What are your chances of acceptance?

Your chance of acceptance
Duke University
Duke University
Your chancing factors
Unweighted GPA: 3.7
SAT: 720 math
| 800 verbal


Low accuracy (4 of 18 factors)

The 2020-2021 Common Application Essay Prompts Are Here

The Common Application has just announced that the essay prompts will be the same as those used in 2019-2020. Every cycle, the Common App offers six prompts that students can use to brainstorm great essay topics. There is also a seventh prompt to write on any topic of your choosing.


New to college applications? Keep reading this article to learn why these prompts matter, when to start your essay, and how you can be preparing for college applications now.


2020-2021 Common Application Essay Prompts


Here are the essay prompts from last year, which will be used again in this upcoming application cycle. Since we have worked with these prompts extensively in the past, we can confirm that these can inspire some pretty great essays.


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.


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?


Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?


Prompt #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 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.


Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.


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?


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.


What is the Purpose of the Common App Essay?


By the time you apply to college, you have gathered a long list of grades, test scores, and extracurricular accomplishments. But, while admissions officers are interested in seeing what you have done with your high school years, what they really want to know is who you are. When people read your college application, they want to know, “Is this someone who will succeed at our school?”


In your essay, you get to tell a story or two that introduces admissions officers to you as a candidate for their school. In your introduction, you want to come across as smart, thoughtful, and mature. Your essay should be deeply personal, error-free, and written in language that demonstrates you are prepared for the academic challenge of college.


What you choose to write about does not matter nearly as much as how you address the topic. We have seen winning essays on the alarm clock, Robotics Club, death, and home cooking. The commonality that all these essays shared was that they portrayed the author as a thoughtful person of good character. Just about any strong college essay will answer these four questions:


  • Who Am I?
  • Why Am I Here?
  • What is Unique About Me?
  • What Matters to Me?


While the essay can be about any topic, the Common App provides a few suggestions to help students start out on the right foot. Whether you write to a prompt or brainstorm a fresh idea, make sure your essay addresses these for key questions. Before you begin writing essays, we recommend checking out our post How to Write the Common Application Essays 2019-2020.

Ways to Prepare for College Applications Now


We recommend waiting until late summer or early fall of your Senior year before you begin writing personal essays. Those few months actually make a big difference in how students reflect on their lives and what anecdotes they choose to highlight. 


If you are eager to get a head start on the college application process, here are some goals you can shoot for now as a Junior:


1. Build an epic extracurricular profile.


If your goal is to ace your college applications, the single most important thing you can be doing (besides keeping your grades up) is to cultivate a crowning achievement of your extracurricular profile. Your Junior summer is your chance to demonstrate that you care deeply about these out-of-school interests. It’s your opportunity to show that you know how to maximize available resources to create something meaningful.


Take time as a Junior to think about what impact you want to have outside of the classroom. Think of positive experiences you have had leading up to this point when it comes to ECs. The more substantial of an impact your extracurricular endeavors make, the more competitive your application on the whole will be. 


Impact will look different for everybody. Some students have breadth of impact by planning a large event. Others accomplish depth of impact through a service project that supports a few people in a big way. Still others trailblaze, taking the first steps in the uncharted territories of an extracurricular activity that few students in their community pursue.


If you’re concerned about your extracurricular profile because you haven’t developed it much up until this point, there are still steps you can take to improve your ECs. See our post How to Improve Your Extracurriculars Junior and Senior Year for tips on how to make the most of the time you have left.


For more advice on how to craft a successful extracurricular profile, check out these CollegeVine posts:


Breaking Down the 4 Tiers of Extracurricular Activities

Your Complete List of Extracurricular Activities

Your Ultimate Guide to Summer Programs for High Schoolers

A Guide to Extracurricular Activities: Grade 11


2. Ask 2-3 people to write your letters of recommendation.


Think carefully about who should write these letters for you, and give them plenty of advance warning before your earliest deadline (at least one month). You should ideally ask teachers who know you both as a student, and in an extracurricular context; for example, your math teacher and debate advisor could be a good pick. This isn’t always possible of course, so you should always just aim for teachers who know you well and can speak very positively of you. You should also try to ask teachers you’ve had recently.


You can learn more about connecting with recommenders by checking out these related articles:


How to Pick Which Teachers to Ask for Letters of Recommendation

9 Rules for Requesting Letters of Recommendation from Teachers

What Makes a Good Recommendation Letter?

Should You Submit an Additional Letter of Recommendation?

A Step-by-Step Guide to Your Recommendation Letters


3. Complete all standardized testing.


While you will have opportunities to take your SAT, ACT, and SAT Subject Tests in your Senior fall, it pays to wrap up this process as a Junior. You will want the time your Senior year to focus on essays and extracurricular activities.


Here are a few additional resources for those looking to wrap up their standardized testing by the end of their Junior year:


When Is the Best Time to Take the SAT?

SAT vs. ACT: Everything You Need to Know

ACT Score Range: What Is a Good ACT Score? A Bad ACT Score?

Why Should You Take SAT Subject Tests?

Complete List of SAT Subject Tests


4. Familiarize yourself with the Common App and begin brainstorming essay ideas.


The Common App allows you to build one application and send it to hundreds of schools. Filling out the form is fairly straightforward, and most sections take less than a half-hour to complete. You can create an account today, and the Common App will let you roll over any information you have submitted when the 2020-2021 application cycle opens in August.


Beginning this process early ensures that little details will not slip through the cracks. For example, one student of ours practiced piano for ten years but almost forgot to note that extracurricular on her application. Luckily, she had been updating the form for months, so when she remembered this important extracurricular activity, it was easy for her to log on and update her file.


Additionally, the Common App lets you start brainstorming essay ideas. We recommend keeping a journal or running Google Doc of ideas so that you have a plethora of good ideas to choose from once it is time to start writing your essays. For more on brainstorming essay topics and the Common App in general, check out these links:


A User’s Guide to the Common App

What Is a Personal College Essay?

How Important Is the College Essay?

Where to Begin? 3 Personal Essay Brainstorming Exercises

Why This Common App Essay Worked: Prompt 2: “The Lessons We Take…”


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Short Bio
Veronica is an alumna of Harvard College, where she earned her A.B. in History and Classics. After graduating, she joined CollegeVine serving as the Curriculum Development Manager. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA and is writing her debut novel.