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How To Approach the Common App Essay Prompts (and How Not To!)

There's no need to fear the Common App personal statement! Although it's an important part of your application and should be as well developed as possible, it's far less daunting than the prompts make it out to be. Here, expert essay coach Daniel McElroy shares his advice for a productive pre-writing process to generate the best possible final draft.

You’ve probably already heard a lot about the Common App personal statement essay. It’s central to the college admissions process, and it’s often built up by peers, parents, teachers and counselors as a make-or-break step.

A lot of these conversations have likely been vague, anecdotal, and maybe even conflicting—none of which is a good recipe for confident work!

What’s that about someone writing their personal statement on the significance of dirty socks?! Someone else spent 650 words explaining how the first three measures of Beethoven’s 6th symphony changed their outlook on the world?

Anecdotes like these might leave you wondering: How could I ever write something so unique? How can I be confident that colleges will respond positively to a “risky” topic?

And if you’ve already spent some time with the Common App essay prompts, you may feel even more confused. How am I supposed to turn straightforward questions about who I am as a person into a creative and introspective masterpiece?

In this article, I’ll help you understand:

  • The Common App essay prompts and what they teach us about the essay-writing process
  • Why these prompts are likely not the best place to begin
  • How you can feel most confident about your personal statement when it’s finally time to hit submit on November 1st!

What are the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023-24?

The Common App essay prompts remain more or less consistent from year to year: over the past five years only one of the seven questions has changed.

The Common App essay prompts for 2023-24 are as follows:

  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. 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?
  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.

What the Common App essay prompts teach us

Because the Common App essay prompts have been relatively unchanged over the past few years, there’s a lot of information we’re able to take from them.

The prompts focus on YOU.

At the risk of stating the obvious, all seven Common App essay prompts really focus on who you are.

I state the obvious, though, because explaining who we are is usually an uncomfortably vulnerable undertaking.

I’ve seen students write a beautiful 650 word first draft analyzing the outlook or actions of every single person they know other than themselves.

I’ve seen students opt for a dry topic over their stated passion, because exploring the source or significance of the passion was overwhelming to them.

The prompts are designed to help you explain who you are, not what you (or those around you) do or think.

The prompts go deep.

Every Common App essay prompt asks for you to dig into how or why you see the world the way that you do.

Whether you find the task of writing about yourself—as well as how you came to that understanding—inspiring or challenging is something you might not know until you begin.

That’s why it’s critical to get started early, give yourself plenty of time for edits, and make sure you have a trusted mentor who can help you explore the ideas in your essay articulately and confidently.

The prompts are overwhelming.

For one thing, some of the questions may delve into things you’ve never even thought to consider about yourself.

Additionally, the mere breadth of options presented by the Common App essay prompts is huge, and this can easily pose some significant decision fatigue if you’re not careful.

How the Common App essay prompts can hold you back (if you’re not careful)

Here are a few scenarios I’ve encountered where the Common App essay prompts might have been limiting to students’ potential as they drafted their personal statements:

  1. A student came to the first session with a few prompts she was “against” exploring because she couldn’t come up with an immediate answer, which she found frustrating.
  2. Another student immediately crossed out the prompt about “obstacles” because he was convinced he hadn’t faced any obstacles worth writing about.
  3. A student chose the prompt about “a time you questioned or challenged a belief you held” because she already had an idea for an essay which fit this prompt well, and insisted it wasn’t worth exploring other possibilities.

All of these students had two things in common.

  1. They allowed the Common App essay prompts to drive the development of their personal statements.

  1. All of their resulting personal statements were good, but all of them could have been better—more developed, more layered, and more interesting!

How to Effectively Draft a Personal Statement

An effective personal statement writing process involves figuring out what it is you have to say—in all its complexity, detail, and perhaps messiness—and then seeing whether/how one of the prompts might assist you in expressing those ideas with clarity.

(Even then, they might not—which is why that all-important Prompt #7 will always be there for you!)

Here’s where to begin:

Brainstorm, brainstorm, brainstorm.

The most important thing to do when starting your personal statement process is to get writing—messily.

The brainstorming questions on pages 18-19 of the ESM Prep College Essay Writing Guide are an excellent place to begin. These questions are inspired by the Common App essay prompts with one huge difference:

At this stage, there is no pressure to have insight.

We are simply looking for little nuggets of experience, perspective, or interest that might be explored more deeply. The insight will come, but first getting down some thoughts about what makes you who you are without worrying about how or why just yet is extremely useful.

Digest your brainstorming.

Once you’ve written your brainstorming answers, discussing them with someone you trust will help you dig deeper into the potential insights and, crucially, the connections between ideas that might lead you to the depth and authenticity you hope your personal statement will eventually contain.

Ideally, this conversation will take place with a mentor who can then assign you a few targeted “free-writes” based on the ideas you’ve identified together as having potential. From there, you will have the beginnings of a draft.

The key is that a less prompt-driven pre-writing process will have kept every door open and explored every possibility, and you’ll be in a much more creative and generative space to add layers to your insight that will ultimately lead to the most interesting, genuine and effective personal statement.