Common App Essay Prompts 2018–2019

Which essay question to choose and how to knock it out of the park!

The Common App essay is one of the most important pieces in your application. Schools have individual essays, but this essay will seen by every school that you apply to on the Common App and it’s your chance to shine. The point of the essay is to show the committee who you are as a person, what drives you, and most importantly, it’s the chance for you to make a strong and memorable impression.

There are 7 essay prompts (and one option is to write your own question), so we gave you the breakdown on the 6 remaining essay topics. If you’re struggling to think of what to write, or you’ve written something that you’re not sure is fully answering every part of the prompt, check out our detailed breakdown of each topic.

If you want to show your essay draft to a current undergrad at any of the schools you’re applying to, set up a meeting! Learn more about AdmitAlly if you’re curious about what we can do for you.


Essay Prompt #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.

How would you describe who you are, and what has shaped you, to a complete stranger? That is what this essay question is asking you to address.

Background topics: family, economic background, religious background, etc.

If you’ve faced hardship or if something that you believe or the circumstances in which you were raised shaped you, think about writing this essay. Don’t worry about being cliché. If you are authentic, no one can write the same essay as you!

Perhaps your religious group isn’t accepted in certain parts of the world and you want to study conflict management to help groups communicate more effectively. Maybe your family didn’t speak great english and made you file taxes from a young age and you want to start a finance startup to help other kids who might be in the same situation. If how you grew up affects what you want to do in college and beyond, try writing this essay topic to show the admissions committee what your values and goals are.

Identity topics: sexual orientation, stereotypies, gender identity, ethnic or racial background, etc.

Who do you identify as and why does that matter? Maybe you are 6'7" and you’re always the tallest person in the room. If that affects your mindset, how you treat others, your career aspirations, or your personality in any way, consider writing this essay! Talk about who you are and make sure you discuss what you’ve learned by reflecting on who you are. Tell a story, explain why your identity has shaped you into the person you are now. Don’t simply state what you are (LGBT, a twin, an activist, an immigrant, etc.), talk about how that identity affects you and your goals (career or otherwise).

Interest topics: art, politics, athletics, medicine, agriculture, etc.

Are you super nerdy about something? Maybe you are obsessed with watching tennis and never miss a Serena match. When did that interest form? What does it say about you? This essay should *not* be a summary of why you like watching and playing tennis. Share what tennis taught you and how it made you appreciate certain values? Maybe you moved cities and, amidst all the change, you had one constant: tennis. Be sure to use this interest as a topic through which the reader can learn about why this one thing is so important to you and why it defines you.

If you’re going to write an essay about your interests, be sure to tie in how this interest fits into your plans as a college student. Maybe all those tennis matches made you think about what it would be like to use virtual reality to feel like you’re on the court.

Talent topics: piano, building apps, athletics, origami, cooking, art, organizing political rallies, etc.

What are you better at than almost anyone you know, personally? This essay is tricky because when you say you’re talented at something…you’d better have proof. Are you recognized as a top athlete in your state? Maybe you grow tomatoes in your garden and sell them at the local farmer’s market? Oh, and you have to write about what you’re good at without sounding cocky…

And of course, remember to share your story. How does your talent define you? How did you stumble upon it? Did you have to work at it? Did you ever want to quit? Do you even like this talent? Maybe you’re the best at something that you really hate doing — that’d be an interesting, unexpected, and memorable essay!


Essay Prompt #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?

What challenges and suboptimal experiences shaped you? Tell a story and show your character, humanity, and growth in this essay.

The point of this essay question is to show how you handle yourself when things don’t go well. College is bumpy, how will you handle yourself when you fail? That’s what the admissions committee wants to know. Will you keep pushing forward or will you quit?

If you have ever been challenged (maybe in a competition or in a class), faced a setback (worked toward a goal and come up short), or failed (prepared and worked hard but didn’t find success in the end)…consider writing this essay!

Common essay topics are (1) Athletics; (2) Research; (3) Internships; (4) Family; (5) Mental Health; (6) Physical Health. Be careful not to get too personal, there is an art to talking about something dark without making the reader feel that you’ve overshared. If you’re curious about what is too much, reach out to the team at AdmitAlly and we’ll help you out.

Remember that the question is: How did your challenge, setback, or failure affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Don’t spend the entire essay describing that time you broke your leg in a soccer game. Write about what happened briefly and then spend the rest of the essay talking about how that experience forced personal growth. Don’t just say that you’ve learned a lesson. Share what the lesson was and be descriptive about the changes you’ve made in your life because of that setback. Maybe you changed your mindset and it positively affected your schoolwork. Maybe you handled the situation poorly, and upon reflection, feel like you learned a valuable lesson in hindsight.

An essay like this can get dark. Always end with light. The impression you leave on the reader has to be inspirational and positive. Write about how the deeply negative thing that happened led to better habits, a better outlook, positive opportunities, a much-needed wake-up call, or something else that made you grow into the strong person you are today.


Essay Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

When did you go against the grain because of your conviction? Tell a story about how challenging the status quo shaped you.

This essay can go in several different directions. You can write about being raised by Democrats but identifying as a Republican. Maybe you were the first openly gay person in your high school. Maybe you grew up in a city where you and your family were the only people who looked a certain way, talked a certain way, or held certain beliefs that made others feel uncomfortable. It doesn’t have to be this serious, either. Your conviction could simply be that pineapples don’t belong on pizza (they totally do, by the way) and maybe your story is that you worked at a pizza place and convinced customers out of their orders to try something else. If you’ve ever stuck out for the way you look or what/how you think, this might be the essay topic for you.

Explain the disagreement early on in the essay, and be brief. Spend most of your space talking about how you handled thinking, feeling, or being different. When did you first realize that you felt a certain way? How did it make you feel when you disagreed with the people around you? Did you speak up? What happened and what were the lessons learned? Did you ever agree with the people that you now disagree with? How did you handle switching your opinion?

Wrap up this essay with the “outcome”. What happened and how did it change you or change others? How are you going to use this experience in the future? Bonus points if you can tie this story into what you’re thinking abotu studying or doing outside the classroom in college.

The exact structure of your essay isn’t as important as it is to make sure you hit on all of these subtopics: (1) WHAT: Show us the gap between you and others. It’s best to use examples here so the reader understands! (2) WHY: what made you change your thinking? Why do you feel different? Make sure you show off how self-reflective you are. If there was a specific moment that led to a shift, share the story. (3) OUTCOME: What was the reaction? Both your own and those of the people around you? How have you grown? How have you helped those around you grow? How will you apply what you’ve learned moving forward?


Essay Prompt #4: 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.

What drives you? Show the admissions committee what kinds of problems keep you up at night and how you want to positively impact others.

This essay gives you a chance to share what you care about, why you disagree with the current system, how you’d do things differently, and who you would be helping in the process. The more niche and specific the problem, the better. This is your chance to share a lot about who you are, why you care about the issues you care about (background) and how creative you are.

If you’ve already done something that solved a problem, great job! Start by explaining how you stumbled upon this problem, what the negative effects of the current system were, and then explain how you arrived at a solution. Once you establish the background story, talk about how you implemented your solution. What happened? Did you encounter any bumps along the way? How did you handle the unexpected? The important question to answer here is why you cared to solve this problem and the process by which you made an impact. The admissions committee wants to see how you think and act.

If you know a problem that you’d like to solve in the future (either near future or long-term), that’s great too! Explain why you care about this issue and how it affects you and/or people you care about. Maybe you care about the fact that your neighborhood has no recycling bins because you grew up in a family that is really environmentally conscious. If you grew up in Montana and you’ve never been outside of the country, don’t write about how you’d like to get clean water to more people in 3rd world countries. Your first priority should be to explain a problem that is pressing and that you could, realistically, make an impact on.

The actual problem is not that important. The admissions committee wants to learn more about your approach to tackling questions and their potential solutions. Whether the problem is personal, professional, familial, etc., this essay question wants to know about how you move through the world, what you observe, how you conduct research, what your ethical and moral values are, and what kind of leader you are.


Essay Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

What pushed you to grow up? Tell the admissions committee about how a specific event helped you on your journey of self reflection and show your maturity.

Maybe your the band at your cousin’s wedding played a song that was stuck in your head for so long that it pushed you to teach yourself an instrument. Small events sometimes change us forever. The admissions committee wants to understand what experiences made you the person who you are today. The accomplishment could be that you placed at the state level in a sport and then realized that you don’t care about that sport anymore! This essay is your chance to explain what matters to you and what affects you. For those who want to write quirkier, more sentimental essays, this is a good option

Your reflection on who you are and what you’ve learned will give admissions a chance to see parts of you that might not be highlighted anywhere else on your application.

But remember, your goal is to make an impression and write something memorable that defines you and your application. Try answering one or more of the following questions: How do you react to transitions? What inspires you? Was there ever an exact moment that made you feel like you instantly grew up a little? What event fundamentally changed who you were as a human being? Were you ever introduced to something that led you down a path you never thought you would be on?

If you’re trying to think of an essay for this topic, reflect on moments of growth, understanding, and transformation. The event, accomplishment, or realization you describe should have helped you understand the world better, as a more mature person than you were before.


Essay Prompt #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?

Show the admissions committee what you are nerdy about! How does it affect how you view the world?

Sometimes people say they are interested in a topic that they know little to nothing about. This is your chance to talk about how obsessed you are with a topic and how deep your expertise goes. At this point in time, we have more access to knowledge than ever before in the history of the world. Maybe you watch 5 hours of makeup video tutorials a night and started studying the chemistry of makeup and want to go to school to learn how to make and sell your own products. Show the reader how wicked smart and resourceful you are.

Be sure to answer all parts of this question: (1) What do you care about? (2) Why do you care about this, specific thing? (3) How do you go about learning more and how far does your research take you? (4) What do you want to do with this expertise?

Be descriptive. This is your chance to help the reader feel your passion. Talk about where you like to do the research, what you look like and how people might not expect you to have this interest, when you started getting interested in this topic, and so on.

Whatever it is that you love, OWN IT. This is your space to explain what it is that gets the wheels in your mind turning. How has your interest involved as your research knowledge base grew? What problems in the industry or book series or history of the sport or research keep you up at night? College is about challenging yourself, without your dad or mom making you do your homework. Where are you going to add value and uplift the academic community around you? Make the admissions committee want to get to know you better by showing them how unique, driven, thorough, and quirky you are.


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