Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.
The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).
2018-19 Common App Essays
Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application, which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. 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?
- Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma—anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
- 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.
Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts
Prompt #1: Share your story.
Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.
Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.
You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.
Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.
Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.
Prompt #4: Solving a problem.
This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!
Prompt #5: Personal growth.
Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth.
Prompt #6: What captivates you?
This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.
Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.
This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.
More College Essay Topics
Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:
Describe a person you admire.
Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .
Why do you want to attend this school?
Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.
What is a book you love?
Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?
Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.
What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?
Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.
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In this multimedia age that we live in, it should come as no surprise that many colleges are now accepting video essays. With the mountain of applications colleges receive, the challenge is for students to find a way to stand out. For years, video essays have been a common part of applications to art and design schools. It’s only recently that 4-year colleges and universities have begun to accept them as part of the application.
What is a video essay?
A video essay is a dynamic new way to make your application gleam.It’s a chance to deliver a message via a video application about who you are, and to make an impact as your personal statement plays out. The video essay offers you the opportunity to put a face to your college application. You become more than just a name with test scores and grades—colleges get a glimpse into who you are. Max Kiefer, author of How to Make a Winning College Application Video Essay, explains how videos improve the application:
In a sense, the video is the interview 2.0. While not live face-to-face, it’s still your face in their face. On your terms. Instead of a sweaty-palmed chat where you risk getting a question you can’t answer or having an attack of “ums” and “uhs,” with a video you, as writer and director, control every moment.
Are video essays widely accepted by colleges?
Right now, for most colleges, the video is strictly an option. It’s a freebie. Most students applying to college won’t be uploading videos to YouTube. This gives you an edge if the colleges are accepting them. Making a video essay will give your voice one more chance to be heard in the admissions cacophony.
The Huffington Post points out that schools like George Mason University, Tufts University, and St. Mary’s College of Maryland are currently accepting the videos as a part of the admissions process. But it’s important to remember some schools may accept videos only as a supplement to the traditional application, while others may look at videos as an accepted alternative to written essays.
How do you make a video essay?
There are multiple tools you can use to make the video: desktop computers, smartphones, and cameras. Whichever method you use the video should be clear. You can use just about any tools to enhance the video as well: slideshows, music, or animation. It’s important, however, that the tools you use contribute to the video content and not distract from it.
What are some tips for creating a good video?
The video is a chance to deliver your message to admissions officers. Since you want to put as much effort into it as you do in the written essay, you should follow these simple tips:
Say something meaningful about yourself
This is a chance to transcend your numbers and to tell colleges something you feel is important about yourself.Consider what abilities, qualities or talents you want to convey.Be genuine. Follow your heart and your imagination.
Make it memorable
Find a hook, an angle, or something unique. This doesn’t mean being fancy or gimmicky, but distinctive. As with a written essay, you want your video to stick in an admissions officer’s head. Think about videos you’ve watched. Which do you remember a day or a week later? Understanding what made them memorable can help you make yours stand out from the pack.
Have a script or storyboard
Unless you’re doing a webcam rap, you will need a script or shooting plan. You can deviate from it on “the set”—sometimes great ideas come on the fly—but having a game plan will help you stay focused and on track.
If you are appearing on camera, rehearse what you are going to say. Try to relax.Doing a number of takes will help loosen you up, and will also give you more options when you edit. Smile, take your time, and speak clearly and naturally.
Show your face
The whole point of the video is to help admissions officers put a face with a name. A common mistake is shooting too far from the subject (you). If you’re small on screen, you’re harder to see and hear.Being close on a person’s face helps convey their emotions. Let them see into your eyes! Close ups will help an admissions officer connect with you.
Admissions officers are far too busy to look at anything longer than a minute or two. The last thing you want is for someone to get bored, glance at his watch, and turn you off in the middle of “Here’s what I plan to do with my life.”
Before you upload your video, it’s smart to get other opinions. Show drafts of your video to other people and get feedback. Is your voice clear over the music? Does the pacing work?Do people “get it?” Your video will become stronger as you cut and fine tune.
As with your college essay, making a great video takes time and thought, but doing so may help give you that extra edge at your top choice college.