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How To Choose A Common App Essay Topic

Completing a Common Application to apply to college usually means having to write an essay

Although Colleges can choose to make the essay optional, for 2020 entry, 80% of all colleges accepting common applications require you to write an essay. Please note that it is one essay for all your college options, not individual ones for each college you’re applying to.

This is your chance to shine and showcase your writing skills.

1. Read through the topics carefully

In order to write your essay, you need to choose a topic based on one of the following 7 prompts (these are the 2019/20 prompts, please note these can change each year).

Topic #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. 

Topic #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? (Revised)

Topic #3

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

Topic #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.

Topic #5

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

Topic #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?

Topic #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.

This may seem a little daunting but actually if you break it down into bite size chunks, you will discover it’s easier to complete.

The first step is to find some space and quiet time to read through the prompts a few times and let your mind ponder each one.

It’s worth thinking about what you do day to day over the last few years and see if any of it would fit one or more of the prompts.

It doesn’t matter if you can’t think of anything straight away, come back to it a few hours later or even a day or two later and have another look.

The break you give yourself will allow your brain a while to consider ideas.

2. Make some notes

The next step is to jot down a few thoughts on what you could write about and then match these ideas to the prompts.

If you’re still not sure what topic to write about, start to look at the individual words in a prompt to see if they help.

For example in prompt one, it mentions “background, identity, interest, or talent”. This doesn’t just mean a talent like acting or playing in a band. It could mean a background where you’re one of 5 brothers and sisters and you focus on team work and looking out for each other, babysitting your younger siblings while your single dad is working evening shifts.

Remember these are prompts, and not direct questions you have to answer.

You may notice that each prompt usually has the word ‘or’ in it. This is deliberate, as it gives you a few options and ideas to choose from; it doesn’t mean you have to answer all the suggestions within the prompt, just to pick one and focus on that.

3. Seek advice

If you’re still not sure which prompt to pick its worth chatting it through with friends and family to see if they have any suggestions to help you. It needs to be your words not theirs but they can give you hints and tips which may spark an idea or two.

Your essay needs to be between 250 to 650 words. That’s not as much as you think. You’ve already read over 600 words on this webpage alone. 

4. Expand your thoughts

Once you’ve written down your ideas, write a couple of sentences in your own words to explain each idea. You’re probably already over the 250 word limit and eager to start writing more. 

If you can match what you’ve written to more than one prompt always choose the prompt that you can write the most about. It is much easier to write too much and cut the number of words down, than it is to write more to reach a minimum word count. 

Once you've selected the best prompt for you, it's time to start brainstorming and get the writing process started.

Further information

For more tips and advice on putting together your common app essay for college, please see: