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Common App Essays | 7 Strong Examples with Commentary

Published on November 19, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on May 31, 2023.

If you’re applying for college via the Common App , you’ll have to write an essay in response to one of seven prompts.

Table of contents

What is the common application essay, prompt 1: background, identity, interest, or talent, prompt 2: overcoming challenges, prompt 3: questioning a belief or idea, prompt 4: appreciating an influential person, prompt 5: transformative event, prompt 6: interest or hobby that inspires learning, prompt 7: free topic, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

The Common Application, or Common App , is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.

Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs. Instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Regardless of your prompt choice, admissions officers will look for an ability to clearly and creatively communicate your ideas based on the selected prompt.

We’ve provided seven essay examples, one for each of the Common App prompts. After each essay, we’ve provided a table with commentary on the essay’s narrative, writing style and tone, demonstrated traits, and self-reflection.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

This essay explores the student’s emotional journey toward overcoming her father’s neglect through gymnastics discipline.

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.

When “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” began to play, it was my signal to lay out a winning floor routine. Round off. Back handspring. Double back layout. Stick!

Instead, I jolted off the floor, landing out of bounds. Over the past week, I hadn’t landed that pass once, and regionals were only seven days away. I heaved a heavy sigh and stomped over to the bench.

Coach Farkas saw my consternation. “Mona, get out of your head. You’re way too preoccupied with your tumbling passes. You could do them in your sleep!”

That was the problem. I was dreaming of tumbling and missing my landings, waking up in a cold sweat. The stress felt overwhelming.

“Stretch out. You’re done for tonight.”

I walked home from the gym that had been my second home since fourth grade. Yet my anxiety was increasing every time I practiced.

I startled my mom. “You’re home early! Wait! You walked? Mona, what’s going on?!”

I slumped down at the kitchen table. “Don’t know.”

She sat down across from me. “Does it have anything to do with your father texting you a couple of weeks ago about coming to see you at regionals?”

“So what?! Why does it matter anymore?” He walked out when I was 10 and never looked back. Still, dear ol’ Dad always had a way of resurfacing when I least expected him.

“It still matters because when you hear from him, you tend to crumble. Or have you not noticed?” She offered a knowing wink and a compassionate smile.

I started gymnastics right after Dad left. The coaches said I was a natural: short, muscular, and flexible. All I knew was that the more I improved, the more confident I felt. Gymnastics made me feel powerful, so I gave it my full energy and dedication.

The floor routine became my specialty, and my performances were soon elevating our team score. The mat, solid and stable, became a place to explore and express my internal struggles. Over the years, no matter how angry I felt, the floor mat was there to absorb my frustration.

The bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving because I knew I could fall. My performances in those events were respectable. But, the floor? Sometimes, I had wildly creative and beautiful routines, while other times were disastrous. Sadly, my floor routine had never been consistent.

That Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the empty gym and walked over to the mat. I sat down and touched its carpeted surface. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet with the bitter disappointment of a dad who only showed up when it was convenient for him. I ruminated on the years of practices and meets where I had channeled my resentment into acrobatics and dance moves, resolved to rise higher than his indifference.

I saw then that my deepest wounds were inextricably entangled with my greatest passion. They needed to be permanently separated. While my anger had first served to launch me into gymnastics, before long, I had started serving my anger.

Anger is a cruel master. It corrupts everything it touches, even something as beautiful as a well-choreographed floor routine.

I changed my music days before regionals. “The Devil” no longer had a place in my routine. Instead, I chose an energetic cyberpunk soundtrack that inspired me to perform with passion and laser focus. Dad made an obligatory appearance at regionals, but he left before I could talk to him.

It didn’t matter this time. I stuck every landing in my routine. Anger no longer controlled me. I was finally free.

Word count: 601

This essay shows how the challenges the student faced in caring for her sister with autism resulted in an unexpected path forward in her education.

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?

I never had a choice.

My baby sister was born severely autistic, which meant that every detail of our home life was repeatedly adjusted to manage her condition. I couldn’t go to bed without fearing that Mindy would wake up screaming with that hoarse little voice of hers. I couldn’t have friends over on weekends because we never knew if our entire family would need to shift into crisis mode to help Mindy regain control.

We couldn’t take a family vacation because Mindy would start hitting us during a long car ride when she didn’t want to sit there anymore. We couldn’t even celebrate Christmas like a normal family because Mindy would shriek and run away when we tried to give her presents.

I was five years old when Mindy was born. For the first ten years, I did everything I could to help my mom with Mindy. But Mom was depressed and would often stare out the window, as if transfixed by the view. Dad was no help either. He used his job as an excuse to be away from home. So, I tried to make up for both of them and rescue Mindy however I could whenever she needed it.

However, one day, when I was slowly driving Mindy around with the windows down, trying to lull her into a calmer state, we passed two of my former classmates from middle school. They heard Mindy growling her disapproval as the ride was getting long for her. One of them turned to the other and announced, “Oh my God! Marabeth brought her pet monster out for a drive!” They laughed hysterically and ran down the street.

After that day, I defied my parents at every turn. I also ignored Mindy. I even stopped doing homework. I purposely “got in with the wrong crowd” and did whatever they did.

My high school counselor Ms. Martinez saw through it all. She knew my family’s situation well. It didn’t take her long to guess what had probably happened.

“Marabeth, I get it. My brother has Down syndrome. It was really hard growing up with him as a brother. The other kids were pretty mean about it, especially in high school.”

I doubted she understood. “Yeah. So?”

“I’m guessing something happened that hurt or embarrassed you.”

“I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how you must have felt.”

It must have been the way she said it because I suddenly found myself sobbing into my trembling, cupped hands.

Ms. Martinez and I met every Friday after that for the rest of the year. Her stories of how she struggled to embrace living with and loving her brother created a bridge to my pain and then my healing. She explained that her challenges led her to pursue a degree in counseling so that she could offer other people what no one had given her.

I thought that Mindy was the end of my life, but, because of Ms. Martinez’s example and kindness, I can now see that Mindy is a gift, pointing me toward my future.

Now, I’m applying to study psychology so that I can go on to earn my master’s degree in counseling. I’m learning to forgive my parents for their mistakes, and I’m back in Mindy’s life again, but this time as a sister, not a savior. My choice.

Word Count: 553

This essay illustrates a student’s courage in challenging his culture’s constructs of manhood and changing his course while positively affecting his father in the process.

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

“No son of mine is gonna march around a football field wearing tail feathers while all the real men are playing football!”

I took a step backward and tried not to appear as off-balance as I felt. In my excitement, I had blurted out more information than my father could handle:

“Dad! I made the marching band as a freshman! Nobody does that—I mean nobody!”

As soon as I had said it, I wished I could recall those words. How could I forget that 26 years earlier, he had been the starting wide receiver for the state-champion Tigers on the same field?!

Still, when I opened the email on that scorching hot August afternoon, I was thrilled that five months of practicing every possible major and harmonic minor scale—two octaves up and two octaves down—had made the difference. I had busted reed after reed, trying not to puff my cheeks while moving my fingers in a precise cadence.

I knew he had heard me continually practicing in my room, yet he seemed to ignore all the parts of me that were incongruous with his vision of manhood:

Ford F-150 4x4s. Pheasant hunting. The Nebraska Cornhuskers.

I never had to wonder what he valued. For years, I genuinely shared his interests. But, in the fall of eighth grade, I heard Kyle Wheeling play a saxophone solo during the homecoming marching band halftime show. My dad took me to every football game to teach me the plays, but that night, all I could think about was Kyle’s bluesy improv at halftime.

During Thanksgiving break, I got my mom to drive me into Omaha to rent my instrument at Dietze Music, and, soon after, I started private lessons with Mr. Ken. Before long, I was spending hours in my room, exploring each nuance of my shiny Yamaha alto sax, anticipating my audition for the Marching Tigers at the end of the spring semester.

During those months of practice, I realized that I couldn’t hide my newfound interest forever, especially not from the football players who were going to endlessly taunt me. But not all the guys played football. Some were in choir and theater. Quite a few guys were in the marching band. In fact, the Marching Tigers had won the grand prize in their division at last year’s state showdown in Lincoln.

I was excited! They were the champions, and I was about to become a part of their legacy.

Yet, that afternoon, a sense of anxiety brewed in my belly. I knew I had to talk to him.

He was sweeping the grass clippings off of the sidewalk. He nodded.

“I need to tell you something.”

He looked up.

“I know that you know about my sax because you hear me practicing. I like it a lot, and I’m becoming pretty good at it. I still care about what you like, but I’m starting to like some other things more. I hope you’ll be proud of me whatever I choose.”

He studied the cracks in the driveway. “I am proud of you. I just figured you’d play football.”

We never talked about it again, but that fall, he was in the stands when our marching band won the state championship in Lincoln for the second time. In fact, for the next four years, he never left the stands during halftime until the marching band had performed. He was even in the audience for every performance of “Our Town” at the end of my junior year. I played the Stage Manager who reveals the show’s theme: everything changes gradually.

I know it’s true. Things do change over time, even out here in central Nebraska. I know because I’ve changed, and my dad has changed, too. I just needed the courage to go first.

Word count: 626

The student demonstrates how his teacher giving him an unexpected bad grade was the catalyst for his becoming a better writer.

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?

I stared in disbelief at the big red letter at the top of my paper: D. 

Never in my entire high school career had I seen that letter at the top of any paper, unless it was at the beginning of my first name. 

I had a 4.796 GPA. I had taken every pre-AP and AP course offered. My teachers had praised my writing skills! However, Mr. Trimble didn’t think so, and he let me know it:

“Darwin, in the future, I believe you can do better if you fully apply yourself.” 

I furiously scanned the paper for corrections. Not even one! Grammar and syntax? Perfect. Spelling? Impeccable. Sentence and paragraph structure? Precise and indisputable, as always. 

Was he trying to ruin my GPA? Cooper was clearly his favorite, and we were neck and neck for valedictorian, which was only one year away. Maybe they were conspiring to take me down. 

Thankfully, AP Composition was my last class. I fled the room and ran to my car. Defiant tears stained my cheeks as I screeched my tires and roared out of the parking lot. When I got home, I shoved in my AirPods, flopped on my bed, and buried my head under the pillow. 

I awoke to my sister, Daria, gently shaking my arm. “I know what happened, D. Trimble stopped me in the hall after school.”

“I’m sure he did. He’s trying to ruin my life.”

“That’s not what he told me. You should talk to him, D.”

The next day, although I tried to avoid Mr. Trimble at all costs, I almost tripped over him as I was coming out of the bathroom.

“Darwin, can we talk?” 

He walked me down the hall to his room. “Do you know that you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever had in AP Comp?” 

“Then why’d you do it?” 

“Because you’re better than you know, Darwin. You impress with your perfect presentations, and your teachers reward you with A’s and praise. I do frequent the teacher’s lounge, you know.” 

“So I know you’re not trying.”

I locked eyes with him and glared. 

“You’ve never had to try because you have a gift. And, in the midst of the acclaim, you’ve never pushed yourself to discover your true capabilities.”

“So you give me a D?!”

“It got your attention.”

“You’re not going to leave it, are you?”

“Oh, the D stands. You didn’t apply yourself. You’ll have to earn your way out with your other papers.” 

I gained a new understanding of the meaning of ambivalence. Part of me was furious at the injustice of the situation, but I also felt strangely challenged and intrigued. I joined a local writer’s co-op and studied K. M. Weiland’s artistic writing techniques. 

Multiple drafts, track changes, and constructive criticism became my new world. I stopped taking Mr. Trimble’s criticism personally and began to see it as a precious tool to bolster me, not break me down. 

Last week, the New York Public Library notified me that I was named one of five finalists for the Young Lions Fiction Award. They described my collection of short stories as “fresh, imaginative, and captivating.” 

I never thought I could be grateful for a D, but Mr. Trimble’s insightful courage was the catalyst that transformed my writing and my character. Just because other people applaud you for being the best doesn’t mean you’re doing your best . 

AP Composition is now recorded as an A on my high school transcript, and Cooper and I are still locked in a tight race for the finish line. But, thanks to Mr. Trimble, I have developed a different paradigm for evaluation: my best. And the more I apply myself, the better my best becomes. 

Word Count: 627

This student narrates how she initially went to church for a boy but instead ended up confronting her selfishness by helping others.

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Originally, I went to church not because I was searching for Jesus but because I liked a boy.

Isaac Ono wasn’t the most athletic boy in our class, nor was he the cutest. But I was amazed by his unusual kindness toward everyone. If someone was alone or left out, he’d walk up to them and say hello or invite them to hang out with him and his friends.

I started waking up at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday morning to attend Grace Hills Presbyterian, where Isaac’s father was the pastor. I would strategically sit in a pew not too close but close enough to Isaac that when the entire congregation was instructed to say “Peace be with you,” I could “happen” to shake Isaac’s hand and make small talk.

One service, as I was staring at the back of Isaac’s head, pondering what to say to him, my hearing suddenly tuned in to his father’s sermon.

“There’s no such thing as a good or bad person.”

My eyes snapped onto Pastor Marcus.

“I used to think I was a good person who came from a respectable family and did nice things. But people aren’t inherently good or bad. They just make good or bad choices.”

My mind raced through a mental checklist of whether my past actions fell mostly into the former or latter category.

“As it says in Deuteronomy 30:15, ‘I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.’ Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and do good.”

I glanced to my left and saw Margaret, underlining passages in her study Bible and taking copious notes.

Months earlier, I had befriended Margaret. We had fourth-period Spanish together but hadn’t interacted much. She was friends with Isaac, so I started hanging out with her to get closer to him. But eventually, the two of us were spending hours in the Starbucks parking lot having intense discussions about religion, boys, and our futures until we had to return home before curfew.

After hearing the pastor’s sermon, I realized that what I had admired about Isaac was also present in Margaret and other people at church: a welcoming spirit. I’m pretty sure Margaret knew of my ulterior motives for befriending her, but she never called me out on it.

After that day, I started paying more attention to Pastor Marcus’s sermons and less attention to Isaac. One year, our youth group served Christmas Eve dinner to the homeless and ate with them. I sat across from a woman named Lila who told me how child services had taken away her four-year-old daughter because of her financial and living situation.

A few days later, as I sat curled up reading the book of James, my heart suddenly felt heavy.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

I thought back to Pastor Marcus’s sermon on good and bad actions, Lila and her daughter, and the times I had passed people in need without even saying hello.

I decided to put my faith into action. The next week, I started volunteering at the front desk of a women’s shelter, helping women fill out forms or watching their kids while they talked with social workers.

From working for the past year at the women’s shelter, I now know I want to major in social work, caring for others instead of focusing on myself. I may not be a good person (or a bad one), but I can make good choices, helping others with every opportunity God gives me.

Word count: 622

This essay shows how a student’s natural affinity for solving a Rubik’s cube developed her self-understanding, academic achievement, and inspiration for her future career.

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?

The worst part about writing is putting down my Rubik’s cube so that I can use my hands to type. That’s usually the worst part of tackling my to-do list: setting aside my Rubik’s cube. My parents call it an obsession. But, for me, solving a Rubik’s cube challenges my brain as nothing else can.

It started on my ninth birthday. I invited three friends for a sleepover party, and I waited to open my presents right before bed. Wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows flew through the air as I oohed and aahed over each delightful gift! However, it was the last gift—a 3 x 3 x 3 cube of little squares covered in red, green, blue, yellow, white, and orange—that intrigued me.

I was horrified when Bekka ripped it out of my hands and messed it all up! I had no idea how to make all the sides match again. I waited until my friends were fast asleep. Then, I grabbed that cube and studied it under my blanket with a flashlight, determined to figure out how to restore it to its former pristine state.

Within a few weeks, I had discovered the secret. To practice, I’d take my cube with me to recess and let the other kids time me while I solved it in front of them. The better I became, the more they gathered around. But I soon realized that their attention didn’t matter all that much. I loved solving cubes for hours wherever I was: at lunch, riding in the car, or alone in my room.

Cross. White corners. Middle-layer edges. Yellow cross. Sune and anitsune. 

The sequential algorithms became second nature, and with the assistance of a little black digital timer, I strove to solve the cube faster , each time attempting to beat my previous record. I watched speed solvers on YouTube, like Australia’s Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park from Massachusetts, but I wasn’t motivated to compete as they did. I watched their videos to learn how to improve my time. I liked finding new, more efficient ways of mastering the essential 78 separate cube-solving algorithms.

Now, I understand why my passion for my Rubik’s cube has never waned. Learning and applying the various algorithms soothes my brain and centers my emotions, especially when I feel overwhelmed from being around other people. Don’t get me wrong: I like other people—just in doses.

While some people get recharged by spending time with others, I can finally breathe when I’m alone with my cube. Our psychology teacher says the difference between an extrovert and an introvert is the situations that trigger their brains to produce dopamine. For me, it’s time away, alone, flipping through cube patterns to set a new personal best.

Sometimes, the world doesn’t cooperate with introverts, requiring them to interact with many people throughout the day. That’s why you’ll often find me in the stairwell or a library corner attempting to master another one of the 42 quintillion ways to solve a cube. My parents tease me that when I’ve “had enough” of anything, my fingers get a Rubik’s itch, and I suddenly disappear. I’m usually occupied for a while, but when I finally emerge, I feel centered, prepared to tackle my next task.

Secretly, I credit my cube with helping me earn top marks in AP Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics. It’s also responsible for my interest in computer engineering. It seems I just can’t get enough of those algorithms, which is why I want to study the design and implementation of cybersecurity software—all thanks to my Rubik’s cube.

Just don’t tell my parents! It would ruin all the fun!

Word count: 607

In this free topic essay, the student uses a montage structure inspired by the TV show Iron Chef America to demonstrate his best leadership moments.

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.

Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition

The time has come to answer college’s most difficult question: Whose story shows glory?

This is … Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition!

Welcome to Kitchen Stadium! Today we have Chef Brett Lowell. Chef Brett will be put to the test to prove he has what it takes to attend university next fall.

And the secret ingredient is … leadership! He must include leadership in each of his dishes, which will later be evaluated by a panel of admissions judges.

So now, America, with a creative mind and empty paper, I say unto you in the words of my teacher: “Let’s write!”

Appetizer: My first leadership experience

A mountain of mismatched socks, wrinkled jeans, and my dad’s unironed dress shirts sat in front of me. Laundry was just one of many chores that welcomed me home once I returned from my after-school job at Baskin Robbins, a gig I had taken last year to help Dad pay the rent. A few years earlier, I wasn’t prepared to cook dinners, pay utility bills, or pick up and drop off my brothers. I thought those jobs were reserved for parents. However, when my father was working double shifts at the power plant and my mom was living in Tucson with her new husband, Bill, I stepped up and took care of the house and my two younger brothers.

Main course: My best leadership experience

Between waiting for the pasta water to boil and for the next laundry cycle to be finished, I squeezed in solving a few practice precalculus problems to prepare for the following week’s mathletics competition. I liked how the equations always had clear, clean answers, which calmed me among the mounting responsibilities of home life. After leading my team to the Minnesota State Finals for two years in a row, I was voted team captain. Although my home responsibilities often competed with my mathlete duties, I tried to be as productive as possible in my free time. On the bus ride home, I would often tackle 10 to 20 functions or budget the following week’s meals and corresponding grocery list. My junior year was rough, but both my home and my mathlete team needed me.

Dessert: My future leadership hopes 

The first thing I ever baked was a chocolate cake in middle school. This was around the time that Mom had just moved out and I was struggling with algebra. Troubles aside, one day my younger brother Simon needed a contribution for his school’s annual bake sale, and the PTA moms wouldn’t accept anything store-bought. So I carefully measured out the teaspoons and cups of various flours, powders, and oils, which resulted in a drooping, too-salty disaster.

Four years later, after a bakery’s worth of confections and many hours of study, I’ve perfected my German chocolate cake and am on my way to mastering Calculus AB. I’ve also thrown out the bitter-tasting parts of my past such as my resentment and anger toward my mom. I still miss having her at home, but whenever I have a baking question or want to update her on my mathlete team’s success, I call her or chat with her over text.

Whether in school or life, I see problems as opportunities, not obstacles, to find a better way to solve them more efficiently. I hope to continue improving my problem-solving skills next fall by majoring in mathematics and statistics.

Time’s up! 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tasting of Chef Lowell’s leadership experiences. Next fall, tune in to see him craft new leadership adventures in college. He’s open to refining his technique and discovering new recipes.

Word count: 612

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.

Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.

No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

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College Essays

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If you're applying to more than one or two colleges, there's a good chance you'll have to use the Common Application, and that means you'll probably have to write a Common App essay .

In this guide, I'll cover everything you need to know about the essay. I'll break down every single Common App essay prompt by going over the following:

  • What is the question asking?
  • What do college admissions officers want to hear from you?
  • What topics can you write about effectively?
  • What should you avoid at all costs?

This will be your complete starting guide for Common App essays. After reading this, you should have a lot of ideas for your own essays and directions to write a really strong personal statement .

What Is the Common App Essay? Overview

Before we dig into the nitty-gritty of the individual prompts, let's quickly go over the logistics of the Common App essay and some general tips to keep in mind.

Most—but Not All—Schools Require the Essay

Keep in mind that the Common App essay is optional for some schools.

Here are a few examples of schools that do not require the Common App essay (note that some may require a school-specific writing supplement instead):

  • Arizona State University
  • Clemson University
  • DePaul University
  • Eastern Michigan University
  • Georgia State University
  • Old Dominion University
  • Pratt Institute
  • University of Idaho

If you're applying to more than one or two schools through the Common App, you'll almost certainly need to write a response to the Common App prompts. As such, we recommend sending your essay to schools even if they don't explicitly require it. You're writing it anyways, and it's the best way for the school to get to know you as a person.

It's also worth noting that because of the way this system is set up, you could theoretically send a different essay to each school. However, doing so isn't a good use of your time : if schools want to know something more specific about you, they'll require a supplement. Focus on writing a single great personal statement.

Pay Attention to the Word Limit

The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words . You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650.

Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of your essay. Don't do this. No matter how tempting it might be, stick to the word limit . Otherwise, you risk seeming self-indulgent.

In general, we advise shooting for an essay between 500 and 650 words long . You want to have enough space to really explore one specific idea, but you don't need to include everything. Editing is an important part of the essay-writing process, after all!

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Don't Stress Too Much About the Question

As you'll see, the Common App prompts are very general and leave a lot of room for interpretation.

Moreover, colleges interpret the questions generously —they're more concerned with learning something interesting about you than with whether your topic perfectly fits the question.

Per a Common App survey from 2015 , 85% of member schools " feel the prompts should be left open to broad interpretation."

You can write about almost anything and make it work, so if you have an idea, don't let the fact that it doesn't fit neatly into one of these categories stop you. Treat these breakdowns as jumping-off points to help you start brainstorming , not the final word in how you need to approach the essay.

Make Sure You Look at This Year's Prompts

The Common App changes its prompts fairly frequently , so make sure you're familiar with the most up-to-date versions of the Common App essay questions . If you have friends or siblings who applied in past years, don't assume that you can take the exact same approaches they did.

This guide will go over the details of all seven current prompts, but first let's talk about some overall advice.

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4 Tips For Finding Your Best Common App Essay Topic

As you're brainstorming and preparing to write your Common App essay, you'll want to keep these tips in mind.

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#1: Make It Personal

The point of a personal statement is to, well, make a personal statement , that is to say, tell the reader something about yourself . As such, your topic needs to be something meaningful to you.

What does it mean for a topic to be "meaningful to you"?

First, it means that you genuinely care about the topic and want to write your college essay on it— no one ever wrote a great essay on a topic that they felt they had to write about .

Second, it means that the topic shows off a quality or trait you want to highlight for the admissions committee . For example, say I wanted to write about my summer job with the Parks Department. It's not enough to simply tell a story about my feud with a raccoon that kept destroying all the progress I made repairing a bench; I would need to make it clear what that experience ;shows about my character (perseverance) and explain what it ;taught me (that there are some things in life you simply can't control).

Remember that the most important thing is that your essay is about you . This advice might sound obvious, but when you're used to writing academic essays, it can be tricky to dive deep into your own perspective.

#2: Take Your Time

Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write so you don't feel rushed into jotting down the first thing you can come up with and sending it right off. We recommend starting the writing process two months in advance of your first college application deadline .

On a similar note, you should take the essay seriously: it's an important part of your application and worth investing the time in to get right. If you just dash something off thoughtlessly, admissions officers will recognize that and consider it evidence that you aren't really interested in their school.

#3: Avoid Repetition

Your essay should illustrate something about you beyond what's in the rest of your application . Try to write about a topic you haven't talked about elsewhere, or take a different angle on it.

A college essay is not a resume —it's the best opportunity to show off your unique personality to admissions committees. Pick your topic accordingly.

#4: Get Specific

The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you.

Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story . These would make for very different essays, even though they're on basically the same topic.

Another benefit of a specific topic is that it makes coming up with supporting details much easier. Specific, sensory details make the reader feel as if they're seeing the experience through your eyes, giving them a better sense of who you are.

Take a look at this example sentence:

General: I was nervous as I waited for my turn to audition.

Specific: As I waited for my name to be called, I tapped the rhythm of "America" on the hard plastic chair, going through the beats of my audition song over and over in my head.

The first version could be written by almost anyone; the second version has a specific perspective—it's also intriguing and makes you want to know more.

The more specific your essay topic is, the more clearly your unique voice will come through and the more engaging your essay will be.

Breaking Down the 2022-23 Common App Essay Prompts

Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm, let's go through the 2022-23 Common App essay questions one at a time and break down what admissions committees are looking for in responses.

Keep in mind that for each of these questions, there are really two parts . The first is describing something you did or something that happened to you. The second is explaining what that event, action, or activity means to you . No essay is complete without addressing both sides of the topic.

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Common App Essay Prompt 1: A Key Piece of Your Story

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.

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is very broad. Is there something you do or love, or something that happened to you, that isn't reflected elsewhere in your application but that you feel is vital to your personal story ? Then this prompt could be a good one for you.

The key is that whatever you write about needs to be genuinely important to you personally, not just something you think will look good to the admissions committee. You need to clarify why this story is so important that you couldn't leave it off your application.

What Do They Want to Know?

This question is really about showing admissions officers how your background has shaped you . Can you learn and grow from your experiences?

By identifying an experience or trait that is vital to your story, you're also showing what kind of person you see yourself as. Do you value your leadership abilities or your determination to overcome challenges? Your intellectual curiosity or your artistic talent?

Everyone has more than one important trait, but in answering this prompt, you're telling admissions officers what you think is your most significant quality .

What Kinds of Topics Could Work?

You could write about almost anything for this prompt: an unexpected interest, a particularly consuming hobby, a part of your family history, or a life-changing event. Make sure to narrow in on something specific, though. You don't have room to tell your whole life story!

Your topic can be serious or silly, as long as it's important to you. Just remember that it needs to showcase a deeper quality of yours.

For example, if I were writing an essay on this topic, I would probably write about my life-long obsession with books. I'd start with a story about how my parents worried I read too much as a kid, give some specific examples of things I've learned from particular books, and talk about how my enthusiasm for reading was so extreme it sometimes interfered with my actual life (like the time I tripped and fell because I couldn't be bothered to put down my book long enough to walk from my room to the kitchen).

Then I would tie it all together by explaining how my love of reading has taught me to look for ideas in unexpected places.

What Should You Avoid?

You don't want your essay to read like a resume: it shouldn't be a list of accomplishments. Your essay needs to add something to the rest of your application, so it also shouldn't focus on something you've already covered unless you have a really different take on it.

In addition, try to avoid generic and broad topics: you don't want your essay to feel as though it could've been written by any student.

As we touched on above, one way to avoid this problem is to be very  specific —rather than writing generally about your experience as the child of immigrants, you might tell a story about a specific family ritual or meaningful moment.

Common App Essay Prompt 2: Coping With Obstacles

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This prompt is pretty straightforward. It's asking you to describe a challenge or obstacle you faced or a time you failed, and how you dealt with it .

The part many students forget is the second half: what lessons did you learn from your challenge or failure ? If you take on this question, you must show how you grew from the experience and, ideally, how you incorporated what you learned into other endeavors.

This question really raises two issues: how you handle difficult situations and whether you're capable of learning from your mistakes.

You'll face a lot of challenges in college, both academic and social. In addressing this prompt, you have the opportunity to show admissions officers that you can deal with hardships without just giving up .

You also need to show that you can learn from challenges and mistakes. Can you find a positive lesson in a negative experience? Colleges want to see an example of how you've done so.

Good topics will be specific and have a clearly explained impact on your perspective . You need to address both parts of the question: the experience of facing the challenge and what you learned from it.

However, almost any kind of obstacle, challenge, or failure—large or small—can work:

  • Doing poorly at a job interview and how that taught you to deal with nerves
  • Failing a class and how retaking it taught you better study skills
  • Directing a school play when the set collapsed and how it taught you to stay cool under pressure and think on your feet

Make sure you pick an actual failure or challenge—don't turn your essay into a humblebrag. How you failed at procrastination because you're just so organized or how you've been challenged by the high expectations of teachers at school because everyone knows you are so smart are not appropriate topics.

Also, don't write about something completely negative . Your response needs to show that you got something out of your challenge or failure and that you've learned skills you can apply to other situations.

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Spilling your coffee is not an appropriate failure, no matter how disastrous it may feel.

Common App Essay Prompt 3: Challenging a Belief

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

There are two ways to approach this question. The first is to talk about a time you questioned a person or group on an idea of theirs. The second is to talk about a time that something caused you to reconsider a belief of your own.

In either case, you need to explain why you decided the belief should be challenged, what you actually did —if your story is just that someone gave you a new piece of information and you changed your mind, you should probably find a different topic— and how you feel about your actions in hindsight .

The obvious question this prompt raises is what your values are and whether you're willing to stand up for what you believe . Whether you've reconsidered your own beliefs or asked others to reconsider theirs, it shows you've put genuine thought into what you value and why.

However, colleges also want to see that you're open minded and able to be fair and kind toward those who have different beliefs than you do. Can you question someone else's beliefs without belittling them? If not, don't choose this prompt.

This prompt is really one where you either have a relevant story or you don't . If there's a belief or idea that's particularly important to you, whether political or personal, this might be a good question for you to address.

The main pitfall with this question is that it lends itself to very abstract answers . It's not that interesting to read about how you used to believe chocolate is the best ice cream flavor but then changed your mind and decided the best flavor is actually strawberry. (Seriously, though, what is wrong with you!?) Make sure there's clear conflict and action in your essay.

Divisive political issues, such as abortion and gun rights, are tricky to write about (although not impossible) because people feel very strongly about them and often have a hard time accepting the opposite viewpoint. In general, I would avoid these kinds of topics unless you have a highly compelling story.

Also, keep in mind that most people who work at colleges are liberal, so if you have a conservative viewpoint, you'll need to tread more carefully. Regardless of what you're writing about, don't assume that the reader shares your views .

Finally, you want to avoid coming off as petty or inflexible , especially if you're writing about a controversial topic. It's great to have strong beliefs, but you also want to show that you're open to listening to other people's perspectives, even if they don't change your mind.

Common App Essay Prompt 4: Gratitude Reflection

Reflect on something that someone had done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

The first part is straightforward: describe a time someone did something positive for you that made you happy or thankful  in a surprising way.  So it can't have been something you expected to happen (i.e. your parents gave you the birthday present you were hoping for).

Next, you need to explain how that surprising gratitude affected or motivated you. So, what was the result of this positive feeling?  How did you keep it going?

This prompt helps admissions officers see both what your expectations are for certain situations and how you react when things go differently than expected. Did you take it in stride when you were pleasantly surprised? Were you too shocked to speak? Why? What about the situation wasn't what you were expecting?  Additionally, it shows them what you personally are grateful for. Gratitude is an important personal characteristic to have. What in life makes you thankful and happy? Your answer will show admissions officers a lot about what you value and how you think.

Finally—and this is the key part—they want to know the larger impact of this gratitude. Did you decide to pay it forward? Use it as motivation to better yourself/your world? When something good happens to you, how do you react?

Because this is a reflection prompt, it's a great way to show admissions officers the kind of person you are and what you value. You'll have a lot of surprising moments, both good and bad, in college, and they want to know how you deal with them and how you spread the happiness you come across.

You can choose any event, even a minor one, as long as your reaction is  unexpected happiness/gratefulness. The "unexpected" part is key. You need to choose a situation where things didn't go the way you expected. So if your uncle, who has always been a great mentor, gives you great advice, that likely won't work because you'd be expecting it.

Next, it had to have had some sort of real impact so you can explain how your gratefulness affected you. This means that, even if the event itself was small, it had to have brought about some sort of lasting change in how you live your life.

To start, brainstorm times when something went better than expected/you were happily surprised by an outcome/you were especially grateful/someone restored your faith in humanity. Remember, this has to be, overall, a positive situation, as you're being asked about an event that made you happy or grateful. This is in contrast to prompts 2 and 3 which focus more on challenges you've faced.

Once you have your list, eliminate any instances that didn't affect or motivate you. The key part of this prompt is explaining the impact of your gratitude, so you need to write about a time when gratitude made you do something you normally wouldn't have done. This could be focusing on self-care/self-improvement, paying it forward by helping someone else, shifting your values, etc. Colleges want to see how you changed because of this event.

For example, say you decide to write about your first time traveling through an airport alone. You're not sure where to go, and all the workers look busy and like they're just waiting for their break. You're wandering around, lost, too shy to ask someone for help, when a gruff-looking employee comes up and asks if you need something. When you admit you don't know how to find your gate, they take the time to walk you to it, show you which screen to watch so you know when to board, and tell you to come get them if you need any more help. It's much more help than you thought anyone would give you.

Because of that person's actions (and this is the key part), you now always keep an eye out for people who look lost or confused and try to help them because you know how intimidating it can be to be out of your depth. You also know that many times people feel embarrassed to ask for help, so you need to make the first move to help them. If you have a specific example of you helping someone in need as a result, including that will make the essay even stronger.

Avoid scenarios where you were the first person to help another. The prompt is asking about a time someone was kind to you, and  then  you reacted in response to that. You need to have the grateful moment first, then the change in behavior.

Additionally, avoid examples where someone treated you badly but you rose above it. This is a situation where someone was kind to you, and you decided to keep that kindness going.

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Look at those dummies, solving a problem!

Common App Essay Prompt 5: Personal Growth and Maturity

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Like Prompt 1, this one is very general. It's asking you to talk about something you did or something that happened that caused you to grow or mature as a person.

The other key point to remember when addressing this question is that you need to explain how this event changed or enriched your understanding of yourself or other people.

In short: when and how have you grown as a person ? Personal growth and maturity are complicated issues. Your essay might touch on themes such as personal responsibility and your role in the world and your community.

You don't have to explain your whole worldview, but you need to give readers a sense of why this particular event caused significant growth for you as a person.

This prompt can also help you show either your own sense of self-concept or how you relate to others.

Much like Prompt 3, this question likely either appeals to you or doesn't . Nonetheless, here are some potential topics:

  • A time you had to step up in your household
  • A common milestone (such as voting for the first time or getting your driver's license) that was particularly meaningful to you
  • A big change in your life, such as becoming an older sibling or moving to a new place

It's important that your topic describes a transition that led to real positive growth or change in you as a person .

However, personal growth is a gradual process, and you can definitely still approach this topic if you feel you have more maturing to do. (Fun fact: most adults feel they have more maturing to do, too!) Just focus on a specific step in the process of growing up and explain what it meant to you and how you've changed.

Almost any topic could theoretically make a good essay about personal growth, but it's important that the overall message conveys maturity . If the main point of your essay about junior prom is that you learned you look bad in purple and now you know not to wear it, you'll seem like you just haven't had a lot of meaningful growth experiences in your life.

You also want the personal growth and new understanding(s) you describe in your essay to be positive in nature . If the conclusion of your essay is "and that's how I matured and realized that everyone in the world is terrible," that's not going to work very well with admissions committees, as you'll seem pessimistic and unable to cope with challenges.

Common App Essay Prompt 6: Your Passion

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?

This prompt is asking you to describe something you're intellectually passionate about .

But in addition to describing a topic of personal fascination and why you're so interested in it, you need to detail how you have pursued furthering your own knowledge of the topic . Did you undertake extra study? Hole yourself up in the library? Ask your math team coach for more practice problems?

Colleges want to admit students who are intellectually engaged with the world. They want you to show that you have a genuine love for the pursuit of knowledge .

Additionally, by describing how you've learned more about your chosen topic, concept, or idea, you can prove that you are self-motivated and resourceful .

Pretty much any topic you're really interested in and passionate about could make a good essay here, just as long as you can put can put an intellectual spin on it and demonstrate that you've gone out of your way to learn about the topic.

So It's fine to say that the topic that engages you most is football, but talk about what interests you in an academic sense about the sport. Have you learned everything there is to know about the history of the sport? Are you an expert on football statistics? Emphasize how the topic you are writing about engages your brain.

Don't pick something you don't actually care about just because you think it would sound good.

If you say you love black holes but actually hate them and tortured yourself with astronomy books in the library for a weekend to glean enough knowledge to write your essay, your lack of enthusiasm will definitely come through.

Common App Essay Prompt 7: Your Choice

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.

You can write about anything for this one!

Since this is a choose-your-own-adventure prompt, colleges aren't looking for anything specific to this prompt .

However, you'll want to demonstrate some of the same qualities that colleges are looking for in all college essays: things like academic passion, maturity, resourcefulness, and persistence. What are your values? How do you face setbacks? These are all things you can consider touching on in your essay.

If you already have a topic in mind for this one that doesn't really fit with any of the other prompts, go for it!

Avoid essays that aren't really about you as a person. So no submitting your rhetorical close-reading of the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" you wrote for AP English!

However, if you want to write about the way that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" made you reconsider your entire approach to life, go ahead.

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The Common App Essay Questions: 5 Key Takeaways

We've covered a lot of ground, but don't panic. I've collected the main ideas you should keep in mind as you plan your Common App essay below.

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#1: A Prompt 1 Topic Must Go Beyond What's in the Rest of Your Application

For prompt 1, it's absolutely vital that your topic be something genuinely meaningful to you . Don't write about something just because you think it's impressive. Big achievements and leadership roles, such as serving as captain of a team or winning a journalism award, can certainly be used as topics, but only if you can explain why they mattered to you beyond that it was cool to be in charge or that you liked winning.

It's better if you can pick out something smaller and more individual , like helping your team rally after a particularly rough loss or laboring over a specific article to make sure you got every detail right.

#2: Prompts 2, 4, and 6 Are Generally the Simplest Options

Most students have an experience or interest that will work for either Prompt 2, Prompt 4, or Prompt 6. If you're uncertain what you want to write about, think about challenges you've faced, a time you were grateful, or your major intellectual passions.

These prompts are slightly easier to approach than the others because they lend themselves to very specific and concrete topics that show clear growth. Describing a failure and what you learned from it is much simpler than trying to clarify why an event is a vital part of your identity.

#3: Prompts 3 and 5 Can Be Trickier—but You Don't Need to Avoid Them

These questions ask about specific types of experiences that not every high school student has had. If they don't speak to you, don't feel compelled to answer them.

If you do want to take on Prompt 3 or 5, however, remember to clearly explain your perspective to the reader , even if it seems obvious to you.

For Prompt 3, you have to establish not just what you believe but why you believe it and why that belief matters to you, too. For prompt 5, you need to clarify how you moved from childhood to adulthood and what that means to both you and others.

These prompts elicit some of the most personal responses , which can make for great essays but also feel too revealing to many students. Trust your instincts and don't pick a topic you're not comfortable writing about.

At the same time, don't hesitate to take on a difficult or controversial topic if you're excited about it and think you can treat it with the necessary nuance.

#4: Make Sure to Explain What Your Experience Taught You

I've tried to emphasize this idea throughout this guide: it's not enough to simply describe what you did—you also have to explain what it meant to you .

Pushing past the surface level while avoiding clichés and generalizations is a big challenge, but it's ultimately what will make your essay stand out. Make sure you know what personal quality you want to emphasize before you start and keep it in mind as you write.

Try to avoid boring generalizations in favor of more specific and personal insights.

Bad: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me a lot.

Better: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me that I love puzzles and made me wonder what other problems I could solve.

Best: When I finally twisted the last piece of the Rubik's cube into place after months of work, I was almost disappointed. I'd solved the puzzle; what would I do now? But then I started to wonder if I could use what I'd learned to do the whole thing faster. Upon solving one problem, I had immediately moved onto the next one, as I do with most things in life.

As you go back through your essay to edit, every step of the way ask yourself, "So what?" Why does the reader need to know this? What does it show about me? How can I go one step deeper?

#5: Don't Worry About What You Think You're Supposed to Write

There is no single right answer to these prompts , and if you try to find one, you'll end up doing yourself a disservice. What's important is to tell your story—and no one can tell you what that means because it's unique to you.

Many students believe that they should write about resume-padding activities that look especially impressive, such as volunteering abroad. These essays are often boring and derivative because the writer doesn't really have anything to say on the topic and assumes it'll speak for itself.

But the point of a personal statement isn't to explain what you've done; it's to show who you are .

Take the time to brainstorm and figure out what you want to show colleges about yourself and what story or interest best exemplifies that quality.

What's Next?

For more background on college essays and tips for crafting a great one, check out our complete explanation of the basics of the personal statement .

Make sure you're prepared for the rest of the college application process as well with our guides to asking for recommendations , writing about extracurriculars , taking the SAT , and researching colleges .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 ;points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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Alex is an experienced tutor and writer. Over the past five years, she has worked with almost a hundred students and written about pop culture for a wide range of publications. She graduated with honors from University of Chicago, receiving a BA in English and Anthropology, and then went on to earn an MA at NYU in Cultural Reporting and Criticism. In high school, she was a National Merit Scholar, took 12 AP tests and scored 99 percentile scores on the SAT and ACT.

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10 Instructive Common App Essay Examples — 2024

March 26, 2024

common app essay examples, college personal statement

Examples are integral to the learning process in just about every subject. In writing, they’re particularly important, especially when working with abstract concepts or attempting to master a new genre. Imagine how lost you’d feel if you had to write a poem without ever reading one, or craft a thesis statement without being shown a few models! Accordingly, it stands to reason that reading Common App essay examples should be an essential part of the college personal statement writing process as well.

However, we’ve noticed that reading Common App essay examples can sometimes hinder more than help, creating self-esteem pitfalls and leading students to unhelpful conclusions about the college application process. It doesn’t have to be this way, though! When you understand how essays are used in the admissions process as well as the hallmarks of a strong personal essay, you can read Common App essay examples more objectively, noticing their similarities rather than their differences. Ultimately, embracing those similarities is what will allow you to produce your strongest work. In today’s blog, we’ll review how all Common App essays are similar and teach you how to objectively evaluate examples so that they are a useful–rather than stress-inducing—tool during your writing process.

What are the pitfalls of reading Common App essay examples?

Think about what typically happens when you work on an assignment in English class. Let’s say you’re doing a short story unit. Your teacher might give you a short story (or several) written by a professional writer, which you read and analyze for specific elements. She then lets you loose to start your own story, but it’s unlikely you’re comparing yourself to the short story author while you write. That person is an expert, after all, and this is your very first piece of fiction!

College essays, though, are different. They’re not written by professional writers; they’re written by your peers (peers who might even be applying to the same selective institutions that you are). As such, the fact that you’ve never written a college essay before offers little reassurance. Everyone else seems to manage to produce amazing essays, right? So why shouldn’t you?

After years of working with students on their writing, we have some theories…

Why Reading Common App Essay Examples Can Feel Especially Loaded

  • It’s easy to arrive at inaccurate conclusions . “If so-and-so got into Harvard by theming all their essays about chicken soup, then I should do the same!” or “This person was accepted to Stanford after writing about their earliest childhood memory, so that must be the way to do it!”
  • You compare your writing style and life experiences to the examples , falsely concluding that yours can’t possibly be interesting or good enough. Worse, these conclusions might derail your initial drafts altogether.
  • After reading several examples, you decide that you’re going to “break the mold” of the Common App essay and do something “unique.” However, to be quite frank, your chance of presenting admissions officers with something that they’ve never seen before has approximately the same probability as seeing a velociraptor in your backyard. Remember, they read thousands of applications per year. Their objective is not to be surprised but to get to know you .

What are the best practices for reading Common App essay examples?

Before you dive into reading Common App essay examples, consider beginning your journey with personal essays written by professional writers. Their objective is different than yours, sure. However, you can pay close attention to how they craft their stories, how and when they reflect, how they begin, and how they conclude.

Ask yourself: What stayed with me? What did I enjoy? What did I learn about the writer?

The New York Times “ Lives ” section is especially perfect for this assignment, as the essays are typically under 700-800 words. Here are a few to get started with, but browse around (there are hundreds to choose from):

Running into Danger on an Alaskan Trail , by Cinthia Ritchie

Safe on the Southbank, by Elliot Ackerman

Familiar Ground , by Mark Montinaro

What do I do next?

Before you proceed any further, it’s important to understand the Common App essay’s purpose. Every piece of writing has a purpose, whether that’s to argue a thesis, persuade someone to buy a product, provide information, or entertain. Let’s go back to our short story example—if you’re writing a story solely for English class, your purpose might be to show your teacher that you understand the elements of short fiction. If you want the story to be published in a literary magazine, though, your purpose will be much different.

So, let’s review the purpose of a college personal statement: to add dimension to the rest of your application. As such, your personal statement should:

  • Immerse the reader into your world
  • Provide insight into something you value or think is important
  • Allow the reader to connect with you

In addition to your essay’s purpose, it’s also important to understand 1) who your Common App personal statement will be read by and 2) how it will be evaluated.

Common App Essay Examples (Continued)

Firstly, your Common App essay does not get sucked into a black hole, never to be seen by human eyeballs again. It will be read in full by admissions officers at each college—real people who want to connect with you (and whose job it is to give due diligence to every part of your application). They’re not reading your essay to circle wonky sentences with a red pen or find reasons to fast-track your application to the circular file. Instead, they are reading your work with a focus on discovery. What can they learn about you that will tell them more about what kind of student, person, community member, and/or campus contributor you’ll be?

Moreover, many admissions offices utilize a multi-step holistic decision-making process. Although your essay will likely be read several times by several different readers, the first round of review is typically focused on whether you have sufficient academic preparation and/or potential to succeed as a student. Later rounds—if your application makes it to that point—are when admissions officers typically look more closely at subjective elements like teacher recommendations and essays.

That said, know that essays are not deciding factors in admissions decisions. They can be a strong factor, particularly if your application falls in the middle of the pool at any given institution, because they help an admissions committee understand more about you and what qualities or experiences you would bring to campus if admitted. However, your essay alone will not get you admitted to or rejected from any given college.

What are the elements of a strong Common App essay?

A piece of writing’s purpose will give you essential insight into what elements are most important within that piece of writing. For example, fiction is supposed to immerse the reader into the world of the author’s creation, ultimately offering new perspectives and insights. As such, setting and character development are two major elements of any fiction piece.

Accordingly, a Common App essay’s purpose gives us insight into its most important elements. Remember, a strong Common App essay:

  • Immerses the reader into your world
  • Provides insight into something you value or think is important
  • Allows the reader to connect with you

…which means that the major elements to focus on are:

  • Positive voice/tone

Reading Common App essay examples with a focus on the above three elements can be a highly effective way to understand the genre. Doing so will give you the building blocks you need for your own essay.

Before we look at a set of examples, though, let’s delve a little more deeply into the writing process as well as each of the above three elements.

How do I write a strong Common App essay?

Before you can start writing, you’ll need to choose a topic (or potential topic). When it comes to topics, the way you write about any given topic often outweighs the topic itself. ( See exceptions here . ) Accordingly, the topic that is often the most successful is one that:

  • You feel most excited or inspired to write about
  • Allows you to immerse the reader in your world/experiences
  • Gives you the opportunity to reflect

Once you’ve chosen a topic, ask yourself the following question before/as you write:

Why does this story matter to me?

This question is the big kahuna. Why this story? You don’t have to know how your essay will unfold or what conclusions you will arrive at, but you should have a sense of why this topic is important to you to explore in the first place. Try jotting it down at the top of your page:

I want to write about how art helped me deal with my mom’s cancer diagnosis. It matters to me because art is a huge part of who I am. I want colleges to know that my passion for art is something I’m very serious about.

I’m planning to write about my ACL tear last year. It made me realize that I no longer want to play soccer competitively. Instead, I want to pursue politics! I think this shows that I’m able to turn obstacles into opportunities and adapt to change. I want colleges to know that about me.

The “big picture” is important. Let it guide and inform your early outlines and drafts.

Once you’ve nailed down why this story matters to you, it’s time to start thinking about how you want to tell it. You might want to make a list of specific anecdotes, memories, or experiences related to your story and see which one(s) you feel most drawn to. For example:

Why this story matters to me

Related Stories

  • Getting my art box for my birthday
  • When my brother scratched his bike and I repainted it
  • The first time I went to Art Club
  • Working on my art show submission
  • Painting mailboxes in my neighborhood

Ultimately, you might incorporate more than one story into your essay, but for now, you’ll just want to choose one to begin with. Close your eyes and pick the first story or image that comes to mind. Start writing it down with the goal of being as specific and descriptive as possible. Ask yourself:

  • What did I see, hear, smell, and/or feel?

For example, consider the following three sentences:

  • There’s a stream behind my house.
  • A sluggish, polluted stream winds through the woods behind my house.
  • A crystal-clear brook gurgles over rocks in my mother’s garden.

The first sentence doesn’t provide much detail, right? Consequently, you’ll automatically insert your own images, picturing a stream that you know versus the stream behind my house. My job is to immerse you in my world, though, which means that I need to be more specific!

In contrast, the second and third sentences each describe a very specific stream. Notice how much power I have as the writer to evoke different images and strike a particular tone. Use this to your advantage! Either sentence would immerse you into my world, help you connect with me, and reinforce theme.

It’s completely fine if your early drafts include a surplus of details. As you refine your drafts, focus on preserving details that enhance the narrative and removing details that may be distracting. For example:

A sluggish, polluted stream winds through the woods behind my house. There’s a tree next to it that towers thirty feet high, housing chattering birds and squirrels. The stream originates from a reservoir several miles away, and when we visited several months ago after noticing the worsening water quality, we noticed that the reservoir’s beaches were littered with trash and that it was being used as a dumping ground by a local construction company. This is when I threw myself into creating a proposal to bring before the town council that would protect the reservoir.

The focus of this essay is clearly on the writer’s efforts to protect and clean the reservoir. As such, the tree near her house may be a detail that the writer could remove. However, is there anything else she could add about the reservoir’s surrounding area that would paint an even clearer picture of what’s at stake? Is there a dearth of wildlife? Suffering plant life? A moratorium on fishing? Those details could vivify this paragraph.

You’ve written out your story and included lots of detail. Great! Now, you must balance the descriptive, storytelling elements of your essay with an appropriate level of interiority and reflection. To do so, you’ll want to ask yourself:

Where could I reflect on my experience or reveal my thoughts and feelings?

Raise your hand if you’ve heard “Show, don’t tell” your whole life. However, did you know that almost every piece of writing incorporates both showing and telling? In personal essays, the balance between both elements is essential. While you should certainly “show” readers what your experience was like via the use of details and description, you should also “tell” them why it matters. Reflect on your experience—what was hard? What did you learn or wonder, think or feel? Which lessons are you taking forward?

In addition to demonstrating how you think and process information, your reflection also gives your reader another opportunity to connect with you on a personal level. We’ll point out specific examples of interiority and reflection in the example essays below, but be on the lookout for where writers use statements like these: “I thought…” “I felt…” “I wondered…” “I decided…” which often signal reflective moments.

Check Your Tone

The concept of voice feels nebulous to many writers. Essentially, readers hear your writing voice through what you choose to write about and how you choose to write about it. If you’re providing specific details as well as an appropriate level of reflection and writing in a style that feels comfortable and natural to you, trust that your voice is shining through, even if it doesn’t feel that way as you write!

As for tone, we suggest aiming for general positivity. However, positive doesn’t mean that you have to hype yourself up, slap a shiny bow on an unresolved issue, or arrive at a forced ending. It simply means that your essay should have some sort of upward trajectory and arrive at a hopeful or forward-thinking conclusion.

Let’s look at three examples of tone:

In the end, my reservoir proposal didn’t go through. It left me feeling annoyed and depressed. I was mad for a pretty long time about this outcome, but I think I’m ready to move forward.

This tone feels fairly negative, ending the essay on an unresolved note and potentially causing the reader to wonder: is this writer really ready to move forward?

My proposal made it to the last round, which shows how hard I worked. Making it to the last round was the greatest thing to happen to me—it made me a stronger person in the long run!

Too much! Too much! Being excessively upbeat and self-congratulatory can send red flags of its own.

In the end, my proposal made it to the last round but didn’t go through. This was a tough outcome. However, I decided to re-evaluate my motivation and priorities, which helped me overhaul my strategy. After more research, practice, and preparation, I’m more than ready to try again. Most importantly, I’m confident I’ll be able to handle future setbacks with grace and tact.

Much improved. While the writer is honest about being disappointed, she also shares how she adjusted and how she’d like to move forward. There isn’t a clear resolution per se, but that’s okay—there’s still plenty of positive momentum and a sense of how she’d handle future challenges.

Okay, I’ve written a draft. How do I make sure it’s still on track?

Remember that your Common App essay’s purpose is to:

  • Connect with the reader

…which means that you’ll need to focus on the following elements:

Accordingly, after you complete a draft, ask yourself the following:

  • Which details immerse the reader in my world? Do I need to add more?
  • Did I reflect on my experience or reveal my thoughts?
  • What do admissions officers learn about me?

To get into each element more deeply, let’s dive into our example essays.

First, Examples #1-6 will highlight where writers incorporated detail and reflection as well as the overall final takeaway that a reader may walk away with.

Next, Examples #7-8 will explain where writers could incorporate more detail and/or reflection for a stronger essay.

Finally, Examples #9-10 are early, in-progress drafts. We’ll share what developmental feedback we would give these writers to help them move forward.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #1

On a hot day last summer, my brother ran his bike into the mailbox. He skinned his knee, but was less worried about that and more worried about the chipped paint on his new red bike. Tears welling in his eyes, he rubbed the chip with his finger and even more paint flaked off.

“Wait,” I said. “Wait here for just one minute.”

I had taken my brother outside because my mom was sleeping after a chemo treatment, but I ran upstairs as quickly and quietly as I could to get my box of paints. It’s a wooden box, smudged with charcoal fingerprints and streaks of acrylics. I hadn’t always been an artist, but when my art teacher noticed the designs in my notebook margins and asked if I wanted to come to an art club meeting, I decided to try it.

At that first meeting, my teacher taught us how to create a mountain sunrise. As the painting took shape, I marveled at the techniques–using my thumbprint to create the sun, crafting shadows with surprising colors, creating different effects by applying varying types of pressure to my brush. I was also surprised that focusing on my piece felt so meditative–it was the first time since my mom’s diagnosis that I hadn’t been preoccupied with whether her treatments would work or what I was going to cook my brother for dinner.

“What do you want on your bike?” I asked my brother. “Instead of the scratch.” I opened up my box and pointed toward his bike. His eyes widened.

“Anything I want?” he asked.

He chose a baseball bat, and crouched next to me as I painted. When I was done, he said, “Can you paint a baseball, too? Over here.” He pointed to the other end of the bike.

“I’ll show you how.” I dipped his thumb in white and pressed it on the bike’s frame, then showed him how to use my thinnest brush to add curved red stitching.

Word spread quickly about my bike designs. My brother’s friends stopped by the house with pictures of designs that they wanted, and my neighbor’s little girls shyly approached when I was outside with my brother, asking for butterflies. I started carrying my paints around just in case. The kids always gave me something–a shiny rock they’d found, a few quarters, a special feather. It makes me smile when I look out the window and see those bikes pedaling around the neighborhood, my brother’s among them. It makes my mom smile, too. I asked what she would want painted on her bike if she had one, and she said a sunflower. I painted one on our mailbox, cheery and yellow, its stem curling around the handle and down the post.

There are always new techniques to learn and improvements to strive toward, but I feel that art is about trying to create meaning within a chosen medium. There’s so much I can’t control, but what I can do is create beauty in my life and in the lives of others. It’s why I started teaching an afterschool art class at my brother’s elementary school, why I’m currently working on a wall mural in the children’s room at the library, why I’ve taught myself graphic design skills to create posters for art club events and shows. Also, my mailbox paint creations gained so much popularity that my entire street commissioned me to do their boxes. I donated the money to cancer research, but more importantly, the designs are a beacon of support to my mom each day that she feels strong enough to walk outside and check the mail.

Although college will bring new challenges, I also know it will bring a new collection of scratched-up bikes and bare mailboxes, waiting to be painted with brightly colored designs that allow me to express myself and impact others.

What we can learn from this example:

Let’s run down our list of questions:

Which details immerse you in the writer’s world?

This essay is loaded with specific details: her brother’s bike, her art box, her first art club meeting, and her drawings/designs, to name a few. These details help us picture her environment and connect with her experience.

Where did she reflect on her experience or reveal her thoughts?

She provides the most significant reflection in the final two paragraphs, where she tells us why art is so important to her, how she stays involved, and that she wants to continue using art to engage & connect with others in college. However, she also provides small moments of reflection throughout the essay, such as in paragraph four: “I was also surprised that focusing on my piece felt so meditative–it was the first time since my mom’s diagnosis that I hadn’t been preoccupied with whether her treatments would work or what I was going to cook my brother for dinner.” Without that sentence, it might be difficult to understand why art became so important to her.

What will admissions officers learn about her?

She’s creative, dedicated, and empathetic. She’s also clearly a leader who takes initiative, both within her family and in her community.

In sum, this writer used details and reflection to help readers understand what she finds important—in the process, she’s given her essay a positive tone and clear voice.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #2

By some people’s standards, my grandma might be considered a hoarder. When I say there is stuff everywhere at our house, I mean it: broken crystal glasses from a hundred years ago, old watch straps, a shockingly large collection of thumbtacks. Three coffee makers that haven’t worked since before I was born. A broom no one uses because it doesn’t actually sweep anything up.

Whenever I make a motion to throw something out–an empty spice jar for example, or socks with holes in them, my grandma acts personally insulted. (She has also been known to survey the trash can for offending items.) She’ll take it from me grouchily and remind me of its potential uses–spice jars can be cinnamon and sugar shakers! Socks are free dusters! Sometimes, though, she doesn’t have a reason beyond “I might need it someday.”

College Essay Examples (Continued)

At first, I thought this statement was weird. What could we possibly need a cracked Tupperware container for? But then I learned that her attitude stems, in part, from growing up on a rural farm. Everything was repurposed, and it was common to keep things that may not have direct uses, knowing you’d likely find one at some point or another. For example, a large plastic container with a broken lid could be turned on its side and stuffed with hay for the cat in the winter, or plastic bread bags could be used to pack school lunches. Dried-up markers? Homemade watercolor paint. Egg cartons and dryer lint? Fire starters. Chipped bowl? Bird bath.

Her attitude made me interested in our collective willingness to sentence an item to the trash before finding a reuse for it. We buy cheap clothes knowing they might only last us a year. Single-use plastic still dominates, even though the vast majority of it heads to the landfill instead of being recycled. Old jeans are tossed instead of patched up and used as gardening pants, like my grandma does. The worst part is that we do all this knowing that our planet is undergoing irreversible shifts as a result of climate change. The world we’re heading toward is a world none of us can possibly be prepared for.

But what if people could be convinced to adopt my grandma’s mindset? And what would it take to inspire such behavioral changes on a large scale? I started learning about the field of neuroeconomics through books, podcasts, and a summer course at our local college, and became fascinated with the neuroscience behind decision-making. Could principles of neuroeconomics influence environmental policy? What factors could help people make long-lasting, environmentally conscious changes, and how we might facilitate them? These are massive, long-term questions. For now, was there a way to inspire my friends to start being more mindful of their consumption? To start reusing spaghetti jars and dusting with hole-y socks? And what might people be willing to donate or repurpose when there was a community effort to do so?

So, me and my grandma started advertising our services, and the response was unlike anything I could have possibly imagined. We now have a garage full of items that we either donate, sell, or repair, everything from antique dresses that my grandma soaks the stains out of to custom-patched jeans to dressers and wooden toys that need a quick sanding and fresh coat of paint. Our yard sales have become legendary and I’m the go-to kid when people have an old end table with Buzz Lightyear on it that they don’t know what to do with. “Drop it off at my grandma’s,” I say, and they do. Until I can figure out how to effect the kind of large-scale change I’d like to make, I’ll start small and keep going, hopeful that I’m making a difference one revitalized sock at a time.

There’s the coffeemakers, the broom that doesn’t sweep, the socks, the jeans, the repairable items…we could go on. Since this essay is about this writer’s interest in sustainability, notice that he exclusively focuses on specific examples of repurposable items. Such a move supports the narrative rather than acting as filler.

Where did he reflect on his experience or reveal his thoughts?

This writer reflects throughout the essay by using “I” statements (“I thought…”) and asking direct questions, both of which are powerful ways to let readers in on his thought process—and show how it changed.

What will admissions officers learn about him?

This writer is intellectually curious, open-minded, and humorous. It’s also clear that he’s passionate about sustainability and the environment, and is committed to exploring new initiatives and possibilities in college.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #3

My life has always been punctuated by my father’s military deployments, like periods placed in the middle of sentences. I often measured time in relation to them: before, during, or after , holding my breath for my father’s departure or homecoming, for the inevitable extensions and sporadic phone calls, for the unexpected emotions and responsibilities. By the time I was in high school, my father had been gone for more of my childhood than he had been present, and in tenth grade, my parents decided to divorce.

Until then, I had always been surrounded by friends who also had an active duty parent. We didn’t have to explain to each other what the ups and downs felt like. We just knew. I knew that when Mariela’s father’s deployment got extended, she could use a trip to the beach, her favorite place, knew that one of the most painful parts of the whole deployment cycle was the anticipation, and would check in with my friends more frequently during that time, knew that the first week often felt the most discombobulated, and was usually when my mom would offer to drop off meals or help ferry kids to after-school activities. That first week was also the time when things usually went wrong: a burst pipe, a dead car battery, a broken washing machine. Murphy’s Law , my mom always said.

I had spent my entire life existing within this predictably unpredictable cycle. So, when my mom and I moved right before my junior year to a small condo ten minutes from my grandparents but 2,000 miles away from my father’s last duty station, I assumed it wouldn’t be that much different from other moves. I’d join new clubs, make new friends, get to know our neighbors.

But I was immediately confronted by a sense of otherness in a community of kids who had known each other since kindergarten. Explaining where I’d lived before–and why–either solicited shocked reactions “You’ve moved six times?” or prying questions “Why didn’t you stay with your dad?” Mentioning a deployment received a blank stare.  I felt like the previous version of me, the way I’d always thought of myself–as a military kid–was no longer true, or had somehow evaporated into thin air.

Then, last spring, I had an unexpected breakthrough. My chemistry lab partner struggled with some of the steps. As I explained them to her, she visibly relaxed and shot me a thankful smile. I grinned too, because in that moment, I felt more like myself than I had in months.

Later that week, I applied for a peer tutoring position and was accepted. I feel passionate about trying to make personal connections with my students so that I can try to understand and anticipate their needs. I notice whether some students like to brainstorm ideas aloud before writing them down, or prefer when I use pictures to explain concepts. Some students appreciate small talk for a few minutes before we get started, and others need to be more efficient, trying to squeeze in a tutoring session before their after-school job. Not only that, but as I got to know my fellow tutors, I found friendship and connection. When Sophia’s brother was in the hospital, I picked her up for an afternoon movie. On the night of my piano recital, Olivia and Mary were in the front row cheering me on.

I’ve come to understand that my previous identity is still part of me, even though I now live a very different lifestyle than I did several years ago. Sometimes, I still miss being a military kid. But all the lessons I learned from that time in my life–the importance of a supportive community, empathy, kindness, and anticipating others’ needs–are always with me, informing everything I do.

What we can learn from this college essay example:

Writing about significant challenges is one circumstance where you can choose to be somewhat less descriptive. Notice that the writer contains her challenges in the first half of the essay and only includes need-to-know details. For example, we don’t need to know the reason for her parents’ divorce, or every nitty-gritty deployment detail. She sticks to the facts.

However, she incorporates more specifics into the second half of the essay, including details about particular conversations/comments, her tutoring experience, and her friends.

In an essay about a challenge, reflection is almost always placed toward the end of the essay. You can see that this writer reflected on her experiences in the final few paragraphs, taking time to appreciate where she’s been and where she’s going. However, she uses “I” statements throughout to let us in on what she was thinking and feeling, ex. “I assumed it wouldn’t be much different from other moves…” “I felt like the previous version of me…”

She’s resilient and adaptable, which she’s conveyed through her mature and positive tone. Remember, a positive tone isn’t forced or fake—it simply means that your essay has forward momentum or a positive future outlook. At the end of this essay, one has the overall sense that, even though this writer sometimes struggles with her new lifestyle, she’s ready to take on new challenges. It’s also clear that she values and prioritizes being part of a community.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #4

The scent of crushed garlic permeates the air, mingling with tamari and sesame oil. The nutty smell of brown butter hits my nose next, followed by earthy sage. Something sweet and spicy—sweet potatoes tossed in cinnamon and gochujang.

Most Saturday mornings, the kitchen counter is a mess of ingredients, whisks, and hot pans with my parents shuffling around in the middle, kneading bread or marinating meat. They’re rarely home for dinner during the week, but Saturdays are when we try our hand at everything from my Italian great-grandmother’s tomato-stained lasagna recipe to new dishes like bulgogi, potstickers, and garlic naan.

Often, the recipes fail miserably the first time. A few months ago, our naan dough was so sticky that it was difficult to knead and then impossible to flip in the pan. Our raviolis split open when we dropped them in boiling water; our lemon curd always broke. Without fail, though, there was some special trick we were missing. My mom’s best friend, who gave us the naan recipe, showed us how to oil our hands before kneading the dough and brush the back of each naan with water before dropping it into the pan. The result? Perfectly chewy and easy-to-flip bread. YouTube tutorials fixed our ravioli problem—turns out we needed to turn down the heat and avoid overloading the pot. (We’re still figuring out the lemon curd.)

I always write down the adjustments in the margins of our recipe notebook, adjustments that are sometimes happy accidents, like when we successfully thickened a soup with cashews instead of butter or accidentally added cinnamon to a chocolate chip cookie recipe. It made me embrace the mindset that whatever problem we were facing could always be creatively solved.

It was this sense of possibility that helped me navigate new territory last year. After extensive testing and many years of chronic stomach problems and headaches, I was diagnosed with a gluten intolerance. I felt both relieved and nervous as I wondered whether our cooking Saturdays would be more difficult. My mom, however, seemed undeterred and immediately started researching gluten-free substitutes and flours. We quickly found that there were an overwhelming number of flour possibilities—tapioca, rice, coconut, almond, oat—all combined in various ratios and used for differing purposes.

We decided to test the flours one by one, quickly finding that coconut flour cannot be directly substituted for regular flour, almond flour naturally creates a chewier cookie, and gluten-free flours almost always need more moisture than regular flour. Every time we successfully modified one of our “old” recipes, I felt both energized and encouraged that I didn’t have to give up foods I loved just because I was gluten-free.

My experiences have made me realize that food inclusivity can be an underrated yet simple way to show kindness to others. After multiple events and birthday parties where I brought my own snacks or avoided the food table, I’ve become more mindful of people’s food traditions and considerations. For example, one of my Indian friends eats exclusively vegetarian while my Muslim friend doesn’t eat pork. My cousin has an anaphylactic peanut allergy, and my neighbor recently became vegan for environmental reasons. When they come over to study or hang out, I love the smile I get when they realize they can eat whatever snack or baked good I’ve made (especially if it’s brownies).

In addition to empathy, all those Saturday mornings cooking with my parents—and the food knowledge I’ve gained from our friends and family—have encouraged my adaptability. Instead of focusing on what might go wrong, I focus on how I can always learn something new if I’m open-minded enough to do it. Making perfect ravioli might just mean turning down the heat, unsticking my naan might just require a little sprinkle of water, and finding new friends in college might just take a warm plate of nut-free, vegan, gluten-free brownies.

This writer used quite a few sensory food details and specifics throughout, from what the food tasted and smelled like to details about recipes. As such, the focal point of her essay—food—comes to life for us in a way we can easily envision.

She also grouped her details in threes. When you have a number of potential examples to share—as this writer did—consider embracing the rule of three. Our brains like patterns, and three is typically the sweet spot of effectiveness and memorability. Notice that this writer uses three examples in several areas: the opening paragraph, third paragraph, sixth paragraph, and final paragraph. Limiting yourself to three can be an excellent way to increase your writing’s power and simultaneously reduce words. Win-win!

This writer reflected in several places, mostly in the second half of the essay. She uses “I” statements to signal how her thoughts evolved—“I felt nervous…” “I wondered…” “My experiences made me realize…” In addition, she specifically discusses two values that are the most important to her: empathy and adaptability.

She’s empathetic, adaptable, and family-oriented. She’s also perseverant, willing to try new things, and values connection with others.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #5

I’ve always been obsessed with the ocean. Bioluminescent plankton. Killer whales. Alien-like creatures that only exist in the abyssal zone, a place less explored than outer space. As a child, I spent summer beach days observing tide pools and writing down what I saw in a notebook. I learned about scientists like Eugenie Clark and Sylvia Earle, fearless crusaders who explored the ocean through scuba diving and deep-sea expeditions. Although many jobs within marine biology don’t require diving ability, I dreamed of being the type of scientist who boldly investigates underwater caves and cascades down to the bottom of the ocean in a submersible with bizarre and never-before-seen fish flashing past the tiny windows.

Even though the cold waters near our home weren’t exactly a diving mecca, I didn’t care. All I wanted to do was learn. I started saving up money to pay for lessons and was so excited when I finally had enough to take an introductory course. The class started out in a pool, and once we mastered a certain set of skills, we’d be able to do our first open-water dive.

Since I loved the ocean so much, I thought diving would come naturally to me. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. I managed to keep up until it came time to work on clearing our masks underwater, which is when you rinse the inside of the mask while you’re diving rather than have to re-surface every time the glass fogs. However, whenever I loosened my mask to flood it with water, I couldn’t push away the nagging sense of panic. I kept sucking water up my nose instead of blowing out and would immediately need to surface, choking and gasping.

I tried again. And again. And again. Over and over, the mask clearing went sideways: I’d press on the seal, tilt my head up, and attempt to blow through my nose, only to inhale instead of exhale or become overwhelmed by the water clouding my vision. After several weeks and little improvement, my instructor sat me down to discuss taking a break.

Honestly, rather than feeling a sense of failure, all I felt was a sense of relief. However, as soon as I got home, that instant relief was replaced by intense disappointment. Diving was my dream, and I couldn’t let myself give up that easily.

I knew that there must be something mentally preventing me from enjoying diving and being able to complete certain skills. To figure out what that “something” was, I started talking to both beginning and experienced divers on online forums, who were quick to share their own experiences of struggling on their first dives. They emphasized water comfort as well as mindfulness techniques, such as yoga and meditation. Instead of diving, I started heading to the pool multiple days per week, doing laps and getting more comfortable in the water, in addition to taking a yoga class and meditating every morning.

Several months ago, I went back to my diving class with renewed purpose and confidence. I successfully cleared my mask underwater and quickly mastered the next set of skills. And two weeks ago, when I lowered myself beneath the surface of the ocean on my first open-water dive, it was nothing short of magical.

Diving is about more than my childhood dream—it’s about my confidence in myself. Although it was a longer journey than I anticipated, I’m proud of myself for committing to my goal. Rather than allowing myself to believe that my fears can’t be overcome and that I have to live with limited opportunities, I choose to embrace the belief that having fears—and confronting them—will only make me a stronger diver and a more resilient scientist.

In addition to her specific childhood interests, the writer also goes into detail about her scuba diving classes—what they were like, what went wrong (particularly in regard to mask-clearing), and what she did to overcome her fears. For example, in the sixth paragraph, she gives us detailed specifics about the actions she took: “Instead of diving, I started heading to the pool multiple days per week, doing laps and getting more comfortable in the water, in addition to taking a yoga class and meditating every morning.” Imagine how much less effective that paragraph might be if she instead wrote “I decided to try out some of their suggestions, and they worked.”

If you’re writing an essay about a particular failure or struggle, think about why it felt so significant, and be sure to incorporate that “why” into your essay. This writer does so in the final paragraph, where she discusses why overcoming her diving-related obstacles was such a significant step for her.

They’ll learn that she has grit, perseverance, resilience, and self-awareness. She’s willing to fail and try again. Not only that, she’s willing to reflect on her experience and use what she learned to continue growing.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #6

It happened quickly. One minute, I was wide open, waiting to catch a throw during my family’s annual Thanksgiving football game. The next minute, I was being tackled to the ground by my cousin and felt something pop.

At first, I thought the pop was something benign. Air cracking through a joint, maybe. I rolled over to stand up, but my right leg gave out beneath me as soon as I tried to put weight on it. My cousin helped me limp inside and my mom piled frozen corn bags on my knee. Within an hour, it had swelled to the size of baseball and I was in too much pain to move.

Several specialists and an MRI later, I was diagnosed with an ACL tear and scheduled for surgery. This news would have been difficult enough without the fear that now ballooned in my mind: what about soccer ?

I’d been a competitive soccer player since I was three, and I loved the game. Actually, I didn’t just love it, I lived and breathed for it. Singularly focused on my dream of becoming a professional athlete, I dedicated multiple hours per week to improving my skills on and off the field.

But the ACL tear changed everything. It would be at least nine months before I could play soccer again, and I was terrified about what that would mean. Would I now be passed over during the college recruiting process? Was this the beginning of the end?

I felt sorry for myself for several weeks before deciding that I had a choice in how the next steps played out. College soccer or no college soccer, my team now was important to me. While I was recovering at home, I convinced my coach to send me videos of soccer practices so I could stay up to date on our team’s strategy, and I was disciplined about physical therapy as soon as I could after the surgery.

However, I also started pouring my extra time into an unexpected place: history. I’d always been interested in the Cold War, and had listened to a few podcasts about it, but digging in even further made me obsessed with McCarthyism as well as the psychological manipulation that occurred at various levels of government during that time. I wondered: how does peer pressure influence adults, particularly at the highest levels of government? How do people perceive threats to their political survival? Is it possible for politicians to sacrifice themselves on the altar of their morals, or is it more likely that they’ll always act in their own best interests? I could even see these same questions playing out in the political landscape today.

When I went back to school post-surgery, a new ritual began: before hobbling over to the field to watch my team’s soccer practice, I’d be in my AP History teacher’s classroom, picking his brain about whatever topic had claimed my attention that week. He ultimately recommended me for a summer program at a local college that investigated political ethics, where I found a group of friends who shared my interests. To this day, we’re constantly sharing political articles in our group text and discussing them together spiritedly.

Giving myself the space to go in new directions, and to learn more about who I am now, changed everything. I realized I had never challenged my dream of being a professional soccer player, never asked myself if that was what I really wanted until I had to. I’ll always love soccer, and always bring my all to any field I’m on. But I love other things, too, and I now am looking for a space where I can be curious, ask new questions, and push what I think I know in new ways. Where will my current interests lead me? I can’t wait to find out.

For starters, this writer provides a solid level of detail about the injury itself. Rather than saying “I tore my ACL playing football” he gives us some context and detail about where he was, who he was playing with, and what happened. It might seem small, but these details allow us to envision his experience. In the second half of the essay, he also provides specifics about his political interests, including his current questions and curiosities.

Moreover, his essay includes a number of small details that alert us to his drive and dedication. For example, in the eighth paragraph, he could have said, “…a new ritual began: I stopped in to see my AP History teacher before soccer practice.” Instead, he wrote: “…. a new ritual began: before hobbling over to the field to watch my team’s soccer practice, I’d be in my AP History teacher’s classroom….” His language communicates that it was difficult for him to get to both places, even though he doesn’t expressly tell us that.

This writer reflects at the beginning and end of the essay. In the first few paragraphs, he shares what he was thinking and feeling during the aftermath of the ACL tear, which helps us empathize with his situation and understand why it felt so significant. In the final paragraph, he then arrives at some conclusions about the “big picture” and where he plans to go from here.

You may have heard the advice to avoid writing about sports or sports injuries in your college essay, but we’ve seen many students write powerful essays about sports when they lean deeply into how the event or injury affected them on a personal level. This writer did just that, using his injury to demonstrate his resilience, ability to overcome challenges, and willingness to challenge his beliefs. In addition, by asking open-ended questions, he also showcases his intellectual passions/curiosities.

Okay, time to put our skills to the test! The following two essays could use some additional tweaking. Let’s figure out where:

Common app essay examples: essay #7.

Beep. As the cashier passes each item over the scanner, she rolls it in my direction, where I have a growing collection of produce, soup cans, and chip bags. Beep. I sort through the heap, automatically stacking cans and moving eggs and bread to the side. Beep.

“Paper, plastic, or reusable?” I ask.

I started my job as a grocery bagger last summer, and at first, it seemed like it would be easy money. However, on my first day, I quickly learned that bagging groceries was part art, part science.

How hard could this be? I assumed the goal should be to load each bag with as many items as possible, and so placed three jars of spaghetti sauce, canned vegetables, and a half-gallon of milk in one bag, confident that I was being efficient.

Wrong. So, so wrong.

As soon as I lifted the bag toward the cart, the handles ripped off and the entire thing crashed to the floor. The cans rolled in multiple directions; the milk skidded across the tiles in what seemed like slow motion.

No spills. Phew .

I breathed a sigh of relief about those glass jars of sauce…until I picked up the bag. The inside was now a crime scene of tomatoes and broken glass. The cashier rolled her eyes at me and other customers stopped to crane their necks and see what was happening. I wanted to disappear.

“Hey, kid.” An older man limped over to where I was standing and took the bag from my hands. “Why don’t you go grab this lady some new sauce?”

I scurried off to the spaghetti sauce aisle, my cheeks burning with embarrassment. How could I have messed up something as simple as bagging groceries?

I got the sauce and went back. Gerry—as I would soon come to know him—was standing at my bagging station, patiently sorting the customer’s pile of food. When he saw me, he gestured me over.

“Now,” he said. “Here’s what you do. Cans on the bottom, around the outside, see? But only a couple.” He watched me load some in. “No, no, that’s too many.” He took one out. “You should be able to easily lift it, see?” He picked up the bag with one hand.

“Cans around the outside. Good. Now glass in the middle. Take one of these—” he took a spaghetti sauce jar out of my hands and deposited it snugly between the cans. “Good. Now, what else we got? Put the boxes and crushable items on top—look, she’s got granola bars, popcorn. Yep, just like that.”

Gerry supervised me for the rest of the week, teaching me how to handle all kinds of bagging conundrums, like fresh meat (put it in a separate bag); cleaning supplies (don’t put them with the food, in case they leak); recently-misted produce (put another plastic bag over it to keep it from getting the rest of the groceries wet); and eggs (either on top of a mid-weight bag or at the bottom of a light bag. Oh, and tell the customer which bag the eggs are in!).

I’ve quickly learned our customers’ bagging preferences, and cashiers now often request me as their bagger. I’ve also learned that these interactions mean a lot to people, as properly bagged groceries make it easier for people to transport their food home efficiently and in one piece. Most importantly, Gerry taught me that nothing is more essential than your willingness to learn and do your best, no matter what job you find yourself doing.

Gerry retired last month, but I think of him whenever I’m training a new bagger or navigating ripped-bag catastrophes. And when I see a jar of spaghetti sauce coming down the conveyor belt, I can’t help but grin as I place it safely between a few cans.

How this writer could improve his essay:

Which details immerse you in the writer’s world? Do they need to add more?

This writer is doing great with details, making use of imagery to bring us into the narrative. We can clearly envision the groceries coming down the conveyor belt, the cans and jars being packed into bags, and even the writer’s horror at the bags ripping!

There is some reflection at the end of the essay, when the writer tells us what he’s learned. However, we’d love to see this writer do a little more digging. It’s clear that he learned some significant life lessons from Gerry that he’s tried to apply at work and beyond. However, the reflection feels a bit rushed. To strengthen, this writer might consider expanding on how he’s applied the lessons he’s learned as well as what he’s specifically discovered about himself or others in the process of doing so.

He’s willing to learn, is dependable and dedicated, and is committed to mastering new skills. If he could spend a little more time focusing on why his newfound life lessons felt so significant and how he applied them, it would help give admissions officers a better sense of him as both a person and a prospective member of their community.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #8

I needed a four-letter word for “angry” that started with R, a type of eagle most commonly found in the Western United States, and a movie from the 1980s that featured characters named Allison, Brian, and Claire. I tapped my pencil on the side of my father’s hospital bed and then tried a few possibilities. “Rude”? No, the second letter needed to be A. “Rash”?

With my father on dialysis, my mother and I spent hours with him at the treatment center. Several days a week, I’d go straight there after school and do my homework in his room. Once, when I arrived, he had a small crossword puzzle book sitting on the bed and handed it to me with a weak smile.

He fell asleep halfway through the first one, but in the chaos and noise of beeping machines and nurses filtering in and out, and of my brain working overtime wondering how much the treatments would help, the crosswords were a simple yet challenging way to keep me busy. I’d often solve as many clues as I could and then save a few for when he woke up, particularly ones about bands from the 80s, old actors and TV shows, or comic book characters.

The crosswords soon infiltrated every area of my life. I’d work on one on the bus on the way to the hospital, between classes, while I was eating lunch. At first, my friends eyed me strangely, but they caught on to the addictiveness soon enough. There would usually be a group of us crowded around a half-solved puzzle at lunch, shouting out answers and penciling in possibilities.

Unexpectedly, crosswords also became a way to learn more about people I loved. A “Dubai” answer led one of my friends to excitedly share that she had been born there. Another friend enjoyed strategizing which section to attempt first. And I also noticed that my dad had an endless knowledge of politics, recalling past presidential candidates with ease. When I asked him how he could remember all of that, it led to stories about his younger days, doing door-to-door campaigning for local candidates. I was surprised because we’re both introverts, and I would feel so nervous to knock on doors. I asked him if anyone ever got upset about his political beliefs.

He took a minute to answer. “In my experience,” he said slowly. “If someone was upset, it meant that they cared. And if they cared, it meant we had something in common.”

After that conversation, I realized I should be pushing myself past what I thought I was capable of, both in and outside of my puzzles. I now try to take risks that I wouldn’t have taken otherwise, talk to people who I may not have tried to be friends with, and sign myself up for new experiences. In all of these situations, I do my best to learn about other people, just like my father did. It’s my goal to continue doing that in college.

How this writer could improve her essay:

This writer has already included a number of excellent details—specific crossword puzzle clues, the struggle of commuting back and forth to her father’s treatments, etc. She also helps us envision her lunchtime crossword gatherings as well as the new connections she began to make with her friends. However, she could add more details in the final paragraph—what risks has she tried to take? What new experiences has she taken on?

In this essay, notice that one reflection organically leads to another. In paragraph five, the writer tells us that crosswords helped her learn more about people she loved, which leads to additional insights about taking risks and pushing herself outside her comfort zone. However, these realizations don’t quite feel connected yet.

As such, this writer might elect to dig a little deeper into why it’s important to her to learn more about others and take risks. Outside of crossword puzzles, what specific examples can she share? In the process, she might uncover new connections.

Alternatively, she might decide that she wants to focus on one particular direction. Currently, she discusses her relationship with her friends as well as her father. However, she might decide that she wanted to write exclusively about how her deepened connection with her father inspired her to change and broaden her perspective.

They’ll learn that she’s intellectual, likes to challenge herself, and appreciates connection. However, as noted in the previous section, her essay is just starting to connect the dots between experiences and insights. Accordingly, this writer would do well to think about what she would like admissions officers to know and then structure her content more intuitively around that goal.

You’re basically a Common App essay expert now, so let’s switch gears and look at two early-stage freewrites. To strengthen their work, what could these students do next?

Common app essay examples: essay #9.

Last summer, I worked as a camp counselor, and by the last week, I could navigate multiple issues with ease. Between lost shoes, runny noses, and separation anxiety, I felt like I could handle anything that came my way. It hadn’t always been like this, though.

When I first started working as a summer camp counselor, I thought my main objective was to make sure that the campers were always having a positive experience. “Don’t cry!” I would say. “Your mom will be back to pick you up later!” Or “Why are you sad? We’re going to have so much fun today!” But it rarely helped. Sometimes, my advice would only make the kids more upset. Other times, they would look at me accusingly as if I couldn’t possibly have any idea what they were experiencing. I struggled with why my efforts to connect were falling flat.

With the help of my sister, I finally realized that trying to empathize with my campers instead of trying to make them feel happy all the time allowed me to connect with them on a deeper level. I was able to do this by thinking about my own summer camp experiences, and trying to remember how it felt to miss my mom or struggle during a certain activity.

Dealing with our own feelings—and other people’s feelings—is complicated and sometimes doesn’t make any sense. By approaching my campers, my friends, and my family members with empathy and a goal to try to relate to them, I am doing my best to create stronger relationships.

Where this writer could go from here:

First, what does this writer want to share about herself with colleges?

She wants to share how much she values building meaningful connections with others.

Right now, this writer is painting with very broad strokes, and we’d encourage her to add more detail! To bring us into her experience, this writer might try “showing” rather than “telling,” particularly at the beginning of the essay. What types of details could “show” us how she handles different situations as a camp counselor? For example, “Between lost shoes, runny noses, and separation anxiety, I felt like I could handle anything that came my way” might evolve into:

“Miss, do you have a tissue?”

“I’m hungry!”

“I can’t find my shoe…”

There were two packs of tissues in my back pocket, and I handed one to Julian. I reassured Anna that snack time was in ten minutes. And I had seen Michelle’s shoe somewhere…yes! There it was, tucked behind the plant.  

Michelle stuck her shoe on and ran off; Anna begrudgingly joined a group playing hide and seek. But Julian kept crying. I sat down next to him and asked him if he was okay. He told me he missed his mom.

“That’s okay,” I said. “I remember missing my mom at summer camp, too.”

Julian cried for a few more minutes and blew his nose. I asked him if he wanted a drink of water. He shook his head…

Where did this writer reflect on her experience or reveal her thoughts?

Although this writer reflects briefly at the end of the essay, notice that it doesn’t feel earned yet because we haven’t yet learned how she ultimately arrived there. How exactly did she practice and build empathy? How and why has her experience as a summer camp counselor changed the way that she approaches other relationships? If she could lean into specific experiences as well as her own thoughts, feelings, and vulnerabilities, she’d be on her way to a significantly stronger piece.

Common App Essay Examples: Essay #10

For my seventh birthday, my parents got me a chia pet. (I had been asking for a dog, but no such luck.) The chia pet came in a cute gray pot that looked like a hedgehog, and once you planted the seeds and they sprouted, the grass was supposed to look like hair. My parents said if I took this responsibility seriously I could potentially get a more interesting pet (maybe not a dog, but a fish or a Venus fly trap was on the table) so seven-year-old me dove in head-first.

I planted the seeds, set the pot on my window sill, and spritzed it dutifully with a small spray bottle daily. If you’ve ever grown chia seeds, you know that they sprout like crazy. Before I knew it, my chia pet needed a haircut every other day, and my parents were instantly regretting their promise to upgrade my pet roster.

But now, I didn’t want a fish or a dog. I wanted more plants. Soon enough, my window sill was covered with plants, and I’ve spent the past ten years growing my collection even larger. I’ve taken my efforts outside, too, redoing my family’s garden and teaching my friends and family about how to choose plants for their yards.

My seven-year-old self merely wanted a pet to take care of, and had no idea that my first chia pet would lead me to where it has today. I still remember the excitement I felt about the possibility of expanding my collection, an excitement that I continue to feel as I learn about plants.  In college, I want to major in horticulture, with an emphasis on sustainable spaces. I’ve found that a lot of people want to make changes to their space and be more sustainable, but they’re not sure how to do that. If I could be the one who teaches them how, I’d absolutely love it.

First, what does this writer want to share about himself with colleges?

He’s passionate about growing plants, which has not only shaped his extracurricular activities (he interns at a greenhouse) but also what he wants to study in college.

This writer starts off very strong, with a humorous and very specific anecdote about his very first plant. To continue bringing readers into his story and help them connect with who he is now , he’ll want to continue incorporating that same level of detail throughout the essay. At the moment, a whole ten-year period of his life is summarized rather quickly. Providing specific examples that help us understand how his journey unfolded over time would be a powerful addition.

Writing about formative childhood memories in college essays is completely fine as long as approximately half the essay—and the reflection in particular—centers on who you are now and how you’ve grown. Notice that his current reflection focuses heavily on what he was thinking and feeling as a seven-year-old. Instead, he’ll want to lean into the excitement that he currently feels. Why is his plant collection so meaningful to him, and what about horticulture continues to interest and excite him? Are there particular topics that he’s passionate about or has had the opportunity to explore further during his internship? How does he know that he wants to work with people to create sustainable spaces?

Note: if this student’s love of plants had stayed firmly rooted in the past (i.e., the love of plants hadn’t progressed past age seven and had no bearing on current interests), we would have advised against this essay topic.

Final Thoughts – Common App Essay Examples

The college personal statement is an important part of the application that can reveal more about who you are and what you’ll bring to a college campus. Studying the genre is an essential part of being well-prepared to do your best writing, an exercise that includes understanding the essay’s purpose as well as its essential elements. When used appropriately, Common App essay examples can be an insightful addition to any writing process. Relax, be yourself, and know that admissions officers are eager to get to know you –the real, multidimensional, interesting person–behind the application.

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Kelsea Conlin

Kelsea holds a BA in English with a concentration in Creative Writing from Tufts University, a graduate certificate in College Counseling from UCLA, and an MA in Teaching Writing from Johns Hopkins University. Her short fiction is forthcoming in Chautauqua .

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10 Exceptional Common App Essay Examples

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Common App Essay Examples

One of the most important pieces of the college admissions process is the Common App essay, also known as the college essay or the personal statement. By reading Common App essay examples, you can prepare to write your own. 

However, what is a personal statement? In a word, a personal statement is an essay you’ll write for college. We will learn more about what makes a great personal statement by exploring sample Common App essays. In fact, the best way for students to ace this type of essay is through dissecting Common App essay examples to see what works. 

Breaking down the Common App essay

In this article, we’ll use Common App essay examples to explore what makes a strong personal statement. We’ll break down what makes each of these Common App essay examples successful. That way, you can find inspiration and tools to unlock the best version of your own college entrance essays. We will also provide tips for coming up with college essay ideas and finding a college application essay format that works for your story.

At CollegeAdvisor, our goal is to demystify the college admissions process for all students. As such, we’ll also introduce you to many resources about how to write a college essay. Wherever you are in the process of writing your Common App essay, you’ll find these Common App essay examples helpful.

How to Write a Personal Statement – 5 Personal Statement Examples

What is a Common App essay?

The first step in writing a college essay is understanding the varying types of college essays. When students look up “what is a personal statement?” they are likely to come across many articles about sample Common App essays. Indeed, personal statement sample essays are often the same as Common App essay examples. While there are many other types of college essays, such as supplemental essays, the Common App essay/personal statement is extremely important. 

Let’s first explore one major question: what is a personal statement?

Whether you are applying to undergrad, grad school, or a scholarship, the personal statement is a general term for an essay that introduces you to admissions officers. As such, personal statement sample essays must tell a unique story about you that conveys who you are. They should showcase your personality traits, values, and personal growth. With this story, you are showing admissions teams what kind of person and community member you will be when you step onto their campus. For this reason, no two personal statement sample essays are identical.

Understanding the Common App essay

Now, let’s explore what the Common App essay is. A Common App essay is a personal statement submitted through the Common App. Astoundingly, over 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States use the Common App as an application platform. As a result, when you apply to college, you will almost definitely use the Common App. This is why there are so many Common App essay examples out there.

All Common App essay examples are 250-650 wo r ds long. Since students can apply to multiple schools using the Common App, the Common App essay examples we provide were likely submitted to several different colleges. Note how these sample Common App essays are personal to the student but still general enough to work for different schools. 

Do all schools require a Common App essay?

common app essay examples

Besides wondering “what is a personal statement?”, many students wonder if they need one for every school.  As we mentioned, many universities in the U.S. use the Common App . However, the personal statement, also known as the Common App essay, is not required by all schools. 

For example, the Universi t y of Washington-Seattle does not accept the Common App essay even though students can apply using the Common App. However, the school has different college entrance essay requirements . These appear when you select a school on your Common App portal. 

Encouraged but not required

Some schools encourage but do not require students to submit a college entrance essay. For example, Bridgewater State University encourages students to write a college entrance essay, but it’s not mandatory. In this case, we still recommend submitting an essay, since every part of an application is a chance to showcase who you are and why you’re a compelling candidate. 

Furthermore, some schools do not require essays at all. In fact, they won’t even read your college entrance essay should you submit one. These schools, one of which is the University of South Florida , rely exclusively on other measures such as grades, test scores, or extracurriculars to make their college admissions decisions.

Though all schools don’t require a Common App essay, many do. They also might require supplemental essays. As such, it’s important to start preparing your essays early by first reading Common App essay examples. This will help you learn what makes a great college essay.

Common App Essay Prompts

the college essay guy common app essay

The second question students might ask after ”what is a personal statement?” is “what do I write about?”

Luckily, the Common App gives you plenty of college essay ideas through the college essay topics it provides. All of the Common App essay examples we will look at responded to one of the current prompts. 

Let’s review the seven current prompts that inspired our Common App essay examples:

Current Common App Essay 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..

When looking at these prompts, you’ll note that they are all asking you to be reflective. Indeed, all common app essay examples and college essays that worked involve the student engaging in self-reflection. As such, it matters less what you write about and more what deeper meaning the topic at hand has to you. Successful sample Common App essays demonstrate that the author is a deep thinker.

Choose your own topic

Furthermore, note that prompt #7 allows you to submit an essay on any topic of your choice. So, if none of the first six prompts inspire you, you can focus on another topic of your choice that is meaningful to you.

There is no one-size-fits-all college application essay format. Indeed, all of the Common App essay examples we will explore take different approaches to telling their stories. 

As we look at Common App essay examples, take note of how students were self-reflective and demonstrated their unique passion for a topic. We’ll dig into how they accomplish this as we review each of these college essays that worked.

How to use these Common App Essay Examples

common app essay examples

Before we look at sample Common App essays, let’s discuss how you can use these examples of college essays to support you in writing your own.

First, avoid the impulse to compare your life to other students’ stories in these Common App essay examples. These sample Common App essays are great tools because of the students’ reflections. It truly doesn’t matter what you write about so long as you can do it in a meaningful way that shows personal growth and self-awareness. Great personal statement sample essays can be written about the most mundane or common topics . So, don’t compare your life experiences with those of other students. Simply add these Common App essay examples to your college essay writing toolbox and understand what works.

Reflect on how you want to tell your story

Secondly, use these Common App essay examples to find inspiration for how you wish to tell your story. Do these Common App essay examples use dialogue that really makes a scene come to life? Maybe a few sample Common App essays discuss topics you hadn’t realized you could write about, giving you ideas for new college essay topics. Drawing inspiration from Common App essays that worked is distinct from copying their ideas or language. So, don’t try to imitate any of these essays. Rather, use them as a tool to enhance your own unique essays. 

Finally, take note of what you learn about the writers of these sample Common App essays. Then, look at yourself through the same lens. What do you want college admission officers to learn about you? Your college entrance essay is your chance to show that.

Common App Essay Examples #1

sample common app essays

The first of our sample Common App essays discusses a topic that many students might assume is too ordinary: a student’s love of books. After reading each of our sample Common App essays, we’ll break down what makes them strong Common App essay examples.

Sample Common App Essays #1: Books and Identity

Under the harshly fluorescent lights of an aisle in Walmart, I take position amidst the rows of plastic silverware, paper towels, and household goods while my mother searches for supplies she needs for a Fourth of July party. Neither the faint swells of an outdated and overplayed pop song nor the hustle and bustle of a retail store on a holiday weekend reach my ears because as usual, my nose is buried in a book. My mother calls to me, but her voice barely registers and I ignore her, shifting in the spot I have designated for myself aside the packages of Hefty trash bags on the bottom shelf.

She finally finds me, and I reluctantly tear my concentration away from the page. “I’ll just stay here,” I say, buying myself precious time in which I can finish the next sentence, paragraph, or chapter of the novel, and I sink contentedly back into a state of mind where I am entirely myself and nothing, not even other customers searching for trash bags, can disturb me.

This memory is not an uncommon one for me. As a child, I could always be found in stores or restaurants with my latest literary pick in hand. I constantly nagged my parents to bring me to the library or bookstore; this was a constant even as I went through “phases” as I grew up, dabbling in music and theater with temporary or half-hearted enthusiasm. Other children dressed up as astronauts or princesses, but I took on roles of different people as I struggled to find myself.

As I grow older and continue to explore different interests, my love for reading has sparked my intellectual curiosity and taught me valuable life lessons. Reading was an escape during a time when I didn’t quite know who I wanted to be. Now it marks the cornerstone of who I’ve become. I’ve read just as many books about fictional villains and heroes as those about regular people who face the same struggles I do. For me, it’s these kinds of books, stories of people not so different than myself, that have changed and defined my outlook on life. 

One such book is I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson, a story of twins and their difficulty finding their own identity in a world where they are bound together. Noah, one of the twins, describes how he feels he is always “undercover.” He says, “‘Maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people. Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time. Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, […] grow, dive into the world.’” I was unable to realize a person could be defined by multiple aspects of himself.

My tendency to try to fit into a specific role proved to be unsuccessful, but one of my different “selves” was always a part of me, even when taking on the role of someone I didn’t want to be. A love for reading is not a temporary persona I put on to appease parents, friends, or college admissions officers. The reader of a story has an unique perspective of the mind of a character. Because of this, I have realized the true depth and intricacy every person and situation can hold.

I struggled with defining my own identity, with labeling who I was, but now I know every person is much too complex to be defined by a label as simplistic as “athlete” or “musician.” So although it might be assumed that an individual pursuing an engineering degree does not enjoy reading, I am grateful for my love of books, as it is with this passion that I find myself ready to “dive into the world.”

Why this essay worked

As we mentioned earlier, it may feel difficult to come up with college essay ideas. This student chose a topic that some might consider mundane— their love of reading. However, the student is successful because they show how reading has been a critical part of their identity and personal development. 

In this essay, the student tells us how reading was an escape from the pressure she felt to define who she was. Later, reading became an integral part of her identity as a learner intrigued by stories. Given that the student plans to major in engineering, this fact adds depth and intrigue to the student’s personal brand. A college admissions officer would find this student an appealing candidate because they will likely be engaged and passionate. Through this example, we see that any topic can be a successful one if it is important to the reader and connects to a core aspect of their identity.

Lastly, as we see in many great examples of college essays, this student includes many details. They even reference dialogue from a favorite book, further illustrating their love of reading. 

Now, let’s look at a very different college application essay format in the second of our Common App Essay examples.

Sample Common App Essay #2

common app essay examples

The second of our Common App essay examples takes the unique—and potentially challenging—approach of talking about another person. In this essay, the author describes her relationship with Sophia, a child with special needs that she meets while volunteering. 

The author’s essay is in response to prompt #3 of the Common App essay prompts: 

Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Not many Common App essay examples respond to this prompt. Let’s see how this student tackles it.

Common App Essay #2: Challenging Bias about Ability

I see Sophia and wave, laughing at her leaps of excitement that brighten my day. Sophia grins up at me, pointing at her two missing front teeth, and I marvel at how grown-up she is becoming. Deciding to capitalize on her boundless exuberance, I suggest we work on her backstroke, her least favorite. Sensing her reluctance to lie flat on the water, I point out the purple monkey and the giraffe on the ceiling, coaxing her to relax on her back and practice a few kicks. I know that with this distraction, she will slowly uncoil her arms from my waist, gaining the confidence to float on her own. Beaming, I praise her courage, offering a congratulatory high-five. Proud of today’s improvements, I hand her the dreaded kickboard. Sophia’s dimples vanish as she vigorously shakes her head, inching away from the terrifying aqua board.

Recognizing this fear, I remember a trick she loved from the previous lesson. I promise to teach her how to do an under-water handstand, and in response, she tentatively grasps the board with one hand, while clinging to me with the other. I then challenge her to splash me as hard as she can with powerful freestyle kicks, and laugh as my face is soon drenched with water. Clapping, I marvel at her ability to propel herself without any assistance, and to celebrate, we belt out “Let It Go” from Frozen together. My giggles vanish and my heart aches as she begins to recollect the long needles from her latest hospital visit, but I am amazed to see that her laugh never ceases.

Sophia has special needs. Despite her mental challenges, her bubbly and infectious personality never fails to be an uplifting inspiration. I marvel at how this 10-year-old has learned to fully appreciate the life she has been given and cherish each precious moment. In and out of surgeries, hospitals, and clinics, she still exhibits an unparalleled enthusiasm for life.

Sophia’s determination coupled with her bright personality inspires me to embrace optimism in my life. I am passionate about enabling Sophia to break down any perceived obstacles and stereotypes in front of her and lead an active life, just like any other child. Though I go in each week as the teacher, I leave having been her student. Each evening after volunteering, I would lie awake, tossing and turning, wondering how I could do more for Sophia. Prior to volunteering, I often took for granted that I have sports and activity programs readily available. But with far more athletes than coaches in the program, why did more of my peers not volunteer? Why did more people not know about the special gifts people with disabilities radiate?

Yearning to share my experience with others, I founded a club at my school called HandiCapable, encouraging my peers to volunteer with people who have special needs through sports mentoring. I hope to encourage my school community to see that people with mental disabilities are people first, facing challenges like us all. I fought to change an underlying culture where people with intellectual disabilities are mocked or misunderstood in today’s society by spearheading a campaign to eliminate the word “retarded.” Breaking away from using hurtful and derogatory colloquialisms is the first step towards understanding and compassion, altering the way we think, speak, and ultimately act.

Sophia has taught me that nothing is insurmountable if you have courage, foresight and above all, a positive attitude. She has driven me to be more accepting of people who may seem initially quite different, but face challenges like I do. She has inspired me to be more appreciative of uniqueness, because everyone has an individual personality and perspective from which I can learn. Sophia has changed how I view the world.

What makes this a successful essay ?

Writing about another person when applying to college can be tricky. Many sample Common App essays write so much about the other person that they forget to center the author. However, in this essay, the author demonstrates the impact that Sophia had on her, centering her own experiences. In doing so, it highlights how Sophia taught the author to face challenges with joy and courage. 

The student also answers the prompt fully and in detail. Specifically, the writer discusses how her experience with Sophia led her to challenge ableist thought. Moreover, the author tells the reader how her inspiration led her to create a club at her school. By doing this, she demonstrates her own leadership skills and activist mindset. In short, we learn a lot about the author even though this essay is about someone who inspired her.

For our third sample, we’ll give into the challenging world of Common App essay examples that talk about sports.

Personal Statement Sample Essay #3

sample common app essays

Many examples of college essays talk about a sport that a student has played for a long time. Writing about this topic can be difficult. At times, students spend too much time talking about the details of the sport rather than their experiences. 

In the third of our sample Common App essays, the author shows us how her relationship to gymnastics changes over her lifetime. In doing so, she reveals a lot about her character. Let’s take a look:

Personal Statement Sample Essays #3: Perseverance and Commitment through Gymnastics 

Gymnastics has always been a part of my life and has shaped who I am today. Without gymnastics I would not have the same determined mindset, competitive nature, and appreciation of a team. If I were to neglect sharing this aspect of my life, my application would truly be incomplete.

When I was two years old, my parents enrolled me in the Parent-and-Me program at Countryside Gymnastics. At six, I became part of the pre-team program, Dynamos, and was placed in the compulsory team at age seven.  As a compulsory, I struggled to be as good as my teammates. This struggle caused frustration which evolved into determination and a competitive nature. Throughout the rest of my compulsory years, I gradually improved but still felt as though I were stuck. I knew I had to “up my game.”

The optional levels, 7 and up, brought a new factor—fear. Even though this fear did hold me back at times, I did not let it keep me from achieving my goals. Gymnastics is also extremely tough on the body. Once I entered the optional level of gymnastics, I trained at least 20 hours a week and endured the aches and pains that came along with it. However, I did not let these pains defeat me. When I reached level 9, I began to experience severe back pain, which a spine specialist diagnosed as a subcutaneous lipoma. Although the physician highly recommended I stop training to avoid complications later in life, I was too committed to stop the sport.  I let my desire push me through the pain, and I had a successful competition season, qualifying for the Region 8 Regional Competition in Jackson, Mississippi. 

During summer training in 2013, I worked as hard as possible to reach level 10, with the back pain progressively worsening. Once my pain peaked, my coach told me it may be time to “hang it up.” I could either quit or repeat level 9 with minimal training. Ultimately, the choice was mine. To prove I was capable of reaching level 10 and to support my team, I continued to train on a vigorous schedule. At level 10, I am the highest level gymnast at Countryside Gymnastics and am determined to have an exceptional competition season.

This determination and competitiveness that pushes me to accomplish my goals in gymnastics also exists in my current scholastics—the health sciences, which will ultimately prepare me for my future in pediatric medicine. Without the desire to be the best I can be, I might not have achieved success throughout my high school years.

Why this essay worked 

Some sample Common App essays that write about sports focus too heavily on the sport. In doing so, they fail to tell us much about the author. However, colleges want to know about you!

This author writes about what gymnastics has meant to her throughout her life. This gives us a window into how she thinks, what she fears, and how she handles challenges. Through describing how she pushed forward when faced with injuries or fear, she shows us how she will succeed in college and in life.

Common App Essay Examples #4

common app essay examples

Many Common App essay examples attempt to subtly weave in achievements. However, in the fourth of our sample Common App essays, the author takes a bold move. This essay talks about how the author handles failure, revealing critical details about their character. Some might assume that successful Common App essay examples need to focus on “successes,” not failures. However, this essay shows how failure can be a good essay topic choice—if you address it the right way.

Let’s see how one student skillfully tackles the topic of failure.

Sample Common App Essays #4: A New Perspective on Failure

Stretching my ankle against the theraband, my pre-pointe teacher hands out evaluations, determining who will move up to pointe shoes. The TheraBand, worn from months of strengthening in hopes of earning pointe shoes, snaps as I eagerly grab my evaluation. Dumbfounded, I wonder how all my friends were advancing to pointe while I wasn’t. Maybe my body is not built for ballet, I conceded.

A year later, the server on the other side of the net serves the ball with a loud smack. The ball hurdles towards me in seemingly slow motion. Other players yell my name, encouraging me. I need to pass the ball, or else I won’t make the middle school volleyball team. Positioning myself, I bend my knees, and… I hit it out of the court. 

Defeated, I accept the rejection with the mindset that my lack of athleticism is permanent. 

The following fall, walking out of the audition room and having made it successfully past the first round, I was dizzy and elated. Moments prior, I perfectly performed an excerpt from a piece I prepared for 3 months and was about to play yet another excerpt, which would determine whether I would make the district honors band. Breathing rhythmically, my fingers glide over the familiar scales, my heart thumps the beat of the piece, and I triumph in my second successful audition of the evening. The results the next day were disappointing. I thought about how my mother is tone deaf, and decided that was the reason I would never be successful in my musical aspirations.

Regarding my failures as something out of my control was a recurring theme in my life. Reflecting on past experiences, I am not sure when the thought that my abilities were unchangeable began to prevail. However, I am aware of when the toxic mindset began to change.

For years, I had marveled at long distance runners. Their athleticism and ability to persistently push onwards in a race was something I lacked in my life and simultaneously desired. Spring of my freshman year of high school, I decided I wanted to join the Cross-Country team. However, joining a sport in high school tended to be very difficult, due to the fact current players had already been participating for years prior. Despite anxiety about possibly “failing” at something again, I tried anyways. After careful research and planning, I set a schedule of running and cross training six days a week. Beginning in March, I developed the capability to keep up with experienced teammates by the time the pre-season began in June.  With determination, I trained myself from a 12-minute mile runner to a 7-minute mile runner and a competitive Cross-Country athlete.

For the first time, I realized something: Failure does not define me. Instead, it drives me to succeed.

Having previously believed negative qualities cannot be changed, self-training for a sport revealed situations are not permanent. Whatever I lack in inherent talent can always be made up for in hard work and strategic planning. Innately, I am self-motivated and resilient.  Once I realized this, obtaining my goals was a possibility, and eventually, a reality. 

Because of my newfound self-awareness, pursuing goals is efficient and organized, and often produces favorable results. I no longer believe traits, such as my body type or genetic predisposition for music, restrict my ability to achieve. Instead, they are simply obstacles to be overcome. 

Letting shortcomings or events define my future or limit my aspirations is a thing of the past. What truly defines me is my ability to push past rejection and continually better myself – no matter what version of myself I am at the moment. 

Why did this essay work well?

One approach that successful personal statement sample essays could take is focusing on an unexpected topic. Throughout this essay, the author plays with the idea of failure. They introduce us to many specific moments in life when they have failed. 

As the essay moves forward, the author’s perspective on failure shifts. They learn that through their failures, they can identify ways to improve. They also realize that their own perceptions of their abilities shape how they set goals and whether they achieve them. Essentially, this student tells us through stories how they have developed a growth mindset. This is something that college admissions officers highly value in applicants.

The best Common App essay examples showcase traits that are both true to the author and appealing to colleges. Think about how to do this as you craft your own essays.

Sample Common App Essay #5

common app essay examples

Personal statement sample examples are incredibly personal, and this next example is no different. Here, we’ll learn about a tradition that the author values deeply—spending Saturday mornings with family. 

Common App Essays that Worked #5: Family Values

I relish Saturday mornings. After a long week of rushed early mornings and drawn-out nights filled with studying, Saturday is the reward. My eyes open at my own pace. Weekdays, I awaken at 6:45 a.m. to the harsh sound of my cell phone alarm or my mom calling through my bedroom door. But not on Saturday, on that day, I rise to the sound of birds chirping or my dad moving around downstairs. Stretching for a long moment, I just enjoy staring at the ceiling. I am content after an extra hour and half of sleep.

Slowly, I leave my warm bed, throw on a comfy sweater and place my glasses on my head. It’s a welcome change from my weekday routine. I do not miss forcing my sleepy body out of bed, slipping into my itchy uniform, or forcing contacts into my tired eyes. When I make my way down the steps I am greeted by my dad reading the newspaper in his favorite leather armchair rather than my full backpack in the foyer.

These relaxing mornings offer me a much-needed break. For once, I’m not rushing off to school or soccer practice. Any essays I need to write or physics tests I must study for can wait a while. 

I take the time to just sit on the couch and read a book or watch TV. I can do everything I want or do nothing at all.

However, the true highlights of these mornings occur when I am sitting at the kitchen table with my crossword puzzle and pencil on my right and my breakfast plate and hot mug of tea on my left. Between bites of pancake, I share tricky crossword clues with my family. My mom looks up from the sports section to carefully consider the hint and my sisters bombard me with suggestions but it’s usually my dad, standing over the griddle flipping pancakes, who calls out the correct answer. As I find contentment in a meal, the Puzzles and Games section of the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the company of my family, I realize that it truly is the little things in life that mean the most.

I appreciate my dad who works long hours but still gets up to cook a big weekend breakfast for my family and the way that he serves me tea in my mom’s white college mug because he knows it’s my favorite. My sisters’ and I laugh playfully as we compete over who’s the strongest and tease me because I’m the weakest. I shake my head and smile at my mom who insists that she can eat three pieces of French Toast even though we all know she’ll barely finish two. To someone else, lazy Saturdays and family breakfasts may appear so routine, so insignificant. But to me, these moments are perfect.

This essay proves that sample Common App essays that worked don’t have to be about a huge life event. In fact, this student is writing about the most common aspects of everyday life: spending time with family. However, the way the student writes about their family demonstrates a lot about the student’s character. We learn that this student values the little things in life and cares deeply for others. 

Secondly, by using specific details, from crossword puzzles to coffee mugs, this essay highlights the author’s love for their family. This student masters the age-old writing advice of “show, don’t tell.” This approach keeps Common App essay examples intriguing and fun to read. 

Personal Statement Sample Essay #6

sample common app essays

There isn’t one successful college application essay format or topic. However, writing about a pivotal moment in one’s life can lead to a very compelling story. Though it can be difficult, this student chooses to be vulnerable about how a catastrophic injury changed their life.

Common App Essay Examples #6: Lessons from an Injury

When I finally woke for the first time in three days, I could feel needles dancing up and down my legs where there were none, and when the doctor asked me to wiggle my toes, there was not even a flicker. Regarding my condition, the doctor told me, “Your skiing accident has left you paralyzed. Permanently.” 

In Korea, where I was born, a disability is considered very shameful. Many see people with disabilities as aliens of society. People with disabilities in Asian countries rarely leave the house due to the inaccessible nature of the society and the unbearable piercing stares of the surrounding community members. Seeing this as my only possible life in a wheelchair, the people closest to me repeatedly etched into my brain that without the use of my legs, I could never be successful or happy–a forever pitied human being.

As my church and family members visited me after my injury and saw me in the wheelchair, they reacted in shock, saying, “I’m sorry. I really hope you walk again.” As they tried to console me, I could feel their deep pity. Before even asking if I was okay, or how I was doing, my immobile legs had already drawn in their minds a picture of my bleak future. 

As apologies and condolences were continuously thrown at me, I started to believe that everyone was right. Maybe I was just a burden. Maybe I would not ever be happy. Enveloped in a façade of darkness, for so many days, I merely sat in bed begging my legs to move again. 

I would be lying if I claimed I suddenly woke up one day and was completely happy again. But through weeks and months, I started to discover that if I continued to look to my surroundings for motivation or support, I would not find it. To everyone else, my church members, my family, I had just become “that girl in the wheelchair.” But I knew I could not just give up on my aspirations or conform to the definitions that I had been labeled with due to one physical attribute.

Through my experiences after my injury, I started to notice so much, especially the lack of diversity in the workplace, and the support that this fact gave to existing societal stereotypes. I started to wonder, how would my experience after my accident have changed, or how much encouragement would I have received if I saw a doctor, teacher, nurse, that had the same abilities as I did? Motivated, I began to involve myself more, and started to work harder academically, so that one day, through my life, I can become this strength and encouragement for someone else. 

Many people, seeing me driving, or even just sitting at the movie theater, come up to me and tell me that I’m an inspiration. They tell me how amazing I am for just having gotten dressed in the morning and leaving the house. Honestly, these actions should not be considered inspiring. I’m just living my life. But because of the many prejudiced opinions towards the disability community, opinions that I too once held, the fact that a person in a wheelchair can complete even just everyday activities is considered a great feat. 

Someday, I want to be someone that inspires, not because I can get dressed or talk for myself, but because I have really accomplished something that significantly influences the world. 

Yes, there are times when I wish I could just get up and walk. However, these moments are temporary and trifling. It scares me to think that without the occurrence of my accident, I may have remained living with the traditional and well-known biases regarding disability and other differences that exist in society. Then, I may have been a true pitiful character. 

Today, I am Korean and still, a person with a disability. But I am proud. 

A common assumption is that college essays that worked simply highlight a major hardship or tragic life event. However, this is simply not true. Common App essay examples about hardships are successful only if they show how the author grew from an experience. 

In this essay, the student shares how their skiing accident changed the way they were treated, thereby changing how they viewed themselves. Rather than feeling pitiful or less-than, this student discovered a newfound determination to positively influence the world. Their perseverance is seen not only in surviving an accident, but in overcoming the limitations society places on people with disabilities. 

Common App Essay Examples #7

sample common app essays

Many powerful sample Common App essays tap into core aspects of the human experience. This often includes how we navigate our identities– especially in an ever-globalizing world. The following example of Common App essays that worked tackles that topic with grace.  

Sample Personal Statement #7: Embracing Heritage, Integrating Identity 

“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” 

Six words. Six words were all it took for Ernest Hemingway to embody the sorrow of a family after losing a child. It seems almost impossible to so elegantly summarize a life in six words. 

I received this seemingly impossible assignment in AP Language a year ago. How could I encapsulate my seventeen years of life into six words? Would those words sound funny, poignant, dark? I reflected on important moments that shaped me as a person to answer my questions. 

I reminisced about my early years: two loving parents and a playful younger sister. During those years, my parents instilled in me their most important values: meaningful academic pursuit, following our Indian traditions, and preserving cultural heritage.

I remembered the first time I faced the struggle that would tear me apart for the next twelve years: values ingrained in me as a child versus values my friends and the society around me possessed. As I grew older, I learned just how different my friends’ values were from mine. 

Throughout my middle school and freshman years, I had two sets of friends: my school friends and my travel basketball friends. The former focused on social status rather than academics; the latter focused on athletics rather than academics. To fit in, I created another persona for myself: someone who focused singularly on social status and athletics. This decision to change my personality based on my surroundings cost me my drive for academic pursuit, and I threw away educational opportunities. I lost sight of who I was and what held true meaning for me. 

At that time, my six words would’ve been: “Flip a coin, American or Indian.” For the next two years, I lived by that mantra.

My struggle with balancing the two-sided coin ended in tenth grade by a chance conversation with a cousin in India. As she described her social struggles and their limiting effects on her educational opportunities, I realized how fortunate I was to be in the U.S. I held my destiny in my hands; all I had to do was to reshape my mind. The dissonance created by compartmentalizing my two important sides prevented me from moving forward, and I had to bridge the distance I had created between my Indian heritage and living as an American. 

I embraced my cultural heritage by immersing myself into Bharatanatyam, an Indian classical dance, and passionately committing to it by completing a rigorous 3-year Certificate Course with Alagappa University of Performing Arts. In order to share my art with the community, I performed for neurologically challenged senior citizens residing in assisted living homes. Through this service, I was able to spread joy and culture amongst my American community, helping me bridge my cultural gap. 

Additionally, my upbringing had been focused on science with an expectation that my career would be in the medical field. Eventually, I developed an affinity toward science. Growing up, I was exposed to the American ideal that I can shape my own opportunities, pursue whichever career I desired, and just follow my heart. I found myself naturally attracted to journalism, and following my heart I ventured into journalism. 

Still, a key part of me was missing, and I found it only after conversing with my journalism teacher. She was describing an article by Helen Pearson, renowned science journalist, when it hit me: this is what I wanted to do. Science journalism was the product of my Indian upbringing and go-getter American attitude. That cathartic conversation is all that was needed to find the perfect career path for me. 

My cultural confusion turned out to be the springboard I needed for discovering balance, finding a potential career, arming me with rich life experiences, and allowing me to write the six words that transformed my life and that I still stand by:

“Shape my mind, shape my destiny.”

What makes this essay great ?

For students coming from multiple cultures or marginalized identities, writing a personal statement can be a healing form of self-reflection. Indeed, many successful Common App essay examples touch on this topic. However, as always, writing about it with intention and care is ultimately what makes these personal statement sample essays work. 

As an Indian-American, this student feels torn between connecting to their Indian heritage and integrating within their American community. They overcome this inner conflict by reframing how they view their identity, rejecting the either-or paradox they felt caught in. They even intentionally immerse themself in their Indian culture and share it with others through volunteer work. From their reflection, they discover how science journalism could be a career that merges all parts of their identity.

Compelling Common App essay examples are written engagingly . This author hooks us from the start of their essay with an intriguing quote that immediately catches the reader’s attention. They also bring that hook back to show us how changing their mindset allowed them to overcome their inner conflict.

Our next example of Common App essays that worked brings together two topics that the author feels passionate about. In doing so, the author doubles their ways to showcase who they are. 

Sample Common App Essay #8

sample common app essays

All Common App essays that worked have touched upon a topic that is meaningful to the author. This next author wrote about two – their love of Rubik’s cubes and scientific research.

Common App Essay Examples #8: Rubik’s Cubes and Research

The complex array of colors had always baffled me. Orange, yellow, green, red, white, and blue all jumbled together on a mystifying gadget that just could not be completed. Twisting and turning side after side was of no use, the Rubik’s Cube could not be solved. This elaborate contraption presented me with the most overwhelming experience of my life. It outshined everything else in my dull life, and solving it became a life-changing experience.

I spent many weeks trying to find different combinations that could solve the mysterious puzzle. After continuously failing, I felt infuriated. However, rather than giving up on my goal, I knew I could do it. I worked backwards until I realized what I did wrong early in the solving process. I kept forgetting to do a critical step, causing me to get two colors in their wrong spots. Knowing this, I was able to alter my procedure and make significant progress. I was finally able to solve four out of the six sides over the course of 45 seconds. Solving the last two sides, however, needed a little more time and effort. My affection for mathematics and science stems mainly from this- both involve a similarly coherent and disciplined approach just like the Rubik’s Cube. 

This past summer, I did research work at Columbia University Medical Center on ion channel membrane proteins and studied their structure and function in the ultimate goal to find drug targets to help cure cancer. When some research experiments provided dubious outcomes, I was given the assignment of checking that the viruses we were working with had been identified correctly. I spent weeks running DNA gels through gel electrophoresis and trying to find specific genes in each virus, but I had varying results. I was exasperated, but rather than giving up on my task, I thought about my past experience with the Rubik’s Cube. Working backwards on the Rubik’s Cube helped me figure out exactly at which step I went wrong.

So I decided to work backwards on my research until I reached the source, the primers, I had used to amplify the DNA and specify the desired mutations were nonspecific, thus making them ineffective in distinguishing the six genes of interest to us. Knowing this, I was able to modify my experiments accordingly, looking at protein content instead of DNA sequences. I was finally able to prove that four of the six viruses were correct. The last two, however, needed to be reanalyzed. Just like the troubleshooting strategy with the Rubik’s Cube, working backwards helped me to find my source of error and ultimately got me 4/6 th of the way through my goal.  My research work was crucial to the graduate student whom I was working with, and he was able to redesign his experiments to account for the fifth and sixth viruses.

Researching in a lab alongside a renowned professor was a thrilling experience for me. I gave up hanging out with my friends on the beach and chose to work with chemicals and viruses instead. My urge to understand these proteins was the driving force of my research. I am incredibly proud of my contribution to solving the puzzle of cancer. It was a small piece, but vital nevertheless. This cerebral inspiration, combined with an aspiration to learn more about life’s ambiguities, compels me to chase a profession with scientific research.

The sense of self-satisfaction and achievement I felt from my research work at the Columbia University was much the same as that I felt upon solving the Rubik’s Cube. This sensation is one I hope to experience throughout my life as the cancer puzzle is unequivocally one of the most critical puzzles of the modern era and certainly the first of a myriad of puzzles I hope to solve in the field of scientific discovery. 

Why this Essay Worked

This sample combines two college essay ideas flawlessly. First, the student introduces us to their love of Rubik’s cubes. Then, they flow into their love of research and the impact they made through their summer internship at a cancer research lab. 

The real power comes in how the student uses their approach to Rubik’s cubes in order to overcome a roadblock in their research. By doing so, the student highlights their problem-solving skills alongside their compassion for others. In this, this essay highlights the writer’s wish to positively impact the world. We can learn a lot about crafting a strong college application essay format from this example.

Our next sample of Common App essays that worked highlights a student’s passion for language . Moreover, it uses a hook and a writing style that makes it a standout essay.

Personal Statement Sample Essay #9

common app essay examples

When thinking about how to write a college essay, start by thinking: what could I talk about all day? Great Common App essay examples often focus on passions. This author introduces us to one of their passions—the written word—through a story about an influential English teacher.

Common App Essay Examples #9: A Love for Language 

It is like selecting the perfect pair of socks, I suppose. I envision myself kneeling before the bottommost drawer of my bureau, my chilled feet egging me on, and perusing the trove of choices that awaits my roving fingertips. I meditate on the day’s promises before making my selection – now, did the weatherman say 65 or 55 degrees? Was that rain the Farmers’ Almanac called for? Perhaps I should just wear sandals. After a few more moments of inspection: Ah – there it is! Of perfect hue, texture, and temperament, it is exactly the article for which I sought.

There exists a great parallel between this, the daily hosiery search that begins my mornings, and my lifelong pursuit of the perfect word. Socks and words, both objects of my affection, are united in their enduring qualities: both involve a weighty decision, require a certain shrewdness and pragmatism from the selector, and offer nearly endless options that only intensify the quandary. However, in seventeen years of interaction with both, I informedly pronounce that I find the latter to be infinitely more cumbersome, convoluted, and, thus, beautiful. 

My rendezvous with language began as all children’s do: with crying. On the heels of crying came babbling, soon ousted by laconic speech and finally replaced by comprehensible expression. To my youngest self, language was mechanical and lifeless, a rigid blend of lexicon and grammar that broke as many rules as it created. This sentiment prevailed until I walked into Mrs. Regan’s fourth-grade class.

On that fateful first day, I recall being struck by her inviting personality and stylish plaid frock (I was personally wanting in the department of fashion). Beyond the warmth of her disposition, her pedagogical philosophy was unconventional and striking, even to an easily-distracted girl who wore the same green shirt every day. Her intention was not to satisfy district-determined measures or adhere to the antiquated curricula her coworkers professed. Instead, she pushed her students to invite intellectual challenges and conundrums, exposing us to the complexities of academia that she adored.

Her passion was best evidenced by the infamous vocabulary lists that circulated every Monday, boasting words typically native to a high school workbook. Suddenly, pedestrian exercises in ‘Choosing the Right Word’ were transformed into riveting explorations of the English language’s multiplicity, breadth, and allure. Within weeks I was concocting sentences just to employ ‘voracity’ and asking for synonyms for ‘vociferous’ that could aptly describe my rowdy classmates.

With thanks due to Mrs. Regan’s tutelage, my enthusiasm for words matured into an infatuation. I began to pour through the well-worn dictionary that presided over my nightstand, tasting the foreign syllables as they rolled from my lips. Coincidentally, I was soon given the title of the ‘human dictionary’ at school and have since served as a consultant for my friends and peers, answering questions of “What word fits best here?” or, the age-old query, “Affect or effect?” But the further I read, the more humbled I become, dwarfed by the vastness and mystery of my mother tongue.

Though my ensuing years of education have been enormously fruitful, Mrs. Regan remains my childhood hero on two counts: she encouraged my obsession with the written word and indulged my fourth-grade wish for a challenge. The insatiability I feel puzzling over jargon on PubMed, hearing the ping of Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s word of the day arriving in my inbox, and maybe even shedding a tear at the aesthetic tenor of ‘supercalifragilisticexpialidocious’ can be traced to those days of yore, spent copying definitions in a blockish scrawl. Today, as in that year far gone, I am still in pursuit of the perfect word – ever elusive, sitting on the tip of my tongue. But pouring through the dresser drawers of my mind, abundant with the tokens of my educational and lingual experience, I know it will not be long until I find it.

What makes this essay stand out?

Great Common App essay examples must be well-written. In this essay, the student’s writing mirrors her love for writing; they are both exceptional. Not all effective sample Common App essays need to have large vocabulary words like this essay does. However, they all need to reflect the student’s unique voice and be grammatically correct. 

This essay takes us into the student’s mind, showing us how they think and how much they love the English language. They highlight countless examples of how they embrace the challenge of writing, all through the metaphor of choosing socks. As such, we see a student who is ambitious and passionate. These character traits make them a very desirable candidate.

Common App Essay Examples #10

sample common app essays

Next, let’s look at our final sample of Common App essays that worked. In this essay, we’ll explore a student’s relationship to acting and labels throughout their life.

Common App Essay Examples #10: Letting Go of Labels

“Are you ready?” I looked up at the sound of an unfamiliar voice, which I followed to a face caked in a mask of stage makeup. I replied with a curt nod and feigned smile, forcing my expression to oppose the dread welling inside my stomach. In no way did I feel prepared; truthfully, I felt nothing short of ridiculous, clad in an electric green, one-sleeved spandex dress reminiscent of a 4 th grader’s discarded dance ensemble (and no doubt someone’s well-intentioned but unfortunate donation to the costume bin). Trapped in my orb of painful self-awareness, I peeked into the audience, imbibing Coke from the concession stand and looking detachedly at iPhones, waiting for the dimming lights to signify the start of Act I. All I felt was my heart careening into my throat.

Weeks before, I accepted the request to play my ukulele during the high-school production of Godspell the musical. I thereupon decided to enter the wily seas of the theatre arts with the remarkably determined response of “Hey, why not?” Initially, my decision seemed an innocuous one. Playing ukulele? Seeing a show? Indulging in complimentary refreshments? The positive haze that enveloped the future reminded me that this could be my shot – the chance of realizing my Audra-McDonald-and-Angela-Lansbury-inspired dreams of performing, a dream left behind long ago.

Music and theatre forever had been a part of me, a shaper of the fantasies of grandeur and fame inherent with childhood. Christened with the bellows of Tchaikovsky and Dvořák and raised alongside a sister infatuated with the spotlight, it seemed only natural for me to ascend to my own musical perch. As years passed, however, my shier disposition guided me to athletics, and I soon became the recipient of patronizing nods when I explained that, no, I did not sing too. Even so, with the purchase of a ukulele, my passion became a quiet one, made undeniably alive in the moments everyone left the house and silenced as the family car pulled in again. 

Unfortunately, no late-night bedroom performance could have prepared me to step before an audience. In the wing, someone grabbed my arm and motioned onto the stage. My legs took on the cartoon effect of wobbling back and forth, and I plastered a perturbed grin on my face as a sorry attempt at joy (probably reading more a grimace than the beacon of ecstasy I had hoped). The cast shuffled onto the stage, cloaked in the colors of Stephen Schwartz’s vision, and the cue sounded for the song to start.

I stood arrested under the searing lights, feeling my heart race and sweat glands dilate. I looked into a faceless audience, blackened by the concentration of light striking my retina. Blinking and restoring my vision, I glanced beside me and saw the warmth and undiluted joy of my peers. Their smiles were not feigned. A lone flautist tooted out the first notes and, still watching over my shoulder, I fumbled to make a C chord. The tune began; I inhaled and opened my mouth and sang. 

I used to fashion square containers in my mind, ones in which I placed my friends, acquaintances, and, often, myself. I smacked a label on the box – maybe ‘Equestrian’, ‘Mathematical Genius’, or ‘Makes a Mean Stew’ – and relied upon my scheme, this Dewey Decimal System of my interpersonal library, to govern my conceptions of those around me. Only once I had lumped myself into the ‘Athlete’ bin and sealed the lid did I notice that an air-tight container is not where I belong, not where any free-thinking, passionate, idiosyncratic being belongs. Immersing myself into the vibrancy of the Godspell stage, uke in tow, and exuding what I had internalized shattered this jejune way of categorizing the world.

As I reassessed my perspective, I thought, maybe one day I’ll become a crusader of self-expression, a lover of every powerful facet that culminates in the individual, no matter where I find myself. Until then, I’ll keep on singing – not proudly, not defiantly, and definitely not concordantly, but my voice will pipe to the intricate, malleable tune of myself.

One college application essay format that works for some students is to take us directly into a scene through dialogue. This is often an effective hook. Here, the author uses this tactic to capture our attention. They also describe the moment before they step on stage with evocative details, allowing us to experience their anxiety. This is another great example of showing and not telling. 

However, the author’s anxiety about acting transforms into several realizations about their relationship to the arts. Fear led them to stop acting, and embrace athletics instead. However, in the end, the author realizes that they don’t need to choose one or the other. Instead, they can continue to evolve and explore new sides of themself as they grow. 

Undoubtedly, college admissions officers evaluated this writeras a lifelong learner who faces fears and constantly questions society’s assumptions. Like many compelling personal statement sample essays, this student takes us on a journey through her self-development.

How to write a college essay?

We’ve looked at 10 successful Common App essay examples. Now, you might be wondering how to write a college essay that is equally as compelling. Let’s look at some college essay tips to help you ace the process :

4 tips for writing college essays

1. start early.

We can almost guarantee that none of the Common App essay examples featured here were written overnight. In fact, these Common App essays that worked required ample time to choose a topic, reflect on one’s growth, write the essay, get feedback, and edit. 

Often, to write a successful essay, one must step away from a piece and come back to it. As such, it is important to give yourself plenty of time to write your essay. For most, this means several months. If you’re a college junior, start the summer before your senior year. 

2. Be you, specifically and authentically

Whether you’re writing about an injury or a favorite book, make sure your college essay ideas are meaningful and personal. Pick a topic that you could passionately talk about all day. Furthermore, always speak about your ideas and experiences in detail. Telling us that you love books is not as powerful as telling us how your parents had to continually turn off the lights in your room because you would stay up all night reading.

3. Write many drafts

Your first draft is often not your best draft. In fact, it can take upwards of 3-4 drafts to get to an essay that you’re proud of. Likewise, prepare yourself for the possibility of completely scrapping one of your college essay topics or reworking your entire college application essay format. These are all natural parts of the process.

4. Get help from others

Like many of the most challenging things in life, applying to college is best done with help. When brainstorming college essay topics, consider asking friends and family what makes you stand out in their minds. Ask experts like a CollegeAdvisor admissions counselor or an English teacher to review your essay. And, of course, read many examples of college essays to find inspiration. But don’t forget that you aren’t alone in this process!

We’ve now talked about how to write a college essay and looked at some Common App essay examples. But what makes a great college essay? We’ll explore characteristics of Common App essays that worked next.

What makes a great college essay?

sample common app essays

We’ve looked at many Common App essay examples in this guide. As you’ve likely noticed, there is no single perfect recipe for college essays that worked. In fact, these sample Common App essays are all very different. From college essay topics to college application essay format, there is great diversity in what makes a great college essay. 

Still, there are some traits that many great Common App essay examples share. Here are a few:

Unique to the student 

Among the most important college essay tips is to write about what matters to you. If you try to copy someone else’s idea or write what you think colleges want to hear, your essay will feel forced. Instead, choose the topic that immediately catches your attention. This will lead to you writing about your most meaningful experiences. These could be anything from growing up without money to remembering your favorite toy. The personal statement sample essays we highlighted touch on many different topics. However, all of them were important to the authors.

Along with this, focus on writing in your own voice. If you don’t naturally write with four syllable vocabulary words, then don’t try to do so in your essay. Our personal statement sample essays highlighted several different writing styles, and they all worked.

Well-written

You don’t have to write like a college professor. However your essay does have to be easy to read and free of grammatical errors . Note that our personal statement sample essays were free from slang and typographical errors. In part, admissions officers are assessing your writing abilities. Show them the best writing you can produce.

Undoubtedly, admissions officers are looking to see how you reflect upon your experiences. Ideally, they want to see personal growth. What did you learn? What do you value? How do you solve problems? How do you approach challenges? All of our Common app essay examples demonstrate the author reflecting upon their experience in order to answer such questions. 

Additional Common App Essay Tips

sample common app essays

We’ve covered a lot of ground in this guide to Common App essay examples. To finish, we have a few more tips from what we saw in our personal statement sample essays.

Show, don’t tell

A common literary approach that all of the sample Common App essays employed is the maxim of “show, don’t tell.” Though this is a cliché piece of advice , it is critical to all college essays that worked. It involves using descriptive language, dialogue, and other details to make your story come to life. Imagine you are a film director – how would you describe the story you are trying to tell in 3D detail? Our sample Common App essays were chock full of details that brought each story to life and made for an engaging read.

Find a hook

A hook is a compelling start to an essay. It is one of the most common aspects of a successful college application essay format. A hook can look like a piece of dialogue, an evocative sentence, or a surprising statement. If you look at our Common App essay examples, you’ll see that they all start with an interesting hook.

Read your essay aloud

The last of our college essay tips has to do with how you edit your essay. We recommend reading it aloud to yourself. This not only helps with finding typos or wordiness; it also allows you to connect with the emotion behind your essay. Does reading it make tears well in your eyes? Does it make you laugh? If so, you’re likely onto something great. Reading your essay out loud also helps to know if it sounds natural. As we stated earlier, all of our sample Common App essays capture the unique voices of different students.

Other CollegeAdvisor Essay Resources to Explore

At CollegeAdvisor, we’re committed to helping you ace the admissions process and get into a school that makes you happy. As such, beyond this article with sample Common App essays, we have other resources to guide you through the essay process.

Common App Essays 2023‒2024

If you liked reading our Common App essay examples, check out this article about personal statement sample essays. You’ll find more college essay ideas and college essay tips inside. 

Alternatively, if you’re already in college but are considering transferring , we have a guide for writing your transfer essay. With this guide, you’ll be able to reflect on why a new school might be a better fit for you. You’ll also learn how to ensure that your application to a new school is compelling. Since transfer essays have a slightly different college application essay format, you shouldn’t simply recycle a past personal statement.

Additionally, we have helpful webinars about writing your Common App essay. Our webinar on crafting your unique story will help you think about what kind of characteristics or branding you wish to highlight in your essay. Thinking in this way may feel more natural than trying to simply answer a prompt. 

Crafting Your Story: Effective Strategies for College Essays

If you’re a junior , our webinar on using the summer before your senior year to get ahead on writing your personal statement will help you get organized. Resources like these can help make the college application process much less stressful. We can guarantee that each of these sample Common App essays took a good amount of time to write. With that in mind, starting early is key.

Common App Essay Examples – Final Takeaways

In this article, we showed you ten Common App essay examples and broke down why they are Common App essays that worked. Hopefully, you can now answer both the questions “what is a personal statement?” and “what makes great sample Common App essays?”. If you remember only one of our featured college essay tips, let it be to stay true to yourself in your essay. 

The process of applying to college, and especially being vulnerable in an essay, can be daunting. However, CollegeAdvisor is here to support you. In addition to providing dozens of examples of college essays and other resources , we offer personalized admissions guidance designed to help students succeed. Click here to connect with a member of our team and learn more. 

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Courtney Ng wrote this guide full of Common App Essay Examples. Looking for more admissions support? Click  here  to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how  CollegeAdvisor.com  can support you in the college application process.

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I'm starting to work on my Common App essay, and I'm a little lost. Can anyone point me in the direction of some examples of successful Common App essays that got students into college? It would be really helpful to see what's worked for others!

I understand that starting your Common App essay can be daunting, and looking at successful examples can provide valuable inspiration. Here are a few resources where you can find successful Common App essays:

1. College Confidential: This online forum has a dedicated section for college essays, where users often post their own successful essays and discuss what worked for them. You can search for "Common App essay" in the forum to find relevant threads.

2. CollegeVine Essay Breakdowns: CollegeVine offers essay breakdowns for various schools, including examples of successful essays. Although not every essay is specifically a Common App essay, you can still learn about what makes a strong essay by looking at these examples.

3. College Essay Guy: This website, run by an experienced college admissions counselor, has a collection of successful essays from real students. Their selection includes Common App essays as well as supplemental essays. You can find these essays on their "Examples of Personal Statements" webpage.

4. Books: Plenty of books offer compilations of successful college essays, which often include Common App essays. Some popular titles include "50 Successful Harvard Application Essays" and "Heavenly Essays: 50 Narrative College Application Essays That Worked." You can find these books at your local library, bookstore, or on Amazon.

5. Friends, family, or mentors: If you're comfortable doing so, consider asking friends, family members, or mentors who have gone through the college application process if they would be willing to share their successful Common App essays with you.

Remember to use these examples as inspiration and a starting point, but make sure to craft an essay that is unique to your own experiences and perspective. Good luck with your essay writing process!

About CollegeVine’s Expert FAQ

CollegeVine’s Q&A seeks to offer informed perspectives on commonly asked admissions questions. Every answer is refined and validated by our team of admissions experts to ensure it resonates with trusted knowledge in the field.

2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts

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The Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2022-2023. Because as we enter the third year of a global pandemic, consistency is not a bad thing.

That’s not the only reason, of course. We know from our most recent survey on the topic that over 95% of every group who responded--students, counselors, teachers, and admission officers--agree that the prompts spark effective essays. That’s why we kept them the same last year as well, with the exception of adding a new one about gratitude .

As we’ve said in the past, this announcement is not an invitation to juniors to start writing. And it’s definitely not a signal that they start thinking about applying. Those things will come in time. We share this news in January because it’s when some schools begin conversations about college options. It’s a time for learning, reflecting, and planning. That’s where the prompts can be useful: in helping students understand the aspects of their lives that colleges are curious about. 

"We share this news in January because it’s when some schools begin conversations about college options. It’s a time for learning, reflecting, and planning. That’s where the prompts can be useful: in helping students understand the aspects of their lives that colleges are curious about." Scott Anderson, Senior Director, Common App

Something else we’ve said in the past: prompts are not topics. They are simply questions designed to spark thinking. Our Telling Your Story resource shows students just how much flexibility they have in what they write when the time comes.

Below is the full set of essay prompts for 2022-2023. We will also retain the optional COVID-19 question within the Additional Information section.

  • 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.

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The 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts Are Here

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What’s Covered:

2021-2022 common app prompts, what has changed, tips for writing your common app essay.

  • How to Get Your Essay Reviewed for Free

The Common App recently released their essay prompts for the 2021-2022 admissions cycle, and unlike the past several years, the prompts are not the same as before.

In this post, we’ll go over the prompts, the changes, and tips for writing a strong Common App essay.

the college essay guy common app essay

Here is a list of the prompts for this cycle. While they are largely unchanged, Prompt #4 is different this year (which is kind of a big deal, considering that the prompts have been the same since 2017).

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.

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?

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Prompt #4 (NEW): 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?

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

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?

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.

As usual, there are six prompts, with the seventh allowing you to write on a topic of your choice. The prompts are all the same except for Prompt #4. 

Here’s a side-by-side of the old and new versions of the prompt.

Before: Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

After: 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?

While all Common App essays should be personal, the old prompt was more “scientific” and analytical than the new one. The focus of the essay was a problem, its relevance to your life, and how you found a solution (or how you would find a solution).

The theme of the new prompt is gratitude, and it is inherently more reflective than the old prompt, as the focus is a personal story. The new prompt is likely to apply to more students, but there are some potential tripwires to keep in mind.

A common mistake is to spend too much time elaborating on the “thing” that was done, or on the person who did it. While you should absolutely provide some context, the essay should mainly be about you and how this event impacted your life.

It’s also important to note that the prompt asks for an act that “made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. ” Admissions officers don’t want just a classic feel good story about an act of kindness. This act of kindness can be small or significant, but it should have a relatively big impact on your life that you may not have expected. The act itself may have also been surprising, or maybe your response to it was the unexpected part. 

While this prompt may seem straightforward, it’s actually encouraging a reflection on a nuanced situation. Some examples of good topics would be: 

  • Your friend signs you up for robotics even though you didn’t want to join at first, but then you discover a love for programming and want to use it to help build medical devices and prosthetics.
  • Your parents don’t approve of your artistic pursuits due to their immigrant background and desire for stability in “practical” careers, but after years of showing no interest in your art, they attend your gallery opening. This leads to a mutual understanding and inspires you to create art based on your parents’ struggles.

the college essay guy common app essay

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1. Get a head start

The topics are out, so you should consider drafting your Common App essay before the rush of the fall semester. Once senior year begins, you’ll be dealing with schoolwork, supplemental essays, extracurriculars, and other responsibilities. Your Common App essay will go to most, if not all, of the schools on your list, so it’s important that you take the time to write, edit, and get feedback on your essay. 

Read our ultimate guide to the Common App essay (which will soon be updated with the new prompt) and take a look at some strong essay examples to get a better idea of what admissions officers are looking for.

2. Know what topics are good, and which ones to avoid

There are two ways to brainstorm your essay. You can either pick a prompt that resonates with you and look for a matching story from your life, or come up with a story essential to who you are and find a prompt to match.

Keep in mind that there are some essay topics to avoid, however. Some cliche college essay topics include:

  • Sports injury story
  • Working hard in a challenging class
  • Immigrant story
  • Tragedy (death, divorce, illness)
  • Volunteer trip
  • Your religion
  • Romantic relationships
  • Family pressure to pursue a particular field

In general, these topics are bad because they’re extremely common and too often focus on the event itself rather than you and your personality. This doesn’t mean you can’t cover these topics, but it’s very difficult to do so in an effective way (see the post linked above for tips on how to revamp these cliche topics).

On the flip side, some good topic ideas are:

  • A unique extracurricular activity or passion
  • An activity or interest that contrasts heavily with your profile
  • A seemingly insignificant moment that speaks to larger themes within your life
  • Using an everyday experience or object as a metaphor to explore your life and personality
  • An in the moment narrative that tells the story of a important moment in your life

These topics are much broader and allow for greater creativity. 

3. Answer the 4 core questions

The point of the Common App essay is to humanize your application and put a face to your transcript. That’s a tall order for only 650 words max! 

To make sure you’re sharing the fullest range possible of who you are, try to answer these four core questions in your essay:

  • Why Am I Here?
  • What is Unique About Me?
  • What Matters to Me?

4. Consider the different college essay structures

The Common App essay is a piece of creative storytelling, and not your typical analytical paper for school. You don’t necessarily want to write an essay with the standard introduction, thesis, and supporting body paragraphs. 

How should you structure your essay, then? Here are a few ideas:

  • In-the-moment narrative: Take us to a specific moment in time and share your story as it’s unfolding, using this moment as a segue into broader themes of your life.
  • Narrative told over an extended period of time: This structure allows you to cover several experiences, and is well-suited for those looking to highlight their long-term development.
  • Series of anecdotes, or montage: Use several scenes (that aren’t necessarily related or chronological) to highlight an element of your life or personality.

There are also unconventional essay structures that you may consider, such as writing a movie script or a poem. These are high risk, but also high reward if executed correctly.

Learn more about essay structures and see examples in our blog post.

5. Show, don’t tell

One common mistake students make is to simply state what happened in their essay, rather than to use storytelling techniques like imagery and dialogue. To keep your essay as engaging as possible, you need to bring us to these experiences and allow us to be there with you, rather than telling us what happened. 

Here’s an example of telling: “Running a half marathon was a challenge.”

And here’s an example of showing: “My shoe became untied at mile 11, so I paused and bent over to lace it back up. Pain shot through my lower back. I grimaced and let out an audible groan.”

Where to Get Your Essay Edited for Free

Once you clear the academic threshold for selective schools, your essays and extracurriculars are the deciding factors for admissions officers. In fact, your essays and extracurriculars matter almost as much as grades and test scores at top schools. Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics. Your essays and extracurriculars are your chance to stand out and share your personality.

This is especially true for the Common App essay, as the prompts invite reflection and personal storytelling. It’s vital that your essay is engaging and presents you as someone who would enrich the campus community.

Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your Common App essay. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay. 

That’s why we created our Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays. We highly recommend giving this tool a try!

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The Elements of the Common Application Essay Prompts

The Common App essay prompts demonstrate your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and help you distinguish yourself in your own voice. The Common App prompts provide a structure that will help you stand out from the crowd. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores?

Choose the option that best helps you answer that question. Then write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

Generally, we see these essays, or “personal statements,” as having two primary components. First is the story. You have to tell your reader a story in which you are the main character. Always remember that you must be at the center of whatever you write since the goal is for the essay to provide a multi-dimensional picture of who you are beyond the basic information that is captured on the rest of the application. Each of the prompts requires that you relay a short narrative that has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

The Reflection

The second component is your reflection or analysis of your story. What does the story mean? How should we, your readers, interpret your story? Share the lessons you derived from your story, and help your reader to understand how this small event shows your values, your priorities, and your plans for the future.

So, as you read through these prompts and our description of how to address the prompts. Think about those stories, those events, those anecdotes, and those snippets of your own personal history that relate to the prompt. And as you remind yourself of these stories, begin to analyze what these stories say about you as a human being.

It may seem daunting at first but remember that each of us has a unique story to tell. In fact, each of us has hundreds, even thousands of stories that make up our lives—even when we are young. So, don’t hesitate to share. In fact, some of our experiences that seem, at first, to be relatively insignificant can actually carry great weight. And can help illustrate who we are, what we care about, and where we’re headed.

Watch This Video: The Elements of the Common App Essay Prompts

You and your counselor will spend much more time brainstorming and discussing possible ideas and responses to these Common App prompts. But we wanted to get you thinking to give you a running start. If you have some ideas, be sure to jot them down and share them with your counselor when the time comes to dig into the crafting of your personal essay.

In the following sections, we will examine each of the prompts for the Common Application essay and give you detailed guidance for success.

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Prompt 1: The “About You” Common App Essay

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.

This Common App essay prompt is sort of a catch-all prompt for essays that might not easily fit another one of the prompts below. However, it is important to focus on the keywords.

Incomplete Without It

Generally, you want to use your essay to bring something new to your application—something that is not already evident in the other elements (transcript, recommendations, honors, activities, and the like). The focus of this essay, then, should be something that is meaningful to you but that is not obvious. The pivot of the essay should be something that reveals something personal or unusual about you that helps the reader put you in a new perspective. That brings to light a hidden truth about you that will give context to the rest of your application.

Your background includes the context in which you live: your parentage, your community, and your collective experiences.

This is how you define yourself—the labels you might use to describe who you are as a person. Again, this identity may not be readily visible, but sharing it with your reader will provide context to your application and help her understand the “real you.”

Here you might share an interest that does not appear on your list of activities or in your honors. It might be something that none of your teachers—or even your best friends—might not know about you. For example, perhaps you are hooked on zombie movies and have watched hundreds of them. Maybe you have an interest in antique automobiles or have a collection of coins or painted elephants. Absolutely anything that attracts your time and attention could be the focus of your essay.

This is similar to interest, but it usually entails developing some sort of expertise or ability. Perhaps you have taught yourself origami or how to knit—and you make things for your family and friends. Perhaps you do woodworking or calligraphy and have used this talent in some sort of interesting way. Here again, the interest would likely be invisible on your application unless you brought it up here.

Note that the last word of the prompt requests that you share a story. So even in identifying the background, identity, interest, or talent that helps your reader to understand the “real you,” your essay will be considerably strengthened if you are able to relay an anecdote or short vignette that illustrates this key attribute about yourself.

Watch This Video: The “About You” Common App Essay

Prompt 2: The “Failure” Essay

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you faced a challenge setback, or failure.  How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This prompt has been around for quite a while. It can be found on a variety of college essay platforms. An essay on this topic gives you an excellent opportunity to tell an interesting story, but also demonstrate your resilience and grit. We all fail at one point or another. And while writing about failure can sometimes be painful, the process of working through some sort of challenge can help you demonstrate that you are ready for future challenges that you will face in college and beyond.

Let’s look at the keywords of this prompt as a way to help address it effectively.

Obstacle / Challenge / Setback / Failure

The key word here is obstacle, along with its various synonyms that appear in the prompt: challenge, setback, failure. Very few things we achieve in life come easily on the first try. Often, something impedes our smooth movement toward our goals. Sometimes we are able to overcome the obstacle. Sometimes we are not: we fail.

Thus, the first order of business in addressing this prompt is to clearly identify the goal you were trying to achieve. What was it you wanted? What was the objective? Hopes you have? Then the second order of business is to clearly identify the obstacle (or challenge or setback or failure) that rendered the achievement of your goal more difficult—or even impossible.

Incident or Time

As with any essay, you need to tell a story. Whereas the previous prompt uses the word “story”, this prompt invites you to “recount” this process of setting a goal and having trouble meeting it. This is the story of how things did not go according to plan. Your story should have a beginning, middle, and end. But it must be brief.

Learning from the Experience

Whenever we fail—and we all do—we have to figure out how to respond to that failure. Often we gain something from the experience. Perhaps we learned a valuable lesson. Or, we redirected our energies in a new way. Perhaps we have developed a greater understanding of our own strengths and weaknesses.

The key element to successfully answering this prompt is to reflect on how this failure affected you and what you did as a result of it. So, after you have told your (brief) story, you should do quite a bit of reflecting on how this experience led to personal growth or a greater understanding of the world around you.

Watch This Video: The “Failure” Common App Essay

Prompt 3: The “Belief” Essay

Reflect on a time when you questions or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Belief or Idea

This prompt hinges on some belief, idea, or value that you hold dear. At the core of the story, you must be able to identify this closely-held belief or idea and explain why it is important to you.

Questioned or Challenged

At various times in our lives, we are called upon to defend our ideals or our principles. Because others don’t share these beliefs, or because you may hold a view that is unpopular or out of the ordinary. Your story in this essay revolves around a time when you were called upon to defend your belief or idea against some countervailing force.

This force could come from a particular person, a small group of people, or maybe even a very large group of people. What animates this essay, then, is the tension between your belief or idea and the beliefs or ideas of others.

Your Thinking

The “story” that is at the heart of this essay is the genesis of the tension. How you came to realize it, and how you came to a decision to do or say something in response (or not). Given that your values were under fire, did you do or say something to defend those values? Why or why not? You want to make the effort to explain your thought processes that eventually led to some sort of decision, action, or realization.

The decision, action, or realization you made is the outcome of the story. You want to be sure to describe the outcome. Don’t stop there, however: explain and analyze that outcome. Was the decision the right one? Did you act to defend your values, and if so, what was the result?

Or, perhaps, you acted in a way that did not defend those values, and you later regretted your inability to stand up for your beliefs. Either way, you are asked in this prompt to reflect upon what you did (or did not do) to defend your beliefs or ideas, and to determine whether you would approach a similar conflict of beliefs or ideas in the same way in the future.

Watch This Video On the Common App Essay Prompts: The “Belief” Essay

New Prompt 4: The “Gratitude” Essay

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?

This prompt is relatively new, having been one of the Common App essay prompts for only a couple of years. The idea is to think about how other people have had an impact on your life, and how acts of kindness can change us in a variety of ways.

Something Someone Has Done for You

Like all the Common App essay prompts, his one asks you to tell a story. The story is about a specific instance in which you were the recipient of some sort of kindness. Here you will want to briefly tell the story in an interesting and compelling way that highlights the generous gesture. Don’t go on and on, because you want to reserve space in your essay for the reflection, which remains the meat of the essay. 

Happy or Thankful in a Surprising Way

Note that the gesture of generosity may or may not be surprising.  Perhaps it is something that you actually expected.  What is important here, rather, is your reaction to the gesture:  you were surprised in how happy or thankful you felt. You are reflecting, in essence, not so much on the gesture itself, but on how it made you feel.  Focusing on the feelings will help you with your reflection.

Affected or Motivated You

This is the essence of the reflection on the generous gesture. You want to give your reader a strong sense of the influence this kindness has made on you. How did you react? What actions did you take as a result? What have been the repercussions of this interaction between you and this other person? Did you fully appreciate the gesture at the time, or did it take a while to sink in? Have you done anything in return, or have you made any sort of resolutions about how you may behave as a result? 

This reflection is where the rubber hits the road, so to speak. The most successful essay for this prompt will focus on how this act of kindness has changed you for the good.  

Old Prompt 4: The “Problem” Essay (One of the Old Common App Essay Prompts)

Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Note that this prompt is no longer featured on the Common Application. However, it is a very good one that could be used for Prompt #7 (see below:  “topic of your choice”.  I have retained guidance to this prompt because it can serve as a really good springboard to a great essay.

This Common App essay prompt can be tricky, at least at first glance. The most important aspect of the prompt is the problem at the center of it, and the explanation for why this problem is so important to you.

The core of this essay is a puzzle, a riddle, or a difficult question that begs an answer. Education, after all, is the process of gaining knowledge, skills, and understanding that will help us solve problems of all types, whether personal, political, ethical, economic, social, technological, or scientific. Central to this prompt is your curiosity. What puzzles or fascinates you—or bothers you? Define the problem carefully and clearly, and describe it so the reader can feel your fascination.

Personal Importance and Significance to You

Why is this puzzle interesting to you? This piece of the prompt invites you to tell the story of how or why this puzzle occupies your mind, your body, or your spirit. From where does your interest emanate? Tell the story of how your fascination developed, and why this problem became significant to you. To be clear, this idea of significance is based on your own intellectual, spiritual, ethical, or personal experience. For this essay to work, you have to really care about the problem in a personal way.

This Common App prompt makes it clear that there is another “story” in this essay: the narrative describing what you did—or what you will do—to address this problem. If the problem at the center of this essay is something you have tried (and perhaps succeeded?) in solving in the past. Then you need to recount the sequence of events that led to that solution. If, instead, you have not yet tackled this problem, then you need to imagine and describe the actions you could take in the future to find a solution—or at least whittle away at the problem and move toward a solution.

Watch This Video: The “Problem” Common App Essay

Prompt 5: The “Personal Growth” Essay

Discuss an accomplishment or event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

I sometimes call this Common App prompt the “Aha!” prompt. Your life was coasting along, and then something happens that forces you to recognize that suddenly you feel differently or think differently. We all have these “Aha!” moments from time to time, and when they do occur, we reorient ourselves in our world. This is an opportunity to share one of your “Aha!” moments

Personal Growth and Understanding

As we grow older, we find that in some situations we feel—or are treated—as children, while in other situations we feel more like adults. Sometimes this transition is subtle, as in how other adults begin to treat you with greater seriousness in restaurants, at the post office, and in other public places. Sometimes, however, this transition can seem more abrupt, as on the day you get your driver’s license or register to vote for the first time.

Religion often marks this transition (first communions, bar mitzvahs), as do particular cultures (quinceañeras, debutante balls). This prompt asks you to more closely examine your own transition from childhood to adulthood. Granted, for all of us, this transition is slow and gradual (and frankly, sometimes even we are not sure we have completely transitioned to adulthood!). But no matter our age, religion, or culture, this transition is punctuated by some memorable stories—stories that you are being asked to share with your readers.

Accomplishment or Event

The transition to adulthood is marked by both accomplishments and events. An accomplishment is something that you achieved through hard work. An event, on the other hand, is a happening in which you may have been more passive, but nonetheless marks a very important milestone in your life. Some of these accomplishments and events are formal (e.g., learning Hebrew and reciting the Torah before your congregation in a ceremony before your friends and family).

Some of these accomplishments and events are informal (e.g., you finally looked old enough that when you entered a restaurant with your parents, the hostess no longer gave you the kiddie menu). College admissions folks do not care so much about the exact nature of these accomplishments or events. Rather they care about how you tell an interesting story about your transition to adulthood.

Realization

Unlike an accomplishment or event, a realization can have no outward manifestation that others can see or experience. You may, instead, experience some sort of internal “Aha!” moment. Your understanding changes. You see yourself—or others—in a completely new light. Perhaps you shared this realization with others, or perhaps it is one that is intensely private. But the change or transition is real because it leads to a new and different understanding of yourself and the world around you.

At first glance, this Common App prompt doesn’t seem to have a story at the heart of it. However, the focus is on a transition, which implies a description of “before” and “after” this event, accomplishment, or realization. So you should retell the story briefly to help your reader understand the transition. As with the other prompts, you should then go on to put this event, accomplishment, or realization into a larger context. You need to interpret this story for your reader through analysis and synthesis. By focusing your “discussion” on what happened after this event, accomplishment, or realization, you can give your reader a sense of your increasing maturity and your priorities, values, and personality.

Watch This Video: The “Personal Growth” Essay

Prompt 6: The “Obsession” Essay

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?

Sometimes I jokingly refer this to the “wet your pants” Common App essay prompt: you become so engrossed in something that you forget to meet your own most basic needs. Colleges love to hear about what occupies your mind–after all, colleges are places where you expand and train your mind. This prompt offers an opportunity to talk about the ideas that excite you.

Topic, Idea, or Concept

This Common App prompt gives you broad latitude to discuss pretty much anything you’d like to discuss. However, it’s important to remember that colleges and universities are places where the focus is academic and intellectual. It would be entirely possible to write an essay on something as seemingly silly as “Hello, Kitty” or model airplanes or even on multiplayer computer games (my students have written successful essays on all three of these topics in the past).

Notice, however, that the prompt does not use the word “activity.” As we will see, certain activities are related to the topic, idea, or concept, but the prompt asks you to keep your description focused on the academic or intellectual foundations that underlie the things you do. Your chosen focus for this essay could be just about anything. But what matters is the thought that may lead to the activity—and not the activity itself.

Even as you get excited about the social aspects of college, don’t forget that the primary focus is on learning. This phrase also keeps the focus on an intellectual or academic plane. Colleges and universities are communities of learners, first and foremost. This is your opportunity to demonstrate that this is your first priority in going to college.

Engaging and Captivating

The topic, idea, or concept you choose implies some sort of action that demonstrates your interest. What do you do to activate or express your interest? The prompt sets a high bar: you find this interest so appealing that you sometimes get lost in it. And this is your story for this particular prompt: give an anecdote that demonstrates the depth of your interest, that shows the reader that you can become completely engrossed and lose track of time.

This word is the key to the essay. You need to justify—in some way—your devotion to this particular idea, topic, or concept. If you have chosen the right subject for your essay, your level of interest is so high that it is infectious. Your aim, then, is to explain the reasons for your interest and to convey the reasons for that interest to your reader. You will have done your job well if your reader comes away with a newfound appreciation for an idea, topic, or concept that she has never considered to be so engaging or captivating. Share your enthusiasm by explaining the why behind your interest.

Watch This Video on the Common App Essay Prompts: The “Obsession” Essay

Prompt 7: The “Your Choice” of the Common App Essay Prompts

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.

Your choice!  Anything you want! This prompt offers you the freedom to write about anything you want. But be careful, as not every possible topic you could dream up will make for a solid college essay.

Your Choice

The nice thing about this Common App prompt is that the admissions folks leave the choice of topic entirely to you. And therein lies some of the danger of deviating from the other prompts. You are free—and encouraged—to go beyond the limitations of these other prompts. But at the same time, you want to consider the fundamental commonalities found in the above prompts.

  • Ideas and Concepts

Your college essay should represent you as a student and as a learner. Not every topic has to be entirely serious, but you should consider whether your chosen topic has any intellectual or academic depth.

Transitions

The heart of many of these prompts is some sort of change in your mindset, perspective, or understanding. Admissions folks are looking for young people who have made some sort of transition that demonstrates their maturity, depth of thought, or newfound ability to see the world in a new light.

You must have some sort of anecdote animating your essay that helps your reader to see your point. This is where you will “show” your reader your fundamental point. You are the main character of this essay in which you can demonstrate aspects of your personality, your values, and your point of view.

  • Analysis and Reflection

Every other Common App prompt requires you to dig underneath the surface, to go beyond superficialities and to uncover the important truths at the center of your story. It is not enough to tell your reader the story: you must demonstrate the fundamental importance of the story to you. The story is the vehicle to convey a deeper understanding of you as a person.

Already Written

Some colleges encourage the submission of essays you have written as part of a class or other assignment. These essays may represent you very well as a student and demonstrate some of your intellectual abilities and academic depth. If you choose to submit an academic paper, it is sometimes best to do so as an additional or supplemental essay to your application. In some cases, you may have written some sort of personal essay or narrative as part of a creative writing assignment. If this personal memoir has most of the elements described above, it could be an excellent college essay.

It is perfectly acceptable to experiment with the form of the Common App essay. Admissions folks want to encourage your creativity, and they are looking for unique approaches. I have seen students write very successful poems in response to the prompts, and a couple have written mini-plays or screenplays. You are welcome to experiment with the form. However, you will want to keep in mind the elements described above. While the form can be highly creative, it is important to keep the purpose of the college essay in mind: to communicate to your reader something important, something fundamental about who you are as a person, as a citizen, and as a learner.

Watch This Video: The “Your Choice” Essay

Choosing the Right Common App Essay Topic

When faced with seven prompts–including one that allows you to write about “anything you want,” it can be hard to choose a prompt to focus upon.

Generally, we encourage our students to outline responses to as many of the prompts as possible. These outlines are not full drafts–rather they are bare-bones sketches of main points you might make in a fuller response.

Your outline should contain the two primary elements of a good Common App essay: the story and the reflections. For the story, try to give basic parameters of the story or anecdote in no more than a sentence or two.

For the reflections, make a list of bullet points that explain the meaning or moral of the story. A solid response to a prompt should have at least three reflections or takeaways from the story.

As you are developing these reflections, be as deep and introspective as you can be. These reflections are an opportunity to share with your reader your values and priorities. And these values and priorities are what will make your application more revealing and more compelling. So don’t be afraid to share!

Once you’ve completed these outlines, you can share them with teachers, parents, peers, and your college counselor. Gradually a topic or two will rise to the top of the list, and you can begin to draft those “winners” in greater detail. As you draft, you’ll be able to assess the viability of the topic. Often you’ll simply find that one topic flows better than another.

Finding the right topic is the hardest part of writing your college essay. The prompts are the best way to start. But you’ll know you’re on the right track when you begin to feel your personality shine through your prose. It can be an organic process, but once you have the right topic, you’ll know it.

So enjoy the process of self-discovery as you explore the many possible essay topics that will help you present yourself in the best light in the admissions office.

Mark Montgomery

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Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

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How to Write an Effective Essay

Writing an essay for college admission gives you a chance to use your authentic voice and show your personality. It's an excellent opportunity to personalize your application beyond your academic credentials, and a well-written essay can have a positive influence come decision time.

Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application ? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing.

Tips for Essay Writing

A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging. It's not something you want to rush or put off at the last moment. Think of it as a critical piece of the application process. Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor.

1. Start Early.

Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school. That way, you have ample time to think about the prompt and craft the best personal statement possible.

You don't have to work on your essay every day, but you'll want to give yourself time to revise and edit. You may discover that you want to change your topic or think of a better way to frame it. Either way, the sooner you start, the better.

2. Understand the Prompt and Instructions.

Before you begin the writing process, take time to understand what the college wants from you. The worst thing you can do is skim through the instructions and submit a piece that doesn't even fit the bare minimum requirements or address the essay topic. Look at the prompt, consider the required word count, and note any unique details each school wants.

3. Create a Strong Opener.

Students seeking help for their application essays often have trouble getting things started. It's a challenging writing process. Finding the right words to start can be the hardest part.

Spending more time working on your opener is always a good idea. The opening sentence sets the stage for the rest of your piece. The introductory paragraph is what piques the interest of the reader, and it can immediately set your essay apart from the others.

4. Stay on Topic.

One of the most important things to remember is to keep to the essay topic. If you're applying to 10 or more colleges, it's easy to veer off course with so many application essays.

A common mistake many students make is trying to fit previously written essays into the mold of another college's requirements. This seems like a time-saving way to avoid writing new pieces entirely, but it often backfires. The result is usually a final piece that's generic, unfocused, or confusing. Always write a new essay for every application, no matter how long it takes.

5. Think About Your Response.

Don't try to guess what the admissions officials want to read. Your essay will be easier to write─and more exciting to read─if you’re genuinely enthusiastic about your subject. Here’s an example: If all your friends are writing application essays about covid-19, it may be a good idea to avoid that topic, unless during the pandemic you had a vivid, life-changing experience you're burning to share. Whatever topic you choose, avoid canned responses. Be creative.

6. Focus on You.

Essay prompts typically give you plenty of latitude, but panel members expect you to focus on a subject that is personal (although not overly intimate) and particular to you. Admissions counselors say the best essays help them learn something about the candidate that they would never know from reading the rest of the application.

7. Stay True to Your Voice.

Use your usual vocabulary. Avoid fancy language you wouldn't use in real life. Imagine yourself reading this essay aloud to a classroom full of people who have never met you. Keep a confident tone. Be wary of words and phrases that undercut that tone.

8. Be Specific and Factual.

Capitalize on real-life experiences. Your essay may give you the time and space to explain why a particular achievement meant so much to you. But resist the urge to exaggerate and embellish. Admissions counselors read thousands of essays each year. They can easily spot a fake.

9. Edit and Proofread.

When you finish the final draft, run it through the spell checker on your computer. Then don’t read your essay for a few days. You'll be more apt to spot typos and awkward grammar when you reread it. After that, ask a teacher, parent, or college student (preferably an English or communications major) to give it a quick read. While you're at it, double-check your word count.

Writing essays for college admission can be daunting, but it doesn't have to be. A well-crafted essay could be the deciding factor─in your favor. Keep these tips in mind, and you'll have no problem creating memorable pieces for every application.

What is the format of a college application essay?

Generally, essays for college admission follow a simple format that includes an opening paragraph, a lengthier body section, and a closing paragraph. You don't need to include a title, which will only take up extra space. Keep in mind that the exact format can vary from one college application to the next. Read the instructions and prompt for more guidance.

Most online applications will include a text box for your essay. If you're attaching it as a document, however, be sure to use a standard, 12-point font and use 1.5-spaced or double-spaced lines, unless the application specifies different font and spacing.

How do you start an essay?

The goal here is to use an attention grabber. Think of it as a way to reel the reader in and interest an admissions officer in what you have to say. There's no trick on how to start a college application essay. The best way you can approach this task is to flex your creative muscles and think outside the box.

You can start with openers such as relevant quotes, exciting anecdotes, or questions. Either way, the first sentence should be unique and intrigue the reader.

What should an essay include?

Every application essay you write should include details about yourself and past experiences. It's another opportunity to make yourself look like a fantastic applicant. Leverage your experiences. Tell a riveting story that fulfills the prompt.

What shouldn’t be included in an essay?

When writing a college application essay, it's usually best to avoid overly personal details and controversial topics. Although these topics might make for an intriguing essay, they can be tricky to express well. If you’re unsure if a topic is appropriate for your essay, check with your school counselor. An essay for college admission shouldn't include a list of achievements or academic accolades either. Your essay isn’t meant to be a rehashing of information the admissions panel can find elsewhere in your application.

How can you make your essay personal and interesting?

The best way to make your essay interesting is to write about something genuinely important to you. That could be an experience that changed your life or a valuable lesson that had an enormous impact on you. Whatever the case, speak from the heart, and be honest.

Is it OK to discuss mental health in an essay?

Mental health struggles can create challenges you must overcome during your education and could be an opportunity for you to show how you’ve handled challenges and overcome obstacles. If you’re considering writing your essay for college admission on this topic, consider talking to your school counselor or with an English teacher on how to frame the essay.

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    What is the Common Application essay? The Common Application, or Common App, is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.. Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any ...

  5. 2023-2024 Common App essay prompts

    We are pleased to announce that the Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2023-2024. It's not just for the sake of consistency that we have chosen to keep the essay prompts the same for the upcoming application year. Our past research has shown that overall satisfaction with the prompts exceeded 95% across our constituent groups ...

  6. Common App Essay Prompts

    Below is the complete list of the Common App essay 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 ...

  7. Complete Strategies: Common App Essay Prompts (2023-24)

    The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650. Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of ...

  8. 6 Best Common App Essay Examples

    Common App Essay Examples Tip #10: Read Common App essay examples (with perspective). ... Final Thoughts - Common App Essay Examples. The college personal statement is an important part of the application that can reveal more about who you are and what you'll bring to a college campus. Studying the genre is an essential part of being well ...

  9. How To Write The 2020-21 Common App Essay

    46:38. And finally, prompt seven, share an essay on any topic of your choice, it can be one you've already written on the response to a different prompt, or one of your own design. 46:49. First off, you want to write the essay, after figuring out what you want to say, then figure out the prompt.

  10. How to Write the Common Application Essays 2023-2024 ...

    Because the Common App essay is 650 words long and has few formal directions, organizing a response might seem daunting. Fortunately, at CollegeVine, we've developed a straightforward approach to formulating strong, unique responses. This section outlines how to: 1) Brainstorm, 2) Organize, and 3) Write a Common App essay.

  11. College Essay Guy

    Hi! I'm Ethan (College Essay Guy) and my goal is to bring more ease, purpose, and joy to the lives of students, parents, and counselors through the college admission process. 🧠 MY UPCOMING ...

  12. Why This Common App Essay Worked: Prompt #2 "The ...

    Show the admissions committee how you faced an obstacle, but responded with a creative and dignified solution instead of giving up. Be vulnerable - show your insecurity, regret, and fears. Finally, as indicated in the prompt, describe what you learned and the experience's permanent significance. If you can't think of such an impact, you ...

  13. Common App Essay Examples

    Understanding the Common App essay. Now, let's explore what the Common App essay is. A Common App essay is a personal statement submitted through the Common App. Astoundingly, over 1,000 colleges and universities in the United States use the Common App as an application platform. As a result, when you apply to college, you will almost ...

  14. Common App essay examples

    Although not every essay is specifically a Common App essay, you can still learn about what makes a strong essay by looking at these examples. 3. College Essay Guy: This website, run by an experienced college admissions counselor, has a collection of successful essays from real students.

  15. 2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts

    The Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2022-2023. Because as we enter the third year of a global pandemic, consistency is not a bad thing. That's not the only reason, of course. We know from our most recent survey on the topic that over 95% of every group who responded--students, counselors, teachers, and admission officers ...

  16. The 2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts Are Here

    2021-2022 Common App Prompts. Here is a list of the prompts for this cycle. While they are largely unchanged, Prompt #4 is different this year (which is kind of a big deal, considering that the prompts have been the same since 2017). Prompt #1: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe ...

  17. Common App Essay Prompts: A Guide| Great College Advice

    The Common App Essay Prompts are an essential element of your application. Use this guide to decode the prompts and write an essay that gets you accepted. Skip to content. 720-279-7577; Free Consultation. ... Your college essay should represent you as a student and as a learner. Not every topic has to be entirely serious, but you should ...

  18. How to Write a College Application Essays in 2024

    1. Repetitive information. Your grades, test scores, and academic achievements are already added elsewhere in the application. Admissions officers use the essay to gain insights beyond transcripts and course lists. Highlight stories, experiences, and personal growth that don't overlap with other sections. 2.

  19. Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

    Follow these tips to write an impactful essay that can work in your favor. 1. Start Early. Few people write well under pressure. Try to complete your first draft a few weeks before you have to turn it in. Many advisers recommend starting as early as the summer before your senior year in high school.

  20. What Are College Prep Courses and Classes?

    Typically, those classes include the following: 4 years of English. 3 years of science. 3 years of math. 3 years of social studies. 2-4 years of world language. Students who succeed in these classes at the high school level should be fairly well prepared for success at the college level. However, virtually every high school also offers more ...