How Long Can My Common App Essay Be

Figuring out your college essay can be one of the most difficult parts of applying to college. Even once you’ve the prompt and picked a topic, you might wonder: if you write too much or too little, will you blow your chance of admission? How long should a college essay be?

Whether you’re a terse writer or a loquacious one, we can advise you on college essay length. In this guide, we'll cover what the standard college essay length is, how much word limits matter, and what to do if you aren't sure how long a specific essay should be.

 

How Long Is a College Essay? Check the Word Limit

You might be used to turning in your writing assignments on a page-limit basis. (For example, a 10-page paper). While some colleges provide page limits for their college essays, most use a word limit instead. This makes sure there’s a standard length for all the essays that a college receives, regardless of formatting or font.

In the simplest terms, your college essay should be pretty close to, but not exceeding, the word limit in length. Think within 50 words as the lower bound, with the word limit as the upper bound. So for a 500-word limit essay, try to get to somewhere between 450-500 words. If they give you a range, stay within that range.

College essay prompts usually provide the word limit right in the prompt or in the instructions.

For example, the University of Illinois says: “Explain your interest in the major you selected and describe how you have recently explored or developed this interest inside and/or outside the classroom. You may also explain how this major relates to your future career goals. If you're applying to the Division of General Studies, explain your academic interests and strengths or your future career goals. You may include any majors or areas of study you're currently considering. Limit your response to 300 to 400 words.”

See, it’s right in the prompt—they even gave you a word range to stay within!

The shortest word limits for college essays are usually around 250 words (less than half a single-spaced page). Rarely will you see a word limit higher than around 600 words (over one single-spaced page). College essays are usually pretty short: between 200 and 650 words. Admissions officers have to read a lot of them, after all!

 

Weigh your words carefully, because they are limited!

 

How Flexible Is the Word Limit?

But how flexible is the word limit? What if your poignant anecdote is just 10 words too long—or 100 too short?

 

Can I Go Over the Word Limit?

If you are attaching a document and you need one or two extra words, you can probably get away with exceeding the word limit a teeny tiny bitty amount. Some colleges will actually tell you that exceeding the word limit by 1-2 words is fine. However, I advise against exceeding the word limit unless it’s explicitly allowed for a few reasons:

  • First, you might not be able to. If you have to copy-paste it into a text box, your essay might get cut off and you’ll have to trim down anyways.

  • If you exceed the word limit in a noticeable way, the admissions counselor may just stop reading your essay past that point. This is not good for you.

  • Following directions is actually a very important part of the college application process. You need to follow directions to get your letters of recommendation, upload your essays, send supplemental materials, get your test scores sent, and so on and so forth. So it’s just a good general rule to follow whatever instructions you’ve been given by the institution. Better safe than sorry!

 

Can I Go Under the Word Limit?

If you can truly get your point across well beneath the word limit, it’s probably fine. Brevity is not necessarily a bad thing in writing just so long as you are clear, cogent, and communicate what you want to. 

However, most college essays have pretty tight word limits anyways. So if you’re writing 300 words for an essay with a 500-word essay ask yourself: is there anything more you could say to elaborate on or support your points? Consult with a parent, friend, or teacher on where you could elaborate with more detail or expand your points.

Also, if the college gives you a word range, you absolutely need to at least hit the bottom end of the range. So if you get a range from the institution like 400-500 words, you need to write at least 400 words. If you write less, it will come across like you have nothing to say, which is obviously not an impression you want to give.

 

Don't let this sinister hand stop you from writing everything you have to say!

 

What If There Is No Word Limit?

Some colleges don’t give you a word limit for one or more of your essay prompts. This can be a little stressful, but the prompts generally fall into a few categories:

 

Writing Sample

Some colleges don’t provide a hard-and-fast word limit because they want a writing sample from one of your classes. In this case, a word limit would be very limiting to you in terms of which assignments you could select from.

For an example of this kind of prompt, check out essay Option B at Amherst: “Submit a graded paper from your junior or senior year that best represents your writing skills and analytical abilities. We are particularly interested in your ability to construct a tightly reasoned, persuasive argument that calls upon literary, sociological or historical evidence. You should NOT submit a laboratory report, journal entry, creative writing sample or in-class essay.”

While there is usually no word limit per se, colleges sometimes provide a general page guideline for a writing samples. In the FAQ for Option B, Amherst clarifies, “There is no hard-and-fast rule for official page limit. Typically, we anticipate a paper of 4-5 pages will provide adequate length to demonstrate your analytical abilities. Somewhat longer papers can also be submitted, but in most cases should not exceed 8-10 pages.”

So even though there’s no word limit, they’d like somewhere in the 4-10 pages range. High school students are not usually writing papers that are longer than 10 pages anyways, so that isn’t very limiting.

 

Implicit Length Guideline

Sometimes, while there’s no word (or even page) limit, there’s still an implicit length guideline. What do I mean by this?

See, for example, this Wellesley supplemental essay prompt: “The required Wellesley ‘Writing Supplement,’ asks you to respond to the following topic in two well-developed paragraphs. When choosing a college community, you are choosing a place where you believe that you can live, learn, and flourish. Generations of inspiring women have thrived in the Wellesley community, and we want to know what aspects of this community inspire you to consider Wellesley. We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but the ‘Wellesley 100’ is a good place to start. Visit the Wellesley 100 (www.wellesley.edu/admission/100) and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why.”

There’s no page or word limit here, but it does say to respond “in two well-developed paragraphs.” This gives you an idea of what’s reasonable. “Well-developed” certainly means the paragraphs can be long, but even two long paragraphs shouldn’t exceed 500 words or so. That’s what I mean by an “implicit” word limit—there is a reasonable length you could go to within the boundaries of the prompt.

 

But what's the proper coffee-to-paragraph ratio?

 

Treasure Hunt

There is also the classic “treasure hunt” prompt. No, it’s not a prompt about a treasure hunt. It’s a prompt where there are no length guidelines given, but if you hunt around on the rest of the website you can find length guidelines.

For example, the University of Chicago provides six “Extended Essay” prompts. They are required, and you must choose one, but nowhere on the page is there any guidance about word count or page limit.

However, some googling about UChicago essay prompts led me to a post about the essays on the UChicago admissions blog. That post says at the end, “We ask simply that your essay is somewhere in the realm of 500-650 words, or about 1-2 pages single or double spaced (and we’re flexible—don’t take this as license to write a 14-page tome, but know that we won’t stop reading at 651 words if you need an extra verb).”

So there you go! You want to be (loosely) in the realm of 500-650 words.

 

Help! There Really Is No Guidance on Length

If you really can’t find any length guidelines anywhere on the admissions website and you’re at a loss, I advise calling the admissions office. They may not be able to give you an exact number (in fact, they probably won’t), but they will probably at least be able to tell you how long most of the essays they see are. (And keep you from writing a panicked, 20-page dissertation about your relationship with your dog).

In general, 500 words or so is pretty safe for a college essay. It’s a fairly standard word limit length, in fact. (And if you’re wondering, that’s about a page and a half double-spaced.) 500 words is long enough to develop a basic idea while still getting a point across quickly—important when admissions counselors have thousands of essays to read!

 

"See? It says 500 words right there in tiny font!"

 

The Final Word: How Long Should a College Essay Be?

The best college essay length is usually pretty straightforward: you want to be right under or at the provided word limit. If you go substantially past the word limit, you risk having your essay cut off by an online application form or having the admissions officer just not finish it. And if you’re too far under the word limit, you may not be elaborating enough.

What if there is no word limit? Then how long should a college essay be? In general, around 500 words is a pretty safe approximate word amount for a college essay—it’s one of the most common word limits, after all!

Here’s guidance for special cases and hunting down word limits:

  • If it’s a writing sample of your graded academic work, the length either doesn’t matter or there should be some loose page guidelines.

  • There also may be implicit length guidelines. For example, if a prompt says to write three paragraphs, you’ll know that writing six sentences is definitely too short, and two single-spaced pages is definitely too long.

  • You might not be able to find length guidelines in the prompt, but you could still hunt them up elsewhere on the website. Try checking FAQs or googling your chosen school name with “admissions essay word limit.”

  • If there really is no word limit, you can call the school to try to get some guidance.

With this advice, you can be sure you’ve got the right college essay length on lockdown!

 

Hey, writing about yourself can even be fun!

 

What's Next?

Need to ask a teacher or friend for help with your essay? See our do's and dont's to getting college essay advice. 

If you're lacking in essay inspiration, see our guide to brainstorming college essay ideas. And here's our guide to starting out your essay perfectly! 

Looking for college essay examples? See 11 places to find college essay examples and 133 essay examples with analysis! 

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

If you’re applying to more than one or two colleges, there's a good chance you'll have to use the Common Application, and that means you’ll probably have to write a Common App essay.

In this guide, I’ll cover everything you need to know about the essay. I'll break down every single Common App essay prompt by covering:

  • What is the question asking?
  • What do college admissions officers want to hear from you?
  • What topics can you write about effectively?
  • What should you avoid at all costs?

This will be your complete starting guide for Common App essays. At the end of reading this, you should have a lot of ideas for your own essays and directions to write a really strong personal statement.

 

Basic Info on the Common App Essay

Before we dig into the nitty gritty of the individual prompts, let's quickly go over the logistics of the Common App essay and some general tips to keep in mind.

 

Most — but Not All — Schools Require the Essay

Although not every school in the US requires an essay as part of their application, the Common Application has traditionally required you to submit a blanket personal statement. That policy changed last year, and the essay is now optional for some schools.

However, this policy has been adopted by only a handful of schools, including DePaul University, Georgia State University, Hampshire College, Old Dominion University, The New School, and the University of Idaho, and some of them require an additional writing supplement instead.

If you’re applying to more than one or two schools on the Common App, you'll almost certainly need to write a response to the Common App prompts. As such, I would recommend sending your essay to schools even if they don't explicitly require it. You’re writing it anyways and it’s the best way for the school to get to know you as a person.

It's also worth noting that because of the way this system is set up, you could theoretically send a different essay to each school. However, doing so isn't a good use of your time: if schools want to know something more specific about you they’ll require a supplement. Focus on writing a single great personal statement.

 

Pay Attention to the Word Limit

The exact word limit for the Common App essay has varied somewhat over the years, but the current range is 250-650 words. You must stay within this length; in fact, the online application won't allow you to submit fewer than 250 words or more than 650.

Some schools will state that if this isn't enough space, you can send them a physical copy of your essay. Don't do this. No matter how tempting it may be, stick to the word limit. Otherwise, you risk seeming self-indulgent.

In general, I would recommend shooting for an essay between 500 and 650 words long. You want to have enough space to really explore one specific idea, but you don't need to include everything. Editing is an important part of the essay writing process.

 

The word limit is like this barbed wire — you shouldn't cross it, no matter how tempted you are.

 

Don't Stress Too Much About the Question

As you'll see, the Common App prompts are very general and leave a lot of room for interpretation. Moreover, colleges interpret the questions generously — they're more concerned with learning something interesting about you than with whether your topic fits the question perfectly. Per a Common App survey, 85% of member schools "feel the prompts should be left open to broad interpretation."

You can write about almost anything and make it work, so if you have an idea, don’t let the fact that it doesn’t fit neatly into one of these categories stop you. Treat these breakdowns as jumping off points to help you start brainstorming, not the final word in how you need to approach the essay.

 

Make Sure You Look at This Year's Prompts

The Common App change to the prompts fairly frequently, so make sure you're familiar with the most up-to-date versions of the Common App essay questions. If you have friends or siblings who applied in past years, don't assume that you can take the exact same approach they did.

 

This guide will go over the details of all seven current prompts, but first let's talk about some overall advice.

 

4 Tips For Finding Your Best Essay Topic

As you're brainstorming and preparing to write your essay, you'll want to keep these tips in mind.

 

You'll have to search for the best topic, just like this bird is searching for food.

 

Make It Personal

The point of a personal statement is to, well, make a personal statement, that is to say, tell the reader something about yourself. As such, your topic needs to be something meaningful to you. 

What does it mean for a topic to be "meaningful to you"? First, it means that you genuinely care about the topic and want to write your college essay on it — no one ever wrote a great essay on a topic that they felt they had to write about.

Second, it means that the topic shows off a quality or trait you want to highlight for the admissions committee. For example, say I wanted to write about my summer job with the Parks Department. It's not enough to simply tell a story about my feud with a raccoon that kept destroying all the progress I made repairing a bench; I would need to make it clear what that experience shows about my character (perseverance) and explain what it taught me (that there are some things in life you simply can't control).

Remember that the most important thing is that your essay is about you. This advice may sound obvious, but when you're used to writing academic essays it can be tricky to dive deep into your own perspective.

 

Take Your Time

Give yourself plenty of time to brainstorm and write, so you don't feel rushed into jotting something down about the first thing you can come up with and sending it right off. I recommend starting the writing process 2 months in advance of your first deadline. 

On a similar note, you should take the essay seriously: it's an important part of your application and worth investing the time in to get right. If you just dash something off thoughtlessly, admissions officers will recognize that and consider it evidence that you aren't really interested in their school.

 

Avoid Repetition

Your essay should illustratesomething about you beyond what's in the rest of your application. Try to write about a topic you haven't talked about elsewhere, or take a different angle on it. 

A college essay is not a resume — it's the best opportunity to show off your unique personality to admissions committees. Pick your topic accordingly.

 

Get Specific

The best topics are usually the narrowest ones: essays focused on a single interaction, a single phrase, or a single object. The more specific you can get, the more unique your topic will be to you. Lots of people have tried out for a school play, for example, but each had their own particular experience of doing so. One student saw trying out for the role of Hamlet as the culmination of many years of study and hard work and was devastated not to get it, while another was simply proud to have overcome her nerves enough to try out for the chorus line in West Side Story. These would make very different essays, even though they're on basically  the same topic.

Another benefit of a specific topic is that it makes coming up with supporting details much easier. Specific, sensory details make the reader feel like they're seeing the experience through your eyes, giving them a better sense of who you are. Take a look at this example sentence.

General: I was nervous as I waited for my turn to audition.

Specific: As I waited for my name to be called, I tapped the rhythm of "America" on the hard plastic chair, going through the beats of my audition song over and over in my head.

The first version could be written by almost anyone; the second version has a specific perspective — it's also intriguing and makes you want to know more. The more specific your essay topic is, the more clearly your unique voice will come through and the more engaging your essay will be.

 

Breaking Down the Common App Essay Prompts

Now that we've established the basic ideas you need to keep in mind as you brainstorm, let's go through the Common App essay questions one at a time and break down what admissions committees are looking for in responses.

Keep in mind that for each of these questions, there are really two parts. The first is describing something you did, or something that happened to you. The second is explaining what that event, action, or activity means to you. No essay is complete without addressing both of sides of the topic.

 

 

Prompt 1: A Key Piece of Your Story

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.

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is very broad. Is there something you do or love, or something that happened to you, that isn’t reflected elsewhere in your application but that you feel is vital to your personal story? Then this prompt could be a good one for you.

The key is that whatever you write about needs to be genuinely important to you personally, not just something you think will look good to the admissions committee. You need to clarify why this story is so important that you couldn't leave it out of your application.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This question is really about showing admissions officers how your background has shaped you. Can you learn and grow from your experiences? 

By identifying an experience or trait that is vital to your story, you're also showing what kind of person you see yourself as — do you value your leadership abilities or your determination to overcome challenges? Your intellectual curiosity or your artistic talent? Everyone has more than one important trait, but in answering this prompt, you're telling admissions officers what you think is your most significant quality.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

You could write about almost anything for this prompt: an unexpected interest, a particularly consuming hobby, a part of your family history, or a life-changing event. Make sure to narrow in on something specific, though. You don't have room to tell your whole life story.

Your topic can be serious or silly, as long as it's important to you. Just remember that it needs to showcase a deeper quality of yours. 

For example, if I were writing an essay on this topic, I would probably write about my life-long obsession with books. I'd start with a story about how my parents worried I read to much as a kid, give some specific examples of things I've learned from particular books, and talk about how my enthusiasm for reading was so extreme it sometimes interfered with my actual life (like the time I tripped and fell because I couldn't be bothered to put down my book long enough to walk from my room to the kitchen). Then I would tie it all together by explaining how my love of reading has taught me to look for ideas in unexpected places.

 

What Should You Avoid?

You don't want your essay to read like a resume: it shouldn't be a list of accomplishments. Remember that your essay needs to add something to the rest of your application, so it also shouldn't focus on something you've already covered unless you have a really different take on it.

Also try to avoid generic and broad topics: you don't want your essay to feel like it could've been written by any student. As I touched on above, one way to avoid this problem is to be very specific — rather than writing generally about your experience as the child of immigrants you might tell a story about a specific family ritual or meaningful moment.

 

Prompt 2: Coping With Obstacles

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is pretty straightforward. It's asking you describe a challenge or obstacle you faced or a time you failed and how you dealt with it.

The part many students forget is the second half: what lessons did you learn from your challenge or failure? If you take on this question you must show how you grew from the experience and, ideally, how you incorporated what you learned into other endeavors.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This question really raises two issues: how you handle difficult situations and whether you are capable of learning from your mistakes.

You'll face a lot of challenges in college, both academic and social. In addressing this prompt, you have the opportunity to show admissions officers that you can deal with hardships without just giving up.

You also need to show that you can learn from challenges and mistakes. Can you find a positive lesson in a negative experience? Colleges want to see an example of how you've done so.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Good topics will be specific and have a clearly explained impact on your perspective. You need to address both parts of the question: the experience of facing the challenge and what you learned from it.

However, almost any kind of obstacle, challenge, or failure, large or small, can work:

  • Doing poorly at a job interview and how that taught you to deal with nerves
  • Failing a class and how retaking it taught you better study skills
  • Directing a school play when the set collapsed and how it taught you to stay cool under pressure and think on your feet 

 

What Should You Avoid?

Make sure you pick an actual failure or challenge — don't turn your essay into a humblebrag.  How you failed at procrastination because you're just so organized or how you've been challenged by the high expectations of teachers at school because everyone knows you are so smart are not appropriate topics.

Also, don't write about something completely negative. Your response needs to show that you got something out of your challenge or failure and that you've learned skills to apply to other situations.

 

Spilling your coffee is not an appropriate failure, no matter how disastrous it may feel.

 

Prompt 3: Challenging a Belief

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

 

What Is It Asking?

There are two ways to approach this question. The first is to talk about a time you questioned a person or group on an idea of theirs. The second is to talk about a time that something caused you to reconsider a belief of your own.

In either case, you need to explain why you decided the belief should be challenged, what you actually did — if your story is just that someone gave you a new piece of information and you changed your mind, you should probably find a different topic — and how you feel about your actions in hindsight.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

The obvious question this prompt raises is what your values are and whether you're willing to stand up for what you believe. Whether you've reconsidered your own beliefs or asked others to reconsider theirs, it shows you've put genuine thought into what you value and why. 

However, colleges also want to see that you're open-minded and able to be fair and kind towards those who have different beliefs than you do. Can you question someone else beliefs without belittling them? If not, don't write about this question.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

This prompt is really one where you either have a relevant story or you don't. If there's a belief or idea that's particularly important to you, whether political or personal, this might be a good question for you to address. 

 

What Should You Avoid?

The main pitfall with this question is that lends itself to very abstract answers. It's not very interesting to read about how you used to believe chocolate is the best ice cream flavor but then you changed your mind and decided the best flavor is actually strawberry. (Seriously, though, what is wrong with you!?) Make sure there's clear conflict and action in your essay.

Divisive political issues, like abortion and gun rights, are tricky to write about (although not impossible) because people feel very strongly about them and often have a hard time accepting the opposite viewpoint. In general, I would avoid these kinds of topics unless you have a very compelling story. Also keep in mind that most people who work at colleges are liberal, so if you have a conservative viewpoint you'll need to tread more carefully. Regardless of what you're writing about, don't assume the reader shares your views.

You also want to avoid coming off as petty or inflexible, especially if you're writing about a controversial topic. It's great to have strong beliefs, but you also want to show that you're open to listening to other people's perspectives, even if they don't change your mind. 

 

Prompt 4: Solving a Problem

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.

 

What Is It Asking?

The first part is very straightforward: how have you or would you solve a problem? 

However, you also need to "explain its significance to you." In other words, why this problem?

 

What Do They Want to Know?

This prompt helps admissions officers see both what you care about and how you solve problems. Even if you pick something seemingly minor to talk about, like fixing a dishwasher on your own, explaining why you wanted to do it yourself (maybe because you like knowing how things work) and how you did so (maybe by asking other people for advice of maybe by looking up videos on YouTube) will show admissions officers a lot about what you value and how you think.

Answering this question is also an opportunity for you to show the maturity and perseverance you'll need to face the challenges of college. You will face inevitably face problems, both academic and personal, in these four years, and admissions officers want to see that you're capable of taking them on.

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Any kind of problem (“no matter the scale”) is fine — it just has to be important to you.

Like number 3, it will be easier if you can focus in on a specific event or occurrence. You can write about something funny, like how you figured out how to care for your pet hedgehog, or something more serious, like how you resolved a family conflict.

Writing about a problem you want to solve, rather than one you've already found a solution to, is much harder because it's more abstract. You certainly can do it, however; just make sure to have a compelling and concrete explanation for why this problem is important to you and how you came upon the solution you're proposing. 

For example, say a student, Tommy, wanted to solve the problem of homelessness. First of all, because this is a very big problem that no one person or solution is going to fix, he would need to describe specifically what problem within the larger issue he wants to address. Then, in writing his essay, he might focus on telling a story about how a man he met while volunteering in a homeless shelter inspired his idea to hire men and women living in shelters to work as liaisons in public spaces like libraries and parks to help homeless people get access to the services they need.

 

What Should You Avoid?

Avoid anything sweeping or general: for example, "How I plan to solve world hunger" is probably not going work. As I mentioned above, you want to stick to concrete ideas and solutions that clearly relate to your own experiences.

Simply writing down some of your ideas, no matter how great they are, isn't going to make for a very interesting essay.

 

Look at those dummies, solving a problem!

 

Prompt 5: Personal Growth and Maturity

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

 

What Is It Asking?

Like prompt 1, this one is very general. It's asking you to talk about something you did or something that happened that caused you to grow or mature as a person.

The other key point to remember when addressing this question is that you need to explain how this event changed or enriched your understanding of yourself or other people.

 

What Do They Want to Know?

In short: when and how have you grown as a person? Personal growth and maturity are complicated issues. You essay may touch on themes like personal responsibility and your role in the world and your community. You don't have to explain your whole worldview, but you need to give readers a sense of why this particular event caused significant growth for you as a person. 

This prompt can also help you show either a) your own sense of self-concept or b) how you relate to others. 

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Much like prompt 3, this question likely either appeals to you or doesn't. Nonetheless, here are some potential topics:

  • A time you had to step up in your household
  • A common milestone (like voting for the first time or getting your driver's license) that was particularly meaningful to you
  • A big change in your life, like becoming an older sibling or moving to a new place

It's important that your topic describes a transition that lead to real positive growth or change in you as a person. However, personal growth is a gradual process, and you can definitely still approach this topic if you feel like you have more maturing to do. (Fun fact: most adults feel like they have more maturing to do, too!) Just focus in on a specific step in the process of growing up and explain what it meant to you and how you've changed.

 

What Should You Avoid?

Almost any topic could theoretically make a good essay about personal growth, but it's important that the overall message conveys maturity. If the main point of your essay about junior prom is that you learned that you look bad in purple and now you know not to wear it, you will seem like you just haven't had a lot of meaningful growth experiences in your life. 

You also want the personal growth and new understanding(s) you describe in your essay to be positive in nature. If the conclusion of your essay is "and that's how I matured and realized that everyone in the world is terrible," that's not going to play very well with admissions committees as you'll seem pessimistic and unable to cope with challenges.

 

Prompt 6: Your Passion

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?

 

What Is It Asking?

This prompt is asking you to describe something that you're intellectually passionate about. But in addition to describing a topic of personal fascination and why you're so interested in it, you also need to detail how you have pursued furthering your own knowledge of the topic. Did you undertake extra study? Hole yourself up in the library? Ask your math team coach for more practice problems? 

 

What Do They Want to Know?

Colleges want to admit students who are intellectually engaged with the world. They want you to show that you have a genuine love for the pursuit of knowledge. Additionally, by describing how you've learned more about your chosen topic, concept, or idea, you show that you are self-motivated and resourceful. 

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

Pretty much any topic you are really interested in and passionate about could make a good essay here, just so long as you can put can a) put an intellectual spin on it and b) demonstrate that you've gone out of your way to learn about the topic. 

So It's fine to say that the topic that engages you most is football, but talk about what interests you in an academic sense about the sport. Have you learned everything there is to know about the history of the sport? Are you an expert on football statistics? Emphasize how the topic you are writing about engages your brain. 

 

What Should You Avoid?

Don't pick something you don't actually care about just because you think it would sound good. If you say you love black holes but you actually hate them and you tortured yourself with astronomy books in the library for a weekend to glean enough knowledge to write your essay, your lack of enthusiasm will come through. 

 

 

Prompt 7: Your Choice

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 Is It Asking?

You can write about anything for this one! 

 

What Do They Want to Know?

Since this is a choose-your-own-adventure prompt, colleges aren't looking for anything specific to this prompt. However, you'll want to demonstrate some of the same qualities that colleges are looking for in all college essays: things like academic passion, maturity, resourcefulness, and persistence. What are your values? How do you face setbacks? These are all things you can consider touching on in your essay. 

 

What Kind of Topics Could Work?

If you already have a topic in mind for this one that doesn't really fit with any of the other prompts, go for it!

 

What Should You Avoid?

Avoid essays that aren't really about you as a person. So no submitting your rhetorical close-reading of the poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn" you wrote for A.P. English! However, if you want to write about the way that "Ode on a Grecian Urn" made you reconsider your entire approach to life, go ahead!

 

5 Key Takeaways About the Common App Essay Questions

We've covered a lot of ground, but don't panic. I've collected the main ideas you should keep in mind as you plan your Common App essay below.

 

Neatly packaged takeaways. (Henry Faber/Flickr)

 

A Topic for Prompt 1 Must Be Something Beyond What’s in the Rest of Your Application

For prompt 1, it's absolutely vital that your topic be something genuinely meaningful to you. Don’t write about something just because you think it’s impressive. Big achievements and leadership roles, like serving as captain of a team or winning a journalism award, can certainly be used as topics, but only if you can explain why they mattered to you beyond that it was cool to be in charge or that you liked winning.

It's better if you can pick out something smaller and more individual, like helping your team rally after a particularly rough loss or laboring over a specific article to make sure you get every detail right.

 

Prompts 2, 4, and 6 Are Generally the Simplest Options

Most students have an experience or interest that will work for either prompt 2, prompt 4, or prompt 6. If you’re uncertain what you want to write about, think about challenges you've faced, a problem you solved or want to solve, or your major intellectual passions.

These prompts are slightly easier to approach than the others because they lend themselves to very specific and concrete topics that show clear growth. Describing a failure and what you learned  from it is much simpler than trying to clarify why an event is a vital part of your identity.

 

Prompts 3 and 5 Can Be Trickier, but That Doesn’t Mean You Shouldn’t Write About Them

These questions ask about specific types of experiences that not every high school student has had. If they don't speak to you, don't feel compelled to write about them. 

If you do want to take on prompt 3 or 5, however, remember to clearly explain your perspective to the reader, even if it seems obvious to you. For prompt 3, you have to establish not just what you believe but why you believe it and why that belief matters to you. For prompt 5, you need to clarify how you moved from childhood to adulthood and what that means to both you and others.

These prompts elicit some of the most personal responses, which can make for great essays but also feel too revealing to many students. Trust your instincts and don’t pick a topic you’re not comfortable writing about, but don't hesitate to take on a difficult or controversial topic if you're excited about it and think you can treat it with the necessary nuance.

 

Make Sure to Explain What Your Experience Taught You

I've tried to emphasize this idea throughout this guide: it's not enough to simply describe what you did, you have to explain what it meant to you.

Pushing past the surface level while avoiding cliches and generalizations is a big challenge, but it's also what will make your essay stand out. Make sure you know what personal quality you want to emphasize before you start and keep it in mind as you write. Try to avoid boring generalizations in favor of more specific and personal insights.

Bad: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me a lot.

Better: Solving a Rubik's cube for the first time taught me that I love puzzles and made me wonder what other problems I could solve. 

Best: When I finally twisted the last piece of the Rubik's cube into place after months of work, I was almost disappointed. I'd solved the puzzle; what would I do now? But then I started to wonder if I could use what I'd learned to do the whole thing faster. Upon solving one problem, I had immediately moved onto the next one, as I do with most things in life.

Then, as you go back through your essay to edit, every step of the way ask yourself, "so what?" Why does the reader need to know this? What does it show about me? How can I go one step deeper?

 

Don't Worry About What You Think You're Supposed to Write

There is no single right answer to these prompts, and if you try to find one you'll end up doing yourself a disservice. What's important is to tell your story — and no one can tell you what that means because it's unique to you.

Many students believe that they should write about resume-padding activities that look especially impressive, like volunteering abroad. These essays are often boring and derivative because the writer doesn't really have anything to say on the topic and assumes that it will speak for itself. But the point of a personal statement isn't to explain what you've done, it's to show who you are.

Take the time to brainstorm and figure out what you want to show colleges about yourself and what story or interest best exemplifies that quality. 

 

What's Next?

For more background on college essays and tips for crafting a great one, check out our complete explanation of the basics of the personal statement.

Make sure you're prepared for the rest of the college application process as well, with our guides to asking for recommendations, writing about extracurriculars, taking the SAT, and researching colleges.


 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

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