How to Interpret Common App Essay Prompts 2020-2021
If you’re like most students, you’re probably feeling frustrated being cooped up inside during the COVID-19 pandemic and if you’re a junior, you could be anxious about the college admissions process.
Truth be told, applying to college will look very different than it has in the past. But one thing that hasn’t changed is the Common Application essay. The prompts are identical to last year’s, and now that many colleges are doing away with, or weighing less heavily, other components of your application in light of the global crisis, your personal statement will be more important than ever before. The good news is you have plenty of time to start working on them in advance.
Not sure how to get started? Here’s a breakdown of each prompt and advice on how to approach them. Big picture: colleges want to understand not just what you did, but your insight on what you learned about yourself along the way.
Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
We are all influenced by our background and identity to an extent. And most of us are, even if not the most “talented”, interested in particular subjects or activities. If there is a particularly meaningful aspect(s) of your background or identity— or you have a strong interest that is central to who you are— this is a great prompt to choose.
This prompt explicitly asks you to tell a story which we will see is a feature of almost all good personal essays. Your story doesn’t need to be the most unique anyone’s ever read to be compelling, but it does need to explain “why” what you have chosen to write about is meaningful to you. Essentially, it's a story of personal growth and development. How has it impacted the person you are today and want to become in the future (i.e. your Character Strengths and Values)?
Ideas might include:
- Experiences interacting with your family or other important people / communities in your life
- How you became passionate about an activity or hobby
- Why your ethnicity, religion, gender identity, socioeconomic background, or another facet of you is so important
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?
Everyone deals with challenges and setbacks in life. College admissions committees are interested in how you reacted to the situation i.e. what did it make you think, feel, do and learn. Essentially, what was the impact it had on you (your Character Strengths and Values).
“Recount a time” is, just like prompt 1, asking you to tell a story. This time it explicitly asks for one that shows you can learn and move forward from a challenging experience. If you are someone that has been ultra successful in school and other pursuits, this can be a great prompt for you to show that you have not relied solely on natural talent, but have been successful through perseverance.
There are certain topics that could reflect poorly on you if not treated with care, like breaking the law or hurting someone else, and you should also be careful about spinning an accomplishment as a setback, but otherwise this prompt is quite broad.
Ideas might include:
- An entrepreneurial or research project that didn’t go as expected
- Making a mistake at a job or internship
- Struggling to get a musical or theatrical performance right
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Most of us at some point in our lives begin to think critically about what we have been told is true or re-consider what we once thought. This is a good thing (even if upon reflection we confirm our initial position). By asking not just what prompted your thinking, but also what was the outcome—the admissions committee is again inviting you to tell a story. What was the inciting incident, what did you do, and how did it turn out for you?
You don’t have to alter the course of history to effect meaningful change. Perhaps your struggle was purely internal or maybe you influenced just one other person. It’s important to remember that the admissions committee is made up of people of different perspectives and viewpoints, but that doesn’t mean the belief you challenged can’t be controversial. It just means you should focus more on the transformation (development of your Character Strengths and Values) that took place rather than writing an analysis of the subject matter.
Ultimately, you want to make it clear that the life of the mind and ideas are very important to you, so much so that you’re willing to stand up for them, even if it goes against the grain. You also want to show that you’re willing to take into account the views of others, not just dig in your heels. Make sure you make it clear that you showed empathy and a willingness to keep an open mind.
Ideas might include:
- Questioning a political position held by your parents
- Befriending a classmate who wasn’t popular or well-liked by others
- Challenging a widely accepted idea
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 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.
Similar to the previous prompt, this question asks you to reveal something important about ideas or issues that are important to you. However, this one doesn’t necessarily have to recount how you challenged the status quo per se, but rather how you engaged, are engaging or potentially plan to engage further with a problem that has presented itself to you. You have a lot of wiggle room here. “Explain its significance to you” invites you to tell a personal story about how and why it became significant, what actions you have taken (so far), and what you have learned.
No matter what you choose, be sure you focus on your Character Strengths and Values.
Ideas might include:
- How your love of meat forced you to grapple with your beliefs about animal rights
- A technological challenge you solved
- A dispute with a friend
- A global challenge that’s not too far-reaching (you need to express ideas about how to solve it)
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
You see the pattern. An experience you had (often if something is significant it posed a challenge), that caused you to act, reflect, and now articulate what you learned. You are always the star, recounting a story of your own personal growth rather than writing an essay about another subject. A pitfall to avoid with this prompt is coming across as too much of a braggart.
That’s why you need to choose an accomplishment or event that actually helped mold you (your Character Strengths and Values) in a meaningful way. So, as an example you wouldn’t write about the time you won a French award unless it led to a quest for greater understanding of Francophone culture. Instead, you could focus.
Ideas might include:
- A significant cultural rite of passage
- A connection with a parent or relative that was incited by a specific event
- Being forced to care for younger siblings due to family obstacles
Remember that describing how you grew and changed as a result of this event is essential for writing a successful essay. How are you a different person today as a result of it? How do you interact with people now versus before? How will you continue to grow in the future?
Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
Curiosity and Love of Learning are two of the signature Character Strengths colleges are looking for in your application. This prompt as all previous ones, asks you to explain what you are interested in and why. “What or who do you turn to” is inviting you to tell a story of a specific time or times when you wanted to develop and deepen that interest. If you have a specific resource or someone you consider a mentor, this is a potential topic for you.
Ideas might include:
- A consistent journaling practice
- Independent research or artistic projects
- A yoga or meditation practice
Colleges are seeking students who are passionate about learning, no matter what their area of interest. This question also serves to demonstrate that you’re a self-starter who can find innovative ways of pursuing your interests, so focus on creative angles and solutions you’ve found for problems.
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 is a completely open-ended prompt which gives you almost unlimited freedom. It does not explicitly say it should be about yourself—in some sense everything we write reveals many things about us— but going back to the purpose of the personal statement, it should be clear that it needs to reveal your Character Strengths and Values.
You should not use a literary analysis from an English class, but if you had a creative personal essay assignment in class, they are giving you permission to use it here. Typically however, most students, and we presume this is you since you are in this course, want to explore a new piece of writing and dig deeper than they ever have before.
Maybe you turn out to have a particularly different format, something off-the-beaten-path that indicates something about you and your personality. That can work if you make sure it demonstrates your passion, enthusiasm, and personality. It should be clear why you chose to create your own prompt — you had such a compelling story to share that it didn’t fit into any other mold.
What Every Prompt Asks You to Do
Tell a story!
You are the subject of the story which should include 4 major things:
- An experience, challenge or problem that has been significant in your life.
- Action. What did you do in response?
- Insight. What did you learn?
- Application. How have you applied that learning in another area of your life?
Reveal Your Character Strengths
- Through your actions
- Through your insight
- Through the connections you make
Now that you understand the prompts, read the 5 Steps to ACE your Personal Statement
Already did that? Learn more about the next Write Your Way Into College cohort.
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