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Tips for Writing 2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts 1-3

Helpful tips for writing 2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts 1-3

Welcome! This two-part article provides helpful tips for the 2019-2020 Common Application Prompts so you can write a strong, compelling and memorable Common Application essay.

You’ll learn what schools look for in Common Application essays, how to choose a prompt, Common App do’s and don’ts, and how to avoid college essay pitfalls. I’ll take you through each Common App prompt, and I’ll give you Common App essay examples, too.

How to write Common Application essay personal statement

This is your time to shine!
Let’s get started!

First, the Common Application Essay Basics:

— The 2019-2020 Common Application has seven prompts. You answer one of them.
— The Common App essay must be between 250-650 words.
— You can’t upload more than 650 words.
— Not every school accepts the Common Application, so check every college on your list for its essay requirements.

What Do Schools Want to See In a Common Application Essay?

— Your writing skills.
— Your ability to communicate your ideas.
— Your personality on the page. (What do you care about? What makes you laugh, wonder, hope, dream, reflect, set goals, challenge yourself, want to change something. And why.)
— A learning or growth experience.

Now, for something very important: WHY AM I DOING THIS?

What’s the purpose of this thing called The Common Application essay?

Great question! Your essay is your personal connection to the schools you’re applying to. You get to show them who you are, what you care about, and why. And that helps the colleges start to envision what you’ll be like as a student on campus. This is why you’re writing.

2019-2020 Common Application 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.
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.

Ready? Let’s Do It!

How to Write Common Application Essay Prompt #1: Background, Identity, Interest or Talent

Here’s the prompt:

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 to write common app essay some students have a background identity interest or talent

Is this Prompt for You? Look at the Keywords:

Background — Identity — Interest — Talent — Meaningful — Incomplete without it.

Do these Keywords Apply to You? 

“Background, identity, interest, talent.” These words are meant to spark your imagination. Take a minute to think about what’s shaped your life. Ask yourself questions like “who am I…where I am from…what makes me curious…what are my hobbies? You can write about almost anything, from serious to funny. (Hiccups, anyone?)
“Meaningful” means this experience has shaped you in a fundamental way — it has influenced your choices, outlook, perspective and/or goals.
Your application would be “incomplete without it.” You need to tell this story in order for people to fully understand you. It also shouldn’t be anywhere else in your application.

Choose this Prompt IF:

1. This experience helps illustrate some of your best qualities.
2. It helped shape you in a positive way.
3. If you didn’t tell this story, the admissions committee wouldn’t fully understand you.

Tip: If you’re not sure of your best qualities, download my Positive Qualities Worksheet.

how to write 2019 common application essay

Pitfalls to Avoid:

It has to mean something. Sure, you had a blast traveling last year or you like to spend time with your friends, but unless it’s an experience that helped shape you in some meaningful way, it doesn’t qualify. You have to satisfy the keywords.
Remember to say what you learned. Even though the question doesn’t specifically ask for it, make sure you include what you learned or how you grew from your experience. This is essential for a complete answer.

Example of a Successful Common App Essay Topic:


Nina loved animals. Mostly she loved the smaller, docile ones. When she volunteered at the local zoo, Nina showed visitors the “sweeter” animals and skipped the bigger, more dangerous ones. Then something odd happened: Nina watched the movie “Jaws,” about a man-eating shark, and she fell in love with sharks. She started to research them, and as she learned more she become concerned about what she felt was society’s inaccurate, overly negative portrayal. And she became interested in their preservation.

When Nina’s teacher assigned student presentations on a subject of their choice, Nina knew what she would do. Even though she was shy, she created a PowerPoint presentation designed to offer facts and to sway opinions. A lot of it was serious, but some of it was funny. The class’s favorite fact was that humans have a greater chance of dying by vending machine than by shark.

In her essay, Nina wrote that while she might not have changed how all her friends think about sharks, the person who changed the most was Nina. She learned to be an advocate and discovered a passion she didn’t know she had. Now, when Nina gives tours at the zoo, she doesn’t just educate visitors about the “cuter” animals — she makes sure they understand about all of them. Because Nina believes that knowledge and facts can overcome misperceptions and change opinions. And she will always be an advocate for sharks.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Succeed?

*All the keywords are addressed. Nina couldn’t tell her story without writing about her love of animals. It was central to her identity and her application would be incomplete without it.
*She learned from her experience. As she acquired more information, her perspective about animals grew. So did her perspective on what she wanted her role to be. She learned to be an advocate and discovered a passion she didn’t know she had.

Example of a Poor Essay Topic:


David enjoyed hanging out with his friends. He considered himself a good friend. David felt he was very loyal and that friends would always be important in his life.

Why Does this College Essay Topic Fail?

*The keywords are not addressed. It’s not clear why this topic is meaningful to David or why his application would be incomplete without it.
*There’s no learning or growth experience.
*Boring. Nothing about this idea stands out or feels original.

If you’re not sure if your topic is the right one, here are questions you can ask yourself:

1. Why is this topic meaningful to me?
2. Was there a time during this experience that I had to make a choice or a decision? What was the outcome?
3. Who am I now because of this experience?
4. What have I learned from it?
5. What do I want colleges to learn about me?
6. And finally: Is this the right topic for me?

Tip: For more help, read my post on How to start writing your college essay.

How to Write Common App Essay Prompt #2: Lessons We Take From Obstacles

Here’s the prompt:

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?

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

how to write 2019-2020 common app essay

“Failure”…”Affect you”…”Learn”

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

Answer yes IF

1. You tried something that failed, took a chance that didn’t pay off, made a decision that turned out to be faulty, achieved something you weren’t sure you could do, figured out a way to succeed without enough resources, persevered in the face of difficult circumstances.
2. AND you learned from your experience.
3. AND you can reflect on how it affected you.

how to write 2019-2020 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid:

This question has three parts — make sure you answer ALL of them: your experience, how it affected you, and the positive lessons you learned.
It’s not about the obstacle — it’s about how you responded to the situation. So don’t wallow. Mention what happened and move on.
Avoid writing about bad grades — it’s not original. You risk your essay sounding like a lot of other students who are writing about the same thing.

Tip: If your essay fell out of your backpack without your name on it and the person who read it couldn’t tell it was yours, then you should choose a different approach or even a different topic.

Example of Successful Common App Essay Topic:

“Snowbound Night”

Andrew started a snowplow business. But the ATV he bought couldn’t plow deep snow, so Andrew would plow his customers two or three times during a big snowfall. But one night Andrew’s alarm didn’t go off, and when he woke up eight inches of snow had fallen. When he tried to move his ATV, it got stuck in the snow. Andrew knew his customers were counting on him, so he worked for hours to shovel it out and was able to clear his customers’ driveways just in time for them to get to work.

After that experience, Andrew realized he needed to upgrade his equipment. Eventually, Andrew traded his ATV for a truck with a plow, which in turn made his business more successful. This experience helped him learn he’d like to pursue a business career.

Why This Topic Succeeds:

*All the keywords are addressed. Andrew told his story, examined how his failure affected him, and then wrote about the positive lessons he learned.
*It shows good character. He didn’t leave his customers hanging.
*He gave colleges excellent reasons to admit him: He had entrepreneurial skills, he was committed and responsible, he could overcome a setback in a stressful situation, and he put the needs of others first.

how to write Common Application essay

Are You Uncomfortable Discussing Failure?

how to write Common Application  essay personal statement

DON’T BE.  Colleges look for character-building stories and problem solving skills. It’s not that you failed; it’s how you dealt with it.

CAUTION! Never write about failures that include risky behavior or anything illegal (like hanging off a cliff or being caught drinking and driving).

How to Write Common App Essay Prompt #3: Challenged a Belief or Idea

Here’s the prompt:

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

Is This Prompt for You?  Look at the Keywords:

“Questioned or challenged”…”Belief or idea”…”Prompted your thinking”

Why Should You Consider This Topic?

1. You can illustrate one or more of your positive values. (If you’re not sure of your positive values, download my Positive Values Worksheet.)
2. You can show off your critical thinking skills. Colleges love to see how you think! It helps them see how you’ll be an independent thinker and worker when you get to school.

Do the Keywords Apply to You?

A “Belief or Idea” Can Include:
— Something you learned or were taught.
— A belief or idea held by others (including friends, schoolmates and family).
— A belief that’s unique to you.

How to Write 2019-2020 Common Application Essay

What if you thought your little sister was an alien? (Okay, that’s silly.) But sometimes we have our own ideas. Consider the boy who thinks being loudest is the way to gain attention, or the girl who decided long ago she’d never amount to much. What if they started to challenge those ideas? What if the boy decided he’d rather have friends than negative attention, and the girl made the decision to push herself to succeed? Think about what you believed when you were younger and, if your ideas changed, why. If your experience is meaningful and says positive things about you, this prompt could be for you.

how to write 2019-2020 common app essay

Pitfalls to Avoid:

This question has THREE parts—make sure you answer ALL of them: The event, what prompted your thinking, and the outcome.
Don’t forget to reflect on your decision. Were you satisfied with how it turned out? Did you learn from this experience? Would you do it again? Why?

Not Sure this Question Relates to You? Here Are Questions You Can Ask Yourself:

— Was I ever told by an adult that I wouldn’t be successful in an activity, but chose to pursue it anyway?
— Did I challenge what a group of friends told me to do because I thought they were wrong?
— Did I see someone being treated unfairly (perhaps even me) and attempt to rectify it?
— Have I ever changed my beliefs because I learned something new?
— Has someone or something ever caused me to question a strong personal value?
— Have I found myself in a position where I had to rethink an assumption?
— Did I think there was a way something should or shouldn’t be done, and then changed my perspective?

Which brings me to:

Should you write about religion? You can. I’ve had students who’ve written about different aspects of their spiritual journey, whether it was trying to conform to their parents’ religion or searching for their own truth.

But here’s the caution: You never want to offend your reader. A belief or idea you disagree with could be one that your reader accepts, so weigh your topic choice and be respectful when needed. Also consider the tone of your writing. For instance, it’s a lot different to say you felt a need to find your own path than you hated a specific religion and couldn’t wait to get out of there.

Tip: Some admissions officers tell me that many essays about spiritual journeys are starting to sound very similar. So if you want to write about your spiritual journey, find an original approach that makes your essay stands out.

Example of a Successful Common App Essay Topic:

“Standing up for Autism”

Sam was a student with autism. Every year, his high school held an event in support of autism awareness that included raising money for a prominent autism charity. But Sam had become aware that many people in the autistic community were upset with this charity. They felt the charity didn’t recognize the full value or contributions of the autistic community.

When Sam researched the charity he agreed, and he decided he wanted his high school to end its support. He handled the problem carefully and respectfully: He collected evidence and videos and presented them to his vice principal, and then wrote a formal letter to the Board of Education. After discussing Sam’s material, the Board agreed with Sam and decided that the charity wouldn’t be a part of future school events. Sam was both surprised and happy. In his essay he wrote that he learned if he communicated his views in a clear and mature way, people in authority would listen and consider his viewpoint. In this case he was successful, and he felt he had made a positive difference.

Why This Topic Succeeds

*All the keywords are addressed. Sam described the situation, discussed his thought process, and told the outcome.
*He demonstrated critical thinking skills. He researched the charity to come to his own decision and then decided on the correct way to approach the school.
*He included a learning experience. Sam learned that if he presented his views in a clear and respectful way that adults in authority would listen. He saw how he could make a positive change.
*He illustrated some of his positive qualities: commitment to community, fairness, and responsibility.
*He gave colleges excellent reasons to admit him: He took on a leadership role, communicated well with adults, and worked to create change. Even if he hadn’t been successful these qualities would have stood out.

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Next: Read Tips for Writing 2019-2020 Common App Essay Prompts 4-7


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.