DE-MYSTIFYING THE COMMON APP ESSAY QUESTIONS
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
Regular-decision college deadlines are around the corner and as students are scrambling to write their seemingly infinite essays, I decided to dedicate December’s blog post to helping them make their lives a little easier. But before we start unpacking each of the essay questions, I want to touch upon some basics:
Your essay needs to be introspective and insightful. You need to think about what drives and motivates you and feel comfortable in being vulnerable. I’m not asking you to reveal your deepest, darkest secrets through your essays, yet at the same time, I’m urging you to reflect deeply on your experiences and talk about yourself beyond your resume and extra curriculars.
Out of the 7 essay questions, I encourage you to attempt 2 or 3 that jump out at you, and then based on the skills that are being demonstrated, you can decide which essay to proceed with.
And finally, the essay should ideally be between 500 and 650 words in length.
With that out of the way, let’s explore each of the essay questions in-depth.
Essay 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 is one of my favorite essay topics because although on the surface, many students may have similar GPAs and test scores and may even be involved in similar extra-curricular activities, deep down, their motivation, background and identity will be all different. And that is what this essay question is trying to uncover.
There are several nuances in this question, so I encourage you to reflect on each of these questions:
What culture/s do you represent? How has this shaped who you are today?
Pre-Covid, what did your normal day look like? Were you volunteering at a local farm three times a week? Were you bussing tables on weekends?
What do traditions and holidays look like in your family?
What pronouns do you identify with?
Are you so passionate about something that it consumes your day?
Do you have a special talent that you are proud of? It doesn’t have to be a grand, unique talent. Remember, more important that what you do is what skill you have developed while doing so.
Essay 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?
The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines ‘obstacle’ as something that impedes progress or achievement. Here are some examples of obstacles that students could face:
This is by no means an exhaustive list; it is just to get you started on your brainstorming process. Ultimately, you need to discuss how the challenge impacted you and more importantly, how you grew from the experience.
Essay 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This is arguably the hardest question of the lot, and I have seen many students quickly skip to the next prompt after reading this one. But don’t be discouraged. Here are a couple of things to think about:
Have you always considered yourself as a ‘follower’ but then one day decide to challenge this belief and ‘lead’ an initiative instead? It could be a club, a non-profit or a school-wide event. Have you challenged your school’s dress code, or the nutritional content of the food being served in the school cafeteria? Or are there bigger ideologies that you have questioned like euthanasia, abortion, gun control, the death penalty, or other topics related to science, politics, religion, and ethics?
The scale does not matter; what matters is your motivation and values, how you analyze a situation and whether you are able to present your argument in a clear and compelling way. Remember, you need to address what prompted your thinking as well as if the outcome affected only you or the community at large. Another important factor to consider when discussing the outcome is that you don’t necessarily have to present a favorable ending. You may find yourself in a situation where you realize that your conviction was unfounded – and that’s fine too because it gives you an opportunity to demonstrate growth and maturity in your essay.
Essay 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.
This essay question is geared towards the curious thinkers and problem solvers out there. Once again, the scale does not matter. It could be a personal problem that you have solved - like how you have learned to balance your studies with your family responsibilities and extra curriculars, or how you have adopted healthier eating habits to become physically fit and stronger. You could discuss problems that your neighborhood has faced and how you have played a role in resolving it. For example, helping elderly neighbors with their grocery shopping during Covid-19 to prevent them from getting exposed to the virus. Or helping to distribute face masks and care packages to communities that do not have access to them.
On a more global scale, if you have ever thought about solving problems like racial injustice or global warming or gender discrimination because it has impacted you in some shape or form, this is the prompt for you.
Essay 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
When attempting this question, I find it helpful to refer to the ‘Hero’s Journey’ (that many of you have studied in middle school) and structure your essay accordingly. A simplified version is as follows:
1. Describe the present, ordinary world i.e. what was your life like before the adventure began?
2. Describe the ‘call to adventure’
3. What tests or struggles did you have to undergo?
4. How did you cross the threshold/s?
5. What was the reward?
6. What does your new, reformed world look like?
When you discuss #5 reward, you need to emphasize how you have grown personally through the adventure as well as how you have positively impacted the community around you. The admissions team will be excited to welcome the new and improved hero into their community.
Essay 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?
Are you a zealous photographer? Avid reader of the classics? Obsessive scrap-booker? This is an opportunity to share your love and passion for a subject with the Admissions Team. They want to know what keeps you up at night, and why does it captivate you? Is there a back-story involved? For example, if you like to read about war stories, could it be because your grandparents were veterans, and you grew up listening to some of these stories? Or is it the street carnivals that you participated in as a child that drove your obsession with dance?
Don’t forget the second follow up question: what or whom do you approach to learn more? Do you go to the library to do your research? Do you have a teacher or mentor to guide you? Do you learn through YouTube tutorials? Are you pursuing courses on Coursera or self-studying material through Khan Academy to improve your academic knowledge in the field?
College is an academic institution after all, and your curiosity and willingness to learn and expand your knowledge should shine through in this essay.
Essay 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 is a straightforward essay. If you feel that you are unable to adequately represent yourself through any of the other six prompts, you can go ahead with this one. Last year, this was the most popular prompt, with 24% of the students responding to it.
Overall, you need to share an authentic version of yourself through your essays. Reflect on the uniqueness of your application and highlight your skills and passions. Ask yourself deep and insightful questions right at the very beginning, and the essay writing process will be a breeze. Good luck!