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By submitting my email address. i certify that i am 13 years of age or older, agree to recieve marketing email messages from the princeton review, and agree to terms of use., popular college application essay topics (and how to answer them).

Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.

The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).

brainstorming college application essay topics

2019–20 Common App Essays

Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application , which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2019, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:

Read More: Get Expert Essay Advice From Former Admissions Officers!

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts

Prompt #1: share your story..

Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school résumé and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.

Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.

You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.

Perfect your college essay video

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.

Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.

Prompt #4: Solving a problem.

This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or accomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth. 

Prompt #6: What captivates you?

This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.

Read More: QUIZ: Test Your College Knowledge!

Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.

This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.

More College Essay Topics

Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:

Describe a person you admire.

Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .

Why do you want to attend this school?

Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.

Read More: 5 Ways College Application Essays and High School Essays Are Different

What is a book you love?

Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?

Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.

What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?

Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.

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Ideas, Inspiration, and Giveaways for Teachers

We Are Teachers

60+ College Essay Prompts From Actual 2022-2023 Applications

Ideas to inspire every college applicant.

Jill Staake

Writing a college application essay can be a stressful task for a lot of students. The more practice they get in advance, the better! This round-up of college essay prompts gives applicants a chance to explore their thinking, polish their writing, and prepare to make the best possible impression on selection committees. Every one of these questions is taken from real college applications for the 2022-2023 season, so they’re meaningful and applicable to today’s high school seniors.

Common App 2022-2023 College Essay Prompts

2022-2023 coalition for college essay prompts, life experiences college essay prompts, personal college essay prompts, academics college essay prompts, creative college essay prompts.

Hundreds of colleges and universities use the Common App process . For many schools, this includes responding to one of several college essay topics, which can change each year. Here are the essay prompts for the current application cycle (check with your chosen school/s to see if an essay is required).

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?

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

More than 150 colleges and universities use the Coalition for College process . Here are their essay prompts for 2022-2023.

Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?

Answer these questions by sharing specific examples from your own experience.

Share an example of how you have used your own critical-thinking skills on a specific subject, project, idea, or interest.

Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.

These essay topics give schools a better sense of who you are, what you value, and the kind of student citizen you might be.

How has your own background influenced the types of problems you want to solve, the people you want to work with, and the impact you hope your work can have?

If you had the power to change the course of history in your community or the world, what would you do and why?

Topics like these show your academic interests and demonstrate your commitment to learning and discovery.

Academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited, and why do they interest you?

What do you love about the subject(s) you selected as potential major(s)? If undecided, share more about one of your academic passions.

Use these college essay topics to show off your creativity and innovative thinking.

You are tasked with creating a new category for the Nobel Prize. Explain what it would be, why you chose your specific category, and the criteria necessary to achieve this accomplishment.

Imagine that you could have one superpower. What would it be and how would you use it? What would be your kryptonite?

How do you help your students prepare their college application essays? Come share your ideas and ask for advice on the WeAreTeachers HELPLINE group on Facebook .

Plus, check out  the ultimate guide to college scholarships.

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Jill Staake is a Contributing Editor with WeAreTeachers. She has a degree in Secondary English Education and has taught in middle and high school classrooms. She's also done training and curriculum design for a financial institution and been a science museum educator. She currently lives in Tampa, Florida where she often works on her back porch while taking frequent breaks for bird-watching and gardening.

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sample college essay questions

college essay advice tips prompts

For this essay, try finding a part of your identity that will set you apart and highlight the unique perspective you will bring to the university. Try to avoid writing an essay that a school will most likely get a million different times — for example, an essay about your talent playing a sport or your early love of learning. Think about an aspect of your personality, family or upbringing that is truly special.

Don’t be afraid to dig deep and talk about something that may feel vulnerable. Try to conclude with an example of how the failure improved the way you deal with similar situations now. It can be uncomfortable for anyone to admit they’re less-than-great at something, but that honesty can be refreshing, especially if you tell your story in an authentic, relatable way.

In this essay, choose a time that you were able to listen to experiences and perspectives contrary to yours with respect and maturity. Demonstrate that you are able to zoom out from your personal worldview and learn from those you may disagree with. This can not only give colleges an idea of your ability to engage in difficult ideological debates, but also your character and humility.

For this question, don’t be afraid to think outside of the box. It is easy to say a typical world issue — like hunger — but a creative problem can showcase your specific passions and interests and set you apart. An admissions officer is much more likely to remember an applicant who has a very specific essay written in a unique and quirky way.

If you can’t immediately think of a pivotal event for this essay, you may want to skip it and try a different one. Essays like this are best answered with significant and unique moments rather than less important ones.

The defining factor for this essay is what book or movie you choose. Stay away from pop culture novels that many people may use ( Harry Potter , The Hunger Games , etc.) and try to pick a book you have read in school or something unique you read for fun that stayed with you. However, don’t use a book you didn’t enjoy! Inauthenticity will always come through in your writing.

Coordinate tutoring sessions for admission help with a sign up.  SAMPLE

With this prompt, get creative. Don’t simply put 10 things you enjoy — get specific! Pick something you love and give your top 10 — maybe top 10 memories of your life, top 10 favorite books, top 10 quotes, etc. Make sure you give clear explanations of the items on your list as well. The more specific your list is, the better.

For this essay, don’t hesitate to get silly or serious — but make sure you go all the way whichever side you choose! Pick an issue that doesn’t come immediately to mind. Try to pinpoint a specific “a-ha” moment your opinion changed, and make sure to give an example of how your changed perspective has influenced your behavior.

To answer this prompt, go beyond the generic career and family goals. Try to answer things with a personal spin — maybe talk about goals you have for yourself as a person (e.g., to be more kind) or something unique you want to check off your bucket list! 

For this essay, choose a quotation that the admissions officers won’t see over and over. Stay away from individuals who are constantly quoted — like Dr. Seuss — and make 100 percent certain your quote is correctly attributed! Genius Tip : Check out these 25 inspiring volunteer quotes . 

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This is a great opportunity to get creative and share a funny experience! Try transitioning the experience into a more serious explanation of how it changed you — for example, maybe it encouraged you to be more considerate toward others’ feelings. 

For this situation, if you made a poor decision, focus on the way you would change it. On the other hand, if you made a good decision, focus on what influenced you to make that decision and how it has changed you. You might think you have to pick an example where you took a risk, but your essay could be more memorable if you choose a candid example of when you chose to play it safe. 

This is the perfect essay to set yourself apart from other applicants. Talk about that thing you love, that obscure topic you’re an expert about — anything, as long as your passion shines through in your writing! 

This is a great instance to use an essay you’ve already written for another college. (Make sure to include modifications as needed.) This way, you can limit the number of essays you write and focus on quality of writing over quantity of essays. 

Manage student advising appointments with an online sign up.  SAMPLE

Don’t write a generic essay — find an example of advice that was specific and personal to you. Explain why it was so important, and connect it to a specific example in which you did or did not follow it. 

This prompt gives you the opportunity to talk about your passions and show off your extracurricular activities. Make sure to connect the importance of the activity to a certain experience or story to give the essay direction. 

For this prompt, stay away from figures that are likely to be written about by hundreds of potential students (presidents, Mother Teresa, etc.), and pick a figure you are actually passionate about and interested in, rather than what you think sounds most academic. If you want to go personal and choose a family member, make sure you have a memorable and unique reason. 

When writing this essay, pick a topic of interest. Additionally, make sure whatever you write about has a clear, one sentence takeaway that you can stress throughout the essay to give it direction. To prep, watch a few TED talks online to help give your essay voice. 

This essay topic is a great opportunity for humor. Choose a unique topic that others might not think of, and whatever you choose, make sure you know a lot about it! 

For this essay, make sure you think of a turning point that’s also an interesting story. This can be an opportunity to talk about an experience from one of your jobs or extracurricular activities. Tie it in to what you learned and how you’ve taken that lesson and incorporated it into your life. 

This can be a great opportunity to talk about what’s important to you and what beliefs you hold most central to who you are. Center the essay around one experience or time in your life. Don’t play this one down the middle — take a stance and defend it. 

Take this essay as big or as small as you want, but commit to it! Whether you write a funny essay about pet peeves or write one about large social problems, go all the way.  

If you can’t immediately think of a significant day, you probably don’t have a lot of material for this essay. Save this essay for an unusual experience! 

For this essay, focus on a unique accomplishment that illustrates the diversity that you can bring to your university and really tells a lot about who you are. It can be a big or small accomplishment as long as it means a lot to you. 

When writing this essay, either pick a historical, personally significant or futuristic moment, but make sure you are passionate about whichever moment you choose. Begin with explaining the moment’s significance and your desire to experience it, then describe your personal connection to it. 

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In this essay, try to stay positive. Give advice about helpful things the student could do to benefit their high school career, rather than pointing out and seemingly complaining about the negative parts of high school (unless you are really funny) and then giving advice about how to deal with it. Be honest about your high school experiences while also displaying the perspective you have gained. 

Try to be unique for this prompt. Make sure to outline not only your reasons for choosing the invention, but also the impact that the invention not being created would have on the world. 

For this essay: BE SPECIFIC! Colleges can tell when your essay is just a form essay. Make sure your essay mentions specific and unique aspects of the college/university you’re applying to so it’s clear that your essay is not just generic. There’s so much information out there on the Internet that there’s really no excuse for a poorly researched response. 

There are many ways to interpret this kind of prompt. Whether you talk about a political law, religious law, physical law or something else, make sure to connect it your personal experiences. The more unique you are, the more likely an admissions officer will remember your essay. 

In this essay, don’t be afraid to get vulnerable and be specific. Whether you pick a trait or simply a specific memory, connect it to what it means to you personally and why you don’t generally tell people about it. 

Silly or serious, this essay can be fun. Just make sure the amendment is NOT already part of the Constitution, and be sure to outline the impact your new amendment would have. Go a step further by explaining your strategy for getting the amendment passed. 

For this essay, give a few examples of how this person has impacted you. Then, conclude the essay with how you have understood yourself better because of these experiences. 

Stay away from books that are likely to appear many times. This might go without saying, but make sure it’s a book you’ve already read! Rather than just summarizing the book, explain why you’re recommending it. 

If you don’t have a good example for this essay, don’t massage a story to make it fit. You’ll risk sounding privileged. This essay can be good, but it needs to be about a significant moment where you spoke up for someone who couldn’t speak for him/herself. 

In this essay, focus on the interests/activities that you’re passionate about. Make sure to focus your essay around one or two focused and achievable goals. This is also a great opportunity to mention specifics about the college you’re applying to. 

With these prompts and ideas, you’ll be off to a great start on your college applications. One last piece of advice: Give yourself plenty of time to outline ideas and review — don’t wait until the last minute!

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sample college essay questions

35 College Essay Prompts and Topics

21 College Essay Topics & Ideas That Worked (Guide + Examples)

21 College Essay Topics & Ideas That Worked (Guide + Examples)

Looking for some amazing college essay topics and ideas? We’ve got all the brainstorming exercises and sample topics to help you generate you write an amazing college application essay.

You’re looking for a giant list of college essay topics to choose from.

And that’s exactly what you’ll find at the bottom of this page.

Wouldn’t it be nice if I gave you two great brainstorming exercises to help you find your own college essay topics?

I’ll answer that rhetorical question: Yes.

And that’s what you’ll find before we get to that giant list.

How do I know these exercises work? Because over the years I’ve worked with thousands of students, many of whom (like you)...

Have decent grades and a pretty good but not perfect SAT score

Are afraid they don’t have outstanding extracurricular activities to write about

Feel like their essay could make a difference in their college application but aren’t sure where to start.

Sound familiar?

My hope is that, by going through these step-by-step brainstorming exercises, you’ll find a topic that’s elastic, meaning that it’s stretchy enough to talk about lots of different parts of you, which is a characteristic you’ll find in most outstanding personal statements.

Great brainstorming is key to a great application. Want to see an example of a student’s brainstorming exercises, and the essays and application that brainstorming led to? Go here .

Pro Tip: Download your own blank template of that list and fill it in here.

All right, let’s do this.

TABLE OF CONTENTS

The Values exercise

This exercise is useful for identifying both your core values and your aspirations by answering this question: WHAT DO I VALUE?

The Essence Objects Exercise

This is one of my favorite brainstorming activities for generating college essay ideas. Why?

It’s one of the most efficient ways I know to help create a TON of content for your personal statement and also add texture to bring your essay to life.

Also, it’s just fun to do and a great way to reflect.

Ready to do it?

Click here for a list of questions to help you with the exercise.  Then, watch the video below.

What’s one of your essence objects?

The ‘Everything I Want Colleges to Know About me’ Exercise

Make a list of all the things you want colleges to know about you.

How? You can do this either:

in a bulletpoint format (organized, easy to read)

on a blank sheet of paper (with drawings, get creative)

on a timeline

For more detailed instructions, head here .

College Essay Topic Samples

Here’s a list of essay topics and ideas that worked for my one-on-one students:

Essay Topic: My Allergies Inspired Me

After nearly dying from anaphylactic shock at five years old, I began a journey healing my anxiety and understanding the PTSD around my allergies. This created a passion for medicine and immunology, and now I want to become an allergist so no other child will have to feel the same.

To read the full essay, click here.

Essay Topic: My Foreign Exchange Experience

My 28 months in America living with five families helped me develop five values: open mindedness, spending quality time with family, understanding, discipline, and genuine appreciation.

Essay Topic:  Why Did the Chicken Cross the Road?

I’ve created my own essay prompt: why did the chicken cross the road? In short, the chicken discovers that her idyllic world is not all it seems, and she must cross the road to discover her true purpose in life. She may come to realize that the world is more terrible and beautiful than she’s ever known.

To read the full essay, click here .

Essay Topic: A Palestinian Hunger Strike Turns Into a Purpose

My experience supporting a hunger strike in my native land, and watching my fellow students slowly lose interest in the strike and my protest, taught me to be passionate about social justice and inspired the creation of my own ethical clothing company.

Essay Topic: Lessons From My Pilgrimage to Mecca

My pilgrimage to Mecca taught me that I am valuable and family is centrally important. Now, I'm proud of my heritage, passionate about languages, and excited to bring all of it to college.

Essay Topic: From Homeschool to the Football Field

Instead of my original plan of playing football in high school, I freed myself of my fear of social interactions and my age gap by discovering a love for coaching.

Essay Topic: My First Flight Failed, But My Love Was Born

While my attempt at flight when I was five years old ended in disaster, my passion only grew as I became older. My love of engineering has taught me collaboration, social justice, curiosity, and diligence.

Essay Topic: Poop, Animals, and the Environment

I don’t mind being pooped on, bitten or scratched because my passion for animals is bigger than all of that. I know the world is rife with environmental problems, and I’m ready to spend my life making a difference.

Essay Topic: A Word a Day, A Life of Imagination

The NYT word of the day reminds me of something: my own imagination. My curiosity has taught me to love playing basketball, the violin, and inventing new words.

Essay Topic: Where I’m Home

I find myself feeling at “home” wherever I am, whether it’s spending quality time eating chicken with my family, diligently working on my chemistry research in the lab, or expanding my world through my college electives at Governor's School East.

Essay Topic: Easter, Travel, and Dad

Despite my abusive father’s wishes, I took a trip abroad and discovered my independence. Now, I want to pursue international relations and women’s studies to help women around the world discover who they are.

Essay Topic: My Cosmetic Journey

Although I initially saw my interest in cosmetics as a superficial obsession, through research and advocacy I’m now a community leader and online advocate for ethical cosmetics testing and labeling.

Essay Topic: Transformers Are Not Just for Boys

Being punished for playing with transformers because they “aren’t for girls” didn’t stop me from becoming passionate about robotics, where I created and fought for an open source platform that educates children about robotics around the world.

Essay Topic: The Instagram Post

Being publicly shamed for my pro-choice stance taught me to be passionate about my point of view, and now I understand that, while dissent and social justice are sometimes painful, they are sometimes necessary.

Essay Topic: My Grandmother Passing

My grandmother is my source of inspiration. When she passed away I couldn’t help but reflect on my love of family, passion for education, and my volunteering experiences at a cancer treatment center.

Essay Topic: My Self-Proclaimed Identity

I love writing, philosophy, speech and debate... and punk rock music. But I am not any one of these things, because I am all of them. I call myself a “punk-rock philosopher.”

Essay Topic: My Grandma’s Kimchi

I’ll always remember the passion and attention to detail my grandmother put into making kimchi. Watching my grandmother eventually lose her ability to make this important dish made me reflect on memory, death, and the importance of family. Now I’m the one who makes the kimchi.

Essay Topic: How Traveling Led to My Love of Language

My experiences traveling around the world influenced my interest in  language and human connection. That interest is what I want to bring into my dual majors of foreign language and linguistics.

Essay Topic: A Girl Muses on a Dead Bird

One day, my cat attacked a bird in the front yard. In my vain attempt at saving its life, I was forced to reconcile with losing one of my best friends in a tragic accident years ago.

Essay Topic: I Shot My Brother

My lifelong jealousy towards my little brother erupted when I shot him with a bb gun. Haunted with guilt, I sought to treat my brother with newfound respect and love, and learned the importance of family.

one-on-one college essay coaching banner

19 College Essay Topics and Prompts

Not sure what to write for your college essay? We've got you covered with a number of topics and prompts to help shape your unique story.

[Featured image] A woman works on her college essay with a pen, notebook, and laptop computer.

As part of your college application materials, you'll likely be asked to submit a college essay. These tend to be between 250 and 650 words , and are a unique opportunity to showcase your personality. Admissions panels are typically looking for students who will positively represent the school as a whole. In the end, your goal is to show them that you and the college are a good match. 

When drafting your college essay, you may be expected to answer a prompt or come up with a topic on your own. In this article, we've rounded up several ideas to get you thinking—and writing.

19 college essay topics

Each school sets different requirements around the college essay, so it's important to review the expectations around every application you intend to submit. Some give you creative freedom, while others expect you to respond to a pre-developed prompt. Either way, a strong college essay conveys to the admissions team who you are, why you want to attend that particular school, and what matters to you. It's a way to personalize an application that often focuses on quantitative data, such as GPA and SAT scores.

If you're given the creative freedom to write about whatever you want, consider a college essay topic that allows you to be honest and original. We've compiled the following ideas to help you brainstorm:

What's an important issue you care about? How have you gotten involved?

Have you changed your mind about something in recent years? What was it and why?

What's a situation that caused you to grow?

Explain a time when you failed. What did you learn from that moment?

Share a surprising pastime or hobby and what interested you about it.

What extracurricular activity are you involved in that speaks to your personality?

Detail a meaningful volunteer experience.

Dive into a meaningful travel experience.

Who do you most admire and why?

If you have a unique background, share a bit about it. How did you get where you are?

What's the best advice you've ever received?

Was there ever a time when you had to stand up for something—or someone?

What's something you might change about the world to make it better?

What do you hope to accomplish by attending college?

Is there something you want to do after graduating college?

Have you ever made or created something? Talk about it.

Do you have a big idea that could potentially impact your community?

What is most valuable to you? Dive into your values and share an example.

What are you most passionate about? Why?

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Pre-developed college essay prompts

Some colleges and universities will give you a series of prompts to choose from. These will vary from school to school, and can either be questions or statements. Here are a few examples of both.

Sample question prompts:

What excites your intellectual curiosity?

How has your upbringing shaped the person you are today?

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

Sample statement prompts:

Talk about an unusual circumstance in your life

Share how you hope to use your college education

Discuss a list of books you have read in the last year

Common App essay prompts

Common App is an online platform designed to simplify the college application process. Over 900 colleges use Common App, making it possible for you to fill out one application that's then submitted to multiple schools.

If you choose to complete the Common App, you'll have a choice of several distinctive prompts that change every academic year. Here's a sample of the 2022-2023 essay prompts [ 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.

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?

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?

Stick to the prompt.

No matter what type of prompt you receive, it's your job to stick to it. The admissions team has a lot of essays to read, so you'll have a better chance of standing out if you develop a cohesive response that stays on topic.

Start by identifying the prompt's main topic, then spend some time brainstorming to find the idea that resonates most with you. For many people, it's the topic that makes them feel some sort of emotion or reminds them of an entertaining story. Understanding what you're being asked to write about should make staying on topic throughout the entire composition easier.

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5 additional college essay tips

Once you decide what you'd like to write, follow the tips below to craft a standout essay. You can also find more advice about college essays in our article College Essay Format: Writing and Editing Tips .

1. Be considerate with humor.

Showing off your sense of humor lets your personality show through your words and can make reading the essay more entertaining. Try including a few sentences that you think will bring a smile to the reader's face, or use adjectives to insert some colorful comedy.

2. Offer insight.

Beyond recounting an event, experience, or memory, a great essay shows insight aka an ability to highlight meaningful takeaways. For example, if you choose to write about your unique hobby, try to discuss what you've learned from that pastime—or how you've grown as a result of it.

3. Add details

Great essays also invite the reader to connect with the story on an emotional level. With that in mind, it can help to recount a specific memory rather than answer a prompt without those colorful details. More than discussing something on a surface level—or vaguely—you want to provide enough particulars to keep your readers engaged. For example, if you choose to write about the best advice you ever received, set the scene and take the reader back to that moment.

4. Have an editor.

Your essay should ideally be error-free. Ask a trusted friend or family member to review your essay and suggest edits. An editor can help you catch grammatical errors or points out ways to better develop your response.

Avoid passing your paper along to too many people, though, so you don't lose your own voice amid all of the edits and suggestions. The admissions team wants to get to know you through your writing and not your sister or best friend who edited your paper.

5. Revise your essay.

Your first draft is just that: a draft. Give yourself plenty of time to read and revise your first pass and make sure you fully developed your response, stayed on topic, and shared your personality.

When revising your essay, you may find it helpful to read it aloud so you hear the words as you're saying them. Some people prefer to print a copy on paper and write notes by hand. Both options give your brain a new way to process the information to catch details you may miss if you keep everything in your head and on the computer.

Watch to find out why the essay many admission counselor's favorite part of the application:

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Article sources

Common App. " First-year essay prompts , https://www.commonapp.org/apply/essay-prompts." Accessed February 8, 2023.

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Choosing Your College Essay Topic | Ideas & Examples

Published on October 25, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on August 29, 2022.

A strong essay topic sets you up to write a unique, memorable college application essay . Your topic should be personal, original, and specific. Take time to brainstorm the right topic for you.

Some topics are easier to make work than others, but it’s possible to write an exceptional essay from a common topic.

Attend one of our upcoming livestreams and have your topic reviewed by an admissions essay coach. We’ll tell you if you’re on the right track and explain whether or not your topic has the potential to make a great college essay.

Want some extra inspiration? Watch recordings of past topic review sessions.

Table of contents

What makes a good topic, brainstorming questions to get started, discover the best topic for you, how to make a common topic compelling, frequently asked questions about college application essays, want some extra inspiration.

Here are some guidelines for a good essay topic:

In most cases, avoid topics that

Spend time reflecting on and writing out answers to the following questions. After doing this exercise, you should be able to identify a few strong topics for your college essay.

Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.

Writing about yourself can be difficult. If you’re struggling to identify your topic, try these two strategies.

Start with your qualities

After identifying your positive qualities or values, brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities.

Start with a story

If you already have some memorable stories in mind that you’d like to write about, think about which qualities and values you can demonstrate with those stories.

Talk it through

To make sure you choose the right topic, ask for advice from trusted friends or family members who know you well. They can help you brainstorm ideas and remember stories, and they can give you feedback on your potential essay topics.

You can also work with a guidance counselor, teacher, or other mentor to discuss which ideas are most promising. If you plan ahead , you can even workshop multiple draft essays to see which topic works best.

If you do choose a common topic, ensure you have the following to craft a unique essay:

Here are a few examples of how to craft strong essays from cliché topics.

Here’s a checklist you can use to confirm that your college essay topic is right for you.

College essay topic checklist

My topic is focused on me, not on someone else.

My topic shares something different from the rest of my application.

My topic is specific and original (not many students could write a similar essay).

My topic reflects positively on my character and behavior.

If I chose to write about a traumatic or challenging experience, my essay will focus on how I overcame it or gained insight.

If I chose a common topic, my essay will have a surprising story arc, interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style.

Good topic!

It looks like your topic is a good choice. It's specific, it avoids clichés, and it reflects positively on you.

There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic

Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:

Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:

It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.

During our livestream sessions, we invite students to submit their essay topics and receive live feedback from our essay coaches. Check out recordings of our past sessions:

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Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

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. 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? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. 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? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 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?

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.

Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 145 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. 

Connecticut college.

Hamilton College

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).

Tufts University

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.

Babson College

Emory University

Smith College

Books of College Essays

If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.

College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.

50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.

Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.

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Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"

"Why me?" I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

An Opening Line That Draws You In

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

Great, Detailed Opening Story

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.

sample college essay questions

Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.

sample college essay questions

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

sample college essay questions

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Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.

Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.

I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.

In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).

I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.

A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.

It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.

Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.

One Clear Governing Metaphor

This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.

But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:

This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.

Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:

While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.

sample college essay questions

An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.

Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Renner gives a great example of h ow to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.

Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!

For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:

Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.

Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.

In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.

The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.

sample college essay questions

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.

#3: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .

What's Next?

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

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The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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The 2021-22 Common Application Essay Prompts

Tips and guidance for the 7 essay options on the new common application.

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For the 2021-22 application cycle, the Common Application  essay prompts remain unchanged from the 2020-21 cycle with the exception of an all new option #4. As in the past, with the inclusion of the popular "Topic of Your Choice" option, you have the opportunity to write about anything you want to share with the folks in the admissions office.

The current prompts are the result of much discussion and debate from the member institutions who use the Common Application. The essay length limit stands at 650 words (the minimum is 250 words), and students will need to choose from the seven options below. The essay prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. The best essays focus on self-analysis, rather than spending a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student. If your essay doesn't include some self-analysis, you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.

According to the folks at the Common Application , in the 2018-19 admissions cycle, Option #7 (topic of your choice) was the most popular and was used by 24.1% of applicants. The second most popular was Option #5 (discuss an accomplishment) with 23.7% of applicants. In third place was Option #2 on a setback or failure. 21.1% of applicants chose that option.

From the Admissions Desk

"While the transcript and grades will always be the most important piece in the review of an application, essays can help a student stand out. The stories and information shared in an essay are what the Admissions Officer will use to advocate for the student in the admissions committee."

–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania

Always keep in mind why colleges are asking for an essay: they want to get to know you better. Nearly all selective colleges and universities (as well as many that aren't overly selective) have holistic admissions, and they consider many factors in addition to numerical measures such as grades and standardized test scores. Your essay is an important tool for presenting something you find important that may not come across elsewhere in your application. Make sure your essay presents you as the type of person a college will want to invite to join their community.

Below are the seven options with some general tips for each:

Option #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.

"Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write a story about your "background, identity, interest, or talent." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. You could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your "interest" or "talent" could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why  the story you tell is so meaningful. 

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #1
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Handiwork" by Vanessa
  • Sample essay for option #1: "My Dads" by Charlie
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Give Goth a Chance"
  • Sample essay for option #1: "Wallflower"

Option #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?

This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss setbacks and failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question—how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty are key with this prompt.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #2
  • Sample essay for option #2: "Striking Out" by Richard
  • Sample essay for option #2: "Student Teacher" by Max

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

Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief. The answer to the final question about the "outcome" of your challenge need not be a success story. Sometimes in retrospection, we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #3
  • Sample essay for option #3: "Gym Class Hero" by Jennifer

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?

Here, again, the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question since it is entirely up to you to decide what the "something" and "someone" will be. This prompt was added to the Common Application in the 2021-22 admissions cycle in part because it gives students the opportunity to write something heartfelt and uplifting after all the challenges of the previous year. The best essays for this prompt show that you are a generous person who recognizes the contributions others have made to your personal journey. Unlike many essays that are all about "me, me, me," this essay shows your ability to appreciate others. This type of generosity is an important character trait that schools look for when inviting people to join their campus communities.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #4

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

This question was reworded in 2017-18 admissions cycle, and the current language is a huge improvement. The prompt use to talk about transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but the new language about a "period of personal growth" is a much better articulation of how we actually learn and mature (no single event makes us adults). Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). This prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay—admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play (see the list of bad essay topics for more about this issue). These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #5
  • Sample essay for option #5: "Buck Up" by Jill

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?

This option was entirely new in 2017, and it's a wonderfully broad prompt. In essence, it's asking you to identify and discuss something that enthralls you. The question gives you an opportunity to identify something that kicks your brain into high gear, reflect on why it is so stimulating, and reveal your process for digging deeper into something that you are passionate about. Note that the central words here—"topic, idea, or concept"—all have rather academic connotations. While you may lose track of time when running or playing football, sports are probably not the best choice for this particular question.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #6

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.

The popular "topic of your choice" option had been removed from the Common Application between 2013 and 2016, but it returned again with the 2017-18 admissions cycle. Use this option if you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first six topics are extremely broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you. Cleverness is fine, but don't be clever at the expense of meaningful content.

  • See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #7
  • Sample essay for option #7: "My Hero Harpo" by Alexis
  • Sample essay for option #7: "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube"

Final Thoughts

Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis rather than merely describing a place or event.

The folks at The Common Application have cast a wide net with these questions, and nearly anything you want to write about could fit under at least one of the options. If your essay could fit under more than one option, it really doesn't matter which one you choose. Many admissions officers, in fact, don't even look at which prompt you chose—they just want to see that you have written a good essay.

Watch Now: Common College Essay Mistakes to Avoid

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Sample Essay Questions for College Apps

Roxana Hadad

March 09, 2009

Sample Essay Questions for College Apps

  • What do you consider to be the single most important societal problem? Why?
  • Pick a controversial problem on college campuses and suggest a solution.
  • What do you see as the greatest threat to the environment today?

Personal Achievements Colleges are looking for students who have achieved in some area of their lives. So you shouldn't be surprised to find essay topics that ask you to brag a little.

  • Describe how you have demonstrated leadership ability both in and out of school.
  • Discuss a special attribute or accomplishment that sets you apart.
  • Describe your most meaningful achievements and how they relate to your future goals.

Background and Influences Who you are is closely tied to where you've been and who you've known. To learn more about you, some admissions committees will ask you to write about your background and major influences.

  • Pick an experience from your own life and explain how it has influenced your development.
  • Who in your life has been your biggest influence and why?
  • How has your family background affected the way you see the world?
  • How has your education contributed to who you are today?

Future Plans and Goals Colleges look for applicants with vision and motivation, so they might ask about your goals and aspirations.

  • Briefly describe your long- and short-term goals.
  • Where do you see yourself 10 years from now?
  • Why do you want to get a college education?

Random Topics Some essay questions don't seem directly related to your education or life experience, but committees use them to test your creativity and get a better sense of your personality.

  • Choose a person or persons you admire and explain why.
  • Choose a book or books and that have affected you deeply and explain why.

While you can't predict every essay question, knowing some of the most common ones can give you a leg up on applications.

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