How to Own Every Single Common App Essay Prompt

This year’s Common Application (aka The Common App) is out and students all across the country are toiling away to file theirs in time. While you may still have a few months before the submission deadline hits, that doesn’t mean you should wait until the last minute to get started.

The biggest reason for kicking things off early is to get your brain in gear for the personal essay you’ll have to write.

Your personal essay (also known as your personal statement) is one of the most crucial elements of your college application, and should not be something you rush through. The personal essay is your chance to show colleges what a transcript can’t — it allows you to exhibit what makes you tick and why you would be a strong addition to a college’s incoming freshman class.

This year’s offering of essay prompts is one of the most diverse yet, and each is looking for something different. Before you start stressing over how you’ll ever get your essay done, read over our breakdown of each prompt. Understanding what these prompts are really asking will give you a better understanding of how to approach — and totally own — your Common App essay.


Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

What this prompt is really asking:  What is an aspect of your personal character that is crucial to who you are?

The reason why it matters: These days there is no cookie-cutter student with a guaranteed ride to any school. Things are as competitive as ever and colleges want to see what a prospective student can offer beyond a GPA.

How you can tackle it: Think about the things you’re most passionate about in life. It could be art, sports, volunteering — heck, even playing video games! The point is to show that there are elements of your character that define you as an individual. Be sure to make it a point to show how this facet of your life has helped you learn.


Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

What this prompt is really asking: How well are you able to handle failure, build upon it, and move on?

The reason why it matters: When the going gets tough the tough get going — colleges want students that are serious about attending their university. Displaying your ability to acknowledge mistakes and find solutions is a key set of traits schools take note of.

How you can tackle it: It can be tough, but it’s important to be honest with yourself for this prompt. Even though you are being asked to share a moment of shortcoming, the focus isn’t on how you got there but rather where it took you.


Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

What this prompt is really asking: How do your values, principles, and standards inspire you to take action?

The reason why it matters: It’s important to stand for something in this world — nearly every university has a motto that serves as a proverbial echo of that school’s ethos. It’s important for Admissions Officers to not only see your interest in attending their school, but to also evaluate if it is the right fit for you to thrive in.

How you can tackle it: Think about the beliefs and ideologies that you hold closest. Have you ever been in a situation that put them to the test? This prompt is looking to see how you dealt with those moments and what thrust you to act upon them.


Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

What this prompt is really asking: How well are you able to self-reflect?

The reason why it matters: Introspection is a sign of maturity. Colleges want to know you’re a developing mind both inside and outside of the classroom. This prompt allows Admission Officers to get a better sense of how you view yourself and your surroundings.

How you can tackle it: Think of the moments where you feel you’re on top of the world. When do they happen? Where do they happen? The location you choose to discuss is just the beginning; the real value is in explaining the effect it has on you.


Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

What this prompt is really asking: How have you changed over the years and what events in your life spurred that growth?

The reason why it matters: The college experience is one big life change and transition. This prompt is asking you to display your ability to adapt over time.

How you can tackle it: These kinds of moments often time come with a newfound sense of responsibility.  That responsibility can come in the form of knowledge, challenge, or even other people. Thinking back to when you realized this moment had come is something you never forget — draw on that sense of newfound responsibility to show Admission Officers that in your nearly two decades on Earth you’ve grown for the better.


written by
Sean Castillo
September 5, 2013

7 Responses to “How to Own Every Single Common App Essay Prompt”

  1. William
    September 6, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    THANK YOU SO MUCH. This helps a lot!

  2. Nelisa
    September 7, 2013 at 6:21 pm #

    Thank you for the insight. It is very helpful!

  3. Zakiyyah
    September 12, 2013 at 3:36 pm #

    I concur with them above!!! Thank you so much!

  4. Bachir
    September 17, 2013 at 6:37 pm #

    Great info, clears up a lot, thanks.

  5. Corey
    October 15, 2013 at 10:45 pm #

    Very helpful. Thank you for posting this. I always have trouble answering personal questions.

  6. Jivenal
    October 28, 2013 at 1:24 pm #

    I need more of this. It’s becoming impossible to find such insight into SAT exams. Could always use more

  7. Susie Watts
    November 25, 2013 at 6:40 pm #

    Helpful hints for students who are still struggling with the Common
    Application essay prompts. A little brainstorming goes a long way.

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