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How to Write a Powerful Common App Essay: Tips & Prompt Analysis (2023-2024)

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common app essay

You have 250-650 words to convince an admissions officer that you are the right fit for your dream school. Challenge accepted? We are here to help you craft a powerful common app essay to submit!

Why The Common App Essay Matters; Or, Your Skywalker Moment

Before we dig deep into the prompts themselves, let’s get our heads around what’s happening here—big picture. Remember Luke Skywalker at the end of the original Star Wars? Uh oh… was that before your time? Well, nuts and bolts, the big evil Death Star is SECONDS away from destroying the heroic rebel base. Seconds away, in other words, from securing certain victory for “evil” over “good.” But not if Luke Skywalker can fire a shot into the tiny exhaust vent. This isn’t just any shot—it’s his only shot. It’s a make or break, do or die moment—if he misses, it’s lights out for the good guys.

So what does he do in anticipation of this fateful moment? He switches off his targeting computer—the machine that’s supposed to help him, you know, MAKE THE SHOT. He elects instead to “trust his instincts.” Whaaa? To be sure, it’s a risky leap of faith. The thing is, no one else knows what Luke knows, sees what he sees, feels what he feels. Trusting himself completely is a massive risk, but in the end, it pays off. An okay shot – the kind the targeting computer would have guaranteed – wouldn’t have done the trick. It required the perfect shot. And perfection rarely comes from a paint-by-numbers approach.

Friends, the absolute worst thing you can do in your personal statement… is keep that “targeting computer” on, and play it safe. This is the time when a calculated risk can be the difference between your application blending in with the noise, and emerging from the pack, in an unforgettable, emotionally affecting way.

So, fine—you’re on board. Now what? Well, let’s understand the PURPOSE behind this risk. For Luke it was to destroy the Death Star with an unusually precise laser blast. For you, it’s establishing an emotional connection with a reader. It’s causing that guy’s blood to go cold. Or eliciting a belly laugh. Or bringing tears to his eyes. It can be many things, but it all boils down to connecting on an emotional level that makes the reader (or readers) wanna ADVOCATE for you. Is this important? Can’t numbers and stats and the promise of lofty future endowment do the trick by themselves? Sure they can. On occasion, specs alone will qualify or pre-qualify students. If you don’t believe this to be true, you’re buying the hype. (Don’t.) But forget those kids, there’s nothing you can do about them.

Let’s focus on the other kids. The kids whose fates are decided by DISCUSSIONS. The borderline students. You can bet your bottom dollar that there are more qualified students here with impressive statistics (grades, test scores, achievements, etc.) than there are seats. At some point, twenty points on an SAT, a tenth of a decimal point higher GPA, or involvement in an additional bout of community service, won’t be the deciding factor. It’ll be the promise of greatness. The promise of something special… as communicated through “the x-factor” of your personal statement. Maybe it’s something about the way you wrote the essay. Something about your story. Something you’re able to suggest about who you are and where you’re gonna go. Maybe even something you’re able to communicate about the type of impact you might have on the campus. THAT is the thing that will grab the reader and turn him into a FAN who will STAND UP to make a case for you. Whether it’s an actual plea or gets crunched down to a score your essay receives (different schools do it differently), your success boils down to establishing that connection. And a down-the-middle essay attempt will never succeed.

These guys have “seen it all.” You’re not gonna wow or surprise them with a generic story. Or worse, a generic PERSPECTIVE on a cool story. The trick is to show them that your “lens” is an interesting one. The experiences that have shaped you have shaped your INSIGHTS into things. And in order to connect – in order to make that perfect shot – you have to communicate the coolness of YOUR personal take on the world.

So…how do you do that? Yeah. This is the hard part. And we’re gonna unravel it in the actual Common App Essay Breakdown.

Without Much Further Ado, The Common App Essay Prompts

Now it’s time to roll up our sleeves and attack the actual questions. Here’s the Admissionado Common App Essay Prompt Analysis. Stick with us, there are 7 of ’em.

Ready? Set? Let’s go.

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.

First things first. What IS your identity? What defines… “you”? If after you come up with a few possibilities, you’re able to easily imagine OTHERS fitting that description, you’ve got more work to do. What you need to do here is dig deep to find the thing that makes you uniquely YOU. Do you have brothers or sisters? What’s the difference between you guys? What about in a group of your friends? Imagine them all in a circle. Go around that circle and describe each person’s UNIQUE attribute. When you eventually get to yourself, describe yourself through the eyes of someone ELSE. If a director were gonna cast the perfect role for you, what would it be?

Now, what gave BIRTH to this quality? Where does it come from? Are you an observer? Did something happen to you? Did something INCITE you (a world event, an injustice, an election, etc.)? Did something inspire you (could be huge, could be small and simple)? Did someone have an impact on you? A friend, relative, parent, sibling, someone else? Is there a SECRET you’ve been holding onto that you and maybe only a few people know? Lots of ways to skin this one, folks. Remember, these are jumping-off points—this isn’t “the essay itself.” Your first order of business is to start down the pathway of uncovering the GOLD MINE. It must start somewhere—it may end up someplace ELSE, but these are all interesting starting off points.

Now, for your first pass (your final draft will likely look a bit different), try to capture one of the following:

  • If there’s one thing you absolutely MUST know about me, it is THIS.
  • This is something deeply important and personal to me, that I simply must share.

On your first pass, don’t aim for perfection. Aim for the opposite. Aim for ugly. Aim for raw. Aim for chaos. That’s where you’ll find hidden treasures. If you try to deliver a perfect product too soon, you will almost certainly CONSTRICT your creative flow.

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?

This is simply another way to discover “what you’re made out of.” It’s a cool little prompt to help that along—nothing more. Don’t get fixated on the pathway; if this leads you to a super cool insight into what makes you tick… follow it.

Now, don’t fall into the trap that most do and mask a SUCCESS story as a failure. “Oh there was that time I broke the world record at the Olympics, but I didn’t beat my personal best! Woe is me!” Gimme a break. Failure means FAILURE. We’ve seen a million attempts at this. The ones that tend to be the most successful are the ones that are the most honest and revealing. Take us through a time you actually experienced FAILURE. Don’t hide from it, embrace it. Your ability to EXPOSE it speaks volumes—trust us. The mere act of ADMITTING this shows incredible maturity. It also shows incredible strength. The ability to reflect and self-analyze, and the desire to self-correct, are all amazing attributes.

Here’s a trick for how to generate an effective first draft for a failure story—write it in the present tense, as though it’s happening now. In other words, take us back to the moments, and relive them AS THEY OCCURRED. Don’t RECOUNT the events from today’s vantage point. This will force you to not get ahead of yourself. This is crucial—we want to experience the stuff as it happened. And then we want to experience your reactions, your highs and lows (in real time). Why? This technique helps you to deliver a more dramatic ARC. Let it hang folks—expose the emotions and nerves, and leave it raw.

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

Another great prompt. The art of storytelling is particularly crucial here. Before we can appreciate your challenge of a belief or idea, we need CONTEXT first. Setup. Background. Establish the status quo. And here’s the key… create an ITCH in your reader. Make us feel what YOU felt, such that you sprung into action and DID something. Now, the trick is not to get ahead of yourself. It may help to spin around this thing and try to see it the way OTHERS saw it—others for whom it was normal, okay, acceptable. Try to reason it this way (this is what smart people learn to do… walk AROUND a problem, drink in the 360˚ view). THEN, after you’ve established the “normal,” NOW reveal the thing that didn’t jibe for you. And why it didn’t. Walk us through the steps you took to address it.

A key part of this essay that most will miss on the first pass is the LAST piece… the reflection. Would you do the same thing again? By the way, the answer may be no. Maybe you were impulsive and acted hastily. Maybe you didn’t act impulsively enough. Maybe time has taught you a lesson that casts this experience in a different light. Patting yourself on the back for handling the situation perfectly the first time around isn’t necessarily the most impressive. In fact, it can be somewhat predictable. Ideally, there’s SOMETHING you’ve learned along the way that imbues this moment from your past with richer insight. Bring it. Let’s see that you’re someone who matures. And grows. Guess what, that means that college will be a place where you are likely to blossom.

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?

Ah, this can be a very easy trap. When you’re writing this, remember that the essay is supposed to be about YOU. Not your mom, your grandmother, your neighbor’s aunt. You’re applying to school, not them (although if they are, that’s really awesome too). It’s really easy when you’re writing about any human to spend way too much time talking about them and not enough about how their action affected YOU. I’m sure (or hope) that you’ve had many experiences in your life where someone made you happy or thankful…maybe it was your friend or your mom..or your dad. So, how to choose the action?

First, pay attention to the word SURPRISING. It’s easy to come up with a memory of when someone did something that very obviously would make any human happy. Your mom picked you up early from school and surprised you with a new car. Your best friend got you an autographed sweater from Taylor Swift. BORINGGG. I mean, not boring but too obviously awesome. Think about a time when someone did something that made you happy or thankful…and you didn’t expect it to. Jump in the time machine and re-experience this moment. Did it confuse you or even upset at first? It should. Then…somewhere along the way, you felt really grateful and happy. For example, are you a shy and non-confrontational person and your teacher called you out for it in class…which felt disconcerting at first. But then, the teacher and you had a fruitful conversation about why you were weary of confrontation and you discovered that it’s been holding you back. 

Now, the final part of the prompt is asking about how the experience motivated you or affected you. Basically, how has it helped you GROW as a person? Did you do anything with that experience? Or did it get buried in your mind along with your other memories? The most powerful events can compel people into action. Bringing it back to the example above, maybe you realized that your fear of confrontation was hurting your friendships and you learned to be more honest with your friends. Maybe you joined the debate team, something you had always wanted to do but didn’t want to handle the debate part of it.

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

This one is tricky. It feels like it will bring about something cool and nuanced, but in fact… runs the risk of being ridiculously predictable. Students who gravitate toward this essay are EXTREMELY likely to mistakenly think some moment in their past is a unique one. Gotta roll up our sleeves and dig deep on this one, folks…

Often, when people approach these essays, they are writing about an experience specific to their culture or commnity. While it may be true that compared to folks outside your culture, the event or incident you’re thinking of could be unique, chances are, others in your community have experienced some version of it also. Guess what, many of those folks are applying to the same schools as you. The more important realization here is that no episode or experience, no matter how unique it may SEEM, is actually unique. The only thing unique about it is the LENS through which you see it. The filter through which you experience it. So, let’s dispense with the idea that the “thing” by itself is interesting or unique—it isn’t.

Step 1, identify this moment. Now, give yourself this HANDICAP—and tell yourself, well, but okay, by itself this isn’t unique or even interesting. “Hundreds of other applicants are writing about something very similar” – “BUT HOW MANY CAN WRITE ABOUT… THIS.” It’s this SECOND layer of excavation we need to get to. Think about Daniel LaRusso at the end of Karate Kid. It’s not enough that he’s facing his nemesis in a big challenge for the final point. He’s also INJURED!  There has to be SOMETHING about this event that would surprise someone from within your community—aha, now THAT’s interesting. It’s all too easy to surprise someone outside of the community, but finding an element that someone from WITHIN the community finds interesting? Bingo—that’s where you’ll find gold.

So, don’t write about your Bar Mitzvah. Bring it up, and then tell us about how you expected your transition to adulthood to happen then—but the REAL transition happened two weeks later when you witnessed your dad crying for the first time ever, and that somehow led to a change within. Don’t talk about “Ritual X” that is meant to commemorate this type of ascension from childhood to adulthood, as though that event by itself was somehow meaningful—talk about the thing that happened three years prior when your work-from-home-single-mom fell sick and you stepped up and “filled in for her” without her boss knowing, helping to save the day. There are SURPRISING moments within all of us, where we became men and women. Usually it never happens in a pre-programmed manner. And if and when it does, it feels predictably… programmed—and therefore boring as hell.

Like the other prompts, there are not-so-obvious components that are KEY to answering this successfully. Don’t just leapfrog to the ADULT portion of it. Yes yes, you’re an adult, we know! In fact, the more INTERESTING (and crucial) aspect of this particular prompt is defining the CHILDHOOD portion of the transition. Remember it was a transition from X to Y. In order to appreciate and celebrate the Y, we need to know about X. Before this transition, what were you like? What made that version of you better or worse or different? What happened when you made the transition – did you lose something vital? But gain something? Or only gain? Or only lose? It’s all about the DIFFERENCES between X and Y, not the transition alone. No one really cares about the ritual itself, or the uniqueness of the ceremony, or the nuance within your culture you THINK will wow the adcoms. They’ve heard and seen ALL of it—several times over.

It’s the CONTRAST, folks. Between the before and after. It’s the tension that sits BETWEEN those two things—childhood and adulthood. The anxieties that accompany it. The regrets. The optimism. The confidence. The lack of confidence. All that gritty, awesome… stuff. Don’t dwell on the event, dwell on the contrast. This is where the gold is at.

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?

See what they’re doing? They’re giving you different avenues to developing a narrative that explains—ultimately—what you’re all about. What you’re made of, what makes you tick—pick your favorite expression. This one is no different. But it’s a bit dangerous, too. It’s incredibly tempting to mistake “hmm that’s kinda interesting” for “so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time.” They’re trying to emphasize PASSION here. But rather than try to unravel what is unfortunately a heady concept, let’s talk about another KEY component to this angle, and then circle back.

The only way for us to understand your version of “engaging” … is for us to understand your “DISengaging.” Bam. If you can digest this, you’re gonna be leaps and bounds ahead of the competition. (Those who don’t read this post or have this instinct are gonna run the risk of delivering an essay that’s thin, and without real context.) We need to know you when you’re just bored out of your mind, neutral, and/or in a state where you just stare out to nothing. And we need to know more than just what those circumstances are. We need to get inside it and understand why it’s bad and blah. Take us through a “for instance.” Let it hang. Release. Don’t be afraid. Now, in CONTRAST to this, there’s a moment in time, or a place, or both, where things flip, and your muscles relax, a smile creeps onto your face, your thoughts unravel, and good things happen. Walk us through it. Make it a sensory experience for us.

(One quick side-note—NONE of these have to be DOUR. There’s this classic tendency with teenagers to growl and whine and sulk their way through… well, everything. Sometimes it’s compelling. Often it’s just predictable. The most penetrating essays can be insanely humorous. And light. And spirited, and ironic, and silly, etc. Think about your favorite comedy movies, or your favorite adventure movies—there are no doubt moments of poignancy in all of ‘em. Poignancy doesn’t have to mean punk rock, anti-establishment, fight the power, woe is me, what’s the point of life, etc etc. Just keep that in mind.)

The one last tip to make this particular essay “not awful” (!), is to make sure that at some point, you SURPRISE us. Some way, somehow. Whatever your “engaging place” is, there has to be something about it that would come as a surprise to even those who KNOW this about you. Reveal something interesting. Without that element, there’s a great chance this essay falls flat on its face.

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.

We wish we could effectively address this question for all of you…but we can’t read your minds and this article is getting kinda long. You are welcome to write whatever it is you want here. Just remember that any which way you slice and dice this sucker, the common app essay is a “reveal” essay. It’s an opportunity for you to tell these cats “This is what I’m all about—what WHAT.” These prompts may help some of you—but they may CLIP others’ wings. Don’t get stuck. Just let the pen fly and throw something down. The real art form isn’t what happens in that first draft, but in the subsequent ones, where you discover, and develop, and rewrite and rehash and hone. Have fun with it, folks. Believe it or not, it’s a rare opportunity to cut loose. It may seem like a frustrating chore, a maddening means to an end, a box you need to check before you can breathe a sigh of relief. Yes, it’s all of the above—but, the more relaxed you are, the more excited you are in the approach, and the better your essay will be—take it from us. If you’re unsure whether your idea is a good one (hey, no shame…we all have bad ideas), talk to us.

How to Start your Common App Essay: Finding a Subject with Indiana-Jones-Level Guts

Now that we’ve broken down the general approach to the common app essay prompts, it’s time to get deep into the GUTS of it. And address how to write the thing. There are two approaches here.

Option 1 – Ignore the prompts (for now). Turn your thoughts inward, instead. We’re gonna go on a little quest. Whereas Indiana Jones is hunting for treasures and glory, we’re looking for the coolest possible stories you can tell—the coolest possible essay you can write that tells a great story ABOUT you.

What kinds of things are we looking for? Well, we’ll talk about it broadly first and then unravel it. An example of a cool story is a game-changer in your life. Something that transformed you from Person A to Person B. That word “transformed” implies major CHANGE. In order for a change story to resonate, we need to know the BEFORE and then understand what happened that turned you into the AFTER.

It could be a single defining moment. Something that MARKS your life in an unmistakable way. The day you were wrongly accused of a crime and became a local celebrity for all the wrong reasons. The day you discovered your dad abusing your mom and began plotting you and your mom’s escape. The day you discovered your unique gift was in fact… not unique at all. The day you realized you weren’t like everyone else.

Or it could be something that surprised you. Maybe to the point where you’re still off balance. Something that shook your beliefs somehow. Caused you to ponder, wonder, question, challenge, renounce, etc. These can be simple things, too, by the way. Don’t be seduced by the marquis ideas that feel worthy of a personal statement. Doesn’t have to be a BIG something. It just has to be super interesting. And personal. (As in “Personal” statement.)

What about something painful you’ve endured?  What defines you? Think about that last one—what makes you different from your best friends? (We can go on like this forever. The ideation process can be super fun—don’t let it frustrate you.)

Now that you’ve gotten the ball rolling, tune it all out and ask yourself, what’s the one thing you WANT to write about—forget the thinking behind it, what it “means”; forget all that and figure out… what do you just wanna SAY stuff about, explain, etc.? Chances are, this is gonna be the most FERTILE grounds for solid ideas.

Here’s the POINT of all this—regardless of how you get there, there may be something inside you that needs to come out. Let it. Don’t feel straightjacketed by the common app essay prompts. The story you NEED to tell more than anything is likely the BEST one. The one you MUST tell. And every single story can be adapted to fit the bill of one prompt or another if needed. So don’t skip over your GREATEST HITS just for the sake of answering one of their questions. Tell your story first and foremost and then adapt it to a prompt, if you must—that’ll be the easy part.

Option 2 – Let the prompts steer—but not RULE—you. Don’t get stuck trying to ANSWER their questions like we were taught in first grade… “Why did you go to the store?” … “I went to the store because…”

That’s too literal. Treat these like jumping off points. We’ll go through each in a second. But as a general rule, remember, you are the boss. You’re the one running the show here, not them. Not their questions. The mic is yours. The floor is yours. The stage is yours and the spotlight is on YOU, and the audience is poised and ready to listen and watch whatever show YOU are about to put on… whenever you’re ready. This application happens on YOUR terms, got it, partner?

And Finally, Some Common App Essay Tips

You came. You saw. And now you want to conquer? Well buckle up—there are some laws out here in the Wild West of the Common App!

Rule 1: Show, don’t tell.

Whenever you have the chance to tell a story on your application don’t just TELL us what happened; SHOW us. Use descriptive language, make it exciting, and help us see the experience through your eyes.  This will make us muuuuuuch more invested in your story, and also much more likely to remember it.

Example:

A) My father influenced me a lot when I was a kid.

B) Everything we got had to match: Lakers jerseys, well-worn catcher’s mitts, and even everything bagels with cream cheese.  Whatever my father liked, I loved. Whatever he bought, I asked for too…even if it was in a slightly smaller size.

Now, close your eyes and try to visualize each example. They both express the same general idea. But which one description is more vivid? See what we mean?

Rule 2: Find a focus.

Whenever you can, find a way to focus your application. Applications can be VERY overwhelming for readers, especially if you’re all over the place with your responses, interests, and extracurricular activities. Don’t do that.

Emphasize the things you are the most interested in, and try to find patterns. For instance, if you are involved in soccer, theater, and math mentors, that’s AWESOME… but it’s also a bit scattered.

Writing about one of these things with depth and passion will mean so much more than trying to cover them all—remember you always have your supplement to squeeze in extra stories!

Rule 3: Show us what you really care about.

Show us your passion; NEVER write about something just because you think you should. Write about what you actually care about, using language that is truthful to who you are, and shows your unique personality and identity. Impersonal responses that bore you as a writer will bore us as readers, so don’t just use fancy language because you think you should. If it doesn’t ring true for you and the way that you normally speak, dump it.

Also, there is no such thing as a bad topic. Anything, no matter how trivial or commonplace it may seem, can make a compelling essay if you actually CARE about it. Your passion will bring your writing to life, and that will bring your application to life as well.

Rule 4: Isolate your POV.

The best way to make your essays stand out is to write them in a way that no one else would, or could, because no one else is you. Figure out what is different about the way that you would tell a specific story. Find your own unique voice, perspective, and way of looking at the world, and then stay true to yourself when you write. This will make your personal statements much more compelling, and will make your Common App truly unforgettable.

Okay partner, now you’re ready to rumble!

The post How to Write a Powerful Common App Essay: Tips & Prompt Analysis (2023-2024) appeared first on Admissionado.