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
- 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.
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
DON'T exaggerate or undersell
Many students feel the need to present some grandiose event or life altering experience in their writing. Conversely, some students fail to convey their strengths and personality because their essay is overly timid. You should avoid doing either of these. Do not fabricate feelings, events, or actions in your essay. Steer clear of trying to force a narrative into your writing that is not already evident. Doing either of these will make your essay feel superficial and disconnected. On the other hand, make sure to highlight something you think others appreciate about yourself. If your essay portrays you as bland or one-dimensional, admissions officers will feel like they can find similar applicants elsewhere. Remember to advocate for yourself in your writing.
DON'T submit an unstructured essay
The Common App essay is still a piece of formal writing, and therefore it requires organization, both thematically and structurally. If your essay is all over the place without paragraphing, confusing sentence structure and needlessly advanced vocabulary, admissions officers will not enjoy reading it. Even worse, if you essay jumps from idea to idea without transitions or leaves concepts unfinished, your admissions officer will be confused about the topic of your essay. Make sure you organize your writing and have others revise it for grammatical errors and conceptual discontinuities.
DON'T leave the prompt unanswered
Many students pick what they will be writing about and then choose their Common App prompt. While there is nothing inherently wrong with this approach, it does leave you susceptible to leaving the prompt unanswered. Avoid writing about things that are unrelated to the prompt because it detracts from the overall direction of your essay. Each sentence and idea in your writing should reinforce a central theme. If your essay is filled with random facts and miscellaneous events the reader will struggle to understand how your essay connects back to the prompt you chose.
Picking and responding to a Common App prompt requires a lot of self reflection and time, but it does not have to be difficult. So long as you choose a prompt that speaks to you and connects to your identity, you’re guaranteed to write an authentic and descriptive response. Furthermore, if your essay is well organized with a clear topic and has evident significance, it will leave a lasting impression on admissions officers and increase your chances of admissions. Make sure you start early with your personal statement, revise it multiple times and follow some of the advice in this blog post, and before you know it you will have a unique and impactful essay.