When it comes to the Common Application, most essay prompts are asking rather similar questions. College Admissions Officers want to know what your identity is made up of: what your background is, what makes you tick (what your passions are), how you engage with those around you and apply yourself within your community, and how you respond to failure.
In most cases, they are looking for students that are proud to stand apart from the crowd and apply themselves/make a difference, and not only face their fears, but learn and grow from them. Be sure to focus on yourself more than anything else in these essays, and use external topics/events to showcase how you reacted to them (when someone else reads your essay, they should learn something new about you, and be able to speak to your own characteristics more than the situations you presented as context) Now - all of this is much easier said than done, but once you take a moment to really think about what colleges are looking for, you can start to brainstorm the traits and experiences that make you a good fit for what they are looking for, and highlight those as best you can.
1. 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.”
This prompt is the perfect place to set yourself apart and really explain the essence of who you are based on how you grew up, or how you spend your time. In this prompt, schools want to learn about your culture and way of thinking, your passions and goals, or how you might contribute to their community. Try to pick something that speaks to a larger theme of who you are: a volunteer position, a family tradition, or a high school “passion project” could be perfect topics for this prompt, showing the admissions officers how you spend your free time being productive and making an impact on the world, why you think the way you do and what experiences you’ve had, and what skills you have that you’ve found a way to apply.
This is also the perfect place to talk about something that has not been represented in the rest of your application. For instance, if you already covered your involvement in sports and your academic achievement elsewhere, try showing a different part of yourself - talk about what goes on in your life when you are not playing sports and studying for classes: do you volunteer or have a personal project you work on in your free time? Do you have any cultural or community traditions that have impacted your identity? Do you identify as someone from a marginalized group and want to share an important part of who you are (BIPOC, LGBTQ+, people with physical/developmental disabilities, low-income, first generation, etc.)?
2. 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?”
In this prompt, universities are actually asking you more about your ability to persevere and champion positivity/optimism in the face of adversity. Therefore, they really aren’t asking you to dwell on your struggles and explain the extent to which your hardships affected you, but rather the way in which you accepted your reality and bounced back (which looks different for everyone!). Try to introduce your response to this prompt with some context about what you were facing, how it impacted you emotionally, financially, socially, academically, etc., but then spend the majority of the essay talking about your thought process for turning your attitude around, how you took initiative to make a change and persevere, and what kind of impact that had on your life (focus on the takeaway: what did you learn that makes you better prepared for situations like that in the future? Was the experience introspective, or did you learn something about those around you and your place in the world? Do you have an anecdote/moment of success that speaks to how far you came after that challenge?) Always focus on the growth, and use it to talk about a strength.
3. Prompt: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”
Particularly now, universities are looking for students that think independently and take initiative to make change towards something they believe in. Having a story to tell that relates to this prompt can help show bravery, since it takes a lot of confidence to stand up for something you believe in, particularly when you’re a minority in the conversation. It also shows an engagement with your surroundings when you are able to perceive something you do not agree with, and take action to make your alternate stance known. Additionally, speaking about your experience getting involved in social advocacy and justice for those that don’t have a voice can help show advocacy, and can demonstrate both self and community awareness.
4. 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?”
This prompt is a perfect place to talk about how you perceive and express gratitude, and how you treat those around you. Being thankful can show a certain level of self and social awareness, and can also show admissions officers what it is you value in life. What kinds of gifts/surprises make you happy, and how do you give back? All in all, this prompt is about kindness and gratitude, and what place those play in your day-today life and relationships with others.
Be sure to make this prompt illustrative of your own qualities or values - this means that you should be careful not to focus too much on the traits and actions of others, but rather how you perceived and responded to them. After all, your college applications are for YOU alone, so even if a prompt is asking about something that someone else did for you, they want to hear more about your involvement in the situation than anything else!
5. Prompt: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
This prompt can take many forms: you could talk about an incredible success that led to change and realization, or you could talk about a point of failure and humility that led to a reevaluation of yourself/others/life. This is an important way for colleges to evaluate your awareness of yourself and others, and how you respond to life-changing moments. Successful students have independent thoughts and opinions, but at the same time have the capacity to embrace humility or accept change for the better. Therefore, being able to reflect on “teaching moments” and having the ability to rethink your own perceptions can show incredible intellectual capacity.
For instance, you could talk about a time when you won the state championship and realized that you were passionate about mentoring young athletes to accomplish the same goals. Or, you could talk about how the state championship victory made you realize that sports were no longer the most important thing to you. Alternatively, you could talk about a moment in which you made a rash judgement or rude comment, and not only learned from the impact it made, but took action to correct the mistake you made.
6. 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?”
This prompt wants to know what inspires you, and what you are passionate about. Your response should hit on something that really demonstrates an important aspect of your identity - not just something that “sounds good.” Colleges are often looking for an appetite for education in prospective students (not necessarily just academic education). Whatever you are passionate about, you should talk about what specifically makes you excited, how you feel when you are that excited, and how you push yourself to improve/learn more in that given skill/field/interest.
This prompt doesn’t necessarily have to “make you look good.” That is to say, you can be passionate about so many different things, so what really stands out is authenticity. You should be able to communicate real emotions through your writing and be able to show a solid amount of introspection and understanding of why you are passionate about that topic/idea/concept. Avoid picking generic topics or activities that you might see on any college application. Instead, do some brainstorming exercises to think about an idea that will catch the reader’s eye.
This prompt is also rather fascinating when you are able to connect it to a larger theme/significance that says something about yourself or your interest in the world. For instance, you could talk about something as specific as the migration pattern of certain tropical fish in the ocean that you have studied while scuba diving off the coast of Hawaii - but what will really stand out is how that topic relates to a larger concept of temperature change and ecosystem imbalance that you find particularly interesting. You could talk about scientific phenomena, historical time periods, or your own personal experiences, but being able to really analyze the topic you choose is essential to making a coherent essay that addresses the big picture question of “why is this important?”
7. 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.”
This option is extremely open on purpose, and really gives you a chance to express any idea that hasn’t already been discussed in your other essays. It gives universities a chance to see how your analytical brain works, and how you build an argument or story. Although the topic that you choose to share can speak volumes about what you are passionate about and what you value, a lot of what this prompt does is show your ability to engage a reader with a topic they may not be familiar with and build a multilayer story/argument. Do you have a main thesis point/theme that you continuously reference/wrap back around to in your paragraphs? Do you give sufficient context for the reader to understand where you are coming from/situate themselves? Do you use engaging vocabulary? Do you know how to “hook” a reader and build suspense when needed, or layer alternate meanings? Writing can be an art form in and of itself, so being able to showcase how you use written word to express your ideas is a great way to show universities how prepared you are for academic essay writing in college.
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language and Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at: shcollegeconsulting.com.
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