Breaking Down the Common App Essay Prompts | Winward Academy


Breaking Down the Common Application Prompts: The Most Important Part of Your App

It’s difficult to stand out during the college application process. Everyone works to do well on the SAT or ACT, attain an impressive GPA in rigorous courses, acquire glowing recommendations, and take part in activities, but then there’s the personal statement. Consider this section your place to show what makes you unique. Here’s how to shine in your 650-word college essay.

Which Prompt Is for Me?

Deciding which prompt to use may be difficult. Whatever you choose, strive to show the following three personal characteristics:

  1. Growth. Decide on a story that demonstrates your grit and resilience — your deep desire to achieve and overcome.
  2. Commitment. Demonstrate your dedication to a cause; your cause is what you can contribute to the college community.
  3. Connection. Be sincere in your writing so readers develop a human connection through your essay. Honesty, transparency, and vulnerability show you at your best.

The prompts and analyses below are for the Common Application for the 2018 – 2019 application season, so feel free to get started even though the application is released on August 1, 2018.

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.

This is the prompt I chose for my college essay. I was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt, and moved to the United States when I was 10. Since my mother is Chilean, I also wrote about her influence on my upbringing. I ultimately decided to write about this topic because of the influence my family has on my future, and because I believed that no one else had a similar story. Culture was my way of being unique. Select this prompt if you feel that your story represents you best.

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?

This prompt offers an excellent opportunity for you to demonstrate your ability to be a critical thinker. How did you think creatively? How did you overcome what you thought you couldn’t? If you’re an athlete, this prompt allows you to demonstrate how you’ve translated your mental fortitude into physical strength.

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

This prompt provides a good opportunity to reveal an idea or belief that you’re passionate about. I recommend not getting political, as your political beliefs may counter those of your readers. You can speak about an understanding you had about academics or a moment that pushed you to pursue an activity.

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.

Most students will pick a big problem like global warming. While you can definitely pick a problem on a macro scale, you’ll stand out if you can write about ways to influence a big problem on a smaller scale. How can communities unite to overcome a problem? How can a single individual contribute? Use this prompt as an opportunity to show that you can think a problem through and consider all parts of an issue.

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

This prompt is similar to prompt #3, the difference being that prompt #3 shows that you’re willing to swim against the current. This prompt may tempt you to write about an achievement, but it’s difficult to emotionally connect with others when talking about your success. If you have a beautiful, unexpected realization connected to a relatable story, this prompt is for you.

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?

Here is an opportunity to speak about an activity, preferably one that you will list as #1 in your application’s activity section (remember you list the activities in order of importance to you, so the first one listed should be the most meaningful). You can demonstrate how you’ve discovered it and pursued it. Readers should be able to connect to how you will continue this pursuit in college.

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.

You have complete creative control here, and for this reason I suspect that readers will expect more from this prompt. Responding to this prompt may also show that you believe in your ability to produce good content from a prompt you create. You may combine parts of questions into one.


Take Home Message:

Whichever prompt you pick, present your best self. Sticking to the three character traits is critical to writing a strong statement.

  • How Do I Approach My Writing? I recommend that you strive to connect with your reader. Using emotion works well. You can also use logic and credibility. Reading about a student overcoming an emotional tragedy and growing stronger from it is powerful. If you’re still unsure, try reading essays from students admitted into competitive universities!
  • Whom Can I Ask for Help If I Am Not Sure What to Say? You should reach out to whomever knows you well. Since I wrote about my transition from Egypt, I reached out to my mother for help. I later reached out to my recommenders, who knew me well from class and extracurriculars. Feedback is valuable, but remember to write about what you want and in your voice. Be true to yourself. You cannot please everyone, so trust your instincts.
  • Essay Reminder You’ll have more opportunities to speak about your extracurriculars depending on the college supplements, and if you choose to write in the Additional Information portion of your application. Your personal statement is your opportunity to be original and unique. Nothing is more valuable than your character — not your SAT, ACT, or GPA. Let your character shine in that essay.
Concluding Thoughts

The more you write, the more you will shed light on your real self and true goals. Remember to focus on the three core characteristics: growth, commitment, and connection. The hardest part is starting, and all it takes is picking up your pen! And if you’re also looking for advice about putting together your college resume, be sure to review the 10 things to never do in a college resume. Good luck!

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Omar Husni

Omar Husni is an activist, mentor, volunteer, and tutor in Elizabeth, New Jersey. He graduated in the top 3% of his high school class, and is a proud member of the Class of 2022 at the University of Pennsylvania. Omar facilitates education and financial aid workshops to empower youth and encourage a wide range of diverse service projects. For his advocacy work and contributions to Make the Road New Jersey, Omar has been recognized by NJTV News, Reporte Hispano, Elks National Foundation, New Jersey SEEDS, Rotary International, and QuestBridge.

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