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How to Write Your Common Application Essay

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How can you choose a Common App essay topic that will reveal the true you?

Colleges want curious, persistent, articulate, and self-aware students. The Common Application essay topics throw the door wide open for each applicant to show how he or she is that kind of person.

What Should Your Common Application Essay Be About?

Think of the Common App essay topics as starting points. As Yale Admissions says, "It doesn't matter which topics you choose, as long as they are meaningful to you. Your perspective—the lens through which you view your topic—is far more important than the specific topic itself."

The Common Application Essay Topics for 2021–2022

  • 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 lessons 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?
  • 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?
  • 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.

Optional COVID-19 Question Added

In May of 2020, the Common App announced it would add a new question for students who wish to explain how their lives were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic or other experiences. This question does not replace the personal essay question and is entirely optional:

  • Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. 

How to Choose Which Topic to Pursue

Look at each topic and ask yourself what personal experiences come to mind. Write them down, and then look your list over.

  • The experiences that are most meaningful to you will make great themes for your essay. As Wellesley Admissions advises, "An essay about some small, even insignificant-seeming thing can be more powerful than the 'How I'll save the world' essay."
  • Experiment with several topics before picking one. This will help you uncover the deeper connections that will bring your essay to life. Bear in mind that certain themes are overused and should be avoided unless you have a particularly unique angle. These include death, divorce, sports, travel, religion, politics, and brief volunteer experiences.

More Tips for the Written Portions of the Common Application

  • Heed the word count limit specified by the college. The essay and any writing supplements should include a maximum word limit. You don't have to write to the maximum, but your essay shouldn't be longer or significantly shorter than the limit.
  • Don't overlook supplemental essays. Some colleges require supplemental essays in addition to a longer essay or personal statement. Although supplemental essays are usually shorter than your main essay, they can matter just as much to your admission chances, and therefore require just as much thought and care.

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