A 101 guide to the Common App essays prompts. Everything you need to know about nailing the Common App essay with minimal stress.
If you’re a high school student getting ready to apply to college or university, you’ve probably heard of the Common Application. It’s a one-stop-shop for applying to the top 100 universities in in the US, and it can save you a ton of time and hassle.
But there’s one part of the Common App that can be a bit daunting: the essay.
Yep, you’ve got to write an essay that does much more than showcase your personality, goals, and values to impress college admissions officers. You need to ensure your essay stands out from the hundreds of other essays they receive. And this is where the challenge rears its head.
No pressure, right?
Luckily, the Common App essays prompts are here to help. In this article, we’ll give you the lowdown on the prompts and share some tips and examples to help you craft an application essay that stands out from the crowd. We’ll also offer some great insights into the common pitfalls associated with each common app essay question and how you can avoid them.
Common App Essays Prompts 2023-2024
Before we progress to take a look at each of the essay prompts in more depth. Let’s take a look at this season’s Common App prompts:
2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Regardless of which of these essay prompts you choose to respond to, you will need to write a concise, well-written piece that sets you apart as an individual. To get the best possible result, you are advised to use a college application essay editing service. You should also take care to avoid these Common App essay mistakes.
An Overview of the 2023 Common App Essay Questions
|What the prompt is asking
|Type of response it is looking for
|Pitfalls to avoid
|Share a significant aspect of your identity
|A personal narrative that showcases a unique aspect of the applicant
|Avoid clichés and superficial descriptions. Be introspective and reflective.
|Describe a challenge and how you overcame it
|An essay that shows how the applicant handled adversity and grew from the experience
|Avoid presenting yourself as a victim or blaming others for your setbacks. Focus on your growth and development.
|Discuss a time when you challenged an idea or belief
|An essay that demonstrates critical thinking and intellectual curiosity
|Avoid controversial or offensive topics that could alienate your reader. Be respectful and open-minded.
|Reflect on a moment of gratitude
|A personal narrative that shows how someone else’s actions impacted you
|Avoid being too general or clichéd. Be specific and thoughtful.
|Describe a personal growth experience
|An essay that showcases how the applicant learned about themselves or others
|Avoid bragging or presenting yourself as perfect. Be honest about your flaws and challenges.
|Discuss an intellectual passion
|An essay that reveals the applicant’s interests and curiosity
|Avoid being too obscure or abstract. Make sure your passion is something you can explain in detail.
|Share an essay on any topic
|An opportunity for the applicant to showcase their writing and creativity
|Avoid clichés or writing on a topic that does not showcase your unique voice and perspective. Be thoughtful and original.
A Detailed Analysis of the Common App Essays Prompts 2023
Common App Question One
- 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.
Common App Question One Overview
What Prompt One is Asking:
This Common App essays prompt is asking you to reflect on a particular aspect of your identity, background, interest, or talent that is very meaningful to you. It’s looking for a personal story or anecdote that illustrates how this aspect has shaped you as a person and/or influenced your goals, values, and perspectives.
The key to answering this prompt well is writing a response that no one else in the world but you could have written.
Type of Response Prompt One is Looking for:
The response that this prompt is looking for is a personal narrative that highlights your unique qualities and experiences. The goal is to show the admissions committee who you are beyond your academic achievements or extracurricular activities. Ideally, your essay will be authentic, heartfelt, and well-written, with a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Potential Pitfalls to Avoid:
Avoid writing a generic or clichéd essay that doesn’t reveal much about your personality or experiences. For example, you might be tempted to write about a popular topic like a travel experience or a volunteer trip, but if you don’t connect it to your personal growth or identity, it won’t be very compelling… or unique.
Similarly, you should avoid simply listing your achievements or accomplishments without reflecting on how they relate to your identity or background. Finally, be careful not to overshare or reveal sensitive information that could make you or others uncomfortable. It’s important to strike a balance between being vulnerable and being appropriate.
Common App Essays Prompt Two
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 Prompt Two is Asking:
This prompt is asking you to reflect on a challenging experience that you have encountered and the lessons you learned from it. Again, this prompt is looking for a personal story or anecdote. In this case, you need to focus on how you responded to adversity and what you gained from the experience.
Type of Response Prompt Two is Looking for:
The response that this prompt is looking for is a personal narrative that demonstrates your resilience, problem-solving skills, and growth mindset. The goal is to show the admissions committee that you are able to learn from your mistakes and setbacks, and that you have the potential to thrive in the face of challenges. Ideally, your essay will be well-structured, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and will provide specific examples and details to illustrate your point.
Potential Pitfalls to Avoid:
One potential pitfall to avoid is writing an essay that focuses too much on the negative aspects of the experience. While it’s important to be honest about the challenges you faced, you should also emphasize what you learned from the experience and how it has helped you grow as a person. Similarly, you should avoid blaming others or making excuses for your failures. Instead, take responsibility for your actions and show how you took steps to overcome the obstacle. Finally, be careful not to sound overly dramatic or melodramatic in your writing. It’s important to strike a balance between being honest and being engaging.
Need further help? Take a look at our 2023 guide to editing an essay.
Common App Question Three
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
What Prompt Three is Asking:
This Common App essay prompt provides you with a lot of flexibility because it allows you to choose practically any belief or idea that you’ve ever questioned.
However, it’s important to keep in mind the word “reflect” – your essay should not simply recount the events, but should be reflective and introspective.
In order to succeed in college, you need to demonstrate qualities such as the capacity to question assumptions, test theories, and engage in intellectual debate. While this question is incredibly broad, it’s also an opportunity for you to showcase your critical thinking skills and your ability to communicate your ideas effectively.
Keep in mind that some theories and viewpoints will produce better essays than others, so be sure to choose a topic that allows you to demonstrate your intellectual curiosity and your ability to engage with complex ideas.
Type of Response it is Looking for:
The response that this prompt is looking for is a personal narrative that illustrates how you developed your own beliefs and ideas through critical thinking and reflection. The goal is to show the admissions committee that you are an independent thinker who is not afraid to challenge the status quo. Ideally, your essay will be well-structured, with a clear beginning, middle, and end, and will provide specific examples and details to illustrate your point.
Potential Pitfalls to Avoid:
One potential pitfall to avoid is writing an essay that is too general or abstract. Instead of talking about broad ideas or beliefs, focus on a specific instance where you challenged or questioned something. Another pitfall to avoid is being too combative or confrontational in your writing. While it’s important to show that you are willing to challenge ideas, you should do so in a respectful and constructive way. Finally, be sure to reflect on the outcome of your thinking and questioning. What did you learn from the experience? How did it change your perspective or worldview? It’s important to show that you are open to growth and change.
Common App Essays Prompt Four
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?
What Prompt Four is Asking
The fourth Common App essays prompt contains five words that are of particular significance: reflect, someone/something, surprising, gratitude, and Motivated. Let’s look at each of them in turn.
The first word of the fourth essay prompt is “reflect,” and it’s a critical element to keep in mind as you write. Reflection is more than just describing an experience; it requires self-examination and critical thinking. To reflect on an experience is to gain self-awareness and explore its significance. By reflecting, you discover more about yourself and your values, and you can explain why an experience is meaningful to you.
“Someone” and “Something”
The fourth essay prompt allows for a lot of flexibility in topic selection by using the broad terms “someone” and “something.” You can write about any person or experience that has positively impacted you. Examples of people you might write about include a teacher who inspired you, a mentor who taught you new skills, a family member who supported you, a friend who stood by you through tough times, or a student you tutored who taught you something valuable. The prompt specifies that the person must be living, so historical figures, God, pets, and authors are not appropriate subjects (but you can write about them in response to prompt #7).
When reflecting on the “something” that the person did for you, make sure it had a positive impact on your life.
The word “surprising” in the prompt does not mean that the experience had to be shocking or overwhelming. Rather, it could be something that broadened your perspective, challenged your assumptions, or helped you appreciate something new. Some of the best essays focus on small or subtle changes that had a significant impact on the writer.
The fourth essay prompt asks you to reflect on someone or something you are grateful for, so it’s essential to express gratitude in your essay. The goal is to show how others have impacted your life and demonstrate your appreciation for them. Show that you are considerate and kind, and express your gratitude towards the person or experience that helped shape you into the person you are today.
“Motivated” and “Affected”
While the prompt focuses on someone else, remember that the essay is ultimately about you. The admissions committee wants to learn more about you, not the person you’re writing about. Therefore, it’s essential to strike a balance between writing about the person who had a significant impact on your life and reflecting on how that impact has affected you. Ask yourself what you learned from this person, how you’ve grown, and how they’ve influenced your worldview. Your essay should demonstrate that you are a thoughtful, introspective, and generous person who values the contributions of others.
Type of Response Prompt Four is Looking for:
When applying to college, it’s common to focus solely on personal achievements such as good grades, leadership roles, and extracurricular activities. Even community service can be seen as a means to enhance your application. However, gratitude is a selfless emotion that acknowledges the contributions other people have made toward your success. Expressing gratitude shows appreciation for those who helped shape you, rather than boasting about personal accomplishments.
The new Common App prompt encourages students to write about something positive, but it serves a greater purpose in the admissions process. Selective schools reject many highly qualified applicants, often basing their decision on character rather than academic performance. When choosing between two academically strong candidates, admissions officers will select the one who demonstrates kindness and generosity. They seek to build a campus community of supportive and appreciative individuals.
Being kind is a quality that cannot be overstated. Winning essays showcase not only personal accomplishments but also gratitude towards those who contributed to your success.
Potential Pitfalls to Avoid
When responding to Prompt #4, it is important to remember that you can express gratitude for anything, big or small, as long as it had a lasting impact on you. You can choose to write about anyone who was significant to you, but there are a few common errors that you should avoid.
First, avoid sounding egotistical. A boastful or arrogant tone is completely inappropriate for this prompt, as it asks you to acknowledge the significant contributions that others have made to your life. For example, an essay that begins with “Coach Strauss helped make me into the award-winning national champion I am today” will fall flat.
Second, make sure to go beyond mere description. Consider how the person you are writing about affected and motivated you, and reflect on the experience. A successful essay must be reflective and thoughtful, showing the admissions committee what you have learned about yourself from the experience. Devoting your entire essay to describing the person who has inspired gratitude in you will not be effective.
Lastly, avoid using fictional or abstract entities. Write about a real, live person who has positively impacted your life. Avoid writing about characters from books or movies, deities, or historical figures. Additionally, avoid writing about sports heroes or artists, as they may have influenced you, but they did not accomplish anything “for you.”
Common App Question Five
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
What Common App Essay Prompt Five is Asking
The focal point of this essay topic is the concept of personal growth, which offers a broad range of opportunities to discuss significant events in your life. To impress the admissions committee, you need to choose a memorable event that provides insight into your hobbies and personality. To do this, consider your recent years and select a period of personal growth that has helped you re-evaluate your beliefs and worldview.
When choosing an accomplishment, event, or realization, think broadly and remember that they are all interconnected. Some potential options include achieving a goal, overcoming a challenge, receiving an award, engaging in a strenuous activity, or experiencing a life-changing event. Additionally, failures or setbacks can also lead to personal development and growth.
It is crucial to remember that the purpose of the essay is not just to describe the event or accomplishment but to analyze how it has helped you grow as a person. Therefore, your essay should include critical self-reflection, examining how and why the event has influenced your development. Use examples from your personal experiences to illustrate your points and create a compelling essay that showcases your growth and readiness for college responsibilities and independence.
Type of Response Expected for Prompt Five
Prompt five on the Common Application essay is asking you to reflect on a specific moment or experience that resulted in personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. This essay prompt is an opportunity for you to showcase your self-awareness and critical thinking skills by analyzing the impact of a particular accomplishment, event, or realization.
When answering this prompt, it’s important to choose an experience that is meaningful and memorable to you. Consider moments that challenged your beliefs or forced you to confront your limitations. It could be a personal achievement, such as winning an award or overcoming a difficult obstacle, or it could be an event that had a profound impact on you, such as volunteering in a community or experiencing a personal loss.
Whatever you choose, the focus should be on the growth and self-reflection that resulted from the experience. Be sure to explain how the experience changed you and how you developed a new understanding of yourself or others. This essay prompt is not just about describing the experience but also about exploring its significance and the impact it had on your personal growth.
In your essay, you should also demonstrate your critical thinking skills by analyzing the experience and reflecting on what you learned from it. Consider questions such as: What did this experience teach me about myself or others? How did it challenge my assumptions or beliefs? How has it changed my perspective on the world? By answering these questions, you can showcase your ability to think deeply and critically about your experiences and demonstrate your potential as a college student.
Overall, prompt five on the Common Application essay is looking for a thoughtful and reflective essay that showcases your self-awareness and critical thinking skills. By choosing an experience that had a significant impact on your personal growth and exploring its significance, you can demonstrate your readiness for college and your potential for success.
As part of your college application, you may also be requested to submit a personal statement or statement of purpose. Take a look at our guide to the difference between a statement of purpose and a personal statement for more assistance.
Pitfalls to Avoid When Responding to Prompt Five
When responding to Prompt Five, there are several pitfalls to avoid. Here are some common mistakes to steer clear of:
- Focusing too much on the accomplishment or event: While it’s important to discuss the accomplishment or event that sparked your personal growth, don’t get too caught up in describing it in detail. Remember that the essay is about your personal growth and understanding of yourself or others.
- Not providing enough context: Make sure to provide enough context for the accomplishment, event, or realization you’re discussing. The admissions committee should understand why this experience was significant to you and how it shaped your personal growth.
- Being too vague: Avoid being too vague or general in your response. Instead, provide specific examples and anecdotes that illustrate your personal growth and new understanding.
- Focusing solely on the positive: Don’t be afraid to discuss challenges or setbacks that you faced during this experience. Often, it’s through adversity that we experience the most growth and gain a new understanding of ourselves or others.
- Using cliches or platitudes: Finally, be sure to avoid using cliches or platitudes in your essay. Admissions officers read countless essays, and they’re looking for something that stands out and feels authentic. Instead of relying on tired phrases or ideas, try to bring a fresh perspective to your response.
Common App Question Six
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?
What Common App Prompt Six is Asking
The main concern of this Common App essays prompt is to identify your areas of passion and interest, and its goal is to explore what captivates you the most. The prompt asks you to reflect on topics or activities that consume your thoughts to the extent that you become fully engrossed in them. If you have a subject that you adore and could spend hours contemplating, this essay prompt offers an opportunity to share your insights and experiences. However, it’s crucial to avoid getting carried away and losing focus on the main objective of the essay. If you struggle to identify a topic that you are passionate about, it might be better to consider a different prompt.
Prompt 4, which focuses on a problem you’d like to fix, shares some similarities with this essay prompt. If you enjoy exploring solutions to problems, you could consider selecting either prompt 4 or 6 to showcase your problem-solving skills and interests.
Type of Response Expected for Prompt Six
The essay prompt requiring you to explain, justify, and describe is aimed at getting you to define your topic, present evidence for why it captivates you, and explain how you intend to learn more about it. Although it is not necessary to dedicate equal time to each aspect of the question, you should thoughtfully address all of them. By doing so, you can be confident that you have given the college admissions committee the information they are looking for.
Describe Begin your essay by providing a detailed description of your topic, idea, or notion. Use descriptive language to introduce your subject matter to your readers.
However, be cautious not to provide too much detail in your description. Give a brief summary of your topic to acquaint your readers with it, but remember that this is not the main body of your essay. Your readers will be interested in the rest of your essay, not just the description, to learn more about your personality. Therefore, introduce your topic clearly and concisely to demonstrate your ability to be concise.
Justify The section explaining why your chosen topic interests you will reveal the most about your personality to your readers. Therefore, ensure that this section is engaging and takes up the majority of your essay. By thoughtfully elaborating on the reasons behind your passion, you can distinguish yourself from other applicants. Select a subject that you genuinely care about and speak from the heart rather than trying too hard to pick something that will make you appear unique.
Your passions reveal a lot about you when you become so engrossed in something that you lose track of time. With strong writing and enthusiasm, you can leave a lasting impression on admissions committees. Take advantage of the opportunity to discuss the topic you are passionate about.
Explain Explaining your research methodology demonstrates your research skills and eagerness to learn. Show your readers that you can conduct in-depth research and find information beyond a simple online search. How deep do you delve, and where do your searches take you? How can you locate more reading material? Do you consult any experts on the subject? Write in sufficient detail for your audience to understand your research methods, but keep in mind that this is not the most critical part of your essay.
How to Choose a Focus The best topic to write about is entirely subjective. Ensure that your topic has enough substance for you to explain why it has such an impact on you. Select something you genuinely care about or are interested in.
The breadth of this Common App essay prompt may be daunting. Start by considering the issues that are most important to you, then narrow down your choices to those you can genuinely describe, support, and explain.
Essay topics for Prompt 6 include the following:
- How people grieve
- A scientific hypothesis, such as the big bang, quantum mechanics, or genetic engineering
- The effects of a collapsed reef
Take your time in selecting the ideal topic because this is your chance to be authentic and personable.
Pitfalls to Avoid When Responding to Prompt Six
When it comes to choosing a topic for your essay, it’s important to consider whether it will showcase your unique qualities and interests. Avoid writing about topics that are too common or shallow, such as playing video games, dating, or watching movies, as these won’t help you stand out from other applicants.
Instead, focus on a topic, idea, or concept that truly interests and excites you. Think about what causes you to lose track of time or what you could spend hours researching or learning more about. This could be a specific academic subject, a social or political issue, or even a personal experience that has shaped your perspective.
It’s also important to note that the essay prompt specifically asks for a topic, idea, or concept, not just an activity or interest. While sports, music, and socializing may be important parts of your life, they may not be the best topics for this particular essay prompt.
Remember, the goal of this essay is to showcase your personality, values, and potential contributions to the university community. By choosing a topic that truly resonates with you and demonstrating your passion and curiosity through your writing, you can make a strong impression on the admissions committee.
Common App Question Seven
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
How to Respond to Common App Prompt Seven
When it comes to Common App Essay Prompt #7, you have the freedom to write about anything you like. This is the perfect opportunity for students who have a story or idea in mind that doesn’t quite fit the other prompts.
Don’t be afraid to use descriptive language and sensory details in your writing. Not only will it make your essay more engaging for the reader, but it will also demonstrate your writing abilities. Take your reader on a journey with your words and unleash your creativity.
Highlight the significance of your story. Choose a time in your life that holds special value to you and share it with the admissions officers. By doing so, you’ll give them a glimpse into your life and personality. Write with authenticity and sincerity, and you’ll stand out from other applicants.
Think about the impact on your future. Consider how this experience will shape your future and the lessons you’ll take with you. By looking ahead, you can demonstrate to colleges who you might be as a student and show them your potential.
Type of Response Expected for Prompt Seven
Question seven of the Common App essays prompts is an opportunity for you to showcase who you are as a person and what you can bring to the university community. When asked what you want admissions officers to know about you, it’s important to think about how you would like to present or identify yourself. Consider what you care about, your values, and how you have been shaped as a person.
While the seventh prompt is open-ended, it’s crucial to keep the essay focused on you as the subject. Avoid veering into an academic essay or an argumentative essay. Instead, focus on significant events, people, or ideals in your life and how they have influenced your character and motivations. Your essay should essentially be a narrative about you, giving admissions officers a window into your personality.
When brainstorming essay ideas, don’t limit yourself to the suggestions presented in previous prompts. Consider topics that genuinely interest you and reflect your personality. It’s essential to choose a topic that you feel enthusiastic about, as this will come through in your writing.
Take time to reflect on your thoughts and what feels most important to you. Once you have a topic, brainstorm specific details to include, outline your essay, and then begin writing and editing. By following these steps, you can ensure that your essay stands out and showcases the best of who you are as a person.
Pitfalls to Avoid When Responding to Prompt Seven
Choose from Option 1 through 6 or go for 7 if it fits your essay best
The first six categories offered by the Common Application are not exhaustive, and most admissions essays do not fit neatly into one of them. However, they provide a framework for you to work within, and you can write about almost anything that falls within those major classifications. So, don’t hesitate to choose option #7 if you believe it’s the best fit for your essay. What matters most is the quality of your writing, not whether you choose one option over another (unless it’s blatantly obvious that your essay fits better elsewhere). Remember, no college will turn you down because you chose option #7 when option #1 would also work.
Avoid being overly clever
While “Topic of Your Choice” allows for a lot of creativity, it’s important to take the essay seriously. Admissions committees take the essay seriously, so you should too. It’s okay to use humor, but make sure your essay is well-written and focuses on why you would make an excellent college student. Remember, colleges use a comprehensive admissions process, and the essay is just one piece of the puzzle. Use it as an opportunity to showcase who you are beyond your academic achievements and test scores.
Make sure your essay is an essay
Option #7 allows you to write about anything, but make sure your submission serves the function of the admissions essay. Admissions committees want to see evidence that you’ll be a responsible and engaged member of their community. Your essay should showcase your personality, values, and sense of humor (if appropriate). It should also be a nonfiction piece that examines a subject and shares personal information.
Be cautious when submitting your essay
If you have a relevant essay you’ve already written, you can submit it for “You’ve Already Written” Prompt #7. However, make sure it’s relevant to the task at hand. Your essay should primarily be about you and what makes you unique. While that A+ paper you wrote for class might be impressive, it doesn’t serve the same purpose as the Common Application essay. The goal of the essay is to give admissions committees a fuller picture of who you are as a person, beyond your grades and test scores.
Which is the Best Common App Essay Prompt to Answer?
There is no definitive answer on which essay prompt to choose as the “best” one since it depends on your personal experience and preference.
To help you decide, you can use the reverse engineering technique by creating an ideal prompt that aligns with the main themes of your character arc, the journey of maturation or growth, perseverance and eventual success, changing one’s mind regarding a concept, or finding a solution to a problem.
Additionally, it is essential to search your heart and choose the topic that resonates with you the most, as it will enable you to write with passion and emotion. Lastly, seeking advice from trusted individuals, such as parents, teachers, or friends, can help you identify which concept appeals to them the most and may stand out to an admissions officer as well.