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Crafting Successful Essays: A Comprehensive Guide to Common App Essay Prompts

The Common App essay prompts are one of the most critical parts of a college application. As a high school senior, you want to make sure that your essay stands out and captures the attention of admissions officers. In this guide, we’ll break down all of the common app essay prompts for the 2016-17 application cycle, analyze each one’s purpose, and provide actionable tips for crafting a compelling essay that increases your chances of getting accepted.

Overview of the Common App and Its Essay Prompts

The Common Application, known as the Common App, is a college application that allows students to apply to multiple colleges and universities simultaneously. The Common Application essay prompts are one of the mandatory parts of each student’s application. Colleges and universities use the essay to get a better understanding of the student’s personality, values, and writing skills. The Common Application releases new essay prompts every year.

Here are the Common Application Essay Prompts for the 2016-2017 application cycle:

  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.

  2. 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?

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

  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, or an ethical dilemma. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

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

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Analysis of Each Essay Prompt & Tips for Crafting a Strong Essay

Essay Prompt 1

This essay prompt prompts students to share their backgrounds, identities, interests, and talents that make them unique. Students who feel that their application wouldn’t be complete without divulging this information should choose this prompt. This prompt allows students to showcase their skills, character, and other relevant information that doesn’t appear elsewhere in the application.

Tips for Crafting a Strong Essay for Prompt 1– Focus on one or two themes rather than trying to include everything- Show rather than tell your unique qualities through anecdotes and stories- Use sensory language to describe your experiences and make it relatable to the reader- Identify how your background, identity, interest or talents influenced your growth and development- Be authentic and honest

Essay Prompt 2

This prompt encourages students to write about a time when they experienced failure or setback. The intention behind this prompt is to evaluate the student’s ability to learn from failure and how it has shaped their character.

Tips for Crafting a Strong Essay for Prompt 2– Choose an incident where you can show lessons learned and personal growth- Be honest, self-aware, and humble in your tone- Focus more on what you learned from your failure, rather than dwelling on the failure itself- Explain how you applied the lessons learned from this failure to other aspects of your life- Avoid blaming others or making excuses

Essay Prompt 3

Prompt 3 is designed to evaluate a student’s critical thinking skills, ethical perspective, and openness to new ideas. This prompt encourages students to recount a time when they challenged a belief or idea.

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Tips for Crafting a Strong Essay for Prompt 3– Make sure to clearly identify the belief or idea that you challenged – Explain why you felt the need to challenge the status quo – Include specific examples of how you challenged this idea or belief – Be sure to explain how this experience changed you or impacted your worldview – Your essay should demonstrate that you have a clear understanding of the belief or idea that you challenged

Essay Prompt 4

This prompt focuses on the student’s problem-solving skills and intellectual curiosity. Students are asked to describe a problem they solved or one they would like to solve.

Tips for Crafting a Strong Essay for Prompt 4– Choose a problem that is important to you, and be specific about what it is and why you find it significant – Make sure to provide context around the problem – Describe the process of solving the problem, including the steps you took to identify solutions – Explain what you learned from the problem-solving experience, including any skills you developed or gained – Make sure to showcase how the problem-solving experience has influenced your future goals

Essay Prompt 5

Prompt 5 allows students to reflect on a significant event that marked their transition from adolescence to adulthood. The prompt asks students to describe an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked their transition.

Tips for Crafting a Strong Essay for Prompt 5– Choose an event or accomplishment that is meaningful to you – Be specific about what happened and how it marked the transition – Describe how the event or accomplishment affected you and your relationships with others – Discuss what you learned from the experience and how it has impacted your future goals – Make sure to show how you’ve grown and matured since the event or accomplishment

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Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing a Common App Essay

  • Avoid being too general or vague
  • Don’t focus solely on your achievements or accomplishments
  • Don’t be too simple or informal in your writing
  • Avoid using clichés or overused phrases

Examples of Successful Common App Essays from Previous Years

  • A student who wrote about his love for music
  • A student who wrote about her experience overcoming a disability

Key Takeaways

  • The Common App essay prompts are a crucial part of a successful college application
  • Each essay prompt has a specific purpose and is looking for specific information
  • The essay should reflect the student’s personality, values, and writing skills
  • Students should be authentic, honest, and specific in their writing
  • Common mistakes to avoid include being too general or vague, focusing only on achievements, and using clichés
  • Successful essays focus on a specific theme, use specific examples, and demonstrate personal growth and development


Q: How long should a Common App essay be?

A: The Common App essay should be between 250 and 650 words.

Q: Can I write about any topic I want for the Common App essay prompts?

A: Within reason, you can choose any topic you want. However, make sure that the essay is answering the prompt and demonstrating what the prompt is asking for.

Q: Do the colleges and universities see my Common App essay responses?

A: Yes, the essay is part of the application, and admissions officers will read it. The essay can have a significant impact on the admissions decision.

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