common app essay prompt 2

What are the 2023-24 Common App essay prompts?

Jul 25, 2023 • knowledge, information, below is the full set of common app essay prompts for 2023-24..

  • 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.

We will also retain the optional COVID-19 question within the Additional Information section.

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Common App Essays | 7 Strong Examples with Commentary

Published on November 19, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on May 31, 2023.

If you’re applying for college via the Common App , you’ll have to write an essay in response to one of seven prompts.

Table of contents

What is the common application essay, prompt 1: background, identity, interest, or talent, prompt 2: overcoming challenges, prompt 3: questioning a belief or idea, prompt 4: appreciating an influential person, prompt 5: transformative event, prompt 6: interest or hobby that inspires learning, prompt 7: free topic, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

The Common Application, or Common App , is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.

Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs. Instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Regardless of your prompt choice, admissions officers will look for an ability to clearly and creatively communicate your ideas based on the selected prompt.

We’ve provided seven essay examples, one for each of the Common App prompts. After each essay, we’ve provided a table with commentary on the essay’s narrative, writing style and tone, demonstrated traits, and self-reflection.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

This essay explores the student’s emotional journey toward overcoming her father’s neglect through gymnastics discipline.

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.

When “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” began to play, it was my signal to lay out a winning floor routine. Round off. Back handspring. Double back layout. Stick!

Instead, I jolted off the floor, landing out of bounds. Over the past week, I hadn’t landed that pass once, and regionals were only seven days away. I heaved a heavy sigh and stomped over to the bench.

Coach Farkas saw my consternation. “Mona, get out of your head. You’re way too preoccupied with your tumbling passes. You could do them in your sleep!”

That was the problem. I was dreaming of tumbling and missing my landings, waking up in a cold sweat. The stress felt overwhelming.

“Stretch out. You’re done for tonight.”

I walked home from the gym that had been my second home since fourth grade. Yet my anxiety was increasing every time I practiced.

I startled my mom. “You’re home early! Wait! You walked? Mona, what’s going on?!”

I slumped down at the kitchen table. “Don’t know.”

She sat down across from me. “Does it have anything to do with your father texting you a couple of weeks ago about coming to see you at regionals?”

“So what?! Why does it matter anymore?” He walked out when I was 10 and never looked back. Still, dear ol’ Dad always had a way of resurfacing when I least expected him.

“It still matters because when you hear from him, you tend to crumble. Or have you not noticed?” She offered a knowing wink and a compassionate smile.

I started gymnastics right after Dad left. The coaches said I was a natural: short, muscular, and flexible. All I knew was that the more I improved, the more confident I felt. Gymnastics made me feel powerful, so I gave it my full energy and dedication.

The floor routine became my specialty, and my performances were soon elevating our team score. The mat, solid and stable, became a place to explore and express my internal struggles. Over the years, no matter how angry I felt, the floor mat was there to absorb my frustration.

The bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving because I knew I could fall. My performances in those events were respectable. But, the floor? Sometimes, I had wildly creative and beautiful routines, while other times were disastrous. Sadly, my floor routine had never been consistent.

That Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the empty gym and walked over to the mat. I sat down and touched its carpeted surface. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet with the bitter disappointment of a dad who only showed up when it was convenient for him. I ruminated on the years of practices and meets where I had channeled my resentment into acrobatics and dance moves, resolved to rise higher than his indifference.

I saw then that my deepest wounds were inextricably entangled with my greatest passion. They needed to be permanently separated. While my anger had first served to launch me into gymnastics, before long, I had started serving my anger.

Anger is a cruel master. It corrupts everything it touches, even something as beautiful as a well-choreographed floor routine.

I changed my music days before regionals. “The Devil” no longer had a place in my routine. Instead, I chose an energetic cyberpunk soundtrack that inspired me to perform with passion and laser focus. Dad made an obligatory appearance at regionals, but he left before I could talk to him.

It didn’t matter this time. I stuck every landing in my routine. Anger no longer controlled me. I was finally free.

Word count: 601

This essay shows how the challenges the student faced in caring for her sister with autism resulted in an unexpected path forward in her education.

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?

I never had a choice.

My baby sister was born severely autistic, which meant that every detail of our home life was repeatedly adjusted to manage her condition. I couldn’t go to bed without fearing that Mindy would wake up screaming with that hoarse little voice of hers. I couldn’t have friends over on weekends because we never knew if our entire family would need to shift into crisis mode to help Mindy regain control.

We couldn’t take a family vacation because Mindy would start hitting us during a long car ride when she didn’t want to sit there anymore. We couldn’t even celebrate Christmas like a normal family because Mindy would shriek and run away when we tried to give her presents.

I was five years old when Mindy was born. For the first ten years, I did everything I could to help my mom with Mindy. But Mom was depressed and would often stare out the window, as if transfixed by the view. Dad was no help either. He used his job as an excuse to be away from home. So, I tried to make up for both of them and rescue Mindy however I could whenever she needed it.

However, one day, when I was slowly driving Mindy around with the windows down, trying to lull her into a calmer state, we passed two of my former classmates from middle school. They heard Mindy growling her disapproval as the ride was getting long for her. One of them turned to the other and announced, “Oh my God! Marabeth brought her pet monster out for a drive!” They laughed hysterically and ran down the street.

After that day, I defied my parents at every turn. I also ignored Mindy. I even stopped doing homework. I purposely “got in with the wrong crowd” and did whatever they did.

My high school counselor Ms. Martinez saw through it all. She knew my family’s situation well. It didn’t take her long to guess what had probably happened.

“Marabeth, I get it. My brother has Down syndrome. It was really hard growing up with him as a brother. The other kids were pretty mean about it, especially in high school.”

I doubted she understood. “Yeah. So?”

“I’m guessing something happened that hurt or embarrassed you.”

“I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how you must have felt.”

It must have been the way she said it because I suddenly found myself sobbing into my trembling, cupped hands.

Ms. Martinez and I met every Friday after that for the rest of the year. Her stories of how she struggled to embrace living with and loving her brother created a bridge to my pain and then my healing. She explained that her challenges led her to pursue a degree in counseling so that she could offer other people what no one had given her.

I thought that Mindy was the end of my life, but, because of Ms. Martinez’s example and kindness, I can now see that Mindy is a gift, pointing me toward my future.

Now, I’m applying to study psychology so that I can go on to earn my master’s degree in counseling. I’m learning to forgive my parents for their mistakes, and I’m back in Mindy’s life again, but this time as a sister, not a savior. My choice.

Word Count: 553

This essay illustrates a student’s courage in challenging his culture’s constructs of manhood and changing his course while positively affecting his father in the process.

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

“No son of mine is gonna march around a football field wearing tail feathers while all the real men are playing football!”

I took a step backward and tried not to appear as off-balance as I felt. In my excitement, I had blurted out more information than my father could handle:

“Dad! I made the marching band as a freshman! Nobody does that—I mean nobody!”

As soon as I had said it, I wished I could recall those words. How could I forget that 26 years earlier, he had been the starting wide receiver for the state-champion Tigers on the same field?!

Still, when I opened the email on that scorching hot August afternoon, I was thrilled that five months of practicing every possible major and harmonic minor scale—two octaves up and two octaves down—had made the difference. I had busted reed after reed, trying not to puff my cheeks while moving my fingers in a precise cadence.

I knew he had heard me continually practicing in my room, yet he seemed to ignore all the parts of me that were incongruous with his vision of manhood:

Ford F-150 4x4s. Pheasant hunting. The Nebraska Cornhuskers.

I never had to wonder what he valued. For years, I genuinely shared his interests. But, in the fall of eighth grade, I heard Kyle Wheeling play a saxophone solo during the homecoming marching band halftime show. My dad took me to every football game to teach me the plays, but that night, all I could think about was Kyle’s bluesy improv at halftime.

During Thanksgiving break, I got my mom to drive me into Omaha to rent my instrument at Dietze Music, and, soon after, I started private lessons with Mr. Ken. Before long, I was spending hours in my room, exploring each nuance of my shiny Yamaha alto sax, anticipating my audition for the Marching Tigers at the end of the spring semester.

During those months of practice, I realized that I couldn’t hide my newfound interest forever, especially not from the football players who were going to endlessly taunt me. But not all the guys played football. Some were in choir and theater. Quite a few guys were in the marching band. In fact, the Marching Tigers had won the grand prize in their division at last year’s state showdown in Lincoln.

I was excited! They were the champions, and I was about to become a part of their legacy.

Yet, that afternoon, a sense of anxiety brewed in my belly. I knew I had to talk to him.

He was sweeping the grass clippings off of the sidewalk. He nodded.

“I need to tell you something.”

He looked up.

“I know that you know about my sax because you hear me practicing. I like it a lot, and I’m becoming pretty good at it. I still care about what you like, but I’m starting to like some other things more. I hope you’ll be proud of me whatever I choose.”

He studied the cracks in the driveway. “I am proud of you. I just figured you’d play football.”

We never talked about it again, but that fall, he was in the stands when our marching band won the state championship in Lincoln for the second time. In fact, for the next four years, he never left the stands during halftime until the marching band had performed. He was even in the audience for every performance of “Our Town” at the end of my junior year. I played the Stage Manager who reveals the show’s theme: everything changes gradually.

I know it’s true. Things do change over time, even out here in central Nebraska. I know because I’ve changed, and my dad has changed, too. I just needed the courage to go first.

Word count: 626

The student demonstrates how his teacher giving him an unexpected bad grade was the catalyst for his becoming a better writer.

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?

I stared in disbelief at the big red letter at the top of my paper: D. 

Never in my entire high school career had I seen that letter at the top of any paper, unless it was at the beginning of my first name. 

I had a 4.796 GPA. I had taken every pre-AP and AP course offered. My teachers had praised my writing skills! However, Mr. Trimble didn’t think so, and he let me know it:

“Darwin, in the future, I believe you can do better if you fully apply yourself.” 

I furiously scanned the paper for corrections. Not even one! Grammar and syntax? Perfect. Spelling? Impeccable. Sentence and paragraph structure? Precise and indisputable, as always. 

Was he trying to ruin my GPA? Cooper was clearly his favorite, and we were neck and neck for valedictorian, which was only one year away. Maybe they were conspiring to take me down. 

Thankfully, AP Composition was my last class. I fled the room and ran to my car. Defiant tears stained my cheeks as I screeched my tires and roared out of the parking lot. When I got home, I shoved in my AirPods, flopped on my bed, and buried my head under the pillow. 

I awoke to my sister, Daria, gently shaking my arm. “I know what happened, D. Trimble stopped me in the hall after school.”

“I’m sure he did. He’s trying to ruin my life.”

“That’s not what he told me. You should talk to him, D.”

The next day, although I tried to avoid Mr. Trimble at all costs, I almost tripped over him as I was coming out of the bathroom.

“Darwin, can we talk?” 

He walked me down the hall to his room. “Do you know that you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever had in AP Comp?” 

“Then why’d you do it?” 

“Because you’re better than you know, Darwin. You impress with your perfect presentations, and your teachers reward you with A’s and praise. I do frequent the teacher’s lounge, you know.” 

“So I know you’re not trying.”

I locked eyes with him and glared. 

“You’ve never had to try because you have a gift. And, in the midst of the acclaim, you’ve never pushed yourself to discover your true capabilities.”

“So you give me a D?!”

“It got your attention.”

“You’re not going to leave it, are you?”

“Oh, the D stands. You didn’t apply yourself. You’ll have to earn your way out with your other papers.” 

I gained a new understanding of the meaning of ambivalence. Part of me was furious at the injustice of the situation, but I also felt strangely challenged and intrigued. I joined a local writer’s co-op and studied K. M. Weiland’s artistic writing techniques. 

Multiple drafts, track changes, and constructive criticism became my new world. I stopped taking Mr. Trimble’s criticism personally and began to see it as a precious tool to bolster me, not break me down. 

Last week, the New York Public Library notified me that I was named one of five finalists for the Young Lions Fiction Award. They described my collection of short stories as “fresh, imaginative, and captivating.” 

I never thought I could be grateful for a D, but Mr. Trimble’s insightful courage was the catalyst that transformed my writing and my character. Just because other people applaud you for being the best doesn’t mean you’re doing your best . 

AP Composition is now recorded as an A on my high school transcript, and Cooper and I are still locked in a tight race for the finish line. But, thanks to Mr. Trimble, I have developed a different paradigm for evaluation: my best. And the more I apply myself, the better my best becomes. 

Word Count: 627

This student narrates how she initially went to church for a boy but instead ended up confronting her selfishness by helping others.

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

Originally, I went to church not because I was searching for Jesus but because I liked a boy.

Isaac Ono wasn’t the most athletic boy in our class, nor was he the cutest. But I was amazed by his unusual kindness toward everyone. If someone was alone or left out, he’d walk up to them and say hello or invite them to hang out with him and his friends.

I started waking up at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday morning to attend Grace Hills Presbyterian, where Isaac’s father was the pastor. I would strategically sit in a pew not too close but close enough to Isaac that when the entire congregation was instructed to say “Peace be with you,” I could “happen” to shake Isaac’s hand and make small talk.

One service, as I was staring at the back of Isaac’s head, pondering what to say to him, my hearing suddenly tuned in to his father’s sermon.

“There’s no such thing as a good or bad person.”

My eyes snapped onto Pastor Marcus.

“I used to think I was a good person who came from a respectable family and did nice things. But people aren’t inherently good or bad. They just make good or bad choices.”

My mind raced through a mental checklist of whether my past actions fell mostly into the former or latter category.

“As it says in Deuteronomy 30:15, ‘I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.’ Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and do good.”

I glanced to my left and saw Margaret, underlining passages in her study Bible and taking copious notes.

Months earlier, I had befriended Margaret. We had fourth-period Spanish together but hadn’t interacted much. She was friends with Isaac, so I started hanging out with her to get closer to him. But eventually, the two of us were spending hours in the Starbucks parking lot having intense discussions about religion, boys, and our futures until we had to return home before curfew.

After hearing the pastor’s sermon, I realized that what I had admired about Isaac was also present in Margaret and other people at church: a welcoming spirit. I’m pretty sure Margaret knew of my ulterior motives for befriending her, but she never called me out on it.

After that day, I started paying more attention to Pastor Marcus’s sermons and less attention to Isaac. One year, our youth group served Christmas Eve dinner to the homeless and ate with them. I sat across from a woman named Lila who told me how child services had taken away her four-year-old daughter because of her financial and living situation.

A few days later, as I sat curled up reading the book of James, my heart suddenly felt heavy.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

I thought back to Pastor Marcus’s sermon on good and bad actions, Lila and her daughter, and the times I had passed people in need without even saying hello.

I decided to put my faith into action. The next week, I started volunteering at the front desk of a women’s shelter, helping women fill out forms or watching their kids while they talked with social workers.

From working for the past year at the women’s shelter, I now know I want to major in social work, caring for others instead of focusing on myself. I may not be a good person (or a bad one), but I can make good choices, helping others with every opportunity God gives me.

Word count: 622

This essay shows how a student’s natural affinity for solving a Rubik’s cube developed her self-understanding, academic achievement, and inspiration for her future career.

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?

The worst part about writing is putting down my Rubik’s cube so that I can use my hands to type. That’s usually the worst part of tackling my to-do list: setting aside my Rubik’s cube. My parents call it an obsession. But, for me, solving a Rubik’s cube challenges my brain as nothing else can.

It started on my ninth birthday. I invited three friends for a sleepover party, and I waited to open my presents right before bed. Wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows flew through the air as I oohed and aahed over each delightful gift! However, it was the last gift—a 3 x 3 x 3 cube of little squares covered in red, green, blue, yellow, white, and orange—that intrigued me.

I was horrified when Bekka ripped it out of my hands and messed it all up! I had no idea how to make all the sides match again. I waited until my friends were fast asleep. Then, I grabbed that cube and studied it under my blanket with a flashlight, determined to figure out how to restore it to its former pristine state.

Within a few weeks, I had discovered the secret. To practice, I’d take my cube with me to recess and let the other kids time me while I solved it in front of them. The better I became, the more they gathered around. But I soon realized that their attention didn’t matter all that much. I loved solving cubes for hours wherever I was: at lunch, riding in the car, or alone in my room.

Cross. White corners. Middle-layer edges. Yellow cross. Sune and anitsune. 

The sequential algorithms became second nature, and with the assistance of a little black digital timer, I strove to solve the cube faster , each time attempting to beat my previous record. I watched speed solvers on YouTube, like Australia’s Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park from Massachusetts, but I wasn’t motivated to compete as they did. I watched their videos to learn how to improve my time. I liked finding new, more efficient ways of mastering the essential 78 separate cube-solving algorithms.

Now, I understand why my passion for my Rubik’s cube has never waned. Learning and applying the various algorithms soothes my brain and centers my emotions, especially when I feel overwhelmed from being around other people. Don’t get me wrong: I like other people—just in doses.

While some people get recharged by spending time with others, I can finally breathe when I’m alone with my cube. Our psychology teacher says the difference between an extrovert and an introvert is the situations that trigger their brains to produce dopamine. For me, it’s time away, alone, flipping through cube patterns to set a new personal best.

Sometimes, the world doesn’t cooperate with introverts, requiring them to interact with many people throughout the day. That’s why you’ll often find me in the stairwell or a library corner attempting to master another one of the 42 quintillion ways to solve a cube. My parents tease me that when I’ve “had enough” of anything, my fingers get a Rubik’s itch, and I suddenly disappear. I’m usually occupied for a while, but when I finally emerge, I feel centered, prepared to tackle my next task.

Secretly, I credit my cube with helping me earn top marks in AP Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics. It’s also responsible for my interest in computer engineering. It seems I just can’t get enough of those algorithms, which is why I want to study the design and implementation of cybersecurity software—all thanks to my Rubik’s cube.

Just don’t tell my parents! It would ruin all the fun!

Word count: 607

In this free topic essay, the student uses a montage structure inspired by the TV show Iron Chef America to demonstrate his best leadership moments.

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.

Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition

The time has come to answer college’s most difficult question: Whose story shows glory?

This is … Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition!

Welcome to Kitchen Stadium! Today we have Chef Brett Lowell. Chef Brett will be put to the test to prove he has what it takes to attend university next fall.

And the secret ingredient is … leadership! He must include leadership in each of his dishes, which will later be evaluated by a panel of admissions judges.

So now, America, with a creative mind and empty paper, I say unto you in the words of my teacher: “Let’s write!”

Appetizer: My first leadership experience

A mountain of mismatched socks, wrinkled jeans, and my dad’s unironed dress shirts sat in front of me. Laundry was just one of many chores that welcomed me home once I returned from my after-school job at Baskin Robbins, a gig I had taken last year to help Dad pay the rent. A few years earlier, I wasn’t prepared to cook dinners, pay utility bills, or pick up and drop off my brothers. I thought those jobs were reserved for parents. However, when my father was working double shifts at the power plant and my mom was living in Tucson with her new husband, Bill, I stepped up and took care of the house and my two younger brothers.

Main course: My best leadership experience

Between waiting for the pasta water to boil and for the next laundry cycle to be finished, I squeezed in solving a few practice precalculus problems to prepare for the following week’s mathletics competition. I liked how the equations always had clear, clean answers, which calmed me among the mounting responsibilities of home life. After leading my team to the Minnesota State Finals for two years in a row, I was voted team captain. Although my home responsibilities often competed with my mathlete duties, I tried to be as productive as possible in my free time. On the bus ride home, I would often tackle 10 to 20 functions or budget the following week’s meals and corresponding grocery list. My junior year was rough, but both my home and my mathlete team needed me.

Dessert: My future leadership hopes 

The first thing I ever baked was a chocolate cake in middle school. This was around the time that Mom had just moved out and I was struggling with algebra. Troubles aside, one day my younger brother Simon needed a contribution for his school’s annual bake sale, and the PTA moms wouldn’t accept anything store-bought. So I carefully measured out the teaspoons and cups of various flours, powders, and oils, which resulted in a drooping, too-salty disaster.

Four years later, after a bakery’s worth of confections and many hours of study, I’ve perfected my German chocolate cake and am on my way to mastering Calculus AB. I’ve also thrown out the bitter-tasting parts of my past such as my resentment and anger toward my mom. I still miss having her at home, but whenever I have a baking question or want to update her on my mathlete team’s success, I call her or chat with her over text.

Whether in school or life, I see problems as opportunities, not obstacles, to find a better way to solve them more efficiently. I hope to continue improving my problem-solving skills next fall by majoring in mathematics and statistics.

Time’s up! 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tasting of Chef Lowell’s leadership experiences. Next fall, tune in to see him craft new leadership adventures in college. He’s open to refining his technique and discovering new recipes.

Word count: 612

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

Academic writing

  • Writing process
  • Transition words
  • Passive voice
  • Paraphrasing

 Communication

  • How to end an email
  • Ms, mrs, miss
  • How to start an email
  • I hope this email finds you well
  • Hope you are doing well

 Parts of speech

  • Personal pronouns
  • Conjunctions

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.

Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.

No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

Cite this Scribbr article

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Courault, K. (2023, May 31). Common App Essays | 7 Strong Examples with Commentary. Scribbr. Retrieved February 19, 2024, from https://www.scribbr.com/college-essay/common-app-examples/

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How to Answer the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023-2024

common app essay prompt 2

In 2023, the Common Application announced that the Common App essay prompts will remain unchanged from the 2022-2023 school year. The Common App essay prompts have remained almost the same for the past five years, but crafting a strong and compelling essay to respond to these prompts has remained as important as ever to getting into top schools

This article will explain how to choose the Common App prompts, organize your essay outline, and craft a compelling, concise response that college admissions officers will love. We also provide links to additional articles with details about writing the Common App essay for each specific prompt.

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Which Common Application Essay prompt is best to choose? 

One truth that most colleges won’t tell you is that the Common App essay prompts don’t matter that much to your admissions success. What actually matters choosing a compelling story and telling it in a compelling way. Whether they believe it or not, every college applicant has an interesting story to relay to admissions officers. 

An important rule to keep in mind is to leave room in your essay to discuss the things you love and what drives you, both as a student and as a unique person. The Common App essay is similar to an open-ended job interview question like “How would you define yourself?” It isn’t just an answer on a test or job application.

So let’s look at the 2022-2023 Common App essay prompts, get an idea about what they are all about, and decide how to choose the best prompt that will allow you to communicate your personal story.

Common App Essay Prompts for 202 3-2024

The Common App essay prompts for the 2023-2024 cycle have not changed from previous years, with the exception of prompt #4. Each allows writers to take a different path and perspective on their lives and issues. Choosing the prompt that lines up best with the personal story of yourself you want to tell is the key to writing a great Common App essay.

Here are this year’s Common App essay 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?
  • 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.

How To Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Identity, Interest, or Talent

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.

Common App Prompt #1 has been around for many years and gives applicants as much flexibility as they could ask for in an essay prompt, with just enough direction to provide a scaffolding for their ideas. It is often known as the “choose your own adventure” prompt.

Focus on the keywords, “background,” “identity,” “interest,” and “talent,” and use them as launch points for your brainstorming. Does anything in your personality, hobbies, history, or personal accomplishments come to mind as being worthy of highlighting to an admissions officer? These categories could be something as minor as seeing a profoundly powerful film or as large as the struggle of acclimating to a new school, state, and/or country. The most important factor to consider for this prompt is that your subject and/or perspective is dynamic and specific to YOU and your narrative and to no other students.

Questions to ask yourself for Prompt #1:

  • How does my background or history set me apart from my peers?
  • What have I achieved that has been central to creating the person I am today?
  • How do I define myself? How would my friends, family, and peers define me?

Examples to consider for Prompt #1:

  • Has your family’s love of travel taken you to new places and shaped you as a “worldly scholar” wise for your age and subgroup? 
  • Does your love of old jazz define how you fit into society at large?
  • Did going to a Warhol art exhibit inspire you to start an art collection that you have turned into a more expansive hobby or calling?
  • What are the challenges and rewards of having biracial parents in your small town? Or of being an adoptee or a member of a family made up of non-traditional members?

How To Write Common App Prompt #2: The Setback Essay

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?

Essays about overcoming obstacles should focus more on solutions and mindset than on the problems themselves. Accordingly, Common App Essay Prompt #2 essays should focus on the student’s mental and emotional response, as well as the actions they took when confronted with a difficulty or hurdle. Showcase your qualities like determination, humility, and growth. The difficulties you choose to explore can be diverse, especially considering the addition of “challenges and setbacks” in addition to “failures.” They could be as serious as a death in the family, as practical and material as the financial issues that you or your family have faced, or as banal as a stupid mistake that cost you the winning place at a school contest. 

However, students should avoid choosing challenges that are too trivial (not getting tickets to your favorite concert) or that illustrate dangerous or risky behavior (illegal activities or those that hurt others would certainly NOT be good topics for this essay prompt). But if you can isolate an event or trial in your life and show what you learned from it and how you grew, this prompt can encourage a powerful essay.

Questions to consider for Prompt #2:

  • How do you usually respond to and deal with hardships or difficulties?
  • What is your personal idea of a “setback or difficulty”? 
  • Do you rebound easily and turn your experiences into learning opportunities? Think of experiences that might highlight such qualities.
  • Brainstorm and list some major challenges you’ve encountered in your life.

A few examples for your reference:

  • Has a lifelong battle with seizures or another neurodivergent condition raised your overall confidence and allowed you to participate in activities without judging yourself too harshly?
  • Did a long-term or serious health situation challenge you to take on more responsibilities than the average middle- or high-school student?
  • Did several setbacks on your road to becoming a violin prodigy introduce you to public relations, being your own manager, and dealing with different kinds of people in the industry?

Keep your personal story as positive as possible and again, focus on how you overcame the challenge. You ultimately want to provide evidence to the admissions officials that you are more than ready for the challenges that college presents.

How To Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenging a Belief or Idea

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

Ironically, the “challenge” essay is one of the most challenging prompts the Common App essay presents, though it is now slightly easier with the addition of the option to discuss a time you merely questioned an idea instead of directly challenging it. The student must speak passionately about their beliefs and worldview, which are often difficult subjects to fit into short narratives. Thus, Common App Essay Prompt #3 can be one of the hardest questions to aim in a positive direction without making yourself sound condescending or judgmental of other views. 

That being said, you can respond to this prompt in a way that is insightful and personal, as it was for a student who stood up to parents’ staunch position on one’s public expression of sexual identity. If you can articulate your thoughts and feelings while showing your willingness to earnestly consider the ideas of others, you will stand out as an excellent addition to any college campus. If this prompt jumps out at you and you can think of a time you challenged a belief and it made a difference, go for it!

Questions to consider while brainstorming:

  • Was there a specific time you held an opinion that was unpopular among your family or peers?
  • Why are you the type of person willing to stand up for your positions or values?
  • What morals and values are most important to you on a fundamental level?
  • What drives your interest in and position on these topics? Philosophy, your own religious background or culture, a popular media channel?

Some examples to get you started:

  • Are you the only atheist member in a deeply religious household? How did this impact your personal relationships and interactions?
  • Did you work as an intern on a campaign caught in a big scandal? Did your reaction show your values as an active member of the community?
  • Did you challenge the notion that modern dance or art is not “artistic” by crafting an extensive research paper on the subject in a way that impressed (or horrified) your teachers?

You don’t need to focus on a fundamentally serious or controversial issue. What matters most when responding to this prompt is that you plainly show your strong convictions about the belief or idea you are trying to convey and examine how this position impacts your thinking and your actions. Prompt #3 can be useful in showcasing your argumentation, persuasive skills, and critical thinking to admissions officers.

How To Write Common App Prompt #4: Showing Gratitude 

PROMPT #4: 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?

Common App Essay Prompt #4 asks students to talk about a time when they felt gratitude for something someone did. Gratitude has become a quality that individuals are encouraged to connect to and reflect on, which explains the commonality of essays on gratitude in college classes. This question offers students the opportunity to reflect on how gratitude impacts or directs their own lives, as well as how giving thanks for the little things in life can inspire and energize them. 

Think about times when you have personally felt heard or seen as an individual. These could be moments when you felt an immense about of pride or encouragement. Think hard about what you appreciate in your life: material gifts, individual actions, or even simply a set of feelings someone aimed in your direction. The bestower of these feelings could be someone you know well, or it could be a public figure you have never met you has nevertheless changed your life for the better. Remember that this essay should primarily focus on how you process, appreciate and respond to the actions of others, which means you need to focus more on YOU than on the generous act or words themselves. 

Consider these questions for Prompt #4:

  • Do you ever “pay it forward” in your daily life? How, when, and why do you do this?
  • How do you usually express thanks in your own life?
  • Do you have any random acts of kindness that inspire you?
  • Have you ever had your faith in humanity restored by someone’s deeds or speech?
  • Is karma a driving force for your actions, or do you have some other cosmic reason for doing good?

Examples to use as guidance:

  • Did a gesture from a stranger inspire you to continue doing good acts for others? How do you actually do these acts and how has it changed how you view giving?
  • Do you feel appreciative of a public figure for the work they have done to raise awareness about issues that are important to you? How do you give back?
  • Have you ever received a gift or token of value from someone that was completely unexpected? Why was this meaningful to you? How did you show gratitude? Did the unexpected, non-transactional aspect of the gift impact your perception of helping or encouraging others?

Link your story to your life and world in a concrete and meaningful way. Don’t forget to detail how this gift or act of kindness affected and motivates you today. After choosing your essay prompt, be sure to follow the instructions and answer all substantive parts of the question.

How To Write Common App Prompt #5: The Accomplishment Essay

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

In Common App Essay Prompt #5 , the words “accomplishment” and “event” are somewhat open to interpretation. Therefore, an essay inspired by this question could address anything from a minor event to a major occurrence in your life. An event accomplishment might include birthdays or weddings, or perhaps big achievements like winning a competition or earning an esteemed award. 

Informal examples could include meeting a person in your life who ended up being special; taking a fateful bus or train ride; or participating in a meal or social event that opened up your mind to other realities you hadn’t considered. Events that are smaller or less formal can actually lead to more surprising and memorable essays, but these must also be written with originality and add a personal or unique twist. The art of storytelling is important in this essay prompt.

Some other things to consider:

  • How do periods of transition impact you in general? Are there actions or events that have inspired a change of heart or thought in your mind?
  • Have you ever had a “eureka” moment that has fundamentally shifted how you view the world in some way?
  • Did you ever learn a fact or hear a viewpoint that made you feel more capable or confident in voicing your own opinion and position?

Some example topics for this prompt:

  • Did your expansion of a lemonade stand into a successful small business motivate you into raising funds for a friend or relative’s illness or encourage you to pay off a debt?
  • Do you love sports playback video that forces you to examine your mistakes and take criticism that leads to self-improvement?
  • How did serving soup each week at a homeless shelter for half a year help ground your views of social opportunity and giving? How did this impact how you connect with and serve other people?

Keep in the front of your mind the central elements of growth, understanding, and transformation. The realization or activity you write about should be something that helped you mature in your understanding of the world and other people.

How To Write Common App Prompt #6: an Engaging Topic, Idea, or Concept

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?

Since college is at root (at least historically) the pursuit of knowledge to enlighten yourself as an individual, it might be beneficial for an admissions officer to have an understanding of how you demonstrate self-motivated learning, as well as the reasons for why you pay attention to topics that fascinate you. Common App Essay Prompt #6 is a kind of window into your mind, showing how you process information and search for new sources of content and inspiration–or new positions to analyze and critique. 

How does your interest demonstrate your willingness to investigate deeper into a given topic or idea? Your essay answer should also reveal the scope and depth of your intellectual or artistic interests. For example, if you’re interested in studying biochemistry, you might discuss a concept that illustrates how far your knowledge in this core domain extends to actual current findings and dialogues in science. How does this passion impact what you are choosing to pursue academically?

Some key questions to think about:

  • What engages you generally? Do you have a thirst for some specific kind of knowledge? Or, what do you love to think about or engage in insofar as it nearly defines you as a person and thinker?
  • What exact steps have you taken to acquire new information about or experiences that are related to your topic of interest? Have you gone out of your way to turn your interest into an activity or even a kind of profession?
  • How do you actively enrich your knowledge when you find some appealing idea or topic? Hours spent weekly in the school library or with a teacher or mentor who can guide you in your academic pursuit could be great examples of this active enrichment.
  • What is so satisfying about the process of learning and applying your knowledge to the conversation or to the discipline itself?

And a few examples to get those wheels turning:

  • Did your learning about open source code move you to create a startup with a few like-minded peers? What related projects are you prepared to work on next?
  • Did your advertising firm internship experience inspire you to do benchmarking and market research to create your own ads (even if they were only for yourself)? 
  • On a Saturday afternoon, could you be found perusing the classics and learning Latin at the same time? How else have you interacted with this literature and language?
  • Perhaps you have an obsession with Italian food that is so strong it led you to study Italian cooking online through a master class. How is Italian food actually more scientific and interesting than the average person might think?

Whatever category or topic drives you to learn more and DO more, reflect on it, and then share it in colorful detail. This prompt deals with pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but also how this knowledge stokes your desire to challenge yourself in concrete ways.

How To Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

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.

This prompt was first introduced to the 2017-2018 Common App prompts. Although Prompt #1 is similar to “choosing a topic of your choice,” Common App Essay Prompt #7 offers students a lot of freedom and flexibility to illustrate their character, background, growth, worldview, or any other important central facets important to being a college student. You could really take any number of directions with this essay prompt–but as always, be sure that you are addressing the prompt fully and not being too trivial (or cliche) in your subject matter and how you tell your narrative.

More brainstorming questions to consider:

What should admissions know about you that they couldn’t gather from your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars?

  • Are there stories or issues that pop up often in your daily life that might give admissions officials some insight into who you are and what you stand for?
  • What is your “elevator pitch”? If you had five minutes in a room alone with an admissions officer, what are the key points you would relay to them to convince them you are the best candidate?
  • What would you bring to the campus of your target school that almost no other student could?

Some examples of potential subjects and their related prompts:

  • Do you have a health defect that impacts how you view or interact with the world and people around you? ( Q:Why is your personal perspective unique and special?)
  • Do you spend your free time teaching guitar lessons for free to children at the community center in your town? What do these interactions look like, what do they mean to you, and how have they affected your goals and direction? ( Q: Why is self-sacrifice a virtue and benefit in a college candidate?)
  • Did your parents give you a highly unusual name that has colored how you are seen and how you move about the world? What were their reasons for giving this name to you? How has it made you a better student and person?  ( Q: What does origin have to do with excellence?)

Some students find that choosing a “topic of your choice” is quite difficult because it offers too many options to choose from. But this should not prevent you from attempting this essay prompt if you have something interesting to say. You can use the other prompts as starting points to brainstorm ideas and free-write first. 

Now that you have read our handy-dandy prompt guide and understand what admissions is looking for from these prompts, you could very well have a notebook filled with ideas that are ripe for expansion by the time you sit down to write.

So don’t worry about having too many ideas, or not having enough ideas, especially at the beginning of the topic selection process. Once you figure out what you’d like to say (and maybe even after you draft the crux of the essay itself), see if your concept fits one of the first six prompts. Trying to tailor your essay to a more specific prompt option may inspire an interesting spin on the story you are trying to tell—one you may not have thought of otherwise. Form influences content. If, after careful consideration, your magic essay topic does not work within the confines of Prompts 1-6, you are in luck. The glorious, all-encompassing Prompt #7 will be here to catch you.

A Detailed Plan for Writing the 2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts

The Common App essay has a maximum word count of 650 words, and the Common Application site does not provide any further instructions on how to write the essays, such as organization and amount of time to spend on each essay section. Fortunately, we at Wordvice have some experience with crafting impactful essays. The following is a brief summary of how to approach the Common App essay, regardless of which essay prompt you ultimately choose to write on.

1. Brainstorming your Common App essay topics 

Brainstorming is crucial to writing any creative or personal essay. Before you even pick an essay prompt, consider a “high level” passion you have and all the ways in which you interact with it and how it shapes you as a person. For example, using “computer programming” as a central idea, you could stress your love of coding for various reasons and how that has impacted the projects you have done and continues to shape your self-identity (i.e., as a “programmer”). 

Another idea might be to discuss how you have developed in relation to your other family members. Perhaps you have a relationship with two of your siblings that has come to define you and how to interact with people in general: maybe your younger sister is a “dreamer,” while your older brother is a “technician,” and as a middle child, finding out where you belong in this family dynamic led you to a way of thinking that differentiates you from most other candidates. Formative stories could be quite interesting and instantly give the reader a window into who you are. 

To develop your own central idea, answer the four essential questions that apply to all Common App essay prompts:

  • Address your personality traits and anything else about you that tells something about who you are. This question can be answered in any number of ways: discussing a formative event or circumstance, a hobby, a time you overcame great difficulty, or a profound learning experience. 
  • Distinguish yourself by showing your uniqueness. You don’t need to explicitly state why you are different from others–rather, show this in your story details.
  • In paragraph form and using concrete details, give the reader a strong idea about what is important to you: family, work ethic, success, money, etc.
  • Don’t forget to include some of the essential qualities that will make you a great student: time management, great communication, interest in topics, etc. Again, you can evidence these strengths in your story details rather than telling the reader THAT you are good at X, Y, and Z.

Start brainstorming by writing down a few aspects of your personality or experiences you find central to your development. Think about some basic narratives you could tell that use different combinations of these aspects before you actually choose a prompt.

For instance, you could note that you are in love with classical philosophy, made varsity on the debate team, and are now working with a local community organizer on a political issue that is important to you. Then organize these experiences into a very rough structure that will make it easier for you to choose the best Common App prompt.

An example narrative from these aspects: You discuss a specific interest you currently have associated with this community work; discuss what you have learned and the failures and successes you have had; explore how you could make a bigger difference, if only you were a lawyer or official advocate, etc. In contemplating these personal aspects, you are already beginning the organization step, which is crucial to composing a great essay.

2. Choosing a Common App essay prompt that best fits you

There is no “best” common app essay prompt that will guarantee your acceptance into top schools. However, choosing a prompt that first you well will help you craft a more convincing narrative for admissions committees.

Consider the following prompt for instance (Common App Essay Prompt # 2):

This is a prompt that might work great if you can think of any salient challenges or obstacles that helped shape who you are today. Perhaps you were a high-profile member of your high school’s speech team, but you were sidelined by a financial crisis in your household. To help your family overcome this hardship, you got a part-time job and had to quit the speech team. However, your speech coach recognized your talent and dedication and allowed you to practice on your own time. 

This story would show that you are a dedicated son or daughter willing to help out your struggling parents and sacrifice your time to do so. It also shows that you have negotiation skills that help you overcome difficulties–a valuable personal trait for a college student.

Remember to show who you are in your essay!

One of the most common mistakes that students writing the Common App Essay make is not including enough of themselves in their essay content. Your admissions essay should be personal enough that a reader who knows you would identify the applicant as you even without looking at your name or application form details.

If you find yourself getting lost in what to write, don’t panic. This is a common feeling, as an admissions essay is often the first REALLY important personal essay candidates will have written. One method of removing your essay writer’s block is to ask yourself “why?” whenever you might not know what you write next.

For example, here is what your inner monologue might look like as you walk yourself through some questions: 

“I have always loved biology.”

  • Why do I love biology?

“Because I enjoy learning facts about living organisms.”

  • Why do I enjoy this?

“Because I have always wanted to take things apart and see how they work from the inside.”

  • Why is this important to who I am?

“It is indicative of my approach to all of my passions, including academic interests.” 

By following this kind of “stream-of-consciousness” dialogue, you can get to the bottom of some of your motivations, actions, fears, and other aspects that define a person’s identity. 

It can also help to bounce your essay ideas off of a friend or family member. Closer friends can make for a good sounding board since they know a lot about your personality, likes, skills, drives, and ambitions. This might help you choose the most appropriate essay prompt for you. 

3. Organizing your essay’s story

There are a couple of different approaches to take when it comes to organizing and outlining your essay. Feel free to be creative with your structure and use descriptions. You could even employ dialogue if it helps you tell a story better. 

However, your essay still needs to flow logically and naturally at the level of the sentence and even paragraph. You can achieve this by structuring chronologically, making a story arc, or beginning en media res (in the middle of your story) to hook the reader, and then moving back to a former period to unveil your complete narrative.

Some applicants prefer to take a wholly different and “experimental” approach to writing a personal essay. For instance, a student with a passion for theatre and fiction writing could write a “scene” in dialogue form (like a Samual Beckett play) that represents two parts of their personality. A mathematics expert could use an algorithm or algebraic formula as a metaphor for their life and draft their essay using that structure. 

Writing a more creative essay can certainly be risky, and it isn’t easy for most writers to pull off–even for professional authors! However, this just means that if your essay is well-executed and gets your point across, and shows the reader who you are, you will be highly rewarded for it in the end with high marks from adcoms.

4. Write a Common App essay that is clear and focused

  • Show, don’t tell–rather than telling the reader simply that you “love science,” prove it by describing how many hours you spend per week in your room reading science books.
  • Use lots of concrete detail–the more vivid detail, the better
  • Avoid using cliched language or stories–using a tired personal essay story is one of the most application essay errors writers make.
  • Make your tone fit the goals of the essay. For instance, if you are a straight-A student with no extracurriculars, you might want to use your essay to show the officials how much of a laid-back person you are in real life.

Final Thoughts on the Common App Essay Prompts and Answers

The main objective of any Common App essay is to impart a lasting, authentic portrayal of yourself on your reader. Whenever you feel stuck, refer back to the four Core Questions that a Common App essay must answer. And above all, always make sure that the ideas and analysis in your essay reflect the characteristics you want to reflect to the admissions officers at your target schools. 

We hope these essay-writing strategies and tips help you write a powerful and winning admission essay. And remember that, as one of the best admissions editing services out there, Wordvice is there for you after your draft with essay editing services to ensure that your essay is compelling and makes the maximum impact on college admissions officers. Check out the complete list of English editing and proofreading services we offer.

Best of luck writing your Common Application essay for the 2023-2024 school year! 

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The Comprehensive Guide to Common App Prompt 2

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Introduction

Are you a high school student on the journey to college? If so, you've likely come across the Common Application, a widely used platform that simplifies the college application process by allowing you to submit one application to multiple colleges. One crucial component of the Common App is the essay prompts, which provide an opportunity for you to showcase your unique qualities and experiences. In this comprehensive guide, we will delve into Common App Prompt 2 and equip you with the tools to craft a compelling essay that captivates admissions officers.

Picture this: a college admissions officer, surrounded by stacks of applications, sifting through an ocean of essays. How can you make yours stand out from the rest? With Common App Prompt 2, you have the chance to reveal a personal story that sets you apart, leaving a lasting impression on the reader. Let's dive into the details of this prompt and unlock the secrets to writing an unforgettable essay.

Understanding Common App Prompt 2

Common App Prompt 2 states, "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?"

Reflecting on a Challenge or Setback: To tackle this prompt effectively, begin by identifying a significant challenge, setback, or failure you've encountered. It could be a personal, academic, or extracurricular obstacle that tested your resilience. Remember, the focus should not be solely on the challenge itself but rather on how you responded and grew from it.

Impact and Growth: Detail the specific impact the challenge had on you. Did it change your perspective, values, or goals? Discuss the emotions you experienced and how the experience shaped your character and maturity. Admissions officers are interested in your personal growth and self-reflection.

Lessons Learned: Shift the narrative to emphasize the valuable lessons you learned from the experience. Did it teach you resilience, empathy, or adaptability? Highlight how these lessons have influenced your actions and choices since then. Demonstrating self-awareness and growth will make your essay compelling and authentic.

Crafting an Engaging Essay

Be Authentic: Share your story in your own voice. Use vivid descriptions, honest emotions, and personal anecdotes to draw the reader into your experience. Avoid clichés and generic language—your goal is to stand out from the crowd.

Structure and Organization: Create a clear and logical structure for your essay. Begin with a captivating introduction that hooks the reader and sets the stage for your story. Develop the body paragraphs by providing vivid details and showcasing your personal growth. Conclude with a reflection on how the experience has shaped you and your future goals.

Show, Don't Just Tell: Engage the reader by showing the impact of the challenge rather than simply telling them. Use descriptive language, dialogue, and specific examples to make your essay more engaging and memorable.

The Common App Prompt 2 provides an excellent opportunity for you to share a personal story that showcases your resilience, growth, and self-reflection. By following this comprehensive guide, you can navigate this prompt effectively, creating an essay that stands out and captures the attention of admissions officers. Remember, the key to a successful essay lies in your authenticity and the ability to connect with the reader on a deeper level.

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Common App Essay Prompt 2: Overcoming Obstacles or Challenges

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  • June 28, 2023

common app essay prompts a comprehensive guide

Write the Common App Essay Prompt 2 About Overcoming Obstacles or Challenges

Writing a good essay for your Common Application is tough.  You have to dig into your life and find interesting nuggets to share with perfect strangers. Common App essay prompt 2 asks you about some things that perhaps you’d rather not talk about:  your failures, your greatest challenges, and moments that just aren’t things you want to talk about all that much. So as we walk through how to answer this prompt, just know that we feel you.  We know talking about mistakes and flubs is not fun.  But Common App essay prompt 2 can lead to some of the best final products that can help you get into the school of your choice.

Common App Essay Prompt 2 Asks You to Reflect on Your Failures.

Here’s what Common App Essay Prompt 2 says:

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?

It’s the middle of the summer. While a refreshing glass of lemonade might be the ideal summer companion, the second essay prompt on the Common Application is a bit less inviting because it focuses on the subject we all wish we could avoid—but cannot: obstacles and challenges, failure and setbacks.

Let’s face it, failure is not a subject we enjoy talking about. But, it’s important to remember that obstacles can be opportunities to showcase personal growth and resilience. So, let’s dive into how to turn these challenges into opportunities and craft a winning Common App Essay!

Because this is such a loaded question to tackle, let’s start by breaking down the Common App Essay Prompt 2 into three distinct parts: Incident or Time , Affect , and Lessons .

Dissecting the Common App 2 Prompt About Obstacles and Failure

Let’s walk through the language of the prompt so we know what we can and should focus upon as we craft this essay.

Incident or Time

First, the prompt asks you to recount a time when you faced a challenge, obstacle, setback, or failure. The key word here is obstacle, along with its various synonyms that appear in the prompt: challenge, setback, failure. Very few things we achieve in life come easily on the first try. This means you’ll be sharing a specific event in time, so it should read like a story. Yes, it should be a very succinct story, but it should still have a beginning, middle, and an end. You want to include enough detail to make the story interesting and engaging, but not so long that it gets boring—or worse, go over the word count limit.

The goal here is to strike a balance between giving enough context and detail so the reader can follow your narrative, but not so much that it feels like a laundry list of events. You want to provide enough background information so the reader understands the true significance of the event. The story is the springboard of your essay, so it should lead the reader into what will follow. You want to make the story short and readable, as it’s not the heart of the essay but rather a tool to engage the reader and set the tone for the rest of your writing.

Remember, the goal is to use the story as a launchpad for your essay, not to get bogged down in the details or spend too much time on it. Keep it concise and focused, and use it to set the stage for what’s to come.

The last part of the Common App Essay Prompt 2 asks you to reflect on what you learned from this experience. How did this obstacle, challenge, or failure affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This is asking you how you looked at the situation just after it happened. In other words, this prompt is asking for your immediate reaction to the challenge, setback, or failure.

After experiencing a failure, the immediate impact can be profound. Often, something impedes our smooth movement toward our goals, and these roadblocks can bring up a range of emotions (some more negative than others). What was the impact of this failure? How did it make others see you? How did you react to this incident? You’re left wondering what happened, how it happened, and what the consequences will be.

Acknowledge your emotions. Did it make you angry, embarrassed, disappointed, secretly thrilled, or downright sad? What was the immediate impact of your failure? This is perhaps the hardest part of answering this prompt: you have to go into that mess of feelings that you’ve tried to put behind you. These emotions can be raw and intense, but the admissions office is asking you to share, so share you must.

After recounting the incident or time of failure and your immediate reactions to that experience, it’s time to delve into its longer term impact. How did it change you? How did it make others see you? How did you see yourself after this incident? Don’t be afraid to dig deep and truly reflect on your experience. Examine your emotions.

This is the heart of the essay, in which you tie the story to broader lessons you can draw from the story you tell. Whenever we fail–and we all do–it can be difficult to face the consequences of our mistakes. However, failure is an opportunity to learn and grow. By reflecting on our experiences, we can gain valuable insights that can help us navigate similar situations in the future. It’s important to remember that not all lessons come easily, and sometimes it takes time for them to sink in. But by being analytical and intentional in our reflection, we can extract meaningful lessons from our failures.

Seems easy enough, right? But this can be very difficult to articulate. So begin with a list: how many things can you pinpoint that you learned from this mistake? Think about how you can learn things at different times, too. Sometimes we learn things from failure immediately. Other lessons take longer to sink in. Again, you have to be analytical. I recommend that you come up with three solid lessons for this essay.

Perhaps you have redirected our energies in a new way. Perhaps you have developed a greater understanding of your own strengths and weaknesses. The key element to successfully answering this prompt is to reflect on how this failure affected you and what you did as a result of it. So, after you have told your (brief) story, you should do quite a bit of reflecting on how this experience led to personal growth or greater understanding of the world around you.

Common App Essay Prompt 2: Embracing Maturity and Optimism

Lastly, the ultimate direction of this essay should be positive and optimistic. You should not worry too much about the nature of the mistake: we’ve all made them, and admissions officers, frankly, have seen them all. The point of this is to allow you to demonstrate your maturity, your humility, and your ability to turn a bad experience into a good one.

As they say, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

Essays About Challenges, Obstacles, and Failures That Worked

With years of experience guiding and supporting hundreds of students, we have had the privilege of witnessing their remarkable journeys filled with challenges, obstacles, and even failures. These moments of struggle and disappointment have become pivotal opportunities for growth and self-reflection. These essay examples feature students skillfully utilizing challenging incidents, obstacles, or failures to craft compelling narratives.

  • This example stands out because it encapsulates a specific incident that holds personal significance for the student. The student’s heartfelt narrative of forgetting to send her great-grandfather a hand-made birthday card not only reveals her deep care and thoughtfulness but also demonstrates the profound effect it had on her emotionally. Through this experience, she learned the invaluable lesson of the importance of honoring commitments and cherishing loved ones, inspiring her to prioritize and express her appreciation more intentionally in the future.
  • The student’s experience of being short and facing daily challenges becomes an incident that profoundly affects their sense of self-worth and determination. Despite societal misconceptions and physical limitations, they learn the valuable lesson of embracing their differences and using their voice and confidence to overcome obstacles.
  • The student started with an incident in a dermatologist’s office in which he was offered the choice to slow his balding by increasing his risk of cancer. After agonizing, he began to ask himself why he was so affected by the prospect of being bald. Gradually, he analyzed the reasons for his worry, and realized that he was being a bit silly. The lesson he learned is that we all have blemishes, and that we all age, and ultimately his hair is not a reflection of who he is as a person.

Essays About Challenges, Obstacles, and Failures That Do Not Work

In our years of experience, we have observed students who have attempted to write about challenges, obstacles or failures in ways that just do not work very well. While we do believe that pretty much anything can be made into a good essay, the following examples are demonstrations of weaker approaches to this prompt.

I tried to make a Hail Mary pass in the final seconds of the state championship football game, but I missed the mark. I felt terrible about it. But I learned that I can rise from disappointment.

This example is just a bit too trite. If the writer could deepen the reflection, it might work: how desperation can lead one to make wrong decisions, especially under pressure. Even better, if the writer could tie the rotten pass with other desperate and wrong decisions he has made, and how he recognizes this tendency in himself and is working to be more deliberate and less impulsive. Unless the writer can get to this depth of analysis, the story is going to make the essay superficial.

I studied hard for my calculus test, but I got a C on it. I was mortified. As a result, I learned to study harder and reach out for help earlier.

This approach is just too common, too mundane for your college essay. It focuses on scholastic performance, not on your development as a person. Pretty much every student has been challenged academically, and most of us have had to redouble our efforts when our performance slacks. It’s hard to see how this “failure” could become a solid college essay.

One possible exception might be the student who was failing a course or two but then was diagnosed with a learning difference—which meant that the student began studying and preparing in completely new ways–which, in turn led to greater success and the result that the student gained a much more positive–and lasting–vision of herself as an intelligent, capable student. In this case, the scholastic “failure” was a symptom of a larger “challenge”: the learning difference. But again, the success of this approach would depend on the depth of the analysis of the experience and the “lessons” that the student took away from the experience. If it’s merely a lesson that one must study harder and better, it’s not likely going to be a great essay.

Can I get help with my Common App Essay Prompt 2, and If So, Who Can I Turn to for Assistance?

Yes, you can certainly get help with your Common App essay! Writing a strong college essay can be a challenging and intimidating process, and it’s perfectly normal to seek guidance and support along the way.

At Great College Advice, we offer a wide range of services designed to help students with every aspect of the college application process, including writing and revising their Common App essay. Our team of experienced counselors and writing coaches can provide personalized feedback, guidance, and support to help you craft an essay that is compelling, authentic, and effective.

Whether you need help generating ideas, organizing your thoughts, or polishing your final draft, we are here to help. We offer a variety of service packages to fit your specific needs and budget, including comprehensive application counseling, essay coaching, and hourly consultations.

To learn more about our services and how we can help you with your Common App essay, please visit our website at GreatCollegeAdvice.com . We look forward to working with you!

Additional Resources for Common App Essay Prompt 2

  • In this insightful video, Dr. Mark Montgomery offers expert advice and practical tips for tackling the Second Common App Essay Prompt. With a clear focus on this loaded question, he provides guidance on effectively addressing each component. Gain valuable insights and strategies for crafting a compelling response to Common App Essay Prompt 2.

For additional writing help, check out our Common App Essay Series for in-depth guidance on various topics. Our expert tips and insights will help you showcase your unique experiences and perspectives in a compelling way. Whether you’re just starting your essay or simply refining it, our series is designed to help you every step of the writing process. Make your Common App Essay stand out!

  • Common Application Essays: What are they?
  • Writing about Background Story
  • Writing About Failure
  • Writing about Questioning Beliefs and Ideas
  • Writing about a Period of Personal Growth
  • Supplemental Essays
  • Why Our College? – Supplemental Essay Question

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First-year essay prompts

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Common App has announced the 2023-2024 essay prompts.

Below is the complete set of common app essay prompts for 2023-2024..

  • 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.

We will also retain the  optional community disruption  question within the Writing section. 

Looking for tips on how to approach the essay? Check out our blog !

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, which common app essay prompt should you choose.

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College Essays

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On one hand, the Common Application has seven essay prompts to choose from, which is great news: No matter what your story, you're sure to find a good fit! On the other hand, having seven prompts means you can write seven different kinds of essays, each with its own potential pitfalls and clichés to steer around.

In this article, I'll outline two totally different approaches to figuring out which Common App essay prompt is right for you and help you brainstorm possible ideas for each. I'll also talk about what makes great college essays great and give examples of what you want to avoid when crafting your essay.

What Are Application Essays for, Anyway?

Before you can choose an essay prompt, before you figure out what you're going to write about, it helps to know what the goal of your writing is. Think about it: if your goal were to give someone instructions, you'd write really differently than if your goal were to describe a landscape.

So What Is the College Essay Supposed to Do?

Admissions officers want to know the things they can't find in the numbers that make up the rest of your application. They want to know about your background, where you come from, and what has shaped you into the person you are today. They want to see your personality, your character, and your traits as a person. They want to learn your thinking style and perspective on the world. They want to make sure you have the ability to creatively problem-solve. And finally, they want to double-check your maturity level, assess your judgment, and get a general sense of whether you would be a good college student—whether you would thrive in an environment where you have to be independent and self-reliant.

So think about the college essay as a way of letting the admissions office get to know you the way a close acquaintance would. You have to let them in and share real thoughts, feelings, and some vulnerabilities. You definitely don't need to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets, but you should avoid showing only superficial details or, even worse, a façade.

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Disclosing your closest-held secrets is not the goal of a college essay; however, you  do want to share enough information to give the admissions staff a sense of your personality, motivations, and values.

How to Brainstorm Ideas for Each Common App Prompt

There are two big-picture ways of coming up with essay ideas.

First, maybe you already know the story you want to tell. Perhaps you experienced something so momentous, so exciting, or so dramatic that you have no doubt it needs to be in your college application.

Or maybe you need to approach finding a topic with some more directed brainstorming. There's nothing wrong with not having a go-to adventure! Instead, you can use the prompts themselves to jog your memory about your interesting accomplishments.

Approach #1: Narrating Your Exciting Life

Does something from your life immediately jump into your head as the thing you would have to tell anyone who wanted to know the real you? If you already know exactly which of your life experiences you are going to write about, you can develop this idea before even looking at the prompts themselves.

You can ask yourself a few questions to see whether this is your best brainstorming option:

Is there something that makes you very different from the people around you?

This could be something like being LGBT in a conservative community, having a disability, being biracial, or belonging to a minority group that is underrepresented in your community.

Has your life had a watershed moment? Do you think of yourself as before X and after X ?

For example, did you meet a childhood hero who has had an outsized impact on your life? Did you suddenly find your academic passion? Did you win an award or get recognized in a way you were not expecting to? Did you find yourself in a position of leadership in an unusual time or place?

Did you live through something dramatic, such as a crisis, a danger you overcame, or the complete upheaval of your circumstances?

Maybe you lived through a natural disaster, made your way home after being lost in the woods, or moved from one country to another?

Was your childhood or young adulthood out of the ordinary? Were you particularly underprivileged or overprivileged in some unusual way?

For instance, did you grow up very poor or as the child of a celebrity? Did you live on a boat rather than in a house or as part of a family that never stayed long in one place because of your parents' work or other circumstances?

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If you've experienced a dramatic event that changed your life or face unusual obstacles on a daily basis, approach #1 may work well for you.

Approach #2: Brainstorming for Each Prompt

If you don't have an unusual life experience or a story that you absolutely know needs to be told, don't worry! Some of the very best personal essays are about much more mundane situations that people face. In fact, it's better to err on the side of small and insightful if you don't have a really dramatic and unusual experience to write about.

Let's go through the prompts one by one and think of some ways to use more ordinary life events to answer them.

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 broadest of the seven prompts. Almost any life experience that you write about could fit in this category, but you need to be careful to avoid writing the same essay as every other applicant.

Brainstorming Ideas

Background. Did a family member or friend have a significant influence on your life? Did you grow up in a particularly supportive and tolerant—or narrow-minded and intolerant—community? Were your parents not able to provide for you in the expected way? Did you have an unusual home life?

For example, my family came to the U.S. as refugees from Russia. By the time I went to college, I had lived in five different countries and had gone to nine different schools. This wasn't a traumatic experience, but it certainly did shape me as a person, and I wrote about it for my graduate school application essay.

Identity. Are you a member of an interesting subculture (keep in mind that violent or illegal subcultures are probably best left off your college application)? Do you strongly identify with your ethnic or national heritage? Are you a committed fan of something that someone like you would be expected to dislike?

Interest. In this category, esoteric interests are probably better than more generic ones because you don't want your essay to be the hundredth essay an admissions officer sees about how much you like English class. Do you like working with your hands to fix up old cars? Do you cook elaborate food? Are you a history buff and know everything there is to know about the War of 1812?

Talent. This doesn't have to be some epic ability or skill. Are you really good at negotiating peace between your many siblings? Do you have the uncanny ability to explain math to the math challenged? Are you a dog or horse whisperer? Are you an unparalleled mushroom forager?

Pitfalls to Avoid

Insignificance. The thing you describe has to be "so meaningful" the application "would be incomplete without it."

Redundancy. If the interest you write about is a pretty common one, like playing a musical instrument or reading books, make sure you have an original angle on how this interest has affected you. Otherwise, your essay runs the risk of being a cliché, and you might want to think about skipping this idea.

Bragging. If you decide to write about your talent, be aware that by focusing on how very good you are at playing the cello, you run the risk of bragging and coming off as unlikable. It's much better if you describe a talent a little more off the beaten path. Or if you do end up writing about your excellent pitching arm, you may want to focus on a time when your athleticism failed you in some way or was unsuccessful.

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The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

In essence, you're being asked to demonstrate resilience. Can you get back on the horse after falling off? Can you pick yourself up and dust yourself off? This quality is really important to colleges, so it's great if you have a story that shows off your ability to do this.

The key to this essay is the "later success" part. If all you went through was failure and you learned no lesson and changed no approach in the future, then don't use that experience here.

Did you lose a game because of a new and poorly rehearsed strategy, but later tweak that strategy to create success? Did you not get the lead in the play, but then have a great experience playing a smaller part? Did you try a new medium only to completely ruin your artwork, but later find a great use for that medium or a way to reconceptualize your art? Did you try your best to convince an authority figure of something only to have your idea rejected but then use a different approach to get your idea implemented?

Too much failure. Don't focus so much time on the "failure" half of the equation that you end up not giving enough space to the "later success" and "learn from the experience" parts.

Too little failure. Don't diminish the negative emotions of failure because of a fear of seeming vulnerable.

Playing the victim. Avoid whining, blaming others for your failure, or relying on others to create your success. You should be the story's hero here.

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

The key to this prompt is the reflection or insight that comes from the question, "What was the outcome?" Challenging deeply held views is not always a good idea. Writing about a negative outcome and how you reacted could demonstrate your maturity level and ability to tolerate views different from your own.

Remember, the belief or idea could be anyone's: yours, a peer group's, or an authority figure's. Did you stand up to your parents' conservative or traditional values, for instance, about gender norms? Did you get your friends to stop bullying someone?

Also, the belief or idea doesn't have to be extremely serious or big in scope. Did you make dressing up for Halloween cool for teenagers in your town? Did you transform your own prejudice or bias (e.g., about athletes having interesting thoughts about philosophy)?

Causing offense. If you have a story that deals with super hot-button issues, such as abortion or gun control, you need to be careful to keep your essay's tone respectful and unaggressive. This is a good thing to check by letting other people read your drafts and respond.

Avoiding negative feelings. Challenging beliefs means pointing out that what a person thinks now is wrong. It can also be quite lonely and isolating to be on an unpopular side of an issue. It's important to include these negatives into the story if they fit.

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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?

“Reflect” and “surprising” are the keywords in this prompt. You need to write about a specific thing that another person (or persons!) has done for you that made you feel grateful—but your response shouldn’t stop there. To make your response really shine, you also need to reflect on the experience or, in other words, explain what it meant to you, why your feelings about it surprised you, and why. From there, you’ll need to round out your essay by connecting what that person did for you to the person you are today. Did that surprising act change you in some way? Did it make you a better person? This is your chance to show colleges what your values are when it comes to connecting with other people.

Remember how the prompt specifies that you should write about something someone did for you that made you happy or thankful in a surprising way? That wording is nudging you to think outside the box. For instance, most people are thankful for birthday presents or a friend who picks up the check at lunch. You need to think of something more out-of-the-box—something you didn’t necessarily expect to make you feel gratitude.

It’s entirely possible, for instance, that someone helped you out of an ethical dilemma or really difficult situation. Has someone ever helped you when you didn’t necessarily want help? Have you ever been in a situation where, if someone else hadn’t stepped in, something bad could have happened? Did that event motivate you to change your behavior in the future? Were you persuaded to own up to your mistake and do better next time?

An event in which the act of kindness or the person who performed it was unexpected is a great option here as well. Did someone you dislike do something kind for you? Did a stranger help your family out financially? Did your best friend come in from out of town when you had a bad injury to throw you a surprise party? Did a student who’s more popular than you invite you into their group at school?

Being disingenuous. Don’t exaggerate the effects of the surprising act of kindness you choose to write about. Similarly, you don’t want to write about an event that didn’t truly mean something to you and affect your life in a tangible way. Stick to writing about the truth of what happened in the situation and how you felt about it, and your response will be gold.

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

Going from childhood to adulthood doesn't usually happen after one accomplishment or event but is more of a process. This question is asking you to find one step along the process and explain how it fits into the long thread of your growing up.

You don't necessarily need to tell the story of some big, official ceremony. Instead, you can focus on a small moment that showed you that you were older, more mature, and more responsible than you had been before.

Did your family make up its own adulthood initiation ceremony? Were you finally able to beat your mom in chess or shooting hoops, and did that change how she treated you? Did your dad cry in front of you for the first time, making you realize that you were old enough to handle it? Were you suddenly left in charge of younger siblings, and did you rise to the task instead of panicking? Were you allowed to make a big financial decision for the first time and found yourself taking it very seriously?

For example, during my junior and senior year, my mom traveled extensively for work, and my dad lived several states away, so I lived by myself for weeks at a time. It was exhilarating and made me feel independent and mature. But it was also lonely and burdensome because I had to take care of everything in the house by myself. Living alone was a huge part of my life, shaped me into the person I was, and made me see myself in a new light as a grown-up.

Sameness. Avoid the milestones that happen to everyone: driver's license, bar/bat mitzvah, etc., unless they happened to you in some extraordinary way.

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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?

The idea of this prompt is to discuss something you're passionate about. It's a great opportunity to showcase a skill and show off your writing skills because your passion should come across on the page. Pay special attention to the "What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?" aspect of this prompt; how you learn and from who can say a lot about you.

Hopefully, you should know the things that captivate you right off the bat. Try to think of the things that you turn to not just for fun but that de-stress you or give you the ability to learn.

More importantly, understand why this topic, idea, or concept is important to you. It should have a deeper meaning in your life and say something about who you are as a person.

Some other questions you can ask yourself to find a topic include the following: What unique hobbies or interests do you have? What challenges have you overcome in pursuing this topic, idea, or concept? What have you discovered about yourself in relation to this topic, idea, or concept?

Don't miss the overall meaning. Even if something is captivating to you, it's not necessarily captivating to others. Make sure you focus on what the topic, idea, or concept means to you and why that matters rather than getting lost in explaining it and how you feel about it.

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.

This is one of the most popular prompts from the Common App. Remember that even though this prompt is open-ended, you should discuss something meaningful that shows growth, reflection, or something unique about you.

A lot of students have unique experiences that have influenced them throughout their lives. Try to think of people or events that have changed your perspective in a big way.

However, the topic itself doesn't have to be about a big moment. Lots of things can be life-changing, and it's perfectly OK to write about something that happened in your daily life as long as it moved you and has affected you in a way that you can put on paper.

In this prompt, insight is key to a great essay. Reflect on the moments that defined your perspective or events from which you learned something. This prompt should be about something personal to you and can be about family, friends, or an experience.

Ask yourself if there's a time, event, or person that has stuck with you and what it or they meant to you. Once you have some ideas, ask yourself why. What does it say about you to have changed as a result of that experience, and how might others relate?

Being too general. Insight can be found in moments both big and small. But for this prompt, try to avoid going too big and going too small. You don't want to write about something mundane and have to stretch it to make it mean something. That said, it can be tough to boil down an experience that's really significant, like being an Olympic athlete, into a short essay. Personal and insightful are the key.

How to Turn Your Idea into an Essay

Now that you've come up with some possible ideas, how do you go about actually writing the essay? Before you write, you need to have a plan. I like to think about planning out personal essays that I've written by first imagining them as enjoyable movies. You want your reader to walk away entertained, to remember the characters and story, and to want to see more from the same creator. So how do good movies do those things?

Character arc. Good movies have main characters that undergo some kind of change or transformation. Who is the main character of your essay? It's you! The you of your essay has to start one way and end up another: more mature, with a different mindset, or having learned a lesson.

Conflict or transformation. Good movies also have challenges. The main character doesn't simply succeed and then keep on succeeding; that's boring. Instead, the main character either overcomes an external obstacle or changes in some way from beginning to end. Your essay also needs this kind of story drive. This can come from an obstacle you overcame, an outside force that stood in your way, a disability or weakness you experience, or a seemingly unsolvable problem you face. Or it could come from a before–after scenario: you used to be, think, or act in one way, but now you've changed into a different or better person.

Dramatic set piece. In good movies, the conflict or transformation isn't just told to the audience. They are acted out in scenes set in specific locations, with dialogue, character close-ups, and different camera angles. In your essay, your story also needs to show you dealing with the conflict or transformation you face in a small, zoomed-in, and descriptive scene. Think spoken dialogue, sensory description (i.e., what did you see, smell, hear, taste, or touch?), action verbs, and feelings. This scene should function as one illuminating example of what you overcame or how you changed.

Happy ending. Movies that are fun to watch tend to have happy endings. The hero resolves the conflict, emerges a better person, and looks forward to future accomplishments. Your essay also needs to have this kind of closure. This is really not the time to trot out your nihilism or cynicism. Instead, your essay should end on a moment of self-understanding and awareness. You lived through something or you did something, and it affected you in a way that you can verbalize and be insightful about.

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Coming up: the story of you, starring you, written and directed by you.

Which Prompt Should You Choose?

So now that you've brainstormed some topic ideas and a game plan for turning those ideas into an essay, how do you narrow it down to the one ?

Reverse-Engineer the Perfect Prompt

If you used the first brainstorming approach, try to formulate a big-picture idea about the story you're telling.  

Is the character arc primarily you learning something about yourself or making peace with your background? Sounds like a good fit for prompt #1.

Is the conflict about you struggling to do something but eventually succeeding? That goes well with prompt #2.

Does the story focus on a mind being changed about an idea? You want to go with prompt #3.

Does your happy ending involve you changing something for the better, fixing something, or solving a problem? Then your essay is ready for prompt #4.

Is your character arc about growing up, gaining wisdom, or becoming more mature? Then you're probably answering prompt #5.

Look in Your Heart

If you used the second brainstorming approach, get ready to get a little cheesy. Really listen to what your gut feelings are telling you about which of your ideas is most compelling and which will get your emotions flowing on the page. Readers can tell when you're writing about something you care deeply about, so it's worth it to find the topic that has the most meaning to you.

Not sure how to tell? Then this is the time to ask your parents, teachers you are close to, or some good friends for their input. Which of your ideas grabs their attention the most? Which do they want to hear more about? Chances are that's the one that an admissions officer will also find the most memorable.

What's Next?

Want a detailed explanation of why colleges ask you to write essays? Check out our explanation of what application essays are for .

If you're in the middle of your essay writing process, you'll want to see our suggestions on what essay pitfalls to avoid .

When you start working on the rest of your application, don't miss what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

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How to Answer the 2023/24 Common App Essay Prompts

How to Answer the 2023/24 Common App Essay Prompts

Importance of Common App Essay

Common App Prompts for 23/24

How to Answer the Common App Prompts

Common App Essay Guidelines

Navigating the Common App essay prompts for 2023/24? This guide breaks down each prompt, offering insights, tips, and strategies to craft a compelling narrative. Plus, learn about the unchanged prompts from last year and how Crimson Education's mentors   — graduates from top universities   — can guide you in telling your unique story. Dive in to enhance your application and stand out in the admissions process.

The Importance of the Common App Essay

The college application process can be a whirlwind of forms, deadlines, and decisions. At the heart of this journey for many students is the Common Application, a uniform application form accepted by numerous colleges and universities.

The Common App streamlines the application process, allowing students to apply to multiple institutions using a single platform. One of the most crucial components of the Common App is the personal essay .

The essay isn't just another box to tick off in the application process ; it's a pivotal opportunity for submitting a more compelling and memorable application.

While grades, test scores, and extracurriculars provide a quantitative view of an applicant, the essay offers a qualitative glimpse into their character, aspirations, and experiences . It's the space where students can transcend numbers and voice their unique stories, challenges, and dreams.

The Common App essay can account for up to 30% of the importance of a college application, based on its weight amongst all other factors.

What US universities look for in your university application

In a sea of applications, the essay is the student's chance to showcase their personality, values, and the experiences that have shaped them . It's a canvas where they can paint a vivid picture of who they are and what they bring to the table.

In essence, the Common App essay is more than just words on a page; it's a reflection of the individual behind the application. Your essay is a vital opportunity to stand out as an applicant — with the power to turn an application from ordinary to extraordinary.

What’s new in 2023/24?

You might notice that the 2023/24 essay prompts have remained unchanged from the previous year . This consistency offers an advantage, as students can draw from a wealth of advice and examples from past years.

5 Common App Essay Tips

Overview of the 2023/24 Common App Essay Prompts

The Common App essay prompts serve as a lens through which applicants can share their unique stories, experiences, and perspectives. For the 2023/24 application cycle, the prompts are as follows:

  • Personal Background or Talent : 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.
  • Learning from Challenges : 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?
  • Questioning Beliefs : Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • Acts of Kindness : 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?
  • Personal Growth : Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • Passion and Curiosity : 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?
  • Topic of Your Choice : 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.

Additionally, the Common App will retain the optional COVID-19 question within the Additional Information section . In this section you can share any meaningful personal experiences related to the pandemic and relevant to your applicant profile or background, which might include:

  • Illness or loss within your family or support network
  • Employment or housing disruptions within your family
  • Food insecurity
  • Challenges to mental and emotional health
  • New responsibilities, such as part-time work or caring for family members
  • Difficulties in accessing necessary technology or a conducive study environment
  • Shifts in your major or career interests due to the pandemic's influence

How to Answer the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023/24

For a detailed look at each prompt, visiting the official Common App website is always a good way to make sure you’re following the most accurate and up-to-date information and guidelines before you spend lots of time writing!

How Do You Answer Common App Essay 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.

Delving into Your Roots

This prompt beckons you to explore your cultural roots, upbringing, and defining experiences . To spark ideas, consider:

  • Where is your family from, and where did you grow up?
  • Were there cultural elements that played a significant role in your life?
  • What were the defining moments in your upbringing that shaped your identity?
  • Were there specific individuals, artworks, or philosophies that influenced your growth?
  • How did your environment or community mold your interests or talents?

Self-Reflection and Personal Evolution

Reflecting on your identity and its evolution can offer rich material for your essay. If you've experienced shifts in your identity or perspective, delve into the reasons behind these changes and their implications for your future aspirations . A significant event or realization that altered your worldview can be a compelling narrative focus.

Descriptive Lists as Brainstorming Tools

If you're grappling with where to start, jot down phrases or values that resonate with your identity . Words like "compassion," "resilience," or "innovation" can serve as anchors for your essay, guiding your narrative around pivotal experiences that exemplify these traits.

Narrative Depth Through Personal Stories

Select a story or incident from your life that encapsulates the essence of the chosen descriptive word . For instance, if "cooperation" resonates with you, narrate an instance where teamwork within your family or community led to a significant achievement.

Distinguishing Your Narrative

While the overarching theme of identity might be common, your unique experiences and reflections will set your essay apart . Remember, this essay is an opportunity to showcase aspects of your life and character not evident elsewhere in your application . Avoid redundancy and strive for fresh, engaging content.

Prompt 1 of the Common App essay challenges you to introspect and articulate how background circumstances or experiences have had a unique impact in shaping your identity, self-awareness, character, or goals .

While covering a broad spectrum is tempting, focusing on poignant moments and genuine reflections will make for a more compelling narrative. As you craft your essay, remember to be authentic and let your individual voice shine through.

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The Essay That Got Me Into Brown University

How Do You Answer Common App Essay 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 2 requires identifying meaningful obstacles in your life, articulating lessons learned from them, and sharing how the lessons pave the way for future success.

Identifying Genuine Challenges

While it's tempting to narrate minor setbacks, such as narrowly avoiding tardiness, these stories often lack depth and don't offer insights into your character or values. Instead, focus on significant challenges that had a profound impact on your life:

  • Did you experience a major culture shock, like relocating to an unfamiliar place?
  • Were there struggles in building connections or finding friends in a new environment?
  • Did you grapple with personal tragedies, health issues, or other profound challenges?

Embracing Vulnerability

It's natural to want to present your best self, but genuine growth often stems from acknowledging failures and setbacks . Demonstrating how you initially struggled, made mistakes, or even failed but then learned and grew from those experiences showcases maturity and resilience.

Highlighting Personal Growth

Detail how you navigated the challenge. What catalyzed your transformation? Instead of merely stating that you overcame an obstacle, delve into the lessons it taught you .

  • How have these lessons equipped you for future challenges?
  • Would you approach similar situations differently now?

Expanding the Horizon

Challenges aren't always personal. They can encompass broader issues affecting your community, nation, or even globally. Discussing how you and those near to you collectively navigated such challenges, supported one another, and emerged stronger can offer a unique perspective.

Prompt 2 offers an opportunity to demonstrate personal growth, resilience, and the ability to derive lessons from challenges . While the obstacle itself is significant, the focus should be on your journey of navigating it, the lessons it taught you, and how those lessons have shaped your outlook and approach to future challenges.

How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 3?

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

Prompt 3 is an opportunity to highlight a decisive realization that led you to question or challenge established beliefs while showcasing your ability to act with courage and in accordance with a deep conviction.

Challenging Authority and Norms

This essay explores your journey in standing up against established norms or beliefs . It could be a personal belief ingrained since childhood or a societal norm you felt needed challenging.

  • Did you confront a deeply-rooted cultural or religious belief?
  • Were you influenced by literature, cinema, or personal interactions that made you question your long-held views?

Courting Controversy with Care

While the prompt encourages you to delve into potentially controversial topics, it's essential to approach them with sensitivity and respect . Whether it's politics, culture, or religion, ensure your narrative remains personal, focusing on your journey of introspection and growth.

Navigating Uncertainty

This prompt is as much about the questions as it is about the answers. Reflect on:

  • How did you grapple with the uncertainty that came with challenging established beliefs?
  • Who were your pillars of support or guidance during this period?
  • Are you still on a journey of discovery, or have you found a new perspective?

Attributes of Open-mindedness

Your response will give admissions officers insights into your ability to think critically, remain open-minded, and evolve in your beliefs – qualities highly valued in the academic world.

Prompt 3 offers a unique opportunity to discuss personal growth stemming from challenging established norms or beliefs . While the topic you choose is significant, the emphasis should be on your journey of introspection, the challenges you faced, and how it has shaped your current perspective.

Common App Essay Guide Part 1: Ideation

How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 4?

"Prompt 4: 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?

Prompt 4 allows you to turn positivity in your life circumstances — as opposed to adversity — into an opportunity to showcase your capacity for gratitude and how gratitude shapes your character and actions.

The Element of Surprise:

Begin by reflecting on moments when someone's unexpected act of kindness caught you off guard.

  • Was it the sheer selflessness of the act, or was it the combination of the gesture and its unexpected nature that evoked gratitude?
  • How did this act redefine your understanding of family, friendship, community, or even the benevolence of strangers?

Delving Deeper into the Impact

While the act itself is significant, the emphasis should be on its ripple effect on your life .

  • How did this gesture reshape your worldview, actions, or aspirations?
  • Did it inspire you to pay forward the kindness or make changes in your life?

Reflect Beyond the Surface

While narrating the act and your immediate feelings is essential, delve deeper into introspection . Reflect on:

  • The broader implications of the act on your understanding of human nature.
  • How did it influence your interactions with others or your contributions to your community?
  • The long-term impact on your values, beliefs, and aspirations.

Prompt 4 offers a unique opportunity to discuss the transformative power of unexpected acts of kindness. While the act itself is the starting point, your essay should focus on your journey of introspection, the lessons learned, and how your capacity to cultivate gratitude impacted your character, perspectives, and actions in meaningful ways.

What I wrote about for my Common App Essay

How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 5?

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

Prompt 5 specifically focuses on moments of realization and their profound impact on shaping one's understanding of self and others.

Choosing the Right Story

Begin by reflecting on pivotal moments in your life .

  • Was there a significant challenge you overcame or an event that reshaped your perspective?
  • Perhaps a seemingly small realization had profound implications for your worldview.
  • While you can choose any event, ensure it's a story that hasn't been extensively covered in other parts of your application.

Depth Over Breadth

While the event or accomplishment is the starting point, delve deeper into its implications.

  • How did this experience reshape your values, beliefs, or aspirations?
  • What lessons did you derive, and how have they influenced your subsequent actions or decisions?
  • Remember, it's not about having all the answers but about showcasing your ability to introspect and grow from experiences.

Navigating the Grey Areas

Life is complex, and personal growth often stems from navigating its intricacies.

  • Avoid painting a picture of having achieved complete clarity or understanding.
  • Emphasize the ongoing nature of personal growth and the continuous journey of understanding.

Prompt 5 offers a unique opportunity to discuss the transformative power of experiences, accomplishments, or realizations . While the event itself is the catalyst, the focus should be on your journey of introspection, the lessons learned, and how it has influenced your perspective and actions.

How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 6?

"Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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 6 focuses on topics or ideas that captivate you to the point that you lose track of time — perhaps as evidence of what kind of topics and lines of inquiry and thought align with your passions, are most natural and compelling for you personally.

Selecting the Right Passion

Begin by reflecting on what genuinely excites you.

  • Is it an ideology that resonates with your core beliefs?
  • An academic topic that you've delved deep into?
  • A fascination with a particular artist, book, or historical event? Ensure that your chosen topic is something you're truly passionate about, allowing your genuine enthusiasm to shine through.

Authenticity Over Pretense

Avoid the trap of selecting a topic merely because it sounds impressive. Admissions officers can discern genuine passion from pretense. The essay should be a reflection of your true interests , not a showcase of academic prowess.

Delving into Personal Experiences

Discuss how your chosen topic has influenced various facets of your life.

  • How has it shaped your daily routines, conversations, or even dreams?
  • Have you taken specific actions or initiatives to further explore this interest?
  • How has this passion influenced your personal growth or future aspirations?

Prompt 6 offers a unique opportunity to discuss what genuinely captivates you . While the topic itself is the starting point, the emphasis should be on your personal connection to it, the experiences it has given you, and how it has influenced your perspective and aspirations.

5 Common App Personal Essay Red Flags

How Do You Answer Common App Essay Prompt 7?

"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.

Prompt 7 is the most open-ended of all, allowing you to venture into any topic of your choice, making it both an exciting and challenging option.

Embracing the Freedom

This prompt offers unparalleled freedom, but with that comes the responsibility of selecting a topic that is both engaging and meaningful .

  • Reflect on experiences or ideas that have profoundly impacted you.
  • Consider moments of personal growth, challenges overcome, or unique perspectives you hold.

While the temptation might be to cover a broad topic, focus on specific moments or ideas . Dive deep into introspection, exploring how these moments have shaped your worldview and aspirations.

Engaging Your Personal Voice

Your unique voice is your most potent tool here.

  • Ensure your narrative is genuine and resonates with your personal experiences and beliefs.
  • Avoid trying to fit into a mold or writing what you think admissions officers want to hear.

The Journey of Growth

Colleges value growth and potential. Reflect on:

  • How your chosen topic or experience has influenced your personal growth.
  • The lessons you've derived and how they've shaped your aspirations and future endeavors.

Prompt 7 offers a unique opportunity to venture into any topic of your choice . While the freedom is exhilarating, ensure your essay remains focused, personal, and reflective of your growth and unique perspective.

General Guidelines for Answering Common App Essay Questions

  • Word Count : The Common App essay has a word limit of 650 words. It's essential to stay within this limit to ensure your essay is read in its entirety. While brevity is key, make sure you provide enough depth and insight into your chosen topic.
  • Be Authentic : Admissions officers read thousands of essays. What stands out is authenticity. Write in your voice and be true to your experiences. Avoid trying to write what you think they want to hear.
  • Proofread : Spelling and grammar mistakes can detract from the content of your essay. Always proofread your work, and consider having a teacher, mentor, or trusted individual review it.
  • Avoid Repetition : Your essay should provide new information or insights that aren't found in other parts of your application. It's an opportunity to showcase a different side of you.
  • Stay Focused : While it might be tempting to cover multiple topics, it's better to focus on a single story or idea and delve deep into it. This provides clarity and depth to your narrative.
  • Reflect : The best essays not only narrate an event or idea but also reflect on its significance. Discussing how it influenced your beliefs, values, or future aspirations adds depth to your essay.
  • Draft and Revise : Rarely is the first draft the best version. Write multiple drafts, refining your story and message with each iteration.
  • Avoid Controversial Topics : While it's essential to be genuine, be cautious about discussing highly controversial topics unless you can approach them with sensitivity and depth.
  • Answer the Prompt : It might seem obvious, but ensure your essay answers the prompt. Admissions officers want to see that you can follow instructions while also showcasing your unique perspective.
  • Start Early : Don't wait until the last minute. Starting early gives you time to think, draft, and revise, ensuring your essay is the best representation of you.

Final Thoughts

The college application process is a unique opportunity to showcase who you are beyond grades and test scores. The Common App essay is a testament to your journey, passions, and the experiences that have molded you.

Everyone has a distinct story; this platform is your chance to narrate yours. Approach it with authenticity, introspection, and a genuine desire to convey your essence.

Not sure if your essay captures your essence? Want to ensure it stands out in a sea of applications? Get your essay reviewed by our team of experts to ensure it resonates with admissions officers.

And if you're at the beginning stages of your college application journey, consider booking a free consultation with our seasoned college counselors.

We're here to guide you in building a holistic application that amplifies your chances of acceptance at top-tier universities. Your dream college is within reach; let us help you get there.

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College Application Essays and Admissions Consulting

How to Answer The Common App Essay Prompt #2

by Winning Ivy Prep Team | Jan 5, 2023 | Common Application Essay Guide

common app essay prompt 2

How to Answer The Common App Essay Prompt #2:

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

This is my favorite essay prompt.

I’m not saying it’s the easiest Common Application Essay prompt, but it’s a great one to showcase various aspects of your personality that are pretty enticing to admissions officers.

So, what do admissions officer want to see in an admissions essay, you ask?

Well, they want to see that you’re likeable. They also want to see that you’re resilient and gritty. Why? Because college is HARD, dude.

Really, college is difficult. Don’t get me wrong — college is super fun, but it will challenge you on many dimensions — academically and socially. Thus, showing that you’re mature and able to navigate and bounce back from challenges is extremely attractive in the eyes of an admissions officer.

You see, it’s no fun to read about someone who’s seemingly perfect. So, don’t portray yourself as such. Everyone who has amounted to anything has failed at some point.Stories about bouncing back from challenges and obstacles tend to make for a juicy story.

Alright, so, there are “good” failures and “bad” failures for this essay. Let’s unpack this a bit more.

How to Write About Failures for The Common Application Essay

common app essay prompt 2

Common App 2019/2020 Essay Prompt #2: Sample Essay

Below is a sample essay for the Common App’s second 2019/2020 essay prompt:

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?

If you need help writing an essay for the Common App or another college application, contact our Essay Writing Service or send us an email at [email protected] !

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common app essay prompt 2

How to Write the Common Application 2016 Prompt #2: Failure and Success

common app essay prompt 2

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Phew. Read it again.

Okay. This isn’t so hard, right? Throughout this process, if you ever feel overwhelmed or stressed just repeat that to yourself. This is not impossible. The point of the personal essay is not to trip you up or trick you. Instead, it is the Common Application  giving you a golden opportunity to share your voice, personality, and a snapshot of your experiences with the colleges to which you’re applying. Be honest and genuine, and you’ll do just fine. That, and follow this guide!

The Question: What is it asking? Should I answer it?

Before we launch into explaining the prompt, let us begin with this: if the personal statement prompts seem vague and slightly similar to each other, you’ve caught on. They are. These prompts are designed to encourage students to talk about themselves, to show adcoms personality and style through writing, and to allow high schoolers to exhibit their wide array of personalities and experiences comfortably and adequately. Thus, they are not designed to elicit specific responses, but rather a broad range of creative pieces.

For this reason, choosing which question you’ll answer is much less important that deciding how you will answer it. Nonetheless, if you’re unsure of whether or not this is the question you should be answering, read on for an analysis of what it’s loosely asking of you.

Of course, if there is a particular story about yourself that you wish to share that involves what you consider to be a major, life-defining failure that you think has played an important part in forming you as you are today, this is the perfect opportunity to talk about it. In such a scenario, the prompt becomes similar in nature to the first personal essay prompt on the Common App. This is okay. Like we said, the lines differentiating all of the personal essay prompts from each other blur a bit.

More broadly, though, this prompt is asking you to reflect on times in your life when things did not go as planned and to show that you learned something from those incidents. Thus, it positions you well to show humility and maturity by not only admitting that you are less than perfect (as we all are) but also reflecting on your mistakes and rendering them learning opportunities.

In this vein, many students will write about “failures” that were not so grave or may not seem particularly life-changing—like failing to wish your best friend a happy birthday one year or forgetting to take out the trash after being asked to do so by your father. Even in these instances, the potential lessons to be learned are endless if you are willing to think creatively and imbue a little bit of cheeky humor in your personal statement. If you think of yourself as someone who is particularly reflective or able to derive lessons from various life experiences, this is certainly a prompt you would be good at writing.

Words of Caution

Before we go any further, we need to address some common pitfalls you should avoid while brainstorming. The first major mistake you can make is forgetting the prompt, which is easier to do than it sounds.

Somewhere between drafting your personal statement and pressing the ‘submit” button on CommonApp.org, it is easy to lose sight of the text of the prompt you are answering. This is understandable, since once you become embroiled in writing a 650-word incisive description of yourself, details can fall to the wayside. That said, it’s extremely important to remember the first sentence of Prompt #2: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success.”

This lesson is stated in no uncertain terms. And thus, if you decide that it is true, the insight that you draw from your “failure story” must go beyond the story itself and delve into further analysis. In other words, the moral of your essay cannot simply be that your failure was fundamental to a later success—this will impress no one. Your insight must go beyond this, focusing—as the prompt suggests—on a lesson you learned from your mistake.

If you choose, you can take issue with the opening statement itself, perhaps using the lesson you learned to emend it. If you come to a conclusion by the end of your essay that a supposed failure was actually a success in and of itself, and you want to argue that there is no such thing as a failure at all, that is acceptable.

On the other hand, we caution you from feeling pressured to discuss a failure that has led to a “future success” that you have already achieved. If making mistakes is part of the journey to ultimate success, it is perfectly reasonable for you to still be in the process of reaching your goal, and speak about the process you’ve made towards your goal instead of a final result.

The Process

Now that you’ve mustered the courage to choose a personal essay prompt, and you know what this specific prompt is asking you to do, it’s time to get down to business and start writing.

Step 1: Brainstorm

The first step to writing any good personal essay is to put some serious thought into what you will write, and the best way to do this is to force yourself to come up with a handful of possible essay topics. Brainstorming is a great way to ease into starting an essay , because it can be as casual as you want. Sit down with a fresh notepad (or new Word document) and start jotting down some notes. These don’t need to sound good, nor do they need to be in full sentences, nor do they even need to be chronological. The point here is to simply get yourself thinking—save the nuances of language and niceties of commas for steps 4 and 5.

Still just a bit daunted? Let’s start brainstorming together, shall we? Let’s pretend you were in a meeting with one of our essay specialists. The first thing we’d do is start you thinking about the various levels of failure and achievement you have experienced and/or achieved in your life. Since we obviously cannot do that verbally with you here, we’ll do the next best thing: provide you with the brainstorming prompts we would give you in a consultation. Below, you’ll find these—try to come up with at least some response to each one.

  •         Can you think of any “failures” (major or minor) that you have experienced in your life? Hint: the word “failure” is in quotes here because it is open to interpretation. For some, major, dictionary-definition “failures”—big mistakes or missteps—may come to mind easily. Regardless of if this is true for you or not, it can be helpful to take notes on the minor failures in your life too, as well as incidences when you considered yourself a failure but others didn’t (or vice versa). This is all to say that you have license here to interpret the word “failure” as you wish. It should also serve as a reminder that you are allowed—and even encouraged—to take a creative approach to answering this question and any other on the Common App. For each “failure” you enumerate, list the lesson(s) you learned from it.
  •         Alternatively, can you think of any successes that you are particularly proud of? Why do you consider them successes, and why are you proud of them? What failures can you think of that led up to this particular success? Did those failures hamper or aid you in reaching your ultimate achievement? For each “failure” you enumerate, list the lesson(s) you learned from it.
  •         Do you have any as-yet-unrealized goals or successes? What are they, and why do you strive for these things? What failures have you encountered thus far in trying to achieve those successes? What failures (if any) do you anticipate as you continue to pursue these goals? For each “failure” you enumerate, list the lesson(s) you learned from it.
  •         Is there anything about yourself or your character that you feel must make it into your personal statement—in other words, something integral to your identity that the adcom will not hear about if you do not include it here?

Step 2: Determine Your Story Arc

At some point, you’re going to have to commit to a topic of discussion for your personal essay, and sooner is better than later—so you’re going to do it now, in Step 2. Fear not! If you are not completely sure that you have chosen the right topic, you’re not alone. Choosing the topic for your personal essay can feel like a huge decision with a lot riding on it, but the fact is that this decision is not as final as it feels in this moment. Your essay is going to change so much in the interim between your first draft and final revision. We promise that by the end, it will communicate everything you want it to.

The key here is to make use of your brainstorming notes—the more notes you have, the easier this step will be. So that they stand out, highlight all of the “failures” you enumerated over the course of the first three prompts, paying special attention to the listed lessons you were able to pull from each one. Ultimately, you should try to choose to write about a failure based more on the lessons you learned from it than the failure itself.

If that is confusing, think about it this way. Suppose you are deciding between two topics. The first is the story of how you were late to ballet class (and thus allows you to discuss your most substantial extracurricular activity), but it doesn’t provide much of a platform for discussing a major life lesson (you learned how important it is to be punctual, and that’s about it). The second is harder to discuss because you’re ashamed about it: you weren’t there for a friend when they needed you, and consequently, you ruined a friendship.

As you are deciding which failure to discuss, look for overlap in your notes. If you are choosing between telling two stories—one recounting how you learned to be responsible and the other recounts that plus something else —go for the second one, the one that allows you to cover more ground and tell more about yourself. In the end, that’s the point of the personal essay.

Once you’ve decided on the failure you want to talk about, create an outline that includes three parts: 1) an introduction that sets up a tension or problem you need to solve (likely, the failure you will be discussing), 2) a climax (perhaps the moment when you learned from your failure or its ramifications affected you), and 3) a conclusion (this can be an insight that you are able to have in hindsight or a connection to some larger theme in your life).

Step 3: Draft

To execute this step correctly, you have to really commit. In the drafting phase of the personal essay, your job is to simply get words on the page.They do not need to be polished. They do not need to sound smart. They simply need to exist.

Try to get down your whole story, start to finish, replete with details about the failure and what you learned from it. When you feel stumped or lost, return to the prompt. If you feel yourself drifting off topic, reread the question to remind yourself what you need to be answering. Do whatever it takes to say what you need to say. Then, close your computer and walk away.

Step 4: Rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. Edit. Rewrite some more.

At least 24 hours after completing Step 3, Phase 4 can officially begin.  In this phase you will be shaping and re-working what you’ve already done. Luckily, since you already have words on the page to work with, this need not be so daunting.

The first order of  business is to make sure that you have touched on everything you wanted to discuss—the failure you experienced, the lesson(s) you learned from it, and your responses to the fourth brainstorming prompt (important details about yourself that you strongly believe should make an appearance in your personal statement).

Once you can ensure that all the content you want to include in your essay has been written down, you can play around with structure, style, and voice a bit. Work on your lead-in—perhaps you want to start with a dramatic one-liner, a quote, or a funny anecdote. Maybe you want to shock your reader by explaining your failure in the very first sentence. Or even, perhaps, you want to start your essay in the middle of a story, and circle back to the beginning at a later point.

Meanwhile, the less creative approaches to editing your essay are just as important. It should be a given that you need to edit for correct grammar and spelling, and you should likewise carefully consider your word choice here. Show off your vocabulary, but maintain your voice (adcoms know the difference between a person who has an impressive vocabulary and a person who has a thesaurus).

Step 5: Edit for word count, keeping the piece at 650 words or less.

This should be your last step, because your limited space should not be a factor in your decision to include or exclude important aspects of your story or explanations about yourself. Our essay specialists encourage their students to use their words efficiently so that they can say as much as possible in their personal statement, and we’re giving the same advice to you.

So write your essay with every vital detail intact, and then go back with a red pen once all of your thoughts are written down. This way, you’ll have written down everything you want to say, and all that will remain for you to do is say it in fewer words.

Hopefully armed with this guide, you’ll be on your way to writing an effective response to the Common Application’s second prompt that will demonstrate your abilities, experience, and personality to colleges in a compelling way.

Happy writing!

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