How to Pick Your Common Application Essay Prompt in Ten Minutes

When teaching Common Application Essay secrets in free and low-cost classes for high school students and their parents, I say,

“If you remember nothing else in this class, remember this:

The common app essay is about what you care about, and what you’ve done about it.”

You may be wondering this: how can I best show this in my essay? Which of the seven Common Application Essay prompts should I choose?

To help students write their essay, the Common Application provides seven writing prompts, detailed below in this blog post.  But note the seventh prompt:  “Topic of your choice.”  That’s like saying to a chef, “You can cook a vegetarian dish, a spicy dish, a fried dish, a casserole, a soup, or a dish of your choice.”  All of the choices are just ideas, because you can do whatever you want.

In other words, it doesn’t matter. You can always pick the seventh prompt: “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.”

But what do you write about?  Read on to come up with some ideas for your essay.

Five Steps to Brainstorming Ideas for Your Common Application Essay

  1. Read the two-column chart below about some excellent topics and the qualities they may show. Think.
  2. Set a timer for two minutes and brainstorm three ideas and write them down.Think about something that happened one day in the last two years to start your essay.
  3. Read the seven Common Application Essay prompts.
  4. Turn your paper over, set a timer for two minutes again and brainstorm three more ideas.
  5. Look at the ideas you came up with and circle the idea that seems the most appealing to write about.  Then take our quiz called,”What is Your Best College Application Topic” and read the full page of tips and results at the end. You can take the quiz multiple times, with different ideas.  Pick your idea that received the highest score, seems most appealing to write about, and that admissions officers will enjoy learning about you.  Remember that their job is to decide if you are a person who can successfully attend and graduate from their college.

Ready?  Begin.


Some Excellent Essay Topics:  Write about a meaningful…


1.    Challenge

2.    Decision

3.    Epiphany

4.    Passion

5.    Experience  or Moment

6.    Relationship

7.    Skill or Habit

8.    Place

9.    Combination of any above

The Best Essays Show One or More of These Qualities:


§   Passion

§   Talent

§   Ability to lead

§   Initiative

§   Creativity

§   Growth

§   Intellectual readiness for college

§   Self-insight


The Seven Common Application Prompts

The Common Application has an interesting handout called “Telling Your Story” about these 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.

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

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

  1. 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. 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.

Do you have more questions? Read these Frequently Asked Questions about college application essays on Quora.

Need more assistance with writing your college application essay?  Check out the free Essay Coaching quizzes here.  Would you like to work one-on-one with a principled, honest, award-winning writer who helps businesses, authors and students tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way?  Write Debbie Merion:



Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash