Popular Application Essay Topics
What No One Will Tell You About the New Common App Essay Prompts
Stacey Brook, College Essay Advisors
The 2016-17 Common Application platform went live last week, and in the ensuing weeks you will undoubtedly read a lot about the Common App ’s personal essay. You will read about essays that worked and didn’t work. You will read about what each prompt means, which prompts are better than others, and what admissions officers are looking for in these 650-word representations of each applicant. The one thing you won’t read is that the Common App’s essay prompts don’t really matter .
I’ll say it again: The prompts don’t matter.
Here’s why. The admissions essay’s true purpose is to tell admissions officers something they don’t know about you and that isn’t represented anywhere else on the application. The essay should aim to reveal something about your true passions, interests, and goals while giving a taste of your personality. Reading your essay should give admissions officers insight into what it would be like to have a conversation with you. What makes you tick. What makes you, you.
While an essay prompt can serve as an inspirational launch point for a brilliant topic or story idea, over the years I have found many students get too caught up in trying to decide which prompt to tackle before they even understand which of their stories and characteristics they want to put on display. It’s like choosing the icing flavor before you decide you’re going to bake a cake (instead of, say, cooking spaghetti).
Decide what meal you are going to serve admissions first. What, of the many things you have to offer, will be the most satisfying tidbit you can lay down in front of someone who wants to know you better?
At College Essay Advisors, we call this approach to ignoring the prompt in favor of concentrating on the story, “The Backwards Brainstorm.” The Backwards Brainstorm involves four simple steps:
1. Take a cursory look at the Common Application’s essay prompts to get generally acquainted with them. (Hi prompts! You seem nice!)
2. Forget about the prompts. Forever. Okay, just for a while, but still: say goodbye. (Sayonara!)
3. Collect your best stories and ruminate on your defining characteristics. What doesn’t admissions know about you that you want them to know? What moments in your life have shaped you and made you the person you are today? Run through some exercises to find that magic topic. Nail down that central idea or, at the very least, a few frontrunners. (Gotta catch ‘em all.)
4. Dig those prompts out of cold storage. (Prompts! I missed you! Sort of.) Read each one with your essay topic in mind. Choose the prompt that most closely fits the tale you aim to tell. Eh, voilà! You are now telling a story that both serves you well and meets all of the Common App’s requirements. You are basically a genius.
In the end, any story that will showcase your value to admissions will inevitably be able to be backed into one of the Common App essay prompts; because the whole point of these prompts is to help you identify insightful, revealing stories about yourself. In fact, a good personal essay topic often fits within the confines of multiple Common App essay prompt options. You might even identify a new and unexpected spin on your subject while considering it through the lens of a prompt you never expected to use (and may not have even considered in the first place). Over the years, so many surprises have revealed themselves through the Backwards Brainstorm, perhaps most of all that it works every time.
Stacey Brook is founder and chief advisor at College Essay Advisors . Her most recent article for us was, “ To Get Your Kid Into a Great College Do These 7 Things This Summer. “
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Popular College Application Essay Topics (and How to Answer Them)
Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year’s Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.
The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).
2018-19 Common App Essays
Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application , which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following 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?
- 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.
- 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.
Read More: Get Expert Essay Advice From Former Admissions Officers!
Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts
Prompt #1: Share your story.
Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.
Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.
You’re trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.
Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.
Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.
Prompt #4: Solving a problem.
This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!
Prompt #5: Personal growth.
Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller “aha” moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth.
Prompt #6: What captivates you?
This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The “what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn’t an afterthought—it’s a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.
Read More: QUIZ: Test Your College Knowledge!
Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.
This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.
More College Essay Topics
Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:
Describe a person you admire.
Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn’t need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .
Why do you want to attend this school?
Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like “to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills,” and use details that show your interests: “I’m an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation.” Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college’s website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.
Read More: 5 Ways College Application Essays and High School Essays Are Different
What is a book you love?
Your answer should not be a book report. Don’t just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?
Again, be honest in answering this question—don’t choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn’t inspire you.
What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?
Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn’t previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it’s better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it’s shown you about yourself.
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