The 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts

Tips and Guidance for the 7 Essay Options on the New Common Application

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For the 2021-22 application cycle, the Common Application  essay prompts remain unchanged from the 2020-21 cycle with the exception of an all new option #4. As in the past, with the inclusion of the popular "Topic of Your Choice" option, you have the opportunity to write about anything you want to share with the folks in the admissions office.

The current prompts are the result of much discussion and debate from the member institutions who use the Common Application. The essay length limit stands at 650 words (the minimum is 250 words), and students will need to choose from the seven options below. The essay prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. The best essays focus on self-analysis, rather than spending a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student. If your essay doesn't include some self-analysis, you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.

According to the folks at the Common Application , in the 2018-19 admissions cycle, Option #7 (topic of your choice) was the most popular and was used by 24.1% of applicants. The second most popular was Option #5 (discuss an accomplishment) with 23.7% of applicants. In third place was Option #2 on a setback or failure. 21.1% of applicants chose that option.

From the Admissions Desk

"While the transcript and grades will always be the most important piece in the review of an application, essays can help a student stand out. The stories and information shared in an essay are what the Admissions Officer will use to advocate for the student in the admissions committee."

–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania

Always keep in mind why colleges are asking for an essay: they want to get to know you better. Nearly all selective colleges and universities (as well as many that aren't overly selective) have holistic admissions, and they consider many factors in addition to numerical measures such as grades and standardized test scores. Your essay is an important tool for presenting something you find important that may not come across elsewhere in your application. Make sure your essay presents you as the type of person a college will want to invite to join their community.

Below are the seven options with some general tips for each:

Option #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.

"Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write a story about your "background, identity, interest, or talent." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. You could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your "interest" or "talent" could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why  the story you tell is so meaningful. 

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #1
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Handiwork" by Vanessa
  • Sample essay for option #1: "My Dads" by Charlie
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Give Goth a Chance"
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Wallflower"

Option #2  

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss setbacks and failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question—how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty are key with this prompt.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #2
  • Sample essay for option #2: "Striking Out" by Richard
  • Sample essay for option #2: "Student Teacher" by Max

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

Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief. The answer to the final question about the "outcome" of your challenge need not be a success story. Sometimes in retrospection, we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #3
  • Sample essay for option #3: "Gym Class Hero" by Jennifer

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?

Here, again, the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question since it is entirely up to you to decide what the "something" and "someone" will be. This prompt was added to the Common Application in the 2021-22 admissions cycle in part because it gives students the opportunity to write something heartfelt and uplifting after all the challenges of the previous year. The best essays for this prompt show that you are a generous person who recognizes the contributions others have made to your personal journey. Unlike many essays that are all about "me, me, me," this essay shows your ability to appreciate others. This type of generosity is an important character trait that schools look for when inviting people to join their campus communities.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #4

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

This question was reworded in 2017-18 admissions cycle, and the current language is a huge improvement. The prompt use to talk about transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but the new language about a "period of personal growth" is a much better articulation of how we actually learn and mature (no single event makes us adults). Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). This prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay—admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play (see the list of bad essay topics for more about this issue). These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #5
  • Sample essay for option #5: "Buck Up" by Jill

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 option was entirely new in 2017, and it's a wonderfully broad prompt. In essence, it's asking you to identify and discuss something that enthralls you. The question gives you an opportunity to identify something that kicks your brain into high gear, reflect on why it is so stimulating, and reveal your process for digging deeper into something that you are passionate about. Note that the central words here—"topic, idea, or concept"—all have rather academic connotations. While you may lose track of time when running or playing football, sports are probably not the best choice for this particular question.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #6

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 popular "topic of your choice" option had been removed from the Common Application between 2013 and 2016, but it returned again with the 2017-18 admissions cycle. Use this option if you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first six topics are extremely broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you. Cleverness is fine, but don't be clever at the expense of meaningful content.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #7
  • Sample essay for option #7: "My Hero Harpo" by Alexis
  • Sample essay for option #7: "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"

Final Thoughts

Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis rather than merely describing a place or event.

The folks at The Common Application have cast a wide net with these questions, and nearly anything you want to write about could fit under at least one of the options. If your essay could fit under more than one option, it really doesn't matter which one you choose. Many admissions officers, in fact, don't even look at which prompt you chose—they just want to see that you have written a good essay.

  • Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth
  • Tips for the Pre-2013 Personal Essay Options on the Common Application
  • Common Application Essay Option 2 Tips: Learning from Failure
  • Common Application Essay Option 4—Gratitude
  • Topic of Your Choice: Common Application Essay Tips
  • Common Application Essay Option 3 Tips: Challenging a Belief
  • Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place
  • A Sample Essay for Common Application Option #7: Topic of Your Choice
  • "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"—Sample Common Application Essay, Option #4
  • 2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem
  • "Gym Class Hero" - a Common Application Essay Sample for Option #3
  • Common Application Essay, Option 1: Share Your Story
  • 5 Tips for a College Admissions Essay on an Important Issue
  • Common Application Essay Option 6: Losing Track of Time
  • Tips for an Application Essay on a Significant Experience
  • "My Dads" - Sample Common Application Essay for Option #1

Application guide for first-year students

Get tips and best practices to give yourself the best chance at success.

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What is Common App?

Each year, more than 1 million students apply to more than 1,000 Common App member colleges worldwide through our online college application platform. Learn more about applying through our first-year application by following our step-by-step guide below.

Gather materials

The information you’ll need to complete your applications

Filling out your application takes time.

And if you have to keep interrupting your progress to find information, like a certificate for a continuing education course or the address of your last internship, it can take even longer. Get a head start by collecting this information before you begin.

In the Education section you will enter your high school grades and current courses. Some colleges also need you to self report your high school transcript. You can check out your Courses & Grades section to learn more.

You can share your interests and who you are outside of the classroom in the activities section. You can share information about things like work, hobbies, clubs, and community engagement. And don't forget, family responsibilities can be important to share as well. This is the place to show colleges what makes you unique!

You may self-report scores for any standardized tests in the Testing section. Every college has different testing requirements. Some colleges will always need your test scores. Other colleges may be flexible or have a test optional policy. Be sure to check the Testing policy of the colleges on your list.

Many colleges collect this information in the Family section for demographic purposes. We will ask for your parents occupation, employment status, and education level. If applicable, we will also ask which college(s) they attended and how many degrees they have earned.

The Activities section isn't the only place to show your passion and where you excel! You will also have the chance to share any academic honors or achievements from high school.

Create an account

Get started at any time

Creating a Common App account is easy and should only take a few minutes.

You can create a Common App account even if you don’t plan on applying for another few months or another few years. You can answer questions in the Common App tab and build a college list at any time.

  • If you haven’t yet attended college, select “first-year student”
  • If you have college credits from dual enrollment high school courses, you should still select “first-year student” 
  • If you have already attended 1 or more colleges after graduating high school, select “transfer student”. We also have a separate transfer student guide to help you out. 
  • You check regularly
  • Does not use inappropriate language 
  • You will have access to after you graduate from high school 
  • We will need some basic information about you like your name, home address, phone number, and date of birth.
  • Be sure to use your legal name as it appears on official school documents and standardized tests. This will make sure colleges can match documents to the correct person.
  • At the end, you will adjust your communication preferences and accept the Common App privacy policy.
  • Select "create account" and you’re done!

Account rollover

Common App accounts can roll over from year to year!

With account rollover , you can start exploring Common App and save answers to questions in the Common App tab at any time.

Add colleges

Start building your My Colleges list

Once you’ve created your account and explored the colleges that accept the Common App, you're ready to start adding colleges.

The College Search tab is where you will search for and add the colleges you want to apply to. If you have a school in mind you can search by name. If you want to keep exploring, you can use the more filters button. Some filters include:

  • State or country
  • Distance from a zip code
  • Enrollment term
  • Application deadline
  • Application fees*
  • Writing requirements
  • Standardized testing policy
  • Recommendation requirement

Adding a college is easy! You may add a college using the add button in the search results list. You can also select a college and add them using the "Add to My Colleges" button from their info screen.

Once you've added colleges, you can see them on your Dashboard and in your My Colleges tab. Keep in mind you may only add up to 20 colleges. You may adjust your list of colleges at any time. Once you've submitted, you will not be able to remove those schools from your My Colleges list.

* While some colleges may charge an application fee, others have no fee to apply. And, many will offer fee waivers under certain circumstances, including financial need, veteran status, and more. 

A request to the college to remove the application fee. Using either the Common App fee waiver, which your counselor must confirm, or a college-specific fee waiver, you will not be required to pay the fee to submit your application.

Coed is a term used to describe a college or university that offers the integrated education of male and female students in same environment.

Engage supporters

Collaborate with counselors, teachers, and more

All colleges need things like official school forms. Many colleges will also ask for letters of recommendation.

Counselors, teachers, and recommenders will submit these kinds of forms on your behalf. Here are the types of recommenders you can invite in the Common App.

Counselors share their perspective using the context of the entire graduating class. They also submit the School Report and transcripts.

Parents will only need to submit a form if you apply using a college's early decision deadline. They will fill out part of your early decision agreement.

Teachers give a firsthand account of your intellectual curiosity and creative thought.

Other recommenders are usually non academic recommenders like coaches, employers, and peers. They give insight into your interests and activities outside of the classroom.

Advisors do not submit any forms. They track and check in on your application progress.

Every college gets to choose their own recommendation requirements. You can find more details on each college's "College Information" page.

If you're planning to apply this school year, you can start inviting recommenders. If you don't plan on applying until next school year or later, skip this step for now.

How to invite and assign recommenders: 

From the My Colleges tab select a college and open their "Recommenders and FERPA" section.

If you have not done so already, you will need to complete the  FERPA Release Authorization .

Invite recommenders using the invite button from each section. You may also use the "Invite Recommenders" button at the top.

Select the type of invitation you would like to send. For each invitation you will need information like their name and email address.

After you add a recommender, you can view their info using the Manage Recommenders button.

Note that teachers, parents, and other recommenders will not receive an email invitation until you assign them to a college. To assign these recommenders, go to their section within this screen. Select their name from the dropdown and use the assign button.

If your high school uses Naviance or another partner software, you will not invite your counselor or teachers here. There will be instructional text on this page explaining what to do next. You will still add other recommenders and advisors using the steps above.

In general, each college has their own recommendation requirements. For example, one college may need two teacher recommendations. Some colleges may not want any teacher recommendations. Colleges can also determine what kinds of other recommenders they want. Some may allow for any recommender type, whereas others only allow an employer recommendation.

Understanding requirements

Keep track of each college’s unique application requirements

It's important to stay organized as you work on your applications.

Each college needs you to complete common questions and add counselor. Beyond that their applications vary. Each college can determine their unique requirements for:

  • Application Fees
  • Personal Essay
  • Courses & Grades
  • Test Policy
  • Writing Supplements
  • Recommendations

Here are some places where you can find each college's specific requirements:

Each college's Explore Colleges profile provides lots of information about the college. You can find details on application information, campus culture, scheduling visits, and more.

In the My Colleges or College Search tab, you can learn more using a school's college information page. Here you can see requirements for testing, writing, deadlines, and more.

The  requirements grid is a comprehensive PDF that lists all the colleges that use the Common App and their requirements. You can also find the grid within the application.

We maintain a list of all Common App colleges and  their essay prompts . This resource will help as you begin planning your essays. For more help on planning essays, check out our essay planning worksheet.

You can save answers to Common App tab questions year over year. So you can get started on things like your personal essay or the activities section at any time.

Responses to questions in your My Colleges do not stay year over year. Only get started on things like college-specific questions, writing supplements, or portfolios if you intend to apply this school year. For more info, check out our account rollover FAQ .

Plan essays

Organize and plan for your writing prompts

Sometimes writings essays can feel like the biggest part of your application. With a little bit of planning, organizing, and drafting, we can help you make this task more manageable.

As you work on your applications you can find essays or short answer questions in three sections:

Colleges can either make the personal essay optional or required. In the writing section of your Common App tab, you will see a table that lists each college's requirements.

Many colleges include short answer questions or essay prompts within this section. You can find specific information about each college's individual writing prompts  here .

Some colleges use a separate writing supplement. Not all colleges have a writing supplement. Some colleges only request this supplement based on how you answer other questions. You can find more information about writing supplements on the Dashboard or your My Colleges tab.

Counselor tip

Tools like Google Drive can be very helpful when planning or writing essays. When you’re ready to apply, you can upload the text of your essay(s) using the Google Drive icon in any of Common App’s writing questions.

Use our essay best practices FAQ for more help.

Submit your application

Review and submit your application

Submission is a three-step process: 1) Reviewing your application. 2) Paying the application fee (if applicable). 3) Submitting your application.

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How to Answer the 2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts

college common application essay prompts

Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

How to Answer the 2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts

Writing your college essay isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but it helps to have a variety of prompts to choose from. Fortunately, there’s seven Common App essay prompts available during the 2023-2024 cycle. In this guide, we’ll discuss each prompt and give you some tips on how to respond. 

Related: College essay primer: show, don’t tell

Before we begin…

Before browsing the following Common App essay prompts, it’s a good idea to first think about the story you’re most eager to tell. Consider the most important experiences you’ve had in your life and how you could shape them into a meaningful essay. Only then should you check out the following prompts to find one that fits your story. Since most of the prompts are intentionally broad and open-ended, chances are you won’t have any trouble finding one that suits your particular story. Let’s get started on your Common App essay prompts!

Also see:  Common App vs. Coalition App: What are the differences?

“Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.”

This is your chance to talk about the people, places, and experiences that have shaped you as a person. The great thing about this prompt is that it’s very broad in scope and can be molded to fit nearly any story. Think about the most important moments in your life and their impact. What parts of your upbringing or personality are essential to who you are as a person? If you’re having trouble, try completing the following sentence: “I wouldn’t be who I am today without…” 

Questions to consider: 

  • What sets you apart from others? 
  • Do you have any hobbies, interests, or talents that your life revolves around? 
  • What experiences or people have impacted the way you view the world? 
“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?”

Failure facilitates growth. The hardest moments in our lives are often the ones in which we develop the most as people. Think back to some of the major turning points in your life – the moments when you adapted to a new environment, coped with loss, or tried a new activity. Chances are these moments weren’t exactly easy. But in spite of the adversity you faced, you came out the other side new and improved. Think about these difficult moments, how you overcame them, and what you learned from the experience. As you’re writing, remember to focus on the positive side of things instead of lingering on the negative.  

  • Have you ever moved to a new town, grieved the loss of a family member, or struggled in school?
  • How have you responded to challenges in your life?
  • What have you learned about yourself in the process? 

Related:  Should you submit the FAFSA before or after acceptance?

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

Admissions officers love to see candidates who are independent thinkers. If you’re passionate about certain ideas that don’t exactly align with popular beliefs, this is your chance to share them. Maybe your essay pushes back against beliefs instilled in you from an early age, or perhaps you’d like to point out injustices you see in society. Whatever the case may be, try to shape your story in a positive and productive fashion. Steer clear of coming across as preachy, angry, or arrogant. Rather, you should aim to strike a humble, yet confident tone. This can be a tricky prompt, but if done well it can demonstrate your ability to stand up for what you believe in. 

Question to consider: 

  • When have you had an unpopular belief? 
  • At what times in life have you had to defend your point of view?
  • What beliefs do you consider essential to who you are as a person?
“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?”

Oftentimes, we obsess over the problems in our lives and forget to be thankful for the good things. In this new prompt recently added to the Common App’s selection, students are asked to write about a time they felt grateful. The key here is to discuss an event that opened your eyes to a new perspective. Maybe it was the kindness of a stranger, or perhaps it was the action of a friend or family member. Talk about how you felt prior to the event, then discuss how the event changed your point of view. Did you gain a newfound sense of hope or appreciation? Given the uncertainty and anxiety many people have felt as a result of the pandemic, this timely prompt is an excellent chance for students to look on the bright side. 

  • What makes you step back and appreciate the good things in your life? 
  • How do you express gratitude? 
  • What are some of your favorite acts of kindness you’ve witnessed?
“Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

Similar to the other prompts, this one asks students to describe something they learned from a specific event. Just as you would for prompt #2, think back to the major turning points in your life as you’re brainstorming for this question. What accomplishments are you most proud of? What events transformed you as a person? If you’re having trouble, keep in mind that your particular event doesn’t have to be something as big as winning an award or moving to a new town. It could be something as small as making a new friend or helping your parents complete a task. The event or accomplishment itself doesn’t matter too much. What’s important is the realization it sparked and the period of personal growth that followed. 

Questions to consider:

  • How have you changed as a person over time? 
  • What moments or events sparked that change? 
  • Have you ever had a “lightbulb moment” during which you came to an important realization?
“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?”

Now’s your chance to talk about the ideas and topics that excite you most in this world. It’s also a great opportunity to connect your intended area of study to your personal passions. For instance, let’s say you plan on majoring in film. Use this prompt to discuss your interest in cinematography and how you’re eager to produce your own short films once you enroll in school. Whatever you choose to write about, just make sure it’s something you’re genuinely passionate about. If it’s something you truly love, you should have no trouble writing an entire essay about it. 

  • What’s a topic or idea that you never get bored of? 
  • What are the things that make you most excited?
  • When you’re interested in something, how do you typically seek more information about it? 
“Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.”

If none of the other prompts are to your liking, there’s always the handy create-your-own option. This prompt gives students the enormous freedom to write about literally anything. While this may seem exciting to some students, it can be daunting to others. If you choose to pursue this prompt, there’s a few things you should keep in mind. First of all, you should find a focus and stick with it. Avoid letting your essay become too broad and freewheeling. Rather, write about one or two specific moments in your life and how they relate to your topic. And although you can write about anything, it’s best to discuss something that relates to your own personal growth, what you’ve learned in life, or what you hope to accomplish in the future. 

  • What should admissions committees know about you that they wouldn’t learn about from the rest of your application?
  • Are there any stories from your past that provide insight into who you are as a person?
  • If you had to give an elevator pitch describing yourself, what would you talk about? 

Next steps for completing the Common App

After you’ve completed the Common App essay prompts, your work is not yet done! There are other sections to the Common App, and there is a special art to filling out each of them. We have guides to help you through the activities section , the honors section , and the additional information section . To help you stay on schedule, you can check out our guide to application deadlines and a description of rolling admissions .

We’ve also got some guides to help you rock your essays: check out our guides to writing a 250 word essay , a 500 word essay , and to writing essays about yourself . We can also help you decide how many colleges to apply to , and how to pick safety, reach, and match schools .

Finally, if you’re working on your Common App, that means it’ll soon be time to apply to scholarships! We have a list of scholarships for high school seniors that will be a great help. You can also sign up for the Scholarships360 platform , which grants you access to a customized scholarship database full of vetted opportunities.

Good luck with your Common App and make sure to check back with us for other opportunities!

Also see:  Can you use the same essay for multiple colleges?

Frequently asked questions about how to answer the Common App essay prompts

How many common app essay prompts do i need to respond to, when should i start working on my common app essay, can i get help with my common app essay, can i use the same essay to apply to different schools, what is the most important thing to keep in mind when writing the common app essay, scholarships360 recommended.

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21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay

What’s covered:, what makes a good common app essay, is your common app essay strong enough.

When you begin writing your Common App essay, having an example to look at can help you understand how to effectively write your college essay so that it stands apart from others. 

These Common App essay examples demonstrate a strong writing ability and answer the prompt in a way that shows admissions officers something unique about the student. Once you’ve read some examples and are ready to get started, read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong Common App essay.  

Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized. 

Read our Common App essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.

It’s Personal

The point of the Common App essay is to humanize yourself to a college admissions committee. The ultimate goal is to get them to choose you over someone else! You will have a better chance of achieving this goal if the admissions committee feels personally connected to you or invested in your story. When writing your Common App essay, you should explore your feelings, worldview, values, desires, and anything else that makes you uniquely you.

It’s Not Cliché

It is pretty easy to resort to clichés in college essays. This should be actively avoided! CollegeVine has identified the immigrant’s journey, sports injuries, and overcoming a challenging course as cliché topics . If you write about one of these topics, you have to work harder to stand out, so working with a more nuanced topic is often safer and easier.

It’s Well-Done

Colleges want good writers. They want students who can articulate their thoughts clearly and concisely (and creatively!). You should be writing and rewriting your essays, perfecting them as you go. Of course, make sure that your grammar and spelling are impeccable, but also put in time crafting your tone and finding your voice. This will also make your essay more personal and will make your reader feel more connected to you!

It’s Cohesive

Compelling Common App essays tell a cohesive story. Cohesion is primarily achieved through effective introductions and conclusions , which often contribute to the establishment of a clear theme or topic. Make sure that it is clear what you are getting at, but also don’t explicitly state what you are getting at—a successful essay speaks for itself.

Common App Essay Examples

Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts.

Prompt #1 :  Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

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?

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

Prompt #4 : Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? (NOTE: We only have an example for the old prompt #4 about solving a problem, not this current one)

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

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?

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.

Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects.

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.

Prompt #1, example #1.

The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.

It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.

Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.

Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.

Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.

Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.

Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning. 

I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.

I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.

I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.

I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.

I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.

Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.

Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.

This student draws readers in with a strong introduction. The essay starts ambiguous—“I led with a spade”—then intrigues readers by gradually revealing more information and details. This makes the reader want to keep reading (which is super important!) As the writer continues, there is a rather abrupt tone shift from suspenseful to explanatory with statements like “It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship” and “Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game.” If you plan to start with an imagery-heavy, emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic introduction, you will need to transition to the content of your essay in a way that does not feel abrupt. 

You will often hear that essays need to “show, not tell.” This essay actually does both. First, the student tells readers the importance of bridge, saying “we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion” and “I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met.” Then, the student shows the lessons they have learned from bridge through a series of parallel sentences: “I nod… sportsmanship and forgiveness” “I greet… not to make excuses” “I chat… it’s never too late to start anything” and so on. This latter strategy is much more effective than the former and is watered down because the student has already told us what we are supposed to get out of these sentences. Remember that your readers are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. Avoid summarizing the moral of your story for them!

Overall, this essay is interesting and answers the prompt. We learn the importance of bridge to this student. The student has a solid grasp of language, a high-level vocabulary, and a valuable message, though they would be better off if they avoided summarizing their point and created more seamless transitions. 

Prompt #1, Example #2

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 deep-­rooted 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 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 Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.

It was there that I met Emily, a twelve­-year-­old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily 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 Horizons 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.

Due to their endearing (and creative) use of language—with early phrases like “sloppy joes and spaetzle” as well as  “Germerican” and “Denglisch”—readers are inclined to like this writer from the get-go. Though the essay shifts from this lighthearted introduction to more serious subject matter around the third paragraph, the shift is not abrupt or jarring. This is because the student invites readers to feel the transition with them through their inclusion of various anecdotes that inspired their “feelings of cultural homelessness.” And our journey does not end there—we go back to America with the student and see how their former struggles become strengths.

Ultimately, this essay is successful due to its satisfying ending. Because readers experience the student’s struggles with them, we also feel the resolution. The conclusion of this essay is a prime example of the “Same, but Different” technique described in our article on How to End Your College Essay . As the student describes how, in the end, their complicated cultural identity still exists but transitions to a source of strength, readers are left feeling happy for the student. This means that they have formed a connection with the student, which is the ultimate goal!

Prompt #1, Example #3

“1…2…3…4 pirouettes ! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.

For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet. 

As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls . I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple- pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more. 

My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four. 

“Dancers, double- pirouettes only.” 

Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements. 

As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake , the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes , gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet. 

With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.

The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity of the student’s writing. It is purposefully reflective. Intentional language creates a clear character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with the student reflecting on their past. 

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the concl usion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

The main weakness of this essay (though this is a stellar essay) is its formulaic beginning. While dialogue can be an effective tool for starting your essay, this student’s introduction feels a bit stilted as the dialogue does not match the overall reflective tone of the essay. Perhaps, in place of “Next goal: five turns,” the student could have posed a question or foreshadowed the growth they ultimately describe.

Prompt #1, Example #4

My paintbrush dragged a flurry of acrylic, the rich colors attaching to each groove in my canvas’s texture. The feeling was euphoric.

From a young age, painting has been my solace. Between the stress of my packed high school days filled with classes and extracurriculars, the glide of my paintbrush was my emotional outlet.

I opened a fresh canvas and began. The amalgamation of assorted colors in my palette melded harmoniously: dark and light, cool and warm, brilliant and dull. They conjoined, forming shades and surfaces sharp, smooth, and ridged. The textures of my paint strokes — powdery, glossy, jagged — gave my painting a tone, as if it had a voice of its own, sometimes shrieking, sometimes whispering.

Rough indigo blue. The repetitive upward pulls of my brush formed layers on my canvas. Staring into the deep blue, I felt transported to the bottom of the pool I swim in daily. I looked upward to see a layer of dense water between myself and the person I aspire to be, an ideal blurred by filmy ripples. Rough blue encapsulates my amorphous, conflicting identity, catalyzed by words spewed by my peers about my “oily hair” and “smelly food”. They caused my ever present disdain toward cultural assemblies; the lehenga I wore felt burdensome. My identity quivers like the indigo storm I painted — a duel between my self-deprecating, validation-seeking self, and the proud self I desire to be. My haphazard paint strokes released my internal turbulence.

Smooth orange-hued green. I laid the color in melodious strokes, forming my figure. The warmer green transitions from the rough blue — while they share elements, they also diverge. My firm brushstrokes felt like the way I felt on my first day as a media intern at KBOO, my local volunteer-driven radio station, committed to the voices of the marginalized. As a naturally introverted speaker, I was forced out of my comfort zone when tasked with documenting a KBOO art exhibition for social media, speaking with hosts to share their diverse, underrepresented backgrounds and inspirations. A rhythmic green strength soon shoved me past internal blue turbulence. My communication skills which were built by two years of Speech and Debate unleashed — I recognized that making a social change through media required amplifying unique voices and perspectives, both my own and others. The powerful green strokes that fill my canvas entrench my growth.

Bright, voluminous coral, hinted with magenta and yellow. I dabbed the color over my figure, giving my painting dimension. The paint, speckled, added depth on every inch it coated. As I moved the color in random but purposeful movements, the vitality ushered into my painting brought a smile across my face. It reminded me of the encounters I had with my cubicle-mate in my sophomore year academic autism research internship, seemingly insignificant moments in my lifelong journey that, in retrospect, wove unique threads into my tapestry. The kindness she brought into work inspired my compassion, while her stories of struggling with ADHD in the workplace bolstered my empathy towards different experiences. Our conversations added blobs of a nonuniform bright color in my painting, binding a new perspective in me.

I added in my final strokes, each contributing an element to my piece. As I scanned my canvas, I observed these elements. Detail added nuance into smaller pictures; they embodied complexities within color, texture, and hue, each individually delivering a narrative. But together, they formed a piece of art— art that could be interpreted as a whole or broken apart but still delivering as a means of communication.

I find beauty in media because of this. I can adapt a complex narrative to be deliverable, each component telling a story. Appreciating these nuances — the light, dark, smooth, and rough — has cultivated my growth mindset. My life-long painting never finishes. It is ever-expanding, absorbing the novel textures and colors I encounter daily.

This essay is distinct from others due to its melodic, lyrical form. This is primarily achieved because the student’s form follows the movements of the paintbrush that they use to scaffold their essay. As readers, we simply flow through the essay, occasionally picking up bits of information about its creator. Without even realizing it, by the end of the essay, admissions officers will know that this student is a swimmer, was in Speech and Debate, is Indian, and has had multiple internships.

A major strength of this essay is the command of language that the student demonstrates. This essay was not simply written, it was crafted. Universities are, of course, interested in the talents, goals, and interests of applicants, but an essay being well-written can be equally important. Writing skills are important because your reader will not learn about your talents, goals, and interests if they aren’t engaged in your essay, but they are also important because admissions officers know that being able to articulate your thoughts is important for success in all future careers.

While this essay is well-written, there are a few moments where it falls out of the flow and feels more like a student advertising their successes. For example, the phrases “media intern at KBOO” and “autism research internship” work better on a resume than they do in this essay. Admissions officers have a copy of your resume and can check your internship experiences after reading your essay! If you are going to use a unique writing style or narrative form, lean into it; don’t try to hybridize it with the standard college essay form. Your boldness will be attractive to admissions officers.

college common application essay prompts

Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the conclusion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)

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?

Prompt #2, example #1.

“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.

Here is a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful Common App essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.

Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.

The only part of this essay that could use a bit of work is the introduction. A short introduction can be effective, but this short first paragraph feels thrown in at the last minute and like it is missing its second half. If you are keeping your introduction short, make it matter.

Prompt #2, Example #2

Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire. 

Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family. 

Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt. 

“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame. 

In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him. 

Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses. 

That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.

This Common App essay is well-written. The student is showing the admissions officers their ability to articulate their points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery, the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.

In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.

While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates their family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feels perfectly justified after they establish that they were pondering their failure.

Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling.

Prompt #2, Example #3

The muffled voices behind thin walls heralded trouble.

They were fighting about money.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened and it wasn’t going to be the last. It was one of those countless nights I had to spend curled up under the blanket while pretending to be asleep. My father had been unemployed for five years now, and my mother, a local kindergarten teacher, was struggling to support the family alone. Our situation was bleak: Savings had run out and my parents could no longer hide our lack of money from me. To make matters worse, I was a few weeks away from starting high school, which would inevitably lead to college, yet another financial stressor for my family.

The argument didn’t sound like it would end soon.

“Why did you spend money on that?” my mother said, with an elongated sigh.

“I had to,” my father said, decidedly.

Every fight over the years had left me in despair and the idea of going through another fight daunted me. I had looked forward to my teen years all my life, an age that allows, for the first time, more responsibility. Indeed, after this fateful night, after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a mounting responsibility to help my family, and started brainstorming.

Always being fascinated by computers, I spent my childhood burying myself under computer cabinets, experimenting with computer parts. Naturally, I wondered if my skills in this area might be marketable.

The next morning, my friend, Naba, mentioned that her computer wasn’t working. A tuk-tuk ride later, and I was at her doorstep, and her mother was leading me to her room. I was off to work: I began examining her computer, like a surgeon carefully manages his scalpels and tools. A proper diagnosis was not far from reach, as I realized a broken pin in her computer’s SATA slot. After an hour of work, and a short trip to the hardware store, I successfully fixed the computer. To my pleasant surprise, Naba’s mother drew out two fresh 500 Rupee notes. One covered the cost of the parts I bought and the other was a token of appreciation. Bidding her goodbye, I went straight back home and put one of the 500 Rupee notes inside my family’s “savings-jar.”

Later that day, I devised a plan. I told my friends to spread the word that I was available to fix computers. At first, I got only one or two calls per week. I would pick up the computer from my client’s home, fix it quickly, and return it, thus earning myself a commission. While I couldn’t market my services at a competitive price, because I wasn’t able to buy the parts wholesale, I compensated by providing convenience. All my clients had to do was call me once and the rest was taken care of. Thus, my business had the best customer service in town.

At the beginning of my junior year, after two years of expanding my business through various avenues, I started buying computer parts from hardware suppliers in bulk at a cheaper rate. My business grew exponentially after that. 

Before long, I was my town’s go-to tech person. In this journey throughout high school, I started realizing that I had to create my own opportunities and not just curl up under a blanket, seeking only comfort, as I used to. Interacting with people from all walks of life became my forte and a sense of work ethic developed in me. My business required me to be an all-rounder– have the technical skills, be an easily approachable person, and manage cash flow. Slowly becoming better at this, I even managed to sway admins of a local institution to outsource their computer hardware purchases and repairs through me. As my business upsized throughout the years, I went from being helpless to autonomous – the teenager I always aspired to be.

This essay truly feels like a story—almost making you forget you are reading a college essay. The student’s voice is strong throughout the entire essay and they are able to give us insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations at every step of the story. Letting the reader into personal challenges like financial struggles can be daunting in a college essay, but the way this student used that setback to establish an emotional ethos to their narrative was well done.

Because the essay is essentially just telling a story, there’s a very natural flow that makes it enjoyable and easy to read. The student establishes the conflict at the beginning, then describes their solution and how they implemented it, and finally concludes with the lessons they took away from this experience. Transitions at the beginning of paragraphs effortlessly show the passage of time and how the student has progressed through the story.

Another reason this essay is so successful is because of the abundance of details. The reader truly feels like they are hiding in the room with the student as their parents yell because of the inclusion of quotes from the argument. We understand the precision and care they have for fixing computers because of the allusion to a surgeon with their scalpel. Not only does this imagery make the story more enticing, it also helps the reader gain a deeper appreciation for the type of person this student is and the adversity they have overcome.

If there were one thing this essay could do to improve, it would be to include a resolution to the conflict from the beginning. The student tells us how this business helped them grow as a person, but we don’t ever get to find out if they were able to lessen the financial burden on their parents or if they continued to struggle despite the student working hard. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it would be nice to return to the conflict and acknowledge the effect they had on it, especially since this prompt is all about facing challenges.

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

Prompt #3, example #1.

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

This essay is cohesive as it centers around the theme of identity and the ability for two identities to coexist simultaneously (an interesting theme!). It uses the Full Circle ending strategy as it starts with a metaphor about food touching and ends with “I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.”

The main issue with this essay is that it could come off as cliché, which could be irritating for admissions officers. The story described is notably similar to High School Musical (“I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me”) and feels slightly overstated. 

At times, this essay is also confusing. In the first paragraph, it feels like the narrative is actually going to be about separating your food (and is somehow going to relate to the older brothers?). It is not entirely clear that this is a metaphor. Also, when the writer references the third submission day and then works backward to explain what a submission day is and that there are multiple throughout the semester, the timeline gets unnecessarily confusing. Reworking the way this paragraph unfolded would have been more compelling and less distracting.

Overall, this essay was interesting but could have been more polished to be more effective.

Prompt #3, Example #2

I walked into my middle school English class, and noticed a stranger behind my teacher’s desk. “Hello,” she said. “Today I will be your substitute teacher.” I groaned internally. “Let me start off by calling roll. Ally?” “Here!” exclaimed Ally. “Jack?” “Here.” “Rachel?” “Here.” “Freddie?” “Present.” And then– “…?” The awkward pause was my cue. “It’s Jasina,” I started. “You can just call me Jas. Here.” “Oh, Jasina. That’s unique.” The word “unique” made me cringe. I slumped back in my seat. The substitute continued calling roll, and class continued as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Just a typical moment in a middle school, but I hated every second of it.

My name is not impossible to pronounce. It appears challenging initially, but once you hear it, “Jas-een-a”, then you can manage it. My nickname, Jas (pronounced “Jazz”), is what most people call me anyway, so I don’t have to deal with mispronunciation often. I am thankful that my parents named me Jasina (a Hebrew name), but whenever someone hears my name for the first time, they comment, and I assume they’re making assumptions about me. “Wow, Jas is a cool name.” She must be pretty cool.“I’ve never heard the name Jasina before.” She must be from somewhere exotic. “Jas, like Jazz?” She must be musical and artsy. None of these assumptions are bad, but they all add up to the same thing: She must be unique. 

When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task, but I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red. I knew it was really yellow, but you could always tell which drawings were mine. During snack time, we could choose between apple juice and grape juice. I liked apple juice more, but if everyone else was choosing apple, then I had to choose grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. I tried to continue this habit into middle school, but it backfired. When everyone became obsessed with things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber and blue mascara (that was a weird trend), my resistance of the norm made me socially awkward. I couldn’t talk to people about anything because we had nothing in common. I was too different. 

After 8th grade, I moved to Georgia, and I was dreading being the odd one out among kids who had grown up together. Then I discovered that my freshman year would be Cambridge High School’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from 5 different schools, there was no real sense of “normal”. I panicked. If there was no normal, then how could I be unique? That’s when I realized that I had spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were or what I really cared about. 

It was time to find out. I stopped concentrating on what everyone else was doing and started to focus on myself. I joined the basketball team, I performed in the school musical, and I enrolled in Chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I took art classes, joined clubs, and did whatever I thought would make me happy. And it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. My friends and I had things in common, but there was no one who could say that I was exactly like anyone else. I had finally become my own person.

My father named me Jasina because he wanted my nickname to be “Jazz.” According to Webster, “jazz” is “music characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate distortions of pitch.” Basically, jazz is music that is off-beat and unpredictable. It cannot be strictly defined. 

That sounds about right. 

Right off the bat, this essay starts extremely strong. The description of attendance in a class with ample quotes, awkward pauses, and the student’s internal dialogue immediately puts us in the middle of the action and establishes a lot of sympathy for this student before we’ve learned anything else. 

The strength of this essay continues into the second paragraph where the use of quotes, italics, and interjections from the student continues. All of these literary tools help the student express her voice and allow the reader to understand what this student goes through on a daily basis. Rather than just telling the reader people make assumptions about her name, she shows us what these assumptions look and sound like, and exactly how they make her feel.

The essay further shows us how the student approached her name by providing concrete examples of times she’s been intentionally unique throughout her life. Describing her drawing red suns and choosing grape juice bring her personality to life and allow her to express her deviance from the “norm” in a much more engaging and visual way than simply telling the reader she would go against the grain to be different on purpose.

One part of the essay that was a bit weaker than the others was the paragraph about her in high school. Although it was still well written and did a nice job of demonstrating how she got involved in multiple groups to find her new identity, it lacked the same level of showing employed in previous paragraphs. It would have been nice to see what “socially flexible” means either through a conversation she had with her friends or an example of a time she combined her interests from different groups in a way that was uniquely her.

The essay finishes off how it started: extremely strong. Taking a step back to fully explain the origin of her name neatly brings together everything mentioned in this essay. This ending is especially successful because she never explicitly states that her personality aligns with the definition of jazz. Instead, she relies on the points she has made throughout the essay to stick in the reader’s memory so they are able to draw the connection themselves, making for a much more satisfying ending for the reader.

Prompt #4 (OLD PROMPT; NOT THE CURRENT PROMPT): Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Prompt #4, example #1.

“Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.” 

Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation. 

Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one. 

Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand. 

Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one. 

I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself. 

At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith. 

Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities. 

Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension. 

Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities. 

Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.

This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and a strong conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.

As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!

The main weakness of this essay is that it is slightly confusing at times—how the other students found coaches feels unintentionally under-explained (a simple phrase like “through pleading and attracting sympathy” in the fourth paragraph could have served the writer well) and a dojang is never defined. Additionally, the turn of the essay or “volta” could’ve packed a bigger punch. It is put quite simply with “I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.” A more suspenseful reveal could’ve served the author well because more drama did come later.

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

Prompt #5, example #1.

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 essay feels real and tells readers a lot about the writer. To start at the beginning, the intro is 10/10. It has drama, it has emotions, and it has the reader wanting more.

And, when you keep going, you get to learn a lot about a very resilient and mature student. Through sentences like “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” and “Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities,” the reader shows us that they are aware of their resilience and maturity, but are not arrogant about it. It is simply a fact that they have proven!

Sometimes writing about adversity can feel exploitative or oddly braggy. This student backs up everything they say with anecdotes that prove and show their strength and resilience, rather than just claiming their strengths. When I read this essay, I want to cheer for its writer! And I want to be able to continue cheering for them (perhaps, if I were an admissions officer, that would make me want them at my school!).

Prompt #5, Example #2

Armed with a red pen, I slowly walked across the room to a small, isolated table with pink stools. Swinging her legs, my young student beamed and giggled at me, slamming her pencil bag on the table and bending over to pick up one of her toys. Natalie always brought some new toy with her to lessons—toys which I would sternly take away from her and place under the table until she finished her work. At the tutoring center where I work, a strict emphasis on discipline leaves no room for paper crowns or rubber chickens. 

Today, she had with her a large stuffed eagle from a museum. As she pulled out her papers, I slid the eagle to the other side of the table. She looked eagerly around, attempting to chat with other students as I impatiently called her attention to her papers. “I should name my eagle,” she chimed, waving her pencil in the air. I cringed—there was no wondering why Natalie always had to sit by herself. She was the antithesis of my academic values, and undoubtedly the greatest adversary of my teaching style.  

As the lesson progressed, Natalie became more fitful; she refused to release her feathered friend, and kept addressing the bird for help with difficult problems. We both grew increasingly more frustrated. Determined to tame this wryly, wiggling student, I stood my ground, set on converting this disobedient child to my calm, measured ways of study.  

As time slowly crept by, I noticed that despite Natalie’s cheerful tone and bright smile, the stuffed eagle was troublesomely quiet and stern-faced. Much like myself. Both the eagle and I were getting nowhere in this lesson—so we hatched a quick plan. Lifting the eagle up in the air, I started reading in my best impersonation of an eagle, squawking my way through a spelling packet. The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed. She sang out every letter, clapped her hands at every page, and followed along with the eagle, stopping at every few letters to declare that “E is for eagle” and pet her teacher fondly on the beak.  

Despite my ostensibly dissatisfied attitude toward my students, I did not join the tutoring center simply to earn money. I had always aspired to help others achieve their fullest potential. As a young adult, I felt that it was time for me to step out of the role of a pupil and into the influential role of a teacher, naively believing that I had the maturity and skill to adapt to any situation and help these students reach their highest achievements academically. For the most part, the role of a stern-faced, strict instructor helped me get by in the workplace, and while my students never truly looked happy, I felt that it was part of the process of conditioning a child to learn. 

Ironically, my transition to adulthood was the result of a stuffed animal. It was indisputable that I always had the skill to instruct others; the only thing needed to instruct someone is knowledge of the subject. However, it was only upon being introduced to a stuffed bird in which I realized that students receive the most help not from instructors, but teachers. While almost anyone can learn material and spit it back out for someone, it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens. From my young pupil and her little bird, I have undergone a change in attitude which reflects a growth in maturity and ability to improve the lives of others that I hope to implement in my future role as a student, activist, and physician. My newfound maturity taught me that the letter “e” stands for many things: empathy, experience, enthusiasm, and eagle.

In this essay, the student effectively explores their values (and how they learned them!) then identifies these values through a reflective conclusion. While the writer humbly recognizes the initial faults in their teaching style, they do not position their initial discipline or rigidity as mean or poorly intentioned—simply ineffective. This is important because, when you are discussing a transition like this, you don’t want admissions officers to think of you as having been a bad person. 

My favorite part about this essay is its subtlety. The major shift in the essay comes through the simple sentence “The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed.” The facts of this narrative are not too complicated. Simply put, the writer was strict then learned that it’s sometimes more effective not to be strict. The complexity of this narrative comes through reflection. Notably, through the ending, the student identifies their values (which they hadn’t given a name to before): “it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens.” 

The final sentence of this essay ties things up very nicely. Readers are left satisfied with the essay and convinced that its writer is a kind human with a large capacity for reflection and consideration. That is a great image to paint of yourself!

Prompt #5, Example #3

When it’s quiet, I can still hear the Friday night gossip and giggles of my friends. It’s a stark contrast from the environment I’ve known all my life, my home. My family has always been one to keep to themselves; introverts with a hard-working mentality—my father especially. He spent most of his time at work and growing up without him around, I came to be at peace with the fact that I’d probably never really get to know him. The thought didn’t bother me at the time because I felt that we were very different. He was stoic and traditional; I was trying to figure out who I was and explore my interests. His disapproval of the American music I listened to and my penchant for wearing hand-me-downs made me see him as someone who wanted to restrain my individuality. That explains why I relied heavily on my friends throughout middle and high school; they liked me for who I was. I figured I would get lonely without my friends during quarantine, but these last few months stuck at home gave me the time to make a new friend: my father. 

It was June. I had the habit of sleeping with my windows open so I wouldn’t need to set an alarm; the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the neighborhood children playing outside would wake me. One morning, however, it was not the chirping of birds or the laughter of children I awoke to, but the shrill of a saw. Through the window screen, on the grass below, my father stood cutting planks of wood. I was confused but didn’t question him—what he did with his time was none of my business. It was not until the next day, when I was attempting to work on a sculpture for an art class, that the sounds of hammering and drills became too much to ignore. Seeking answers, I trudged across my backyard towards the corner he was in. On that day, all there was to see was the foundation of what he was building; a shed. My intrigue was replaced with awe; I was impressed by the precision of his craft. Sharp corners, leveled and sturdy, I could imagine what it would look like when the walls were up and the inside filled with the tools he had spread around the yard. 

Throughout the week, when I was trying to finish my sculpture for art class—thinking about its shape and composition—I could not help but think of my father. Art has always been a creative outlet for me, an opportunity to express myself at home. For my dad, his craftsmanship was his art. I realized we were not as different as I had thought; he was an artist like me. My glue and paper were his wood and nails.

That summer, I tried to spend more time with my dad than I have in all my 18 years of life. Waking up earlier than usual so we could have our morning coffees together and pretending to like his favorite band so he’d talk to me about it, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to speak with him. In getting to know him, I’ve recognized that I get my artistry from him. 

Reflecting on past relationships, I feel I am now more open to reconnecting with people I’ve perhaps misjudged. In reconciling, I’ve realized I held some bitterness towards him all these years, and in letting that go, my heart is lighter. Our reunion has changed my perspective; instead of vilifying him for spending so much time at work, I can appreciate how hard he works to provide for our family. When I hear him tinkering away at another home project, I can smile and look forward to asking him about it later.

This is an outstanding example of the great things that can be articulated through a reflective essay. As we read the essay, we are simply thinking alongside its author—thinking about their past relationship with their father, about their time in quarantine, about aspects of themselves they think could use attention and growth. 

While we reflect, we are also centered by the student’s anecdote about the sculpture and the shed during quarantine. By centering us in real-time, the student keeps us engaged in the reflection.

The main strength here is the maturity we see on the part of its writer. The student doesn’t say “and I realized my father was the best dad in the world;” they say “and I realized my father didn’t have to be the best dad in the world for me to give him a chance.” Lots of students show themselves as motivated, curious, or compassionate in their college essays, but a reflective essay that ends with a discussion of resentment and forgiveness shows true maturity.

Prompt #5, Example #4

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.

This essay is structurally-sound, with the student’s journey learning to savor mantou and their journey trying to find their voice serving as outstanding parallels. Additionally, as they describe the journey to find a voice in their writing, they definitely show off their voice! The clear introduction provides a great image and draws us in with an intriguing question. Additionally, their little inserts like “a strand of sweetness” and “falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had” work very well.

When the student describes their first published poem, however, their writing gets a little more stilted. This is a common error students make when writing about their achievements. If this student is writing about the craft that goes into writing, we should hear the details of the craft that went into the poem, instead of simply learning that they “opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum.” This is interesting information but would be stronger if it were supplemented by descriptions of the voice they created, comparisons to the styles of other poets, and analysis of their stylistic choices. This would make the essay feel more cohesive, centering entirely around concepts of voice and style.

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?

Note: We don’t have a stellar example for this prompt, so instead, we’re sharing a couple examples that need improvement, and what can be done to make the essays more engaging. 

Prompt #6, Example #1

What factors shape the depth and allure of a literary character? This is the exact question I asked myself as my eyes riveted on the white pages covered with little black letters.

I was reading my old novels. I’ve written three novels and many short stories. Each of them repetitively portrayed the hero as intelligent and funny, and the antagonists as cold and manipulative. I came to the appalling realization that my characters were flat, neither exciting nor original. They just didn’t stand out! 

As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Vice and virtue are to the artist material to an art.’ Their mixing makes a novel addictive because its plot is rich with turnarounds and its characters more engaging. In his famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wilde deconstructs the psyche of his characters. He brilliantly plays with the protagonist’s youthful appearance and the decaying portrait to build a truly unique idiosyncratic identity. The persona of Dorian Gray is so complicated a psychologist could analyze it for hours on end!

Inspired by this character, It was my turn to explore good and evil into characters to make my stories more enthralling. I skillfully played with vice and virtue, separating, merging them… My latest novel is the fruit of this exercise. I chose to set it in 20th century London. Its opium dens and exclusive salons; middle-class workers, peasants and politicians breathed the same newly industrialized air; modernity in Blackfriars bridge and tradition in St Paul’s Cathedral; all of these contrasts set the perfect environment for my characters to grow. Following Laclos’ Valmont, Maupassant’s Georges Duroy and Duffy’s Myra Hindley, I played with those contrasts to present an intricate character, truly creative – unlike my previous ones. Insanity, religion, depravity and love are merged into each character, reflecting Edwardian London. As I reflected on my work, I realized vice and virtue altogether made them more human and credible. These characters stood out, they were interesting, I even wanted to know more about them! 

After rewriting, erasing, typing, and thinking countless times, I realized writing is a unique exercise. Nothing is definite when you are holding a fountain pen, hearing its screeching sound on the white paper and watching the ebony ink forming letters. When I wasn’t too happy about a change I made in my story, I simply erased and rewrote it. Everything I imagined could happen: white pages are the only place the mouse eats the cat or the world is taken by a zombie attack! 

This exact exercise of diversifying my characters satisfied my relentless curiosity. Asking myself ‘how could this character be if she had lost her parents in a maritime tragedy?’ allowed me to view the world from different perspectives (some very dissimilar to my own) and considering how each character would react to different situations brought them to life. As I was writing, I was aiming to change the usual narratives I had previously traversed. I loved experimenting with countless personality traits in my characters – minutes flowing, my hand dancing on the paper as my mind was singing words coming alive….

There were times where my hand just stopped writing and my mind stopped raging. I tried thinking differently, changing a character’s background, the story, the setting. I was inspired by Zola, A.Carter, Fitzgerald, the Brontë sisters… I could observe the different reactions of their characters, and reflect on mine theoretically. But it was only part one of the work: I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically, always leading to fresh ideas – I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting. Both theory and practice are required to gain intellectual independence and experience, in writing and more globally: before I can change a character, I have to understand it. Before we can change the world, we have to understand it.

The main strength of this essay is the authenticity of the topic the student chose. They aren’t making anything up or stretching the truth. Writing is something that captivates them, and that captivation shines through—particularly through their fourth paragraph (where they geek out over specific plots and characters) and their fifth paragraph (where they joyfully describe how writing has no limitations). Admissions officers want to see this passion and intensity in applicants! The fact that this student has already written three novels also shows dedication and is impressive.

The main weakness of this essay is its structure. Ironically, it is not super captivating. The essay would have been more compelling if the student utilized a “anecdote – answer – reflection” structure. This student’s current introduction involves a reflective question, citations about their past writing experience, then their thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Instead, this student could’ve provided one cohesive (and powerful!) image of them being frustrated with their own writing then being inspired by Dorian Gray. This would look something like:

“I stayed up three nights in a row studying my own writing—bored by my own writing. The only thing more painful than seeing failure in the fruits of your labor is not seeing a path for improvement. I had written three novels and numerous short stories, and all I could come up with was funny and intelligent heroes going up against cold and manipulative villains. What kind of writer was so consistently cliche? On the third night, I wandered over to my bookshelf. Mrs. Dalloway caught my eye (it has such a beautiful cover). I flipped through. Then, I grabbed Giovanni’s Room . I was so obsessed with my shortcomings that I couldn’t even focus long enough to see what these authors were doing right. I picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and decided to just start reading. By the end of the night, I was captivated.”

An introduction like this would flow nicely into the student describing their experience with Dorian Gray then, because of that experience, describing how they have altered their approach to writing. The conclusion of this essay would then be this student’s time for reflection. Instead of repeating content about their passion—“I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically” and “I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting”—, the student could dedicate their conclusion to reflecting on the reasons that writing is so captivating or the ways that (until the day they die) writers will always be perfecting their craft.

This essay is a great example of how important it is to pick a topic that truly excites you. It also illustrates how important it is to effectively structure that excitement.

Prompt #6, Example #2

Astonished by the crashing sound of waves in my ear, I was convinced this magical shell actually held the sound of the big blue sea — my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop . It distinctly reminded me of the awestruck feeling I had when I witnessed the churning waves of a windy night by the ocean the previous weekend; I lost track of time gazing at the distant moonlit border dividing our world from the ever-growing black void. Turning to my mom, I inquired curiously, “Can we go to the place where the water ends one day?”

She explained to me I could never reach the end of the ocean because the harsh line I had seen was actually an illusion called the horizon —  there was no material end to the ocean. For a mind as young as mine was, the idea of infinity was incomprehensible. As my infatuation with the ocean continued to grow, I finally understood that regardless of how far I travel, the horizon is unattainable because it’s not a physical limit. This idea is why the ocean captivates me — no matter how much you discover, there is always more to explore. 

Learning about and exploring the ocean provided an escape from one reality into another; though we are on the same planet, it’s an entirely separate world. Through elementary and middle school, I devoted vast amounts of my free time to learning about simpler concepts like a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and coral reef ecosystems. I rented countless documentaries and constantly checked out books from my local library — my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” This episode remained memorable because it was centered around the impacts of fossil fuels on marine animals; it was the first time I’d learned about the impending crisis we are faced with due to the human mistreatment of our planet.

Prior to viewing that episode, I relied on the ocean as an outlet — I fueled all of my emotions into studying marine organisms. Once I learned of its grave future, I delved into the world of environmental activism. This path was much more disheartening than studying echolocation — inevitable death due to climate change took a toll on my mental health. I attended two climate strikes in November of my sophomore year. Following the strikes, I joined Sunrise Movement Sacramento, a youth-led climate justice organization advocating for the Green New Deal. While analyzing legislation and organizing protests were significant takeaways from my experience with climate activism, they were not the most important. I became an organizer because of my love for the ocean and I remain an organizer because of my passion for dissolving the disproportionalities marginalized groups face due to the sacrificing of people’s livelihood for the sake of profit. The more I learned about our modern society, the more hopeless I grew that I could see any significant change within my lifetime.

However, this hopelessness comes in waves; every day, I remind myself of the moment I discovered the horizon. Or the moment I first dove into the beautiful waters of the Hawaiian coast and immediately was surrounded by breathtaking seas of magnificent creatures and coral gardens — life felt ethereal and beautiful. I remind myself that like the ocean, the vast majority of the universe has yet to be discovered; that distant border holds infinite opportunity to learn. In a universe as vast as ours, and life as rare as ours, individuals still choose to prioritize avarice over our planet. Despite this grave individualism, the ocean reminds me every day there is hope in the fight for a better world. Though I will never discover every inch of the ocean’s floor, I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.

Sometimes the path to a great essay is taking something normal and using it to show admissions officers who you are and what you value—that is precisely this student’s approach! Finding the ocean fascinating is not unique to this student. Tons of kids (and adults, too!) are obsessed with the ocean. What this student does is take things a step further as they explain their curiosity about the ocean in relation to their pain about the destruction of the environment. This capacity for reflection is great!

This student shows a good control of language through their thematic centering on ocean and horizons that carries through their essay—with ”this hopelessness comes in waves” and “I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.” The details provided throughout are also effective at keeping readers engaged—things like “ my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop” and “ my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.”

The main weakness of this essay is the lack of reflection when the student discusses environmental activism. There’s reflection on the student’s connection to the ocean and horizons at the beginning and at the end, but when the student discusses activism, the tone shifts from focusing on their internal thoughts to their external actions. Remember, a lot of students write about environmental activism, but not a lot of students write about an emotional connection to the ocean as an impetus for environmental activism. This student would stand out more to admissions officers if they had dug into questions of what the ocean means to them (and says about them) in the paragraphs beginning “Learning about and exploring the ocean…” and “Prior to viewing that episode.”

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.

Prompt #7, example #1.

Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due. 

It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me. 

Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror. 

Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).  

Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day). 

Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control. 

Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain.

This essay is relatable yet personal! The writer makes themself supremely human through discussing the universal subject of showering. That being said, an essay about showering could easily turn boring while still being relatable. This writer keeps its relatable moments interesting and fun through vivid descriptions of common feelings including “causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely” and “the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.”

While describing a universal feeling, this student also cleverly and intentionally mentions small facts about their life through simple phrases like “I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me” and “the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me.” To put it simply, though we are talking about a shower, we learn about so much more!

And, at the end, the student lets us know that that is exactly why they love showers. Showers are more than meets the eye! With this insightful and reflective ending (“the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy”), readers learn about this student’s capacity for reflection, which is an important capacity as you enter college.

The one major error that this writer commits is that of using a trite transition. The inclusion of “Honestly though” at the beginning of this student’s ending detracts from what they are trying to say and sticks out in their writing.

Prompt #7, Example #2

Steam whooshed from the pot as I unveiled my newest creation: duck-peppercorn-chestnut dumplings. The spicy, hearty aroma swirled into the kitchen, mingling with the smell of fresh dough. Grinning, I grabbed a plump dumpling with chopsticks, blew carefully, and fed it into the waiting mouth of my little sister. Her eyes widening, she vigorously nodded and held up five stubby fingers. I did a little happy dance in celebration and pulled my notebook out of my apron pocket. Duck-peppercorn-chestnut: five stars.

In my household, dumplings are a far cry from the classic pork and cabbage. Our menu boasts everything from the savory lamb-bamboo shoot-watercress to the sweet and crispy apple-cinnamon-date. A few years ago, my sister claimed she was sick of eating the same flavors over and over. Refusing to let her disavow our family staple, I took her complaint as a challenge to make the tastiest and most unconventional dumplings to satisfy her. With her as my taste tester and Mum in charge of dough, I spent months experimenting with dozens of odd ingredient combinations. 

During those days spent covered in flour, my dumplings often reminded me of myself—a hybrid of ingredients that don’t usually go together. I am the product of three distinct worlds: the suburbs of Boston, the rural Chinese village of [location removed], and the coastal city of [location removed]. At school, I am both the STEM nerd with lightning-fast mental math and the artistic plant mom obsessed with funky earrings. I love all that is elegant, from Chinese calligraphy to the rolling notes of the Gourd flute, yet I can be very not elegant, like when my sister and I make homemade slime. When I’m on the streets, marching for women’s rights and climate action, I’m loud, bellowing from the bottom of my gut. In the painting studio, though, I don’t speak unless spoken to, and hours can slip by like minutes. I’m loud and quiet. Elegant and messy. Nerdy and artistic. Suburban, rustic, and metropolitan.

While I’m full of odd combinations, they are only seemingly contradictory. Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper, different facets of my identity also converge. After my tenth-grade summer, when I spent six weeks studying design at art school and another three researching the brain at Harvard Med, I began asking myself: What if I mixed art and neuroscience together? That fall, I collaborated with my school’s art museum for an independent research project, exploring two questions: How are aesthetic experiences processed in the brain? And how can neuroscience help museums design exhibits that maximize visitor engagement? I combed through studies with results from tightly controlled experiments, and I spent days gathering my own qualitative data by observing museum visitors and asking them questions. With the help of my artistic skills, I could identify the visual and spatial elements of the exhibits that best held visitors’ attention. 

By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am—art and neuroscience—I realized I shouldn’t see the different sides of myself as separate. I learned to instead seek the intersections between aspects of my identity. Since then, I have mixed art with activism to voice my opinions nonverbally, created Spotify playlists with both Chinese and western pop, and written flute compositions using music theory and math. In the future, by continuing to combine my interests, I want to find my niche in the world. I can make a positive impact on society without having to choose just one passion. As of now, my dream is to be a neuroscientist who designs art therapy treatments for mental health patients. Who knows though? Maybe my calling is to be a dim sum chef who teaches pottery on the side. I don’t know where I’ll go, but one thing’s for sure—being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.

This essay is outstanding because the student seems likable and authentic. With the first image of the student’s little sister vigorously nodding and holding up “five stubby fingers,” we find ourselves intrigued by the student’s daily life. They additionally show the importance of family, culture, and creativity in their life—these are great things to highlight in your essay!

After the introduction, the student uses their weird dumpling anecdote to transition to a discussion of their unique intersections. This is achieved smoothly because weirdness/uniqueness is the focus of both of these topics. Additionally, the comparison is not awkward because dumplings are used as more than just a transition, but rather are the through-line of the essay—the student weaves in little phrases like “Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper,” “By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am,” and “being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.” This gives the essay its cohesive feel.

Authenticity comes through in this essay as the student recognizes that they don’t know what the future holds. They just know what kind of a person they are—a passionate one! 

One change that would improve this student’s essay would be focusing on fewer intersections in their third and last paragraph. The student mentions STEM, music, family activities, activism, and painting, which makes it feel like a distraction in middle of the essay. Focus on the most important things you want to show admissions officers—you can sit at intersections, but you can’t be interested in everything.

Prompt #7, Example #3

“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned. 

But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach. 

I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed. 

To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude. 

It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel! 

Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness. 

A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”

This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.

At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!

Prompt #7, Example #4

Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.

I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.

“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008

Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.

“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019

I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.

With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.

“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020

Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.

With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.

I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”

The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.

Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.

At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!

Prompt #7, Example #5

“We’re ready for take-off!” 

The tires hit the tarmac and began to accelerate, and I just realized what I had signed up for. For 24 hours straight, I strapped myself into a broken-down SUV whereas others chose the luxury of soaring through the skies for a mere two hours. Especially with my motion sickness and driving anxiety, I would call myself crazy too.

To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.

The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box. 

All of a sudden, I noticed brightly colored rocks in the distance, ones I had been dying to see for years. Their fluorescence popped amongst the magnificent winding hills as the sunset became romantic in hue. The desert glistened with mirages of deep blue water unlike anything I had ever seen. Nevada was home, but home always seemed to be just desert and casinos. For once, I looked forward to endless desert outside my window rather than a sea of clouds.

I never realized how little I discovered of the world beyond home. For years I complained about how there was nothing to do or discover outside. Not once did I set out to prove myself wrong. Instead, I chose a daily routine of homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV. However, as summer vacation ended, I decided to set my stubbornness aside and finally give this drive back home a chance. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my favorite trip of all time. 

As we drove along, the world chose to prove me wrong when I discovered Heaven on Earth along Shasta Lake. I stood out of the sunroof, surrounded by lush green mountains and fog. I extended my arms out and felt a sense of flight that no plane could ever take me on. As the water vapor kissed my face, I floated into a dreamland I never wanted to leave. I didn’t have to go to great lengths to discover the beauty of the world; it was right in front of me.  From this moment on, comfort and convenience would no longer be my best friends. Rather than only looking for famous travel destinations or following carefully mapped-out routes, I would let curiosity lead the way. 

Since then, my daily life has been anything but routine. I’m proud to boast of my family’s homemade kombucha attempts, of flights purchased and taken in one day, and of a home flooded with knick-knacks from thrifting trips. Every day I set out to try something new, see a different perspective, and go beyond normal. Whether it is by trying a new recipe using taro, making a risky fashion choice with wide-legged pants, or listening to a new music genre in Spanish, I always act with curiosity first.

Over the years, I have devoted my time towards learning Swedish, building computers, and swimming. Although my accent is horrid, some computers almost broke, and even a starfish would outswim me, I continue to enjoy activities I once criticized. For me, there is no enjoyment without some risk. Nobody I know is a kazoo-playing, boogie-board loving, boba connoisseur like me.

This essay is an Overcoming Challenges story that centers around a single anecdote. The structure works nicely as the student describes what they were like before their road trip, what happened on the road trip, and what they were like after. 

The most major improvement that this essay needs is better-communicated authenticity. At the beginning, it feels a bit gimmicky. The student describes their preparedness, particularly the fact that they always carry a first aid kit, and it’s not super believable. Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” it feels like we are in a sitcom and the student is that funny obsessive kid. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and you want to make yourself appear profoundly real.

On a similar note, the narrative arc of this essay isn’t entirely believable. The student describes a large personality and value shift but doesn’t describe any struggles that accompany the shift. A quick shift like that is far from easy. On the other hand, if the immediacy of the shift was easy, they could write about moments after their shift in mindset when they have felt troubled by residual desires to stay in their comfort zone, instead of writing “I always act with curiosity first.”

The greatest strength of this essay is the paragraphs beginning “I never realized how little…” and “As we drove along…” The fixation on comfort seems much more believable when it involves “homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV.” The descriptions of the drive provide beautiful, evocative imagery. And it’s topped off with some nice reflection! Digging into this great portion of the essay would make this an even stronger essay!

Want to see more examples? Check out this post with 16 strong essay examples from top schools , including common supplemental essay questions.

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. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay. 

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!

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60+ College Essay Prompts From Actual 2023-2024 Applications

Ideas to inspire every college applicant.

Discuss a time when reflection or introspection led to clarity or understanding of an issue that is important to you.

Writing a college application essay can be a stressful task for a lot of students. The more practice they get in advance, the better! This roundup of college essay prompts gives applicants a chance to explore their thinking, polish their writing, and prepare to make the best possible impression on selection committees. Every one of these questions is taken from real college applications for the 2023-2024 season, so they’re meaningful and applicable to today’s high school seniors.

Common App 2023-2024 College Essay Prompts

2023-2024 coalition for college essay prompts, life experiences college essay prompts, personal college essay prompts, academics college essay prompts, creative college essay prompts.

Hundreds of colleges and universities use the Common App process . For many schools, this includes responding to one of several college essay topics, which can change each year. Here are the essay prompts for the current application cycle (check with your chosen school/s to see if an essay is required).

  • 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?

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.

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

  • 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.

More than 150 colleges and universities use the Coalition for College process . Here are their essay prompts for 2023-2024.

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

  • What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?
  • Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?
  • Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?
  • What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?

What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?

  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

Answer these questions by sharing specific examples from your own experience.

  • Who is your favorite conversation partner? What do you discuss with that person?
  • Discuss a time when reflection or introspection led to clarity or understanding of an issue that is important to you.
  • Share an example of how you have used your own critical-thinking skills on a specific subject, project, idea, or interest.

Share an example of how you have used your own critical-thinking skills on a specific subject, project, idea, or interest.- college essay prompts

  • Describe a time when you were challenged by a perspective that differed from your own. How did you respond?
  • What are the best words of advice you have received? Who shared them, and how have you applied them in your own life?
  • Elaborate on an activity or experience you have had that made an impact on a community that is important to you.
  • Using your personal, academic, or volunteer/work experiences, describe the topics or issues that you care about and why they are important to you.
  • Who do you agree with on the big, important things, or who do you have your most interesting disagreements with? What are you agreeing or disagreeing about?
  • Reflect on a personal experience where you intentionally expanded your cultural awareness.
  • When was the last time you questioned something you had thought to be true?
  • Discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved.
  • Reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.
  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

  • Describe a time you did not meet expectations and what impact the experience had on you.

These essay topics give schools a better sense of who you are, what you value, and the kind of student citizen you might be.

  • What drives you to create, and what do you hope to make or have you made?
  • Which book, character, song, monologue, or piece of work (fiction or nonfiction) seems made for you? Why?
  • What would you want your future college roommate to know about you?
  • How has your own background influenced the types of problems you want to solve, the people you want to work with, and the impact you hope your work can have?

How has your own background influenced the types of problems you want to solve, the people you want to work with, and the impact you hope your work can have?- college essay prompts

  • Describe any meaningful travel experiences you’ve had.
  • What would you want to be different in your own country or community to further principles of equality, equity, or social justice?
  • What strength or quality do you have that most people might not see or recognize?
  • If you could live your life fighting for one cause, what would it be and why?
  • What gives meaning to your life?
  • If you wrote a letter to yourself to be opened in 20 years, what would it say?
  • If you had the power to change the course of history in your community or the world, what would you do and why?

If you had the power to change the course of history in your community or the world, what would you do and why?

  • Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.
  • What is the greatest compliment you have ever been given? Why was it meaningful to you?
  • Explain how a text you’ve read—fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or literature of any kind—has helped you to understand the world’s complexity.

Topics like these show your academic interests and demonstrate your commitment to learning and discovery.

  • What does it mean to you to be educated?
  • What is your motivation for pursuing higher education?
  • Describe your reasons for wanting to attend the specific school you’re applying to. Who or what factored into your decision?
  • Academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited, and why do they interest you?

Academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited, and why do they interest you?- college essay prompts

  • What has been your best academic experience in the last two years, and what made it so good?
  • If you decide to take a “gap year” between high school and college, what would you do during that time?
  • Many schools place a high value on diverse student populations. How can you contribute to and support a diverse and inclusive student population at your chosen school?
  • Imagine you were just awarded a research grant for a project of your choice. What are you researching and why?
  • What do you love about the subject(s) you selected as potential major(s)? If undecided, share more about one of your academic passions.

What do you love about the subject(s) you selected as potential major(s)? If undecided, share more about one of your academic passions.

  • Describe a time when you’ve felt empowered or represented by an educator.
  • Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Use these college essay topics to show off your creativity and innovative thinking.

  • You are tasked with creating a new category for the Nobel Prize. Explain what it would be, why you chose your specific category, and the criteria necessary to achieve this accomplishment.

You are tasked with creating a new category for the Nobel Prize. Explain what it would be, why you chose your specific category, and the criteria necessary to achieve this accomplishment.

  • Pick one person—a historical figure, fictitious character, or modern individual—to converse with for an hour, and explain your choice.
  • If you could witness a historic event (past, present, or future) firsthand, what would it be and why?
  • If you could have a theme song, what would it be and why?
  • Discuss a book that you would call a “great book.” What makes the book great in your view?
  • If you could give any historical figure any piece of technology, who and what would it be, and why do you think they’d work so well together?
  • If I could travel anywhere, I would go to …
  • My favorite thing about last Tuesday was …
  • Write a short thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge.
  • If you had 10 minutes and the attention of a million people, what would your TED Talk be about?
  • What are your three favorite words in the English language? Explain what they mean to you.
  • Imagine that you could have one superpower. What would it be and how would you use it? What would be your kryptonite?

Imagine that you could have one superpower. What would it be and how would you use it? What would be your kryptonite?- college essay prompts

  • Which Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (real or imagined) best describes you?
  • If you could create a college course that all students would take, what would it be about and why?
  • What website is the internet missing?

How do you help your students prepare their college application essays? Come share your ideas and ask for advice in the We Are Teachers HELPLINE group on Facebook .

Plus, check out  the ultimate guide to college scholarships.

Looking for writing ideas for your college application? These college essay prompts offer inspirational topics that let every student shine.

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When talking about college essays, we tend to focus on the Common Application prompts , and it's true that many students will need to write a Common App essay. However, there are actually quite a few schools, including both public and private universities, that don't use the Common App and instead ask applicants to respond to their own college essay prompts.

Luckily, college essay prompts tend to be pretty similar to each other. In this guide, I'll list all the college essay questions for popular schools in the US (and a few abroad) and then break down the patterns to help you brainstorm topics and plan how to approach multiple essays efficiently. After reading this guide, you'll be able to strategize which essays you'll write for which colleges.

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Why Do Colleges Ask For an Essay?

The short answer: the essay gives admissions committees a sense of your personality beyond the statistics on the rest of your application. The essay is your chance to show the committee your unique perspective and impress them with your maturity and insight.

College application essay prompts are written with this goal in mind. Admissions officers want to give you the chance to share your interests, aspirations, and views on the world, so most prompts ask about how your experiences have shaped you or what you're excited about studying or doing in college. I've collected a ton of examples below and provided some analysis to help you begin planning and crafting your own essays.

Keep in mind that the personal statement alone won't be enough to get you in— your grades and test scores are still the most important factors in your application . That being said, a stellar essay can help bring a borderline applicant over the top or give an excellent but not extraordinary student the opportunity to stand out in a competitive applicant pool.

As such, the essay tends to matter most for very competitive schools. Non-competitive schools generally don't ask you to submit an essay.

Complete List of College Essay Prompts

This list collects the 2022 college essay prompts for major state universities, top-50 schools, and other popular schools which have their own unique questions. They're divided by region, with all optional essays listed at the end.

I left off the Common App supplements, as those often require a substantially different approach. I also stuck to four-year schools, meaning I didn't include special two-year programs, such as Deep Springs College or Miami Dade College's Honors Program (both of which require essays).

Finally, note that these prompts are for freshman applicants, so the requirements might be different for transfer students .

General Applications

There are three general applications you can use to apply to many different schools at once:

Common Application

Universal college application, coalition application.

Each application has its own personal statement requirement. Some schools will ask for additional supplemental essays.

Many more schools accept the Common App than they do the UCA or Coalition Application , though some will accept more than one of these applications.

For the Common App essay, you pick one of the prompts and write 250-650 words about it. Here are the prompts for the 2022-2023 school year:

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?

Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

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 UCA essay prompt is completely open ended and has a 650-word limit. Here is the 2022-2023 prompt:

Please write an essay that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event.

For the Coalition Application, you'll pick one of five prompts listed below. While there is no hard word limit, the range guidelines are 500-650 words. Here are the prompts for 2022-2023:

What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?

Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?

Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?

What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?

Now that you know the essay requirements for the three general applications, let’s look at the application essays for specific schools . To keep things organized, we’ve grouped schools based on the region of the US in which they’re located.

Northeast/Mid-Atlantic

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The Great Dome at MIT

Georgetown University

Georgetown asks applicants to write one short essay (about half a single-spaced page) and two longer essays (approximately one single-spaced page each). Each applicant must respond to the first two prompts and can choose among the other four based on the specific program she's interested in.

Short Essay: Briefly (approximately one-half page, single-spaced) discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved.

All Applicants: As Georgetown is a diverse community, the Admissions Committee would like to know more about you in your own words. Please submit a brief essay, either personal or creative, which you feel best describes you.

Applicants to Georgetown College: What does it mean to you to be educated? How might Georgetown College help you achieve this aim? (Applicants to the Sciences and Mathematics or the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics should address their chosen course of study).

Applicants to the School of Nursing & Health Studies: Describe the factors that have influenced your interest in studying health care. Please specifically address your intended major (Global Health, Health Care Management & Policy, Human Science, or Nursing).

Applicants to the Walsh School of Foreign Service: The Walsh School of Foreign Service was founded more than a century ago to prepare generations of leaders to solve global problems. What is motivating you to dedicate your undergraduate studies to a future in service to the world?

Applicants to the McDonough School of Business: The McDonough School of Business is a national and global leader in providing graduates with essential ethical, analytical, financial and global perspectives. Please discuss your motivations for studying business at Georgetown.

For more Georgetown application tips, check out our articles on the Georgetown essays and how to get into Georgetown .

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

MIT doesn't ask for a single personal statement but rather asks applicants to respond to a series of questions with just a paragraph or two of about 200 words each .

We know you lead a busy life, full of activities, many of which are required of you. Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it.

Describe the world you come from (for example, your family, clubs, school, community, city, or town). How has that world shaped your dreams and aspirations?

MIT brings people with diverse backgrounds and experiences together to better the lives of others. Our students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way you have collaborated with people who are different from you to contribute to your community.

Tell us about a significant challenge you've faced (that you feel comfortable sharing) or something that didn't go according to plan. How did you manage the situation?

For more details on how to get into MIT , read our other articles on the MIT application process , tips for MIT essays , and an example of a real MIT acceptance letter !

body_UWMadison

University of Wisconsin, Madison

Indiana University Bloomington

IU asks for 200-400 words on your plans and interests.

Describe your academic and career plans and any special interest (for example, undergraduate research, academic interests, leadership opportunities, etc.) that you are eager to pursue as an undergraduate at Indiana University. If you encountered any unusual circumstances, challenges, or obstacles in pursuit of your education, share those experiences and how you overcame them. Please note that this essay may be used in scholarship consideration.

University of Illinois

The University of Illinois asks for two essays (or three only if you selected a second-choice major other than what's noted on your application). All responses should be approximately 150 words.

You'll answer two to three prompts as part of your application. The questions you'll answer will depend on whether you're applying to a major or to our undeclared program, and if you've selected a second choice. Each response should be approximately 150 words. If You're Applying to a Major: 1.  Explain, in detail, an experience you've had in the past 3 to 4 years related to your first-choice major. This can be an experience from an extracurricular activity, in a class you’ve taken, or through something else. 2.  Describe your personal and/or career goals after graduating from UIUC and how your selected first-choice major will help you achieve them. If You're Applying to Our Undeclared Program in the Division of General Studies: 1.  What are your academic interests and strengths? You may also include any majors you are considering. 2.  What are your future academic or career goals? If You've Selected a Second-Choice Major (Including Undeclared): Please explain your interest in your second-choice major or your overall academic or career goals.

If you're applying to UIUC, check out our UIUC essay tips article as well!

University of Wisconsin–Madison

All applicants must complete two essays for UW–Madison. The essays should be 250-650 words in length and may be used for scholarship and campus program review.

If you apply through the Common Application, you’ll be asked to reply to one of the freshman Common Application essays in lieu of the first essay prompt below, but you’ll be required to respond to the second prompt below. 

If you apply through the UW System Application, the following two essays are required:

This part is all about you. Tell us about something you've done — academically or personally — and what you've learned from it. Was it a success or a challenge? Did it represent a turning point in your life? How did this particular moment in your life influence you, and how will it continue to influence you as you pursue your college education?

Tell us why you would like to attend the University of Wisconsin–Madison. In addition, please include why you are interested in studying the major(s) you have selected. If you selected undecided please describe your areas of possible academic interest.

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

Kyle Field at Texas A&M ( Ed Schipul /Flickr)

The ApplyTexas application is used by all Texas public universities and some private colleges. There are four ApplyTexas essay prompts. Which ones you need to respond to will depend on where you're applying. UT Austin, for example, requires applicants to submit at least one essay responding to Topic A on the ApplyTexas application. .

While there's no set word limit, the online application will cut off each essay at 120 lines (~1000 words).

Topic A: Tell us your story. What unique opportunities or challenges have you experienced throughout your high school career that have shaped who you are today?

Topic B: Most students have an identity, an interest, or a talent that defines them in an essential way. Tell us about yourself.

Topic C: You've got a ticket in your hand – Where will you go? What will you do? What will happen when you get there?

Topic D: Please Note: The essay in this section is specific to certain college majors and is not required by all colleges/universities that accept the Apply Texas Application. If you are not applying for a major in Architecture, Art, Art History, Design, Studio Art, Visual Art Studies/Art Education , you are not required to write this essay.

Personal interaction with objects, images and spaces can be so powerful as to change the way one thinks about particular issues or topics. For your intended area of study (architecture, art history, design, studio art, visual art studies/art education), describe an experience where instruction in that area or your personal interaction with an object, image or space effected this type of change in your thinking. What did you do to act upon your new thinking and what have you done to prepare yourself for further study in this area?

We go into all the ApplyTexas prompts in detail here !

University of Georgia

For UGA, applicants must write two essays, one 200-300 words and one 250-650 words . Both essays are required for all applicants. The longer personal essay uses the Common Application prompts for 2023 ; the prompt for the shorter essay is as follows:

The c ollege admissions process can create anxiety. In an attempt to make it less stressful, please tell us an interesting or amusing story about yourself from your high school years that you have not already shared in your application.

For a more detailed discussion of the UGA essays, read this article .

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The Campanile at UC Berkeley

University of California

Students applying to the UC system must respond to four out of eight short personal insight questions. The maximum word count for each response is 350 words.

  • Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.
  • Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.
  • What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?
  • Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  • Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  • Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.
  • What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?
  • Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Learn more about the UC essays , the UC application , and how to choose which UC schools to apply to with our complete guides .

University of Oregon

Applicants to the University of Oregon are required to submit one essay of 650 words or fewer. You also have the option to write a second essay (maximum of 500 words), but it’s not required.

The essay prompts are as follows:

The UO is interested in learning more about you. Write an essay of 650 words or less that shares information that we cannot find elsewhere on your application. Any topic you choose is welcome. Some ideas you might consider include your future ambitions and goals, a special talent, extracurricular activity, or unusual interest that sets you apart from your peers, or a significant experience that influenced your life. If you are applying to the UO's Robert D. Clark Honors College, feel free to resubmit your honors college application essay.

Optional second essay: As you've looked into what it will be like to attend Oregon, you've hopefully learned what makes Ducks Ducks. No two are alike, though, so tell us what makes you you, and how that connects to our campus community. We are interested in your thoughts and experiences recognizing difference and supporting equity and inclusion, and choosing one of these two options will guide you in sharing those thoughts. You can learn more about equity and inclusion at Oregon by visiting the Equity and Inclusion website . Maximum statement length is 500 words. This statement is not required.

University of Washington

In addition to its specific prompts, the University of Washington gives specific advice about what its admissions officers consider to be good writing before the prompts:

"At the UW, we consider the college essay as our opportunity to see the person behind the transcripts and the numbers. Some of the best statements are written as personal stories. In general, concise, straightforward writing is best, and good essays are often 300-400 words in length.

Essay Prompt (Required): Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped shape it. Maximum length: 650 words.

Short Response (Required): Our families and our communities often define us and our individual worlds. Community might refer to your cultural group, extended family, religious group, neighborhood or school, sports team or club, co-workers, etc. Describe the world you come from and how you, as a product of it, might add to the diversity of the UW. Maximum length: 300 words

You can also find more tips on the University of Washington essays in this blog article .

International

Generally speaking, international schools are less likely to ask for an essay, since admission tends to be heavily focused on grades and test results. However, a few popular international schools do ask for a personal statement as part of their application.

Universities and Colleges Admissions Service (UK Schools)

UCAS is a general application for UK schools (similar to the Common App in the US). There's no specific prompt for the personal statement—instead, applicants are required to write an essay describing what they want to study, why they want to study it, and what they bring to the table. There is a 4,000-character/47-line limit.

University of British Columbia

UBC asks applicants to fill out a personal profile consisting of five to seven short-answer questions that vary depending on the program you're applying to. Answers should be 50-200 words.

Depending on which degree program you apply to, you’ll be asked to answer some or all of the following questions on the UBC application:

  • Tell us about who you are. How would your family, friends, and/or members of your community describe you? If possible, please include something about yourself that you are most proud of and why.
  • What is important to you? And why?
  • Family/community responsibilities
  • Creative or performing arts
  • Work/employment
  • Service to others
  • Tell us more about one or two activities listed above that are most important to you. Please explain the role you played and what you learned in the process. You will be asked for a reference who can speak to your response.
  • Additional information: You may wish to use the space below to provide UBC with more information on your academic history to date and/or your future academic plans. For example: How did you choose your courses in secondary school? Are there life circumstances that have affected your academic decisions to date? What have you done to prepare yourself specifically for your intended area of study at UBC?
  • Please submit the names of two referees who know you well and can comment on your preparedness for study at UBC. Examples of referees include an employer, a community member, a coach, a teacher/instructor, or anyone who knows you well. One of the referees you select must be able to speak to one of the activities/experiences described in one of your long-answer responses above. For applicants who are currently attending a high school, one of your referees must be a school official (e.g., Grade 12 or senior year counsellor, teacher, or IB coordinator). Neither referee should be a friend, family member, or paid agent.

Some programs of study may ask applicants to respond to the questions above and some additional, program-specific questions when completing the personal profile.

body_cambridge

University of Cambridge

Optional Essays

Some schools don't require an essay from all applicants but do recommend or require an essay for certain programs. I've listed a selection of those prompts below.

Arizona State University

Students applying to the Barrett Honors College at ASU must submit one essay of 300 to 500 words in response to one of the following prompts (your response may be critical or creative):

Prompt 1 Discuss how a specific piece of art (painting, literature, photograph, etc.) or popular culture (song, comic book, etc.) helped you realize something new about yourself or the world. What was that realization, and how did the piece of art or pop culture bring about this change in your thinking? Do not simply describe the piece of art or pop culture; instead, focus on its effect on you and how it makes you a good fit for the Barrett Honors College experience. Prompt 2 Tell us about a habit or way of thinking that others would recognize as “uniquely you.” This is something you value and would hesitate to give up because it is a distinct part of who you are or what makes you different - why is it so? Be sure to share how this aspect of your identity makes you a good fit for the Barrett Honors College experience.

City University of New York

Applicants to Macaulay Honors College must write two essays: an “about you” essay, and an essay describing your plans for college. Each response should be around 500 words, give or take a few within reason.

Essay 1: About you. (Select one of the options below.) 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. OR Tell us about an area or activity, outside of academics, in which you have invested a lot of time and effort. Tell us why. What did you learn? How was it meaningful?

Essay 2: About your plans for college. Please discuss all points below. Why do you want to go to an honors college ? There are many benefits of being a Macaulay student, such as the Macaulay community, special courses, Honors advisement, cultural passport, opportunities funds, and other financial benefits. Please describe how these features will shape you and your college experience, including, what you expect to bring to the college community and what you expect to get out of your college experience.

Florida International University

Only applicants who don't meet the criteria for automatic admissions and whose applications undergo holistic review will need to submit a 500-word essay:

Students requesting appeal or additional review of their admission status must submit a written statement including:

Your goals and educational or professional objectives

A summary/explanation of past academic performance

Information and/or circumstances that may have affected past academic performance

  • Any other information the student wishes to have considered

Ohio University

For the Ohio University application, students who've been out of school for more than a year must submit an essay explaining what they've done in their time off from school.

Applicants who have been out of high school for more than one year must submit an essay detailing activities since graduation.

Additionally, applicants to the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism are encouraged, though not required, to submit an essay detailing how they want to help shape the future of journalism.

For all other applicants, submitting an essay here is optional; however, if you do wish to write an essay, the application suggests that you describe any academic challenges you’ve faced, academic and career objectives, or involvement in community affairs (recommended length is 250-500 words).

Those interested in Ohio University's OHIO Honors Program (including the Cutler Scholars Program) are required to answer the following essay prompt (limit 250 words):

Students in the OHIO Honors Program represent all majors on campus and take engaging honors courses while applying what they learn outside of the classroom. Students choose from classes and experiences across three pathways: community engagement, research and creative activity, and leadership . Students in OHP can move among the three pathways as their interests evolve and they develop their goals. What pathway is most exciting to you right now, and why?

Finally, those interested in the Honors Tutorial College are must answer the following two essay prompts (in about 500 words each):

HTC Question 1: Please explain why you have chosen your particular program(s) of study.

HTC Question 2: We expect that one reason you seek a tutorial education is for the one-on-one interaction with faculty, but other than that, what interests you about pursuing a tutorial-based undergraduate education? What aspects of your education and life experience have prepared you for a tutorial education with its emphasis on research and creative activity?

body_OhioUniversity

Type 1: Questions About a Meaningful Experience

This type of college essay question is the most common. The exact focus of these prompts can vary quite a bit, but they all ask you to reflect on an important experience. Some questions specify a type of experience whereas others don't, simply opting to have applicants write about whatever matters to them.

There are three basic sub-types that you'll see when dealing with these prompts. Let's look at an example of each.

#1: Overcoming a Challenge

These prompts ask about how you dealt with a particular challenge or solved a problem. Below is a typical example of this question type from the MIT application:

Tell us about the most significant challenge you've faced or something important that didn't go according to plan. How did you manage the situation?

To address a question like this, you need a topic that has real stakes —that is, something that you genuinely struggled with. Even though it can seem as though you should only discuss positive experiences and feelings in your college essay (you want to impress your readers with how awesome you are!), unwavering positivity actually hurts your essay because it makes you seem fake.

Instead, be honest : if you're writing about a negative experience, acknowledge that it was unpleasant or hard and explain why. Doing so will just make your overcoming it that much more impressive.

#2: Engaging With Diversity

Questions about diversity ask how you interact with those who are different from you . See an example below from the Common Application:

When approaching this type of question, you need to show that you're thoughtful about new ideas and perspectives. Colleges are full of students from all kinds of backgrounds, and admissions officers want to know that you'll be accepting of the diversity of other students, even if you don't necessarily agree with them.

Also, make sure to pick a specific instance to focus on. Writing a general essay about how you accept others won't impress admissions officers—you need to show them an example of a time that you did so.

#3: Growing Up

Finally, this type of prompt asks about a transitional experience or rite of passage that made you feel like an adult. I've reprinted another example from the Common App:

For these types of prompts, you want to show personal growth. Explain to the reader not just who you are but also how you've changed . (Really, this is a good idea no matter which prompt you're addressing!)

College can be challenging, so admissions officers want to know that you have the maturity to deal with (likely) living on your own, managing your own life, and planning for your future.

Regardless of the exact prompt, the key to this type of college essay is to show what you've learned from the experience. Admissions officers don't care that much about what happened to you—they care about what you think and feel about that event. That's what will give them a sense of who you are and what kind of college student you'll make.

body_graduation-2

Once you write a first draft, put it in a drawer for a week. Taking some time away from it will allow you to come back to it with fresh eyes. Then, try to read your essay from the perspective of someone who knows nothing about you. Would they be able to understand the story? Do you explain clearly what you learned? Does your intro grab the reader's attention?

It can also be helpful to ask someone you trust, such as a parent, teacher, or peer, to read your essay and give you feedback. Really listen to what they say and think about how you can improve your writing.

Finally, try reading your essay aloud. This will help you catch any weird or awkward phrasings.

What's Next?

If you're struggling with how to approach your personal statement, consider looking at some college essay examples .

The essay is just one part of the college application process. Check out our guide to applying to college for a step-by-step breakdown of what you'll need to do.

Finally, if you're planning to take the SAT or ACT , consider taking a look at our expert test-prep guides for some helpful advice on whatever you might be struggling with.

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

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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By submitting my email address. i certify that i am 13 years of age or older, agree to recieve marketing email messages from the princeton review, and agree to terms of use., popular college application essay topics (and how to answer them).

Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.

The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).

brainstorming college application essay topics

2023–24 Common App Essays

Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application , which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admissions, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

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Read More: Get Expert Essay Advice From Former Admissions Officers!

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts

Prompt #1: share your story..

Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school résumé and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.

Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.

You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.

Perfect your college essay video

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.

Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.

Prompt #4: Reflecting on gratitude.

Colleges are looking for students with unique experiences that can enhance their future campus community, and this is your chance to share that by recognizing what someone else has done for you. Even though this prompt requires you to reflect on the action of another person, make sure that the focus remains on how the act of kindness impacted you and the way you live your life. This essay should make you and the reader smile.

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or accomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth. 

Prompt #6: What captivates you?

This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.

Read More: QUIZ: Test Your College Knowledge!

Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.

This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.

More College Essay Topics

Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:

Describe a person you admire.

Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .

Why do you want to attend this school?

Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.

Read More: 5 Ways College Application Essays and High School Essays Are Different

What is a book you love?

Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?

Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.

What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?

Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.

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Undergraduate Admissions

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Application Essays

Below are essay prompts for the 2024-2025 Common Application. First-time college students (future freshmen) will use the Common Application to  apply to Purdue .  

When applying to Purdue you should use the Common Application.

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Purdue's own  Online Writing Lab  offers advice on  writing essays for college applications .

The Common Application Freshman Essay Prompts 

Required minimum-maximum word count: 250-650

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. 

Purdue Questions 

Respond in 250 words or fewer.

  • How will opportunities at Purdue support your interests, both in and out of the classroom?
  • Briefly discuss your reasons for pursuing the major you have selected.

students talking in the sun

Your Best College Essay

Maybe you love to write, or maybe you don’t. Either way, there’s a chance that the thought of writing your college essay is making you sweat. No need for nerves! We’re here to give you the important details on how to make the process as anxiety-free as possible.

student's hands typing on a laptop in class

What's the College Essay?

When we say “The College Essay” (capitalization for emphasis – say it out loud with the capitals and you’ll know what we mean) we’re talking about the 550-650 word essay required by most colleges and universities. Prompts for this essay can be found on the college’s website, the Common Application, or the Coalition Application. We’re not talking about the many smaller supplemental essays you might need to write in order to apply to college. Not all institutions require the essay, but most colleges and universities that are at least semi-selective do.

How do I get started?

Look for the prompts on whatever application you’re using to apply to schools (almost all of the time – with a few notable exceptions – this is the Common Application). If one of them calls out to you, awesome! You can jump right in and start to brainstorm. If none of them are giving you the right vibes, don’t worry. They’re so broad that almost anything you write can fit into one of the prompts after you’re done. Working backwards like this is totally fine and can be really useful!

What if I have writer's block?

You aren’t alone. Staring at a blank Google Doc and thinking about how this is the one chance to tell an admissions officer your story can make you freeze. Thinking about some of these questions might help you find the right topic:

  • What is something about you that people have pointed out as distinctive?
  • If you had to pick three words to describe yourself, what would they be? What are things you’ve done that demonstrate these qualities?
  • What’s something about you that has changed over your years in high school? How or why did it change?
  • What’s something you like most about yourself?
  • What’s something you love so much that you lose track of the rest of the world while you do it?

If you’re still stuck on a topic, ask your family members, friends, or other trusted adults: what’s something they always think about when they think about you? What’s something they think you should be proud of? They might help you find something about yourself that you wouldn’t have surfaced on your own.  

How do I grab my reader's attention?

It’s no secret that admissions officers are reading dozens – and sometimes hundreds – of essays every day. That can feel like a lot of pressure to stand out. But if you try to write the most unique essay in the world, it might end up seeming forced if it’s not genuinely you. So, what’s there to do? Our advice: start your essay with a story. Tell the reader about something you’ve done, complete with sensory details, and maybe even dialogue. Then, in the second paragraph, back up and tell us why this story is important and what it tells them about you and the theme of the essay.

THE WORD LIMIT IS SO LIMITING. HOW DO I TELL A COLLEGE MY WHOLE LIFE STORY IN 650 WORDS?

Don’t! Don’t try to tell an admissions officer about everything you’ve loved and done since you were a child. Instead, pick one or two things about yourself that you’re hoping to get across and stick to those. They’ll see the rest on the activities section of your application.

I'M STUCK ON THE CONCLUSION. HELP?

If you can’t think of another way to end the essay, talk about how the qualities you’ve discussed in your essays have prepared you for college. Try to wrap up with a sentence that refers back to the story you told in your first paragraph, if you took that route.

SHOULD I PROOFREAD MY ESSAY?

YES, proofread the essay, and have a trusted adult proofread it as well. Know that any suggestions they give you are coming from a good place, but make sure they aren’t writing your essay for you or putting it into their own voice. Admissions officers want to hear the voice of you, the applicant. Before you submit your essay anywhere, our number one advice is to read it out loud to yourself. When you read out loud you’ll catch small errors you may not have noticed before, and hear sentences that aren’t quite right.

ANY OTHER ADVICE?

Be yourself. If you’re not a naturally serious person, don’t force formality. If you’re the comedian in your friend group, go ahead and be funny. But ultimately, write as your authentic (and grammatically correct) self and trust the process.

And remember, thousands of other students your age are faced with this same essay writing task, right now. You can do it!

Calculate for all schools

Your chance of acceptance, your chancing factors, extracurriculars, vcu acceptance rate and application requirements.

Hey folks, I'm starting to research VCU and I'm wondering what their acceptance rate is like. Also, could someone shed some light on their application requirements, like essays, transcripts, etc.? Thanks!

VCU, or Virginia Commonwealth University, has an acceptance rate of around 92.7% (as of 2023). It's a relatively accessible school if you meet their basic requirements.

In terms of application requirements, VCU uses the Common App. Here's a rundown of the main components you'll need to submit for your application:

1. Online Application: Complete the Common Application and choose VCU as one of the schools you're applying to.

2. High School Transcript: You'll need to submit your high school transcript, which should include your grades, GPA, and coursework from 9th to 12th grade.

3. Test Scores (Optional): VCU is test-optional for the 2024-2025 application cycle, meaning you do not have to submit SAT or ACT scores if you choose not to. However, you can still opt to send your scores if you feel they will enhance your application.

4. Personal Essay: You'll need to answer one of the Common App essay prompts, which allows you to share more about yourself and your experiences in a 250-650 word essay.

5. Letter of Recommendation: VCU requires one letter of recommendation from a teacher, counselor, or another person who knows you well and can speak to your abilities.

6. Application Fee: The application fee for VCU is $70. Remember, fee waivers are available if you demonstrate financial need.

In addition to these general requirements, certain programs at VCU (such as the art and design majors) may have additional components like portfolio submissions. Make sure to check the specific requirements for your intended major before submitting your application. Also, don't forget to adhere to deadlines – VCU has an Early Action deadline of November 15th and a Regular Decision deadline of January 15th.

Best of luck with your application!

About CollegeVine’s Expert FAQ

CollegeVine’s Q&A seeks to offer informed perspectives on commonly asked admissions questions. Every answer is refined and validated by our team of admissions experts to ensure it resonates with trusted knowledge in the field.

college common application essay prompts

What are the 2024-25 Common App essay prompts?

Feb 28, 2024 • knowledge, information, below is the full set of essay prompts for 2024–2025..

  • Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

We will retain the  optional community disruption question  within the Writing section. Over the next year, we'll consult with our member, counselor, and student advisory committees to ensure we gather diverse perspectives and make informed decisions.

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Coalition Application Guide

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Coalition Application: The Ultimate Guide

Are you beginning your college application journey?  If so, you’ve likely heard of the Coalition Application, one of the nation’s most popular college application platforms. While not the only way to apply to college, the Coalition Application is unique in its mission. The Coalition Application hopes to make college more affordable and accessible to underrepresented populations, which it does by streamlining the college application process . 

In this article, we will provide a comprehensive overview of the Coalition Application and how to apply to Coalition Application schools.

Our Coalition Application Guide will cover topics that include:

  • A general overview of the college admissions process
  • What the Coalition Application is and why it exists
  • The Coalition Application vs Common Application
  • How to approach your Coalition Application essays
  • How to acquire transcripts, letters of recommendation, and other key documents in the college admissions process
  • Tips to successfully complete your Coalition Application

While the college admissions process can be complex, the Coalition Application is one platform dedicated to making it simpler. Similarly, CollegeAdvisor is here to help you navigate the process so that you can enroll in a college where you can thrive. Now, let’s kick off our discussion by exploring general information about applying to college.

Applying to College

coalition application

If you want to attend college, your first question might be: how do I apply? One of the first steps will be to decide which college application platforms you will use. Here are some of the different online platforms you may encounter:

Online Application Platforms

The common application.

This is the most common platform in the U.S., in part because 1,000+ colleges accept it. The Common Application makes applying easier because you can fill in certain information only once (such as contact information, courses you are taking, and activities). This information is sent to every school you apply to.

The Coalition Application

Accepted by over 170 institutions , the Coalition Application is run by a collective of schools committed to making the college process more affordable. Later, we will share the qualifications to be a member of the Coalition Application. Similar to the Common Application, you can add information that can be used for multiple schools, making applying quick and easy.

School-Specific Applications

Some schools have their own specific platform. They may or may not also accept the Common Application or Coalition Application.

State-Based Applications

Some states have their own state-based application platform, such as the University of California application or the ApplyTexas application . These applications allow you to apply to several public schools within one state at once.

Determining which application platforms you use depends on which schools you wish to apply to. We recommend making a list of your schools and then researching which platforms they accept.

If a school accepts multiple platforms (such as the Common Application and Coalition Application), only complete one for that school. There is no preference given in terms of application platforms–so choose the one that makes the most sense according to your college list. Hopefully, your list will only entail using one or two platforms at most, so you can streamline your application process and save yourself time and stress.

Up next, we will explore the Coalition Application more in depth.

What is the Coalition Application?

coalition application

The Coalition Application is a college application platform created by the Coalition for College . The Coalition for College, founded in 2015, is a group of 170+ public and private colleges dedicated to making college accessible and affordable, particularly for lower-income and under-resourced students. 

However, anyone can use the Coalition Application–you do not need to have a specific background. When you create a Coalition Application login, you will have free access to the platform. There, you can upload demographic information, activities, test scores, essays, transcripts, and letters of recommendation as well as submit this information to multiple schools.

You will also be provided with the supplemental essays that individual Coalition Application schools require. Upon submission, you will be charged an application fee if the school requires one. However, the Coalition Application fee waiver is an easy way to override this charge if you qualify.

As of today, the Coalition Application is offered in partnership with Scoir. Up next, we will explore what Scoir is and the role it plays in the college application process. 

What is Scoir?

coalition application

In 2022, the Coalition for College partnered with Scoir to make the college application process even simpler. Scoir is an online platform that high schools use to track student progress, facilitate communication between counselors and students, and streamline document sharing. 

With this partnership, students who have Scoir accounts through their high school can link directly into their Coalition account. And, they benefit from already being familiar with Scoir’s tools and interface.

If your high school uses Scoir, you can use the same Scoir login information for your Coalition Application login. However, if your high school is a non-Scoir school, you will have to create a free Scoir account that will also serve as your Coalition Application login. 

Who Can Apply Coalition?

As noted above, the Coalition Application is available to all students, regardless of their background. While the application was designed for lower-income and under-resourced students, any student can create a Coalition Application login and apply to colleges via the platform. 

Additionally, it doesn’t matter whether your school uses Scoir or not: anyone can use the Coalition Application. However, the process of receiving letters of recommendation is slightly easier if your school uses Scoir. Later, we will discuss the distinction between applying from a Scoir and non-Scoir high school in greater detail.

Coming up, we will explore why you might want to apply to colleges using the Coalition Application over other application platforms.

Why Apply Coalition?

While there are many options for applying to college, including the very popular Common Application, there are some reasons why you might choose to use the Coalition Application over other platforms. Here are a few reasons students choose to apply Coalition:

Reasons for Choosing Coalition

1. inclusivity.

The Coalition Application is geared towards students from low-income and under-resourced backgrounds. If you identify as one of those students, you’ll find that the Coalition Application may be easier to use and is more geared toward your need to find affordable schools. As we shared above, the Coalition for College designed the Coalition Application as part of its vision and mission to dismantle barriers to college.

2. Fee Waivers

The Coalition Application fee waiver is easy to claim. To claim fee waivers, simply check off which criteria make you eligible for a fee waiver in your profile, such as qualifying for free lunch or receiving a College Board fee waiver for the SAT. Checking off any of these criteria will automatically bypass the application fee page. Additional criteria can also make you eligible for a fee waiver at specific schools, which we’ll discuss more in-depth later on.

3. Start Early

The Coalition Application platform is designed to help you start collecting the information you need to apply to college as early as 9 th grade. You can add schools to your list, save college-related documents in your Locker, and check out free resources such as screenshots of Coalition Application samples. If English isn’t your first language, some resources are offered in Spanish as well!

Using the Coalition Application is one way to expedite your college process, as you can apply to multiple schools at once. If the schools you are interested in accept the Coalition Application, consider using the platform, especially if you come from a low-income or under-represented background. 

Next, we will look at which schools accept the Coalition Application and what makes these schools special.

Coalition Application Schools

coalition application

There are over 170 Coalition Application schools, including both public and private universities and colleges. To become a member of the Coalition for College and be listed on the Coalition Application, schools must meet certain eligibility criteria. These eligibility criteria align with the Coalition for College’s values of equity and inclusivity within college access and outcomes.

The Coalition is eager to promote colleges that are affordable and have positive outcomes for students. In addition to being a four-year, accredited, degree-granting institution, here are the eligibility criteria to become a member school on the Coalition Application:

Coalition Application Eligibility Criteria

Ten percent or more of enrolling students must be pell-eligible.

This means they come from lower-income or underrepresented backgrounds. This criterion is an indicator of the school’s commitment to recruiting students from these types of diverse backgrounds.

Meet enough financial needs or have low enough tuition costs

This means that students graduate with less than $30,000 in Title IV debt, which is a type of debt resulting from federal loans that have lower interest rates. Schools must also have a 10% or lower loan default rate, indicating that most students graduate with the means to pay back their loans. This criterion indicates that a school is generous with its financial aid and prepares students with the skills to find jobs that allow them to pay back their loans. 

Have an overall graduation rate of 60% or higher

That figure must be 50% or higher for students from low-income or underrepresented backgrounds. Additionally, 33% of the student body must be from these backgrounds. Again, this criterion emphasizes the school’s commitment to accessibility as well as economic and racial diversity.

While many Common App colleges also meet these criteria, not all do. By applying via the Coalition Application, you can ensure that all the schools you apply to meet demonstrated financial need and have a solid graduation rate. In doing so, you can feel confident you’re applying to inclusive, effective institutions.

Exploring member schools

Included in the list of 170 schools on the Coalition Application are some familiar names, such as Yale , Notre Dame , and Vanderbilt . However, many more schools are also members of the Coalition, such as Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA, and Union College in Schenectady, NY. 

You can search the member list alphabetically, by state, and by public vs private institution. Use all the search options to get a strong sense of which schools are Coalition Application members. This can help you decide if using the platform is right for you. If any member schools interest you, then the Coalition Application could be the perfect platform to use when applying to those schools.

Coming up, we will explore the cost of using the Coalition Application to apply to college.

How much is the Coalition Application?

coalition application

You have probably heard that applying to college is expensive. While this is generally true, with the Coalition Application, you have the potential to save a lot of money. Firstly, using the Coalition Application is free. This means you can create an account, research schools, upload documents, and look at applications at no cost. 

When you are ready to submit your applications, you may find some schools require their own application fees. These fees are typically between $30 to $90, with the average around $50 per school. If you are applying to multiple schools, this can quickly add up to hundreds of dollars. 

For some families, paying the application fee alone is a barrier to applying to college. The Coalition Application recognizes that barrier and has made it much easier for students to claim a fee waiver. This fee waiver allows qualifying students to apply to college for free. 

Whereas other platforms do offer fee waivers, some require additional documentation to prove you qualify. The Coalition Application automatically issues fee waivers for several reasons. In the next section, we will discuss who is eligible for and how to get a Coalition Application fee waiver.

Coalition Application Fee Waiver

coalition application

The process for getting a Coalition Application fee waiver is very easy. To claim one, simply go to the fee waiver section of your profile and indicate which criteria make you eligible for a fee waiver. Any of the following criteria make you automatically eligible to apply for free to any of the Coalition Application member schools:

Criteria for Automatic Fee Waiver at Any Coalition App Schools

  • Your family income falls within the Income Eligibility Guidelines for the Federal Free and Reduced Lunch Program. For a family of 4 in 2024, this means that your family’s annual income is $57,720 or less.
  • You have received a College Board , ACT , or a National Association for College Admissions Counseling ( NACAC ) fee waiver. These refer to waivers that are given for testing fees or college applications.
  • You are eligible for a Pell Grant . Pell Grants are forms of federal aid for college that are calculated by completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
  • You have participated (or are participating) in TRIO programs (such as Upward Bound). TRIO programs are federally funded programs geared towards increasing educational access for lower-income students.

Additionally, there are several criteria that will make you eligible for a fee waiver at some, but not all, of the Coalitional Application member schools. You may qualify for a fee waiver if you:

Criteria for Fee Waiver at Some Coalition App Schools

  • Are a veteran or an active member of the U.S. Armed Forces.
  • Self-identify as the first in your family to attend college.
  • Receive public assistance such as food stamps or disability benefits.
  • Are enrolled in a federal, state, or local program that aids students from low-income families. 
  • Live in federally subsidized public housing, a foster home, or are homeless.
  • Are a ward of the state or an orphan. 
  • Receive need-based scholarships elsewhere.
  • Are being assisted by any college or university access program.

If you select any of these options on your Coalition Application, you will be presented with a list of schools that offer fee waivers for students with that particular experience or background. 

Additionally, there are some schools that have no application fees at all, such as Smith College and Grinnell College . While these schools are certainly still selective, no student will find the application fee to be a barrier. 

Coalition Application vs Common Application

coalition application

If you’re not using the Coalition Application, you’re more than likely using the Common Application. So, let’s talk about how these two application platforms compare to one another!

While they share some important similarities, there are also key differences when it comes to the Coalition Application vs Common Application. We’ll review some of these similarities and differences so you can decide which platform is best for you.

Similarities Between the Coalition Application and the Common Application

Here are some core similarities between the Coalition Application and Common Application:

Overlap Between Coalition App and Common App

Apply to multiple schools at once.

Both platforms can help you save a lot of time by allowing you to only enter some information once. Once you’ve entered your contact information, courses, test scores, activities, and college admissions essay, they will be loaded onto all your applications.  

College Admissions Essays

For most schools, you will have to submit a personal statement, referred to as a Coalition Application essay or a Common App essay depending on which platform you use. Supplemental essay requirements will differ by school, but they’re generally the same on both the Common Application and the Coalition Application. Read more about how to write a great essay by checking out some Coalition Application essay examples here .

Generate a PDF

Both platforms allow you to view a PDF of your applications as you work on them. This is useful if you want to send your Coalition Application sample to a counselor or other mentor for review before submitting. Simply download your Coalition Application sample and attach it as a PDF to an email. 

Both platforms are free to use, though most colleges will still charge application fees before you hit submit.

Regardless of which platform you use, the deadlines for each school will be the same. You can check application deadlines on the platforms or each school’s admissions page. 

As you can see, the core functions of both the Coalition Application and the Common Application are the same. Now, let’s look at some of the differences that exist between the two application platforms.

Differences Between Coalition Application vs Common Application

The differences between the Coalition Application and the Common Application may seem insignificant or meaningful depending on your priorities when applying. Here are some of the key differences between the two platforms:

Coalition App vs Common App

Type of participating colleges.

As mentioned above, not just any college can be a part of the Coalition Application. The Coalition for College has strict criteria that focuses on highlighting colleges that meet full financial needs or have low tuition costs. Therefore, Coalition Application schools have automatically been vetted for their financial practices and are more likely to be sound financial decisions for students and families. 

Number of Participating Colleges

The strict membership guidelines of the Coalition Application mean that 170 schools are on the platform, as opposed to over 1,000 Common App colleges. If several schools that you hope to apply to are not part of the Coalition Application, then the Common Application might be a better fit for you. Otherwise, you will have to fill out applications on both platforms, which creates additional work in an already lengthy application process. 

Coalition Application Essay Topics

College admissions essays are an important part of your application, no matter which platform you use. Your college admissions essays will include a personal statement as well as school-specific supplemental essays. While the supplemental essay prompts will not vary by platform, the personal statement prompts do differ. Indeed, if you look up Coalition Application essay examples, they will vary slightly in content because the prompts are different from those of the Common App.

Still, the prompts are usually general enough that Coalition Application essay examples could also work for the Common Application, especially because both platforms have a “choose your own topic” prompt. Later, we will discuss the differences in college admissions essay topics on both platforms in more depth.

Coalition App vs Common App: Essays

Activities section.

On the Coalition Application, you can list up to 8 activities. Meanwhile, Common App colleges let you list 10. However, the Coalition Application provides more characters to describe your activity. Additionally, the Coalition Application actively encourages students to describe less traditional activities such as babysitting, art projects, or hobbies. While you can list such activities on both platforms, the Coalition Application highlights this option more heavily to recognize that many students from low-income and underrepresented backgrounds do not have the means or time to devote to clubs and teams.

The Coalition Application provides a digital space, called a “Locker.” This is a space where you can start compiling documents as early as 9 th grade that might be useful for developing your personal brand in the college process. You can upload videos and documents, which might include awards, videos of performances, and papers you are proud of. Schools won’t see your Locker–it is merely a tool to help keep you organized so you’re ready to craft your most competitive and cohesive applications come senior year.

Fee Waiver Accessibility

While both platforms offer fee waivers to students, the Coalition Application’s process is streamlined and does not require additional paperwork. If you request a fee waiver on the Common Application, your high school counselor may be asked to verify that you qualify for this waiver. Additionally, in rare cases, Common App colleges may decline to honor your fee waiver unless you submit additional documentation. In a process that is already so complex, additional documentation can be a real burden.

Deciding which platform to use might seem daunting–but it doesn’t have to be. Start by prioritizing what is important to you in the application process. If your priority is getting fee waivers and applying to affordable schools, then the Coalition Application may be best for you. If a top priority is having access to as many schools as possible in one platform, then the Common Application might be a better fit. 

Regardless of which platform you choose, remember that when applying to schools that accept both platforms, there is no benefit to applying with one over the other. Both applications are weighed the same. Most importantly, do not apply to any school on more than one platform. Only submit one application per school.

In the following sections, we will share detailed steps for how to apply to college using the Coalition Application.

How to Apply to College through the Coalition Application

coalition application

To apply to college with the Coalition Application, you’ll need to understand the process a little bit better. The first thing to know is that the Coalition Application is broken down into two parts.

The first part of the Coalition Application is the basic application information. This includes information about yourself, your family, your education, and your essay. The second part of the Coalition Application will be specific to each school. The Coalition Application works with over 150 Coalition Application schools, to which you can use the Coalition Application to apply. Part Two includes things like supplemental essays and any other school-specific information. 

Now that you know a bit more about the Coalition Application, let’s walk through the application process. The first step is creating your login. 

How to create your Coalition Application login

In order to create your Coalition Application login, you’ll need to first create a Scoir account. Your Coalition Application login and your Scoir login are the same, but the Scoir login comes first. Scoir is a platform where you can search for different colleges and universities and manage your applications in one place. 

Previously, the Coalition Application used a platform called MyCoalition. If you previously had an account there, you can still access it through their new platform called StandOut Admissions Network. However, if you are just starting to apply to schools through the Coalition Application, you will only be able to apply with the Coalition Application through Scoir.

To create your Scoir account, you must provide an email address, verify that email address, and then provide your name, high school graduation year, date of birth, and create a password. Once you’ve done this on Scoir, you will use that same login for your Coalition Application login. 

If you’ve attended a Scoir high school , you should link your Scoir account and your Coalition Application login to your high school. If you have no idea what a Scoir high school is, don’t worry: you should just follow the regular process of creating a Scoir login, and then use that same information to create a Coalition Application login. 

Coalition Application: Part One

coalition application

Once you’ve made your Coalition Application login and have gained access to the platform , take a look around. Familiarize yourself with the Coalition Application’s components, especially Part One and Part Two of the application. 

Here’s what you can expect from Part One of the Coalition Application. 

Personal Information

The first section of Part One of the Coalition Application is the “Personal” section. Here, you provide all your demographic information to the Coalition Application. This includes things like how old you are, your ethnicity, your sex and gender, the languages you speak, and your address. This is all basic demographic information, the kind that you would submit when applying for a job or a university. Here, you’ll also specify if you intend to apply for financial aid.

Family Information

The next section of the Coalition Application asks questions about your family. You’ll provide information like who regularly lives in your household, the addresses of your parents or guardians, their contact information, and their education level. This all helps the Coalition Application better understand who you are and how they can best communicate with you. 

The “Family” section of the Coalition Application also offers a space for you to share whether you have been impacted by a disaster. If your life has been affected by a natural disaster, or by COVID-19, you can share this with the Coalition Application here.

Education Information

After the “Family” section of the Coalition Application comes the “Education” section. In this section, you’ll write about a pretty significant part of your college application: your high school experiences! This is where you share things like your grades, your GPA, AP courses, SAT and ACT scores, and extracurricular activities. 

When you’re comparing the Coalition Application vs Common Application, the way the two applications handle extracurriculars is fairly different. On the Common Application, you have the opportunity to describe and rank your extracurriculars, and this disclosure tells a lot about you to the colleges you apply to. However, on the Coalition Application, there is less space to document multiple extracurricular activities. So, if you have specific experiences you’d like to highlight, you’ll have to emphasize them in other sections of the Coalition Application. 

Essay and More

One place on the Coalition Application where you could go deeper on your extracurricular activities is the next section: “Essay and More.” This section of the Coalition Application is largely taken up by the Coalition Application essay.

To again compare the Coalition Application vs Common Application, both provide unique prompts for a personal statement. Certain Coalition Application schools require the Coalition Application essay, just like Common App schools might require the Common App essay. Both the Coalition Application essay and the Common App essay are around the same length, and both ask questions that encourage you to reflect on your experiences. 

In this final section of the Coalition Application, you can also supply additional information about yourself if you feel like it hasn’t been included elsewhere. You’ll also provide the Coalition Application with your school guidance counselor’s name and email so that the college has a point of contact with you.

Coalition Application Essay

coalition application

The Coalition Application essay is for schools to learn more about your life and your values, in your own words. When comparing the Coalition Application vs Common Application, the Coalition Application essay and the Common App essay are pretty similar. Each should be around 500-650 words, and both the Coalition Application essay and the Common App essay ask students to reflect and tell a story about themselves.

While some Coalition Application schools don’t require the Coalition Application essay, this is the exception rather than the norm. It’s more than likely that at least one of the Coalition Application schools that you’re applying to will require the essay. So, you’ll want to start your applications feeling confident and ready to write one! 

Like the Common App essay, the Coalition essay is a pretty standard college admissions essay—sometimes called a “personal statement.” While the Coalition essay prompts are similar to the Common App prompts, they’re not identical.

Coalition essay prompts

There are 6 Coalition Application essay prompts :

1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

2. what interests or excites you how does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future, 3. describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. what were the challenges what were the rewards, 4. has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned how did you respond what did you learn, 5. what success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced what advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience, 6. submit an essay on a topic of your choice..

Many students feel overwhelmed by the idea of writing an essay about themselves–and that’s okay! If you start working on your Coalition Application early, you can take your time and give yourself the best chance of writing a great essay.

The first step to writing your college admissions essay is to pick your prompt. The Coalition Application website offers some tips for getting started:

  • Talk about your ideas with a friend
  • Write a list of phrases that describe you and stories about yourself where you demonstrate those qualities
  • Write all associated words that come to mind when you read a prompt.

Try brainstorming for all of the questions, then pick the one that stuck out the most to you or felt the easiest to write or talk about.

The Coalition Application also provides the option to submit an essay on the topic of your choice. Here, if you were applying to schools using the Common Application, you could simply submit that essay to the Coalition Application as well. 

Essay writing tips

For each question, you want to tell a story: there should be a clear beginning, middle, and end. The best college admissions essays describe some kind of change or development. Was there a moment when something changed your perspective, or when you learned something? When you faced a challenge and overcame it? All of these college admissions essay questions are encouraging you to reflect on what you value and how your values have developed over time. 

Keep in mind that your college admissions essay is meant to add your voice into your college application so that it’s not just grades and demographics and awards. Whichever question you pick, make sure to tell a story about yourself that would convey something about you to the admissions committee. 

Here are three tips on how to write a great Coalition Application essay from us at CollegeAdvisor:

  • Start with an engaging hook, like an anecdote or a quote that pulls your readers in.
  • Use specific details, both to make your writing more vivid and to emphasize your uniqueness.
  • Revise, revise, revise. 

Another way to prepare to write your Coalition Application essay is to read Coalition Application essay examples. These Coalition Application essay examples will help show you what makes a great Coalition Application essay, and how to tell a personal anecdote in the appropriate word range.

By looking at Coalition Application samples and example essays, you can gain inspiration for how to go about your own application—just make sure that regardless of what Coalition Application samples you read, you’re always using your own work when you write your essays.

If you’re looking for more advice , check out CollegeAdvisor’s Coalition Application essay examples and explore our college admissions essay-writing resources . However, if you’re ready for Part Two, let’s look at what’s expected in the next section of the Coalition Application. 

Coalition Application: Part Two

coalition application

Part Two of the Coalition Application is where you’ll start to encounter school-specific questions. Part One of the Coalition Application is submitted to every school that you apply to, whereas Part Two is only submitted to the specific school that you’re answering questions about.

Looking at the Coalition Application vs Common Application, they both follow a similar structure. Another similarity between the two applications is that the supplemental questions are often the same. Below, we’ll take a closer look at supplemental questions from a partner school: Yale.

Yale is one of the Coalition Application schools because it provides need-based financial aid or low-cost in-state tuition, which is the main requirement to be part of the Coalition. Unlike the Common App colleges, which have nothing in common besides using the Common App, Coalition Application schools also need to satisfy requirements around tuition and graduation rate.

The Coalition Application prioritizes access and affordability, so it makes sense the Coalition Application also incorporates a Coalition Application fee waiver for those who need it. With that background in mind, let’s turn our attention to Yale’s supplemental questions.

Yale supplemental questions

For Yale, the Coalition Application essay topics will be the same regardless of how you choose to apply. Yale is also one of the Common App colleges—you can apply using the Coalition Application or the Common App—so, the supplemental essays they request from their students are the same. 

If you’re applying to Yale through the Coalition Application, you’ll need to answer an additional 8 questions. This might seem like a lot. Not all schools require this many questions, but this is why it’s important to explore the application requirements early in the college admissions process so nothing catches you by surprise when you’re close to the deadline. 

Yale’s supplemental questions consist of 7 short answer questions—some very short, only 35 words—and one short essay of 400 words. For the 400-word essay, Yale provides a choice of three prompts: one on conversing about opposing views, one about community, and one is about part of your personal experience that you would bring to the college. 

How to approach supplemental questions/essays

These essays and questions are similar to many others you’ll encounter in the college admissions process. Generally, supplemental essay topics fall into a few categories :

  • Why School / Why Major
  • Community essays
  • Extracurricular activities essays
  • Personal challenge essays
  • Cultural diversity essays
  • More unique essays

So, by reflecting on and completing supplemental prompts for the Coalition Application, you will better prepare yourself for the entire college process. 

Even though many schools use similar prompts, that doesn’t mean that you should be submitting the exact same essay for multiple applications. The school-specific portion of the Coalition Application should be exactly that: school-specific. When you write why you want to attend Yale, or other Coalition Application schools like Vanderbilt or Notre Dame , make sure to include specific mentions to the school. This could be a professor you’d like to study under, research being done at the school that interests you, a club you would join, or something you noticed while touring the campus. 

Whatever details you choose, make sure to connect them to yourself. These supplemental essays aren’t about why just anyone would want to go to this school, but why it’s a perfect fit for you. If you’re still confused about what this might entail, look at some Coalition Application sample or Common Application sample essays .

Requesting Important Documents

When filling out your Coalition Application, you’ll need to request certain documents to submit to colleges. As part of your college application, regardless of what platform you use, you’ll need to both request and submit transcripts and letters of recommendation through the application portal.

Since Scoir works with some high schools, the process is a bit different for Scoir vs Non-Scoir high schools. When used in high schools, Scoir is a place where students can plan their college process outside of just their application. Because of this, some schools’ guidance counselors are already connected on Scoir and don’t require as many steps to reach. 

Scoir has resources on how to navigate this process for each student. If you already attend a Scoir-connected school, check out these resources for how to request letters of recommendation and transcripts . 

Alternatively, non-connected students can look at this article for guidelines and advice. While the process is a little more intensive, it’s still straightforward. Again, always make sure that you understand your college application before you start it so you don’t get confused too close to the deadline. 

When Should I Start My Coalition Application?

coalition application

So when should you start your Coalition Application? For context, let’s look at some deadlines . 

Exploring application deadlines

Early Decision or Early Action deadlines happen in the Fall, usually around November 1. With Early Decision, you are bound to attend that college if you get in. If you’re applying ED to a college, that means that it is your first choice, your dream school, and nothing would sway you from going—even if you don’t get the most optimal financial package.

Early Action is another early deadline, but you’re not obligated to attend the school if you get in. This means that you can apply to multiple colleges and weigh your options once you’ve received your admissions decisions.

You can also submit your application Regular Decision, which is generally around January 1. You can apply Regular Decision to as many schools as you would like. Some schools also offer Rolling Admission, which means that they accept students as they receive applications. Even if a school is Rolling Admission, you should still apply as soon as you can. 

Some schools offer a Priority Deadline, also around the same time as Early Decision and Early Action. If a school offers a Priority Deadline, it’s a good idea to get your application in by then if you can. The school likely accepts most of its students by that deadline and will also be giving out scholarship funds with these applicants at the top of the list. 

When to start exploring Coalition

Each student will be different when it comes to their ideal application timeline. In general, you’ll want to start thinking about your applications July/August of your senior year. However, you may start thinking about certain aspects of your application, like SAT/ACT, extracurriculars, potential recommenders, and AP classes, much earlier.

If you want to get a head start on your college applications, you don’t need to wait until your senior year to look at the Coalition Application. You can create a Coalition Application login and start building your college list as early as 9th grade. There’s no pressure to know where you want to go to college that early, but know that the platform is open for you to explore! 

5 Tips for Submitting the Coalition Application

coalition application

Now that we’ve covered the general process of completing the Coalition Application, here are 5 tips to keep in mind as you work towards your deadlines: 

Tips for the Coalition Application

1. use the platform to research schools and build your college list.

The Coalition Application isn’t just an application, but it’s a way to explore colleges. You can take the Find your College Match Quiz to get matched up with schools that would be a good fit for you. Additionally, you can use the discover feature to look at different college profiles and find admission events like information sessions and tours. You can also follow colleges on Scoir to receive outreach and materials from these colleges during your high school years. 

2. Keep track of important application documents

You can use the Coalition Application to keep all of your important application documents in one place. These are documents like your letters of recommendation, your transcripts/school reports, Early Decision Contracts, and Coalition Application fee waivers. 

3. Connect with your supporters

These are people like your high school counselors, your parents/guardians, and your teachers—people who you may want to seek letters of recommendation from in the future.  If your high school is on Scoir, it gives you the opportunity to keep all of your communications with these people in one place. 

4. Budget time for all of your application essays

Using the Coalition application, you can and should spend enough time to brainstorm, draft, and revise all of your essays: both the Coalition essay and your school-specific supplemental essays. With the supplemental essays, make sure you research them early so that you can plan your time accordingly. You don’t want to get caught off guard with 8 extra questions like Yale’s the day before your application is due.

5. Thoroughly review part one of your application before moving on to part two

This is important: unlike with Common App colleges, the Coalition Application requires you to submit Part One separately from Part Two. Once you submit Part One of your application, you cannot go back to edit any of the information you provided. So start early and make sure that all of your information is correct before submitting.

Coalition Application Guide – Final Thoughts

The Coalition Application is a type of college application platform that aims to make the college admissions process more accessible for all students, especially lower-income students. Unlike Common App colleges, the schools you apply to via the Coalition Application have been vetted in line with the Coalition Application’s mission. These schools all have significant need-based financial aid or low in-state tuition fees, and have strong graduation rates.

Make a Scoir account to get started

In order to apply using the Coalition Application, you first make an account on Scoir. Scoir is a platform for centralizing college preparations, and some high schools use it to put everything from guidance counselor communications to college research in one place. Even if your high school doesn’t use Scoir, that doesn’t mean you can’t apply using the Coalition Application—you just have to go through a couple extra steps to make sure all of your transcripts and other important documents are getting sent to the right places. 

Once you’re in the Coalition Application, it’s pretty standard. The Coalition Application has Part One, with all of that personal data and your Coalition essay, and then Part Two, which is specific to each school and contains the supplemental materials. Overall, the Coalition Application makes the college application process centralized and straightforward. And the platform provides Coalition Application fee waivers for students for whom submitting multiple college applications poses a financial burden. 

If you’re feeling overwhelmed with any part of the college application process, remember, you’re not in it alone. At CollegeAdvisor, our expert team is dedicated to guiding you through every step of the Coalition Application. Through one-on-one advising, we’ll help you organize essential documents, build your personal brand , and revise your application and essays to make them the best they can be.

coalition application

This article was written by senior advisor Courtney Ng and advisor Rachel Kahn . Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.

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Why Ivy League And Top Colleges Value Your Summer Job Experience

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High school student summer job

With summer break on the horizon, high school students across the country will soon start working summer jobs to earn extra money and build their resumes. While many students assume that scooping ice cream or walking dogs will contribute little to their college applicant profiles, summer jobs are what students make of them. Ivy League and other top schools want to admit students who are motivated self-starters, leaders in their communities, and industrious and conscientious members of society. A summer job—whether prestigious or seemingly insignificant—is often a student’s first foray into the professional world, offering them the opportunity to practice their networking acumen, develop teamwork and leadership skills, and build connections with potential recommenders for their college applications. Students who choose to coast and collect a paycheck may get little out of their summer jobs, but those who have Ivy League aspirations should take their summer work seriously—the colleges they apply to certainly will.

Here are five ways you can maximize your summer job to enhance your professional skills, develop networking opportunities, and level up your college admissions profile:

1. Start with a Professional Mindset

The first step to making the most of your summer job is adopting a professional mindset. Take your job—no matter how small it may seem—seriously and dedicate yourself to it. It may not be the vocation you ultimately wish to pursue, but focus on how the skills you can develop in your position will contribute to your future career goals. Show up on time, dress appropriately, and be enthusiastic about your tasks. Your attitude towards your job will not only impress your supervisors but also set a strong foundation for your professional reputation.

2. Network with Colleagues and Supervisors

Networking is not just for seasoned professionals; it’s a valuable skill for high school students. First and foremost, students should seek to make their presence known at their job rather than clocking in and out without building relationships. Take the time to learn about your managers’ career paths and seek their advice about how to navigate your own. Don’t be afraid to ask questions and show genuine interest in their experiences. These connections can provide valuable insights and potentially open doors for future opportunities.

Maintaining these relationships after your summer job has ended is just as important as building them in the first place. You never know how a connection may benefit you in the future as you build your resume, and recommenders with whom you have a longer history will offer great insights in your college letters of recommendation.

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No matter what your summer job is, you will have opportunities to hone valuable skills that will serve you throughout your career. If you are working a job in which you interact with clients (whether retail, food industry, child or pet care), you can develop your professional persona: speaking politely with clients, learning how to handle negative feedback with grace, solving problems creatively, and representing the company well. If you’re in an internally facing role, you can be diligent about showing up on time, being a team player, communicating effectively with peers and superiors, and creating an organized and effective workflow.

4. Seek Opportunities for Growth

One of the keys to maximizing any professional opportunity is setting measurable goals and taking proactive steps toward reaching them. Particularly if you return to the same job for multiple summers (which you should consider in order to demonstrate commitment and build lasting professional connections), be proactive in seeking opportunities for growth—doing so will demonstrate initiative and a willingness to learn, qualities that are highly regarded by employers and college admissions officers alike. For example, if you are working in a retail store, offer to help with inventory management or marketing efforts. If you are in a food service job, learn about the business side of the restaurant industry and offer to take on extra responsibilities. By taking on these extra tasks, you can gain a broader understanding of the business and demonstrate your commitment to professional growth.

5. Reflect on Your Experiences

One of the best things high school students can do to maximize their summer job experience on college applications is to keep a journal or written log of their experiences. Writing down the responsibilities you had and lessons you learned will help to jog your memory when it comes time to compile your activities list, help you articulate the qualities and duties you would like your supervisor to highlight in a letter of recommendation, and could even provide inspiration for your personal or supplemental essays!

Christopher Rim

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    5. Reflect on Your Experiences. One of the best things high school students can do to maximize their summer job experience on college applications is to keep a journal or written log of their ...