Step 1: Understand the Prompt

Before you write a college essay, it’s important to understand exactly what the admissions team is trying to find out about you. Step 1 begins with a review of the Common Application and some other typical essay prompts. It also provides space for you to evaluate other prompts.

Watch the Video Intro to begin Step 1, then continue reading for more details. When you are done, click Try It Now to complete the activity for this step.

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All Application Essays Begin with a Prompt

To help you understand how to read a prompt, take a look at the instructions for the personal statement on the Common Application:

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.)

The instructions are followed by seven prompt options (which we will explore in the tabs below.) No matter which prompt you select, the key question is in the instructions: What do you want colleges to know about you? This is your opportunity to shine, to offer readers some insight into who you are beyond your grades, test scores and activities.

Before you select your prompt, take a moment to figure out what you want colleges to know about you that they wouldn’t otherwise be able to find out from your application. Are you industrious? Funny? A leader? Shy? Outgoing? Curious? Are you a risk taker? A passionate reader? Once you know what you want to share, look at the prompts. Then find a story that best illustrates the trait you want to share and also answers the prompt.

Common Application Personal Statement Options

What are Admissions Officers Looking For?

No matter the prompt, before you start brainstorming ideas, 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.

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Try it: Understand the Prompt

Estimated time to complete the writing task: 1 hour

Try It: Understand the Prompt

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