How to Nail the Common App Essay (and choose the best prompt for you)

We walk you through how to write a brilliant Common App essay for 2020-2021.

The Common Application allows high school seniors to apply to any of the almost 900 colleges and universities that use it. The prompts serve to guide applicants in reflecting on their own experiences and identifying the most appropriate ones to include in their personal statement.


Want help with your Common App essay? Whether you haven’t even started or whether you’re looking for feedback on a draft you’ve already written, Prompt is here to help.

Common App Prompts 2020-2021

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, 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 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 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.

Students choose to respond to one of the seven prompts. The essay has a word limit of 650 words.

How should you choose and write your Common App essays?

Here are some resources:

  • This article helps you select the right Common App essay topic that is both compelling and unique for your essay
  • This article teaches you how to structure your essay to make any topic work within the Common App essay length

Which Common App prompts are the most popular?

This graph illustrates the choices made by over 1,500 Prompt clients. According to our data, two essays are by far the most popular — the “Background” essay (#1) and the “Accomplishment” essay (#5), with roughly 30% of our clients choosing each.

Interestingly, the most popular choiceaccording to the Common App’s own data is different. It’s the “choose your own topic” prompt (#7), which is only the fourth-most popular among our students. But, except for that, the Common App reports the same sequence as we do, with the “Accomplishment” essay (#5) also in second position, and the “Obstacle” essay (#2) also in third.

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