Resources › For Students and Parents The 2020-21 Common Application Essay Prompts Tips and Guidance for the 7 Essay Options on the New Common Application Share Flipboard Email Print damircudic / Getty Images For Students and Parents College Admissions College Admissions Process College Profiles College Rankings Choosing A College Application Tips Essay Samples & Tips Testing Graphs College Financial Aid Extracurricular Activities Advanced Placement Homework Help Private School Test Prep College Life Graduate School Business School Law School Distance Learning View More By Allen Grove College Admissions Expert Ph.D., English, University of Pennsylvania M.A., English, University of Pennsylvania B.S., Materials Science & Engineering and Literature, MIT Dr. Allen Grove is an Alfred University English professor and a college admissions expert with 20 years of experience helping students transition to college. our editorial process Facebook Facebook Twitter Twitter Allen Grove Updated August 30, 2020 For the 2020-21 application cycle, the Common Application essay prompts remain unchanged from the 2019-20 cycle. With the inclusion of the popular "Topic of Your Choice" option, you have the opportunity to write about anything you want to share with the folks in the admissions office. The current prompts are the result of much discussion and debate from the member institutions who use the Common Application. The essay length limit stands at 650 words (the minimum is 250 words), and students will need to choose from the seven options below. The essay prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. The best essays focus on self-analysis, rather than spending a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student. If your essay doesn't include some self-analysis, you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt. According to the folks at the Common Application, in the 2018-19 admissions cycle, Option #7 (topic of your choice) was the most popular and was used by 24.1% of applicants. The second most popular was Option #5 (discuss an accomplishment) with 23.7% of applicants. In third place was Option #2 on a setback or failure. 21.1% of applicants chose that option. From the Admissions Desk "While the transcript and grades will always be the most important piece in the review of an application, essays can help a student stand out. The stories and information shared in an essay are what the Admissions Officer will use to advocate for the student in the admissions committee."–Valerie Marchand WelshDirector of College Counseling, The Baldwin SchoolFormer Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania Always keep in mind why colleges are asking for an essay: they want to get to know you better. Nearly all selective colleges and universities (as well as many that aren't overly selective) have holistic admissions, and they consider many factors in addition to numerical measures such as grades and standardized test scores. Your essay is an important tool for presenting something you find important that may not come across elsewhere in your application. Make sure your essay presents you as the type of person a college will want to invite to join their community. Below are the seven options with some general tips for each: Option #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. "Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write a story about your "background, identity, interest, or talent." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. You could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your "interest" or "talent" could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why the story you tell is so meaningful. See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #1Sample essay for option #1: "Handiwork" by VanessaSample essay for option #1: "My Dads" by CharlieSample essay for option #1: "Give Goth a Chance"Sample essay for option #1: "Wallflower" Option #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? This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss setbacks and failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question—how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty are key with this prompt. See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #2Sample essay for option #2: "Striking Out" by RichardSample essay for option #2: "Student Teacher" by Max Option #3 Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief. The answer to the final question about the "outcome" of your challenge need not be a success story. Sometimes in retrospection, we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt. See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #3Sample essay for option #3: "Gym Class Hero" by Jennifer Option #4 Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma--anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. Here, again, the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question. With the ability to write about an "intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma," you can essentially write about any issue that you find important. Note that you do not have to have solved the problem, and some of the best essays will explore problems that need to be solved in the future. Be careful with that opening word "describe"—you'll want to spend much more time analyzing the problem than describing it. This essay prompt, like all of the options, is asking you to be introspective and share with the admissions folks what it is that you value. See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #4Sample essay for option #4: "Grandpa's Rubik's Cube" Option #5 Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. This question was reworded in 2017-18 admissions cycle, and the current language is a huge improvement. The prompt use to talk about transitioning from childhood to adulthood, but the new language about a "period of personal growth" is a much better articulation of how we actually learn and mature (no single event makes us adults). Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). This prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay—admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play (see the list of bad essay topics for more about this issue). These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment. See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #5Sample essay for option #5: "Buck Up" by Jill Option #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? This option was entirely new in 2017, and it's a wonderfully broad prompt. In essence, it's asking you to identify and discuss something that enthralls you. The question gives you an opportunity to identify something that kicks your brain into high gear, reflect on why it is so stimulating, and reveal your process for digging deeper into something that you are passionate about. Note that the central words here—"topic, idea, or concept"—all have rather academic connotations. While you may lose track of time when running or playing football, sports are probably not the best choice for this particular question. See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #6 Option #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. The popular "topic of your choice" option had been removed from the Common Application between 2013 and 2016, but it returned again with the 2017-18 admissions cycle. Use this option if you have a story to share that doesn't quite fit into any of the options above. However, the first six topics are extremely broad with a lot of flexibility, so make sure your topic really can't be identified with one of them. Also, don't equate "topic of your choice" with a license to write a comedy routine or poem (you can submit such things via the "Additional Info" option). Essays written for this prompt still need to have substance and tell your reader something about you. Cleverness is fine, but don't be clever at the expense of meaningful content. See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #7Sample essay for option #7: "My Hero Harpo" by Alexis Final Thoughts Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis rather than merely describing a place or event. The folks at The Common Application have cast a wide net with these questions, and nearly anything you want to write about could fit under at least one of the options. If your essay could fit under more than one option, it really doesn't matter which one you choose. Many admissions officers, in fact, don't even look at which prompt you chose—they just want to see that you have written a good essay.