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Common App Essays | 7 Strong Examples with Commentary
Published on November 19, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on May 31, 2023.
If you’re applying for college via the Common App , you’ll have to write an essay in response to one of seven prompts.
Table of contents
What is the common application essay, prompt 1: background, identity, interest, or talent, prompt 2: overcoming challenges, prompt 3: questioning a belief or idea, prompt 4: appreciating an influential person, prompt 5: transformative event, prompt 6: interest or hobby that inspires learning, prompt 7: free topic, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
The Common Application, or Common App , is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.
Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs. Instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.
Regardless of your prompt choice, admissions officers will look for an ability to clearly and creatively communicate your ideas based on the selected prompt.
We’ve provided seven essay examples, one for each of the Common App prompts. After each essay, we’ve provided a table with commentary on the essay’s narrative, writing style and tone, demonstrated traits, and self-reflection.
Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.
This essay explores the student’s emotional journey toward overcoming her father’s neglect through gymnastics discipline.
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
When “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” began to play, it was my signal to lay out a winning floor routine. Round off. Back handspring. Double back layout. Stick!
Instead, I jolted off the floor, landing out of bounds. Over the past week, I hadn’t landed that pass once, and regionals were only seven days away. I heaved a heavy sigh and stomped over to the bench.
Coach Farkas saw my consternation. “Mona, get out of your head. You’re way too preoccupied with your tumbling passes. You could do them in your sleep!”
That was the problem. I was dreaming of tumbling and missing my landings, waking up in a cold sweat. The stress felt overwhelming.
“Stretch out. You’re done for tonight.”
I walked home from the gym that had been my second home since fourth grade. Yet my anxiety was increasing every time I practiced.
I startled my mom. “You’re home early! Wait! You walked? Mona, what’s going on?!”
I slumped down at the kitchen table. “Don’t know.”
She sat down across from me. “Does it have anything to do with your father texting you a couple of weeks ago about coming to see you at regionals?”
“So what?! Why does it matter anymore?” He walked out when I was 10 and never looked back. Still, dear ol’ Dad always had a way of resurfacing when I least expected him.
“It still matters because when you hear from him, you tend to crumble. Or have you not noticed?” She offered a knowing wink and a compassionate smile.
I started gymnastics right after Dad left. The coaches said I was a natural: short, muscular, and flexible. All I knew was that the more I improved, the more confident I felt. Gymnastics made me feel powerful, so I gave it my full energy and dedication.
The floor routine became my specialty, and my performances were soon elevating our team score. The mat, solid and stable, became a place to explore and express my internal struggles. Over the years, no matter how angry I felt, the floor mat was there to absorb my frustration.
The bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving because I knew I could fall. My performances in those events were respectable. But, the floor? Sometimes, I had wildly creative and beautiful routines, while other times were disastrous. Sadly, my floor routine had never been consistent.
That Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the empty gym and walked over to the mat. I sat down and touched its carpeted surface. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet with the bitter disappointment of a dad who only showed up when it was convenient for him. I ruminated on the years of practices and meets where I had channeled my resentment into acrobatics and dance moves, resolved to rise higher than his indifference.
I saw then that my deepest wounds were inextricably entangled with my greatest passion. They needed to be permanently separated. While my anger had first served to launch me into gymnastics, before long, I had started serving my anger.
Anger is a cruel master. It corrupts everything it touches, even something as beautiful as a well-choreographed floor routine.
I changed my music days before regionals. “The Devil” no longer had a place in my routine. Instead, I chose an energetic cyberpunk soundtrack that inspired me to perform with passion and laser focus. Dad made an obligatory appearance at regionals, but he left before I could talk to him.
It didn’t matter this time. I stuck every landing in my routine. Anger no longer controlled me. I was finally free.
Word count: 601
This essay shows how the challenges the student faced in caring for her sister with autism resulted in an unexpected path forward in her education.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
I never had a choice.
My baby sister was born severely autistic, which meant that every detail of our home life was repeatedly adjusted to manage her condition. I couldn’t go to bed without fearing that Mindy would wake up screaming with that hoarse little voice of hers. I couldn’t have friends over on weekends because we never knew if our entire family would need to shift into crisis mode to help Mindy regain control.
We couldn’t take a family vacation because Mindy would start hitting us during a long car ride when she didn’t want to sit there anymore. We couldn’t even celebrate Christmas like a normal family because Mindy would shriek and run away when we tried to give her presents.
I was five years old when Mindy was born. For the first ten years, I did everything I could to help my mom with Mindy. But Mom was depressed and would often stare out the window, as if transfixed by the view. Dad was no help either. He used his job as an excuse to be away from home. So, I tried to make up for both of them and rescue Mindy however I could whenever she needed it.
However, one day, when I was slowly driving Mindy around with the windows down, trying to lull her into a calmer state, we passed two of my former classmates from middle school. They heard Mindy growling her disapproval as the ride was getting long for her. One of them turned to the other and announced, “Oh my God! Marabeth brought her pet monster out for a drive!” They laughed hysterically and ran down the street.
After that day, I defied my parents at every turn. I also ignored Mindy. I even stopped doing homework. I purposely “got in with the wrong crowd” and did whatever they did.
My high school counselor Ms. Martinez saw through it all. She knew my family’s situation well. It didn’t take her long to guess what had probably happened.
“Marabeth, I get it. My brother has Down syndrome. It was really hard growing up with him as a brother. The other kids were pretty mean about it, especially in high school.”
I doubted she understood. “Yeah. So?”
“I’m guessing something happened that hurt or embarrassed you.”
“I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how you must have felt.”
It must have been the way she said it because I suddenly found myself sobbing into my trembling, cupped hands.
Ms. Martinez and I met every Friday after that for the rest of the year. Her stories of how she struggled to embrace living with and loving her brother created a bridge to my pain and then my healing. She explained that her challenges led her to pursue a degree in counseling so that she could offer other people what no one had given her.
I thought that Mindy was the end of my life, but, because of Ms. Martinez’s example and kindness, I can now see that Mindy is a gift, pointing me toward my future.
Now, I’m applying to study psychology so that I can go on to earn my master’s degree in counseling. I’m learning to forgive my parents for their mistakes, and I’m back in Mindy’s life again, but this time as a sister, not a savior. My choice.
Word Count: 553
This essay illustrates a student’s courage in challenging his culture’s constructs of manhood and changing his course while positively affecting his father in the process.
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
“No son of mine is gonna march around a football field wearing tail feathers while all the real men are playing football!”
I took a step backward and tried not to appear as off-balance as I felt. In my excitement, I had blurted out more information than my father could handle:
“Dad! I made the marching band as a freshman! Nobody does that—I mean nobody!”
As soon as I had said it, I wished I could recall those words. How could I forget that 26 years earlier, he had been the starting wide receiver for the state-champion Tigers on the same field?!
Still, when I opened the email on that scorching hot August afternoon, I was thrilled that five months of practicing every possible major and harmonic minor scale—two octaves up and two octaves down—had made the difference. I had busted reed after reed, trying not to puff my cheeks while moving my fingers in a precise cadence.
I knew he had heard me continually practicing in my room, yet he seemed to ignore all the parts of me that were incongruous with his vision of manhood:
Ford F-150 4x4s. Pheasant hunting. The Nebraska Cornhuskers.
I never had to wonder what he valued. For years, I genuinely shared his interests. But, in the fall of eighth grade, I heard Kyle Wheeling play a saxophone solo during the homecoming marching band halftime show. My dad took me to every football game to teach me the plays, but that night, all I could think about was Kyle’s bluesy improv at halftime.
During Thanksgiving break, I got my mom to drive me into Omaha to rent my instrument at Dietze Music, and, soon after, I started private lessons with Mr. Ken. Before long, I was spending hours in my room, exploring each nuance of my shiny Yamaha alto sax, anticipating my audition for the Marching Tigers at the end of the spring semester.
During those months of practice, I realized that I couldn’t hide my newfound interest forever, especially not from the football players who were going to endlessly taunt me. But not all the guys played football. Some were in choir and theater. Quite a few guys were in the marching band. In fact, the Marching Tigers had won the grand prize in their division at last year’s state showdown in Lincoln.
I was excited! They were the champions, and I was about to become a part of their legacy.
Yet, that afternoon, a sense of anxiety brewed in my belly. I knew I had to talk to him.
He was sweeping the grass clippings off of the sidewalk. He nodded.
“I need to tell you something.”
He looked up.
“I know that you know about my sax because you hear me practicing. I like it a lot, and I’m becoming pretty good at it. I still care about what you like, but I’m starting to like some other things more. I hope you’ll be proud of me whatever I choose.”
He studied the cracks in the driveway. “I am proud of you. I just figured you’d play football.”
We never talked about it again, but that fall, he was in the stands when our marching band won the state championship in Lincoln for the second time. In fact, for the next four years, he never left the stands during halftime until the marching band had performed. He was even in the audience for every performance of “Our Town” at the end of my junior year. I played the Stage Manager who reveals the show’s theme: everything changes gradually.
I know it’s true. Things do change over time, even out here in central Nebraska. I know because I’ve changed, and my dad has changed, too. I just needed the courage to go first.
Word count: 626
The student demonstrates how his teacher giving him an unexpected bad grade was the catalyst for his becoming a better writer.
Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
I stared in disbelief at the big red letter at the top of my paper: D.
Never in my entire high school career had I seen that letter at the top of any paper, unless it was at the beginning of my first name.
I had a 4.796 GPA. I had taken every pre-AP and AP course offered. My teachers had praised my writing skills! However, Mr. Trimble didn’t think so, and he let me know it:
“Darwin, in the future, I believe you can do better if you fully apply yourself.”
I furiously scanned the paper for corrections. Not even one! Grammar and syntax? Perfect. Spelling? Impeccable. Sentence and paragraph structure? Precise and indisputable, as always.
Was he trying to ruin my GPA? Cooper was clearly his favorite, and we were neck and neck for valedictorian, which was only one year away. Maybe they were conspiring to take me down.
Thankfully, AP Composition was my last class. I fled the room and ran to my car. Defiant tears stained my cheeks as I screeched my tires and roared out of the parking lot. When I got home, I shoved in my AirPods, flopped on my bed, and buried my head under the pillow.
I awoke to my sister, Daria, gently shaking my arm. “I know what happened, D. Trimble stopped me in the hall after school.”
“I’m sure he did. He’s trying to ruin my life.”
“That’s not what he told me. You should talk to him, D.”
The next day, although I tried to avoid Mr. Trimble at all costs, I almost tripped over him as I was coming out of the bathroom.
“Darwin, can we talk?”
He walked me down the hall to his room. “Do you know that you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever had in AP Comp?”
“Then why’d you do it?”
“Because you’re better than you know, Darwin. You impress with your perfect presentations, and your teachers reward you with A’s and praise. I do frequent the teacher’s lounge, you know.”
“So I know you’re not trying.”
I locked eyes with him and glared.
“You’ve never had to try because you have a gift. And, in the midst of the acclaim, you’ve never pushed yourself to discover your true capabilities.”
“So you give me a D?!”
“It got your attention.”
“You’re not going to leave it, are you?”
“Oh, the D stands. You didn’t apply yourself. You’ll have to earn your way out with your other papers.”
I gained a new understanding of the meaning of ambivalence. Part of me was furious at the injustice of the situation, but I also felt strangely challenged and intrigued. I joined a local writer’s co-op and studied K. M. Weiland’s artistic writing techniques.
Multiple drafts, track changes, and constructive criticism became my new world. I stopped taking Mr. Trimble’s criticism personally and began to see it as a precious tool to bolster me, not break me down.
Last week, the New York Public Library notified me that I was named one of five finalists for the Young Lions Fiction Award. They described my collection of short stories as “fresh, imaginative, and captivating.”
I never thought I could be grateful for a D, but Mr. Trimble’s insightful courage was the catalyst that transformed my writing and my character. Just because other people applaud you for being the best doesn’t mean you’re doing your best .
AP Composition is now recorded as an A on my high school transcript, and Cooper and I are still locked in a tight race for the finish line. But, thanks to Mr. Trimble, I have developed a different paradigm for evaluation: my best. And the more I apply myself, the better my best becomes.
Word Count: 627
This student narrates how she initially went to church for a boy but instead ended up confronting her selfishness by helping others.
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Originally, I went to church not because I was searching for Jesus but because I liked a boy.
Isaac Ono wasn’t the most athletic boy in our class, nor was he the cutest. But I was amazed by his unusual kindness toward everyone. If someone was alone or left out, he’d walk up to them and say hello or invite them to hang out with him and his friends.
I started waking up at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday morning to attend Grace Hills Presbyterian, where Isaac’s father was the pastor. I would strategically sit in a pew not too close but close enough to Isaac that when the entire congregation was instructed to say “Peace be with you,” I could “happen” to shake Isaac’s hand and make small talk.
One service, as I was staring at the back of Isaac’s head, pondering what to say to him, my hearing suddenly tuned in to his father’s sermon.
“There’s no such thing as a good or bad person.”
My eyes snapped onto Pastor Marcus.
“I used to think I was a good person who came from a respectable family and did nice things. But people aren’t inherently good or bad. They just make good or bad choices.”
My mind raced through a mental checklist of whether my past actions fell mostly into the former or latter category.
“As it says in Deuteronomy 30:15, ‘I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.’ Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and do good.”
I glanced to my left and saw Margaret, underlining passages in her study Bible and taking copious notes.
Months earlier, I had befriended Margaret. We had fourth-period Spanish together but hadn’t interacted much. She was friends with Isaac, so I started hanging out with her to get closer to him. But eventually, the two of us were spending hours in the Starbucks parking lot having intense discussions about religion, boys, and our futures until we had to return home before curfew.
After hearing the pastor’s sermon, I realized that what I had admired about Isaac was also present in Margaret and other people at church: a welcoming spirit. I’m pretty sure Margaret knew of my ulterior motives for befriending her, but she never called me out on it.
After that day, I started paying more attention to Pastor Marcus’s sermons and less attention to Isaac. One year, our youth group served Christmas Eve dinner to the homeless and ate with them. I sat across from a woman named Lila who told me how child services had taken away her four-year-old daughter because of her financial and living situation.
A few days later, as I sat curled up reading the book of James, my heart suddenly felt heavy.
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”
I thought back to Pastor Marcus’s sermon on good and bad actions, Lila and her daughter, and the times I had passed people in need without even saying hello.
I decided to put my faith into action. The next week, I started volunteering at the front desk of a women’s shelter, helping women fill out forms or watching their kids while they talked with social workers.
From working for the past year at the women’s shelter, I now know I want to major in social work, caring for others instead of focusing on myself. I may not be a good person (or a bad one), but I can make good choices, helping others with every opportunity God gives me.
Word count: 622
This essay shows how a student’s natural affinity for solving a Rubik’s cube developed her self-understanding, academic achievement, and inspiration for her future career.
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
The worst part about writing is putting down my Rubik’s cube so that I can use my hands to type. That’s usually the worst part of tackling my to-do list: setting aside my Rubik’s cube. My parents call it an obsession. But, for me, solving a Rubik’s cube challenges my brain as nothing else can.
It started on my ninth birthday. I invited three friends for a sleepover party, and I waited to open my presents right before bed. Wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows flew through the air as I oohed and aahed over each delightful gift! However, it was the last gift—a 3 x 3 x 3 cube of little squares covered in red, green, blue, yellow, white, and orange—that intrigued me.
I was horrified when Bekka ripped it out of my hands and messed it all up! I had no idea how to make all the sides match again. I waited until my friends were fast asleep. Then, I grabbed that cube and studied it under my blanket with a flashlight, determined to figure out how to restore it to its former pristine state.
Within a few weeks, I had discovered the secret. To practice, I’d take my cube with me to recess and let the other kids time me while I solved it in front of them. The better I became, the more they gathered around. But I soon realized that their attention didn’t matter all that much. I loved solving cubes for hours wherever I was: at lunch, riding in the car, or alone in my room.
Cross. White corners. Middle-layer edges. Yellow cross. Sune and anitsune.
The sequential algorithms became second nature, and with the assistance of a little black digital timer, I strove to solve the cube faster , each time attempting to beat my previous record. I watched speed solvers on YouTube, like Australia’s Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park from Massachusetts, but I wasn’t motivated to compete as they did. I watched their videos to learn how to improve my time. I liked finding new, more efficient ways of mastering the essential 78 separate cube-solving algorithms.
Now, I understand why my passion for my Rubik’s cube has never waned. Learning and applying the various algorithms soothes my brain and centers my emotions, especially when I feel overwhelmed from being around other people. Don’t get me wrong: I like other people—just in doses.
While some people get recharged by spending time with others, I can finally breathe when I’m alone with my cube. Our psychology teacher says the difference between an extrovert and an introvert is the situations that trigger their brains to produce dopamine. For me, it’s time away, alone, flipping through cube patterns to set a new personal best.
Sometimes, the world doesn’t cooperate with introverts, requiring them to interact with many people throughout the day. That’s why you’ll often find me in the stairwell or a library corner attempting to master another one of the 42 quintillion ways to solve a cube. My parents tease me that when I’ve “had enough” of anything, my fingers get a Rubik’s itch, and I suddenly disappear. I’m usually occupied for a while, but when I finally emerge, I feel centered, prepared to tackle my next task.
Secretly, I credit my cube with helping me earn top marks in AP Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics. It’s also responsible for my interest in computer engineering. It seems I just can’t get enough of those algorithms, which is why I want to study the design and implementation of cybersecurity software—all thanks to my Rubik’s cube.
Just don’t tell my parents! It would ruin all the fun!
Word count: 607
In this free topic essay, the student uses a montage structure inspired by the TV show Iron Chef America to demonstrate his best leadership moments.
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition
The time has come to answer college’s most difficult question: Whose story shows glory?
This is … Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition!
Welcome to Kitchen Stadium! Today we have Chef Brett Lowell. Chef Brett will be put to the test to prove he has what it takes to attend university next fall.
And the secret ingredient is … leadership! He must include leadership in each of his dishes, which will later be evaluated by a panel of admissions judges.
So now, America, with a creative mind and empty paper, I say unto you in the words of my teacher: “Let’s write!”
Appetizer: My first leadership experience
A mountain of mismatched socks, wrinkled jeans, and my dad’s unironed dress shirts sat in front of me. Laundry was just one of many chores that welcomed me home once I returned from my after-school job at Baskin Robbins, a gig I had taken last year to help Dad pay the rent. A few years earlier, I wasn’t prepared to cook dinners, pay utility bills, or pick up and drop off my brothers. I thought those jobs were reserved for parents. However, when my father was working double shifts at the power plant and my mom was living in Tucson with her new husband, Bill, I stepped up and took care of the house and my two younger brothers.
Main course: My best leadership experience
Between waiting for the pasta water to boil and for the next laundry cycle to be finished, I squeezed in solving a few practice precalculus problems to prepare for the following week’s mathletics competition. I liked how the equations always had clear, clean answers, which calmed me among the mounting responsibilities of home life. After leading my team to the Minnesota State Finals for two years in a row, I was voted team captain. Although my home responsibilities often competed with my mathlete duties, I tried to be as productive as possible in my free time. On the bus ride home, I would often tackle 10 to 20 functions or budget the following week’s meals and corresponding grocery list. My junior year was rough, but both my home and my mathlete team needed me.
Dessert: My future leadership hopes
The first thing I ever baked was a chocolate cake in middle school. This was around the time that Mom had just moved out and I was struggling with algebra. Troubles aside, one day my younger brother Simon needed a contribution for his school’s annual bake sale, and the PTA moms wouldn’t accept anything store-bought. So I carefully measured out the teaspoons and cups of various flours, powders, and oils, which resulted in a drooping, too-salty disaster.
Four years later, after a bakery’s worth of confections and many hours of study, I’ve perfected my German chocolate cake and am on my way to mastering Calculus AB. I’ve also thrown out the bitter-tasting parts of my past such as my resentment and anger toward my mom. I still miss having her at home, but whenever I have a baking question or want to update her on my mathlete team’s success, I call her or chat with her over text.
Whether in school or life, I see problems as opportunities, not obstacles, to find a better way to solve them more efficiently. I hope to continue improving my problem-solving skills next fall by majoring in mathematics and statistics.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this tasting of Chef Lowell’s leadership experiences. Next fall, tune in to see him craft new leadership adventures in college. He’s open to refining his technique and discovering new recipes.
Word count: 612
If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Writing process
- Transition words
- Passive voice
- How to end an email
- Ms, mrs, miss
- How to start an email
- I hope this email finds you well
- Hope you are doing well
Parts of speech
- Personal pronouns
The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.
Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.
When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.
No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.
To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:
- Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
- Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories
You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.
A standout college essay has several key ingredients:
- A unique, personally meaningful topic
- A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
- Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
- Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
- Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
- A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
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10 Exceptional Common App Essay Examples
Common App Essay Examples
One of the most important pieces of the college admissions process is the Common App essay, also known as the college essay or the personal statement. By reading Common App essay examples, you can prepare to write your own.
However, what is a personal statement? In a word, a personal statement is an essay you’ll write for college. We will learn more about what makes a great personal statement by exploring sample Common App essays. In fact, the best way for students to ace this type of essay is through dissecting Common App essay examples to see what works.
Breaking down the Common App essay
In this article, we’ll use Common App essay examples to explore what makes a strong personal statement. We’ll break down what makes each of these Common App essay examples successful. That way, you can find inspiration and tools to unlock the best version of your own college entrance essays. We will also provide tips for coming up with college essay ideas and finding a college application essay format that works for your story.
At CollegeAdvisor, our goal is to demystify the college admissions process for all students. As such, we’ll also introduce you to many resources about how to write a college essay. Wherever you are in the process of writing your Common App essay, you’ll find these Common App essay examples helpful.
How to Write a Personal Statement – 5 Personal Statement Examples
What is a Common App essay?
The first step in writing a college essay is understanding the varying types of college essays. When students look up “what is a personal statement?” they are likely to come across many articles about sample Common App essays. Indeed, personal statement sample essays are often the same as Common App essay examples. While there are many other types of college essays, such as supplemental essays, the Common App essay/personal statement is extremely important.
Let’s first explore one major question: what is a personal statement?
Whether you are applying to undergrad, grad school, or a scholarship, the personal statement is a general term for an essay that introduces you to admissions officers. As such, personal statement sample essays must tell a unique story about you that conveys who you are. They should showcase your personality traits, values, and personal growth. With this story, you are showing admissions teams what kind of person and community member you will be when you step onto their campus. For this reason, no two personal statement sample essays are identical.
Understanding the Common App essay
Now, let’s explore what the Common App essay is. A Common App essay is a personal statement submitted through the Common App. Astoundingly, over 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States use the Common App as an application platform. As a result, when you apply to college, you will almost definitely use the Common App. This is why there are so many Common App essay examples out there.
All Common App essay examples are 250-650 wo r ds long. Since students can apply to multiple schools using the Common App, the Common App essay examples we provide were likely submitted to several different colleges. Note how these sample Common App essays are personal to the student but still general enough to work for different schools.
Do all schools require a Common App essay?
Besides wondering “what is a personal statement?”, many students wonder if they need one for every school. As we mentioned, many universities in the U.S. use the Common App . However, the personal statement, also known as the Common App essay, is not required by all schools.
For example, the Universi t y of Washington-Seattle does not accept the Common App essay even though students can apply using the Common App. However, the school has different college entrance essay requirements . These appear when you select a school on your Common App portal.
Encouraged but not required
Some schools encourage but do not require students to submit a college entrance essay. For example, Bridgewater State University encourages students to write a college entrance essay, but it’s not mandatory. In this case, we still recommend submitting an essay, since every part of an application is a chance to showcase who you are and why you’re a compelling candidate.
Furthermore, some schools do not require essays at all. In fact, they won’t even read your college entrance essay should you submit one. These schools, one of which is the University of South Florida , rely exclusively on other measures such as grades, test scores, or extracurriculars to make their college admissions decisions.
Though all schools don’t require a Common App essay, many do. They also might require supplemental essays. As such, it’s important to start preparing your essays early by first reading Common App essay examples. This will help you learn what makes a great college essay.
Common App Essay Prompts
The second question students might ask after ”what is a personal statement?” is “what do I write about?”
Luckily, the Common App gives you plenty of college essay ideas through the college essay topics it provides. All of the Common App essay examples we will look at responded to one of the current prompts.
Let’s review the seven current prompts that inspired our Common App essay examples:
Current Common App Essay Prompts
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., 2. the lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. how did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience, 3. reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. what prompted your thinking what was the outcome, 4. 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, 5. discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others., 6. describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. why does it captivate you what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more, 7. 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..
When looking at these prompts, you’ll note that they are all asking you to be reflective. Indeed, all common app essay examples and college essays that worked involve the student engaging in self-reflection. As such, it matters less what you write about and more what deeper meaning the topic at hand has to you. Successful sample Common App essays demonstrate that the author is a deep thinker.
Choose your own topic
Furthermore, note that prompt #7 allows you to submit an essay on any topic of your choice. So, if none of the first six prompts inspire you, you can focus on another topic of your choice that is meaningful to you.
There is no one-size-fits-all college application essay format. Indeed, all of the Common App essay examples we will explore take different approaches to telling their stories.
As we look at Common App essay examples, take note of how students were self-reflective and demonstrated their unique passion for a topic. We’ll dig into how they accomplish this as we review each of these college essays that worked.
How to use these Common App Essay Examples
Before we look at sample Common App essays, let’s discuss how you can use these examples of college essays to support you in writing your own.
First, avoid the impulse to compare your life to other students’ stories in these Common App essay examples. These sample Common App essays are great tools because of the students’ reflections. It truly doesn’t matter what you write about so long as you can do it in a meaningful way that shows personal growth and self-awareness. Great personal statement sample essays can be written about the most mundane or common topics . So, don’t compare your life experiences with those of other students. Simply add these Common App essay examples to your college essay writing toolbox and understand what works.
Reflect on how you want to tell your story
Secondly, use these Common App essay examples to find inspiration for how you wish to tell your story. Do these Common App essay examples use dialogue that really makes a scene come to life? Maybe a few sample Common App essays discuss topics you hadn’t realized you could write about, giving you ideas for new college essay topics. Drawing inspiration from Common App essays that worked is distinct from copying their ideas or language. So, don’t try to imitate any of these essays. Rather, use them as a tool to enhance your own unique essays.
Finally, take note of what you learn about the writers of these sample Common App essays. Then, look at yourself through the same lens. What do you want college admission officers to learn about you? Your college entrance essay is your chance to show that.
Common App Essay Examples #1
The first of our sample Common App essays discusses a topic that many students might assume is too ordinary: a student’s love of books. After reading each of our sample Common App essays, we’ll break down what makes them strong Common App essay examples.
Sample Common App Essays #1: Books and Identity
Under the harshly fluorescent lights of an aisle in Walmart, I take position amidst the rows of plastic silverware, paper towels, and household goods while my mother searches for supplies she needs for a Fourth of July party. Neither the faint swells of an outdated and overplayed pop song nor the hustle and bustle of a retail store on a holiday weekend reach my ears because as usual, my nose is buried in a book. My mother calls to me, but her voice barely registers and I ignore her, shifting in the spot I have designated for myself aside the packages of Hefty trash bags on the bottom shelf.
She finally finds me, and I reluctantly tear my concentration away from the page. “I’ll just stay here,” I say, buying myself precious time in which I can finish the next sentence, paragraph, or chapter of the novel, and I sink contentedly back into a state of mind where I am entirely myself and nothing, not even other customers searching for trash bags, can disturb me.
This memory is not an uncommon one for me. As a child, I could always be found in stores or restaurants with my latest literary pick in hand. I constantly nagged my parents to bring me to the library or bookstore; this was a constant even as I went through “phases” as I grew up, dabbling in music and theater with temporary or half-hearted enthusiasm. Other children dressed up as astronauts or princesses, but I took on roles of different people as I struggled to find myself.
As I grow older and continue to explore different interests, my love for reading has sparked my intellectual curiosity and taught me valuable life lessons. Reading was an escape during a time when I didn’t quite know who I wanted to be. Now it marks the cornerstone of who I’ve become. I’ve read just as many books about fictional villains and heroes as those about regular people who face the same struggles I do. For me, it’s these kinds of books, stories of people not so different than myself, that have changed and defined my outlook on life.
One such book is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, a story of twins and their difficulty finding their own identity in a world where they are bound together. Noah, one of the twins, describes how he feels he is always “undercover.” He says, “‘Maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people. Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time. Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, […] grow, dive into the world.’” I was unable to realize a person could be defined by multiple aspects of himself.
My tendency to try to fit into a specific role proved to be unsuccessful, but one of my different “selves” was always a part of me, even when taking on the role of someone I didn’t want to be. A love for reading is not a temporary persona I put on to appease parents, friends, or college admissions officers. The reader of a story has an unique perspective of the mind of a character. Because of this, I have realized the true depth and intricacy every person and situation can hold.
I struggled with defining my own identity, with labeling who I was, but now I know every person is much too complex to be defined by a label as simplistic as “athlete” or “musician.” So although it might be assumed that an individual pursuing an engineering degree does not enjoy reading, I am grateful for my love of books, as it is with this passion that I find myself ready to “dive into the world.”
Why this essay worked
As we mentioned earlier, it may feel difficult to come up with college essay ideas. This student chose a topic that some might consider mundane— their love of reading. However, the student is successful because they show how reading has been a critical part of their identity and personal development.
In this essay, the student tells us how reading was an escape from the pressure she felt to define who she was. Later, reading became an integral part of her identity as a learner intrigued by stories. Given that the student plans to major in engineering, this fact adds depth and intrigue to the student’s personal brand. A college admissions officer would find this student an appealing candidate because they will likely be engaged and passionate. Through this example, we see that any topic can be a successful one if it is important to the reader and connects to a core aspect of their identity.
Lastly, as we see in many great examples of college essays, this student includes many details. They even reference dialogue from a favorite book, further illustrating their love of reading.
Now, let’s look at a very different college application essay format in the second of our Common App Essay examples.
Sample Common App Essay #2
The second of our Common App essay examples takes the unique—and potentially challenging—approach of talking about another person. In this essay, the author describes her relationship with Sophia, a child with special needs that she meets while volunteering.
The author’s essay is in response to prompt #3 of the Common App essay prompts:
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Not many Common App essay examples respond to this prompt. Let’s see how this student tackles it.
Common App Essay #2: Challenging Bias about Ability
I see Sophia and wave, laughing at her leaps of excitement that brighten my day. Sophia grins up at me, pointing at her two missing front teeth, and I marvel at how grown-up she is becoming. Deciding to capitalize on her boundless exuberance, I suggest we work on her backstroke, her least favorite. Sensing her reluctance to lie flat on the water, I point out the purple monkey and the giraffe on the ceiling, coaxing her to relax on her back and practice a few kicks. I know that with this distraction, she will slowly uncoil her arms from my waist, gaining the confidence to float on her own. Beaming, I praise her courage, offering a congratulatory high-five. Proud of today’s improvements, I hand her the dreaded kickboard. Sophia’s dimples vanish as she vigorously shakes her head, inching away from the terrifying aqua board.
Recognizing this fear, I remember a trick she loved from the previous lesson. I promise to teach her how to do an under-water handstand, and in response, she tentatively grasps the board with one hand, while clinging to me with the other. I then challenge her to splash me as hard as she can with powerful freestyle kicks, and laugh as my face is soon drenched with water. Clapping, I marvel at her ability to propel herself without any assistance, and to celebrate, we belt out “Let It Go” from Frozen together. My giggles vanish and my heart aches as she begins to recollect the long needles from her latest hospital visit, but I am amazed to see that her laugh never ceases.
Sophia has special needs. Despite her mental challenges, her bubbly and infectious personality never fails to be an uplifting inspiration. I marvel at how this 10-year-old has learned to fully appreciate the life she has been given and cherish each precious moment. In and out of surgeries, hospitals, and clinics, she still exhibits an unparalleled enthusiasm for life.
Sophia’s determination coupled with her bright personality inspires me to embrace optimism in my life. I am passionate about enabling Sophia to break down any perceived obstacles and stereotypes in front of her and lead an active life, just like any other child. Though I go in each week as the teacher, I leave having been her student. Each evening after volunteering, I would lie awake, tossing and turning, wondering how I could do more for Sophia. Prior to volunteering, I often took for granted that I have sports and activity programs readily available. But with far more athletes than coaches in the program, why did more of my peers not volunteer? Why did more people not know about the special gifts people with disabilities radiate?
Yearning to share my experience with others, I founded a club at my school called HandiCapable, encouraging my peers to volunteer with people who have special needs through sports mentoring. I hope to encourage my school community to see that people with mental disabilities are people first, facing challenges like us all. I fought to change an underlying culture where people with intellectual disabilities are mocked or misunderstood in today’s society by spearheading a campaign to eliminate the word “retarded.” Breaking away from using hurtful and derogatory colloquialisms is the first step towards understanding and compassion, altering the way we think, speak, and ultimately act.
Sophia has taught me that nothing is insurmountable if you have courage, foresight and above all, a positive attitude. She has driven me to be more accepting of people who may seem initially quite different, but face challenges like I do. She has inspired me to be more appreciative of uniqueness, because everyone has an individual personality and perspective from which I can learn. Sophia has changed how I view the world.
What makes this a successful essay ?
Writing about another person when applying to college can be tricky. Many sample Common App essays write so much about the other person that they forget to center the author. However, in this essay, the author demonstrates the impact that Sophia had on her, centering her own experiences. In doing so, it highlights how Sophia taught the author to face challenges with joy and courage.
The student also answers the prompt fully and in detail. Specifically, the writer discusses how her experience with Sophia led her to challenge ableist thought. Moreover, the author tells the reader how her inspiration led her to create a club at her school. By doing this, she demonstrates her own leadership skills and activist mindset. In short, we learn a lot about the author even though this essay is about someone who inspired her.
For our third sample, we’ll give into the challenging world of Common App essay examples that talk about sports.
Personal Statement Sample Essay #3
Many examples of college essays talk about a sport that a student has played for a long time. Writing about this topic can be difficult. At times, students spend too much time talking about the details of the sport rather than their experiences.
In the third of our sample Common App essays, the author shows us how her relationship to gymnastics changes over her lifetime. In doing so, she reveals a lot about her character. Let’s take a look:
Personal Statement Sample Essays #3: Perseverance and Commitment through Gymnastics
Gymnastics has always been a part of my life and has shaped who I am today. Without gymnastics I would not have the same determined mindset, competitive nature, and appreciation of a team. If I were to neglect sharing this aspect of my life, my application would truly be incomplete.
When I was two years old, my parents enrolled me in the Parent-and-Me program at Countryside Gymnastics. At six, I became part of the pre-team program, Dynamos, and was placed in the compulsory team at age seven. As a compulsory, I struggled to be as good as my teammates. This struggle caused frustration which evolved into determination and a competitive nature. Throughout the rest of my compulsory years, I gradually improved but still felt as though I were stuck. I knew I had to “up my game.”
The optional levels, 7 and up, brought a new factor—fear. Even though this fear did hold me back at times, I did not let it keep me from achieving my goals. Gymnastics is also extremely tough on the body. Once I entered the optional level of gymnastics, I trained at least 20 hours a week and endured the aches and pains that came along with it. However, I did not let these pains defeat me. When I reached level 9, I began to experience severe back pain, which a spine specialist diagnosed as a subcutaneous lipoma. Although the physician highly recommended I stop training to avoid complications later in life, I was too committed to stop the sport. I let my desire push me through the pain, and I had a successful competition season, qualifying for the Region 8 Regional Competition in Jackson, Mississippi.
During summer training in 2013, I worked as hard as possible to reach level 10, with the back pain progressively worsening. Once my pain peaked, my coach told me it may be time to “hang it up.” I could either quit or repeat level 9 with minimal training. Ultimately, the choice was mine. To prove I was capable of reaching level 10 and to support my team, I continued to train on a vigorous schedule. At level 10, I am the highest level gymnast at Countryside Gymnastics and am determined to have an exceptional competition season.
This determination and competitiveness that pushes me to accomplish my goals in gymnastics also exists in my current scholastics—the health sciences, which will ultimately prepare me for my future in pediatric medicine. Without the desire to be the best I can be, I might not have achieved success throughout my high school years.
Why this essay worked
Some sample Common App essays that write about sports focus too heavily on the sport. In doing so, they fail to tell us much about the author. However, colleges want to know about you!
This author writes about what gymnastics has meant to her throughout her life. This gives us a window into how she thinks, what she fears, and how she handles challenges. Through describing how she pushed forward when faced with injuries or fear, she shows us how she will succeed in college and in life.
Common App Essay Examples #4
Many Common App essay examples attempt to subtly weave in achievements. However, in the fourth of our sample Common App essays, the author takes a bold move. This essay talks about how the author handles failure, revealing critical details about their character. Some might assume that successful Common App essay examples need to focus on “successes,” not failures. However, this essay shows how failure can be a good essay topic choice—if you address it the right way.
Let’s see how one student skillfully tackles the topic of failure.
Sample Common App Essays #4: A New Perspective on Failure
Stretching my ankle against the theraband, my pre-pointe teacher hands out evaluations, determining who will move up to pointe shoes. The TheraBand, worn from months of strengthening in hopes of earning pointe shoes, snaps as I eagerly grab my evaluation. Dumbfounded, I wonder how all my friends were advancing to pointe while I wasn’t. Maybe my body is not built for ballet, I conceded.
A year later, the server on the other side of the net serves the ball with a loud smack. The ball hurdles towards me in seemingly slow motion. Other players yell my name, encouraging me. I need to pass the ball, or else I won’t make the middle school volleyball team. Positioning myself, I bend my knees, and… I hit it out of the court.
Defeated, I accept the rejection with the mindset that my lack of athleticism is permanent.
The following fall, walking out of the audition room and having made it successfully past the first round, I was dizzy and elated. Moments prior, I perfectly performed an excerpt from a piece I prepared for 3 months and was about to play yet another excerpt, which would determine whether I would make the district honors band. Breathing rhythmically, my fingers glide over the familiar scales, my heart thumps the beat of the piece, and I triumph in my second successful audition of the evening. The results the next day were disappointing. I thought about how my mother is tone deaf, and decided that was the reason I would never be successful in my musical aspirations.
Regarding my failures as something out of my control was a recurring theme in my life. Reflecting on past experiences, I am not sure when the thought that my abilities were unchangeable began to prevail. However, I am aware of when the toxic mindset began to change.
For years, I had marveled at long distance runners. Their athleticism and ability to persistently push onwards in a race was something I lacked in my life and simultaneously desired. Spring of my freshman year of high school, I decided I wanted to join the Cross-Country team. However, joining a sport in high school tended to be very difficult, due to the fact current players had already been participating for years prior. Despite anxiety about possibly “failing” at something again, I tried anyways. After careful research and planning, I set a schedule of running and cross training six days a week. Beginning in March, I developed the capability to keep up with experienced teammates by the time the pre-season began in June. With determination, I trained myself from a 12-minute mile runner to a 7-minute mile runner and a competitive Cross-Country athlete.
For the first time, I realized something: Failure does not define me. Instead, it drives me to succeed.
Having previously believed negative qualities cannot be changed, self-training for a sport revealed situations are not permanent. Whatever I lack in inherent talent can always be made up for in hard work and strategic planning. Innately, I am self-motivated and resilient. Once I realized this, obtaining my goals was a possibility, and eventually, a reality.
Because of my newfound self-awareness, pursuing goals is efficient and organized, and often produces favorable results. I no longer believe traits, such as my body type or genetic predisposition for music, restrict my ability to achieve. Instead, they are simply obstacles to be overcome.
Letting shortcomings or events define my future or limit my aspirations is a thing of the past. What truly defines me is my ability to push past rejection and continually better myself – no matter what version of myself I am at the moment.
Why did this essay work well?
One approach that successful personal statement sample essays could take is focusing on an unexpected topic. Throughout this essay, the author plays with the idea of failure. They introduce us to many specific moments in life when they have failed.
As the essay moves forward, the author’s perspective on failure shifts. They learn that through their failures, they can identify ways to improve. They also realize that their own perceptions of their abilities shape how they set goals and whether they achieve them. Essentially, this student tells us through stories how they have developed a growth mindset. This is something that college admissions officers highly value in applicants.
The best Common App essay examples showcase traits that are both true to the author and appealing to colleges. Think about how to do this as you craft your own essays.
Sample Common App Essay #5
Personal statement sample examples are incredibly personal, and this next example is no different. Here, we’ll learn about a tradition that the author values deeply—spending Saturday mornings with family.
Common App Essays that Worked #5: Family Values
I relish Saturday mornings. After a long week of rushed early mornings and drawn-out nights filled with studying, Saturday is the reward. My eyes open at my own pace. Weekdays, I awaken at 6:45 a.m. to the harsh sound of my cell phone alarm or my mom calling through my bedroom door. But not on Saturday, on that day, I rise to the sound of birds chirping or my dad moving around downstairs. Stretching for a long moment, I just enjoy staring at the ceiling. I am content after an extra hour and half of sleep.
Slowly, I leave my warm bed, throw on a comfy sweater and place my glasses on my head. It’s a welcome change from my weekday routine. I do not miss forcing my sleepy body out of bed, slipping into my itchy uniform, or forcing contacts into my tired eyes. When I make my way down the steps I am greeted by my dad reading the newspaper in his favorite leather armchair rather than my full backpack in the foyer.
These relaxing mornings offer me a much-needed break. For once, I’m not rushing off to school or soccer practice. Any essays I need to write or physics tests I must study for can wait a while.
I take the time to just sit on the couch and read a book or watch TV. I can do everything I want or do nothing at all.
However, the true highlights of these mornings occur when I am sitting at the kitchen table with my crossword puzzle and pencil on my right and my breakfast plate and hot mug of tea on my left. Between bites of pancake, I share tricky crossword clues with my family. My mom looks up from the sports section to carefully consider the hint and my sisters bombard me with suggestions but it’s usually my dad, standing over the griddle flipping pancakes, who calls out the correct answer. As I find contentment in a meal, the Puzzles and Games section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the company of my family, I realize that it truly is the little things in life that mean the most.
I appreciate my dad who works long hours but still gets up to cook a big weekend breakfast for my family and the way that he serves me tea in my mom’s white college mug because he knows it’s my favorite. My sisters’ and I laugh playfully as we compete over who’s the strongest and tease me because I’m the weakest. I shake my head and smile at my mom who insists that she can eat three pieces of French Toast even though we all know she’ll barely finish two. To someone else, lazy Saturdays and family breakfasts may appear so routine, so insignificant. But to me, these moments are perfect.
This essay proves that sample Common App essays that worked don’t have to be about a huge life event. In fact, this student is writing about the most common aspects of everyday life: spending time with family. However, the way the student writes about their family demonstrates a lot about the student’s character. We learn that this student values the little things in life and cares deeply for others.
Secondly, by using specific details, from crossword puzzles to coffee mugs, this essay highlights the author’s love for their family. This student masters the age-old writing advice of “show, don’t tell.” This approach keeps Common App essay examples intriguing and fun to read.
Personal Statement Sample Essay #6
There isn’t one successful college application essay format or topic. However, writing about a pivotal moment in one’s life can lead to a very compelling story. Though it can be difficult, this student chooses to be vulnerable about how a catastrophic injury changed their life.
Common App Essay Examples #6: Lessons from an Injury
When I finally woke for the first time in three days, I could feel needles dancing up and down my legs where there were none, and when the doctor asked me to wiggle my toes, there was not even a flicker. Regarding my condition, the doctor told me, “Your skiing accident has left you paralyzed. Permanently.”
In Korea, where I was born, a disability is considered very shameful. Many see people with disabilities as aliens of society. People with disabilities in Asian countries rarely leave the house due to the inaccessible nature of the society and the unbearable piercing stares of the surrounding community members. Seeing this as my only possible life in a wheelchair, the people closest to me repeatedly etched into my brain that without the use of my legs, I could never be successful or happy–a forever pitied human being.
As my church and family members visited me after my injury and saw me in the wheelchair, they reacted in shock, saying, “I’m sorry. I really hope you walk again.” As they tried to console me, I could feel their deep pity. Before even asking if I was okay, or how I was doing, my immobile legs had already drawn in their minds a picture of my bleak future.
As apologies and condolences were continuously thrown at me, I started to believe that everyone was right. Maybe I was just a burden. Maybe I would not ever be happy. Enveloped in a façade of darkness, for so many days, I merely sat in bed begging my legs to move again.
I would be lying if I claimed I suddenly woke up one day and was completely happy again. But through weeks and months, I started to discover that if I continued to look to my surroundings for motivation or support, I would not find it. To everyone else, my church members, my family, I had just become “that girl in the wheelchair.” But I knew I could not just give up on my aspirations or conform to the definitions that I had been labeled with due to one physical attribute.
Through my experiences after my injury, I started to notice so much, especially the lack of diversity in the workplace, and the support that this fact gave to existing societal stereotypes. I started to wonder, how would my experience after my accident have changed, or how much encouragement would I have received if I saw a doctor, teacher, nurse, that had the same abilities as I did? Motivated, I began to involve myself more, and started to work harder academically, so that one day, through my life, I can become this strength and encouragement for someone else.
Many people, seeing me driving, or even just sitting at the movie theater, come up to me and tell me that I’m an inspiration. They tell me how amazing I am for just having gotten dressed in the morning and leaving the house. Honestly, these actions should not be considered inspiring. I’m just living my life. But because of the many prejudiced opinions towards the disability community, opinions that I too once held, the fact that a person in a wheelchair can complete even just everyday activities is considered a great feat.
Someday, I want to be someone that inspires, not because I can get dressed or talk for myself, but because I have really accomplished something that significantly influences the world.
Yes, there are times when I wish I could just get up and walk. However, these moments are temporary and trifling. It scares me to think that without the occurrence of my accident, I may have remained living with the traditional and well-known biases regarding disability and other differences that exist in society. Then, I may have been a true pitiful character.
Today, I am Korean and still, a person with a disability. But I am proud.
A common assumption is that college essays that worked simply highlight a major hardship or tragic life event. However, this is simply not true. Common App essay examples about hardships are successful only if they show how the author grew from an experience.
In this essay, the student shares how their skiing accident changed the way they were treated, thereby changing how they viewed themselves. Rather than feeling pitiful or less-than, this student discovered a newfound determination to positively influence the world. Their perseverance is seen not only in surviving an accident, but in overcoming the limitations society places on people with disabilities.
Common App Essay Examples #7
Many powerful sample Common App essays tap into core aspects of the human experience. This often includes how we navigate our identities– especially in an ever-globalizing world. The following example of Common App essays that worked tackles that topic with grace.
Sample Personal Statement #7: Embracing Heritage, Integrating Identity
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”
Six words. Six words were all it took for Ernest Hemingway to embody the sorrow of a family after losing a child. It seems almost impossible to so elegantly summarize a life in six words.
I received this seemingly impossible assignment in AP Language a year ago. How could I encapsulate my seventeen years of life into six words? Would those words sound funny, poignant, dark? I reflected on important moments that shaped me as a person to answer my questions.
I reminisced about my early years: two loving parents and a playful younger sister. During those years, my parents instilled in me their most important values: meaningful academic pursuit, following our Indian traditions, and preserving cultural heritage.
I remembered the first time I faced the struggle that would tear me apart for the next twelve years: values ingrained in me as a child versus values my friends and the society around me possessed. As I grew older, I learned just how different my friends’ values were from mine.
Throughout my middle school and freshman years, I had two sets of friends: my school friends and my travel basketball friends. The former focused on social status rather than academics; the latter focused on athletics rather than academics. To fit in, I created another persona for myself: someone who focused singularly on social status and athletics. This decision to change my personality based on my surroundings cost me my drive for academic pursuit, and I threw away educational opportunities. I lost sight of who I was and what held true meaning for me.
At that time, my six words would’ve been: “Flip a coin, American or Indian.” For the next two years, I lived by that mantra.
My struggle with balancing the two-sided coin ended in tenth grade by a chance conversation with a cousin in India. As she described her social struggles and their limiting effects on her educational opportunities, I realized how fortunate I was to be in the U.S. I held my destiny in my hands; all I had to do was to reshape my mind. The dissonance created by compartmentalizing my two important sides prevented me from moving forward, and I had to bridge the distance I had created between my Indian heritage and living as an American.
I embraced my cultural heritage by immersing myself into Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance, and passionately committing to it by completing a rigorous 3-year Certificate Course with Alagappa University of Performing Arts. In order to share my art with the community, I performed for neurologically challenged senior citizens residing in assisted living homes. Through this service, I was able to spread joy and culture amongst my American community, helping me bridge my cultural gap.
Additionally, my upbringing had been focused on science with an expectation that my career would be in the medical field. Eventually, I developed an affinity toward science. Growing up, I was exposed to the American ideal that I can shape my own opportunities, pursue whichever career I desired, and just follow my heart. I found myself naturally attracted to journalism, and following my heart I ventured into journalism.
Still, a key part of me was missing, and I found it only after conversing with my journalism teacher. She was describing an article by Helen Pearson, renowned science journalist, when it hit me: this is what I wanted to do. Science journalism was the product of my Indian upbringing and go-getter American attitude. That cathartic conversation is all that was needed to find the perfect career path for me.
My cultural confusion turned out to be the springboard I needed for discovering balance, finding a potential career, arming me with rich life experiences, and allowing me to write the six words that transformed my life and that I still stand by:
“Shape my mind, shape my destiny.”
What makes this essay great ?
For students coming from multiple cultures or marginalized identities, writing a personal statement can be a healing form of self-reflection. Indeed, many successful Common App essay examples touch on this topic. However, as always, writing about it with intention and care is ultimately what makes these personal statement sample essays work.
As an Indian-American, this student feels torn between connecting to their Indian heritage and integrating within their American community. They overcome this inner conflict by reframing how they view their identity, rejecting the either-or paradox they felt caught in. They even intentionally immerse themself in their Indian culture and share it with others through volunteer work. From their reflection, they discover how science journalism could be a career that merges all parts of their identity.
Compelling Common App essay examples are written engagingly . This author hooks us from the start of their essay with an intriguing quote that immediately catches the reader’s attention. They also bring that hook back to show us how changing their mindset allowed them to overcome their inner conflict.
Our next example of Common App essays that worked brings together two topics that the author feels passionate about. In doing so, the author doubles their ways to showcase who they are.
Sample Common App Essay #8
All Common App essays that worked have touched upon a topic that is meaningful to the author. This next author wrote about two – their love of Rubik’s cubes and scientific research.
Common App Essay Examples #8: Rubik’s Cubes and Research
The complex array of colors had always baffled me. Orange, yellow, green, red, white, and blue all jumbled together on a mystifying gadget that just could not be completed. Twisting and turning side after side was of no use, the Rubik’s Cube could not be solved. This elaborate contraption presented me with the most overwhelming experience of my life. It outshined everything else in my dull life, and solving it became a life-changing experience.
I spent many weeks trying to find different combinations that could solve the mysterious puzzle. After continuously failing, I felt infuriated. However, rather than giving up on my goal, I knew I could do it. I worked backwards until I realized what I did wrong early in the solving process. I kept forgetting to do a critical step, causing me to get two colors in their wrong spots. Knowing this, I was able to alter my procedure and make significant progress. I was finally able to solve four out of the six sides over the course of 45 seconds. Solving the last two sides, however, needed a little more time and effort. My affection for mathematics and science stems mainly from this- both involve a similarly coherent and disciplined approach just like the Rubik’s Cube.
This past summer, I did research work at Columbia University Medical Center on ion channel membrane proteins and studied their structure and function in the ultimate goal to find drug targets to help cure cancer. When some research experiments provided dubious outcomes, I was given the assignment of checking that the viruses we were working with had been identified correctly. I spent weeks running DNA gels through gel electrophoresis and trying to find specific genes in each virus, but I had varying results. I was exasperated, but rather than giving up on my task, I thought about my past experience with the Rubik’s Cube. Working backwards on the Rubik’s Cube helped me figure out exactly at which step I went wrong.
So I decided to work backwards on my research until I reached the source, the primers, I had used to amplify the DNA and specify the desired mutations were nonspecific, thus making them ineffective in distinguishing the six genes of interest to us. Knowing this, I was able to modify my experiments accordingly, looking at protein content instead of DNA sequences. I was finally able to prove that four of the six viruses were correct. The last two, however, needed to be reanalyzed. Just like the troubleshooting strategy with the Rubik’s Cube, working backwards helped me to find my source of error and ultimately got me 4/6 th of the way through my goal. My research work was crucial to the graduate student whom I was working with, and he was able to redesign his experiments to account for the fifth and sixth viruses.
Researching in a lab alongside a renowned professor was a thrilling experience for me. I gave up hanging out with my friends on the beach and chose to work with chemicals and viruses instead. My urge to understand these proteins was the driving force of my research. I am incredibly proud of my contribution to solving the puzzle of cancer. It was a small piece, but vital nevertheless. This cerebral inspiration, combined with an aspiration to learn more about life’s ambiguities, compels me to chase a profession with scientific research.
The sense of self-satisfaction and achievement I felt from my research work at the Columbia University was much the same as that I felt upon solving the Rubik’s Cube. This sensation is one I hope to experience throughout my life as the cancer puzzle is unequivocally one of the most critical puzzles of the modern era and certainly the first of a myriad of puzzles I hope to solve in the field of scientific discovery.
Why this Essay Worked
This sample combines two college essay ideas flawlessly. First, the student introduces us to their love of Rubik’s cubes. Then, they flow into their love of research and the impact they made through their summer internship at a cancer research lab.
The real power comes in how the student uses their approach to Rubik’s cubes in order to overcome a roadblock in their research. By doing so, the student highlights their problem-solving skills alongside their compassion for others. In this, this essay highlights the writer’s wish to positively impact the world. We can learn a lot about crafting a strong college application essay format from this example.
Our next sample of Common App essays that worked highlights a student’s passion for language . Moreover, it uses a hook and a writing style that makes it a standout essay.
Personal Statement Sample Essay #9
When thinking about how to write a college essay, start by thinking: what could I talk about all day? Great Common App essay examples often focus on passions. This author introduces us to one of their passions—the written word—through a story about an influential English teacher.
Common App Essay Examples #9: A Love for Language
It is like selecting the perfect pair of socks, I suppose. I envision myself kneeling before the bottommost drawer of my bureau, my chilled feet egging me on, and perusing the trove of choices that awaits my roving fingertips. I meditate on the day’s promises before making my selection – now, did the weatherman say 65 or 55 degrees? Was that rain the Farmers’ Almanac called for? Perhaps I should just wear sandals. After a few more moments of inspection: Ah – there it is! Of perfect hue, texture, and temperament, it is exactly the article for which I sought.
There exists a great parallel between this, the daily hosiery search that begins my mornings, and my lifelong pursuit of the perfect word. Socks and words, both objects of my affection, are united in their enduring qualities: both involve a weighty decision, require a certain shrewdness and pragmatism from the selector, and offer nearly endless options that only intensify the quandary. However, in seventeen years of interaction with both, I informedly pronounce that I find the latter to be infinitely more cumbersome, convoluted, and, thus, beautiful.
My rendezvous with language began as all children’s do: with crying. On the heels of crying came babbling, soon ousted by laconic speech and finally replaced by comprehensible expression. To my youngest self, language was mechanical and lifeless, a rigid blend of lexicon and grammar that broke as many rules as it created. This sentiment prevailed until I walked into Mrs. Regan’s fourth-grade class.
On that fateful first day, I recall being struck by her inviting personality and stylish plaid frock (I was personally wanting in the department of fashion). Beyond the warmth of her disposition, her pedagogical philosophy was unconventional and striking, even to an easily-distracted girl who wore the same green shirt every day. Her intention was not to satisfy district-determined measures or adhere to the antiquated curricula her coworkers professed. Instead, she pushed her students to invite intellectual challenges and conundrums, exposing us to the complexities of academia that she adored.
Her passion was best evidenced by the infamous vocabulary lists that circulated every Monday, boasting words typically native to a high school workbook. Suddenly, pedestrian exercises in ‘Choosing the Right Word’ were transformed into riveting explorations of the English language’s multiplicity, breadth, and allure. Within weeks I was concocting sentences just to employ ‘voracity’ and asking for synonyms for ‘vociferous’ that could aptly describe my rowdy classmates.
With thanks due to Mrs. Regan’s tutelage, my enthusiasm for words matured into an infatuation. I began to pour through the well-worn dictionary that presided over my nightstand, tasting the foreign syllables as they rolled from my lips. Coincidentally, I was soon given the title of the ‘human dictionary’ at school and have since served as a consultant for my friends and peers, answering questions of “What word fits best here?” or, the age-old query, “Affect or effect?” But the further I read, the more humbled I become, dwarfed by the vastness and mystery of my mother tongue.
Though my ensuing years of education have been enormously fruitful, Mrs. Regan remains my childhood hero on two counts: she encouraged my obsession with the written word and indulged my fourth-grade wish for a challenge. The insatiability I feel puzzling over jargon on PubMed, hearing the ping of Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s word of the day arriving in my inbox, and maybe even shedding a tear at the aesthetic tenor of ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ can be traced to those days of yore, spent copying definitions in a blockish scrawl. Today, as in that year far gone, I am still in pursuit of the perfect word – ever elusive, sitting on the tip of my tongue. But pouring through the dresser drawers of my mind, abundant with the tokens of my educational and lingual experience, I know it will not be long until I find it.
What makes this essay stand out?
Great Common App essay examples must be well-written. In this essay, the student’s writing mirrors her love for writing; they are both exceptional. Not all effective sample Common App essays need to have large vocabulary words like this essay does. However, they all need to reflect the student’s unique voice and be grammatically correct.
This essay takes us into the student’s mind, showing us how they think and how much they love the English language. They highlight countless examples of how they embrace the challenge of writing, all through the metaphor of choosing socks. As such, we see a student who is ambitious and passionate. These character traits make them a very desirable candidate.
Common App Essay Examples #10
Next, let’s look at our final sample of Common App essays that worked. In this essay, we’ll explore a student’s relationship to acting and labels throughout their life.
Common App Essay Examples #10: Letting Go of Labels
“Are you ready?” I looked up at the sound of an unfamiliar voice, which I followed to a face caked in a mask of stage makeup. I replied with a curt nod and feigned smile, forcing my expression to oppose the dread welling inside my stomach. In no way did I feel prepared; truthfully, I felt nothing short of ridiculous, clad in an electric green, one-sleeved spandex dress reminiscent of a 4 th grader’s discarded dance ensemble (and no doubt someone’s well-intentioned but unfortunate donation to the costume bin). Trapped in my orb of painful self-awareness, I peeked into the audience, imbibing Coke from the concession stand and looking detachedly at iPhones, waiting for the dimming lights to signify the start of Act I. All I felt was my heart careening into my throat.
Weeks before, I accepted the request to play my ukulele during the high-school production of Godspell the musical. I thereupon decided to enter the wily seas of the theatre arts with the remarkably determined response of “Hey, why not?” Initially, my decision seemed an innocuous one. Playing ukulele? Seeing a show? Indulging in complimentary refreshments? The positive haze that enveloped the future reminded me that this could be my shot – the chance of realizing my Audra-McDonald-and-Angela-Lansbury-inspired dreams of performing, a dream left behind long ago.
Music and theatre forever had been a part of me, a shaper of the fantasies of grandeur and fame inherent with childhood. Christened with the bellows of Tchaikovsky and Dvořák and raised alongside a sister infatuated with the spotlight, it seemed only natural for me to ascend to my own musical perch. As years passed, however, my shier disposition guided me to athletics, and I soon became the recipient of patronizing nods when I explained that, no, I did not sing too. Even so, with the purchase of a ukulele, my passion became a quiet one, made undeniably alive in the moments everyone left the house and silenced as the family car pulled in again.
Unfortunately, no late-night bedroom performance could have prepared me to step before an audience. In the wing, someone grabbed my arm and motioned onto the stage. My legs took on the cartoon effect of wobbling back and forth, and I plastered a perturbed grin on my face as a sorry attempt at joy (probably reading more a grimace than the beacon of ecstasy I had hoped). The cast shuffled onto the stage, cloaked in the colors of Stephen Schwartz’s vision, and the cue sounded for the song to start.
I stood arrested under the searing lights, feeling my heart race and sweat glands dilate. I looked into a faceless audience, blackened by the concentration of light striking my retina. Blinking and restoring my vision, I glanced beside me and saw the warmth and undiluted joy of my peers. Their smiles were not feigned. A lone flautist tooted out the first notes and, still watching over my shoulder, I fumbled to make a C chord. The tune began; I inhaled and opened my mouth and sang.
I used to fashion square containers in my mind, ones in which I placed my friends, acquaintances, and, often, myself. I smacked a label on the box – maybe ‘Equestrian’, ‘Mathematical Genius’, or ‘Makes a Mean Stew’ – and relied upon my scheme, this Dewey Decimal System of my interpersonal library, to govern my conceptions of those around me. Only once I had lumped myself into the ‘Athlete’ bin and sealed the lid did I notice that an air-tight container is not where I belong, not where any free-thinking, passionate, idiosyncratic being belongs. Immersing myself into the vibrancy of the Godspell stage, uke in tow, and exuding what I had internalized shattered this jejune way of categorizing the world.
As I reassessed my perspective, I thought, maybe one day I’ll become a crusader of self-expression, a lover of every powerful facet that culminates in the individual, no matter where I find myself. Until then, I’ll keep on singing – not proudly, not defiantly, and definitely not concordantly, but my voice will pipe to the intricate, malleable tune of myself.
One college application essay format that works for some students is to take us directly into a scene through dialogue. This is often an effective hook. Here, the author uses this tactic to capture our attention. They also describe the moment before they step on stage with evocative details, allowing us to experience their anxiety. This is another great example of showing and not telling.
However, the author’s anxiety about acting transforms into several realizations about their relationship to the arts. Fear led them to stop acting, and embrace athletics instead. However, in the end, the author realizes that they don’t need to choose one or the other. Instead, they can continue to evolve and explore new sides of themself as they grow.
Undoubtedly, college admissions officers evaluated this writeras a lifelong learner who faces fears and constantly questions society’s assumptions. Like many compelling personal statement sample essays, this student takes us on a journey through her self-development.
How to write a college essay?
We’ve looked at 10 successful Common App essay examples. Now, you might be wondering how to write a college essay that is equally as compelling. Let’s look at some college essay tips to help you ace the process :
4 tips for writing college essays
1. start early.
We can almost guarantee that none of the Common App essay examples featured here were written overnight. In fact, these Common App essays that worked required ample time to choose a topic, reflect on one’s growth, write the essay, get feedback, and edit.
Often, to write a successful essay, one must step away from a piece and come back to it. As such, it is important to give yourself plenty of time to write your essay. For most, this means several months. If you’re a college junior, start the summer before your senior year.
2. Be you, specifically and authentically
Whether you’re writing about an injury or a favorite book, make sure your college essay ideas are meaningful and personal. Pick a topic that you could passionately talk about all day. Furthermore, always speak about your ideas and experiences in detail. Telling us that you love books is not as powerful as telling us how your parents had to continually turn off the lights in your room because you would stay up all night reading.
3. Write many drafts
Your first draft is often not your best draft. In fact, it can take upwards of 3-4 drafts to get to an essay that you’re proud of. Likewise, prepare yourself for the possibility of completely scrapping one of your college essay topics or reworking your entire college application essay format. These are all natural parts of the process.
4. Get help from others
Like many of the most challenging things in life, applying to college is best done with help. When brainstorming college essay topics, consider asking friends and family what makes you stand out in their minds. Ask experts like a CollegeAdvisor admissions counselor or an English teacher to review your essay. And, of course, read many examples of college essays to find inspiration. But don’t forget that you aren’t alone in this process!
We’ve now talked about how to write a college essay and looked at some Common App essay examples. But what makes a great college essay? We’ll explore characteristics of Common App essays that worked next.
What makes a great college essay?
We’ve looked at many Common App essay examples in this guide. As you’ve likely noticed, there is no single perfect recipe for college essays that worked. In fact, these sample Common App essays are all very different. From college essay topics to college application essay format, there is great diversity in what makes a great college essay.
Still, there are some traits that many great Common App essay examples share. Here are a few:
Unique to the student
Among the most important college essay tips is to write about what matters to you. If you try to copy someone else’s idea or write what you think colleges want to hear, your essay will feel forced. Instead, choose the topic that immediately catches your attention. This will lead to you writing about your most meaningful experiences. These could be anything from growing up without money to remembering your favorite toy. The personal statement sample essays we highlighted touch on many different topics. However, all of them were important to the authors.
Along with this, focus on writing in your own voice. If you don’t naturally write with four syllable vocabulary words, then don’t try to do so in your essay. Our personal statement sample essays highlighted several different writing styles, and they all worked.
You don’t have to write like a college professor. However your essay does have to be easy to read and free of grammatical errors . Note that our personal statement sample essays were free from slang and typographical errors. In part, admissions officers are assessing your writing abilities. Show them the best writing you can produce.
Undoubtedly, admissions officers are looking to see how you reflect upon your experiences. Ideally, they want to see personal growth. What did you learn? What do you value? How do you solve problems? How do you approach challenges? All of our Common app essay examples demonstrate the author reflecting upon their experience in order to answer such questions.
Additional Common App Essay Tips
We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide to Common App essay examples. To finish, we have a few more tips from what we saw in our personal statement sample essays.
Show, don’t tell
A common literary approach that all of the sample Common App essays employed is the maxim of “show, don’t tell.” Though this is a cliché piece of advice , it is critical to all college essays that worked. It involves using descriptive language, dialogue, and other details to make your story come to life. Imagine you are a film director – how would you describe the story you are trying to tell in 3D detail? Our sample Common App essays were chock full of details that brought each story to life and made for an engaging read.
Find a hook
A hook is a compelling start to an essay. It is one of the most common aspects of a successful college application essay format. A hook can look like a piece of dialogue, an evocative sentence, or a surprising statement. If you look at our Common App essay examples, you’ll see that they all start with an interesting hook.
Read your essay aloud
The last of our college essay tips has to do with how you edit your essay. We recommend reading it aloud to yourself. This not only helps with finding typos or wordiness; it also allows you to connect with the emotion behind your essay. Does reading it make tears well in your eyes? Does it make you laugh? If so, you’re likely onto something great. Reading your essay out loud also helps to know if it sounds natural. As we stated earlier, all of our sample Common App essays capture the unique voices of different students.
Other CollegeAdvisor Essay Resources to Explore
At CollegeAdvisor, we’re committed to helping you ace the admissions process and get into a school that makes you happy. As such, beyond this article with sample Common App essays, we have other resources to guide you through the essay process.
Common App Essays 2023‒2024
If you liked reading our Common App essay examples, check out this article about personal statement sample essays. You’ll find more college essay ideas and college essay tips inside.
Alternatively, if you’re already in college but are considering transferring , we have a guide for writing your transfer essay. With this guide, you’ll be able to reflect on why a new school might be a better fit for you. You’ll also learn how to ensure that your application to a new school is compelling. Since transfer essays have a slightly different college application essay format, you shouldn’t simply recycle a past personal statement.
Additionally, we have helpful webinars about writing your Common App essay. Our webinar on crafting your unique story will help you think about what kind of characteristics or branding you wish to highlight in your essay. Thinking in this way may feel more natural than trying to simply answer a prompt.
Crafting Your Story: Effective Strategies for College Essays
If you’re a junior , our webinar on using the summer before your senior year to get ahead on writing your personal statement will help you get organized. Resources like these can help make the college application process much less stressful. We can guarantee that each of these sample Common App essays took a good amount of time to write. With that in mind, starting early is key.
Also, check out this video below from the folks at Questbridge with additional tips on how to tell your unique story and make your college essays stand out.
Common App Essay Examples – Final Takeaways
In this article, we showed you ten Common App essay examples and broke down why they are Common App essays that worked. Hopefully, you can now answer both the questions “what is a personal statement?” and “what makes great sample Common App essays?”. If you remember only one of our featured college essay tips, let it be to stay true to yourself in your essay.
The process of applying to college, and especially being vulnerable in an essay, can be daunting. However, CollegeAdvisor is here to support you. In addition to providing dozens of examples of college essays and other resources , we offer personalized admissions guidance designed to help students succeed. Click here to connect with a member of our team and learn more.
Courtney Ng wrote this guide full of Common App Essay Examples. 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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How to Write an Amazing Common App Essay (2023–2024) — Examples Included
Learn how to come up with a unique topic and choose the right common app essay prompt to write a strong personal statement and get into your dream college. plus, a full-length common app essay example.
Writing a strong common app essay will help you stand out to colleges, beyond your GPA and TEst scores
(Note: This guide can also be found in our free, 110-page comprehensive guide to top college admissions, How to Get Into America’s Elite Colleges: The Ultimate Guide . )
Part 1: Introduction
What is the common application.
Why does the Common App Essay—and other college essays—matter?
What are these mystical college essays, anyway?
Common App Essay Prompts 2023–2024
Part 2: Pre-writing your Common App Essay
Brainstorming Common App Essay topics
Essay writing timelines: how to write your Common App personal statement if you have six months, three months, one month, or even less
Part 3: Choosing your Common App Essay topic
Part 4: writing your common app essay.
What 'type' of essay do you have to write?
Writing and revising: common errors
Part 5: Common App Essay example
Part 6: frequently asked questions.
Applying to college: the phrase alone can instill terror in the hearts of high school seniors, and even in those of us who have lived through the experience.
Every year, the college application process seems to get more complex, and more intense. If you’re a student, you might be reviewing rumors and horror stories about that classmate of yours with perfect grades and a 1500 SAT score who somehow got rejected from every Ivy League school . If you’re a parent, you might be afraid of how much the college admissions system has changed and grown more competitive since you were your kids’ age, or perhaps you never had to navigate this system at all.
One of the biggest fears of many students and parents is the sheer anonymity of the process. You, the college applicant, have worked hard through high school, earning great grades, expanding your worldview through extracurricular activities , and contributing to your community… and now, it can seem pretty unjust to throw yourself at the mercy of an application system that seems arbitrary, blind to your personality, or even uncaring.
There’s good news, though.
The college application process has a logic to it—and it’s one that you, the applicant, can both navigate and trust. All those essays, all those forms, all those questions? They’re about getting you in touch with the most authentic and vibrant version of yourself. In fact, if tackled with intelligence, reflection, and organization, the college process can actually offer you a chance to make the admissions process about you as a person, rather than about a distant name on a screen.
You might be familiar with the Common Application , Common App for short, which serves as a single application shared by over 900 colleges, including every Ivy League school and similarly elite universities like Stanford, Caltech, and the University of Chicago. The Common App allows you to enter information like your name, demographics, extracurricular activities, and more just once for every school that uses it. It’s also where you’ll encounter “The Common App Essay,” otherwise known as your personal statement (PS), which is what this guide will focus on.
Though not every school uses the Common App—many state or public schools often have their own systems—the work you do in writing your Common App Essay will serve you in every other component of the process, including applying to non-Common App schools and writing the secondary and supplemental essays that often accompany both types of applications.
(Suggested reading: Which Schools Use the Common App? The Rank-Ordered List )
Why does the Common App Essay—and any other college essay—matter?
You may have heard the phrase “holistic admissions” thrown around—many universities follow this model, which means they don’t necessarily have an ACT or SAT cutoff score, nor do they require a certain number of AP/IB/Honors courses. Instead, they’re trying to get to know candidates as humans. Admissions officers are people—people who would be horribly bored if their job came down to just numbers, statistics, cutoffs, and counting up your AP, SAT, and ACT scores.
In order to get into your dream school, you’ll need not only great grades and test scores, but also a strong personal statement.
Why? Your personal statement is the single loudest ‘qualitative’ element of your application. It brings to life the student—you!—behind your statistics and demographics. It’s the way you communicate with the admissions committee as a person and potential member of the campus community. With more people applying to colleges every year, admissions officers know they can have their pick of bright and motivated students. In addition to seeing your talents and achievements on paper, they need a chance to imagine what you might be like as a walking, talking human being.
Many students and parents wonder how big of a role essays play when it comes to college admissions decisions. While the importance of college essays—which are written over a period of a few weeks or, ideally, a few months—varies from school to school, most experts estimate that they make up for anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of admissions decisions!
In other words, your four years of schoolwork, AP, IB, ACT, and SAT exams, community service, volunteering, and so on account for only 70 to 90 percent. These estimates are provided not to scare you, but rather to emphasize how critical it is for you to spend at least as much time on your college essays as would on any other high school pursuit.
Fortunately, we’re going to talk about every aspect of your personal statement in this guide and reflect on some of the lessons we’ve taken from nearly 20 years of coaching students through the college application process and getting into their dream schools.
Gain instant access to essay examples for every supplemental essay prompt from the top universities and BS/MD programs in the United States.
Let’s define our terms:
Personal statement (PS): When people refer to the personal statement, they’re talking about the 650-word Common Application Essay, which all schools using the Common App will see. Your personal statement is your major chance to articulate the qualitative aspects of yourself to the admissions committee and the admissions committee’s major chance to get to know you as a person. Throughout this guide, "Common App Essay," "Common App personal statement," and "personal statement" are used interchangeably.
Secondary or supplemental essays: These are the essays that schools can choose to have you write on top of the core Common App Essay. They might invite you to talk more about an extracurricular activity on your resumé, to reflect on a quote from a famous alumna/alumnus of the college, or to share your thoughts on any number of wide-ranging topics.
Common App Essay prompts 2023–2024
Here are the 2023–2024 Common App Essay prompts —all seven prompts are exactly the same as last year. We’ll address how to think about them shortly, so just lodge them in your brain for now.
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.
Broad, right? You’ve got 650 free words to articulate what moves you, what excites you, what animates or explains you.
This means your essays are not a place to restate what can already be found on your resumé, CV, or Common App Activities section . They’re also not a place to prove that you’ve had some major epiphany, changed the world, or seen the truth of reality at age eighteen. They can be but do not have to be—by any means—about a major traumatic experience. They can but need not discuss family, identity, race, gender, or class.
Instead, they are a place to give the admissions committee a chance to see the you that your friends, classmates, teachers, teammates, and family know. We’ve seen students write about the New England Patriots, the poetry of John Keats, their grandparents’ village, their obsession with keeping too many Google Chrome tabs open, how grilling meats represented a rite of passage, and many more topics that range from the super-serious to the lighthearted but still meaningful.
The Common App Essay prompts are diverse enough that they allow you to write about pretty much anything. Therefore, we encourage you to brainstorm your best stories first and then think about which question to answer. Admissions committees have no preference for which prompt you choose. Additionally, we encourage you to review additional successful college essay examples .
Furthermore, keep in mind that the Common App Additional Information Section contains an optional, 250-word space to describe how COVID-19 has impacted you . Therefore, you do not need to use your Common App Essay to provide this context. That said, it’s also perfectly fine to write about or touch on COVID-19— if the pandemic is a backdrop that allows you to shine a light on what’s unique and interesting about you in the manner we described above.
Let’s meet our students
Throughout this guide, we’re going to refer to a few Common App Essay examples. These examples are closely based on essays we have worked on with students over the past two decades—students who successfully met their admissions goals, including getting into multiple Ivy League and other top-tier schools.
Let’s meet our students now.
Student #1: Ramya: Ramya intends to be premed in college, but isn’t sure if she wants to major in biology or something else entirely. She’s spent her high school years participating in a variety of activities. She played soccer, but wasn’t the star player. She was involved in student government, performed in cultural shows as a dancer, and did speech events.
What’s not on Ramya's resumé? She is a rabid fan of the New England Patriots, despite living in California for most of her life. And, she’s very close to her father and has a tight-knit group of friends.
Student #2: Anita: Anita has an aptitude for English and history. She likes writing, but she’s not on the school newspaper, nor has she ever published a piece of fiction or poetry, which makes her nervous about calling herself a writer. She spends much of her time on mock trial—in fact she’s nationally competitive at it—and lots of people tell her she’d make a great lawyer. But she doesn’t think she wants to major in political science or philosophy; she may not even want to do anything associated with mock trial in college.
What’s not on her resumé? She loves the outdoors, though she has nothing concretely extracurricular to prove it—she’s never been a camp counselor or a Girl Scout.
Student #3: Josh: Josh isn’t sure what he wants to study. He’s a solid student, though no particular subject gets his pulse racing. In his free time he draws comic strips, and he’s had a few on display at various community events in his town. He plays basketball and piano.
What’s not on his resumé? Josh has a complicated relationship with piano—his parents pushed him into it, and he’d like to quit as soon as possible. And, he’s very close to his big brother, who recently left for college. He also has a little sister, who he’s never been tight with.
Student #4: Michael: Michael lives in a small coastal town and attends a big public high school. After school he has a job scooping ice cream, and though he’s not expected to contribute to his family’s income, he doesn’t have much time for clubs or sports, which aren’t very important at his school. He generally likes chemistry, but he isn’t sure what he wants to do with that. He doesn’t want to be premed, and he can’t imagine being a chemist, so he’s undecided about what to major in.
What’s not on his resumé? Michael is no great surfer by competitive standards, but he learned how to stand up on a board at a young age because his grandfather, who’s from Hawaii, taught him. His grandfather recently passed away.
Of course, the terrifying part of starting any new piece of writing—whether you’re a professional, seasoned author, or a high schooler planning for college—is the spooky glare of the blank page, that blinking cursor that doesn’t quite seem to yield to you.
One of the major challenges many students face when applying to college is knowing that they are full of passion and potential energy which hasn’t yet been converted into kinetic energy. That can make trying to communicate who you are, as well as who you hope to become, a daunting task. You might worry about sounding generic or not sounding like yourself or not sounding “smart” or “wise” enough.
The best antidote to all of these concerns, from writer’s block to finding your voice, is to prepare yourself emotionally and creatively well before you sit down to type out your personal statement.
Here’s how you can attack your Common App personal statement and secondary essays if you have a few months before they’re due. We are big proponents of starting early—ideally in June.
Why so early? You may not be thrilled at the prospect of spending the summer before your senior year on college applications. But getting going in June after your junior year and committing to a few exercises over the summer will be like spring training for summer athletes. By the time you get to August, when you’re drafting your Common App Essay and your secondary essays in full, you will be warmed up, and much of the hardest work—that is, the reflection and figuring out what you want to say—will be done for you.
Starting early will also give you time to hand a strong draft of your essay to the teachers from whom you plan to request letters of recommendation for college . If your recommenders know what you’re saying about yourself, they can help tell the same story about you but from a different perspective. This is crucial because your application is a chance to offer not only the facts about you but also a narrative of you—a sense of who you are, how you move through the world, and what you hope to become. That means that each component of your application—your Common App personal statement, your supplemental college essays , your teacher recommendations, and the classes you’ve taken—is like an episode in your story.
Nevertheless, we’ve also offered some adjusted timelines lower down in case you don’t have the whole summer to work with.
Brainstorming Common App Essay topics and working with prompts (2–3 weeks)
Review the Common App prompts and identify which ones get your juices flowing. You can also use our expanded prompts, given in the bulletpoints below, to help you brainstorm and freewrite over the summer. We’re starting with Common App Essay Prompt 7, since it is the broad, general question. Then we’ll circle back and go through Prompts 1–6.
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.
Make a list of themes and broad topics that matter to you. What do you, your friends, and family spend a lot of time thinking about or talking about? (Note: This is not the same as asking for your list of extracurricular activities.) Tell the story of an important day or event in relation to one of these topics.
Who’s a family member who lives with you and is important to you? Think of a specific time they helped you with something. Tell the story. What’s an important conversation you had with them? Tell the story.
Think of any person—family, friend, teacher, etc.—who has been important to you. When did you first meet them? Tell the story. When did you have a crucial, meaningful, or important conversation with them? Tell the story.
Make a list of experiences that have been important to you. These do not have to be dramatic, tragic, traumatic, or prove that you changed the world, though they can be any of those. Perhaps a particular summer that mattered a lot? Or an experience with a friend or family member who shaped you—it could be a specific day spent with them, or a weekend, summer, or year.
Remember: Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement. Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you. One of the best pieces of advice we can give you—and something you’ll see reflected in all of the following prompts—is to anchor things in anecdote or story as much as possible.
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.
Where did you grow up? Describe your neighborhood, town, or community. Big or small? What makes it unlike other parts of the world? How has it affected you? What images are important for someone who has never been to your hometown/neighborhood/community to see? For instance, is there farmland all around you, grain silos, cows? A Chick-Fil-A on every block?
Where is home for your parents? Does their home impact your day-to-day life? Describe the first time you saw their home, in story form.
Did you grow up considering another place that is not where you currently live home? Tell the story of the first time you went there or the first time you remember going there. Was there a particular time—a summer, or a year—when that place became important? Tell that story.
What’s the most memorable thing about you? What do people in your community or school know you for? Tell the story of the first time you did this thing. Tell the story of the most meaningful time you did this thing—it might be, say, when you won a game, but it also might be when you lost a game, or when you quit the team.
How have you spent your summers in high school? In childhood? Tell a story of a memorable day during a memorable summer. Where were you? Why did it matter? Does what happened that day influence you today? How?
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?
What major changes have you been through? A move? Changing schools? Losing a loved one or a friend? (Avoid writing about romantic relationships and breakups in your essays, but feel free to mine them in your freewriting.) Tell the story of the day that change occurred—the day you moved, the first day at the new school or the last day at the old school, the day you got bad news about a family member or a friend, etc.
Did you ever quit an extracurricular activity or a job? Why? Tell the story of the day that happened, and of the day you decided to quit.
What class was hardest for you in high school? Why? Tell the story of a specific class assignment that was difficult. Now tell the story of a specific class assignment that caused you to have a breakthrough, or changed your mind about something.
Have you ever been forced to try something you weren’t good at? How’d it go? Tell the story of the day you tried it. Who encouraged you to? Where were you?
Have you faced a disability, a mental or physical health issue, or other significant challenge while in high school? Think of a day when you are proud of how you handled or carried yourself in the face of this challenge. (Recommended reading: How to Effectively Write About a Disability in a College Essay )
Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
What values did you grow up holding dear? Are they the same ones today? Tell the story of the first time you learned about these values—say, a morning at Sunday School or a conversation with a grandparent. If they’ve changed, tell the story of the moment (as best you can place it) when they changed—say, in a classroom, in a conversation with a friend, etc.
Is there a prevalent belief in your family or community with which you disagree? How did you come to disagree? Tell the story of an argument—cordial or not—that you’ve had with someone about this issue. Tell the story of a time you are proud of how you handled conflict in relation to this disagreement.
When were you wrong about something? Tell the story of how you figured out you were wrong. Who helped you get there?
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?
Have you ever had an interaction with a stranger or someone whom you didn’t know well that left a profound impact on you?
How has your relationship to gratitude changed over time, either recently or in an earlier period of your life? What events spurred this change?
Have you ever been the recipient of an unexpected gift or favor that inspired you to “pay it forward” and help someone else who wasn’t anticipating it?
What are you thankful for in your life right now? Make a list of things, people, or circumstances for which you are grateful, no matter how big or small. You might even complete this exercise daily over a period of several days or weeks, similar to a gratitude journal.
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
They say a piece of short fiction is about a moment after which nothing will be the same again. Have you lived through one of those moments? What was it? Tell it the way you’d write a short story.
Eureka! Have you ever had a moment when everything just *clicked*? Tell the story of that realization—set the scene, down to every image, who was or wasn’t in the room.
Forget medals, victories, grades—what intangible, off-your-resumé quality or moment of your life are you proudest of? Tell the story of the day that happened.
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?
Let’s say you’re left alone an entire weekend in your house. What do you get up to? Tell the story of a time that’s happened—or imagine, on the page, what that would be like. Set the scene: what rooms are you in in your house, or are you in your house at all? Where do you go? What do you bring with you?
What activities have you self-started—that is, what have you done without ever being told to? Tell the story of the first day you started doing that thing.
What do your friends come to you seeking help with? Tell the story of a time when you think you did a great job of helping another person. Now, to make sure you stay humble, tell the story of when that person helped you.
At the end of this brainstorming exercise, our students, Ramya, Anita, Josh, and Michael, will have discovered even more things not on their resumé that can expand what all they might write about.
Freewriting (3–4 weeks)
Your job, if you’ve started this early, is not to start writing your draft immediately, or even to choose which Common App prompt you plan to select. First, you’re going to freewrite using the above prompts as a guide—choose the ones you like, or print them out, cut them up, and put them in a hat; each day, shake up the hat and grab one at random!
Freewriting is one of the fun parts, so the more you can do it, the better. There are a number of ways to approach freewriting, and all of them are meant to keep you limber, loose, and free. You want to sound authentic in your essay—which means not stiffening up under pressure, trying to sound formal, or more stereotypically “adult” or “learned,” as many students do. The more you can sound like you while freewriting, the stronger position you’ll be in when it comes to drafting the personal statement.
Buy a few composition notebooks: Those $1 things, available at Walmart or the like. Work in these for the summer. No need to get precious—no fancy Moleskines here, and no laptops or tablets unless you are physically unable to write by hand.
Why? Take the cartoonist Lynda Barry’s wise words here: “There is a kind of story that comes from hand. Writing which is different from a tapping-on-a-keyboard-kind-of-story. For one thing, there is no delete button, making the experience more lifelike right away. You can’t delete the things you feel unsure about and because of this, the things you feel unsure about have a much better chance of being able to exist long enough to reveal themselves.”
Set aside six minutes each morning, or a few times a week, for the period of time you’re freewriting. Six minutes, that’s it! Put your timer on, put your pen to paper, and don’t stop writing until the timer goes off. If you run out of things to write, write, “I don’t know I’m bored I don’t know help help I hate writing!” until new words come. What are you going to write about during those six minutes? You can try thinking about those Common App essay prompts—they’re so broad that they should let you in in some way. Think: what’s my obstacle, my identity, the thing I love?
Note that Anita isn’t sitting down to write her disquisition on “how my life as a mock trial champion makes me prepared to go to law school.” Instead, what might come out as she writes by hand is, “I remember the rush the first time I stood up at a mock trial tournament. I was wearing a blazer and my mom’s heels and they were so uncomfortable. It was so overheated in the room and I’d drunk way too much Mountain Dew. But why did I love playing this role of attorney? Was it the theater? The chance to finally argue without getting in trouble at the dinner table?”
If six minutes doesn’t work for you, or if you think you’re not getting in the zone in that amount of time, try doing three pages in your composition notebook instead. Write in big letters and double-space. Let your hand roam free.
Don’t show anyone anything you have written yet. And don’t reread it immediately. Let all that you’ve written sit, latent, so you’re not tempted to edit it right off the bat. Why? Allowing your writing to breathe away from you can prevent you from committing one of the cardinal sins of personal statement-writing—but also all writing!—trying to force the story into what you think it should be instead of what it is.
To get more concrete: let’s say Michael wrote about his grandfather teaching him to surf in answer to several of those prompts (about a crucial summer and a person important to him). But now he’s so excited about that that he immediately wants to turn it into his draft. As he’s writing, he gets self-conscious, thinking, Why am I writing about surfing when I’m not a competitive surfer, and when it’s only something I do occasionally? Or say Michael shows it to an English teacher, who gets distracted by the quality of Michaels prose—which was meant to be free and unedited—and tells him to choose another topic, since this one isn’t “singing” yet. Respect your process and let these things sit.
In order to have this kind of time freedom, you’ll have to start early. And if you spend your summer warming up and training for the main event, you can start rereading your body of freewriting by the end of July.
Essay writing timelines: How to write your Common App Essay if you have six months, three months, one month, or even less
(Recommended reading: The Ideal College Application Timeline )
In an ideal world, you can start writing and planning for your college essays the summer before your senior year. But many students have prior commitments that make following a six-month (June–December) timeline difficult. So here are a few adjusted timelines that can allow you to take advantage of the brainstorming and freewriting process even if you don’t have the full six-month window.
Six months—June to December (ideal if you are applying early action or early decision anywhere):
June: Brainstorm and work with prompts, 2–3 weeks
July: Freewrite, 3–4 weeks
End of July/beginning of August: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
Week two of August: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in)
Weeks 3–4 of August: Complete third and fourth drafts
Beginning of September: Seek feedback, if you have not already, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
End of September: Complete final draft
Now you have October to complete your secondary essays. November is usually when early action/early decision deadlines hit. So by the end of October, you will have completed your application for anywhere you’re applying early; now you can use the last few weeks of November to complete any remaining secondary essays for schools with December or January due dates (most regular decision deadlines).
Three months—August to October (barely making the early application/early decision deadline):
First two weeks of August: Brainstorm and work with prompts
Second two weeks of August: Freewrite
First week of September: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
Week two of September: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in)
Weeks 3–4 of September: Complete third and fourth drafts
Beginning of October: Seek feedback, if you have not already, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
Week two of October: Complete final draft
Now you have the second two weeks of October to complete your secondary essays for anywhere you are applying early with a November due date, and the rest of November to complete any remaining secondary essays for schools with December and January due dates (most regular decision deadlines).
One month—October to November (for regular decision schools):
First week of October: Brainstorm and work with prompts
Second week of October: Freewrite
Third week of October: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
Last week of October: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in)
First two weeks of November: Complete third and fourth drafts
Mid-November, before Thanksgiving break: Seek feedback, if you have not already, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
Last week of November: Complete final draft
Now you have December to complete any remaining secondary essays for schools with December and January due dates (most regular decision deadlines).
Mega crunch time—starting in November (in case you get started on your application really late and are down to less than one month, use the following timeline):
2–4 days: Brainstorm and work with prompts
2–3 days: Freewrite
48 hours after freewriting ends: Complete first draft of Common App personal statement
72 hours after first draft: Complete second draft (here is where the major revision work comes in). In addition, seek feedback between your second and third drafts, if you have not already done so, from a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor
48 hours after receiving feedback: Complete third draft
48 hours after third draft, if time permits: Complete fourth and final draft
Note: Some elite public universities, such as UC Berkeley and UCLA, have November application deadlines, so make sure that you write down your college list , with deadlines and requirements, by the end of September to ensure that you don’t miss anything.
(Related reading: How to Write Great UC Essays )
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With all this free-written raw material in hand, it’s time to choose the right topic. What notes should your essay hit? Here are some characteristics that a good Common App Essay topic contains:
1. Anecdote and specificity.
As you saw in the prompts above, we’re big advocates of beginning with a particular story or anecdote. This is not the only way to start an essay, but it’s a classic one. Journalists call this a “lede”—it’s a hook that brings the reader into a wider topic. Your essay will always go beyond the anecdote, but an anecdote offers a reader an easy, smooth way into your personal statement.
A good Common App Essay topic can relate, as much as possible, to a particular anecdote, story, or even scene. Let’s say Josh found himself writing about his siblings—his older brother who just left for college, and his little sister who he’s spent more time with since his brother left. His essay shouldn’t start, “I love my little sister,” but instead, “I remember the first time my younger sister and I connected. It was July, and our older brother had just gone to college, leaving the two of us alone at home together for the first time.”
A good essay begins at a specific point in time and revolves around a specific event. An essay without an anecdote or specific story is an essay topic , not an essay. So, pull from your freewriting: where did you find yourself writing about a particular event, story, anecdote, or point in time?
Another way of thinking about this is: does your potential topic contain a person (other than you), a setting, and a beginning/middle/end? That gives you a character, a place, and a plot—all crucial elements of an essay.
One important note is that you don’t have to start with the anecdote—it doesn’t have to be your “lede.” That might make you formulaic. But you’ll want one to work with, to anchor the piece at some point.
2. Tension, conflict, and opportunity to show growth.
Josh might write a lovely reflection on how close he and his brother were, or how much he likes his little sister—but that doesn’t give the admissions committee much to work with. Why? Because your topic needs to display your ability to grow and show change over a period of time. If Josh has always had a perfect relationship with his sister, well—first, no one will believe that, and second, Josh is not really telling a story.
So as you’re identifying the right anecdote for your essay, make sure you have a point of tension—a point where we, the reader, wonder if everything will turn out okay. For Josh, this might mean beginning with a time before he and his sister were close—say, when all the siblings were in the house and there wasn’t much time for the two to connect. Then Josh would tell us about what changed as soon as the brother left, and in there he might find an opening anecdote.
3. A wider relevance or a ‘lesson.’
Your essay doesn’t have to demonstrate that you underwent some great metamorphosis or epiphany as a child or teenager, but does your possible topic have a takeaway to work with? You’re looking for something that you can put in your pocket and carry into the future, and in an impressive and ideal world, something that makes the reader of the essay say, “Wow, I like that way of thinking, and I might even return to that one day.”
Another way of thinking about this is: your essay is about how your past influences your future, or the way you think now. Michael has settled on his grandfather teaching him to surf. That’s a fruitful topic, not just because it contains two characters (Michael and his grandfather), but also because it contains a place (the ocean, or, say, a surf shop), a plot (Michael couldn’t surf in the beginning, then learned in the middle, now at the end Michael can surf and tell us about it), but also because the end includes a lesson and a chance to spin that forward, perhaps by talking about how the sport has taught Michael how to be calm and collected under pressure.
4. Some connection between your past, your present, and your future.
It’s common to see a student choose an important experience in their past, narrate the whole thing beautifully, but then forget to tie it to the present. Before you even start writing, think about whether your potential topic is influencing the way you think about the present, and, crucially, the future. Take Michael, again. He writes beautifully about his grandfather teaching him about the waves, but he’s not a pro surfer, and might even be going to college in the middle of the country. Does that matter? Not as long as he tells us how surfing influences him—as he did in extracting a wider lesson.
You might be afraid of picking that mythical ‘wrong topic,’ say, the one thing every admissions officer is secretly sick of reading about but which no one will tell you. Students often ask us: Should I not write about a dying grandparent? About coming out? About the meaning of my name? About politics?
Here’s a secret: the success of your topic almost always lies in the delivery—so absent writing about something flagrantly offensive, violent, or irresponsible, you’re unlikely to hit on that rumored thing the admissions officers can’t stand.
It is good to be afraid of cliché—but one of the truisms about clichés is that they become trite because they reiterate feelings we’ve all had. That also means that buried beneath many clichés is some authentic, particular, and personal relationship you have to your topic. If you’re working with a teacher, counselor, or advisor on your statement, they can help you discern whether you’re in cliché territory or whether you’ve bypassed it to a more fruitful realm.
But wait. There is one big rule. Be humble. Don’t try so hard to sound adult or beyond your years, that you end up coming across as a know-it-all. It’s better to show the admissions committee that you are capable of finding and making meaning through the experiences you’ve had as a young person, no matter how small or limited they may seem to you. If you’ll let us wax philosophical for a moment: that ability to make meaning from something that isn’t pompous or dramatic—and to do so without being aggrandizing—is the stuff of great art. So, you’re in a good tradition if you stick to humility and take a deliberate and honest approach to your essays.
5. Make a list of everything that seems like a fruitful topic.
From the questions and prompts, you should find that you have 3–5 strong topic areas and stories—stuff that got you thinking and feeling, and which produced what Hemingway called the “honest sentences” that comprise good writing. Start with the one that moves you most—that’s your personal statement—but save all the others as fodder for your secondaries, or as backup material in case someone you trust tells you to consider switching topics for some reason.
(Tip: the stuff that isn’t always linked to an anecdote or story but is important to you can often be useful for those secondaries.)
Let’s find out what our sample students chose to write about.
Essay #1: Ramya on the Patriots
Ramya could try to write something about medicine. Or she could write about soccer, dance, or speech. But none of those things seem to tell the admissions committee what they wouldn’t already know from simply reading her list of extracurriculars.
So we decide that Ramya is going to write about the Patriots. The question is how she’s going to demonstrate—through her football fandom—that she is a mature and thoughtful person who will be a good member of any college’s community. An ode to Brady won’t do the trick here—but what will is Ramya’s thoughtful reflection on how spending time watching the Patriots at a sports bar every Sunday with her dad has given her a relationship with her father that most of her friends have never enjoyed with their families.
Essay #2: Anita on the outdoors and poetry
The obvious thing—and the thing most teachers and advisors told Anita to do—is write about mock trial. It would be a good opportunity to give the admissions committee some insight into her psychology behind the success. She took a couple of stabs at it during free-writing, though, and it didn’t flow.
So instead Anita decides to write about a wilderness solo she took in North Carolina on a school trip, and about how it influenced her relationship with poetry.
Essay #3: Josh on piano and mistakes
We talked a lot about whether Josh would do best avoiding writing about piano—it’s the main thing on his resumé and sometimes it can be good to show things off-resumé, as Ramya and Anita plan to. Josh did some writing about his relationship with his sister and his brother, and that might find a home in the secondary essays. But it became clear that Josh has an obsessive, if not always positive, relationship with piano, and so there’s something there.
But how to write “about piano?”
We look at the themes that came up during Josh’s reflection. He found himself writing a lot about mistakes, public performance anxiety, and the pressure to get a piece just right. Focusing in, Josh thought about a specific piece which helped him get over some performance anxiety, so he’ll write about learning that piece and facing the fear.
Essay #4: Michael on surfing
We’ve already referenced Michael’s essay a few times, but he’ll be writing about his grandfather teaching him to surf and the lessons surfing has given him off the board and out of the waves.
You’ll see us return to these students’ ideas as we work through outlines.
If you’ve spent your summer freewriting and then carefully selecting the right essay topic, you’re now in a strong place to start writing—ideally at the end of July or early August. (Remember that if you are applying early action or early decision to schools, your deadline will come at the start of November, whereas regular decision applications will generally have December and January deadlines.)
We can’t emphasize enough the importance of this organized pre-work—it’s incredibly frustrating for a student to write an entire draft and then find that it’s just “falling flat” or “doesn’t sound like them” or “is clichéd.” Using the criteria we’ve already set out, though, you can avoid that scary feeling of having done a lot of work that you’ve got to shelve.
What ‘type’ of essay do you have to write? (a list of narrative strategies)
It’s important to remember that there are as many narrative strategies as there are television shows, books, movies, plays, and poems. We can’t exhaustively discuss all of them, or even most, but we can give you a few “modules” to play with.
At 650 words, each of these will be best understood as a five-paragraph essay, so a basic structure stays the same, but the way things begin and end will not.
1. The Specific Experience Essay: This module is one of the most flexible and powerful types of essays. It begins with a scene, memory, or anecdote, and then tells us what that scene, memory, or anecdote continues to mean to the writer. It’s a classic, and should not be underestimated. Michael’s essay about learning to surf with his grandfather will use this structure, but so too will Anita’s about taking a wilderness solo. Anita will use a slightly more subtle version of this, but both essays begin with a scene: “I was eight when my grandfather first took me to the water,” “The happiest two hours I have spent were on a boulder jutting into a stream in North Carolina.”
Resolving the Specific Experience Essay requires a student to point to some kind of realization garnered as a result of the experience. It doesn’t have to be an enormous Eureka! or epiphany, and in fact, it can come later. Michael’s reflection on the experience of learning to surf with his grandfather occurs over a decade after he first hit the waves. Anita’s comes during an English class two years later when she first reads the poetry of John Keats and William Wordsworth and realizes these writers were engaging with exactly what she experienced during her solo in the wilderness.
The trick Michael and Anita each pull off is spinning the experience forward so that it means something for the rest of their lives. Michael writes about how he understands meditative headspace as a result of standing on the board all those hours with his grandfather, and how his grandfather’s legacy will always be with him. Anita goes small with her reflection: she talks about how she learned to see art, and artful experiences, in her everyday life, and in small, quiet moments (this is especially good for Anita because it expands her away from just the hyper-intense mock trial competitor she might come across as).
2. The Patterned/Iterative Essay: This module is a little more advanced. Let’s take Josh's essay about piano playing. He might want to open with a scene of him playing piano on stage, but that’s a little obvious. The essay he’s going to write is actually about practice, and learning to stop making mistakes. So, what if he started each paragraph with a different mini-moment of him playing piano and making a mistake?
Paragraph 1: My first time erring on stage—I am six, and I’m playing Chopsticks. Then he’ll introduce the theme of the essay.
Paragraph 2: My second time messing up—I am thirteen, and… etc.
Then, the natural place for Josh to end it is the time he almost messes up but doesn’t, which shows us how he’s grown overtime.
3. The Circular Essay: In this essay, the writer begins with a scene or image or concept and then will circle back to that scene or image or concept before the end of the essay in order to make sense of the initial opening. This essay deploys suspense. Take Anita’s essay, which might open, “I spent my happiest moments lost and alone in the wilderness. How did I get here? To understand that, you’ll have to understand X, Y, Z about me…” and which might close: “...that’s how I found myself, at sixteen, lost—but entirely at home in the wild.”
4. The Mini-Odyssey Essay: The last classic and powerful module is the good old problem-driven essay. In this type of essay, our hero (you, the writer) meets a challenge in the first paragraph, and then the essay is devoted to showing us how it is solved. Let’s say Michael wanted to write not about learning to surf from his grandfather, but about learning that his grandfather was diagnosed with terminal cancer.
There’s a lot of narration that will be required for Michael to tell us about losing his grandfather—it’s too much to cram into the first paragraph. So Michael might distribute the narration chronologically, showing us first the bad news (the problem), then zooming out to reflect, then showing us how he faced it (addressing the challenge), probably failing to adequately face it perfectly the first time, and then eventually facing it successfully (the solution).
Those are just a few more narrative possibilities for structuring your essay. Right now, we’ll focus on Ramya’s.
Now, taking your chosen topic, it’s time to outline it. Outlining works great for some people as a pre-writing tactic, and we always recommend it. For others, it can be harder than simply getting down to writing. If you’re really struggling to outline and would rather just follow the pen to a first draft, that’s fine, but do yourself a favor and make outlining your second draft step. At some point, everyone needs an outline, but it’s your call when to do it. Let’s follow this through with Ramya’s essay on the Patriots. The model we’ll use for this essay is a five-paragraph, anecdote-driven essay.
By the way, here’s the prompt that helped Ramya settle on the Patriots: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? While this one isn’t among the current Common App essay prompts, it—or any other prompt—can be used to generate an essay that fits under the umbrella of the open prompt, Prompt 7.
So, with that in mind, Ramya’s going to write about the sports bar where she watches her team play every Sunday during football season.
1. Introduction: Ramya has a fun advantage to her essay: it’s unexpected. The heart of it takes place in a sports bar, and she may seem, on paper, to the admissions committee, to be an unlikely diehard football fan. So we begin at the bar and Ramya sets the scene with an anecdote:
It had been a rough week at school—drama with my friend group, hard tests, orchestra practice, exhausting soccer drills—but I knew where I belonged on a Sunday. At Dee's Sports Bar in San Jose, with my dad, watching our team…
She also tells us about Dee's itself, taking the chance to show the admissions committee that she has narrative skills in just noticing things:
By the end of the football season, the staff knew where we wanted to sit… we were loyal to Dee's, just as we had to be loyal to the Patriots, even when they seemed to be letting us down.
In telling this as a story, Ramya has given the admissions committee a human being to relate to from the jump.
2. Billboard/nutgraph/thesis paragraph: In the magazine world, they call the second paragraph in a piece the “billboard paragraph” because it broadcasts—as loud as a billboard—what the piece is about. Newspapers call the same thing a nutgraph, and academic papers might refer to it as your thesis statement. All these terms point to one thing: this is where you shout, HEY! THIS IS WHAT MY ESSAY IS ABOUT! This is where you meld the scene and characters of paragraph 1 with the thematic concerns you’ll address for the rest of the essay.
For Ramya, it goes something like this:
Dee's is where I learned to be loyal—to my team, the Patriots, from across the country—but also to my father, to my friends, and to myself.
Ramya’s essay is going to focus on loyalty: a big theme, one that would sound terribly weak if she introduced it in the first line or even paragraph, but one that is surprising and interesting here because she’s juxtaposed it against a unique setting and seemingly light fare—sports at a bar. (Ramya has, at some point, assured the admissions committee that she’s not drinking in this bar!)
3. Body paragraph #1: In this paragraph, Ramya will tell us something more about loyalty, and why it matters. She’ll add context. So she will zoom away from Dee's and tell us that, throughout high school, she started noticing a lot of her friends getting caught up in social drama, becoming competitive with one another, fighting about romantic situations; set against all this, as well as bullying, depression, and other difficult parts of high school, Ramya’s loyalty to the Patriots and Dee's served as a sanctuary—one of the things that kept her sane.
Now, it’s crucial to note that this isn’t enough for Ramya to write an essay about. “Here’s something that is important/valuable/meaningful to me” is sometimes where students stop. Ramya needs to advance that—to tell us something that shows maturity, shows an ability to reflect and introspect that will come in handy in college and adulthood…
4. Body paragraph #2: ...so she uses her next paragraph to make a bigger point: what other types of loyalty being at Dee's on a Sunday causes her to reflect on.
5. Conclusion: Now, Ramya will spin the whole thing forward and point our eyes toward that ‘lesson’—the thing that she can put in her pocket, which will serve as a kind of talisman throughout life.
Writing and revising: Common errors
Most people don’t outline. And even after outlining, many people fail to follow their outline. It’s natural that you’ll want to stray here or there, towards or away from the initial plan, but below are a few common errors that people make when they either don’t outline or ditch the guiding hand of their outline. As we go through some of these errors, we’ll also make a list of a few general tips and tricks for managing some of the toughest parts of your essay, including time, scene, epiphany, change, character, and more.
Here’s an excerpted version of how Ramya’s essay began at first:
As a 5’1.75” Asian girl, not many people would expect me to spend every Sunday in a bar watching football.... I was tired of streaming the games on my computer, and having it lag before every major play.
I want to thank Dee's Sports Bar for teaching me life lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Thank you for showing me the importance of loyalty, relationships, and laughter.
I have always been loyal to the Patriots….
It’s not a bad start, but it brings us to Common Error #1: beginning the essay by introducing oneself, instead of introducing the story, AKA, starting too broad. Ramya begins by trying to tell us who she is in a big, introductory, throat-clearing way, instead of choosing a specific route into who she is. It’s sweet that she’s small, but there’s a lot in here that we don’t need: we don’t need her height, nor do we need to know that she used to get the games in one particular way or another. We just need to know that she’s at the bar.
She’s only got 650 words. Which leads us to Tip #1: Take refuge in the anecdote, in the specific, in the particular. Everything gets easier if you choose something specific. Many writers—of college essays and other media—get stressed out, believing that they must convey their entire selves in an essay. This just isn’t possible to do in the capsule of space that is your Common App personal statement. And, it will ironically accomplish the opposite, causing your essay to look shapeless and meandering, therefore communicating very little about you.
If you instead use an individual story as a stand-in for something larger, or for something else, your essay becomes a kind of parable or lesson that educates your reader both about you and, hopefully, about a part of the world they’ve never previously considered.
Now, think about the first declarative sentence Ramya makes in that initial draft: “I have always been loyal to the Patriots.” Tip #2: Struggling to define your thesis statement? Look for your first declarative statement! Ramya’s essay can’t be about her perpetual loyalty to the Patriots—that won’t be enough. But the fact that her prose naturally settled on that as its first short, sharp sentence tells us that she’s making a statement she probably believes in. Loyalty now becomes really important as a theme.
Common Error #2: Hiding your thesis statement or burying it too low. Since we know that loyalty will have something to do with Ramya’s thesis statement, we now know we want it to arrive at the end of the first paragraph or at the start of the first.
Here’s how Ramya’s essay began at the end of 3-4 rounds of edits and revisions:
Just before 5 pm on Sunday, October 13, 2013, I was sitting in a bar, holding on to a feeling of optimism that was fading fast. But wait: it’s not what you think. I didn’t turn to drink; I turned to the TV screen. The score was 27-23, and the Patriots had missed too many opportunities. With just over a minute left to play, my dad—the man responsible for bringing me, a 15-year-old, to a bar—dejectedly asked me if we should leave. I reminded him a true sports fan never gives up on her team, no matter the situation. And after a miracle of a drive finished with an unforgettable pass into the corner of the endzone by my idol, Tom Brady, a swell of elated cheering and high-fiving from the fans in the bar ensued regardless of whether we had previously known one another. Loyalty brought us all together.
Another Common Error (#3!) that Ramya made was: Mixing up the conclusion’s sentiment with the billboard paragraph. Her second paragraph, in the original essay, read: “I want to thank Dee's Sports Bar for teaching me life lessons that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Thank you for showing me the importance of loyalty, relationships, and laughter.” That’s a sentiment, but it’s not a thesis. And that sentiment is fine—it may have a place at the end of the essay—but it doesn’t belong in the second paragraph, because it doesn’t guide our reading of the rest of the essay. It isn’t strong and declarative yet.
This was the billboard paragraph Ramya reached after a few rounds of edits:
There are a few different kinds of loyalty. Loyalty to a team, to an establishment, to other people—even to oneself. Sitting in that bar over the last year, I feel like I’ve glimpsed them all.
A lot is working here! It’s short, clear, and leads us to Tip #3: define your terms. Ramya wants to talk about an abstract concept—loyalty. Many young writers wish to reflect on things like charity, service, leadership, loyalty, friendship, kindness, morality, etc—these are big topics. But Ramya isn’t just talking about loyalty, a word which could mean many different things to many different people. She’s defined loyalty for the purposes of this essay, which means now we are playing in her house.
As Ramya’s original first draft moved on, it stumbled into a very Common Error #4: the curious case of the missing lesson. Initially, Ramya’s penultimate paragraph offered a kind of ode to Dee's instead of showing the admissions committee that she has a bigger life takeaway from her time spent supporting her team—a problem we could see would happen as soon as we noticed the sentiment of “Thanks Dee's’” occupying the place that should have been reserved for a billboard paragraph. Returning to the outline, or making the outline partway through, would remedy that.
But don’t get stressed if your first outline feels like it’s getting away from you. Tip #4: Try a reverse outline. Once you’ve written one draft of your essay, print it out. (By the way: Tip #5: print stuff out! Don’t get stuck in an endless spiral of copy-and-paste—by printing out your draft, you can keep a draft next to you and then open a new document so that you feel free to rewrite entire paragraphs, or delete sections entirely.)
Then take your printout and write out what the function of each paragraph is in the margin. Might get a little tough, right? If you can’t answer the question, “What is the goal of this paragraph?” or, “What do I want the readers to garner from this paragraph?” then you’re probably missing a topic sentence.
Everything we’re talking about here—writing, noticing mistakes, correcting them—will take you at least three and as many as five or six drafts to get right. So, Tip #6: Don’t treat your early drafts like anything close to final. That means you’re going to have to get comfortable with simply putting idea to paper, and with cutting entire paragraphs or “points” within the essay. You’ve probably never written anything like the personal statement before, and you have to promise yourself to be iterative. Otherwise, you’ll lock yourself into a weaker version of the essay.
As you’re iterating, try Tip #7: Read your drafts aloud so that you can tell when things feel stiff or weak; this should sound like you. Reading aloud can help you catch things like Common Error #5: tonal errors—sounding too formal or too glib/casual. Ramya never suffered from either of these problems; she sounded like herself even in early drafts.
But many students feel that they either have to sound either formal to the point of stuffiness (“On a Sunday afternoon, my father would pick me up from my room and take me down to the kitchen, whereupon we would adjourn to Dee’s Sports bar…”) or “authentically young” to the point of disrespecting the reader (“On Sundays my dad’s like, let’s go to Dee’s Sports Bar, and I go okay so I come on down and we get going...”). When you’re staring at the blinking cursor until your eyes cross, it can be easy to fall into one of these traps, and to write in a voice that isn’t yours. When you read aloud, you can catch it.
Tip #8: The right essay-voice is the most polished version of your speaking-voice. You shouldn’t sound like you swallowed a thesaurus, but you should sound a little more formal than your text messages to your friends would.
Here’s what Ramya’s essay looked like, in the end:
Just before 5 pm on Sunday, October 13, 2013, I was sitting in a bar, holding on to a feeling of optimism that was fading fast. But wait—it’s not what you think. I didn’t turn to drink—I turned to the TV screen. The score was 27-23, and the Patriots had missed too many opportunities. With just over a minute left to play, my dad—the man responsible for bringing me, a 15-year-old, to a bar—dejectedly asked me if we should leave. I reminded him a true sports fan never gives up on her team, no matter the situation. And after a miracle of a drive finished with an unforgettable pass into the corner of the endzone by my idol, Tom Brady, a swell of elated cheering and high-fiving from the fans in the bar ensued regardless of whether we had previously known one another. Loyalty brought us all together.
There are a few different kinds of loyalty. Loyalty to a team, to an establishment, to other people—even to oneself. Sitting in that bar over the last year, I feel like I’ve glimpsed them all. As a Boston-born girl, my loyalty to the Patriots seems natural—even if it’s not so common for a teenage Indian-American-Californian girl to be as much of a sports junkie as I am. But I’ve seen that loyalty tested plenty of times. I’m completely invested in the Pats; I’ve been known to be giddy when they win, and tearful when they lose. However, finding a true home to watch Patriots games in California isn’t easy. So I owe Dee's Sports Bar a surprising amount. By the end of the season, the staff knew what we wanted to eat, and where we wanted to sit, so the sports bar felt like a second home.
My dad and I have a typical father-daughter relationship; I get mad when he doesn’t let me go out, he gets mad when I neglect responsibility. But in the year since we began staking out the bar, we’ve gotten so much closer. On the rides to and from, we talked about everything from school to politics to pop culture. And we talk about sports as equals. My best friend once told me that neither she nor her dad were willing to make the extra effort to find common ground. And I realized how lucky I was: sports offers my dad and me an inexhaustible topic that we can always turn to.
The bar also helped me figure out still another kind of loyalty—to myself. Junior year was an emotional year, full of difficult academics and the inevitable social drama that comes with high school. The bar showed me that I needed to look forward to something comfortable—a place with no drama, no obligations, and a common goal... or at least, a common desperate desire for victory. At the bar, nobody cared what I got on my last math test or which boy was asking my friend to prom. All that matters is the game. This realization isn’t limited to just sports; I figured out that I need a place to be completely myself—with my team and my dad. This included deciding that I only wanted to stay friends with people who make a positive impact on my life. These were such simple revelations, yet they made all the difference.
I have always been loyal to the New England Patriots. From my toddler days, as I sat mesmerized in front of the screen to today, as I analyze every statistic that I can get my hands on, I love every aspect of the team. But all of those trips to the sports bar taught me important lessons that apply beyond football. And for that, I am grateful.
Common App Essay analysis
In the end, what lessons can we take away from Ramya’s essay? Here are a few aspects of the essay that are most successful:
Ramya applies Tip #1 from earlier—taking refuge in anecdotes and specifics—to great effect. We can practically feel the tension of the game, not to mention Ramya and her dad’s investment in it. The result is a memorable, unique opening that compels us to continue reading.
Ramya’s thesis statement (“Loyalty brought us all together”) both telegraphs what the essay will be about and allows her to pivot naturally from sports fandom to the types of loyalty that she actually wants to show admissions committees: her relationships with her dad and with herself.
In discussing loyalty to herself, Ramya demonstrates maturity, independence, and the abilities to grow and absorb lessons. Reflections like “This included deciding that I only wanted to stay friends with people who make a positive impact on my life” help us see her as a person of integrity who can think for herself. As such, it’s easy to imagine her as a student who will make valuable contributions to a college campus.
While we noted earlier that Ramya never struggled with striking the right tone in this essay, it’s worth noticing the balance of polish and casualness that she achieves. The result is an essay that is effortlessly readable yet mature and, most importantly, authentic to her own voice.
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Part 6: Frequently asked questions
There’s more that goes into applying to college than what we’ve been able to cover here, including your grades, standardized test scores, and recommendation letters, but your essays are some of the most important materials. They form the cornerstone of the qualitative side of your application. Get these right and your entire application starts from strength. Good luck!
What books can you recommend for writing essays like this and others?
William Zinsser’s On Writing Well is the primer for nonfiction writing basics. Strunk & White’s Elements of Style is a very slim volume that will help you ensure you’ve dotted all your i’s and crossed all your t’s when it comes to grammar and syntax rules.
Who should read my essays? Is there such a thing as too many readers? Too few? The wrong readers?
Think quality, not quantity. It’s best not to hand your essay to every person who comes your way, no matter how many smart teachers, friends, and peers you have at your disposal. Too much feedback can confuse your sense of mission.
So how do you know who to give your essay to? The right essay editor or guide is someone who knows something about you but isn’t your best friend or parent, and someone who you know can push you on storytelling and language.
There is such thing as having too many readers, so we recommend asking no more than one to three people to weigh in: an editor, counselor, teacher, or consultant should help you with the bulk of your essay; a friend or parent can listen to you read it aloud at some point or can read it without the ren pen lifted (meaning, they’re there to make sure you sound like you, rather than intervening and writing it for you). Parents who get too handsy with their kids’ essays can do their children a real disservice; it’s clear when someone who isn’t 18 was serving as the guiding force in the essay-writing process.
Often students want to know how to handle feedback they may disagree with. If it comes from someone you respect, think it over seriously, but remember that this is your voice. It’s okay to write the person or tell them that you value their input but you think the essay sounds more like you if you keep it as it was.
Does my essay have to be about something that happened in high school? How far back can I go?
Your essay can draw on whatever moves you, regardless of when the anecdote, event, or inciting incident you’re writing about occurred. However, what matters most, in terms of timeline, is that you show your readers how the event not only influences you now but will continue to inflect your thinking about yourself and the world as the years roll on.
I feel like I don't have enough space to write everything I want. What should I do?
This is totally normal! But feeling that you have more to say than you can fit is often a result of insufficient paring-down—that is, you probably haven’t chosen the right specific prompt to get your personal statement into particular, small territory.
That’s the key: finding the right question to answer, using all the prewriting tips and tricks and exercises we’ve outlined here. With the right question, you can use your Common App Essay as a window into who you are, rather than feeling burdened by the belief that you must communicate your ‘whole self’ in your application. You can’t box yourself up and hand your soul to the admission committee—but you can use those 650 words to give them some insight into some of the most important parts of you.
What is the Common App Essay word limit?
The Common App Essay word limit is 650 words. We strongly recommend using all 650 words, though you are not required to do so. If you’re well below that limit, it’s worth asking yourself why your personal statement is so short. Check it against the outlines we’ve worked through in this post. Have you used your five-paragraph essay fully? Has your essay demonstrated change over time, or personal growth? Perhaps you’ve told a story but forgotten to reflect on it.
The important thing is to ensure that you’ve fully inhabited each ‘element’ of the successful Common App Essay, as noted in this guide. Doing so will bring you close to the sensible word limit.
Should I explain bad grades in my essays?
Many students have the instinct to explain themselves, including any failings or perceived failings, while writing their applications. There are a number of ways you can offer the admissions committee context for something you think went ‘wrong’ in high school, whether that’s low grades, imperfect attendance, or something else.
Your recommenders might have a chance to write something about it in their letters, if they were in a position to see you during or after the rough period. You can also write about something going wrong in your personal statement if it has narrative energy; that is to say, if it would make a good essay regardless of whether or not it explained away a failing, go ahead and write about it.
An example might be an essay that discussed a student’s home life, say their parents’ difficult divorce during their freshman year. If the student had something introspective to say about the divorce, she might add a line or two that explains that her grades suffered during the incident, but she’d want to conclude the essay by not only showing how she righted things in the years after, but also how what she learned from the difficult period will influence her in the future.
It’s crucial to avoid sounding defensive about your weak spots in your application. If you have something that you think makes you seem a less-than-ideal applicant, turn it into your strength by explaining what you learned from it.
The Common App Additional Information section offers the opportunity to provide context about hardships you might have faced during high school. This is another place you could consider explaining bad grades or the like. Even here, it’s important to not simply state, “I had bad grades but improved them.” A better explanation provides context and explains what specifically helped you turn things around. For example:
During my freshman year, as my parents went through a difficult divorce, I became distracted and stressed, and my grades suffered as a result. I was able to work with my teachers over the summer after my freshman year, however, and attended summer school to make up for weak performance. My family also repaired itself after a few years and time in family therapy. Though I regret my poor grades from ninth grade, I am proud that I was able to improve quickly as a sophomore, and that I developed both stronger study habits and tactics for dealing with emotional stress as a result.
The second answer is specific and also demonstrates maturity gained thanks to a difficult period.
I feel like everyone has more interesting experiences than me. Is there a benefit to using a personal moment as my topic?
There are many students that choose to write about highly personal topics such as experiences involving family issues, and issues around class or identity.
However, it’s important to remember that even if you haven’t had these experiences that doesn’t mean your essay will be banal or boring. It’s all about how you approach the telling of your own unique story. Adcoms understand that not everyone has overcome incredible adversity or a severe physical handicap.
Think of it this way: creative expression is enhanced by limitations. What you are capable of writing given your circumstances and experiences is a chance to showcase your cleverness with language. Adcoms are more interested in how you tell your story than the fact of the story itself.
If you do choose to use a more personal moment to write about, be careful that you don’t choose something too personal. Keep in mind that the person reading your essay is a stranger and that there is such a thing as too much information, even if you think it will enhance your admissions odds.
I know adcoms read tons of essays so they couldn’t possibly pay close attention to each one. Isn’t there something in particular they’re looking for in an essay that signals to them that this is a quality applicant?
This is an incredibly common thought amongst our students. Essentially, the idea is that there’s just one small thing they’re missing in their essay that, if included, would make them stand out and practically guarantee them entry.
There are two major problems with this line of thinking. For one, while reducing your application to a numbers game or just a few points to hit makes the whole process more comprehensible, it doesn’t help to express the real you–and doesn’t increase your chances with adcoms.
The other problem is writing your essay while attempting to guess what adcoms want to hear. Many students fall into this trap by second-guessing their experiences and worrying their chosen topic is just not “good enough.” Most of the time, there’s nothing wrong with your topic, and trying to change course by selecting one you think will enhance your standing with adcoms will only make your job as a writer more difficult.
About the Author
Dr. Shirag Shemmassian is the Founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting and one of the world's foremost experts on college admissions. Over the past 15 years, he and his team have helped thousands of students get into top programs like Harvard, Stanford, and MIT using his exclusive approach.
7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
Editor & Writer
www.bestcolleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
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- The Common App college essay is required by most Common App schools.
- This personal essay plays a critical role in many institutions' admission decisions.
- Admissions experts' biggest tips include writing how you speak and focusing on details.
Each year, over a million high school seniors apply for college through the Common Application . This online system enables you to submit one application to multiple schools, meaning you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement .
The Common App essay gives colleges the opportunity to learn more about you as a person and what's important to you. You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality.
Here, we explain what the Common App essay entails before diving into admissions experts' biggest tips for crafting a memorable personal statement.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the Common App and require the essay.
You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.
This statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. You can discuss almost anything you want, provided your topic addresses the prompt you've chosen. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story.
You must submit the Common App essay to all colleges that require it, though some may ask you to submit one or more supplemental essays as well.
The application form provides you with a box in which to type your essay; however, it's strongly recommended that you compose your essay in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or another word processor before copying and pasting your final draft into this box.
How Important Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is a key part of your college application. According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement moderately or considerably important. Highly selective institutions tended to place more emphasis on the essay.
"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, a former Princeton writing instructor and the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc .
Benedict, who spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, has helped students around the world apply to college for over a decade.
"Applying to a hyper-selective college with mediocre or uneven grades and a fabulous essay will likely not get you into that college, [whereas] applying to a hyper-selective college with top grades and scores, outstanding extracurriculars, and a mediocre essay could sink your application," she said.
While most experts agree that a strong Common App essay won't necessarily secure you admission into a highly selective college — especially if your grades and test scores aren't up to par — a well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor.
According to Benedict, this often happens at small liberal arts colleges , which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach .
Experts' Top 7 Common App Essay Tips
Admissions officers, higher education administrators, education consultants, and college admissions advisors like Benedict have many tricks for approaching the Common App essay. Here are some of their biggest tips.
1. Don't Mistake a Rare Topic for an Effective Topic
Many students assume their Common App essay must revolve around a unique topic that no other applicant has ever written about, but this is a myth.
"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," Whitney Soule told U.S. News & World Report . Soule currently serves as Bowdoin College's dean of admissions and student aid.
"It's not just about the topic," echoes Jennifer Gayles , director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, "but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic."
Choosing the right Common App essay topic can be tricky, but it's extremely important. "Students I work with run the gamut from having a good idea to having absolutely no idea what to write about," Benedict said. "Often in our brainstorming session, an idea will pop up in discussion, and I'll say, 'That's a good idea,' and the student will be surprised."
To identify potential essay topics, Benedict proposes asking yourself a series of questions. Have you experienced a turning point in your life? Are you deeply passionate about a particular subject?
Ultimately, your essay should excite and inspire you, as well as those who read it. "If an essay topic makes your heart beat fast, that's a good sign," said Benedict.
2. Pick the Best Essay Prompt for You
Not all Common App essay prompts are created equal. Of the seven prompts, some will no doubt work better for you than others.
Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, asks students to think about what version of themselves they want to present to schools and to trust their instincts.
"Don't just jump on the first prompt you read and start writing," she writes in a blog post for NYU. "Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to us about a specific achievement? Do you want to give us insight into a hardship you faced and conquered?"
In essence, work backward: Start with a topic and then see which essay prompt fits it the best.
This is the same advice given by Thea Hogarth of College Essay Advisors : "Once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you'll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story."
3. Use Your Space Wisely
Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic.
The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words. But just how long should your statement be? Admissions Blog advises aiming for around 500 words. And former Tufts University admissions officer Becky Leichtling concurs.
"The most common 'personal statement' length is in the ballpark of 500 words," Leichtling writes for Bright Horizons College Coach . "I consider 500 the 'sweet spot,' but don't stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 [words] that you're honestly proud of."
4. Fill Your Story With Details
Details are everything when it comes to the Common App essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.
"Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement," Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, writes on his company's website . "Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you."
Meredith Reynolds, associate director of admissions at Tufts, similarly recommends that applicants emphasize specifics in their essays. "By focusing on details, you set yourself apart," she says.
In terms of structure, Benedict advises approaching the Common App essay one step at a time. "Break down the topic to the smallest pieces you can and write a paragraph about each," she said.
In other words, discuss specific moments from your life. Relate conversations you've had. Describe how something felt or looked. It's the details in your story — not the topic itself — that will help you stand out the most.
5. Channel Your Authentic Voice
The Common App essay is unlike most essays you've written for school. Instead of analyzing a piece of literature or a historical event, you must showcase your identity. As such, the words you use should sound like they actually come from you — not a thesaurus or an English teacher.
"[Students] are used to writing academic essays and trying to impress with big words and formal-sounding constructions," Benedict said when asked about the most common mistake students make on the Common App essay. "The best essays have a conversational voice — not a stiff, academic one."
Educational consultant Ian Fisher agrees . In a blog post offering language tips for college essays, Fisher expounds on the importance of writing in a way true to how you talk in real life.
"You're going to have to fight the urge to 'impress' your admissions reader with the big words you've learned from your SAT practice," he writes.
Students should, however, avoid using any derogatory, offensive, or inappropriate language. Fisher recommends using words like "debate" instead of "fight" and "undeveloped" instead of "stupid."
Likewise, students should refrain from relying on cliches. This includes phrases such as "happily ever after," "beggars can't be choosers," and "crack of dawn." Benedict advises getting someone to "cliche-proof" your essay.
6. Get Feedback
Before submitting your Common App essay, show it to someone who will not only offer feedback but also edit and proofread your writing.
Shemmassian suggests giving your draft to "a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor." Meanwhile, Reynolds says you should "show your essay to two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well."
All recommendations from experts share a common thread: Getting feedback on your Common App essay should be a top priority.
7. Don't Neglect Supplemental Essays
Lots of competitive universities require the Common App essay in addition to supplemental essays and/or short answers. If you have other essays to submit, don't spend all your time working on the Common App essay. After all, all essays can impact your admission chances.
"At the most selective colleges and universities, there are usually supplemental essays as well, and those are part of the overall package, and they are very important," Benedict said.
She also discussed how a great Common App essay combined with weak supplemental essays could reflect poorly on your application and increase your risk of getting rejected .
"I can't stress enough the importance of the supplemental essays," Benedict continued. "For the most selective universities, all of the essays taken together present a 'package' of who you are." And how you choose to put together that package is up to you.
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc. , which has been helping students apply to college around the U.S. and all over the world for a dozen years. Elizabeth is a best-selling novelist, a prolific journalist, and an editor of many books. She has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her clients are regularly admitted to top universities and their first-choice colleges.
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Common application essays: the complete guide (2023-2024).
For many high school students, the most dreaded part of applying to college is writing the college application essay. And almost every student who applies to universities in the U.S. will write a Common Application (Common App) essay.
That’s because the Common App is an online college application form used by over 900 colleges. Most of the universities ranked in the top 100 nationally by U.S. News and World Report accept the Common App, including the Ivy League schools.
In this post, we’ll ease your college essay dread by sharing the 2023-2024 Common App essay prompts and tips for answering them successfully.
Common App Essay Format
Let’s start with some basics about writing your Common App essay!
- Essays must be 250-650 words. We recommend aiming for about 500 words.
- You can use a standard five-paragraph essay structure for your Common App essay, with a clear beginning, middle, and end. If you’re comfortable branching out from this structure, feel free! As long as your essay is organized and well-written, the number of paragraphs is not important.
- The Common App platform will not allow you to indent (tab) your paragraphs, so add an empty line between each paragraph to separate them.
- Type your essay in a separate Word document, then paste it into the Common App platform. The font should be standardized once you paste your work in. In case it isn’t, use a 12 pt., single space, simple font like Times New Roman or Calibri.
- Avoid all caps, bold, underline, and italics because they can look more conversational than professional. The same applies to emojis, hashtags and excessive exclamation points.
Professional, easy-to-read formatting is important. But the content and quality of your writing is even more i mportant. So, let’s look at the Common App essay prompts. There are seven total prompts, and you can choose the one that most inspires you.
2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts
The seven Common App essay prompts for 2023-2024 are:
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 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.
How to Choose a Common App Essay Topic
With seven prompt options, how do you choose the right one? And once you’ve decided on a prompt, how do you decide what to write about?
After reading through the Common App essay prompts, it’s a good idea to choose three favorites. Then, brainstorm a list of topics for each of your selections. After brainstorming, write to the prompt that produces the best idea.
The best idea will be interesting, meaningful, engaging, or thought-provoking. It should be a topic that’s unique to you, or at least something that will separate your essay from the hundreds or thousands of others the admissions team must read.
You should also ensure that your chosen topic is a good representation of you and what you bring to a college campus. Perhaps most importantly, it should be something you’re genuinely excited to write about.
Now, we’ll dive deeper into each prompt and how to answer them!
What should you write about?
This is an open-ended essay topic with nearly limitless possibilities. If you choose this topic, write about something that you consider central to who you are as a person. It can be about a hobby, interest, skill, or experience. It can also be about an element of your family, heritage, or culture. Think of this topic as, “Is there anything you really want to tell us about?”
What should you not write about?
Don’t write about a topic that applies to hundreds of other students. For instance, it’s better to avoid writing about the death of a family member or pet, being the captain of your school sports team (unless you can put an interesting spin on it), or your significant other.
It’s also best to remember that you are the main character of your essay, so don’t focus on another person who’s an inspiration in your life, like one of your parents or grandparents.
How should you write it?
First, pick something that’s genuinely meaningful to you. Your passion for the topic and its importance in your life should shine through in your writing.
Once you’ve decided on a topic, think about how to frame it as a story. (Remember that the prompt says to “share your story.”) Your personal story about the topic will give your essay a unique perspective and help you stand out from the crowd.
Begin the essay with a brief anecdote that highlights your topic. It can showcase how you got into the talent or interest you’re writing about or a meaningful moment in your life that’s relevant to your selected topic. It can also focus on a challenge you’ve experienced and overcome that’s tied to your identity or background. Use concrete, specific details that bring your story to life.
After the anecdote, reflect on why the topic is so important to you. How has it impacted your life and your growth as a person? What have you learned from it? How has it shaped your identity? Why is it an essential part of who you are? You don’t have to answer all these questions, but make sure to demonstrate your ability to reflect about your experiences in a meaningful way.
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Note that this essay has three parts: 1) A time when you faced a challenge, 2) How it affected you, and 3) What you learned from the experience. Although you will need to explain a challenge you faced, the majority of the essay should focus on what you learned from the experience.
So, consider if you’ve experienced a failure or setback that has taught you a valuable lesson or made you a better person. Do you respond well to challenges and obstacles, and is there an experience you can share that highlights positive qualities like determination, perseverance, and a positive attitude?
Challenges could include growing up in poverty, having a learning disability or physical disability, or being bullied. It could also mean missing out on an opportunity you really wanted, or being told you wouldn’t achieve something, then going on to accomplish it anyway.
Overused responses to this prompt may include moving around a lot as a child, losing a championship game, or the death of a family member or pet. That doesn’t mean you absolutely can’t write about these topics, but make sure you have something new or insightful to say.
You should also avoid topics that could seem silly to the admissions team, like a break-up, failing your math test, or missing out on the party of the year. Don’t write about anything that calls your morals or judgment into question, such as any type of illegal or inappropriate activity.
Start by briefly describing the challenge, setback, or failure. Avoid overly negative language or complaining. Instead, state the facts. As always, use concrete details to make the story more unique and engaging.
Spend the rest of your essay discussing what you learned and how you grew. How did you handle the challenge and ultimately overcome it? Show positive qualities like resilience, integrity, courage, and persistence. What lessons will you carry with you into college and the rest of your life?
This is one of the more challenging Common App essay prompts. It requires a passionate essay about a belief or value that’s important to you, something you’re willing to stand up for, even when it’s difficult to do so. Think about something that truly matters to you. Why does it matter? Have you stood by an unpopular opinion or belief? Why? What happened next?
Successful responses to this prompt have included an essay about a student challenging her self-doubts and insecurities, as well as an essay about a student standing up to her parents’ old-fashioned ideas about feminism. You could also write about challenging beliefs that are racist, ableist, or otherwise discriminatory.
It’s important to avoid topics that are overly controversial or polarizing. You don’t want to write about something that makes the admissions team uncomfortable or offended, or something that they strongly disagree with. Politics and religion are risky.
It’s almost always a good idea to launch right into the meat of your story. Describe the time you questioned or challenged an idea or a belief, using vivid details and active verbs.
Then, discuss the outcome. How did your actions impact the people around you, your community, or your life? Reflect on why you chose to take a stand and why the value or belief you shared is important to you. How will this experience change or affect your actions in the future?
This prompt is risky because you want to sound passionate, but not preachy. Remember that you’re telling a story about an experience you had, rather than writing a persuasive essay about one of your beliefs. You should also demonstrate that you’re able to consider (and sometimes disagree with) other viewpoints without insulting them. Don’t sound rude, angry, or close-minded. Instead, show that you’re principled and have integrity.
This is another broad prompt that gives you the opportunity to write about a time you felt gratitude. Think about how the people in your life have helped you grow. You can write about a small or big gesture that you appreciated. Consider the role of gratitude in your life, and how acknowledging positive experiences can inspire and motivate you.
You can write about anything from a random act of kindness to something that restored your faith in humanity. It can be a kind gesture from a stranger, an unexpected and meaningful gift from a loved one, or something a person in your life said or did that helped you overcome a challenge or difficult time.
Once again, remember that the main character of your college application essay is always you. So, you must be able to write about how you expressed your appreciation or responded to the gesture. How did it affect you? How does it continue to motivate you now? Did it inspire you to “pay it forward” to others? In what way?
You want to write about an uncommon act of kindness that deeply affected you, something you’ll always remember and draw inspiration from. In most cases, it’s better to avoid writing about something materialistic, like your parents buying you the car you’ve always wanted or getting you an expensive prom dress. If it costs money, but the gesture was personal and meaningful to you, then it’s okay to address it.
How should you write about it?
Start by sharing the experience or gesture that you appreciate. Use specific details to show (not tell) how the gesture made you feel seen, heard, or acknowledged. What happened that touched your heart and inspired you?
For most of your essay, focus on how you responded and drew inspiration from the experience. What did you realize as a result? How did you express gratitude and appreciation? How did you choose to pay it forward? Is the act of kindness linked to your passions or aspirations for the future?
Words like “event” and “accomplishment” are open to interpretation. It could be a major life event or a small occurrence that meant a lot to you. Often, the smaller events make for more surprising and memorable Common App essays. Whatever you’d like to write about, make it creative and interesting by sharing your unique perspective.
Think about the moments, even small ones, that changed you as a person or opened your eyes to new ideas. Have you ever had an “aha” moment that impacted your perspective or actions moving forward? What’s something you’ve learned that made you feel more capable or more adult?
Make sure that the accomplishment, event, or realization is something that helped you learn or grow. Maybe you simply discovered something new about yourself, like leadership skills you didn’t know you had. Perhaps you learned a simple but meaningful life lesson, like the value of being open to feedback or slowing down to appreciate the little things in life.
One overdone topic is sharing a community service experience that made you appreciate your own circumstances more. If you really want to touch on this topic, make it unique by discussing a small moment within the experience that affected you in a specific way, instead of something general like “appreciating life” or “being grateful for what I have.” As usual, you should also steer clear of anything illegal, illicit, or potentially silly.
Briefly tell the story of your transformative experience. What happened, what did you accomplish, or what did you realize?
Then reflect on how this moment in your life led to growth or change. How did it help you understand the world through a new or more mature perspective? What did you think or do differently afterward? Did it influence your values or future goals? Did it spark a new interest?
By now, you’ve probably noticed a pattern. It’s best to start Common App essays with a brief story or anecdote that includes vivid details and active verbs. You want to make it specific so it’s not a generalized essay that any applicant should write. Then, it’s time to get reflective about how the experience impacted or shaped you. If you can relate it to your passions, aspirations, or identity, even better!
This prompt is all about your passions. It’s also an opportunity to showcase your capacity for self-motivated learning. College admissions teams admire applicants who are curious and resourceful. If something captures your attention, how do you go about exploring it and learning more?
Whatever you write about, it should meet two main requirements:
- You genuinely love it.
- You’ve taken the initiative to pursue more knowledge and more experiences related to this interest.
What sparks your curiosity, inspiration, and appetite for knowledge? Why? When you’re deeply interested in a topic, how do you seek to enrich your knowledge? What is your learning process?
You can write about your love for dystopian literature, abstract art, chess, coding, the stock market, baseball stats, the culinary arts, or even applying psychology concepts to your favorite TV shows. Are you intrigued by quantum physics, Henry VIII, how to make the perfect cheesecake, or the ripple effects of the Treaty of Versailles? Be specific.
As long as you can explain how you pursued more knowledge on the topic and continued to challenge yourself, don’t be afraid to get creative.
As long as your topic meets the two requirements described above (you love it and you’ve independently pursued more knowledge), it should work well for this prompt. Of course, it could be tricky to write about your obsession with video games or reality TV. Make sure you can explain why the topic fascinates you and how you’ve enriched your learning in this area.
Start by discussing how you initially became fascinated by your topic of interest. Alternatively, you can start by describing your typical morning routine of checking the stock market, or describing your favorite corner of the local library. Share why your topic piqued your curiosity or immediately absorbed you.
Then, explain what you do to further your knowledge in this area. Remember to be specific and use concrete details.
Is your topic related to your college major or future goals? If it’s something non-academic, like perfecting your cheesecake recipe, briefly make a connection to more academic pursuits. Is the way you approach cheesecake the same way you approach preparing for a big test or sharpening your writing skills?
In this case, you can write about anything . This prompt is 100% open-ended. It can even be an essay you’ve already written! But for the same reasons this topic is great, it’s also challenging. Responding to a specific prompt is often much easier than responding to a prompt that says, “Write whatever you want.”
That being said, this is the prompt for you if there’s something you’re dying to share with the admissions team that does not apply to any other Common App essay prompt. What do you have to offer a college campus that no one else can? Is there a story you love to tell that will provide insight into who you are and what matters to you?
Any essay will technically fit this prompt. Just be sure to avoid controversial, inappropriate, or overly silly topics.
The way you write this essay depends on the topic you choose. However, you can follow the general rules of thumb outlined in our advice for the other essay topics. Start with an engaging anecdote that draws the reader into your topic. Then include some reflection about why it’s important, what you learned, or how it’s impacted your personal growth and future aspirations.
General Essay Tips
For any of the Common App essay prompts, as well as supplemental essays and short answer questions, follow these tips:
- Share new information. In your essay(s). Provide information that the admissions team won’t find anywhere else in your application. This is an opportunity to highlight aspects of your personality and life that don’t fit anywhere else.
- Write in your voice . Your essays should “sound” like you. If the schools you’re applying to don’t offer interviews, this is your best chance to let your personality shine. The admissions team wants to know who you are, beyond your GPA and test scores.
- Use specific details. We’ve said this a lot, but that’s because it’s important. Vivid details and memorable language set your essay apart from the pack, even if your topic is extremely unique or groundbreaking.
- Be creative. Don’t be afraid to get creative and highlight what makes you unique, within reason. Admissions officers that have read thousands of repetitive essays will appreciate something that’s a little zany.
- Proofread carefully. Read over your essay multiple times for clarity, concision, grammar, and spelling. Delete unnecessary or repetitive words and phrases. Try to use active verbs (e.g., “Joe interviewed me” instead of “I was interviewed by Joe,” or “My mom picked me up from school” instead of “I was picked up by my mom”). Ask a trusted friend, family member, or teacher to review your essay too.
You should also make sure your essay answers the question the prompt asks. Write about something that’s important to you, and always make sure to reflect. You aren’t just telling a story; you’re showing what you learned, how it changed you, and why it’s important enough to be the focus of your college application essay.
Final Thoughts: Common App Essay Tips
Writing your Common App essay doesn’t have to be scary. Believe it or not, it can even be fun. The key is to choose a topic that you’re excited to write about. Dig into something that’s important to you. Get creative, use specific details, and reflect on your experiences.
Don’t try too hard to impress or use vocabulary words you’ve never used before. Be yourself – just a more polished, professional version. Write in your voice and let your personality shine. That sounds at least a little fun, doesn’t it?
By following these tips, you’ll reduce your college essay stress and write a memorable essay that college admissions teams will love.
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Successful Common App Essays
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How to Write an Outstanding Common App Essay
Our best advice for impressing admissions officers with your common app essay..
You probably know that the Common App asks for a personal essay. It’s an essay that matters — almost 1000 schools accept it. (Most make it mandatory; for a few it’s optional, but we still recommend submitting it.)
How do I do well? You’ve got to eloquently cover the one or two experiences that show you’ll succeed in college and beyond. Sadly, that’s a tough trick to pull off. But we’ve got a few tips that can make a big difference.
Check out our free resources, including:
- How to choose the best prompt , and avoid common pitfalls.
- How to structure your essay , which lays out two strong formats that will help organize your thinking.
For one-on-one help with your essay, try us at Prompt . We can help you get started, or give you feedback before you submit your final draft, and everything else in between.
Common App Prompts 2020-2021
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
You choose one of the seven prompts.
Word limit: 650 words.
Which Common App prompts are the most popular?
This graph illustrates the choices made by over 1,500 Prompt clients. According to our data, two essays are by far the most popular — the “Background” essay (#1) and the “Accomplishment” essay (#5), with roughly 30% of our clients choosing each.
Interestingly, the most popular choice according to the Common App ’s own data is different. It’s the “choose your own topic” prompt (#7), which is only the fourth-most popular among our students. But, except for that, the Common App reports the same sequence as we do, with the “Accomplishment” essay (#5) also in second position, and the “Obstacle” essay (#2) also in third.
The 2021-2022 Common App Essay: How to Write a Great Essay That Will Get You Accepted
If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably started the very exciting process of applying to college—and chances are you may be a little overwhelmed at times. That’s OK! The key to getting into the right college for you is taking each step of the application process in stride, and one of those steps is completing the Common App and the Common App essay.
In this post, you’ll learn what the Common Application essay is, how to write one (including a free checklist to help you with the process), example essays, and much more. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
What is the Common App, and More Importantly, What is the Common App Essay? Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay How Do You Write a Common App Essay?
What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay? What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?
Common Application Essay FAQs
What is the common app, and more importantly, what is the common app essay.
The “Common App,” short for the Common Application , is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once. It’s accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally.
The idea is that the Common App is a “one-stop shop” so you don’t have to complete a million separate applications. That said, plenty of colleges still require their own application components, and the Common App, as user-friendly as it aims to be, can still feel like a bit of a challenge to complete.
Part of the reason the Common App can seem intimidating is because of the Common App essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application this way. But never fear! In reality, the Common App essay is easy to ace if you know how to approach it and you give it your best.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at anything and everything you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay in order to help you get into the school of your dreams. We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay.
Quick Facts on the 2021-2022 Common App Essay
Below are just a few of the short and sweet things you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay, but we’ll elaborate on some of this content later in this post.
How Do You Write a Common App Essay?
The million dollar question about the Common App essay is obviously, “How do I actually write it?!”
Now there’s something to keep in mind before exploring how to compose the Common App essay, and that’s the purpose of this task. You may be wondering:
- What are college admissions boards actually looking for?
- Why are you being asked to write this essay?
College admissions boards want to see that you can compose a compelling, well-crafted essay. After four years of high school, you’re expected to be able to craft a clear and concise piece of writing that addresses a specific subject.
So yes, you’re actually being evaluated on your essay writing skills, but the purpose of the Common Application essay is deeper than that—it’s to present the type of person and thinker that you are.
Regardless of which prompt you choose, colleges are trying to get a sense of how thoughtfully and critically you can reflect on your life and the world around you .
And furthermore, they want to get a sense of who you are—your interests, your personality, your values—the dimensional aspects of you as an applicant that simply can’t be expressed in transcripts and test scores . In short, you want to stand out and be memorable.
That said, there is no exact formula for “cracking the case” of the Common App essay, but there are plenty of useful steps and tips that can help you write a great essay.
(In a hurry? Download our quick and concise handout that sums up some of the keys to the Common App essay!)
1) Familiarize Yourself With the Common App Prompts and How to Approach Them
The Common App recently released the 2021-2022 essay prompts , which are almost the same as last year’s prompts, but with one BIG difference.
The prompt about problem solving (formerly prompt #4) has been replaced with a prompt about gratitude and how it has motivated you. According to Common App President and CEO Jenny Rickard, this change was inspired by new scientific research on the benefits of writing about gratitude and the positive impact others have had on our lives.
Additionally, the Common App now includes an optional Covid-19 prompt where you can discuss how you’ve personally been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Now, let’s take a look at each 2021-2022 Common App prompt individually. You’ll notice that every prompt really has two parts to it:
- share, explain and describe a narrative, and
- reflect on, analyze, and draw meaning from it.
Let’s take a look.
Prompt #1: A snapshot of your story
Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Discuss a background, identity, or interest that you feel is meaningful to who you are and/or that or sets you apart from others.
- Reflect on why this attribute is meaningful and how it has shaped you as a person.
Prompt #2: An obstacle you overcame
Prompt: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Recount a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
- Reflect on how this affected you, what you learned from it, and if it led to any successes later down the line.
Prompt #3: A belief or idea you questioned or challenged
Prompt: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Explain a time that you questioned a particular belief or way of thinking.
- Elaborate on what prompted this questioning, what the outcome was, and why this outcome was significant.
Prompt #4: An experience of gratitude that has motivated you
Prompt: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Describe the specific experience or interaction that made you feel a sense of gratitude. Make sure to explain who did something nice for you and why it was surprising or unexpected.
- Explain, as specifically as possible, how this feeling of gratitude changed or motivated you. What actions did you take a result? How did your mindset change?
Prompt #5: An accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth
Prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth for you.
- Reflect on the nature of this growth and/or a new understanding you gained in the process.
Prompt #6: An interest so engaging you lose track of time
Prompt: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Discuss a topic, idea, or interest that is so engaging to you that you lose track of time when focused on it.
- Reflect on and explain why this interest is so important to you, and your method of learning more about it.
Prompt #7: An essay topic of your choice
Prompt: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
- Discuss any subject matter or philosophical question of interest to you.
- Reflect on the implications of this subject or question, and how it has shaped you, transformed you, impacted your life, etc.
Now keep in mind that to some degree, it doesn’t actually matter which prompt you choose to answer, so long as you write and present yourself well. But you obviously want to pick whichever Common App essay prompt speaks to you most, and the one you think will provide you the meatiest and most meaningful material.
This is an outstanding guide to choosing the right Common App essay prompt, but as a rule of thumb, the “right” prompt will probably stand out to you. If you have to rack your brain, for example, to think of a challenge you’ve overcome and how the experience has shaped you, then that prompt probably isn’t the right one.
Authenticity is key, so choose the prompt you can answer thoroughly.
Whether you know immediately which prompt you’re going to choose or not, do yourself a huge favor and brainstorm . Take out a notebook and jot down or free write all of the ideas that spring to your mind for as many of the prompts that you’re considering. You might be surprised what ideas you generate as you start doing this, and you might be surprised which ideas seem to have the most content and examples to elaborate on.
Also, it’s important to note that your subject matter doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or spectacular. You don’t have to recount a near-death experience, an epic overseas adventure, a 180-degree turn of faith, etc. Your ordinary life, when reflected upon thoughtfully, is interesting and profound.
3) Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)
This may sound painfully obvious, but for some of us, it can be hard to stay on topic. Each prompt is posed as a question , so don’t lose sight of that and let your essay devolve into a story about yourself that never really gets at the heart of the prompt.
As you’re drafting your essay—say after each paragraph—pause and refer back to the question, making sure each paragraph plays some part in actually responding to the prompt.
4) Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively
The Common App essay isn’t like many of the other argumentative essays you’ve been taught to write in school. It is argumentative in that you are essentially arguing for why you are a good candidate for a particular college, using your personal experience as support, but it’s more than that.
The Common Application essay is essentially a narrative essay that is reflective and analytical by nature. This means that regardless of which prompt you select, you’ll be sharing something personal about yourself, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what you shared is important.
And even if this isn’t an essay format that you’re accustomed to writing, you can still rely on your knowledge of basic essay structures to help you. You’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.
Let’s talk about those three pieces now.
The purpose of an introduction is 1) to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading, and 2) to introduce the reader to the general subject at hand.
So the most important part of the introduction is a unique attention-getter that establishes your personal voice and tone while piquing the reader’s interest. An example of a good hook could be a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, and so on.
Now, you may be wondering, “Do I need a thesis statement?” This is a great question and the simple answer is no.
This is because some students prefer to hook their reader with a bit of mystery and let their story unfold organically without a thesis sentence “spoiling” what is to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a thesis sentence, it just means you don’t need one. It just depends on how you want to build your personal narrative, and what serves you best.
That said, your essay does need a greater message or lesson in it, which is another way of saying a thesis . You just don’t necessarily have to write it out in the introduction paragraph.
It might help you to keep a thesis in mind or even write it down just for your own sake, even if you don’t explicitly use it in your introduction. Doing so can help you stay on track and help you build up to a stronger reflection.
Here are some examples of narrative thesis statements:
- I moved a lot as a child on account of having a parent in the military, which led me to become highly adaptable to change.
- The greatest obstacle I’ve overcome is my battle with leukemia, which has taught me both incredible resilience and reverence for the present.
- An accomplishment that I achieved was making the varsity volleyball team, which has made me grow tremendously as a person, specifically in the areas of self-confidence and collaboration.
As discussed earlier, there are two parts to each prompt: explanation and reflection . Each part should be addressed throughout the essay, but how you organize your content is up to you.
A good rule of thumb for structuring the body of your essay is as follows:
- Situate your reader: provide context for your story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details. For example, you may frame an essay about an internship at the zoo with the phrase, “Elephants make the best friends.” Your reader knows immediately that the subject matter involves your interaction with animals, specifically elephants.
- Explain more about your topic and how it affected you, using specific examples and key details.
- Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.
Note that while there are no set rules for how many paragraphs you should use for your essay, be mindful of breaking paragraphs whenever you naturally shift gears, and be mindful of too-long paragraphs that just feel like walls of text for the reader.
Your conclusion should flow nicely from your elaboration, really driving home your message or what you learned. Be careful not to just dead-end your essay abruptly.
This is a great place to speculate on how you see the subject matter informing your future, especially as a college student and beyond. For example, what might you want to continue to learn about? What problems do you anticipate being able to solve given your experience?
5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly
It may go without saying, but tell your own story, without borrowing from someone else’s or embellishing. Profound reflection, insight, and wisdom can be gleaned from the seemingly simplest experiences, so don’t feel the need to stray from the truth of your unique personal experiences.
Also, make sure to laser in on a highly specific event, obstacle, interest, etc. It is better to go “narrower and deeper” than to go “wider and shallower,” because the more specific you are, the more vivid and engrossing your essay will naturally be.
For example, if you were a camp counselor every summer for the last few years, avoid sharing several summers’ worth of content in your essay. Focus instead on one summer , and even better, on one incident during that summer at camp.
And on that note, remember to be vivid! Follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell . Provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for your readers.
6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone
Unlike in most academic essays, you can sound a bit less stuffy and a bit more like yourself in the Common App essay. Your essay should be professional, but can be conversational. Try reading it aloud; does it sound like you? That’s good!
Be mindful, however, of not getting too casual or colloquial in it. This means avoiding slang, contractions, or “text speak” abbreviations (e.g. “lol”), at least without deliberate context in your story (for example, if you’re recounting dialogue).
You’re still appealing to academic institutions here, so avoid profanity at all costs, and make sure you’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.
7) Revise and Proofread
This one is a biggie. Give yourself time during your application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite your essay several times. Let it grow and change and become the best version it can be. After you write your first draft, walk away from it for a couple days, and return to it with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you feel like adding, removing, or changing.
And of course, make sure your essay is pristine before you submit it. Triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc. Since this isn’t a timed essay you have to sit for (like the ACT essay test , for example), the college admissions readers will expect your essay to be polished and sparkling.
A tried and true method for both ensuring flow and catching errors is reading your essay aloud. You may sound a little silly, but it really works!
What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay?
Your Common App essay is your chance to provide a deeper insight into you as a person, so avoid just repeating what you’d put on a resume. This is not to say you can’t discuss something mentioned briefly on your resume in greater depth, but the best essays offer something new that helps round out the whole college application.
Okay, now this one is a bit tricky. On the one hand, you should write boldly and honestly, and some of the prompts (the one about challenging a particular belief, for example) are appropriate for addressing potentially contentious topics.
But that said, avoid being controversial or edgy for the sake of being controversial or edgy. Be steadfast in your beliefs for the greater sake of the narrative and your essay will be naturally compelling without being alienating to your readers.
If you have a personal story that you’re not entirely comfortable sharing, avoid it, even if it would make a great essay topic in theory. This is because if you’re not comfortable writing on the subject matter, you’ll end up being too vague, which won’t do your story or overall application justice. So choose a subject matter you’re familiar with and comfortable discussing in specifics.
Unless they really, truly serve your essay, avoid general platitudes and cliches in your language. It is definitely encouraged to have an essay with a moral, lesson, or greater takeaway, but try to avoid summing up what you’ve learned with reductive phrases like “slow and steady wins the race,” “good things come in small packages,” “actions speak louder than words,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on.
What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?
There are tons of Common App essays out there, including these Common App essay examples accepted at Connecticut College, which include explanations from admissions readers about why they were chosen.
But let’s take a look here at two versions of an example essay, one that is just okay and one that is great.
Both Common App essay examples are crafted in response to prompt #2, which is:
Essay Version #1, Satisfactory Essay:
During my sophomore year of high school, I tore my ACL, which stands for “anterior cruciate ligament,” and is the kiss of death for most athletic careers. This injury ended up being one of the greatest obstacles of my life. It was also, however, a turning point that taught me to see opportunity amidst adversity.
It was particularly awful that I was just about to score a winning goal during a championship hockey game when I was checked by a guy on the opposing team and came crashing down on my knee. It was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I knew immediately that this was going to be bad.
For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, not really knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally and I grew lethargic and depressed.
And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class for those students who wanted to continue studying art beyond what was already offered. I had taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed and excelled at them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my scheduled, as required.
After a couple of weeks of the class, I began feeling better. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at. I wanted to share the world around me as I saw it with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before. I met and made friends with many new people in that art class, people I would have never known if I hadn’t taken it, which also opened me up to all kinds of new mindsets and experiences.
We’re all familiar with the common adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” and this is exactly what happened for me. I might never have pursued art more seriously if I hadn’t been taken out of hockey. This has served as a great reminder for me to stay open to new opportunities. We never know what will unexpectedly bring us joy and make us more well-rounded people.
Areas for Improvement in Version #1:
- It lacks a compelling hook.
- The discussion of the obstacle and reflection upon it are both a bit rushed.
- It could use more vivid and evocative language.
- It uses a cliche (“one door closes”).
- It is somewhat vague at times (e.g. what kinds of “new mindsets and experiences” did the writer experience? In what ways are they now more “well-rounded”?).
Now let’s apply this feedback and revise the essay.
Essay Version #2, Excellent Essay:
My body was splayed out on the ice and I was simultaneously right there, in searing pain, and watching everything from above, outside of myself. It wasn’t actually a “near death” experience, but it was certainly disorienting, considering that just seconds before, I was flying down the ice in possession of the puck, about to score the winning goal of our championship game.
Instead, I had taken a check from an opposing team member, and had torn my ACL (or anterior cruciate ligament), which is the kiss of death for most athletic careers.
My road to recovery included two major surgeries, a couple months on crutches, a year of physical therapy, and absolutely zero athletic activity. I would heal, thankfully, and regain movement in my knee and leg, but I was told by doctors that I may never play hockey again, which was devastating to me. Hockey wasn’t just my passion—it was my life’s goal to play professionally.
For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, feeling like a ghost haunting my own life, watching everything but unable to participate. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally, and I grew lethargic and depressed.
And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class after school for those students who wanted to study art more seriously. I had already taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my schedule, as required. And, because of hockey, I certainly had never had afternoons open.
After a couple of weeks of the class, I began to feel alive again, like “myself” but renewed, more awake and aware of everything around me. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at, to bring everything I saw to life. It wasn’t just that I’d adopted a new hobby or passion, it was that I began looking more closely and critically at the world around me. I wanted to share what I saw with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before.
My art teacher selected a charcoal portrait of mine to be showcased in a local art show and I’ve never been more proud of myself for anything. Many of my friends, family members, and teammates came to see the show, which blew me away, but also I realized then just how much of my own self worth had been attached to people’s perception of me as a successful athlete. I learned how much better it feels to gain self worth from within. Unlike hockey, which I’d trained to be good at since I was a toddler, art is something that made me much more vulnerable. I didn’t do it to try to be the best, I did it because it felt good. And getting out of my comfort zone in this way gave me a sense of confidence I had never known prior, despite all my time on the ice during high-stakes games.
Today, I’m back in skates and able to play hockey, but will probably not play professionally; while I am disappointed, I’m also at peace with it. We make plans in life, and sometimes life has other plans for us that we have to adapt to and embrace, which is the more profound lesson I’ve learned in the healing process. We can crumple in the face of obstacles, or we can look for a silver lining and allow ourselves to grow into more complex, dynamic, well-rounded people. I don’t know what the rest of life holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to keep making art, and I’m going to keep opening myself up to new opportunities and experiences.
Strengths of Version #2:
- It has a compelling hook that draws the reader in.
- It has a clear beginning, middle, and end (expressed as an introduction, body, and conclusion).
- It directly addresses the prompt at hand and sticks to it.
- It focuses on one specific incident.
- It is well balanced in its explanation of and reflection on a given experience.
- It uses a clear, unique voice and tone as well as vivid, evocative language.
- It has a logical and cohesive flow.
- It is highly personal while also polished and professional.
Hopefully these examples have given you ideas of how you can take your Common App essay from good to great. If you have more questions about how to write a Common App essay, keep reading our FAQs below.
How much do I actually have to write for the Common App essay?
Last year, the Common App essay was capped at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words required. The best essays tend to range between 500-650 words.
Think of it this way as you start to draft: 500 words is one single-spaced page (250 words is one double-spaced page), so you should write roughly a page to page and half of typed, single-spaced content.
Where can I find the official Common App essay prompts?
Here are the 2021-2022 Common App essay prompts , which are the same as last year’s, with the exception of a new prompt #4 and the addition of a Covid-19 Common App prompt .
Do I need a title for the Common App essay?
A title is not required for the Common App essay, but you are, of course, more than welcome to include one if you’d like.
Where can I go for more information about the Common App essay?
All of the necessary information for the Common App and the Common App essay can be found on the Common Application home page.
For further reading, here are some posts that tackle and dispel common myths about the Common App essay:
Myth: The Common App essay must sound professional. Myth: Colleges can’t tell if someone helps write a common app essay.
If you haven’t already, you can download our free Common App essay checklist .
There you have it! The Common App essay can actually be quite rewarding to write if you give yourself enough time to prepare for it thoroughly. Remember, it’s all about you, and you’re the authority on that! So hunker down and don’t forget to have fun in the writing process.
We’d also love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you still have about the Common Application essay? What are you thinking about writing on?
Comment below, and good luck!
Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. Nadyja holds an MA in English from DePaul University and has taught English and at the high school and college levels for twelve years. She has a decade of experience teaching preparation for the AP exams, the SAT, and the ACT, among other tests. Additionally, Nadyja has worked as an academic advisor at college level and considers herself an expert in all things related to college-prep. She’s applied her college expertise to posts such as UCLA Admissions: The SAT Scores, ACT Scores, and GPA You Need to Get in and A Family Guide to College Admissions . Nadyja loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she’s not teaching, she enjoys reading and writing for pleasure and loves spending time in or near the ocean. You can connect with her on LinkedIn !
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Last updated October 3, 2023
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Blog > Common App , Essay Examples , Personal Statement > 12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)
12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)
Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University
Written by Alex McNeil, MA Admissions Consultant
If you’re applying to college, chances are you’re using the Common Application. And if you’re using the Common Application, then you’re definitely writing a Common Application essay.
But how do you write a Common App essay? More specifically, how do you write a good one that stands out to admissions officers? And hey—what does a good Common App essay even look like?
Ah, there it is. That last question is one nearly all students applying to college ask. That’s why example essays are so important. They help you sort through all the noise of the college admissions process to see exactly what a Common App essay can and should be.
We’ve compiled some of our favorite college essays for you to read. Even better, our team of former admissions officers has commented on and graded every single essay to guide you through what works (and doesn’t).
Let’s get to it.
The 2022-2023 Common Application Essay Prompts
First, we should start out by looking at the Common Application essay prompts. Sometimes the prompts change slightly from year to year, but they tend to remain fairly similar.
The Common App essay prompts are just that. Prompts. They prompt you to write an essay by giving you a place to start. They ask questions and list places you can start. You only have to choose one prompt to answer.
Here they are, listed in the order provided by the Common App:
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
The prompts cover a range of topics that’s broad enough to let you write about just about anything.
But let us let you in on a little secret: how you answer the Common Application prompt matters less than the quality of the essay you write. After all, you can always choose the open-ended Prompt #7 option.
So our advice is to start with the essay and then choose a prompt to fit. Identifying a topic that resonates with you, regardless of the prompt, will produce the best essay possible. (And if you need some guidance about how to choose a Common App essay topic, check out our college essay writing guide .)
3 Tips for Writing Your Common Application Essay
Overall, your Common App essay should be the centerpiece of your college application. It should work to tie together your cohesive application narrative , and it should give admissions officers a genuine sense of who you are. Let's take a look at a few specific tips for writing a good Common App essay.
Write about a meaningful topic.
Think about the purpose of a Common App essay. It’s really your one chance to communicate directly with your admissions officers. Sure, your application has all your grades and classes and activities, but none of those things is actually you. The Common App essay exists so you can tell admissions officers information they can’t find anywhere else in your application. Think of it like a poetic introduction to who you are. Because you only have 650 words to make your impression, your essay should get straight to it. Choose a topic that reflects something deeply meaningful to who you are.
Write about a strength.
If your Common App essay is like an introduction, then you also want to make a good impression. That means that your essay should communicate one of your core strengths. Maybe you're the most compassionate person in the world. Maybe you’re so inventive that you can make anything out of a paperclip and a rock. Or maybe you’re so wise that everyone comes to you for advice. Whatever strength makes you who you are, let it shine through in your Common Application essay.
Pay attention to the structure of your essay.
As you’ll see in the “Bad” Common App Essay Examples section below, unorganized essays are hard to read. Admissions officers read hundreds to thousands of applications in a single year, so they go through them fast. That means that your essay needs to grab their attention and easily guide them through your narrative. Try your best to organize your paragraphs into coherent ideas and organize them in a way that logically draws your reader through the story you’re telling.
Now keep those tips in mind as we go through each of these example essays.
Best Common App Essay Examples
There’s no single correct way to write a Common App essay, but the best ones grab your attention and keep it. They raise interesting questions, stories, and solutions. Writers reflect meaningfully on important topics, and they do so with a kind of elegance that’s hard to pinpoint. Writers use specific details and examples to set the scene. The best essays have narratives cohere perfectly and guide readers seamlessly through the story at hand.
Reading outstanding Common App essays can help you know what to aim for. Not every winning Common App essay has to look like the ones in this section, but they’ll give you a place to get started.
In particular, take note of the admissions officers’ comments and begin thinking about how you can apply these lessons to your own Common App essay.
Example #1: Board Game Family
Common App Prompt #1
“Professor Plum in the kitchen with the candlestick!”(( Opening with dialogue can be a risky choice, especially if it distracts the reader instead of drawing them in. But this essay uses opening dialogue as an effective hook to compel the reader to read on.)) My sister triumphed. I begrudgingly set down my clue tracker and opened the CONFIDENTIAL envelope. Indeed, her theory was correct. The thing about growing up in a board game family is that you quickly learn how to be a sore loser. In my home, countless sibling wars have been waged over an unjust hand of Gin Rummy or an out-of-bounds toe in Twister. But what I lack in sibling sportsmanship I make up for in wits. Playing board games with my family has taught me that the key to winning any game is resilience, sound strategy, and a little bit of charm(( This introduction has some fun language. And with this sentence, the writer gets straight to the heart of their essay. )) .
Candy Land was my gateway game, and it remains one of my favorites to play with my younger siblings. The game itself is simple: pick a card and move to the corresponding color on the board. First one to King Candy’s Castle wins. But, like life, the journey to the castle is full of setbacks. One unlucky draw, and you’ll lose half your progress. Having made many journeys up Candy Mountain, I grew accustomed to these setbacks. As I entered high school, I began facing real-world roadblocks that threatened to send me ten steps backward. My family moved towns, and the transition proved difficult. I felt behind in the new curriculum and lonely at a new school. Establishing a Board Game club helped me find friends and start my journey back toward Candy Castle.
As I grew older, I gravitated toward more difficult games like Risk. Unlike Candy Land, Risk requires strategy. Sure, randomly conquering territories might get you somewhere, but I learned that the most successful crusades are those that feature careful planning. Risk takes up our entire kitchen table, and we’ll play for hours at a time. My brother and I like to establish secret ententes. With whispered asides and unnoticed bathroom breaks, we work together to ensure victory. And when something doesn’t go our way, we revise our strategy and prepare for the next round. Risk isn’t just about taking risks–it’s about learning when to act, what to do, and who to align yourself with. It’s a lesson that applies to life outside the kitchen table, too.
While I’ve learned from every game I’ve played, the most impactful has been Scrabble(( This excerpt shows great personality, reflection, and personal growth.)) . When I started studying for the SATs, my family took up Scrabble. At first, Scrabble almost broke us. Dictionaries were slammed shut, points miscalculated, and tiles mysteriously lost. But with each new game, the board set anew, we remembered our mission: to help me practice vocabulary. With this fresh perspective, we began to work together. Instead of playing to win, we played to challenge each other and ourselves. For every non-word word I put on the board, I had to plead my case. Arguments like “Ahot” is synonymous with cold because of the root “a,” meaning “without” and “Truc” is a fun French word that we should have anglicized a long time ago anyway earned me both eyerolls and points. The more charming I was, the more sound my defense became, and the more likely my family was to concede. Together, we made our own rules and unforgettable memories.
I’ve summited Candy Mountain thousands of times and founded more countries than I can count. Our Scrabble games don’t look like everyone else’s, but these moments around my kitchen table, filled with laughter and rivalries, white lies and trusted alliances, are ones I will always cherish. They have made me into the thoughtful and strategic person I am today. More importantly, they’ve taught me that there’s a lot to learn when you’re having fun(( The writer concludes with this intentional reflection that leaves no question in the reader’s mind about what the main takeaway from the essay should be.)) .
AO Notes on Board Game Family
This essay takes a fun topic, board games, and turns it into a fun college essay. Most importantly, the writer doesn’t spend too much time focusing on the games themselves. Instead, they use the games as a way to talk about themself. That’s the key in an essay like this.
Why this essay stands out:
- Humor: We get a strong sense of the writer’s personality through their humor. It’s okay to show some personality in your college essays!
- Meaning : Through each of these stories, we learn a lot about the writer’s family background. There’s a clear picture of what their home looked like growing up, so we can easily see how they developed into who they are today.
- Action steps: The writer doesn’t just describe fun family game nights. They explicitly connect these game nights to their determination as a player, sibling, and student. We see the steps they took to make new friends, win alongside their brother, and study for the SATs.
Example #2: The Bowl that Taught Me Not to Quit
Common App Prompt #2
The clay felt cold against my skin as my knees hugged the wheel for dear life(( With this opening, we jump right into the writer’s emotions. They don’t have to tell us explicitly what they’re feeling—we can feel that they are anxious from their description alone. It’s a wonderful example of “show, not tell.”)) . Don’t. Fall. Over. I begged the clay to stay put. In the back of my mind, I heard the instructor saying, “The clay will mirror what you do. If you are steady, the clay will be steady.” I planted my feet firmly on the floor and stared my bowl-to-be dead in the eye.
My journey as a ceramicist began as many journeys do: with a scolding from my mother. She said that I was wasting my summer. I needed a hobby. Flipping through the community center catalog, my gaze landed on Ceramics 101: Beginners. I decided to take on the wheel.
Soon, I was captivated. For the last three thousand years, ceramicists have been throwing clay to create pottery that is quicker to make and more reliable than hand-crafted pottery. This past summer, as I developed my pottery skills, I learned about more than clay. I learned about myself.
To start any project, there’s the matter of choosing which clay to use. When it came time for my first throw, I chose stoneware clay for its durability. I grabbed a slab, dabbed it with water, and tossed it on the wheel, just as the teacher had instructed. My foot gently pressed the wheel’s pedal, a vehicle for which I was certainly not licensed. Covered in wet clay, I pressed my hands against the slab, trying to shape it. But it wobbled(( And here we have the main conflict: things did not go as expected. As readers, we ask ourselves: what will the writer do now?)) . It spun completely out of control. I had clay in my hair and up my sleeves. My project, it seemed, was already ruined.
While I didn’t expect to be a ceramics savant, I did expect to make it through the first class without a mud bath. I felt like a failure as I watched all the other students, whose clay was taking shape on gracefully spinning wheels. I was embarrassed. I wanted to quit. And I was used to quitting, having never been able to hold down an extracurricular activity throughout high school(( With this simple sentence, we learn that the writer has struggled with overcoming challenges in the past. )) . Cutting my losses would be quicker than cleaning the clay from my clothes, so I began to wipe off my hands and pack up my things. The instructor approached me, explaining that what had just happened was perfectly normal. She urged me to try again. I didn’t want to, but her presence made me stay.
For the rest of the class, the instructor hovered by my wheel. She was ready to lend a hand when necessary. She was my safety net, and I felt more confident to continue. I squeezed my clay out and down with the care of a first-time mom. It began to look more like a bowl and less like a mound of dirt. As I watched the bowl come into being, I felt tears prick my eyes. I felt silly for crying at something so simple, but it wasn’t so simple after all. A bowl materialized from my bare hands, all because I didn’t quit.
Quitting(( This paragraph has wonderful reflection.)) is easy, and I’ve taken the easy road more times than I can count. But it ended the day of that ceramics class. If you leave clay untended, it will dry out and become useless. Before ceramics, I hadn’t been tending to myself. I grew dry, cracking under the weight of any external pressures. But my teacher taught me that a little more persistence, time, and effort can yield something beautiful and useful.
When my bowl was done, I carried it to the shelf to be fired. The instructor explained that she’d put our projects in the kiln, and we could pick them up at our next class. I returned the following week and saw my bowl sitting on my wheel. It was imperfect but sturdy, messy yet intricate. It was exactly right. I set it aside and grabbed another block of clay, foot hovering over the pedal(( This conclusion ties up the essay with a bow. It calls back to the beginning and emphasizes that the writer will keep overcoming whatever obstacles arise.)) .
AO Notes on The Bowl that Taught Me Not to Quit
In this essay, the writer goes on a journey learning to do ceramics. We see that they experience failure but can learn from it. Their strengths of creativity and resilience shine through.
- Positive spin: Writing college essays about challenges is difficult because it’s easy to get wrapped up in hardship. But this essay does a great job moving on from the failure and focusing on the lessons learned.
- Explaining an underwhelming resume: It happens so quickly that you might miss it if you blink, but this writer very subtly explains why they don’t have many resume items. Accounting for an insufficient resume in this way comes across as taking responsibility rather than making excuses. We also see that the writer has learned from these challenges and is moving forward in a new direction.
Example #3: ENFP
Common App Prompt #6
“You know how whenever you want to plan out your weekend there are too many fun things to do and too many people to do them with? And how it’s impossible to commit to doing anything next Saturday, let alone next month? What if something even more exciting comes up? Ugh!”
“I have literally no idea what you’re talking about. That sounds stressful.”
My friend’s response confused me.
“Stressful!? It’s fun! And stressful. But mostly fun.”
We’ve all had realizations that remind us we are not the same as the people around us(( After that fun introduction, this sentence brings our attention directly to the main point of the essay.)) . Our brains and our tendencies are ours, and they aren’t necessarily shared by others–even close friends and family.
This conversation was one of those times. I was a sophomore and truly did not consider that my peers would follow routines, carefully planning out their weekends while I relied on vibes, group texts, and parental reminders of homework to get me through. Every day is a new experience and I wake up energized for the excitement of a new beginning. Fun, right?
Apparently, some people find my way stressful.
The first week of junior year, my English teacher surprised us with a test. Not an academic one–she administered the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. I didn’t know what that meant, but she explained it was a personality assessment. Then she looked directly at me and pointed.
“YOU! YOU are an ENFP!”
I’d been called a lot of things, but this was a new one. She was absolutely certain that this string of meaningless letters described me. As if anyone could possibly define me!
Sure enough, I took the assessment and got my results. E-N-F-P. Extraverted-iNtuitive-Feeling-Perceiving. I learned that each variable was one of two possibilities that describe people’s preferences about how they interact with their external and internal world. Each person exists on a spectrum between each set of variables.
I was pretty extreme on all four. Suddenly, I understood why people said I had a “big personality”.
This was just the start of my journey into psychology to better understand myself and others(( This paragraph ties together the personality test story with the writer’s personal journey of seeing the world through new perspectives.)) . I knew I was an extrovert–that was the easy one. But now I felt like I had language to explain why my arguments in debate were naturally grounded in emotion (common for Feeling types) rather than the data of a Thinker. I understood why my Judgment (J, rather than P) friends couldn’t stand my inability to commit to a plan. I needed to Perceive all of my options before committing to just one of them.
I delved into writers, psychologists, and researchers like Adam Grant, Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, and Gretchen Rubin. I even embraced my own (very ENFP) preference to listen to their audiobooks rather than read in quiet solitude. I listen to books with one ear bud in while walking around my small town. That way I can learn while staying open to meeting a new friend, stopping by a shop, or petting a cute dog.
My INTJ friend didn’t understand how I could listen to a book while actively striking up conversations with strangers. To each their own.
Part of learning about myself was understanding that I love to learn about how people think and form habits. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. That is true for planning a weekend, maintaining relationships, or even writing a college essay.
I want to study psychology (and about 100 other subjects) and create a career where I can help people understand themselves and build positive habits around who they are(( I like how the writer connects these relations to their academic and career goals.)) , rather than try to change themselves to fit the expectations of others. Sure, maybe that will lead me to become a psychologist. But I think teachers, doctors, writers, and business leaders have an opportunity to do this as well.
All I know for sure is that, just like each new day, college is the next adventure. I’m excited to see what happens.
AO Notes on ENFP
Most of us know about personality tests, but this writer is able to make the topic a deeply personal one. We learn about their personality and habits. We learn about how they interact with others. Overall, the topic really helps us see the world from their perspective.
- Creative topic: The topic itself isn’t one an admissions officer will see every day. But it’s not so out-there that it comes across as hokey.
- Perspective: Admissions officers appreciate when students can see the world from perspectives other than their own. This writer shows a lot of maturity when explaining how their personality test sparked a realization that they don’t see the world the same way their friends do.
- Connections to future goals: The writer doesn’t just present the topic without speaking to its greater meaning. They show that personality tests are meaningful to them because they are related to an academic interest in psychology.
Example #4: Warhammer 40k Miniatures
Carefully(( This introduction has great vivid language.)) dipping the microscopic end of my horse hair brush into the pot of citadel paint, I can feel my excitement building. Gunmetal grey—my favorite primer color. Next comes the white and gold highlights that edge the armor. I'm about to bring one of my favorite Orcs to life, adding tactful details and shading to his green skin and menacing scowl. This is my passion, my obsession: painting Warhammer 40k miniatures.
Now, I’m well aware of the reputation Warhammer has—nerdy. As a tabletop miniature war game set in a dystopian future(( The writer subtly explains this hobby just in case admissions officers aren’t familiar with it.)) , players collect and paint miniatures to represent their armies. They then battle it out on a tabletop strewn with miniature trees, structures, and other terrains. I've been a fan of the game for years, but it's the painting that I love most. There’s something about taking a tiny, unpainted model and turning it into a work of art that I find incredibly satisfying. Nerd, guilty as charged.
I've always been drawn to the Orcs in particular, with their sheer strength and ferocity. But lately, I've been getting more into the Necrons, these ancient, robotic warriors that have been resurrected after millions of years of dormancy. And let's not forget the noble Tau, with their advanced technology and futuristic design. The story of each people goes deep, too. There are dozens of books written about the broader universe of Warhammer—a shared world that spans tens of thousands of years of lore. I’ve read almost every one of them. No matter the character I’m painting, no matter the story they’ll take place in, I watch in awe as each brushstroke brings the character to life in front of my eyes.
As my obsession with miniature painting has grown, I've started entering painting competitions(( This detail shows the magnitude and impact of the activity.)) . It's nerve-wracking showing off my work to a panel of judges, but it's also incredibly rewarding when they appreciate my hard work. I’ve received accolades and even small prizes for my artistry. After every competition, I choose my favorite miniature to display on a shelf in my room. I still have some of the earliest miniatures on my shelf, looking a little rough around the edges but still serving as a reminder of where I started.
But painting miniatures isn't just a hobby for me; it's also been a gateway for other forms of art. I've started dabbling in oil painting, using the same attention to detail and skillful brushwork that I use on my miniatures. While making the transition to a new medium has been challenging, I’ve slowly I’ve built a small collection of paintings. Some of them are as epic as my miniatures—depictions of battles and important moments from the 40k universe. But others are more tranquil, like a recent landscape I painted for my mom’s birthday of the stream behind our house(( We also learn how the writer’s obsession has expanded to other areas of their life. I like this detail because it’s an endearing story of the writer making art for their mom.)) . Becoming more dynamic with my art has made me a better artist, which has in turn made my miniatures even more lifelike.
Warhammer has been the biggest portal into a world of imagination and creativity. But it’s also unlocked my belief in myself as someone capable of succeeding in art(( And here it is—a central point of the essay. Painting these miniatures isn’t just about the miniatures. It’s also about the writer’s growth as an artist.)) . I’ve transcended the level of hobbyist and, over the years I’ve been painting, I’ve learned to call myself an artist. That title is a lot to carry, but it’s one that I can’t wait to continue growing into, figure by figure, painting by painting. And I can’t wait to bring the world of 40k to my dorm—sharing the universe with my friends and classmates. You’ll know where to find me. Just look for the nerdy artist with the dense wooden play table, toting around an army of skeletal warriors and hulking orcs. I can’t wait to share my world with you.
AO Notes on Warhammer 40k Miniatures
This essay is a great example of how to write about a hobby in a college essay. Notice how the writer explains their hobby in vivid detail, but the core of the essay is still about the writer themself.
- Vivid details: Personal statements can be wonderful exercises in creative writing. While that can be difficult for some students, this writer did it exactly right.
- Narrative structure: The writer seamlessly transitions readers between each paragraph. They slowly reveal how their journey has progressed. And, most importantly, they incorporate loads of good reflection.
- Personal meaning: It’s clear that Warhammer itself is meaningful to the writer. But I also like how they draw the focus inward to discuss how painting miniatures “unlocked” a belief in themself.
Example #5: The Band
Common App Prompt #5
I always imagined my band’s first show would take place on a stage. Maybe not in front of a packed amphitheater, but a stage. One with lights, a sound system, a curtain behind it, and some mixture of friends, family, and strangers ready to hear us play.
But there I was, holding a guitar in the women’s section of JC Penney at the mall(( This sentence is so unexpected that it’s sure to make most admissions officers stop, do a double take, and chuckle.)) . We fumbled through a cover of “Mr. Brightside” while middle-aged women shopped for sundresses.
Not exactly what I had in mind.
Our drummer’s mom managed the shoe section at JC Penney and said her boss wanted a creative way to get younger people excited about shopping there. She suggested that her son’s band would be perfect for this opportunity. They paid us in pizza and asked us to perform for two hours–a tall order for four high school sophomores who knew about five and a half songs.
It wasn’t evident to us that we would learn anything from our musical endeavors, or that our music would take us beyond the local mall. I’ve always known writing and performing pop-rock songs isn’t a likely career path. But a recent late night conversation with my bandmates-turned-best-friends showed us all how much we have grown and learned through music(( This reflection is great.)) . What started as a way to spend time with friends on a hobby turned into an accidental entrepreneurial venture and surprisingly poignant lessons.
For one thing, writing music with others is hard. Getting four new musicians to agree on everything from tempo to lyrics to how many verses each song should have isn’t easy. We figured it out as we went along, fueled by copious amounts of Mountain Dew and Bagel Bites.
We eventually created a system where each member learned the lyrics to each song and at least one other person’s part. Sharing original lyrics–poetry–between friends is uncomfortable. But we became more cohesive once everyone was on the same page with the story we were telling. When the bass player, who can’t play drums, learned just enough to understand that the kick drum hits on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on the 2 and 4, our rhythm section began to play more in sync. Once our drummer got over his fear of singing, we were able to incorporate simple harmonies, which led to him improving our lyrics.
Most surprising was making money and feeling like we were running a small (very small) business(( By expanding the focus to talk about music as a business venture, the writer also shows the extent of their activity’s impact.)) . Our second show after the infamous JC Penney incident was a battle of the bands at the public pool that June. We placed fourth–no prize. By August, we played another battle of the bands and won first place, largely thanks to our efforts to publicize the event to everyone in our network (some might call it begging our friends to come). To our surprise, we won $800 on one of those comically large checks.
We decided to allocate some of the money to equipment we needed–cables, cymbal stands, and more Bagel Bites–and put the rest towards professional recording. The process of contacting local studios, negotiating rates, and working with professionals in the industry was completely new to all of us.
A year before, we thought agreeing on lyrics was tough. But the sonic experience of hearing your own music back and agreeing on the tone and effects of every instrument can bring out differences you didn’t know existed. I’d read about arguments between bands from the Beatles to Kings of Leon, and now the four of us had to work out our differences together in real time. Thankfully, we navigated that challenge without losing our sanity for more than a few brief moments.
I am grateful for the lessons we have learned over the past three years(( And with this conclusion, the writer really drives home the essay’s main theme.)) . Not only do we have music and memories to show for our efforts, but we have all learned about creative collaboration, budgeting, and marketing our art.
AO Notes on The Band
This essay makes me want to sing! It’s full of personality, but it still manages to be vulnerable and reflective. By the conclusion, we really see what the writer has learned from being in a band.
- Humor: The writer immediately draws us in with an introduction that is funny, surprising, and full of personality. The introduction alone makes me want to keep reading. And right as we’re through the introduction, the writer drives home their main point: they learned a lot through music. Then, to our delight, the humor continues throughout. It’s subtle enough to keep our attention and not be overwhelming or inauthentic.
- Strengths: I can see that the writer is very collaborative and entrepreneurial. I also like how they give insight into their relationship with their friends and bandmates—we learn a lot about them through their interactions with others.
- Accomplishments: This essay is a solid example of how to write about accomplishments in a personal and meaningful way. The writer could have just opened with the accomplishments, but that wouldn’t have been very interesting or vulnerable. By nesting those accomplishments within a broader story about music, the writer is able to convey greater meaning.
Good Common App Essay Examples
If you’re feeling intimated by all the outstanding essays you’ve seen online, fear not. You don’t have to have a Pulitzer to get into college.
What you do need is a good, meaningful essay, even if it’s not perfect. The essays in this section represent what the majority of Common App essays look like. They aren’t necessarily perfect, but they’re written strategically and with verve. You can tell that their writers genuinely care about the essay they’ve been tasked with.
Putting in a similar effort with your own Common App essay will get you far. Let’s take a look.
Example #6: Herb
I stood in the dimly lit garage, staring at the child-sized pile of metal and wires in front of me. I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe. This was our creation(( This introduction reveals the product of the journey the writer is about to go on: building a robot.)) , a robot that my father and I had spent months designing and building with meticulous care.
It all started on a slow Sunday afternoon, when my dad suggested we take on a new project. He wanted to build a robot. At first, I was hesitant. I was skeptical that we had the know-how to even construct the body of the robot, much less one that actually worked. But my dad, a tinkerer and inventor, was determined to try. So we got everything set up in the garage and got to work. As it turns out, building a robot wouldn’t just improve our technical abilities. It would bring us closer together along the way.
Before this project, my dad and I tended to argue and disagree(( I appreciate this clear transition and description of the “before” state that the writer and their father are growing from.)) . But in the garage with our robot materials, we were both so invested in building the robot that we collaborated perfectly. We bounced ideas off each other, read books and online forums, and even got advice from friends who were more experienced in robotics. For what seemed like the first time, my dad thought of me as an equal. Usually I was just there to hand him wrenches and screwdrivers as he worked on his latest creation. This time was different. We were a team. And with each passing day, our robot began to come alive.
We spent months in the garage, building and troubleshooting. My dad worked on the mechanics. He carefully assembled the joints and servos that would give the robot its movement. While he did that, I focused on the design. I drew mock-ups on my iPad and researched different exterior materials to use. I clumsily constructed our prototypes before my dad helped me put all the pieces together.
The final result was a beautiful machine. It was almost four feet tall and towered over our family dog. And it actually worked. The exterior gleamed—the sensors we used added visual flair and extreme function. But the most impressive aspect of our robot was its artificial intelligence system, which we had spent weeks programming and refining together. It was still fairly rudimentary as far as robots go, but we were proud of such a major accomplishment.
We decided to name our creation Herb, after my father’s beloved herb garden. We liked the irony of mixing a machine with a garden. He was perfect.
After working on him for months, it was time to enter Herb into a local show for machine enthusiasts. Our entry was accepted(( This detail also shows the magnitude of their accomplishment.)) . The show will take place next spring, so my dad and I are polishing Herb’s exterior, tweaking bugs that arise in his artificial intelligence, and preparing him for his out-of-garage debut.
While I’m proud that we will finally get to show Herb off to the world, what I’m more proud of is how far my father and I have come. Working on Herb brought us closer together, and the process helped my dad see me as a fellow tinkerer and inventor rather than just an assistant. In our garage, as we constructed something entirely un-human, we found the human in ourselves. Our father-son love came to life through a robot. I wouldn’t trade it for anything(( I really like this poetic conclusion that neatly ties together the essay’s theme.)) .
AO Notes on Herb:
This essay is an endearing story about how the writer’s relationship with their father improved while working on a robot together. We learn a lot about the student and their interests as we accompany them on this journey.
What makes this essay good:
- Organization: There’s some back and forth with narrative and reflection in this essay that gives it a pretty complex structure. But the writer does an awesome job keeping readers on track by using very clear signposting. Phrases like “before this project” and “after working on him for months” help readers navigate the complexity.
- Reflection: The writer incorporates great reflection throughout. The third paragraph shows us the “before state” that the writer is growing from, and by the end of the essay, we really see where they’ve ended up mentally, emotionally, and personally.
What the writer could do to level up:
- More focus on the writer : While this essay isn’t too bad about this, there is some room for improvement. The main descriptive parts of the essay all focus on the robot. We do learn about the writer and their goals through these descriptions. But the essay is approaching being too much about the robot and not enough about the writer.
Example #7: Laughter & Acceptance
"Why was the transgender person so bad at math? Because they always had to trans-late equations!"
Okay, okay, that was a terrible joke. But let me tell you, finding self-acceptance as a transgender person ain't no joke. It's a struggle, a battle, a war. But it's a war that can be won, and I'm here to tell you how(( From the start, we get a clear sense of the writer’s personality. This sentence also tells us exactly what the essay is about.)) .
I grew up in a world that told me being trans was wrong, that it was something to be ashamed of. And I believed it. I tried to hide who I was, to pretend like I was someone else. But it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just didn't work.
But then something happened. I don't know what it was—maybe a shift in the universe, maybe a sign from God. But something changed, and I realized that I couldn't keep living a lie. I had to be true to myself, regardless of what misery and consequences that might bring down around my head.
After telling my younger sister, who cried tears of joy and support, bless her, I decided to come out to the rest of my family. Let me tell you, it was not pretty. They didn't understand what I meant. They told me I was going to hell, that I was a disgrace to our family. And it hurt, oh man it hurt. But through the pain I saw a glimmer of something—was that hope?(( The writer does an excellent job reflecting and taking the “more phoenix, less ashes” approach.)) For the first time, I was being honest with myself and with the world. The whips and lashes of my parents’ words were more painful than I could have anticipated, but I left the room with my head held up and a barely-perceptible feeling of lightness around my shoulders.
And that's when the real work began. See, coming out is one thing, but accepting yourself is another. It's not easy, trust me. It's like trying to walk on a tightrope, one wrong step and you're a gonner. But I didn't give up, I kept going.
And you know what? It started to get easier. I started to find people who accepted me for who I was, who supported me and loved me. I started to feel confident in my own skin. And it was a good feeling—a great feeling. The best feeling.
But my life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are still moments every day when I feel down, when the weight of the world feels like it's crushing me. But even in those moments, I've learned to find strength in myself, to remind myself that I am worthy and deserving of love and respect.
And that's what self-acceptance is all about. No one can avoid feeling sad, angry, or frustrated all the time. But if those feelings only crop up now and again? You’re doing pretty good. Most of all, it’s about letting those negative emotions pass when they come, roll over you like a wave before they go on their way. It's about laughing at the absurdity of it all(( With this philosophy, we really see how much the writer has grown.)) , and finding joy and humor in the midst of the pain.
So, dear reader(( Addressing your reader in a college essay is a pretty risky stylistic choice that we would generally advise against.)) , if you're struggling with self-acceptance, you're not alone. I’m there with you. And remember: it's okay to laugh at yourself, to find the humor in the situation. It's not always easy, but it's worth it. Because when you can accept yourself, you can be proud of who you are, and that's something to be truly grateful for. Tell a joke about yourself and laugh it off. You’ll feel better, I promise(( I like these sentiments, but they could be more focused on the writer instead of the reader.)) .
AO Notes on Laughter & Acceptance
This essay does a wonderful job maintaining sight of the writer’s strengths and positivity in light of really tough challenges. The writer isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. Because of that, we learn a lot about them.
- Authenticity : I’d guess that this essay couldn’t have been written by anyone other than its writer. Its voice is so clear and authentic that I truly feel like the writer is talking straight to me. Since Common App essays are one of the only places where you get to speak straight to an admissions officer, authenticity is key.
- Positivity : Let’s face it. This essay is about a really serious topic that was clearly challenging for the writer. But what makes it so great is that in spite of all the challenges, the writer is able to find positivity and light. They don’t dwell on the hardships but look forward to the future. That’s exactly what a college essay about a challenging topic should do.
- Tone : Balancing your personal tone and voice with the conventions of Common App essay writing can be tricky. It’s hard to predict how an admissions officer will react to what you write. Some might love the fact that this essay truly sounds like the student who wrote it, while others might be put off by its informality. The writer could clean up just a few areas of informal language to play it a little safer.
Example #8: The Old iPhone
Common App Prompt #3
I unscrewed the tiny Phillips-head screws and wedged open my iPhone 5. I cringed as the material cracked out of place. Despite my nervousness, I felt curious. I had always been fascinated by technology and machines, but this was the first time I had ever taken apart a device as complex as an iPhone.
And it wasn’t just any iPhone. It was my very first—my most prized possession until I bought my new phone a few months ago. Since then, it had been sitting in the back of my desk drawer, collecting dust and taking up space. I just didn’t have the heart to sell, recycle, or trade it in. On a day when my ADHD was particularly affecting me, I decided to tinker with my phone to calm myself down.
Working with machines and technology had become my biggest strategy for dealing with my ADHD on those difficult days(( This is an excellent transition.)) . I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was thirteen. I’d been struggling to pay attention in class, and my teachers and parents thought it would be best to get me tested. After I started taking medication, my symptoms improved a lot. But the whole process made me feel like something was off about the way my brain worked naturally. That’s why on the days my medication just isn’t cutting it I center myself by playing with machinery and technology. Even though I can’t fully understand my brain, I can understand a machine. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to get me back on track.
At my desk while disassembling the phone, I carefully removed each piece and set them aside on a bathroom hand towel beside me. I felt calm and focused. As someone with ADHD, it can be difficult for me to concentrate on a single task. But with every part I removed, my mind grew more and more focused. I didn’t feel pulled to passing thoughts and distractions like I normally do.
Working on the phone was like meditating. The parts were so small and delicate that it took all of my attention not to lose or break any. As I examined each component, I thought about all the hard work that goes into designing, manufacturing, and selling the millions of iPhones sold each year.
Taking apart the iPhone improved my technical knowledge, but it was more than that. It also helped me to understand my own mind in a new way(( This is an important shift back to the writer’s own experience. If it weren’t here, the essay would be too much about the iPhone and not enough about the writer.)) . While working my way through this small but magnificent machine, I realized that I could think of my own brain as a kind of machine. It has a complex network of circuits and pathways that control my thoughts and actions. It requires energy to work. It is made up of smaller components that allow it to function. I can’t tinker around with my brain, but I can appreciate it for the incredible machine that it is. I just need to learn more about how my brain works and adapt accordingly.
In many ways, my ADHD has always felt like a kind of malfunction, like something is wrong with me. But as I took apart the iPhone, I began to see that even the most advanced technology isn’t perfect—there’s dust and glitches and grime and bugs. And just as Apple does software updates and new product releases to improve the iPhone, I can find ways to improve how I function with my own brain(( With this comment, the essay ends on a very positive and hopeful note—exactly what you want in a college essay. )) .
AO Notes on My Old iPhone
In this essay, the writer describes how tinkering with an iPhone affected their personal journey with ADHD. I especially like how the writer takes two quite different topics and weaves them together seamlessly.
- Creative take: The core of this essay topic is a good one. The writer uses a hobby to talk about a deeper personal topic they’re wrestling with. As a result, we learn quite a bit about both.
- Strengths: We always say that you should write your college essays around core strengths. This writer does exactly that. As readers, we can tell that the writer is a problem-solver. They figured out a way to help themselves when their medication wasn’t working, and they also used that activity to do some reflection.
- Personal meaning: The writer could have just written about how they tinker with machines to help with their ADHD. But they went beyond that. They reflect more deeply on what the experience of having ADHD means to them.
- More connections: This essay is quite good. But as a reader, I’m still left wondering why the writer is drawn to tinkering and machines in the first place. It seems like there is room for the student to write a bit more about how all of this relates to their future goals.
Example #9: My Partner in Music
Built from a dark, mocha-colored wood and strung with the best strings my mom could afford, my viola has been with me through a lot. The first time I held the instrument in my hands, I knew it was made just for me. Sure, my viola had had previous owners. But they were only caring for it until it made its way home. My instrument is who I spend the most time with, who I know the closest, and who I’ve invested so much time in. With my viola, I’ve experienced my greatest accomplishments.
I come from a family of prodders rather than pushers(( This paragraph and the following dive too deeply into the writer’s past without making clear why the information is necessary to the narrative.)) . My loved ones have never pushed me to do anything, but I’ve been prodded in certain directions. At a mere year old, I began swim lessons. At age two, I took up soccer. At two and a half, I experimented with gymnastics. None of those activities ever stuck. But my true calling came at age three when my parents started me on viola lessons.
At first, I struggled to even hold my tiny, almost toy-like viola in place. Barely able to hold my own fork for dinner, I wrestled to place my fingers correctly on the fingerboard. When it was finally time for me to use my bow, it kept falling under its own weight, my small arm not strong enough to balance it.
But I was enthralled by the sounds I was able to make. I watched in awe as my teacher conjured up the most beautiful music I’d ever heard from her instrument. Unlike swimming, soccer, and gymnastics, music made sense to me. The ability to make something so engaging from wood and metal captured my attention.
When I got my new instrument, I had been playing the viola for exactly twelve years. Between the age of three and fifteen, my skills had grown exponentially. All those nights and weekends practicing, the blisters, and the hours and hours of lessons had paid off.
This past year, I earned a spot in the American Youth Symphony, one of the most prestigious youth symphonies in the world(( It’s not until this paragraph that we get to the heart of the essay: the writer’s big accomplishment, and the challenges they overcome to get there.)) . With the symphony’s minimum age of fifteen and average age in the early twenties, I’m one of the youngest musicians in the ensemble.
It wasn’t always so clear that playing viola was my destiny. When I was a sophomore in high school, I auditioned for my regional youth symphony. I had practiced my solo for months. I had played the piece so many times that it practically became part of me. With an imaginary metronome ticking away inside of me, my fingers knew exactly how to race across my strings, and my bow hand followed along in perfect time.
When it came time for my regional orchestra audition, however, the song completely vanished. I walked up to the stage, judges behind a partition. I sat down, brought my viola up to my chin, and froze. What had been muscle memory evaporated into thin air, and I was left with a blank mind and a silent instrument. I panicked, unsure of what to do.
I stared down at the scroll of my instrument and took a deep breath. We had played this piece a thousand times. We were ready. Most importantly, I wasn’t doing this alone. My viola and I were in it together. I raised my bow to the strings and began. The song emerged from my fingers, bow, and instrument. It was beautiful. It was perfect. That audition earned me regional first chair, and I learned a valuable lesson: I have to believe in myself(( And here we get to the theme of the essay. It’s not just about the viola. It’s about the writer—a musician.)) .
Now, as a member of the American Youth Symphony, I return to this lesson every day. It’s easy to get intimated when you’re playing alongside the country’s best young musicians. But, with my viola in hand, I know that I am a musician, too.
AO Notes on My Partner in Music
This writer tells us about their prized instrument. But the essay isn’t just about the instrument. It’s about the writer. The essay does an excellent job detailing a challenge the writer overcame. By the end, we see that the writer has grown and has achieved a huge accomplishment.
- Contextualizing a great achievement: The writer’s strengths shine through in this essay because of their achievement. But throughout the essay, we also see that the writer has had to work hard to get to where they’re at today. That context adds great dimension to our understanding of them.
- Voice: Through all the events that happen in this essay, the writer’s voice remains consistent. They have a solid tone that shows their work ethic and unwillingness to give up.
- Get to the main idea quicker: Notice how the first few paragraphs of this essay are simple setup. We learn a lot about who the student was as a child before we get to the heart of the essay. The central conflict doesn’t come until almost the last paragraph. In general, college essays should be primarily about things that have happened in your life since starting high school. Brief mentions of previous events are fine, but they take up a touch too much space in this essay. It takes a while for us, the readers, to really see what the essay is about.
Example #10: The Laundromat
As the son of Chinese immigrants, I grew up working in my parents' laundromat(( Sometimes straightforward “statement” hooks work. This one does the job well.)) . It wasn't glamorous, but it was a good way to earn some extra money and help out my family. Over the years, I got to know a lot of the regulars who came in to use the machines. Some were friendly, some were angry, and some were just plain weird. But one thing they all had in common was that they had stories to tell. And I learned from every single one of them.
There was Mrs. Nguyen, an older Vietnamese woman who came in every week with a small load of clothes. She always greeted me warmly and snuck me a hard strawberry candy. We mostly talked about me—my schoolwork, friends, and sports. But one day, she opened up. She told me about her experiences fleeing Vietnam in the aftermath of the war. She described the dangers she faced and the sacrifices she made to keep her family safe. I was stunned that someone I had grown so close to had experienced such a challenge. What shocked me most was Mrs. Nguyen’s kindness in spite of everything she had been through. Before learning this about Mrs. Nguyen, I let small problems like late homework and friend arguments really upset me. But hearing her story put things into perspective for me, and I’m so grateful that she felt comfortable enough to share it with me(( Perspective: always a good lesson to learn. This example shows some good maturity.)) .
Carlos came every Tuesday and Thursday. He was a thirteen-year-old who always seemed to be practicing for the spelling bee. He went to my sister’s school and was shy and quiet. But after seeing him multiple times a week, I learned that he was also incredibly smart and dedicated. He would come into the laundromat with a stack of flashcards and a dictionary, looking for somewhere quiet to practice. He’d close his eyes and mouth the letters to himself before peeking to see if he was right. After months of watching him, I finally went up to him and offered to help(( With this “show, not tell” example, we see our writer exhibiting generosity and kindness. I also like the humor and personality in the following two sentences.)) . I started quizzing him on words that I couldn’t even really pronounce myself. I relied heavily on his dictionary! But after practicing together, Carlos won his school spelling bee and eventually went on to regionals. I was so proud of him. I learned that it if you want to succeed, you have to put in the work like Carlos did. Every time I think of quitting something, I remind myself of his determination, and I keep going.
And finally, there was Gary, a nurse who worked in the emergency room at our local hospital. He was always rushing through his laundry because of his busy schedule, but he was never too busy to sit down and talk with us kids. Gary inspired my interest in pursuing medicine. He told me countless stories about what he saw in the ER. But what I always appreciated most was when he would explain the science behind what was happening. Gary was a talented teacher who could always break down complex concepts into something even a kid could understand. By my junior year, Gary encouraged me to take AP Chemistry and Biology and now he’s helping me look at pre-medicine programs(( Nice—we get some background about the student’s academic interests.)) . Gary has sparked in me an interest in caring for people through medicine.
I could have chosen to ignore all these people and hide away in the back of the laundromat. But instead I chose to talk with them, even though it was sometimes scary and intimidating. Being around so many people, hearing all their stories, it’s really shown me that everyone has a story to tell. More importantly, everyone can learn from those around them. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the regulars at the laundromat, and I hope I inspired them in some way too.
AO Notes on The Laundromat
In this classic “understanding self through others” essay, we get to know the writer through their interactions with others. The writer does a pretty good job walking the (sometimes dangerous) line between saying too much about others and not enough about themself.
- Personality: One of the best parts of “understanding self through others” essays is that we get to see who the writer is without them having to tell us. Through each of these small interactions, the writer—and their personality, values, beliefs—shines through.
- Maturity: This writer shows several strengths. I think one of the most salient is their maturity. The way they were able to learn from Mrs. Nguyen, help Carlos, and be inspired by Gary took a lot of maturity. As an AO, that would tell me that this student is ready for the college classroom.
- Connection to academic interests: Not all personal essays need to connect to an academic interest. Most probably don’t. But it was a natural connection for this writer, and I’m glad they made it. It raises the stakes of their interactions and leads beautifully into their conclusion.
- Streamline: With the three different examples, the essay reads a bit choppy. The writer could put better transitions in between each person, or they could weave the examples together into a cohesive narrative. Streamlining would also help emphasize the essay’s focus on the writer rather than the laundromat patrons.
“Bad” Common App Essay Examples
Okay, these essays aren’t necessarily “bad” as essays. But if we’re being honest, they’re not great Common App essays either.
That doesn’t mean that they don’t have the potential to become great Common App essays, though. As you’ll see in the notes from our Admissions Officers, these essays contain the seeds of good essays. They just need some reorganization and refinement.
Let’s take a look.
Example #11: What I’ve Learned About Life
We all know that life is short so you have to make the most of it. I always try to do my best and live every day to the fullest(( These sentences are both cliches. It’s always better to hook readers in with your own words.)) . Well, I did that until I broke my arm in 8th grade. I used to be not afraid to do anything, but it turns out that’s what got me in trouble. I was riding my bike home from school one day and saw a stump. I thought about what we talked about in English class that day. It was something about “carpe diem” and so I decided, “You know what? I’m gonna jump that stump.”(( This story makes for a good concrete example.)) And I did. Almost. My bike tire caught on the stump and flipped me over the handle bars. A bystander had to help me call my mom to take me to the hospital and it was fractured in four places pretty bad it actually hurt a lot. So after that I still learned to live every day to the fullest but I also learned that you need to make good decisions when doing so.
My mom always tells me that I need to be more patient because it’s a virtue and I am not patient at all. But I have decided that the most important thing to me is to try hard no matter what. I’ll work until the ends of the earth to prove myself because those who work hard succeed. So when I realized that I tried to listen to my mom. Now when I get impatient I take a deep breath and remember my goal of being successful and sometimes it is hard to be patient and I can get angry or frustrated but then I think about what my mom said. It’s a virtue and I want to be as virtuous as possible. My mom has worked so hard in this life to give me a better life and all I want to do is make her proud(( These are fantastic sentiments that could be drawn out more clearly.)) . I really think that’s what it means to be a good person. I’ll always work hard so I can be successful and she can watch me shine.
AO Notes on What I’ve Learned About Life
This essay, while short, gives an honest effort at conveying something deeply meaningful. I especially like the very last sentence, which tells us a lot about who the writer is as a person. But there are a few areas this essay could improve.
What this essay does well:
- Authenticity: It’s clear that the writer is discussing something very meaningful. I have no doubt that these lessons have played a big role in their life.
What could be improved on:
- Too short: The maximum word count for the Common Application essay is 650 words. We like to encourage students to get to at least 80% of the word count, which means that your Common App essays should be at least 520 words. This essay is only 361.
- The topic is too vague and full of generalities: The writer is communicating something meaningful about what they’ve learned throughout their life, but they do so only through generalities. Being too vague makes it hard for admissions officers to see who you really are. Instead, the writer could use concrete experiences and reflect specifically on how those experiences impacted them.
Example #12: Clean Slate
Common App Prompt #7
Bubbles, foam, and the sweet smell of chemicals. Shiny surfaces free of streaks and grime. I cleaned the entire house in three hours flat. I never really learned how to clean growing up, but I started seeing cleaning videos online. The cleaning videos always relax me, so I thought I’d give it a try(( This shows the writer’s initiative.)) .
First I needed to figure out what kinds of supplies to buy. After watching a few more videos, I made a list of the most commonly used items. Since I was on a limited budget, so I could only get the basics. I turned to coupons to find the best bargains possible. I bought disinfectant, a multi-purpose cleaner, and a window and mirror spray. I also found a mop, sponges, and a scrubber brush. It all cost me only fifteen dollars!
My family was shocked when I came home with these supplies in a shopping bag. They didn’t understand why I cared so much. We vacuumed and used disinfectant wipes every so often to keep things manageable, but none of us knew that you are supposed to deep clean your house every month or so until I told everyone based on what I saw online. I showed them each product I bought and told them what the purpose of each one was. They were proud of me for taking initiative and learning something new. They also couldn’t wait to see the results.
Then it was time for me to get to work. To strike inspiration, I put on another cleaning video in the background. I began with the bathroom. It was tidy, but it sure wasn’t clean. There was dust on all the surfaces, soap scum, and rust. I grabbed the disinfectant spray first because it has to sit for a while to actually disinfect. Then I used the mirror spray to clean toothpaste off the mirror. I scrubbed all the surfaces with my new sponge until they were squeaky clean. Then I moved on to the floors. My mop is a spray mop, so it was a quick job.
Next I moved on to the kitchen. That was much harder because it was more complex. There are several appliances, dishes to do, and food to put away. I wiped down the cabinets, which had a dark grime that you couldn’t even see before. I felt accomplished because I was actually cleaning. Once the kitchen was done, I moved on to the living room and the bedrooms. It took forever, but I did it(( By this point, we should have some more reflection from the writer about why this story is personally meaningful.)) .
I gave my family a tour around the house, showing them all the nooks and crannies I had cleaned. They were impressed and I felt so proud. I stood back, admiring my work. The house glistened like a diamond with cleanliness.
The next day I got up and decided to take a look around, excited to see my handiwork again. I was in shock when I stepped into the kitchen. It was a disaster. There was food and dishes everywhere. I ran to the bathroom. It wasn’t any better. There were dirty clothes and an open toothpaste tube. The baseboards already had a small bit of dust. I was devastated. All my hard work was gone just like that.
I told my family how upset I was. They understood and said that they would try to be better next time. But I also learned that that’s just how cleaning goes. You can try to keep things tidy, but we actually live in this house and sometimes that means making a mess. I hugged my family members and felt better after their apology(( I really like the picture we get of the writer here. I can tell that they are very mature and thoughtful!)) . We made up, they picked up a few things to pitch in, and I put my cleaning supplies back in the closet until next time.
AO Notes on Clean Slate
In this essay, we go on a cleaning journey with the writer. We see their successes and disappointments. We learn a bit about their family background, and we cheer them on as they overcome challenges.
- Writing and organization: This essay is well-written, and the narrative easily holds a reader’s interest. There’s a good sense of the plot, and the paragraphs are clearly organized and easy to read through.
- Strengths: We really see the writer’s initiative through this story. They did their research, got their supplies, and put their interest into action.
- More significance: While this is a fun topic, it doesn’t convey much meaning about the writer’s life. The writer could make the topic more significant by adding more reflection throughout to show explicitly how this story has changed them as a person. Or they could select a different topic that relates to something more deeply meaningful about their life.
Hopefully these Common App essay examples have shown you what to do (and what not to do). More importantly, we hope that the commentary from our former admissions officers has helped you analyze the why behind what makes an effective Common App essay.
Absorbing these lessons and applying them to your own Common Application essay will help take your writing to the next level. No matter what you write about, your goal should be to create a seamless application narrative that speaks to your strengths.
If you’re not sure what step to take next, we've got you covered. The Essay Academy — our comprehensive digital college essay course — walks you through every step.
Every week, our team of former T15 admissions officers sends out an email with the best application tips based on your grade level. No BS—just our best advice straight to your inbox.
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Choose Your Test
Sat / act prep online guides and tips, which common app essay prompt should you choose.
On one hand, the Common Application has seven essay prompts to choose from, which is great news: No matter what your story, you're sure to find a good fit! On the other hand, having seven prompts means you can write seven different kinds of essays, each with its own potential pitfalls and clichés to steer around.
In this article, I'll outline two totally different approaches to figuring out which Common App essay prompt is right for you and help you brainstorm possible ideas for each. I'll also talk about what makes great college essays great and give examples of what you want to avoid when crafting your essay.
What Are Application Essays for, Anyway?
Before you can choose an essay prompt, before you figure out what you're going to write about, it helps to know what the goal of your writing is. Think about it: if your goal were to give someone instructions, you'd write really differently than if your goal were to describe a landscape.
So What Is the College Essay Supposed to Do?
Admissions officers want to know the things they can't find in the numbers that make up the rest of your application. They want to know about your background, where you come from, and what has shaped you into the person you are today. They want to see your personality, your character, and your traits as a person. They want to learn your thinking style and perspective on the world. They want to make sure you have the ability to creatively problem-solve. And finally, they want to double-check your maturity level, assess your judgment, and get a general sense of whether you would be a good college student—whether you would thrive in an environment where you have to be independent and self-reliant.
So think about the college essay as a way of letting the admissions office get to know you the way a close acquaintance would. You have to let them in and share real thoughts, feelings, and some vulnerabilities. You definitely don't need to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets, but you should avoid showing only superficial details or, even worse, a façade.
Disclosing your closest-held secrets is not the goal of a college essay; however, you do want to share enough information to give the admissions staff a sense of your personality, motivations, and values.
How to Brainstorm Ideas for Each Common App Prompt
There are two big-picture ways of coming up with essay ideas.
First, maybe you already know the story you want to tell. Perhaps you experienced something so momentous, so exciting, or so dramatic that you have no doubt it needs to be in your college application.
Or maybe you need to approach finding a topic with some more directed brainstorming. There's nothing wrong with not having a go-to adventure! Instead, you can use the prompts themselves to jog your memory about your interesting accomplishments.
Approach #1: Narrating Your Exciting Life
Does something from your life immediately jump into your head as the thing you would have to tell anyone who wanted to know the real you? If you already know exactly which of your life experiences you are going to write about, you can develop this idea before even looking at the prompts themselves.
You can ask yourself a few questions to see whether this is your best brainstorming option:
Is there something that makes you very different from the people around you?
This could be something like being LGBT in a conservative community, having a disability, being biracial, or belonging to a minority group that is underrepresented in your community.
Has your life had a watershed moment? Do you think of yourself as before X and after X ?
For example, did you meet a childhood hero who has had an outsized impact on your life? Did you suddenly find your academic passion? Did you win an award or get recognized in a way you were not expecting to? Did you find yourself in a position of leadership in an unusual time or place?
Did you live through something dramatic, such as a crisis, a danger you overcame, or the complete upheaval of your circumstances?
Maybe you lived through a natural disaster, made your way home after being lost in the woods, or moved from one country to another?
Was your childhood or young adulthood out of the ordinary? Were you particularly underprivileged or overprivileged in some unusual way?
For instance, did you grow up very poor or as the child of a celebrity? Did you live on a boat rather than in a house or as part of a family that never stayed long in one place because of your parents' work or other circumstances?
If you've experienced a dramatic event that changed your life or face unusual obstacles on a daily basis, approach #1 may work well for you.
Approach #2: Brainstorming for Each Prompt
If you don't have an unusual life experience or a story that you absolutely know needs to be told, don't worry! Some of the very best personal essays are about much more mundane situations that people face. In fact, it's better to err on the side of small and insightful if you don't have a really dramatic and unusual experience to write about.
Let's go through the prompts one by one and think of some ways to use more ordinary life events to answer them.
This is the broadest of the seven prompts. Almost any life experience that you write about could fit in this category, but you need to be careful to avoid writing the same essay as every other applicant.
Background. Did a family member or friend have a significant influence on your life? Did you grow up in a particularly supportive and tolerant—or narrow-minded and intolerant—community? Were your parents not able to provide for you in the expected way? Did you have an unusual home life?
For example, my family came to the U.S. as refugees from Russia. By the time I went to college, I had lived in five different countries and had gone to nine different schools. This wasn't a traumatic experience, but it certainly did shape me as a person, and I wrote about it for my graduate school application essay.
Identity. Are you a member of an interesting subculture (keep in mind that violent or illegal subcultures are probably best left off your college application)? Do you strongly identify with your ethnic or national heritage? Are you a committed fan of something that someone like you would be expected to dislike?
Interest. In this category, esoteric interests are probably better than more generic ones because you don't want your essay to be the hundredth essay an admissions officer sees about how much you like English class. Do you like working with your hands to fix up old cars? Do you cook elaborate food? Are you a history buff and know everything there is to know about the War of 1812?
Talent. This doesn't have to be some epic ability or skill. Are you really good at negotiating peace between your many siblings? Do you have the uncanny ability to explain math to the math challenged? Are you a dog or horse whisperer? Are you an unparalleled mushroom forager?
Pitfalls to Avoid
Insignificance. The thing you describe has to be "so meaningful" the application "would be incomplete without it."
Redundancy. If the interest you write about is a pretty common one, like playing a musical instrument or reading books, make sure you have an original angle on how this interest has affected you. Otherwise, your essay runs the risk of being a cliché, and you might want to think about skipping this idea.
Bragging. If you decide to write about your talent, be aware that by focusing on how very good you are at playing the cello, you run the risk of bragging and coming off as unlikable. It's much better if you describe a talent a little more off the beaten path. Or if you do end up writing about your excellent pitching arm, you may want to focus on a time when your athleticism failed you in some way or was unsuccessful.
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
In essence, you're being asked to demonstrate resilience. Can you get back on the horse after falling off? Can you pick yourself up and dust yourself off? This quality is really important to colleges, so it's great if you have a story that shows off your ability to do this.
The key to this essay is the "later success" part. If all you went through was failure and you learned no lesson and changed no approach in the future, then don't use that experience here.
Did you lose a game because of a new and poorly rehearsed strategy, but later tweak that strategy to create success? Did you not get the lead in the play, but then have a great experience playing a smaller part? Did you try a new medium only to completely ruin your artwork, but later find a great use for that medium or a way to reconceptualize your art? Did you try your best to convince an authority figure of something only to have your idea rejected but then use a different approach to get your idea implemented?
Too much failure. Don't focus so much time on the "failure" half of the equation that you end up not giving enough space to the "later success" and "learn from the experience" parts.
Too little failure. Don't diminish the negative emotions of failure because of a fear of seeming vulnerable.
Playing the victim. Avoid whining, blaming others for your failure, or relying on others to create your success. You should be the story's hero here.
The key to this prompt is the reflection or insight that comes from the question, "What was the outcome?" Challenging deeply held views is not always a good idea. Writing about a negative outcome and how you reacted could demonstrate your maturity level and ability to tolerate views different from your own.
Remember, the belief or idea could be anyone's: yours, a peer group's, or an authority figure's. Did you stand up to your parents' conservative or traditional values, for instance, about gender norms? Did you get your friends to stop bullying someone?
Also, the belief or idea doesn't have to be extremely serious or big in scope. Did you make dressing up for Halloween cool for teenagers in your town? Did you transform your own prejudice or bias (e.g., about athletes having interesting thoughts about philosophy)?
Causing offense. If you have a story that deals with super hot-button issues, such as abortion or gun control, you need to be careful to keep your essay's tone respectful and unaggressive. This is a good thing to check by letting other people read your drafts and respond.
Avoiding negative feelings. Challenging beliefs means pointing out that what a person thinks now is wrong. It can also be quite lonely and isolating to be on an unpopular side of an issue. It's important to include these negatives into the story if they fit.
“Reflect” and “surprising” are the keywords in this prompt. You need to write about a specific thing that another person (or persons!) has done for you that made you feel grateful—but your response shouldn’t stop there. To make your response really shine, you also need to reflect on the experience or, in other words, explain what it meant to you, why your feelings about it surprised you, and why. From there, you’ll need to round out your essay by connecting what that person did for you to the person you are today. Did that surprising act change you in some way? Did it make you a better person? This is your chance to show colleges what your values are when it comes to connecting with other people.
Remember how the prompt specifies that you should write about something someone did for you that made you happy or thankful in a surprising way? That wording is nudging you to think outside the box. For instance, most people are thankful for birthday presents or a friend who picks up the check at lunch. You need to think of something more out-of-the-box—something you didn’t necessarily expect to make you feel gratitude.
It’s entirely possible, for instance, that someone helped you out of an ethical dilemma or really difficult situation. Has someone ever helped you when you didn’t necessarily want help? Have you ever been in a situation where, if someone else hadn’t stepped in, something bad could have happened? Did that event motivate you to change your behavior in the future? Were you persuaded to own up to your mistake and do better next time?
An event in which the act of kindness or the person who performed it was unexpected is a great option here as well. Did someone you dislike do something kind for you? Did a stranger help your family out financially? Did your best friend come in from out of town when you had a bad injury to throw you a surprise party? Did a student who’s more popular than you invite you into their group at school?
Being disingenuous. Don’t exaggerate the effects of the surprising act of kindness you choose to write about. Similarly, you don’t want to write about an event that didn’t truly mean something to you and affect your life in a tangible way. Stick to writing about the truth of what happened in the situation and how you felt about it, and your response will be gold.
Going from childhood to adulthood doesn't usually happen after one accomplishment or event but is more of a process. This question is asking you to find one step along the process and explain how it fits into the long thread of your growing up.
You don't necessarily need to tell the story of some big, official ceremony. Instead, you can focus on a small moment that showed you that you were older, more mature, and more responsible than you had been before.
Did your family make up its own adulthood initiation ceremony? Were you finally able to beat your mom in chess or shooting hoops, and did that change how she treated you? Did your dad cry in front of you for the first time, making you realize that you were old enough to handle it? Were you suddenly left in charge of younger siblings, and did you rise to the task instead of panicking? Were you allowed to make a big financial decision for the first time and found yourself taking it very seriously?
For example, during my junior and senior year, my mom traveled extensively for work, and my dad lived several states away, so I lived by myself for weeks at a time. It was exhilarating and made me feel independent and mature. But it was also lonely and burdensome because I had to take care of everything in the house by myself. Living alone was a huge part of my life, shaped me into the person I was, and made me see myself in a new light as a grown-up.
Sameness. Avoid the milestones that happen to everyone: driver's license, bar/bat mitzvah, etc., unless they happened to you in some extraordinary way.
The idea of this prompt is to discuss something you're passionate about. It's a great opportunity to showcase a skill and show off your writing skills because your passion should come across on the page. Pay special attention to the "What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?" aspect of this prompt; how you learn and from who can say a lot about you.
Hopefully, you should know the things that captivate you right off the bat. Try to think of the things that you turn to not just for fun but that de-stress you or give you the ability to learn.
More importantly, understand why this topic, idea, or concept is important to you. It should have a deeper meaning in your life and say something about who you are as a person.
Some other questions you can ask yourself to find a topic include the following: What unique hobbies or interests do you have? What challenges have you overcome in pursuing this topic, idea, or concept? What have you discovered about yourself in relation to this topic, idea, or concept?
Don't miss the overall meaning. Even if something is captivating to you, it's not necessarily captivating to others. Make sure you focus on what the topic, idea, or concept means to you and why that matters rather than getting lost in explaining it and how you feel about it.
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
This is one of the most popular prompts from the Common App. Remember that even though this prompt is open-ended, you should discuss something meaningful that shows growth, reflection, or something unique about you.
A lot of students have unique experiences that have influenced them throughout their lives. Try to think of people or events that have changed your perspective in a big way.
However, the topic itself doesn't have to be about a big moment. Lots of things can be life-changing, and it's perfectly OK to write about something that happened in your daily life as long as it moved you and has affected you in a way that you can put on paper.
In this prompt, insight is key to a great essay. Reflect on the moments that defined your perspective or events from which you learned something. This prompt should be about something personal to you and can be about family, friends, or an experience.
Ask yourself if there's a time, event, or person that has stuck with you and what it or they meant to you. Once you have some ideas, ask yourself why. What does it say about you to have changed as a result of that experience, and how might others relate?
Being too general. Insight can be found in moments both big and small. But for this prompt, try to avoid going too big and going too small. You don't want to write about something mundane and have to stretch it to make it mean something. That said, it can be tough to boil down an experience that's really significant, like being an Olympic athlete, into a short essay. Personal and insightful are the key.
How to Turn Your Idea into an Essay
Now that you've come up with some possible ideas, how do you go about actually writing the essay? Before you write, you need to have a plan. I like to think about planning out personal essays that I've written by first imagining them as enjoyable movies. You want your reader to walk away entertained, to remember the characters and story, and to want to see more from the same creator. So how do good movies do those things?
Character arc. Good movies have main characters that undergo some kind of change or transformation. Who is the main character of your essay? It's you! The you of your essay has to start one way and end up another: more mature, with a different mindset, or having learned a lesson.
Conflict or transformation. Good movies also have challenges. The main character doesn't simply succeed and then keep on succeeding; that's boring. Instead, the main character either overcomes an external obstacle or changes in some way from beginning to end. Your essay also needs this kind of story drive. This can come from an obstacle you overcame, an outside force that stood in your way, a disability or weakness you experience, or a seemingly unsolvable problem you face. Or it could come from a before–after scenario: you used to be, think, or act in one way, but now you've changed into a different or better person.
Dramatic set piece. In good movies, the conflict or transformation isn't just told to the audience. They are acted out in scenes set in specific locations, with dialogue, character close-ups, and different camera angles. In your essay, your story also needs to show you dealing with the conflict or transformation you face in a small, zoomed-in, and descriptive scene. Think spoken dialogue, sensory description (i.e., what did you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch?), action verbs, and feelings. This scene should function as one illuminating example of what you overcame or how you changed.
Happy ending. Movies that are fun to watch tend to have happy endings. The hero resolves the conflict, emerges a better person, and looks forward to future accomplishments. Your essay also needs to have this kind of closure. This is really not the time to trot out your nihilism or cynicism. Instead, your essay should end on a moment of self-understanding and awareness. You lived through something or you did something, and it affected you in a way that you can verbalize and be insightful about.
Coming up: the story of you, starring you, written and directed by you.
Which Prompt Should You Choose?
So now that you've brainstormed some topic ideas and a game plan for turning those ideas into an essay, how do you narrow it down to the one ?
Reverse-Engineer the Perfect Prompt
If you used the first brainstorming approach, try to formulate a big-picture idea about the story you're telling.
Is the character arc primarily you learning something about yourself or making peace with your background? Sounds like a good fit for prompt #1.
Is the conflict about you struggling to do something but eventually succeeding? That goes well with prompt #2.
Does the story focus on a mind being changed about an idea? You want to go with prompt #3.
Does your happy ending involve you changing something for the better, fixing something, or solving a problem? Then your essay is ready for prompt #4.
Is your character arc about growing up, gaining wisdom, or becoming more mature? Then you're probably answering prompt #5.
Look in Your Heart
If you used the second brainstorming approach, get ready to get a little cheesy. Really listen to what your gut feelings are telling you about which of your ideas is most compelling and which will get your emotions flowing on the page. Readers can tell when you're writing about something you care deeply about, so it's worth it to find the topic that has the most meaning to you.
Not sure how to tell? Then this is the time to ask your parents, teachers you are close to, or some good friends for their input. Which of your ideas grabs their attention the most? Which do they want to hear more about? Chances are that's the one that an admissions officer will also find the most memorable.
Want a detailed explanation of why colleges ask you to write essays? Check out our explanation of what application essays are for .
If you're in the middle of your essay writing process, you'll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid .
When you start working on the rest of your application, don't miss what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.
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25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)
Applying to competitive colleges? You'll need to have a stand-out Common App essay.
In this article, I'm going to share with you:
- 25 outstanding Common App essay examples
- Links to tons of personal statement examples
- Why these Common App essays worked
If you're looking for outstanding Common App essay examples, you've found the right place.
If you're applying to colleges in 2023, you're going to write some form of a Common App essay.
Writing a great Common App personal essay is key if you want to maximize your chances of getting admitted.
Whether you're a student working on your Common App essay, or a parent wondering what it takes, this article will help you master the Common App Essay.
What are the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023?
There are seven prompts for the Common App essay. Remember that the prompts are simply to help get you started thinking.
You don't have to answer any of the prompts if you don't want (see prompt #7 ).
Here's the seven Common App essay questions for 2022, which are the same as previous years:
The last prompt is a catch-all prompt, which means you can submit an essay on any topic you want.
Use the Common App prompts as brainstorming questions and to get you thinking.
But ultimately, you should write about any topic you meaningfully care about.
What makes an outstanding Common App personal essay?
I've read thousands of Common App essays from highly motivated students over the past years.
And if I had to choose the top 2 things that makes for incredible Common App essays it's these:
1. Being Genuine
Sounds simple enough. But it's something that is incredibly rare in admissions.
Authenticity is something we all know when we see it, but can be hard to define.
Instead of focus on what you think sounds the best to admissions officers, focus on what you have to say—what interests you.
2. Having Unique Ideas
The best ideas come about while you're writing.
You can't just sit down and say, "I'll think really hard of good essay ideas."
I wish that worked, but it sadly doesn't. And neither do most brainstorming questions.
The ideas you come up with from these surface-level tactics are cheap, because no effort was put in.
As they say,
"Writing is thinking"
By choosing a general topic (e.g. my leadership experience in choir) and writing on it, you'll naturally come to ideas.
As you write, continue asking yourself questions that make you reflect.
It is more of an artistic process than technical one, so you'll have to feel what ideas are most interesting.
25 Common App Essay Examples from Top Schools
With that, here's 25 examples as Common App essay inspiration to get you started.
These examples aren't perfect—nor should you expect yours to be—but they are stand-out essays.
I've handpicked these examples of personal statements from admitted students because they showcase a variety of topics and writing levels.
These students got into top schools and Ivy League colleges in recent years:
Table of Contents
- 1. Seeds of Immigration
- 2. Color Guard
- 3. Big Eater
- 4. Love for Medicine
- 5. Cultural Confusion
- 6. Football Manager
- 9. Mountaineering
- 10. Boarding School
- 11. My Father
- 12. DMV Trials
- 13. Ice Cream Fridays
- 14. Key to Happiness
- 15. Discovering Passion
- 16. Girl Things
- 17. Robotics
- 18. Lab Research
- 19. Carioca Dance
- 20. Chinese Language
- 21. Kiki's Delivery Service
- 22. Museum of Life
- 23. French Horn
- 24. Dear My Younger Self
- 25. Monopoly
Common App Essay Example #1: Seeds of Immigration
This student was admitted to Dartmouth College . In this Common App essay, they discuss their immigrant family background that motivates them.
Although family is a commonly used topic, this student makes sure to have unique ideas and write in a genuine way.
Common App Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. (250-650 words)
I placed three tiny seeds, imagining the corn stalk growing while the pumpkin vines wrapped around it; both sprouting, trying to bear fruit. I clenched a fistful of dirt and placed it on them. “Más,” my grandpa told me as he quickly flooded the seeds with life-giving dirt.
Covered. Completely trapped.
Why This Essay Works:
Everyone has a unique family history and story, and often that can make for a strong central theme of a personal statement. In this essay, the student does a great job of sharing aspects of his family's culture by using specific Spanish words like "yunta" and by describing their unique immigration story. Regardless of your background, sharing your culture and what it means to you can be a powerful tool for reflection.
This student focuses on reflecting on what their culture and immigrant background means to them. By focusing on what something represents, rather than just what it literally is, you can connect to more interesting ideas. This essay uses the metaphor of their family's history as farmers to connect to their own motivation for succeeding in life.
This essay has an overall tone of immense gratitude, by recognizing the hard work that this student's family has put in to afford them certain opportunities. By recognizing the efforts of others in your life—especially efforts which benefit you—you can create a powerful sense of gratitude. Showing gratitude is effective because it implies that you'll take full advantage of future opportunities (such as college) and not take them for granted. This student also demonstrates a mature worldview, by recognizing the difficulty in their family's past and how things easily could have turned out differently for this student.
This essay uses three moments of short, one-sentence long paragraphs. These moments create emphasis and are more impactful because they standalone. In general, paragraph breaks are your friend and you should use them liberally because they help keep the reader engaged. Long, dense paragraphs are easy to gloss over and ideas can lose focus within them. By using a variety of shorter and longer paragraphs (as well as shorter and longer sentences) you can create moments of emphasis and a more interesting structure.
What They Might Improve:
This conclusion is somewhat off-putting because it focuses on "other students" rather than the author themself. By saying it "fills me with pride" for having achieved without the same advantages, it could create the tone of "I'm better than those other students" which is distasteful. In general, avoid putting down others (unless they egregiously deserve it) and even subtle phrasings that imply you're better than others could create a negative tone. Always approach your writing with an attitude of optimism, understanding, and err on the side of positivity.
Common App Essay Example #2: Color Guard
This student was admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill . Check out their Common App essay that focuses on an extracurricular:
Sweaty from the hot lights, the feeling of nervousness and excitement return as I take my place on the 30-yard line. For 10 short minutes, everyone is watching me. The first note of the opening song begins, and I’m off. Spinning flags, tossing rifles, and dancing across the football field. Being one of only two people on the colorguard means everyone will see everything. It’s amazing and terrifying. And just like that, the performance is over.
Flashback to almost four years ago, when I walked into the guard room for the first time. I saw flyers for a “dance/flag team” hanging in the bland school hallway, and because I am a dancer, I decided to go. This was not a dance team at all. Spinning flags and being part of the marching band did not sound like how I wanted to spend my free time. After the first day, I considered not going back. But, for some unknown reason, I stayed. And after that, I began to fall in love with color guard. It is such an unknown activity, and maybe that’s part of what captivated me. How could people not know about something so amazing? I learned everything about flags and dancing in that year. And something interesting happened- I noticed my confidence begin to grow. I had never thought I was that good at anything, there was always someone better. However, color guard was something I truly loved, and I was good at it.
The next year, I was thrown into an interesting position. Our current captain quit in the middle of the season, and I was named the new captain of a team of six. At first, this was quite a daunting task. I was only a sophomore, and I was supposed to lead people two years older than me? Someone must’ve really believed in me. Being captain sounded impossible to me at first, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing my best. This is where my confidence really shot up. I learned how to be a captain. Of course I was timid at first, but slowly, I began to become a true leader.
The next marching season, it paid off. I choreographed many pieces of our show, and helped teach the other part of my guard, which at the time was only one other person. Having a small guard, we had to be spectacular, especially for band competitions. We ended up winning first place and second place trophies, something that had never been done before at our school, especially for such a small guard. That season is still one of my favorite memories. The grueling hours of learning routines, making changes, and learning how to be a leader finally paid off.
Looking back on it as I exit the field after halftime once again, I am so proud of myself. Not only has color guard helped the band succeed, I’ve also grown. I am now confident in what my skills are. Of course there is always more to be done, but I now I have the confidence to share my ideas, which is something I can’t say I had before color guard. Every Friday night we perform, I think about the growth I’ve made, and I feel on top of the world. That feeling never gets old.
Common App Essay Example #3: Big Eater
This Common App essay is a successful Northwestern essay from an admitted student. It has a unique take using the topic of eating habits—an example of how "mundane" topics can make for interesting ideas.
This essay uses their relationship with food to explore how their perspective has changed through moving high schools far away. Having a central theme is often a good strategy because it allows you to explore ideas while making them feel connected and cohesive. This essay shows how even a "simple" topic like food can show a lot about your character because you can extrapolate what it represents, rather than just what it literally is. With every topic, you can analyze on two levels: what it literally is, and what it represents.
Admissions officers want to get a sense of who you are, and one way to convey that is by using natural-sounding language and being somewhat informal. In this essay, the student writes as they'd speak, which creates a "voice" that you as the reader can easily hear. Phrases like "I kind of got used to it" may be informal, but work to show a sense of character. Referring to their parents as "Ma" and "Papa" also bring the reader into their world. If you come from a non-English speaking country or household, it can also be beneficial to use words from your language, such as "chiemo" in this essay. Using foreign language words helps share your unique culture with admissions.
Rather than "telling" the reader what they have to say, this student does a great job of "showing" them through specific imagery and anecdotes. Using short but descriptive phrases like "whether it was a sum or Sam the bully" are able to capture bigger ideas in a more memorable way. Showing your points through anecdotes and examples is always more effective than simply telling them, because showing allows the reader to come to their own conclusion, rather than having to believe what you're saying.
This student's first language is not English, which does make it challenging to express ideas with the best clarity. Although this student does an overall great job in writing despite this hindrance, there are moments where their ideas are not easily understood. In particular, when discussing substance addiction, it isn't clear: Was the student's relationship with food a disorder, or was that a metaphor? When drafting your essay, focus first on expressing your points as clearly and plainly as possible (it's harder than you may think). Simplicity is often better, but if you'd like, afterwards you can add creative details and stylistic changes.
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Common App Essay Example #4: Love for Medicine
Here's another Common App essay which is an accepted Dartmouth essay . This student talks about their range of experiences as an emergency medical responder:
I never knew I had the courage to talk a suicidal sixteen-year-old boy down from the edge of a bridge, knowing that he could jump and take his life at any moment.
I never knew I had the confidence to stand my ground and defend my treatment plan to those who saw me as less than capable because of my age or gender.
This essay has lots of detailed moments and descriptions. These anecdotes help back up their main idea by showing, rather than just telling. It's always important to include relevant examples because they are the "proof in the pudding" for what you're trying to say.
This topic deals with a lot of sensitive issues, and at certain points the writing could be interpreted as insensitive or not humble. It's especially important when writing about tragedies that you focus on others, rather than yourself. Don't try to play up your accomplishments or role; let them speak for themselves. By doing so, you'll actually achieve what you're trying to do: create an image of an honorable and inspirational person.
This essay touches on a lot of challenging and difficult moments, but it lacks a deep level of reflection upon those moments. When analyzing your essay, ask yourself: what is the deepest idea in it? In this case, there are some interesting ideas (e.g. "when they were on my stretcher, socioeconomic status...fell away"), but they are not fully developed or fleshed out.
Common App Essay Example #5: Cultural Confusion
This student's Common App was accepted to Pomona College , among other schools. Although this essay uses a common topic of discussing cultural background, this student writes a compelling take.
This student uses the theme of cultural confusion to explain their interests and identity:
Common App Essay Example #6: Football Manager
Here's a UPenn essay that worked for the Common App:
This essay has lighthearted moments in it, such as recognizing how being a football manager "does not sound glamorous" and how "we managers go by many names: watergirls..." Using moments of humor can be appropriate for contrasting with moments of serious reflection. Being lighthearted also shows a sense of personality and that you are able to take things with stride.
The reflections in this essay are far too generic overall and ultimately lack meaning because they are unspecific. Using buzzwords like "hard work" and "valuable lessons" comes off as unoriginal, so avoid using them at all costs. Your reflections need to be specific to you to be most meaningful. If you could (in theory) pluck out sentences from your essay and drop them into another student's essay, then chances are those sentences are not very insightful. Your ideas should be only have been able to been written by you: specific to your experiences, personal in nature, and show deep reflection.
Although this essay uses the topic of "being a football manager," by the end of the essay it isn't clear what that role even constitutes. Avoid over-relying on other people or other's ideas when writing your essay. That is, most of the reflections in this essay are based on what the author witnessed the football team doing, rather than what they experienced for themselves in their role. Focus on your own experiences first, and be as specific and tangible as possible when describing your ideas. Rather than saying "hard work," show that hard work through an anecdote.
More important than your stories is the "So what?" behind them. Avoid writing stories that don't have a clear purpose besides "setting the scene." Although most fiction writing describes people and places as exposition, for your essays you want to avoid that unless it specifically contributes to your main point. In this essay, the first two paragraphs are almost entirely unnecessary, as the point of them can be captured in one sentence: "I joined to be a football manager one summer." The details of how that happened aren't necessary because they aren't reflected upon.
In typical academic writing, we're taught to "tell them what you're going to tell them" before telling them. But for college essays, every word is highly valuable. Avoid prefacing your statements and preparing the reader for them. Instead of saying "XYZ would prove to be an unforgettable experience," just dive right into the experience itself. Think of admissions officers as "being in a rush," and give them what they want: your interesting ideas and experiences.
Common App Essay Example #7: Coffee
This student was admitted to several selective colleges, including Emory University, Northwestern University , Tufts University, and the University of Southern California . Here's their Common Application they submitted to these schools:
I was 16 years old, and working at a family-owned coffee shop training other employees to pour latte art. Making coffee became an artistic outlet that I never had before. I always loved math, but once I explored the complexities of coffee, I began to delve into a more creative realm--photography and writing--and exposed myself to the arts--something foreign and intriguing.
This essay uses coffee as a metaphor for this student's self-growth, especially in dealing with the absence of their father. Showing the change of their relationship with coffee works well as a structure because it allows the student to explore various activities and ideas while making them seem connected.
This student does a great job of including specifics, such as coffee terminology ("bloom the grounds" and "pour a swan"). Using specific and "nerdy" language shows your interests effectively. Don't worry if they won't understand all the references exactly, as long as there is context around them.
While coffee is the central topic, the author also references their father extensively throughout. It isn't clear until the conclusion how these topics relate, which makes the essay feel disjointed. In addition, there is no strong main idea, but instead a few different ideas. In general, it is better to focus on one interesting idea and delve deeply, rather than focus on many and be surface-level.
Near the conclusion, this student tells about their character: "humble, yet important, simple, yet complex..." You should avoid describing yourself to admissions officers, as it is less convincing. Instead, use stories, anecdotes, and ideas to demonstrate these qualities. For example, don't say "I'm curious," but show them by asking questions. Don't say, "I'm humble," but show them with how you reacted after a success or failure.
Common App Essay Example #8: Chicago
Here's another Northwestern essay . Northwestern is a quite popular school with lots of strong essay-focused applicants, which makes your "Why Northwestern?" essay important.
To write a strong Why Northwestern essay, try to answer these questions: What does NU represent to you? What does NU offer for you (and your interests) that other schools don't?
This essay uses a variety of descriptive and compelling words, without seeming forced or unnatural. It is important that you use your best vocabulary, but don't go reaching for a thesaurus. Instead, use words that are the most descriptive, while remaining true to how you'd actually write.
This essay is one big metaphor: the "L" train serves as a vehicle to explore this student's intellectual curiosity. Throughout the essay, the student also incorporates creative metaphors like "the belly of a gargantuan silver beast" and "seventy-five cent silver chariot" that show a keen sense of expression. If a metaphor sounds like one you've heard before, you probably shouldn't use it.
This student does a fantastic job of naturally talking about their activities. By connecting their activities to a common theme—in this case the "L" train—you can more easily move from one activity to the next, without seeming like you're just listing activities. This serves as an engaging way of introducing your extracurriculars and achievements, while still having the focus of your essay be on your interesting ideas.
Admissions officers are ultimately trying to get a sense of who you are. This student does a great job of taking the reader into their world. By sharing quirks and colloquialisms (i.e. specific language you use), you can create an authentic sense of personality.
Common App Essay Example #9: Mountaineering
Here's a liberal arts college Common App essay from Colby College . Colby is a highly ranked liberal arts college.
As with all colleges—but especially liberal arts schools—your personal essay will be a considerable factor.
In this essay, the student describes their experience climbing Mount Adams, and the physical and logistical preparations that went into it. They describe how they overcame some initial setbacks by using their organizational skills from previous expeditions.
This Colby student explains how the process of preparation can lead to success in academics and other endeavours, but with the potential for negative unintended consequences.
Common App Prompt #2: The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (250-650 words)
This essay does a great job of having a cohesive theme: mountaineering. Often times, great essay topics can be something simple on the surface, such as your favorite extracurricular activity or a notable experience. Consider using the literal activity as a sort of metaphor, like this essay does. This student uses mountaineering as a metaphor for preparation in the face of upcoming challenge. Using an overarching metaphor along with a central theme can be effective because it allows you to explore various ideas while having them all feel connected and cohesive.
Admissions officers want to see your self-growth, which doesn't always mean your successes. Often times, being vulnerable by expressing your struggles is powerful because it makes you more human and relatable, while providing the opportunity to reflect on what you learned. The best lessons from come failures, and writing about challenge can also make your later successes feel more impactful. Everyone loves to hear an underdog or zero-to-hero story. But counterintuitively, your failures are actually more important than your successes.
This essay has some nice ideas about focusing only on what's in your control: your attitude and your effort. However, these ideas are ultimately somewhat generic as they have been used countless times in admissions essays. Although ideas like this can be a good foundation, you should strive to reach deeper ideas. Deeper ideas are ones that are specific to you, unique, and interesting. You can reach deeper ideas by continually asking yourself "How" and "Why" questions that cause you to think deeper about a topic. Don't be satisfied with surface-level reflections. Think about what they represent more deeply, or how you can connect to other ideas or areas of your life.
Common App Essay Example #10: Boarding School
This personal essay was accepted to Claremont McKenna College . See how this student wrote a vulnerable essay about boarding school experience and their family relationship:
I began attending boarding school aged nine.
Obviously, this is not particularly unusual – my school dorms were comprised of boys and girls in the same position as me. However, for me it was difficult – or perhaps it was for all of us; I don’t know. We certainly never discussed it.
I felt utterly alone, as though my family had abruptly withdrawn the love and support thatI so desperately needed. At first, I did try to open up to them during weekly phone calls, but what could they do? As months slipped by, the number of calls reduced. I felt they had forgotten me. Maybe they felt I had withdrawn from them. A vast chasm of distance was cracking open between us.
At first, I shared my hurt feelings with my peers, who were amazingly supportive, but there was a limit to how much help they could offer. After a while, I realized that by opening up, I was burdening them, perhaps even irritating them. The feelings I was sharing should have been reserved for family. So, I withdrew into myself. I started storing up my emotions and became a man of few words. In the classroom or on the sports field, people saw a self-confident and cheerful character, but behind that facade was someone who yearned for someone to understand him and accept him as he was.
Years went past.
Then came the phone call which was about to change my life. “Just come home Aryan, it’s really important!” My mother’s voice was odd, brittle. I told her I had important exams the following week, so needed to study. “Aryan, why don’t you listen to me? There is no other option, okay? You are coming home.”
Concerned, I arranged to fly home. When I got there, my sister didn’t say hi to me, my grandmother didn’t seem overly enthusiastic to see me and my mother was nowhere to be seen. I wanted to be told why I was called back so suddenly just to be greeted as though I wasn’t even welcome.
Then my mother then came out of her room and saw me. To my immense incredulity, she ran to me and hugged me, and started crying in my arms.
Then came the revelation, “Your father had a heart attack.”
My father. The man I hadn’t really talked to in years. A man who didn’t even know who I was anymore. I’d spent so long being disappointed in him and suspecting he was disappointed in me, I sunk under a flood of emotions.
I opened the door to his room and there he was sitting on his bed with a weak smile on his face. I felt shaken to my core. All at once it was clear to me how self-centered I had become. A feeling of humiliation engulfed me, but finally I realized that rather than wallow in it, I needed to appreciate I was not alone in having feelings.
I remained at home that week. I understood that my family needed me. I worked with my uncle to ensure my family business was running smoothly and often invited relatives or friends over to cheer my father up.
Most importantly, I spent time with my family. It had been years since I’d last wanted to do this – I had actively built the distance between us – but really, I’d never stopped craving it. Sitting together in the living room, I realized how badly I needed them.
Seeing happiness in my father’s eyes, I felt I was finally being the son he had always needed me to be: A strong, capable young man equipped to take over the family business if need be.
Common App Essay Example #11: My Father
This Cornell University essay is an example of writing about a tragedy, which can be a tricky topic to write about well.
Family and tragedy essays are a commonly used topic, so it can be harder to come up with a unique essay idea using these topics.
Let me know what you think of this essay for Cornell:
My father was wise, reserved, hardworking, and above all, caring. I idolized his humility and pragmatism, and I cherish it today. But after his death, I was emotionally raw. I could barely get through class without staving off a breakdown.
Writing about tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, is a tricky topic because it has been used countless times in college admissions. It is difficult to not come off as a "victim" or that you're trying to garner sympathy by using the topic (i.e. a "sob story"). This essay does a great job of writing about a personal tragedy in a meaningful and unique way by connecting to values and ideas, rather than staying focused on what literally happened. By connecting tragedy to lessons and takeaways, you can show how—despite the difficulty and sorrow—you have gained something positive from it, however small that may be. Don't write about personal tragedy because you think "you should." As with any topic, only write about it if you have a meaningful point to make.
This essay is effective at making the reader feel the similar emotions as the author does and in bringing the reader into their "world." Even small remarks like noting the the "firsts" without their loved one are powerful because it is relatable and something that is apparent, but not commonly talked about. Using short phrases like "That was it. No goodbye, no I love you..." create emphasis and again a sense of relatability. As the reader, you can vividly imagine how the author must have felt during these moments. The author also uses questions, such as "What did I last say to him?" which showcase their thought process, another powerful way to bring the reader into your world.
Admissions officers are looking for self-growth, which can come in a variety of forms. Showing a new perspective is one way to convey that you've developed over time, learned something new, or gained new understanding or appreciation. In this essay, the student uses the "sticker of a black and white eye" to represent how they viewed their father differently before and after his passing. By using a static, unchanging object like this, and showing how you now view it differently over time, you convey a change in perspective that can make for interesting reflections.
Common App Essay Example #12: DMV Trials
Here's a funny Common App essay from a Northwestern admitted student about getting their driver's license.
This topic has been used before—as many "topics" have—but what's important is having a unique take or idea.
What do you think of this Northwestern essay ?
Breath, Emily, breath. I drive to the exit and face a four-lane roadway. “Turn left,” my passenger says.
On July 29, [Date] , I finally got my license. After the April debacle, I practiced driving almost every week. I learned to stop at stop signs and look both ways before crossing streets, the things I apparently didn’t know how to do during my first two tests. When pulling into the parking lot with the examiner for the last time, a wave of relief washed over me.
This essay does a good job of having a compelling narrative. By setting the scene descriptively, it is easy to follow and makes for a pleasant reading experience. However, avoid excessive storytelling, as it can overshadow your reflections, which are ultimately most important.
This essay has some moments where the author may come off as being overly critical, of either themselves or of others. Although it is okay (and good) to recognize your flaws, you don't want to portray yourself in a negative manner. Avoid being too negative, and instead try to find the positive aspects when possible.
More important than your stories is the answer to "So what?" and why they matter. Avoid writing a personal statement that is entirely story-based, because this leaves little room for reflection and to share your ideas. In this essay, the reflections are delayed to the end and not as developed as they could be.
In this essay, it comes across that failure is negative. Although the conclusion ultimately has a change of perspective in that "failure is inevitable and essential to moving forward," it doesn't address that failure is ultimately a positive thing. Admissions officers want to see failure and your challenges, because overcoming those challenges is what demonstrates personal growth.
Common App Essay Example #13: Ice Cream Fridays
This Columbia essay starts off with a vulnerable moment of running for school president. The student goes on to show their growth through Model UN, using detailed anecdotes and selected moments.
My fascination with geopolitical and economic issues were what kept me committed to MUN. But by the end of sophomore year, the co-presidents were fed up. “Henry, we know how hard you try, but there are only so many spots for each conference...” said one. “You’re wasting space, you should quit,” said the other.
This essay has a compelling story, starting from this author's early struggles with public speaking and developing into their later successes with Model UN. Using a central theme—in this case public speaking—is an effective way of creating a cohesive essay. By having a main idea, you can tie in multiple moments or achievements without them coming across unrelated.
This student talks about their achievements with a humble attitude. To reference your successes, it's equally important to address your failures. By expressing your challenges, it will make your later achievements seem more impactful in contrast. This student also is less "me-focused" and instead is interested in others dealing with the same struggles. By connecting to people in your life, values, or interesting ideas, you can reference your accomplishments without coming off as bragging.
This essay has moments of reflection, such as "math and programming made sense... people didn't". However, most of these ideas are cut short, without going much deeper. When you strike upon a potentially interesting idea, keep going with it. Try to explain the nuances, or broaden your idea to more universal themes. Find what is most interesting about your experience and share that with admissions.
Stories are important, but make sure all your descriptions are critical for the story. In this essay, the author describes things that don't add to the story, such as the appearance of other people or what they were wearing. These ultimately don't relate to their main idea—overcoming public speaking challenges—and instead are distracting.
Common App Essay Example #14: Key to Happiness
Here's a Brown University application essay that does a great job of a broad timeline essay. This student shows the change in their thinking and motivations over a period of time, which makes for an interesting topic.
Let me know what you think of this Brown essay:
Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (250-650 words)
This student's first language is not English, which provides some insight into why the phrasing may not seem as natural or show as much personality. Admissions officers are holistic in determining who to admit, meaning they take into account many different factors when judging your essays. While this essay may not be the strongest, the applicant probably had other qualities or "hooks" that helped them get accepted, such as awards, activities, unique background, etc. Plus, there is some leniency granted to students who don't speak English as their first language, because writing essays in a foreign language is tough in and of itself.
It's good to be confident in your achievements, but you don't want to come across as boastful or self-assured. In this essay, some of the phrasing such as "when I was the best at everything" seems exaggerated and is off-putting. Instead of boosting your accomplishments, write about them in a way that almost "diminishes" them. Connect your achievements to something bigger than you: an interesting idea, a passionate cause, another person or group. By not inflating your achievements, you'll come across more humble and your achievements will actually seem more impactful. We all have heard of a highly successful person who thinks "it's no big deal," which actually makes their talents seem far more impressive.
This essay has some takeaways and reflections, as your essay should too, but ultimately these ideas are unoriginal and potentially cliché. Ideas like "what makes you happy is pursing your passion" are overused and have been heard thousands of times by admissions officers. Instead, focus on getting to unique and "deep" ideas: ideas that are specific to you and that have meaningful implications. It's okay to start off with more surface-level ideas, but you want to keep asking questions to yourself like "Why" and "How" to push yourself to think deeper. Try making connections, asking what something represents more broadly, or analyzing something from a different perspective.
You don't need to preface your ideas in your essay. Don't say things like "I later found out this would be life-changing, and here's why." Instead, just jump into the details that are most compelling. In this essay, there are moments that seem repetitive and redundant because they don't add new ideas and instead restate what's already been said in different words. When editing your essay, be critical of every sentence (and even words) by asking: Does this add something new to my essay? Does it have a clear, distinct purpose? If the answer is no, you should probably remove that sentence.
Common App Essay Example #15: Discovering Passion
Here's a Johns Hopkins essay that shows how the student had a change in attitude and perspective after taking a summer job at a care facility.
It may seem odd to write about your potential drawbacks or weaknesses—such as having a bad attitude towards something—but it's real and can help demonstrate personal growth.
So tell me your thoughts on this JHU Common App essay:
Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (250-650 words)
This student uses vulnerability in admitting that they held preconceived notions about the elderly before this experience. The quote introduces these preconceived notions well, while the description of how this student got their job in the care facility is also engaging.
Admission officers love to see your interactions with others. Showing how you interact reveals a lot about your character, and this essay benefits from reflecting upon the student's relationship with a particular elderly individual.
It is good to be descriptive, but only when it supports your expression of ideas. In this essay, the author uses adjectives and adverbs excessively, without introducing new ideas. Your ideas are more important than having a diverse vocabulary, and the realizations in this essay are muddled by rephrasing similar ideas using seemingly "impressive," but ultimately somewhat meaningless, vocabulary.
This essay touches on some interesting ideas, but on multiple occasions these ideas are repeated just in different phrasing. If you have already expressed an idea, don't repeat it unless you're adding something new: a deeper context, a new angle, a broadened application, etc. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of each sentence, and have I expressed it already?
It's true that almost any topic can make for a strong essay, but certain topics are trickier because they make it easy to write about overly used ideas. In this essay, the main idea can be summarized as: "I realized the elderly were worthy humans too." It touches upon more interesting ideas, such as how people can be reduced down to their afflictions rather than their true character, but the main idea is somewhat surface-level.
Common App Essay Example #16: "A Cow Gave Birth"
This Common App essay for the University of Pennsylvania centers on the theme of womanhood. Not only is it well-written, but this essay has interesting and unique ideas that relate to the student's interests.
Common App Essay Example #17: Robotics
This Common App essay was for Washington University in St. Louis .
This student writes about their experience creating and using an engineering notebook to better document their robotics progress. They share the story of how their dedication and perseverance led to winning awards and qualifying for the national championships.
Lastly, they reflect on the importance of following one's passions in life and decision to pursue a business degree instead of a engineering one.
This essay touches on various lessons that they've learned as a result of their experience doing robotics. However, these lessons are ultimately surface-level and generic, such as "I embraced new challenges." Although these could be a starting point for deeper ideas, on their own they come off as unoriginal and overused. Having interesting ideas is what makes an essay the most compelling, and you need to delve deeply into reflection, past the surface-level takeaways. When drafting and brainstorming, keep asking yourself questions like "How" and "Why" to dig deeper. Ask "What does this represent? How does it connect to other things? What does this show about myself/the world/society/etc.?"
Although this essay is focused on "VEX robotics," the details of what that activity involves are not elaborated. Rather than focusing on the surface-level descriptions like "We competed and won," it would be more engaging to delve into the details. What did your robot do? How did you compete? What were the specific challenges in "lacking building materials"? Use visuals and imagery to create a more engaging picture of what you were doing.
The hook and ending sentences of "drifting off to sleep" feel arbitrary and not at all connected to any ideas throughout the essay. Instead, it comes off as a contrived choice to create a "full circle" essay. Although coming full circle is often a good strategy, there should be a specific purpose in doing so. For your intro, try using a short sentence that creates emphasis on something interesting. For the conclusion, try using similar language to the intro, expanding upon your ideas to more universal takeaways, or connecting back to previous ideas with a new nuance.
Common App Essay Example #18: Lab Research
Common app essay example #19: carioca dance.
Having a natural-sounding style of writing can be a great way of conveying personality. This student does a fantastic job of writing as they'd speak, which lets admissions officers create a clear "image" of who you are in their head. By writing naturally and not robotically, you can create a "voice" and add character to your essay.
This student chooses a unique activity, the Carioca drill, as their main topic. By choosing a "theme" like this, it allows you to easily and naturally talk about other activities too, without seeming like you're simply listing activities. This student uses the Carioca as a metaphor for overcoming difficulties and relates it to their other activities and academics—public speaking and their job experience.
Showing a sense of humor can indicate wit, which not only makes you seem more likeable, but also conveys self-awareness. By not always taking yourself 100% seriously, you can be more relatable to the reader. This student acknowledges their struggles in conjunction with using humor ("the drills were not named after me—'Saads'"), which shows a recognition that they have room to improve, while not being overly self-critical.
Common App Essay Example #20: Chinese Language
The list of languages that Lincoln offered startled me. “There’s so many,” I thought, “Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and French.”
As soon as I stepped off the plane, and set my eyes upon the beautiful city of Shanghai, I fell in love. In that moment, I had an epiphany. China was made for me, and I wanted to give it all my first; first job and first apartment.
Using creative metaphors can be an effective way of conveying ideas. In this essay, the metaphor of "Chinese characters...were the names of my best friends" tells a lot about this student's relationship with the language. When coming up with metaphors, a good rule of thumb is: if you've heard it before, don't use it. Only use metaphors that are specific, make sense for what you're trying to say, and are highly unique.
Whenever you "tell" something, you should try and back it up with anecdotes, examples, or experiences. Instead of saying that "I made conversation," this student exemplifies it by listing who they talked to. Showing is always going to be more compelling than telling because it allows the reader to come to the conclusion on their own, which makes them believe it much stronger. Use specific, tangible examples to back up your points and convince the reader of what you're saying.
Although this essay has reflections, they tend to be more surface-level, rather than unique and compelling. Admissions officers have read thousands of application essays and are familiar with most of the ideas students write about. To stand out, you'll need to dive deeper into your ideas. To do this, keep asking yourself questions whenever you have an interesting idea. Ask "Why" and "How" repeatedly until you reach something that is unique, specific to you, and super interesting.
Avoid writing a conclusion that only "sounds nice," but lacks real meaning. Often times, students write conclusions that go full circle, or have an interesting quote, but they still don't connect to the main idea of the essay. Your conclusion should be your strongest, most interesting idea. It should say something new: a new perspective, a new takeaway, a new aspect of your main point. End your essay strongly by staying on topic, but taking your idea one step further to the deepest it can go.
Common App Essay Example #21: Kiki's Delivery Service
Common App Prompt #6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? (250-650 words)
I spent much of my childhood watching movies. I became absolutely engrossed in many different films, TV shows, and animations. From the movie theatres to the TV, I spent my hours enjoying the beauty of visual media. One place that was special to me was the car. My parents purchased a special screen that could be mounted on the back of the headrest, so that I could watch movies on trips. This benefited both parties, as I was occupied, and they had peace. Looking back, I realize this screen played a crucial role in my childhood. It was an integral part of many journeys. I remember taking a drive to Washington D.C, with my visiting relatives from Poland, and spending my time with my eyes on the screen. I remember packing up my possessions and moving to my current home from Queens, watching my cartoons the whole time. I can comfortably say that watching movies in the car has been an familiar anchor during times of change in my life.
I used to watch many different cartoons, nature documentaries, and other products in the car, yet there has been one movie that I have rewatched constantly. It is called “Kiki’s Delivery Service” by Hayao Miyazaki. My parents picked it up at a garage sale one day, and I fell in love. The style of the animations were beautiful, and the captivating story of a thirteen year old witch leaving home really appealed to me. To be honest, the initial times I watched it, I didn’t fully understand the story but the magic and beauty just made me happy. Then, the more I watched it, I began to see that it was more about independence, including the need to get away from home and establish yourself as your own person. This mirrors how I felt during that period of my life,with mehaving a little rebellious streak; I didn’t agree with my parents on certain topics. That is not the end of the story though. As the years passed, and I watched it a couple more times, although with less frequency than before, my view of this movie evolved yet again.
Instead of solely thinking about the need for independence, I began to think the movie was more about the balance of independence and reliance. In the movie, the girl finds herself struggling until she begins to accept help from others. Looking back, this also follows my own philosophy during this time. As I began to mature, I began to realize the value of family, and accept all the help I can get from them. I appreciate all the hard work they had done for me, and I recognize their experience in life and take advantage of it. I passed through my rebellious phase, and this reflected in my analysis of the movie. I believe that this is common, and if I look through the rest of my life I am sure I would find other similar examples of my thoughts evolving based on the stage in my life. This movie is one of the most important to me throughout my life.
Common App Essay Example #22: Museum of Life
Using visuals can be a way to add interesting moments to your essay. Avoid being overly descriptive, however, as it can be distracting from your main point. When drafting, start by focusing on your ideas (your reflections and takeaways). Once you have a rough draft, then you can consider ways to incorporate imagery that can add character and flavor to your essay.
Admissions officers are people, just like you, and therefore are drawn to personalities that exhibit positive qualities. Some of the most important qualities to portray are: humility, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and passion. In this essay, there are several moments that could be interpreted as potentially self-centered or arrogant. Avoid trying to make yourself out to be "better" or "greater" than other people. Instead, focus on having unique and interesting ideas first, and this will show you as a likeable, insightful person. Although this is a "personal" statement, you should also avoid over using "I" in your essay. When you have lots of "I" sentences, it starts to feel somewhat ego-centric, rather than humble and interested in something greater than you.
This essay does a lot of "telling" about the author's character. Instead, you want to provide evidence—through examples, anecdotes, and moments—that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about who you are. Avoid surface-level takeaways like "I am open-minded and have a thirst for knowledge." These types of statements are meaningless because anyone can write them. Instead, focus on backing up your points by "showing," and then reflect genuinely and deeply on those topics.
This essay is focused on art museums and tries to tie in a connection to studying medicine. However, because this connection is very brief and not elaborated, the connection seems weak. To connect to your area of study when writing about a different topic, try reflecting on your topic first. Go deep into interesting ideas by asking "How" and "Why" questions. Then, take those ideas and broaden them. Think of ways they could differ or parallel your desired area of study. The best connections between a topic (such as an extracurricular) and your area of study (i.e. your major) is through having interesting ideas.
Common App Essay Example #23: French Horn
This student chose the creative idea of personifying their French horn as their central theme. Using this personification, they are able to write about a multitude of moments while making them all feel connected. This unique approach also makes for a more engaging essay, as it is not overly straightforward and generic.
It can be challenging to reference your achievements without seeming boastful or coming across too plainly. This student manages to write about their successes ("acceptance into the Julliard Pre-College program") by using them as moments part of a broader story. The focus isn't necessarily on the accomplishments themselves, but the role they play in this relationship with their instrument. By connecting more subtly like this, it shows humility. Often, "diminishing" your achievements will actually make them stand out more, because it shows you're focused on the greater meaning behind them, rather than just "what you did."
This student does a good job of exemplifying each of their ideas. Rather than just saying "I experienced failure," they show it through imagery ("dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances"). Similarly, with their idea "no success comes without sacrifice," they exemplify it using examples of sacrifice. Always try to back up your points using examples, because showing is much more convincing than telling. Anyone can "tell" things, but showing requires proof.
This essay has a decent conclusion, but it could be stronger by adding nuance to their main idea or connecting to the beginning with a new perspective. Rather than repeating what you've established previously, make sure your conclusion has a different "angle" or new aspect. This can be connecting your main idea to more universal values, showing how you now view something differently, or emphasizing a particular aspect of your main idea that was earlier introduced.
Common App Essay Example #24: Dear My Younger Self
Common App Prompt #7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. (250-650 words)
- Don’t live your life as if you're constantly being watched and criticized. Chances are, no one is even paying attention to you.
- Wear your retainer.
- Empathy makes your life easier. People who are inexplicably cruel are suffering just as much as the recipients of their abuse. Understanding this makes your interactions with these people less painful.
- Comparing yourself to your classmates is counterproductive. Sometimes you will forge ahead, other times you will lag behind. But ultimately, you’re only racing yourself.
- Speak up to your stepmom.
- Always eat the cake. I couldn't tell you how many times I’ve turned away a slice of cake, only to regret it the next day. If you really can’t commit, do yourself a favor and take a slice home with you.
- Cherish your grandparents.
- Forgive your mother. Harboring resentment hurts you just as much as her. All the time I spent being angry at her could’ve been spent discovering her strengths.
This essay chose a unique structure in the form of a letter addressed to themselves with a list of lessons they've learned. This structure is unique, and also allows the student to explore a variety of topics and ideas while making them all feel connected. It is tricky to not seem "gimmicky" when choosing a creative structure like this, but the key is to make your essay well thought-out. Show that you've put effort into reflecting deeply, and that you aren't choosing a unique structure just to stand out.
This essay is highly focused on lessons they've learned, which shows a deep level of reflection. Your ideas and takeaways from life experience are ultimately most compelling to admissions officers, and this essay succeeds because it is focused almost entirely on those reflections. This student also manages to incorporate anecdotes and mini stories where appropriate, which makes their reflections more memorable by being tangible.
Showing humility and self-awareness are two highly attractive traits in college admissions. Being able to recognize your own flaws and strengths, while not making yourself out to be more than what you are, shows that you are mature and thoughtful. Avoid trying to "boost yourself up" by exaggerating your accomplishments or over-emphasizing your strengths. Instead, let your ideas speak for themselves, and by focusing on genuine, meaningful ideas, you'll convey a persona that is both humble and insightful.
The drawback of having a structure like this, where lots of different ideas are examined, is that no one idea is examined in-depth. As a result, some ideas (such as "intelligence is not defined by your grades") come across as trite and overused. In general, avoid touching on lots of ideas while being surface-level. Instead, it's almost always better to choose a handful (or even just one main idea) and go as in-depth as possible by continually asking probing questions—"How" and "Why"—that force yourself to think deeper and be more critical. Having depth of ideas shows inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and ultimately are more interesting because they are ideas that only you could have written.
Common App Essay Example #25: Monopoly
Feeling a bit weary from my last roll of the dice, I cross my fingers with the “FREE PARKING” square in sight. As luck has it, I smoothly glide past the hotels to have my best horse show yet- earning multiple wins against stiff competition and gaining points to qualify for five different national finals this year.
This essay uses the board game "Monopoly" as a metaphor for their life. By using a metaphor as your main topic, you can connect to different ideas and activities in a cohesive way. However, make sure the metaphor isn't chosen arbitrarily. In this essay, it isn't completely clear why Monopoly is an apt metaphor for their life, because the specific qualities that make Monopoly unique aren't explained or elaborated. Lots of games require "strategy and precision, with a hint of luck and a tremendous amount of challenge," so it'd be better to focus on the unique aspects of the game to make a more clear connection. For example, moving around the board in a "repetitive" fashion, but each time you go around with a different perspective. When choosing a metaphor, first make sure that it is fitting for what you're trying to describe.
You want to avoid listing your activities or referencing them without a clear connection to something greater. Since you have an activities list already, referencing your activities in your essay should have a specific purpose, rather than just emphasizing your achievements. In this essay, the student connects their activities by connecting them to a specific idea: how each activity is like a mini challenge that they must encounter to progress in life. Make sure your activities connect to something specifically: an idea, a value, an aspect of your character.
This essay lacks depth in their reflections by not delving deeply into their main takeaways. In this essay, the main "idea" is that they've learned to be persistent with whatever comes their way. This idea could be a good starting point, but on its own is too generic and not unique enough. Your idea should be deep and specific, meaning that it should be something only you could have written about. If your takeaway could be used in another student's essay without much modification, chances are it is a surface-level takeaway and you want to go more in-depth. To go in-depth, keep asking probing questions like "How" and "Why" or try making more abstract connections between topics.
In the final two paragraphs, this essay does a lot of "telling" about the lessons they've learned. They write "I know that in moments of doubt...I can rise to the occasion." Although this could be interesting, it would be far more effective if this idea is shown through anecdotes or experiences. The previous examples in the essay don't "show" this idea. When drafting, take your ideas and think of ways you can represent them without having to state them outright. By showing your points, you will create a more engaging and convincing essay because you'll allow the reader to come to the conclusion themselves, rather than having to believe what you've told them.
What Can You Learn from These Common App Essay Examples?
With these 25 Common App essay examples, you can get inspired and improve your own personal statement.
If you want to get accepted into selective colleges this year, your Common App essays needs to be its best possible.
What makes a good Common App essay isn't easy to define. There aren't any rules or steps.
But using these samples from real students, you can understand what it takes to write an outstanding personal statement .
Let me know, which Common App essay did you think was the best?
Ryan Chiang , Founder of EssaysThatWorked
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How To Write Effective Common Essay 2021 (With Examples)
Most of the colleges expect you to submit an essay or personal statement as part of your application .
It may sound like a burden, and it will undoubtedly take a solid amount of work. But it gives you an excellent opportunity to make a difference at decision time.
Admissions committees put the utmost weight on your high school grades and your test scores. However, some colleges receive applications from many worthy students with similar scores and grades. So they use your essay, along with your letters of recommendation and extracurricular activities, to find out what sets you apart from the other talented candidates.
What would you like to showcase before the college admission staff if they are looking beyond your high school grades and standardized test scores?
Significance of the Common Application Essay
By now, you will know what a common application, a.k.a. common app, is.
It is an application accessed by over seven hundred colleges in the US, including the Ivy League and many other reputed colleges. So when you fill in all your academic and personal details like your name, high school name, extracurricular activities, etc., on the Common App , all colleges who use it can get your details from there. This is where you will also find the Common App Essay, a.k.a. the Personal Statement.
This entire topic is devoted to this Common App Essay.
Not all colleges reach out for the Common App as they will have their processes in place for getting this information. All the effort you put into compiling the Common App Essay will undoubtedly assist you – whether your college application is through the Common or non-Common App. It will further ease your efforts when you also have to compile additional or minor essays.
Those colleges that fall into the non-Common App using category also require essays or brief answers to questions.
But what is the significance of the Common App Essay?
Many colleges believe that it is impractical to gauge a student’s aptitude and college readiness by simply reviewing his high school grades, standardized test scores, how many challenging courses were taken, etc. So they don’t have any ‘grade/score requirement’ to be eligible to apply.
Rather than just looking at an applicant’s statistics, they endeavor to see each applicant as a person. College admission staff are human too and would be crushed with a lack of enthusiasm if their task primarily comprised going through high school grades, SAT/ACT scores, TOEFL scores, and AP/IB scores all the time.
Just ensuring that your grades and standardized test scores are outstanding is not a sure ticket to your favorite college. You must also have a stunning Personal Statement to complement your academic performance.
Are you wondering why?
Your Personal Statement talks about you – the real you and not about your grades and other statistics. It is the single document in your application that communicates naturally without putting down cold figures by which you can be assessed. This is the only route available to you to speak to the college admissions staff about yourself so that they see you as a person and not just someone with a bunch of numbers.
There is a shortage of students with excellent grades and test scores who apply to the US’s best colleges. So every college has the luxury of having their pick when considering the academic capabilities. Still, they need to identify the student for his talents and potential and not just by his grades. They will be looking for information about the natural person with all those excellent scores.
You may have your reservations about how vital the Personal Statement is – if it can be a game-changer. Your essay is of great significance, and you should spend considerable time – ideally a few months, in putting it together. How influential your essay is will differ from one college to another.
Experienced counselors reckon that the essay can corner up to 30% of the selection process. So can you imagine! You put in so much time and effort for excellent high school grades, SAT/ACT, TOEFL, AP/IB scores, internship, volunteering, community service, etc., but it will add up to 70% or a little more on your chances of being accepted.
How do you get an idea of how effective your essay is and that you must spend time on it like you will on the other academic and extracurricular Statement so that you write one that will help you get accepted at your favorite college?
The College Essay is no enigma!
Let’s be clear on what these essays are.
The Personal Statement
This is a 600-650-word essay Common Application Essay that will be part of your Common App and can be viewed by those colleges who access it. This Personal Statement is the only means for the college admission staff to know you as an individual. So both Personal Statement and Common App Essay are the same.
Secondary or Supplemental Essays
Some colleges request essays with specific guidelines that will be an added document besides the Personal Statement. It can range from discussing one of your extracurricular activities or considering a famous quote and discuss it.
Listed below are Common App Essay Cues. These cues are more or less what colleges have been asking over the last couple of years. We’ll discuss these cues in detail subsequently.
- A student’s social circumstances, family environment, individuality, aptitude, or passions are perhaps so significant that he strongly feels that his application will be half-done without mentioning it.
Does this sound like you? If yes, tell us all about it.
All hardships come with a silver lining. They offer us the wisdom and experience that help us deal with future situations successfully.
Describe a situation or event when you had to confront a problem, difficult situation, or debacle. Were you broken, or did you meet the challenge head-on? What did this event teach you?
There must have been an instance when you disputed or protested against an opinion or point of view. why did you take such a stance and what came out of the stand you took.
Narrate a difficult situation you’ve overcome or that you’d like to sort out. It could be a cerebral poser, a social problem, or even something very close to your heart – however small or big it may be.
Discuss why it is significant to you and how you resolved it, or what can be done to see it through.
Narrate an occurrence, achievement, or newfound awareness that set off your personal development and helped you see people and the things around you in a new light., discuss a subject, belief, or issue that you can get so engrossed with that you forget about everything else. why do you find it fascinating what do you do to feed your curiosity and hunger to know more about it.
- Write an essay on a subject of your liking. It’s acceptable if you had written it earlier or it was something you wrote to a cue given by someone.
- What fires your imagination? Or thrills you? Or conveys what you are? Put down your thoughts in 650 words.
Then, your Personal Statement should steer clear of putting down all the information that is already there in your resume or Common App Activity section . You should by no means attempt to project yourself as some kind of superhero who accomplished the impossible at such a young age. Don’t use melodrama to magnify what you may have endured. You needn’t bring in your family or your views on ethnicity, class, or gender into your essay. It is necessary to try to show the college admissions staff that side of your personality that only your family, friends, teachers, and peers are familiar with.
Whatever you choose to write, ensure that it is relevant and sincere.
The above-mentioned Common App Essay Cues are a mixed bag, and you have an option to write about any of them. You should mull over the stories you can share and then choose which one to go with. It is usually an available choice, and you’ve nothing to lose with the choice you make.
Get acquainted with these students.
We will now walk you through some students’ situations and how they dealt with putting together an outstanding Personal Statement and got accepted at reputed colleges in the US.
Robbie plans to pursue pre-med at college. She is however, still in two minds about it. She has always been a multitasker and has participated in many unrelated activities. Robbie participated in numerous singing events but never won any prizes. She played golf, was in the school debate team, and participated in the theatre too.
But what is missing from Robbie’s CV?
She dreams of participating in the US Women’s Open (Golf), adores her mother, and has more best friends than she can count.
Agnes has a way with words. She finds writing so easy that she can’t imagine how anyone can flounder for words. However, she is not part of the school bulletin team. She has never dared to send in any of her poems or articles to publications, so she can’t confidently admit that she is a writer.
She is also a keen mock trial participant, and she’s very good at it – her friends tell her that she has it in her to become an excellent lawyer. However, Agnes has reservations about pursuing Law, Philosophy, or Political Science and isn’t sure she wants to become a lawyer.
But what is missing from Agnes’ CV?
She loves trekking and loves even more to draw and paint landscapes that come as a package deal with trekking.
Ryan is good at his studies – his grades are good, but none of the subjects excite him, so he’s pretty undecided about what he should pursue. Whenever he has some spare time, Ryan teaches math at the local orphanage. He plays cricket and is in the dance troupe too.
But what is missing from Ryan’s CV?
Ryan plays the violin that he pursues only because his mother wants him to. He’s very close to his younger brother and is in awe of his older sister, who’s now away at college.
Sam studies at the best public school in his small mountain town. His family is comfortably off, but Sam chooses to work at the local café after school. This leaves him with little time to pursue any extracurricular activities, and in any case, his school doesn’t have much to offer there.
Sam likes biology but isn’t sure if he wants to attend pre-med at college. He doesn’t see himself pursuing medicine and is quite bewildered about what program to follow at college.
Sam loves mountain climbing and has been doing it with his Uncle as a young boy. His father doesn’t like mountain climbing, and he’s very close to his Uncle.
Taking the first step to write
Staring at a blank sheet and wondering how to begin writing is a barrier that even a well-versed author has to struggle with. As a high school student, it is reasonably expected when you feel uncertain about getting going with writing.
You have so much to say and are bursting with enthusiasm to make an impression. Right? But how do you express yourself without going over the top with your narrative?
The only remedy to combat such anxiety – of not knowing how to begin and what tone of voice to use in your narrative, is to compose yourself, charge your creative cells, and then get down to writing.
We’ll handhold you to take charge of putting together your Common App Essay, secondary, and supplemental essays long before they are needed. We recommend trashing procrastination right away. June is the best time to get started. Wondering why?
You must be already sighing at the thought of spending your summer working hard on this. But treat this as a warm-up to get into the groove and accomplish the most challenging part of your applications before August. By then, you will have thought through what you want to put down.
The added benefit of attending to this task as early as June is that you will have the first draft of your Personal Statement ready to share with the teachers you will request college recommendation letters. Your recommenders will have something to connect with within their notes by having early access to your Common App Essay.
This small effort will go a long way in ensuring that your application doesn’t just mention details about you but gives a peek into the natural person you are, your aspirations, your beliefs, etc. Therefore each document in your Common App will complement each other and work as a part of the whole story that is you.
Work with the suggested timelines to match your schedules, but you must begin working hard on this in the summer.
Discussing and ideating essay themes and using cues (2-3 weeks)
To begin, you should peruse the Common App cues to identify which of them excites you and you can relate to. We’ve listed signals to help you further ideate and begin the initial writing during summer.
Let’s begin with Cue #7 since it’s not specific but more comprehensive. We will, after that, go by numerical order.
You are free to choose the theme of your essay – it could be something that you’ve written in the past or something you wrote to another cue, or something that is of your thinking.
- What are the things that matter to you? Enumerate on all those subjects or themes. What is it that is the prime subject of conversation amongst your family and your friends?
(This is not about mentioning your extracurricular activities). Narrate an event or story that summarizes this subject that is important to you.
- Which relative who lives with you is dear and important to you? Narrate a situation when this family member helped you in sailing through rough waters. Is there a significant heart-to-heart talk that you had with him? Tell us about it.
- Reflect for a minute – which person in your family, a friend, or teacher is essential to you? How did you both connect? When and where did you meet? Tell us about it. Was there a time when you discussed something of relevance and significance to you? Tell us about it.
- Discuss incidents that are significant to you. These circumstances may not necessarily have been substantial, shocking, disastrous, or show how you impacted the community. It could be a particular time that is significant – like one summer, perhaps? It could even be what you encountered when you were with a friend or relative on a given day or during a few weeks or months.
Something to note:
Such distinct experiences or situations come in handy when you are putting down your first thoughts on your Common App Essay. You should narrate an incident that you’ve spoken about to others in the past.
The wisest advice we can give you is always to use such instances, experiences, or events to convey your story in your Common App Essay.
A student’s social circumstances, family environment, individuality, aptitude, or passions are maybe so significant that he strongly feels that his application will be half-done without a mention about it. Do you fit into this picture? Tell us about it.
- Recount your childhood – where did you live and grow up? Tell us about your community, surroundings, town, or even city. Was it a quiet place or a bustling metropolis? Why do you feel it is special and unique? What impact has this place had on you? If you were asked to describe something distinct about this place to a person who has never been there, what would you say? E.g., does it have a nature trail, amusement park, regattas?
- Where did your parents live? Does it influence your everyday life? What was it like when you visited the place? Tell us about your reaction to seeing it for the first time.
- Is there someplace that is dearer to you than your own home? Narrate to us what your first impressions of that place were. Was it a place you visited in the summer? How did that place become significant in your life? Tell us about it.
- What is the one thing that makes you unforgettable? What is it that the people in your neighborhood associate you with? When did you do this thing that people remember you by? What was significant about this thing that you did? Did you sing non-stop for three hours? Or did you step back when you felt your friend should win the singing competition?
- Describe what you did during summers when you were a kid and later when you were in high school. Narrate the one summer day that you still remember. Why do you still remember it? Did what happened that day impact how you presently are? Tell us about it.
- Have you ever been faced with significant life changes? Moving to a new neighborhood or city? Switching school? Faced with the passing away of a loved one or a dear friend? (It’s best to leave out your romantic failures.)
Describe that one day when you had to come to terms with that change – when you moved to a different house, your last day at your old school, or the first day at your new school when you were told of the passing away dear one.
- Was there an instance when you gave up an extracurricular activity or a part-time job? What happened? Tell us why you made such a decision.
- Which was the most challenging class in high school for you? Why was it difficult? Describe a class project that you found challenging.
Also, describe a class project that helped you break barriers and made you rethink your views about something.
- Were you ever compelled to participate in something that you were not very good at? What happened eventually? Narrate how you went about participating in it and who encouraged you in your effort.
- Have you encountered a mental or physical disability? Or did you ever have to deal with a serious challenge? Reflect on that happening and how glad you are with yourself at how you dealt with the situation.
- What moral code that you imbibed as a child do you cherish? Are they still dear to you? Describe how you learned and made them your own? Was it something you saw your grandpa do? Or was it something your mother taught you?
On the other hand, have your views on this changed since? How did the change come about? Did a teacher influence you? Or a friend?
- Does your family believe in something quite the opposite of yours? What caused the dissent? Narrate a difference of opinion that you had with somebody – it could have been a friendly squabble or more than that. Describe an instance when you were glad how you conducted yourself in the argument.
- In what instance were you far off the mark about something? Describe how it dawned on you that you were incorrect? Did anybody help you see the light?
- Has there been a class project that has kept you awake late into the night? Was it challenging? Tell us about it.
- Have you been influenced by a book or an article? Has it put before you some brutal truths about the world? What was your takeaway? What do you plan to do about it? What was your first reaction when you read this book/article? Who shared this book/article with you? Have you discussed it subsequently with anybody? Have you reviewed and revisited the book/article?
- Are there instances at home when there is an argument at the dinner table? Does this happen often? Do you have thoughts on how it can be resolved? Narrate one such instance. You could even narrate any other memorable dinner.
- Is there something happening in the world that leaves you furious and fuming? Was there an event that triggered this fury? Recount the event visually and your responses to what you saw.
- Generally, people believe that a small figment of imagination can change things forever. Has there been such an instance in your life? Describe it. Narrate it like you were telling us a story.
- Has something dawned on you out of the blue? How did it happen? Where were you? What were you doing? Who else was with you – or were you alone?
- Set aside all your awards, trophies, grades – all the material proof of your accomplishments. Describe something about yourself that makes you feel highly gratified and which is so intangible.
- What if your family went away for the weekend and left you to your own devices over a weekend? How would you start your day? Even if this is pure conjecture, narrate what happened like it’s a story. Describe in which room you spent time, what you did? Or did you opt to get out of the empty house? Where did you go? What did you do?
- Is there an instance when you began doing something without anybody suggesting that you do it? Are you self-motivated? Narrate how you started doing something by yourself without goading.
- In what instances do your friends seek you out for assistance? Narrate a model that you feel you acted well and could be of sound aid to a friend. Also, narrate an instance when someone else was of immense help to you.
By now, with all these discussions and ideating, Robbie, Agnes, Ryan, and Sam will have found so many exciting things about themselves that are not on their CV, which they can elaborate upon.
Writing without reservation (3-4 weeks)
The cues shared above should help you begin writing – but before getting down to even drafting your Personal Statement, simply write without worrying about spelling or grammatical errors. The idea is to overcome any blocks or inhibitions that you may have about writing.
Such writing can loosen you up into writing freely, and you can even enjoy writing when you write without reservation.
Your Personal Statement should read like you are talking to the reader. The reader shouldn’t feel that you are trying hard to impress and sound mature or knowledgeable. This is a possibility if you are all clammed up and tense while writing.
Listed below are a few tips to help you in writing without reservation:
Invest in a few notebooks
Yes, that’s right. You should use a pen to write on paper. Writing by hand nudges your sensibilities in a different way that no computer keyboard can match. You cannot delete what you’ve written – even if you strike it out, it’ll still be there for posterity, legible for future reference. Also, because you can’t delete it, writing itself will feel natural.
Allocate 6 minutes to write without reservation every morning
Get into to habit of spending 6 minutes writing every morning. Set a reminder alarm and a timer when you start, so there is no room for delay. Simply register – this is about writing without reservation for the whole time. If you are at a loss for words, write those very words or anything to keep up writing continuity.
If you are unsure of what to write, peruse the Common App essay cues mentioned above – they are so comprehensive that one of them will help you begin on something.
For instance, when Agnes puts pen to paper, she will not be discussing how participating in a mock trial and excelling in it helped her decide to pursue law. Instead, when she begins writing, she’ll start re-living that day. She will describe the atmospherics, what she was wearing, who accompanied her, and perhaps overate at lunch and feel uncomfortable. She’ll possibly question why she even agreed to participate in the trial. Was it because she wanted to have an argument that wouldn’t lead to much unpleasantness, or was it the theatrics and excitement that appealed to her?
Instead of setting a time limit – if you feel the burden of six minutes, set yourself a target of writing three pages. Initially, you can put it down in powerful writing, so you feel at ease.
Neither discuss nor go over what you’ve written with anybody
Although it will be very tempting, do not share what you’ve registered with your family or teachers. You shouldn’t review it either, as you will want to edit or improve on what you wrote. For now, let what you’ve written stay dormant.
In doing this, you will allow the story to speak instead of bull-dozing what you think the story should be. This is one of the gravest blunders while writing – including your Personal Statement, pushing your way into an account that only needs to be stated.
Let’s explain this.
For instance, let’s discuss Sam, who learned mountain climbing from his Uncle – an eventful summer and that particular person in his life. As the experience and the relationship means so much to him, Sam is enthusiastic and would instead plunge right away into drafting his story. Even as he’s writing, he begins questioning his choice – mountaineering is just a summer passion, and he’s nowhere near being an expert at it. Then, maybe he shows what he has written to his teacher. The teacher reacts to it at face value – not realizing it is not even a draft yet and asks him to write about something else as this is not flying.
So give due regard to the methods we suggest and let what you’ve written rest in your notebook for a bit.
When you begin early, it will give you the luxury of having time on your side. Writing every day through summer will prepare you for the all-important task of writing your Personal Statement. By July-end, you will be able to review what you’ve written without reservation.
Timeframes for writing your Common App Essay – in six months, three months, one month, or less than a month
You should begin working on your college essays during the summer before your final high school year. But setting aside six months (June-December) for such a task may be difficult if you are already busy with other activities.
Listed below are other timeframes within which you can plan to ideate and write without reservation and accomplish your task.
Six months – June-December (best suited for early decision application deadline)
- June: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues for 2-3 weeks
- July: Write without reservation for 3-4 weeks
- July-end/early August: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
- Mid-August: Finish editing your first draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it
- The second half of August: Write out further drafts – draft#3 and draft#4
- Early September: Show your fourth draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
- September-end: Finish your final draft
Finish the secondary essays in October since November is usually the deadline for early decision applications. In November, finish with any remaining secondary pieces for colleges with December/January deadlines for submitting regular decision applications.
Three months – August-October (pushing hard to meet the early decision application deadline)
- The first fortnight of August: Ideate, discuss and write with the cues
- The second half of August: Write without reservation
- Early September: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
- Week 2 of September: Finish editing your first draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it
- Week 3 and 4 of September: Write out further drafts – draft#3 and draft#4
- Early October: Show your fourth draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
- By mid-October: Finish your final draft
Finish the secondary essays in the latter part of October since November is usually the deadline for early decision applications. In November, finish with any remaining secondary essays for colleges with December/January deadlines for submitting regular decision applications.
One month – October-November (to meet the regular decision application deadline)
- Early October: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues second week of October: Write without reservation third week of October: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay
- Last week of October: Finish editing your first draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it.
- The first fortnight of November: Write out further drafts – draft#3 and draft#4
- Mid-November: Show your fourth draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback
- Last week of November: Finish your final draft.
Finish the secondary essays in December for colleges with December/January deadlines for submitting regular decision applications.
Crushed for time – Beginning in November (if you have begun your application process very late and have less than a month to submit applications)
- 2-4 days: Ideate, discuss, and write with the cues.
- 2-3: Write without reservation.
- Two days after writing without reservation: Finish compiling the first draft of your Common App Essay.
- Three days after finishing the first draft: Finish your second draft – this is when you will have to work hard on it. And then, show your draft to your counselor, teacher, or adviser and request advice and feedback.
- Two days after getting feedback: Finish writing draft#3
- Two days after finishing draft#3: Finish fourth and your final draft if you still have time on your hands
The application deadlines vary in some colleges. For instance, the University of California, Los Angeles – a reputed college, has a November application submission deadline. So you must compile your college list along with the list of all application deadlines and admission requirements by the end September of so that you do not miss the bus and have to sit out for a year.
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We walk you through how to write a brilliant common app essay for 2020-2021..
The Common Application allows high school seniors to apply to any of the almost 900 colleges and universities that use it. The prompts serve to guide applicants in reflecting on their own experiences and identifying the most appropriate ones to include in their personal statement.
Want help with your Common App essay? Whether you haven’t even started or whether you’re looking for feedback on a draft you’ve already written, Prompt is here to help.
Common App Prompts 2020-2021
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
- Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Students choose to respond to one of the seven prompts. The essay has a word limit of 650 words.
How should you choose and write your Common App essays?
Here are some resources:
- This article helps you select the right Common App essay topic that is both compelling and unique for your essay
- This article teaches you how to structure your essay to make any topic work within the Common App essay length
Which Common App prompts are the most popular?
This graph illustrates the choices made by over 1,500 Prompt clients. According to our data, two essays are by far the most popular — the “Background” essay (#1) and the “Accomplishment” essay (#5), with roughly 30% of our clients choosing each.
Interestingly, the most popular choice according to the Common App ’s own data is different. It’s the “choose your own topic” prompt (#7), which is only the fourth-most popular among our students. But, except for that, the Common App reports the same sequence as we do, with the “Accomplishment” essay (#5) also in second position, and the “Obstacle” essay (#2) also in third.
College Reality Check
10 Best Common App Essay Ideas
Applying to college is made harder by writing the Common App essay.
The sentiment is shared by 50% of all high school teens bound for college. Admissions committees read it as a part of a holistic review procedure.
Whatever you write under 650 words can determine your educational fate.
Let colleges see your unique personality and experiences when writing your Common App essay. Remember to talk about your strengths, interests, accomplishments, and goals.
You should also proudly explain how being a part of the college campus can contribute to your aspirations as well as how you can contribute to the community in exchange.
You can choose from 7 Common App essay prompts to write.
But don’t pick a prompt randomly — go for something that will enable the members of the admissions committee to know you more.
1. A Life Goal
There’s something about discussing your goals that can make admissions officers decide without trouble whether or not you are exactly what they are looking for.
And it’s none other than the fact that it enables them to get to know not only who you are right now but who you are hoping to become one day.
But it’s not enough that you let admissions officers have a peek of where you see yourself 10 years from now.
Just as important as having a goal is having a plan.
Because of this, when writing your Common App essay on your dreams and ambitions, don’t forget to discuss how you intend to achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve.
So, before you start composing a stellar essay to increase your chances of getting a thumbs-up from admissions officers, there are a couple of things you need to establish to be able to write it in the most sincere and heartfelt manner.
First , what you are planning on becoming.
Second , how you are planning to make it happen.
Keep in mind what Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once said: “A goal without a plan is just a wish.”
Make sure that you impress admissions officers not only with your goal but also your map to achieving it.
2. An Outdoor Adventure
More and more colleges and universities are on the hunt for students who can graduate as global degree holders.
This is why traveling can make your list of extracurricular activities, which is a non-academic factor admissions officers at numerous institutions take into account when evaluating applicants, look phenomenal.
Besides your extracurricular list, your Common App essay could also get a boost from your outdoor adventures.
Refrain from assuming that just because you have had many adventures outside your home and/or hometown those admissions officers will scramble to send you an offer to attend the institution.
As always, quality over quantity — your travels will only mean something in college admissions if they have a meaning for you.
So, in other words, it’s a good idea to talk about an adventure of yours in the Common App essay only if it has changed your life (or someone’s life or the course of history) for the better.
This is the same reason why those who are taking a gap year might want to consider traveling. It can help them discover who they really are and learn, too, what they really want in life.
And by the way, like what everyone says, the destination is not as important as the journey.
Bear this in mind when composing your admissions essay.
3. Work Experience
There are all sorts of academic and non-academic factors that come into play in the admissions process. One of the non-academic ones that many colleges and universities consider is work experience.
Responsibility, teamwork, hard work, time-management skills — these are just some of the things that one can learn from working, which admissions officers admire and value.
It’s because of this why having work experience can help improve your college application. What’s more, it can also help boost your job application.
You can start to reap the perks of being a part of the workforce by talking about it in your Common App essay.
In the eyes of admissions officers, the paycheck you received or the post you held isn’t the most important thing.
As a matter of fact, it doesn’t matter that much if your job has no connection to your academic or career goal.
What’s important to colleges and universities is that you have acquired a host of skills that the campus, the student body, and the community could benefit from.
And this is why you should discuss in your admissions essay not only the nature of your work but also the valuable things you learned from it and how they made you a better person.
4. A Life Skill
Besides having a job, valuable skills that admissions officers cannot say no to can be learned in many other ways, too.
No matter how you acquired and mastered something that you are proud of, there is no denying that it would make for a wonderful Common App essay topic and might help you win an acceptance letter.
Just about any skill that can increase your success in college and beyond graduation is worthy of being the heart of your admissions essay, whether it’s quite common or something pretty unique.
The goal is to let your audience, which is none other than the admissions officers at your top-choice school, realize that the skills you possess can make the campus more vibrant and interesting.
More importantly, they can help you make a difference in the world after graduation, carrying with you the name of the school wherever you go.
Leadership, commitment, creativity, initiative, problem-solving, intellectual curiosity, open-mindedness, teamwork, social-consciousness — highlight any of these in your Common App essay to make you pop.
Of course, it’s a huge plus if you will be able to talk about your life skills in your essay in a skillful manner!
5. A Difficult Challenge
Problems and hard times are important because they stimulate growth.
And since institutions for higher education prefer college-ready applicants more than anybody else, nothing can make you appear ready to face the numerous challenges that come with attending college more than talking about the trials and tribulations you have encountered and either survived or succumbed to in the past.
Don’t feel too embarrassed to talk about failures. Instead, it’s a wonderful idea to use it to your advantage by discussing the things you learned from the experience and how you can employ them to reap success in life.
The majority of high school students bound for college will not have a hard time talking about triumphs in their Common App essays.
On the other hand, many will find it difficult to make failures the content of their essays as it makes them vulnerable — no one wants to be exposed, especially those who are trying to woo admissions officers.
However, admittance is the first step to learning from failures. And if you can learn from just about anything that life throws your way, you can definitely learn to succeed in college.
6. Someone Admired
It can only take 10 words or less to tell who on the face of the planet you admire the most.
However, the Common App essay should be anywhere from 250 to 650 words.
This is a good thing because it gives you plenty of opportunities to expound on a very important aspect of this admissions essay idea: why you admire the person you admire.
Chances are that most high school students engaged with the entire college application will opt for safe and obvious choices such as Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, and Stephen Hawking.
For a standout admissions essay and thus an increased admissions chances, consider surprising the readers.
Talking about someone who is a complete unknown but whose beliefs and/or achievements have made a huge impact on you is perfectly fine.
And because you can make just about anyone the star of your Common App essay, the possibilities are endless, which could help increase the possibilities of you being accepted into your dream school.
In order to have a winning admissions essay talking about someone you admire, make sure that you make the person appear like a true winner for you, no matter how big or small the accomplishment.
A word of caution: Don’t be like an applicant who wrote about his grandmother and forgot to write about himself. Because the admission officer said after reading his essay: “Your Grandma is so good, I wish we could accept her!”
7. Something Loved
Besides a person, it’s also very much possible for you to discuss something else in your Common App essay that you regard deeply. It can be anything from a pawed pal, dessert, tourist attraction, gadget to an impactful movie.
What’s so nice about this is that you can get to let admissions officers know as much about you as possible. In addition, it enables you to get as creative as you want to be. Just how important is creativity in the admissions process?
Well, according to a study by Adobe, up to 95% of admissions officers value creative skills.
Keep in mind that creativity is subjective and based on your own perceptions.
Due to this, writing about something you love from the heart and in a way that not a lot of high schoolers would can let admissions officers have a much better understanding not only of what you are discussing but also you yourself.
After all, what they will evaluate is not what is being talked about but the one who is talking about it.
Take your time when choosing a Common App essay topic that inspires, motivates or fascinates you. Because you are only limited by your creativity, you have the odds in your favor.
8. A Literary Work
Reading is fundamental.
And, as a general rule of thumb, college students should read two hours per one hour of class.
Doing the math, you will see that earning a degree entails lots and lots of reading.
A great way to prove to admissions officers that you won’t have trouble spending 24 to 30 hours per week reading outside the classroom (if you are a full-time student carrying 12 to 15 credits per semester) is choosing to discuss your absolute love for reading books in your Common App essay.
Needless to say, making a favorite book of yours the meat of your admissions essay is a fantastic idea.
It’s definitely going to make your composition a complete knockout if you talk about how a book has changed your life for the better.
And if you are a better person than you were before checking out a piece of literature from cover to cover, then the school will also benefit from it — admitting you makes you and the institution a winner!
But being inspired or transformed is not the only reason for loving a book. If it’s your favorite because it was a gift from someone special or bought from a used book store and was previously owned by a famous person, feel free to let the college or university you are applying to know about it.
9. A Sincere Commitment
Getting your hands on a college degree requires commitment.
Otherwise, it’s not unlikely for you to turn your back on your studies at the first distraction or challenge that comes your way.
It’s because of this why high school students who know how to commit to something have higher chances of succeeding in college.
Being able to commit is what makes having work experience one of the non-academic admissions factors that many colleges and universities consider.
It is also for the very same reason why admissions officers usually check out the extracurriculars of applicants before deciding their fate.
An impressive high school GPA, it goes without saying, speaks volumes about how committed an applicant is.
You can be committed to a person or an organization.
Provided that you write it skillfully and passionately, your Common App essay talking about your promise to look after a loved one suffering from an incurable disease or pledge to lend a hand at a local animal shelter could easily earn you big points in the admissions process.
You can also be committed to yourself, such as vowing to lose 200 pounds after being diagnosed as morbidly obese or learning how to speak French fluently.
10. A Big Accomplishment
Commitment leads to accomplishment, which is why just about any achievement of yours that you are very proud of can be something that your Common App essay talks about.
Only 37.5% of people in the US 25 years old and above had graduated from college or any other institution for higher education.
So, in other words, you can consider completing your chosen program as a massive accomplishment.
Meanwhile, others fail to do so due to all sorts of setbacks, from failure to get a passing grade to the inability to pay tuition.
If nothing stopped you from founding a club, leading an organization, maintaining a high GPA and being in the top 10% of your class in high school, then it’s likely that nothing can stop you from finishing college.
Admissions officers do not want to admit applicants who look like they’re not going to succeed on campus.
But before you start composing your Common App essay that will highlight your accomplishments, keep in mind that bragging and sharing something proudly are two different things.
Since your written composition can spell the difference between getting accepted and being rejected, consider marketing yourself subtly and tastefully.
The admissions essay is one of the most important parts of the college application process — if the institution you are applying to requires it. Coincidentally, according to many high school students gearing up for higher education, it is also the most difficult requirement they have to come up with and submit before the applications deadline.
It’s true that there are tons of ideas to choose from. However, not all Common App essay ideas can make the heads of admissions officers turn toward your direction for all the right reasons.
Some ideas, provided that you can pull off talking about them with great passion and superb writing skills, can help boost your admissions chances better than the rest.
Above, we talked about 10 of them, many of which are surprisingly easy to discuss in 250 to 650 words — many admissions officers recommend around 500 words.
It’s completely up to you to choose the Common App essay idea that can make your application outshine the rest.
Just make sure that you will write it from the heart and with great skill, too.
I graduated with BA in Nursing and $36,000 in student loan debt from the UCF. After a decade in the workforce, I went back to school to obtain my MBA from UMGC.
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5 Ways Students Can Boost Their College Applications Over Winter Break
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College Application Essay
Winter break is not just a time for festive celebrations and relaxation; it also presents a valuable opportunity for high school students to make significant strides in building their college admissions profiles. While the holiday season is a well-deserved break from classes, extracurricular activities, and other commitments, strategic planning can set students apart and enhance their college applications. Whether a freshman or senior, high school students should take advantage of their weeks off from school to take stock of the past year and get ahead before the start of the coming semester.
Here are five ways students can use their time during the holiday break to enhance their admissions profiles:
1. 9th-12th Grade: Reflect And Set Goals
Students should begin the break by reflecting on their academic and extracurricular achievements thus far. They can identify their strengths and weaknesses from the fall semester and set realistic goals for the remainder of the school year. Whether it's improving their GPA, pursuing leadership roles, or diversifying their extracurricular involvement, setting clear objectives will guide how they spend their winter break and their spring semester.
2. 10th And 11th Grade: Prepare For Standardized Tests
If a student is planning to sit for the SAT or ACT in the spring, winter break provides an ideal opportunity for focused test preparation. Increased free time and lack of schoolwork can afford students the time to take a diagnostic test to gauge what they need to improve. Sitting for a diagnostic test is time-consuming, but it is the best way to track one’s progress, assess areas for improvement, and build confidence in the testing format. Students should use their results to create a study schedule, find relevant online resources, and decide whether or not they need to enroll in a test prep course. Consistent, targeted preparation during winter break can lead to improved scores and increased confidence.
3. 10th And 11th Grade: Research Colleges And Plan School Visits
The best time for students to tour colleges tends to be in the spring. So, as students narrow their list of schools, they should also work with their parents to plan their upcoming college visits. Students can use the downtime to research potential colleges and universities, considering factors such as academic programs, campus culture, and location. If students are unsure of whether they want to visit a certain college on their list, they can use the break to attend a virtual visit or online Q&A to critically evaluate whether they want to see a campus in person. Engaging with the campus community, even if remotely, can provide valuable insights into a college's atmosphere and offerings. Prospective students can also reach out to current students or alumni in their area for insights.
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Best 5% interest savings accounts of september 2023, 4. 11th and 12th grade: research financial aid and scholarship opportunities.
Winter break can be a critical time for students to investigate financial aid options and scholarship opportunities available at the colleges on a student’s list. Students and their parents should familiarize themselves with deadlines and requirements for financial aid—posting a calendar in a visible spot in the house can help families stay on top of dates and deadlines.
5. 12th: Finalize essays
Winter break is the last opportunity for students to polish their personal statements and supplemental essays, as many top schools such as Emory, Columbia, and Princeton require applications to be submitted on or before January 1. Therefore, students should complete initial drafts of their essays at the beginning of their break. Then, they should work with a trusted friend, older sibling, or parent to edit their essays for grammar, coherence, and overall impact. Essays should be written in an applicant’s distinct voice and show a unique personality and perspective. Students should consider reading their essays aloud to their friends or family members to evaluate the flow of ideas and ensure that their voice shines through in a compelling way.
As high school students embark on their winter break, strategic planning will help them use their time wisely and continue to build their application profile. By balancing academic pursuits, personal development, and self-care, students can make the most of this valuable time and boost the strength of their candidacies at their dream schools.
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