Dissecting the 2021-2022 Common Application Essay Prompts

The Common Application is an online application that allows students pursuing an undergraduate degree to fill out one singular application to apply to over 900 colleges and universities across the globe. This application makes it easy for first-year applicants to apply to multiple schools without having to juggle the different pieces of completely separate applications.

Just like with any college application, when you prepare to apply to colleges using the Common Application, you will need to get a few things put together before you go ahead and hit "submit."

Some of the key components to your application include your high school transcript, letters of recommendation, activity and involvement lists, and academic honors and achievements. While these are all super important pieces of the puzzle, today we are going to focus in on a completely different section of the application, which is the essays.

On the Common Application, you may notice that there are a few different sections of essays that come up: the personal essay, college-specific questions, and writing supplements. Most colleges and universities that use the Common Application will require you to write the personal essay. The college-specific questions and writing supplement requirements vary across schools; some may require them, others may make them optional, and others may not have any to begin with.

I know I said earlier that this post is going to focus on Common App Essay Prompts, but when I said "essay", I meant, more specifically, the personal essay!

Usually there are around 6 prompt options for the personal essay, which is great because out of the 6, you can pick the one that resonates with you the most and write your essay in response to that prompt. For the 2021-2022 year, the Common App added a 7th prompt.

Here is the full list of the 7 Common App prompts for 2021-2022. Underneath each prompt, I have also bulleted some ideas and suggestions on how to respond to or approach each one.


Common App Essay Prompts: Listed & Dissected

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.

  • Take each of the words "background", "identity", "interest" and "talent" and brainstorm a list of things about you that falls into each word bucket. Then, you can go through and try to identify which, if any, of those words (attributes, situations, etc) has a story behind it that resonates with you the most, and might make you stand out from other applicants
  • Example: you are a competitive swimmer, and you feel that your passion for swimming is something that defines who you are as a person.
  • Going off this swimming example, you would likely want to touch on answering questions such as:
    • The role that swimming has played into your life
    • What you have learned from your experiences as a competitive swimmer
    • How have these experiences molded you into the person that you are today, and the person that you want to be when you step foot on campus?

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?

  • Start by making a list of challenges/setbacks/failures that you have faced throughout your life. For each item on the list, also answer how it affected you, and what you learned from it.
  • Remember that you can (and should) focus on both big and small challenges that you have faced, and that sometimes the most impactful learning experiences don't come from the events that we perceive to be the most significant.
  • Tip #1: if you choose to go with this prompt, be sure that you are addressing a challenge, setback, or failure that truly is one of those things. Writing about a time where you and your friend failed at the Cinnamon Challenge is probably something you should steer clear of! Getting an A- instead of an A+ on your physics test might feel like a failing grade to you, but be sure you are taking the time to consider how your situation comes off to others who are looking at you from the outside in.
  • Tip #2: It can be tempting with this prompt to dive into a reflection of a challenging time or situation that you have been in. Of course, you should address the challenge itself in your essay, but make sure that you are spending an adequate amount of space discussing the positives that came out of the situation, such as how the setback has made you stronger, more detail-oriented, etc.

Prompt #3

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

  • This prompt asks you to get personal in addressing your beliefs and ideologies. These beliefs can be about serious topics (gay marriage, climate change) or slightly more lighthearted topics (you wanting to start up a club at your school that an advisor doesn't believe is worth starting).
  • Regardless of which route you go, this prompt is looking for insight into your morals and values, that you make your points with well-thought-out confidence, and for evidence that you stand up for your beliefs.
  • If you consider yourself to be a particularly persuasive person and passionate about standing by your beliefs, then this prompt can be a great way to showcase those through a real-life situation you have encountered.

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 unique from the rest in that it asks you not to focus on what you have done for others, but what others have done for you, and how that action has impacted you. It is a great prompt because it challenges you to acknowledge gratitude.
  • To get started with this prompt, I suggest you brainstorm a handful of situations in which the actions, intentions, or words of another person have positively impacted your life. The person can be a family member, a friend, a stranger, a teacher, or even a public figure. The opportunities are endless.
  • Ultimately, you want to leverage whatever situation you choose to give the admissions committee more insight into yourself, your aspirations, your values, and the way you relate to others.
  • Questions to think about:
    • How do you express gratitude towards others?
    • Think about a time when someone has gifted you with something (could be a physical gift, or the gift of knowledge, advice, perspective, etc). How did receiving this "gift" make you feel?

Prompt #5

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

  • The accomplishment, event, or realization that you choose can be positive or negative and of any size, as long as it has led you to grow as a person. Use this prompt to highlight qualities of your personality that can really only have a chance to shine through the essay.
  • Make sure that you dedicate a substantial amount of words to discussing the various impacts that the accomplishment, event, or realization has had on you and how it has made you feel - think hard and long on developing those insights!
  • Example: Maybe you started out volunteering with an organization that you originally felt disconnected from, and throughout your time there, you developed a newfound appreciation for X?

Prompt #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?

  • This prompt asks you to dive deep into showing the admissions committee how your brain works and how you like to challenge yourself with learning new things.
  • Whatever you choose to write about, try to approach it in a creative way. This is your time to shine in talking about something that is extremely unique to you, so keep that in mind when you go to write about it!
  • Your goal with this prompt is to successfully get your reader to become captivated in wanting to learn more about your topic, as well as learn more about you as a person.
  • Questions to think about:
    • What interests you?
    • How do you like to learn new information? (Through books, through people, through the internet, etc)
    • What does it look like when you "go down a rabbit hole"?

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.

  • This prompt is truly all-encompassing and really allows you to go down whatever path you please. My suggestion with tackling this prompt, if you choose it, is to think long and hard about what you want the admissions committee to know about you, your character, and your overall potential, that they can't already infer from the rest of your application.
  • When brainstorming for this prompt, think about if you only had a few minutes to chat with a complete stranger. What you make sure to tell them about yourself? What could you simply not leave out of the conversation?
  • Generally, the great thing about prompt 7 is that, after you have gone through mini brainstorming sessions for prompts 1-6, if you don't feel like you can completely capture what you want to say in just one of those, you can move on over here!
  • A question to think about:
    • What makes you truly unique?

Common Application Prompts: Wrapping Up

There you have it, the 7 Common Application prompts for 2021-2022, accompanied by some brief thought bubbles, dissections, and things to think about!

I know that the process of writing your Common App essay can seem daunting (I wrote mine not too long ago!), but ultimately, after spending some time brainstorming, refining topics and ideas, and chatting with friends and family, I can guarantee that you will come out of the process with an awesome and unique essay that is bound to WOW those admissions people!

If you're looking for more fab resources specifically on writing those college essays, I highly recommend heading over to the College Essay Guy Blog!


Other recommended reading:

Your Guide to Writing a Great Personal Statement

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