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FEB 18, 2021 • 26 min read
In this special blog post, we’ll provide some basic background on the Common App personal statement, explain why it is important, provide some expert tips on how to pick the prompt that is right for you, and take a deep dive into how to write each one!
Let’s get started!
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App Essay (or personal statement) is a 650-word essay that all schools using the Common App will see.
The first thing to know about the Common App essay is that it is personal, which means that it should focus on an element of your life that’s not reflected in the remainder of your application. If you simply write another version of your resume, you will be missing a chance for the admissions committee to get to know you.
The majority of schools to which you apply will ask you to submit a Common App essay in order to give them a sense of you as a student beyond your grades. Though you might choose to write about an academic topic, ultimately your goal is to have the reader understand more about your values, your thoughts, and your experiences outside the classroom. You are telling a story, and original writing is the way to make your application memorable and compelling.
Why is the Common App personal statement so important?
Because this essay brings your application to life!
What Should I Write About?
The task with the Common App essay is to figure out how to talk about yourself in fewer than 650 words. (Technically, you could hand in only 200, but you want to use just about all the space you’re given!) You’ll write just one Common App essay for all the schools to which you are applying, so focus the months that you have to prepare the best essay you can about one topic.
To help you get started, the Common App provides you with a series of prompts. In reality, you can write about any topic you think will best represent you, but the Common App prompts can be helpful starting points.
So what are the 2021-2022 Common App personal essay prompts and how do you answer them?
Let’s start with prompt # 1!
How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 1?
First, here is prompt #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.’
This prompt should bring out deep discussion about your cultural roots and your upbringing. Where are your family from and where did you grow up? Were you immersed in a culture that is meaningful to you and plays a big part in your life? What were you known for and what was your role in the neighbourhood? Were you inspired by any people, art or philosophies that shaped you as a person? While these suggestions may bring up very broad answers, ultimately you want to be able to focus on a focus that is uniquely relevant to you.
If you have questioned your identity, or it has shifted in the past few years, it’s certainly useful to figure out how to describe why those changes happened and what the impact of them has been on your goals into the future. For example, if you have had a life-changing experience or awakening that changed your outlook and identity, what was it’s trigger, what ideas and emotions did it give birth to, were these ideas confronting or enlightening? Once again it comes down to how this shift was important to you.
If you are feeling stuck, make a list of different phrases or values you would use to describe yourself, and see which ones can form the basis of an essay about your identity. For example, you may want “compassion,” “humility,” or “cooperation” to be the focal point of your application. Next, try and make this really clear in the essay - pick a cultural aspect or a story from your upbringing that will make this evident. Say if you were again talking about ‘cooperation’ you might want to share a story about how for example your family came together as a team and achieved something.
This essay prompt gives you the chance to talk about your interests and talents, and this is certainly a great option if you can make a direct link to your interests and what defines you as a person. However, you will also have the chance to talk about some of your interests and talents in your extracurriculars, so it may even be a good idea not to double-up on the discussion on any one or small group of activities. Bottom line it is best to explore fresh and engaging content at all stages of your application. ****
Finally, you should anticipate that you and other people from similar backgrounds may be writing about the same big-picture ideas, so to distinguish yourself you will need to talk in detail about why your upbringing was unique and why you are different to your peers.
How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 2?
This second prompt reads:
‘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?’
In this essay you should consider the most serious challenges you’ve faced during your life. You do not want to write about a time you were almost late to school, but then managed to get the last seat on the bus so you didn’t miss your exam. That doesn’t tell us much about who you are, what you value, and what kind of student you’ll be in college.
Was it something like a big culture shock, such as your family moving to a new city or country? Was it a challenge to fit in with others, or did you struggle finding friends? Was it a serious tragedy, perhaps with a member of the family or friends? Was it overcoming a medical emergency or mental health issue? These are just some of our ideas, but your challenges can and should be unique in and of themselves.
Don’t be afraid to admit if, when initially faced with the challenge, that you reacted or responded badly. The ability to admit and learn from your mistakes shows immense maturity and growth. Anyone can claim that they’re resilient and able to overcome anything—few have the maturity to show their resilience by discussing their failures or by admitting that they still struggle with an obstacle to this day.
Either way, you’ll need to explain how you dealt with the obstacle. What drove your transformation into someone capable of overcoming this challenge? The aim here is not simply to show that you overcame a challenge; you should seek to explain how you learned from it, and what lessons you’ll take into the future. Did you learn more about yourself, about others, or about humanity? When faced with another challenge like it in the future, will you react differently, approach it with a different mindset, or be less afraid to ask for help?
You don’t have to choose a problem that is exclusively yours; it can be one that affected your parents, your friends, your teachers, your community, your country, or beyond. If this was the case, you could talk about how you potentially got through the problem together; how you supported each other and how everybody was stronger for it.
How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 3?
The Common App personal essay prompt #3 reads:
‘Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?’
This essay seeks to explore a time where you may have pushed back against authority in order to stand up for what you believe is right. Was it pushing back against something ingrained in you from an early age? Was it challenging injustices you see in society? Was it being critical of how an issue was portrayed in the media? In this way, the prompt invites you to court controversy to a certain extent—often, students will have had experience doing this in the context of politics, culture, or religion.
Let’s take the example of religion. If you decided that you wanted to leave your religion and explore the learnings of another after having a discussion with a family member, that in and of itself is probably a shallow basis for your faith. Did you read a book or watch a movie that confronted your original faith? Did you have a discussion with somebody who follows a different religion that made you see your former religion differently? Did you have a conflict between your faith and other ideas you feel strongly about? These are just some ideas. What admissions officers want to see is the path that you took to answer questions of faith for yourself.
Ultimately, this prompt wants to see what you do when you’re faced with uncertainty; when you have to find answers for yourself. What was the process that you followed to deal with doubt? Who were the authorities that you turned to for guidance? Are you still looking for answers? It will also show admissions officers that you have the ability to think critically about yourself and are open minded, which are attributes that are desired by universities today.
Again, the best essays from this prompt will be very unique. Don’t be afraid to talk about something that could be deeply personal and a little bit controversial; interesting people are often opinionated. Admissions officers will appreciate a meaningful essay, even if they themselves don’t agree with the ideas explored within them.
How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 4?
This prompt is the new prompt for the 2021-2022 cycle and it reads:
‘Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?’
In many ways this is a perfect addition to the seven prompt list in 2021-22 as, given the events of the past year or more, many students have had time to contemplate the value of gratitude and how small, or not-so-small, acts of kindness can gift you the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective.
This essay seeks to explore a time where you were surprised by the selflessness, thoughtfulness and/or actions of another person. Perhaps it was someone you know well, or alternatively a stranger. What was it about this action that surprised you? Was it the act itself or the act combined with this element of surprise that made you happy and thankful?
Moreover, what did this tell you about the importance of family, friendship, community or the kindness of strangers and how did it affect your view, actions or goals moving forward?
Not unlike prompts 1 or 5, this question invites you to share a story that is meaningful to you. It requires you craft a narrative that explains the ‘before and after’ an action and how the ‘surprise’ triggered some personal revelation or change. The aim here is not simply to show that you felt happy or grateful, but what you learned about others, yourself, your community, humanity…and how these learnings affected you or motivated you in a positive way.
Admissions officers will also be looking at how your response to, and gratitude for, that action will guide how you will contribute to their campus where actions of support, encouragement and thankfulness are vital to the college community as a whole.
How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 5?
Essay prompt #5 reads:
‘Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.’
This prompt explicitly asks you to consider your takeaways from an experience of your choice. In some ways, this prompt simply puts into words what all of the prompts want from you, which is to go beyond the surface and consider what insights and personal growth have stemmed from an experience you’ve had.
As the prompt says, it could be an accomplishment, for example, a time that you had to work really hard for a big musical performance. It could be an event, such as your family moving overseas. It can be a realisation, such as realising that flying on planes isn’t as scary as it seems. These are just some of our suggestions, and we emphasise that this is a very flexible prompt where you can talk about just about everything. However, it may again be worth noting that while some of your achievements may intersect with your extracurriculars, try and avoid doubling up on too much discussion of activities explored in other parts of your application.
For this prompt, the story absolutely matters, but what you have learned from the story and how you’re applying that learning now and into the future matter more. You want to give yourself enough space to reflect on why specific moments have been impactful, and explain any realizations you’ve had. You definitely shouldn’t pretend to have the answers to all of your questions, or to have solved a fundamental problem in the world, or that you’ve had an epiphany that will change you forever. Those just aren’t realistic approaches to life—life is lived in the grey areas, not in black and white.
Your story should have nuance, and your conclusion shouldn’t tie a neat bow on the story. Rather, you should make clear that you still have more to learn and explore. Admissions officers want to see that you plan to use university as an experience for personal growth, and staying humble in your tone, even when talking about achievements may be the key for this prompt.
How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 6?
Now for essay prompt 6 which reads:
‘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?’
This prompt seeks to discover what inspires you, what excites you, what makes you tick! As a result, you should of course choose something you are legitimately passionate about. It could be an area of ideology, such as Ancient Greek philosophy, or the teachings of Confucius. It could be an academic topic, such as quantum physics, literature or economics. It could be a fascination with a particular person, institution or religion. It could even be things like particular artists, writers, directors, books, movies, TV-shows, and other creative topics. If you pulled it off, an essay about J.R.R Tolkein’s novels and their reflection on humanity might go down really well with the admissions officers.
But beware; don’t use this as an opportunity to look smart and choose some academic topic that you don’t actually care about that much, or are simply trying to talk about your genius in that area of study. If you think that the admissions officers will want to accept you into a quantum physics degree just because you are interested in quantum physics, you are very much mistaken. The common app essay is about learning about who you are as a person, not about what academic topics interest you the most.
If you do decide to write about an academic topic, make sure that you have genuine knowledge and passion for the subject. If you have spent three years studying quantum physics, give us a sense of what you did in different spaces in your life—at home, at school, in your dreams—in order to further your understanding of this subject, and how your work in the subject furthered other goals and lead to personal growth. In many ways, use your passion for an academic topic as just the vehicle for other discussion, rather than the focus.
Again, the trick here is to make your discussion personal. If your essay could be about anybody with the same interest in a topic, it will not appeal to the admissions officers. Make sure you are writing as much as you can about your unique experiences of learning in detailed scenes, and the impact it has had on you and your particular future goals.
How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 7?
Finally, there is essay prompt 7 which lets you write an essay about anything you wish:
‘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.’
Here’s your chance to write about whatever else interests you! But, while it doesn’t say it, there are still important matters admissions officers will want to see. We recommend you still focus on just a couple specific moments in your life or ideas that relate to your topic, in order that the essay isn’t too broad and unmeaningful. You will also need to focus on your personal growth and how your takeaways impact you now and into the future.
The best way we can help you for this prompt is by providing some examples.
In previous years this prompt has been successfully explored by students from all walks of life who came from all different backgrounds - but the one thing they all had in common was that they engaged their unique personal voice.
In other words - this topic is by nature one the applicant gets to own 100% and if you have a special story that cannot be squeezed into the prior six prompts (despite their seemed broadness) then this prompt could be for you.
Once again, this essay, like all others, should not be about how much you know but how much you’ve learned - and have yet to learn. Colleges by nature are institutions where young adults develop and grow, so admissions officers appreciate a candidate who is honest, sincere and ready to take on new challenges.
Some final words of advice
The good news is that the personal statement is the one part of the application where your personal voice resonates - above school grades or test scores, leadership positions or competition results. While scores and awards add to the quantitative weight of your application, your essay, along with other personal elements like your teacher recommendations, add to the qualitative weighting which is key to admissions decisions.
So where do you start?
At Crimson, we support our students with every part of the personal statement building process - from brainstorming and narrowing down on a short list of possible topics, to crafting, building, editing and refining the essay until it is the best representation of who you are and what matters to you.
Our mentors are graduates from the very universities you are applying to so they know what it takes to tell your story and communicate to admissions officers why you’d be a great addition to their diverse student body.
To read 23 statements written by Crimson students who were admitted to the Ivy League, Stanford, Duke, UChicago and more, you can download our Personal Statement eBook here, and explore more of our free eBooks and infographics here.
And for more information on how we help you on your own top US university journey, you can click on the link below to organise a free one-on-one meeting with one of our expert academic advisors.