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How to Make Your Common App Essays Stand Out

Not sure how to write your Common Application essay? Here's a breakdown of the prompts and answers admission officers want (and don't want) to see from you.

Given the amount of college-bound high school students filling out the Common Application every year, it might seem difficult to make these essays stand out. In reality, most of us have pretty similar stories at this age. However, how you shape your own story in these essays has more to do with making you stand out than your story itself. Below is a list of options for Common Application essay questions and how to avoid the most #basic of responses to each.

Addressing your values or background

Common Application promp: 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 Common Application reports that 21.4% of students answered this question in the 2017–2018 application cycle, making it the third most popular question that year. So although this question seems unique, it turns out 21.4% of applicants think of themselves as unique enough to answer it.

  • Examples of a good answer to this question include writing about your status as an immigrant, your experience being in the foster care system, being a close relative to someone famous, or growing up as a nomad/someone with an alternative lifestyle. Good answers to this question must be exceptional and outside the norm. If you’re a pianist who’s played at Carnegie Hall, go for it. If you’ve only played at your school’s annual holiday recital, don’t.
  • Examples of a bad answer to this question include more commonplace experiences. For instance, if the “background” that your application would be “incomplete without” is your identity as a youth swim coach, pick a different question; a lot of high school students are youth swim coaches. The same goes if your “talent” is that you took AP Art and love painting but haven’t done much else with it in your life—or if your “interest” is in biomedical research, which you’ve never participated in. Basically, this is the question about you, you shouldn’t have to think for long about the answer.

Related: How to Sound Smart in Your Personal Statement

Writing about a lesson learned

Common Application 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 wants you to get to the deep stuff here. This question has an equally high risk for eliciting poignant answers as it does shallow ones.

  • Examples of a bad answer include the time you lost a the championship soccer game; the time your high school boyfriend left you for someone else, but you bopped to some old Taylor Swift and got over; or the time you broke your left arm and happen to be left handed. The commonality between these three answers is that they’re all common experiences a lot of people learn and grow from. You do not want to be the 200th essay your dream school receives about someone who didn’t get the lead in their school play.
  • Examples of a good answer include writing about times of struggle, like maybe your house burnt down and you had to do all your schoolwork at the local library for a year. You can write about the time you had to put a family member before yourself and how it affected your life, or the time you wanted to play on the varsity football team even though you identify as a woman. The more specific the better.

Reflecting on challenging your beliefs

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

Sounding too high and mighty gets really easy on this one. But if you view yourself as a student activist, this might be the essay for you. Just follow Kendrick Lamar’s advice here and “Stay Humble.”

  • Do get (sort of) controversial. When you think of this “belief or idea” that you challenged, be sure it was something you felt really passionate about. For example, writing about the time you challenged school dress codes because of its sexist nature and worked with school officials to make changes is the right amount of controversial. Writing about the time you tried to go to school naked in protest of said dress codes is over the line. Or maybe it's as simple as joining a political club and challenging your views on politics.
  • Don’t paint yourself as a superhero. Odds are you didn’t single handedly convince your high school to start recycling when it didn’t at all before you graced the school with your presence. You probably had the rest of Environmental Club behind you, even if you were the president. Admission officers won’t love you being cocky, so adopt a down-to-earth tone and give credit where credit is due.

Related: How to Write About Yourself in Your College Essay (Without Bragging)

Talking about problem-solving 

Common Application prompt: 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.

If you feel like more of a STEM person than a humanities-oriented essay writer, this could very well be the perfect question for you. If you’ve written research proposals before and find them easier than pursuing a more creative essay, think of this as an impassioned lab assignment.

  • A great answer might include a specific aspect of a disease or condition that you would be interested in researching in college labs. Some students have an interest in a specific type of cancer, autism, or dementia, and they should talk about it here.
  • A mediocre answer is more general. Great answers have specifics including why the student feels interested in pursuing research in that specific area of a field. A less great answer has a lot of vagueness and ambiguity. For instance, don’t just write about wanting to research cancer; pick a type of cancer, say why it interests you, and what your studies would do to help the larger body of research at hand.

Discussing personal growth

Common Application prompt: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

23.6% of applicants chose this question during the 2017–2018 application cycle, so clearly a lot of people felt as though they did some major growing during high school.

  • Pick this question if you know you can tell your story with depth. Great examples of these essays include talking about the first time you went hunting with your dad, the death of a close friend or family member, or a specific “aha!” moment.
  • Don’t pick this question if any part of you thinks your answer might be shallow or something another applicant would submit. Again, talking about the demise of your high school romance is not acceptable, no matter how much you grew from that experience.

Related: How to Write About Bullying In Your College Essay

Explaining what captivates you most

Common Application prompt: 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?

  • This one is simple: have a passion? Talk about it the way you would to your best friend, then have a bunch of English teachers and college counselors review it. Your passion will come through in your writing as long as it feels sincere. The only way you could write this essay poorly is by lying about your passion. This one has to be entirely truthful, or it will come off as stale.

Which one do you choose?

Deciding which one of these essay prompts to respond to is all about figuring out what you think will present the best you to an admission committee. If one of these prompts elicits a strong reaction from you right off the bat, go with it! You can always change your mind later if your essay isn’t clicking, but if something feels like it’s drawing you in, it’s worth exploring and will likely make for a great essay response.

For more advice on writing your best essay, check out the articles in our College Admission–Application Essay Clinic.

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About Phoebe Bain

Phoebe is a student at the College of William & Mary. She's an avid writer, reader, runner, ukulele player, and user of the passive voice. Her favorite show is How I Met Your Mother, and she loves how giraffes look when they sleep.


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