Top Common App Essay Examples

Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.

The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).

2018-19 Common App Essays

Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application, which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following 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.

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts

Prompt #1: Share your story.

Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.

Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.

You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.

Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.

Prompt #4: Solving a problem.

This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth. 

Prompt #6: What captivates you?

This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.

Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.

This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores  and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.

More College Essay Topics

Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:

Describe a person you admire.

Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .

Why do you want to attend this school?

Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.

What is a book you love?

Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?

Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.

What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?

Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.


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Below are a number of links that provide examples of Common App essays. We hope they inspire you and help you to write your own unique essay for your college application. Please do not copy them, as this is plagiarism.

Essay Example #1 - Japanese Puzzle

Watching the news with my parents one night, I heard a story about Japan, which included an interview with a man speaking Japanese. Suddenly entranced, I struggled to make sense of the incredible sounds tumbling out of his mouth and immediately knew that the language was a puzzle I needed to solve. Read more >

Essay Example #2 - Camping Lesson

The 90-degree summer heat beat down on my shoulders, but that was the least of my problems. A six-year old boy had just disrupted a yellow jacket nest by the lake and children were getting stung left and right. If it had been any other summer I would have sat back and let an adult take care of the problem, but as the only camp counselor in the vicinity, I was suddenly the closest grown up around. Read more >

Essay Example #3 - EMT Efficiency

Patience has never been my strong suit, and while I have always wanted to be a healer, I could never imagine waiting to finish college and medical school before actually working with patients. So after a lifetime of hearing stories from my mom’s best friend about life in the ambulance as an emergency medical technician, I decided to jump in and sign up for my local training program last year. Read more >

Essay Example #4 - Trigonometry Trouble

While not everything in life is within our control, that doesn’t mean we should let those things hold us back from success. I have never been particularly adept at math, but always managed to do well enough with a little extra effort. That is, until I signed up for trigonometry. I managed to keep a grasp on the lessons for the first few weeks, but my understanding of the topic slowly ebbed away as the semester wore on. Read more >

Essay Example #5 - A Shakespearean Shambles

A “C+” might not constitute a technical failure, but for an honors student with a constant eye on my GPA, my grade on the English group project certainly felt like an “F.” I should start from the beginning. Last year, I was excited when my English teacher announced that she was assigning a group project for our Shakespeare unit. Read more >

Essay Example #6 - The Substitute

Sitting outside of the principal’s office, my stomach lurched and my palms felt sweaty. I wasn’t about to get in trouble; in fact, the situation was the exact opposite. I sat there waiting to report what had just happened in my history class.

90 minutes earlier, I arrived at class to discover we had a substitute teacher for the period. Admittedly, I felt a moment of relief at the thought of a less taxing lesson than usual. Some of my classmates thought the same thing, but chose to express it a little more vocally. Slamming his fist on the teacher’s desk, the substitute responded by screaming to be heard over the din of the class. Read more >

Essay Example #7 - A Catholic Conundrum

Raised in a proud, traditional Catholic family, I wasn’t sure where to turn when I began to question the Church two years ago. There was no cataclysmic event that caused me to do so; rather, some of the dogma began to feel exclusionary and overly judgmental. I just couldn’t imagine God caring about much that the Church espoused as doctrine.

The first time I voiced a challenge was in my weekly catechism class. The teacher stated that anyone who didn’t believe in God would go to hell. “What about people in Africa?” I asked. Read more >

Essay Example #8 - Refugee Report

Immigration is an enormous issue in America, with people arguing about every possible angle to the challenges facing successful policy reform. The recent ISIS attacks in Paris helped to fuel anti-refugee sentiments throughout the U.S., despite there being no evidence that accepting Syrian refugees would pose any real threat to our nation. Read more >

Essay Example #9 - Driving License Journey

Many of my friends seem to be in no rush to get their driver’s license, with many of their 16th birthdays passing by without even mention of beginning to drive. I, on the other hand, viewed my driver’s license as the next step in becoming an adult. Read more >

Essay Example #10 - A Mexican Affair

Forget MTV’s images of spoiled girls picking out multi-thousand dollar dresses. That was not my quinceañera. Yes, many girls I know in my Mexican American community hold ostentatious events that look like they should be on the cover of a magazine. But when I celebrated my 15th birthday, it was a deeply-rooted cultural affair celebrating my transition into adulthood alongside my family and closest friends. Read more >

Essay Example #11 - The Teachings of Employment

I would have loved to be on the high school yearbook staff, work on the school paper, run for student government, play a sport, or have enough time to devote to my studies.  But my high school experience was much different.   I worked twenty to thirty hours a week from the time I was fourteen to help support my family and save for college.  My father died when I was ten leaving my mother with three children to support and so, as the oldest, I tried my best to help. Read more >>

Essay Example #12 - Tough Game

I love the game of football and in sixth grade I decided I wanted to play on a team.   I was sure it would be great.  I picked up my equipment a few days before the first practice and strolled in thinking this would be easy. However, it was a disaster!  I was out of shape, the coach yelled all the time, and I was completely unprepared.  I went home devastated and refused to go back. Read more >>

Essay Example #13 - Jeep Journey

I grew up tinkering with anything I could get my hands on.  At a young age, I took apart radios, toasters, and other household items to learn how they worked.  As I got older, I moved on to small motors and engines, and rebuilt our lawn mower.  But, at fourteen, I received my greatest challenge that not only taught me how to solve some complex problems, but helped me understand what I want to do for a career. Read more >>

Essay Example #14 - Truth & Politics

I am a politically disenfranchised Millennial.   I want to believe that my vote matters.  I want to believe that politicians are dedicated to public service and intellectualism, and the media is more than another self-interested business pushing its own agenda.  However, I do not believe these things.  So what is the answer?  Am I forced to accept this “reality” or is there some way to make a difference? Read more >>

Essay Example #15 - Dance Dilemma

I have heard many of my fellow students say it would be nice to join a high school club or activity, but they frequently find an excuse for not getting involved.  As a freshman, I decided that I did not want to be one of those people, but instead wanted to live my high school life to its fullest.  I learned about the many options available and purposely choose four activities that were different from each other and would help me to meet a diverse group of people. Read more >>

 

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