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.

Note: the video tells you to “Click Read It.” There is no click! Just read the page.

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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.

Common Application Personal Statement Options

Click each prompt below to read our interpretation of the Common App prompt choices.

The key word in this prompt is “meaningful.”

To answer this 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 also make sure it answers the prompt.

Admissions officers read these essays to find out something they don’t already know about you. They can tell from your application that you are on the lacrosse team or in the school orchestra. They know you worked as a researcher or a hospital aide or a bagger in a grocery store. And if your transcript says you took American Literature, they can assume you read books like A Raisin in the Sun, The Crucible or The Bluest Eye.

They don’t know how those experiences affected you, whom you met along the way or why a particular piece of music is so important to you. They have no idea how you have changed and why you might be a good fit for their school. You can share these reflections in your essay.

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.

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.

Prompt #3 also asks for reflection. It is one of the most specific prompts, 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. Maybe you raised your hand in class at your religious school and said you did not believe in God. Why did you do that? What happened? What did you learn about yourself? 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?

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.

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. 

Prompt #5 is more specific, but still leaves room for reflection and interpretation. This prompt asks you to discuss something you accomplished, an experience or something 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, not events, and not 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.

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 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 ten thousand followers by tweeting a daily joke, the real story will come to life if you can explain why you did it.

The key word in this prompt #7 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 Jayne 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, who is important in your life. In any case, consider what you want admissions to know about you that can round out your application package. What do they know? What do you want them to know?

Again, they are interested in the traits that make you who you are, more than the experiences or activities that are highlighted elsewhere on your application.

Remember, as with all prompts for any type of personal statement, 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 package.

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.

Try It: Understand the Prompt

Estimated time to complete this writing task: 1 hour

Try It: Understand the Prompt

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