How to Approach the Common App Essay Prompts and Write a Great Response

Our best advice for choosing your Common App essay prompt and writing a spectacular essay (2020-2021).

The Common App is as close as college admissions get to one-stop shopping — almost 1000 schools use it.

What’s the gist? The Common App asks for a personal essay. It gives you seven possible prompts — you choose just one. And it’s got a diabolically short word limit of 650 words.

How do I do well on this? Successful essays cover the one or two experiences you’ve had that best show how you’ll succeed in college and beyond. That’s no easy task. But you can give yourself a leg up.

Once you’ve looked over the prompts below, check out our free resources, including:

For personalized help with your Common App essay, try us at Prompt. We’re here to help you succeed, whether you still need to get started, or are looking for feedback on what you’ve written so far.

Common App Prompts 2020-2021

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  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 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.

You choose just one of the seven prompts.

The essay has a word limit of 650 words.

Which Common App prompts are the most popular?

This graph illustrates the choices made by over 1,500 Promptclients. According to our data, two essays are by far the most popular — the “Background” essay (#1) and the “Accomplishment” essay (#5), with roughly 30% of our clients choosing each.

Interestingly, the most popular choice according to the Common App’s own data is different. It’s the “choose your own topic” prompt (#7), which is only the fourth-most popular among our students. But, except for that, the Common App reports the same sequence as we do, with the “Accomplishment” essay (#5) also in second position, and the “Obstacle” essay (#2) also in third.

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