How to Write the Common App Essay Prompt #7, 2019-2020

Hello. We made it and we’re back with a final blog post on the 2019-2020 Common App prompts. We’ve analyzed and dissected all of the other Common App essay prompts from this year for you, so we’d highly recommend reading those posts if you haven’t already read them. But let’s get right to it because Prompt #7 is our personal favorite.

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.

We know. It’s a lot. It’s open, it’s non-specific, and it’s unguided. And that’s exactly why we love it. We want to break it down for you and help you on your journey to a completed Common App by taking you through exactly how to answer this question, step-by-step. We promise it’s not that complicated. Follow our yellow brick road to that green check mark next to “Writing” on the Common App below and you’ll find that you’re excited about and done with your essay. We’ll take you through how we tackle this question with each of our students below.

TKG’s Three Pre-Writing Steps:

Step 1: Resist the urge to submit something you’ve already written.

We know it’s *technically* allowed because they literally wrote “it can be one you’ve already written,” but trust us, that creative writing piece that got you into the UPenn Kelly Writers House summer program is not going to cut it for this. We need something new, fresh, and exciting.

Step 2: Get your brain out of the world of 5-paragraph essays.

It’s kind of insane to us that we’re only taught to write one type of essay for literally our entire education. We’re going to save you some time: it needs to be thrown in the garbage when it comes time for college admissions essays. Rid your brain of the topic sentence, the transition sentence, and the thesis. That’s not where we live now. We’re going to write a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end (though not necessarily in that order). Not an essay. When we explain this to students, they get defensive because a 5-paragraph essay is all they’ve ever known. But it’s structured and rigid, which is exactly the opposite of what we want the admissions reader to feel when they read your college essay.

Step 3: Have fun.

Get into the headspace of easy, fun, and authentic. Your reader is already on your side—you don’t need to prove anything or defend the story that you’re presenting. Take a couple of hours and go watch Finding Nemo. It’s a great story. If you don’t know it, it’s the story of a fish-child named Nemo who is raised by a single dad. Nemo gets lost and his dad goes on a wild adventure to find him. His dad makes friends along the way and ultimately finds Nemo. Their collective community and support network is stronger as a result of his journey. We all clap. Nemo’s dad didn’t need to prove that Nemo was lost. He was just lost, and his dad had to find him. The story was in the journey. That’s what your essay is. A paragraph is just a paragraph about exactly what it’s about. Nothing more, nothing less. Take a breath. Let’s continue onto the writing portion of this process.

TKG’s Three Phases of Writing:

Phase 1: Brainstorming

We complete the brainstorm phase in different ways with different students. Complete these writing prompts (don’t overanalyze word count, sentence structure, or grammar—just write). Here are some options: 

  • You’re hosting a dinner party with 6 guests. Who are you inviting and what’s on the menu?

  • Every day when you get home, you rant to your pet about how your day was. You just had a horrible day, were in the middle of your rant, and all of a sudden it started talking back to you. What did it say?

  • You have a whole day to yourself with no budget or rules. How are you going to fill your day, from start to finish? Starting with—what time will you wake up? Tell us everything.

  • Would you rather be feared by all or loved by all? Explain.

  • You’re leaving your house with one item and you can’t ever return. What’s the item and why?

  • Make a list of the things that make you happy. Nothing is too small.

  • Make a list of the things that make you unique. Nothing is too silly.

  • Text three friends and ask them to describe you in three adjectives. Talk to them about examples of when you displayed these characteristics and why. Ask your family, too. 

We want to emphasize this last point before moving on. This process cannot exist in a vacuum. We encourage you to talk to your friends and family throughout your brainstorming process to get an idea of how you operate in this world. We have no doubt that your family has stories about you that you might not immediately remember that could lead to great essay topics. These are all meant to get you into a creative and calm headspace and to provide yourself with an abundance of content.

Phase 2: Writing  

Pick something from the above brainstorming process that is simple, straight-forward, and speaks to you. Remember: you have nothing to prove. A great story isn’t necessarily defined by what happens, but rather by how it’s told. The simplest story is often best because it leaves the most room for creativity. So, we guide our students towards choosing something that is small to expand upon that highlights something crucial about their personality. For example, your breakfast ritual, your love of dogs, how your friends rely on you for sage advice, treasured alone time. Think small and bring the reader deep. Use your word count to include strategic and compelling details as opposed to explain to the reader the context of the event or story.

Looking at the contents of your brainstorming efforts, there should be a few options at this point. When you do the brainstorming work, which includes having conversations and asking questions to those around you, what matters becomes clear rather quickly.

Always keep your reader in mind when you’re writing. Your reader, in this case, is a person who probably isn’t more than 10 years older than I am (my picture is right next to this post, for reference). They’re also incredibly bored by 96% of essays and are begging to be jolted out of the mental fog that forms after reading 133 essays about a “revelation that occurred during a volunteer trip to [insert country here].”

Phase 3: Re-writing, editing, and editing more

Don’t be afraid to play with form once you understand the story that you want to tell. If you see your life as a movie, write a scene. See how it feels. Put it down and re-visit your essay tomorrow. There’s no rush (unless you’re reading this on October 30). It’s going to look different and call for more of this and less of that. Keep tweaking it. You can also write more than one essay. Very little is wasted in this process because nearly every sentence or paragraph can be re-purposed for something—a supplement, the additional information section, your resume…the list goes on.

We know that this can seem overwhelming, but know that if you follow these steps and take the time to have some great conversations, you will find yourself with a great essay topic. If you still feel stuck, we have lots more to say on this topic. Any essay that is genuine, thoughtful, and well-written is going to knock the admissions readers’ socks off. You’re great! Now get writing.


And as always, let us know if you have any questions or want us to help you brainstorm. That’s why we’re here.