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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

College essay checklist
The student makes a unique connection, showing how her troubled relationship with her floor routine is connected to her anger at her absent father. However, rather than focusing on her difficult past, she highlights a key moment when she overcame her anger and made peace with her relationships with her dad and with gymnastics.
The essay uses a conversational tone but selectively employs elevated language that fits the student’s vocabulary range. The student uses personification to illustrate her close relationship to anger and gymnastics, such as “anger is a cruel master” and “the bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving.”
Through showing, not telling, the student clearly demonstrates dedication, hard work, and resilience. She also displays her commitment to emotional growth and character.
In the final paragraphs, the student contemplates her troubled relationship with her floor routine and realizes its connection to her absent father. She explains how this insight healed her and allowed her to freely perform without anger.

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

College essay checklist
The essay has a logical flow. It starts by explaining the student’s challenges as her sister’s caretaker, describes her breaking point, and then shows how her counselor pointed her toward a new perspective and career path. It also avoids dwelling on negative details and concludes with a positive outlook and action.
The student’s tone is appropriately conversational to illustrate her feelings with vulnerability.
The essay clearly shows the student’s commitment, resilience, and sacrifice through the narrative of her caring for her sister.
The student reveals her honest thoughts and feelings. She also explains how her counselor helped her see her sister as a gift who motivated her to pursue a meaningful career path.

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

College essay checklist
The essay starts with a picture of confrontation that directly reflects the prompt. It then paints a chronological narrative of the student’s journey toward change, while using the literary device of flashback in the middle to add background and clarity to the story.
The student uses a conversational yet respectful tone for a college essay. He effectively uses dialogue to highlight important moments of conflict and mutual understanding throughout the story.
The student clearly demonstrates the qualities of self-reflection, courage, and integrity without directly claiming to have them (show, don’t tell).
The student offers an honest assessment of his culture’s traditional views of manhood, his reasons for challenging them, and his appreciation for his father’s acceptance of his choices.

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

College essay checklist
The essay begins with an attention-grabbing statement that immediately captures the essence of surprise requested in the prompt. The story then unfolds in a logical sequence, taking the reader on a journey of unexpected transformation.
The student uses an accessible, casual tone that works well in light of his expertise in writing. His use of dialogue with nicknames and colloquialism brings a conversational tone to the storyline.
The student openly shows his motivation for success and his feelings toward his peers and teacher. However, he demonstrates humility in accepting criticism, responding with a diligent attempt to improve his writing skills.
The essay concludes with growth in the student’s character and self-discipline while his circumstances remained the same. He brings the prompt full circle, expressing his gratitude toward his teacher.

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

College essay checklist
The narrative begins by clearly identifying the prompt: the event of church attendance. It has a clear story arc, starting with the student’s church experiences, moving on to her self-examination, and concluding with the changes she made to her behavior and goals to serve others.
The student uses dialogue to highlight key moments of realization and transformation. The essay’s tone is casual, helping the reader feel comfortable in the student’s thoughts and memory.
The student displays an unusual level of self-awareness and maturity by revealing an ulterior motive, the ability to self-reflect, and a desire to authentically apply theoretical teachings in a real-world setting.
While the topic of church and conversion is common, the student’s narrative weaves in unexpected elements to create interest while clearly answering the prompt.

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

College essay checklist
The student immediately captures the reader’s attention with an unexpected statement that captures the prompt’s focus on captivation. Her writing clearly illustrates her love for the Rubik’s cube, showing how the cube has helped her emotionally and academically and inspired her choice of major.
The student uses a conversational tone while inserting elevated language and concepts that surround her field of interest. She also uses the “I” to personalize her experience.
Through her detailed narrative of her Rubik’s cube hobby, the student demonstrates perseverance, focus, curiosity, and an uncanny ability to solve problems.
The student shows awareness of her introversion by explaining how the Rubik’s cube helps her emotionally recharge. She also credits her hobby with helping her in her studies and inspiring her intended major.

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

College essay checklist
The student uses a popular TV cooking show as an unexpected concept to display his leadership abilities. Since the prompt is open-ended, the student has more room to craft his response.
The essay juxtaposes the contrived nature of a TV show’s script with a conversational narrative of the student’s leadership stories.
Each story effectively showcases the student’s leadership by showing, not telling. Rather than saying “I’m a great leader,” he provides specific instances of his best moments of demonstrated leadership.
The student honestly shares his reservations about his mother’s new life but shows how he was able to reconcile aspects of their relationship as time passed.

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


  • 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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12 Common App Essay Examples (Graded by Former Admissions Officers)

Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University

Written by Alex McNeil, MA Admissions Consultant

Key Takeaway

If you’re applying to college, chances are you’re using the Common Application. And if you’re using the Common Application, then you’re definitely writing a Common Application essay.

But how do you write a Common App essay? More specifically, how do you write a good one that stands out to admissions officers? And hey—what does a good Common App essay even look like?

Ah, there it is. That last question is one nearly all students applying to college ask. That’s why example essays are so important. They help you sort through all the noise of the college admissions process to see exactly what a Common App essay can and should be.

We’ve compiled some of our favorite college essays for you to read. Even better, our team of former admissions officers has commented on and graded every single essay to guide you through what works (and doesn’t).

Let’s get to it.

The 2022-2023 Common Application Essay Prompts

First, we should start out by looking at the Common Application essay prompts. Sometimes the prompts change slightly from year to year, but they tend to remain fairly similar.

The Common App essay prompts are just that. Prompts. They prompt you to write an essay by giving you a place to start. They ask questions to help you reflect on important moments in your life. You only have to choose one prompt to answer.

Here they are, listed in the order provided by the Common App:

  • 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.

The prompts cover a range of topics that’s broad enough to let you write about just about anything.

But let us let you in on a little secret: how you answer the Common Application prompt matters less than the quality of the essay you write. After all, you can always choose the open-ended Prompt #7 option.

So our advice is to start with the essay and then choose a prompt to fit. Identifying a topic that resonates with you, regardless of the prompt, will produce the best essay possible. (And if you need some guidance about how to choose a Common App essay topic, check out our college essay writing guide .)

3 Tips for Writing Your Common Application Essay

Overall, your Common App essay should be the centerpiece of your college application. It should work to tie together your cohesive application narrative , and it should give admissions officers a genuine sense of who you are. Let's take a look at a few specific tips for writing a good Common App essay.

Write about a meaningful topic.

Think about the purpose of a Common App essay. It’s really your one chance to communicate directly with your admissions officers. Sure, your application has all your grades and classes and activities, but none of those things is actually you. The Common App essay exists so you can tell admissions officers information they can’t find anywhere else in your application. Think of it like a poetic introduction to who you are. Because you only have 650 words to make your impression, your essay should get straight to it. Choose a topic that reflects something deeply meaningful to who you are.

Write about a strength.

If your Common App essay is like an introduction, then you also want to make a good impression. That means that your essay should communicate one of your core strengths . Maybe you're the most compassionate person in the world. Maybe you’re so inventive that you can make anything out of a paperclip and a rock. Or maybe you’re so wise that everyone comes to you for advice. Whatever strength makes you who you are, let it shine through in your Common Application essay.

Pay attention to the structure of your essay.

As you’ll see in the “Bad” Common App Essay Examples section below, unorganized essays are hard to read. Admissions officers read hundreds to thousands of applications in a single year, so they go through them fast. That means that your essay needs to grab their attention and easily guide them through your narrative. Try your best to organize your ideas in a way that logically draws your reader through the story you’re telling.

Now keep those tips in mind as we go through each of these example essays.

Best Common App Essay Examples

There’s no single correct way to write a Common App essay, but the best ones grab your attention and keep it. They raise interesting questions, stories, and solutions. Writers reflect meaningfully on important topics, and they do so with a kind of elegance that’s hard to pinpoint. Writers use specific details and examples to set the scene. The best essays have narratives cohere perfectly and guide readers seamlessly through the story at hand.

Reading outstanding Common App essays can help you know what to aim for. Not every winning Common App essay has to look like the ones in this section, but they’ll give you a place to get started.

In particular, take note of the admissions officers’ comments and begin thinking about how you can apply these lessons to your own Common App essay.

Example #1: Board Game Family

Common App Prompt #1

“Professor Plum in the kitchen with the candlestick!”(( Opening with dialogue can be a risky choice, especially if it distracts the reader instead of drawing them in. But this essay uses opening dialogue as an effective hook to compel the reader to read on.)) My sister triumphed. I begrudgingly set down my clue tracker and opened the CONFIDENTIAL envelope. Indeed, her theory was correct. The thing about growing up in a board game family is that you quickly learn how to be a sore loser. In my home, countless sibling wars have been waged over an unjust hand of Gin Rummy or an out-of-bounds toe in Twister. But what I lack in sibling sportsmanship I make up for in wits. Playing board games with my family has taught me that the key to winning any game is resilience, sound strategy, and a little bit of charm(( This introduction has some fun language. And with this sentence, the writer gets straight to the heart of their essay. )) .

Candy Land was my gateway game, and it remains one of my favorites to play with my younger siblings. The game itself is simple: pick a card and move to the corresponding color on the board. First one to King Candy’s Castle wins. But, like life, the journey to the castle is full of setbacks. One unlucky draw, and you’ll lose half your progress. Having made many journeys up Candy Mountain, I grew accustomed to these setbacks. As I entered high school, I began facing real-world roadblocks that threatened to send me ten steps backward. My family moved towns, and the transition proved difficult. I felt behind in the new curriculum and lonely at a new school. Establishing a Board Game club helped me find friends and start my journey back toward Candy Castle.

As I grew older, I gravitated toward more difficult games like Risk. Unlike Candy Land, Risk requires strategy. Sure, randomly conquering territories might get you somewhere, but I learned that the most successful crusades are those that feature careful planning. Risk takes up our entire kitchen table, and we’ll play for hours at a time. My brother and I like to establish secret ententes. With whispered asides and unnoticed bathroom breaks, we work together to ensure victory. And when something doesn’t go our way, we revise our strategy and prepare for the next round. Risk isn’t just about taking risks–it’s about learning when to act, what to do, and who to align yourself with. It’s a lesson that applies to life outside the kitchen table, too.

While I’ve learned from every game I’ve played, the most impactful has been Scrabble(( This excerpt shows great personality, reflection, and personal growth.)) . When I started studying for the SATs, my family took up Scrabble. At first, Scrabble almost broke us. Dictionaries were slammed shut, points miscalculated, and tiles mysteriously lost. But with each new game, the board set anew, we remembered our mission: to help me practice vocabulary. With this fresh perspective, we began to work together. Instead of playing to win, we played to challenge each other and ourselves. For every non-word word I put on the board, I had to plead my case. Arguments like “Ahot” is synonymous with cold because of the root “a,” meaning “without” and “Truc” is a fun French word that we should have anglicized a long time ago anyway earned me both eyerolls and points. The more charming I was, the more sound my defense became, and the more likely my family was to concede. Together, we made our own rules and unforgettable memories.

I’ve summited Candy Mountain thousands of times and founded more countries than I can count. Our Scrabble games don’t look like everyone else’s, but these moments around my kitchen table, filled with laughter and rivalries, white lies and trusted alliances, are ones I will always cherish. They have made me into the thoughtful and strategic person I am today. More importantly, they’ve taught me that there’s a lot to learn when you’re having fun(( The writer concludes with this intentional reflection that leaves no question in the reader’s mind about what the main takeaway from the essay should be.)) .

AO Notes on Board Game Family

This essay takes a fun topic, board games, and turns it into a fun college essay. Most importantly, the writer doesn’t spend too much time focusing on the games themselves. Instead, they use the games as a way to talk about themself. That’s the key in an essay like this.

Why this essay stands out:

  • Humor: We get a strong sense of the writer’s personality through their humor. It’s okay to show some personality in your college essays!
  • Meaning : Through each of these stories, we learn a lot about the writer’s family background. There’s a clear picture of what their home looked like growing up, so we can easily see how they developed into who they are today.
  • Action steps: The writer doesn’t just describe fun family game nights. They explicitly connect these game nights to their determination as a player, sibling, and student. We see the steps they took to make new friends, win alongside their brother, and study for the SATs.

Example #2: The Bowl That Taught Me Not to Quit

Common App Prompt #2

The clay felt cold against my skin as my knees hugged the wheel for dear life(( With this opening, we jump right into the writer’s emotions. They don’t have to tell us explicitly what they’re feeling—we can feel that they are anxious from their description alone. It’s a wonderful example of “show, not tell.”)) . Don’t. Fall. Over. I begged the clay to stay put. In the back of my mind, I heard the instructor saying, “The clay will mirror what you do. If you are steady, the clay will be steady.” I planted my feet firmly on the floor and stared my bowl-to-be dead in the eye.

My journey as a ceramicist began as many journeys do: with a scolding from my mother. She said that I was wasting my summer. I needed a hobby. Flipping through the community center catalog, my gaze landed on Ceramics 101: Beginners. I decided to take on the wheel.

Soon, I was captivated. For the last three thousand years, ceramicists have been throwing clay to create pottery that is quicker to make and more reliable than hand-crafted pottery. This past summer, as I developed my pottery skills, I learned about more than clay. I learned about myself.

To start any project, there’s the matter of choosing which clay to use. When it came time for my first throw, I chose stoneware clay for its durability. I grabbed a slab, dabbed it with water, and tossed it on the wheel, just as the teacher had instructed. My foot gently pressed the wheel’s pedal, a vehicle for which I was certainly not licensed. Covered in wet clay, I pressed my hands against the slab, trying to shape it. But it wobbled(( And here we have the main conflict: things did not go as expected. As readers, we ask ourselves: what will the writer do now?)) . It spun completely out of control. I had clay in my hair and up my sleeves. My project, it seemed, was already ruined.

While I didn’t expect to be a ceramics savant, I did expect to make it through the first class without a mud bath. I felt like a failure as I watched all the other students, whose clay was taking shape on gracefully spinning wheels. I was embarrassed. I wanted to quit. And I was used to quitting, having never been able to hold down an extracurricular activity throughout high school(( With this simple sentence, we learn that the writer has struggled with overcoming challenges in the past. )) . Cutting my losses would be quicker than cleaning the clay from my clothes, so I began to wipe off my hands and pack up my things. The instructor approached me, explaining that what had just happened was perfectly normal. She urged me to try again. I didn’t want to, but her presence made me stay.

For the rest of the class, the instructor hovered by my wheel. She was ready to lend a hand when necessary. She was my safety net, and I felt more confident to continue. I squeezed my clay out and down with the care of a first-time mom. It began to look more like a bowl and less like a mound of dirt. As I watched the bowl come into being, I felt tears prick my eyes. I felt silly for crying at something so simple, but it wasn’t so simple after all. A bowl materialized from my bare hands, all because I didn’t quit.

Quitting(( This paragraph has wonderful reflection.)) is easy, and I’ve taken the easy road more times than I can count. But it ended the day of that ceramics class. If you leave clay untended, it will dry out and become useless. Before ceramics, I hadn’t been tending to myself. I grew dry, cracking under the weight of any external pressures. But my teacher taught me that a little more persistence, time, and effort can yield something beautiful and useful.

When my bowl was done, I carried it to the shelf to be fired. The instructor explained that she’d put our projects in the kiln, and we could pick them up at our next class. I returned the following week and saw my bowl sitting on my wheel. It was imperfect but sturdy, messy yet intricate. It was exactly right. I set it aside and grabbed another block of clay, foot hovering over the pedal(( This conclusion ties up the essay with a bow. It calls back to the beginning and emphasizes that the writer will keep overcoming whatever obstacles arise.)) .

AO Notes on The Bowl that Taught Me Not to Quit

In this essay, the writer goes on a journey learning to do ceramics. We see that they experience failure but can learn from it. Their strengths of creativity and resilience shine through.

  • Positive spin: Writing college essays about challenges is difficult because it’s easy to get wrapped up in hardship. But this essay does a great job moving on from the failure and focusing on the lessons learned.
  • Explaining an underwhelming resume: It happens so quickly that you might miss it if you blink, but this writer very subtly explains why they don’t have many resume items . Accounting for an insufficient resume in this way comes across as taking responsibility rather than making excuses. We also see that the writer has learned from these challenges and is moving forward in a new direction.

Example #3: ENFP

Common App Prompt #6

“You know how whenever you want to plan out your weekend there are too many fun things to do and too many people to do them with? And how it’s impossible to commit to doing anything next Saturday, let alone next month? What if something even more exciting comes up? Ugh!”

“I have literally no idea what you’re talking about. That sounds stressful.”

My friend’s response confused me.

“Stressful!? It’s fun! And stressful. But mostly fun.”

We’ve all had realizations that remind us we are not the same as the people around us(( After that fun introduction, this sentence brings our attention directly to the main point of the essay.)) . Our brains and our tendencies are ours, and they aren’t necessarily shared by others–even close friends and family.

This conversation was one of those times. I was a sophomore and truly did not consider that my peers would follow routines, carefully planning out their weekends while I relied on vibes, group texts, and parental reminders of homework to get me through. Every day is a new experience and I wake up energized for the excitement of a new beginning. Fun, right?

Apparently, some people find my way stressful.

The first week of junior year, my English teacher surprised us with a test. Not an academic one–she administered the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. I didn’t know what that meant, but she explained it was a personality assessment. Then she looked directly at me and pointed.

“YOU! YOU are an ENFP!”

I’d been called a lot of things, but this was a new one. She was absolutely certain that this string of meaningless letters described me. As if anyone could possibly define me!

Sure enough, I took the assessment and got my results. E-N-F-P. Extraverted-iNtuitive-Feeling-Perceiving. I learned that each variable was one of two possibilities that describe people’s preferences about how they interact with their external and internal world. Each person exists on a spectrum between each set of variables.

I was pretty extreme on all four. Suddenly, I understood why people said I had a “big personality”.

This was just the start of my journey into psychology to better understand myself and others(( This paragraph ties together the personality test story with the writer’s personal journey of seeing the world through new perspectives.)) . I knew I was an extrovert–that was the easy one. But now I felt like I had language to explain why my arguments in debate were naturally grounded in emotion (common for Feeling types) rather than the data of a Thinker. I understood why my Judgment (J, rather than P) friends couldn’t stand my inability to commit to a plan. I needed to Perceive all of my options before committing to just one of them.

I delved into writers, psychologists, and researchers like Adam Grant, Dan Pink, Malcolm Gladwell, and Gretchen Rubin. I even embraced my own (very ENFP) preference to listen to their audiobooks rather than read in quiet solitude. I listen to books with one ear bud in while walking around my small town. That way I can learn while staying open to meeting a new friend, stopping by a shop, or petting a cute dog.

My INTJ friend didn’t understand how I could listen to a book while actively striking up conversations with strangers. To each their own.

Part of learning about myself was understanding that I love to learn about how people think and form habits. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another. That is true for planning a weekend, maintaining relationships, or even writing a college essay.

I want to study psychology (and about 100 other subjects) and create a career where I can help people understand themselves and build positive habits around who they are(( I like how the writer connects these relations to their academic and career goals.)) , rather than try to change themselves to fit the expectations of others. Sure, maybe that will lead me to become a psychologist. But I think teachers, doctors, writers, and business leaders have an opportunity to do this as well.

All I know for sure is that, just like each new day, college is the next adventure. I’m excited to see what happens.

AO Notes on ENFP

Most of us know about personality tests, but this writer is able to make the topic a deeply personal one. We learn about their personality and habits. We learn about how they interact with others. Overall, the topic really helps us see the world from their perspective.

  • Creative topic: The topic itself isn’t one an admissions officer will see every day. But it’s not so out-there that it comes across as hokey.
  • Perspective: Admissions officers appreciate when students can see the world from perspectives other than their own. This writer shows a lot of maturity when explaining how their personality test sparked a realization that they don’t see the world the same way their friends do.
  • Connections to future goals: The writer doesn’t just present the topic without speaking to its greater meaning. They show that personality tests are meaningful to them because they are related to an academic interest in psychology.

Example #4: Warhammer 40k Miniatures

Carefully(( This introduction has great vivid language.)) dipping the microscopic end of my horse hair brush into the pot of citadel paint, I can feel my excitement building. Gunmetal grey—my favorite primer color. Next comes the white and gold highlights that edge the armor. I'm about to bring one of my favorite Orcs to life, adding tactful details and shading to his green skin and menacing scowl. This is my passion, my obsession: painting Warhammer 40k miniatures.

Now, I’m well aware of the reputation Warhammer has—nerdy. As a tabletop miniature war game set in a dystopian future(( The writer subtly explains this hobby just in case admissions officers aren’t familiar with it.)) , players collect and paint miniatures to represent their armies. They then battle it out on a tabletop strewn with miniature trees, structures, and other terrains. I've been a fan of the game for years, but it's the painting that I love most. There’s something about taking a tiny, unpainted model and turning it into a work of art that I find incredibly satisfying. Nerd, guilty as charged.

I've always been drawn to the Orcs in particular, with their sheer strength and ferocity. But lately, I've been getting more into the Necrons, these ancient, robotic warriors that have been resurrected after millions of years of dormancy. And let's not forget the noble Tau, with their advanced technology and futuristic design. The story of each people goes deep, too. There are dozens of books written about the broader universe of Warhammer—a shared world that spans tens of thousands of years of lore. I’ve read almost every one of them. No matter the character I’m painting, no matter the story they’ll take place in, I watch in awe as each brushstroke brings the character to life in front of my eyes.

As my obsession with miniature painting has grown, I've started entering painting competitions(( This detail shows the magnitude and impact of the activity.)) . It's nerve-wracking showing off my work to a panel of judges, but it's also incredibly rewarding when they appreciate my hard work. I’ve received accolades and even small prizes for my artistry. After every competition, I choose my favorite miniature to display on a shelf in my room. I still have some of the earliest miniatures on my shelf, looking a little rough around the edges but still serving as a reminder of where I started.

But painting miniatures isn't just a hobby for me; it's also been a gateway for other forms of art. I've started dabbling in oil painting, using the same attention to detail and skillful brushwork that I use on my miniatures. While making the transition to a new medium has been challenging, I’ve slowly I’ve built a small collection of paintings. Some of them are as epic as my miniatures—depictions of battles and important moments from the 40k universe. But others are more tranquil, like a recent landscape I painted for my mom’s birthday of the stream behind our house(( We also learn how the writer’s obsession has expanded to other areas of their life. I like this detail because it’s an endearing story of the writer making art for their mom.)) . Becoming more dynamic with my art has made me a better artist, which has in turn made my miniatures even more lifelike.

Warhammer has been the biggest portal into a world of imagination and creativity. But it’s also unlocked my belief in myself as someone capable of succeeding in art(( And here it is—a central point of the essay. Painting these miniatures isn’t just about the miniatures. It’s also about the writer’s growth as an artist.)) . I’ve transcended the level of hobbyist and, over the years I’ve been painting, I’ve learned to call myself an artist. That title is a lot to carry, but it’s one that I can’t wait to continue growing into, figure by figure, painting by painting. And I can’t wait to bring the world of 40k to my dorm—sharing the universe with my friends and classmates. You’ll know where to find me. Just look for the nerdy artist with the dense wooden play table, toting around an army of skeletal warriors and hulking orcs. I can’t wait to share my world with you.

AO Notes on Warhammer 40k Miniatures

This essay is a great example of how to write about a hobby in a college essay. Notice how the writer explains their hobby in vivid detail, but the core of the essay is still about the writer themself.

  • Vivid details: Personal statements can be wonderful exercises in creative writing. While that can be difficult for some students, this writer did it exactly right.
  • Narrative structure: The writer seamlessly transitions readers between each paragraph. They slowly reveal how their journey has progressed. And, most importantly, they incorporate loads of good reflection.
  • Personal meaning: It’s clear that Warhammer itself is meaningful to the writer. But I also like how they draw the focus inward to discuss how painting miniatures “unlocked” a belief in themself.

Example #5: The Band

Common App Prompt #5

I always imagined my band’s first show would take place on a stage. Maybe not in front of a packed amphitheater, but a stage. One with lights, a sound system, a curtain behind it, and some mixture of friends, family, and strangers ready to hear us play.

But there I was, holding a guitar in the women’s section of JC Penney at the mall(( This sentence is so unexpected that it’s sure to make most admissions officers stop, do a double take, and chuckle.)) . We fumbled through a cover of “Mr. Brightside” while middle-aged women shopped for sundresses.

Not exactly what I had in mind.

Our drummer’s mom managed the shoe section at JC Penney and said her boss wanted a creative way to get younger people excited about shopping there. She suggested that her son’s band would be perfect for this opportunity. They paid us in pizza and asked us to perform for two hours–a tall order for four high school sophomores who knew about five and a half songs.

It wasn’t evident to us that we would learn anything from our musical endeavors, or that our music would take us beyond the local mall. I’ve always known writing and performing pop-rock songs isn’t a likely career path. But a recent late night conversation with my bandmates-turned-best-friends showed us all how much we have grown and learned through music(( This reflection is great.)) . What started as a way to spend time with friends on a hobby turned into an accidental entrepreneurial venture and surprisingly poignant lessons.

For one thing, writing music with others is hard. Getting four new musicians to agree on everything from tempo to lyrics to how many verses each song should have isn’t easy. We figured it out as we went along, fueled by copious amounts of Mountain Dew and Bagel Bites.

We eventually created a system where each member learned the lyrics to each song and at least one other person’s part. Sharing original lyrics–poetry–between friends is uncomfortable. But we became more cohesive once everyone was on the same page with the story we were telling. When the bass player, who can’t play drums, learned just enough to understand that the kick drum hits on beats 1 and 3 and the snare on the 2 and 4, our rhythm section began to play more in sync. Once our drummer got over his fear of singing, we were able to incorporate simple harmonies, which led to him improving our lyrics.

Most surprising was making money and feeling like we were running a small (very small) business(( By expanding the focus to talk about music as a business venture, the writer also shows the extent of their activity’s impact.)) . Our second show after the infamous JC Penney incident was a battle of the bands at the public pool that June. We placed fourth–no prize. By August, we played another battle of the bands and won first place, largely thanks to our efforts to publicize the event to everyone in our network (some might call it begging our friends to come). To our surprise, we won $800 on one of those comically large checks.

We decided to allocate some of the money to equipment we needed–cables, cymbal stands, and more Bagel Bites–and put the rest towards professional recording. The process of contacting local studios, negotiating rates, and working with professionals in the industry was completely new to all of us.

A year before, we thought agreeing on lyrics was tough. But the sonic experience of hearing your own music back and agreeing on the tone and effects of every instrument can bring out differences you didn’t know existed. I’d read about arguments between bands from the Beatles to Kings of Leon, and now the four of us had to work out our differences together in real time. Thankfully, we navigated that challenge without losing our sanity for more than a few brief moments.

I am grateful for the lessons we have learned over the past three years(( And with this conclusion, the writer really drives home the essay’s main theme.)) . Not only do we have music and memories to show for our efforts, but we have all learned about creative collaboration, budgeting, and marketing our art.

AO Notes on The Band

This essay makes me want to sing! It’s full of personality, but it still manages to be vulnerable and reflective. By the conclusion , we really see what the writer has learned from being in a band.

  • Humor: The writer immediately draws us in with an introduction that is funny, surprising, and full of personality. The introduction alone makes me want to keep reading. And right as we’re through the introduction, the writer drives home their main point: they learned a lot through music. Then, to our delight, the humor continues throughout. It’s subtle enough to keep our attention and not be overwhelming or inauthentic.
  • Strengths: I can see that the writer is very collaborative and entrepreneurial. I also like how they give insight into their relationship with their friends and bandmates—we learn a lot about them through their interactions with others.
  • Accomplishments: This essay is a solid example of how to write about accomplishments in a personal and meaningful way. The writer could have just opened with the accomplishments, but that wouldn’t have been very interesting or vulnerable. By nesting those accomplishments within a broader story about music, the writer is able to convey greater meaning.

Good Common App Essay Examples

If you’re feeling intimated by all the outstanding essays you’ve seen online, fear not. You don’t have to have a Pulitzer to get into college.

What you do need is a good, meaningful essay, even if it’s not perfect. The essays in this section represent what the majority of Common App essays look like. They aren’t necessarily perfect, but they’re written strategically and with verve. You can tell that their writers genuinely care about the essay they’ve been tasked with.

Putting in a similar effort with your own Common App essay will get you far. Let’s take a look.

Example #6: Herb

I stood in the dimly lit garage, staring at the child-sized pile of metal and wires in front of me. I couldn't help but feel a sense of awe. This was our creation(( This introduction reveals the product of the journey the writer is about to go on: building a robot.)) , a robot that my father and I had spent months designing and building with meticulous care.

It all started on a slow Sunday afternoon, when my dad suggested we take on a new project. He wanted to build a robot. At first, I was hesitant. I was skeptical that we had the know-how to even construct the body of the robot, much less one that actually worked. But my dad, a tinkerer and inventor, was determined to try. So we got everything set up in the garage and got to work. As it turns out, building a robot wouldn’t just improve our technical abilities. It would bring us closer together along the way.

Before this project, my dad and I tended to argue and disagree(( I appreciate this clear transition and description of the “before” state that the writer and their father are growing from.)) . But in the garage with our robot materials, we were both so invested in building the robot that we collaborated perfectly. We bounced ideas off each other, read books and online forums, and even got advice from friends who were more experienced in robotics. For what seemed like the first time, my dad thought of me as an equal. Usually I was just there to hand him wrenches and screwdrivers as he worked on his latest creation. This time was different. We were a team. And with each passing day, our robot began to come alive.

We spent months in the garage, building and troubleshooting. My dad worked on the mechanics. He carefully assembled the joints and servos that would give the robot its movement. While he did that, I focused on the design. I drew mock-ups on my iPad and researched different exterior materials to use. I clumsily constructed our prototypes before my dad helped me put all the pieces together.

The final result was a beautiful machine. It was almost four feet tall and towered over our family dog. And it actually worked. The exterior gleamed—the sensors we used added visual flair and extreme function. But the most impressive aspect of our robot was its artificial intelligence system, which we had spent weeks programming and refining together. It was still fairly rudimentary as far as robots go, but we were proud of such a major accomplishment.

We decided to name our creation Herb, after my father’s beloved herb garden. We liked the irony of mixing a machine with a garden. He was perfect.

After working on him for months, it was time to enter Herb into a local show for machine enthusiasts. Our entry was accepted(( This detail also shows the magnitude of their accomplishment.)) . The show will take place next spring, so my dad and I are polishing Herb’s exterior, tweaking bugs that arise in his artificial intelligence, and preparing him for his out-of-garage debut.

While I’m proud that we will finally get to show Herb off to the world, what I’m more proud of is how far my father and I have come. Working on Herb brought us closer together, and the process helped my dad see me as a fellow tinkerer and inventor rather than just an assistant. In our garage, as we constructed something entirely un-human, we found the human in ourselves. Our father-son love came to life through a robot. I wouldn’t trade it for anything(( I really like this poetic conclusion that neatly ties together the essay’s theme.)) .

AO Notes on Herb:

This essay is an endearing story about how the writer’s relationship with their father improved while working on a robot together. We learn a lot about the student and their interests as we accompany them on this journey.

What makes this essay good:

  • Organization: There’s some back and forth with narrative and reflection in this essay that gives it a pretty complex structure. But the writer does an awesome job keeping readers on track by using very clear signposting. Phrases like “before this project” and “after working on him for months” help readers navigate the complexity.
  • Reflection: The writer incorporates great reflection throughout. The third paragraph shows us the “before state” that the writer is growing from, and by the end of the essay, we really see where they’ve ended up mentally, emotionally, and personally.

What the writer could do to level up:

  • More focus on the writer : While this essay isn’t too bad about this, there is some room for improvement. The main descriptive parts of the essay all focus on the robot. We do learn about the writer and their goals through these descriptions. But the essay is approaching being too much about the robot and not enough about the writer.

Example #7: Laughter & Acceptance

"Why was the transgender person so bad at math? Because they always had to trans-late equations!"

Okay, okay, that was a terrible joke. But let me tell you, finding self-acceptance as a transgender person ain't no joke. It's a struggle, a battle, a war. But it's a war that can be won, and I'm here to tell you how(( From the start, we get a clear sense of the writer’s personality. This sentence also tells us exactly what the essay is about.)) .

I grew up in a world that told me being trans was wrong, that it was something to be ashamed of. And I believed it. I tried to hide who I was, to pretend like I was someone else. But it was like trying to fit a square peg into a round hole. It just didn't work.

But then something happened. I don't know what it was—maybe a shift in the universe, maybe a sign from God. But something changed, and I realized that I couldn't keep living a lie. I had to be true to myself, regardless of what misery and consequences that might bring down around my head.

After telling my younger sister, who cried tears of joy and support, bless her, I decided to come out to the rest of my family. Let me tell you, it was not pretty. They didn't understand what I meant. They told me I was going to hell, that I was a disgrace to our family. And it hurt, oh man it hurt. But through the pain I saw a glimmer of something—was that hope?(( The writer does an excellent job reflecting and taking the “more phoenix, less ashes” approach.)) For the first time, I was being honest with myself and with the world. The whips and lashes of my parents’ words were more painful than I could have anticipated, but I left the room with my head held up and a barely-perceptible feeling of lightness around my shoulders.

And that's when the real work began. See, coming out is one thing, but accepting yourself is another. It's not easy, trust me. It's like trying to walk on a tightrope, one wrong step and you're a gonner. But I didn't give up, I kept going.

And you know what? It started to get easier. I started to find people who accepted me for who I was, who supported me and loved me. I started to feel confident in my own skin. And it was a good feeling—a great feeling. The best feeling.

But my life isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. There are still moments every day when I feel down, when the weight of the world feels like it's crushing me. But even in those moments, I've learned to find strength in myself, to remind myself that I am worthy and deserving of love and respect.

And that's what self-acceptance is all about. No one can avoid feeling sad, angry, or frustrated all the time. But if those feelings only crop up now and again? You’re doing pretty good. Most of all, it’s about letting those negative emotions pass when they come, roll over you like a wave before they go on their way. It's about laughing at the absurdity of it all(( With this philosophy, we really see how much the writer has grown.)) , and finding joy and humor in the midst of the pain.

So, dear reader(( Addressing your reader in a college essay is a pretty risky stylistic choice that we would generally advise against.)) , if you're struggling with self-acceptance, you're not alone. I’m there with you. And remember: it's okay to laugh at yourself, to find the humor in the situation. It's not always easy, but it's worth it. Because when you can accept yourself, you can be proud of who you are, and that's something to be truly grateful for. Tell a joke about yourself and laugh it off. You’ll feel better, I promise(( I like these sentiments, but they could be more focused on the writer instead of the reader.)) .

AO Notes on Laughter & Acceptance

This essay does a wonderful job maintaining sight of the writer’s strengths and positivity in light of really tough challenges. The writer isn’t afraid to be vulnerable. Because of that, we learn a lot about them.

  • Authenticity : I’d guess that this essay couldn’t have been written by anyone other than its writer. Its voice is so clear and authentic that I truly feel like the writer is talking straight to me. Since Common App essays are one of the only places where you get to speak straight to an admissions officer, authenticity is key.
  • Positivity : Let’s face it. This essay is about a really serious topic that was clearly challenging for the writer. But what makes it so great is that in spite of all the challenges, the writer is able to find positivity and light. They don’t dwell on the hardships but look forward to the future. That’s exactly what a college essay about a challenging topic should do.
  • Tone : Balancing your personal tone and voice with the conventions of Common App essay writing can be tricky. It’s hard to predict how an admissions officer will react to what you write. Some might love the fact that this essay truly sounds like the student who wrote it, while others might be put off by its informality. The writer could clean up just a few areas of informal language to play it a little safer.

Example #8: The Old iPhone

Common App Prompt #3

I unscrewed the tiny Phillips-head screws and wedged open my iPhone 5. I cringed as the material cracked out of place. Despite my nervousness, I felt curious. I had always been fascinated by technology and machines, but this was the first time I had ever taken apart a device as complex as an iPhone.

And it wasn’t just any iPhone. It was my very first—my most prized possession until I bought my new phone a few months ago. Since then, it had been sitting in the back of my desk drawer, collecting dust and taking up space. I just didn’t have the heart to sell, recycle, or trade it in. On a day when my ADHD was particularly affecting me, I decided to tinker with my phone to calm myself down.

Working with machines and technology had become my biggest strategy for dealing with my ADHD on those difficult days(( This is an excellent transition.)) . I was diagnosed with ADHD when I was thirteen. I’d been struggling to pay attention in class, and my teachers and parents thought it would be best to get me tested. After I started taking medication, my symptoms improved a lot. But the whole process made me feel like something was off about the way my brain worked naturally. That’s why on the days my medication just isn’t cutting it I center myself by playing with machinery and technology. Even though I can’t fully understand my brain, I can understand a machine. Sometimes that knowledge is enough to get me back on track.

At my desk while disassembling the phone, I carefully removed each piece and set them aside on a bathroom hand towel beside me. I felt calm and focused. As someone with ADHD, it can be difficult for me to concentrate on a single task. But with every part I removed, my mind grew more and more focused. I didn’t feel pulled to passing thoughts and distractions like I normally do.

Working on the phone was like meditating. The parts were so small and delicate that it took all of my attention not to lose or break any. As I examined each component, I thought about all the hard work that goes into designing, manufacturing, and selling the millions of iPhones sold each year.

Taking apart the iPhone improved my technical knowledge, but it was more than that. It also helped me to understand my own mind in a new way(( This is an important shift back to the writer’s own experience. If it weren’t here, the essay would be too much about the iPhone and not enough about the writer.)) . While working my way through this small but magnificent machine, I realized that I could think of my own brain as a kind of machine. It has a complex network of circuits and pathways that control my thoughts and actions. It requires energy to work. It is made up of smaller components that allow it to function. I can’t tinker around with my brain, but I can appreciate it for the incredible machine that it is. I just need to learn more about how my brain works and adapt accordingly.

In many ways, my ADHD has always felt like a kind of malfunction, like something is wrong with me. But as I took apart the iPhone, I began to see that even the most advanced technology isn’t perfect—there’s dust and glitches and grime and bugs. And just as Apple does software updates and new product releases to improve the iPhone, I can find ways to improve how I function with my own brain(( With this comment, the essay ends on a very positive and hopeful note—exactly what you want in a college essay. )) .

AO Notes on My Old iPhone

In this essay, the writer describes how tinkering with an iPhone affected their personal journey with ADHD. I especially like how the writer takes two quite different topics and weaves them together seamlessly.

  • Creative take: The core of this essay topic is a good one. The writer uses a hobby to talk about a deeper personal topic they’re wrestling with. As a result, we learn quite a bit about both.
  • Strengths: We always say that you should write your college essays around core strengths. This writer does exactly that. As readers, we can tell that the writer is a problem-solver. They figured out a way to help themselves when their medication wasn’t working, and they also used that activity to do some reflection.
  • Personal meaning: The writer could have just written about how they tinker with machines to help with their ADHD. But they went beyond that. They reflect more deeply on what the experience of having ADHD means to them.
  • More connections: This essay is quite good. But as a reader, I’m still left wondering why the writer is drawn to tinkering and machines in the first place. It seems like there is room for the student to write a bit more about how the activity resonates with them personally.

Example #9: My Partner in Music

Built from a dark, mocha-colored wood and strung with the best strings my mom could afford, my viola has been with me through a lot. The first time I held the instrument in my hands, I knew it was made just for me. Sure, my viola had had previous owners. But they were only caring for it until it made its way home. My instrument is who I spend the most time with, who I know the closest, and who I’ve invested so much time in. With my viola, I’ve experienced my greatest accomplishments.

I come from a family of prodders rather than pushers(( This paragraph and the following dive too deeply into the writer’s past without making clear why the information is necessary to the narrative.)) . My loved ones have never pushed me to do anything, but I’ve been prodded in certain directions. At a mere year old, I began swim lessons. At age two, I took up soccer. At two and a half, I experimented with gymnastics. None of those activities ever stuck. But my true calling came at age three when my parents started me on viola lessons.

At first, I struggled to even hold my tiny, almost toy-like viola in place. Barely able to hold my own fork for dinner, I wrestled to place my fingers correctly on the fingerboard. When it was finally time for me to use my bow, it kept falling under its own weight, my small arm not strong enough to balance it.

But I was enthralled by the sounds I was able to make. I watched in awe as my teacher conjured up the most beautiful music I’d ever heard from her instrument. Unlike swimming, soccer, and gymnastics, music made sense to me. The ability to make something so engaging from wood and metal captured my attention.

When I got my new instrument, I had been playing the viola for exactly twelve years. Between the age of three and fifteen, my skills had grown exponentially. All those nights and weekends practicing, the blisters, and the hours and hours of lessons had paid off.

This past year, I earned a spot in the American Youth Symphony, one of the most prestigious youth symphonies in the world(( It’s not until this paragraph that we get to the heart of the essay: the writer’s big accomplishment, and the challenges they overcome to get there.)) . With the symphony’s minimum age of fifteen and average age in the early twenties, I’m one of the youngest musicians in the ensemble.

It wasn’t always so clear that playing viola was my destiny. When I was a sophomore in high school, I auditioned for my regional youth symphony. I had practiced my solo for months. I had played the piece so many times that it practically became part of me. With an imaginary metronome ticking away inside of me, my fingers knew exactly how to race across my strings, and my bow hand followed along in perfect time.

When it came time for my regional orchestra audition, however, the song completely vanished. I walked up to the stage, judges behind a partition. I sat down, brought my viola up to my chin, and froze. What had been muscle memory evaporated into thin air, and I was left with a blank mind and a silent instrument. I panicked, unsure of what to do.

I stared down at the scroll of my instrument and took a deep breath. We had played this piece a thousand times. We were ready. Most importantly, I wasn’t doing this alone. My viola and I were in it together. I raised my bow to the strings and began. The song emerged from my fingers, bow, and instrument. It was beautiful. It was perfect. That audition earned me regional first chair, and I learned a valuable lesson: I have to believe in myself(( And here we get to the theme of the essay. It’s not just about the viola. It’s about the writer—a musician.)) .

Now, as a member of the American Youth Symphony, I return to this lesson every day. It’s easy to get intimated when you’re playing alongside the country’s best young musicians. But, with my viola in hand, I know that I am a musician, too.

AO Notes on My Partner in Music

This writer tells us about their prized instrument. But the essay isn’t just about the instrument. It’s about the writer. The essay does an excellent job detailing a challenge the writer overcame. By the end, we see that the writer has grown and has achieved a huge accomplishment.

  • Contextualizing a great achievement: The writer’s strengths shine through in this essay because of their achievement. But throughout the essay, we also see that the writer has had to work hard to get to where they’re at today. That context adds great dimension to our understanding of them.
  • Voice: Through all the events that happen in this essay, the writer’s voice remains consistent. They have a solid tone that shows their work ethic and unwillingness to give up.
  • Get to the main idea quicker: Notice how the first few paragraphs of this essay are simple setup. We learn a lot about who the student was as a child before we get to the heart of the essay. The central conflict doesn’t come until almost the last paragraph. In general, college essays should be primarily about things that have happened in your life since starting high school. Brief mentions of previous events are fine, but they take up a touch too much space in this essay. It takes a while for us, the readers, to really see what the essay is about.

Example #10: The Laundromat

As the son of Chinese immigrants, I grew up working in my parents' laundromat(( Sometimes straightforward “statement” hooks work. This one does the job well.)) . It wasn't glamorous, but it was a good way to earn some extra money and help out my family. Over the years, I got to know a lot of the regulars who came in to use the machines. Some were friendly, some were angry, and some were just plain weird. But one thing they all had in common was that they had stories to tell. And I learned from every single one of them.

There was Mrs. Nguyen, an older Vietnamese woman who came in every week with a small load of clothes. She always greeted me warmly and snuck me a hard strawberry candy. We mostly talked about me—my schoolwork, friends, and sports. But one day, she opened up. She told me about her experiences fleeing Vietnam in the aftermath of the war. She described the dangers she faced and the sacrifices she made to keep her family safe. I was stunned that someone I had grown so close to had experienced such a challenge. What shocked me most was Mrs. Nguyen’s kindness in spite of everything she had been through. Before learning this about Mrs. Nguyen, I let small problems like late homework and friend arguments really upset me. But hearing her story put things into perspective for me, and I’m so grateful that she felt comfortable enough to share it with me(( Perspective: always a good lesson to learn. This example shows some good maturity.)) .

Carlos came every Tuesday and Thursday. He was a thirteen-year-old who always seemed to be practicing for the spelling bee. He went to my sister’s school and was shy and quiet. But after seeing him multiple times a week, I learned that he was also incredibly smart and dedicated. He would come into the laundromat with a stack of flashcards and a dictionary, looking for somewhere quiet to practice. He’d close his eyes and mouth the letters to himself before peeking to see if he was right. After months of watching him, I finally went up to him and offered to help(( With this “show, not tell” example, we see our writer exhibiting generosity and kindness. I also like the humor and personality in the following two sentences.)) . I started quizzing him on words that I couldn’t even really pronounce myself. I relied heavily on his dictionary! But after practicing together, Carlos won his school spelling bee and eventually went on to regionals. I was so proud of him. I learned that it if you want to succeed, you have to put in the work like Carlos did. Every time I think of quitting something, I remind myself of his determination, and I keep going.

And finally, there was Gary, a nurse who worked in the emergency room at our local hospital. He was always rushing through his laundry because of his busy schedule, but he was never too busy to sit down and talk with us kids. Gary inspired my interest in pursuing medicine. He told me countless stories about what he saw in the ER. But what I always appreciated most was when he would explain the science behind what was happening. Gary was a talented teacher who could always break down complex concepts into something even a kid could understand. By my junior year, Gary encouraged me to take AP Chemistry and Biology and now he’s helping me look at pre-medicine programs(( Nice—we get some background about the student’s academic interests.)) . Gary has sparked in me an interest in caring for people through medicine.

I could have chosen to ignore all these people and hide away in the back of the laundromat. But instead I chose to talk with them, even though it was sometimes scary and intimidating. Being around so many people, hearing all their stories, it’s really shown me that everyone has a story to tell. More importantly, everyone can learn from those around them. I wouldn’t be who I am today without the regulars at the laundromat, and I hope I inspired them in some way too.

AO Notes on The Laundromat

In this classic “understanding self through others” essay, we get to know the writer through their interactions with others. The writer does a pretty good job walking the (sometimes dangerous) line between saying too much about others and not enough about themself.

  • Personality: One of the best parts of “understanding self through others” essays is that we get to see who the writer is without them having to tell us. Through each of these small interactions, the writer—and their personality, values, beliefs—shines through.
  • Maturity: This writer shows several strengths. I think one of the most salient is their maturity. The way they were able to learn from Mrs. Nguyen, help Carlos, and be inspired by Gary took a lot of maturity. As an AO, that would tell me that this student is ready for the college classroom.
  • Connection to academic interests: Not all personal essays need to connect to an academic interest. Most probably don’t. But it was a natural connection for this writer, and I’m glad they made it. It raises the stakes of their interactions and leads beautifully into their conclusion.
  • Streamline: With the three different examples, the essay reads a bit choppy. The writer could put better transitions in between each person, or they could weave the examples together into a cohesive narrative. Streamlining would also help emphasize the essay’s focus on the writer rather than the laundromat patrons.

“Bad” Common App Essay Examples

Okay, these essays aren’t necessarily “bad” as essays. But if we’re being honest, they’re not great Common App essays either.

That doesn’t mean that they don’t have the potential to become great Common App essays, though. As you’ll see in the notes from our Admissions Officers, these essays contain the seeds of good essays. They just need some reorganization and refinement.

Let’s take a look.

Example #11: What I’ve Learned About Life

We all know that life is short so you have to make the most of it. I always try to do my best and live every day to the fullest(( These sentences are both cliches. It’s always better to hook readers in with your own words.)) . Well, I did that until I broke my arm in 8th grade. I used to be not afraid to do anything, but it turns out that’s what got me in trouble. I was riding my bike home from school one day and saw a stump. I thought about what we talked about in English class that day. It was something about “carpe diem” and so I decided, “You know what? I’m gonna jump that stump.”(( This story makes for a good concrete example.)) And I did. Almost. My bike tire caught on the stump and flipped me over the handle bars. A bystander had to help me call my mom to take me to the hospital and it was fractured in four places pretty bad it actually hurt a lot. So after that I still learned to live every day to the fullest but I also learned that you need to make good decisions when doing so.

My mom always tells me that I need to be more patient because it’s a virtue and I am not patient at all. But I have decided that the most important thing to me is to try hard no matter what. I’ll work until the ends of the earth to prove myself because those who work hard succeed. So when I realized that I tried to listen to my mom. Now when I get impatient I take a deep breath and remember my goal of being successful and sometimes it is hard to be patient and I can get angry or frustrated but then I think about what my mom said. It’s a virtue and I want to be as virtuous as possible. My mom has worked so hard in this life to give me a better life and all I want to do is make her proud(( These are fantastic sentiments that could be drawn out more clearly.)) . I really think that’s what it means to be a good person. I’ll always work hard so I can be successful and she can watch me shine.

AO Notes on What I’ve Learned About Life

This essay, while short, gives an honest effort at conveying something deeply meaningful. I especially like the very last sentence, which tells us a lot about who the writer is as a person. But there are a few areas this essay could improve.

What this essay does well:

  • Authenticity: It’s clear that the writer is discussing something very meaningful. I have no doubt that these lessons have played a big role in their life.

What could be improved on:

  • Too short: The maximum word count for the Common Application essay is 650 words. We like to encourage students to get to at least 80% of the word count, which means that your Common App essays should be at least 520 words. This essay is only 361.
  • The topic is too vague and full of generalities: The writer is communicating something meaningful about what they’ve learned throughout their life, but they do so only through generalities. Being too vague makes it hard for admissions officers to see who you really are. Instead, the writer could use concrete experiences and reflect specifically on how those experiences impacted them.

Example #12: Clean Slate

Common App Prompt #7

Bubbles, foam, and the sweet smell of chemicals. Shiny surfaces free of streaks and grime. I cleaned the entire house in three hours flat. I never really learned how to clean growing up, but I started seeing cleaning videos online. The cleaning videos always relax me, so I thought I’d give it a try(( This shows the writer’s initiative.)) .

First I needed to figure out what kinds of supplies to buy. After watching a few more videos, I made a list of the most commonly used items. Since I was on a limited budget, so I could only get the basics. I turned to coupons to find the best bargains possible. I bought disinfectant, a multi-purpose cleaner, and a window and mirror spray. I also found a mop, sponges, and a scrubber brush. It all cost me only fifteen dollars!

My family was shocked when I came home with these supplies in a shopping bag. They didn’t understand why I cared so much. We vacuumed and used disinfectant wipes every so often to keep things manageable, but none of us knew that you are supposed to deep clean your house every month or so until I told everyone based on what I saw online. I showed them each product I bought and told them what the purpose of each one was. They were proud of me for taking initiative and learning something new. They also couldn’t wait to see the results.

Then it was time for me to get to work. To strike inspiration, I put on another cleaning video in the background. I began with the bathroom. It was tidy, but it sure wasn’t clean. There was dust on all the surfaces, soap scum, and rust. I grabbed the disinfectant spray first because it has to sit for a while to actually disinfect. Then I used the mirror spray to clean toothpaste off the mirror. I scrubbed all the surfaces with my new sponge until they were squeaky clean. Then I moved on to the floors. My mop is a spray mop, so it was a quick job.

Next I moved on to the kitchen. That was much harder because it was more complex. There are several appliances, dishes to do, and food to put away. I wiped down the cabinets, which had a dark grime that you couldn’t even see before. I felt accomplished because I was actually cleaning. Once the kitchen was done, I moved on to the living room and the bedrooms. It took forever, but I did it(( By this point, we should have some more reflection from the writer about why this story is personally meaningful.)) .

I gave my family a tour around the house, showing them all the nooks and crannies I had cleaned. They were impressed and I felt so proud. I stood back, admiring my work. The house glistened like a diamond with cleanliness.

The next day I got up and decided to take a look around, excited to see my handiwork again. I was in shock when I stepped into the kitchen. It was a disaster. There was food and dishes everywhere. I ran to the bathroom. It wasn’t any better. There were dirty clothes and an open toothpaste tube. The baseboards already had a small bit of dust. I was devastated. All my hard work was gone just like that.

I told my family how upset I was. They understood and said that they would try to be better next time. But I also learned that that’s just how cleaning goes. You can try to keep things tidy, but we actually live in this house and sometimes that means making a mess. I hugged my family members and felt better after their apology(( I really like the picture we get of the writer here. I can tell that they are very mature and thoughtful!)) . We made up, they picked up a few things to pitch in, and I put my cleaning supplies back in the closet until next time.

AO Notes on Clean Slate

In this essay, we go on a cleaning journey with the writer. We see their successes and disappointments. We learn a bit about their family background, and we cheer them on as they overcome challenges.

  • Writing and organization: This essay is well-written, and the narrative easily holds a reader’s interest. There’s a good sense of the plot, and the paragraphs are clearly organized and easy to read through.
  • Strengths: We really see the writer’s initiative through this story. They did their research, got their supplies, and put their interest into action.
  • More significance: While this is a fun topic, it doesn’t convey much meaning about the writer’s life. The writer could make the topic more significant by adding more reflection throughout to show explicitly how this story has changed them as a person. Or they could select a different topic that relates to something more deeply meaningful about their life.

Key Takeaways

Hopefully these Common App essay examples have shown you what to do (and what not to do). More importantly, we hope that the commentary from our former admissions officers has helped you analyze the why behind what makes an effective Common App essay.

Absorbing these lessons and applying them to your own Common Application essay will help take your writing to the next level. No matter what you write about, your goal should be to create a seamless application narrative that speaks to your strengths.

If you’re not sure what step to take next, we've got you covered. The Essay Academy — our comprehensive digital college essay course — walks you through every step. 

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25 Elite Common App Essay Examples (And Why They Worked)

Essay Examples: Writing the Common App Essay

Applying to competitive colleges? You'll need to have a stand-out Common App essay.

In this article, I'm going to share with you:

  • 25 outstanding Common App essay examples
  • Links to tons of personal statement examples
  • Why these Common App essays worked

If you're looking for outstanding Common App essay examples, you've found the right place.


If you're applying to colleges in 2024, you're going to write some form of a Common App essay.

Writing a great Common App personal essay is key if you want to maximize your chances of getting admitted.

Whether you're a student working on your Common App essay, or a parent wondering what it takes, this article will help you master the Common App Essay.

What are the Common App Essay Prompts for 2024?

There are seven prompts for the Common App essay. Remember that the prompts are simply to help get you started thinking.

You don't have to answer any of the prompts if you don't want (see prompt #7 ).

Here's the seven Common App essay questions for 2022, which are the same as previous years:

  • 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.

The last prompt is a catch-all prompt, which means you can submit an essay on any topic you want.

Use the Common App prompts as brainstorming questions and to get you thinking.

But ultimately, you should write about any topic you meaningfully care about.

What makes an outstanding Common App personal essay?

I've read thousands of Common App essays from highly motivated students over the past years.

And if I had to choose the top 2 things that makes for incredible Common App essays it's these:

1. Being Genuine

Sounds simple enough. But it's something that is incredibly rare in admissions.

Authenticity is something we all know when we see it, but can be hard to define.

Instead of focus on what you think sounds the best to admissions officers, focus on what you have to say—what interests you.

2. Having Unique Ideas

The best ideas come about while you're writing.

You can't just sit down and say, "I'll think really hard of good essay ideas."

I wish that worked, but it sadly doesn't. And neither do most brainstorming questions.

The ideas you come up with from these surface-level tactics are cheap, because no effort was put in.

As they say,

"Writing is thinking"

By choosing a general topic (e.g. my leadership experience in choir) and writing on it, you'll naturally come to ideas.

As you write, continue asking yourself questions that make you reflect.

It is more of an artistic process than technical one, so you'll have to feel what ideas are most interesting.

25 Common App Essay Examples from Top Schools

With that, here's 25 examples as Common App essay inspiration to get you started.

These examples aren't perfect—nor should you expect yours to be—but they are stand-out essays.

I've handpicked these examples of personal statements from admitted students because they showcase a variety of topics and writing levels.

These students got into top schools and Ivy League colleges in recent years:

Table of Contents

  • 1. Seeds of Immigration
  • 2. Color Guard
  • 3. Big Eater
  • 4. Love for Medicine
  • 5. Cultural Confusion
  • 6. Football Manager
  • 9. Mountaineering
  • 10. Boarding School
  • 11. My Father
  • 12. DMV Trials
  • 13. Ice Cream Fridays
  • 14. Key to Happiness
  • 15. Discovering Passion
  • 16. Girl Things
  • 17. Robotics
  • 18. Lab Research
  • 19. Carioca Dance
  • 20. Chinese Language
  • 21. Kiki's Delivery Service
  • 22. Museum of Life
  • 23. French Horn
  • 24. Dear My Younger Self
  • 25. Monopoly

Common App Essay Example #1: Seeds of Immigration

This student was admitted to Dartmouth College . In this Common App essay, they discuss their immigrant family background that motivates them.

Although family is a commonly used topic, this student makes sure to have unique ideas and write in a genuine way.

Common App 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. (250-650 words)

I placed three tiny seeds, imagining the corn stalk growing while the pumpkin vines wrapped around it; both sprouting, trying to bear fruit. I clenched a fistful of dirt and placed it on them. “Más,” my grandpa told me as he quickly flooded the seeds with life-giving dirt.

Covered. Completely trapped.

Why This Essay Works:

Everyone has a unique family history and story, and often that can make for a strong central theme of a personal statement. In this essay, the student does a great job of sharing aspects of his family's culture by using specific Spanish words like "yunta" and by describing their unique immigration story. Regardless of your background, sharing your culture and what it means to you can be a powerful tool for reflection.

This student focuses on reflecting on what their culture and immigrant background means to them. By focusing on what something represents, rather than just what it literally is, you can connect to more interesting ideas. This essay uses the metaphor of their family's history as farmers to connect to their own motivation for succeeding in life.

This essay has an overall tone of immense gratitude, by recognizing the hard work that this student's family has put in to afford them certain opportunities. By recognizing the efforts of others in your life—especially efforts which benefit you—you can create a powerful sense of gratitude. Showing gratitude is effective because it implies that you'll take full advantage of future opportunities (such as college) and not take them for granted. This student also demonstrates a mature worldview, by recognizing the difficulty in their family's past and how things easily could have turned out differently for this student.

This essay uses three moments of short, one-sentence long paragraphs. These moments create emphasis and are more impactful because they standalone. In general, paragraph breaks are your friend and you should use them liberally because they help keep the reader engaged. Long, dense paragraphs are easy to gloss over and ideas can lose focus within them. By using a variety of shorter and longer paragraphs (as well as shorter and longer sentences) you can create moments of emphasis and a more interesting structure.

What They Might Improve:

This conclusion is somewhat off-putting because it focuses on "other students" rather than the author themself. By saying it "fills me with pride" for having achieved without the same advantages, it could create the tone of "I'm better than those other students" which is distasteful. In general, avoid putting down others (unless they egregiously deserve it) and even subtle phrasings that imply you're better than others could create a negative tone. Always approach your writing with an attitude of optimism, understanding, and err on the side of positivity.

Common App Essay Example #2: Color Guard

This student was admitted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill . Check out their Common App essay that focuses on an extracurricular:

Sweaty from the hot lights, the feeling of nervousness and excitement return as I take my place on the 30-yard line. For 10 short minutes, everyone is watching me. The first note of the opening song begins, and I’m off. Spinning flags, tossing rifles, and dancing across the football field. Being one of only two people on the colorguard means everyone will see everything. It’s amazing and terrifying. And just like that, the performance is over.

Flashback to almost four years ago, when I walked into the guard room for the first time. I saw flyers for a “dance/flag team” hanging in the bland school hallway, and because I am a dancer, I decided to go. This was not a dance team at all. Spinning flags and being part of the marching band did not sound like how I wanted to spend my free time. After the first day, I considered not going back. But, for some unknown reason, I stayed. And after that, I began to fall in love with color guard. It is such an unknown activity, and maybe that’s part of what captivated me. How could people not know about something so amazing? I learned everything about flags and dancing in that year. And something interesting happened- I noticed my confidence begin to grow. I had never thought I was that good at anything, there was always someone better. However, color guard was something I truly loved, and I was good at it.

The next year, I was thrown into an interesting position. Our current captain quit in the middle of the season, and I was named the new captain of a team of six. At first, this was quite a daunting task. I was only a sophomore, and I was supposed to lead people two years older than me? Someone must’ve really believed in me. Being captain sounded impossible to me at first, but I wouldn’t let that stop me from doing my best. This is where my confidence really shot up. I learned how to be a captain. Of course I was timid at first, but slowly, I began to become a true leader.

The next marching season, it paid off. I choreographed many pieces of our show, and helped teach the other part of my guard, which at the time was only one other person. Having a small guard, we had to be spectacular, especially for band competitions. We ended up winning first place and second place trophies, something that had never been done before at our school, especially for such a small guard. That season is still one of my favorite memories. The grueling hours of learning routines, making changes, and learning how to be a leader finally paid off.

Looking back on it as I exit the field after halftime once again, I am so proud of myself. Not only has color guard helped the band succeed, I’ve also grown. I am now confident in what my skills are. Of course there is always more to be done, but I now I have the confidence to share my ideas, which is something I can’t say I had before color guard. Every Friday night we perform, I think about the growth I’ve made, and I feel on top of the world. That feeling never gets old.

Common App Essay Example #3: Big Eater

This Common App essay is a successful Northwestern essay from an admitted student. It has a unique take using the topic of eating habits—an example of how "mundane" topics can make for interesting ideas.

This essay uses their relationship with food to explore how their perspective has changed through moving high schools far away. Having a central theme is often a good strategy because it allows you to explore ideas while making them feel connected and cohesive. This essay shows how even a "simple" topic like food can show a lot about your character because you can extrapolate what it represents, rather than just what it literally is. With every topic, you can analyze on two levels: what it literally is, and what it represents.

Admissions officers want to get a sense of who you are, and one way to convey that is by using natural-sounding language and being somewhat informal. In this essay, the student writes as they'd speak, which creates a "voice" that you as the reader can easily hear. Phrases like "I kind of got used to it" may be informal, but work to show a sense of character. Referring to their parents as "Ma" and "Papa" also bring the reader into their world. If you come from a non-English speaking country or household, it can also be beneficial to use words from your language, such as "chiemo" in this essay. Using foreign language words helps share your unique culture with admissions.

Rather than "telling" the reader what they have to say, this student does a great job of "showing" them through specific imagery and anecdotes. Using short but descriptive phrases like "whether it was a sum or Sam the bully" are able to capture bigger ideas in a more memorable way. Showing your points through anecdotes and examples is always more effective than simply telling them, because showing allows the reader to come to their own conclusion, rather than having to believe what you're saying.

This student's first language is not English, which does make it challenging to express ideas with the best clarity. Although this student does an overall great job in writing despite this hindrance, there are moments where their ideas are not easily understood. In particular, when discussing substance addiction, it isn't clear: Was the student's relationship with food a disorder, or was that a metaphor? When drafting your essay, focus first on expressing your points as clearly and plainly as possible (it's harder than you may think). Simplicity is often better, but if you'd like, afterwards you can add creative details and stylistic changes.

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Common App Essay Example #4: Love for Medicine

Here's another Common App essay which is an accepted Dartmouth essay . This student talks about their range of experiences as an emergency medical responder:

I never knew I had the courage to talk a suicidal sixteen-year-old boy down from the edge of a bridge, knowing that he could jump and take his life at any moment.

I never knew I had the confidence to stand my ground and defend my treatment plan to those who saw me as less than capable because of my age or gender.

This essay has lots of detailed moments and descriptions. These anecdotes help back up their main idea by showing, rather than just telling. It's always important to include relevant examples because they are the "proof in the pudding" for what you're trying to say.

This topic deals with a lot of sensitive issues, and at certain points the writing could be interpreted as insensitive or not humble. It's especially important when writing about tragedies that you focus on others, rather than yourself. Don't try to play up your accomplishments or role; let them speak for themselves. By doing so, you'll actually achieve what you're trying to do: create an image of an honorable and inspirational person.

This essay touches on a lot of challenging and difficult moments, but it lacks a deep level of reflection upon those moments. When analyzing your essay, ask yourself: what is the deepest idea in it? In this case, there are some interesting ideas (e.g. "when they were on my stretcher, socioeconomic status...fell away"), but they are not fully developed or fleshed out.

Common App Essay Example #5: Cultural Confusion

This student's Common App was accepted to Pomona College , among other schools. Although this essay uses a common topic of discussing cultural background, this student writes a compelling take.

This student uses the theme of cultural confusion to explain their interests and identity:

Common App Essay Example #6: Football Manager

Here's a UPenn essay that worked for the Common App:

This essay has lighthearted moments in it, such as recognizing how being a football manager "does not sound glamorous" and how "we managers go by many names: watergirls..." Using moments of humor can be appropriate for contrasting with moments of serious reflection. Being lighthearted also shows a sense of personality and that you are able to take things with stride.

The reflections in this essay are far too generic overall and ultimately lack meaning because they are unspecific. Using buzzwords like "hard work" and "valuable lessons" comes off as unoriginal, so avoid using them at all costs. Your reflections need to be specific to you to be most meaningful. If you could (in theory) pluck out sentences from your essay and drop them into another student's essay, then chances are those sentences are not very insightful. Your ideas should be only have been able to been written by you: specific to your experiences, personal in nature, and show deep reflection.

Although this essay uses the topic of "being a football manager," by the end of the essay it isn't clear what that role even constitutes. Avoid over-relying on other people or other's ideas when writing your essay. That is, most of the reflections in this essay are based on what the author witnessed the football team doing, rather than what they experienced for themselves in their role. Focus on your own experiences first, and be as specific and tangible as possible when describing your ideas. Rather than saying "hard work," show that hard work through an anecdote.

More important than your stories is the "So what?" behind them. Avoid writing stories that don't have a clear purpose besides "setting the scene." Although most fiction writing describes people and places as exposition, for your essays you want to avoid that unless it specifically contributes to your main point. In this essay, the first two paragraphs are almost entirely unnecessary, as the point of them can be captured in one sentence: "I joined to be a football manager one summer." The details of how that happened aren't necessary because they aren't reflected upon.

In typical academic writing, we're taught to "tell them what you're going to tell them" before telling them. But for college essays, every word is highly valuable. Avoid prefacing your statements and preparing the reader for them. Instead of saying "XYZ would prove to be an unforgettable experience," just dive right into the experience itself. Think of admissions officers as "being in a rush," and give them what they want: your interesting ideas and experiences.

Common App Essay Example #7: Coffee

This student was admitted to several selective colleges, including Emory University, Northwestern University , Tufts University, and the University of Southern California . Here's their Common Application they submitted to these schools:

I was 16 years old, and working at a family-owned coffee shop training other employees to pour latte art. Making coffee became an artistic outlet that I never had before. I always loved math, but once I explored the complexities of coffee, I began to delve into a more creative realm--photography and writing--and exposed myself to the arts--something foreign and intriguing.

This essay uses coffee as a metaphor for this student's self-growth, especially in dealing with the absence of their father. Showing the change of their relationship with coffee works well as a structure because it allows the student to explore various activities and ideas while making them seem connected.

This student does a great job of including specifics, such as coffee terminology ("bloom the grounds" and "pour a swan"). Using specific and "nerdy" language shows your interests effectively. Don't worry if they won't understand all the references exactly, as long as there is context around them.

While coffee is the central topic, the author also references their father extensively throughout. It isn't clear until the conclusion how these topics relate, which makes the essay feel disjointed. In addition, there is no strong main idea, but instead a few different ideas. In general, it is better to focus on one interesting idea and delve deeply, rather than focus on many and be surface-level.

Near the conclusion, this student tells about their character: "humble, yet important, simple, yet complex..." You should avoid describing yourself to admissions officers, as it is less convincing. Instead, use stories, anecdotes, and ideas to demonstrate these qualities. For example, don't say "I'm curious," but show them by asking questions. Don't say, "I'm humble," but show them with how you reacted after a success or failure.

Common App Essay Example #8: Chicago

Here's another Northwestern essay . Northwestern is a quite popular school with lots of strong essay-focused applicants, which makes your "Why Northwestern?" essay important.

To write a strong Why Northwestern essay, try to answer these questions: What does NU represent to you? What does NU offer for you (and your interests) that other schools don't?

This essay uses a variety of descriptive and compelling words, without seeming forced or unnatural. It is important that you use your best vocabulary, but don't go reaching for a thesaurus. Instead, use words that are the most descriptive, while remaining true to how you'd actually write.

This essay is one big metaphor: the "L" train serves as a vehicle to explore this student's intellectual curiosity. Throughout the essay, the student also incorporates creative metaphors like "the belly of a gargantuan silver beast" and "seventy-five cent silver chariot" that show a keen sense of expression. If a metaphor sounds like one you've heard before, you probably shouldn't use it.

This student does a fantastic job of naturally talking about their activities. By connecting their activities to a common theme—in this case the "L" train—you can more easily move from one activity to the next, without seeming like you're just listing activities. This serves as an engaging way of introducing your extracurriculars and achievements, while still having the focus of your essay be on your interesting ideas.

Admissions officers are ultimately trying to get a sense of who you are. This student does a great job of taking the reader into their world. By sharing quirks and colloquialisms (i.e. specific language you use), you can create an authentic sense of personality.

Common App Essay Example #9: Mountaineering

Here's a liberal arts college Common App essay from Colby College . Colby is a highly ranked liberal arts college.

As with all colleges—but especially liberal arts schools—your personal essay will be a considerable factor.

In this essay, the student describes their experience climbing Mount Adams, and the physical and logistical preparations that went into it. They describe how they overcame some initial setbacks by using their organizational skills from previous expeditions.

This Colby student explains how the process of preparation can lead to success in academics and other endeavours, but with the potential for negative unintended consequences.

Common App 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? (250-650 words)

This essay does a great job of having a cohesive theme: mountaineering. Often times, great essay topics can be something simple on the surface, such as your favorite extracurricular activity or a notable experience. Consider using the literal activity as a sort of metaphor, like this essay does. This student uses mountaineering as a metaphor for preparation in the face of upcoming challenge. Using an overarching metaphor along with a central theme can be effective because it allows you to explore various ideas while having them all feel connected and cohesive.

Admissions officers want to see your self-growth, which doesn't always mean your successes. Often times, being vulnerable by expressing your struggles is powerful because it makes you more human and relatable, while providing the opportunity to reflect on what you learned. The best lessons from come failures, and writing about challenge can also make your later successes feel more impactful. Everyone loves to hear an underdog or zero-to-hero story. But counterintuitively, your failures are actually more important than your successes.

This essay has some nice ideas about focusing only on what's in your control: your attitude and your effort. However, these ideas are ultimately somewhat generic as they have been used countless times in admissions essays. Although ideas like this can be a good foundation, you should strive to reach deeper ideas. Deeper ideas are ones that are specific to you, unique, and interesting. You can reach deeper ideas by continually asking yourself "How" and "Why" questions that cause you to think deeper about a topic. Don't be satisfied with surface-level reflections. Think about what they represent more deeply, or how you can connect to other ideas or areas of your life.

Common App Essay Example #10: Boarding School

This personal essay was accepted to Claremont McKenna College . See how this student wrote a vulnerable essay about boarding school experience and their family relationship:

I began attending boarding school aged nine.

Obviously, this is not particularly unusual – my school dorms were comprised of boys and girls in the same position as me. However, for me it was difficult – or perhaps it was for all of us; I don’t know. We certainly never discussed it.

I felt utterly alone, as though my family had abruptly withdrawn the love and support thatI so desperately needed. At first, I did try to open up to them during weekly phone calls, but what could they do? As months slipped by, the number of calls reduced. I felt they had forgotten me. Maybe they felt I had withdrawn from them. A vast chasm of distance was cracking open between us.

At first, I shared my hurt feelings with my peers, who were amazingly supportive, but there was a limit to how much help they could offer. After a while, I realized that by opening up, I was burdening them, perhaps even irritating them. The feelings I was sharing should have been reserved for family. So, I withdrew into myself. I started storing up my emotions and became a man of few words. In the classroom or on the sports field, people saw a self-confident and cheerful character, but behind that facade was someone who yearned for someone to understand him and accept him as he was.

Years went past.

Then came the phone call which was about to change my life. “Just come home Aryan, it’s really important!” My mother’s voice was odd, brittle. I told her I had important exams the following week, so needed to study. “Aryan, why don’t you listen to me? There is no other option, okay? You are coming home.”

Concerned, I arranged to fly home. When I got there, my sister didn’t say hi to me, my grandmother didn’t seem overly enthusiastic to see me and my mother was nowhere to be seen. I wanted to be told why I was called back so suddenly just to be greeted as though I wasn’t even welcome.

Then my mother then came out of her room and saw me. To my immense incredulity, she ran to me and hugged me, and started crying in my arms.

Then came the revelation, “Your father had a heart attack.”

My father. The man I hadn’t really talked to in years. A man who didn’t even know who I was anymore. I’d spent so long being disappointed in him and suspecting he was disappointed in me, I sunk under a flood of emotions.

I opened the door to his room and there he was sitting on his bed with a weak smile on his face. I felt shaken to my core. All at once it was clear to me how self-centered I had become. A feeling of humiliation engulfed me, but finally I realized that rather than wallow in it, I needed to appreciate I was not alone in having feelings.

I remained at home that week. I understood that my family needed me. I worked with my uncle to ensure my family business was running smoothly and often invited relatives or friends over to cheer my father up.

Most importantly, I spent time with my family. It had been years since I’d last wanted to do this – I had actively built the distance between us – but really, I’d never stopped craving it. Sitting together in the living room, I realized how badly I needed them.

Seeing happiness in my father’s eyes, I felt I was finally being the son he had always needed me to be: A strong, capable young man equipped to take over the family business if need be.

Common App Essay Example #11: My Father

This Cornell University essay is an example of writing about a tragedy, which can be a tricky topic to write about well.

Family and tragedy essays are a commonly used topic, so it can be harder to come up with a unique essay idea using these topics.

Let me know what you think of this essay for Cornell:

My father was wise, reserved, hardworking, and above all, caring. I idolized his humility and pragmatism, and I cherish it today. But after his death, I was emotionally raw. I could barely get through class without staving off a breakdown.

Writing about tragedy, such as the loss of a loved one, is a tricky topic because it has been used countless times in college admissions. It is difficult to not come off as a "victim" or that you're trying to garner sympathy by using the topic (i.e. a "sob story"). This essay does a great job of writing about a personal tragedy in a meaningful and unique way by connecting to values and ideas, rather than staying focused on what literally happened. By connecting tragedy to lessons and takeaways, you can show how—despite the difficulty and sorrow—you have gained something positive from it, however small that may be. Don't write about personal tragedy because you think "you should." As with any topic, only write about it if you have a meaningful point to make.

This essay is effective at making the reader feel the similar emotions as the author does and in bringing the reader into their "world." Even small remarks like noting the the "firsts" without their loved one are powerful because it is relatable and something that is apparent, but not commonly talked about. Using short phrases like "That was it. No goodbye, no I love you..." create emphasis and again a sense of relatability. As the reader, you can vividly imagine how the author must have felt during these moments. The author also uses questions, such as "What did I last say to him?" which showcase their thought process, another powerful way to bring the reader into your world.

Admissions officers are looking for self-growth, which can come in a variety of forms. Showing a new perspective is one way to convey that you've developed over time, learned something new, or gained new understanding or appreciation. In this essay, the student uses the "sticker of a black and white eye" to represent how they viewed their father differently before and after his passing. By using a static, unchanging object like this, and showing how you now view it differently over time, you convey a change in perspective that can make for interesting reflections.

Common App Essay Example #12: DMV Trials

Here's a funny Common App essay from a Northwestern admitted student about getting their driver's license.

This topic has been used before—as many "topics" have—but what's important is having a unique take or idea.

What do you think of this Northwestern essay ?

Breath, Emily, breath. I drive to the exit and face a four-lane roadway. “Turn left,” my passenger says.

On July 29, [Date] , I finally got my license. After the April debacle, I practiced driving almost every week. I learned to stop at stop signs and look both ways before crossing streets, the things I apparently didn’t know how to do during my first two tests. When pulling into the parking lot with the examiner for the last time, a wave of relief washed over me.

This essay does a good job of having a compelling narrative. By setting the scene descriptively, it is easy to follow and makes for a pleasant reading experience. However, avoid excessive storytelling, as it can overshadow your reflections, which are ultimately most important.

This essay has some moments where the author may come off as being overly critical, of either themselves or of others. Although it is okay (and good) to recognize your flaws, you don't want to portray yourself in a negative manner. Avoid being too negative, and instead try to find the positive aspects when possible.

More important than your stories is the answer to "So what?" and why they matter. Avoid writing a personal statement that is entirely story-based, because this leaves little room for reflection and to share your ideas. In this essay, the reflections are delayed to the end and not as developed as they could be.

In this essay, it comes across that failure is negative. Although the conclusion ultimately has a change of perspective in that "failure is inevitable and essential to moving forward," it doesn't address that failure is ultimately a positive thing. Admissions officers want to see failure and your challenges, because overcoming those challenges is what demonstrates personal growth.

Common App Essay Example #13: Ice Cream Fridays

This Columbia essay starts off with a vulnerable moment of running for school president. The student goes on to show their growth through Model UN, using detailed anecdotes and selected moments.

My fascination with geopolitical and economic issues were what kept me committed to MUN. But by the end of sophomore year, the co-presidents were fed up. “Henry, we know how hard you try, but there are only so many spots for each conference...” said one. “You’re wasting space, you should quit,” said the other.

This essay has a compelling story, starting from this author's early struggles with public speaking and developing into their later successes with Model UN. Using a central theme—in this case public speaking—is an effective way of creating a cohesive essay. By having a main idea, you can tie in multiple moments or achievements without them coming across unrelated.

This student talks about their achievements with a humble attitude. To reference your successes, it's equally important to address your failures. By expressing your challenges, it will make your later achievements seem more impactful in contrast. This student also is less "me-focused" and instead is interested in others dealing with the same struggles. By connecting to people in your life, values, or interesting ideas, you can reference your accomplishments without coming off as bragging.

This essay has moments of reflection, such as "math and programming made sense... people didn't". However, most of these ideas are cut short, without going much deeper. When you strike upon a potentially interesting idea, keep going with it. Try to explain the nuances, or broaden your idea to more universal themes. Find what is most interesting about your experience and share that with admissions.

Stories are important, but make sure all your descriptions are critical for the story. In this essay, the author describes things that don't add to the story, such as the appearance of other people or what they were wearing. These ultimately don't relate to their main idea—overcoming public speaking challenges—and instead are distracting.

Common App Essay Example #14: Key to Happiness

Here's a Brown University application essay that does a great job of a broad timeline essay. This student shows the change in their thinking and motivations over a period of time, which makes for an interesting topic.

Let me know what you think of this Brown essay:

Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (250-650 words)

This student's first language is not English, which provides some insight into why the phrasing may not seem as natural or show as much personality. Admissions officers are holistic in determining who to admit, meaning they take into account many different factors when judging your essays. While this essay may not be the strongest, the applicant probably had other qualities or "hooks" that helped them get accepted, such as awards, activities, unique background, etc. Plus, there is some leniency granted to students who don't speak English as their first language, because writing essays in a foreign language is tough in and of itself.

It's good to be confident in your achievements, but you don't want to come across as boastful or self-assured. In this essay, some of the phrasing such as "when I was the best at everything" seems exaggerated and is off-putting. Instead of boosting your accomplishments, write about them in a way that almost "diminishes" them. Connect your achievements to something bigger than you: an interesting idea, a passionate cause, another person or group. By not inflating your achievements, you'll come across more humble and your achievements will actually seem more impactful. We all have heard of a highly successful person who thinks "it's no big deal," which actually makes their talents seem far more impressive.

This essay has some takeaways and reflections, as your essay should too, but ultimately these ideas are unoriginal and potentially cliché. Ideas like "what makes you happy is pursing your passion" are overused and have been heard thousands of times by admissions officers. Instead, focus on getting to unique and "deep" ideas: ideas that are specific to you and that have meaningful implications. It's okay to start off with more surface-level ideas, but you want to keep asking questions to yourself like "Why" and "How" to push yourself to think deeper. Try making connections, asking what something represents more broadly, or analyzing something from a different perspective.

You don't need to preface your ideas in your essay. Don't say things like "I later found out this would be life-changing, and here's why." Instead, just jump into the details that are most compelling. In this essay, there are moments that seem repetitive and redundant because they don't add new ideas and instead restate what's already been said in different words. When editing your essay, be critical of every sentence (and even words) by asking: Does this add something new to my essay? Does it have a clear, distinct purpose? If the answer is no, you should probably remove that sentence.

Common App Essay Example #15: Discovering Passion

Here's a Johns Hopkins essay that shows how the student had a change in attitude and perspective after taking a summer job at a care facility.

It may seem odd to write about your potential drawbacks or weaknesses—such as having a bad attitude towards something—but it's real and can help demonstrate personal growth.

So tell me your thoughts on this JHU Common App essay:

Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (250-650 words)

This student uses vulnerability in admitting that they held preconceived notions about the elderly before this experience. The quote introduces these preconceived notions well, while the description of how this student got their job in the care facility is also engaging.

Admission officers love to see your interactions with others. Showing how you interact reveals a lot about your character, and this essay benefits from reflecting upon the student's relationship with a particular elderly individual.

It is good to be descriptive, but only when it supports your expression of ideas. In this essay, the author uses adjectives and adverbs excessively, without introducing new ideas. Your ideas are more important than having a diverse vocabulary, and the realizations in this essay are muddled by rephrasing similar ideas using seemingly "impressive," but ultimately somewhat meaningless, vocabulary.

This essay touches on some interesting ideas, but on multiple occasions these ideas are repeated just in different phrasing. If you have already expressed an idea, don't repeat it unless you're adding something new: a deeper context, a new angle, a broadened application, etc. Ask yourself: what is the purpose of each sentence, and have I expressed it already?

It's true that almost any topic can make for a strong essay, but certain topics are trickier because they make it easy to write about overly used ideas. In this essay, the main idea can be summarized as: "I realized the elderly were worthy humans too." It touches upon more interesting ideas, such as how people can be reduced down to their afflictions rather than their true character, but the main idea is somewhat surface-level.

Common App Essay Example #16: "A Cow Gave Birth"

This Common App essay for the University of Pennsylvania centers on the theme of womanhood. Not only is it well-written, but this essay has interesting and unique ideas that relate to the student's interests.

Common App Essay Example #17: Robotics

This Common App essay was for Washington University in St. Louis .

This student writes about their experience creating and using an engineering notebook to better document their robotics progress. They share the story of how their dedication and perseverance led to winning awards and qualifying for the national championships.

Lastly, they reflect on the importance of following one's passions in life and decision to pursue a business degree instead of a engineering one.

This essay touches on various lessons that they've learned as a result of their experience doing robotics. However, these lessons are ultimately surface-level and generic, such as "I embraced new challenges." Although these could be a starting point for deeper ideas, on their own they come off as unoriginal and overused. Having interesting ideas is what makes an essay the most compelling, and you need to delve deeply into reflection, past the surface-level takeaways. When drafting and brainstorming, keep asking yourself questions like "How" and "Why" to dig deeper. Ask "What does this represent? How does it connect to other things? What does this show about myself/the world/society/etc.?"

Although this essay is focused on "VEX robotics," the details of what that activity involves are not elaborated. Rather than focusing on the surface-level descriptions like "We competed and won," it would be more engaging to delve into the details. What did your robot do? How did you compete? What were the specific challenges in "lacking building materials"? Use visuals and imagery to create a more engaging picture of what you were doing.

The hook and ending sentences of "drifting off to sleep" feel arbitrary and not at all connected to any ideas throughout the essay. Instead, it comes off as a contrived choice to create a "full circle" essay. Although coming full circle is often a good strategy, there should be a specific purpose in doing so. For your intro, try using a short sentence that creates emphasis on something interesting. For the conclusion, try using similar language to the intro, expanding upon your ideas to more universal takeaways, or connecting back to previous ideas with a new nuance.

Common App Essay Example #18: Lab Research

Common app essay example #19: carioca dance.

Having a natural-sounding style of writing can be a great way of conveying personality. This student does a fantastic job of writing as they'd speak, which lets admissions officers create a clear "image" of who you are in their head. By writing naturally and not robotically, you can create a "voice" and add character to your essay.

This student chooses a unique activity, the Carioca drill, as their main topic. By choosing a "theme" like this, it allows you to easily and naturally talk about other activities too, without seeming like you're simply listing activities. This student uses the Carioca as a metaphor for overcoming difficulties and relates it to their other activities and academics—public speaking and their job experience.

Showing a sense of humor can indicate wit, which not only makes you seem more likeable, but also conveys self-awareness. By not always taking yourself 100% seriously, you can be more relatable to the reader. This student acknowledges their struggles in conjunction with using humor ("the drills were not named after me—'Saads'"), which shows a recognition that they have room to improve, while not being overly self-critical.

Common App Essay Example #20: Chinese Language

The list of languages that Lincoln offered startled me. “There’s so many,” I thought, “Latin, Spanish, Chinese, and French.”

As soon as I stepped off the plane, and set my eyes upon the beautiful city of Shanghai, I fell in love. In that moment, I had an epiphany. China was made for me, and I wanted to give it all my first; first job and first apartment.

Using creative metaphors can be an effective way of conveying ideas. In this essay, the metaphor of "Chinese characters...were the names of my best friends" tells a lot about this student's relationship with the language. When coming up with metaphors, a good rule of thumb is: if you've heard it before, don't use it. Only use metaphors that are specific, make sense for what you're trying to say, and are highly unique.

Whenever you "tell" something, you should try and back it up with anecdotes, examples, or experiences. Instead of saying that "I made conversation," this student exemplifies it by listing who they talked to. Showing is always going to be more compelling than telling because it allows the reader to come to the conclusion on their own, which makes them believe it much stronger. Use specific, tangible examples to back up your points and convince the reader of what you're saying.

Although this essay has reflections, they tend to be more surface-level, rather than unique and compelling. Admissions officers have read thousands of application essays and are familiar with most of the ideas students write about. To stand out, you'll need to dive deeper into your ideas. To do this, keep asking yourself questions whenever you have an interesting idea. Ask "Why" and "How" repeatedly until you reach something that is unique, specific to you, and super interesting.

Avoid writing a conclusion that only "sounds nice," but lacks real meaning. Often times, students write conclusions that go full circle, or have an interesting quote, but they still don't connect to the main idea of the essay. Your conclusion should be your strongest, most interesting idea. It should say something new: a new perspective, a new takeaway, a new aspect of your main point. End your essay strongly by staying on topic, but taking your idea one step further to the deepest it can go.

Common App Essay Example #21: Kiki's Delivery Service

Common App 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? (250-650 words)

I spent much of my childhood watching movies. I became absolutely engrossed in many different films, TV shows, and animations. From the movie theatres to the TV, I spent my hours enjoying the beauty of visual media. One place that was special to me was the car. My parents purchased a special screen that could be mounted on the back of the headrest, so that I could watch movies on trips. This benefited both parties, as I was occupied, and they had peace. Looking back, I realize this screen played a crucial role in my childhood. It was an integral part of many journeys. I remember taking a drive to Washington D.C, with my visiting relatives from Poland, and spending my time with my eyes on the screen. I remember packing up my possessions and moving to my current home from Queens, watching my cartoons the whole time. I can comfortably say that watching movies in the car has been an familiar anchor during times of change in my life.

I used to watch many different cartoons, nature documentaries, and other products in the car, yet there has been one movie that I have rewatched constantly. It is called “Kiki’s Delivery Service” by Hayao Miyazaki. My parents picked it up at a garage sale one day, and I fell in love. The style of the animations were beautiful, and the captivating story of a thirteen year old witch leaving home really appealed to me. To be honest, the initial times I watched it, I didn’t fully understand the story but the magic and beauty just made me happy. Then, the more I watched it, I began to see that it was more about independence, including the need to get away from home and establish yourself as your own person. This mirrors how I felt during that period of my life,with mehaving a little rebellious streak; I didn’t agree with my parents on certain topics. That is not the end of the story though. As the years passed, and I watched it a couple more times, although with less frequency than before, my view of this movie evolved yet again.

Instead of solely thinking about the need for independence, I began to think the movie was more about the balance of independence and reliance. In the movie, the girl finds herself struggling until she begins to accept help from others. Looking back, this also follows my own philosophy during this time. As I began to mature, I began to realize the value of family, and accept all the help I can get from them. I appreciate all the hard work they had done for me, and I recognize their experience in life and take advantage of it. I passed through my rebellious phase, and this reflected in my analysis of the movie. I believe that this is common, and if I look through the rest of my life I am sure I would find other similar examples of my thoughts evolving based on the stage in my life. This movie is one of the most important to me throughout my life.

Common App Essay Example #22: Museum of Life

Using visuals can be a way to add interesting moments to your essay. Avoid being overly descriptive, however, as it can be distracting from your main point. When drafting, start by focusing on your ideas (your reflections and takeaways). Once you have a rough draft, then you can consider ways to incorporate imagery that can add character and flavor to your essay.

Admissions officers are people, just like you, and therefore are drawn to personalities that exhibit positive qualities. Some of the most important qualities to portray are: humility, curiosity, thoughtfulness, and passion. In this essay, there are several moments that could be interpreted as potentially self-centered or arrogant. Avoid trying to make yourself out to be "better" or "greater" than other people. Instead, focus on having unique and interesting ideas first, and this will show you as a likeable, insightful person. Although this is a "personal" statement, you should also avoid over using "I" in your essay. When you have lots of "I" sentences, it starts to feel somewhat ego-centric, rather than humble and interested in something greater than you.

This essay does a lot of "telling" about the author's character. Instead, you want to provide evidence—through examples, anecdotes, and moments—that allow the reader to come to their own conclusions about who you are. Avoid surface-level takeaways like "I am open-minded and have a thirst for knowledge." These types of statements are meaningless because anyone can write them. Instead, focus on backing up your points by "showing," and then reflect genuinely and deeply on those topics.

This essay is focused on art museums and tries to tie in a connection to studying medicine. However, because this connection is very brief and not elaborated, the connection seems weak. To connect to your area of study when writing about a different topic, try reflecting on your topic first. Go deep into interesting ideas by asking "How" and "Why" questions. Then, take those ideas and broaden them. Think of ways they could differ or parallel your desired area of study. The best connections between a topic (such as an extracurricular) and your area of study (i.e. your major) is through having interesting ideas.

Common App Essay Example #23: French Horn

This student chose the creative idea of personifying their French horn as their central theme. Using this personification, they are able to write about a multitude of moments while making them all feel connected. This unique approach also makes for a more engaging essay, as it is not overly straightforward and generic.

It can be challenging to reference your achievements without seeming boastful or coming across too plainly. This student manages to write about their successes ("acceptance into the Julliard Pre-College program") by using them as moments part of a broader story. The focus isn't necessarily on the accomplishments themselves, but the role they play in this relationship with their instrument. By connecting more subtly like this, it shows humility. Often, "diminishing" your achievements will actually make them stand out more, because it shows you're focused on the greater meaning behind them, rather than just "what you did."

This student does a good job of exemplifying each of their ideas. Rather than just saying "I experienced failure," they show it through imagery ("dried lips, cracked notes, and missed entrances"). Similarly, with their idea "no success comes without sacrifice," they exemplify it using examples of sacrifice. Always try to back up your points using examples, because showing is much more convincing than telling. Anyone can "tell" things, but showing requires proof.

This essay has a decent conclusion, but it could be stronger by adding nuance to their main idea or connecting to the beginning with a new perspective. Rather than repeating what you've established previously, make sure your conclusion has a different "angle" or new aspect. This can be connecting your main idea to more universal values, showing how you now view something differently, or emphasizing a particular aspect of your main idea that was earlier introduced.

Common App Essay Example #24: Dear My Younger Self

Common App 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. (250-650 words)

Younger Anna,

  • Don’t live your life as if you're constantly being watched and criticized. Chances are, no one is even paying attention to you.
  • Wear your retainer.
  • Empathy makes your life easier. People who are inexplicably cruel are suffering just as much as the recipients of their abuse. Understanding this makes your interactions with these people less painful.
  • Comparing yourself to your classmates is counterproductive. Sometimes you will forge ahead, other times you will lag behind. But ultimately, you’re only racing yourself.
  • Speak up to your stepmom.
  • Always eat the cake. I couldn't tell you how many times I’ve turned away a slice of cake, only to regret it the next day. If you really can’t commit, do yourself a favor and take a slice home with you.
  • Cherish your grandparents.
  • Forgive your mother. Harboring resentment hurts you just as much as her. All the time I spent being angry at her could’ve been spent discovering her strengths.

This essay chose a unique structure in the form of a letter addressed to themselves with a list of lessons they've learned. This structure is unique, and also allows the student to explore a variety of topics and ideas while making them all feel connected. It is tricky to not seem "gimmicky" when choosing a creative structure like this, but the key is to make your essay well thought-out. Show that you've put effort into reflecting deeply, and that you aren't choosing a unique structure just to stand out.

This essay is highly focused on lessons they've learned, which shows a deep level of reflection. Your ideas and takeaways from life experience are ultimately most compelling to admissions officers, and this essay succeeds because it is focused almost entirely on those reflections. This student also manages to incorporate anecdotes and mini stories where appropriate, which makes their reflections more memorable by being tangible.

Showing humility and self-awareness are two highly attractive traits in college admissions. Being able to recognize your own flaws and strengths, while not making yourself out to be more than what you are, shows that you are mature and thoughtful. Avoid trying to "boost yourself up" by exaggerating your accomplishments or over-emphasizing your strengths. Instead, let your ideas speak for themselves, and by focusing on genuine, meaningful ideas, you'll convey a persona that is both humble and insightful.

The drawback of having a structure like this, where lots of different ideas are examined, is that no one idea is examined in-depth. As a result, some ideas (such as "intelligence is not defined by your grades") come across as trite and overused. In general, avoid touching on lots of ideas while being surface-level. Instead, it's almost always better to choose a handful (or even just one main idea) and go as in-depth as possible by continually asking probing questions—"How" and "Why"—that force yourself to think deeper and be more critical. Having depth of ideas shows inquisitiveness, thoughtfulness, and ultimately are more interesting because they are ideas that only you could have written.

Common App Essay Example #25: Monopoly

Feeling a bit weary from my last roll of the dice, I cross my fingers with the “FREE PARKING” square in sight. As luck has it, I smoothly glide past the hotels to have my best horse show yet- earning multiple wins against stiff competition and gaining points to qualify for five different national finals this year.

This essay uses the board game "Monopoly" as a metaphor for their life. By using a metaphor as your main topic, you can connect to different ideas and activities in a cohesive way. However, make sure the metaphor isn't chosen arbitrarily. In this essay, it isn't completely clear why Monopoly is an apt metaphor for their life, because the specific qualities that make Monopoly unique aren't explained or elaborated. Lots of games require "strategy and precision, with a hint of luck and a tremendous amount of challenge," so it'd be better to focus on the unique aspects of the game to make a more clear connection. For example, moving around the board in a "repetitive" fashion, but each time you go around with a different perspective. When choosing a metaphor, first make sure that it is fitting for what you're trying to describe.

You want to avoid listing your activities or referencing them without a clear connection to something greater. Since you have an activities list already, referencing your activities in your essay should have a specific purpose, rather than just emphasizing your achievements. In this essay, the student connects their activities by connecting them to a specific idea: how each activity is like a mini challenge that they must encounter to progress in life. Make sure your activities connect to something specifically: an idea, a value, an aspect of your character.

This essay lacks depth in their reflections by not delving deeply into their main takeaways. In this essay, the main "idea" is that they've learned to be persistent with whatever comes their way. This idea could be a good starting point, but on its own is too generic and not unique enough. Your idea should be deep and specific, meaning that it should be something only you could have written about. If your takeaway could be used in another student's essay without much modification, chances are it is a surface-level takeaway and you want to go more in-depth. To go in-depth, keep asking probing questions like "How" and "Why" or try making more abstract connections between topics.

In the final two paragraphs, this essay does a lot of "telling" about the lessons they've learned. They write "I know that in moments of doubt...I can rise to the occasion." Although this could be interesting, it would be far more effective if this idea is shown through anecdotes or experiences. The previous examples in the essay don't "show" this idea. When drafting, take your ideas and think of ways you can represent them without having to state them outright. By showing your points, you will create a more engaging and convincing essay because you'll allow the reader to come to the conclusion themselves, rather than having to believe what you've told them.

What Can You Learn from These Common App Essay Examples?

With these 25 Common App essay examples, you can get inspired and improve your own personal statement.

If you want to get accepted into selective colleges this year, your Common App essays needs to be its best possible.

What makes a good Common App essay isn't easy to define. There aren't any rules or steps.

But using these samples from real students, you can understand what it takes to write an outstanding personal statement .

Let me know, which Common App essay did you think was the best?

Ryan Chiang , Founder of EssaysThatWorked.com

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Princeton Admitted Essay

People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M.—where did you get that cat? Why won’t you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is... uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable...

common app essay prompt examples

MIT Admitted Essay

Her baking is not confined to an amalgamation of sugar, butter, and flour. It's an outstretched hand, an open invitation, a makeshift bridge thrown across the divides of age and culture. Thanks to Buni, the reason I bake has evolved. What started as stress relief is now a lifeline to my heritage, a language that allows me to communicate with my family in ways my tongue cannot. By rolling dough for saratele and crushing walnuts for cornulete, my baking speaks more fluently to my Romanian heritage than my broken Romanian ever could....

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UPenn Admitted Essay

A cow gave birth and I watched. Staring from the window of our stopped car, I experienced two beginnings that day: the small bovine life and my future. Both emerged when I was only 10 years old and cruising along the twisting roads of rural Maryland...

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Common App announces 2024–2025 Common App essay prompts

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The 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts

Tips and Guidance for the 7 Essay Options on the New Common Application

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For the 2021-22 application cycle, the Common Application  essay prompts remain unchanged from the 2020-21 cycle with the exception of an all new option #4. As in the past, with the inclusion of the popular "Topic of Your Choice" option, you have the opportunity to write about anything you want to share with the folks in the admissions office.

The current prompts are the result of much discussion and debate from the member institutions who use the Common Application. The essay length limit stands at 650 words (the minimum is 250 words), and students will need to choose from the seven options below. The essay prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. The best essays focus on self-analysis, rather than spending a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student. If your essay doesn't include some self-analysis, you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.

According to the folks at the Common Application , in the 2018-19 admissions cycle, Option #7 (topic of your choice) was the most popular and was used by 24.1% of applicants. The second most popular was Option #5 (discuss an accomplishment) with 23.7% of applicants. In third place was Option #2 on a setback or failure. 21.1% of applicants chose that option.

From the Admissions Desk

"While the transcript and grades will always be the most important piece in the review of an application, essays can help a student stand out. The stories and information shared in an essay are what the Admissions Officer will use to advocate for the student in the admissions committee."

–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania

Always keep in mind why colleges are asking for an essay: they want to get to know you better. Nearly all selective colleges and universities (as well as many that aren't overly selective) have holistic admissions, and they consider many factors in addition to numerical measures such as grades and standardized test scores. Your essay is an important tool for presenting something you find important that may not come across elsewhere in your application. Make sure your essay presents you as the type of person a college will want to invite to join their community.

Below are the seven options with some general tips for each:

Option #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.

"Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write a story about your "background, identity, interest, or talent." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. You could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your "interest" or "talent" could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why  the story you tell is so meaningful. 

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #1
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Handiwork" by Vanessa
  • Sample essay for option #1: "My Dads" by Charlie
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Give Goth a Chance"
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Wallflower"

Option #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?

This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss setbacks and failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question—how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty are key with this prompt.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #2
  • Sample essay for option #2: "Striking Out" by Richard
  • Sample essay for option #2: "Student Teacher" by Max

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

Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief. The answer to the final question about the "outcome" of your challenge need not be a success story. Sometimes in retrospection, we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #3
  • Sample essay for option #3: "Gym Class Hero" by Jennifer

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?

Here, again, the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question since it is entirely up to you to decide what the "something" and "someone" will be. This prompt was added to the Common Application in the 2021-22 admissions cycle in part because it gives students the opportunity to write something heartfelt and uplifting after all the challenges of the previous year. The best essays for this prompt show that you are a generous person who recognizes the contributions others have made to your personal journey. Unlike many essays that are all about "me, me, me," this essay shows your ability to appreciate others. This type of generosity is an important character trait that schools look for when inviting people to join their campus communities.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #4

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

This question was reworded in 2017-18 admissions cycle, and the current language is a huge improvement. The prompt use to talk about transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but the new language about a "period of personal growth" is a much better articulation of how we actually learn and mature (no single event makes us adults). Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). This prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay—admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play (see the list of bad essay topics for more about this issue). These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #5
  • Sample essay for option #5: "Buck Up" by Jill

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 option was entirely new in 2017, and it's a wonderfully broad prompt. In essence, it's asking you to identify and discuss something that enthralls you. The question gives you an opportunity to identify something that kicks your brain into high gear, reflect on why it is so stimulating, and reveal your process for digging deeper into something that you are passionate about. Note that the central words here—"topic, idea, or concept"—all have rather academic connotations. While you may lose track of time when running or playing football, sports are probably not the best choice for this particular question.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #6

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.

The popular "topic of your choice" option had been removed from the Common Application between 2013 and 2016, but it returned again with the 2017-18 admissions cycle. Use this option if you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first six topics are extremely broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you. Cleverness is fine, but don't be clever at the expense of meaningful content.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #7
  • Sample essay for option #7: "My Hero Harpo" by Alexis
  • Sample essay for option #7: "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"

Final Thoughts

Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis rather than merely describing a place or event.

The folks at The Common Application have cast a wide net with these questions, and nearly anything you want to write about could fit under at least one of the options. If your essay could fit under more than one option, it really doesn't matter which one you choose. Many admissions officers, in fact, don't even look at which prompt you chose—they just want to see that you have written a good essay.

  • Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth
  • Tips for the Pre-2013 Personal Essay Options on the Common Application
  • Common Application Essay Option 2 Tips: Learning from Failure
  • Topic of Your Choice: Common Application Essay Tips
  • Common Application Essay Option 4—Gratitude
  • Common Application Essay Option 3 Tips: Challenging a Belief
  • Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place
  • A Sample Essay for Common Application Option #7: Topic of Your Choice
  • 2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem
  • "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"—Sample Common Application Essay, Option #4
  • Common Application Essay, Option 1: Share Your Story
  • "Gym Class Hero" - a Common Application Essay Sample for Option #3
  • 5 Tips for a College Admissions Essay on an Important Issue
  • Common Application Essay Option 6: Losing Track of Time
  • Tips for an Application Essay on a Significant Experience
  • "My Dads" - Sample Common Application Essay for Option #1

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10 Great Common App Essay Examples From Accepted Students

10 Great Common App Essay Examples From Accepted Students

Prompt 1 Examples

Prompt 2 examples, prompt 3 examples, prompt 5 examples, prompt 6 examples.

When applying to college, few tasks seem as daunting and pivotal as crafting the Common App essay . This personal statement offers more than just a chance to showcase writing skills—it's a unique opportunity to share your story, illuminate your personality, and convince admissions committees that you belong on their campus. At Crimson Education, we understand the challenge and importance of this task. That's why we've compiled a selection of standout essays from past students who have successfully navigated the complexities of the Common App.

In this blog post, we'll dive into real student essays that correspond to this year's prompts. Each essay example is followed by a detailed analysis of what makes it effective, offering insight and inspiration for your writing process. These reviews have been meticulously crafted by our founder, Jamie Beaton, to provide you with expert guidance. Whether you're exploring your background, reflecting on a challenge you've overcome, or sharing a passion that consumes you, these essays serve as a guide to help you craft a narrative as compelling as your journey.

Join us as we explore how these applicants have turned personal anecdotes into acceptance letters and how you can do the same.

Please note: As of now, we do not have any example essays for the newly introduced Prompt 4. We are actively seeking standout essays that address this prompt and will update this blog post as soon as we have some great examples to share.

What Makes a Good Common App Essay Response?

A strong Common App essay should reflect the applicant's unique voice and personal experiences while adhering to the following criteria:

  • Writing Quality : The essay should be extremely compelling in language and structure, lyrically written, playful, or artistic in its engagement with the material. It must be well-constructed with clear and coherent sentences.
  • Personal Voice : The essay should be written so personally, with descriptions and storytelling so unique, that only the author could have written it.
  • Level of Authenticity : Every sentence should be more than just plausible, but remarkably well-conceived and thoughtful. The student should demonstrate a sharp aptitude for connecting their experiences with broader insights or issues.
  • Value System : The essay should demonstrate a profound understanding of their personal growth, consistent and abiding humility, and a strong understanding of the value of relationships rather than personal gain.
  • Insight : The essay should demonstrate unusually deep insights into the described experience and clearly illustrate a profound takeaway.
  • Bonus Points : Essays that successfully discuss a difficult topic or tackle an unusual or extraordinary idea in a compelling and impactful manner can earn bonus points.

Common App Essay Rubric

Writing qualityEssay reads at a noticeably low level, with poorly constructed and unclear sentences or vague generalizationsEssay communicates its main idea well enough, but does not do so in compelling or clear detail; it is linguistically boring or structurally repetitiveEssay is well-structured, detailed, specific, direct, on-topic, and reads well, but does not stand outEssay is extremely compelling in its language and structure, lyrically written, playful or artistic in how it engages with the material
Personal voiceEssay is written as a series of factoids or as a bland narrative, and lacks a personal voice entirelyEssay is mostly list-like narrative ("this happened, then that happened") with only hints of the author’s inner monologue and personalityEssay is about a person rather than a list of events/accomplishments, and a clear, if not stunning, impression of whom the author is emerges from the textEssay is written so personally, with descriptions and storytelling so unique, as to suggest that only the essay's author could have written it
Level of AuthenticityEssay makes numerous implausible, silly, or exaggerated claims, is full of clichés, or fails to catch pointless self-characterizations Essay doesn’t entirely rely on clichés or hyperbole to make its points, but it features enough of that sort of language to take away from the essay’s authenticity, or elements of it may be implausible Essay is authentic – there are no clichés to speak of, all sentiments and reflections appear genuine; a reader comes away thinking the author is sincereEvery sentence is more than just plausible, but remarkably well-conceived and thoughtful; student demonstrates sharp aptitude for appropriately connecting their experiences with broader insights or issues
Value SystemEssay makes the student seem like they know everything, they’re self-centered, and/or they have no room to growEssay suggests that student believes they are very kind, generous, compassionate, etc., but undermines such “goodness” with a lack of humilityEssay exhibits noticeable selflessness, humility, perspective, and/or character traits broadly; at the very least, the student seems to recognize how much they don’t know by the end Essay demonstrates a profound understanding of their personal growth, consistent and abiding humility, and a strong understanding of the value of relationships rather than personal gain
InsightEssay fails to illustrate insight into the experience discussed or takeaways from the experienceEssay details experiences common or uninteresting and insights, and takeaways are minimal or lacklusterEssay demonstrates clear, if not obvious, impressive takeaway from the experienceEssay demonstrates unusually deep insights into the described experience and clearly illustrates a profound takeaway
Bonus points+1 Essay successfully discusses a difficult topic (culture, politics, religion) tactfully and personally without using cliché+2 Essay details a significant relationship between the author and another person or group, such that profound aspects of the author’s character are revealed and the author comes across as a developed and self-aware individual+3 Essay successfully takes an extremely personal topic (e.g. from a student’s life) and communicates it without seeming disingenuous (i.e. does not beg for sympathy, overstate level of tragedy or victory; illustrates level-headed perspective)+4 Essay illustrates extraordinary level of personal growth, wrapped in a compelling and unusual narrative that clearly demonstrates admission to the applicant’s school of choice

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“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.”

Mischling meitschi: embracing a multicultural identity.

'Es isch es Meitschi!' My mother always tells the story of her first sight of me. Through an epidural-induced fog, she sees a purple ball held by a doctor screaming, "Es isch es Meitschi!", which translates to "It's a girl!". However, my Caribbean- American mother, having only been in Switzerland for a couple of years and not understanding all of the Swiss-German dialect, heard, "Mischling" - Half-caste - until my Swiss father clarified the correct translation. Now both, "Meitschi" and "Mischling" are accurate, but any form of German screaming is usually terrifying, understandably. As humans, we want to belong: To a piece of earth. To a group of people. To an idea. Every human being feels the need to belong to something. It is why we conform to social expectations and shun people who act outside the norm. When you stem from two different races, two different countries, two different ideas of who you're supposed to be, people tend to struggle with that dichotomy. Thus, my life of being asked, "What are you?" begins. The first time, I was fourteen years old and incredibly confused. Now, I can easily say that I see myself as both, whether it is black and white, American and Swiss, or whatever division I am placed in. I know that I do not act like I am a part of a hip hop music video, but that does not make me any less black. Similarly, I should not have to wear Lederhosen and yodel to prove I am Swiss. Yet, my predilection for multiple identities did not come without its challenges. My struggle with my identity always came from other people. Up until I was about ten years old, I saw myself as a petite Caucasian girl with light brown hair and blue eyes (for the record, that looks absolutely nothing like me). Growing up in Switzerland, a very racially homogeneous country, white was all I saw. Not just the snowy Alpine mountainsides, but also the families that were skiing down them. For most of my childhood, I was unconsciously ignorant of my racial and cultural disposition, even though I was consistently the only person of color in a room. It quickly became a novelty at school that I was fluent in two languages. The first time I remember acknowledging my "complex" racial makeup was when we were visiting family in Barbados, and my dad was the only white person around. Seven-year-old me went up to him and patted his arm: "It's okay, I understand." Now, I have observed being mixed, and multicultural gives me a unique comprehension of different cultural mindsets. It has made it very easy for me to assimilate and understand people's points of view. I'm not inclined to assume a person's identity based upon heritage and ethnicity alone. Making friends and connecting with people is something I've never struggled with. Because people can't immediately tell my heritage, they don't have any preconceptions of me and free themselves to ponder, "Is she one of us?": all to the point when at age five, traveling in Morocco, I would join the kids on the street playing games even though we had no way of communicating. They just assumed I was one of them. These experiences have made me more confident in myself. By never letting myself fall into a single group, I have gotten to know myself well. After hearing "What are you?" enough times, you naturally think about the answer a lot. Being equally both as neither with respect to my identity comes with its prizes and pitfalls, but losing that identity means I would lose what made me a "Mischling Meitschi" in the first place. The interpersonal connections I have made outweigh the several-minute-long explanations of where I'm from and the temporary confusion when asked to tick boxes on my race. Being who I genuinely am requires multiple boxes.

This is a strong personal statement for which I assigned two bonus points. These bonus points represent the student’s discussion of culture and identity in a sophisticated and unoffensive way, as well as the clever intro to the piece. I spoke about the intro to the side of the essay and how its complexities reflect the complexities of the student’s mixed identity. It’s a gripping start to the essay and makes us want to continue reading.

The student also tackles a culture issue in a way that is relatable to others of mixed background and readers on the outside. There is a familiarity of language and tone here that’s refreshing and welcoming. Small asides pull the reader further into the piece and make us invested.

Finally, the student takes abundant time setting the scene and their early life, and it’s well worth it. They provide the reader with adequate context for where they’re coming from, which allows us to be right alongside them on the journey. This is a great way to get your readers invested.

Essay Score

Writing quality4
Personal voice3
Level of Authenticity3
Value System3
Bonus points2

Unraveling Identities: A Journey of Self-Discovery

Opening my window shade, the sun’s rays begin to pierce through the cabin, and the earth below my seat begins to come into focus. With each passing minute, treetops canvassing the landscape and fluorescent road lines begin to peer through the blanketing clouds.    As the scurry of gate preparations intensifies, chatter begins to penetrate the constant hum of the engines. With the cabin coming back to life, I stare at the wings as they cut through clouds and begin to wonder who everybody is.    Since I was a child, I have been obsessed with finding the unique aspects of others’ backgrounds, never ceasing to ask questions and excitedly seek answers. I am always exploring beyond the surface of one’s story, because only in this way can the authentic aspect of identity be unlocked. But, in my quest to understand others, I often find myself revealing who I am.    I am a Panamanian, American, Spaniard, and French boy from the rolling hills of New Hampshire. But, in the U.S., I am a Mexican; in Panama, a Gringo; in Spain, a mestizo; and in France, a Spaniard. No matter where I am, I am instantly forced into a categorical label, whether or not it is true. The prejudices that influence thought often prevent the unfettered interaction that allows for personal disclosure. On a plane, the narrow aisles and occasional turbulence serve as a refuge from thwarting preconceptions below.    Continuing the deceleration, the plane emerges past the final layer of clouds. My eyes lock onto the beauty of the expansive city.   A gentle voice to my side says, “Impressive, isn’t it?”   Ending up seated in the depths of the plane’s final rows, separated from the rest of my family, I was between a talkative Dutch man to my right and a movie-connoisseur Italian to my left. Though the journey began in awkward silence, we quickly found conversation in the ongoing World Cup. The discussion jumped from player statistics, to free-spirited Dutch culture, to the advantages of Neapolitan pizza, eventually ending on the beauty of the coming landscape.    But, they are more than just Dutch or Italian. Hein is a compassionate, bike-riding, lover of medium roast, last of seven siblings, inhabitant of Amsterdam. Antonio is a creative, plant-photographing, Techno-music enthusiast, mathematics-majoring native of Rome. A street-level interaction, a quick glance, would only reveal two white men, one blonde the other black-haired, and I, a dark-skinned boy sporting colorful sneakers.    And I am also more than what my outward appearance displays. Growing up in a multicultural family has made coming to terms with my true identity a process of self-discovery. From my Panamanian heritage, I inherited a steadfast personality that finds value in sacrifice and hard work. My Spanish background teaches me to take life one day at a time, always stopping to enjoy the company of others. My French ancestry instills in me the importance of quality in whatever endeavor I undertake. So, when asked where I’m from, I share beyond the surface; I am an amalgamation of different cultures and ideas.    Being of international roots, I am intrigued by people’s backgrounds beyond the outward portrayals, always seeking to unravel their true selves. Traveling, in its purest form, is my opportunity to discover the stories of my fellow passengers, and for them to do the same with me; it’s a chance to engage with others and explore different perspectives on life. Similarly, the cramped seats of a plane serve as are introspective lens in which I am the viewer and the subject.   As the freshly-paved tarmac whittles the rubber from the plane’s tires, and the violent landing vibrations shake the luggage overhead, I see myself, a hockey-playing, Chipotle-loving, free-thinking idealist, among two hundred constantly-altering narratives. As the plane reaches the gate, I begin to say goodbye to my newfound friends, eagerly awaiting my next transcendent experience from the world at ground level.

This is an extremely thoughtful and well-crafted essay. The author takes a more unconventional approach to the Common App essay, reflecting on his identity as a whole rather than describing one specific event or challenge they experienced. This type of essay is more difficult to get right, but, when done well like it is here, is one that stands out and lets the author’s insight and intellect shine. 

The author begins the essay with a beautifully written description of a plane ride. This is a common way to start a Common App essay, using an anecdote to hook the reader, but the author does it well, artfully describing what they are seeing while also maintaining an element of mystery. It’s not immediately obvious where the author is, which makes the reader want to find out. The author never explicitly says that they are on a plane in these opening paragraphs, but the imagery they’ve crafted makes it clear. This scene, though not the primary subject, will ground the essay and create a framework for the author to explore its main themes. This is also where the 2 bonus points come from, as the author takes something mundane, a plane ride, and crafts a surprisingly thoughtful and profound reflection. 

So, what are the essay’s main themes? In the third paragraph, the author explains their interest in “exploring beyond the surface of one’s story” to unlock “the authentic aspect of identity.” Investigating the nature of identity may seem like an overly intellectual topic for a Common App essay, but the author makes it personal by discussing their own experiences of being stereotyped based on appearance. This essay is about the author and his diverse, complex identity.  

The conversation the author describes serves as an example of the author’s thesis, that people are more than their appearances. Though the author initially defines the two men in simple terms, like others have judged him, he soon gets a more complete understanding of who these men are, listing detailed and specific characteristics. The author then does the same for the reader, giving them deeper insight into his own identity and upbringing. 

The author makes a smart decision in the final two paragraphs, shifting the focus from himself to his relationships with others. Instead of expressing a desire for others to understand him, which would seem self-centered, the author wants to gain a deeper understanding of other people and their perspectives, highlighting his empathy and desire to learn/grow. By expressing an interest in learning about other people in the future, the author subtly alludes to his future college experience, where he will meet a diverse variety of people.

Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System3
Bonus points2

“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?”

Breaking barriers: finding connection through water.

As I threw open the pool's thick metal doors, the pungent aroma of chlorine swaddled me like a wet blanket around a shivering newborn. The scent was pervasive during my year-long stint on the swimming and diving team, when the fame I'd imagined for myself as a freshman remained just out of reach. As I stepped along the slimy pool deck, I brought my focus back to the reason I had revived my failed athletic career.   [Name redacted] and I met through my school's Best Buddies Club, which connects students with and without developmental disabilities. The students' excitement as they jumped up to greet me every morning drew me into a community that made their own happiness in a world that often met them with judgment. But while  limited mobility and reliance on a communication device made conversation challenging, these were small setbacks compared to the fact that he seemed to want nothing to do with me. We made bracelets, holiday cards, paper mache flowers, and decorated cookies, but these encounters lasted mere minutes before he'd gesture for his aide to retrieve him.    I had nearly given up on our friendship when a teacher suggested we participate in a scuba dive organized for our school's students with disabilities. At first, all I could imagine were the new ways in which would be able to ignore me in another location - the pool.    Growing up less than a mile from Lake Michigan, I've always been attracted to the water. The first time I swam, pushing the soft water back and forth between my hands and feeling self-assurance I never experienced on land, I felt I'd touched freedom. I was liberated from being the only gay kid in a small elementary school, from constantly being made to fit into a mold when it came to my sexuality and beliefs. Everywhere I ventured, my peers insisted they knew aspects of me I hadn't explored myself. Their constant questioning of my identity - commenting on my favorite floral sweatshirt as I walked down the hallway and describing my love for classical music as "feminine" - occupied an enormous space in my brain at a time when I should have been finding answers for myself. Those brief moments of underwater clarity helped me retreat from all the boxes the world set out for me, washing away everyone's expectations like a tide smoothing out the sand when it crashes onto the beach. Every time I left the water, I felt a piece of my identity had solidified.   So perhaps I shouldn't have been surprised by what experienced in his first swim. As his aide and I unstrapped him from the wheelchair where he spent the majority of his days, bits of food and old pieces of paper from past art projects fell to the ground. Terror filled eyes as the security of his chair was stripped away, but the warm embrace of the water flowing around his limbs immediately calmed him as we gently lowered him into the pool. For a brief moment, his eyes locked onto mine and we shared our excitement.    Though it was fleeting, our glance taught me an invaluable lesson. Until that point, I hadn't tried to connect with  on anything but a superficial level. Our art projects were motivated by sincerity, but they offered no channel for and I to share something we mutually loved. Letting his fingers glide along the water's surface, I helped him float for the next thirty minutes in an uninterrupted state of bliss that can only be experienced by someone who has been confined for so long - a feeling I was able to understand. By sharing something that helped me come to terms with my identity, I was able to connect with him on a deeper level, one where we both felt free.

This is a good example of a personal, well-written essay. The author takes a fine topic, working with a disabled student, and makes it even more meaningful by connecting it to their own personal experiences. Not only does the essay show the author’s selflessness, but it also gives the reader insight into their identity and past struggles.

One of the strongest aspects of this essay is the author’s use of language. Whether describing the pool, the sensation of swimming, or the student’s descent into the water, the reader can fully understand the author’s experiences.  Each paragraph has specific details or examples, like the different Best Buddies Club activities or ways the author was bullied, that make the essay personal and unique to the author. The author shows the reader what they have experienced, rather than telling them.

The author has structured their essay well, beginning with a scene that sets up the essay’s purpose--to explain what inspired his return to swimming. This opening paragraph also establishes the author’s experience with swimming, which is crucial to understanding the rest of the essay.  Then, the author begins the essay’s narrative, introducing the Best Buddies Club and the essay’s conflict--his inability to connect with the student. 

What really makes this essay, and gives it the 3 bonus points, is the fourth paragraph, in which the author discusses his own relationship with swimming. Though the author starts by describing how swimming made them feel, they seamlessly transition to explaining swimming’s importance and reflecting on the challenges they faced growing up queer. By doing this, the author both makes the essay more personal, revealing how this experience is more than just sharing a hobby with the student, and gives the reader a much more intimate understanding of who they are and have overcome, without interrupting the narrative flow. The author does not overstate or exaggerate the challenges they went through, but describes it in a straightforward and honest way.

The author closes the essay by reflecting on what they have gained from this experience. By looking to his own experiences, the author was able to connect and empathize with the student, and help them break free of the constraints of their disability. What could have improved this already strong essay would have been a deeper and more introspective analysis of what the author learned from this experience. Rather than just focusing on how they helped the student, which could appear a bit self-centered, the author could have described how this experience has helped them grow or become a better person. This would have been the perfect opportunity to return to the opening paragraph, and discuss his return to swimming.

Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System3
Bonus points3

Building Lessons: The Journey of Assembling My IKEA Shelf

Sam Gosling said in Snoop that your room is a reflection of the inside of your mind. Every chaotic piece of paper cluttering your living space represents an idea created inside that lump of grey matter. However, sometimes each of those neurons pile up and need to be organised. And so, as I walked past my Yamaha upright with sporadic piles of music and the dusty mounds of 1900s CDs, I realised: "I really need a shelf." Just like any other creative with a penchant for mispronouncing Swedish, I went to IKEA and found a beautiful, white, open-backed cabinet that resonated with my desire for sophisticated simplicity. The trouble started when the box arrived home. Late at night, I started hacking it open with a knife and scratched the unblemished white surface of my cabinet. A well-worn truism reverberated between my ears: Precision was key. "Lesson learned," I thought. "But no one cares about a single scratch." I tried to rationalise my mistake; my decision grated against my perfectionism, but at least the scratch reminded me to approach even menial tasks with care. Then I embarked on the task, spurred by the tantalising satisfaction of building it without instructions (I have a tendency to add unnecessary challenges to see just how far I can push myself). Ten minutes later, I was in the hall balancing the cabinet between the wall and my knee. The shelves were in, and now all I needed was the top, a humble piece of flat timber. And the struts that hold it together. And the plethora of screws littered around me; surely they were spares. Just as I slotted the crowning piece onto my slightly lopsided shelf, the "Leaning Tower of Pisa" finally collapsed. The screws I had put in bent. I guess I would be needing those spares. The little wooden bits meant to keep the shelf stable snapped, and the middle panel had a hole ripped through its centre, as if Australia's very own Wolverine had ripped his claws up the side of my shelf. At first, I felt anger at my ineptitude, then despair and denial. Every stage of grief towards the magnificent project I thought I had completed flashed through my brain. My frustration had peaked. The collapsed shelves had defeated me, but the niggling voice at the back of my mind, which guides all my movements, said: "Hey, you could have done this better. You have to try again." The next day, after a meditative break, I was back, more determined and clear minded than ever. I embarked once again on the construction, without the instructions, but with the shelf lying horizontally on the floor. My determination to challenge myself had not yet swayed. By the end of the hour, I had a working shelf, that didn't look like the diagram but was able to support books. I needed to try again. I started again with the instructions and built a working, sturdy shelf that looked as though it could be printed in the IKEA catalogue- so long as they photoshop out the extra scratches. "Well, what's the moral? She used the instructions." Yes, I did use the instructions. Yes, I did have to remake the shelf three times. But every single mistake in those three attempts was a lesson I can use in the future. In every moment, I gained a greater understanding of the way parts fit together. Every time I looked at the instructions I realised I didn't need to carve my own path single-handedly; instead there was a lot of merit from building the work of those before me and taking their ideas to grow even more. And, at the very worst, at the end of it all, at least the chaotic pieces of paper were no longer on the floor.

This piece is quite unique. You see a lot of essays about profound trips to foreign countries or significant confessions in relationships, and the reason you see those topics a lot is because they make for great personal statements. What this student did here, though, was go against the grain and write about a seemingly boring topic with wit, sophistication, self- and reader-awareness, and humor. The use of monologue in this piece, and the seemingly profound introduction, both function beautifully here. The former adds to the colloquial nature of the essay, and the latter gives the rest of the piece room to subvert the expectation of where an essay with that introduction would likely go. This essay keeps you on your toes with its unexpected charm.

One of the best qualities of this essay is how content dictates form. By this, I mean that the step-by-step process of building a desk is also reflected in the step-by-step emotional journey we take with the student as they decide to purchase, assemble, fail, assemble again, fail again, and finally read the directions. You could almost imagine this scene playing out in a sitcom (I clearly imagined Zooey Deschanel in New Girl ) with the self-aware backtalk and subtle self-deprecation. 

To be clear, if you have a profound story you want to tell of a life-changing experience that you wish to share, you should absolutely do that. You should write about what interests you and the story you want to tell! However, if you find yourself struck more by the style of this piece, don’t feel like you need to be bound to typical sophistication and significance. Have fun writing about an IKEA shelf!

What I wrote about for my Common App Essay

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

The value of uncertainty: a journey from atheism to inquiry.

My parents are what you might call aggressive atheists. They’re not aggressive people, but when it comes to atheism, they’re no-holds-barred, pull-no-punches crusaders. No child of theirs was going to believe in a man in the sky- I was positioned towards disbelief from a very young age. This made it difficult for me to understand why I was sent to a school that featured weekly Religious Education lessons. My parents joke now that they simply wanted longer conversations to ensue when they asked me how my day was, but I suspect there was more to it. Their decision to give me a choice — or, at least, to show me the options — is something I’ve only recently begun to fully appreciate. At the time, though, it felt like a serious hassle. During these sessions, my classmates and I huddled cross- legged on the floor as our chaplain tried to make the concept of the Holy Trinity seem fun and relatable rather than intimidating. None of it made sense to me, yet I remember occasionally thinking that the story was so peculiar, so specific, that perhaps it may actually have been true. Most Tuesdays, though, I would come home and complain to my parents about the absurdity of the lesson. One afternoon, I opened the front door to find my grandfather, Morfar, sitting at the dining-room table, eating and chatting with my parents. Slinging my bag into my room, I raced to join them. Morfar, a retired headmaster, was always ready to outwit me with tangles of logic puzzles and math problems, the sparkle in his eyes growing brighter as I grew more frustrated. I began to babble enthusiastically, eager to show off my superior understanding of Christianity’s flaws. But as I prattled on, Morfar’s usual interjections were not there; instead, he simply gazed at me. After about a minute, he furrowed his eyebrows, and my heart skipped a beat. My words abruptly dried up into silence. It had never occurred to me that my grandfather, a man for whom I had the utmost respect, might be religious. Morfar, adjusting his glasses, broke the silence. He asked me to fetch my new cricket ball. I obeyed without question, mortified, terrified, and excited. I returned to the table and put the ball into his hand. He looked at it for a moment and said, “Jasper, what would happen to the ball if I took it home right now?” I paused, scanning for tricks. “I guess there’d be an extra ball at your house…” He leaned forward. “But now the ball isn’t where it’s supposed to be! Why is that?” “Because you took it…” I said, unsure of myself. He darted another question at me. “Jasper, why is the Earth where it is, so perfectly placed to allow us to live? A reason, a cause and effect for its position, the way there is for everything else?” The mystery of it intrigues and beguiles me to this day. It reminds me never to be too sure of myself and never to underestimate the value of uncertainty in forcing inquiry and serious thought. Since that day, I had many more debates with Morfar and my parents about religion, sometimes broaching topics as far-reaching as artificial intelligence and the nature of consciousness itself. Christianity has acted as a springboard for me to launch myself into new ways of critical thinking and new avenues of philosophy - something I value equally as highly as the peace and security it brings to others. While I cannot share my grandfather’s confidence, the freedom to converse and wonder together — the ability to question — brought us closer and became part of my foundation as an inquisitive, open, and often skeptical person. I understand now what people see in religion and God: a plan, a reason, an answer. I haven’t found mine yet, but I treasure the search.

This essay is packed with playful adjectives, active verbs, and flourishes of personality that make it come alive. At its core is a pretty serious investigation of religious beliefs, but the writer’s active style really portrays levity, openness, and curiosity--precisely the qualities that the speaker’s parents hoped to instill in them by encouraging open religious dialogue.

Despite describing their parents and grandfather as strong personalities, the writer is not entirely beholden to either’s set of beliefs. This impressive combination of openness and self-resolve emerges naturally from both the speaker’s chosen anecdotes and also from their voice itself. Both qualities are certainly things that admissions officers look for in successful applicants!

Writing quality5
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity5
Value System5
Bonus points0

Challenging Tradition: Paving the Way for Gender Equality in an All-Boys School

Oh, are you sure this is what you want to do? There are plenty of other great project ideas you could work on." As I left my design teacher's office having presented a concept for a female-only cycling race, I was both disappointed and confused. I envisioned an opportunity to bring classmates together from my all-boys school to commemorate the steps society had taken to increase gender equality by creating a race in a traditionally male-dominatedsport. As I approached the deadline for submitting the project proposal for my Year 11 design portfolio, I was left without assurance but even more determination to press forward. The next day, I returned, determined to convince my teacher. Yet again, I was met with his pursed lips and furled forehead. Although I couldn't understand his hesitancy, with deadlines approaching I decided to stick with my original idea and start working away at it. Just a few days later during a lunch break, I found myself holding back, as my friends tossed around objectifying comments about a girl they had seen earlier that day on the street. Looking back at that moment, I realized how immune I had become to the sexism that permeated my school . If even I was not willing to stand against it, I realized that, in the eyes of my teacher, my idea of celebrating women had no place at my school. What did female empowerment and success have to do within an al/­ boys school? As I began to realize that my idea didn't "represent" the school or its values of taking boys and turning them into strong men, my teacher"s rejection began to take shape in my mind. The idea that female success and spirit could be celebrated amongst and by a school populated entirely by boys didn't have a place in "a school that understands boys" - our motto. This simply wasn't part of the culture we had been taught to uphold. So ingrained in the schools tradition that to challenge this identity with something as small as a portfolio project was to stand against a belief that the school had forever embraced. I realized, my school had become so caught up in respecting a history of male-dominated teaching, an exclusively-male learning environment, for ultimately a male-dominated society, that we had put aside our ability to achieve a world of equal opportunity for all. Nevertheles,sI loved my school and didn't want its inability to grapple with change impede its future success. Recalling my portfolio idea, I realized I had an opportunity to create the change I sought; a culture, embracing every person, regardless of gender. I met with fellow school leaders and in making them aware of the lunch break topic I had witnessed, I asked them all to think about what if that objectified girl was their sister or a loved one. The boys fell quiet and it was then, collectively we decided that a change had to occur. Together, we mobilized to develop a legacy project for the school. We pursued active change to create an atmosphere of cohesion and collective respect for all men and women. Speeches, guest speakers and group discussions were held to ensure that every boy not only understood the message we were trying to elucidate, but also realized the nature of the culture we had come to accept. And progressively, we saw change. Sexist comments became more scarce and boys began to realize the derogatory nature of their prior speech. Change is uncomfortable; change is slow - and the mental shift I catalyzed may not be embraced for generations to come. But it is ever more my hope that after having started the change, future leaders and teachers will choose to embrace it.

This essay is so impressive because of the author’s willingness to examine and critique their own assumptions and behaviors. Admissions readers love to learn about students that are willing to question and push their understanding of what is right--this author really communicates that adaptability by taking us through their journey of promoting female empowerment within an all-male context.

At first, the speaker seems to want to draw our attention to their persistence --their idea for an all-female cycling race is questioned, but the speaker has a ‘determination to press forward’. It quickly becomes clear, though, that this determination is not the quality that the speaker is highlighting in this essay--instead it is their adaptability and their willingness to revise their beliefs and assumptions. By the all-italics question at the end of the fifth paragraph, we are starting to see the author’s impressive level of self-inquiry.

By shelving their idea for a race and instead promoting gender-equitable actions that are more needed in their community, the author shows the maturity, self-awareness, and willingness to change that admissions readers love to see.

Writing quality5
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System4
Bonus points0

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

Empowering through code: my journey in teaching and growth.

It's December 2018. I have a calculus midterm in a week, but as I walk into the library, I am not here to study. I descend to the familiar small, dimly-lit room in the basement. I rearrange tables, set up the projector, and distribute laptops. I anxiously rummage through my notes as I wait for the girls to trickle into the room. The first girl enters, clinging to her mom. Then other girls arrive, likewise, hiding behind their mothers, as I try to encourage mingling amongst the group. I attempt to conceal my anxiousness with a facade of hyper-enthusiasm. I move towards the podium, and while I have often taken my place in front of it, today I stand behind it, muster my brightest smile and begin to teach my first computer science class. Coding is the metaphysical barrier between the outside world and virtual world. On my own, coding allows me to be in my "bubble." Using the same loops and conditionals I teach about, I am able to transcend one world and enter another. Yet when I give myself the task of presenting these same coding principles to the young girls before me, my bubble collapses, and I exit my comfort zone. Nevertheless, I feel compelled to teach coding classes to as many girls as I can reach to instill in them the confidence that coding can generate within oneself, and the subsequent empowerment that can draw more young women into technology. My desire to host coding classes has been brewing for years. It is a perfect medley of my quest for opportunities to serve my community and my passion for computer science. My emphasis on specifically teaching girls stems from a recognition of the lack of girls participating in tech-related endeavors. In High School, I have taken computer science classes with three or fewer girls, and in robotics, I have entered competitions flooded with all-boys teams while struggling to find all-girls teams other than my own. As my team advances from our hometown competitions to regional competitions, to World Championships with 40,000 attendees, I am perplexed as girls in robotics are only speckled through the sea of boys competing. This lack of representation fuels my fire to host more workshops and have an impact upon younger girls so they will see themselves participating within future teams. At times, I have felt the need to prove my worth to others, as if being a girl implies inferiority. Through robotics, I have not only learned how to approach real-world problems with innovative engineering solutions, but also to be an advocate for myself and others. For me, I refuse to be complicit in perpetuating the gender stereotype that I have endured. I know that not every girl will want to join robotics, or even continue to learn computer science, and that's okay. At the very least, I want to emphasize that despite any barrier, coding is something they can do; if my all-girls team can compete our way to World Championships, they can accomplish whatever they choose to pursue. It's June 2019. I have become familiar with the basements of many libraries across Long Island, and today is my latest stop. I descend to a modestly sized room with fluorescent lighting. I iterate through my routine: introduce the coding concept of that day's lesson, run through the curriculum I have meticulously prepared down to each minute, field any questions, provide guidance, and talk to each girl. At the end of the class, when a mother and her daughter excitedly approach me to say that they have registered for robotics, the hyper-enthusiasm I consistently exude is no longer a facade. My message has reached at least one girl, encouraging me to reach the rest. With dozens of girls taught thus far, and more workshop planning underway, I am confident that my efforts have only just begun.

This essay, about the author’s coding education program, is an insightful look into the author’s interests and values. Not only does the essay show how the author has grown as a result of teaching coding, but it demonstrates the author’s passion for empowering young girls in technology, a timely social issue. The author strikes the rare balance of highlighting and celebrating her accomplishments without seeming self-centered or disingenuous.

The author effectively structures the essay, beginning with their description of her first coding class. While working to grab the reader’s attention, the first paragraph also creates a useful framework to show her personal growth--the final paragraph uses the same structure, allowing the reader to easily draw comparisons and see how much their program and teaching abilities have grown. This structural symmetry makes the essay cohesive and balanced.

While the first and last paragraphs work to illustrate the author’s growth, the middle paragraphs provide the reader with insight into the author’s motivations and values. In these paragraphs, the author is able to reflect on her own experiences with coding, first describing why she enjoys coding and how she decided to begin teaching. She describes her own past experiences in robotics and the lack of girls’ participation in competitions, to show the reader where her passion for women’s representation in technology comes from. The author could have strengthened their insight here by providing a more detailed description of her experiences in robotics, and how she was stereotyped or marginalized.

The fourth paragraph is arguably the essay’s strongest, as the author’s personal voice is clear and compelling. She explains how being a minority in robotics has made her feel inferior at times, and as though she needs to prove herself. Though she has learned to advocate for herself, she does not want other girls to feel as she did. The author decides to take action and address the problem by providing girls the opportunity to learn to code. Unlike other essays that point to a vague sense of wanting to help others, this author is driven by a clear, personal mission to empower girls in her service work.

The final thing to note is the essay’s conclusion. While the author has realized their goal of teaching and inspiring girls to pursue robotics, they are not satisfied or feel their work is complete. This is an example of their strong value system, as the author wants to continue to help as many girls as possible.

Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System4
Bonus points0

Mastering Time: Lessons from an Apple Tree and My Uncle's Legacy

Last summer, on a rare sunny day in Dunedin, New Zealand, I sat underneath the apple tree in my garden and pondered time. As I looked around, my eyes followed the dandelions drifting back and forth, up and down, while the distracting buzz of bees flying provided a low cacophony of sound in the background. At this moment, everything seemed so tangible, so graspable to me. Space all around me had character – each floating dandelion just a fingertip away. I wondered if there was a way to touch the fourth dimension I’d learnt from my physics class – a dimension that permeates our very existence. What if we could change time like we do space? What if we could reverse or expand time, as if it were the blossoming sunflowers unfolding a few feet from where I was sitting? Jordan could be hitting his Game 6 shot in Salt Lake City at that very moment, or I could be watching Liu hurdle past the competition in the bright lights of Athens. I could even have endless admissions officers read this essay, after I’d taken all the time in the world to make it a masterpiece worthy of Shakespeare. With time on my hands, the world would be my oyster. Then, I heard my mother’s voice calling and the smell of freshly cooked rice wafted through the garden, breaking my pleasant fantasy. Time, at that moment felt so constricting, as its passage returned to the rhythmic progression of meals. How ironic that while I was thinking about times’ wonders, this afternoon was time I will never get back. Time, in all its unlimited wonders, is used up as we continue our journey through life. In the space of a week, my future time radically shifted. My mother received news that my uncle, who I had looked up to all my life both literally and metaphorically, was gone. I had expected my life to change exponentially. But time kept ticking along the same way it always had, nudging me through the familiar sounds of a basketball clanking off the rim each day, sore forearms from volleyballs thumped, and the daily routine of homework and exams. Yet, throughout all of this, my uncle’s optimistic outlook on life - holding close the people who cared and things that mattered, letting go of unprecedented worry or unnecessary negativity, remained vividly embedded in me. His smile while talking to me, even as his business prospects were looking bleak, will stay with me forever. Time, in all its infinite glory, is a finite arbitrary construct, compartmentalised by society into quantifiable sections. Unequivocally appreciating the “compartments” that I have left, just as my uncle did with his life, is my way of claiming back time with him. Looking back, hyper focusing on a moment meant I often missed the true splendour of the bigger picture. Events such as re-biking the New Zealand Rail Trail senior year after being scarred, both figuratively and literally, from crashing severely in middle school, made me realise how much I truly missed, simply by taking a glass half empty view. Living in a quaint southern Kiwi city also meant things were often uneventful. Before when the weather would pass through four seasons in a day I’d often find it annoying, going from bright blue skies, to pouring hail, to briefly vivid rainbows, to gusts of wind through the night. By focusing on the positive, I began to appreciate what a wacky and peculiar sight this was – nowhere else would I get to live these moments. Constantly reconsidering and reframing previously ignored or unpleasant experiences is part of the legacy my uncle left me. As Shakespeare wrote, “let every man be master of his time.” With time, I know that each and every day is something of wonder, something of appreciation, something meaningful and over which my approach can irrevocably shape my perceptions.

This essay is an excellent example of how being specific and detailed – showing and not telling – can be especially effective.

The writer of this piece has very good instincts. Not only does he show his thought process, but he uses specific details in order to both balance the writing and translate his perceptions into accessible but original descriptions.

An author chooses to show and not tell to both evoke emotion and relay to the reader an experience that is important to the narrative.

An example of using this method is in the second to last paragraph, in which the narrator describes his specific observations:

“Before when the weather would pass through four seasons in a day I’d often find it annoying, going from bright blue skies, to pouring hail, to briefly vivid rainbows, to gusts of wind through the night. By focusing on the positive, I began to appreciate what a wacky and peculiar sight this was – nowhere else would I get to live these moments.”

Instead of simply telling the reader that he began to appreciate things in a way he had not before, he shows us through the details – using all five senses – so that we are guided through the prose and feel what the writer is asking us to. If he simply told us that he began to experience his surroundings differently than he had before, we would not be able to see the experience through his eyes, and we wouldn’t know the weight that the moment carried, or understand how he – specifically – processed these new ideas.

Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity4
Value System4
Bonus points0

“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 journey of the rubik's cube: embracing the process of problem-solving.

The moment I laid eyes on the cube, it was as if nothing else mattered. I remember my uncle explaining something about top row corners, but I was already turning the Rubik's cube in my hands around, wondering how its variegated faces could be aligned to create uniform color blocks. Every night for the next week, I would just spin the cube around, hoping that a solution would pop into my head. I started by attempting to align three cubes of one color - but the more I twisted the faces around, the more the colors seemed to scramble. I even tried randomly flicking the rows and columns back and forth, hoping to stumble upon a pattern, but nothing came to mind. I begged my classmates to solve the cube hoping to memorize their tactics, and spent my breaks watching other people solve cubes online, transfixed by the many versions of this puzzle I found. This was to no avail, as the cube remained unsolved. But it wasn't until I realized that I needed to figure out a strategy that worked for me and focus on one face at a time, rather than everything all at once, that I began to make some progress on the cube. By the end of the month, I was able to align 7 out of 9 cubes on one face. I had taught myself a new technique, and while it had not led to a complete success, it was a breakthrough all the same. It's been nine years since the day I was gifted the Rubik's cube, and I still have not been able to solve it. I suspect I never will. But I always come back to this problem not because of a relentless desire to solve or prove anything, but because I love the process of problem-solving. There is something special about being in a situation where I am not expected to immediately find a solution, and have time to examine a task from different angles and attempt to complete it in a multitude of ways. It is not the need to reach the final solution that drives me, but rather the knowledge that every bit of progress I make gives me a better understanding of the puzzle and contributes to my learning. When I approach daunting tasks, I ground myself by breaking down the problem and trying different approaches. Getting stuck is not a failure - rather, it is an opportunity to retrace my steps and figure out what went wrong. Success is not defined by how many problems I am able to solve, or how good I am at things, but rather how resilient I am and how willing I am to learn. There is a sense of contentment that accompanies the wonder I feel whenever I open up the educational digital program I have been working on for the past year. There is wonder in my uncertainty about how things are going to turn out, the fact that I don't know if I will achieve the ideal result this time - if today will finally be the day I crack the code. I have tried many programming languages and platforms to recreate the designs and prototypes I have created, although I have not yet been successful in my attempts. But before when I would have shied away from the uncertainty of my success, I now embrace it. I still find myself fiddling with my Rubik's cube during my free time because there is something to be said by finding those silver linings, those invaluable lessons in my relentless attempts to figure it out. Every so often I find delight in a breakthrough I've made, a technique I've finally learned or a piece that slotted in exactly where it needed to be. These small victories are meaningless in the larger scope of the world, but to me, they mean everything.

This is a fantastic example of an essay that draws importance and sincerity out of a commonplace experience. Many kids play with Rubik’s Cubes--the author is also not a world-record-breaking cube solver. But they use the Cube to do some serious self-analysis--in examining why they are attached to the puzzle, what they like about it, and how they went about approaching solutions, the author shows how they exhibit persistence, adaptability, and rigor in pursuing their interests.

The sentence, “Success is not defined by how many problems I am able to solve, or how good I am at things, but rather how resilient I am and how willing I am to learn” represents the essay’s most significant observation. In equating success with resiliency instead of achievement , the speaker shows great maturity. In college, students are challenged--they will also see students around them achieving in a variety of ways. Pursuing and embodying resiliency instead of chasing achievement at all costs makes for a healthy student experience full of learning!

Writing quality4
Personal voice4
Level of Authenticity5
Value System5
Bonus points0

More Examples?

To see even more examples, download our free ebook, the US Personal Essay Master Guide , which features 50 examples of Common App essays of students admitted into top universities! Additionally, check out our database of successful Common App Applications to read essays for each individual school!

About the Contributor

Jamie Beaton

Jamie Beaton

Jamie Beaton is the Co-founder and CEO of Crimson Education. With degrees from Harvard, Oxford, Stanford, Yale, and Tsinghua, Jamie is an educational innovator passionate about helping students reach their academic potential. He co-founded Crimson after gaining admission to 25 of the world's top universities. Under his leadership, Crimson has become the world's most successful university admissions consultancy, helping thousands gain entry into the Ivy League and other elite institutions.

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Common App Essay Prompts 2024-2025

Are you applying to college in the US this year? If so, you will likely need to use the Common Application . This is the largest college application platform in the US. You will also need to write a Common App essay, also known as a personal statement. If your next question is, “ What is a personal statement? ”, you’re in the right place! In this article, we will introduce you to the personal statement by exploring the Common App essay prompts and college essays that worked.

In addition to sharing the Common App essay prompts, we will break down each of the Common App essay prompts. Then, we’ll review personal statement sample essays and describe why they worked . In doing so, we hope to demystify what colleges are looking for. This will empower you to write a personal statement that is meaningful to you.

Lastly, this article will provide you with plenty of Common App essay tips. From start to finish, we will show you how to answer the Common App essay prompts and perfect your essays. By the end of our time together, you will feel confident that you can write a standout personal statement. 

Ready to get started? Let’s begin with a deep dive into the Common App!

What is the Common App?

Before we look more deeply into the Common App essay prompts, we will introduce you to the Common App itself. The Common App is a centralized online application platform that allows students to apply to over 1,000 American colleges and universities. 

By allowing students to apply to many schools on one website, the Common App saves students a significant amount of time while applying to college. Indeed, much of the information you enter on the Common App can be sent to multiple schools. This includes your contact information, demographic information, extracurriculars, and even your Common App essay. 

What is the Common App essay?

The Common App essay is a general college essay requested by many US schools. As the main college essay, its purpose is to introduce you to college admissions officers. To do so, you will write about a topic that truly matters to you. It should also display important personal traits. For example, if you have loved riding horses since you were a small child and are very compassionate towards animals, you might share that in your college essay. Indeed, there is no perfect topic amongst the Common App essays that worked. The best topic is one that resonates most deeply for you.

There are some broad guidelines for the Common App essay. Your Common App essay should:

Common App Essay Guidelines

Be about you.

Your Common App essay, unlike supplemental essays, is intended to introduce you to every school. You should not talk about why you want to attend a specific school in your Common App essay. Think about this essay as a response to the question: “Who are you?” You can edit the essay before submitting each school’s application on the Common App platform. However, generally, you shouldn’t have to since the same Common App essay can be used for any school.

Be the Right Length

The essay must be between 250 and 650 words. If your essay is too short, it may come across as incomplete. Any essays that go over the word count will not be accepted.

Respond to one of the Common App Essay Prompts

Technically you can write about any topic. But, you will want to make sure you write in a way that responds to one of the Common App essay prompts. Each of the Common App essay prompts is designed to guide you towards self-reflection. Be sure to read through the Common App essay prompts and choose the one that best allows you to explore your ideal topic.

In future sections, you’ll find plenty of additional Common App essay tips.

What’s the difference between a Common App Essay and a Personal Statement?

Generally speaking, the Common App essay is a type of personal statement. In this article, as in the college admissions process, we use those terms interchangeably.

Now, let’s answer the question of, “What is a personal statement?” A personal statement is a general term for an essay written for an admissions process. Most personal statements introduce the applicant to a committee. Depending on what you are applying for, the personal statement may ask you to discuss your background, career goals, and personal values.

Importantly, none of the Common App essay prompts are specifically asking you to share your goals for the future. Indeed, you do not even technically have to talk about college in your essay. As you will see below in our example of college essays that worked below, the Common App essay is solely about introducing yourself to admissions officers. 

Remember, the college admissions process is holistic in nature. That means many schools are looking at more than just your grades and test scores. As such, admissions officers care deeply about how you respond to the Common App essay prompts.

2024-2025 Common App Essay Prompts

Before you write your Common App essay, you’ll want to familiarize yourself with the Common App essay prompts. There are seven Common App essay prompts in total:

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..

In a future section, we will break down what each of the Common App essay prompts is asking for. Importantly, we’ll also look at how to make sure you answer your chosen one successfully.

Do the Common App Essay Prompts change?

Yes, each year the Common App essay prompts can change. However, the Common App essay prompts have not changed in the past year. This is because the Common App has received a lot of positive feedback about the prompts. 

The Common App essay prompts may change in subsequent years. However, it is likely that at least some, if not all, of the questions will remain the same. So, if you are a high school sophomore or junior, you can use the 2024-25 Common App essay prompts to guide you in thinking about what you might like to write for your personal statement. Just be sure to check the Common App essay prompts at the time you apply! This way you can make sure you are answering a current prompt.

Breaking down the Common App Essay Prompts

Before you start writing your Common App essay, you will want to understand what the Common App essay prompts are asking. To help you, we will break down each of the Common App essay prompts, explaining what it means and how you can answer it successfully.

Common App Essay 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..

The first of the Common App essay prompts asks you to discuss a background, identity, interest, or talent. You might choose this prompt if there is something about you that you feel strongly represents you. For example, maybe your religion is very important to you. Or, perhaps your ability to solve a Rubik’s cube quickly is a talent that holds important meaning to you. 

If you choose this prompt, be sure to go beyond simply explaining what the background, identity, interest, or talent is. To be successful with this prompt, you must go deeper. Show why this topic matters to you and what it demonstrates about who you are. 

Common App Essay 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.

If you have experienced some kind of hardship in your life, you might wish to respond to the second of the Common App essay prompts. While the challenge, setback, or failure you describe does not have to be monumental, it should be important to you. That is, you do not have to have tried out for the Olympics to respond to this question, but you should be able to demonstrate why your challenge, setback, or failure shaped you. Additionally, if your college essay ideas are fairly common, like a sports injury, make sure to provide your own personal take on the experience. The more specific you can be, the better.

To ace this question, you should respond to the final part of the prompt clearly, explaining how this experience affected you and what you learned from it. If you choose to talk about a failure or setback, be sure to also focus on positive aspects of the experience. Undoubtedly, this prompt is intended to understand how you persist. It gives you the opportunity to show resilience.

Common App Essay Prompt 3

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

The Common App essay prompts are also an opportunity to showcase how you think. With this prompt, you can share an experience in which you used your critical thinking skills to challenge a belief or idea. Again, make sure that you choose an experience that truly matters to you. Rather than simply discussing what happened, give the reader a glimpse into your thought process.

Common App Essay Prompt 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.

The fourth of the Common App essay prompts asks you to share your gratitude for someone else. If this prompt resonates with you, you should fully describe the circumstances of the experience. Who was the person? What did they do for you? How did the experience change you? 

As with all prompts where you are writing about other people, don’t focus your entire essay on that person. Remember, this is still a personal essay, and you are the star of the show. 

Common App Essay Prompt 5

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

While all the Common App essay prompts nod towards personal growth in some way, this prompt specifically names it. To answer this prompt fully, describe the accomplishment, event, or realization in detail. Then, spend a significant chunk of your essay talking about how you changed because of the experience. 

Common App Essay 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.

With this question – the sixth of the Common App essay prompts – you have an opportunity to talk about a topic, idea, or concept that fascinates you. If there is a topic you absolutely love to discuss, you might want to choose this prompt. 

As with all the Common App essay prompts, you should reflect on why you love this topic. You should also provide details about how you engage with the topic. For example, if you have loved learning about how buildings are constructed, you will want to fully explain what interests you about the topic. You will also want to share how you study construction in your daily life.

Common App Essay 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..

The final of the Common App essay prompts is the most general in nature. The prompt asks you to share an essay on any topic. You could use an essay you have written for an English class. However, you must make sure that the response is still demonstrating core personality traits you want to share with colleges. The essay must include personal reflection as well, as this is part of what makes a great college essay.

How do I write a Common App essay?

To write a Common App essay, you will want to follow some tried and true steps . To complete all these steps before your application deadlines, we recommend starting early. Ideally, start in the summer before your senior year. 

Here are the most important Common App essay tips:

Common App Essay Tips

1. understand your personal brand.

Before you start responding to one of the Common App essay prompts, spend time reflecting on what is most important for colleges to know about you. This is also known as your personal brand. Your personal brand could be that you are a competitive swimmer with a soft spot for animals. By grounding yourself in your personal brand, you can more easily identify college essay ideas that fit your brand.

2. Pick a prompt

Spend some time reviewing the Common App essay prompts. Then, choose one that best allows you to express your personal brand. Remember that some schools may have additional essay requirements which ask you to write about your intended major or your extracurriculars. If you plan to write about your love of studying architecture in a supplemental essay , it probably won’t make sense to write about it in your personal statement. You don’t want to repeat college essay ideas.

3. Outline your college essay ideas

While some students skip outlining, it can be extremely helpful, especially if you get easily overwhelmed by the blank page. Take time to think about the ideas you hope to express and draft an outline of how the essay will begin, develop, and close. What makes a great college essay, in part, is how well thought-out it is. 

4. Draft your essay

When drafting your essay, try not to worry about writing it perfectly the first time. Most college essays that worked required numerous drafts. By avoiding perfectionism on the first draft, you might save yourself time in the long run. And, you’ll give yourself the freedom you need to fully explore and express your ideas.

5. Edit your essay

During the revision process, you can make sure your essay is as clear, compelling, and concise as possible. Always check the Common App essay prompts to make sure you are responding to the entire prompt. You should also focus on correcting grammar and spelling mistakes, which can be distracting for readers.

Beyond simply following these steps, some students may find that reading personal statement sample essays can be helpful. They can provide inspiration for topics and insight into what makes a great college essay. To that end, we are going to share examples of Common App essays that worked.

Common App Essay Examples

Before we share our Common App essays that worked, we want to remind you that your personal statement does not need to be like these college essay examples. Indeed, what makes a great college essay is how clearly the writer’s voice comes across when responding to the Common App essay prompts. The reader also needs to hear your passion for the topic throughout your essay. 

As you read these personal statement sample essays, don’t focus solely on what students wrote about. Instead, search for college essay tips based on how they wrote their essays. Avoid comparing your life or your writing skills to those of the writers of these personal statement sample essays.

While we chose them because they are representative examples of college essays that worked, they are not intended to be copied in any form. We hope you find these personal statement sample essays useful in understanding how to answer the Common App essay prompts.

Common App Essay Example #1

My journey of questioning the Catholic beliefs that my family members hold close to their hearts has been incredibly intimate and thought-provoking. For many years, I felt as if I had to manifest into the religious person I was not, merely to keep my parents content, and this demoralized me for a large portion of my life. Having to hear Bible verses in a church I was forced to sit in every Sunday and trying to find the validity in these stories is what my time in mass truly consisted of. Why can’t I bring myself to believe that these stories are true, when everyone sitting here is able to? 

Growing up in a hispanic household in which the statement “Gracias a Dios que…” (translation: “Thank God that…”) is expressed everyday, even in the most simplest occurrences, caused me to continue contemplating the veracity of these beliefs as I matured. Thoughts would course through my mind about the reasons why we were thanking God when he did not hand anything to us himself and my parents were working hard for everything that we had. Even when it came to our health, this statement would be reiterated. Trips to medical offices and recovering from illnesses were filled with this statement, and it aggravated me to witness this spiritual being getting the credit for a doctor’s knowledge and actions. Even more questions that I wouldn’t dare to ask kept consuming my thoughts, the biggest one being, “Am I wrong for believing that my family should not be thanking God?” 

One of the most significant aspects of my journey is the day I discovered that my grandfather is also an atheist, as it brought relief upon seeing that I was not alone in doubting the beliefs that my family members hold. However, once the conversation turned to speak about how wrong he was, this feeling of relief quickly brought out my underlying fear that my parents would view me negatively if they knew that I was not the dutiful and religious daughter they believed I was. I also didn’t remember the last time I had spoken to my grandfather, and a feeling of solitude washed over me once again. 

The denouement of my journey arrived when I determined that I did not believe in a god and was no longer afraid of not being accepted by my parents for this. I built the courage to inform them that I do not share the beliefs they hold dear to their hearts. When I realized that I did not have to believe in a god in order to be a good person, my fear of not being accepted went away, as I began to accept myself. 

The most ironic aspect of this journey is the amount of times my family has told me that I am wrong for being an atheist, when I have never told them that they are wrong for being Catholics. I may not partake in their beliefs, but I will always respect the fact that they have them. This journey has been crucial to my personal growth and has shaped me into a very accepting person. One of the biggest factors that has diverted me from having a desire to be part of a religious community is how exclusive they tend to be. It is not only the conceptual aspect of religion that I do not believe in, but also the way many humans have interpreted it and used it to justify discriminatory acts throughout history. 

Everyone in this world should be accepted for who they are, as long as they do not harm others. Being an atheist and dealing with the backlash of my family telling me that I am wrong

has only led me to be even more passionate about the things I stand for. I implore that no one should put others down for being their true selves.

Why this Common App Essay Worked

In the first of our Common App essays that worked, the student writes about her exploration of her religion. She shares her thought process on how she came to be atheist even though she grew up in a very Catholic family. 

Her experience responds well to prompt #3 about challenging a belief or idea. She answers all parts of the prompt, describing when she began to question her religion and the outcome of doing so. This student was able to develop her own beliefs and stand up for them while remaining respectful of her family’s beliefs. This demonstrates her courage, critical thinking skills, and compassion for others. Her essay is well thought out and well written, letting her voice and self-reflection shine through.

Sample Common App Essay #2

I suppose it is like selecting the perfect pair of socks. Then, 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 Worked Well in this Common App Essay

In the second of our personal statement sample essays, we learn about the writer’s obsession with the written word. The author responds to prompt #6 about a topic, idea, or concept that is captivating. One of the most powerful aspects of this essay is the student’s voice. As such, this aspect much aligns with the essay’s topic: the writer’s love for words.

The author takes us on a journey where we understand how their love for the written word developed. The essay opens with a compelling metaphor about searching for the perfect pair of socks, just like you would a word. This opening serves as a hook to draw the reader in. Then, the writer keeps us engaged with many specific examples of how their love for vocabulary only grew throughout their life. By the end of the essay, the author convinces us of their creativity, passion, and intellectual nature. 

Common App Essay Example #3

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.”

This essay responds to the first of the Common App essay prompts, which asks about an identity or background that is very important to you. In this sample essay, we learn about a student’s love of reading. The essay draws us in right from the start by the image of the student reading a book in the middle of a Walmart aisle while their parent shops. This image serves as an effective hook. 

From there, we hear more about why reading has been important to this student. As someone who has struggled to find their place, reading gave them opportunities to escape and to learn about the world. The writer reflects deeply on what reading has meant to them, especially as a future engineer. In doing so, we understand the student to be intellectually curious and brave enough to forge their own path.

What makes a great college essay?

After reading through these Common App essays that worked, we hope you can answer the question, “What is a personal statement?” with greater confidence. You may have also noticed some common trends. Indeed, these personal statement sample essays were each unique and responded to different Common App essay prompts. However, they also shared some of the traits of what makes a great college essay.

Here are a few more college essay tips, as exemplified by our Common App essays that worked: 

Extra College Essay Tips

1. be authentically you.

In each of our examples of college essays, we saw the speaker focusing on what matters to them, whether it be their religion, reading, writing. They didn’t talk about the most monumental event of their life to try to impress admissions officers. Instead, they each wrote with convincing specificity about topics that matter to them. Their authenticity shines through to make these personal statement sample essays interesting and informative.

2. Include details

In each of the personal statement sample essays we shared, the authors included very specific details to illustrate their stories. Whether they wrote about reading in a grocery store aisle or picking out a pair of socks, we were able to visualize their stories thanks to the level of detail they included. Details not only make these personal statement sample essays more compelling, but also more fun to read.

3. Share meaningful reflections

Each of the college essays that worked had many reflections throughout. These reflections about why religion was no longer meaningful to them or what books taught them about the world give their stories weight. Without reflections, the reader might have to guess what each essay is trying to convey. With reflections, we learn much more about the author.

In addition to the Common App essay tips we shared above, we will now share a few more college essay tips that can make your writing process easier and strengthen your essay. 

Additional Common App Essay Tips

Here are a few additional Common App essay tips to help you write stand out college essays:

1. Avoid using AI

Many students consider using artificial intelligence because writing great college essays is not easy. However, writing your essay with the help of AI is dangerous. Sometimes, the essay won’t sound like you, which is one of the most important aspects of a great college essay. If you do feel the need to use AI to help you brainstorm or refine your writing, make sure you carefully review your drafts so that they still sound like you. Indeed, we can guarantee that none of the Common App essays that worked highlighted in this article were written with AI. 

2. Ask trusted people to read your essay

Always get a friend, teacher, or college admissions expert like those at College Advisor to read through your essay. They can help you make sure your writing makes sense and is grammatically correct. Additionally, it can be a good idea to have someone who does not know you well read your essay, as admissions officers won’t know you when they read your essay. As you probably noticed when you read our Common App essays that worked, you did not need to know the student to fully understand their journey or their essay’s message. This is because these Common App essays that worked are well written with their intended audience in mind.

3. Read your essay out loud

One of the simplest and most helpful Common App essay tips is to read your draft out loud. Does it sound like you? Are they any clunky sentences? Is it responding clearly to one of the Common App essay prompts? Reading your essay out loud can help you find mistakes more quickly than reading in your head.

If you’ve found this resource helpful, the next section has even more College Advisor resources for you to explore.

Other CollegeAdvisor Essay Resources to Explore 

There are plenty more college essay tips in the College Advisor essay resources section of our website. Here are a few that you may find particularly helpful while applying to college:

CollegeAdvisor Essay-Writing Resources

College essay examples: 10 best examples of college essays and why they worked.

If it helped you to read out personal statement sample essays, you might want to check out this article which has ten more examples of college essays. These examples respond to more of the Common App essay prompts.

Common App Transfer Essay Examples

Our second resource contains additional examples of college essays, specifically written for the transfer process. If you are considering transferring, you may want to read through this article to learn about how to write a strong transfer essay. This is particularly important because the Common App essay prompts are different for transfer students.

Crafting a Compelling Common App Personal Statement

For those who prefer webinars, this webinar offers additional college essay tips. The webinar explores the question “What is a personal statement?”. It also highlights more Common App essay tips and common mistakes students make when writing their personal statements.

AO Advice: Revising the Personal Statement

In our final resource, you can hear from a former admissions officer about how to revise your personal statement. As we discussed with each of our Common App essays that worked, the revision process is often what takes an essay from good to great.

Spending time with some of these resources is a great way to feel more comfortable when it comes time to start writing your own essays!

Common App Essay Prompts 2024-2025 – Final Takeaways

For those applying to college, writing a strong personal statement is one of the most daunting tasks. In this article, we sought to answer questions like “what is a personal statement?” and “how do I come up with college essay ideas?” Our exploration focused on breaking down the Common App essay prompts. We looked at several personal statement sample essays and shared several Common App essay tips. 

Among the most important Common App essay tips we shared were:

  • Be your authentic self.
  • Write about topics that matter to you.
  • Edit and revise your essay carefully.

If you can follow these three rules, you are likely to impress college admissions officers with your essay. Should you find yourself feeling stuck, lost, or unsure while applying to college, you can always lean on a trusted source like College Advisor to share useful resources and provide one-on-one advising. With a lot of self-reflection and some additional support, you’ll have a fantastic personal statement in no time–happy writing!

This article was written by senior advisor, Courtney Ng . 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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common app essay prompt examples


Choose Your Test

Sat / act prep online guides and tips, which common app essay prompt should you choose.

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College Essays


On one hand, the Common Application has seven essay prompts to choose from, which is great news: No matter what your story, you're sure to find a good fit! On the other hand, having seven prompts means you can write seven different kinds of essays, each with its own potential pitfalls and clichés to steer around.

In this article, I'll outline two totally different approaches to figuring out which Common App essay prompt is right for you and help you brainstorm possible ideas for each. I'll also talk about what makes great college essays great and give examples of what you want to avoid when crafting your essay.

What Are Application Essays for, Anyway?

Before you can choose an essay prompt, before you figure out what you're going to write about, it helps to know what the goal of your writing is. Think about it: if your goal were to give someone instructions, you'd write really differently than if your goal were to describe a landscape.

So What Is the College Essay Supposed to Do?

Admissions officers want to know the things they can't find in the numbers that make up the rest of your application. They want to know about your background, where you come from, and what has shaped you into the person you are today. They want to see your personality, your character, and your traits as a person. They want to learn your thinking style and perspective on the world. They want to make sure you have the ability to creatively problem-solve. And finally, they want to double-check your maturity level, assess your judgment, and get a general sense of whether you would be a good college student—whether you would thrive in an environment where you have to be independent and self-reliant.

So think about the college essay as a way of letting the admissions office get to know you the way a close acquaintance would. You have to let them in and share real thoughts, feelings, and some vulnerabilities. You definitely don't need to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets, but you should avoid showing only superficial details or, even worse, a façade.


Disclosing your closest-held secrets is not the goal of a college essay; however, you  do want to share enough information to give the admissions staff a sense of your personality, motivations, and values.

How to Brainstorm Ideas for Each Common App Prompt

There are two big-picture ways of coming up with essay ideas.

First, maybe you already know the story you want to tell. Perhaps you experienced something so momentous, so exciting, or so dramatic that you have no doubt it needs to be in your college application.

Or maybe you need to approach finding a topic with some more directed brainstorming. There's nothing wrong with not having a go-to adventure! Instead, you can use the prompts themselves to jog your memory about your interesting accomplishments.

Approach #1: Narrating Your Exciting Life

Does something from your life immediately jump into your head as the thing you would have to tell anyone who wanted to know the real you? If you already know exactly which of your life experiences you are going to write about, you can develop this idea before even looking at the prompts themselves.

You can ask yourself a few questions to see whether this is your best brainstorming option:

Is there something that makes you very different from the people around you?

This could be something like being LGBT in a conservative community, having a disability, being biracial, or belonging to a minority group that is underrepresented in your community.

Has your life had a watershed moment? Do you think of yourself as before X and after X ?

For example, did you meet a childhood hero who has had an outsized impact on your life? Did you suddenly find your academic passion? Did you win an award or get recognized in a way you were not expecting to? Did you find yourself in a position of leadership in an unusual time or place?

Did you live through something dramatic, such as a crisis, a danger you overcame, or the complete upheaval of your circumstances?

Maybe you lived through a natural disaster, made your way home after being lost in the woods, or moved from one country to another?

Was your childhood or young adulthood out of the ordinary? Were you particularly underprivileged or overprivileged in some unusual way?

For instance, did you grow up very poor or as the child of a celebrity? Did you live on a boat rather than in a house or as part of a family that never stayed long in one place because of your parents' work or other circumstances?


If you've experienced a dramatic event that changed your life or face unusual obstacles on a daily basis, approach #1 may work well for you.

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Approach #2: Brainstorming for Each Prompt

If you don't have an unusual life experience or a story that you absolutely know needs to be told, don't worry! Some of the very best personal essays are about much more mundane situations that people face. In fact, it's better to err on the side of small and insightful if you don't have a really dramatic and unusual experience to write about.

Let's go through the prompts one by one and think of some ways to use more ordinary life events to answer them.

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 is the broadest of the seven prompts. Almost any life experience that you write about could fit in this category, but you need to be careful to avoid writing the same essay as every other applicant.

Brainstorming Ideas

Background. Did a family member or friend have a significant influence on your life? Did you grow up in a particularly supportive and tolerant—or narrow-minded and intolerant—community? Were your parents not able to provide for you in the expected way? Did you have an unusual home life?

For example, my family came to the U.S. as refugees from Russia. By the time I went to college, I had lived in five different countries and had gone to nine different schools. This wasn't a traumatic experience, but it certainly did shape me as a person, and I wrote about it for my graduate school application essay.

Identity. Are you a member of an interesting subculture (keep in mind that violent or illegal subcultures are probably best left off your college application)? Do you strongly identify with your ethnic or national heritage? Are you a committed fan of something that someone like you would be expected to dislike?

Interest. In this category, esoteric interests are probably better than more generic ones because you don't want your essay to be the hundredth essay an admissions officer sees about how much you like English class. Do you like working with your hands to fix up old cars? Do you cook elaborate food? Are you a history buff and know everything there is to know about the War of 1812?

Talent. This doesn't have to be some epic ability or skill. Are you really good at negotiating peace between your many siblings? Do you have the uncanny ability to explain math to the math challenged? Are you a dog or horse whisperer? Are you an unparalleled mushroom forager?

Pitfalls to Avoid

Insignificance. The thing you describe has to be "so meaningful" the application "would be incomplete without it."

Redundancy. If the interest you write about is a pretty common one, like playing a musical instrument or reading books, make sure you have an original angle on how this interest has affected you. Otherwise, your essay runs the risk of being a cliché, and you might want to think about skipping this idea.

Bragging. If you decide to write about your talent, be aware that by focusing on how very good you are at playing the cello, you run the risk of bragging and coming off as unlikable. It's much better if you describe a talent a little more off the beaten path. Or if you do end up writing about your excellent pitching arm, you may want to focus on a time when your athleticism failed you in some way or was unsuccessful.


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

In essence, you're being asked to demonstrate resilience. Can you get back on the horse after falling off? Can you pick yourself up and dust yourself off? This quality is really important to colleges, so it's great if you have a story that shows off your ability to do this.

The key to this essay is the "later success" part. If all you went through was failure and you learned no lesson and changed no approach in the future, then don't use that experience here.

Did you lose a game because of a new and poorly rehearsed strategy, but later tweak that strategy to create success? Did you not get the lead in the play, but then have a great experience playing a smaller part? Did you try a new medium only to completely ruin your artwork, but later find a great use for that medium or a way to reconceptualize your art? Did you try your best to convince an authority figure of something only to have your idea rejected but then use a different approach to get your idea implemented?

Too much failure. Don't focus so much time on the "failure" half of the equation that you end up not giving enough space to the "later success" and "learn from the experience" parts.

Too little failure. Don't diminish the negative emotions of failure because of a fear of seeming vulnerable.

Playing the victim. Avoid whining, blaming others for your failure, or relying on others to create your success. You should be the story's hero here.


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

The key to this prompt is the reflection or insight that comes from the question, "What was the outcome?" Challenging deeply held views is not always a good idea. Writing about a negative outcome and how you reacted could demonstrate your maturity level and ability to tolerate views different from your own.

Remember, the belief or idea could be anyone's: yours, a peer group's, or an authority figure's. Did you stand up to your parents' conservative or traditional values, for instance, about gender norms? Did you get your friends to stop bullying someone?

Also, the belief or idea doesn't have to be extremely serious or big in scope. Did you make dressing up for Halloween cool for teenagers in your town? Did you transform your own prejudice or bias (e.g., about athletes having interesting thoughts about philosophy)?

Causing offense. If you have a story that deals with super hot-button issues, such as abortion or gun control, you need to be careful to keep your essay's tone respectful and unaggressive. This is a good thing to check by letting other people read your drafts and respond.

Avoiding negative feelings. Challenging beliefs means pointing out that what a person thinks now is wrong. It can also be quite lonely and isolating to be on an unpopular side of an issue. It's important to include these negatives into the story if they fit.


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?

“Reflect” and “surprising” are the keywords in this prompt. You need to write about a specific thing that another person (or persons!) has done for you that made you feel grateful—but your response shouldn’t stop there. To make your response really shine, you also need to reflect on the experience or, in other words, explain what it meant to you, why your feelings about it surprised you, and why. From there, you’ll need to round out your essay by connecting what that person did for you to the person you are today. Did that surprising act change you in some way? Did it make you a better person? This is your chance to show colleges what your values are when it comes to connecting with other people.

Remember how the prompt specifies that you should write about something someone did for you that made you happy or thankful in a surprising way? That wording is nudging you to think outside the box. For instance, most people are thankful for birthday presents or a friend who picks up the check at lunch. You need to think of something more out-of-the-box—something you didn’t necessarily expect to make you feel gratitude.

It’s entirely possible, for instance, that someone helped you out of an ethical dilemma or really difficult situation. Has someone ever helped you when you didn’t necessarily want help? Have you ever been in a situation where, if someone else hadn’t stepped in, something bad could have happened? Did that event motivate you to change your behavior in the future? Were you persuaded to own up to your mistake and do better next time?

An event in which the act of kindness or the person who performed it was unexpected is a great option here as well. Did someone you dislike do something kind for you? Did a stranger help your family out financially? Did your best friend come in from out of town when you had a bad injury to throw you a surprise party? Did a student who’s more popular than you invite you into their group at school?

Being disingenuous. Don’t exaggerate the effects of the surprising act of kindness you choose to write about. Similarly, you don’t want to write about an event that didn’t truly mean something to you and affect your life in a tangible way. Stick to writing about the truth of what happened in the situation and how you felt about it, and your response will be gold.


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

Going from childhood to adulthood doesn't usually happen after one accomplishment or event but is more of a process. This question is asking you to find one step along the process and explain how it fits into the long thread of your growing up.

You don't necessarily need to tell the story of some big, official ceremony. Instead, you can focus on a small moment that showed you that you were older, more mature, and more responsible than you had been before.

Did your family make up its own adulthood initiation ceremony? Were you finally able to beat your mom in chess or shooting hoops, and did that change how she treated you? Did your dad cry in front of you for the first time, making you realize that you were old enough to handle it? Were you suddenly left in charge of younger siblings, and did you rise to the task instead of panicking? Were you allowed to make a big financial decision for the first time and found yourself taking it very seriously?

For example, during my junior and senior year, my mom traveled extensively for work, and my dad lived several states away, so I lived by myself for weeks at a time. It was exhilarating and made me feel independent and mature. But it was also lonely and burdensome because I had to take care of everything in the house by myself. Living alone was a huge part of my life, shaped me into the person I was, and made me see myself in a new light as a grown-up.

Sameness. Avoid the milestones that happen to everyone: driver's license, bar/bat mitzvah, etc., unless they happened to you in some extraordinary way.


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 idea of this prompt is to discuss something you're passionate about. It's a great opportunity to showcase a skill and show off your writing skills because your passion should come across on the page. Pay special attention to the "What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?" aspect of this prompt; how you learn and from who can say a lot about you.

Hopefully, you should know the things that captivate you right off the bat. Try to think of the things that you turn to not just for fun but that de-stress you or give you the ability to learn.

More importantly, understand why this topic, idea, or concept is important to you. It should have a deeper meaning in your life and say something about who you are as a person.

Some other questions you can ask yourself to find a topic include the following: What unique hobbies or interests do you have? What challenges have you overcome in pursuing this topic, idea, or concept? What have you discovered about yourself in relation to this topic, idea, or concept?

Don't miss the overall meaning. Even if something is captivating to you, it's not necessarily captivating to others. Make sure you focus on what the topic, idea, or concept means to you and why that matters rather than getting lost in explaining it and how you feel about it.

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.

This is one of the most popular prompts from the Common App. Remember that even though this prompt is open-ended, you should discuss something meaningful that shows growth, reflection, or something unique about you.

A lot of students have unique experiences that have influenced them throughout their lives. Try to think of people or events that have changed your perspective in a big way.

However, the topic itself doesn't have to be about a big moment. Lots of things can be life-changing, and it's perfectly OK to write about something that happened in your daily life as long as it moved you and has affected you in a way that you can put on paper.

In this prompt, insight is key to a great essay. Reflect on the moments that defined your perspective or events from which you learned something. This prompt should be about something personal to you and can be about family, friends, or an experience.

Ask yourself if there's a time, event, or person that has stuck with you and what it or they meant to you. Once you have some ideas, ask yourself why. What does it say about you to have changed as a result of that experience, and how might others relate?

Being too general. Insight can be found in moments both big and small. But for this prompt, try to avoid going too big and going too small. You don't want to write about something mundane and have to stretch it to make it mean something. That said, it can be tough to boil down an experience that's really significant, like being an Olympic athlete, into a short essay. Personal and insightful are the key.

How to Turn Your Idea into an Essay

Now that you've come up with some possible ideas, how do you go about actually writing the essay? Before you write, you need to have a plan. I like to think about planning out personal essays that I've written by first imagining them as enjoyable movies. You want your reader to walk away entertained, to remember the characters and story, and to want to see more from the same creator. So how do good movies do those things?

Character arc. Good movies have main characters that undergo some kind of change or transformation. Who is the main character of your essay? It's you! The you of your essay has to start one way and end up another: more mature, with a different mindset, or having learned a lesson.

Conflict or transformation. Good movies also have challenges. The main character doesn't simply succeed and then keep on succeeding; that's boring. Instead, the main character either overcomes an external obstacle or changes in some way from beginning to end. Your essay also needs this kind of story drive. This can come from an obstacle you overcame, an outside force that stood in your way, a disability or weakness you experience, or a seemingly unsolvable problem you face. Or it could come from a before–after scenario: you used to be, think, or act in one way, but now you've changed into a different or better person.

Dramatic set piece. In good movies, the conflict or transformation isn't just told to the audience. They are acted out in scenes set in specific locations, with dialogue, character close-ups, and different camera angles. In your essay, your story also needs to show you dealing with the conflict or transformation you face in a small, zoomed-in, and descriptive scene. Think spoken dialogue, sensory description (i.e., what did you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch?), action verbs, and feelings. This scene should function as one illuminating example of what you overcame or how you changed.

Happy ending. Movies that are fun to watch tend to have happy endings. The hero resolves the conflict, emerges a better person, and looks forward to future accomplishments. Your essay also needs to have this kind of closure. This is really not the time to trot out your nihilism or cynicism. Instead, your essay should end on a moment of self-understanding and awareness. You lived through something or you did something, and it affected you in a way that you can verbalize and be insightful about.


Coming up: the story of you, starring you, written and directed by you.

Which Prompt Should You Choose?

So now that you've brainstormed some topic ideas and a game plan for turning those ideas into an essay, how do you narrow it down to the one ?

Reverse-Engineer the Perfect Prompt

If you used the first brainstorming approach, try to formulate a big-picture idea about the story you're telling.  

Is the character arc primarily you learning something about yourself or making peace with your background? Sounds like a good fit for prompt #1.

Is the conflict about you struggling to do something but eventually succeeding? That goes well with prompt #2.

Does the story focus on a mind being changed about an idea? You want to go with prompt #3.

Does your happy ending involve you changing something for the better, fixing something, or solving a problem? Then your essay is ready for prompt #4.

Is your character arc about growing up, gaining wisdom, or becoming more mature? Then you're probably answering prompt #5.

Look in Your Heart

If you used the second brainstorming approach, get ready to get a little cheesy. Really listen to what your gut feelings are telling you about which of your ideas is most compelling and which will get your emotions flowing on the page. Readers can tell when you're writing about something you care deeply about, so it's worth it to find the topic that has the most meaning to you.

Not sure how to tell? Then this is the time to ask your parents, teachers you are close to, or some good friends for their input. Which of your ideas grabs their attention the most? Which do they want to hear more about? Chances are that's the one that an admissions officer will also find the most memorable.

What's Next?

Want a detailed explanation of why colleges ask you to write essays? Check out our explanation of what application essays are for .

If you're in the middle of your essay writing process, you'll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid .

When you start working on the rest of your application, don't miss what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

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 them for free now:

Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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2023-2024 Common Application Essay Prompts: Examples & Templates

common app essay prompt examples

If you are looking for guidance on the Common Application, including Common App essay prompts and essay examples and templates as well as answers to the most common questions about the Common App, then you’ve come to the right place. 

This Application Prep guide is fully updated with the 2023-2024 Common App application and essay prompts .

Don’t forget to access our Common App essay template we created to help you write unique and memorable essays. Keep reading for breakdowns and examples for each essay prompt .

Before you dive in, it’s important to understand that all of the colleges that use the Common App each receive thousands of applications every year. To help you stand out from the crowd, you need to demonstrate a clear sense of self , strong life experience , and exemplary communication skills .

Our ‘full student’ coaching process does exactly that. If you’re not working with a coach, be sure to read the Self-Awareness , Goal-Setting , and Narrative Communication Skills Guides.

The Narrative Communication Approach™ is a particularly useful storytelling framework that helps you tell a clear and concise story, while creating an emotional connection with the reader. All Common App essay prompt examples use this approach.

In this guide, we’ll give you Common App essay prompt templates and examples that use this approach to help make your essay deeply personal and unique — which is exactly what the admissions counselors at all the colleges and universities you’re applying to look for.

If you’re serious about creating a standout Common App and getting into all the colleges on your list and reaching your fullest post-secondary potential, connect with a coach . It’s never too early to receive coaching.

Table of Contents

  • Common Application Overview : Application Requirements; Deadlines; Fees; Essays; Recommendations; and More.
  • 2023-2024 Common App : Personal essay prompts; Question breakdowns and tips; Question templates and examples; and More.
  • Common App FAQs : What is the Common App used for?; Why do I need to write a Common App?; What Common App Essay should I choose?; Do I need a recommendation?; and More. 

How to Write the Common App (Overview): What You Need To Know 

What is the common app.

Common App is a free application tool that’s designed to simplify the application process for first year and transfer students as they apply and get into college. Common App has more than 1,000 member colleges and universities around the world. 

With the Common App, you only need to complete one application to apply to up to 20 colleges and/or universities at once .

Common App Deadlines

The 2023-2024 Common App opens on August 1, 2023 . While there is no specific deadline for the Common App, you MUST submit it before the deadline of the college/university you’re applying to (and whether you are applying for early admission or regular admission). 

You can find each school’s app deadlines by going to the ‘Dashboard’ tab on your account and clicking the ‘Application Requirements’ button to see the date requirements for each of the colleges you’ve added to your My Colleges list.

COACH’S TIP : Common App recently announced that the 2023-2024 application is the same as the 2022-2023 application, including the Personal Essay prompts. We recommend that you get started as soon as possible, so you have plenty of time to make your app and essay perfect. If you’re eager to get started on the app before it opens on August 1, you can start it early (the 2023-2024 essay prompts are the same as the 2022-2023 prompts), and then simply transfer everything over to the new app when it opens.  

While the Common App is designed to help make the admissions process easier, it isn’t required when applying to college/university . There are other platforms available (such as the Coalition Application or the Universal Application) and most schools allow students to apply directly through their websites or unique application system. 

Common App Cost

The Common App is free. However, some schools have their own application fee , so be sure to do your research before applying. Almost half of Common App member schools don’t charge an app fee, and others offer a fee waiver for those who qualify. Check out the ‘Application Requirements’ button on your Dashboard to see the fees for each of the colleges you’ve added to your My Colleges list.

Common App Recommenders

The Common App also has its own recommenders platform for teachers, counselors, and other people you’ve asked to write a letter of recommendation. Applicants simply add the person and they get an invitation to complete the form. With Common App, you can ask your teacher, counselor, etc. to write one letter of recommendation , and send it to all the schools you’re applying to. Learn more in this Common App Recommender guide .

REMEMBER : Whether or not you need a recommendation letter depends on the individual school you’re applying to . The type of recommendation letter (e.g. counselor recommendation, teacher recommendation, other type of recommendation, etc.) also varies from school to school. Some schools require recommenders, others don’t, and for others it’s optional (you can check individual schools’ requirements on the ‘Dashboard’ tab on your account and click the ‘Application Requirements’ button). 

We know that the Common App can seem overwhelming at first, so we’ve put together a list of FAQs about the Common App below . 

Common App Components

When you use the Common App, you need to complete 2 main parts:

  • Common App Common Questions & Personal Essays : Basic background information such as family, education, testing, activities, and courses/grades (if applicable). There are also personal essays, which can be found in the Writing section of the Common App. You will see 7 essay prompts, and you must choose ONE to write an essay of maximum 650 words based on that. Here’s a list of the 2023-2024 personal essay prompts (keep reading for a full breakdown and essay examples for all the prompts). 
  • College-Specific Questions and/or Writing Supplements : Some colleges will have their own specific questions, usually a short answer or essay. Click here for each college’s writing requirements . Similarly, some colleges will have a writing supplement that is not completed in the Common App profile. ALWAYS research each college to determine if they have an additional writing requirement. 

Here are the 7 sections that make up the Common App Common Questions & Personal Essays section of your application (part #1 above): 

  • Profile : Personal information like your name, date of birth, address, contact details, demographics, language, nationality, etc. 
  • Family : Parent information, sibling information, etc.
  • Education : Current high school, past schools, colleges/universities, grades, current/recent courses, future plans, etc.
  • Testing : Standardized test scores, international applicant testing, etc. For more information on this section, check out this page .
  • Activities : Discussing relevant (up to 10) extracurriculars, like arts, clubs, community engagement, hobbies, work/volunteering etc. (keep reading for a template and example for the Common App Activities List ).
  • (a) Personal Essay , answering ONE of the 7 prompts (keep reading for breakdowns, templates, and examples for each); 
  • (b) Additional Information, where you discuss any impacts of community disruptions and how it has impacted you.
  • Courses and Grades : List courses and the grades you received for each. Note that not all colleges require this list (you can check if it is required in the My Colleges tab of the app).

REMEMBER : As mentioned above, each college/university has their own requirements in addition to the Common App (usually an extra set of questions or an additional application or a writing supplemental). Make sure you do your research and complete all components of the application for each school you’re applying to. Keep track of all the requirements for each college/university you’re applying to here .

We know that this process can seem really overwhelming and stressful. Just remember — you don’t have to go through this alone! Our Youth Coaches™ have helped hundreds of students complete and submit the Common App and get into their top choice schools. Connect with a coach now for support.

Ace your Common App & Personal Essay.

Common App Expert and Youth Coach™

common app essay prompt examples

2023-2024 Common Application Essay Prompts & Examples

In this section, we’ll go through all the Common App Essays prompts and provide breakdowns, templates, and examples for each question. 

REMEMBER : You only need to write ONE ESSAY that’s 650 words (and no less than 250 words). The essay prompts for the 2023-2024 Common App can be found here .

Common App Essay Prompts – Overview 

Here are the instructions for all of the 2023-2024 Common App essay prompts:

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. 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 and 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.) 

The Common App Personal Essays allow app reviewers to get to know you on a deeper, more personal level beyond your courses, grades and test scores.

Your essay is your one chance to make a personal connection with the reviewers and showcase your interests, skills, experiences, and plans for the future. 

Put simply, the Personal Essay allows you to show what makes you, you . It’s arguably the most important part of your application. 

A unique and memorable essay can help your application stand out. It should also be specific enough that it paints an accurate picture of who you are , while also appealing to all the schools you’re applying to (even if you’re applying for different programs or specializations). 

A great way to show exactly who you are while connecting with a bunch of different audiences is through storytelling . This will help you write a memorable essay about all sorts of topics, while creating an emotional connection through character development , deep personal insights , and learning outcomes . 

We recommend using our Narrative Communication Approach. This effective structure uses storytelling to connect emotionally with the reader and effectively communicate your interests, skills, goals, and experiences. Learn more about it our Narrative Communication™ blog here .  

We know that this essay can seem really overwhelming at first. But remember — you aren’t alone! Youthfully Coaches have helped hundreds of students ace their Common App and achieve more than they ever thought possible. Connect with a coach now for support with your application and Personal Essay.

Common App Essays Prompts and Examples: 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. 

Common App Essays Prompts – Breakdown: Prompt 1 

This question asks you to talk about that one thing that makes you unique . 

The question is intentionally left open-ended so you can choose any aspect of your life that makes you completely different from anyone else. It can be anything from a hobby, academic interest, personal passion, or favorite pastime, to a formative experience or event in your life or an extracurricular activity you’ve been doing for years. 

When choosing what to discuss, take time to think about something that is so meaningful that it’s inseparable from who you are as a person. Maybe you have been playing tennis since you were 5 years old and you’re now a pro, or you immigrated to the US and were so inspired by your parents’ successful small business that you started your own. Or maybe you went on a trip when you were younger and this ignited your love of studying other cultures and languages. Focus on that defining thing that makes you who you are.

Once you’ve decided what you want to discuss, communicate how this background, identity, interest, or talent has fundamentally influenced you and changed you as a person. Highlight your personality using this topic, and focus on showcasing what’s important to you , as well as your interests, skills, and goals wherever possible.

Use storytelling to discuss the evolution of this meaningful thing, like how it started, how it has changed over time, what it has meant in your life etc., while giving enough detail that the reader can go on the journey with you and connect with you emotionally (check out the template below and learn how to create the perfect story using this 5-step process ). 

The key is to make the app reviewer feel what you feel so they can understand the significance of the background, identity, interest, or talent you’re talking about. The goal is to make them care about it just as much as you do . 

No matter what meaningful aspect of your life you choose, the point is that you show the admissions committee that you have self-awareness and can identify your interest, skills, and strengths. They want to see that you have gone on a journey of personal growth that has led you to where you are today (and that it will help you as you continue on to post-secondary studies). If you’ve completed our Student Identity Blueprint , you already know how your experiences, interests, talents, background and identity makes you unique, so this will help you out a lot for this essay prompt. If you haven’t completed your Blueprint, connect with a coach to get started.

Common App Essays Prompts – Template: Prompt 1 

As mentioned above, all the templates and examples in this App Prep Guide follow our Narrative Communication Approach™. This structure uses storytelling to create an emotional connection with the reader, while showcasing character development, deep learning outcomes, and personal insight. The result? Truly unique, authentic, and memorable essays. Check out our Narrative Communication Approach Guide to learn more.

Your essay should have these 5 components to help make it unique and memorable:

  • State the background, identity, interest, or talent that is an inseparable part of who you are.  
  • State the background, identity, interest, or talent that is an inseparable part of who you are. Provide some details about where it began and what you felt when it did. Was there a specific event or sudden realization that occurred? An evolution over time? 
  • Discuss how you developed your background, identity, interest, or talent over time, as well as how it became an inseparable part of who you are. Talk about what you would be if this one thing didn’t exist and talk about how it set you on the path to self-discovery. 
  • Discuss how it has impacted your life, drawing on experiences wherever possible. Provide examples of how you’ve put your background, identity, interest, or talent into practice in your daily life and how it has evolved or changed over time. 
  • Discuss what you’ve learned about yourself because of this background, identity, interest, or talent. Try to make your learning outcomes as unique as possible. Then, briefly state how this background, identity, interest, or talent will impact your goals and aspirations going forward.

If you need support finding a topic and writing an essay for this 2023-2024 Common App essay prompt, connect with a coach for support .

Common App Essay Example: Prompt 1 

Here’s a Common App essay prompt example for this question. 

REMEMBER : This is an EXAMPLE ONLY and is NOT meant for you to copy. Why? First and foremost, this is plagiarism and is a serious offense . Plagiarizing these essays will result in immediate disqualification from the admissions process . This can be easily detected using technology and application reviewers are usually trained and/or able to spot when an application isn’t original and does not align with an applicant’s background, personality, values, etc.

common application essay examples prompts

Common App Essays Prompts and Examples: 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? 

Common App Essays Prompts – Breakdown: Prompt 2 

You can tell a lot about a person by the way they handle themselves during difficult situations and when something doesn’t go as planned. 

The obstacle you talk about in this essay can be a specific event from your personal or academic life, or it can be more broad, like a challenge you continually face , like a fear of public speaking, or a sudden realization , like figuring out you didn’t want to follow the plans your parents had for your future. 

The app reviewers don’t care so much about the exact obstacle that happened. What’s really important is how you react, how you face adversity , and how you use your problem solving skills to find a solution. They want to know what this obstacle or challenge taught you, how you used this as an opportunity for personal growth and learning , and how this ultimately made you a better person and student. 

When writing your story, make sure you describe your emotions as much as you can. You want the app reviewers to go on this journey with you and understand how you felt when this obstacle or challenge happened, and then how you felt when you overcame it and used it as an opportunity for growth . Write your story in a way that the reader walks in your shoes. 

Finally, reflect on why this obstacle was so influential in your life and how these lessons have made you better. Did it make you discover something about yourself that you didn’t know? Did it ignite an interest that set you on a new path? Did you develop key real-world skills when trying to solve it? Then, wrap up by discussing how you will use the lessons from this challenge as you set and achieve your goals in the future.

If you aren’t sure which challenge, setback, or failure to talk about in your essay, connect with a coach anytime for support.

Common App Essays Prompts – Template: Prompt 2

Your essay should have these 5 components to help make your story unique and memorable:

  • Capture the reader’s attention and give a preview of what’s to come.
  • Provide some background about yourself and discuss who you were and what you believed in before this obstacle occurred. State what the obstacle (challenge, setback, or failure) was. Paint the picture of the situation you were in, focusing on the emotions you felt when this obstacle occurred as well as your initial reaction. 
  • Talk about the turning point, addressing how you faced the obstacle and what you did to resolve it. Discuss any trial and error moments that occured. Go through your journey to solve this problem.
  • Outline how this obstacle turned out in the end (either positive or negative). If possible, talk about quantifiable outcomes, such as hours worked/volunteered, money raised, people impacted, etc.
  • Discuss what you learned because of this obstacle. Why was this lesson important? How did it change you as a person? Finally, briefly talk about how you will use this lesson going forward and how it has already (and will contribute) to your success (personally, professionally, and academically). 

Common App Essay Example: Prompt 2

REMEMBER : This is an EXAMPLE ONLY and is NOT meant for you to copy.

common application essay examples prompts

Common App Essays Prompts and Examples: Prompt 3

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

Common App Essays Prompts – Breakdown: Prompt 3 

This essay prompt is definitely one of the harder ones out of the 7.

The app reviewers want to see that you can think critically and use logic and the evidence you have to form opinions for yourself (rather than being influenced and coerced by others). 

They also want to see that you’re willing to adapt and change your views as you learn more about yourself and experience the world. 

The belief or idea that you discuss doesn’t have to be extremely complex, like the meaning of life. It can be something as simple as you believing that it’s too risky to try something outside of your comfort zone or that you have to follow in the same footsteps as your parents. The important thing is that this belief or idea is something that you believed was true for a long time, until something happened that changed your outlook and allowed you to evolve as a person. If you’re having trouble coming up with a belief or idea to discuss, have a look at the Values section of your Student Identity Blueprint ™ (if you haven’t filled out your Blueprint yet, click here to get started ).

COACH’S TIP : While topics like religion, politics, race, and other social issues are popular topics of discussion, avoid talking about these topics in your essay. Everyone has strong beliefs about these topics, and the last thing you want to do is offend anyone or start an argument. Choose topics that are more unique to your life , experiences, skills, and interests, and NOT broad, touchy subjects . 

Also, while you want to effectively communicate your belief/idea before and after you challenged or questioned it, you don’t want to come across as too preachy or difficult. Everyone has their own beliefs, and if you seem completely unaccepting of others’ views, then this will actually hurt your chances of getting into the schools you’re applying to. 

Instead, focus on what the experience taught you and how you evolved as a person . Create a story that emphasizes the emotions you felt when this event happened, and how you invited the opportunity for growth and change . 

The most important aspect of this essay is talking about what you learned because you were willing to go beyond what you believe or what you were taught, and how accepting new perspectives actually made you a stronger person both now and in the future.

Common App Essays Prompts – Template: Prompt 3

  • State the belief or idea you challenged or questioned. Where did this belief come from? Why did you believe it to be true? Be as specific as possible, painting the ‘before’ picture (i.e. before the event that made you question it occurred). 
  • Discuss what made you question or challenge this belief. This can be a specific event, discussion you had with someone, a gradual change over time, etc. Explain why this caused so much doubt to happen, and what your initial reaction to this doubt was (explaining the emotion you felt wherever possible).  
  • Talk about your changing views on this belief or idea after the event you discussed in the Catalyst section (this is the ‘after’ picture you discussed in the Context section). If your old belief/idea was replaced with a new belief/idea, briefly explain what the new one is here. 
  • Talk about what you learned by challenging this belief/opinion and how it changed your outlook going forward. Provide some learning outcomes about how it impacted you personally, academically, and/or professionally.

If you need support finding a topic and writing an essay for this 2023-2024 Common App prompt, connect with a coach for support .

Common App Essay Example: Prompt 3

common application essay examples prompts

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Common App Essays Prompts and Examples: Prompt 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?

Common App Essays Prompts – Breakdown: Prompt 4 

This question is a bit newer than the others, first appearing in the 2021-2022 Common App. 

The theme of this prompt is gratitude — for being inspired, being put outside your comfort zone, learning something new, and getting excited about your future. 

The focus of this essay isn’t gushing about how amazing the person who did something for you is, and how nice they are for doing it. Just explain who the person is and what the act of kindness was.

Instead, the app reviews want a personal story that communicates how this act of kindness initiated personal growth and self-discovery , as well as how and why it was so unexpected. Spend time thinking outside of the box and make the act as unique as possible. Go beyond saying someone was your mentor or helped you with a school project, and use an act of kindness that had a long-lasting impact . 

A key phrase in this prompt that students often overlook is “in a surprising way” . While the experience doesn’t have to be huge, what’s important is the impact it had on you (as well as the emotions you felt as it was happening).  

This can be something you learned that made you change your outlook on life, ignited your passion for something, or set you on the path you’re on now. This act of kindness should have a long lasting effect on your life and fundamentally change you in some way. 

COACH’S TIP : Your topic also doesn’t have to be positive — someone could have done something that seemed negative at the time, but actually turned out for the better in the end (keep reading to see the example). This would be a great way to bring in the ‘surprise’ element of this question.

Finally, when talking about how this act of kindness affected you, try to draw out personal details about yourself as much as possible. 

Here’s an example: A mentor got you a summer internship at your local hospital and this surprised you because you realized that medicine wasn’t for you, even though it’s what your parents expected when they immigrated from China. Then, you decided to pursue your passion for business and start your own non-profit organization so that you could support cancer research because you lost your grandfather to this disease. You were so grateful that this happened because you got to go outside of your comfort zone and combine your love of business and philanthropy. At the same time, you can see all the personal details here — it tells who the you are (from China, in a family of doctors) and your interests (philanthropy), as well as some explanation of your experiences (internships, starting a non-profit) and your skills (leadership, organization, time management). 

Common App Essays Prompts – Template: Prompt 4 

  • Give some background about you, like who were before this act of kindness occurred. Imagine this as the ‘before’ scenario. 
  • Briefly discuss the thing that someone did for you (and who did the action), answering the 5Ws (who, what, when, where, why). 
  • Describe what happened as a result of this act of kindness. Tap into your emotions as much as possible (maybe you were surprised, hesitant, etc. when it happened). 
  • Answer where you’d be if this event hadn’t occurred, and then discuss why you’re so grateful that it did. Talk about the impact of this event, emphasizing why it was so significant in your life, like that you learned about yourself or how it inspired you to explore a new interest. Finally, explain how you will use these lessons going forward (especially in your post-secondary studies).  

Common App Essay Example: Prompt 4

common application essay examples prompts

Common App Essays Prompts and Examples: Prompt 5

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

Common App Essays Prompts – Breakdown: Prompt 5 

In the other sections of your Common App, you’ve already given the app reviewers a pretty clear picture of what you’ve done, like your grades, courses, extracurriculars, other experiences, etc. 

This question is your chance to talk about how this accomplishment, event, or realization has influenced you and made you the person you are today. Remember that these formative events aren’t always obvious — you might not have even realized it was happening! 

When thinking about what accomplishment, event, or realization you want to talk about, think about who you are now, asking questions like:

  • What’s important to me and why?
  • What do I genuinely enjoy doing?
  • What am I good at? What could I improve on? 
  • Who is most important in my life? 
  • What am I proud of? 
  • Have I changed over the last few years? If so, how?

Once you’ve answered these questions, think about that specific thing which initiated it and where it all began. This is the accomplishment, event, or realization that you should focus on in your essay.

COACH’S TIP : According to Common App, this is the second most popular essay prompt that 23.7% of students answered for the 2021-2022 Common App. To make sure your essay stands out from the crowd, choose a topic that is unique and isn’t overdone, like the death of a family member, a trip somewhere, or an injury. Think outside the box and come up with an accomplishment, event, or realization that’s unexpected. If you are discussing something a bit more common, try to make your learning outcomes as unique as possible.

Once you’ve narrowed down your topic, focus the majority of the essay on 2-3 learning outcomes that allowed you to grow personally, academically, and professionally. 

These learning outcomes should be centered around a common theme, while focusing inward on you as a person along with the growth of your interests, skills, goals, and more. Next, turn the focus outward and talk about how this growth has changed how you interact with others and view the world around you. Emphasize how this has changed how you view and interact with the world and how it has impacted your life for the better.

Common App Essays Prompts – Template: Prompt 5

Your essay should have these 5 components :

  • Provide some background info about you, like who were before this accomplishment, event, or realization occurred, and exactly where you were in life. Imagine this as the ‘before’ scenario.
  • Introduce the accomplishment, event, or realization that occurred and give some details about what happened. Explain what it was about this experience that made it such a good opportunity for growth and learning.
  • Discuss what kind of growth and/or change this accomplishment, event, or realization initiated, and who you became during and after it happened (this is the ‘after’ picture you introduced in the Context section). Emphasize your emotions as much as possible as you discuss your growth and change (e.g. were you afraid? Hesitant? Excited? Inspired?) 
  • Provide some details about what you learned about yourself and others because of this accomplishment, event, or realization. Focus on 1-2 deep learning outcomes that go beyond the surface level, and emphasize how you will apply what you learned both now and in the future. 

Common App Essay Example: Prompt 5

common application essay examples prompts

Common App Essays Prompts and Examples: Prompt 6

Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Common App Essays Prompts – Breakdown: Prompt 6 

This essay prompt asks you to take any topic (simple or complex) and explain why it fascinates you. 

The possibilities for the subject of the essay are endless — it can be anything from a hobby you’re obsessed with, like surfing to fixing up old cars, to a theory you learned in science class, like evolution, or a question you always think about, like whether there’s life on other planets.

Don’t be afraid to get creative with this question. You can take a seemingly simple topic and use your creativity to make it unique and interesting . 

The point of this question is to show the reviewers who you are, what your thought processes are, what you’re interested in, what you enjoy doing, and more. The important thing isn’t so much as what you are so engaged with, but why it’s so engaging.

To communicate why this topic, concept, or idea is so engaging to you, you should use storytelling to paint a clear picture of where this interest started, how it evolved, and how it has impacted your life so much. Be as descriptive as possible when you explain the topic, concept, or idea. Imagine that you’re trying to explain this topic to a friend or family member and you want to get them as excited about it as you are by using detail and emotion . 

The final part of this essay is showing how you have evolved your exploration of this topic, concept, or idea over time. You want to show that you are open to continual learning as well as new perspectives and ideas. Emphasize how your interest in this topic has changed over time and how that has fuelled your interest in it even more.

Common App Essays Prompts – Template: Prompt 6 

  • Introduce your topic, idea, or concept, giving some helpful background information so the reviewers understand exactly what you’re talking about (What is it?; When did it start?; What’s so special about it?, Etc.). Discuss when you first became interested in this topic, idea, or concept, and what was so special about it that captivated all your time and energy. 
  • Discuss a turning point when the topic, concept, or idea began to change your life, and how this set you on a journey of self-discovery. 
  • Explain how your interest in this topic, idea, or concept has grown over time and how it influences you in your daily life. Talk about how you continue to explore this topic in your life and your interactions with others. 
  • Discuss what your exploration of this topic, concept, or idea has taught you and how it has changed you as a person. Think about who you’d be if you hadn’t become engaged in it, and how it has impacted your personal and academic life. Wrap up the essay but stating how you will continue to explore and engage with this topic, concept, or idea in the future.

Common App Essay Example: Prompt 6

common application essay examples prompts

Common App Essays Prompts and Examples: 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. 

Common App Essays Prompts – Breakdown: Prompt 7 

This is the most popular Common App essay prompt, with 24.1% of students choosing it on the 2021-2022 Common App. 

This question is probably the most popular because it allows you to use an essay you’ve already written — meaning you have to do less work. Don’t be fooled though, the app reviewers know this , so they’ll likely evaluate the essay a bit harder.  

We highly recommend that you stick with one of the other prompts if you can. 

Why? The Common App essay prompts are designed to allow you to show your personality, identity, interests, skills, and goals through storytelling. They give the app reviewers the chance to understand what makes you unique as well the lessons and experiences you’ve had so far.

Each prompt targets a different aspect of your life and personality. 

The takeaway is that the essay you already have prepared probably wasn’t written with the same goals as the Common App essays ask of students. You might have written it for a class or in your spare time, and while it might show glimpses of who you are, it’s possible that it completely misses the mark. If this is the case, the app reviewers won’t understand you fully and get a clear picture of you beyond your grades and extracurriculars, and this could hurt your chances of acceptance. 

If you do have an essay you are thinking about using for this section, we recommend that you connect with a coach to make sure it has all the components that the app reviewers are looking for. 

Get into the college of your dreams.

common app essay prompt examples

Common App FAQs

You asked, and we answered! 

Here are the most frequently asked questions about the Common App . 

  • What is Common App used for?

Common App is a free application tool that’s designed to simplify the application process for first year and transfer students as they apply and get into college.

With the Common App, you only need to complete one application for multiple colleges and universities (Common App has more than 1,000 member colleges/universities around the world).

When you create your account, you can complete your application, keep track of college-specific requirements, fees, deadlines, etc. as well as sending requests for recommenders and financial aid. 

The Common App makes the process much easier by having everything you need for your applications, all in one place .   

Who uses Common App?

The Common App is used by first-year students (both domestic and international) as well as transfer students (and their recommenders ) to apply to over 1,000 member colleges and universities around the world.  

How does the Common App work?

Applicants create a Common App account and then fill out one application that can be sent to up to 20 colleges and/or universities . 

Each application includes 7 sections : Profile, Family, Education, Testing, Writing (Personal Essay and Additional Information), and Courses and Grades ( see the section above for a full breakdown of each ). 

Once you submit the Common App (and any other college-specific requirements like writing supplements or recommendations), each college/university assesses the application individually and makes their admission decision. 

When do I apply for Common App? 

The 2023-2024 Common App opens on August 1, 2023 . 

You must submit the Common Application before the deadline of the college/university you’re applying to (and whether you are applying for early admission or regular admission). 

You can search for each school’s app deadlines by going to the ‘Dashboard’ tab on your account and clicking the ‘Application Requirements’ button to see the requirements for each of the colleges you’ve added to your My Colleges list.

Is the Common App required when applying to college?

The Common App is designed to help make the admissions process easier, but it isn’t required when applying to college and/or university . 

There are other platforms available (such as the Coalition Application or the Universal Application) and most schools allow students to apply directly through their websites or unique application system. 

Check the requirements of the specific program you’re applying to and make sure you have all the application requirements covered.

Is the Common App worth it?

You might be wondering exactly why colleges and universities ask prospective students to complete the Common App. Trust us, it’s definitely worth the time .

Why? Apart from making the process easier by requiring one application for all the schools you’re applying to (plus any additional requirements or writing supplements), the Common App allows app reviewers to get to know you on a deeper, more personal level beyond your courses, grades and test scores. 

If you spend the time writing a unique and memorable Common App, you can make your application more competitive and increase your chances of getting into your top choice college/university — and your future is definitely worth the extra effort !

How long do Common Apps take?

While there’s no exact amount of time to complete the Common App, you should give yourself about 4 weeks for the whole process (brainstorm, write, proofread, final review, and submit). 

This is definitely an application you do not want to rush! Take your time and we promise it will pay off.

How many schools can you apply to on Common App? 

Common App allows students to add up to 20 colleges from one account.  

Do all colleges use and accept the Common Application? 

College App has over 1,000 partner colleges and universities around the world, including 60+ international universities and 250+ public colleges and universities. 

Not all colleges accept the Common Application. Around 600+ out of 2,400 colleges in the United States use Common App.

How much is the Common App?

Common App is free. However, each school has its own application fee , so be sure to do your research before applying. 

Almost half of Common App member schools don’t charge an app fee , and others offer a fee waiver for those who qualify. 

You can find each school’s application fee by going to the ‘Dashboard’ tab on your account and clicking the ‘Application Requirements’ button to see the requirements for each of the colleges you’ve added to your My Colleges list.

Do I need a recommendation for all schools or just some?

Whether or not you need a recommendation letter depends on the individual school you’re applying to . The type of recommendation letter (e.g. counselor recommendation, teacher recommendation, other type of recommendation, etc.) also varies from school to school.

Some schools require a recommender, others don’t, and for others it’s optional. 

You can ask your teacher, counselor, etc. to write one letter of recommendation , and you can send this same letter to all the schools you’re applying to. 

Make sure you check each school’s requirements (go to the ‘Dashboard’ tab on your account and click the ‘Application Requirements’ button to see the requirements for each of the colleges you’ve added to your My Colleges list).

How do I send a Common App recommendation?

Once you’ve created your Common App account, you can add recommenders to your application by clicking on the ‘My Colleges’ tab and then clicking on the name of the college on the left side of the page. There, you’ll see “Recommenders and FERPA” in the dropdown menu. 

Then, sign the release form and click the “Invite Recommenders” button. Common App will email your recommender with instructions on how to complete their letter for you. 

Invite a recommender for every school you want to send a letter to. The recommender’s letter will be sent directly to the school.

How do I submit the Common App? 

Here’s a breakdown of how to complete your Common App, so you can make sure you don’t miss anything. If you have any questions about this process, connect with a coach anytime for support.

Step 1 : Create a Common App Account by clicking here . Then, select what type of applicant you are (first year, transfer, education professional, or parent) and insert your email, create a password, and then fill out the information it asks (name, birthday, etc.).

Step 2 : Once you log in, click on the ‘College Search’ tab at the top of the page and type in each college you plan on applying to. Click the + (add) button for each one. These will appear in the ‘My Colleges’ tab at the top of the page when you’re done. Explore colleges here .

At the top right corner of the ‘College Search’ page, you will see a button for ‘Application Requirements’. Here, you can type in each college you want to apply to, and then get a quick snapshot of the specific deadlines, fees, Common App requirements (like if you need a Personal Essay), standardized tests, etc. If you want a more detailed breakdown for each college, go to ‘My Colleges’ and click on the specific college you’re looking for. 

Step 3 : When you’ve completed your college list, click on the ‘Common App’ tab and complete all this information (keep reading for a detailed breakdown of each section of the app). 

Step 4 : Complete the Common App question, including the Personal Essay from the list of Common App essay prompts. 

Step 5 : Check and see whether the colleges you’re applying to have any other writing requirements or supplements. If they do, make sure to complete those as well.

Step 6 : Review your entire application.

Step 7 : Pay the fee (if applicable) and submit the application.

REMEMBER : The above steps are for first year applicants . If you’re a transfer student, learn more about the application and how to submit it here . If you’re an international student, learn how to complete and submit your application here .

How many Common App essays are required for 2023-2024?

You must write an essay on ONE out of the 7 Common App essay prompts.  

Before getting started on your essay, check out the essay prompts, breakdowns, templates, and examples we provided earlier on in this guide to learn how to write a memorable and unique essay.

What Common App essay should I choose?

A lot of students ask our Youth Coaches which Common App essay they should write . 

With 7 prompts, it can be super tough to choose, especially when there is more than one you know you could write a really strong essay for. 

As a first step, we always tell our students to read through all the questions at once. Is there a question that sticks out to you right away? If not, go through each and make some quick bullet points under each one.

When thinking about what prompt to choose, ask yourself these questions: 

  • What aspects of my personality do I want to highlight in my application?
  • What are the top 3 things I want to showcase about myself in this application? Which prompt can help me do that?
  • What is the thing that makes me most unique? Which prompt will give me the chance to talk about this more and differentiate myself from other applicants?
  • Will this question paint a clear picture of who I am, and my experiences, skills, values, and goals? 
  • Do I have a specific experience, interest, belief, hobby, etc. that fits in perfectly with one of the prompts? 
  • Have I learned something about myself recently that has changed my outlook on life? Which prompt will allow me to talk about this more?
  • Is there something about myself that I feel I haven’t discussed enough in the other parts of my application? Which prompt will help me highlight that specific thing in my Personal Essay?

If you need help deciding which prompt to choose, remember that our Youth Coaches are always here to help !

Which Common App prompt is most popular?

According to Common App, 68.9% of students pick 1 of 3 Common App essay prompts . 

The most popular is Prompt #7 (“Share an essay on any topic of your choice…”), with 24.1% of students choosing it on the 2021-2022 Common App. 

Followed up Prompt #5 (“Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself and others”) with 23.7% . In third is 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?) with 21.1% of applicants picking it. 

common application essay examples prompts

Prompt #7 is probably the most popular because it allows you to use an essay you’ve already written — meaning you have to do less work. Don’t be fooled though, the app reviewers know this , so they’ll probably evaluate the essay a bit harder.  

But remember, just because these three prompts are the most popular DOESN’T mean you have to choose one of them. 

In fact, if you can create a well written, unique, and compelling essay on one of the other 3 essay prompts , it might actually help your chances of standing out from almost 70% of applicants (and increase your chances of admission success ). Sometimes it pays to go against the crowd. 🙂

How long is the Common App essay?

The Common App essay has a limit of 650 words , and must be at least 250 words . 

This isn’t very much space, so you should focus on being as clear and concise as possible and cut out repetitive or necessary sentences during the editing process. Check out our templates and examples above to help you write a memorable and unique essay.

Do Common App prompts change?

The Common App essay prompts are very similar year to year , except for a couple changes here and there. 

For example, in the 2021-2022 Common App, there was only one prompt that changed from the 2020-2021 Common App (Prompt #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?”). 

The 2023-2024 Common App essay prompts are the same as the 2021-2022 application.

How to complete the Common App activities section?

The Activities section of the Common App allows you to tell the app reviewers more about you beyond your courses and grades . 

Here, you can discuss any activities you participate in outside of the classroom, like clubs, community involvement, hobbies, sports, work, volunteering, hobbies, and more. 

These will all help give a better sense about what’s important to you , what you’re interested in , and how you’re building important skills like communication, teamwork, leadership, problem solving, etc.

You can include up to 10 activities in this section. 

To complete the Common App activities section, go to the ‘Common App’ tab on your Dashboard, and click the ‘Activities’ section on the left side.

The form will ask: “Do you have any activities that you wish to report?”. Answer ‘Yes’.

You will be asked for the following information for each activity :

  • Activity Type: Academic, Art, Career Oriented, etc. Choose the one that is most applicable to the specific activity.
  • Position Description : List your role and responsibilities (max 50 characters)
  • Organization Name (max 100 characters)
  • Activity Description: Focus on quantifiable accomplishments, like awards you received, money earned, people you managed, hours worked, etc. (max 150 characters)
  • Participation Grade Levels : From grades 9-12 or after you graduated high school 
  • Timing of Participation : When you took part in this activity (during the school year, during break, or all year).
  • Hours spent per week
  • Weeks spent per year  
  • Whether you intend to continue this activity in college  

Access our template.

Here’s an example of what this section might look like:

common application essay examples prompts

You’ve Got a Dedicated Coach in Your Corner

For over a decade, we have worked with thousands of students to help them achieve more than they ever thought possible. 

Our coaches have a strong success rate supporting students as they complete the Common App and get into their top universities and colleges. 

Our 1-on-1 Youth Coaching fills that gap that most high schools miss. We can help you build self-awareness through probing questions and assessments, set bigger goals to elevate your extracurriculars and future career plans, and improve skills that matter on supplementary applications, such as interviewing, written communication, critical thinking, and creativity. 

We use a coaching methodology, called ‘full student’ development, that’s been proven to increase your chances of admission to top-tier universities and obtaining competitive jobs/internships. 

So, what are you waiting for? Fulfill your post-secondary potential with the mentorship and coaching you’ve always wanted!

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Common App - Overview

  • What is Common App?
  • Recommenders
  • App Components

Essay Prompts & Examples

  • Prompt 1 - Unique Identity
  • Prompt 2 - Conflict & Setbacks
  • Prompt 3 - Challenge a Belief
  • Prompt 4 - Act of Kindness
  • Prompt 5 - Personal Growth
  • Prompt 6 - Captivating Topic
  • Prompt 7 - Other Essay
  • Who uses it?
  • How does it work?
  • When do I apply?
  • Is it required when applying to college?
  • Is it worth it?
  • How long does it take?
  • How many schools can I apply for?
  • Do all colleges use and accept it?
  • How much is it?
  • Do I need recommendations?
  • How do I send recommendations?
  • How do I submit it?
  • How many essays do I have to write?
  • Which essay prompt do I choose?
  • Which prompt is most popular?
  • How long is the essay?
  • Do prompts change?
  • How to complete the Activities section?

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common app essay prompt examples

How to Write Common App Essay Prompt 5

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Hale Jaeger in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.

What’s Covered:

What is prompt 5, prompt 5 tips, tricks, and ideas, prompt 5 example and analysis, how to perfect your prompt 5 essay.

The fifth prompt option for the Common App essay is as follows:

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

Prompt five asks you to delve into a time in your life where you experienced a period of personal growth and gained a new understanding of yourself or others. This prompt is expansive, in the sense that you can choose any accomplishment event, realization, time in your life.

An idea for this prompt is to discuss a formal event, such as a religious ritual as a form of confirmation that reflects your personal growth or something social, like a social rite of passage. Specific aspects of said ritual and how they contributed to your personal growth are especially important. For example, this could be about the meaning of becoming an Eagle scout or the accomplishment of being elected to senior leadership for an organization. In the case of religious topics, make sure not to get too carried away with the details and focus on the nature of your personal growth.

Making the Prompt Personal

Make sure you’re remembering your audience . Alternatively, a more relaxed way to address this prompt is using an informal event or realization, which could allow you to show more personality and creativity. An example of this could be learning how to bake with your mother, which sparked a newfound connection with your mom. 

Another example could be having a long discussion about life or philosophy with your dad, one that could also suffice in sparking more thoughts about your own identity. You could write about a realization that caused you to join a new organization or quit an activity you didn’t think you’d enjoy because doing so would force you to grow out of your comfort zone to try new things.

Brainstorming and Planning

The key to answering this prompt is clearly defining what it is that sparked your growth, and then describing this spark in detail, going into the nature of this growth and how it relates to your perception of yourself and others around you. You have to answer or reference this prompt in all parts of the essay, and this is crucial because you have to dedicate sufficient time to the new perception of yourself and others in order to not undersell the description of how you grew and changed.

It can’t be as simple as “I grew” – this just doesn’t really work. You have to be specific and in depth. You can grow in complex ways, but your essay can also be open-ended to hint at the idea that you’re still growing and changing. It can be an ever changing process of growing your identity.

Here’s an excerpt that will give you an idea of well-written essay for this prompt:

I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, DC, but, unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother as a 14 year old from a single mom household without a driver’s license and seven hours from home.

I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home. So I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead.

As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover.

I now take ownership over small decisions, such as scheduling daily appointments, managing my time and also major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence.

You can see that this person really invited the reader into their life to understand the experience and then showed how it catalyzed change in them. Instead of just skipping to the final paragraph and discussing their personal growth, the writer shows how they got to that point in their life. In detail, they describe the different ways they took on more responsibility in their family, and this helps bridge the gap between their experience and the lessons they took away from it.

Want to know if your response to Common App’s prompt 5 is strong enough for your top-choice schools? Check out this Peer Essay Review tool , where you’ll get a free, anonymous, and secure review of your essay from another student. You can also work on improving your own writing skills, and earn CollegeVine Karma by reviewing other users’ essays!

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