The Best Way to Choose Your Common App Prompt (Guest Post)

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From Brad Schiller, an MIT graduate and the CEO and Co-Founder of Prompt, the world’s most respected and fastest-growing college essay coaching and feedback company.

Starting to think about your Common App Personal Statement? No matter how early you begin, it can feel daunting to put pen to paper. By the time an admission officer starts reading your essay, they’ve already seen your academic profile (your test scores, GPA, strength of your curriculum). And, chances are, it’s similar to those of many other applicants. So your reader wants more. More specifically, they want to know what kind of person you are behind those academic scores and grades. This is where writing your Personal Statement essay comes in. Read on to learn how you can choose the right Common App prompt for your essay.

I’m going to let you in on a secret – any Common Application Essay prompt can lead to a great essay.

I’m going to let you in on another secret. You shouldn’t even be reading this article until you’ve selected what you’re going to write about. The secret to a great Common Application Essay is to pick your content first, your prompt second.

Why? Too many students spend too much time thinking about which prompt they’ll write. They try to get clever. They pick #3 Challenging a Belief because fewer students write it. They think admissions officers will appreciate the higher degree of difficulty or creativity. But then, they end up with worse content. They forgo writing their best content to write about something not quite as compelling. Don’t do this.

Start with your content. Start by understanding your audience – i.e., what college admissions officers actually care about (hint: it isn’t a higher degree of difficulty or creativity). Then, come back here to select your prompt.

As a reminder for those who have not been agonizing over and meticulously contemplating the Common App essays, there are 7 essay prompt choices. The good news is there is a prompt for anything you would ever consider writing about. Essay prompt #7 even allows you to pick a topic of your choice. Here are the 2022-23 Common Application Personal Statement Essay Prompts in all of their glory. We’ve added names for each to make them easier to discuss and think about.

  1. Background and Identity: 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.
    1. Use this prompt when: You have a background, story, or series of life events that defines you as a person.
    2. Example: Your grandfather was a well-known local politician, you helped with his campaigns growing up, and you now want to follow in his footsteps by serving your community.
  2. Lessons from Obstacles: 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?
    1. Use this prompt when: You experienced a failure significant enough that the lessons you learned were meaningful. You acted on the lessons learned to achieve a positive result.
    2. Example: You lost the student council election. You learned from your mistakes and succeeded in being elected Senior Class President.
  3. Challenging a Belief: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    1. Use this prompt when: You have a belief that is core to your identity that someone challenged which made you feel compelled to act. You have a story that showcases your ability to empathize with and/or persuade others while simultaneously displaying interpersonal skills (e.g., conflict resolution within a group of peers or superiors). Note — You need to go beyond just one event or moment. Your actions in this situation were hopefully not just a one-time thing, but rather part of a pattern or the start of a pattern of other actions you take based on your beliefs.
    2. Example: A classmate with special needs was being picked on and you felt compelled to stand up for your classmate.
  4. Gratitude: 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?
    1. Use this prompt when: Someone’s kindness toward you had a momentous effect on your life. Since that kindness, YOU have taken action, and changed the way you live your life. Your new way of living or seeing the world since this act of kindness have had a positive impact. Remember, don’t get stuck on the what “someone has done for you” part. Admissions officers are trying to learn about you, not some nice person you know.
    2. Example: Your grandmother left you the family bakery in her will when she died. Since then, you’ve taken on that role with reverence for her legacy, and a fierce determination to see the business thrive, even as you seek to pursue your high school life.
  5. Personal Growth: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    1. Use this prompt when: You can clearly differentiate between who you were BEFORE the time of personal growth and who you are AFTER the time of personal growth. This contrast helps prove you went through an experience and took actions that resulted in a positive change in your skills, actions, and thoughts (e.g., how you view the world and others).
    2. Example: You volunteered at a hospital as a greeter, helping patients and visitors find their destinations. After 3 months, you started getting a feel for some of the reasons patients come to the hospital. After 6 months, you began to know some doctors and nurses. After a year, you knew you wanted to be a part of this world of healing. Your grades improved because you had a sense of purpose. Your empathy grew. You started connecting news stories with their effects on people’s safety and health. You’re still at the hospital, now as a Patient Care Assistant, a more hands-on role for which a recommendation is needed.
  6. Intellectual Curiosity: 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?
    1. Use this prompt when: You have a topic or idea on which you spend a significant amount of your free time. You actively seek to further your idea or knowledge, and you do it in a deliberate way (i.e., you think deeply about how to get better, further your idea, or learn more). Keep in mind that the topic, idea, or concept doesn’t need to be related to a school subject. It can be anything you find fascinating and spend significant free time learning deeply.
    2. Example: You love biology and are especially interested in migrating birds. You spend every weekend morning going on long walks in your local park to identify and learn more about the different kinds of local birds and wildlife that live there, and you keep a running record of what you see.
  7. Topic of Choice: 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.
    1. Use this prompt when: Your content doesn’t fit neatly into one of the other six prompts. You’re feeling creative (optional). Creativity doesn’t get you in by itself. Content is what matters. However, feel free to go for it if you can be creative AND make sure your content meets the goals of the application AND your writing style is clear. This is hard.

Keep in mind. The prompt you choose ultimately doesn’t matter that much. Most admissions officers don’t even look at which prompt you selected. The Common App prompts are meant to be thought-starters that help you identify compelling content to write about and include in your essay.

Questions or Comments?