Choosing a 2021-22 Common App Essay Prompt

The Common App’s essay prompts play a vital role in your application profile to elite colleges and universities. The personal statement provides a space for students to showcase who they are beyond their academics and test scores. Students who are able to convey something unique about themselves or shed light on an interesting aspect of their identity through their writing gain a coveted advantage in admissions. The Common App prompts for 2021-22 remain the same as the last admissions cycle, with one exception: the option about solving a problem has been removed. In its place, the Common App has added the following question: “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?”. The Common App hopes that this question on gratitude and kindness will inspire students to think of something positive and heartfelt in their lives during these difficult times. When tasked with writing their personal statement, students tend to have two questions: “Which Common App prompt should I choose?” and “How do I respond to the Common App prompt?”. These questions are undeniably important but the answers to them depend on who you are and your personal and academic journey. However, there are some general tips you can follow on how to choose your personal statement prompt. Similarly, there are definitely some do’s and don’ts when responding to the prompt you have chosen. In this blog, we will take a look at how to choose and respond to the Common App prompt.

2021-22 Common App Prompts

  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.
  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.

Choosing your Common App prompt

The most important thing to note about the Common App prompts is that they aim to get a sense of who you are. Colleges and universities want to get a better idea of your identity, what motivates you, and how you will fit into their community. They look at your personal statement for information, and if it is lacking, they will often struggle to find reasons to admit you. That is why we recommend that before you begin writing your personal statement, you should brainstorm the narrative you want to present to colleges. Create a mind map of your interests, pastimes, and passions. Write down a couple of impactful memories or events in your life and how they shaped who you are. Break down your identity into your background, way of thinking, actions and aspirations. Once this is done, look for commonalities and intersections between your identity, past experiences and current actions. Are you passionate about something because of a certain upbringing? Do you act a certain way because of a specific desire? Thinking critically about who you are will ensure you present an authentic and personalized narrative to colleges and help you stand out from generic applicants. With this information, picking a Common App prompt is a matter of identifying which prompt you want to write about the most. Many students will try to find the easiest prompt or force their writing to fit a prompt. Unfortunately, this usually makes for confusing or uninteresting reading. The truth is that when you write about something that genuinely speaks to you, your writing will be more personable and authentic. As we mentioned before, all the prompts aim to accomplish the same thing, so simply pick the one that fascinates you the most or applies to the idea you want to write about the best.

Responding to Common App prompt

Similar to choosing your prompt, there is no formula or template for responding to your essay prompt. However, there are some guidelines you should follow to ensure your essay is well written and impresses college admissions committees. Here are three do’s and three don’ts for writing your Common App essay:

DO give your essay significance

The biggest mistakes students make when responding to their Common App essay is that they neglect to give their essay any significance. They will write about an impactful event or amazing accomplishment and simply assume the reader will know its importance. You must be explicit about why what you’re writing about is meaningful. Take the time to elaborate on how your topic connects back to you and has some significance in your life. Your essay must not only describe an event or idea, it must also give that event or idea some greater meaning. Purely explanatory writing is boring, but essays with story arcs and stakes make for memorable reading.

DO contextualize your essay

All admissions officers know about you is which classes you took and what your grades were. It is your job to provide more details about yourself. Since you will be telling them about yourself, it is important to make sure your story has some context. Students often fall into the trap of diving straight into the details of an event or moment. This tendency can leave the reader lost and your entire essay feeling disjointed. Make sure to use the first couple of sentences in your essay to set the scene. Explain important details and be descriptive about relevant feelings and thoughts. Contextualizing your essay will help give it a greater sense of purpose.

DO focus your essay on yourself

College admissions officers sometimes receive essays about an applicant’s grandmother or dog or brother and end up denying the student. This is because they are looking to learn more about you, not someone else in your life. Do not spend the entirety of your essay discussing someone or something that does not explicitly connect back to you. Instead, focus your essay on yourself and emphasize your strengths without appearing arrogant. You are applying to the school because you want to be there and think it will be a good fit, so make sure to explain why you think that is.