The Common App essay prompts aren’t a list of questions to answer. They are designed to help you think about what’s important to you, who you are as a person, and what you would bring to campus as a college student. The Common App opens August 1 for students applying as freshmen for Fall 2024. The prompts are usually released by February. (This year the prompts didn’t change.) Releasing the prompts earlier allows these story starter questions to rattle around in your head for a while. It can take some time to settle on what stories you want to tell to help an admissions reader understand who you are.
What Is the Purpose of a College Personal Statement
College applications that require essays want to know more about a student than just the basic data of course grades, activities, and scores that appear in other parts of the application. The transcript might show they dropped German in favor of American Sign Language. An essay could reveal the friendship with a young neighbor and a desire to better communicate with her. The activities list might seem like a patchwork of unconnected clubs. An essay might discuss multiple cross-country moves as a military kid and how that experience taught them to make friends quickly.
When considering essay ideas, remember the topic of each essay is you, not what happened. The essay should paint a broader and deeper picture of you to the admissions reader. It might even draw direct connections to what you hope to do in college. The Common App personal statement can respond to any of the Common App essay prompts. Some college applications will have their own essay prompts, like the University of California Personal Interest Questions, or additional essay prompts like Why Us? supplemental essays.
Not sure what a Why Us? essay is? I explain what they are and how to approach them here: How to Write a “Why Us” College Essay.
How to Write Your Common App Essay
When you are ready to get started, read through some of the prompts. What experiences or stories come to mind? Jot down not only what happened but sensory details (how it smelled, sounded, felt, maybe even tasted). Then add some lines about why that experience mattered. How did you change as a result? How did you affect those around you? In other words, you want to get past describing only what happened to explain how this reveals more about who you are as a person.
Some people think their college admissions essays need to be unique. This can pressure them to try to think of topics that no one else has ever written about. But what matters isn’t writing about something unusual or unique. What’s important is making the essay individual to the student. How does the essay reveal who you are, what’s important to you, and how these traits will affect what you bring to campus?
It’s OK to feel uncomfortable during the essay writing process. You are trying to remember events in detail, convey them to someone who wasn’t there, and write in a way that is both grammatically correct and emotionally evocative. That’s a tall order and not something you will achieve at the first attempt. One of my writing profs used the phrase “zero draft” to describe the phase of pouring initial thoughts and words onto paper. This early phase wasn’t even at “first draft” stage, because we were still figuring out what to write about and where the connection points were. Give yourself time and space to work through these steps.
Full List of 2023-24 Common Application 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.)
- 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.
Don’t Panic Over College Essay Prompts
Don’t obsess over these prompts. The Common App essay prompts are simply questions designed to encourage deeper thinking and writing in a way that lets you share what’s important to you. Your goal is to give admissions readers a better understanding of who you are as a person than they would get from just looking at grades and test scores. Your essays are your opportunity to control both content and delivery. It is one of the few parts of the application you exert this much control over.
If the first six Common App essay prompts don’t generate ideas, remember that Prompt Seven gives you the freedom to choose your own adventure. This is one reason I start my clients with pre-writing exercises that help them identify what they are trying to communicate – what their story is and what examples help convey it.
Essay coaching is included in each of my comprehensive packages. Essay coaching is also available through hourly services. If this is something you are interested in, let’s connect.
Once you’re done writing your personal statement, use the advice in How to Write a “Why Us?” College Essay to work on any supplemental college essays.