Responding to the Common App Essay Prompts

If you’re not familiar with Common App, then here’s a great chance to check it out. Using Common App, students can apply to over 900 different colleges and universities using a “common app” online. One of the great aspects of Common App is that you can also submit answers to essay prompts for your selected schools to view. Giving them a sample of your writing, your way of thinking, and a peek into who you are is a wonderful opportunity to help your application stand out.

One of the difficult parts of writing a college application essay, however, is knowing how to start and how to organize your thoughts. Excel High School’s Writing Lab is a good resource for this, but you can also find some tips for each of the 2022-2023 essay prompts below to get you started. Remember that you can choose whatever prompt speaks most to you as an individual, and these are only suggestions to get you started. You can always start here and then do your own thing!

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.

Points to consider:
  • • Do you have something that really lights you up and defines you as a person right now? 
  • • Has your heritage or culture positively influenced the way you see the world?
  • • Do you have a strong sense of who you are as a person because of important events in your background?

Organizing this type of essay:
  • • You can write this similar to a memoir, where you describe certain life events or experiences that join together to create an overall theme. The trick for basing this on a memoir style is to be sure to include narrative elements like descriptions of your thoughts and feelings and including descriptions yourself and others as an author would characters. You will want to explore your own unique insight into what each life event or experience taught you about yourself and your future in order to settle on a theme.
  • • Alternatively, this prompt could be answered using a Cause and Effect essay format in which you discuss the different influences you’ve faced in your life. After describing each influence (experiences, background, or people), you will want to go into detail about how that has shaped your identity. You can dive even further into the topic by explaining how each has shaped your view of the world and your future.

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?

Points to consider:
  • • In what ways have you grown in the past several years of your life? What events led to that growth?
  • • Have you faced any serious conflict with another person that has shaped how you think? What events led up to a change in mindset?
  • • What is the biggest mistake you have ever made? Did you face up to it, or did it take a while before you learned from the experience? What lesson did you learn, and what happened to shift your focus away from the mistake and toward growth?

Organizing this type of essay:
  • • This essay prompt can be answered with a personal narrative. You can include all the typical elements of a narrative (dialogue, description, following a plot diagram) written with you as the narrator. 
  • • You could write this as a Compare and Contrast essay if a narrative is not a comfortable format for you. To do that, you would want to think critically about the way you were before and how you changed after. You would then give your audience the situation and background information about the obstacle in the introduction, each body paragraph would explain a different way you’ve changed with descriptions of how you faced the conflict as evidence, and then the conclusion would sum up your essay by explaining how you will take the lessons you’ve learned into your future.

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

Points to consider:
  • • You would want to examine an idea that shows maturity and growth.
  • •What have you questioned that taught you that our ideas and beliefs change constantly as we experience new things and meet different people?
  • • Is there a specific person who influenced you to change? What experiences with them caused this shift in your beliefs?
  • • Did you question or challenge your beliefs and then determine that you didn’t want to change them? What experiences led you to decide not to change?

Organizing this type of essay:
  • • This prompt could be written as a narrative. You would want to first think about what the overall lesson you learned was and use that throughout your essay as the theme of the story. After that, start planning your narrative according to a plot diagram. Include dialogue and descriptive language to communicate the emotions of the experience.
  • • If writing a narrative is not for you, then this essay could also be set up using Cause and Effect format. Your introduction for an essay like this might be a general description of your previous mindset. You would then want to organize your essay with each body paragraph examining one of the reasons your thinking changed. You can end your essay with a conclusion that examines how questioning or challenging your belief or idea will impact you moving forward.

4.) Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

Points to consider:
  • • If the event you’re thinking of is very far in the past, you might not remember enough details to make this topic come alive. Try to think about something that has happened that you remember well enough to make it personal.
  • • Gratitude can be about simple events in your life; this essay doesn’t have to be about a grand gesture. It could be about someone’s consistent behavior that you feel gratitude about and that has had an impact on your future.
  • • Who is the most influential person on your life? Why is that person such an influence? Make a list of the aspects of their character that you are most grateful for and that you have learned the most from. Start your essay from there.

Organizing this type of essay:
  • • This essay could, again, be a Cause and Effect format. To organize it, you would want to introduce the person who has taught you gratitude, giving background information that will help your audience understand who they are in relationship to you. After that, you will want to think of the main ways they have taught you gratitude. Each of the body paragraphs will highlight what they did or the quality of who they are and how you have been effected positively by this. You could conclude talking about how you will apply those lessons and that motivation to carve out a positive future for yourself.
  • • You could create a character analysis for this essay. Really analyze the person you are writing about and create the essay as a tribute to them. You can introduce the person and their general disposition in the introduction and then in each body paragraph dive a little deeper by giving an example of a lesson about gratitude you’ve learned from them. Include details about how their behavior made you feel and how it motivates you. End your essay with an important tribute to this individual explaining how their lessons will serve as an example for your own gratitude and motivation in your future.

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

Points to consider:
  • • This prompt is very broad, so if no other prompts resonate with you, there is probably a way to make this one fit your life experiences. 
  • • What is an accomplishment or experience that sticks with you? This could be one of those moments that haunts you and you wish you would have handled differently. It could also be something that you handled well and are really proud of. 
  • • Have you participated in or organized any community service events? How did that impact your way of thinking about the world?
  • • Have you participated in any activism? What did the people you meet and the cause you rallied around teach you?
  • • Maybe this wasn’t just one event; instead, maybe you faced a series of experiences that led to personal growth and understanding. 

Organizing this type of essay:
  • • If you can think of a single event that prompted growth and a new understanding of yourself and others, you can write this as a personal narrative following a plot diagram and including descriptions of narrative elements. Be sure to include your thoughts and reactions to the events throughout the narrative.
  • • If a series of events had a big impact on you, then you would be more likely to write this as a memoir, describing and breaking down each event and how they each had an impact on you. You would still include descriptive narrative elements, but you would take the time for analysis of each event, too.
  • • This essay also works as a Compare and Contrast essay because you’re diving deeply into the topic of how you changed or your opinions of those around you changed. In this case, you would describe what you were like before in the introduction. You would want to really analyze how each part of the experience or each individual experience changed you in separate body paragraphs. In each of those paragraphs, indicate what step toward change the experience led you toward. In the conclusion, apply these lessons to your future.

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?

Points to consider:
  • • Are you absolutely obsessed about learning about something? What is it? Why does it capture you so fully? What got you started about this topic? What do others think about your obsession? What drives you to learn more about this?
  • • What is the one topic that you consistently come back to when you’re daydreaming? Is there a philosophical question that pops into your mind that you could read about or think about often? Why is this so engaging to you?

Organizing this type of essay:
  • • This essay is a personal Informative Essay. It’s personal because you are going to include your opinions about the topic and explain what aspects of it really get you going, but it’s informative because you’re also teaching the audience about the topic. Informative essays rely heavily on evidence and explanations, so this is a good time to boil down your topic of interest into the things about it that you find most interesting for each body paragraph and then explain why you think it’s so amazing.

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.

Points to consider:
  • • This is the most open of all prompts! If you’ve written an essay for school, for yourself, or for a writing contest that you are really proud of, this is your chance to share it. Just remember to do your best to exhibit your unique personality and way of thinking in the essay if you can. You want to stand out, and this is an open enough prompt for anyone to use.
  • • If you’ve read all of the other prompts and thought, “These are just not for me,” that’s okay. Sit down and think about something that is meaningful to you. Maybe it’s a type of art or media that has inspired you. Maybe it’s a special person in your life who has taught you valuable lessons. This prompt can be whatever you want, so take some time to dive deep into your life before you start writing.

Organizing this type of essay:

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