How to Write the Common App Essay (2022-23)

Table of Contents‎

  1. What Should You Write About in Your Common App Essay?
  2. How to Break Apart the Common App Essay Prompts
  3. What is a Common App Essay Prompt Really Asking?
  4. The Seven Prompts the Common App Offered in the Application Year 2021-22

‎What Should You Write About in Your Common App Essay?

“What should I write about?” is one of the most common questions we get from students who are about to start writing their personal statements on the Common App.

Susan Knoppow with students

Students and parents also want to know if admissions officers have favorite topics or ones they are sick of.  

Before we get to topics with any of our students, we make sure they are able to grasp exactly what the admissions team is trying to find out about them in an essay. That’s incredibly important because admissions officers don’t always get what they want in from the Common App essay prompt students select.

They want students to answer the question they are being asked. Yet time and again, they tell us the single biggest mistake students make is not answering the Common App essay prompt.

You Don’t Need College Essay Examples To Stand Out in Your Common App Essay

You have a unique voice. You have your own personality. You walk around showcasing some amazing positive traits. You can’t manufacture that; it comes from within. Your voice cannot be copied by someone else. And someone else’s voice won’t work for your story. Despite what you may have heard, or what you read, no sample college essay you have read ever got any student admitted to college.

Before we tell you how to write a personal statement, and also parse every Common App prompt, we’d like to point out that sample essays will not help you write a meaningful Common App personal statement in your own words and in your own voice. So please ignore them!

A college essay, while important, does not stand on its own inside the admissions office. It’s an important piece of a holistic admissions process, but it is not the only thing.

Let me tell you a story about Liz, a curriculum development specialist, who asked us for help responding to a community college English teacher who wanted some guidance improving a personal statement module for one of her courses.

The teacher had planned to include sample college essays for students who were writing transfer application essays. Liz did not think that was such a great idea. We didn’t, either. We get asked quite often about sample essays; as we’ve said, we don’t like examples or samples when it comes to writing meaningful college essays. And we don’t use them.

Consider this: For an application essay, the audience is an admissions committee, and the essay is one element of a comprehensive package. It never stands alone. It’s different from an English paper. Generally, when your English teacher wants to introduce a new concept (a type of essay, poem, story, a new literary strategy or drafting technique, etc.) they share examples. That makes perfect sense. If working on sonnets, it is important that the students know what a sonnet is. If they are writing argumentative essays, they need to understand how a strong argument is developed. And, if the teacher wants them to elevate their syntax, they generally show an example of what that looks like.

But form and construction are not the point of any college essay. Instead, the student needs to choose a topic that answers the prompt and illustrates something meaningful about the student. Whatever writing skills they bring to the task are sufficient. Sharing examples plays on students’ past experience with samples: If the teacher gives me one, I should imitate it in some way. It’s no one’s fault – people are pattern makers, and given a stack of samples, students are likely to choose a model and imitate it. That’s why so many students miss the mark – they don’t understand what they are writing and why they are writing it. They don’t understand who is reading it and how it fits into the larger application. We suggest spending more time with students parsing the prompts, explaining context, and helping them choose meaningful, effective topics.

You don’t want to miss the mark.

Skip the samples, and start at the beginning: Understanding the prompt will help you write a better college essay!

‎How to Break Apart the Common App Essay Prompts

To help you avoid that big mistake, we are going to teach you how to read and understand the Common App essay prompts.  Take some time to read each essay question closely and make sure you understand it before you start writing.

Begin by asking yourself these two questions: ‎

  • What is the college asking me?
  • Why is the college asking me this question?

You’re not alone if you thought an essay’s topic was the first thing to consider. That’s what students talk about on websites where just about anyone can share an opinion without much expert moderation. But let’s be clear, it’s hard to answer a question if you don’t understand what it is asking. We’ll put it in context first.

college admissions essay

No matter the prompt, before choosing a topic, ask yourself: What do I want colleges to know about me beyond grades, test scores and extracurricular activities?  

Before you decide on an essay topic, think about what readers already know about you. Your application contains a great deal of information (e.g., I play drums; I babysit; I have a 3.8 unweighted GPA; I tutored elementary school students in reading during Covid; I volunteer at a soup kitchen.) 

Next, think about what you want readers to know about you that they can’t find out from the rest of your application. Here, we’re talking about characteristics, not accomplishments:‎

  • I am confident
  • I don’t give up
  • I used to be a follower, but I have become more of a leader
  • I have always been a leader, but I have become more humble and able to follow others
  • I am creative
  • I love a challenge
  • I have overcome my fears and feel strong

What is the Common App Essay Prompt Really Asking?

No matter the Common App college essay prompt may be, think about what you want readers to know about you. The question is not “What do they want to hear?” or “What should I write?”

Instead, answer this: “What do I want readers to know about me that they couldn’t find out from the rest of my application?” They know that you are on the debate team or that you play soccer. They know that you got a B+ in Algebra or scored well on the ACT. What they don’t know is whether you are creative, decisive, determined, self-motivated or cautious. They don’t know how your experiences have shaped you. Your essay offers an opportunity to consider what you want them to know and remember.

Now, look at these instructions for the personal statement on the Common App: ‎

The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don’t feel obligated to do so. (The application won’t accept a response shorter than 250 words.) 

You’ll get to choose one out of seven essay prompts. It does not matter which one you select; the key question for any essay question is always: What do you want colleges to know about you? This is your opportunity to make your voice heard, to teach readers something new about who you are beyond grades, test scores and activities.

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The Seven Prompts the Common App Offered in the Application Year 2022-23

  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. 

Common App Prompts in Detail

Here’s our take on the seven Common App college essay prompts, including Prompt 4, the gratitude question, straight from Wow’s virtual learning platform we use with our own students who are applying to college. We spend a lot of time with our private coaching students making sure they understand the prompts clearly before they dive in and draft any essay. It saves them a lot of time on unnecessary drafts that miss the mark.

common application

Common App 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. 

The key word in this prompt is “meaningful.” 

To answer this Common App college essay prompt effectively, consider why your background, identity, interest, or talent is significant to you. Colleges are more concerned with who you are than your background, identity, interest, or talent. What does your talent illustrate about you? What have you learned about yourself because of your background? 

At its core, the college essay is all about reflection. What do you want readers to know about you after reading your essay? Why does it matter to you? In your response, you will need to focus on why something is meaningful to you, and make sure it answers the prompt. 

You could respond to this prompt by sharing insight gained from any background, identity, interest, or talent—a significant conversation, or a moment when you realized something important about yourself—anything that truly and vividly demonstrates who you are and answers the prompt in a thoughtful manner. 

Your experience does not have to be particularly impressive; you do not have to write about what you learned while climbing a mountain or how you got over your fear of fires after rescuing three children from a burning building. You could write about how you developed compassion for older people while making meatballs with your grandma, or how you became more confident after navigating a car on an icy highway. Your challenge is to find an idea that illustrates something meaningful. Choose a single moment, or focus on an idea, and then explore it in detail. 

Common App 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? 

Prompt 2 is more specific than 1. In this case, the key sentence is at the end of this prompt: “How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” Your readers are not going to judge you because you had a setback or failed at something.  Everyone faces obstacles. The intent of the prompt is to help you reflect on how you deal with unexpected complications and disappointments; that insight can be incredibly revealing. 

Answering this prompt requires you to think more broadly about challengers and setbacks, reflect on the experience and demonstrate how you grew or changed as a result. It’s best to focus on the solution, not the problem. Keep the story positive. 

What do you want readers to know about you? Have you faced a challenge, setback or failure that shows you are resilient, or demonstrates that you learned to be a leader? Are you the kind of person who can turn every difficult experience into something positive? If this sounds like you, this may be a good prompt to choose. 

Common App Prompt 3

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

Prompt 3 also asks for reflection. It is one of the most specific questions and requires you to share how you think in a deeper way than some of the other prompts. In this case, the central story should showcase a time when you challenged a belief or idea. Perhaps you challenged a family rule or a school dress code. Did you challenge something you had always believed in, or question something you had long felt uncomfortable with? What happened? What did you learn about yourself?

When has your opinion been unpopular? Why do you stand up for what you believe in? What is so important to you that you feel the need to challenge authority? Why? What inspires you to take action? 

During high school, you are constantly asked to look toward the future: Where are you going? What do you want to do with your life? Where will you attend college? What career will you pursue? Your college application essay offers an opportunity to look back, and this prompt is a prime example. 

If you are a deep thinker who asks a lot of questions, loves to play the devil’s advocate, challenges authority or questions religious and other dogma, this might be a good prompt for you. 

Common App 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?‎

On the surface, Prompt 4 seems to be asking about a time you felt gratitude. But it’s not quite so simple. This prompt is both reflective and very specific. The key words here are reflect, surprising, gratitude, affected and motivated.‎

This prompt invites you to reflect on someone else’s action, but the story you tell should not be primarily about the other person’s act. It should be about how this experience affected you. What changed for you, or what did you do differently as a result? ‎

And the prompt doesn’t ask you to share just any act of kindness. Readers want to know about something someone did for you that made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. Maybe the other person surprised you with their kindness, or maybe you were surprised that you felt so grateful or happy. Or maybe the surprise came through in some other way.  ‎ 

If you can identify a specific story that focuses on you, showcases a characteristic or trait that demonstrates who you are, fits these criteria, and also explains how your gratitude affected or motivated you to do something, this prompt might be for you.  

Common App Prompt 5‎

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

Prompt 5 is more specific, but still leaves room for reflection and interpretation. This essay prompt asks you to discuss something you accomplished, an experience that sparked growth and understanding. Remember, you do not have to show that you mastered something challenging to answer this prompt effectively. Rather, you are being asked to demonstrate how you have grown from your accomplishment, personal growth, or insight. What do you know or understand now that you didn’t know before? 

Colleges want to know about you, not the experience. What did you learn from your accomplishment, event, or realization? Why was it significant? What do you want readers to know about you? Think traits and characteristics, not accomplishments, events or realizations. 

The best answer will illustrate the traits and characteristic you want to share with colleges, show insight into your character and answer the prompt

Common App 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? 

The key word in Prompt 6 is “engaging.”

This prompt asks about your intellectual curiosity. What motivates you? How and where do you get information? What do you do with it? Why? 

The college essay is as much a thinking task as it is a writing task; readers want to know how you think in this and any prompt. What gets you excited? What energizes you? What makes you tick? 

Think about who you are. Maybe you care about social justice. Perhaps you’re captivated by humor or technology. Is it football? Do you get lost in a good book? A family dinner discussion about world events? Do you scream at the TV during a political debate? How do you learn? The Internet? Your favorite teacher? 

Try asking yourself questions like these: Why is this topic, idea or concept so engaging? How does it make me feel? Who do I talk to about these ideas? Where do I go to research new concepts? 

How resourceful are you when your curiosity is piqued to the fullest? The answer to this Common App college essay prompt should also reveal something to admissions about the breadth or depth of your interests. 

You can explore the big-picture concept overall or share an example of that concept in action. Whether you collected clothes and toiletries for a local family who lost their home in a fire or attracted 10,000 followers by tweeting a daily joke, the real story will come to life if you can explain why you did it. 

Common App 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. 

The key word in this prompt is “choice.”

And while this prompt appears to be different from the others, the purpose is the same. Yes, applicants can submit any essay they want, but as the overall instructions clearly state, even an A+ paper must still illustrate something meaningful about you. 

Suppose you want to submit a critical analysis you wrote for Honors English about a character in Jane Eyre. Could it work? Maybe. Ask yourself what the essay demonstrates about you. Do you yearn for more than what traditional society allows, like Jane? Does the paper demonstrate how the book propelled you toward political activism? Does it show how the book changed you? After admissions officers read the paper, will they learn something new about you? If not, it won’t work as a college essay, no matter how well-written. 

Write about yourself–about what you love, where you come from, what you aspire to, how you spend your time, what bugs you, what inspires you. In any case, consider what you want admissions to know about you that can help fill in the unknown details needed to enhance your application package. What do they know? What do you want them to know? 

We’ve said this several times, and we’re going to say it again to hone in this point: Colleges are interested in the traits that make you who you are, not the experiences or activities that are highlighted elsewhere on your application. 

As with all prompts for any type of college entrance essay, the college essay is all about reflection. If you choose this prompt, make sure you tell a focused story about you that shows insight into your character and provides information that colleges wouldn’t know about you from the rest of the application.

Are we a Match?

If you think we may be a match, and want to learn more, just scroll through this web page to learn about specific services and pricing options, and fill out our fit form; we’ll send you a scheduling link to make an appointment with me.

Here’s How We Work

At Wow, we work with a select number of families each year during the college application season, and our coaches’ schedules fill up fill up more and more quickly each year. We are intentionally small, with just 4 essay coaches, which allows us to give our undivided attention to each student. The rest of the year, we train high school counselors, independent educational consultants, English teachers, and other professionals who want to improve their own essay coaching practices.

We offer custom essay plans for one or more schools; we do not offer coaching for individual essays or sell essay review services. Everything we do is comprehensive and personal. The first school includes all writing activities for the Common App or another streamlined application. If it involves writing, it’s covered.


We offer:

  • Support for every essay, from brainstorming ideas through multiple drafts and final review.
  • Help from a private essay coach to guide your child through our process to build on their strengths and demonstrate their best qualities.
  • A detailed plan for completing all the essays in plenty of time. (While the number of essays varies by school, our students write an average of 10-15 essays for 4-5 schools.)
  • Video meetings with a coach to discuss essays and choose effective topics.
  • Multiple reviews of every essay for content, structure, and polish.
  • Customized writing exercises to address your child’s unique needs.
  • Final review by Wow’s professional proofreader.
  • Help with Activity lists, Additional Information sections, school-related scholarships, etc.

Next steps? Talk to us! Scroll through this page to learn about specific services and pricing options, then fill out this fit form. Let me know on the form if you’d like to schedule a meeting to talk more, and I’ll send you a link to my calendar.

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton is President of Wow Writing Workshop. Perceptive, resourceful and curious, Kim can get a story out of anyone. Kim is a former newspaper reporter and corporate communications manager. With Susan Knoppow, Wow’s CEO, Kim developed the Wow Method by combining her journalistic training with Susan’s organization and instructional design skills. She holds a BA in Journalism from Michigan State University. Kim’s articles on the college essay appear regularly in print and on the web, and her work has been featured in a variety of newspapers, magazines and online publications. Kim and Susan have co-authored three books – How to Write an Effective College Application Essay (The Inside Scoop for Parents, Students, Counselors). They are members/affiliates of the Michigan Association of College Admission Counseling (MACAC), the National Association of College Admission Counseling (NACAC), the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and the Higher Education Consultants Association (HECA).
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