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How to Put Your Best Foot Forward Answering Common App Essay Prompts 2022-2023

May 2022



Article by Herman Barnes

Article by Herman Barnes

Northeastern's Human Services program graduate, Herman Barnes contributes to our blog pro bono. He sees his mission in helping students prepare for academic careers by providing them with experience and skill-based background required for successful studying and research.

Common App is the most popular college application platform in the United States. Over 900 schools use it, allowing students to streamline their application process. What does it mean for you? You don’t have to create a separate application for every school you want to try your luck with. You only create and curate one application that you can send to any participating college at any time during the admission season.

Of course, you can personalize and adjust your application to comply with the requirements of each particular school. For example, add school-specific writing supplements or upload necessary documents. However, this won’t affect the applications you have already sent.

This system takes away a lot of unnecessary paperwork and lets you concentrate on the quality of the information that will stand in your place before the admission board. One of the central elements of this information is your personal essay.

The best way to learn what type of essay might get you accepted is by looking at the latest successful examples. Search social media channels of students admitted to a class of 2022 in a college you plan to apply to. Those who will start their first fall 2022 semester in the college of their dreams have already received their acceptance letters. They are usually eager to share their journey and tips with other college hopefuls. They often read excerpts from their personal essays and school-specific supplements.

You can also order a sample from an essay writing service or send your draft for editing to ensure everything is just so for your application. Meanwhile, in this post, we will give you some tips on writing an essay that represents you the best.

Have There Been Any Changes to 2022 Common App Essay Prompts?

Common App personal essay prompts have remained mostly the same during the past seven years. Individual prompts have been added or exchanged for new, updated versions. However, at their core, they are still the same questions inviting you to reflect on your failures, successes, talents, passions, challenges, growth moments, and unique traits that make you that special human being you are.

Common App representatives say that these prompts remain because they work just fine to produce illuminating and original responses year in and year out. According to their study, 95% of students and educators agree that these prompts spark effective essays.

This year, however, they have removed prompt number 4 from the 2021–2022 admission season that asked you to tell about the problem you solved or would like to solve in the future. In its place, they have added a prompt about gratitude. Our theory is that the last year’s prompt wasn’t working as good as the others. It allowed students to avoid “spilling their guts” and talk about their intellectual curiosities and problem-solving skills instead, making the essays rather impersonal. Unfortunately, it defeats the entire purpose of the essay. It’s called personal for a reason! It must show the living, breathing human being behind the bundle of data. After all, your curiosities are apparent from the lists of your extracurricular activities, advanced classes, and projects that can be found elsewhere on your application.

Common App also kept the COVID-19 question in the Additional Information section. You don’t have to answer it, but if you have a COVID-related story to share, that’s the place to do it. Common App decided to introduce this section to keep the personal essays free from COVID accounts. With the scale of the pandemic, there is a risk that your story – however earnest – will be very similar to many stories others can tell. Whereas your personal essay aims to highlight what makes you unique.

Now, let’s get to the nitty-gritty and talk about each of the prompts that might be your ticket to your dream school.

How to Answer the 2022-2023 Common App Essay Prompts

Before we dive in, here is what you should remember. Common App prompts aren’t topics or questions you have to answer. They are suggestions to help you brainstorm topics for your story. Instead of choosing “the best prompt,” search for your own ideas. Ask yourself:

  • What should the admission officers know about me?
  • How can I better show them who I am outside of test scores and progress reports?
  • Which essential qualities cannot be deduced from the rest of my application?
  • What story can I tell to demonstrate these qualities?

Remember, one prompt is no better than the other. Which one you choose doesn’t matter – as long as it allows you to show off your writing skills and introduce your authentic self. Here is the list of prompts that might land you on the campus of your dreams.

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This is a quintessential question for the personal essay, and it is very direct. What makes you you and is missing from your application so far? The words “background” and “identity” might give you the impression that this prompt wants you to tell a “diversity story” about getting in touch with your heritage or trying to fit in as a member of a minority group. Yet read on, and you will see this can be anything at all: an interest, talent, or character trait. Something that people who never met you must know about you to understand who you are. 

Are you a train enthusiast? Budding comic strip creator? Cosplay TikToker? Maybe your friends love you for your empathy, quirky sense of style, or ability to ease the tension with a joke? Are you a cooking wizard or a clever upcycler? If something huge in your life doesn’t fit the slots of intellectual curiosities, athletics, or artistic endeavors usually found on the application, tell a story about it in your personal essay.

  1. 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?

A tale of failure can be a winning essay. Why? Because you can make it about growth and improvement. Tell a story that shows your resilience, ability to bounce back from adversity, to think critically about your mistakes and learn from them. Demonstrate your sense of humor and positivity. 

However, at the same time, don’t be afraid to be vulnerable. If something hit you hard – let your readers feel it, don’t jump immediately to the silver lining. The more sincere you are, the less cliché your essay is.

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

This prompt might seem like an iteration of a previous question – and no wonder. Conflicts and dilemmas reveal one’s character better than anything. Plus, a story about mistakes, admitting you were wrong, self-reflection, and growth make for entertaining reading. 

However, this should be something even more meaningful – a fundamental, core belief you had to re-evaluate. This prompt is probing for deep metacognition and introspective reflection. A response to this prompt is an excellent opportunity to show off your self-analysis skills, open mind, and ability to admit you were wrong.

  1. 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?

This seemingly simple question can provide deep insight into your values, philosophy, and culture – if you answer it right. Note the “surprising way” here. When asked about gratitude, many students are compelled to write about their teachers, family members, mentors, coaches, etc. The gratitude they experience is for advice, mentorship, and the lessons they’ve learned. This is a commendable sentiment, but it lacks the “surprising” element.

Instead, try to think about something or someone unique in your life. The event or encounter itself might be small and insignificant at first glance – even silly. However, if it led to an epiphany or brought you joy and confidence – it’s a worthy subject. Remember that the story is ultimately about yourself, so you should describe how this event or person influenced your life. Show this through actual changes.

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

One more prompt about personal growth follows a classic story arc of a hero’s journey. Something happens that sets events in motion (departure) – you realize that you are wrong or lack something (arrival) – you work and grow (return).

However, unlike prompts 2 or 3, this time event can be positive. Also, it is a fixed point in time (an accomplishment or event), so the focus of your story should be on that point. Meanwhile, the new realization or understanding should take less space and serve as a punch line, a concise moral to your story.

  1. 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?

Probably, the most straightforward prompt on this list, this one invites you to talk about your hobby, passion, or intellectual curiosity. However – and we cannot stress this enough! – this is still a personal essay. It must speak about you: reveal your character, values, and view of the world.

Read the prompt carefully. It doesn’t invite you to talk about your favorite subject for hours on end. It asks, “why does it captivate you?” So instead of telling the admission officers everything you know about butterflies, tell them why you find them so fascinating. Explain why you lose all track of time to appreciate them and learn more about them.

  1. 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.

This is your carte blanche if you already know what story you want to tell. However, remember that your personality must shine through it, giving the admission officers that missing piece of a puzzle to make up your accurate portrait. To make sure your essay does exactly that (no matter the prompt), follow these tips:

  • Don’t try to guess what admission officers want to hear. Schools try to create a diverse, balanced, and harmonious student body for each class. You never know what they look for right now: outgoing social animal or an introspective intellectual. However, what they always value is authenticity. Be yourself – that’s your best bet.
  • At the same time, be mindful of what impression your essay gives to someone who never met you and doesn’t know you. Does it sound tactful and friendly? Does it show you as a mature and considerate person? For example, sarcasm can come off as hostile when your facial expression and tone of voice are out of the equation.
  • Do not recount your achievements. This is not a resume. The essay is about your personality. Besides, all your prizes, medals, and high scores are undoubtedly already there under respective sections. Don’t waste this opportunity to complete your application with a human dimension.
  • The “show don’t tell” principle works for personal essays just as well as it does for novels. Use all five senses to paint a picture with several vivid details.
  • Go through multiple rounds of editing – five is a minimum for something this important. After you’ve completed your first draft, give it a rest for a day or two. Then return to it with fresh eyes and fix anything you don’t like anymore. Then, ask someone who knows you to give their honest opinion and consider the feedback. When you are happy with the contents, proofread to make sure there are no grammar or spelling issues. Rinse and repeat.

Many young people worry that they don’t have a dramatic story to tell for their personal essay. As you can see, it’s absolutely not necessary! Your essay should answer key questions about your personality: who are you, what is unique about you, what matters the most to you, and what led you here. If you feel stuck at any writing stage – return to those questions. Alternatively, get help from our experts.

Hopefully, these tips gave you some inspiration and confidence for writing your personal essay. We wish you the best of luck in this application season!

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