How to Tackle the Common Application Personal Essay

Common Application Essay Prompts 2016/2017


Yep, it’s actually happening. You are now applying to college. Are you ready to tackle the personal essay?


Without a doubt, writing essays is the most difficult part of college applications. And by far the most time-consuming essay is the all-important Personal Essay. The Personal Essay is seen by all the schools you apply to through the Common App, so it has to be your best work.

For the Personal Essay, you must write on one of the five given prompts in under 650 words. To help you get started, we’ve broken down each prompt. Click on each prompt, and it’ll bring you to the corresponding guide. We’ve sprinkled general essay tips throughout all of the articles as well. Take a look!


Here are the guides all 5 prompts

  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.

  1.  The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

  1.  Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

  1. 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.

  1. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.


How do you choose which prompt to write on?

If one prompt sticks out to you, go with it! See what you can do. However, for most of us, it’s best to brainstorm possible essay topics for each of the five prompts first. Then, use as many drafts as you need and don’t be afraid to scrap an essay mid-way through the process.


It may be frustrating at first, but you don’t want to end up with a forced, mediocre response. (Keep in mind that essays can always be recycled for school-specific prompts!)

You want your personal essay to…

  • Show personal growth
  • Illustrate your character
  • Highlight your strengths
  • Give a good sense of your voice through tone
  • Grasp the interest of the admissions committee (adcom)
  • Avoid cliches

The most important part of this essay is the hook. The hook is the first sentence that the adcom will read, and it must interest the reader. Adcoms read many essays in a row, and if yours doesn’t stand out right from the very first sentence then it may get left behind.     

For help on each prompt specifically, check out the five articles we’ve written to get you started!

Prompt #1

Prompt #2

Prompt #3

Prompt #4

Prompt #5

Best of luck! The college application process only comes around once, so enjoy it.


Gabe Cederberg

Gabe is an elementary school troublemaker turned assiduous student. He engages in a variety of academic, artistic, and athletic activities, and will study at Harvard University following his gap year. Gabe enjoys making videos, learning languages, and fighting fires. Follow his articles to learn some of his tips and methods for achieving success.