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Common app essay writing tips

The last article we discusses about some tips on writing a personal statement. This article will focus on writing the essay for the common app. Just a quick reminder, you pick one out of the five topics provided by Common App with word count between 250 to 650 words. Before you start writing, there is something to keep in mind.

  • Write about what’s NOT on your application already.
  • Read the prompts carefully to identify all the components you need to answer.
  • Make you spend majority of your writing on the component that tells the most of “you”
  • Stay within the word limit and make sure to have someone proofread your essay.


Here we go!

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 prompt is fairly straight forward. You really only have to answer one component: Your story. It mentions your background, identity, interest, and talent, which are not an “event” but some kind of on-going process. Backgrounds can include religion, ethnicity, and parents’ occupations. Identity can include your personality, quality, and position (e.g., the only child). Interest and talent are easy to understand. They are just the things you like to do. You also need to pay attention to the word “meaningful”, which indicates how “it” impacts your life profoundly. Maybe one of the factors shapes your world view, becomes your motivation, activate your intellectual vitality, and distinguish you from others. Everything I just mentioned can be described as “meaningful.”

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?

This prompt has three component: 1) Recount a failure, 2) its effect on you, and 3) what did you learn. My opinion is that both 2 and 3 can tell the schools more about you, but the lesson you learned might be a better choice. Your focus should be on the coming-back journey and not the failure. In one of the previous article, I wrote about some topics NOT to write. This prompt is where you might be tempted to write about your drag-abusive life or the last time you cheated. I can’t tell you not to write it, but I do want to remind you that it takes a very skilled and mature writer to pull off this topic within the word limit. You can write about how some failures help you to grow up from a kid to an adult. You can write about your action, inaction, and personal flaw. I will only recommend you to write this prompt if you have a very good topic, a topic that makes a great come-back story. If not, just move on to some other prompts.

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

This prompt is very similar to the failure prompt in that only a very fitting story can make it works. It also has three components: 1) Reflect a time, 2) your motivation, and 3) would you do it again. You might have already noticed this, but it actually has a fourth component, which is to identify a belief and idea. This topic covers a very wide range of options. You can write about challenging a political belief or a religious dogma. Write about the time you challenge your parents’ authority or some hidden assumptions of a culture. You need to write about why you challenged that belief. Were you just bored or you were curious. Were you fighting for a better future or because you felt like it? I will focus on the motive because this is where you can talk about yourself the most. The last component asks whether you would do it again. I think both yes and no can be a fine answer as long as you show some self-reflection.

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.

This prompt has three components: 1) identify a problem, 2) its significance to you, and 3) solution or potential solution. Even though it first asks you to identify a problem, but you should spend very little time describing the problem. Your time and space is better spent on its significance to you. You have three types of problems to choose from: 1) an intellectual challenge, 2) a research query, and 3) an ethical dilemma. The first problem wants to know your critical thinking skill and logic. The second problem, in addition to critical thinking and logic, wants to see prove of your scientific method. That includes hypothesis setting, evidence gathering, and deductive thinking. The last problem touches on moral issues, empathy, and again, logic. You need to select one that best showcases “you.” Are you a scientist, engineer, or humanitarian? I understand most people are all three, just make sure you put on the right hat accordingly. My recommendation is to spend most of your time on its significance to you and the least time on identify a problem. If you want to write about gay marriage, you don’t need to introduce the whole history on gay marriage. In terms of offering solution, makes you process of finding a solution logical. That means to demonstrate you have a sound mind to create a step-by-step plan. It looks to me that this prompt wants to see what you can do.

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

This is not one of my favorite prompt because I don’t think transition into adulthood can be marked by a single event, but what I think doesn’t matter. In order to answer this prompt, you need to 1) identify what transition to adulthood” means and 2) the event or accomplishment that causes the transition. This prompt is usually where the “mission trip” topic shows up. By now, you should know the pitfall of mission trips, write it at your own cost. If you insist on writing this prompt, I suggest focus on major growth into adulthood and not a one-done event. Maybe you can write about the first time you plan a family trip, start a business, break-up, passing of a relative, meeting with your idol, a performance, study abroad…etc. This prompt invites you to write about your culture, environment and family. Because there are so many Chinese applying to college, I am not sure how unique your essay can be if you write about your Chinese culture; however, if you are the only Asian family in your town, that might be a life-changing event for you.


Common app asks you to pick one out of the five. You don’t have to worry about the one you don’t know how to write, just focus on what you can excel. In my personal option, the easiest prompt to the hardest prompt is as following: 1, 4, 2, 3, & 5. Of course, everyone’s ranking is different. My guess is that prompt 1 is the one that colleges read most often. Does that mean if you pick a very challenging one, you get extra points? I don’t know. Just pick the one that you know, and go for it!



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