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How to Approach College Essay Prompts 2021 from the Common App

common app essay prompts 2021

Some 800 institutions in the United States accept Common App. This means that almost every student applying to either a prestigious Ivy League university or a small liberal arts college will use it.

Common App is a college application platform that allows students to create their application once and apply to as many schools as they want. It also helps to quell the overwhelming anxiety of application season. Students can create their profiles early and build them gradually until they are finally ready to send the application to a particular school.

The central part of your application (and the most anxiety-inducing one) is the personal statement. The Common App helps with that, too, by giving you admissions essay prompts to start brainstorming your unique ideas. This post will look at those prompts and give you some tips on how to approach them.

Don’t forget that if you need personalized assistance with your admission essay, we are your very own creative writing helper.

Turn to us for editing, actionable advice, and winning samples.


What are Common College Application Essay Prompts for the 2020-2021 Year?

Earlier this year, Common App has announced that the 2020-2021 personal essay prompts will not be changed and remain entirely as they were for the five previous years. These are six core prompts to elicit a personal story and one free-form prompt giving you a complete carte blanche. You can choose it if nothing of the six core ones fits the unique experience you want to share with the admission committee.

Here are these prompts, as they appear on the Common App, with our tips:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  2. This may sound like a typical diversity question, but don’t hurry to skip it if you don’t wish to write about this topic. If you read it carefully, you will see that it can be about any aspect of your life. Your favorite pastime, your sense of humor, the thing your friends value about you, even your name – anything that makes you uniquely you. However, if you choose to write about your interest or talent, be careful not to repeat information already given somewhere on your application (for example, in the school’s writing supplement). Tell a story that will add a new dimension to your application.

  3. 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?
  4. Talking about your failure doesn’t seem like a fitting way to prove yourself as a worthy candidate, but that’s only on the surface. Remember, admission officers love reading about learning, improving, and growth. Plus, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate your resilience or your positive attitude to life.

  5. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  6. This prompt might sound remarkably like the previous one, but it should be about something bigger than a mistake or a time you admitted you were wrong. It should be about core ideas and beliefs that are important and meaningful to you. You could describe a minor incident if it made you reconsider larger beliefs. This prompt angles for deep introspection and metacognition to show your analytical skills and open-mindedness.

  7. 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 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.
  8. This prompt is an excellent opportunity for students who would rather talk about their intellectual interests. It should explore your curiosity and problem-solving skills. However, beware of being too impersonal. Write about an issue close to your heart – be it a big ambition to end world hunger or a tiny problem that is somehow meaningful on a deep level.

  9. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  10. This one is a classic personal essay prompt. All the other prompts will one way or another follow its structure: inciting incident – realization – growth. The only difference is this focus on one particular moment in your life. It’s better to concentrate on recent events that have shaped who you are now – not something from your early childhood.

  11. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
  12. This prompt is plain and simple about your passion and intellectual curiosity. Something you could spend hours talking about. However, do remember that admission officers want to know more about your personality – not about your collection of eggshells. Make sure that your essay reflects your character traits or values.

  13. 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.
  14. This prompt is perfect for students who already know what story to tell. Just remember that this story must be authentic and give an insight into your personality.

Your personal statement

Besides the prompts, this year, many college application platforms, including the most popular Common App and Coalition Application, have introduced a dedicated space for writing about your experiences with Covid-19. This decision was made because the pandemic has profoundly influenced many young people. Predictably, it could even overshadow all the previous experiences students have had.

However, students choosing to write about Covid-19 in their personal statements would risk telling a story anyone could tell and lose their chance to stand out. A dedicated space for this topic allows applicants to share their specific Covid-19 experience without giving up the entire personal statement, which should introduce them to the admission officers as a unique human being.

How to Approach Your Common App Prompts

As you might have noticed, core college app essay prompts are very broad. They give you a starting point to find the story from your life that will be the most telling and true. It can be a story of moral dilemma, intellectual challenge, emotional turmoil, or personal growth. The prompt itself doesn’t matter – any of them is as good as another. The important thing is how you will approach it.

Basically, the college wants to know just two things: what sort of person you are and how good a writing skill you possess. To make common college essay prompts work for you, here is what you should keep in mind:

  • Admission officers will want to know whether you will be a valuable addition to their campus. While choosing which story to share, think, what does it tell about you? Does it give off the impression of you as a thoughtful and mature person? Does it show that you can critically assess yourself? Does it demonstrate your ability to extract lessons from your experience? Does it show off your personality – either warm and outgoing or reserved and introspective?
  • The student body is dynamic and different for every school. Even classes of each year may differ widely. This means you cannot predict what kind of candidates admission officers will look for in the current application season. That’s why your best bet is honesty. To test whether your essay does a good job of showing your true self, give it to someone close to you and ask them: does it sound like me?
  • At the same time, try to assess how your essay reads to someone who doesn’t know you at all. You want to be considerate and friendly.
  • Do not summarize your achievements. All your extracurriculars, trophies, A's, and standardized test scores are already there on your application. Plus, the college might have obtained some additional information from the College Board. Recounting all that in your personal statement is a missed opportunity.
  • Let the readers inside your head. This will help you to avoid clichés. Instead of telling in generalized expressions what the incident meant to you, show the readers in detail what was happening at the time. Walk them through the experience. Let them feel as if they were there with you.
  • As tempting as it is to describe your moments of glory and triumph, don’t forget that conflicts, dilemmas, and times you were wrong make for more engaging reading and reveal your character better.
  • Don’t be afraid to be candid and vulnerable. Character-forming events, be it processing grief or revising one’s core beliefs, are often emotionally taxing to write about, but it can also be cathartic. If, after a re-read, you think that some of the details are too personal to share, you can rephrase parts of your text.
essay portays

How to Write Your Common App Essay

As with any other essay, the process includes three necessary steps:

  1. Brainstorming ideas

    This will sound counterintuitive, but you don’t even have to look at the prompts for this step. Instead, ask yourself these questions: Who am I? What matters most to me? What makes me unique? Dig deep.

    This will give your plenty of ideas for your personal statement and even for writing supplements that many schools ask you to submit as well.

  2. Coming up with a structure

    There are two main types of structure for a personal essay:

    • - Narrative for a story that is focused on one particular event (for example, how you have discovered your intellectual passion or how you bounced back from a failure)
    • - Montage for a story that spans years (for example, how your relationship with a sibling developed, or how you followed your dream)
  3. Several rounds of revision

To write a good essay, you should go through multiple drafts (anywhere from 5 to 10). When you finish your first draft, don’t hurry to give it away for feedback. Let it sit for a day or two. Then read it again and edit anything you don’t like anymore. Repeat this once again. Then, you can ask someone you trust to read it and tell what they think.

Finally, you will need to hunt for mistakes and grammatical inconsistencies. Remember, your language prowess will be assessed as well.

We will be happy to help you with a professional proofreading and friendly advice on making your story more impactful.

Elissa Smart Elissa Smart
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