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The One Simple Trick for Picking Your Common App Prompt

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common app prompt typewriterOur choices in life matter. Perhaps signing up for the right English class at the right time helped you discover your passion for literature. Maybe you decided to eat a day-old burrito for lunch, only to rue the decision a few short hours later. Occasionally you may turn left when you normally turn right. The world is full of options, big and small, but perhaps the largest and most daunting choice staring you in the face is: OMG WHICH COMMON APP PROMPT DO I PICK?

Yes, your quivering cursor may feel like it is about to seal your fate, and maybe you don’t even have a clue which prompt to pick. Fortunately, all you need is one simple trick to discover the perfect prompt for you. We use this strategy with students every year, and it hasn’t failed us yet. But before we walk you through the prompt selection process, let’s quickly review the prompts themselves because half the battle is seeing through to the essential questions hiding behind the choices.

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.

Translation: What, in your seventeen years on this earth, has helped shape the person you are today? This catch-all prompt will fit just about any subject that doesn’t fit within the confines of the other four Common App prompts. Experiences large and small are welcome, as long as they still resonate in your life to this day. Our only request is that you pick a subject and/or perspective that is dynamic; specific to who you are and no one else.

Prompt #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Remember: a question about failure in the context of college admissions is, in fact, a question about success. Responses should aim to showcase resilience and determination. How do you deal with hardship? Try to keep these stories as positive as possible.

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

In other words: When has your opinion been unpopular? This is perhaps the most challenging prompt of the Common App’s selection, as it requires you to speak passionately about beliefs and ideology. These are amorphous topics that can be difficult to mold into a compact stories, but if this prompt jumps out at you because you have a very specific story to tell or opinion to voice, run with it.

Prompt #4: 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.

Even though this is another “Big Ideas” question, remember: the whole purpose of this exercise is to reveal something valuable about yourself to admissions. You could also consider this prompt from an aspirational perspective: How might you positively contribute to a cause that is important to you?  If you had the power to make a lasting impact in any area at all, what would it be? It is important that the problem you choose is linked to your life and world in a meaningful way.

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Keep in mind: “accomplishment” and “event,” are words that leave themselves open to interpretation. This prompt offers endless choices and flexibility, and an essay inspired by it can tackle anything from a formal event to a very small occurrence.

So what’s our trick for cracking these nuts?

Bury them like a squirrel. Forget them like a goldfish. That’s right: FORGET THEM. (For now.)

In our experience, the best way to write a stellar, original Common App essay is to work backwards. You’ve already uncovered what the prompts really mean, so once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you’ll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story. So go ahead and take some cursory inspiration from these questions – then focus on the information you want to reveal and the gleaming personality characteristics you want to highlight and fit your accompanying tale to the prompts later.

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