Jul 24, 2023

How to Answer the Common App Essay Prompts for 2023-2024

In 2023, the Common Application announced that the Common App essay prompts will remain unchanged from the 2022-2023 school year. The Common App essay prompts have remained almost the same for the past five years, but crafting a strong and compelling essay to respond to these prompts has remained as important as ever to getting into top schools

This article will explain how to choose the Common App prompts, organize your essay outline, and craft a compelling, concise response that college admissions officers will love. We also provide links to additional articles with details about writing the Common App essay for each specific prompt.

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Which Common Application Essay prompt is best to choose? 

One truth that most colleges won’t tell you is that the Common App essay prompts don’t matter that much to your admissions success. What actually matters choosing a compelling story and telling it in a compelling way. Whether they believe it or not, every college applicant has an interesting story to relay to admissions officers. 

An important rule to keep in mind is to leave room in your essay to discuss the things you love and what drives you, both as a student and as a unique person. The Common App essay is similar to an open-ended job interview question like “How would you define yourself?” It isn’t just an answer on a test or job application.

So let’s look at the 2022-2023 Common App essay prompts, get an idea about what they are all about, and decide how to choose the best prompt that will allow you to communicate your personal story.

Common App Essay Prompts for 2023-2024

The Common App essay prompts for the 2023-2024 cycle have not changed from previous years, with the exception of prompt #4. Each allows writers to take a different path and perspective on their lives and issues. Choosing the prompt that lines up best with the personal story of yourself you want to tell is the key to writing a great Common App essay.

Here are this year’s Common App essay prompts:

  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.

How To Write Common App Prompt #1: Background, Identity, Interest, or Talent

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.

Common App Prompt #1 has been around for many years and gives applicants as much flexibility as they could ask for in an essay prompt, with just enough direction to provide a scaffolding for their ideas. It is often known as the “choose your own adventure” prompt.

Focus on the keywords, “background,” “identity,” “interest,” and “talent,” and use them as launch points for your brainstorming. Does anything in your personality, hobbies, history, or personal accomplishments come to mind as being worthy of highlighting to an admissions officer? These categories could be something as minor as seeing a profoundly powerful film or as large as the struggle of acclimating to a new school, state, and/or country. The most important factor to consider for this prompt is that your subject and/or perspective is dynamic and specific to YOU and your narrative and to no other students.

Questions to ask yourself for Prompt #1:

  • How does my background or history set me apart from my peers?
  • What have I achieved that has been central to creating the person I am today?
  • How do I define myself? How would my friends, family, and peers define me?

Examples to consider for Prompt #1:

  • Has your family’s love of travel taken you to new places and shaped you as a “worldly scholar” wise for your age and subgroup? 
  • Does your love of old jazz define how you fit into society at large?
  • Did going to a Warhol art exhibit inspire you to start an art collection that you have turned into a more expansive hobby or calling?
  • What are the challenges and rewards of having biracial parents in your small town? Or of being an adoptee or a member of a family made up of non-traditional members?

How To Write Common App Prompt #2: The Setback Essay

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?

Essays about overcoming obstacles should focus more on solutions and mindset than on the problems themselves. Accordingly, Common App Essay Prompt #2 essays should focus on the student’s mental and emotional response, as well as the actions they took when confronted with a difficulty or hurdle. Showcase your qualities like determination, humility, and growth. The difficulties you choose to explore can be diverse, especially considering the addition of “challenges and setbacks” in addition to “failures.” They could be as serious as a death in the family, as practical and material as the financial issues that you or your family have faced, or as banal as a stupid mistake that cost you the winning place at a school contest. 

However, students should avoid choosing challenges that are too trivial (not getting tickets to your favorite concert) or that illustrate dangerous or risky behavior (illegal activities or those that hurt others would certainly NOT be good topics for this essay prompt). But if you can isolate an event or trial in your life and show what you learned from it and how you grew, this prompt can encourage a powerful essay.

Questions to consider for Prompt #2:

  • How do you usually respond to and deal with hardships or difficulties?
  • What is your personal idea of a “setback or difficulty”? 
  • Do you rebound easily and turn your experiences into learning opportunities? Think of experiences that might highlight such qualities.
  • Brainstorm and list some major challenges you’ve encountered in your life.

A few examples for your reference:

  • Has a lifelong battle with seizures or another neurodivergent condition raised your overall confidence and allowed you to participate in activities without judging yourself too harshly?
  • Did a long-term or serious health situation challenge you to take on more responsibilities than the average middle- or high-school student?
  • Did several setbacks on your road to becoming a violin prodigy introduce you to public relations, being your own manager, and dealing with different kinds of people in the industry?

Keep your personal story as positive as possible and again, focus on how you overcame the challenge. You ultimately want to provide evidence to the admissions officials that you are more than ready for the challenges that college presents.

How To Write Common App Prompt #3: Challenging a Belief or Idea

PROMPT #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Ironically, the “challenge” essay is one of the most challenging prompts the Common App essay presents, though it is now slightly easier with the addition of the option to discuss a time you merely questioned an idea instead of directly challenging it. The student must speak passionately about their beliefs and worldview, which are often difficult subjects to fit into short narratives. Thus, Common App Essay Prompt #3 can be one of the hardest questions to aim in a positive direction without making yourself sound condescending or judgmental of other views. 

That being said, you can respond to this prompt in a way that is insightful and personal, as it was for a student who stood up to parents’ staunch position on one’s public expression of sexual identity. If you can articulate your thoughts and feelings while showing your willingness to earnestly consider the ideas of others, you will stand out as an excellent addition to any college campus. If this prompt jumps out at you and you can think of a time you challenged a belief and it made a difference, go for it!

Questions to consider while brainstorming:

  • Was there a specific time you held an opinion that was unpopular among your family or peers?
  • Why are you the type of person willing to stand up for your positions or values?
  • What morals and values are most important to you on a fundamental level?
  • What drives your interest in and position on these topics? Philosophy, your own religious background or culture, a popular media channel?

Some examples to get you started:

  • Are you the only atheist member in a deeply religious household? How did this impact your personal relationships and interactions?
  • Did you work as an intern on a campaign caught in a big scandal? Did your reaction show your values as an active member of the community?
  • Did you challenge the notion that modern dance or art is not “artistic” by crafting an extensive research paper on the subject in a way that impressed (or horrified) your teachers?

You don’t need to focus on a fundamentally serious or controversial issue. What matters most when responding to this prompt is that you plainly show your strong convictions about the belief or idea you are trying to convey and examine how this position impacts your thinking and your actions. Prompt #3 can be useful in showcasing your argumentation, persuasive skills, and critical thinking to admissions officers.

How To Write Common App Prompt #4: Showing Gratitude 

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?

Common App Essay Prompt #4 asks students to talk about a time when they felt gratitude for something someone did. Gratitude has become a quality that individuals are encouraged to connect to and reflect on, which explains the commonality of essays on gratitude in college classes. This question offers students the opportunity to reflect on how gratitude impacts or directs their own lives, as well as how giving thanks for the little things in life can inspire and energize them. 

Think about times when you have personally felt heard or seen as an individual. These could be moments when you felt an immense about of pride or encouragement. Think hard about what you appreciate in your life: material gifts, individual actions, or even simply a set of feelings someone aimed in your direction. The bestower of these feelings could be someone you know well, or it could be a public figure you have never met you has nevertheless changed your life for the better. Remember that this essay should primarily focus on how you process, appreciate and respond to the actions of others, which means you need to focus more on YOU than on the generous act or words themselves. 

Consider these questions for Prompt #4:

  • Do you ever “pay it forward” in your daily life? How, when, and why do you do this?
  • How do you usually express thanks in your own life?
  • Do you have any random acts of kindness that inspire you?
  • Have you ever had your faith in humanity restored by someone’s deeds or speech?
  • Is karma a driving force for your actions, or do you have some other cosmic reason for doing good?

Examples to use as guidance:

  • Did a gesture from a stranger inspire you to continue doing good acts for others? How do you actually do these acts and how has it changed how you view giving?
  • Do you feel appreciative of a public figure for the work they have done to raise awareness about issues that are important to you? How do you give back?
  • Have you ever received a gift or token of value from someone that was completely unexpected? Why was this meaningful to you? How did you show gratitude? Did the unexpected, non-transactional aspect of the gift impact your perception of helping or encouraging others?

Link your story to your life and world in a concrete and meaningful way. Don’t forget to detail how this gift or act of kindness affected and motivates you today. After choosing your essay prompt, be sure to follow the instructions and answer all substantive parts of the question.

How To Write Common App Prompt #5: The Accomplishment Essay

PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

In Common App Essay Prompt #5, the words “accomplishment” and “event” are somewhat open to interpretation. Therefore, an essay inspired by this question could address anything from a minor event to a major occurrence in your life. An event accomplishment might include birthdays or weddings, or perhaps big achievements like winning a competition or earning an esteemed award. 

Informal examples could include meeting a person in your life who ended up being special; taking a fateful bus or train ride; or participating in a meal or social event that opened up your mind to other realities you hadn’t considered. Events that are smaller or less formal can actually lead to more surprising and memorable essays, but these must also be written with originality and add a personal or unique twist. The art of storytelling is important in this essay prompt.

Some other things to consider:

  • How do periods of transition impact you in general? Are there actions or events that have inspired a change of heart or thought in your mind?
  • Have you ever had a “eureka” moment that has fundamentally shifted how you view the world in some way?
  • Did you ever learn a fact or hear a viewpoint that made you feel more capable or confident in voicing your own opinion and position?

Some example topics for this prompt:

  • Did your expansion of a lemonade stand into a successful small business motivate you into raising funds for a friend or relative’s illness or encourage you to pay off a debt?
  • Do you love sports playback video that forces you to examine your mistakes and take criticism that leads to self-improvement?
  • How did serving soup each week at a homeless shelter for half a year help ground your views of social opportunity and giving? How did this impact how you connect with and serve other people?

Keep in the front of your mind the central elements of growth, understanding, and transformation. The realization or activity you write about should be something that helped you mature in your understanding of the world and other people.

How To Write Common App Prompt #6: an Engaging Topic, Idea, or Concept

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?

Since college is at root (at least historically) the pursuit of knowledge to enlighten yourself as an individual, it might be beneficial for an admissions officer to have an understanding of how you demonstrate self-motivated learning, as well as the reasons for why you pay attention to topics that fascinate you. Common App Essay Prompt #6 is a kind of window into your mind, showing how you process information and search for new sources of content and inspiration–or new positions to analyze and critique. 

How does your interest demonstrate your willingness to investigate deeper into a given topic or idea? Your essay answer should also reveal the scope and depth of your intellectual or artistic interests. For example, if you’re interested in studying biochemistry, you might discuss a concept that illustrates how far your knowledge in this core domain extends to actual current findings and dialogues in science. How does this passion impact what you are choosing to pursue academically?

Some key questions to think about:

  • What engages you generally? Do you have a thirst for some specific kind of knowledge? Or, what do you love to think about or engage in insofar as it nearly defines you as a person and thinker?
  • What exact steps have you taken to acquire new information about or experiences that are related to your topic of interest? Have you gone out of your way to turn your interest into an activity or even a kind of profession?
  • How do you actively enrich your knowledge when you find some appealing idea or topic? Hours spent weekly in the school library or with a teacher or mentor who can guide you in your academic pursuit could be great examples of this active enrichment.
  • What is so satisfying about the process of learning and applying your knowledge to the conversation or to the discipline itself?

And a few examples to get those wheels turning:

  • Did your learning about open source code move you to create a startup with a few like-minded peers? What related projects are you prepared to work on next?
  • Did your advertising firm internship experience inspire you to do benchmarking and market research to create your own ads (even if they were only for yourself)? 
  • On a Saturday afternoon, could you be found perusing the classics and learning Latin at the same time? How else have you interacted with this literature and language?
  • Perhaps you have an obsession with Italian food that is so strong it led you to study Italian cooking online through a master class. How is Italian food actually more scientific and interesting than the average person might think?

Whatever category or topic drives you to learn more and DO more, reflect on it, and then share it in colorful detail. This prompt deals with pursuing knowledge for knowledge’s sake, but also how this knowledge stokes your desire to challenge yourself in concrete ways.

How To Write Common App Prompt #7: Topic of Your Choice

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 was first introduced to the 2017-2018 Common App prompts. Although Prompt #1 is similar to “choosing a topic of your choice,” Common App Essay Prompt #7 offers students a lot of freedom and flexibility to illustrate their character, background, growth, worldview, or any other important central facets important to being a college student. You could really take any number of directions with this essay prompt–but as always, be sure that you are addressing the prompt fully and not being too trivial (or cliche) in your subject matter and how you tell your narrative.

More brainstorming questions to consider:

What should admissions know about you that they couldn’t gather from your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars?

  • Are there stories or issues that pop up often in your daily life that might give admissions officials some insight into who you are and what you stand for?
  • What is your “elevator pitch”? If you had five minutes in a room alone with an admissions officer, what are the key points you would relay to them to convince them you are the best candidate?
  • What would you bring to the campus of your target school that almost no other student could?

Some examples of potential subjects and their related prompts:

  • Do you have a health defect that impacts how you view or interact with the world and people around you? (Q:Why is your personal perspective unique and special?)
  • Do you spend your free time teaching guitar lessons for free to children at the community center in your town? What do these interactions look like, what do they mean to you, and how have they affected your goals and direction? (Q: Why is self-sacrifice a virtue and benefit in a college candidate?)
  • Did your parents give you a highly unusual name that has colored how you are seen and how you move about the world? What were their reasons for giving this name to you? How has it made you a better student and person?  (Q: What does origin have to do with excellence?)

Some students find that choosing a “topic of your choice” is quite difficult because it offers too many options to choose from. But this should not prevent you from attempting this essay prompt if you have something interesting to say. You can use the other prompts as starting points to brainstorm ideas and free-write first. 

Now that you have read our handy-dandy prompt guide and understand what admissions is looking for from these prompts, you could very well have a notebook filled with ideas that are ripe for expansion by the time you sit down to write.

So don’t worry about having too many ideas, or not having enough ideas, especially at the beginning of the topic selection process. Once you figure out what you’d like to say (and maybe even after you draft the crux of the essay itself), see if your concept fits one of the first six prompts. Trying to tailor your essay to a more specific prompt option may inspire an interesting spin on the story you are trying to tell—one you may not have thought of otherwise. Form influences content. If, after careful consideration, your magic essay topic does not work within the confines of Prompts 1-6, you are in luck. The glorious, all-encompassing Prompt #7 will be here to catch you.

A Detailed Plan for Writing the 2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts

The Common App essay has a maximum word count of 650 words, and the Common Application site does not provide any further instructions on how to write the essays, such as organization and amount of time to spend on each essay section. Fortunately, we at Wordvice have some experience with crafting impactful essays. The following is a brief summary of how to approach the Common App essay, regardless of which essay prompt you ultimately choose to write on.

1. Brainstorming your Common App essay topics 

Brainstorming is crucial to writing any creative or personal essay. Before you even pick an essay prompt, consider a “high level” passion you have and all the ways in which you interact with it and how it shapes you as a person. For example, using “computer programming” as a central idea, you could stress your love of coding for various reasons and how that has impacted the projects you have done and continues to shape your self-identity (i.e., as a “programmer”). 

Another idea might be to discuss how you have developed in relation to your other family members. Perhaps you have a relationship with two of your siblings that has come to define you and how to interact with people in general: maybe your younger sister is a “dreamer,” while your older brother is a “technician,” and as a middle child, finding out where you belong in this family dynamic led you to a way of thinking that differentiates you from most other candidates. Formative stories could be quite interesting and instantly give the reader a window into who you are. 

To develop your own central idea, answer the four essential questions that apply to all Common App essay prompts:

  1. “Who am I?”
    • Address your personality traits and anything else about you that tells something about who you are. This question can be answered in any number of ways: discussing a formative event or circumstance, a hobby, a time you overcame great difficulty, or a profound learning experience. 
  2. “How am I different from other applicants?”
    • Distinguish yourself by showing your uniqueness. You don’t need to explicitly state why you are different from others–rather, show this in your story details.
  3. “What things matter most to me?”
    • In paragraph form and using concrete details, give the reader a strong idea about what is important to you: family, work ethic, success, money, etc.
  4. “Why am I a great candidate for your school?”
    • Don’t forget to include some of the essential qualities that will make you a great student: time management, great communication, interest in topics, etc. Again, you can evidence these strengths in your story details rather than telling the reader THAT you are good at X, Y, and Z.

Start brainstorming by writing down a few aspects of your personality or experiences you find central to your development. Think about some basic narratives you could tell that use different combinations of these aspects before you actually choose a prompt.

For instance, you could note that you are in love with classical philosophy, made varsity on the debate team, and are now working with a local community organizer on a political issue that is important to you. Then organize these experiences into a very rough structure that will make it easier for you to choose the best Common App prompt.

An example narrative from these aspects: You discuss a specific interest you currently have associated with this community work; discuss what you have learned and the failures and successes you have had; explore how you could make a bigger difference, if only you were a lawyer or official advocate, etc. In contemplating these personal aspects, you are already beginning the organization step, which is crucial to composing a great essay.

2. Choosing a Common App essay prompt that best fits you

There is no “best” common app essay prompt that will guarantee your acceptance into top schools. However, choosing a prompt that first you well will help you craft a more convincing narrative for admissions committees.

Consider the following prompt for instance (Common App Essay 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?

This is a prompt that might work great if you can think of any salient challenges or obstacles that helped shape who you are today. Perhaps you were a high-profile member of your high school’s speech team, but you were sidelined by a financial crisis in your household. To help your family overcome this hardship, you got a part-time job and had to quit the speech team. However, your speech coach recognized your talent and dedication and allowed you to practice on your own time. 

This story would show that you are a dedicated son or daughter willing to help out your struggling parents and sacrifice your time to do so. It also shows that you have negotiation skills that help you overcome difficulties–a valuable personal trait for a college student.

Remember to show who you are in your essay!

One of the most common mistakes that students writing the Common App Essay make is not including enough of themselves in their essay content. Your admissions essay should be personal enough that a reader who knows you would identify the applicant as you even without looking at your name or application form details.

If you find yourself getting lost in what to write, don’t panic. This is a common feeling, as an admissions essay is often the first REALLY important personal essay candidates will have written. One method of removing your essay writer’s block is to ask yourself “why?” whenever you might not know what you write next.

For example, here is what your inner monologue might look like as you walk yourself through some questions: 

“I have always loved biology.”

  • Why do I love biology?

“Because I enjoy learning facts about living organisms.”

  • Why do I enjoy this?

“Because I have always wanted to take things apart and see how they work from the inside.”

  • Why is this important to who I am?

“It is indicative of my approach to all of my passions, including academic interests.” 

By following this kind of “stream-of-consciousness” dialogue, you can get to the bottom of some of your motivations, actions, fears, and other aspects that define a person’s identity. 

It can also help to bounce your essay ideas off of a friend or family member. Closer friends can make for a good sounding board since they know a lot about your personality, likes, skills, drives, and ambitions. This might help you choose the most appropriate essay prompt for you. 

3. Organizing your essay’s story

There are a couple of different approaches to take when it comes to organizing and outlining your essay. Feel free to be creative with your structure and use descriptions. You could even employ dialogue if it helps you tell a story better. 

However, your essay still needs to flow logically and naturally at the level of the sentence and even paragraph. You can achieve this by structuring chronologically, making a story arc, or beginning en media res (in the middle of your story) to hook the reader, and then moving back to a former period to unveil your complete narrative.

Some applicants prefer to take a wholly different and “experimental” approach to writing a personal essay. For instance, a student with a passion for theatre and fiction writing could write a “scene” in dialogue form (like a Samual Beckett play) that represents two parts of their personality. A mathematics expert could use an algorithm or algebraic formula as a metaphor for their life and draft their essay using that structure. 

Writing a more creative essay can certainly be risky, and it isn’t easy for most writers to pull off–even for professional authors! However, this just means that if your essay is well-executed and gets your point across, and shows the reader who you are, you will be highly rewarded for it in the end with high marks from adcoms.

4. Write a Common App essay that is clear and focused

  1. Show, don’t tell–rather than telling the reader simply that you “love science,” prove it by describing how many hours you spend per week in your room reading science books.
  2. Use lots of concrete detail–the more vivid detail, the better
  3. Avoid using cliched language or stories–using a tired personal essay story is one of the most application essay errors writers make.
  4. Make your tone fit the goals of the essay. For instance, if you are a straight-A student with no extracurriculars, you might want to use your essay to show the officials how much of a laid-back person you are in real life.

Final Thoughts on the Common App Essay Prompts and Answers

The main objective of any Common App essay is to impart a lasting, authentic portrayal of yourself on your reader. Whenever you feel stuck, refer back to the four Core Questions that a Common App essay must answer. And above all, always make sure that the ideas and analysis in your essay reflect the characteristics you want to reflect to the admissions officers at your target schools. 

We hope these essay-writing strategies and tips help you write a powerful and winning admission essay. And remember that, as one of the best admissions editing services out there, Wordvice is there for you after your draft with essay editing services to ensure that your essay is compelling and makes the maximum impact on college admissions officers. Check out the complete list of English editing and proofreading services we offer.

Best of luck writing your Common Application essay for the 2023-2024 school year! 

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