Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.

Earlier this morning, the Common Application was formally launched for the 2014-15 application cycle, and Admissions Hero’s essay team shared the following tips on how to tackle the all-important Common App essays for the upcoming application cycle.


Before discussing the specific prompts for the Common Application, first we should go over some general principles for the Common App essay. First and foremost, the Common App essay is about telling colleges why you are unique and/or what matters to you.

You have several avenues through which you can do this, including but not limited to highlighting a central theme of your application that is tied to one or several of your extracurricular activities, focusing on a specific personality trait or strength, or highlighting a particular challenge that you had to overcome.

That being said, there are distinct topics and strategies that each prompt lends itself to.

1.     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 offers an excellent opportunity to engage with a particular extracurricular or academic area of passion, and it allows you to weave a narrative that displays personal growth in that subject or area. Particularly if you have an unconventional passion, such as blogging about South American soccer, or quilting, the combination of displaying your personality and the unique topic can be very eye-catching.

This prompt also represents an opportunity to consider questions of personal identity, whether that takes the form of racial identity, sexual orientation, gender, or simply one’s place within a specific community (even communities as unique as, say, players of World of Warcraft). With the topic of racial identity, it’s important to keep in mind the audience (college admissions counselors tend to be progressive politically), so this might not be the best place to make sweeping claims about reverse racism against Caucasian-Americans. However, careful consideration of intrinsic cultural elements (such as the effect that Chinese American culture’s prioritization of academics had on your personal development) is certainly a strong essay topic.

Also a quick note – while claiming to have experienced discrimination based on race or claiming to have a different sexual orientation or gender than heterosexual and male/female respectively can be an effective way to talk about your ability to overcome adversity, faked or exaggerated claims about said topic are often very easy to recognize and will result in a severe penalization.

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

This prompt lends itself to consideration of what facets of your personality allow you to overcome adversity, as well as display your self-awareness. It’s okay to choose a relatively mundane “failure” such as failing to win an award at a Model United Nations conference despite putting in hours of research into the topics of your committee (and learning that you should focus on how you project yourself and interacting more cordially, even when debating and competing against your peers). However, you should be careful not to sound over-confident (as if you are incapable of any failure larger than this).  You also want to avoid making the failure sound more devastating than it actually was.

Another (perhaps more powerful) tactic with this essay is to write about a more foundational failure and then assess its impact on your development thereafter.  This allows you to tackle more meaty questions about ethics (perhaps you cheated on a test and felt horrible about it), morality (maybe you stole something, your parents berated you for it, and now you hate theft to such a degree that if you find money on the street your turn it in), or the human condition (perhaps you made an insensitive comment or were close-minded in a particular instance).

You want to be careful to balance the severity of the failure with its recentness; in general, choose a failure from before high school so that it doesn’t color the admissions counselor’s view of your high school career.  Also, be sure that any failure you choose is within reason (so in general avoid talking about any felonies you’ve left behind you).

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

This prompt is a difficult one to answer, because most high school students haven’t participated in the types of iconoclastic protests against societal ills that lend themselves to an excellent response. However, a more tenable alternative here is to discuss a time that you went against social convention, whether it was becoming friends with someone who seemed like a social outcast and was ignored by most people but eventually became one of your best friends, by going against the popular opinion of your peers, or proudly showing off a geeky passion of yours. And if you ever participated in a situation in concert with adults and found some success (i.e. by blogging, starting a tutoring organization, or participating in political campaigns), you could discuss the stigma against young people without a college degree in professional and adult circles. The one thing to keep in mind when responding to this prompt is to avoid sounding morally superior (as if you are the only person who went against this social convention, or that you are better than your peers for doing so).

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

This prompt is best tied to a particular extracurricular passion, or perhaps to an environment that you find enjoyable or relaxing. The key with this type of essay is twofold. First, avoid simply stating the different elements in terms of their visual appearance, and bring in all of the senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste [perhaps less frequently]), so as to provide a more rich descriptive style of writing (that also incorporates heavy use of advanced diction and literary devices). Second, embedded within the environment in question, certain items or environmental factors should be used as explicit or implicit symbols for a facet of your personality. Ideally, the essay should be weighted more towards explanations of why the environment appeals to you (speak to character strengths and intrinsic personality traits).  The remainder of the essay (about one third) should be geared to the description of the environment (as outlined above).

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

This prompt is probably the most expansive in that you can choose any event that had a major impact on your life. One option is to discuss a cultural process (such as Bar Mitzvah or Upanayanam in Judaism and Hinduism respectively) that serves as a formal waypoint on a path to adulthood, but if you do so, make sure to discuss why the ritual made you “feel” like an adult, not just why you became one in practice. Informal events are probably easier to use because you can show more of your own personality and what makes you tick. A good way to assess whether an informal event demarcates a transition into adulthood is if it (1) gave you a new perspective or degree of self-awareness, (2) taught you that idealism can still play an important role in achieving goals, or conversely, (3) helped show you that the world doesn’t often conform today to idealistic realities (a time when you learned realism).  For example, perhaps after growing up in a multi-cultural environment, you finally witness a racist encounter in a more restricted environment.  This could serve as a powerful eye-opener about the state of some parts of the world, informally achieving an implicit state of adulthood.

However, your topic need not be so weighty when talking about your own growth, because when discussing personal development, almost any group can be massaged to form a “community,” which means you have a wide array of options to use as a point marking a transition to adulthood.

Zack Perkins

Zack Perkins

Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
Zack Perkins