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How to pick a common app essay topic for the 2022-23 cycle

In Application, Essays and Senior.

Understanding the different common app topics 

In this post I'm going to run through each of the common app prompts and give you my fast take on how students can successfully answer them.

Bandying about a term like "successfully" when discussing writing is, admittedly, somewhat facile. But hey, it's a college essay, not a free-writing session. You're writing to an audience: how you write does matter. Let's get into it.

To get a flavor for the kind of essays encouraged by the Common App, it can be helpful to understand the prompts offered to students by the organization. Occasionally the Common App prompts shift - but they remain fairly consistent from year-to-year.

What never changes, however, is the breadth of the topics - each of which offers students an opportunity to reflect deeply on one facet or their experience. 

Here is a list of the current Common App prompts, along with some thoughts about how to approach the topics. (Keep in mind: These prompts cover first-year applications, and are not drawn from the section focused on transfers.)

Common App Prompt #1: Meaningful Background or Identity

Prompt #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.

This prompt invites applications that tell a story based on some an element of their identity. It can be an appropriate prompt for anyone who has a particularly strong or distinct feeling of cultural identity, or who has a powerful story to tell about an ongoing extracurricular or academic pursuit.

This essay topic is great for students who want to delve deeply into their past, family context, or driving interests. 

Common App Prompt #2: Challenges and Lessons

Prompt #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?

Here we’re asked explicitly to talk about an obstacle. Have you ever had a devastating singular loss? Have you ever been faced with a significant, ongoing challenge? This is a space to dig deep and try to think about how that challenge affected you as a person.

It’s key to focus on the takeaways: make sure to tell a story from which a definitive outcome emerged, even if it was only a realization about yourself. 

Common App Prompt #3: Questioning Beliefs

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

The renegade prompt! If you’ve ever found yourself in a situation where you felt profoundly uncomfortable; in a culture that negated who you are; or faced with a situation where something disagreed with you deeply, this prompt may be for you. 

Remember: Questioning or challenging a belief/idea does not always look like standing up before a crowd and denouncing whoever or whatever offends. Everyone has their own way of dealing with problems. What is yours? But action must be central. This prompt asks you to show how you act when faced with a situation that you don’t agree with. 

Common App Prompt #4: Gratitude

Prompt #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?

This prompt is a new addition and is unique among the Common App prompts in that it asks you to reflect on your relationship with someone else. 

I like this one, although I expect that it leads to some essays that violate one of my biggest no-nos when it comes to writing a college essay: the essay has to be about YOU. 

It's really easy to write an essay about a loved one that doesn't end up reflecting directly on you as an applicant, but brings them into center stage instead. You have to avoid this. Even when you're writing about someone else, you need the essay to reflect on you: who you are, who you're becoming, etc. 

Common App Prompt #5: Personal Growth

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

This prompt asks you to focus on something more “localized” than any of the others: a single event or moment that catalyzed a personal change.

Remember: the real opportunity behind this prompt is not to talk or brag about a single accomplishment, but to engage in a sustained, deep reflection about how that accomplishment transformed your thinking about the world. 

Common App Prompt #6: Intellectual Vitality / "Flow State"

Prompt #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?

The passion topic. If you have something that you can utterly lose yourself in, this may be the prompt for you. This prompt provides you with an opportunity to wax poetic about things you can’t get enough of (ahem, Lux support?). More importantly, it is an opportunity to talk about your learning and discovery process around things for which you have a true passion. 

This essay asks you not only to talk about your passion, but also to highlight the paths you take for learning, improving, and growing as a person. 

Common App Prompt #7: Open-Ended

Prompt #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.

Ok, well, yep--the open-ended prompt. If you have an essay that doesn’t fit the mold of the other prompts, this may be the essay for you. But remember: even though it may appear more open, you still need to bring the heat when it comes to structured reflection. 

Among all these choices, not one of them is entirely straightforward. Reading them over, you might also realize that the prompts are, to some extent, interchangeable.

Of course, particular stories will match up best with particular prompts. But all of the prompts push the writer in the same direction: toward deep reflection about who you are, what makes you tick, where you’ve been, and where you’re going.   

No matter what prompt you choose, make sure to try to write an essay that pushes toward the upper end of the word count. 

The Common App essay is, as I mentioned earlier, the centerpiece of your application. Make those words count!

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

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