2 Approaches to the Common App Essay Prompts

In our recent post breaking down the general approach to the common app essay prompts we talked more about the atmosphere of it all. Now it’s time to get deep into the GUTS of it. And address how to write the thing.

Two approaches here. (There may of course be others, but for now, let’s focus on TWO.)

Option 1 – Ignore the prompts (for now). Turn your thoughts inward, instead. We’re gonna go on a little quest. Whereas Indiana Jones is hunting for treasures and glory, we’re looking for the coolest possible stories you can tell—the coolest possible essay you can write that tells a great story ABOUT you.

What kinds of things are we looking for? Well, we’ll talk about it broadly first and then unravel it. An example of a cool story is a game-changer in your life. Something that transformed you from Person A to Person B. That word “transformed” implies major CHANGE. In order for a change story to resonate, we need to know the BEFORE and then understand what happened that turned you into the AFTER.

It could be a single defining moment. Something that MARKS your life in an unmistakable way. The day you were wrongly accused of a crime and became a local celebrity for all the wrong reasons. The day you discovered your dad abusing your mom and began plotting you and your mom’s escape. The day you discovered your unique gift was in fact… not unique at all. The day you realized you weren’t like everyone else.

Or it could be something that surprised you. Maybe to the point where you’re still off balance. Something that shook your beliefs somehow. Caused you to ponder, wonder, question, challenge, renounce, etc. These can be simple things, too, by the way. Don’t be seduced by the marquis ideas that feel worthy of a personal statement. Doesn’t have to be a BIG something. It just has to be super interesting. And personal. (As in “Personal” statement.)

What about something painful you’ve endured?  What defines you? Think about that last one—what makes you different from your best friends? (We can go on like this forever. The ideation process can be super fun—don’t let it frustrate you.)

Now that you’ve gotten the ball rolling, tune it all out and ask yourself, what’s the one thing you WANT to write about—forget the thinking behind it, what it “means”; forget all that and figure out… what do you just wanna SAY stuff about, explain, etc.? Chances are, this is gonna be the most FERTILE grounds for solid ideas.

Here’s the POINT of all this—regardless of how you get there, there may be something inside you that needs to come out. Let it. Don’t feel straightjacketed by the common app essay prompts. The story you NEED to tell more than anything is likely the BEST one. The one you MUST tell. And every single story can be adapted to fit the bill of one prompt or another if needed. So don’t skip over your GREATEST HITS just for the sake of answering one of their questions. Tell your story first and foremost and then adapt it to a prompt, if you must—that’ll be the easy part.

Option 2 – Let the prompts steer—but not RULE—you. Don’t get stuck trying to ANSWER their questions like we were taught in first grade… “Why did you go to the store?” … “I went to the store because…”

That’s too literal. Treat these like jumping off points. We’ll go through each in a second. But as a general rule, remember, you are the boss. You’re the one running the show here, not them. Not their questions. The mic is yours. The floor is yours. The stage is yours and the spotlight is on YOU, and the audience is poised and ready to listen and watch whatever show YOU are about to put on… whenever you’re ready. This application happens on YOUR terms, got it, partner? Okay, now let’s get specific, and… rumble.


By Raj Patil, Admissionado Founder