How to Write a Common App Essay Part 1: Examples & Common Mistakes

How to Write a Common App Essay Part 1: Examples & Common Mistakes

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Updated on Aug 7, 2023 15:09 IST

Choosing the Best Common App Essay Prompt for You

The Common Application essay or personal statement, popularly known as the Common App Essay, is the most important college admissions essay for undergraduate applicants, who wish to attend an American university. This 650-word piece of writing is accepted by over 800 universities in the USA! For students, that translates to being both convenient and intimidating at the same time. When you are looking at seven different common app essay prompts, how do you identify which one will lead to the most successful college essay? There is nothing to worry about because we are here to help you out!  

Sample Common Application Essay Prompts

Let us have a look at the Common App Essay prompts: 

  1. 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.  
  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.  

For more clarity, learn how to write a Compelling Essay for UG through video

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The Common Application Essay prompts or questions offer a lot of flexibility or too much of a choice. However, there is one simple idea behind choosing the best common app essay prompt for you: Instead of selecting the prompt first, begin by brainstorming about your own values, goals, and experiences. Once you have come up with the perfect topic that relates to you, it will be convenient to pick the befitting prompt. After selecting the suitable prompt, now comes the harder question: how to choose a topic? Read ahead for tips on finding a common app essay topic that is both compelling and unique - the essay only you can write! 

The most crucial aspect of writing a common app essay is to understand its purpose. The goal of this essay or personal statement (the goal of your entire application, actually!) is to prove that you will be successful in college and beyond. The idea here is to identify what will make you successful - and different people have different routes to success! We have listed five traits that predict a successful college experience. It is not necessary for you to possess all of these traits; most successful students will identify themselves with at least two or three of them. In your common app essay as well, you should focus on one or two of them. As you read about these traits, feel free to jot down answers to the questions, or anything else that comes to your mind! 

Check out the different types of essays here

The Five Traits of a Successful Student

  1. Drive: Also known as grit, students who possess a drive push themselves to succeed, whatever the odds are! When going through difficult situations, they emerge a better person than before. If you have got the drive, ask yourself: what is the most significant challenge you have faced, and what efforts you have made to overcome it? How did the experience transform you? What was your key learning? What is your greatest skill? What actions did you take to develop or nurture this skill? 
  2. Intellectual Curiosity: Students equipped with intellectual curiosity spend their free time learning for the fun of it. They go above and beyond their coursework to gain a deeper understanding of the subjects that interest them. If you have got intellectual curiosity, ask yourself: what is that subject or topic that you explore just for fun? Describe a time you found yourself immersed in a topic. What did you learn then? What did it change about your perception of the world, yourself, or others? 
  3. Initiative: Students who are not willing to accept the status quo tend to challenge it, do things to improve the situation, and generate outcomes. They like to take the lead, or at least the first step! If you have the ability to take the initiative, ask yourself: when was the time you took the lead? What did you do and what was your impact on the task? What was your learning then? Describe a time you saw a problem that needed a solution. What efforts have you made to solve it? 
  4. Contribution: Students with the intent to contribute (otherwise known as a social conscience) give back, making their communities, schools, and organizations better than before. They are willing to help and contribute to their community and environment! If you have similar qualities, ask yourself: when was the time that you made someone’s life better? How did it make you feel?  What is that you do frequently that will be missed in your community when you will leave for college? 
  5. Diversity of Experiences: Students with distinguishing life experiences and/or a background that sets them apart from the vast majority of college applicants, are considered to have a ‘diversity of experience'. Such students are believed to add unique perspectives to the student community at the institution. If you have got a diversity of experience, ask yourself: what have you done or experienced in your life that will make you stand out among other applicants? How have these experiences affected who you are as a person? What is it that you know more about than anyone else in the room? 

Remember, you simply cannot tell colleges that you have the drive or intellectual curiosity. You have to justify it by stating specific and personal experiences of your life. As you have already read about the five traits, do any experiences come to your mind? We recommend that you spend at least an hour, thinking about the topics, before you begin to write. The time spent brainstorming can help you save you a lot of rewriting later! If you need a little more help, we have provided a set of free brainstorming tools on our platform. 

Here are a few examples of common app essay topics that tie to the five traits: 

Example 1 - After becoming obsessed with election data analysis, I realized that participation in my school’s student government election was fairly low, therefore, I set out to change it. Ties to: Intellectual curiosity, contribution 

Example 2 - In my Irish dance class sessions, I am the only one that belongs to a mixed race. Although my presence raises eyebrows, I love the art form, and I am determined to succeed in it. Ties to: Diversity of experience, drive 

Example 3 – During my after-school job at Whataburger, I noticed that new employees were not getting the right kind of training. Having identified the loopholes, I came up with a plan to fix it, and successfully presented it to my boss. Ties to: Initiative 

You might also be interested in learning: 

Common Mistakes in Common App Essays 

At Shiksha, we review thousands of essays, every year, and we have noticed some mistakes that students often make. These are a few common app essay topic traps to avoid: 

  • Covering too much: As the word limit is only 650 words, you cannot fit in everything about your life. Therefore, write your common app essay on a single experience or topic that will reveal one of your strongest traits, using it as a lens to help the reader to get to know your personality.  
  • Too much drama: Often, students think that they need to write about something which is very dramatic and distinct from their everyday lives, like a mission trip or a traumatic event. In contrast, several compelling essays are about things that might seem small or trivial, like a hobby, a fandom, or a small moment or event in an applicant’s life that influenced him or her. If the event that you are considering describing in your essay did not have a positive impact on who you are now, it might not be the best topic for you. 
  • Writing an academic resumeIn your essay, you do not have to fit in every single one of your accomplishments, as it is not your resume. The common app activities list is already available for that purpose. Hence, be honest, and narrate a story that shows you as a person who fails sometimes, but knows how to learn and grow through difficult situations. 
  • Spinning yarns: Another put-off for any reader is when an applicant is beating around the bush and spinning yarns. Nobody is really interested in reading about the minutest details of the applicant's experiences which are irrelevant to the context. Thus, students must adhere and not write unnecessarily just to prove one's mettle. 

Learn about the importance of word limits in a college essay here

Also Read: 

How to Write a Common App Essay Part 2  How to Write the UCAS Personal Statement? 
How to Write College Supplemental Essays?  How to Write a Graduate School Statement of Purpose 

About the Author

Brad is a Co-founder and the CEO of Prompt – the #1 provider of admissions essay feedback in the world. Prompt's 150 writing coaches provide instructional, actionable feedback to help students improve their essays' content, structure, clarity, and grammar. He has advised hundreds of students who gained acceptance at highly-selective universities, and his team works with over 5,000 students per year on admissions essays. Brad is a former McKinsey Consultant and holds degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science from MIT.

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