How to Answer the 2022/23 Common App Essay Prompts

29 APR 2022

It’s never too early to start thinking about your college application essay! If you’re planning on applying to any of the more than 900 schools (including 54 international universities) that use the Common Application, the 2022-2023 Common App essay prompts are now available. In this blog, we’ll provide basic background on the Common App personal statement, explain why it is important, offer some expert tips on picking the prompt that is right for you, and take a deep dive into how to write each one!


What is the Common App Essay?

The Common App Essay (or Personal Statement) is a 650-word essay that’s part of the Common Application. You must complete this essay if you’re applying for college through the Common App.

Before you get started on your personal statement, consider the following:

  • Your Personal Statement is the best place to share qualitative and unique aspects of yourself with the admissions committee so they can get to know you beyond your grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.
  • It’s impossible to capture your entire personality in a single essay, so choose just one or two character traits that differentiate you from your peers.
  • You don’t necessarily need an incredible experience or story. Choose something meaningful to you and capture why it means so much to you in your writing!

How to crack the common application free episode with Martin Walsh

How personal should I get in my Common App essay?

The Common App essay is supposed to be personal, and it should focus on an element of your life that’s not reflected in the rest of your application. If you only write another version of your resume, you will miss a huge opportunity to tell the admissions committee more about you.

This essay gives schools a sense of who you are as a student, leader, and friend. The prompts allow you to show who you are beyond your grades and test scores. Though you might choose to write about an academic topic, your goal is to have the reader understand more about your values, thoughts, and 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?

The personal essay brings your application to life!

  • Admissions officers want to know what interests you and the type of person you’ll be on their campus. The essays are the best way to get to know you.
  • Essays can account for up to 30% of your admissions decision—a significant portion that you have control over! Crimson mentors spend a great deal of time helping you refine your essays until you view them as “perfect”.

What should I write about in my Common App essay?

The biggest challenge with the Common App essay is to figure out how to talk about yourself in fewer than 650 words. You only write one Common App essay and submit it in all your applications. Use the months before the application deadline to prepare a flawless, well thought out essay on just one topic.

The Common App gives you a series of prompts to choose from, and you can write about any topic you think best represents you. The prompts are helpful starting points.

5 Common App Essay Tips

The Common App Essay Prompts for 2022/23

Check out all the Common App Prompts for 2022/23 on the Common App website.

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 do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 1?

This prompt should encourage a deep discussion about your cultural roots and upbringing.

  • Where is your family from, and where did you grow up?
  • Were you immersed in a culture that was meaningful to you and played a big part in your life?
  • What were you known for, and what was your role in the neighborhood?
  • Were you inspired by any people, art or philosophies that shaped you as a person?

While these suggestions may bring up broad answers, ultimately, you want to be able to focus on a focus that is uniquely relevant to you.

Start with self reflection

If you questioned your identity, or it has shifted in the past few years, it’s helpful to figure out how to describe why those changes happened and their impact on your goals for the future. For example, suppose you have had a life-changing experience or awakening that changed your outlook and identity. What was its trigger, what ideas and emotions did it give birth to, and were these ideas confronting or enlightening? Once again, it comes down to how this shift was important to you.

Make a list to describe yourself

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.

Share a personal story

Pick a cultural aspect or a story from your upbringing that makes your identity word shine. For example, if you talk about ‘cooperation’, share a story about how your family came together as a team and achieved something.

Bottom line

This essay prompt gives you the chance to talk about your interests and talents. This prompt is an excellent 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 activities discussion. It is best to explore fresh and engaging content in all parts of your application.

Finally, anticipate that you and others with similar backgrounds may write about the same big-picture ideas. To distinguish yourself, you will need to talk about why your upbringing was unique and why you are different from your peers.

The Essay That Got Me Into Brown University

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?

How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 2?

In this essay, consider the challenges you faced in your life. Don’t write about when you were almost late to school but managed to get the last seat on the bus and didn’t miss your exam. That story doesn’t tell the admissions team who you are, what you value, and what kind of student you’ll be in college.

Consider the following:

  • Maybe you experienced a big culture shock, such as your family moving to a new city or country?
  • Was it a challenge to fit in with others? Did you struggle to find friends?
  • Or maybe you experienced a serious tragedy, perhaps with a family member or friends?
  • Was it overcoming a medical emergency or mental health issue?

Your challenges can and should be unique in and of themselves.

Don’t be afraid of failure

Don’t be afraid to admit you reacted or responded poorly when initially faced with the challenge. Admitting and learning 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.

Showcase what you learnt

Explain how you dealt with the obstacle. What drove your transformation into someone capable of overcoming this challenge? The aim is not to show you overcame a challenge. Explain how you learned from it and what lessons you’ll take into the future. 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?

Bottom line

You don’t have to choose a problem that is exclusively yours. It could be one that affected your parents, friends, teachers, community, country, or beyond. Talk about how you got through the problem together, how you supported each other, and how everybody was stronger for it.

The Essay that got Crimson CEO Jamie Beaton into Harvard

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

How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 3?

This essay explores a time when you pushed back against authority to stand up for what you believed was right. Maybe you pushed back against something ingrained in you from an early age? Or addressed a challenging injustice you saw in society?

The prompt invites you to court controversy, and you can do this in the context of politics, culture, or religion.

For example, let’s say you decided to leave your religion and explore something new.

  • Did you read a book or watch a movie that confronted your original faith?
  • Did you talk with someone who followed a different religion and made you see your former religion differently?

Admissions officers want to understand the path you took to answer questions of faith.

This prompt asks what you’d do if you were faced with uncertainty and had to find answers for yourself. Consider the following questions:

  • How did you deal with the doubt?
  • Who did you turn to for guidance?
  • Are you still looking for answers?

It will also show admissions officers that you can think critically about yourself and are open-minded, which are attributes that are desired by universities today.

Bottom line

Don’t be afraid to talk about something that could be deeply personal and controversial. Admissions officers will appreciate a meaningful essay, even if they disagree with the ideas explored within them.

Common App Essay Guide Part 1: Ideation

Prompt 4: 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?

How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 4?

The Common App added this prompt in the 2021-2022 admissions cycle. Given the events of the past few years, you probably had time to contemplate the value of gratitude and how small, or not-so-small, acts of kindness gifted you the opportunity to see the world from a different perspective.

Think of a time you were surprised by the selflessness or thoughtfulness of another person
  • Was it the act or the act combined with this element of surprise that made you happy and thankful?
  • What did this gesture tell you about the importance of family, friendship, community or the kindness of strangers
  • How did it affect your view, actions or goals moving forward?
Bottom line

This question invites you to share a story that is meaningful to you, and it requires you to craft a narrative that explains how the surprise triggered personal revelation or change. The aim is not to show that you felt happy or grateful but to talk about what you learned about others, yourself, your community, or humanity. 

Admissions officers are interested in your response and how you will use what you learned to contribute to the overall well-being of the campus community.

What I wrote about for my Common App Essay

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

How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 5?

This prompt asks you to consider your takeaways from an experience of your choice, go beyond the surface, and consider what insights and personal growth have stemmed from that experience.

Consider a time you had to work hard for something or how you grew after a specific event

Like your family moving overseas. It could be a realization, such as realizing that flying on planes isn’t as scary as it seems. This flexible prompt gives you the freedom to talk about anything. However, while some of your achievements may intersect with your extracurriculars, avoid doubling up on discussing activities explored in other parts of your application.

For this prompt, the story matters. But what you have learned from the story and how you’re applying what you learned matters more. Give yourself enough space to reflect on why specific moments have been impactful, and explain any realizations you made. Don’t pretend to have all the answers or to have solved a fundamental problem in the world. Those aren’t realistic approaches to life—life is lived in the grey areas, not in black and white.

Bottom line

Your story should have nuance, and your conclusion shouldn’t tie a neat bow. Instead, be 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. Keep your tone humble even when talking about achievements.

The Essay That Got Me Into Harvard

Prompt 6: 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?

How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 6?

What inspires you, excites you, or makes you tick? Choose something you’re truly passionate about so you can pour your soul into this answer.

  • It could be an area of ideology
  • An academic topic
  • A fascination with a particular person, institution or religion.
  • A specific artist, writer, director, book, movie, TV show, or another creative topic you find engaging.

Don’t use this as an opportunity to look smart by choosing an academic topic you don’t care about or show off your genius in an area of study. The Common App essay is about learning about who you are, not about what academic topics interest you the most.

Be passionate about your topic

If you decide to write about an academic topic, make sure that you have genuine knowledge and passion for the subject. If you 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—to further your understanding of this subject. Talk about how your work in the subject advanced other goals and led to personal growth. Use your passion as the vehicle for other discussions rather than the focus.

Bottom line

Again, the trick 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. Write as much as you can about your unique experiences in detailed scenes and their impact on you and your particular future goals.

5 Common App Personal Essay Red Flags

Prompt 7: 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.

How do you answer Common App Personal Essay Prompt 7?

Here’s your chance to write about whatever interests you! While the prompt doesn’t say it, admissions officers still want you to focus on a couple of specific moments in your life or ideas that relate to your topic, so your essay isn’t too broad and unmeaningful. Focus on your personal growth and how your takeaways impact you now and in the future.

Engage in your personal voice

While students from all walks of life have successfully explored this prompt, the one thing they all had in common was that they engaged their unique personal voices.

If you have a unique story that doesn’t fit into the other six prompts, this prompt could be for you. This essay isn’t about how much you know. It’s more about how much you’ve learned and have yet to learn. Colleges are institutions where young adults develop and grow, so admissions officers appreciate an honest, sincere candidate ready to take on new challenges.

Harvard, Princeton & Cornell: My Favorite Common App Essays | Ask Sam Anything Ep. 2

Final Thoughts

The personal statement is the one part of the application where your unique voice resonates. While scores and awards add to the quantitative weight of your application, your essay and other personal elements, like your teacher recommendations, add to the qualitative weighting, which is key to admissions decisions.

At Crimson, we support our students with every part of the personal statement building process - from brainstorming and narrowing down possible topics to crafting, building, editing and refining the essay.

Our mentors are graduates from the same 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.

And for more information on how we help you on your own top US university journey, click on the link below to organize a free one-on-one meeting with one of our expert academic advisors.

Good luck!

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