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    How to Answer the 2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts

    By Zach Skillings

    Zach Skillings is the Scholarships360 Newsletter Editor. He specializes in college admissions and strives to answer important questions about higher education. When he’s not contributing to Scholarships360, Zach writes about travel, music, film, and culture. His work has been published in Our State Magazine, Ladygunn Magazine, The Nocturnal Times, and The Lexington Dispatch. Zach graduated from Elon University with a degree in Cinema and Television Arts.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Updated: November 30th, 2023
    How to Answer the 2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts

    Writing your college essay isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but it helps to have a variety of prompts to choose from. Fortunately, there’s seven Common App essay prompts available during the 2023-2024 cycle. In this guide, we’ll discuss each prompt and give you some tips on how to respond. 

    Related: College essay primer: show, don’t tell

    Before we begin…

    Before browsing the following Common App essay prompts, it’s a good idea to first think about the story you’re most eager to tell. Consider the most important experiences you’ve had in your life and how you could shape them into a meaningful essay. Only then should you check out the following prompts to find one that fits your story. Since most of the prompts are intentionally broad and open-ended, chances are you won’t have any trouble finding one that suits your particular story. Let’s get started on your Common App essay prompts!

    Also see: Common App vs. Coalition App: What are the differences?

    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.”

    This is your chance to talk about the people, places, and experiences that have shaped you as a person. The great thing about this prompt is that it’s very broad in scope and can be molded to fit nearly any story. Think about the most important moments in your life and their impact. What parts of your upbringing or personality are essential to who you are as a person? If you’re having trouble, try completing the following sentence: “I wouldn’t be who I am today without…” 

    Questions to consider: 

    • What sets you apart from others? 
    • Do you have any hobbies, interests, or talents that your life revolves around? 
    • What experiences or people have impacted the way you view the world? 

    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?”

    Failure facilitates growth. The hardest moments in our lives are often the ones in which we develop the most as people. Think back to some of the major turning points in your life – the moments when you adapted to a new environment, coped with loss, or tried a new activity. Chances are these moments weren’t exactly easy. But in spite of the adversity you faced, you came out the other side new and improved. Think about these difficult moments, how you overcame them, and what you learned from the experience. As you’re writing, remember to focus on the positive side of things instead of lingering on the negative.  

    Questions to consider: 

    • Have you ever moved to a new town, grieved the loss of a family member, or struggled in school?
    • How have you responded to challenges in your life?
    • What have you learned about yourself in the process? 

    Related: Should you submit the FAFSA before or after acceptance?

    Prompt #3

    “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?”

    Admissions officers love to see candidates who are independent thinkers. If you’re passionate about certain ideas that don’t exactly align with popular beliefs, this is your chance to share them. Maybe your essay pushes back against beliefs instilled in you from an early age, or perhaps you’d like to point out injustices you see in society. Whatever the case may be, try to shape your story in a positive and productive fashion. Steer clear of coming across as preachy, angry, or arrogant. Rather, you should aim to strike a humble, yet confident tone. This can be a tricky prompt, but if done well it can demonstrate your ability to stand up for what you believe in. 

    Question to consider: 

    • When have you had an unpopular belief? 
    • At what times in life have you had to defend your point of view?
    • What beliefs do you consider essential to who you are as a person?

    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?”

    Oftentimes, we obsess over the problems in our lives and forget to be thankful for the good things. In this new prompt recently added to the Common App’s selection, students are asked to write about a time they felt grateful. The key here is to discuss an event that opened your eyes to a new perspective. Maybe it was the kindness of a stranger, or perhaps it was the action of a friend or family member. Talk about how you felt prior to the event, then discuss how the event changed your point of view. Did you gain a newfound sense of hope or appreciation? Given the uncertainty and anxiety many people have felt as a result of the pandemic, this timely prompt is an excellent chance for students to look on the bright side. 

    Questions to consider: 

    • What makes you step back and appreciate the good things in your life? 
    • How do you express gratitude? 
    • What are some of your favorite acts of kindness you’ve witnessed?

    Prompt #5

    “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.”

    Similar to the other prompts, this one asks students to describe something they learned from a specific event. Just as you would for prompt #2, think back to the major turning points in your life as you’re brainstorming for this question. What accomplishments are you most proud of? What events transformed you as a person? If you’re having trouble, keep in mind that your particular event doesn’t have to be something as big as winning an award or moving to a new town. It could be something as small as making a new friend or helping your parents complete a task. The event or accomplishment itself doesn’t matter too much. What’s important is the realization it sparked and the period of personal growth that followed. 

    Questions to consider:

    • How have you changed as a person over time? 
    • What moments or events sparked that change? 
    • Have you ever had a “lightbulb moment” during which you came to an important realization?

    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?”

    Now’s your chance to talk about the ideas and topics that excite you most in this world. It’s also a great opportunity to connect your intended area of study to your personal passions. For instance, let’s say you plan on majoring in film. Use this prompt to discuss your interest in cinematography and how you’re eager to produce your own short films once you enroll in school. Whatever you choose to write about, just make sure it’s something you’re genuinely passionate about. If it’s something you truly love, you should have no trouble writing an entire essay about it. 

    Questions to consider: 

    • What’s a topic or idea that you never get bored of? 
    • What are the things that make you most excited?
    • When you’re interested in something, how do you typically seek more information about it? 

    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.”

    If none of the other prompts are to your liking, there’s always the handy create-your-own option. This prompt gives students the enormous freedom to write about literally anything. While this may seem exciting to some students, it can be daunting to others. If you choose to pursue this prompt, there’s a few things you should keep in mind. First of all, you should find a focus and stick with it. Avoid letting your essay become too broad and freewheeling. Rather, write about one or two specific moments in your life and how they relate to your topic. And although you can write about anything, it’s best to discuss something that relates to your own personal growth, what you’ve learned in life, or what you hope to accomplish in the future. 

    Questions to consider:

    • What should admissions committees know about you that they wouldn’t learn about from the rest of your application?
    • Are there any stories from your past that provide insight into who you are as a person?
    • If you had to give an elevator pitch describing yourself, what would you talk about? 

    Next steps for completing the Common App

    After you’ve completed the Common App essay prompts, your work is not yet done! There are other sections to the Common App, and there is a special art to filling out each of them. We have guides to help you through the activities section, the honors section, and the additional information section. To help you stay on schedule, you can check out our guide to application deadlines and a description of rolling admissions.

    We’ve also got some guides to help you rock your essays: check out our guides to writing a 250 word essay, a 500 word essay, and to writing essays about yourself. We can also help you decide how many colleges to apply to, and how to pick safety, reach, and match schools.

    Finally, if you’re working on your Common App, that means it’ll soon be time to apply to scholarships! We have a list of scholarships for high school seniors that will be a great help. You can also sign up for the Scholarships360 platform, which grants you access to a customized scholarship database full of vetted opportunities.

    Good luck with your Common App and make sure to check back with us for other opportunities!

    Also see: Can you use the same essay for multiple colleges?

    Frequently asked questions about how to answer the Common App essay prompts

    How many Common App essay prompts do I need to respond to?

    Applicants choose one prompt out of seven options. This allows students to choose the most relatable prompt to showcase their strengths.

    When should I start working on my Common App essay?

    The earlier the better! At minimum, the summer before senior year gives applicants plenty of time to revise their essays before the application deadline. Students will most likely want to ask for feedback from teachers as well, so being prepared with a draft at the start of senior year is a good idea.

    Can I get help with my Common App essay?

    Students should ask teachers, counselors, and/or trusted friends for feedback. Make sure you check out the Scholarships360 designated section on college admissions advice as well!

    Can I use the same essay to apply to different schools?

    Yes, that is why the Common App is so useful and timesaving for students. As long as the colleges you are interested in applying to accept the Common App, you are good to go. Always double check whether or not the schools you are interested in require supplemental essays as well.

    What is the most important thing to keep in mind when writing the Common App essay?

    Always, always share who you are. Your transcript tells of your accomplishments and accolades, so your essay is a chance to tell “your story” that is unique to you alone. Be authentic while engaging the reader with all that make you “you!”

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