The Common Application is nifty. It helps you streamline the
application process like an Olympic swimsuit. As far as the essay or
personal statement goes, this means writing one essay instead of many.
The Common Application offers six different essay prompts for you to
choose from as you write your personal statement. Fantastic news! Tons of choices don’t always make things easier though. (Ever tried to “find something good” on a 500 channel satellite server?) Here are some general tips to help you get started.
- Make a list of a half dozen things most important to you, that you could eloquently glean on paper, in a conversation, over coffee, etc. for a really long time. This list can include people, places, things, ideas, events, issues, and more.
- Next, think about what kind of information is found in the other sections of your application. Is there something new that you want to communicate about yourself? Is there a particularly meaningful activity or piece of information that you have listed that you would like to say more about?
- As you look over this preliminary list, see if any of the topics jump out at you and make your gut flutter a little more than usual.
- Next, look at the list of Common Application essay prompts. Which one fits the topic that you’ve chosen like a high priced shoe?
- As you begin writing, if you feel like the prompt you have chosen doesn’t quite work or fit your topic, punt and punt fast. You have five other choices.
For general advice on writing a killer college application essay, be sure to also check out these Shmoop articles:
Option #1: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
- Get your specific on. This prompt is asking for one specific experience, achievement, or risk.
- Anecdotes are key. For this essay prompt, you will be talking about a
specific moment in your life. Become a storyteller, and have fun
telling the story. Add some color and detail. You can even spice it up
with some dialogue to really set the scene.
- Make sure the experience you have chosen really is significant.
- Don’t feel like you have to be totally positive. You can describe a
moment when you failed at something or did something wrong. Just be
sure to spend a good deal of time pointing out what you learned from the
experience and how you grew from it as a result.
Pick me! Pick me!
This essay prompt is a great option if you've had a truly significant experience, achievement, or risk. The way we see it, there are two kinds of significant. Below, we outline them both and give a few examples:
You've done something that is obviously a big deal in the scope of your community, state, country, or the world. Such as:
- Advocated for and constructed a park, community center, or community space in your neighborhood or hometown.
- Led or helped significantly on a project of local, state, national, or international concern.
- Been recognized at the local, state, national, or international
level for dance, acting, music, painting, sculpture, photography,
- Been recognized at the state, national, or international level for athletics, writing, speaking, debate, etc.
You've done something that's a big deal in the context of your life,
because it shows a great deal of personal growth. You've come a long
way, baby. Writing on this prompt is a good way to put your maturity and
personal growth on display. Some great essays can come out of this sort
of personal reflection. Here are a few examples of things that you
might write on:
- You decided to transfer to a different school in search of better opportunities.
- You stood up in a difficult situation for something you believed was
right even though you were under pressure to keep quiet. Standing up
to your peers can be a really tough thing to do, and can mean risking
your reputation and friendships. Similarly, standing up to an authority
figure, like a boss or a teacher, can be very significant.
- You chose to tell the truth, even if it meant making life difficult for yourself or others.
- You made a big mistake (lied, cheated, stole, violated the law,
etc.) in the past and have learned something from it. In this case,
make sure you've had some time or distance from the experience to show
your growth. For example, if you did something not-so-great in 8th or
9th grade and have grown a lot since then, you could talk about that.
Option #2: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
- When answering this prompt, it’s easy to sound like a news
report or debate summary. Try to stay away from this kind of tone.
Remember that, although you're writing on an issue, the essay is all about you. Briefly summarize the issue, but spend the majority of the time discussing its importance and connection to you.
- Make sure it really is important to you. Passion is good. If you're not so excited about what you are writing about, your readers won’t be so excited either.
- Beware of lecturing your audience.
Pick me! Pick me!
This essay is a great option if there is an issue that truly lights
your fire – especially if it's an issue that impacts you personally, and
you're actively doing something in your life to better the situation.
Oftentimes getting local is way more interesting than discussing issues of state, national, or global interest. Why?
- Because you know your local area better than most people in the world.
- Because the issue is more likely to be impacting your everyday life.
- Because it's more likely that you're doing something to improve local issues than that you're fixing issues of national concern.
Here are a few examples of when you might want to focus on this essay:
- You are politically or civically engaged; you visit city council
meetings; you know the politicians who represent you and your
- You're involved in community service or have started a student
organization that aims to address a specific issue in your immediate
- Being on a debate team, a newspaper staff, Model United Nations,
Boys State, Girls State, etc. is a big and meaningful activity for you.
You spend most of your time being involved in these activities and one
issue really sticks out to you.
- Some big issues may be local or personal for you, such as state and
national immigration policies, the gay marriage debate, the housing
foreclosure epidemic, or America's wars.
Option #3: Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
- Broken record alert! Even though you're supposed to pick an
important person in your life, remember that this essay ultimately needs
to be about you (and not President Obama or your mom). Instead of
telling this person's inspiring life story, zoom in on his or her influence on you.
For example, your grandparent may have endured great hardship or may
have had some incredible challenges, but what has he or she taught you?
- Usually, it's best to write about someone you know who has had a true personal impact on your life.
- You could pick someone that you admire and want to be like.
- You could also pick someone you admire, but (for whatever reason),
do not want to be like. Maybe this person has influenced you because you
don't want to repeat his or her mistakes.
- Remember, relationships are complicated. Facebook has taught us
this. You don't need to be black-and-white and either admire a person
completely or want to be the polar opposite of him or her. If your
feelings are mixed, admitting that is OK.
- Anecdotes are like solid gold. For this essay prompt, you're talking
about a specific person in your life. Tell an illustrative story about
how he and she impacted you. Add some color and detail. You can even
spice it up with some dialogue to draw us into your world. Create a
written snapshot of a particularly interesting moment or encounter
between you and this person.
- If you have very strong negative feelings toward someone,
you should probably not write about that person. If you feel hurt by or
disappointed in someone, it can be easy to drift into an angry rant
(don’t worry: we’ve all been there). But since this is an admission
officer's one chance to hear your voice, you don't want him or her to
think of you solely as an angry, ranting person.
Pick me! Pick me!
To do it well, this essay requires a lot of personal reflection and
awareness about how someone has truly impacted you. This is essay prompt
offers a great opportunity for you to tell an admission officer what
kind of person you want to be and the sorts of things you want to
achieve – either because you're identifying a role model or a person
whose mistakes you have learned from. You could talk about anyone – a
grandparent, a sibling, a boss, a teacher, a parent, a peer, someone you
tutor, your religious leader, a member of an opposing team or school,
or even stranger you met on the bus.
Option 3 is also a good pick if you have some special context about
your home or social life that you might want to share with an admission
officer. It's easy to weave details about your home or personal life
into a story about a significant person in your life.
Option #4: Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure,
or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an
influence on you, and explain that influence.
- Red alert! This essay prompt may lure you into writing a book
report or essay. Don’t be tempted! Celebrate, because this is not an
- Notice the question is asking you to talk about the influence and not the character, figure, or creative work. Don't fall into the trap of summarizing The Lord of the Rings, writing a biography of Rosa Parks, or gushing about Monet's water lilies – that doesn't say much about you.
- Relax! You don't need to pick a character, historical figure, or
creative work that is super well known and a part of the typical high
school curriculum. If Jay Gatsby, FDR, or the Mona Lisa don't
inspire you, don't write about them. You could write about a song, a
video game character, an indie film you really connected with ... the
sky’s the limit! Don't try to guess what an admission officer wants to
- Remember, you could write about a character, figure, or work that inspired and moved you, or you could write about one that impacted you negatively.
- Be sure to address how this character, figure, or work caused a change in you. Help the reader see that change.
Pick me! Pick me!
If you want to showcase your intellectual or artistic interests, this
could be the prompt for you. "Creative work" is a pretty vague term,
which gives you lots of flexibility and breathing room. You could write
about something that's intellectually exciting to you (a person from a
specific historical time period or a scientific work, for example). Like
Option #3, you could also use this prompt to write about what kind of
person you want to be, who you admire, and/or what your values are. This
prompt could be a good option for you if:
- You have a “hero” of some kind – perhaps a politician, activist,
athlete, artist, philosopher, or leader – whose work you've studied and
know like the back of your hand.
- You're intellectually fired up about a specific scientific work (just make sure it fits the definition of "creative work").
- You personally identify with a fictional character and his/her journey.
- You've performed a piece of music or acted in a play that really impacted you.
- You feel you have to overcome a stereotype or negative image that's been put forth in a creative work.
Option #5: A range of academic interests, personal perspectives,
and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your
personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you
would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter
that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
- Notice the question is asking you to describe an experience.
- Instead of discussing what cultures, perspectives, ideas, etc. you hope to one day explore, focus on the here and the now and on what you’ve already experienced.
- Notice how this prompt is also asking you to comment on why diversity is important to you.
- Broken record alert! Anecdotes are key. For this essay prompt,
you're talking about a specific moment in your life. Be sure to tell the
story. Add some color and detail. You can even spice it up with some
dialogue to really set the scene.
- Diversity can mean a whole range of things: culture, religious
beliefs, race and ethnicity, political opinions, sexual orientation,
geography (where you live), socioeconomic background, talents and
skills, educational interests, educational background, family situation,
etc. All of these kinds of diversity are important on a college campus.
Pick me! Pick me!
This is a great opportunity to talk about your community, your
family, and the context in which you live and have grown up. If you've
grown up in a very diverse community or even have a multicultural family
background, this is a chance for you to talk about it and how it's
impacted you. If you feel like your community, school, or family
doesn't accept you or your personal beliefs, background, or life
experiences, you could discuss a challenge you've faced, how you’ve
grown as a result.
If you haven’t yet considered what diversity means to you, or why you
might value it, it's probably best to pick another essay topic. Many
well-meaning students can expose their lack of experience with the
concept of diversity by writing about very general experiences, or
making PC statements about diversity being essential for understanding
people the world.
Option #6: Topic of your choice.
- Actually create a topic for yourself! Don’t just write without purpose or prompt (a.k.a. free-write).
- Know what you want to say, communicate, and show.
- Avoid turning the personal statement into a piece of creative writing. Stay away from writing poetry or anything fictional.
Pick me! Pick me!
This prompt is a total life jacket if you are applying to other
colleges that don’t accept the Common Application and that have unique
essay questions. It means that you can reuse another essay you've
already written. Woohoo!
You would also select this option if you really have something to say
that doesn’t fit the other five prompts. This is rare, but it can