You might be familiar with The Common Application for short, which serves as a single application that over seven hundred colleges, including every Ivy League school (e.g., Harvard, Yale, Princeton) and Stanford, share.
The Common App allows you to fill out things like your name:
2. Extracurricular activities, and more.
However, this is just once for every school that uses it. It is also where you’ll encounter “The Common App Essay”. And this is otherwise known as your statement (PS), which is what this guide will focus on.
Though not every school uses the Common App, note. Many state or public schools often have their systems. The work you do in writing your Common App Essay will serve you in every other component of the process. And this includes non-Common App schools (e.g., University of California [UC] schools).
Also, as well as the secondary and supplemental essays that go along with the Common App. (Schools that don’t use Common App may still ask for essays or short answers.)
Why do The Common App Essay and other College Essays Matter?
You may have heard the phrase “holistic” admissions thrown around many universities. This means they don’t necessarily have an ACT or SAT cutoff score, nor do they require a certain number of AP/IB/Honors courses.
Instead, they’re trying to get to know candidates as humans. Admissions officers are people who would be horribly bored if their job came down just to numbers, statistics. Or just to cutoffs, and count up your AP and SAT and ACT scores.
Thus, in order to get into your dream school, note. You’ll need not only great grades and test scores but also a strong personal statement. Why? Your Personal Statement is the single loudest ‘qualitative’ element of your application. And it brings to life the student—you!—behind your statistics and demographics.
Also, it’s the way you communicate with the admissions committee as a person. And as a potential member of the campus community. With more people applying to colleges every year, admissions officers know they can have their pick of bright and motivated students.
Additionally, to seeing your talents and achievements on paper, note. They need a chance to imagine what you might be like as a walking, talking human being.
Many students and parents wonder how big of role essays play when it comes to college admissions decisions. While the importance of college essays—which are written over a period of a few weeks or (ideally) a few months—vary from school to school. Thus, most experts estimate that they make up for anywhere from 10-30% of admissions decisions!
In other words, note. Your four years of schoolwork, AP, IB, ACT, and SAT exams, community service, volunteering, etc. account only for 70-90%.
These estimates are provided not to scare you. But rather to emphasize how critical it is for you to spend at least as much time on your college essays as would on any other high school pursuit.
Fortunately, we’re going to talk about every aspect of your personal statement in this guide. And we shall reflect on some of the lessons we’ve taken from over a decade of coaching students through the college application process and getting into their dream schools.
Common App 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.
Common App Essay Example One: Home
As I enter the double doors, the smell of freshly rolled biscuits hits me almost instantly. I trace the fan blades as they swing above me, emitting a low, repetitive hum resembling a faint melody. After bringing our usual order, the “Tailgate Special,” to the table, my father begins discussing the recent performance of Apple stock with my mother, myself, and my older eleven-year-old sister.
Bojangle’s, a Southern establishment well known for its fried chicken and reliable, fast food, is my family’s Friday night restaurant, often accompanied by trips to Eva Perry, the nearby library.
With one hand on my breaded chicken and the other on Nancy Drew Mystery of Crocodile Island, I can barely sit still as the thriller unfolds. They’re imprisoned! Reptiles! Not the enemy’s boat! As I delve into the narrative with a sip of sweet tea, I feel at home.
“Five, six, seven, eight!” As I shout the counts, nineteen dancers grab and begin to spin the tassels attached to their swords while walking heel-to-toe to the next formation of the classical Chinese sword dance.
A glance at my notebook reveals a collection of worn pages covered with meticulously planned formations, counts, and movements.
Through sharing videos of my performances with my relatives or discovering and choreographing the nuances of certain regional dances and their reflection on the region’s distinct culture, I deepen my relationship with my parents, heritage, and community.
When I step on stage, the hours I’ve spent choreographing, creating poses, teaching, and polishing are all worthwhile, and the stage becomes my home.
Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. Set temperature. Calibrate. Integrate. Analyze. This pulse mimics the beating of my heart, a subtle rhythm that persists each day I come into the lab.
Whether I am working under the fume hood with platinum nanoparticles, manipulating raw integration data, or spraying a thin platinum film over pieces of copper, it is in Lab 304 in Hudson Hall that I first feel the distinct sensation and I’m home.
After spending several weeks attempting to synthesize platinum nanoparticles with a diameter between 10 and 16 nm, I finally achieve nanoparticles with a diameter of 14.6 nm after carefully monitoring the sulfuric acid bath.
That unmistakable tingling sensation dances up my arm as I scribble into my notebook: I am overcome with a feeling of unbridled joy.
Styled in a t-shirt, shorts, and a worn, dark green lanyard, I sprint across the quad from the elective ‘Speaking Arabic through the Rassias Method’ to ‘Knitting Nirvana’. This afternoon is just one of many at Governor’s School East, where I have been transformed from a high school student into a philosopher, a thinker, and an avid learner.
While I attend GS at Meredith College for Natural Science, the lessons learned and experiences gained extend far beyond physics concepts, serial dilutions, and toxicity. I learn to trust myself to have difficult yet necessary conversations about the political and economic climate.
Governor’s School breeds a culture of inclusivity and multidimensionality, and I am transformed from a “girl who is hardworking” or “science girl” to someone who indulges in the sciences, debates about psychology and the economy, and loves to swing and salsa dance. As I form a slip knot and cast on, I’m at home.
My home is a dynamic and eclectic entity. Although I’ve lived in the same house in Cary, North Carolina for 10 years, I have found and carved homes and communities that are filled with and enriched by tradition, artists, researchers, and intellectuals.
While I may not always live within a 5-mile radius of a Bojangle’s or in proximity to Lab 304, learning to become a more perceptive daughter and sister, to share the beauty of my heritage, and to take risks and redefine scientific and personal expectations will continue to impact my sense of home.
Example Two: Easter
It was Easter and we should’ve been celebrating with our family, but my father had locked us in the house. If he wasn’t going out, neither were my mother and me.
My mother came to the U.S. from Mexico to study English. She’d been an exceptional student and had a bright future ahead of her. But she fell in love and eloped with the man that eventually became my father.
He loved her in an unhealthy way and was both physically and verbally abusive. My mother lacked the courage to start over, so she stayed with him and slowly let go of her dreams and aspirations. But she wouldn’t allow for the same to happen to me.
In the summer before my junior year, I was offered a scholarship to study abroad in Egypt. Not to my surprise, my father refused to let me go. But my mother wouldn’t let him crush my dreams as well. I’d do this for myself and for my mother’s unfulfilled aspirations. I accepted the scholarship.
I thought I’d finally have all the freedom I longed for in Egypt, but initially I didn’t. On a weekly basis I heard insults and received harassment in the streets, yet I didn’t yield to the societal expectations for women by staying indoors.
I continued to roam throughout Egypt, exploring the Great Pyramids of Giza, cruising on the Nile, and traveling to Luxor and Aswan. And before I returned to the U.S. I received the unexpected opportunity to travel to London and Paris.
It was surreal: a girl from the ghetto traveling alone around the world with a map in her hands And no man or cultural standards could dictate what I was to do. I rode the subway from Cambridge University to the British Museum.
I took a train from London to Paris and in two days I visited the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, Notre Dame Cathedral, and took a cruise on the Seine. Despite the language barrier I found I had the self-confidence to approach anyone for directions.
While I was in Europe enjoying my freedom, my mother moved out and rented her own place. It was as if we’d simultaneously gained our independence. We were proud of each other. And she vicariously lived through my experiences as I sent her pictures and told her about my adventures.
Finally, we were free.
I currently live in the U. S with my mother. My father has gradually transformed from a frigid man to the loving father I always yearned for. Life isn’t perfect, but for the moment I’m enjoying tranquility and stability with my family and are communicating much better than ever before.
I’m involved in my school’s Leadership Council as leader of our events committee. We plan and execute school dances and create effective donation letters. I see this as a stepping-stone for my future, as I plan to double major in Women’s Studies and International Relations, with a focus on Middle Eastern studies.
After the political turmoil of the Arab Spring many Middle Eastern countries refuse to grant women equal positions in society because that would contradict Islamic texts.
By oppressing women, they’re silencing half of their population. I believe these Islamic texts have been misinterpreted throughout time, and my journey towards my own independence has inspired me to help other women find liberation as well.
My Easter will drastically differ from past years. Rather than being locked at home, my mother and I will celebrate outdoors our rebirth and renewal.
Example Three: Make-Up
In eighth grade, I was asked to write my hobbies and career goals, but I hesitated. Should I just make something up? I was embarrassed to tell people that my hobby was collecting cosmetics and that I wanted to become a cosmetic chemist.
I worried others would judge me as too girlish and less competent compared to friends who wanted to work at the UN in foreign affairs or police the internet to crack down on hackers. The very fact that I was insecure about my “hobby” was perhaps proof that cosmetics were trivial, and I was a superficial girl for loving it.
But cosmetics was not just a pastime, it was an essential part of my daily life. In the morning I got up early for my skincare routine, using brightening skin tone and concealing blemishes, which gave me the energy and confidence throughout the day.
At bedtime, I relaxed with a soothing cleansing ritual applying different textures and scents of liquids, creams, sprays, and gels. My cosmetic collection was a dependable companion – rather than hiding it away, I decided instead to learn more about cosmetics, and to explore.
However, cosmetic science wasn’t taught at school so I designed my own training. It began with the search for a local cosmetician to teach me the basics of cosmetics, and each Sunday I visited her lab to formulate organic products. A year of lab practice taught me how little I knew about ingredients, so my training continued with independent research on toxins.
I discovered that safety in cosmetics was a contested issue amongst scientists, policymakers, companies, and consumer groups, variously telling me there are toxic ingredients that may or may not be harmful. I was frustrated by this uncertainty, yet motivated to find ways of sharing what I was learning with others.
Research spurred to action. I began writing articles on the history of toxic cosmetics, from lead in Elizabethan face powder to lead in today’s lipstick and communicated with a large readership online.
Positive feedback from hundreds of readers inspired me to step up my writing, to raise awareness with my peers, so I wrote a gamified survey for online distribution discussing the slack natural and organic labeling of cosmetics, which are neither regulated nor properly defined.
At school I saw opportunities to affect real change and launched a series of green chemistry campaigns: the green agenda engaged the school community in something positive and was a magnet for creative student ideas, such as a recent project to donate handmade organic pet shampoo to local dog shelters. By senior year, I was pleased my exploration had gone well.
But on a recent holiday back home, I unpacked and noticed cosmetics had invaded much of my space over the years. Dresser top and drawers were crammed with unused tubes and jars — once handpicked with loving care — had now become garbage.
I sorted through each hardened face powder and discolored lotion, remembering what had excited me about the product and how I’d used it. Examining these mementos led me to a surprising realization: yes, I had been a superficial girl obsessed with clear and flawless skin.
But there was something more, too.
My makeup had given me confidence and comfort, and that was okay. I am glad I didn’t abandon the superficial me, but instead acknowledged her, and stood by her to take her on an enlightening and rewarding journey.
Cosmetics led me to dig deeper into scientific inquiry, helped me develop an impassioned voice, and became a tool to connect me with others. Together, I’ve learned that the beauty of a meaningful journey lies in getting lost, for it was in the meandering that I found myself.