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

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Updated on Jan 21, 2022 11:06 IST

Choosing the Best Common App Essay Prompt for You

The Common Application essay or personal statement, more commonly known as the Common App Essay, is the most important college admissions essay for anyone who wants to attend an undergraduate course at an American university. This one 650-word piece of writing can be sent to over 800 schools! For applicants, that translates to being both convenient and intimidating at the same time. When you are staring down seven different common app essay prompts, how do you know which one will lead to the most successful college essay? There is no need to panic because we are here to help you!

Let us begin by looking at a few 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 further clarity, learn how to write a Compelling Essay for UG through video.

The Common Application Essay prompts/questions give you a lot of flexibility, in fact almost too much choice. However, there is one simple trick to choosing the best common app essay prompt for you: Instead of picking a prompt first, start by brainstorming about your own values, goals, and experiences. Then, once you have come up with the perfect topic, you can choose a prompt to fit the topic. Once you have chosen the suitable prompt, now you have an even harder question: how to choose a topic? Read on for tips on finding a common app essay topic that is both compelling and unique - the essay only you can write!

The most important part of understanding how to write a common app essay is to understand its purpose. The goal of this essay/ personal statement (the goal of your entire application, actually!) is to prove that you will be successful in college and beyond. The key here is to identify what will make you successful - and different people have different routes to success! We have identified five traits that predict a successful college experience. You do not have to possess all of these traits. Most successful students will identify with at least two or three of these traits, and in your common app essay, 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 mind!

Check out the different types of essays here.

The 5 Traits of a Successful Student

  1. Drive: This is also known as grit! Driven students push themselves to succeed, whatever the odds. They have been through difficult situations and come out a better person. If you have got the drive, ask yourself: what is the most significant challenge you have faced, and what steps did you take to overcome it? How did the experience change you? What was your key learning? What is your greatest skill? What actions did you take to develop or grow this skill?
  1. Intellectual Curiosity: Students motivated by intellectual curiosity spend their free time learning for the fun of it, going above and beyond their coursework, to gain a deeper understanding of subjects that interest them. If you have got intellectual curiosity, ask yourself: what is a subject or topic you learn just for the fun of it? Describe a time you found yourself immersed in a topic. What did you learn? How did it change how you think about the world, yourself, or others?
  1. Initiative: These students are not willing to accept the status quo, but instead are willing to challenge it, do things to improve, and generate outcomes. They like to take the lead, or at last the first step! If you have got initiative, ask yourself: was there a time when you had to lead? What did you do and what was the impact of what you did? What was your learning? Describe a time you saw a problem that needed to be solved. What actions did you take to solve it?
  1. Contribution: Students with this quality (otherwise known as a social conscience) give back, making their communities, schools, and organizations better than they were before. They want to help and contribute to their community and environment! If you have this quality, ask yourself: can you think of a time when you made one or more person/s life better? How did it make you feel?  What is something you frequently do that others will miss in your community when you are in college?
  2. Diversity of Experiences: Students who have 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 will be able to add unique perspectives to the student body. If you have got a diversity of experience, ask yourself: what have you done or experienced in your life that is different from other applicants? How have these experiences affected who you are? What do you know more about than anyone else in the room?

Remember, you cannot just tell colleges that you have the drive or intellectual curiosity. You have to prove it by talking about specific experiences that you have gone through. As you read about the five traits, do any experiences come to mind? We recommend that you spend at least one hour, brainstorming the topics before you sit down to write. Spending that time now can 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 noticed that participation in my school’s student government election was low, so I set out to change it. Ties to: Intellectual curiosity, contribution

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

Example 3 - In my after-school job at Whataburger, I realized that new employees were not getting the right kind of training. 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:

Importance of Vocabulary in your Admission Essay

Importance of Grammar in your Admission essays

Common Mistakes in Common App Essays

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

  • Covering too much: In 650 words, you cannot fit in absolutely everything about your life. Instead, write a common app essay about 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 you. 

Learn about the importance of word limit in a college essay here.

  • Too much drama: Sometimes, students think they have to write about something very dramatic and very different from their everyday lives, like a mission trip or a traumatic event.  But many of the most compelling essays are about things that might seem small or trivial, like a hobby, a fandom, or a small moment/event in an applicant’s life that influenced him/her. If the event you are considering writing about, did not have a positive impact, on who you are now, it might not be the best topic for you.
  • Writing an academic resumeYou do not have to pack in every single one of your impressive accomplishments. The common app activities list is already available for that. Instead, be honest, and tell a story that shows you as a person who fails sometimes, but knows how to learn and grow.

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.

About the Author

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