How to Answer the 2024-25 Common App Essay Questions

An outstanding college essay can be the x-factor that gets you accepted to the school of your choice – particularly if you’re hoping to attend a prestigious university. As the emphasis on test scores declines, recent data shows that over 56% of colleges place considerable or moderate importance on students’ supplemental essays. So the Common Application, with its variety of essay prompts, can help you showcase your personality, achievements, and aspirations. 

While writing essays about yourself may be an art form, how you approach your answer can be more scientific. Here are our best strategies to select and answer the Common App essay questions for the 2023-2024 admissions year. 

How do you know which prompt to pick? 

Before you start brainstorming, consider the following criteria to choose an essay topic.

  • Instinct – When writing a college essay made its way onto your to-do list, was there a personal story that jumped to mind? If so, test out how it feels to trust that instinct. Is there a prompt that this idea aligns with? 
  • Passion – Can you write about this topic with excitement? If you’re leaning toward a topic because it feels like the one you “should” choose rather than one you’re amped about, don’t fall for that common mistake. Admissions officers read a ton of essays. If you’re not passionate about your subject matter, it’ll be clear. 
  • Understanding – While the Common App essay questions seem fairly straightforward, ensure you understand your prompt and can answer all parts of it. Another mistake students make is forcing something they want to talk about into an existing essay topic. If you have an idea that doesn’t address one of their specific questions, consider prompt 7, which allows you free rein to explore the topic of your choice.
  • Dimension – Does your essay give insight into who you are, outside of your GPA, extracurriculars, and letters of recommendation? For example, if you were the captain of your school’s varsity soccer team, an essay about soccer may not be your best choice.

The Common App Essay Topics 

According to a study from Yale, the most important thing to college admissions officers isn’t which prompt you choose, but that you write a great essay. Here are a few pointers to keep in mind:

  • Craft a compelling, cohesive narrative that relates back to who you are as a person and a student. 
  • Be honest, and don’t embellish details nor use AI.
  • Avoid clichés that college counselors have seen before.
  • Start early, and give yourself plenty of time to perfect your essay.
  • Proofread your essay, and ask a friend, teacher, or family member to read it too. 

Common App Prompt #1: Identity essay 

“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.”

Students who have a unique aspect of their identity that isn’t otherwise represented in their application might enjoy this prompt. And remember: identity doesn’t just mean your ethnic background. 

  • Choose an aspect of your identity that makes you who you are. Are you the first in your family to go to college? Were you educated outside of a traditional school system? Are you a member of a religious group that has shaped your worldview? Each of these examples represents an aspect of identity that might be interesting to explore.
  • Be specific about your background, identity, or interest that you’ve chosen. Explain how your personal experience deviates from the norm. 
  • Describe the impact of this facet of your identity on who you are. Reflect on how this has related to your growth and perspective on yourself, your community, and your future. For example, if English wasn’t your first language, how did learning the language influence your interests? Did you turn to movies and television and discover a love of cinema that influenced you to pursue a career in entertainment? 

Get your creative juices flowing by reading other Common App essay prompt 1 examples that worked.

Common App Prompt #2: Overcoming obstacles essay 

“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?”

Don’t think you can only write on this topic if you’ve experienced some type of significant hardship. No matter who you are or where you’re from, you’ve had to overcome obstacles to get to where you are today. Adversity breeds resilience, which is a great quality to highlight to a college admissions committee. 

  • Identify an obstacle that has impacted you. Think back on experiences that required you to persevere. This could be something big, like the loss of a parent or a natural disaster, or something less severe, like a failing grade on an important assignment or losing an election for class president. 
  • Detail the experience and your role in it. How did you feel when you first encountered this challenge? If you were overwhelmed or scared, be honest. Specificity around details, emotions, and your mindset will create empathy and paint a full picture. Then, complete the story. How did this event unfold? How did your mindset shift? 
  • Highlight what you learned and your eventual success. As you brainstorm, make a list of your takeaways. If you experienced a major illness, did you find a renewed sense of gratitude for your physical health? Then, connect your learnings to some success. If you got fired from a part-time job, did the experience help you identify the career path you actually want to pursue and put you in a position to pursue it? 

Study up on how other determined students have aced Common App essay prompt 2

Common App Prompt #3: Individuality essay 

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

College campuses are full of students who are eager to expand their horizons and reassess previously held worldviews. If this sounds like you, prompt three might be perfect. 

  • Choose a belief or idea that you questioned at some point. This could be anything from your approach to mental health, to your perspective on gender roles or religious beliefs. Explain why you held this belief and the importance of this idea in your life. 
  • Explain what prompted you to explore. Was it a book? An article? A conversation with a teacher? Describe the scene – what happened, where you were, and how you felt.
  • Detail the experience of your reflection. Did you turn to books to better understand the other side of this issue? Did you engage in conversation with people who thought differently from you? Get into the weeds of your exploration.
  • Present your conclusion. If you changed your perspective, what was the evidence that caused this shift? And if you discovered an even greater sense of certainty around your original opinion, how does that feel? Or, if you’re still not sure but continuing to explore, that’s a great answer, too.

Read how other curious high school students explored beliefs in Common App Prompt #3 essay examples

Common App Prompt #4: The gratitude essay 

“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?”

Gratitude can be a powerful source of motivation, particularly when we’re feeling defeated or down. If you’ve experienced an act of kindness that impacted your life in some significant way, reflect on it in prompt #4.

  • Pinpoint an act of kindness that someone has done on your behalf. This could be something monumental, like a family member donating an organ, or a small, everyday gesture, like a stranger paying for your coffee. 
  • Set the stage for your story. What happened? Why did you need this act of kindness? If you ran out of gas in the middle of the highway, what did that feel like? Then, present the act of kindness in as much detail as you can while staying within the word limit. What prompted the kind stranger to pull over with their gas can? What conversation ensued? 
  • Explore your gratitude and reflect upon how the experience affected you. Did this random act of kindness change your perspective? Did you pay it forward through community service? Show how this experience caused you to change in some way, big or small. Don’t stop at gratitude; push yourself to action. 

Read about times other high school students felt inspired by the empathy shown to them.

Common App Prompt #5: The personal growth essay 

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

High school is a period of deep personal growth. Use this prompt to highlight ways you’ve grown that might not be captured by your GPA or extracurricular activities. 

  • Reflect on periods of personal growth and pinpoint the events that might have triggered them. Make a list of these types of occurrences. For example, traveling abroad to a new country, being selected to write for the school newspaper, or overcoming a fear of public speaking to compete in a debate. 
  • Narrate your experience. You might think of this as your “before” and “during” snapshot. If you weren’t the best student in your science class, but had an exciting hypothesis to tackle in a science fair project, describe how you approached this project. Then, tell the reader about what happened. Did you succeed? Did you fail? Did you uncover a new skill?  
  • Expand on your shift in perspective and how this experience caused you to look at yourself and those around you differently. Think of this as your “after.” If your project went on to win your local science fair, how did this shift your view of your scientific abilities? Underline how you grew from this experience and how it shaped your perspective. 

For inspiration, here are examples of Essay #5 responses from high school students just like you. 

Common App Prompt #6: The passion essay 

“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?”

Every student, no matter their GPA or collegiate aspirations, has a hobby or pastime they enjoy. Are you particularly passionate about yours? Take this opportunity to write about it, particularly if your passion is unique.

  • List the things you love. Ideally, your greatest passion came to mind as soon as you read this prompt. But if you have an affinity for more than one thing, make a list. This could be anything from making pottery to playing chess or trying out new recipes in the kitchen.
  • Explain why you have such an affinity for this hobby or pastime. Delve into the history behind this passion. How did you first get interested in rescuing animals? Did a parent or mentor expose you to this work? Did the experience of finding a lonely cat on the street spark your passion? 
  • Expand upon your learning process and how you developed your knowledge of this topic. If you love astronomy, what steps did you take to learn about the night sky and types of stars? Did you immerse yourself in YouTube videos about space? Or visit local observatories? Demonstrate your thirst for knowledge and ability to self-motivate. 

Read other passionate essays here that have captivated admissions officers. 

Common App Prompt #7: Topic of your choice 

“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 can be divisive. For some, this open-ended prompt is a great opportunity to write a unique, personal essay. Since there are no rules (other than the word limit), there are several ways to approach Prompt 7.

You could choose a topic that is unique to you, write a personal statement, or tell a compelling story that has some broader appeal. Or, you could think totally outside the box and turn your essay into a screenplay, newspaper article, or other artistic form. 

If you’re considering this prompt, try not to recycle an essay you’ve previously written for a high school class. The admissions officer will recognize your junior year English essay on Othello and, most likely, will find this choice lazy. Moreover, the Common App essays are meant to offer insight into who you are – not how you perform academically. 

That said, this prompt does offer you the opportunity to reuse a prior essay as a base and then tweak it. Just be careful. The college admissions process is high-stakes. Don’t ruin your chances because you’re trying to save time on your essay. 

To find inspiration, check out other students’ essays on Prompt 7

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The Common App essays give students an opportunity to inject some personality into their college applications. No matter which prompt you choose, write with passion and honesty. And then recycle some of those essays in your scholarship applications on Going Merry, to win some cash for college. 
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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.

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