Breaking Down the 2020-2021 Common App Essay Prompts

Common app essay prompts
22 Jul, 2020

Breaking Down the 2020-2021 Common App Essay Prompts

If you’re ready to tackle the seemingly monstrous task of writing your personal statement essay for the common app, there is no better place to start than taking the time to analyze the prompts. Look no further for a list of this year’s prompts (which have remained unchanged from last year) and a short breakdown of what each prompt is asking for, as well as what you might want to focus on.

  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 can be a bit of a catch-all prompt. You can discuss any aspect of who you are or what you do, and many essays that fall under another prompt also fall under this one. If your racial, ethnic, cultural, or social identities were particularly formative for your worldview, this is a good place to discuss them. On the other hand, “interest or talent” is not confined to things like sports and classical music. Gardening, magic tricks, video games, or even bottle flipping—if you can frame it in a meaningful way, any trivial-seeming talent can be the foundation for an awesome, unique 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?

This prompt invites a narrative style. That is, it naturally asks you to tell a story. No story is complete without conflict, and this essay should revolve around that obstacle you faced. You should focus on letting the audience identify with you—like they’re watching a movie, and as the main character goes through struggle and hardship, they can’t help but empathize and cheer for the underdog. Keep things emotional and evocative without getting melodramatic. Another important point is not to dwell on the difficulty itself: you need to make sure you spend a significant portion of your essay discussing how you moved beyond the challenge and how it eventually made you even stronger. 

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

Think about a time when you didn’t just believe what was given or taught to you, especially if that was the conventional or prevailing idea for your community. Maybe you were the only one in school that disagreed with a policy, maybe you didn’t understand why your parents brought you up a certain way, or maybe you simply disagreed with a textbook and did your own research. This prompt is a great opportunity to showcase how you are an independent thinker. 

  1. 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. 

The great thing about this prompt is that it already lists three ideas for you to jump off of. The not-so-great thing is that the prompt is quite difficult if you have never reflected deeply on a problem. The prompt is meant for students who have actually had a long-standing passion for a specific issue, and if you try to come up with a “problem you’ve solved” without ever having thought about it, it will likely show. With that being said, if you have a track record of working towards solving a problem (or you’ve thought about it for a long time), go for it and let them see your zeal. Make sure you include descriptions of concrete action or research you’ve done.

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

The important part of this prompt is the latter half. A lot of people have some sort of achievement to discuss, but don’t stop at writing an essay about this accomplishment or realization. How did it spark “a period of personal growth”—that is, how did this event influence you into the future? What permanent changes did it bring about? Pay particular attention to the last few words of the prompt. It’s easy to come up with how it gave you a new understanding of yourself, but isn’t it truly impressive when an event opens your eyes to the lives of others?

  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?

This is a fun essay. Almost anyone can come up with a response to this prompt, whether it be a hobby, a poem, or a random Youtube video that you can’t take your eyes off of. Try not to think too hard about what you “should” or “shouldn’t” write. Just see where your heart takes you, run with it, and have fun. This will allow your passion to come through as genuinely as possible. 

  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.

The infamous self-designed prompt. Although prompts 1~6 are so broad that it can be difficult to write an essay that doesn’t fall under any of the previous prompts, this is meant to give you a chance to write about anything you want, in the event that it does not fit one of the provided boxes. If you have such an idea, go for it. An unconventional topic or structure is miles ahead of any cliche.

You might be asking: why provide prompts at all if #7 tells you to write about anything you want anyway? This is because the prompts are not meant to box you in. They are merely there to give you examples of what you could write about and provide rough inspiration. One good strategy is to ignore the prompts altogether and simply write an essay—any essay—about yourself. Once the draft is done, you can look over the prompts and see which one fits your essay best. If nothing clicks, there’s always #7. If this “blank-slate approach” is too daunting for you, that’s what the pre-existing prompts are for.

If you need help with your common app essay prompts our award-winning teachers are here to help.

Further Reading/ Resources:

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