I took it and ran, as did my parents by leaving Vietnam and by buying the store. Although I am not managing hundreds of products, I am managing hundreds of assignments at MSMS – from Mu Alpha Theta tutoring to lab reports to student government to British literature.
Had I not immigrated, my hands would be calloused from the tight grip of the knife scaling fish rather than from the tight grip on my pencil. My hands would be calloused from scrubbing my clothes covered in fish scales rather than from long hours spent typing a research paper.
Although the opportunities that my parents and I pursued are different, our journey is essentially the same: we walk a road paved with uncertainty and doubt with the prospect of success fortified by our hearts and our hands.
Identity – this can mean racial identity, sexual orientation, gender, or simply one’s place within a specific community (even communities as unique as, say, players of World of Warcraft). With the topic of racial identity, it’s important to remember the audience (college admissions counselors often lean progressive politically), so this might not be the best place to make sweeping claims about today’s state of race relations. However, reflecting on how your culture has shaped your experiences can make for a compelling essay. Alternatively, focusing on a dominant personality trait can also make for a compelling theme. For example, if you’re extremely outgoing, you could explain how your adventurousness has allowed you to learn from a diverse group of friends and the random situations you find yourself in. One important thing to note: the topic of identity can easily lack originality if you cover a common experience such as feeling divided between cultures, or coming out. If such experiences are integral to who you are, you should still write about them, but be sure to show us your unique introspection and reflection.
One student detailed how growing up as an American in Germany led to feelings of displacement. Moving to America in high school only exacerbated her feelings of rootlessness. Her transcultural experiences, however, allowed her to relate to other “New Americans,” particularly refugees. Helping a young refugee girl settle into the US eventually helped the writer find home in America as well:
Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.
My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.
Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deeprooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.
After moving from Berlin to New York state at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.
During my first weeks in Buffalo, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Buffalo.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered New Hope, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with New Hope’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.
It was there that I met Leila, a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl who lived next to Hopeprint. In between games and snacks, Leila would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children New Hope served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.
Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.
The above essay was written by Lydia Schooler, a graduate of Yale University and one of our CollegeVine advisors. If you enjoyed this essay and are looking for expert college essay and admissions advice, consider booking a session with Lydia .
Interests – Interest are basically synonymous to activities, but slightly broader (you could say that interests encompass activities); participation in an interest is often less organized than in an activity. For instance, you might consider cross country an activity, but cooking an interest. Writing about an interest is a way to highlight passions that may not come across in the rest of your application. If you’re a wrestler for example, writing about your interest in stand-up comedy would be a refreshing addition to your application. You should also feel free to use this topic to show what an important activity on your application really means to you. Keep in mind, however, that many schools will ask you to describe one of your activities in their supplemental essays (usually about 250 words), so choose strategically—you don’t want to write twice on the same thing.
Read a successful essay answering this prompt.
This prompt lends itself to consideration of what facets of your personality allow you to overcome adversity. While it’s okay to choose a relatively mundane “failure” such as not winning an award at a Model UN conference, another (perhaps more powerful) tactic is to write about a foundational failure and assess its impact on your development thereafter.
There are times in life when your foundation is uprooted. There are times when you experience failure and you want to give up since you don’t see a solution. This essay is about your response when you are destabilized and your actions when you don’t see an immediate answer.
For example, if you lost a friend due to an argument, you can analyze the positions from both sides, evaluate your decisions, and identify why you were wrong. The key is explaining your thought process and growth following the event to highlight how your thinking has changed. Did you ever admit your fault and seek to fix the problem? Have you treated others differently since then? How has the setback changed the way you view arguments and fights now? Framing the prompt in this way allows you to tackle heavier questions about ethics and demonstrate your self-awareness.
If you haven’t experienced a “big” failure, another angle to take would be to discuss smaller, repeated failures that are either linked or similar thematically. For example, if you used to stutter or get nervous in large social groups, you could discuss the steps you took to find a solution. Even if you don’t have a massive foundational challenge to write about, a recurring challenge can translate to a powerful essay topic, especially if the steps you took to overcome this repeated failure help expose your character.
One student described his ignorance of his brother’s challenges — the writer assumed that because his brother Sam was sociable, Sam was adjusting fine to their family’s move. After an angry outburst from Sam and a long late-night conversation, the writer realizes his need to develop greater sensitivity and empathy. He now strives to recognize and understand others’ struggles, even if they’re not immediately apparent.
“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.
Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.
When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.
As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.
Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.
We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.
We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.
My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.
This prompt is difficult to answer because most high schoolers haven’t participated in the types of iconoclastic protests against societal ills that lend themselves to an awe-inspiring response. A more tenable alternative here could be to discuss a time that you went against social norms, whether it was by becoming friends with someone who seemed like an outcast or by proudly showing off a geeky passion.
And if you ever participated in a situation in tandem with adults and found some success (i.e., by blogging, starting a tutoring organization, or participating in political campaigns), you could discuss your experiences as a young person without a college degree in professional circles. However, avoid sounding morally superior (as if you’re the only person who went against this convention, or that you’re better than your peers for doing so).
Another way to answer this prompt is to discuss a time when you noticed a need for change. For example, if you wondered why medical records are often handwritten, or why a doctor’s visit can be long and awkward, maybe you challenged the norm in healthcare by brainstorming an electronic-recording smartphone app or a telemedicine system. In a similar way, if you led a fundraiser and recognized that advertising on social media would be more effective than the traditional use of printed flyers, you could write about a topic along those lines as well. Focus on what action or experience caused you to recognize the need for change and follow with your actions and resulting outcome.
As a whole, this prompt lends itself to reflective writing, and more specifically, talking the reader through your thought processes. In many cases, the exploration of your thought processes and decision-making is more important than the actual outcome or concept in question. In short, this essay is very much about “thinking,” rumination, and inquisition. A good brainstorming exercise for this prompt would be to write your problem on a sheet of paper and then develop various solutions to the problem, including a brief reason for justification. The more thorough you are in justifying and explaining your solutions in the essay, the more compelling your response will be.
While this prompt may seem to be asking a simple question, your answer has the potential to provide deep insights about 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.
The first step to writing this essay is to think about the “something” and “someone” of your story. It is imperative to talk about a unique moment in your life, as the prompt asks for gratitude that came about in a surprising way. You will want to write about a story that you are certain no one else would have. To brainstorm, ask yourself: “if I told a stranger that I was grateful for what happened to me without any context, would they be surprised?”
Note that the most common answers to this prompt involve a family member, teacher, or sports coach giving the narrator an arduous task ─ which, by the end of the story, the narrator becomes grateful for because of the lessons they learned through their hard work. Try to avoid writing an essay along these lines unless you feel that your take on it will be truly original.
Begin your essay by telling a creative story about the “something” that your “someone” did that made you thankful. Paint a picture with words here ─ establish who you were in the context of your story and make the character development of your “someone” thorough. Show the admissions committee that you have a clear understanding of yourself and the details of your world.
Keep in mind, however, that the essay is ultimately about you and your growth. While you should set the scene clearly, don’t spend too much time talking about the “something” and “someone.”
Your story should then transition into a part about your unexpected epiphany, e.g. “Six months after Leonard gave me that pogo stick, I started to be grateful for the silly thing…” Explain the why of your gratitude as thoroughly as you can before you begin to talk about how your gratitude affected or motivated you. Have a Socratic seminar with yourself in your head ─ ask yourself, “why am I grateful for the pogo stick?” and continue asking why until you arrive at a philosophical conclusion. Perhaps your reason could be that you eventually got used to the odd looks that people gave you as you were pogoing and gained more self-confidence.
Finally, think about how learning to be grateful for something you would not expect to bring you joy and thankfulness has had a positive impact on your life. Gaining more self-confidence, for example, could motivate you to do an infinite number of things that you were not able to attempt in the past. Try to make a conclusion by connecting this part to your story from the beginning of the essay. You want to ultimately show that had [reference to a snippet of your introduction, ideally an absurd part] never have happened, you would not be who you are today.
Remember to express these lessons implicitly through the experiences in your essay, and not explicitly. Show us your growth through the changes in your life rather than simply stating that you gained confidence. For instance, maybe the pogo stick gift led you to start a pogo dance team at your school, and the team went on to perform at large venues to raise money for charity. But before your pogo days, you had crippling stage fright and hated even giving speeches in your English class. These are the kinds of details that make your essay more engaging.
This prompt is expansive in that you can choose any accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked personal growth or new understanding.
One option is to discuss a formal accomplishment or event (whether it is a religious ritual or social rite of passage) that reflects personal growth. If you go this route, make sure to discuss why the ritual was meaningful and how specific aspects of said ritual contributed to your personal growth. An example of this could be the meaning of becoming an Eagle Scout to you, the accomplishment of being elected to Senior Leadership, or completing a Confirmation. In the case of religious topics, however, be sure to not get carried away with details, and focus on the nature of your personal growth and new understanding — know your audience.
Alternatively, a more relaxed way to address this prompt is using an informal event or realization, which would allow you to show more personality and creativity. An example of this could be learning how to bake with your mother, thus sparking a newfound connection with her, allowing you to learn about her past. Having a long discussion about life or philosophy with your father could also suffice, thus sparking more thoughts about your identity. You could write about a realization that caused you to join a new organization or quit an activity you did not think you would enjoy, as doing so would force you to grow out of your comfort zone to try new things.
The key to answering this prompt is clearly defining what it is that sparked your growth, and then describing in detail the nature of this growth and how it related to your perception of yourself and others. This part of the essay is crucial, as you must dedicate sufficient time to not undersell the description of how you grew instead of simply explaining the experience and then saying, “I grew.” This description of how you grew must be specific, in-depth, and it does not have to be simple. Your growth can also be left open-ended if you are still learning from your experiences today.
One student wrote about how her single mother’s health crisis prompted her to quickly assume greater responsibility as a fourteen-year-old. This essay describes the new tasks she undertook, as well as how the writer now more greatly cherishes her time with her mother.
Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life.
Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.
My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.
Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.
This prompt allows you to expand and deepen a seemingly small or simple idea, topic, or concept. One example could be “stars,” in that you could describe stargazing as a child, counting them, recognizing constellations, and then transforming that initial captivation into a deeper appreciation of the cosmos as a whole, spurring a love of astronomy and physics.
Another example could be “language,” discussing how it has evolved and changed over the course of history, how it allows you to look deeper into different cultures, and how learning different languages stretches the mind. A tip for expanding on these topics and achieving specificity is to select particular details of the topic that you find intriguing and explain why.
For example, if you’re passionate about cooking or baking, you could use specific details by explaining, in depth, the intricate attention and artistry necessary to make a dish or dessert. You can delve into why certain spices or garnishes are superior in different situations, how flavors blend well together and can be mixed creatively, or even the chemistry differences between steaming, searing, and grilling.
Regardless of your topic, this prompt provides a great opportunity to display writing prowess through elegant, specific descriptions that leverage sensory details. Describing the beauty of the night sky, the rhythms and sounds of different languages, or the scent of a crème brûlée shows passion and captivation in a very direct, evocative way.
The key to writing this essay is answering the question of why something captivates you instead of simply ending with “I love surfing.” A tip would be to play off your senses (for applicable topics), think about what you see, feel, smell, hear, and taste.
In the case of surfing, the salty water, weightlessness of bobbing over the waves, and fresh air could cater to senses. Alternatively, for less physical topics, you can use a train of thought and descriptions to show how deeply and vividly your mind dwells on the topic.
Well-executed trains of thought or similar tactics are successful ways to convey passion for a certain topic. To answer what or who you turn to when you want to learn more, you can be authentic and honest—if it’s Wikipedia, a teacher, friend, YouTube Channel, etc., you simply have to show how you interact with the medium.
When brainstorming this particular essay, a tip would be to use a web diagram, placing the topic in the middle and thinking about branching characteristics, themes, or concepts related to the topic that are directly engaging and captivating to you. In doing so, you’ll be able to gauge the depth of the topic and whether it will suffice for this prompt.
In the following example, a student shares their journey as they learn to appreciate a piece of their culture’s cuisine.
As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?
During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice.
Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.
As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.
Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.
Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story
We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools!
This prompt allows you to express what you want to express if it doesn’t align directly with the other prompts. While this prompt is very open-ended, it doesn’t mean you can adapt any essay you’ve written and think it will suffice. Always refer back to the Strategy section of this article and make sure the topic and essay of your choice addresses the Core Four questions necessary for a good Common App essay.
This prompt, more than the others, poses a high risk but also a high-potential reward. Writing your own question allows you to demonstrate individuality and confidence. Here, you can craft an innovative essay that tackles a difficult topic (for example, whether to raise or lower taxes) or presents information with a unique format (such as a conversation with an historical figure).
We encourage you to try something unconventional for this prompt, like comparing your personality to a Picasso painting, using an extended philosophical metaphor to describe your four years of high school, or writing in a poetic style to display your love of poetry. If you are extremely passionate about a topic or an expert in a certain area, for example Renaissance technology or journalism during World War II, you can use this prompt to show your authority on a subject by discussing it at a high level.
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. As 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 an unconventional essay can capture Admissions Officers’ attention and move them in a profound way; other times, the concept can fly completely over their heads. Be sure to execute the essay clearly and justify your decision by seeking high-quality feedback from reliable sources. As always, the essay should demonstrate something meaningful about you, whether it is your personality, thought process, or values.
Here’s what the experts have to say about this prompt…
This prompt, like the others, is really asking you to tell the story of who you are. Your essay should be personal and should talk about something significant that has shaped your identity.
Here are a few broad themes that can work well: academic interest; culture, values, and diversity; extracurricular interests; and your impact on the community. You should highlight one of these themes using creative, vividly descriptive narrative. Make sure to not fall into the common pitfall of talking about something else -- an extracurricular activity, for example -- more than yourself.
A student I advised had a great idea to respond to this prompt -- an essay about how they do their best thinking while sitting on a tree branch near their home. Not only was it unique and personal, but it allowed the student to show what they think about, dream about, and value. That's the main goal for any applicant responding to prompt 7.
Alex Oddo Advisor on CollegeVine
All of the Common App prompts are broad in scope, but this one really takes the cake! I typically advise using the first six prompts as guardrails for your brainstorm, but in doing so, you may come up with a topic that doesn’t cleanly fit with any of the first six prompts. That’s where this prompt can come in handy.
Or, you might have an idea that’s really out there (like writing about your love of sonnets as a series of sonnets). Essentially, this prompt is a good fit for essays that are anywhere from slightly unconventional to extremely atypical.
If this all feels a bit confusing - don’t worry! How you write your story is much more important than what prompt you end up choosing. At the end of the day, these are just guides to help you cultivate a topic and are not meant to stress you out.
Priya Desai Advisor on CollegeVine
Students who want to complete the CommonApp’s seventh prompt need to have already gone through the other prompts and determined that their story cannot fit with those. Thus, generally speaking, I advise my students to not use the final prompt unless it is absolutely necessary.
If an admission officer believes that your essay could have been used with one of the other prompts, this may lead them to have a perception about you as a student that might not be accurate.
Nevertheless, as my colleagues have pointed out, what matters is the essay the most and not necessarily the prompt. That being said, the test of whether or not you as a student can follow directions is part of the prompt selection and how well you answer it. If you choose the final prompt and yet your answer could work with another available prompt, this will not put you in your best light.
In conclusion, only use this prompt when absolutely necessary, and remember that the purpose of the personal statement is to give the admissions officers a glimpse into who you are as a person, so you want to use this space to showcase beautiful you.
Veronica Prout Advisor on CollegeVine
Where to get your common app essay edited.
At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application. That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.
Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!
Related CollegeVine Blog Posts
25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)
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.
If you're applying to colleges in 2023, 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 2023?
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)
- 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
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Explore more than 1,000 colleges on Common App
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Common App and Reach Higher have united to inspire more people to complete their education and own their future, no matter what it holds. Get valuable advice from students who have been in your shoes.
Plan your future
Get connected with everything you need to apply to college, research financial aid and scholarships, and get advice from counselors, advisors and mentors.
Why college matters
College is worth it. Your future is worth it. You are worth it.
Paying for college
There are lots of options available to you. We can help you find them.
Your college roadmap
The path may seem unclear. We can help you find your way.
Your complete college application guide
It’s go time — and we’ll be with you every step of the way. Here’s where you’ll find what you need to take that next step towards a brighter future.
Common App announces partnership with DOD MilGears
Common App launches direct admissions program with 70 colleges and universities
You can now apply to City Year on the Common App
For counselors and recommenders.
Thanks to you, your students aren’t alone. We’re here to make sure you’re not either.
For member institutions
We strive for access, equity, and integrity in the college admission process. Your membership makes it all possible.
Events and webinars
Sva national conference.
This Student Veterans of America National Conference is the world's largest gathering for student veterans.
NACAC Virtual College Fair - November
NACAC's November Virtual College Fair allows students to interact with college representatives like at an in-person event. Each college has a ‘virtual booth’ the student may visit.
LEAD National Student Leadership Conference
This national conference is for student leaders and the educators who support them. This year, the conference emphasizes building connections, enhancing leadership abilities, promoting leadership through service, and amplifying student voices.