Are you staring down the essay prompts for the common application and wondering where to begin? In this blog post we’ll go through useful common application essay tips to help your 2021-2022 college applications.
Typically, the common app essays are the same every year. They might change a little bit, however they tend to stay very similar. So if you’re reading this after 2022, don’t fret! Just make sure to double check the prompts for subtle differences. Check out this year’s essay prompts here.
Brooke’s favorite prompts are #1 and #5. This is because they don’t steer you into a cookie-cutter, cliche direction as much as the other prompts. Brooke also finds that almost anyone can write about them. While some people may have stories of adversity they would like to write about, prompt #1 can be a refreshing option for others.
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.“
One common application essay tip is to remember that colleges want to hear all about you, so you should use your essay to fill out the portrait of who you are. The first prompt helps elicit from students the answers that colleges want to know about them.
In specific terms, maybe if you’re an introvert who loves focusing on small details, you can talk about something you’ve studied and are passionate about that has shaped you. Or perhaps you are a creative soul who forces meaning from adversity, and you have a sibling with cerebral palsy who you connect with by sharing music. Show how the actions you take reveal something about you.
Prompt #5: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”
Brooke loves this essay prompt because it has a built in “WOW.” It’s an epiphany essay. Your new understanding can be an “Aha!” moment that helps you stand out. Be careful not to make your “Aha!” moment be something cliche or typical, such as learning that you’re a hard worker. What Brooke’s recommends for this essay is talking about a breakthrough that you’ve had emotionally or mentally. By nature, an epiphany moment is interesting because it’s a stand out moment in your life. Usually it’s some sort of universal truth that clicked for you.
Least Favorite Prompts
We want to stress, just because Brooke doesn’t like these prompts as much does not mean you can’t write an incredible essay with them. Stand-out writing is possible with every one of the prompts. However, there are some dangers.
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.”
Of the three categories in prompt #7, the second one is the least problematic. If you’re writing tons of essays during your college application process, one might stand out to you as the best essay you’ve written so far. If that’s the case for you, then prompt #7 is a great choice. But if you only picked prompt #7 because you couldn’t think of a good topic after going through the first six prompts, then that could turn out very poorly.
If you start writing without a prompt, that can lead to essays that aren’t interesting and don’t push you to reveal who you are. It behooves you to take the time to think through prompts #1-6 and prove that you have the insight to go in-depth into who you are.
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?”
If you have serious challenges in your life, then this prompt is probably fine to write about. However, another one of our common application essay tips is if you’ve faced a lot of hardships, you might consider picking prompt #1 instead. You might want to figure out which prompt helps to push you in a deeper, more interesting direction. If you’ve faced these serious obstacles, we do encourage you to write about them. You’ve earned the right to speak about your challenges, and you should consider talking about them in either prompt #1 or #2.
However, the majority of students Brooke sees writing prompt #2 are talking about obstacles and failures that are very typical for high-schoolers. If you choose a common setback, you run the risk of having your essay sound cliché. Be aware of writing about grades, sports, or moving schools. It is certainly possible to write about these things well, however we recommend you consider another prompt instead
Final Prompt Tips
Our final common application essay tips will be for the remaining prompts.
Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This prompt can be awesome if you choose an intellectual discussion to talk about. However, it can easily go in the wrong direction. For example, you need to be careful if you talk about politics. Remember you never know the politics of the person reading your essay.
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?
Brooke loves hearing about how a student is thankful, but remember you need to convey how this gratitude motivated you. Be careful not to talk about someone else for your entire essay. Make sure that this relationship with a person you’re grateful for is balanced with actions you take. You don’t want to be a passive observer in your own college essay.
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?
For students applying to big state schools, or schools ranked around #30 to #50, this essay can do very well. However, more ambitious students applying to top #10 schools, this topic is tougher. Essays for this prompt can easily fall into some shoebox genres that colleges see a lot of. Examples include writing about dance, physics, and music. Sometimes students may have an additional edge that might make this essay stand out more, but often the essays are very common. It is also common that this essay doesn’t end up teaching that much about you, but rather it simply conveys that you really enjoy a certain subject.
Finally, we want to stress that you don’t have to be a brilliant writer to get into college. The essay is only one portion of your application. There are thousands of colleges in the United States to choose from. Don’t freak out if you don’t know what to write about yet. Let yourself breathe, and know that you’re doing the right things.