College Essay Ready

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:

  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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. 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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  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?
  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.

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.

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.

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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  1. Embrace Additional Writing Requirements. Most selective colleges using the Common Application have individual Member Questions and/or Writing Supplements. View these supplemental essay opportunities as great offerings, as less is not more in the world of the competitive application process. Colleges that have supplemental essays really want to learn more about you– from you. So give them what they want. Great supplemental essay responses will give admissions officers more reasons to admit you and even give you a scholarship.
  2. Start with the big picture. Take a look at each written piece the college will receive from and about you—include your essays from the Common Application and even your activity list and letters of recommendation. Look at the supplemental essays as a way to flesh out and expand that picture. See all of your opportunities to share information, and make sure you don’t repeat yourself and what you’ve already discussed in the Common Application.
  3. Each college’s questions are unique. While all colleges will see your Common Application, only the individual colleges will see your additional responses. So each one is different. Colleges can ask all kinds of questions. Some will have one essay while others will have several. Each question and/or supplement, no matter what it requires you to provide, is another opportunity to provide more valuable information about yourself to the colleges you seek to attend.
  4. Each Writing Question or Supplemental EssayPromptis different. Be prepared to write a variety of supplemental essays from short one-line responses to medium size responses to 650 word essays. No matter what the length, each response is a new chance to tell a different story or message about what you will offer a college.
  5. Use our Into, Through, and Beyond approach in each essay. In each essay provide a hook, key context information, and then powerful ending. You can find our tips for writing great essays on our website: www.allcollegeessays.org.
  6. Be even smarter than the smart writing questions or supplements. Some of your questions will appear based on what you answer in Member Question about particular majors or merit scholarships. Don’t be surprised if an essay disappears if you change your major or select no to a particular program or scholarship. Keep a running track of what you have to write for each prompt based on your Member Question selections.
  7. Learn deeply about the personality and reputation of college. Think of what each college values when writing your supplemental essays. If the college is large, and asks a community or diversity question, think how you can make a big campus small. Think how you can enrich a diverse community and how well you can join existing communities. If the college is small, think of ways you can truly engage as a member of an intense learning community. If the college is religious, think of ways you can enrich the spiritual community.
  8. Let us help you.All College Application Essays has done the hard work of collecting all the Supplemental Essays for you. We tell you where to find them, what each additional essay prompt requires, and the length and submission format. You don’t need to waste your time collecting the essays and their formats, if we already have. Spend your time writing powerful essays that communicate even more reasons for a college to accept you.
  9. Recycle essays and re-use supplemental essays wisely. Remember, each question and/or supplement is separate and belongs to the individual college and you. The colleges do not communicate with each other, so you can use some of your essays over and over again, especially the longer ones and the optional activity statements. For example, you can see a way to use your University of Chicago Supplemental essays as your Boston College Supplement. Yet don’t be careless, and cut and paste a college specific essay into the wrong college.
  10. Prepare an activity statement. A short statement about one of your activities is now optional for colleges to use. In 2014-2015, these statements appear in different places, so be prepared by having two to three statements ready to go. The word limit will vary based on the college so have a short, medium, and long version. Focus on your leadership and initiative while also grounding your response in a specific story. Also some of these essays may lead to even better longer essays.
  11. Share more core qualities in college “Dating” essays. Many colleges have specific essays prompts geared around why you and the college are a good match. Read the specific word on these prompts. Give colleges what they want, a reason to ask you out and ideally propose. Some colleges want only academic information while others want an overall essay. Understand that if they have this prompt, they want to know how you will fit into their campuses. They don’t want mere recaps of what they know they offer. Think of how you can engage specifically on their campuses. Some campuses even send these essays out to professors or specific communities to read. Give specific examples from your visits, college fair talks with admissions officers, or emails with professors or current students. Let them picture you on their campuses by literally picturing yourself on their campus.
  12. Nothing is optional. Some colleges give you some optional essays. Do not ignore these options to offer new information.  Each essay is a chance to share a new reason why you belong on that campus. Of course, don’t force yourself to answer an essay that doesn’t match
  13. Read college’s specific essay tips. Most colleges now have a variety of ways to communicate their views on college essays. Some even provide model essays, including, Johns Hopkins University, Carleton College, and Connecticut College. Others give great tips from The University of Michigan to Boston University. Read how colleges view the essays on their websites. College specific tips may help you write essays that you engage your admissions readers.
  14. Know the length and format of each college specific essay. You can submit essays in two ways—paste in or upload. The majority of colleges are using the “paste in” method. Some allow you to upload. All use word limits. Sadly, the text box does not always tell you the word limit even after you paste in. So you can experiment or save your time to write the essay by using our app: All College Application Essays. We provide each submission format—from whether it is required or optional, to word ranges, to submission methods.
  15. Use these additional essays to present even more powerful information about the additional ways you can enrich each college’s campus. You have plenty of time. Now get going. First buy our app and soon to be released website, All College Application Essays, and then start brainstorming and writing your college application essays. If for some reasons, you cannot afford the app, let us know and we can send you a gift certification to purchase it.

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