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How to Interpret Common App Essay Prompts 2020-21


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 other components of your application less heavily in light of the global crisis, your personal statements 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.


Common Application 2020–2021 Essay Prompts


1. 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.

If there is a particularly meaningful interest or aspect of your identity, this is the time to share it. The prompt gives you space to share a compelling and unique story with the admissions committee. Remember, though, that the key to responding to this prompt depends on authenticity. It’s not the time to reiterate an important accomplishment that you’ve listed in other aspects of your application. Instead, you should choose something that defines you as a person and isn’t solely meant to impress the admissions committee.

Ideas might include:

  • A story from your family history that impacts who you are today
  • How you became interested in a passion or hobby
  • Why your ethnicity, religion, gender identity, socioeconomic status, or another facet of you is so important
  • An experience or event that changed your outlook or taught you something

Remember that you’re supposed to be telling your story, so, as with all good stories, have a compelling narrative arc. You also need to explore how the event shapes you. If, for example, you’re describing your parents’ immigration to the United States, explain why this is so significant to you — perhaps it’s made you appreciate the value of your education or the opportunities you have, but perhaps it goes well beyond that.


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?

Everyone deals with challenges and setbacks in life. Admissions committees are interested in students who are able to rise above them and persevere. The purpose of this prompt is to show that you can learn from and move forward from defeat. 

Be careful with this prompt, though. There are certain topics that could reflect poorly on you: committing a crime or hurting someone else, for example. You should also avoid spinning an accomplishment as a setback because colleges will see through that.

Instead, you could write about:

  • Doing poorly on a test and then turning your grade around through hard work
  • Failing your driving test
  • Making a mistake at your part-time job
  • Freezing during a musical or theatrical performance

Remember to emphasize the lessons you took away from the setback. If you gave up on acting forever after forgetting your line in the school play, that doesn’t demonstrate resilience, it just shows that you succumbed to defeat. If you were able to finish your performance and laugh at yourself afterward, however, that’s something to say in your essay.


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

You don’t have to have altered the course of history to effect meaningful change. Perhaps you influenced just one person or made your voice heard. If so, you can certainly write about it here. 

It’s important to remember that the admissions committee is made up of different perspectives and viewpoints. That doesn’t mean your belief can’t be controversial, of course, but you should focus more on the transformation that took place rather than the incident. If you participated in a political rally, for instance, focus less on the political persuasion of the candidate or the cause itself and more on how it affected you and why you were compelled to do it.

Some topics you could broach are:

  • When you led a protest against a decision your school administration made
  • Befriending a classmate who wasn’t popular or well-liked by others
  • An organized protest you took part in
  • A time you resisted peer pressure

What kinds of Character Traits/Values could work well with this question:

  1. Being a good listener
  2. Being detail oriented
  3. Seeing things that others do not
  4. Recognizing that the debate and discussion that multiple people go through will almost always lead to a better outcome than a solution any one person can come to on their own

Ultimately, you want to make it clear that your beliefs are very important to you, so much so that you’re willing to stand up for them to others, even if it goes against the grain. You also need 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.


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 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.

Like the previous prompt, this question asks you to reveal something important about your beliefs. However, this one doesn’t necessarily encourage you to recount how you challenged the status quo but rather how you faced or are facing an “intellectual challenge, a research inquiry, [or] an ethical dilemma.” You have a lot of wiggle room here.

  • How dissections in biology class forced you to grapple with your beliefs about animal rights and what you did to address them
  • A campaign against drunk driving you initiated at your high school
  • A technological challenge you solved
  • A dispute with your parents
  • A global challenge that’s not too far-reaching (you need to express ideas about how to solve it)

No matter what you choose, make sure you focus on your beliefs and perspective and what you did in response.


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

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 in a meaningful way. So, steer clear of, say, the time you won a French award unless it led to a quest for greater understanding of Francophone culture. Instead, you could focus on:

  • A significant cultural event, such as a bar or bat mitzvah, and what it signified for you
  • A connection with a parent or relative that was incited by a specific event, such as them sharing your family history with you
  • A death of a friend or family member
  • 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?


6. 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?

Intellectual curiosity is the cornerstone of your college application. Colleges are seeking students who are passionate about learning, no matter what their area of interest. This prompt asks you to describe how you further your exploration of your passion.

For example, perhaps you:

  • Love to write and keep up a consistent journaling practice
  • Take on independent research projects and discuss topics of exploration with your science teachers
  • Go to the library to learn about the history of dance, as well as lead a dance group at your school

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. 


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 is an open-ended prompt that allows you to share something unique about yourself. Choose something off-the-beaten-path that indicates something about you and your personality. You shouldn’t submit a standard literary analysis essay, but if you wrote  a meaningful personal essay for a class it may work.. 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.


General Advice


Be specific.

Ground your essay in personal stories and evidence. Include plenty of details that make your narrative and personality vivid and compelling. Name names (you can use pseudonyms if you want to protect certain people) and places.

Be unique.

If someone you know saw a pile of essays, they should be able to pick yours out of the pack. That doesn’t mean you have to have a super interesting talent like flame throwing or have had an Earth-shattering event happen to you, but you should be able to have a unique spin or take on it. Sports, for example, is generally a topic to avoid since many applicants use it, but if you have a particularly compelling story to share, it’s fine to use it.

Be authentic.

Be true to who you are as a person and writer. If you tend to be more serious, your essay can be serious as well. If you’re funny, make the admissions representatives laugh. Most of all, be yourself.


The first idea that jumps into your head may be the perfect one, but it’s still helpful to take some time to make a list of potential topics to choose the best one for you.

Need help getting started? Read more about how to approach your personal statement, or get in touch to learn more about how we work with students throughout the essay writing and entire admissions process.