Breaking Down Common Application Prompts: #1 & #2

It’s August 1st! We all know what that means…

The Common App opens today!

Some students have already finished their essays, others are revising their drafts, and still others haven’t started yet (Uh oh!)

The essay is by far the most time consuming part of the college application process. When I work on an essay with students, they typically go through 12-14 revisions before we get something right.

The most common thing students are confused about, is what the prompt is ACTUALLY asking.

So for this week’s blog post, I thought I would break it down nice and simple, and go through each essay prompt and outline what they’re looking for.


Prompt 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.

This prompt has been present every year in recent memory. It is broad enough to get creative, yet just specific enough that students can write about this topic without getting overwhelmed. Just like with any essay prompt, highlight the keywords – in this case, “background”, “talent” and “identity” – and keep these in mind when you’re brainstorming your topic. What is it about your background, your activities, personality and interests that might be interesting to an admissions officer? This can be any seemingly-mundane, everyday task, or something completely life-altering. It’s matters less about what you write about, and more about the angle you take to highlight your changing perspectives, your growth and opinions that are unique to you, and that they won’t find in any other student’s essay.

Some questions that may help you brainstorm:

  • What part of my history sets me apart from my peers?
  • Is there any particularly unique experience or view that I hold?
  • Has there been a defining moment in my life, which has helped me to become the person I am today?
  • What thoughts and values do I hold close, and why do I identify with them?

Some examples to think about:

  • How has connecting with your grandparents and their stories of ‘the olden days’ changed your perspective on the world and lead to you feeling gratitude for all the opportunities in your life?
  • Did learning the violin and relentlessly practicing to get to nationals teach you to overcome challenges and allowed you to develop a work ethic that will help you succeed in all your future endeavours?
  • What are the challenges (and positive lessons!) that have arisen from being raised by a single parent? Or being raised by parents that don’t speak English? How did their past and background affect your current opinions and perspectives?

This prompt is designed to give you the freedom to tell admissions teams what you think is important for them to know. It is a fantastic choice for students who don’t really identify with the other prompts, but can tell their story in an interesting way that captures the angles of their personality, growth, perspectives and individuality.


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?  

The key to writing an effective essay about overcoming obstacles is to focus on the solution to the problem you had, rather than on the problem itself. Rather than a detailed account of the hurdle the student had to overcome, angle this essay in a way that it highlights the students response to the problem, and how it affected their growth and perspectives. In an essay about overcoming challenges, students should choose adjective that they want to come across in their writing. These can be words like determination, resilience, bravery, courage, dedication and persistence.

The obstacles you choose to write about can vary – they don’t necessarily have to be as serious as being bullied or your family losing their house, for example. The obstacle can be anything that caused you to hardship, where you had to find a solution. Just make sure you don’t write about challenges that seem clichéd, such as failing to achieve an A on your exam, or if they show any signs of poor judgement (this is not something you want admissions officers to know about!).

Some questions to help you brainstorm:

  •  In your point of view, what qualifies as a setback or challenge? In your opinion, is it important to learn from challenges? What should you take away from them?
  • Have you ever had a challenge that ended up being a blessing in disguise?
  • How can a bad experience be turned into a learning opportunity, and is how you deal with the setback more important than what you learned from it?

Some examples to think about:

  • Did not making the gymnastics team allow you time to try dance instead, and in the process discover a new passion and way to express you individuality?
  • Have you ever not followed directions at summer camp and have to sit out of an activity, only to watch someone else get hurt messing around the same way you were?
  • Did your parents desperate financial situation mean you had to get a job in 10th grade and spend all your weekends working, which allowed you to develop a strong work ethic and empathy towards others?

One thing to remember about this prompt is that the stories should be as positive as possible. Even if it’s about a negative situation, try to focus on the positives that came from it, or the character growth you experienced because of it.


Be on the lookout for my breakdown of the rest of the prompts, coming Friday and Monday!