2020-2021 Common App Prompts and Essay Examples

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From large research universities to small liberal arts colleges, over 800 colleges in the United States use the Common Application. As such, virtually all students applying to U.S. colleges find themselves needing to complete the Common Application.

The 2020-2021 application has six core prompts, one free-form prompt, one additional information section, and the new optional COVID-19 prompt. The core and free-form prompts have remained unchanged for the past five years.

An important part of writing a successful application essay is studying examples of essays that worked. Read on to see tips and outstanding essays for each of the six core Common App prompts.


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.

This prompt is asking applicants to write about what makes them uniquely them. Whether you’re writing about a hobby, your background, or how you define yourself, it’s important to tell a story so central to who you are that your application would be incomplete without it.

When answering this prompt, it’s easy to repeat information that’s already present outside of the essay. Avoid this at all costs. Remember: the essay is supposed to add a new dimension to an application.

See these three sample essays to get a sense of what makes a great response to this prompt.

  • Handiwork – An essay about interest.
  • Home – An essay about background.
  • Punk Rock Philosopher – An essay about identity.

    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?

    This is one of the more challenging prompts. It can be difficult to demonstrate strength and potential while writing about failure. However, if you’re comfortable with introspection and making yourself a bit more vulnerable, this prompt is a great option.

    A good response to this prompt demonstrates a high level of confidence and maturity as well as humility and a willingness to learn. Simply writing about a failure does nothing; students should focus on how they handled their failures in positive ways.

    These three sample essays are great examples of how to approach this prompt.

  • How to Correctly Measure Life – An essay about challenge.
  • Striking Out – An essay about setback.
  • You Ruined My Life! – An essay about failure.

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

    This is an extremely broad question – students could write about nearly anything they have ever questioned. It is important to keep in mind, however, that not all ideas and beliefs make great essays.

    Students should not write about something superficial; they should write about ideas and beliefs that are central to their identities. A response to this prompt should demonstrate thoughtfulness, open-mindedness, and an ability to think analytically.

    Check out the following two essays to see what makes a good approach to this prompt.

  • Athlete Poet – An essay about challenging a belief.
  • Gym Class Hero – An essay about challenging an idea.

    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.

    While not the most popular option, this prompt has the potential to lead to a stand-out essay that showcases an applicant’s values, curiosity, and problem-solving skills.

    It’s easy for a response to this prompt to be impersonal, which is great for a research proposal but not so great for an admissions essay. Focus on writing about a problem that is of personal importance.

    Check out the following two examples to learn what makes a great response to this prompt.

  • We Can Now Compete – An essay about a problem the applicant has solved.
  • Grandpa’s Rubik’s Cube – An essay about a problem the applicant would like to solve.

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

    All students have had experiences that helped them grow and mature, so prompt is a good option for most – if not all – applicants.

    The key here is to choose the “right” accomplishment, event, or realization and then write about it in a way that showcases depth and self-analytical skills. When identifying a period of personal growth, try to stay within the past few years. You want to show the admissions officers who you are now, and a childhood story is not likely to accomplish this as effectively.

    These two essays are great examples of how to properly approach this prompt.

  • That One Memorial Day – An essay about an accomplishment that sparked personal growth.
  • Student Teacher – An essay about an event that sparked personal growth.

    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?

    Like Prompt 3, Prompt 6 is very broad, allowing students to write about nearly any interest. The purpose of this question is to learn what excites and motivates an applicant. Therefore, this option is ideal for students with concrete, established passions. On the other hand, students who are not sure what they are enthusiastic about should probably consider a different prompt.

    To approach this prompt, start by listing all the topics, ideas, and concepts you care most about and then narrow those down do those you can describe, justify, and explain.

    See the following three essays to get a sense of what makes a great response to this prompt.

  • Mazes
  • Rock Climbing as a Second Language
  • Isaac NEWTon
  • An outstanding admissions essay should have a great topic. However, it should also use clear, crisp, engaging language and be free of errors. If you require further help on this front, check out our admissions essay editing services. Such services are ideal for international students who struggle with English or any students who want to take their essays to the next level. Not sure you need the help? Check out these 3 Reasons to Get Editing For Your College Admissions Essays.

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    And in the meantime, check out our other resources on writing admissions essays.


    Wordvice Admissions Resources

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