Which Common App Essay Prompt Should You Choose?

March 23, 2014.  “Which essay prompt should I pick from the Common Application?” is one of the most frequent questions I hear as an Essay Coach. Here is my answer.  Choose the prompt that:

  • You are attracted to
  • Seems interesting to write about
  • Prompts some ideas (brainstorm!)
  • Tells a story that shows something positive and interesting about your character, passions or scholastic ability.

I also discuss what each question means to me, as an adult with a teensy bit more experience in life than a teenager.  Students love this part of our time together.  They look me straight in my brown eyes and seem to hang on every word, because in some ways I’m helping them solve a mystery.

My interpretation of the prompts is helpful not only because of my experience with college admissions, but because I’m giving students an adult perspective, and an adult will be reading their essay. Of course, the essay needs to be written in a student’s own voice–I don’t touch a student’s paper–but any writer should know something about his or her audience. This discussion is also helpful because it’s so hard for students to see what is unique and interesting in what they do. Most students know they are not the only one who loves tennis, adores a favorite aunt, or is obsessed with Harry Potter. So they can’t visualize how to write their own story, until they start to talk about it.

What adult could easily write an essay for the Common Application?  It’s very difficult for everyone, so an outside perspective helps:  I’m seeing the forest, so can notice the difference in the trees.   Parents can try this:  talk to your student about the Common Application essay prompts. It might start a fun conversation, one of those “When I was your age” discussions.  It’s amazing to see the relief on a student’s face when an idea pops into his or her head.

To learn more about how to write your unique story in your own voice, read How is a College Application Essay Different from a High School Essay?

The Essay Coaching (EC) writing advice for each Common Application prompt is in italics below each prompt.

Common Application Introduction

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

1  Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

EC Writing adviceThis is a good way to share your passion. What do you care about, why, what have you done about it? How does your passion affect your plans for the future? Stay away from talking about major problems (divorce, disease, death, relocation) unless you are explaining a transcript issue and/or you can share positive details of how you thrived through this problem and continue to thrive.


2  Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

EC Writing adviceDid you decide to do something that was difficult for you, or did you simply find yourself faced with a challenge? Describe the challenge, describe your “failure”—exactly what happened. Three-quarters of the essay should be about how the failure affected you and changed you (who you are and what you do,  think, and feel).


3  Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

EC Writing advice:  Describe the experience in detail.  Where were you? What was said or done? Be detailed about what prompted you—what in your past had you read or seen or heard to give you your belief?  What have you learned since then to help you decide to whether or not you would make the same decision again? Remember to be respectful of friends, family, and adults; for example don’t say, “I helped because my coach had no idea what he was doing.”


4  Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

EC Writing advice: This is a harder question to answer in a unique, strong way.  Avoid topics involving fun/relaxing places like camp and vacation—better to pick situations that involve a characteristic or skill important to you that can help your success as a student.  Try to connect your feeling of contentment to your past (I’ve been picking mushrooms for eight years with my parents) and if possible—your future (and now I am interested in being a botanist). But not everyone can do that, because many students are undecided about their future–which colleges accept.  Try to specify an exact experience you had in this place.  Why was it meaningful? What happened during the experience? How did it change you? Use sensory detail, dialogue.

5  Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

EC Writing advice: Why was it meaningful? What happened during the experience? How did it change you? Use sensory detail, dialogue. Do you have a special person in your life who has changed you?  How? What have you done as a result of knowing him/her that you might not have?

[Need more assistance with writing your story or your college application essay? Write debbie@essaycoaching.com We educate and motivate. You create.]