College Essays 101: How to Answer the 2019-20 Common App Essay Prompts


Between all the other choices you have to make (what should I study? Where should I apply?), there’s no need to add “What essay should I choose?” to your list of stressors. The beauty of having seven prompt options is that there is no wrong essay question. In the common app essays, what matters is that admissions counselors want to see your unique story and your own voice.

Below are the 2019-2020 Common App questions, with some guiding questions and ideas to get you started. As you read through the different essay prompts, you’ll probably have one or two that stick out or resonate with you. Take note of any prompts that spark something in you, so you have less to narrow down later.  Read more about the 19-20 essay prompts below:

1. Telling your personal story.

Prompt #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.

Whether you moved around a lot as a kid, are a competitive yo-yo player, or learned how to cook from your grandmother, there’s likely a significant piece of your personal history that makes you who you are. If you are genuinely passionate about something, this essay prompt gives you the opportunity to share an important part of your life that might not otherwise be apparent from the regular application.

Questions to consider:

  • What interest or talent has influenced you the most in your life?

  • Do you have a hobby, club, or activity that has been a big part of your life? How has this interest or talent shaped you? Can you think of anything you’ve had to overcome to get here?

  • Where did you grow up? Are there ways you can talk about your upbringing and background in a way that highlights who you are today?


2. Overcoming setbacks.

Prompt #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?

Setbacks and challenges are a part of life. This prompt is for the student who can reflect on their biggest challenge or failure and how they were able to come out of the other side of the situation. Whether you failed your first dance team audition, worked two jobs to help your family buy a computer, or accidentally let your grades slip one semester because of a family situation, write about the challenge, what brought about your ability to overcome it, and anything you learned once you got to the other side.

Questions to Consider:

  • When have you failed? How did you react to that failure? What helped you transition from failure to overcoming?

  • In other words, what has been one of the biggest challenges you’ve faced? What led you to push through the challenges?

Tip: Check out this video to learn how to structure a narrative around your challenges and how you overcame

3. Challenging an idea.

Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Going to college is all about broadening your perspective. By sharing a time that you challenged or questioned someone else’s idea with respect, you are demonstrating maturity and personal growth.    

Questions to consider:

  • What brought you to question or challenge the belief? How did you communicate your thoughts? What gave you the courage to speak up?

  • How did sharing your ideas feel?

  • How did sharing your thoughts shape who you are now?



4. Solving a problem.

Prompt #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.

From minimizing food waste to solving world hunger, from climate change to recycling, there’s a never ending list of overarching issues you could choose from. A key component of this essay prompt is to be specific. PrepScholar advises students to choose a specific problem within an overarching problem, and tie the specific problem to their personal life with an anecdote of how they became interested in it.  

Questions to consider:

  • What draws your personally to the issue you solved or want to solve?

  • Did you witness the problem firsthand? How does it relate to you? What makes the problem important to you?

5. Finding personal growth.

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Reflection is a significant part of becoming a self-aware and mature individual. If you’ve experienced something that led to your personal growth, describe the event here. Did you go to a lecture or art exhibit that opened your eyes to poverty? Did you volunteer at a local elementary school and recognize the education gap? Explain how this experience changed you or what you learned from the experience.

Questions to consider:

  • What stood out to you about this event or realization?

  • When did you realize the experience impacted you?

  • How did it impact the way you see yourself? Others?

  • What new perspective(s) did you take away from the experience?

6. Being captivated.

Prompt #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?

Similar to talking about your talent in Prompt #1, Prompt #6 allows you to expand on one of your passions. However, instead of talking about how that passion or interest has impacted you as a person, this prompt focuses on your intellectual exploration and curiosity. In this prompt you will discuss the ways you’ve deepened your knowledge of the topic you’ve chosen.

Questions to consider:

  • How have you taken your learning in your own hands? (Think: Have you completed an independent study? Do you turn to a mentor or coach for extra information?)  

  • How do you go about researching and deepening your understanding of the topic?

Photo by  kazuend  on  Unsplash

Photo by kazuend on Unsplash

7. Topic of Choice.

Prompt #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.

This prompt works well for students who many already have a personal essay written, perhaps as a supplement for another college essay or as a part of a school assignment. While the topic is open, it’s important to make sure you tie in some of the ideas mentioned above, such as demonstrating your maturity and your ability to reflect.

Questions to consider:

  • Is there a topic that isn’t mentioned in the other prompts that is an essential piece of your personal story?

  • What other topic do you keep coming back to as you think about your journey?

According to, during the 2018-2019 application year, the most popular prompt was Prompt #7 with 24.1% of applicants choosing to share an essay on a topic of their choice.

The Number One Takeaway: Be Yourself

No matter which essay question you choose, remember that admissions counselors want to get a better picture of who you are. Take a step back and reflect on the events, activities, and challenges in your life that have brought you to where you are today. Use the common app essay prompts as a space for you to demonstrate your ability to reflect, see the big picture, and show some of your personality.