Admissions Essays Applying to College

Help Looking at the Common Application college Essay Prompts

Written by CB Experts

All college essays are personal essays. Of course, colleges want you to write an essay so they can assess your writing ability. However, there is another very important goal colleges have in asking applicants to write a personal essay, and that goal is to learn about you above and beyond all the data you have submitted on the rest of your college application: grades, coursework, recommendations, test scores, honors and awards, etc. They want to understand who you are and how you might fit in their college community.

There are five college essay prompts offered for your choice on the Common Application. Each has a 650 word limit. You must select one to write to. How? They may seem all alike, one big jumble. So let’s look at each one and at how to go about approaching each. Then, maybe, your decision to choose the right one for you will be easier!

Here is the first prompt on the Common Application for you to choose:

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This prompt is wide-open, giving any writer the great opportunity to write almost anything she or he chooses, no restrictions. However, this prompt is also scary. It is so open and so vague that its lack of direction can really stymie an applicant.

So let’s look at some important words in the prompt to get you started, to unfreeze you. Those words are: [your] application would be incomplete without it.

This means you are adding something, a story, to what is otherwise a complete application so you do not want to repeat what is already included in your application. In adding something new, you should showcase traits you think help make you are good addition to a college campus. College admissions wants a better sense of who you are! What would give them that? — knowing your personality, your dreams, your ethics, and your out-of-school interests.

Then how do you go about writing that?

First, you want to set yourself apart. Do not tell a story you can imagine hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants will share. How many football stories, classroom successes and failures, admirations for parents, and trip adventures can a college admission person read? Look at your life and chose something special, and write about it in a fresh and specific way.

Second, do not think the story you pick has to be a grand story. You do not have to impress. Going to South America, surviving an avalanche, single-handedly saving the Rain Forest are not necessary to illustrate who you are. You are no single experience. You are a unique set of experiences that have made you over years. Maybe you are diverse in some way your application has so far not shown.

For example, you are a lover of the night. You got that from many years at camp in the woods where there were no street lights and the kerosene lamps were turned off early. You sat in the dark in the porch with your parents and sister and gazed at the stars and told stories. Hence you are a quiet, contemplative, imaginative young person wanting to bring the nights alive with appreciation on campus, and you might also be interested in reducing light pollution.

Or, perhaps, you came for a different background where you were not allowed to watch TV or have a computer until you went to high school. What experiences did you have during those years and how have they defined you as a person and/or how have they motivated your beliefs and actions?

This prompt is a good one to choose to set yourself apart, and it offers you a wide opportunity to do so. Just remember admissions people are looking for an individual beyond the data and the career goals. Who are you?

One of the best prompts to choose is prompt # 2:

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Why might you want to write your essay in answer to prompt #2? You might wonder about the wisdom of writing about your failures, but there are reasons to write about failures you have experienced:

  • Dealing with a failure can help you grow as a person.

  • Most applicants try to highlight their strengths; someone writing about his or her weaknesses can stand out.

  • It takes more maturity and certainly more confidence to examine your failures instead of listing your successes.

    First, what kind of failure could you write about? It doesn’t have to be a life-shattering failure like breaking the law, nor should it be a typical failure like not passing a class or not catching a fly ball. As this is a personal essay, it is best to look at some of the daily or life failures many of us have. You want to show you are self-aware, after all. Some examples of failures are listed below, which might help you think about failures in your own life:

  • Didn’t listen to advice

  • Didn’t realize a negative effect you had on others

  • Didn’t perceive the depth of feelings in a friend or family member

  • Didn’t act, or act as quickly, as you should have.


    Once you’ve chosen a failure to write about from your life, you can complete the first part of the prompt by describing it from memory (Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure). This is the easiest and probably the shortest part of your essay.

    The second part of your essay should describe with some detail how you reacted to the failure (How did it affect you). We hope the way you handled the failure will show what kind of person you are. Perhaps you were calm and cool, you may have been saddened, you may have become more determined, you might have gone into a problem-solving mode.

    Next, you must finish writing to the prompt by responding to this: what lessons did you learn? What you write here should be the main part of the essay and should show higher level thinking. You must show insight. What new self-awareness do you have? Don’t use platitudes or vagaries like “I’ve become a better person.” Or “I now work harder and smarter.” What actually did you experience that you can now see will help you better navigate any obstacles or challenges in your future? Perhaps you found out your perceptions are not the only ones and that other people matter so now you pay more attention to how others are acting and what they are saying. Perhaps you realized you had a naiveté about what you can accomplish and now you understand it takes more than self-belief; it takes time and effort. These are a few of the realizations colleges want you to be able to demonstrate to them so they know you are a real person who will live and breathe on their campus.

    Now let’s look at the third Common Application essay prompt.

    The third essay choice for college applicants on the Common Application is about a challenging an idea you have had or about a belief you have held. Here it is:

    Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

    This question is vague, but do not let it intimidate you. What you write about could be either personal or world-shattering. For example, in your personal realm, you might wonder why you are asked to make your bed every day. On the world stage you may have questioned why world peace doesn’t seem achievable.

    The choice of a topic for this essay is important, though. You want a good essay and something you can write about. It should be interesting to you to be interesting to the reader. You also need to let the reader for admissions know about you so it should reveal you: your ability to think, what you care about, how your thinking identifies you as an individual.

    The belief you choose to write about could be a belief of your own – Why do I want to go to college?, a belief of your family’s – Why do we always need to eat together?, a friend’s – Why should we skip school?, or it could be a national or cultural belief – Why is free speech so valuable? or Why are women treated as second class citizens in Afghanistan?

    There is a caution to be had here: This may not be the time to push the buttons of your readers. Some hot issues like abortion or religion can be too emotional to tackle.

    You may not be writing about the success of your campaign to challenge a belief. You may have boycotted the evening dinner with your family and the result may have been too disruptive, or you may have thought making your bed was not a worthwhile condition of living in your house only to come to understand it is after all.

    When you have finally chosen the right topic, you must think about writing the essay. You must do so in such a way that you answer all parts if the prompt.

  • The prompt asks you, What prompted you to act? This requires that you describe the belief and why you questioned it. It also asks you to explain what you did to challenge this belief.

  • But, as you write, the prompt also wants you to Reflect. This is a key word in the prompt. It means you must think about and share what you were thinking, whether or not, as you look back on it, it was appropriate, what you learned from making the challenge or exploring the belief more, and how this might have helped you grow.

  • Finally the prompt asks you, Would you make the same decision again?   You must evaluate and share what you got out of this experience and if you believe it was right or not to make the challenge and why.

Remember going to college is about growing and not accepting everything rote. When you choose to write to this prompt, you are showing how you learn and grow.

The fourth choice you have on the Common Application for your college essay follows:

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Many students like this prompt because most have a favorite spot or a refuge from the stresses of life. This prompt can also refer to imaginary places and to general surroundings, that is, types of settings, not one specific place.

With this broader idea of “place,” a writer can really settle into a perfect “writing place.” Think about writing about your home, a favorite class, a place you visited on vacation, your camp, a neighborhood hangout, even a place you hope to see one day. Or, you might write about an imaginary place, like a peaceful world, a world where music reigns, a place in your mind’s eye that represents contentment or excitement or great diversity. You might also describe an environment that makes you comfortable or stimulated: a setting where you are surrounded by books, pine smells, water, urban sights and sounds, etc.

Whatever “place” you choose, don’t be stumped or stunted by the words “perfectly content;” they do not limit you. Some people are more content with a feeling of competition, by stimulating crowds, or by danger and risk.

When you write to this prompt it is the what and why of the question which are most important. What you do and experience and why this is meaningful to you is where you want to spend your time and space. Especially, spend time thinking about what in this place gives you satisfaction or makes it a pleasant experience. Then think about the meaning your experience or feeling gives to you. Why is it important for you to have this satisfaction or pleasure? Are you a person who wants balance in your life so, despite your busyness and involvements, you need down time too? Does the pleasure of thinking about a world filled with music or diversity or whatever underline your goals and commitments in life? Always bring your essay back to what admissions people want to know—who you are as a person, beyond the data in your application.

Be imaginative choosing the topic for this prompt, think about how your choice tells about you, and then write clearly and honestly.

The last, or fifth prompt, on the Common Application you can choose to write to for your personal college essay is below:

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The first step in preparing to write for this prompt is to choose the event or accomplishment. What you must think about is an event, or accomplishment, that has helped you grow as a person. Growth is usually about change, mostly for the good, so you must identify what caused that growth.

What is a transition between childhood and adulthood? A high school graduate is not really an adult, nor does childhood end at any specific age. This prompt is really asking you to identify a cause of your maturing, especially maturing in a way that prepares you better for college admission. What are some qualities that help someone move into a college experience? — the ability to live away from home, to set goals, to manage time, to be both responsible and dependable, to work toward your goals with purpose, to be self-disciplined.

No one event catapults you into adulthood, but a single event or accomplishment can be significant enough to start the process.  This is what you need to focus on. Here are some things to think about when choosing what to write about for this prompt:

  • Accomplishing something you have never done before or find particularly hard to do (traveling alone, climbing a mountain for the first time)

  • Accomplishing something independently (applying for your first job, volunteering away from home)

  • Being recognized for something you have done (becoming an Eagle Scout, being name Most Valuable Player)

  • Getting out of a bad circumstance (bringing up bad grades, bouncing back from a failure)

  • Experiencing a major life event (9-11, school shooting)

  • Experiencing loss (death in family or of a friend, accident that causes you disability)

  • Receiving a gift from family or community that marks a milestone (Bar Mitzvah, getting the family’s car keys)

  • Interacting with someone close or someone you don’t know that changes your perception of the world around you

These events do not have to be huge or grandiose. Sometimes every-day events and accomplishments can hit you in a significant way, which is why the prompt makes a point of stipulating the event or accomplishment can be informal or formal.

You should take time to choose the event or accomplishment you discuss, but do not take too much time describing that event. The time you must take writing is explaining how the event affected and changed you. You will want to write about things like

  • How failure made you feel stronger,

  • Realizing from failure that you don’t always have to win to prove yourself,

  • How being independent or accomplishing something you have never done before helps you see yourself as confident and responsible,

  • How recognition or receiving a gift that signifies a rite of passage helps you identify the values you will live your life by,

  • How interacting with people you have prejudged or don’t know helps you find the deeper layers of people and makes you more tolerant and broader minded.

All of the above might help you write about how you have matured and why. In this way you show college admission officers why they might want you on their campus.

College essays are there for one purpose and that is to understand the applicant better as a person, beyond being a student or an applicant. No matter which essay you choose, the real test of whether or not you have been successful is this – give your essay to a friend or relative or a teacher, ask him or her to read it, then ask your reader: What does this essay tell you about me? If that person hesitates or answers in such a way that you can’t recognizes yourself, you need to go back to the drawing board.

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CB Experts

Content created by retired College Admissions consultants.