Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

Common Application Essay Prompts 2020

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For over 15 years, I’ve been teaching students how to write standout college application essays. My students have been admitted to colleges from the University of Michigan to Yale to UTAustin to UCLA. 

The Common Application essay (also known as Common App) is all about finding your best story, writing it well, and using it to show colleges who you are and what matters to you. That’s the basis of a memorable essay and taking direct aim at your dream school. 

So I thought I’d share some of my best tips and answer questions about the Common Application essay and Common App essay prompts for 2020.

In this post I’ll answer these questions:

  • What’s the Common Application Essay?
  • What are the Common App Essay prompts for 2020?
  • What is the Common App essay word limit for 2020?
  • What are colleges looking for in a Common App essay?
  • What is the point of the Common App essay?
  • How important is the Common App essay?
  • Is one Common App prompt better to answer than another?
  • Does my Common App essay need a title?
  • What makes a good Common App essay?

What is the Common Application Essay?

The Common Application essay is the essay required by The Common Application. If you’re not familiar with the Common Application, it’s an application you fill out once and send to all the schools you’re applying to that accept it. Over 800 schools accept the Common App.

Even if you’re writing essays for schools that don’t accept the Common App, all schools are interested in learning about you, and you’ll find a lot of this information helpful.

What are the Common App Essay Prompts for 2020?

The Common App gives you seven prompts to choose from. You answer one of these questions:

  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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  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?
  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.

What is the Common App Essay Word Limit for 2020?

The Common App essay limit is 650 words.

What are Colleges Looking For in a Common App Essay?

Colleges look for three main things in a Common App essay:

  1. Can you write? – can you organize your thoughts and communicate your ideas?
  2. Who are you? – what’s your personality like, what are some of your best qualities, what matters to you and why?
  3. Will you contribute positively to our campus community?

What is the Point of the Common App Essay? How Important is the Common App Essay?

The Common App essay is an important part of your application. This is your chance to tell the schools something you’d like them to know about you apart from your test scores and grades. It gives them a chance to meet you on the page.

The Common App essay helps differentiate your application from other students’ applications. No one thinks like you or sees the world the way you do — so tell them.

You can tell schools something they don’t already know or dive deeper into what they already do — like your skills, passions, hobbies, goals, interests, problem-solving ability, positive qualities, and values.

By the end, the essay should say good things about you and help the colleges envision you as a positive addition to their campus communities.

Is One Common App Prompt Better to Answer Than Another?

No. They’re all meant to inspire you to find the story you want to tell. It doesn’t matter which question you choose.

Does My Common App Essay Need a Title?

The Common App essay doesn’t require a title, but it’s okay to include one. (I’d say my students are about 50/50.) Titles count as part of the 650 words

Common Application essay instructionsHERE’S A WRITING TIP: Don’t give away your entire story in your title. Use your imagination to write something intriguing – a little tease. For example, you can turn a boring spoiler like this: “The Day I Realized I Was a Leader” — into something more intriguing like this: “The Camper Who Fell Out of the Tree and Other Lessons of Leadership.”

Sounds interesting, right?

What Makes a Good Common App Essay?

Great question. Here are 7 Ways to Write a Strong Common App Essay:

1. Show Off Your Positive Qualities

Give schools great reasons to accept you. Make a list of your positive qualities and put lots of them into your essay.

If you’re not sure about all your positive qualities, download my

2. Show How You Think

Colleges love to know what’s going on inside your head. They want to see how you make a decision, react to a situation, come to a realization, or think your way through something. Show them your thought process. It’s another way to be unique.

3. Reflect

Reflection is essential. Why?

  • Reflection shows you can think critically and analyze. That’s what you’ve got to do in college.
  • Reflection helps your story stand out from other essays. Someone else might have a similar topic, but no one else sees the world exactly the same way as you do.

Tip: When you reflect, always ask yourself why – why did this matter to you…why did you feel the need to do something…why did you make the choices you did? Writing about “why” makes your essay personal and helps you explore your topic in greater depth.

4. Use Details to Paint a Picture

Details bring your essay to life. When you’re writing, think about how something looks, feels, tastes, smells and sounds. Did the fallen leaves crunch under your feet? Could you hear the bacon sizzling in the kitchen? These are called sensory details.

Use sensory details to place the reader directly into your environment and paint a picture of your world.

5. Sound Like You

Write in your own voice. Your essay should sound like a conversation you’re having with an adult. It shouldn’t sound like you’ve memorized the thesaurus or are trying to imitate a professor. And don’t let anyone “correct” it to sound like an English paper. Include strong words, interesting descriptions, and write well, but your college reader knows what teenagers sound like. It’s okay to be yourself.

6. Be Authentic

When Marc Harding, head of the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid at the University of Pittsburgh, was recently asked what he looked for in an essay, he said, “I’m looking for that authentic student.” Then he added, “It’s different for every student.”

Here’s the takeaway about being authentic: Doing worry about sounding like other essays you’ve read. Don’t worry about being “perfect.” Write an essay that’s about you and that means something to you.

How do you do that? Reveal something about you — your personality, hopes, passions, dreams, craziest moments, biggest failure, a secret you’ve never told anyone….

Take a moment to be a little bit vulnerable.

Think of it like peeling away the layers of an onion –  show the reader what’s happening below the surface, not just on top.

As long as your essay shows off some of your best qualities or values and gives the reader a window into how you think, feel, and what matters to you, then you’ve probably got authentic nailed.

7. Polish and Proofread

Proofreading is must. Make sure your spelling is correct and you’ve got commas and periods in the right places. Don’t rely on Spell Check — If you write Scared Heart University, instead of Sacred Heart University, Spell Check won’t know.

Here’s a great tip: Read your essay out loud. This helps you catch missed words and other errors.

Next Post: I’ll answer more questions and talk about how to start writing your essay.

If you enjoyed this post, I hope you’ll like my Facebook page

Sharon Epstein College Essay Tutor Interview Skills for students  First Impressions College Consulting
Sharon Epstein

Sharon Epstein is a Writers Guild Award-winner and two-time Emmy Award nominee, teaching students around the world how to master interview skills, write resumes, and transform their goals, dreams and experiences into memorable college application essays. She works with students everywhere: in-person, by phone, FaceTime, Skype, Google Hangouts, Zoom and email. Visit my website for more info. Connect on Pinterest and Twitter.


Author: Sharon Epstein

College consultant, teaching students how to write memorable college application essays, grad school and prep school essays, and succeed at job and college interviews.

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