How to Write The Common App’s New “Optional” COVID-19 Essay
Stacey Brook, Founder and Chief Advisor
Since the start of the pandemic, the question we have most frequently been asked by college applicants is, “Should I write about the Coronavirus in my college essay?” The Common Application has provided what we interpret to be a direct response to that query in the form of a brand new optional essay prompt. The prompt, which has a maximum word count of 250 and can be found in the Additional Information section of the Common App reads:
“Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.”
Of course, the release of this new prompt has generated new questions about how students can make the most of their essays and present themselves authentically and holistically on their 2020-21 applications. Below, we answer your burning questions and dispense tips and tricks to help applicants craft sincere and impactful responses to this highly-specific prompt.
Q: What is this question really asking?
A: This prompt does students many favors in its clarity and straightforward nature. Schools want to know how the pandemic has impacted your life and world. Some students will have very obvious ways in which they have been affected by COVID-19 . If you or someone close to you has been afflicted with the virus, this is the space in which to detail the experience and related challenges. Are you immunocompromised and in heightened danger of contracting the virus? Do you have a parent who works in the healthcare system and who is not living with your family temporarily to protect you? Has someone in your family lost their job because of the economic impact of quarantine? What about your ability to access educational instruction and materials? Is wi-fi hard to come by at home? Do you live in an apartment with very little privacy and space for concentration? Be honest about how your life has changed because of the pandemic and resultant quarantine. Admissions knows that many students have been stretched thin during these challenging times and they want as much context as possible to help them evaluate your application in a fair light.
For students who have not faced the circumstances above, keep a few things in mind when approaching this prompt. It goes without saying that all students’ lives and modes of operation have been impacted by the pandemic. What you want to avoid in your response is elaboration on the obvious. Pretty much all applicants have endured the challenges of transitioning from in-person to online learning. They have all adapted in one way or another to the shifted schedules, truncated curriculums and imperfect grading metrics. What admissions wants to know is, how did you respond to these enormous shifts in learning and lifestyle?
Did you take the initiative to form a study group with five of your classmates to review class material for an extra hour each day? Have you started to deliver groceries to the elderly and other at-risk populations in your community in place of your usual in-person volunteer work at a nursing home? If you are an athlete, what does the abrupt end of your sports season mean to you? How have you been working on your own to stay in shape and mitigate that sense of loss? What have you committed yourself to accomplishing off the court or field instead? There are many opportunities to showcase your resilience and determination in the face of one of the greatest challenges of our lifetimes. Show admissions that you haven’t given up and that COVID has not dampened your will to succeed.
Q: Does this mean I can’t write about COVID-19 in my personal statement?
A: Yes. And no. It certainly should not be the core focus for most students. Before the pandemic, you spent sixteen or seventeen years on this earth engaging in meaningful activities, following your curiosity and building yourself into the complex and ambitious human you are today. Don’t allow yourself to be defined by this crisis. You are, and have always been, so much more than just a person who has lived through an epidemic. (Not that living through an epidemic isn’t impressive.) Of course, some students will have experiences during quarantine that are truly worth the personal statement’s full allotment of 650 words. And inserting a line or two in your essay about how your actions during quarantine are reflective of your core characteristics and goals could be very powerful. But it is important to keep in mind that you are trying to distinguish yourself from similarly qualified applicants, and one of the things you definitely all have in common is having weathered the challenges of this epidemic. So unless you have a truly unique take on COVID-19 and how it has impacted your life, think about who you have been, not just since March, but in all the months that have come before quarantine. When your friends and family think about what makes you you , what qualities might they highlight? What are the accomplishments and challenges that have driven your ambitions? Who do you want to be when the epidemic finally ends and we settle into a new normal? These are the kinds of messages you should try to convey in your personal statement. And with the addition of the new prompt, the Common App has made it easy for you to separate stories about COVID-19 from everything else you’ve lived through and worked for.
Q: Is this prompt really optional?
A: We here at CEA believe that, with very few exceptions, almost no prompts are truly optional. Why would you sacrifice another valuable opportunity to speak to admissions in your own voice and relay your experiences, motivations and aspirations? This new prompt is especially valuable in the current climate. It’s hard to believe there is a student out there that won’t have something to say about how COVID-19 has impacted their lives. Additionally, as mentioned above, writing about the pandemic in this space frees you up to relay something that represents you more completely in your personal statement. Plus, once you start drafting, you’ll find that 250 words isn’t very many words at all. We guarantee you will fill up that space in no time, and any information you are able to share with admissions about this time in your life will only help them better understand how you can be an asset on campus in times of crisis and otherwise.
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Writing About COVID-19 in Your College Essay
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- Like last year, essays will likely hold more weight in admission decisions than test scores.
- Both the Common App and Coalition App provide an optional essay space to discuss the pandemic.
- This essay is an opportunity to share your pandemic experience and the lessons learned.
The college admissions process has experienced significant changes as a result of COVID-19, creating new challenges for high school students.
Since the onset of the pandemic, admissions officers have strongly emphasized a more holistic review process. With more colleges adopting (temporary) test-optional policies , more weight is now being placed on personal statements , supplemental essays, and letters of recommendation .
Because COVID-19 has impacted their lives significantly, many high school students wonder whether they should write about the pandemic in their personal statement. The answer, however, truly depends on the individual.
Should You Write About COVID-19 in Your Personal Statement?
Due to the far-reaching consequences of COVID-19, you may be considering using your personal statement to write about the pandemic. While this approach could benefit some, admissions experts hold mixed opinions about whether students should write about this topic in their main college essay.
Your personal statement is supposed to communicate something unique and interesting about yourself . With millions of students across the country experiencing similar situations, using your main essay to write about the pandemic may make it more difficult to differentiate yourself from other applicants.
Additionally, admissions officers have likely read through thousands of essays over the past year detailing students' experiences with COVID-19. It's natural to focus on the pandemic and the impacts it's had on your life, but admissions committees are no doubt experiencing some fatigue from COVID-19-related essays.
That said, there are instances when using your personal statement to address COVID-19 could strengthen your candidacy. For example, if you did something ambitious while stuck at home, such as learning a language, don't hesitate to write about it.
What Is the Optional COVID-19 College Essay?
If you're hoping to share your experience with COVID-19, both the Common Application and Coalition Application offer an optional essay section students can use to address the topic.
Those applying through the Common App have 250 words to discuss the pandemic's impact on their lives, whereas the Coalition App gives you up to 300 words.
In addition to providing students with space to describe how COVID-19 has affected them, this prompt allows students to use the rest of their application to touch on topics beyond COVID-19. As such, we generally recommend students use this COVID-19 section, rather than their personal statement, to discuss the pandemic.
The Common App Prompt
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. (250-word limit)
The Coalition App Prompt
Natural disasters and emergency situations like the COVID-19 pandemic have impacted the lives of many students, both academically and personally. While entirely optional, you may share information here regarding how any of these events have affected you. (300-word limit)
When Writing a COVID-19 College Essay, DO:
- Check Circle Remember that this is an optional essay — there's no correct way to respond to the prompt. Don't worry about whether your experience with the pandemic is more or less severe than another's. Everyone is different, and admissions officers recognize this.
- Check Circle Consider writing about the steps you took to foster personal growth , especially if you haven't been greatly affected by COVID-19. For instance, maybe you devoted more time to reading or started a new hobby or craft.
- Check Circle Give yourself time to plan what you want to say. Crafting an outline before you begin writing can help you organize your thoughts and make the process a lot easier.
When Writing a COVID-19 College Essay, Do NOT:
- X Circle Spend time introducing the nature of the pandemic. Admissions officers are living through the pandemic, too, so you don't need to provide context for it.
- X Circle Write about challenges every high school student is facing at this time. Many students can't take the SAT/ACT, and most have had at least some experience with a sudden transition to virtual learning .
- X Circle Use the prompt as a space to vent about frustrations that may come from a place of privilege. For example, you should avoid writing about things like not being able to go on spring break or a family trip abroad — this could make you sound out of touch.
How to Write a COVID-19 Essay in 2021-22
Before answering this prompt, consider whether COVID-19 has affected you in ways that are worth sharing with admissions officers. It's OK to skip this section. The point here is honesty — avoid making something up or overstating your situation and appearing disingenuous.
Here are some tips for crafting your COVID-19 college essay, should you decide to write one.
Be Concise and Authentic
Space is limited, so make sure you immediately address the prompt and get to the crux of your essay. This could be something like not having adequate internet speed to support remote learning or worrying about a family member who contracted COVID-19. This essay is not meant to serve as a competition for whose life has been most impacted by the pandemic, so be truthful about your situation.
Discuss the Impact and Provide Details
Using clear and effective details is key. For example, if you've struggled with staying home most days, discuss how this has impacted you. If you previously spent most of your free time hanging out with friends, maybe the isolation led to a change in how you spend your time and energy. Perhaps the pandemic greatly affected your mental health .
Describe How You Dealt With or Overcame Your Circumstances
The remainder — and majority — of your COVID-19 essay should address how you overcame or dealt with the challenges brought on by the pandemic and whether these resulted in some degree of personal growth.
Maybe your struggles with isolation helped you learn the importance of meditation, allowing you to better understand others who live with anxiety or depression. Or perhaps the newfound time led you to pick up a new hobby. Admissions officers will want to see traits and identifiers that indicate your ability to succeed in college.
What If a College Doesn't Offer a COVID-19 Essay?
If a college you're applying to uses an application that doesn't include space for discussing COVID-19, deciding whether to use your personal statement to address the pandemic becomes a bit trickier.
If your experience with COVID-19 is truly unique and reveals a great deal about you as an individual, your application should naturally stand out. However, if you feel your experience may be too similar to other students', it may be better to avoid the topic.
Ultimately, if you choose to write about COVID-19 in your personal statement, it should communicate something distinctive about you. While topics around the pandemic can make for compelling pieces, the purpose of the college essay remains the same: to provide a glimpse into who you are as a person and to separate you from other applicants.
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21 Stellar Common App Essay Examples to Inspire Your College Essay
What’s covered:, what makes a good common app essay, is your common app essay strong enough.
When you begin writing your Common App essay, having an example to look at can help you understand how to effectively write your college essay so that it stands apart from others.
These Common App essay examples demonstrate a strong writing ability and answer the prompt in a way that shows admissions officers something unique about the student. Once you’ve read some examples and are ready to get started, read our step-by-step guide for how to write a strong Common App essay.
Please note: Looking at examples of real essays students have submitted to colleges can be very beneficial to get inspiration for your essays. You should never copy or plagiarize from these examples when writing your own essays. Colleges can tell when an essay isn’t genuine and will not view students favorably if they plagiarized.
Read our Common App essay breakdown to get a comprehensive overview of this year’s supplemental prompts.
The point of the Common App essay is to humanize yourself to a college admissions committee. The ultimate goal is to get them to choose you over someone else! You will have a better chance of achieving this goal if the admissions committee feels personally connected to you or invested in your story. When writing your Common App essay, you should explore your feelings, worldview, values, desires, and anything else that makes you uniquely you.
It’s Not Cliché
It is pretty easy to resort to clichés in college essays. This should be actively avoided! CollegeVine has identified the immigrant’s journey, sports injuries, and overcoming a challenging course as cliché topics . If you write about one of these topics, you have to work harder to stand out, so working with a more nuanced topic is often safer and easier.
Colleges want good writers. They want students who can articulate their thoughts clearly and concisely (and creatively!). You should be writing and rewriting your essays, perfecting them as you go. Of course, make sure that your grammar and spelling are impeccable, but also put in time crafting your tone and finding your voice. This will also make your essay more personal and will make your reader feel more connected to you!
Compelling Common App essays tell a cohesive story. Cohesion is primarily achieved through effective introductions and conclusions , which often contribute to the establishment of a clear theme or topic. Make sure that it is clear what you are getting at, but also don’t explicitly state what you are getting at—a successful essay speaks for itself.
Common App Essay Examples
Here are the current Common App prompts. Click the links to jump to the examples for a specific prompt, or keep reading to review the examples for all the prompts.
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.
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?
Prompt #3 : Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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? (NOTE: We only have an example for the old prompt #4 about solving a problem, not this current one)
Prompt #5 : Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
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?
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.
Note: Names have been changed to protect the identity of the author and subjects.
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.
Prompt #1, example #1.
The room was silent except for the thoughts racing through my head. I led a spade from my hand and my opponent paused for a second, then played a heart. The numbers ran through my mind as I tried to consider every combination, calculating my next move. Finally, I played the ace of spades from the dummy and the rest of my clubs, securing the contract and 620 points when my partner ruffed at trick five. Next board.
It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship. The winning team would be selected to represent the United States in the world championship and my team was still in the running.
Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game. Players from around the world gather at local clubs, regional events, and, in this case, national tournaments.
Going into the tournament, my team was excited; all the hours we had put into the game, from the lengthy midnight Skype sessions spent discussing boards to the coffee shop meetings spent memorizing conventions together, were about to pay off.
Halfway through, our spirits were still high, as we were only down by fourteen international match points which, out of the final total of about four hundred points, was virtually nothing and it was very feasible to catch up. Our excitement was short-lived, however, as sixty boards later, we found that we had lost the match and would not be chosen as the national team.
Initially, we were devastated. We had come so close and it seemed as if all the hours we had devoted to training had been utterly wasted. Yet as our team spent some time together reflecting upon the results, we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion. I chatted with the winning team and even befriended a few of them who offered us encouragement and advice.
Throughout my bridge career, although I’ve gained a respectable amount of masterpoints and awards, I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met. I don’t need to travel cross-country to learn; every time I sit down at a table whether it be during a simple club game, a regional tournament or a national event, I find I’m always learning.
I nod at the pair that’s always yelling at each other. They teach me the importance of sportsmanship and forgiveness.
I greet the legally blind man who can defeat most of the seeing players. He reminds me not to make excuses.
I chat with the friendly, elderly couple who, at ages ninety and ninety-two, have just gotten married two weeks ago. They teach me that it’s never too late to start anything.
I talk to the boy who’s attending Harvard and the girl who forewent college to start her own company. They show me that there is more than one path to success.
I congratulate the little kid running to his dad, excited to have won his very first masterpoints. He reminds me of the thrill of every first time and to never stop trying new things.
Just as much as I have benefitted from these life lessons, I aspire to give back to my bridge community as much as it has given me. I aspire to teach people how to play this complicated yet equally as exciting game. I aspire to never stop improving myself, both at and away from the bridge table.
Bridge has given me my roots and dared me to dream. What started as merely a hobby has become a community, a passion, a part of my identity. I aspire to live selflessly and help others reach their goals. I seek to take risks, embrace all results, even failure, and live unfettered from my own doubt.
This student draws readers in with a strong introduction. The essay starts ambiguous—“I led with a spade”—then intrigues readers by gradually revealing more information and details. This makes the reader want to keep reading (which is super important!) As the writer continues, there is a rather abrupt tone shift from suspenseful to explanatory with statements like “It was the final of the 2015 United States Bridge Federation Under-26 Women’s Championship” and “Contract bridge is a strategic and stochastic card game.” If you plan to start with an imagery-heavy, emotional, suspenseful, or dramatic introduction, you will need to transition to the content of your essay in a way that does not feel abrupt.
You will often hear that essays need to “show, not tell.” This essay actually does both. First, the student tells readers the importance of bridge, saying “we gradually realized that the true value that we had gained wasn’t only the prospect of winning the national title, but also the time we had spent together exploring our shared passion” and “I’ve realized that the real reward comes from the extraordinary people I have met.” Then, the student shows the lessons they have learned from bridge through a series of parallel sentences: “I nod… sportsmanship and forgiveness” “I greet… not to make excuses” “I chat… it’s never too late to start anything” and so on. This latter strategy is much more effective than the former and is watered down because the student has already told us what we are supposed to get out of these sentences. Remember that your readers are intelligent and can draw their own conclusions. Avoid summarizing the moral of your story for them!
Overall, this essay is interesting and answers the prompt. We learn the importance of bridge to this student. The student has a solid grasp of language, a high-level vocabulary, and a valuable message, though they would be better off if they avoided summarizing their point and created more seamless transitions.
Prompt #1, Example #2
Growing up, I always wanted to eat, play, visit, watch, and be it all: sloppy joes and spaetzle, Beanie Babies and Steiff, Cape Cod and the Baltic Sea, football and fussball, American and German.
My American parents relocated our young family to Berlin when I was three years old. My exposure to America was limited to holidays spent stateside and awfully dubbed Disney Channel broadcasts. As the few memories I had of living in the US faded, my affinity for Germany grew. I began to identify as “Germerican,” an ideal marriage of the two cultures. As a child, I viewed my biculturalism as a blessing. I possessed a native fluency in “Denglisch” and my family’s Halloween parties were legendary at a time when the holiday was just starting to gain popularity outside of the American Sector.
Insidiously, the magic I once felt in loving two homes was replaced by a deep-rooted sense of rootlessness. I stopped feeling American when, while discussing World War II with my grandmother, I said “the US won.” She corrected me, insisting I use “we” when referring to the US’s actions. Before then, I hadn’t realized how directly people associated themselves with their countries. I stopped feeling German during the World Cup when my friends labeled me a “bandwagon fan” for rooting for Germany. Until that moment, my cheers had felt sincere. I wasn’t part of the “we” who won World Wars or World Cups. Caught in a twilight of foreign and familiar, I felt emotionally and psychologically disconnected from the two cultures most familiar to me.
After moving from Berlin to New York at age fifteen, my feelings of cultural homelessness thrived in my new environment. Looking and sounding American furthered my feelings of dislocation. Border patrol agents, teachers, classmates, neighbors, and relatives all “welcomed me home” to a land they could not understand was foreign to me. Americans confused me as I relied on Urban Dictionary to understand my peers, the Pledge of Allegiance seemed nationalistic, and the only thing familiar about Fahrenheit was the German after whom it was named. Too German for America and too American for Germany, I felt alienated from both. I wanted desperately to be a member of one, if not both, cultures.
During my first weeks in Scarsdale, I spent my free time googling “Berlin Family Seeks Teen” and “New Americans in Scarsdale.” The latter search proved most fruitful: I discovered Horizons, a nonprofit that empowers resettled refugees, or “New Americans,” to thrive. I started volunteering with Horizon’s children’s programs, playing with and tutoring young refugees.
It was there that I met Emily, a twelve-year-old Iraqi girl who lived next to Horizons. In between games and snacks, Emily would ask me questions about American life, touching on everything from Halloween to President Obama. Gradually, my confidence in my American identity grew as I recognized my ability to answer most of her questions. American culture was no longer completely foreign to me. I found myself especially qualified to work with young refugees; my experience growing up in a country other than that of my parents’ was similar enough to that of the refugee children Horizons served that I could empathize with them and offer advice. Together, we worked through conflicting allegiances, homesickness, and stretched belonging.
Forging a special, personal bond with young refugees proved a cathartic outlet for my insecurities as it taught me to value my past. My transculturalism allowed me to help young refugees integrate into American life, and, in doing so, I was able to adjust myself. Now, I have an appreciation of myself that I never felt before. “Home” isn’t the digits in a passport or ZIP code but a sense of contentedness. By helping a young refugee find comfort, happiness, and home in America, I was finally able to find those same things for myself.
Due to their endearing (and creative) use of language—with early phrases like “sloppy joes and spaetzle” as well as “Germerican” and “Denglisch”—readers are inclined to like this writer from the get-go. Though the essay shifts from this lighthearted introduction to more serious subject matter around the third paragraph, the shift is not abrupt or jarring. This is because the student invites readers to feel the transition with them through their inclusion of various anecdotes that inspired their “feelings of cultural homelessness.” And our journey does not end there—we go back to America with the student and see how their former struggles become strengths.
Ultimately, this essay is successful due to its satisfying ending. Because readers experience the student’s struggles with them, we also feel the resolution. The conclusion of this essay is a prime example of the “Same, but Different” technique described in our article on How to End Your College Essay . As the student describes how, in the end, their complicated cultural identity still exists but transitions to a source of strength, readers are left feeling happy for the student. This means that they have formed a connection with the student, which is the ultimate goal!
Prompt #1, Example #3
“1…2…3…4 pirouettes ! New record!” My friends cheered as I landed my turns. Pleased with my progress, I gazed down at my worn-out pointe shoes. The sweltering blisters, numbing ice-baths, and draining late-night practices did not seem so bad after all. Next goal: five turns.
For as long as I can remember, ballet, in all its finesse and glamor, had kept me driven day to day. As a child, the lithe ballerinas, donning ethereal costumes as they floated across the stage, were my motivation. While others admired Messi and Adele, I idolized Carlos Acosta, principal dancer of the Royal Ballet.
As I devoted more time and energy towards my craft, I became obsessed with improving my technique. I would stretch for hours after class, forcing my leg one inch higher in an effort to mirror the Dance Magazine cover girls . I injured my feet and ruined pair after pair of pointe shoes, turning on wood, cement, and even grass to improve my balance as I spun. At competitions, the dancers with the 180-degree leg extensions, endless turns, and soaring leaps—the ones who received “Bravos!” from the roaring audience—further pushed me to refine my skills and perfect my form. I believed that, with enough determination, I would one day attain their level of perfection. Reaching the quadruple- pirouette milestone only intensified my desire to accomplish even more.
My efforts seemed to have come to fruition two summers ago when I was accepted to dance with Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet at their renowned New York City summer intensive. I walked into my first session eager to learn from distinguished ballet masters and worldly dancers, already anticipating my improvement. Yet, as I danced alongside the accomplished ballerinas, I felt out of place. Despite their clean technique and professional training, they did not aim for glorious leg extensions or prodigious leaps. When they performed their turn combinations, most of them only executed two turns as I attempted four.
“Dancers, double- pirouettes only.”
Taken aback and confused, I wondered why our teacher expected so little from us. The other ballerinas seemed content, gracing the studio with their simple movements.
As I grew closer with my Moscow roommates, I gradually learned that their training emphasized the history of the art form instead of stylistic tricks. Rather than show off their physical ability, their performances aimed to convey a story, one that embodied the rich culture of ballet and captured both the legacy of the dancers before them and their own artistry. As I observed my friends more intently in repertoire class, I felt the pain of the grief-stricken white swan from Swan Lake , the sass of the flirtatious Kitri from Don Quijote, and I gradually saw what I had overlooked before. My definition of talent had been molded by crowd-pleasing elements—whirring pirouettes , gravity-defying leaps, and mind-blowing leg extensions. This mindset slowly stripped me from the roots of my passion and my personal connection with ballet.
With the Bolshoi, I learned to step back and explore the meaning behind each step and the people behind the scenes. Ballet carries history in its movements, from the societal values of the era to each choreographer’s unique flair. As I uncovered the messages behind each pirouette, kick, and jump, my appreciation for ballet grew beyond my obsession with raw athleticism and developed into a love for the art form’s emotive abilities in bridging the dancers with the audience. My journey as an artist has allowed me to see how technical execution is only the means to a greater understanding between dancer and spectator, between storyteller and listener. The elegance and complexity of ballet does not revolve around astonishing stunts but rather the evocative strength and artistry manifested in the dancer, in me. It is the combination of sentiments, history, tradition, and passion that has allowed ballet and its lessons of human connection to become my lifestyle both on and off stage.
The primary strength of this essay is the honesty and authenticity of the student’s writing. It is purposefully reflective. Intentional language creates a clear character arc that begins with an eager young ballerina and ends with the student reflecting on their past.
Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the concl usion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)
The main weakness of this essay (though this is a stellar essay) is its formulaic beginning. While dialogue can be an effective tool for starting your essay, this student’s introduction feels a bit stilted as the dialogue does not match the overall reflective tone of the essay. Perhaps, in place of “Next goal: five turns,” the student could have posed a question or foreshadowed the growth they ultimately describe.
Prompt #1, Example #4
My paintbrush dragged a flurry of acrylic, the rich colors attaching to each groove in my canvas’s texture. The feeling was euphoric.
From a young age, painting has been my solace. Between the stress of my packed high school days filled with classes and extracurriculars, the glide of my paintbrush was my emotional outlet.
I opened a fresh canvas and began. The amalgamation of assorted colors in my palette melded harmoniously: dark and light, cool and warm, brilliant and dull. They conjoined, forming shades and surfaces sharp, smooth, and ridged. The textures of my paint strokes — powdery, glossy, jagged — gave my painting a tone, as if it had a voice of its own, sometimes shrieking, sometimes whispering.
Rough indigo blue. The repetitive upward pulls of my brush formed layers on my canvas. Staring into the deep blue, I felt transported to the bottom of the pool I swim in daily. I looked upward to see a layer of dense water between myself and the person I aspire to be, an ideal blurred by filmy ripples. Rough blue encapsulates my amorphous, conflicting identity, catalyzed by words spewed by my peers about my “oily hair” and “smelly food”. They caused my ever present disdain toward cultural assemblies; the lehenga I wore felt burdensome. My identity quivers like the indigo storm I painted — a duel between my self-deprecating, validation-seeking self, and the proud self I desire to be. My haphazard paint strokes released my internal turbulence.
Smooth orange-hued green. I laid the color in melodious strokes, forming my figure. The warmer green transitions from the rough blue — while they share elements, they also diverge. My firm brushstrokes felt like the way I felt on my first day as a media intern at KBOO, my local volunteer-driven radio station, committed to the voices of the marginalized. As a naturally introverted speaker, I was forced out of my comfort zone when tasked with documenting a KBOO art exhibition for social media, speaking with hosts to share their diverse, underrepresented backgrounds and inspirations. A rhythmic green strength soon shoved me past internal blue turbulence. My communication skills which were built by two years of Speech and Debate unleashed — I recognized that making a social change through media required amplifying unique voices and perspectives, both my own and others. The powerful green strokes that fill my canvas entrench my growth.
Bright, voluminous coral, hinted with magenta and yellow. I dabbed the color over my figure, giving my painting dimension. The paint, speckled, added depth on every inch it coated. As I moved the color in random but purposeful movements, the vitality ushered into my painting brought a smile across my face. It reminded me of the encounters I had with my cubicle-mate in my sophomore year academic autism research internship, seemingly insignificant moments in my lifelong journey that, in retrospect, wove unique threads into my tapestry. The kindness she brought into work inspired my compassion, while her stories of struggling with ADHD in the workplace bolstered my empathy towards different experiences. Our conversations added blobs of a nonuniform bright color in my painting, binding a new perspective in me.
I added in my final strokes, each contributing an element to my piece. As I scanned my canvas, I observed these elements. Detail added nuance into smaller pictures; they embodied complexities within color, texture, and hue, each individually delivering a narrative. But together, they formed a piece of art— art that could be interpreted as a whole or broken apart but still delivering as a means of communication.
I find beauty in media because of this. I can adapt a complex narrative to be deliverable, each component telling a story. Appreciating these nuances — the light, dark, smooth, and rough — has cultivated my growth mindset. My life-long painting never finishes. It is ever-expanding, absorbing the novel textures and colors I encounter daily.
This essay is distinct from others due to its melodic, lyrical form. This is primarily achieved because the student’s form follows the movements of the paintbrush that they use to scaffold their essay. As readers, we simply flow through the essay, occasionally picking up bits of information about its creator. Without even realizing it, by the end of the essay, admissions officers will know that this student is a swimmer, was in Speech and Debate, is Indian, and has had multiple internships.
A major strength of this essay is the command of language that the student demonstrates. This essay was not simply written, it was crafted. Universities are, of course, interested in the talents, goals, and interests of applicants, but an essay being well-written can be equally important. Writing skills are important because your reader will not learn about your talents, goals, and interests if they aren’t engaged in your essay, but they are also important because admissions officers know that being able to articulate your thoughts is important for success in all future careers.
While this essay is well-written, there are a few moments where it falls out of the flow and feels more like a student advertising their successes. For example, the phrases “media intern at KBOO” and “autism research internship” work better on a resume than they do in this essay. Admissions officers have a copy of your resume and can check your internship experiences after reading your essay! If you are going to use a unique writing style or narrative form, lean into it; don’t try to hybridize it with the standard college essay form. Your boldness will be attractive to admissions officers.
Readers are easily able to picture the passion and intensity of the young dancer through the writer’s engagement with words like “obsessed,” “forcing,” and “ruined” in the second paragraph. Then, we see how intensity becomes pride as they “wondered why our teacher expected so little from us.” And ultimately, we see the writer humbled as they are exposed to the deeper meaning behind what they have worked so hard for. This arc is outstanding, and the student’s musings about ballet in the conclusion position them as vulnerable and reflective (and thus, appealing to admissions officers!)
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?
Prompt #2, example #1.
“You ruined my life!” After months of quiet anger, my brother finally confronted me. To my shame, I had been appallingly ignorant of his pain.
Despite being twins, Max and I are profoundly different. Having intellectual interests from a young age that, well, interested very few of my peers, I often felt out of step in comparison with my highly-social brother. Everything appeared to come effortlessly for Max and, while we share an extremely tight bond, his frequent time away with friends left me feeling more and more alone as we grew older.
When my parents learned about The Green Academy, we hoped it would be an opportunity for me to find not only an academically challenging environment, but also – perhaps more importantly – a community. This meant transferring the family from Drumfield to Kingston. And while there was concern about Max, we all believed that given his sociable nature, moving would be far less impactful on him than staying put might be on me.
As it turned out, Green Academy was everything I’d hoped for. I was ecstatic to discover a group of students with whom I shared interests and could truly engage. Preoccupied with new friends and a rigorous course load, I failed to notice that the tables had turned. Max, lost in the fray and grappling with how to make connections in his enormous new high school, had become withdrawn and lonely. It took me until Christmas time – and a massive argument – to recognize how difficult the transition had been for my brother, let alone that he blamed me for it.
Through my own journey of searching for academic peers, in addition to coming out as gay when I was 12, I had developed deep empathy for those who had trouble fitting in. It was a pain I knew well and could easily relate to. Yet after Max’s outburst, my first response was to protest that our parents – not I – had chosen to move us here. In my heart, though, I knew that regardless of who had made the decision, we ended up in Kingston for my benefit. I was ashamed that, while I saw myself as genuinely compassionate, I had been oblivious to the heartache of the person closest to me. I could no longer ignore it – and I didn’t want to.
We stayed up half the night talking, and the conversation took an unexpected turn. Max opened up and shared that it wasn’t just about the move. He told me how challenging school had always been for him, due to his dyslexia, and that the ever-present comparison to me had only deepened his pain.
We had been in parallel battles the whole time and, yet, I only saw that Max was in distress once he experienced problems with which I directly identified. I’d long thought Max had it so easy – all because he had friends. The truth was, he didn’t need to experience my personal brand of sorrow in order for me to relate – he had felt plenty of his own.
My failure to recognize Max’s suffering brought home for me the profound universality and diversity of personal struggle; everyone has insecurities, everyone has woes, and everyone – most certainly – has pain. I am acutely grateful for the conversations he and I shared around all of this, because I believe our relationship has been fundamentally strengthened by a deeper understanding of one another. Further, this experience has reinforced the value of constantly striving for deeper sensitivity to the hidden struggles of those around me. I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story.
Here is a prime example that you don’t have to have fabulous imagery or flowery prose to write a successful Common App essay. You just have to be clear and say something that matters. This essay is simple and beautiful. It almost feels like having a conversation with a friend and learning that they are an even better person than you already thought they were.
Through this narrative, readers learn a lot about the writer—where they’re from, what their family life is like, what their challenges were as a kid, and even their sexuality. We also learn a lot about their values—notably, the value they place on awareness, improvement, and consideration of others. Though they never explicitly state it (which is great because it is still crystal clear!), this student’s ending of “I won’t make the mistake again of assuming that the surface of someone’s life reflects their underlying story” shows that they are constantly striving for improvement and finding lessons anywhere they can get them in life.
The only part of this essay that could use a bit of work is the introduction. A short introduction can be effective, but this short first paragraph feels thrown in at the last minute and like it is missing its second half. If you are keeping your introduction short, make it matter.
Prompt #2, Example #2
Was I no longer the beloved daughter of nature, whisperer of trees? Knee-high rubber boots, camouflage, bug spray—I wore the garb and perfume of a proud wild woman, yet there I was, hunched over the pathetic pile of stubborn sticks, utterly stumped, on the verge of tears. As a child, I had considered myself a kind of rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free. I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms. Yet here I was, ten years later, incapable of performing the most fundamental outdoor task: I could not, for the life of me, start a fire.
Furiously I rubbed the twigs together—rubbed and rubbed until shreds of skin flaked from my fingers. No smoke. The twigs were too young, too sticky-green; I tossed them away with a shower of curses, and began tearing through the underbrush in search of a more flammable collection. My efforts were fruitless. Livid, I bit a rejected twig, determined to prove that the forest had spurned me, offering only young, wet bones that would never burn. But the wood cracked like carrots between my teeth—old, brittle, and bitter. Roaring and nursing my aching palms, I retreated to the tent, where I sulked and awaited the jeers of my family.
Rattling their empty worm cans and reeking of fat fish, my brother and cousins swaggered into the campsite. Immediately, they noticed the minor stick massacre by the fire pit and called to me, their deep voices already sharp with contempt.
“Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” they taunted. “Having some trouble?” They prodded me with the ends of the chewed branches and, with a few effortless scrapes of wood on rock, sparked a red and roaring flame. My face burned long after I left the fire pit. The camp stank of salmon and shame.
In the tent, I pondered my failure. Was I so dainty? Was I that incapable? I thought of my hands, how calloused and capable they had been, how tender and smooth they had become. It had been years since I’d kneaded mud between my fingers; instead of scaling a white pine, I’d practiced scales on my piano, my hands softening into those of a musician—fleshy and sensitive. And I’d gotten glasses, having grown horrifically nearsighted; long nights of dim lighting and thick books had done this. I couldn’t remember the last time I had lain down on a hill, barefaced, and seen the stars without having to squint. Crawling along the edge of the tent, a spider confirmed my transformation—he disgusted me, and I felt an overwhelming urge to squash him.
Yet, I realized I hadn’t really changed—I had only shifted perspective. I still eagerly explored new worlds, but through poems and prose rather than pastures and puddles. I’d grown to prefer the boom of a bass over that of a bullfrog, learned to coax a different kind of fire from wood, having developed a burn for writing rhymes and scrawling hypotheses.
That night, I stayed up late with my journal and wrote about the spider I had decided not to kill. I had tolerated him just barely, only shrieking when he jumped—it helped to watch him decorate the corners of the tent with his delicate webs, knowing that he couldn’t start fires, either. When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.
This Common App essay is well-written. The student is showing the admissions officers their ability to articulate their points beautifully and creatively. It starts with vivid images like that of the “rustic princess, a cradler of spiders and centipedes, who was serenaded by mourning doves and chickadees, who could glide through tick-infested meadows and emerge Lyme-free.” And because the prose is flowery, the writer can get away with metaphors like “I knew the cracks of the earth like the scars on my own rough palms” that might sound cheesy without the clear command of the English language that the writer quickly establishes.
In addition to being well-written, this essay is thematically cohesive. It begins with the simple introduction “Fire!” and ends with the following image: “When the night grew cold and the embers died, my words still smoked—my hands burned from all that scrawling—and even when I fell asleep, the ideas kept sparking—I was on fire, always on fire.” This full-circle approach leaves readers satisfied and impressed.
While dialogue often comes off as cliche or trite, this student effectively incorporates their family members saying “Where’s the fire, Princess Clara?” This is achieved through the apt use of the verb “taunted” to characterize the questioning and through the question’s thematic connection to the earlier image of the student as a rustic princess. Similarly, rhetorical questions can feel randomly placed in essays, but this student’s inclusion of the questions “Was I so dainty?” and “Was I that incapable?” feels perfectly justified after they establish that they were pondering their failure.
Quite simply, this essay shows how quality writing can make a simple story outstandingly compelling.
Prompt #2, Example #3
The muffled voices behind thin walls heralded trouble.
They were fighting about money.
It wasn’t the first time this had happened and it wasn’t going to be the last. It was one of those countless nights I had to spend curled up under the blanket while pretending to be asleep. My father had been unemployed for five years now, and my mother, a local kindergarten teacher, was struggling to support the family alone. Our situation was bleak: Savings had run out and my parents could no longer hide our lack of money from me. To make matters worse, I was a few weeks away from starting high school, which would inevitably lead to college, yet another financial stressor for my family.
The argument didn’t sound like it would end soon.
“Why did you spend money on that?” my mother said, with an elongated sigh.
“I had to,” my father said, decidedly.
Every fight over the years had left me in despair and the idea of going through another fight daunted me. I had looked forward to my teen years all my life, an age that allows, for the first time, more responsibility. Indeed, after this fateful night, after my fourteenth birthday, I felt a mounting responsibility to help my family, and started brainstorming.
Always being fascinated by computers, I spent my childhood burying myself under computer cabinets, experimenting with computer parts. Naturally, I wondered if my skills in this area might be marketable.
The next morning, my friend, Naba, mentioned that her computer wasn’t working. A tuk-tuk ride later, and I was at her doorstep, and her mother was leading me to her room. I was off to work: I began examining her computer, like a surgeon carefully manages his scalpels and tools. A proper diagnosis was not far from reach, as I realized a broken pin in her computer’s SATA slot. After an hour of work, and a short trip to the hardware store, I successfully fixed the computer. To my pleasant surprise, Naba’s mother drew out two fresh 500 Rupee notes. One covered the cost of the parts I bought and the other was a token of appreciation. Bidding her goodbye, I went straight back home and put one of the 500 Rupee notes inside my family’s “savings-jar.”
Later that day, I devised a plan. I told my friends to spread the word that I was available to fix computers. At first, I got only one or two calls per week. I would pick up the computer from my client’s home, fix it quickly, and return it, thus earning myself a commission. While I couldn’t market my services at a competitive price, because I wasn’t able to buy the parts wholesale, I compensated by providing convenience. All my clients had to do was call me once and the rest was taken care of. Thus, my business had the best customer service in town.
At the beginning of my junior year, after two years of expanding my business through various avenues, I started buying computer parts from hardware suppliers in bulk at a cheaper rate. My business grew exponentially after that.
Before long, I was my town’s go-to tech person. In this journey throughout high school, I started realizing that I had to create my own opportunities and not just curl up under a blanket, seeking only comfort, as I used to. Interacting with people from all walks of life became my forte and a sense of work ethic developed in me. My business required me to be an all-rounder– have the technical skills, be an easily approachable person, and manage cash flow. Slowly becoming better at this, I even managed to sway admins of a local institution to outsource their computer hardware purchases and repairs through me. As my business upsized throughout the years, I went from being helpless to autonomous – the teenager I always aspired to be.
This essay truly feels like a story—almost making you forget you are reading a college essay. The student’s voice is strong throughout the entire essay and they are able to give us insight into their thoughts, feelings, and motivations at every step of the story. Letting the reader into personal challenges like financial struggles can be daunting in a college essay, but the way this student used that setback to establish an emotional ethos to their narrative was well done.
Because the essay is essentially just telling a story, there’s a very natural flow that makes it enjoyable and easy to read. The student establishes the conflict at the beginning, then describes their solution and how they implemented it, and finally concludes with the lessons they took away from this experience. Transitions at the beginning of paragraphs effortlessly show the passage of time and how the student has progressed through the story.
Another reason this essay is so successful is because of the abundance of details. The reader truly feels like they are hiding in the room with the student as their parents yell because of the inclusion of quotes from the argument. We understand the precision and care they have for fixing computers because of the allusion to a surgeon with their scalpel. Not only does this imagery make the story more enticing, it also helps the reader gain a deeper appreciation for the type of person this student is and the adversity they have overcome.
If there were one thing this essay could do to improve, it would be to include a resolution to the conflict from the beginning. The student tells us how this business helped them grow as a person, but we don’t ever get to find out if they were able to lessen the financial burden on their parents or if they continued to struggle despite the student working hard. It doesn’t have to be a happy ending, but it would be nice to return to the conflict and acknowledge the effect they had on it, especially since this prompt is all about facing challenges.
Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Prompt #3, example #1.
When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.
And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”
Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.
By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.
I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.
This essay is cohesive as it centers around the theme of identity and the ability for two identities to coexist simultaneously (an interesting theme!). It uses the Full Circle ending strategy as it starts with a metaphor about food touching and ends with “I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.”
The main issue with this essay is that it could come off as cliché, which could be irritating for admissions officers. The story described is notably similar to High School Musical (“I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me”) and feels slightly overstated.
At times, this essay is also confusing. In the first paragraph, it feels like the narrative is actually going to be about separating your food (and is somehow going to relate to the older brothers?). It is not entirely clear that this is a metaphor. Also, when the writer references the third submission day and then works backward to explain what a submission day is and that there are multiple throughout the semester, the timeline gets unnecessarily confusing. Reworking the way this paragraph unfolded would have been more compelling and less distracting.
Overall, this essay was interesting but could have been more polished to be more effective.
Prompt #3, Example #2
I walked into my middle school English class, and noticed a stranger behind my teacher’s desk. “Hello,” she said. “Today I will be your substitute teacher.” I groaned internally. “Let me start off by calling roll. Ally?” “Here!” exclaimed Ally. “Jack?” “Here.” “Rachel?” “Here.” “Freddie?” “Present.” And then– “…?” The awkward pause was my cue. “It’s Jasina,” I started. “You can just call me Jas. Here.” “Oh, Jasina. That’s unique.” The word “unique” made me cringe. I slumped back in my seat. The substitute continued calling roll, and class continued as if nothing had happened. Nothing had happened. Just a typical moment in a middle school, but I hated every second of it.
My name is not impossible to pronounce. It appears challenging initially, but once you hear it, “Jas-een-a”, then you can manage it. My nickname, Jas (pronounced “Jazz”), is what most people call me anyway, so I don’t have to deal with mispronunciation often. I am thankful that my parents named me Jasina (a Hebrew name), but whenever someone hears my name for the first time, they comment, and I assume they’re making assumptions about me. “Wow, Jas is a cool name.” She must be pretty cool.“I’ve never heard the name Jasina before.” She must be from somewhere exotic. “Jas, like Jazz?” She must be musical and artsy. None of these assumptions are bad, but they all add up to the same thing: She must be unique.
When I was little, these sentiments felt more like commands than assumptions. I thought I had to be the most unique child of all time, which was a daunting task, but I tried. I was the only kid in the second grade to color the sun red. I knew it was really yellow, but you could always tell which drawings were mine. During snack time, we could choose between apple juice and grape juice. I liked apple juice more, but if everyone else was choosing apple, then I had to choose grape. This was how I lived my life, and it was exhausting. I tried to continue this habit into middle school, but it backfired. When everyone became obsessed with things like skinny jeans and Justin Bieber and blue mascara (that was a weird trend), my resistance of the norm made me socially awkward. I couldn’t talk to people about anything because we had nothing in common. I was too different.
After 8th grade, I moved to Georgia, and I was dreading being the odd one out among kids who had grown up together. Then I discovered that my freshman year would be Cambridge High School’s inaugural year. Since there were students coming in from 5 different schools, there was no real sense of “normal”. I panicked. If there was no normal, then how could I be unique? That’s when I realized that I had spent so much energy going against the grain that I had no idea what my true interests were or what I really cared about.
It was time to find out. I stopped concentrating on what everyone else was doing and started to focus on myself. I joined the basketball team, I performed in the school musical, and I enrolled in Chorus, all of which were firsts for me. I took art classes, joined clubs, and did whatever I thought would make me happy. And it paid off. I was no longer socially awkward. In fact, because I was involved in so many unrelated activities, I was socially flexible. My friends and I had things in common, but there was no one who could say that I was exactly like anyone else. I had finally become my own person.
My father named me Jasina because he wanted my nickname to be “Jazz.” According to Webster, “jazz” is “music characterized by syncopated rhythms, improvisation, and deliberate distortions of pitch.” Basically, jazz is music that is off-beat and unpredictable. It cannot be strictly defined.
That sounds about right.
Right off the bat, this essay starts extremely strong. The description of attendance in a class with ample quotes, awkward pauses, and the student’s internal dialogue immediately puts us in the middle of the action and establishes a lot of sympathy for this student before we’ve learned anything else.
The strength of this essay continues into the second paragraph where the use of quotes, italics, and interjections from the student continues. All of these literary tools help the student express her voice and allow the reader to understand what this student goes through on a daily basis. Rather than just telling the reader people make assumptions about her name, she shows us what these assumptions look and sound like, and exactly how they make her feel.
The essay further shows us how the student approached her name by providing concrete examples of times she’s been intentionally unique throughout her life. Describing her drawing red suns and choosing grape juice bring her personality to life and allow her to express her deviance from the “norm” in a much more engaging and visual way than simply telling the reader she would go against the grain to be different on purpose.
One part of the essay that was a bit weaker than the others was the paragraph about her in high school. Although it was still well written and did a nice job of demonstrating how she got involved in multiple groups to find her new identity, it lacked the same level of showing employed in previous paragraphs. It would have been nice to see what “socially flexible” means either through a conversation she had with her friends or an example of a time she combined her interests from different groups in a way that was uniquely her.
The essay finishes off how it started: extremely strong. Taking a step back to fully explain the origin of her name neatly brings together everything mentioned in this essay. This ending is especially successful because she never explicitly states that her personality aligns with the definition of jazz. Instead, she relies on the points she has made throughout the essay to stick in the reader’s memory so they are able to draw the connection themselves, making for a much more satisfying ending for the reader.
Prompt #4 (OLD PROMPT; NOT THE CURRENT PROMPT): 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.
Prompt #4, example #1.
“Advanced females ages 13 to 14 please proceed to staging with your coaches at this time.”
Skittering around the room, eyes wide and pleading, I frantically explained my situation to nearby coaches. The seconds ticked away in my head; every polite refusal increased my desperation.
Despair weighed me down. I sank to my knees as a stream of competitors, coaches, and officials flowed around me. My dojang had no coach, and the tournament rules prohibited me from competing without one.
Although I wanted to remain strong, doubts began to cloud my mind. I could not help wondering: what was the point of perfecting my skills if I would never even compete? The other members of my team, who had found coaches minutes earlier, attempted to comfort me, but I barely heard their words. They couldn’t understand my despair at being left on the outside, and I never wanted them to understand.
Since my first lesson 12 years ago, the members of my dojang have become family. I have watched them grow up, finding my own happiness in theirs. Together, we have honed our kicks, blocks, and strikes. We have pushed one another to aim higher and become better martial artists. Although my dojang had searched for a reliable coach for years, we had not found one. When we attended competitions in the past, my teammates and I had always gotten lucky and found a sympathetic coach. Now, I knew this practice was unsustainable. It would devastate me to see the other members of my dojang in my situation, unable to compete and losing hope as a result. My dojang needed a coach, and I decided it was up to me to find one.
I first approached the adults in the dojang – both instructors and members’ parents. However, these attempts only reacquainted me with polite refusals. Everyone I asked told me they couldn’t devote multiple weekends per year to competitions. I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.
At first, the inner workings of tournaments were a mystery to me. To prepare myself for success as a coach, I spent the next year as an official and took coaching classes on the side. I learned everything from motivational strategies to technical, behind-the-scenes components of Taekwondo competitions. Though I emerged with new knowledge and confidence in my capabilities, others did not share this faith.
Parents threw me disbelieving looks when they learned that their children’s coach was only a child herself. My self-confidence was my armor, deflecting their surly glances. Every armor is penetrable, however, and as the relentless barrage of doubts pounded my resilience, it began to wear down. I grew unsure of my own abilities.
Despite the attack, I refused to give up. When I saw the shining eyes of the youngest students preparing for their first competition, I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was. The knowledge that I could solve my dojang’s longtime problem motivated me to overcome my apprehension.
Now that my dojang flourishes at competitions, the attacks on me have weakened, but not ended. I may never win the approval of every parent; at times, I am still tormented by doubts, but I find solace in the fact that members of my dojang now only worry about competing to the best of their abilities.
Now, as I arrive at a tournament with my students, I close my eyes and remember the past. I visualize the frantic search for a coach and the chaos amongst my teammates as we competed with one another to find coaches before the staging calls for our respective divisions. I open my eyes to the exact opposite scene. Lacking a coach hurt my ability to compete, but I am proud to know that no member of my dojang will have to face that problem again.
This essay is great because it has a strong introduction and a strong conclusion. The introduction is notably suspenseful and draws readers into the story. Because we know it is a college essay, we can assume that the student is one of the competitors, but at the same time, this introduction feels intentionally ambiguous as if the writer could be a competitor, a coach, a sibling of a competitor, or anyone else in the situation.
As we continue reading the essay, we learn that the writer is, in fact, the competitor. Readers also learn a lot about the student’s values as we hear their thoughts: “I knew I couldn’t let them down. To quit would be to set them up to be barred from competing like I was.” Ultimately, the conflict and inner and outer turmoil is resolved through the “Same, but Different” ending technique as the student places themself in the same environment that we saw in the intro, but experiencing it differently due to their actions throughout the narrative. This is a very compelling strategy!
The main weakness of this essay is that it is slightly confusing at times—how the other students found coaches feels unintentionally under-explained (a simple phrase like “through pleading and attracting sympathy” in the fourth paragraph could have served the writer well) and a dojang is never defined. Additionally, the turn of the essay or “volta” could’ve packed a bigger punch. It is put quite simply with “I soon realized that I would have become the coach myself.” A more suspenseful reveal could’ve served the author well because more drama did come later.
Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Prompt #5, example #1.
Tears streamed down my face and my mind was paralyzed with fear. Sirens blared, but the silent panic in my own head was deafening. I was muted by shock. A few hours earlier, I had anticipated a vacation in Washington, D.C., but unexpectedly, I was rushing to the hospital behind an ambulance carrying my mother. As a fourteen-year-old from a single mother household, without a driver’s license, and seven hours from home, I was distraught over the prospect of losing the only parent I had. My fear turned into action as I made some of the bravest decisions of my life.
Three blood transfusions later, my mother’s condition was stable, but we were still states away from home, so I coordinated with my mother’s doctors in North Carolina to schedule the emergency operation that would save her life. Throughout her surgery, I anxiously awaited any word from her surgeon, but each time I asked, I was told that there had been another complication or delay. Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities.
My mother had been a source of strength for me, and now I would be strong for her through her long recovery ahead. As I started high school, everyone thought the crisis was over, but it had really just started to impact my life. My mother was often fatigued, so I assumed more responsibility, juggling family duties, school, athletics, and work. I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover. I didn’t know I was capable of such maturity and resourcefulness until it was called upon. Each day was a stage in my gradual transformation from dependence to relative independence.
Throughout my mother’s health crisis, I matured by learning to put others’ needs before my own. As I worried about my mother’s health, I took nothing for granted, cherished what I had, and used my daily activities as motivation to move forward. I now take ownership over small decisions such as scheduling daily appointments and managing my time but also over major decisions involving my future, including the college admissions process. Although I have become more independent, my mother and I are inseparably close, and the realization that I almost lost her affects me daily. Each morning, I wake up ten minutes early simply to eat breakfast with my mother and spend time with her before our busy days begin. I am aware of how quickly life can change. My mother remains a guiding force in my life, but the feeling of empowerment I discovered within myself is the ultimate form of my independence. Though I thought the summer before my freshman year would be a transition from middle school to high school, it was a transformation from childhood to adulthood.
This essay feels real and tells readers a lot about the writer. To start at the beginning, the intro is 10/10. It has drama, it has emotions, and it has the reader wanting more.
And, when you keep going, you get to learn a lot about a very resilient and mature student. Through sentences like “I made countless trips to the neighborhood pharmacy, cooked dinner, biked to the grocery store, supported my concerned sister, and provided the loving care my mother needed to recover” and “Relying on my faith and positive attitude, I remained optimistic that my mother would survive and that I could embrace new responsibilities,” the reader shows us that they are aware of their resilience and maturity, but are not arrogant about it. It is simply a fact that they have proven!
Sometimes writing about adversity can feel exploitative or oddly braggy. This student backs up everything they say with anecdotes that prove and show their strength and resilience, rather than just claiming their strengths. When I read this essay, I want to cheer for its writer! And I want to be able to continue cheering for them (perhaps, if I were an admissions officer, that would make me want them at my school!).
Prompt #5, Example #2
Armed with a red pen, I slowly walked across the room to a small, isolated table with pink stools. Swinging her legs, my young student beamed and giggled at me, slamming her pencil bag on the table and bending over to pick up one of her toys. Natalie always brought some new toy with her to lessons—toys which I would sternly take away from her and place under the table until she finished her work. At the tutoring center where I work, a strict emphasis on discipline leaves no room for paper crowns or rubber chickens.
Today, she had with her a large stuffed eagle from a museum. As she pulled out her papers, I slid the eagle to the other side of the table. She looked eagerly around, attempting to chat with other students as I impatiently called her attention to her papers. “I should name my eagle,” she chimed, waving her pencil in the air. I cringed—there was no wondering why Natalie always had to sit by herself. She was the antithesis of my academic values, and undoubtedly the greatest adversary of my teaching style.
As the lesson progressed, Natalie became more fitful; she refused to release her feathered friend, and kept addressing the bird for help with difficult problems. We both grew increasingly more frustrated. Determined to tame this wryly, wiggling student, I stood my ground, set on converting this disobedient child to my calm, measured ways of study.
As time slowly crept by, I noticed that despite Natalie’s cheerful tone and bright smile, the stuffed eagle was troublesomely quiet and stern-faced. Much like myself. Both the eagle and I were getting nowhere in this lesson—so we hatched a quick plan. Lifting the eagle up in the air, I started reading in my best impersonation of an eagle, squawking my way through a spelling packet. The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed. She sang out every letter, clapped her hands at every page, and followed along with the eagle, stopping at every few letters to declare that “E is for eagle” and pet her teacher fondly on the beak.
Despite my ostensibly dissatisfied attitude toward my students, I did not join the tutoring center simply to earn money. I had always aspired to help others achieve their fullest potential. As a young adult, I felt that it was time for me to step out of the role of a pupil and into the influential role of a teacher, naively believing that I had the maturity and skill to adapt to any situation and help these students reach their highest achievements academically. For the most part, the role of a stern-faced, strict instructor helped me get by in the workplace, and while my students never truly looked happy, I felt that it was part of the process of conditioning a child to learn.
Ironically, my transition to adulthood was the result of a stuffed animal. It was indisputable that I always had the skill to instruct others; the only thing needed to instruct someone is knowledge of the subject. However, it was only upon being introduced to a stuffed bird in which I realized that students receive the most help not from instructors, but teachers. While almost anyone can learn material and spit it back out for someone, it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens. From my young pupil and her little bird, I have undergone a change in attitude which reflects a growth in maturity and ability to improve the lives of others that I hope to implement in my future role as a student, activist, and physician. My newfound maturity taught me that the letter “e” stands for many things: empathy, experience, enthusiasm, and eagle.
In this essay, the student effectively explores their values (and how they learned them!) then identifies these values through a reflective conclusion. While the writer humbly recognizes the initial faults in their teaching style, they do not position their initial discipline or rigidity as mean or poorly intentioned—simply ineffective. This is important because, when you are discussing a transition like this, you don’t want admissions officers to think of you as having been a bad person.
My favorite part about this essay is its subtlety. The major shift in the essay comes through the simple sentence “The result provided a sense of instant gratification I never knew I needed.” The facts of this narrative are not too complicated. Simply put, the writer was strict then learned that it’s sometimes more effective not to be strict. The complexity of this narrative comes through reflection. Notably, through the ending, the student identifies their values (which they hadn’t given a name to before): “it takes the maturity and passion of a teacher not only to help students improve in their students, but also to motivate them and develop them into better citizens.”
The final sentence of this essay ties things up very nicely. Readers are left satisfied with the essay and convinced that its writer is a kind human with a large capacity for reflection and consideration. That is a great image to paint of yourself!
Prompt #5, Example #3
When it’s quiet, I can still hear the Friday night gossip and giggles of my friends. It’s a stark contrast from the environment I’ve known all my life, my home. My family has always been one to keep to themselves; introverts with a hard-working mentality—my father especially. He spent most of his time at work and growing up without him around, I came to be at peace with the fact that I’d probably never really get to know him. The thought didn’t bother me at the time because I felt that we were very different. He was stoic and traditional; I was trying to figure out who I was and explore my interests. His disapproval of the American music I listened to and my penchant for wearing hand-me-downs made me see him as someone who wanted to restrain my individuality. That explains why I relied heavily on my friends throughout middle and high school; they liked me for who I was. I figured I would get lonely without my friends during quarantine, but these last few months stuck at home gave me the time to make a new friend: my father.
It was June. I had the habit of sleeping with my windows open so I wouldn’t need to set an alarm; the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the neighborhood children playing outside would wake me. One morning, however, it was not the chirping of birds or the laughter of children I awoke to, but the shrill of a saw. Through the window screen, on the grass below, my father stood cutting planks of wood. I was confused but didn’t question him—what he did with his time was none of my business. It was not until the next day, when I was attempting to work on a sculpture for an art class, that the sounds of hammering and drills became too much to ignore. Seeking answers, I trudged across my backyard towards the corner he was in. On that day, all there was to see was the foundation of what he was building; a shed. My intrigue was replaced with awe; I was impressed by the precision of his craft. Sharp corners, leveled and sturdy, I could imagine what it would look like when the walls were up and the inside filled with the tools he had spread around the yard.
Throughout the week, when I was trying to finish my sculpture for art class—thinking about its shape and composition—I could not help but think of my father. Art has always been a creative outlet for me, an opportunity to express myself at home. For my dad, his craftsmanship was his art. I realized we were not as different as I had thought; he was an artist like me. My glue and paper were his wood and nails.
That summer, I tried to spend more time with my dad than I have in all my 18 years of life. Waking up earlier than usual so we could have our morning coffees together and pretending to like his favorite band so he’d talk to me about it, I took advantage of every opportunity I had to speak with him. In getting to know him, I’ve recognized that I get my artistry from him.
Reflecting on past relationships, I feel I am now more open to reconnecting with people I’ve perhaps misjudged. In reconciling, I’ve realized I held some bitterness towards him all these years, and in letting that go, my heart is lighter. Our reunion has changed my perspective; instead of vilifying him for spending so much time at work, I can appreciate how hard he works to provide for our family. When I hear him tinkering away at another home project, I can smile and look forward to asking him about it later.
This is an outstanding example of the great things that can be articulated through a reflective essay. As we read the essay, we are simply thinking alongside its author—thinking about their past relationship with their father, about their time in quarantine, about aspects of themselves they think could use attention and growth.
While we reflect, we are also centered by the student’s anecdote about the sculpture and the shed during quarantine. By centering us in real-time, the student keeps us engaged in the reflection.
The main strength here is the maturity we see on the part of its writer. The student doesn’t say “and I realized my father was the best dad in the world;” they say “and I realized my father didn’t have to be the best dad in the world for me to give him a chance.” Lots of students show themselves as motivated, curious, or compassionate in their college essays, but a reflective essay that ends with a discussion of resentment and forgiveness shows true maturity.
Prompt #5, Example #4
As a wide-eyed, naive seven-year-old, I watched my grandmother’s rough, wrinkled hands pull and knead mercilessly at white dough until the countertop was dusted in flour. She steamed small buns in bamboo baskets, and a light sweetness lingered in the air. Although the mantou looked delicious, their papery, flat taste was always an unpleasant surprise. My grandmother scolded me for failing to finish even one, and when I complained about the lack of flavor she would simply say that I would find it as I grew older. How did my adult relatives seem to enjoy this Taiwanese culinary delight while I found it so plain?
During my journey to discover the essence of mantou, I began to see myself the same way I saw the steamed bun. I believed that my writing would never evolve beyond a hobby and that my quiet nature crippled my ambitions. Ultimately, I thought I had little to offer the world. In middle school, it was easy for me to hide behind the large personalities of my friends, blending into the background and keeping my thoughts company. Although writing had become my emotional outlet, no matter how well I wrote essays, poetry, or fiction, I could not stand out in a sea of talented students. When I finally gained the confidence to submit my poetry to literary journals but was promptly rejected, I stepped back from my work to begin reading from Whitman to Dickinson, Li-Young Lee to Ocean Vuong. It was then that I realized I had been holding back a crucial ingredient–my distinct voice.
Over time, my taste buds began to mature, as did I. Mantou can be flavored with pork and eggplant, sweetened in condensed milk, and moistened or dried by the steam’s temperature. After I ate the mantou with each of these factors in mind, I noticed its environment enhanced a delicately woven strand of sweetness beneath the taste of side dishes: the sugar I had often watched my grandmother sift into the flour. The taste was nearly untraceable, but once I grasped it I could truly begin to cherish mantou. In the same way the taste had been lost to me for years, my writer’s voice had struggled to shine through because of my self-doubt and fear of vulnerability.
As I acquired a taste for mantou, I also began to strengthen my voice through my surrounding environment. With the support of my parents, peer poets, and the guidance of Amy Tan and the Brontё sisters, I worked tirelessly to uncover my voice: a subtle strand of sweetness. Once I stopped trying to fit into a publishing material mold and infused my uninhibited passion for my Taiwanese heritage into my writing, my poem was published in a literary journal. I wrote about the blatant racism Asians endured during coronavirus, and the editor of Skipping Stones Magazine was touched by both my poem and my heartfelt letter. I opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum, providing support to younger Asian-American students who reached out with the relief of finding someone they could relate to. I embraced writing as a way to convey my struggle with cultural identity. I joined the school’s creative writing club and read my pieces in front of an audience, honing my voice into one that flourishes out loud as well.
Now, I write and speak unapologetically, falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had. It inspires passion within my communities and imparts tenacity to Asian-American youth, rooting itself deeply into everything I write. Today, my grandmother would say that I have finally unearthed the taste of mantou as I savor every bite with a newfound appreciation. I can imagine her hands shaping the dough that has become my voice, and I am eager to share it with the world.
This essay is structurally-sound, with the student’s journey learning to savor mantou and their journey trying to find their voice serving as outstanding parallels. Additionally, as they describe the journey to find a voice in their writing, they definitely show off their voice! The clear introduction provides a great image and draws us in with an intriguing question. Additionally, their little inserts like “a strand of sweetness” and “falling in love with a voice that I never knew I had” work very well.
When the student describes their first published poem, however, their writing gets a little more stilted. This is a common error students make when writing about their achievements. If this student is writing about the craft that goes into writing, we should hear the details of the craft that went into the poem, instead of simply learning that they “opened up about being ridiculed for bringing Asian food to school at Youth Leadership Forum.” This is interesting information but would be stronger if it were supplemented by descriptions of the voice they created, comparisons to the styles of other poets, and analysis of their stylistic choices. This would make the essay feel more cohesive, centering entirely around concepts of voice and style.
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?
Note: We don’t have a stellar example for this prompt, so instead, we’re sharing a couple examples that need improvement, and what can be done to make the essays more engaging.
Prompt #6, Example #1
What factors shape the depth and allure of a literary character? This is the exact question I asked myself as my eyes riveted on the white pages covered with little black letters.
I was reading my old novels. I’ve written three novels and many short stories. Each of them repetitively portrayed the hero as intelligent and funny, and the antagonists as cold and manipulative. I came to the appalling realization that my characters were flat, neither exciting nor original. They just didn’t stand out!
As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Vice and virtue are to the artist material to an art.’ Their mixing makes a novel addictive because its plot is rich with turnarounds and its characters more engaging. In his famous work The Picture of Dorian Gray , Wilde deconstructs the psyche of his characters. He brilliantly plays with the protagonist’s youthful appearance and the decaying portrait to build a truly unique idiosyncratic identity. The persona of Dorian Gray is so complicated a psychologist could analyze it for hours on end!
Inspired by this character, It was my turn to explore good and evil into characters to make my stories more enthralling. I skillfully played with vice and virtue, separating, merging them… My latest novel is the fruit of this exercise. I chose to set it in 20th century London. Its opium dens and exclusive salons; middle-class workers, peasants and politicians breathed the same newly industrialized air; modernity in Blackfriars bridge and tradition in St Paul’s Cathedral; all of these contrasts set the perfect environment for my characters to grow. Following Laclos’ Valmont, Maupassant’s Georges Duroy and Duffy’s Myra Hindley, I played with those contrasts to present an intricate character, truly creative – unlike my previous ones. Insanity, religion, depravity and love are merged into each character, reflecting Edwardian London. As I reflected on my work, I realized vice and virtue altogether made them more human and credible. These characters stood out, they were interesting, I even wanted to know more about them!
After rewriting, erasing, typing, and thinking countless times, I realized writing is a unique exercise. Nothing is definite when you are holding a fountain pen, hearing its screeching sound on the white paper and watching the ebony ink forming letters. When I wasn’t too happy about a change I made in my story, I simply erased and rewrote it. Everything I imagined could happen: white pages are the only place the mouse eats the cat or the world is taken by a zombie attack!
This exact exercise of diversifying my characters satisfied my relentless curiosity. Asking myself ‘how could this character be if she had lost her parents in a maritime tragedy?’ allowed me to view the world from different perspectives (some very dissimilar to my own) and considering how each character would react to different situations brought them to life. As I was writing, I was aiming to change the usual narratives I had previously traversed. I loved experimenting with countless personality traits in my characters – minutes flowing, my hand dancing on the paper as my mind was singing words coming alive….
There were times where my hand just stopped writing and my mind stopped raging. I tried thinking differently, changing a character’s background, the story, the setting. I was inspired by Zola, A.Carter, Fitzgerald, the Brontë sisters… I could observe the different reactions of their characters, and reflect on mine theoretically. But it was only part one of the work: I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically, always leading to fresh ideas – I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting. Both theory and practice are required to gain intellectual independence and experience, in writing and more globally: before I can change a character, I have to understand it. Before we can change the world, we have to understand it.
The main strength of this essay is the authenticity of the topic the student chose. They aren’t making anything up or stretching the truth. Writing is something that captivates them, and that captivation shines through—particularly through their fourth paragraph (where they geek out over specific plots and characters) and their fifth paragraph (where they joyfully describe how writing has no limitations). Admissions officers want to see this passion and intensity in applicants! The fact that this student has already written three novels also shows dedication and is impressive.
The main weakness of this essay is its structure. Ironically, it is not super captivating. The essay would have been more compelling if the student utilized a “anecdote – answer – reflection” structure. This student’s current introduction involves a reflective question, citations about their past writing experience, then their thoughts on Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Gray. Instead, this student could’ve provided one cohesive (and powerful!) image of them being frustrated with their own writing then being inspired by Dorian Gray. This would look something like:
“I stayed up three nights in a row studying my own writing—bored by my own writing. The only thing more painful than seeing failure in the fruits of your labor is not seeing a path for improvement. I had written three novels and numerous short stories, and all I could come up with was funny and intelligent heroes going up against cold and manipulative villains. What kind of writer was so consistently cliche? On the third night, I wandered over to my bookshelf. Mrs. Dalloway caught my eye (it has such a beautiful cover). I flipped through. Then, I grabbed Giovanni’s Room . I was so obsessed with my shortcomings that I couldn’t even focus long enough to see what these authors were doing right. I picked up The Picture of Dorian Gray and decided to just start reading. By the end of the night, I was captivated.”
An introduction like this would flow nicely into the student describing their experience with Dorian Gray then, because of that experience, describing how they have altered their approach to writing. The conclusion of this essay would then be this student’s time for reflection. Instead of repeating content about their passion—“I then had to write, sometimes aimlessly, sometimes frantically” and “I was exploring the practical, trying, erasing and rewriting”—, the student could dedicate their conclusion to reflecting on the reasons that writing is so captivating or the ways that (until the day they die) writers will always be perfecting their craft.
This essay is a great example of how important it is to pick a topic that truly excites you. It also illustrates how important it is to effectively structure that excitement.
Prompt #6, Example #2
Astonished by the crashing sound of waves in my ear, I was convinced this magical shell actually held the sound of the big blue sea — my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop . It distinctly reminded me of the awestruck feeling I had when I witnessed the churning waves of a windy night by the ocean the previous weekend; I lost track of time gazing at the distant moonlit border dividing our world from the ever-growing black void. Turning to my mom, I inquired curiously, “Can we go to the place where the water ends one day?”
She explained to me I could never reach the end of the ocean because the harsh line I had seen was actually an illusion called the horizon — there was no material end to the ocean. For a mind as young as mine was, the idea of infinity was incomprehensible. As my infatuation with the ocean continued to grow, I finally understood that regardless of how far I travel, the horizon is unattainable because it’s not a physical limit. This idea is why the ocean captivates me — no matter how much you discover, there is always more to explore.
Learning about and exploring the ocean provided an escape from one reality into another; though we are on the same planet, it’s an entirely separate world. Through elementary and middle school, I devoted vast amounts of my free time to learning about simpler concepts like a dolphin’s ability to echolocate and coral reef ecosystems. I rented countless documentaries and constantly checked out books from my local library — my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.” This episode remained memorable because it was centered around the impacts of fossil fuels on marine animals; it was the first time I’d learned about the impending crisis we are faced with due to the human mistreatment of our planet.
Prior to viewing that episode, I relied on the ocean as an outlet — I fueled all of my emotions into studying marine organisms. Once I learned of its grave future, I delved into the world of environmental activism. This path was much more disheartening than studying echolocation — inevitable death due to climate change took a toll on my mental health. I attended two climate strikes in November of my sophomore year. Following the strikes, I joined Sunrise Movement Sacramento, a youth-led climate justice organization advocating for the Green New Deal. While analyzing legislation and organizing protests were significant takeaways from my experience with climate activism, they were not the most important. I became an organizer because of my love for the ocean and I remain an organizer because of my passion for dissolving the disproportionalities marginalized groups face due to the sacrificing of people’s livelihood for the sake of profit. The more I learned about our modern society, the more hopeless I grew that I could see any significant change within my lifetime.
However, this hopelessness comes in waves; every day, I remind myself of the moment I discovered the horizon. Or the moment I first dove into the beautiful waters of the Hawaiian coast and immediately was surrounded by breathtaking seas of magnificent creatures and coral gardens — life felt ethereal and beautiful. I remind myself that like the ocean, the vast majority of the universe has yet to be discovered; that distant border holds infinite opportunity to learn. In a universe as vast as ours, and life as rare as ours, individuals still choose to prioritize avarice over our planet. Despite this grave individualism, the ocean reminds me every day there is hope in the fight for a better world. Though I will never discover every inch of the ocean’s floor, I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.
Sometimes the path to a great essay is taking something normal and using it to show admissions officers who you are and what you value—that is precisely this student’s approach! Finding the ocean fascinating is not unique to this student. Tons of kids (and adults, too!) are obsessed with the ocean. What this student does is take things a step further as they explain their curiosity about the ocean in relation to their pain about the destruction of the environment. This capacity for reflection is great!
This student shows a good control of language through their thematic centering on ocean and horizons that carries through their essay—with ”this hopelessness comes in waves” and “I will forever envision and reach for new horizons.” The details provided throughout are also effective at keeping readers engaged—things like “ my six-year-old self was heartbroken when I couldn’t take the thirty-dollar artificial shell from SeaWorld’s gift shop” and “ my all-time favorite was an episode of the television series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey titled “The Lost Worlds of Planet Earth.”
The main weakness of this essay is the lack of reflection when the student discusses environmental activism. There’s reflection on the student’s connection to the ocean and horizons at the beginning and at the end, but when the student discusses activism, the tone shifts from focusing on their internal thoughts to their external actions. Remember, a lot of students write about environmental activism, but not a lot of students write about an emotional connection to the ocean as an impetus for environmental activism. This student would stand out more to admissions officers if they had dug into questions of what the ocean means to them (and says about them) in the paragraphs beginning “Learning about and exploring the ocean…” and “Prior to viewing that episode.”
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.
Prompt #7, example #1.
Scalding hot water cascades over me, crashing to the ground in a familiar, soothing rhythm. Steam rises to the ceiling as dried sweat and soap suds swirl down the drain. The water hisses as it hits my skin, far above the safe temperature for a shower. The pressure is perfect on my tired muscles, easing the aches and bruises from a rough bout of sparring and the tension from a long, stressful day. The noise from my overactive mind dies away, fading into music, lyrics floating through my head. Black streaks stripe the inside of my left arm, remnants of the penned reminders of homework, money owed and forms due.
It lacks the same dynamism and controlled intensity of sparring on the mat at taekwondo or the warm tenderness of a tight hug from my father, but it’s still a cocoon of safety as the water washes away the day’s burdens. As long as the hot water is running, the rest of the world ceases to exist, shrinking to me, myself and I. The shower curtain closes me off from the hectic world spinning around me.
Much like the baths of Blanche DuBois, my hot showers are a means of cleansing and purifying (though I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me). In the midst of a hot shower, there is no impending exam to study for, no newspaper deadline to meet, no paycheck to deposit. It is simply complete and utter peace, a safe haven. The steam clears my mind even as it clouds my mirror.
Creativity thrives in the tub, breathing life into tales of dragons and warrior princesses that evolve only in my head, never making their way to paper but appeasing the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me all the same. That one calculus problem that has seemed unsolvable since second period clicks into place as I realize the obvious solution. The perfect concluding sentence to my literary analysis essay writes itself (causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely).
Ever since I was old enough to start taking showers unaided, I began hogging all the hot water in the house, a source of great frustration to my parents. Many of my early showers were rudely cut short by an unholy banging on the bathroom door and an order to “stop wasting water and come eat dinner before it gets cold.” After a decade of trudging up the stairs every evening to put an end to my water-wasting, my parents finally gave in, leaving me to my (expensive) showers. I imagine someday, when paying the water bill is in my hands, my showers will be shorter, but today is not that day (nor, hopefully, will the next four years be that day).
Showers are better than any ibuprofen, the perfect panacea for life’s daily ailments. Headaches magically disappear as long as the water runs, though they typically return in full force afterward. The runny nose and itchy eyes courtesy of summertime allergies recede. Showers alleviate even the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.
Honestly though, the best part about a hot shower is neither its medicinal abilities nor its blissful temporary isolation or even the heavenly warmth seeped deep into my bones. The best part is that these little moments of pure, uninhibited contentedness are a daily occurrence. No matter how stressful the day, showers ensure I always have something to look forward to. They are small moments, true, but important nonetheless, because it is the little things in life that matter; the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy. Wherever I am in the world, whatever fate chooses to throw at me, I know I can always find my peace at the end of the day behind the shower curtain.
This essay is relatable yet personal! The writer makes themself supremely human through discussing the universal subject of showering. That being said, an essay about showering could easily turn boring while still being relatable. This writer keeps its relatable moments interesting and fun through vivid descriptions of common feelings including “causing me to abruptly end my shower in a mad dash to the computer before I forget it entirely” and “the stomachache from a guacamole-induced lack of self-control.”
While describing a universal feeling, this student also cleverly and intentionally mentions small facts about their life through simple phrases like “I’m mostly just ridding myself of the germs from children at work sneezing on me” and “the childlike dreamer and wannabe author in me.” To put it simply, though we are talking about a shower, we learn about so much more!
And, at the end, the student lets us know that that is exactly why they love showers. Showers are more than meets the eye! With this insightful and reflective ending (“the big moments are too rare, too fleeting to make anyone truly happy”), readers learn about this student’s capacity for reflection, which is an important capacity as you enter college.
The one major error that this writer commits is that of using a trite transition. The inclusion of “Honestly though” at the beginning of this student’s ending detracts from what they are trying to say and sticks out in their writing.
Prompt #7, Example #2
Steam whooshed from the pot as I unveiled my newest creation: duck-peppercorn-chestnut dumplings. The spicy, hearty aroma swirled into the kitchen, mingling with the smell of fresh dough. Grinning, I grabbed a plump dumpling with chopsticks, blew carefully, and fed it into the waiting mouth of my little sister. Her eyes widening, she vigorously nodded and held up five stubby fingers. I did a little happy dance in celebration and pulled my notebook out of my apron pocket. Duck-peppercorn-chestnut: five stars.
In my household, dumplings are a far cry from the classic pork and cabbage. Our menu boasts everything from the savory lamb-bamboo shoot-watercress to the sweet and crispy apple-cinnamon-date. A few years ago, my sister claimed she was sick of eating the same flavors over and over. Refusing to let her disavow our family staple, I took her complaint as a challenge to make the tastiest and most unconventional dumplings to satisfy her. With her as my taste tester and Mum in charge of dough, I spent months experimenting with dozens of odd ingredient combinations.
During those days spent covered in flour, my dumplings often reminded me of myself—a hybrid of ingredients that don’t usually go together. I am the product of three distinct worlds: the suburbs of Boston, the rural Chinese village of [location removed], and the coastal city of [location removed]. At school, I am both the STEM nerd with lightning-fast mental math and the artistic plant mom obsessed with funky earrings. I love all that is elegant, from Chinese calligraphy to the rolling notes of the Gourd flute, yet I can be very not elegant, like when my sister and I make homemade slime. When I’m on the streets, marching for women’s rights and climate action, I’m loud, bellowing from the bottom of my gut. In the painting studio, though, I don’t speak unless spoken to, and hours can slip by like minutes. I’m loud and quiet. Elegant and messy. Nerdy and artistic. Suburban, rustic, and metropolitan.
While I’m full of odd combinations, they are only seemingly contradictory. Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper, different facets of my identity also converge. After my tenth-grade summer, when I spent six weeks studying design at art school and another three researching the brain at Harvard Med, I began asking myself: What if I mixed art and neuroscience together? That fall, I collaborated with my school’s art museum for an independent research project, exploring two questions: How are aesthetic experiences processed in the brain? And how can neuroscience help museums design exhibits that maximize visitor engagement? I combed through studies with results from tightly controlled experiments, and I spent days gathering my own qualitative data by observing museum visitors and asking them questions. With the help of my artistic skills, I could identify the visual and spatial elements of the exhibits that best held visitors’ attention.
By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am—art and neuroscience—I realized I shouldn’t see the different sides of myself as separate. I learned to instead seek the intersections between aspects of my identity. Since then, I have mixed art with activism to voice my opinions nonverbally, created Spotify playlists with both Chinese and western pop, and written flute compositions using music theory and math. In the future, by continuing to combine my interests, I want to find my niche in the world. I can make a positive impact on society without having to choose just one passion. As of now, my dream is to be a neuroscientist who designs art therapy treatments for mental health patients. Who knows though? Maybe my calling is to be a dim sum chef who teaches pottery on the side. I don’t know where I’ll go, but one thing’s for sure—being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.
This essay is outstanding because the student seems likable and authentic. With the first image of the student’s little sister vigorously nodding and holding up “five stubby fingers,” we find ourselves intrigued by the student’s daily life. They additionally show the importance of family, culture, and creativity in their life—these are great things to highlight in your essay!
After the introduction, the student uses their weird dumpling anecdote to transition to a discussion of their unique intersections. This is achieved smoothly because weirdness/uniqueness is the focus of both of these topics. Additionally, the comparison is not awkward because dumplings are used as more than just a transition, but rather are the through-line of the essay—the student weaves in little phrases like “Just as barbeque pork and pineapple can combine beautifully in a dumpling wrapper,” “By synergizing two of the ingredients that make me who I am,” and “being a standard pork and cabbage dumpling is definitely not my style.” This gives the essay its cohesive feel.
Authenticity comes through in this essay as the student recognizes that they don’t know what the future holds. They just know what kind of a person they are—a passionate one!
One change that would improve this student’s essay would be focusing on fewer intersections in their third and last paragraph. The student mentions STEM, music, family activities, activism, and painting, which makes it feel like a distraction in middle of the essay. Focus on the most important things you want to show admissions officers—you can sit at intersections, but you can’t be interested in everything.
Prompt #7, Example #3
“Everyone follow me!” I smiled at five wide-eyed skaters before pushing off into a spiral. I glanced behind me hopefully, only to see my students standing frozen like statues, the fear in their eyes as clear as the ice they swayed on. “Come on!” I said encouragingly, but the only response I elicited was the slow shake of their heads. My first day as a Learn-to-Skate coach was not going as planned.
But amid my frustration, I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater. At seven, I had been fascinated by Olympic performers who executed thrilling high jumps and dizzying spins with apparent ease, and I dreamed to one day do the same. My first few months on skates, however, sent these hopes crashing down: my attempts at slaloms and toe-loops were shadowed by a stubborn fear of falling, which even the helmet, elbow pads, and two pairs of mittens I had armed myself with couldn’t mitigate. Nonetheless, my coach remained unfailingly optimistic, motivating me through my worst spills and teaching me to find opportunities in failures. With his encouragement, I learned to push aside my fears and attack each jump with calm and confidence; it’s the hope that I can help others do the same that now inspires me to coach.
I remember the day a frustrated staff member directed Oliver, a particularly hesitant young skater, toward me, hoping that my patience and steady encouragement might help him improve. Having stood in Oliver’s skates not much earlier myself, I completely empathized with his worries but also saw within him the potential to overcome his fears and succeed.
To alleviate his anxiety, I held Oliver’s hand as we inched around the rink, cheering him on at every turn. I soon found though, that this only increased his fear of gliding on his own, so I changed my approach, making lessons as exciting as possible in hopes that he would catch the skating bug and take off. In the weeks that followed, we held relay races, played “freeze-skate” and “ice-potato”, and raced through obstacle courses; gradually, with each slip and subsequent success, his fear began to abate. I watched Oliver’s eyes widen in excitement with every skill he learned, and not long after, he earned his first skating badge. Together we celebrated this milestone, his ecstasy fueling my excitement and his pride mirroring my own. At that moment, I was both teacher and student, his progress instilling in me the importance of patience and a positive attitude.
It’s been more than ten years since I bundled up and stepped onto the ice for the first time. Since then, my tolerance for the cold has remained stubbornly low, but the rest of me has certainly changed. In sharing my passion for skating, I have found a wonderful community of eager athletes, loving parents, and dedicated coaches from whom I have learned invaluable lessons and wisdom. My fellow staffers have been with me, both as friends and colleagues, and the relationships I’ve formed have given me far more poise, confidence, and appreciation for others. Likewise, my relationships with parents have given me an even greater gratitude for the role they play: no one goes to the rink without a parent behind the wheel!
Since that first lesson, I have mentored dozens of children, and over the years, witnessed tentative steps transform into powerful glides and tears give way to delighted grins. What I have shared with my students has been among the greatest joys of my life, something I will cherish forever. It’s funny: when I began skating, what pushed me through the early morning practices was the prospect of winning an Olympic medal. Now, what excites me is the chance to work with my students, to help them grow, and to give back to the sport that has brought me so much happiness.
A major strength of this essay comes in its narrative organization. When reading this first paragraph, we feel for the young skaters and understand their fear—skating sounds scary! Then, because the writer sets us up to feel this empathy, the transition to the second paragraph where the student describes their empathy for the young skaters is particularly powerful. It’s like we are all in it together! The student’s empathy for the young skaters also serves as an outstanding, seamless transition to the applicant discussing their personal journey with skating: “I was struck by how much my students reminded me of myself as a young skater.”
This essay positions the applicant as a grounded and caring individual. They are caring towards the young skaters—changing their teaching style to try to help the young skaters and feeling the young skaters’ emotions with them—but they are also appreciative to those who helped them as they reference their fellow staffers and parents. This shows great maturity—a favorable quality in the eyes of an admissions officer.
At the end of the essay, we know a lot about this student and are convinced that they would be a good addition to a college campus!
Prompt #7, Example #4
Flipping past dozens of colorful entries in my journal, I arrive at the final blank sheet. I press my pen lightly to the page, barely scratching its surface to create a series of loops stringing together into sentences. Emotions spill out, and with their release, I feel lightness in my chest. The stream of thoughts slows as I reach the bottom of the page, and I gently close the cover of the worn book: another journal finished.
I add the journal to the stack of eleven books on my nightstand. Struck by the bittersweet sensation of closing a chapter of my life, I grab the notebook at the bottom of the pile to reminisce.
“I want to make a flying mushen to fly in space and your in it” – October 2008
Pulling back the cover of my first Tinkerbell-themed diary, the prompt “My Hopes and Dreams” captures my attention. Though “machine” is misspelled in my scribbled response, I see the beginnings of my past obsession with outer space. At the age of five, I tore through novels about the solar system, experimented with rockets built from plastic straws, and rented Space Shuttle films from Blockbuster to satisfy my curiosities. While I chased down answers to questions as limitless as the universe, I fell in love with learning. Eight journals later, the same relentless curiosity brought me to an airplane descending on San Francisco Bay.
“I wish I had infinite sunsets” – July 2019
I reach for the charcoal notepad near the top of the pile and open to the first page: my flight to the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes. While I was excited to explore bioengineering, anxiety twisted in my stomach as I imagined my destination, unsure of whether I could overcome my shyness and connect with others.
With each new conversation, the sweat on my palms became less noticeable, and I met students from 23 different countries. Many of the moments where I challenged myself socially revolved around the third story deck of the Jerry house. A strange medley of English, Arabic, and Mandarin filled the summer air as my friends and I gathered there every evening, and dialogues at sunset soon became moments of bliss. In our conversations about cultural differences, the possibility of an afterlife, and the plausibility of far-fetched conspiracy theories, I learned to voice my opinion. As I was introduced to different viewpoints, these moments challenged my understanding of the world around me. In my final entries from California, I find excitement to learn from others and increased confidence, a tool that would later allow me to impact my community.
“The beauty in a tower of cans” – June 2020
Returning my gaze to the stack of journals, I stretch to take the floral-patterned book sitting on top. I flip through, eventually finding the beginnings of the organization I created during the outbreak of COVID-19. Since then, Door-to-Door Deliveries has woven its way through my entries and into reality, allowing me to aid high-risk populations through free grocery delivery.
With the confidence I gained the summer before, I took action when seeing others in need rather than letting my shyness hold me back. I reached out to local churches and senior centers to spread word of our services and interacted with customers through our website and social media pages. To further expand our impact, we held two food drives, and I mustered the courage to ask for donations door-to-door. In a tower of canned donations, I saw the value of reaching out to help others and realized my own potential to impact the world around me.
I delicately close the journal in my hands, smiling softly as the memories reappear, one after another. Reaching under my bed, I pull out a fresh notebook and open to its first sheet. I lightly press my pen to the page, “And so begins the next chapter…”
The structuring of this essay makes it easy and enjoyable to read. The student effectively organizes their various life experiences around their tower of journals, which centers the reader and makes the different stories easy to follow. Additionally, the student engages quotes from their journals—and unique formatting of the quotes—to signal that they are moving in time and show us which memory we should follow them to.
Thematically, the student uses the idea of shyness to connect the different memories they draw out of their journals. As the student describes their experiences overcoming shyness at the Stanford Pre-Collegiate Summer Institutes and Door-to-Door Deliveries, this essay can be read as an Overcoming Obstacles essay.
At the end of this essay, readers are fully convinced that this student is dedicated (they have committed to journaling every day), thoughtful (journaling is a thoughtful process and, in the essay, the student reflects thoughtfully on the past), and motivated (they flew across the country for a summer program and started a business). These are definitely qualities admissions officers are looking for in applicants!
Prompt #7, Example #5
“We’re ready for take-off!”
The tires hit the tarmac and began to accelerate, and I just realized what I had signed up for. For 24 hours straight, I strapped myself into a broken-down SUV whereas others chose the luxury of soaring through the skies for a mere two hours. Especially with my motion sickness and driving anxiety, I would call myself crazy too.
To say I have always remained in my comfort zone is an understatement. Did I always order chicken fingers and fries at a restaurant? Yup! Sounds like me. Did I always create a color-coded itinerary just for a day trip? Guilty as charged. Did I always carry a first-aid kit at all times? Of course! I would make even an ambulance look unprepared. And yet here I was, choosing 1,000 miles of misery from Las Vegas to Seattle despite every bone in my body telling me not to.
The sunlight blinded my eyes and a wave of nausea swept over me. Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator? It was only ten minutes in, and I was certain that the trip was going to be a disaster. I simply hoped that our pre-drive prayer was not stuck in God’s voicemail box.
All of a sudden, I noticed brightly colored rocks in the distance, ones I had been dying to see for years. Their fluorescence popped amongst the magnificent winding hills as the sunset became romantic in hue. The desert glistened with mirages of deep blue water unlike anything I had ever seen. Nevada was home, but home always seemed to be just desert and casinos. For once, I looked forward to endless desert outside my window rather than a sea of clouds.
I never realized how little I discovered of the world beyond home. For years I complained about how there was nothing to do or discover outside. Not once did I set out to prove myself wrong. Instead, I chose a daily routine of homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV. However, as summer vacation ended, I decided to set my stubbornness aside and finally give this drive back home a chance. Little did I know that it would turn out to be my favorite trip of all time.
As we drove along, the world chose to prove me wrong when I discovered Heaven on Earth along Shasta Lake. I stood out of the sunroof, surrounded by lush green mountains and fog. I extended my arms out and felt a sense of flight that no plane could ever take me on. As the water vapor kissed my face, I floated into a dreamland I never wanted to leave. I didn’t have to go to great lengths to discover the beauty of the world; it was right in front of me. From this moment on, comfort and convenience would no longer be my best friends. Rather than only looking for famous travel destinations or following carefully mapped-out routes, I would let curiosity lead the way.
Since then, my daily life has been anything but routine. I’m proud to boast of my family’s homemade kombucha attempts, of flights purchased and taken in one day, and of a home flooded with knick-knacks from thrifting trips. Every day I set out to try something new, see a different perspective, and go beyond normal. Whether it is by trying a new recipe using taro, making a risky fashion choice with wide-legged pants, or listening to a new music genre in Spanish, I always act with curiosity first.
Over the years, I have devoted my time towards learning Swedish, building computers, and swimming. Although my accent is horrid, some computers almost broke, and even a starfish would outswim me, I continue to enjoy activities I once criticized. For me, there is no enjoyment without some risk. Nobody I know is a kazoo-playing, boogie-board loving, boba connoisseur like me.
This essay is an Overcoming Challenges story that centers around a single anecdote. The structure works nicely as the student describes what they were like before their road trip, what happened on the road trip, and what they were like after.
The most major improvement that this essay needs is better-communicated authenticity. At the beginning, it feels a bit gimmicky. The student describes their preparedness, particularly the fact that they always carry a first aid kit, and it’s not super believable. Then, when they write “Was it too late to say I forgot my calculator?” it feels like we are in a sitcom and the student is that funny obsessive kid. Sitcom characters don’t feel real and you want to make yourself appear profoundly real.
On a similar note, the narrative arc of this essay isn’t entirely believable. The student describes a large personality and value shift but doesn’t describe any struggles that accompany the shift. A quick shift like that is far from easy. On the other hand, if the immediacy of the shift was easy, they could write about moments after their shift in mindset when they have felt troubled by residual desires to stay in their comfort zone, instead of writing “I always act with curiosity first.”
The greatest strength of this essay is the paragraphs beginning “I never realized how little…” and “As we drove along…” The fixation on comfort seems much more believable when it involves “homework at the kitchen table and late-night TV.” The descriptions of the drive provide beautiful, evocative imagery. And it’s topped off with some nice reflection! Digging into this great portion of the essay would make this an even stronger essay!
Want to see more examples? Check out this post with 16 strong essay examples from top schools , including common supplemental essay questions.
At selective schools, your essays account for around 25% of your admissions decision. That’s more than grades (20%) and test scores (15%), and almost as much as extracurriculars (30%). Why is this? Most students applying to top schools will have stellar academics and extracurriculars. Your essays are your chance to stand out and humanize your application.
That’s why it’s vital that your essays are engaging, and present you as someone who would enrich the campus community.
Before submitting your application, you should have someone else review your essays. It’s even better if that person doesn’t know you personally, as they can best tell whether your personality shines through your essay.
That’s why we created our free Peer Essay Review tool , where you can get a free review of your essay from another student. You can also improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
If you want a college admissions expert to review your essay, advisors on CollegeVine have helped students refine their writing and submit successful applications to top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!
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Common App Essays | 7 Strong Examples with Commentary
Published on November 19, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on May 31, 2023.
If you’re applying for college via the Common App , you’ll have to write an essay in response to one of seven prompts.
Table of contents
What is the common application essay, prompt 1: background, identity, interest, or talent, prompt 2: overcoming challenges, prompt 3: questioning a belief or idea, prompt 4: appreciating an influential person, prompt 5: transformative event, prompt 6: interest or hobby that inspires learning, prompt 7: free topic, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
The Common Application, or Common App , is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.
Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs. Instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.
Regardless of your prompt choice, admissions officers will look for an ability to clearly and creatively communicate your ideas based on the selected prompt.
We’ve provided seven essay examples, one for each of the Common App prompts. After each essay, we’ve provided a table with commentary on the essay’s narrative, writing style and tone, demonstrated traits, and self-reflection.
Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.
This essay explores the student’s emotional journey toward overcoming her father’s neglect through gymnastics discipline.
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.
When “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” began to play, it was my signal to lay out a winning floor routine. Round off. Back handspring. Double back layout. Stick!
Instead, I jolted off the floor, landing out of bounds. Over the past week, I hadn’t landed that pass once, and regionals were only seven days away. I heaved a heavy sigh and stomped over to the bench.
Coach Farkas saw my consternation. “Mona, get out of your head. You’re way too preoccupied with your tumbling passes. You could do them in your sleep!”
That was the problem. I was dreaming of tumbling and missing my landings, waking up in a cold sweat. The stress felt overwhelming.
“Stretch out. You’re done for tonight.”
I walked home from the gym that had been my second home since fourth grade. Yet my anxiety was increasing every time I practiced.
I startled my mom. “You’re home early! Wait! You walked? Mona, what’s going on?!”
I slumped down at the kitchen table. “Don’t know.”
She sat down across from me. “Does it have anything to do with your father texting you a couple of weeks ago about coming to see you at regionals?”
“So what?! Why does it matter anymore?” He walked out when I was 10 and never looked back. Still, dear ol’ Dad always had a way of resurfacing when I least expected him.
“It still matters because when you hear from him, you tend to crumble. Or have you not noticed?” She offered a knowing wink and a compassionate smile.
I started gymnastics right after Dad left. The coaches said I was a natural: short, muscular, and flexible. All I knew was that the more I improved, the more confident I felt. Gymnastics made me feel powerful, so I gave it my full energy and dedication.
The floor routine became my specialty, and my performances were soon elevating our team score. The mat, solid and stable, became a place to explore and express my internal struggles. Over the years, no matter how angry I felt, the floor mat was there to absorb my frustration.
The bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving because I knew I could fall. My performances in those events were respectable. But, the floor? Sometimes, I had wildly creative and beautiful routines, while other times were disastrous. Sadly, my floor routine had never been consistent.
That Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the empty gym and walked over to the mat. I sat down and touched its carpeted surface. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet with the bitter disappointment of a dad who only showed up when it was convenient for him. I ruminated on the years of practices and meets where I had channeled my resentment into acrobatics and dance moves, resolved to rise higher than his indifference.
I saw then that my deepest wounds were inextricably entangled with my greatest passion. They needed to be permanently separated. While my anger had first served to launch me into gymnastics, before long, I had started serving my anger.
Anger is a cruel master. It corrupts everything it touches, even something as beautiful as a well-choreographed floor routine.
I changed my music days before regionals. “The Devil” no longer had a place in my routine. Instead, I chose an energetic cyberpunk soundtrack that inspired me to perform with passion and laser focus. Dad made an obligatory appearance at regionals, but he left before I could talk to him.
It didn’t matter this time. I stuck every landing in my routine. Anger no longer controlled me. I was finally free.
Word count: 601
This essay shows how the challenges the student faced in caring for her sister with autism resulted in an unexpected path forward in her education.
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?
I never had a choice.
My baby sister was born severely autistic, which meant that every detail of our home life was repeatedly adjusted to manage her condition. I couldn’t go to bed without fearing that Mindy would wake up screaming with that hoarse little voice of hers. I couldn’t have friends over on weekends because we never knew if our entire family would need to shift into crisis mode to help Mindy regain control.
We couldn’t take a family vacation because Mindy would start hitting us during a long car ride when she didn’t want to sit there anymore. We couldn’t even celebrate Christmas like a normal family because Mindy would shriek and run away when we tried to give her presents.
I was five years old when Mindy was born. For the first ten years, I did everything I could to help my mom with Mindy. But Mom was depressed and would often stare out the window, as if transfixed by the view. Dad was no help either. He used his job as an excuse to be away from home. So, I tried to make up for both of them and rescue Mindy however I could whenever she needed it.
However, one day, when I was slowly driving Mindy around with the windows down, trying to lull her into a calmer state, we passed two of my former classmates from middle school. They heard Mindy growling her disapproval as the ride was getting long for her. One of them turned to the other and announced, “Oh my God! Marabeth brought her pet monster out for a drive!” They laughed hysterically and ran down the street.
After that day, I defied my parents at every turn. I also ignored Mindy. I even stopped doing homework. I purposely “got in with the wrong crowd” and did whatever they did.
My high school counselor Ms. Martinez saw through it all. She knew my family’s situation well. It didn’t take her long to guess what had probably happened.
“Marabeth, I get it. My brother has Down syndrome. It was really hard growing up with him as a brother. The other kids were pretty mean about it, especially in high school.”
I doubted she understood. “Yeah. So?”
“I’m guessing something happened that hurt or embarrassed you.”
“I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how you must have felt.”
It must have been the way she said it because I suddenly found myself sobbing into my trembling, cupped hands.
Ms. Martinez and I met every Friday after that for the rest of the year. Her stories of how she struggled to embrace living with and loving her brother created a bridge to my pain and then my healing. She explained that her challenges led her to pursue a degree in counseling so that she could offer other people what no one had given her.
I thought that Mindy was the end of my life, but, because of Ms. Martinez’s example and kindness, I can now see that Mindy is a gift, pointing me toward my future.
Now, I’m applying to study psychology so that I can go on to earn my master’s degree in counseling. I’m learning to forgive my parents for their mistakes, and I’m back in Mindy’s life again, but this time as a sister, not a savior. My choice.
Word Count: 553
This essay illustrates a student’s courage in challenging his culture’s constructs of manhood and changing his course while positively affecting his father in the process.
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
“No son of mine is gonna march around a football field wearing tail feathers while all the real men are playing football!”
I took a step backward and tried not to appear as off-balance as I felt. In my excitement, I had blurted out more information than my father could handle:
“Dad! I made the marching band as a freshman! Nobody does that—I mean nobody!”
As soon as I had said it, I wished I could recall those words. How could I forget that 26 years earlier, he had been the starting wide receiver for the state-champion Tigers on the same field?!
Still, when I opened the email on that scorching hot August afternoon, I was thrilled that five months of practicing every possible major and harmonic minor scale—two octaves up and two octaves down—had made the difference. I had busted reed after reed, trying not to puff my cheeks while moving my fingers in a precise cadence.
I knew he had heard me continually practicing in my room, yet he seemed to ignore all the parts of me that were incongruous with his vision of manhood:
Ford F-150 4x4s. Pheasant hunting. The Nebraska Cornhuskers.
I never had to wonder what he valued. For years, I genuinely shared his interests. But, in the fall of eighth grade, I heard Kyle Wheeling play a saxophone solo during the homecoming marching band halftime show. My dad took me to every football game to teach me the plays, but that night, all I could think about was Kyle’s bluesy improv at halftime.
During Thanksgiving break, I got my mom to drive me into Omaha to rent my instrument at Dietze Music, and, soon after, I started private lessons with Mr. Ken. Before long, I was spending hours in my room, exploring each nuance of my shiny Yamaha alto sax, anticipating my audition for the Marching Tigers at the end of the spring semester.
During those months of practice, I realized that I couldn’t hide my newfound interest forever, especially not from the football players who were going to endlessly taunt me. But not all the guys played football. Some were in choir and theater. Quite a few guys were in the marching band. In fact, the Marching Tigers had won the grand prize in their division at last year’s state showdown in Lincoln.
I was excited! They were the champions, and I was about to become a part of their legacy.
Yet, that afternoon, a sense of anxiety brewed in my belly. I knew I had to talk to him.
He was sweeping the grass clippings off of the sidewalk. He nodded.
“I need to tell you something.”
He looked up.
“I know that you know about my sax because you hear me practicing. I like it a lot, and I’m becoming pretty good at it. I still care about what you like, but I’m starting to like some other things more. I hope you’ll be proud of me whatever I choose.”
He studied the cracks in the driveway. “I am proud of you. I just figured you’d play football.”
We never talked about it again, but that fall, he was in the stands when our marching band won the state championship in Lincoln for the second time. In fact, for the next four years, he never left the stands during halftime until the marching band had performed. He was even in the audience for every performance of “Our Town” at the end of my junior year. I played the Stage Manager who reveals the show’s theme: everything changes gradually.
I know it’s true. Things do change over time, even out here in central Nebraska. I know because I’ve changed, and my dad has changed, too. I just needed the courage to go first.
Word count: 626
The student demonstrates how his teacher giving him an unexpected bad grade was the catalyst for his becoming a better writer.
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?
I stared in disbelief at the big red letter at the top of my paper: D.
Never in my entire high school career had I seen that letter at the top of any paper, unless it was at the beginning of my first name.
I had a 4.796 GPA. I had taken every pre-AP and AP course offered. My teachers had praised my writing skills! However, Mr. Trimble didn’t think so, and he let me know it:
“Darwin, in the future, I believe you can do better if you fully apply yourself.”
I furiously scanned the paper for corrections. Not even one! Grammar and syntax? Perfect. Spelling? Impeccable. Sentence and paragraph structure? Precise and indisputable, as always.
Was he trying to ruin my GPA? Cooper was clearly his favorite, and we were neck and neck for valedictorian, which was only one year away. Maybe they were conspiring to take me down.
Thankfully, AP Composition was my last class. I fled the room and ran to my car. Defiant tears stained my cheeks as I screeched my tires and roared out of the parking lot. When I got home, I shoved in my AirPods, flopped on my bed, and buried my head under the pillow.
I awoke to my sister, Daria, gently shaking my arm. “I know what happened, D. Trimble stopped me in the hall after school.”
“I’m sure he did. He’s trying to ruin my life.”
“That’s not what he told me. You should talk to him, D.”
The next day, although I tried to avoid Mr. Trimble at all costs, I almost tripped over him as I was coming out of the bathroom.
“Darwin, can we talk?”
He walked me down the hall to his room. “Do you know that you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever had in AP Comp?”
“Then why’d you do it?”
“Because you’re better than you know, Darwin. You impress with your perfect presentations, and your teachers reward you with A’s and praise. I do frequent the teacher’s lounge, you know.”
“So I know you’re not trying.”
I locked eyes with him and glared.
“You’ve never had to try because you have a gift. And, in the midst of the acclaim, you’ve never pushed yourself to discover your true capabilities.”
“So you give me a D?!”
“It got your attention.”
“You’re not going to leave it, are you?”
“Oh, the D stands. You didn’t apply yourself. You’ll have to earn your way out with your other papers.”
I gained a new understanding of the meaning of ambivalence. Part of me was furious at the injustice of the situation, but I also felt strangely challenged and intrigued. I joined a local writer’s co-op and studied K. M. Weiland’s artistic writing techniques.
Multiple drafts, track changes, and constructive criticism became my new world. I stopped taking Mr. Trimble’s criticism personally and began to see it as a precious tool to bolster me, not break me down.
Last week, the New York Public Library notified me that I was named one of five finalists for the Young Lions Fiction Award. They described my collection of short stories as “fresh, imaginative, and captivating.”
I never thought I could be grateful for a D, but Mr. Trimble’s insightful courage was the catalyst that transformed my writing and my character. Just because other people applaud you for being the best doesn’t mean you’re doing your best .
AP Composition is now recorded as an A on my high school transcript, and Cooper and I are still locked in a tight race for the finish line. But, thanks to Mr. Trimble, I have developed a different paradigm for evaluation: my best. And the more I apply myself, the better my best becomes.
Word Count: 627
This student narrates how she initially went to church for a boy but instead ended up confronting her selfishness by helping others.
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Originally, I went to church not because I was searching for Jesus but because I liked a boy.
Isaac Ono wasn’t the most athletic boy in our class, nor was he the cutest. But I was amazed by his unusual kindness toward everyone. If someone was alone or left out, he’d walk up to them and say hello or invite them to hang out with him and his friends.
I started waking up at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday morning to attend Grace Hills Presbyterian, where Isaac’s father was the pastor. I would strategically sit in a pew not too close but close enough to Isaac that when the entire congregation was instructed to say “Peace be with you,” I could “happen” to shake Isaac’s hand and make small talk.
One service, as I was staring at the back of Isaac’s head, pondering what to say to him, my hearing suddenly tuned in to his father’s sermon.
“There’s no such thing as a good or bad person.”
My eyes snapped onto Pastor Marcus.
“I used to think I was a good person who came from a respectable family and did nice things. But people aren’t inherently good or bad. They just make good or bad choices.”
My mind raced through a mental checklist of whether my past actions fell mostly into the former or latter category.
“As it says in Deuteronomy 30:15, ‘I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.’ Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and do good.”
I glanced to my left and saw Margaret, underlining passages in her study Bible and taking copious notes.
Months earlier, I had befriended Margaret. We had fourth-period Spanish together but hadn’t interacted much. She was friends with Isaac, so I started hanging out with her to get closer to him. But eventually, the two of us were spending hours in the Starbucks parking lot having intense discussions about religion, boys, and our futures until we had to return home before curfew.
After hearing the pastor’s sermon, I realized that what I had admired about Isaac was also present in Margaret and other people at church: a welcoming spirit. I’m pretty sure Margaret knew of my ulterior motives for befriending her, but she never called me out on it.
After that day, I started paying more attention to Pastor Marcus’s sermons and less attention to Isaac. One year, our youth group served Christmas Eve dinner to the homeless and ate with them. I sat across from a woman named Lila who told me how child services had taken away her four-year-old daughter because of her financial and living situation.
A few days later, as I sat curled up reading the book of James, my heart suddenly felt heavy.
“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”
I thought back to Pastor Marcus’s sermon on good and bad actions, Lila and her daughter, and the times I had passed people in need without even saying hello.
I decided to put my faith into action. The next week, I started volunteering at the front desk of a women’s shelter, helping women fill out forms or watching their kids while they talked with social workers.
From working for the past year at the women’s shelter, I now know I want to major in social work, caring for others instead of focusing on myself. I may not be a good person (or a bad one), but I can make good choices, helping others with every opportunity God gives me.
Word count: 622
This essay shows how a student’s natural affinity for solving a Rubik’s cube developed her self-understanding, academic achievement, and inspiration for her future career.
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?
The worst part about writing is putting down my Rubik’s cube so that I can use my hands to type. That’s usually the worst part of tackling my to-do list: setting aside my Rubik’s cube. My parents call it an obsession. But, for me, solving a Rubik’s cube challenges my brain as nothing else can.
It started on my ninth birthday. I invited three friends for a sleepover party, and I waited to open my presents right before bed. Wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows flew through the air as I oohed and aahed over each delightful gift! However, it was the last gift—a 3 x 3 x 3 cube of little squares covered in red, green, blue, yellow, white, and orange—that intrigued me.
I was horrified when Bekka ripped it out of my hands and messed it all up! I had no idea how to make all the sides match again. I waited until my friends were fast asleep. Then, I grabbed that cube and studied it under my blanket with a flashlight, determined to figure out how to restore it to its former pristine state.
Within a few weeks, I had discovered the secret. To practice, I’d take my cube with me to recess and let the other kids time me while I solved it in front of them. The better I became, the more they gathered around. But I soon realized that their attention didn’t matter all that much. I loved solving cubes for hours wherever I was: at lunch, riding in the car, or alone in my room.
Cross. White corners. Middle-layer edges. Yellow cross. Sune and anitsune.
The sequential algorithms became second nature, and with the assistance of a little black digital timer, I strove to solve the cube faster , each time attempting to beat my previous record. I watched speed solvers on YouTube, like Australia’s Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park from Massachusetts, but I wasn’t motivated to compete as they did. I watched their videos to learn how to improve my time. I liked finding new, more efficient ways of mastering the essential 78 separate cube-solving algorithms.
Now, I understand why my passion for my Rubik’s cube has never waned. Learning and applying the various algorithms soothes my brain and centers my emotions, especially when I feel overwhelmed from being around other people. Don’t get me wrong: I like other people—just in doses.
While some people get recharged by spending time with others, I can finally breathe when I’m alone with my cube. Our psychology teacher says the difference between an extrovert and an introvert is the situations that trigger their brains to produce dopamine. For me, it’s time away, alone, flipping through cube patterns to set a new personal best.
Sometimes, the world doesn’t cooperate with introverts, requiring them to interact with many people throughout the day. That’s why you’ll often find me in the stairwell or a library corner attempting to master another one of the 42 quintillion ways to solve a cube. My parents tease me that when I’ve “had enough” of anything, my fingers get a Rubik’s itch, and I suddenly disappear. I’m usually occupied for a while, but when I finally emerge, I feel centered, prepared to tackle my next task.
Secretly, I credit my cube with helping me earn top marks in AP Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics. It’s also responsible for my interest in computer engineering. It seems I just can’t get enough of those algorithms, which is why I want to study the design and implementation of cybersecurity software—all thanks to my Rubik’s cube.
Just don’t tell my parents! It would ruin all the fun!
Word count: 607
In this free topic essay, the student uses a montage structure inspired by the TV show Iron Chef America to demonstrate his best leadership moments.
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.
Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition
The time has come to answer college’s most difficult question: Whose story shows glory?
This is … Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition!
Welcome to Kitchen Stadium! Today we have Chef Brett Lowell. Chef Brett will be put to the test to prove he has what it takes to attend university next fall.
And the secret ingredient is … leadership! He must include leadership in each of his dishes, which will later be evaluated by a panel of admissions judges.
So now, America, with a creative mind and empty paper, I say unto you in the words of my teacher: “Let’s write!”
Appetizer: My first leadership experience
A mountain of mismatched socks, wrinkled jeans, and my dad’s unironed dress shirts sat in front of me. Laundry was just one of many chores that welcomed me home once I returned from my after-school job at Baskin Robbins, a gig I had taken last year to help Dad pay the rent. A few years earlier, I wasn’t prepared to cook dinners, pay utility bills, or pick up and drop off my brothers. I thought those jobs were reserved for parents. However, when my father was working double shifts at the power plant and my mom was living in Tucson with her new husband, Bill, I stepped up and took care of the house and my two younger brothers.
Main course: My best leadership experience
Between waiting for the pasta water to boil and for the next laundry cycle to be finished, I squeezed in solving a few practice precalculus problems to prepare for the following week’s mathletics competition. I liked how the equations always had clear, clean answers, which calmed me among the mounting responsibilities of home life. After leading my team to the Minnesota State Finals for two years in a row, I was voted team captain. Although my home responsibilities often competed with my mathlete duties, I tried to be as productive as possible in my free time. On the bus ride home, I would often tackle 10 to 20 functions or budget the following week’s meals and corresponding grocery list. My junior year was rough, but both my home and my mathlete team needed me.
Dessert: My future leadership hopes
The first thing I ever baked was a chocolate cake in middle school. This was around the time that Mom had just moved out and I was struggling with algebra. Troubles aside, one day my younger brother Simon needed a contribution for his school’s annual bake sale, and the PTA moms wouldn’t accept anything store-bought. So I carefully measured out the teaspoons and cups of various flours, powders, and oils, which resulted in a drooping, too-salty disaster.
Four years later, after a bakery’s worth of confections and many hours of study, I’ve perfected my German chocolate cake and am on my way to mastering Calculus AB. I’ve also thrown out the bitter-tasting parts of my past such as my resentment and anger toward my mom. I still miss having her at home, but whenever I have a baking question or want to update her on my mathlete team’s success, I call her or chat with her over text.
Whether in school or life, I see problems as opportunities, not obstacles, to find a better way to solve them more efficiently. I hope to continue improving my problem-solving skills next fall by majoring in mathematics and statistics.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this tasting of Chef Lowell’s leadership experiences. Next fall, tune in to see him craft new leadership adventures in college. He’s open to refining his technique and discovering new recipes.
Word count: 612
If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Writing process
- Transition words
- Passive voice
- How to end an email
- Ms, mrs, miss
- How to start an email
- I hope this email finds you well
- Hope you are doing well
Parts of speech
- Personal pronouns
The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.
Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.
When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.
No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.
To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:
- Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
- Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories
You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.
A standout college essay has several key ingredients:
- A unique, personally meaningful topic
- A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
- Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
- Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
- Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
- A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
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Here’s the Deal on the COVID-19 Question on the Common App
This year, high school junior students have had every element of their college admissions disrupted by the pandemic, so it really should be no surprise that COVID-19 would filter into college applications, too. The Common Application recently announced the addition of an optional short essay to their application platform focused entirely on the effect the pandemic has had upon your life.
What are the Facts?
This essay will be brief with a maximum word count of 250 words. This short essay will be located in the Additional Information section of the Common Application. The question is absolutely optional and does not need to be answered if you do not wish to include an answer. In fact, the essay begins with asking a Yes/No question about whether you want to answer this essay prompt in the first place.
What is the Prompt?
The new essay prompt on the Common App reads: “Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.”
Why Was This Essay Added?
Imagine for a moment that you are an admissions counselor at your top college. You’re likely reading dozens of essays each day, sometimes 40 essays in a day in addition to other office meetings. Now, you know that for many students, the pandemic is the most significant event of their lives, and rightly so! But you’re reading dozens of essays and most of them are about pandemic experiences. By the end of the day, students start to blend together and it’s tough to pick a few standout essays. Essentially, you’re reading dozens of variations on the same story.
Hopefully this scenario gives you the perspective to understand that college counselors are anticipating a tough admissions season ahead, in terms of essay topics. The addition of this question to the Common Application does a few great things:
- It allows students to focus their main Personal Statement on other deep topics that shaped your character.
- It still preserves space to separately address ways you handled the challenges of the pandemic, so this aspect of your life is not lost.
The great news is that colleges genuinely want to get to know who you are as the person behind the application. You will now have essay space to share everything you want them to know about you, without feeling forced to talk about a particular event.
Who Should Answer This Prompt?
With the transition to online learning and the cancelation of standardized testing, juniors have already faced quite a few challenges this year. This new essay prompt is your space to share the things you specifically faced during quarantine. So here’s the deal: If the challenges you faced could match the challenges faced by every other student in your class (like difficulty submitting assignments online or frustration over canceled SATs), consider skipping this essay. It’s likely that recounting these irritants will seem redundant to the admissions department.
However, if the pandemic altered your life in a major way, this essay is made for you. Did the quarantine affect your parents’ employment? Did a family member contract the disease? Do you have an immediate family member in healthcare who risked their lives on the frontline? Did a learning disability greatly impair your ability to adjust to the new online learning style? Were you suddenly placed in a parental role with your younger siblings, as your parents worked from home? Did you have limited access to home computers due to siblings also learning from home?
Admissions counselors want to know the major ways you were affected by the quarantine to evaluate your application with all the facts. They want to know how you reacted to these challenges and see how you persevered. Above all, keep the essay focused on you and your response.
How Should You Approach This Essay?
Beyond the ways in which the pandemic affected your life, keep in mind that colleges always want to know how you showed leadership and creativity in the face of adversity. This essay is no different. If you are answering this essay prompt, make sure you can also describe your positive response to the situation you were placed in this year.
Here’s an example: A student I worked with included a leadership project on her Common App Activities section called Quilts of Valor. She hosted workshops teaching younger students how to sew Quilts of Valor to honor veterans, as a gift from civilians. She also mentions this briefly in her main Personal Statement as one of the reasons she was drawn to Education as a major. So, what is she writing about in her COVID-19 essay? She’s describing how her past experience with sewing quilts allowed her to recognize a need for masks in her community and produce them with materials she already had on hand in her craft space. Her past leadership experience organizing workshops allowed her to swiftly organize her past and present students remotely to begin producing masks for those in need. She essentially uses her mere 250 words to support items in her resume, and she demonstrates her depth of character by using every tool at her disposal for the benefit of others. What college wouldn’t admit her?
Use this essay space to describe how you triumphed in this challenging time, and the essay will be a true asset to the rest of your application. Demonstrate how you used your skills to shine light in a dark time. But remember: keep the pandemic content contained within this essay prompt, and allow your other essays to focus on allowing the admissions team to know you beyond the pandemic.
Author: Michaela Schieffer
Michaela Schieffer is a former admissions counselor and now independent college counselor, guiding students through their college applications and essays through MoonPrep.com . Moon Prep's specialty lies in the Ivy League, direct medical programs (BS/MD), and highly competitive universities.
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How to Answer the COVID-19 Question on the Common App
August 21, 2022
With COVID-19 having been an omnipresent force in all of our lives, including the entire educational universe, it should come as little surprise that the virus even managed to infiltrate the college application itself two years ago. This will remain the case as the Class of 2023 applies to college this fall. As of August 2022, over 1,000,000 Americans have died from COVID-19, and many have felt the economic impact of inflation and supply chain challenges. In addition to feeling the health-related and economic consequences, American teenagers had to deal with interruptions to in-person learning, the cancellation of long-awaited events and milestones, and an unnatural period of social isolation.
In an acknowledgement that the Class of 2023 has universally been impacted by the coronavirus crisis, the Common Application, which is used by over one million students each year to apply to one of 1,000+ member institutions, announced that the following COVID-19 prompts, introduced last cycle, will remain part of the application in 2022-23.
1) A 250-word optional question for applicants
2) A 500-word question for guidance counselors
Let’s dive in and look at both coronavirus questions in detail and talk about how students may want to approach this offering.
COVID-19 Question for Students on Common App
The prompt, which appears in the Additional Information section of the Common App reads as follows:
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
- Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
- Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.
The response length will be limited to 250 words. It does not eat into the 650 words allotted for any other entry to the Additional Information section. The application will also feature an FAQ to help students consider the kinds of impacts they may wish to report, including:
- Illness and loss
- Housing and employment disruptions
- Shifting family obligations
Now that you understand the scope of the question, let’s tackle the first big decision point…
Should I answer the COVID-19 question on the Common App?
Applicants should keep in mind that college admissions officers are not alien beings who just touched down on Earth yesterday. They are human beings who have lived through the pandemic themselves. Therefore they do not need to be introduced to the very nature of the situation. Admissions officers are all fully aware of all of the basic facts pertaining to secondary education. For example, that schools shifted to online instruction in March 2020, that SAT/ACT tests were cancelled, the AP exams were administered remotely, etc.
There is no need to chronicle school-related challenges that were faced by literally every high school student, unless you believe that:
- Your grades were negatively impacted by the shift online.
- Your AP scores were lower because of the lack of instruction/online format.
- Your standardized test results (should you choose to submit them) were negatively impacted by the multiple SAT/ACT cancellations.
If you feel that the disruptions caused by coronavirus negatively impacted what appears on your transcript in any way, you should definitely use this space to explain. If you ended up with all “A”s and “5”s on your AP tests, then there is no need explain the obstacles you faced, unless you feel this communicates something about you (grit, perseverance, etc.).
Of course, if the pandemic impacted you in any personal way—loss of a family member’s job/income, death or serious illness of a family member, or, more tangentially, in the form of anxiety/depression, then you should, without question, use these 250 words to convey the full extent of your suffering.
How Should I Approach the COVID-19 Question?
If you emerged from reading the previous section certain that it is in your best interest to answer the question, the next issue is figuring out how to do so in an effective manner. Unlike with your Common App essay, 250 words does not give you the space with which to tell a complex and personal story in full technicolor. As such, we recommend following these two simple rules:
1) Lead off with the facts
Don’t start with a flowery or literary opening. There is likewise no reason to introduce the coronavirus and explain its broader impact. Did your mother lose her job? Did your grandfather pass away? Was there an uptick in childcare duties for your younger siblings, nieces, nephews, or cousins? Get right to the meat of the story in the first sentence or two.
2) Explain how these changes impacted YOU
Don’t forget to make this response about you . Citing things that happened to your family, friends, or community without explaining how these events made you feel and how they altered your everyday life would not make for an impactful answer. Also, make sure to provide specific details about causation when applicable. For example, don’t just say that dealing with caring for a younger sibling was “hard” or “a distraction.” Instead, be explicit about how that newfound responsibility prevented you from being able to study sufficiently for your AP Chemistry exam.
One additional consideration when pondering how/whether to address the coronavirus question is what the admissions officers will already know about the impact of the crisis on your particular high school. This brings us to the other new section on the Common App…
COVID-19 Question for School Counselors on Common App
Applicants should be fully aware of what is being asked of school counselors in their section of the Common Application as well as—even more importantly—how their counselor answers the question. The prompt for counselors is as follows:
Your school may have made adjustments due to community disruptions such as COVID–19 or natural disasters. If you have not already addressed those changes in your uploaded school profile or elsewhere, you can elaborate here. Colleges are especially interested in understanding changes to:
- Grading scales and policies
- Graduation requirements
- Instructional methods
- Schedules and course offerings
- Testing requirements
- Your academic calendar
- Other extenuating circumstances
Your guidance counselor will have 500 words to address this question. They can also upload additional files or send URLs to pages containing school or district-specific policies. Once a counselor crafts their response, it can be populated into the applications of all students on their caseloads. Nothing personal to your situation will be disclosed by your counselor in this section.
What Students Should Know About the Counselor Question
We encourage students to ask their counselor to see a copy of this statement. Some guidance departments will undoubtedly craft a blanket statement to be used by all counselors. Others will see counselors pen their own descriptions. Seeing this will be helpful to students because you will know what will automatically be communicated to your prospective colleges. For example, if your counselor explains that you were forced to be on virtual instruction for 70% of the 2020-21 school year and that all SAT administrations at your high school were cancelled in the fall, then there is no need for you to repeat that information in your own COVID-19 response.
College Transitions’ Final Thoughts
Every college admissions officer out there already knows a good deal about the COVID-19 pandemic because a) they lived through it themselves and b) your guidance counselor will have provided a summary of how it impacted your high school. The pandemic has victimized everyone on the planet in one way or another—even if it’s “just” injecting increased doses of anxiety, uncertainty, and loneliness into our lives. If you have a personal story to tell, we encourage you to do so. If not, feel free to skip this section in 2022-23.
For advice directly from the Common App, check out this FAQ .
For a look at the main Common App essays, click here .
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‘When Normal Life Stopped’: College Essays Reflect a Turbulent Year
This year’s admissions essays became a platform for high school seniors to reflect on the pandemic, race and loss.
By Anemona Hartocollis
This year perhaps more than ever before, the college essay has served as a canvas for high school seniors to reflect on a turbulent and, for many, sorrowful year. It has been a psychiatrist’s couch, a road map to a more hopeful future, a chance to pour out intimate feelings about loneliness and injustice.
In response to a request from The New York Times, more than 900 seniors submitted the personal essays they wrote for their college applications. Reading them is like a trip through two of the biggest news events of recent decades: the devastation wrought by the coronavirus, and the rise of a new civil rights movement.
In the wake of the high-profile deaths of Black people like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers, students shared how they had wrestled with racism in their own lives. Many dipped their feet into the politics of protest, finding themselves strengthened by their activism, yet sometimes conflicted.
And in the midst of the most far-reaching pandemic in a century, they described the isolation and loss that have pervaded every aspect of their lives since schools suddenly shut down a year ago. They sought to articulate how they have managed while cut off from friends and activities they had cultivated for years.
To some degree, the students were responding to prompts on the applications, with their essays taking on even more weight in a year when many colleges waived standardized test scores and when extracurricular activities were wiped out.
This year the Common App, the nation’s most-used application, added a question inviting students to write about the impact of Covid-19 on their lives and educations. And universities like Notre Dame and Lehigh invited applicants to write about their reactions to the death of George Floyd, and how that inspired them to make the world a better place.
The coronavirus was the most common theme in the essays submitted to The Times, appearing in 393 essays, more than 40 percent. Next was the value of family, coming up in 351 essays, but often in the context of other issues, like the pandemic and race. Racial justice and protest figured in 342 essays.
“We find with underrepresented populations, we have lots of people coming to us with a legitimate interest in seeing social justice established, and they are looking to see their college as their training ground for that,” said David A. Burge, vice president for enrollment management at George Mason University.
Family was not the only eternal verity to appear. Love came up in 286 essays; science in 128; art in 110; music in 109; and honor in 32. Personal tragedy also loomed large, with 30 essays about cancer alone.
Some students resisted the lure of current events, and wrote quirky essays about captaining a fishing boat on Cape Cod or hosting dinner parties. A few wrote poetry. Perhaps surprisingly, politics and the 2020 election were not of great interest.
Most students expect to hear where they were admitted by the end of March or beginning of April. Here are excerpts from a few of the essays, edited for length.
Nandini, a senior at the Seven Hills School in Cincinnati, took care of her father after he was hospitalized with Covid-19. It was a “harrowing” but also rewarding time, she writes.
When he came home, my sister and I had to take care of him during the day while my mom went to work. We cooked his food, washed his dishes, and excessively cleaned the house to make sure we didn’t get the disease as well.
It was an especially harrowing time in my life and my mental health suffered due to the amount of stress I was under.
However, I think I grew emotionally and matured because of the experience. My sister and I became more responsible as we took on more adult roles in the family. I grew even closer to my dad and learned how to bond with him in different ways, like using Netflix Party to watch movies together. Although the experience isolated me from most of my friends who couldn’t relate to me, my dad’s illness taught me to treasure my family even more and cherish the time I spend with them.
Nandini has been accepted at Case Western and other schools.
Through her church in Des Moines, Grace, a senior at Roosevelt High School, began a correspondence with Alden, a man who was living in a nursing home and isolated by the pandemic.
As our letters flew back and forth, I decided to take a chance and share my disgust about the treatment of people of color at the hands of police officers. To my surprise, Alden responded with the same sentiments and shared his experience marching in the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
Here we were, two people generations apart, finding common ground around one of the most polarizing subjects in American history.
When I arrived at my first Black Lives Matter protest this summer, I was greeted by the voices of singing protesters. The singing made me think of a younger Alden, stepping off the train at Union Station in Washington, D.C., to attend the 1963 March on Washington.
Grace has been admitted to Trinity University in San Antonio and is waiting to hear from others.
Ahmed, who attends the American School of Kuwait, wrote of growing stronger through the death of his revered grandfather from Covid-19.
Fareed Al-Othman was a poet, journalist and, most importantly, my grandfather. Sept. 8, 2020, he fell victim to Covid-19. To many, he’s just a statistic — one of the “inevitable” deaths. But to me, he was, and continues to be, an inspiration. I understand the frustration people have with the restrictions, curfews, lockdowns and all of the tertiary effects of these things.
But I, personally, would go through it all a hundred times over just to have my grandfather back.
For a long time, things felt as if they weren’t going to get better. Balancing the grief of his death, school and the upcoming college applications was a struggle; and my stress started to accumulate. Covid-19 has taken a lot from me, but it has forced me to grow stronger and persevere. I know my grandfather would be disappointed if I had let myself use his death as an excuse to slack off.
Ahmed has been accepted by the University of California, Irvine, and the University of Miami and is waiting to hear from others.
Mina, who lives in a shelter in San Joaquin County, Calif., wrote of becoming homeless in middle school.
Despite every day that I continue to face homelessness, I know that I have outlets for my pain and anguish.
Most things that I’ve had in life have been destroyed, stolen, lost, or taken, but art and poetry shall be with me forever.
The stars in “Starry Night” are my tenacity and my hope. Every time I am lucky enough to see the stars, I am reminded of how far I’ve come and how much farther I can go.
After taking a gap year, Mina and her twin sister, Mirabell, have been accepted at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore and are waiting on others.
Christine Faith Cabusay
Christine, a senior at Stuyvesant High School in New York, decided to break the isolation of the pandemic by writing letters to her friends.
How often would my friends receive something in the mail that was not college mail, a bill, or something they ordered online? My goal was to make opening a letter an experience. I learned calligraphy and Spencerian script so it was as if an 18th-century maiden was writing to them from her parlor on a rainy day.
Washing lines in my yard held an ever-changing rainbow of hand-recycled paper.
With every letter came a painting of something that I knew they liked: fandoms, animals, music, etc. I sprayed my favorite perfume on my signature on every letter because I read somewhere that women sprayed perfume on letters overseas to their partners in World War II; it made writing letters way more romantic (even if it was just to my close friends).
Christine is still waiting to hear from schools.
Her father’s death from complications of diabetes last year caused Alexis, a student at the Gwinnett School of Mathematics, Science and Technology in Lawrenceville, Ga., to consider the meaning of love.
And in the midst of my grief swallowing me from the inside out, I asked myself when I loved him most, and when I knew he loved me. It’s nothing but brief flashes, like bits and pieces of a dream. I hear him singing “Fix You” by Coldplay on our way home, his hands across the table from me at our favorite wing spot that we went to weekly after school, him driving me home in the middle of a rainstorm, his last message to me congratulating me on making it to senior year.
It’s me finding a plastic spoon in the sink last week and remembering the obnoxious way he used to eat. I see him in bursts and flashes.
A myriad of colors and experiences. And I think to myself, ‘That’s what it is.’ It’s a second. It’s a minute. That’s what love is. It isn’t measured in years, but moments.
Alexis has been accepted by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is waiting on others.
She and her mother came to America “with nothing but each other and $100,” writes Ivy, who was born in Kenya and attends North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Ga.
I am a triple threat. Foreign, black, female. From the dirt roads and dust that covered the attire of my ancestors who worshiped the soil, I have sprouted new beginnings for generations.
But the question arises; will that generation live to see its day?
Melanin mistaken as a felon, my existence is now a hashtag that trends as often as my rights, a facade at best, a lie in truth. I now know more names of dead blacks than I do the amendments of the Constitution.
Ivy is going to Emory University in Atlanta on full scholarship and credits her essay with helping her get in.
Mary Clare Marshall
The isolation of the pandemic became worse when Mary Clare, a student at Sacred Heart Greenwich in Connecticut, realized that her mother had cancer.
My parents acted like everything was normal, but there were constant reminders of her diagnosis. After her first chemo appointment, I didn’t acknowledge the change. It became real when she came downstairs one day without hair.
No one said anything about the change. It just happened. And it hit me all over again. My mom has cancer.
Even after going to Catholic school for my whole life, I couldn’t help but be angry at God. I felt myself experiencing immense doubt in everything I believe in. Unable to escape my house for any small respite, I felt as though I faced the reality of my mom’s cancer totally alone.
Mary Clare has been admitted to the University of Virginia and is waiting on other schools.
Nora Frances Kohnhorst
Nora, a student at the High School of American Studies at Lehman College in New York, was always “a serial dabbler,” but found commitment in a common pandemic hobby.
In March, when normal life stopped, I took up breadmaking. This served a practical purpose. The pandemic hit my neighborhood in Queens especially hard, and my parents were afraid to go to the store. This forced my family to come up with ways to avoid shopping. I decided I would learn to make sourdough using recipes I found online. Initially, some loaves fell flat, others were too soft inside, and still more spread into strange blobs.
I reminded myself that the bread didn’t need to be perfect, just edible.
It didn’t matter what it looked like; there was no one to see or eat it besides my brother and parents. They depended on my new activity, and that dependency prevented me from repeating the cycle of trying a hobby, losing steam, and moving on to something new.
Nora has been admitted to SUNY Binghamton and the University of Vermont and is waiting to hear from others.
Gracie Yong Ying Silides
Gracie, a student at Greensboro Day School in North Carolina, recalls the “red thread” of a Chinese proverb and wonders where it will take her next.
Destiny has led me into a mysterious place these last nine months: isolation. At a time in my life when I am supposed to be branching out, the Covid pandemic seems to have trimmed those branches back to nubs. I have had to research colleges without setting foot on them. I’ve introduced myself to strangers through essays, videos, and test scores.
I would have fallen apart over this if it weren’t for my faith.
In Hebrews 11:1, Paul says that “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” My life has shown me that the red thread of destiny guides me where I need to go. Though it might sound crazy, I trust that the red thread is guiding me to the next phase of my journey.
Gracie has been accepted to St. Olaf College, Ithaca College and others.
Levi, a student at Westerville Central High School in Ohio, wrestles with the conflict between her admiration for her father, a police officer, and the negative image of the police.
Since I was a small child I have watched my father put on his dark blue uniform to go to work protecting and serving others. He has always been my hero. As the African-American daughter of a police officer, I believe in what my father stands for, and I am so proud of him because he is not only my protector, but the protector of those I will likely never know. When I was young, I imagined him always being a hero to others, just as he was to me. How could anyone dislike him??? However, as I have gotten older and watched television and social media depict the brutalization of African-Americans, at the hands of police, I have come to a space that is uncomfortable.
I am certain there are others like me — African-Americans who love their police officer family members, yet who despise what the police are doing to African-Americans.
I know that I will not be able to rectify this problem alone, but I want to be a part of the solution where my paradox no longer exists.
Levi has been accepted to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and is waiting to hear from others.
Henry Thomas Egan
When Henry, a student at Creighton Preparatory School in Omaha, attended a protest after the death of George Floyd, it was the words of a Nina Simone song that stayed with him.
I had never been to a protest before; neither my school, nor my family, nor my city are known for being outspoken. Thousands lined the intersection in all four directions, chanting, “He couldn’t breathe! George Floyd couldn’t breathe!”
In my head, thoughts of hunger, injustice, and silence swirled around.
In my ears, I heard lyrics playing on a speaker nearby, a song by Nina Simone: “To be young, gifted, and Black!” The experience was exceptionally sad and affirming and disorienting at the same time, and when the police arrived and started firing tear gas, I left. A lot has happened in my life over these last four years. I am left not knowing how to sort all of this out and what paths I should follow.
Henry has not yet heard back from colleges.
Anna, a student at Coronado High School in California, pondered how children learned racism from their parents.
“She said I wasn’t invited to her birthday party because I was black,” my sister had told my mom, devastated, after coming home from third grade as the only classmate who had not been invited to the party. Although my sister is not black, she is a dark-skinned Mexican, and brown-skinned people in Mexico are thought of as being a lower class and commonly referred to as “negros.” When my mom found out who had been discriminating against my sister, she later informed me that the girl’s mother had also bullied my mom about her skin tone when she was in elementary school in Mexico City.
Through this situation, I learned the impact people’s upbringing and the values they are taught at home have on their beliefs and, therefore, their actions.
Anna has been accepted at Northeastern University and is waiting to hear from others.
Research was contributed by Asmaa Elkeurti, Aidan Gardiner, Pierre-Antoine Louis and Jake Frankenfield.
Anemona Hartocollis is a national correspondent, covering higher education. She is also the author of the book, “Seven Days of Possibilities: One Teacher, 24 Kids, and the Music That Changed Their Lives Forever.” More about Anemona Hartocollis
Help on Writing the COVID-19 Common App Essay Question
July 18, 2020 by Veritas Essays Team | COVID , Common App , Essays , Personal Statement
The questions that are likely on every applicant's mind this year are:
What will college admissions officers do in 2020 when everyone's application essays are about COVID-19? How do I address COVID in my Common App essays? And how do I stand out from the crowd?
Thankfully, the company behind the Common Application has anticipated these concerns by adding an optional, dedicated prompt for students to address the impact of COVID-19 on their lives. The prompt has a maximum length of 250 words.
By including this new prompt, the Common App is strongly suggesting that your primary Personal Statement essay not focus on the pandemic.
Instead, students should:
Proceed normally on their Personal Statements as they would in non-pandemic application years, writing a Personal Statement that sheds light on the qualitative aspects of themselves and their candidacy that aren't conveyed elsewhere in their applications.
Take advantage of this extra essay prompt to provide information on how COVID has affected them and their families.
What is the COVID Essay?
As stated in a blog post from the Common App in May of 2020:
The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the lives and postsecondary plans for many students. We want to reduce anxiety for applicants affected by these events and provide them with a way to share their experience with colleges and universities. Next year, on the 2020-2021 application, Common App will provide students who need it with a dedicated space to elaborate on the impact of the pandemic, both personally and academically. We want to provide colleges with the information they need, with the goal of having students answer COVID-19 questions only once while using the rest of the application as they would have before to share their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19. Below is the question applicants will see: Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces. Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you. The question will be optional and will appear in the Additional Information section of the application. The response length will be limited to 250 words .
What’s more, the Common App has added an additional question to the school counselor section of the Common App, providing your counselor with the opportunity to elaborate on changes to grading scales, graduation requirements, course offerings, or other circumstances that have been brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic.
You should make sure that your counselor is aware of this question and uses the opportunity to provide relevant academic details for your candidacy.
How to Write the COVID Essay
The next question is how to answer the COVID-19 prompt .
The biggest piece of advice I have for applicants is avoid trying to do too much on this essay.
It may be tempting to simply list everything that has happened to you over the past 6 months.
But within a 250-word allowance, it will be impossible to tell all of those stories at once in the detail needed to leave an impression on an admissions reader who will be reading hundreds of the same exact essay.
Select two or three of the most concrete impacts that the pandemic has had on your life.
Whether a parent lost a job and you were forced to pick up work, you faced the death of a close friend or loved one, or you started a new hobby during your quarantine, your application reader wants to get a sense of how you deal with an adversity that has affected everyone to varying degrees, and the depth of that shared adversity in your individual case.
Stylistically, this essay can be written as a straightforward list of events with the usual beginning, middle, and end structure:
Beginning: How were you/your community impacted?
Middle: How did it challenge you, and what did you do to push through that adversity?
End: What did you learn from this experience, or will continue to work on?
Alternatively, your essay could take a more creative/story-telling approach and focus on the show, don’t tell principle, most commonly used in the larger 650-word Personal Statement essay.
In this approach, the focus might be centered on a specific anecdote of how you/your community were impacted by the virus. You could tell a short story about this one instance, and how it changed your relationship with a particular person or how you view yourself in the world.
While this may be hard for some students to accomplish successfully within 250 words, it may be more appealing to read for an overworked admissions officer who has seen more essays of the aforementioned "list" variety than the latter "story-telling" approach.
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How to Write the Common App Essay–Examples for 2023-2024
So, you’re applying to college and are probably panicking about how to write the hardest part of your application: the Common Application essay. Don’t panic! We’re here to help. If you keep the following tips in mind, we’re confident that you’ll be well on your way to drafting a strong application essay that screams out, “Dear College, this is who I am, and here’s why you want me!”
So, let’s start with some basics.
What is the Common Application Essay?
The Common Application centralizes the admissions process for over 900 schools. These participating colleges and universities all use the same common biographical and academic information forms. Most of the schools also require or accept the Common Application essay. Neat, huh? Essentially, you choose the schools you want to apply to, add them to your application list, fill in the general demographic and biographical information, upload or input academic records and standardized testing information, designate people to write you recommendations, and upload the Common Application essay. All of this is done in one place. That’s it. Simple, right?
Now, many of the top-tiered schools require additional information and essays, but most of these documents can be uploaded into the Common Application. If you’re applying to art schools, the schools will provide extra links on their Common Application sites. Those links will lead you to a website where you can upload your art portfolio and additional documents. We’ll discuss such additional requirements in another post.
What do I need to include in the Common App Essay?
While the Common Application essay regularly makes adjustments to its essay prompts, for the 2022-2023 college application season, the prompts will remain exactly the same as last year, when the rarely used prompt about solving a problem was replaced with one that was inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, to, according to Common App President & CEO Jenny Rickard, “help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives.” The 2023-2024 Common App Essay prompts also still contain the optional COVID-19 prompt that appeared in 2020.
- Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
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?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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?
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
- 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.
Did you notice a common theme among these questions? At its core, the Common Application essay is designed to make you answer the question, “WHO are you?” What colleges and universities want to know is (1) how your experiences or background have shaped you into the person you are today and (2) how who you are today is going to affect your future academic performance.
Why is the Common App Essay important?
This essay is one of the most important parts of your application, and in some cases, especially for top-tiered schools, it is weighed as much as, or more than, your grades and test scores—estimates say that they can account for anywhere from 10 to 30% of admission decisions. Why? Well, think about it. If most of the applicants applying to a top college have similar academic profiles, how can the schools distinguish one candidate from another? It’s all in the story you craft, and we’re here to help you present the best version of you !
Preparing to Write Your Common App Essay
A good starting point for writing a successful application essay is reading Common App essay examples that got other students admitted to their schools of choice. However, keep in mind that you do that for inspiration only and that your goal is not to copy anyone—ultimately, you’ll have to come up with your very own story and present it in your very own way. The tips and “dos and don’ts” below can help you do exactly that as you prepare to write or rewrite your Common Application essay.
You are also well advised to ask your teachers, counselors, and other mentors for advice at any step of the process: Maybe come up with a list of potential topics and let someone who knows you and is aware of your goal (to get into your school of choice) give you feedback on what they think suits or doesn’t suit you. Or make a draft of your story (maybe just in your head) and call your mentor to ask them if they would choose you as a prospective student based on that story. You can of course also seek out professional proofreaders like us to help you revise your personal statement and make it shine!
The two main points of getting yourself ready for writing your Common App essay are (1) that admissions committees have no preference for which prompt you choose and (2) that your essay is not a place to restate what you already said on your resumé or in the Common App “activities” section. You also don’t have to prove that you somehow changed the world or did something heroic. Instead, the essay is a chance for you to show the admissions committee the “you” that your friends, classmates, teachers, and family know. Our advice for where to start is to brainstorm the best (most interesting, most meaningful, most unique…) stories about your life that you can think of, and then look at the question prompts and decide which one your story could be an answer to.
Common App Essay Writing Timelines
Now that we agree on how important your Common App essay is, you will not be surprised if we recommend that you start working on it several months before the actual deadline. Why so early? Because you don’t want to rush or force it or regret your choice of topic when it’s too late to change. If you see this as a creative process that needs time, you’ll make the most out of it and also learn a lot along the way that will help you with writing other essays and assignments once you got into your school of choice!
Timeline 1: Write a Common App Essay in three months
Now you have one finished essay to apply with and two more weeks to show it around for more feedback in case you get second thoughts or to change it up again after sleeping on it for a couple of days.
If this seems like way too much time to invest in and focus on your essay, then try this:
Timeline 2: Write your Common App Essay in one month
Since you don’t have much time for feedback if you start that late, make sure you contact your advisors/teachers well in advance to let them know when you’ll be ready so that they can schedule you in or tell you when they are available. You don’t want to pressure people and step on their toes when you need their valuable input!
Great Common App Essay Examples for 2023-2024
We found some of the best Common App essay examples from this year and years past to give you a sense of what kinds of essays work best to captivate admissions officials. We have listed essay examples in each section by their corresponding essay prompt to help you understand what kinds of responses are most suitable. Although your essay will be unique and might vary significantly from the examples below, read through each one to get an overall idea.
Common App Essay Examples: 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 prompt asks applicants to write about what makes them uniquely them. Whether you’re writing about a hobby, your background, or how you define yourself, it’s important to tell a story so central to who you are that your application would be incomplete without it.
When answering this prompt, it’s easy to repeat information that you are already presenting outside of the essay. Avoid this at all costs. Remember: the essay is supposed to add a new dimension to your application.
See this sample essay to get a sense of what a great response to this prompt could look like.
- Handiwork – An essay about interest in creating crafts. This student expertly illustrates their dedication to a hobby by presenting anecdotes packed with sensory details.
Excerpt from “Handiwork”
I’ve always been a crafter. From the early days of Kindergarten macaroni ornaments, to making my own prom dress last year, I’ve had a knack for creating things. For drafting sketches, drawing plans, making calculations, gathering supplies, adding finishing touches. There is something so satisfying about holding something you, and you alone, have made—something that was just an image in your mind until you set about to bring it into existence, to create something new, something different. I’m sure there are hundreds of doll furniture sets out there in that same gray and pink, but there is only one with fitted (albeit with sloppy stitching) navy blue covers. There’s a sense of pride there, however small.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #2
This is one of the more challenging prompts. It can be difficult to demonstrate strength and potential while writing about failure. However, if you’re comfortable with introspection and making yourself a bit more vulnerable, this prompt is a great option.
A good response to this prompt demonstrates a high level of confidence and maturity as well as humility and a willingness to learn. Simply writing about a failure does nothing; students should focus on how they handled their failures in positive ways.
This essay example demonstrates how to approach this prompt.
- Striking Out – An essay about setbacks and overcoming obstacles. Note the effectiveness of this kind of narrative in showing your abilities and perseverance.
Excerpt from “Striking Out”
About a week later, some of my friends from the team got together at the park to hang out. When I arrived, I was a little surprised that no one seemed to be mad at me – after all, I’d lost us the game, and they had to be disappointed about not making it to the semifinals. It wasn’t until we split into teams for an impromptu pickup game that I started to realize why no one was upset. Maybe it was the excitement of reaching the playoffs or the pressure of living up to my brothers’ examples, but sometime during that game, I’d lost sight of why most of us played summer league baseball. It wasn’t to win the championship, as cool as that would have been. It was because we all loved to play. I didn’t need a trophy or a Hollywood come-from-behind win to have fun playing baseball with my friends, but maybe I needed to strike out to remember that.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #3
This is an extremely broad question – students could write about nearly anything they have ever questioned. It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all ideas and beliefs make great essays.
Students should not write about something superficial; they should write about ideas and beliefs that are central to their identities. A response to this prompt should demonstrate thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, and an ability to think analytically.
The following essay demonstrates what it takes to address this prompt effectively.
- Gym Class Hero – An essay about challenging an idea despite all the odds being stacked against you. Note the author’s use of internal monologue to move the narrative along and captivate the reader.
Excerpt from “Gym Class Hero”
Where did my doubt come from? No one ever said to me, “Oh, you can’t run a mile.” I don’t even remember any askance looks, any raised eyebrows implying I was out of my depth. Middle-schoolers can be a cruel bunch, but not that day. There was just that voice in my head, as clear as a bell: “You’ll never be able to run a mile. You can’t even climb stairs without getting winded. It’s going to hurt. You’ll probably pass out. You could never run a mile.’ A whole mile? That voice was right. It was, in my mind, impossibly long. What was I going to do?
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #4
As mentioned above, this prompt was added last year and inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically, by research on the benefits of writing about the positive influence that other people have on our lives.
While this prompt may seem to be asking a simple question, your answer has the potential to provide deep insights into who you are to the admissions committee. Explaining what you are grateful for can show them your culture, your community, your philosophical outlook on the world, and what makes you tick.
Common App Essay Examples: Prompt #5
We all have had experiences that helped us grow and mature, and this prompt is therefore a good option for most—if not all—applicants.
The key here is to choose the “right” accomplishment, event, or realization and then write about it in a way that showcases depth and self-analytical skills. When identifying a period of personal growth, try to stay within the past few years. You want to show the admissions officers who you are now, and a childhood story is not likely to accomplish this as effectively.
This essay is a great example of how to properly approach this prompt.
- Student Teacher – An essay about an event that sparked personal growth. This essay example shows how demonstrating mental growth and wisdom can be just as effective as retelling how you overcame a difficulty.
Excerpt from “Student Teacher”
Anthony’s success wasn’t just his plane. He had succeeded in making me aware of my own failures. Here was a student who was never taken seriously and had developed a bunch of behavioral issues as a result. I never stopped to look for his potential, discover his interests, or get to know the kid beneath the facade. I had grossly underestimated Anthony, and I am grateful that he was able to disillusion me. I like to think that I’m an open-minded, liberal, and non-judgmental person. Anthony taught me that I’m not there yet.
Common App Essay Examples: 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?
Like Prompt 3, Prompt 6 is very broad, and allows students to write about nearly any interest they might have. The purpose of this question is to learn what excites and motivates an applicant. Therefore, this option is ideal for students with concrete and established passions. On the other hand, students who are not sure what they are enthusiastic about should probably consider a different prompt.
To approach this prompt, start by listing all the topics, ideas, and concepts you care most about and then narrow those down to those you can describe, justify, and explain .
See the following essay, taken from this collection of “essays that worked” , to get a sense of what makes a great response to this prompt about passion for a hobby.
Excerpt from “Left and Right Don’t Exist”
Through flying, I began to consider all points of view, regardless of my personal perspective. Perhaps it was my ability to scan the horizon to communicate a single story, uniting contrasting outlooks, that drew me to my love for journalism and the diverse melting pot that was my community. To me, journalism modernizes the ancient power of storytelling, filled with imperfect characters and intricate conflicts to which I am the narrator. As editor-in-chief for my school newspaper, The Wildcat’s Tale, I aim to share the uncensored perspective of all students and encourage my editorial groups to talk — and listen — to those with whom they disagree. Starting each newspaper edition with a socratic, round-table discussion, I ask the other journalists to pursue stories that answer the questions: why did this happen and where will it lead?
Additional Common App Essay Writing Tips
There are a few other common essay mistakes you should avoid, and reading about these in advance might help you steer clear of making a fundamental error when it comes to choosing your application essay topic.
Preparing Your Common App Essay for Submission
We know we keep repeating ourselves, but after writing your application essay, be sure to have it reviewed by a trusted friend or colleague, and edited by a professional editing service like Wordvice before you finally hand it in. And while writing, make use of our hundreds of admissions resources on making your way through the college and university admissions process.
An outstanding admissions essay should have a great topic. However, it should also use clear, crisp, engaging language and be free of errors. If you require further help on this front, check out Wordvice’s full suite of English editing and proofreading services , including our essay editing services . These services are ideal for international students who struggle with English or any students who want to take their essays to the next level.
Wordvice essay editors not only correct grammatical and stylistic errors but also provide suggestions on how you can improve the content of your essays. We are proud to say that we were ranked best admissions essay editing service by Wired.com. Check out Wordvice’s AI proofreading tool and admissions editing services to learn how our editors can elevate your writing and help you get into your dream school.
How to Write About Coronavirus in a College Essay
Students can share how they navigated life during the coronavirus pandemic in a full-length essay or an optional supplement.
Writing About COVID-19 in College Essays
Experts say students should be honest and not limit themselves to merely their experiences with the pandemic. (Getty Images)
The global impact of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, means colleges and prospective students alike are in for an admissions cycle like no other. Both face unprecedented challenges and questions as they grapple with their respective futures amid the ongoing fallout of the pandemic.
Colleges must examine applicants without the aid of standardized test scores for many – a factor that prompted many schools to go test-optional for now . Even grades, a significant component of a college application, may be hard to interpret with some high schools adopting pass-fail classes last spring due to the pandemic. Major college admissions factors are suddenly skewed.
"I can't help but think other (admissions) factors are going to matter more," says Ethan Sawyer, founder of the College Essay Guy, a website that offers free and paid essay-writing resources.
College essays and letters of recommendation , Sawyer says, are likely to carry more weight than ever in this admissions cycle. And many essays will likely focus on how the pandemic shaped students' lives throughout an often tumultuous 2020.
But before writing a college essay focused on the coronavirus, students should explore whether it's the best topic for them.
Writing About COVID-19 for a College Application
Much of daily life has been colored by the coronavirus. Virtual learning is the norm at many colleges and high schools, many extracurriculars have vanished and social lives have stalled for students complying with measures to stop the spread of COVID-19.
"For some young people, the pandemic took away what they envisioned as their senior year," says Robert Alexander, dean of admissions, financial aid and enrollment management at the University of Rochester in New York. "Maybe that's a spot on a varsity athletic team or the lead role in the fall play. And it's OK for them to mourn what should have been and what they feel like they lost, but more important is how are they making the most of the opportunities they do have?"
That question, Alexander says, is what colleges want answered if students choose to address COVID-19 in their college essay.
But the question of whether a student should write about the coronavirus is tricky. The answer depends largely on the student.
"In general, I don't think students should write about COVID-19 in their main personal statement for their application," Robin Miller, master college admissions counselor at IvyWise, a college counseling company, wrote in an email.
"Certainly, there may be exceptions to this based on a student's individual experience, but since the personal essay is the main place in the application where the student can really allow their voice to be heard and share insight into who they are as an individual, there are likely many other topics they can choose to write about that are more distinctive and unique than COVID-19," Miller says.
Opinions among admissions experts vary on whether to write about the likely popular topic of the pandemic.
"If your essay communicates something positive, unique, and compelling about you in an interesting and eloquent way, go for it," Carolyn Pippen, principal college admissions counselor at IvyWise, wrote in an email. She adds that students shouldn't be dissuaded from writing about a topic merely because it's common, noting that "topics are bound to repeat, no matter how hard we try to avoid it."
Above all, she urges honesty.
"If your experience within the context of the pandemic has been truly unique, then write about that experience, and the standing out will take care of itself," Pippen says. "If your experience has been generally the same as most other students in your context, then trying to find a unique angle can easily cross the line into exploiting a tragedy, or at least appearing as though you have."
But focusing entirely on the pandemic can limit a student to a single story and narrow who they are in an application, Sawyer says. "There are so many wonderful possibilities for what you can say about yourself outside of your experience within the pandemic."
He notes that passions, strengths, career interests and personal identity are among the multitude of essay topic options available to applicants and encourages them to probe their values to help determine the topic that matters most to them – and write about it.
That doesn't mean the pandemic experience has to be ignored if applicants feel the need to write about it.
Writing About Coronavirus in Main and Supplemental Essays
Students can choose to write a full-length college essay on the coronavirus or summarize their experience in a shorter form.
To help students explain how the pandemic affected them, The Common App has added an optional section to address this topic. Applicants have 250 words to describe their pandemic experience and the personal and academic impact of COVID-19.
"That's not a trick question, and there's no right or wrong answer," Alexander says. Colleges want to know, he adds, how students navigated the pandemic, how they prioritized their time, what responsibilities they took on and what they learned along the way.
If students can distill all of the above information into 250 words, there's likely no need to write about it in a full-length college essay, experts say. And applicants whose lives were not heavily altered by the pandemic may even choose to skip the optional COVID-19 question.
"This space is best used to discuss hardship and/or significant challenges that the student and/or the student's family experienced as a result of COVID-19 and how they have responded to those difficulties," Miller notes. Using the section to acknowledge a lack of impact, she adds, "could be perceived as trite and lacking insight, despite the good intentions of the applicant."
To guard against this lack of awareness, Sawyer encourages students to tap someone they trust to review their writing , whether it's the 250-word Common App response or the full-length essay.
Experts tend to agree that the short-form approach to this as an essay topic works better, but there are exceptions. And if a student does have a coronavirus story that he or she feels must be told, Alexander encourages the writer to be authentic in the essay.
"My advice for an essay about COVID-19 is the same as my advice about an essay for any topic – and that is, don't write what you think we want to read or hear," Alexander says. "Write what really changed you and that story that now is yours and yours alone to tell."
Sawyer urges students to ask themselves, "What's the sentence that only I can write?" He also encourages students to remember that the pandemic is only a chapter of their lives and not the whole book.
Miller, who cautions against writing a full-length essay on the coronavirus, says that if students choose to do so they should have a conversation with their high school counselor about whether that's the right move. And if students choose to proceed with COVID-19 as a topic, she says they need to be clear, detailed and insightful about what they learned and how they adapted along the way.
"Approaching the essay in this manner will provide important balance while demonstrating personal growth and vulnerability," Miller says.
Pippen encourages students to remember that they are in an unprecedented time for college admissions.
"It is important to keep in mind with all of these (admission) factors that no colleges have ever had to consider them this way in the selection process, if at all," Pippen says. "They have had very little time to calibrate their evaluations of different application components within their offices, let alone across institutions. This means that colleges will all be handling the admissions process a little bit differently, and their approaches may even evolve over the course of the admissions cycle."
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Published September 02, 2020
So You Want to Talk About COVID-19 in Your Application
Assistant Director, NYU Abu Dhabi Admissions
So You're Applying to College During a Global Pandemic.
As if the application process in itself wasn’t daunting enough! You, the Class of 2025, have the added task of doing so while navigating all the ways in which COVID-19 has impacted you. And you may be wondering should you talk about COVID-19 in your application?
I want to start off by reassuring you that as institutions of higher education, we not only understand, but we care. What we have collectively experienced this year has impacted us all in many diverse ways. No one has been left un-impacted by the pandemic. We understand that applying to university this year is going to be different. We are working around the clock to create new and innovative ways to support you on this journey.
At NYU, we have created a series of virtual opportunities for students and parents to learn about our three degree-granting campuses. We have also amended our already flexible testing policy. No student who is unable to submit standardized testing this year will be disadvantaged in the application process. We are also working closely with your counselors to understand what changes and unique challenges you might be facing this year.
But what can YOU do?
This is a question that’s probably on your mind a lot. How do you address the impact of COVID-19 in your application?
I’d like to start off by assuring you that you absolutely do not have to. We by no means expect you to. You will not be penalized in your application if you never use the words ‘global pandemic’ or ‘corona’ or ‘COVID-19’ even once.
It’s important to understand that the complexity of the world we live in means that both good and bad can coexist. It is possible to hold space for everything. For grief and joy. Happiness and sadness. Pain and peace. You can totally choose to focus your essays on absolutely anything else other than the global pandemic. After all, we are not the sum total of the things that have happened to us. And the point of the essays is for you to tell us about who you are, and how you will fit into our community. It’s very important that the essence of you doesn’t get lost in your application.
That being said, you may still want to address the global pandemic somewhere in your application. We understand that your application may be grossly incomplete without the context of your experience. And there are a myriad of ways for you to go about doing that.
1. The New Optional Common App Covid-19 Question
This might be the most natural way to talk about COVID-19 in your application. The College Board has responded to the unique crisis students are facing this year by adding a new question to the Common App :
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
- Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
- Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.
You’ll have 250 words to express exactly how the global pandemic has impacted you and your education specifically. My advice for using this question would be to be succinct and to the point. You don’t have to craft an essay or make it flow . Just simply outline what you think we should know about your unique situation that is relevant to your application process.
2. In the Additional Information Section of the Common App.
This section allows 650 words and has always been one I’ve advocated using to explain any inconsistencies in your application. Maybe 250 words are not enough to fully tackle the challenges you’ve had to face/overcome this year, or explain inconsistencies. Feel free to use the additional information section to outline anything. Low grades and test scores. Financial challenges. Physical or mental health problems. Loss. If you think it’s impacted your application in any way, or it’s relevant to understanding who you are, we want to know about it.
3. In the Personal Statement
So ignore everything I said about not addressing the pandemic in your essay for a second, because you still can. The key is to make sure who you are and what you want us to know about you doesn’t get lost in the narrative.
Tragedy, pain, loss, sickness, anxiety, fear – they often have this strange way of sparking innovation and rediscovery. Maybe during this time you learned more about yourself. Maybe you found a deeper appreciation for family because you had to spend all day in proximity to them. Your career interests may have evolved. You may have volunteered, or developed a unique program to help others during the pandemic. While you were you before this pandemic began, you and your perspectives may have evolved with it. Remember: no situation is all bad. Good can come from hard things. So that’s something worth writing about if you feel like you fall into that category.
4. In the Counselor Recommendation
Whether or not you choose to address how the current pandemic has impacted you individually in your application is up to you. However, we would definitely like to know how the pandemic has impacted your education. You’re welcome to free up space in your application by allowing your counselor to address this. This could range from testing changes, to changes in grading policies and course offerings. Perhaps part of your coursework was taken remotely online and the other in person. We understand that environment has the ability to impact academic outcomes, so these are all relevant pieces of information for us to have.
I have also seen counselors address personal issues of their students in their letters as well. Maybe there are sensitive issues you don’t feel comfortable writing about yourself. There really is no ‘eloquent way’ to write about hardship or loss. But if it’s easier for you, your counselor can address it for you in their letter so you don’t have to.
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High school students have been dealt a lot of curveballs with the coronavirus pandemic and transition to e-learning. If the spring (and potentially fall) 2020 semester haven't gone quite the way you wanted, the Common Application is giving you the opportunity to address that in an optional essay. This guide will cover everything you need to know about the Common App COVID essay, including why it was added, what the actual prompt is, if it's a good idea for you to answer it, and what you should and shouldn't include in your response.
Why Did the Common Application Add a COVID Essay?
In May 2020, the Common App announced that it will be adding a new, optional essay prompt where students can explain impacts the COVID-19 pandemic may have had on them, both personally and academically.
Why did the Common App make this change? It's well-known that the coronavirus pandemic has upended the lives of many people, including many high school students. You likely had to transition to e-learning, may not have had reliable internet or a place to study, struggled with online tests, been unable to take the SAT or ACT when you wanted, been unable to participate in sports or other extracurriculars, dealt with people you care about becoming ill, etc. Dealing with any of these challenges can seriously impact what your college application looks like.
In this time when there's so much to worry about, the Common App (and many colleges ) want to alleviate some of that worry by recognizing the challenges high school students have faced this year. If any part of your application isn't as strong as you want it to be as a result of the coronavirus, this is your chance to explain the situation. By including this new prompt in the Common App, students who use the Common Application to fill out their college applications only need to answer COVID-related questions one time, rather than once for every school they're applying to.
Additionally, having a dedicated COVID essay allows you to focus the rest of your application on other things, so college admissions teams don't receive millions (literally) of personal statements about the impacts of the virus and e-learning.
This is an optional essay, and you won't be penalized if you don't complete it. However, if you suffered challenges due to the pandemic and feel they might negatively impact your college applications, this is your chance to explain the situation.
What Is the COVID Essay Prompt?
This is the prompt for the Common App coronavirus essay:
- Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
- Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you."
You'll find this essay prompt in the Additional Information section of the application, and your response can be up to 250 words.
Should You Complete This Supplement Essay?
First, it's important to remember that the COVID essay is completely optional. You won't be penalized whatsoever if you choose not to answer it. So should you? To decide, ask yourself two questions:
- Did you struggle academically or personally as a result of the pandemic?
- Did/will these struggles negatively impact your college applications?
If you answered "yes" to both questions, then you should respond to the essay prompt. If you didn't struggle, that's great, and you don't need to worry about this essay. If you did struggle but still managed to keep up your grades and extracurriculars to about what they would have been without COVID-19, that's awesome, and congratulations on your hard work. You also don't need to answer the prompt (although you always can if want to). This essay is available to give students the option to explain why parts of their application aren't as strong as they wanted them to be as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Some ways you might have been negatively impacted by the pandemic include:
- Lower grades
- Lack of SAT/ACT scores
- Lack of AP scores or AP scores lower than expected
- Fewer extracurriculars/ less participation in extracurriculars
- Missing out on a competition or award you hoped to receive
- Missing out on an internship/job shadow/work experience
- Participating less in virtual classes than you did in in-person classes
There are numerous causes for these struggles, including:
- Poor internet connection
- Having to share a computer with other family members
- Not having access to a quiet study space
- Not being able to meet in person for clubs or sports
- Competitions being cancelled or postponed
- Feeling depressed or anxious
- Struggling to feel motivated to participate in e-learning
- Difficulties learning online vs in-person
- Standardized test dates being cancelled
- Having to juggle additional chores or responsibilities
If any of those strike a chord with you, this essay is your chance to explain to colleges how you were impacted by COVID-19.
Tips for Addressing the COVID Common App Essay
There are lots of ways you can answer the Common App COVID essay, but by following these four tips you're sure to have a strong response that will show your strengths to colleges.
#1: Focus Only on Pandemic-Related Issues
This essay is only for challenges you had that relate to the coronavirus pandemic. If you got mono, switched schools, or had other non-pandemic related challenges you want colleges to know about, this isn't where you should discuss them. Instead, write about those issues in the other Additional Information optional essay included in the Common App. That optional essay gives you the opportunity to discuss general circumstances and qualifications. It's included on the application every year, and you can write up to 650 words.
#2: Show Where You Made an Effort
This essay doesn't automatically absolve you of any drops in grades or lack of extracurriculars this semester; you still need to show colleges that you worked hard and gave it your best shot. Everyone struggled during the pandemic, and colleges want to know that you didn't give up when things got tough. You should show that you still tried your best, even if you didn't match your pre-pandemic grades, test scores, activities, etc. Whenever you mention an area you struggled in, be sure to also explain how you made the best of it and made the spring 2020 semester as strong as it could be. Examples of above-and-beyond effort can include asking your teachers for additional help, studying more than usual to understand e-learning material, helping classmates or siblings study, focusing more on take-home projects than online exams that required strong internet, etc.
#3: Keep it Concise
You're only allowed 250 words for your response to this essay, which can be used up very quickly. This means you want to make your point quickly without including a lot of additional information. We recommend following a "this happened and this was the result" formula.
For example, "When my high school transitioned to e-learning, my three siblings and I had to share our family's one computer. This meant I didn't have as much time to work on my schoolwork as I wanted, and when I could use the computer it was often late at night or early in the morning and harder to get help from my teachers or classmates. As a result, my pre-calculus grade for the second semester was lower than my first semester grade, which I don't believe would have been the case if the pandemic hadn't occurred."
That response is 94 words, and it clearly lays out the cause (having to share one computer in a family of six) and the effect (a lower pre-calculus grade than normal).
#4: Focus Only on How You Were Impacted
As we mentioned above, you don't have a ton of space for your response to the COVID essay, so you want to be sure you're not including unnecessary information. To stay focused, only discuss the individual challenges you faced. That means you don't need to write about all the changes your school made as they transitioned to e-learning if you were still able to manage the changes and keep up your grades. The Common App is also adding a question to the form it has school counselors fill out that allows them to discuss school-wide changes as a result of the pandemic. This includes changes to syllabi, testing requirements, graduation requirements, grading scales and policies, school calendar, and instructional methods. So don't feel like you need to explain all the changes your school made; you only need to write about how you were impacted.
Which schools use the Common Application? Our guide lists every school you can apply to with the Common App.
Beyond the COVID essay, which Common App essay prompt should you choose? Learn your options for essay prompts and strategies to follow by reading our guide to Common App essays.
Working on your other college essays? Learn what not to do with our in-depth guide.
Want to write the perfect college application essay? Get professional help from PrepScholar.
Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We'll learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay that you'll proudly submit to your top choice colleges.
Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now :
Christine graduated from Michigan State University with degrees in Environmental Biology and Geography and received her Master's from Duke University. In high school she scored in the 99th percentile on the SAT and was named a National Merit Finalist. She has taught English and biology in several countries.
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2023-2024 Common App Essay Prompts
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We are pleased to announce that the Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2023-2024.
It’s not just for the sake of consistency that we have chosen to keep the essay prompts the same for the upcoming application year. Our past research has shown that overall satisfaction with the prompts exceeded 95% across our constituent groups - students, counselors, advisors, teachers, and member colleges. Moving forward, we want to learn more about who is choosing certain prompts to see if there are any noteworthy differences among student populations.
We know some schools are beginning to have conversations with juniors and transfer students about their college options. As we’ve always said, this is not a call for students to begin writing. We hope that by sharing the prompts now, students will have the time they need to reflect on their own personal stories and begin thinking about what they want to share with colleges. As you assist students with their planning, feel free to share our Common App Ready resource on approaching the essay (in English and Spanish ). You can also visit our YouTube channel to view our breakdown of all 7 Common App essay prompts .
"Moving forward, we want to learn more about who is choosing certain prompts to see if there are any noteworthy differences among student populations." Meredith Lombardi, Director, Education and Training, Common App
Students who are ready to start exploring the application can create their Common App account prior to August 1. With account rollover , we will retain any responses to questions on the Common App tab, including the personal essay.
Below is the full set of essay prompts for 2023-2024.
- 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.
- 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?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- 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?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- 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?
- 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.
We will retain the optional community disruption question within the Writing section.