Note: as soon as the 2021-2022 Common App information and prompts become available, we will update the following information accordingly.
If you’re reading this, then you’ve probably started the very exciting process of applying to college—and chances are you may be a little overwhelmed at times. That’s OK! The key to getting into the right college for you is taking each step of the application process in stride, and one of those steps is completing the Common App and the Common App essay.
In this post, you’ll learn what the Common Application essay is, how to write one (including a free checklist to help you with the process), example essays, and much more. Let’s get started!
Table of Contents
Familiarize Yourself with the Prompts
Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)
Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively
Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly
Be Mindful of Voice and Tone
Revise and Proofread
What is the Common App, and More Importantly, What is the Common App Essay?
The “Common App,” short for the Common Application, is a general application used to apply to multiple college undergraduate programs at once. It’s accepted by hundreds of colleges in the United States as well as some colleges internationally.
The idea is that the Common App is a “one-stop shop” so you don’t have to complete a million separate applications. That said, plenty of colleges still require their own application components, and the Common App, as user-friendly as it aims to be, can still feel like a bit of a challenge to complete.
Part of the reason the Common App can seem intimidating is because of the Common App essay component, which is required of all students who submit a college application this way. But never fear! In reality, the Common App essay is easy to ace if you know how to approach it and you give it your best.
So without further ado, let’s take a look at anything and everything you need to know about the 2021-2022 Common App essay in order to help you get into the school of your dreams. We’ve also created a downloadable quick guide to writing a great Common Application essay.
Quick Facts on the 2020-2021 Common App Essay
Below are just a few of the short and sweet things you need to know about the 2020-2021 Common App essay, but we’ll elaborate on some of this content later in this post.
|Common App Cost:||There is no fee to complete the Common App, but nearly every college has its own set of necessary submissions fees.|
|Common App Essay Length:||250-650 words|
|Number of Required Essay Questions:||One (but specific colleges may request more than that in their applications)|
2020-2021 Common App Due Date
|You have until 11:50 pm in your timezone on the day a college application is due to submit the Common App, including the Common App essay.|
|What are the 2020-2021 Common App Essay prompts?||Read all 7 prompts here! (More on this below!)|
How Do You Write a Common App Essay?
The million dollar question about the Common App essay is obviously, “How do I actually write it?!”
Now there’s something to keep in mind before exploring how to compose the Common App essay, and that’s the purpose of this task. You may be wondering:
- What are college admissions boards actually looking for?
- Why are you being asked to write this essay?
College admissions boards want to see that you can compose a compelling, well-crafted essay. After four years of high school, you’re expected to be able to craft a clear and concise piece of writing that addresses a specific subject.
So yes, you’re actually being evaluated on your essay writing skills, but the purpose of the Common Application essay is deeper than that—it’s to present the type of person and thinker that you are.
Regardless of which prompt you choose, colleges are trying to get a sense of how thoughtfully and critically you can reflect on your life and the world around you.
And furthermore, they want to get a sense of who you are—your interests, your personality, your values—the dimensional aspects of you as an applicant that simply can’t be expressed in transcripts and test scores. In short, you want to stand out and be memorable.
That said, there is no exact formula for “cracking the case” of the Common App essay, but there are plenty of useful steps and tips that can help you write a great essay.
(In a hurry? Download our quick and concise handout that sums up some of the keys to the Common App essay!)
1) Familiarize Yourself With the Common App Prompts and How to Approach Them
Below are all of the 2020-2021 Common App prompts. Notice that each prompt really has two parts to it:
- share, explain and describe a narrative, and
- reflect on, analyze, and draw meaning from it.
Let’s take a look.
Prompt #1: A snapshot of your story
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.
- Discuss a background, identity, or interest that you feel is meaningful to who you are and/or that or sets you apart from others.
- Reflect on why this attribute is meaningful and how it has shaped you as a person.
Prompt #2: An obstacle you overcame
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?
- Recount a time you faced a challenge, setback, or failure.
- Reflect on how this affected you, what you learned from it, and if it led to any successes later down the line.
Prompt #3: A belief or idea you questioned or challenged
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Explain a time that you questioned a particular belief or way of thinking.
- Elaborate on what prompted this questioning, what the outcome was, and why this outcome was significant.
Prompt #4: A problem you’ve solved or would like to solve
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.
- Describe an issue of importance to you (no matter how big or small), and what steps you either took or would take to identify and implement a solution.
- Explain why this problem or issue is significant and why solving it is important to you. Consider how the process of identifying and solving this problem has led to your personal growth and/or transformed your life significantly.
Prompt #5: An accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe an accomplishment or event that sparked personal growth for you.
- Reflect on the nature of this growth and/or a new understanding you gained in the process.
Prompt #6: An interest so engaging you lose track of time
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?
- Discuss a topic, idea, or interest that is so engaging to you that you lose track of time when focused on it.
- Reflect on and explain why this interest is so important to you, and your method of learning more about it.
Prompt #7: An essay 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.
- Discuss any subject matter or philosophical question of interest to you.
- Reflect on the implications of this subject or question, and how it has shaped you, transformed you, impacted your life, etc.
Now keep in mind that to some degree, it doesn’t actually matter which prompt you choose to answer, so long as you write and present yourself well. But you obviously want to pick whichever Common App essay prompt speaks to you most, and the one you think will provide you the meatiest and most meaningful material.
This is an outstanding guide to choosing the right Common App essay prompt, but as a rule of thumb, the “right” prompt will probably stand out to you. If you have to rack your brain, for example, to think of a challenge you’ve overcome and how the experience has shaped you, then that prompt probably isn’t the right one.
Authenticity is key, so choose the prompt you can answer thoroughly.
Whether you know immediately which prompt you’re going to choose or not, do yourself a huge favor and brainstorm. Take out a notebook and jot down or free write all of the ideas that spring to your mind for as many of the prompts that you’re considering. You might be surprised what ideas you generate as you start doing this, and you might be surprised which ideas seem to have the most content and examples to elaborate on.
Also, it’s important to note that your subject matter doesn’t have to be highly dramatic or spectacular. You don’t have to recount a near-death experience, an epic overseas adventure, a 180-degree turn of faith, etc. Your ordinary life, when reflected upon thoughtfully, is interesting and profound.
3) Answer the Question (and Stay on Topic!)
This may sound painfully obvious, but for some of us, it can be hard to stay on topic. Each prompt is posed as a question, so don’t lose sight of that and let your essay devolve into a story about yourself that never really gets at the heart of the prompt.
As you’re drafting your essay—say after each paragraph—pause and refer back to the question, making sure each paragraph plays some part in actually responding to the prompt.
4) Structure and Organize Your Essay Effectively
The Common App essay isn’t like many of the other argumentative essays you’ve been taught to write in school. It is argumentative in that you are essentially arguing for why you are a good candidate for a particular college, using your personal experience as support, but it’s more than that.
The Common Application essay is essentially a narrative essay that is reflective and analytical by nature. This means that regardless of which prompt you select, you’ll be sharing something personal about yourself, and then reflecting on and analyzing why what you shared is important.
And even if this isn’t an essay format that you’re accustomed to writing, you can still rely on your knowledge of basic essay structures to help you. You’ll still need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.
Let’s talk about those three pieces now.
The purpose of an introduction is 1) to grab the reader’s attention and compel them to continue reading, and 2) to introduce the reader to the general subject at hand.
So the most important part of the introduction is a unique attention-getter that establishes your personal voice and tone while piquing the reader’s interest. An example of a good hook could be a brief illustrative anecdote, a quote, a rhetorical question, and so on.
Now, you may be wondering, “Do I need a thesis statement?” This is a great question and the simple answer is no.
This is because some students prefer to hook their reader with a bit of mystery and let their story unfold organically without a thesis sentence “spoiling” what is to come. This doesn’t mean you can’t have a thesis sentence, it just means you don’t need one. It just depends on how you want to build your personal narrative, and what serves you best.
That said, your essay does need a greater message or lesson in it, which is another way of saying a thesis. You just don’t necessarily have to write it out in the introduction paragraph.
It might help you to keep a thesis in mind or even write it down just for your own sake, even if you don’t explicitly use it in your introduction. Doing so can help you stay on track and help you build up to a stronger reflection.
Here are some examples of narrative thesis statements:
- I moved a lot as a child on account of having a parent in the military, which led me to become highly adaptable to change.
- The greatest obstacle I’ve overcome is my battle with leukemia, which has taught me both incredible resilience and reverence for the present.
- An accomplishment that I achieved was making the varsity volleyball team, which has made me grow tremendously as a person, specifically in the areas of self-confidence and collaboration.
As discussed earlier, there are two parts to each prompt: explanation and reflection. Each part should be addressed throughout the essay, but how you organize your content is up to you.
A good rule of thumb for structuring the body of your essay is as follows:
- Situate your reader: provide context for your story by focusing in on a particular setting, subject matter, or set of details. For example, you may frame an essay about an internship at the zoo with the phrase, “Elephants make the best friends.” Your reader knows immediately that the subject matter involves your interaction with animals, specifically elephants.
- Explain more about your topic and how it affected you, using specific examples and key details.
- Go deeper. Elaborate and reflect on the message at hand and how this particular topic shaped the person you are today.
Note that while there are no set rules for how many paragraphs you should use for your essay, be mindful of breaking paragraphs whenever you naturally shift gears, and be mindful of too-long paragraphs that just feel like walls of text for the reader.
Your conclusion should flow nicely from your elaboration, really driving home your message or what you learned. Be careful not to just dead-end your essay abruptly.
This is a great place to speculate on how you see the subject matter informing your future, especially as a college student and beyond. For example, what might you want to continue to learn about? What problems do you anticipate being able to solve given your experience?
5) Write Honestly, Specifically, and Vividly
It may go without saying, but tell your own story, without borrowing from someone else’s or embellishing. Profound reflection, insight, and wisdom can be gleaned from the seemingly simplest experiences, so don’t feel the need to stray from the truth of your unique personal experiences.
Also, make sure to laser in on a highly specific event, obstacle, interest, etc. It is better to go “narrower and deeper” than to go “wider and shallower,” because the more specific you are, the more vivid and engrossing your essay will naturally be.
For example, if you were a camp counselor every summer for the last few years, avoid sharing several summers’ worth of content in your essay. Focus instead on one summer, and even better, on one incident during that summer at camp.
And on that note, remember to be vivid! Follow the cardinal rule of writing: show and don’t tell. Provide specific details, examples, and images in order to create a clear and captivating narrative for your readers.
6) Be Mindful of Voice and Tone
Unlike in most academic essays, you can sound a bit less stuffy and a bit more like yourself in the Common App essay. Your essay should be professional, but can be conversational. Try reading it aloud; does it sound like you? That’s good!
Be mindful, however, of not getting too casual or colloquial in it. This means avoiding slang, contractions, or “text speak” abbreviations (e.g. “lol”), at least without deliberate context in your story (for example, if you’re recounting dialogue).
You’re still appealing to academic institutions here, so avoid profanity at all costs, and make sure you’re still upholding all the rules for proper style, grammar, and punctuation.
7) Revise and Proofread
This one is a biggie. Give yourself time during your application process to revise, rework, and even rewrite your essay several times. Let it grow and change and become the best version it can be. After you write your first draft, walk away from it for a couple days, and return to it with fresh eyes. You may be surprised by what you feel like adding, removing, or changing.
And of course, make sure your essay is pristine before you submit it. Triple and quadruple check for spelling and usage errors, typos, etc. Since this isn’t a timed essay you have to sit for (like the ACT essay test, for example), the college admissions readers will expect your essay to be polished and sparkling.
A tried and true method for both ensuring flow and catching errors is reading your essay aloud. You may sound a little silly, but it really works!
What Should I Avoid in My Common App Essay?
Your Common App essay is your chance to provide a deeper insight into you as a person, so avoid just repeating what you’d put on a resume. This is not to say you can’t discuss something mentioned briefly on your resume in greater depth, but the best essays offer something new that helps round out the whole college application.
Okay, now this one is a bit tricky. On the one hand, you should write boldly and honestly, and some of the prompts (the one about challenging a particular belief, for example) are appropriate for addressing potentially contentious topics.
But that said, avoid being controversial or edgy for the sake of being controversial or edgy. Be steadfast in your beliefs for the greater sake of the narrative and your essay will be naturally compelling without being alienating to your readers.
If you have a personal story that you’re not entirely comfortable sharing, avoid it, even if it would make a great essay topic in theory. This is because if you’re not comfortable writing on the subject matter, you’ll end up being too vague, which won’t do your story or overall application justice. So choose a subject matter you’re familiar with and comfortable discussing in specifics.
Unless they really, truly serve your essay, avoid general platitudes and cliches in your language. It is definitely encouraged to have an essay with a moral, lesson, or greater takeaway, but try to avoid summing up what you’ve learned with reductive phrases like “slow and steady wins the race,” “good things come in small packages,” “actions speak louder than words,” “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” and so on.
What Are Some Good Common App Essay Examples?
There are tons of Common App essays out there, including these Common App essay examples accepted at Connecticut College, which include explanations from admissions readers about why they were chosen.
But let’s take a look here at two versions of an example essay, one that is just okay and one that is great.
Both Common App essay examples are crafted in response to prompt #2, which is:
“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?”
Essay Version #1, Satisfactory Essay:
During my sophomore year of high school, I tore my ACL, which stands for “anterior cruciate ligament,” and is the kiss of death for most athletic careers. This injury ended up being one of the greatest obstacles of my life. It was also, however, a turning point that taught me to see opportunity amidst adversity.
It was particularly awful that I was just about to score a winning goal during a championship hockey game when I was checked by a guy on the opposing team and came crashing down on my knee. It was pain unlike anything I’d ever felt before, and I knew immediately that this was going to be bad.
For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, not really knowing what to do with myself. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally and I grew lethargic and depressed.
And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class for those students who wanted to continue studying art beyond what was already offered. I had taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed and excelled at them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my scheduled, as required.
After a couple of weeks of the class, I began feeling better. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at. I wanted to share the world around me as I saw it with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before. I met and made friends with many new people in that art class, people I would have never known if I hadn’t taken it, which also opened me up to all kinds of new mindsets and experiences.
We’re all familiar with the common adage, “When one door closes, another opens,” and this is exactly what happened for me. I might never have pursued art more seriously if I hadn’t been taken out of hockey. This has served as a great reminder for me to stay open to new opportunities. We never know what will unexpectedly bring us joy and make us more well-rounded people.
Areas for Improvement in Version #1:
- It lacks a compelling hook.
- The discussion of the obstacle and reflection upon it are both a bit rushed.
- It could use more vivid and evocative language.
- It uses a cliche (“one door closes”).
- It is somewhat vague at times (e.g. what kinds of “new mindsets and experiences” did the writer experience? In what ways are they now more “well-rounded”?).
Now let’s apply this feedback and revise the essay.
Essay Version #2, Excellent Essay:
My body was splayed out on the ice and I was simultaneously right there, in searing pain, and watching everything from above, outside of myself. It wasn’t actually a “near death” experience, but it was certainly disorienting, considering that just seconds before, I was flying down the ice in possession of the puck, about to score the winning goal of our championship game.
Instead, I had taken a check from an opposing team member, and had torn my ACL (or anterior cruciate ligament), which is the kiss of death for most athletic careers.
My road to recovery included two major surgeries, a couple months on crutches, a year of physical therapy, and absolutely zero athletic activity. I would heal, thankfully, and regain movement in my knee and leg, but I was told by doctors that I may never play hockey again, which was devastating to me. Hockey wasn’t just my passion—it was my life’s goal to play professionally.
For the few months that followed the accident, I was lost, feeling like a ghost haunting my own life, watching everything but unable to participate. I didn’t know who I was anymore because hockey had been my whole world and sense of identity. Between working out, attending practice, playing home and away games, and watching games to learn more, it was my lifeblood. Losing my ability to play took a toll on me physically and emotionally, and I grew lethargic and depressed.
And then one day I heard my school would be adding an advanced multimedia art class after school for those students who wanted to study art more seriously. I had already taken the handful of art classes my school offered and really enjoyed them—though I had never considered them more than just fun electives to fill my schedule, as required. And, because of hockey, I certainly had never had afternoons open.
After a couple of weeks of the class, I began to feel alive again, like “myself” but renewed, more awake and aware of everything around me. Suddenly I wanted to draw or paint everything I looked at, to bring everything I saw to life. It wasn’t just that I’d adopted a new hobby or passion, it was that I began looking more closely and critically at the world around me. I wanted to share what I saw with others, to connect with people in a way I’d never done before.
My art teacher selected a charcoal portrait of mine to be showcased in a local art show and I’ve never been more proud of myself for anything. Many of my friends, family members, and teammates came to see the show, which blew me away, but also I realized then just how much of my own self worth had been attached to people’s perception of me as a successful athlete. I learned how much better it feels to gain self worth from within. Unlike hockey, which I’d trained to be good at since I was a toddler, art is something that made me much more vulnerable. I didn’t do it to try to be the best, I did it because it felt good. And getting out of my comfort zone in this way gave me a sense of confidence I had never known prior, despite all my time on the ice during high-stakes games.
Today, I’m back in skates and able to play hockey, but will probably not play professionally; while I am disappointed, I’m also at peace with it. We make plans in life, and sometimes life has other plans for us that we have to adapt to and embrace, which is the more profound lesson I’ve learned in the healing process. We can crumple in the face of obstacles, or we can look for a silver lining and allow ourselves to grow into more complex, dynamic, well-rounded people. I don’t know what the rest of life holds for me, but I do know that I’m going to keep making art, and I’m going to keep opening myself up to new opportunities and experiences.
Strengths of Version #2:
- It has a compelling hook that draws the reader in.
- It has a clear beginning, middle, and end (expressed as an introduction, body, and conclusion).
- It directly addresses the prompt at hand and sticks to it.
- It focuses on one specific incident.
- It is well balanced in its explanation of and reflection on a given experience.
- It uses a clear, unique voice and tone as well as vivid, evocative language.
- It has a logical and cohesive flow.
- It is highly personal while also polished and professional.
Hopefully these examples have given you ideas of how you can take your Common App essay from good to great. If you have more questions about how to write a Common App essay, keep reading our FAQs below.
Common Application Essay FAQs
How much do I actually have to write for the Common App essay?
Last year, the Common App essay was capped at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words required. The best essays tend to range between 500-650 words.
Think of it this way as you start to draft: 500 words is one single-spaced page (250 words is one double-spaced page), so you should write roughly a page to page and half of typed, single-spaced content.
Where can I find the official Common App essay prompts?
Here are the 2020-2021 Common App prompts, which are the same as last year.
Do I need a title for the Common App essay?
A title is not required for the Common App essay, but you are, of course, more than welcome to include one if you’d like.
Where can I go for more information about the Common App essay?
All of the necessary information for the Common App and the Common App essay can be found on the Common Application home page.
For further reading, here are some posts that tackle and dispel common myths about the Common App essay:
If you haven’t already, you can download our free Common App essay checklist.
There you have it! The Common App essay can actually be quite rewarding to write if you give yourself enough time to prepare for it thoroughly. Remember, it’s all about you, and you’re the authority on that! So hunker down and don’t forget to have fun in the writing process.
We’d also love to hear from you! What questions or concerns do you still have about the Common Application essay? What are you thinking about writing on?
Comment below, and good luck!
Improve your SAT or ACT score, guaranteed. Start your 1 Week Free Trial of Magoosh SAT Prep or your 1 Week Free Trial of Magoosh ACT Prep today!
More from Magoosh
About Nadyja Von Ebers
Nadyja von Ebers is one of Magoosh’s Content Creators. She writes for the Magoosh High School Blog, where she shares helpful resources for students searching for test prep tips and advice. Her content includes advice on college admissions, from how to get into the University of Chicago and how to complete financial aid forms to tips on asking for a letter of recommendation. Nadyja has extensive experience working with students to prepare for standardized tests, from AP exams and the GED to the ACT and SAT. After receiving an MA in English from DePaul University, Nadyja went on to teach English at the high school and college levels for over a decade. She loves helping students reach their maximum potential and thrives in both literal and virtual classrooms. When she's not teaching or contributing to the Magoosh blog, she enjoys reading, writing, and spending time in or near the ocean. LinkedIn
Leave a Reply
Magoosh blog comment policy: To create the best experience for our readers, we will approve and respond to comments that are relevant to the article, general enough to be helpful to other students, concise, and well-written! :) If your comment was not approved, it likely did not adhere to these guidelines. If you are a Premium Magoosh student and would like more personalized service, you can use the Help tab on the Magoosh dashboard. Thanks!