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 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.
  3. Keep reading below.  Read the seven Common Application Essay prompts and the suggestions to prompt thoughts about each of them from the Common Application team. [Note: At the time of this writing, this page from the Common Application team has a typo in it.  Prompt number 4 is incorrect, and is listed twice–as prompt 4 and 6. Prompt 4, about a problem you’ve solved, is correct below and in the listing of Common Application Essay prompts here.]
  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, and a List of Phrases to Consider for Each

Click here to see a downloadable PDF version of this list from the Common Application.

  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.

Think about

  • Your community, environment, family, and culture
  • What you’re deeply curious about and how you spend your time
  • What makes you proud
  • People and experiences that have shaped your life

Ask yourself

  • What’s missing from the rest of my application?
  • Is there context to help colleges understand who I am?
  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?

Think about

  • All obstacles: big and small, personal and societal
  • Hardships faced by family or friends that also impacted you
  • Unresolved challenges you’re still struggling with

Ask yourself

  • How did I cope? How did I grow?
  • Who helped me?
  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Think about

  • Anywhere you spend time: school, clubs, work, home, place of


  • Everyone you interact with: friends, teammates, family, teachers, coaches

Ask yourself

  • Did the experience clarify or change my values?
  • What was the impact on my relationships?
  • Did I surprise myself—or anyone else?
  1. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

Think about

  • When you first observed or were introduced to the problem
  • The people or experiences that helped you understand the issue

Ask yourself

  • Why is this important to me?
  • What would a solution look like?
  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Think about

  • The full range of your achievements, both public and private
  • Small or everyday experiences that had a powerful impact on you
  • Times when you were surprised by what you learned or discovered

Ask yourself

  • How did I change?
  • How can I continue to grow?
  • How can I share what I learned with 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?

Think about

  • How you choose to spend your free time
  • Your hobbies, your classes
  • What you read, what you write, what you create

Ask yourself

  • How did my curiosity start?
  • What does this interest tell others about me?
  • What does this interest tell me about myself?
  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.

Think about

  • What you want to share, not what you think colleges want to hear
  • Topics that reveal who you are and what matters to you

Ask yourself

  • Does this essay provide new information to my colleges?
  • Is there anything left unsaid in my application?

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