Common Application Essay Prompts Tips and Guidance for the 5 Essay Options on the New Common Application

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Common Application Essay Prompts

Tips and Guidance for the 5 Essay Options on the New Common Application

The current prompts are the result of much discussion and debate from the member institutions who use the Common Application. With CA4, the length limit for the essay was increased from 500 words to 650, and students will need to choose from the five options below. The new prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. If your essay doesn't include some self-analysis, you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.

Below are the five options with some general tips for each:

Option #1: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

"Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write about your "background or story." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. Your "story" could be an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why your identity was influenced by your background or story.

See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #1

Option #2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question--what was your response to failure, and how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty is key with this prompt.

See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #2

Option #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief, and the answer to the final question--would you make the same decision again--need not be "yes." Sometimes in retrospection we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt.

See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #3

Option #4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Here again the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question. A "place or environment" could be many things--a house, a classroom, a tree top, a church, a stadium, a stage, a family, a country, an imagined space, a book, an internal place, and so on. Think about where and when you are most content, and then analyze the source of that contentedness. Keep in mind that the "why" at the end of the prompt is essential. This essay prompt, like all of the options, is asking you to be introspective and share with the admissions folks what it is that you value.

See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #4

Note that this option is similar to prompt #1 on the University of California application. Click the link to get further tips.

Option #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

I'm not a fan of the way this prompt is worded for it suggests that a single event or accomplishment can be so transformative that one becomes an adult overnight. Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). That said, this prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay -- admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play. These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment.

See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #5

Some Final Thoughts: Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis, and they don't spend a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student.


I feel perfectly content at Woodrow Wilson Skateboard Park, a cement swell in the ground located just west of the easternmost point of the north side of Chicago and trapped perennially in the mental space inhabited by fourteen-year-old angry youths. Outside of home and school, it is the place where I have spent most of my life. Its terrain so familiar, I could navigate it blindfolded, towed on my board by a pack of feral dogs. Much of what I know of life, I learned there.

A sea of nods and handshakes and back pats welcomes my every arrival to this municipal oasis. Here, I am known. Called variously Mor, Bob Morley, Mordog, Mo, Mo Money, or (long story) Tom Pork. It is the only place on earth where (were an election ever to be held) I could almost certainly be mayor. Among the strange, sometimes downcast, and essentially good people here, I have found another family. I need them as much as they need me and as much as we all need skateboarding. This four-wheeled toy brings us inner peace. Skateboarding is a standing meditation, a time to put conscious thought aside and let primal impulse guide the body through various jumps and balancing acts. I turn to skating in times of joy and in times of strife, to celebrate a good day, escape writer’s block, social failures, or other minor tragedies.

It is at Wilson that I encountered once, and then again, a man called Temper. I was thirteen when I crashed into a beefy shadowy figure I had heard talked about only in whispers. This man, known by the word he had chosen to affix to hundreds of walls around Chicago, had earned a spot in the community as a respected graffiti artist and skateboarder. His improbably light feet and on-board grace were known to most of the city. I was barely inaugurated into the park scene when I plowed headlong into him, knocking both of us down, turtle-like and winded. I hadn’t been paying attention and apologized rapid-fire while trying to scrape my body off of his. When we both got to our feet, Temper knocked me down again and walked away without comment. It was the most frightening thing that ever happened to me at Wilson. He left the park that day, and I had seen him once, maybe twice, since.

The five years since the incident have been more or less good to me. In high school, I abandoned the dream of becoming a professional skateboarder and discovered a fuller gamut of life’s offerings. I learned to think about things other than skating and in turn discovered physics, girls, cooking, and writing—a pursuit I love as much as skateboarding. The same cannot be said for the passage of time in Temper’s life. I saw him recently and had lunch with him and my friend. He told us of overcoming a crippling drug addiction, spending time in jail, and contracting AIDS—a disease that every day reminds him that his time on earth is coming to an end. He is trying his best to make the most of it all. It was with the greatest trepidation that I told him about the Wilson incident. Over pizza and lemon soda, I explained how much he had scared me. I added that it was important that it had happened. I think it helped me grow up, I explained. An awkward silence followed. His head turned down and to the side for a moment. Then he just laughed. His eyes apologized, and I laughed too, collectively embracing that very Wilson mentality: life, like skateboarding and men named “Temper,” will knock you down. There is nothing else to do but forgive, forget, and stand back up.

Morley’s structure for the essay is measured with each paragraph transitioning to a different personal quality. He sets the scene and characters, and then shifts into the meat of the essay, writing about how a specific incident epitomizes the park experience. The essay beautifully ties in Morley’s personality with his experiences at Woodrow Wilson. His focus is always on developing how the park has shaped HIM. After reading the essay, I have a much better understanding of who Morley is and what qualities he will bring to Hopkins. We get the sense that he is reflective and authentic—the type of JHU student you’d want as your lab partner or in your writing group.”

Johns Hopkins Undergraduate Admissions Committee

Spring Instead of Summer—Jacqueline

Sometimes I had dreams of being in plane crashes with my twin brother, Matt.

We’re standing on the wing of a plane, balancing in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Matt is screaming, “No! I don’t want to jump! Where’s the water? Where’s the water?” A wave rushes over the wing and takes us under. Matt calls, “Jacqui!” reaches for my hand, and I wake up.

I know a lot about my backstory because it has shaped who I am and who I want to be. Knowledge of this story is necessary—I need to keep the words alive, even if time wants to quiet them. I know my story so that I do not forget, so that I can tell others.

My brother, Matt, is visually impaired and has autism. We were born in May instead of August, sixteen weeks early, during spring instead of summer. Of all the seasons, maybe we should have been born in winter. Matt and I clung together on the icy medical tables. Winter children, at home in the frost, trying to take air into translucent lungs.

The facts of our story are easy to tell. I can tell about the identical scars that run from our shoulder blades to our chests. How our doctors and parents looked at us, in our isolettes, with heavy eyes. About the five percent chance of survival that we beat, or the likelihood that Matt would never be able to see and I would never speak. I can tell others that I would not change our story—that I want to tell it throughout my lifetime, because it has a purpose. I can say that the dream of us clinging together on the plane wing in the middle of the Atlantic is a continuation of how I feel and who I am.

It’s harder, though, to tell of the pride I feel whenever my voice carries across the room. Nine years of voice therapy, nine years of learning how to project and nurture my one working vocal cord—I’m afraid people won’t understand. They might just think of it as a story with a nice ending. But my goal is not to tell a nice story—it is to make others feel something deep in their chests, like I do.

It’s even harder to share the very core of who I am; the fact that Matt and I are forever tied together with the story of how we were born. We are here for different reasons—mine to write and be his guide; his to make others happy, like he makes me. Where we come from and how we got here makes us who we are in this moment. That’s the purpose of our story; that’s what I want others to know.

My half of our story allows me to exist in a world that is parallel to Matt’s. Few others fit in his world—but I must. And my ability to fit into his world drives… everything. It makes me strive to see him smile, even if it’s a hint of one that appears when I tell him his socks are totally cool. It brings my dreams of plane crashes alive, so I can release those feelings into my writing, and truly be part of his world. I must fit into Matt’s world forever, and so I must be a good enough sister to tell his story.

My backstory makes me who I am—a writer, a guide, a sister. I am a girl standing on the wing of a plane, eager for my words to stretch to every continent. Eager for everyone to know my story.

I often read essays where the student writes about someone who has influenced their life. Admissions officers want to get a better understanding of YOU. These essays can be tricky because there is a tendency to focus on the person who has influenced you, instead of focusing on how you have been changed. Jacqueline did a fantastic job of focusing on how her brother has shaped HER life. Her writing style is personable with vivid parallels and divergences between herself and her twin. The reader feels like they are on a journey through Jacqueline’s life in just a few hundred words. This essay captivated me with details that would not have shown up at any other point in the application.

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