The Best Common App Essay Prompt To Write

The Common App essay prompts for the 2018-2019 college application season are out!!! If you’re not as excited as we are, we understand. While college application season is something we look forward to every year, it’s something most students will only deal with once. The plus side of this is that college applications can be very stressful (but we can help with that). The downside is that it means that every little decision can feel like something absolutely enormous. You only have one chance (unless you transfer), so it’s easy to become crippled by indecision.

The Common App essay prompt is one of the biggest culprits when it comes to tripping kids up. It’s THE essay. The only essay that every college will see; that is the cornerstone of your application, and that is one of only a handful of opportunities to show a school who you really are. So, of course, the people over at the Common App come up with 7 different prompts for you to choose from. Because that’s nice to do to you. But it’s ok because we’re going to help you wade through the pile of prompts to pick the one that is right for you.

Just so you aren’t holding your breath, there really is only one prompt you should choose regardless of who you are as an applicant. That said, we want you to know why not just the what. So below we’ve listed the prompts, along with the pros and cons associated with each one. If you’d rather just get to the point, scroll down to the bottom of the list!

The Prompts

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.

  • Pros: The goal of your essay is to show a piece of yourself that the admissions officers will not see otherwise. Often, your background or identity is a huge part of this.

  • Cons: Writing an essay solely about your identity can risk a loss of storyline, scene, and narrative. The essay should not be an autobiography, and this essay prompt invites a slide into a timeline of your life.

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?

  • Pros: A challenge or failure can be an awesome way of framing an essay because it shows fallibility.

  • Cons: Picking this question is can sometimes be inviting a ‘woe is me!’ narrative that makes you seem like either a crybaby or totally un-self-aware. Writing about failure is awesome, but dwelling on failure can be depressing and unflattering.

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

  • Pros: Challenging the system is great!
  • Cons: This question can lead students towards writing about a big issue, rather than zooming in on the small things that are more universal, but also more personal. No one likes a teenager on a soapbox, so ranting about confronting big ideas is dangerous.

4. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

  • Pros: Framing your essay around a moment, like a precise challenge or research experience, can be a great strategy.
  • Cons: This is another place where narrative can be lost in the weeds of explanations, and an essay without narrative is boring.

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

  • Pros: You’re awesome! We want colleges to know that!
  • Cons: Bragging is a really really bad idea, and this prompt is like a big waving flag that says “BRAG!” all over it. You also risk repeating information that should be going in the activities section of the common app. 

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?

  • Pros: This question is all about passion, and colleges want students that are passionate.

  • Cons: If you’ve read our blog posts on Common App essays (or have just been paying attention while reading this one), we are all about narrative. This prompt is great for showing enthusiasm, but it also invites a nerd rant instead of a story.

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.

  • DING, DING, DING - You have a winner!!!

Well, sort of. #7 is your prompt, but we like to edit it a bit. You will not submit an essay you have already written. You could have written the most brilliant essay of all time, but you are not using a pre-written essay. Your essay needs to be well-written, but that's the first step. It absolutely needs to show a part of yourself. This needs to be a unique piece of work. 

If it’s about showing a part of yourself, why can’t you pick one of the prompts (1-6) that specifically ask you to show a piece of yourself? WELL, there are two reasons:

  1. The prompts are cramped, and you shouldn’t be. Your essay needs to be focused, but you also need room to be creative in form and structure.
  2. The prompts include clear questions that you need to answer in your essay. On the surface, this seems helpful, but it actually adds a whole new challenge on top of writing a great essay about yourself —you have to answer the question(s) to the tee.

So what do you do? Use this prompt:

“7 (revised). Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can not be one you've already written.”

Now that you have your prompt, what do you write about?

YOU. You can write about a failure, you can write about a challenge, you can write about something you are completely obsessed with, or you can write about a tiny moment that showed you something greater. We like the last option best. You can write about anything, as long as the centerpiece of the story is you. Look for soft skills and traits you have. Think about why your friends call you when they have a problem. Dissect your morning routine for idiosyncrasies. 

Wondering where to start? Check out some of our posts on essay writing, then contact us. We’re pros at this!

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