Common Application Essay Questions 2017-2018

Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.

The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).

2018-19 Common App Essays

Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application, which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following 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. 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.
  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.

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts

Prompt #1: Share your story.

Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.

Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.

You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.

Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.

Prompt #4: Solving a problem.

This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth. 

Prompt #6: What captivates you?

This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.

Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.

This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores  and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.

More College Essay Topics

Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:

Describe a person you admire.

Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .

Why do you want to attend this school?

Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.

What is a book you love?

Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?

Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.

What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?

Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.


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The Common Application is changing up its essay prompts for the 2017–2018 college admission cycle. That means current high school juniors will see the new(-ish) prompts when they apply for college in the fall of 2017. But what do these changes mean for you?

More than 700 colleges use the Common Application, a single form that helps students easily apply to multiple colleges and universities in one fell swoop. It features several essay prompts students can pick from, and every few years, the Common App changes those essay prompts up a little bit.

Any changes to the Common App are based on feedback from students, parents, high school counselors, educational consultants, and member colleges and universities following each admission cycle. For 2017–2018, the Common App has added two new prompts for the next group of college applicants. They also clarified some of the current questions.

What do these changes mean for high school juniors who are about to start the journey to college? Well, not much, really. The tasks are essentially the same, and even if a student had been preparing with an older version of the Common App, they wouldn’t encounter anything radically different. The purpose of the Common App is the same too. The only difference is that now some of the existing prompts are more specific, and the new questions simply provide a few more options for students.

I asked Scott Anderson, the Senior Director of Education and Partnerships for the Common Application, what kind of advice he would give students for navigating the new application essay prompts. In short, he says you should not overthink the changes! 

“The prompts have changed slightly, but the instructions remain the same: what do you want application readers to know about you?” Anderson says. “The prompts simply serve to help students approach that question from as many angles as possible, whether it be maturity, identity, curiosity, pastimes, aspirations, community, relationships, or anything else.”

Anderson adds, “Students should pick the prompt that supports and gets them excited about the story they want to tell about themselves.” That’s sound advice straight from the source. (You can read Anderson’s piece in the Huffington Post for more information about changes to the Common App.)

So, now that you know the changes to the Common Application essay prompts aren’t a big deal, which one should you pick for your college essay? Believe it or not, the answer is easy: the best prompt is always the one you like best.

No prompt is inherently better than any other. And, despite what you may have heard, or what you might hear in the coming months, colleges that use the Common App do not prefer any particular prompt.

Related: How to Write a Great College Application Essay 

I talk to college admission officers all the time; they confirm what Anderson said: colleges and universities are more interested in what a student has to say than which prompt the student chooses.

At its core, the college application essay is all about reflection. No matter what the prompt, you should approach it in the same way and make sure your essay answers these two questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why does it matter?

But always keep in mind that what happened (the experience, activity, person who influenced you, etc.) is less important than why it matters (your reflection).

Ready to get started? Here are all of the 2017–2018 Common Application essay prompts; revised and new prompts are noted:

  • 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. (No change)
  • 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? (Revised)
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (Revised)
  • 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. (No change)
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (Revised)
  • 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? (New)
  • 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. (New)

Related: Which Common Application Essay Prompt is Right for You?

For more information and to download a free sheet with tips from the admission office, go to WowWritingWorkshop.

If you’re planning to apply to colleges in fall 2017/winter 2018, which Common Application essay prompt are you learning toward? One of the new ones? An old one? Let us know in the comments—and feel free to share any questions you might have too!

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