Common App Essay Prompts With Explanations


Before deciding which essay prompt to tackle for the 2018-2019 Common Application 2021, take a few moments to analyze each one. One of the biggest mistakes of applicants is making assumptions about the prompt and reading what they want to read instead of what is actually there. This results in essays that are off topic and confusing to the admissions officers. In this series of articles, we will thoroughly analyze each of the common app essay prompts so that you can have the best opportunity to create an ideal college admissions essay.

Common App Essay Prompts #1 - EssayEdge

Here’s Prompt 1. The italics simply indicate that the wording is new for the 2018-2019 application season.

Common App college essay prompts

Common App 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.

The phasing of this prompt isn’t significantly different from the one for 2018-2019, so if you’ve already started based on last year’s prompt, that’s okay.


Let’s look at the second sentence first because it’s the easiest to analyze. The sentence is really just an invitation to write on this topic if you feel that the main sentence applies to you. However, there is some meaning here. The admissions officers are letting you know that the topic of the essay needs to be of deep personal significance. If you’re not 100% certain that this prompt applies to you as an individual, you probably want to take a look at the other four prompts.

The first sentence includes items that really apply to everyone, which can make it a little confusing to applicants. We all have a background, an identity, interests, and some level of talent in certain areas. Therefore, the second half of this sentence is the most significant part of the prompt: ‘so meaningful’ and ‘incomplete without it’ are the key phrases here. Choose this prompt if you have some aspect of yourself about which you are very passionate and is essential to helping the admissions officers understand who you are.


The most common pitfall is when applicants select this prompt and write about something that they feel will impress the admissions officers instead of writing about how this aspect of yourself is crucial in your life. Although you may have won an award due to your talent or pursuit of a certain interest, that should be incidental to the story. The main focus of the story should be personal meaning, and the essay should demonstrate self-reflection and an understanding of this aspect of yourself in the broader context of community and society. Finally, you won’t be allowed to write a book, and writing about numerous smaller incidences in your life, while meaningful to you, can seem superficial to the admissions officers. You’ll need to choose your anecdote(s) wisely.

Ultimately, this prompt should be used if you feel that there is an exceptionally important aspect of yourself that is not reflected in any other part of the application package and can’t be fully expressed through any of the other prompts. Because the prompt is not giving you a specific topic to write about, the Common App is giving you a lot of leeway here. Use that freedom judiciously while showing your individuality and passion.


Common App Essay Prompt 2

While the tone of the other prompts is rather positive, this one fearlessly examines some of the darker parts of life that we all encounter and encourages applicants to write about how mistakes can groom us for success in the future.

Common App Essay Prompts #2 - EssayEdge

Here’s the prompt. The first sentence, in italics, simply indicates that the wording has changed from the previous 2018-2019 prompt.

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?


The Common App actually gives you quite a bit of direction on this prompt, and this is helpful as writing about failures can be exceptionally difficult. The structure provided can be very useful in creating an effective essay about a challenging topic.

Your essay will need to have three distinct parts:

    1. Writing about the incident itself

In the essay, you will need to tell the reader what happened. This seems self-explanatory, but remember that you’ll need to save enough space for the other two parts of the essay. This should actually be the shortest section of the essay, with the most time spent on exploring the other parts of the prompt. Therefore, writing out the entire incident and then trimming back can help you get everything out on paper so that you can view the incident more objectively.

    2. Writing about the effect this failure had on you

The failure may have had consequences for you, such as needing to repeat a class or losing your place on a team. However, the admissions officers are really looking for self-reflection in this section. How did you begin to change as an individual? How was this failure part of your process of growing up and becoming more mature? Did this failure change your perspective about yourself or your philosophy of life?

    3. Writing about how you are better prepared for success – particularly as a college student

For the final section of the essay, you need to bring everything together for the reader. Let the admissions officers know that you have made peace with the incident and have the skills to avoid similar mistakes in the future. Show them a confident individual who can manage setbacks and come back stronger because of them.


For this prompt, the biggest potential pitfall is focusing on the mistake itself. While you need to fully explain the situation so that the admissions officers can understand the anecdote that you are including in the essay, the admissions officers want you to spend most of your time in this essay writing about what you learned from this incident. Most of all, they want to know how you are now wiser and stronger because of this experience. Although there will be negative aspects to the essay, the overall tone needs to be positive.

As you work to complete your Common App essay, remember that sincerity, self-reflection, and taking responsibility are the things that the admissions officers are seeking in this essay. Writing with humility but also passion and insight will create an essay that can leave a lasting impression.


Common App Essay Prompt 3

Part of becoming an adult is forming our own ideas and opinions about a broad variety of issues. Sometimes, this means challenging the status quo and offering a different perspective than the one shared by others. It can also mean challenging our own point of view and adopting an opposite or more nuanced understanding of things.

Common App Essay Prompts #3 - EssayEdge

Here’s the prompt:

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


The prompt is clear that the admissions officers are looking for three distinct and well-developed sections in the essay.

1. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.

In this part of the essay, you need to tell the reader what happened. You could probably fill the entire essay just by explaining the story. Therefore, you may want to go ahead and write the whole thing out first and then trim back to give sufficient space to other aspects of the prompt.

2. What prompted you to act?

This is probably the most crucial aspect of the essay. With this question, the admissions officers are letting you know that they don’t want to read an essay about something that only happened inside your mind. Although broadening our perspectives is an important part of life, the admissions officers are looking for an experience where you took some action.

3. Would you make the same decision again?

While it can be exhilarating to challenge a belief and emerge victorious, don’t be afraid to explore times when things didn’t go so well. Despite having the better idea, others may not see things from our point of view due to differing value systems or simple fear of change. In other words, a story about challenging a belief or idea where everything went smoothly doesn’t make for the most compelling essay. If you choose this prompt, then also choose an anecdote where there was some tension or struggle. Finally, it’s okay to say that you would not make the same decision again. Either way, the admissions officers are looking for self-reflection in this section.


One of the biggest challenges of this prompt is avoiding the temptation to paint things in terms of black and white. When writing about challenging the beliefs or ideas of others, be careful not to present the other person or the other group as a caricature. Regardless of how difficult or blatantly incorrect the other opinion, you’re still writing about a real person who is much more than their views on this one issue. The most effective way to counter this pitfall is simply to acknowledge that, while you wholeheartedly disagree, you can understand the other perspective. This shows maturity and empathy – characteristics that all admissions officers are seeking in applicants.

In college, you’ll continually be expected to defend your point of view, so choosing this prompt can be a great way to demonstrate that you have the courage, humility, and analytical skills to excel in the college environment. Show understanding for yourself and others throughout the essay, and then conclude with how you have grown from the experience.


Common App Essay Prompt 4

In this prompt, you’ll have the opportunity to write about an issue of personal significance and your vision for solving the problem.

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.

This is a brand new prompt for the 2018-2019 season. However, this is no indication of whether you should or should not write about it. Yes, some applicants will be attracted to it because it is fresh. That’s fine, but the newness of the prompt can be a double-edged sword. The quality of the essay, whichever prompt you choose, is what matters.

Common App Essay Prompts #4 - EssayEdge


Like many of the prompts, this one calls for three specific areas to be addressed within the essay.

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.

The Common App is giving you quite a bit of freedom here. However, the key phrase here is ‘of personal importance’. Throughout the essay, you’ll need to show the admissions officers why this is meaningful to you as an individual. If you are writing about something that will affect a group or community, that’s fine. Even so, the essay will still need to demonstrate how this is significant to you and why.

2. Explain its significance to you…

Again, the admissions officers want to read about why this issue is meaningful to you. In this section, tell the reader why you want to solve the problem. What would it mean for your life? It’s perfectly fine to work to make the world a better place. However, the admissions officers also want to see reflection and personal passion.

3. Explain…what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

In this section, the admissions officers want to read a feasible action plan to solve the problem. Did you encounter or do you foresee any obstacles? How will you overcome those obstacles? If you need the buy-in of others, how did or how will you secure that?


The main pitfall that applicants need to avoid is attempting to tackle an issue so complex that it’s impossible to fully address every aspect of the prompt in the space available for the essay. Applicants tend to use up most of the space describing the problem and not fully exploring the significance or potential solutions. When brainstorming for this prompt, always keep in mind that you’ll need to sufficiently explore all three aspects. Although it’s perfectly acceptable to have minor differences in length between the three sections, they need to be basically even in order for the admissions officers to feel that the essay is well-developed.

Solving problems, both big and small, is gratifying. It instills confidence and challenges us to grow in multiple ways. When writing about this essay, combining a tone of intellectual curiosity and empathy will keep the reader engaged from start to finish.


Common App Essay Prompt 5

Rites of passage mark the changing stages of our lives, and this also applies to our education. From the first day of school to the day we walk across the stage to receive our diploma, certain events and accomplishments let us know that we are growing and maturing. This prompt asks you to discuss your transition from adolescence to adulthood and what that means to you.

Here’s the prompt. The wording is exactly the same as the one from the 2018-2019 season.
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Common App Essay Prompts #5 - EssayEdge




On the positive side, the Common App is giving you a lot of freedom with this prompt. While the topic is specific, you can organize the essay in any way that makes sense to you. However, that’s also the negative of this prompt. You’ll need to make sure that the essay still has a strong structure with a clear introduction, body, and conclusion.

Also, the prompt is specific that the accomplishment or event needs to be relevant to your family, community or culture. It needs to be something where you not only felt and/or behaved like an adult but that others around you also recognized that you were now an adult.

Finally, although the prompt does not state this, the admissions officers are looking for you to reflect on this transition. What did it mean to you? Did you embrace it fully? Were you prepared for the transition? How did you feel when others around you started treating you differently?

Most of all, help the admissions officers see what this transition means in terms of becoming part of the community at the school. How will your maturity benefit you and others as you make this new transition to being a college student?


One of the most common mistakes that applicants make with this prompt is writing about a series of events or accomplishments. For most people, our transition to adulthood is a process that cannot be demarcated by a clear ‘before’ and ‘after’. If this is the case, then you probably want to consider writing about a different prompt. For this one, the admissions officers are looking for something where your status among those around you changed from that of an adolescent to that of an adult – with all of the responsibilities and privileges that come with it.

Moving into adulthood can be a time of mixed feelings. Although we look forward to the new opportunities and autonomy that it brings, we can also have doubts about our ability to manage that independence. In this essay, don’t be afraid to explore the difficulties as well as the joys of this transition. Also, loved ones, especially parents, can also have mixed emotions as they begin to accept your new life as an adult. Being sincere throughout the essay, while expressing optimism and maturity, will help you have the right tone for creating an essay that will leave a lasting impression on the admissions officers.

Did you choose a prompt and finish your essay but feel that it lacks something? Try to read your paper a few times to define the reason, or get professional essay editing help on our website. There’s a way to save your time and other resources. Why not?

How long is the common app essay?

You may also like: Decoding and Tackling College Essay Prompts

Robin W.
Professional essay editor and proofreader with 10+ years of experience. Education: Cornell University. PhD in English Studies and M.F.A in Creative Writing.
Update: April 27, 2022

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