Common App Essay Prompts for 2019-2020

Common App Essay Prompts

When you look at the Common App essay prompts for 2019-2020, you should heave a sigh of relief. Yes, writing the Common Application essay can be a challenge, but this year’s essay prompts — which are the same as last year’s application cycle — provide you with a wide variety of choices that let you find an essay topic that shows you off at your best to all the admissions officers who will be reading your college application as part of the admissions process.

Take a look at each of this year’s Common Application essay prompts so you can choose essay questions that let your dream school’s admissions officers know who you are and why they should grant you admission, beyond just looking at the other parts of the application process such as the SAT results.

To help you, we’ve created a tool to find the best Common App Essay for you. Check it out!

Here are this year’s essay prompts:

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.

This essay prompt gives you an opportunity to present admissions officers with a new understanding of who you are, one that sets you apart from your test scores. 

As you approach this prompt, it may be tempting to focus on the words like “identity” and “interest” — but don’t forget the word “story.” Essays written in response to this prompt are at their best when you find a moment in your life that shines a spotlight on something unique about you. Maybe it’s the moment when you met someone you really admired, the challenges you faced in moving to an unfamiliar environment, or the life experience or period of personal growth that crystallized for you what you want to do with your life.

Look at specifics from your life or moments of personal importance that show how you define yourself. You might want to talk about an ethnic celebration or food that means something to you, your travels overseas to see extended family and how they helped you understand yourself, or the challenges and rewards of an unusual upbringing.

This essay prompt also lets you focus on something that you’re uniquely passionate about — but don’t think that just writing about an unusual topic will make you stand out. What matters here is that you write about the topic of your choice with real insight into who you are.

Some college applicants choose this essay prompt to focus on their racial identity, their gender or their sexual orientation. If you choose this route, find a way to focus on how your experiences have shaped who you are. Be careful not to fall into the trap of writing a political polemic or being too vague. Admissions officers want to see your unique reflections on your background and what you have learned from your experiences.

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?

Your goal with this college essay prompt is to show your personal resilience and ability to bounce back from adversity. To that end, you should focus more on how you found solutions to a challenge, setback, or failure rather than on how unfair it was that you faced the situation in the first place. 

Be careful when answering Prompt #2 to choose an incident or situation that isn’t trite or alarming. Explaining how you overcame hardship to get an A on your latest math test is unlikely to impress the readers of your college essay. On the flip side, you don’t want to choose an incident that might alarm your readers. This isn’t the place to explore a deeply personal high school situation. You also don’t want to discuss how you bounced back from that underage drunk driving incident, since it might peg you as someone with questionable judgment and maturity.

So what types of topics are appropriate for this essay prompt? Write about how you overcame a lifelong hardship — a physical handicap or a social barrier such as family poverty, for instance. You might want to focus on a family setback, such as the illness or death of a parent. Your response to a profound experience such as losing your home to a hurricane can also reveal how you respond to hardship.

As you respond to this prompt, try to stay positive. You’re not trying to win a contest about how difficult your life has been to this point, and focus on the negative is not likely to reflect well on you. Show how you are able to learn from your experiences and turn them into positive action. Focus more on your response to the challenge you’re discussing than on the setback itself.

As you discuss in your own voice how you’ve changed as a result of challenges, you can reveal a lot about the ethical dilemmas you’ve faced and your own view of the world. Admissions officers want to see how self-aware you are and what kind of learning curve you have — and this essay prompt is a chance for you to show them your character.

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

If you choose this essay prompt, you show you’re up to an intellectual challenge. This prompt lets you show your passion for your beliefs while articulating your thoughts clearly. It comes with some risk, however, if you have beliefs that some consider polarizing. Again, focus on telling a story here, perhaps focusing on an ethical dilemma you’ve faced. 

To explore this option, think about moments when you’ve stood up for what you believe in. Maybe you took a local issue to your city council, where you were the only young person speaking up. Perhaps you protected students who were being bullied. If you took a principled stance against your school or your parents because of your beliefs or identity, you might have a fascinating story to tell.

Above all, make sure your essay doesn’t come across as preachy in answering this prompt. You don’t want to sound morally superior or boastful. Instead, focus on your decision-making process in standing up for what you think is right. Write logically and clearly to explain your beliefs, and you’re likely to impress the admissions committee.

4. 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 another essay prompt that gives you a lot of freedom to talk about what you want. (That phrase “Anything that is of personal importance” is what gives you that freedom.) In answering this prompt, you can look to the future as well as to your personal past. If you have big goals and a smart approach for reaching them, Prompt #4 might be the personal essay choice for you. 

Think about the changes you want to see in the world and how you can be a part of the change. Maybe you’re passionate about sex trafficking, preserving endangered species, taking medical care into the Amazon basin, or fighting bullying in middle school. Whatever your cause, show how it has affected your life and how you plan to be part of changing the world. 

The key here is to be specific. Avoid “beauty pageant” topics like “world peace,” focusing instead on real-world situations where your actions can have positive consequences. On the flip side, don’t get too geeky in explaining the scientific details of your plans to create groundbreaking artificial intelligence. Remember that the admissions committee may not have the esoteric knowledge needed to understand the fine details of your plan to change the world. Use this prompt to show off your identity, belief system, and personality, and tie your essay into any real-world experience you have with the subject matter.

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

Here’s another essay prompt that offers wide-ranging possibilities. Again, find a way to tell a story. Think about the moment you met someone who changed your life, the freedom that came with getting your driver’s license and what that meant after a lifetime of feeling confined, or the moment you came out to your parents. 

Because this prompt asks about personal growth, it allows you to be reflective. It also gives you the freedom to focus on a moment that was small in real life, but that changed the way you see the world. Since you’re allowed to talk about your achievements, this prompt also allows you to address extracurricular activities that matter to you. If you’ve devoted your high school career to one activity — be it ballet, the school musical, or the robotics team — this could be your chance to show why your single-minded focus is a good thing.

The key here is the idea of coming to a new understanding of yourself and the world around you. Be specific about what sparked your personal growth and about how it changed how you see the world. Leave plenty of time and space to discuss what you learned and how you’ve grown from this experience. Simply saying “I grew through this experience” isn’t enough.

6. 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 is another prompt that lets you make a personal statement about a topic you’re passionate about. It’s a fairly new addition to the list of Common App prompts, and therefore may appeal to admissions committees. 

With this question, you get to highlight yourself as self-motivated and show how broad or deep your interests are. Let your inner geek fly free when you choose this question. Show what you love and why you love it so much. You can also show off how hard you’re willing to work when you dive into a subject. Talk about self-learning experiences, travel you’ve taken to explore your area of interest, and actions you’ve taken to further your knowledge.

To make your college application essay stand out, take your discussion one step further to talk about why you find this subject matter so satisfying. And of course, always return to a discussion of what you learned. How did that internship with a casting director expand your love of film acting? What did you learn about business from that third grade lemonade stand, and how do you use those lessons today in your fledgling online business? Why was so important to translate “Hamlet” into Latin, and what did you gain from the experience?

This question lets you dive deep and show off both your knowledge and your passion. If you’re a good writer, this prompt also lets you show off your adept use of language. Don’t try to fake passion for something you think will impress the admissions officers. Instead, be honest about who you are and let your authenticity come across on the page. That will be more than impressive enough.

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.

Prompt #7 is a catch-all prompt that lets you write about anything you want. Think of this as a high-risk, high-reward prompt. It allows you to write an unconventional college essay — but it might also fail to connect with the admissions committee if you’re too unconventional.

Some applicants find this prompt too broad, and they aren’t able to focus enough to find the right topic. But if you have to write supplemental essays for, say, film school, you might be able to rework those essays to answer this prompt. 

Think of this prompt to talk about how (and why) you have a unique perspective on the world. Maybe you took a gap year to travel the world, or maybe you’ve poured your heart into a community service project that doesn’t really fit under the other prompts. If you’re a great writer and have a high-concept idea for this prompt, consider trying it. Just make sure that you’re revealing your true personality and not trying to be too cute. (That essay in which Steven Spielberg interviews you and raves about your talent is a filmmaker is probably not a good idea.) Stay away from overly political or controversial topics, and remember that you’re writing for a very specific audience: a college admissions committee.

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