Which Common App Essay Prompt is Best?


Yesterday, a student asked me which of the new Common App prompts is best.

Me: What do you mean “best”? Like which one is my favorite, or which one should you choose?

Student: Uh. Both.

Here’s how I responded, in a nutshell...

First of all, here are the Common App prompts:

  1. Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  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 place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Let's break these down, one by one...

Prompt 1: Tell us your story

The first prompt is, by far, my favorite. Why? At least two important reasons:

a.) To me, it’s the most open-ended. There’s tons of room here. In fact, if you think about it, it’s not far off from last year’s Common App prompt 6, which was Topic of Your Choice.

b.) It’s also pretty close to the UC1 prompt. In fact, if you write a great UC1, chances are it’ll work well for Common App 1. (Click here for more on Why the UC1 Prompt is the Best Prompt Ever.)

Prompt 2: Tell us how you failed and what you learned

The second prompt can work fine, but chances are if this incident was important enough to be your college essay topic, then it’s a story that’s “central to [your] identity,” which brings us back to Prompt 1. If you do choose Prompt 2, though, I recommend making the turning point in the essay (i.e. the moment after the failure when you did something about it) in the first quarter to third of the essay or, at the very latest, by the midpoint. I know that may sound restrictive, but that’ll give you enough time to discuss how the events in your story affected you and, if you like, what you learned.

Prompt 3: Tell us how you challenged something but it actually turned out okay

If you write on the third prompt, take the advice of my screenwriting professor in college: start as late into the scene as you can and get out as fast as you can. What do I mean? Say you’re writing about a time you challenged a belief or idea. Start with the moment you challenged the belief. Then ask yourself: what information does my reader need to understand why this was a big deal for me? Then write that. You can put either part first. Then tell us how things turned out and, if you like, what you learned.

Prompt 4: Write a boring essay

The fourth prompt is my least favorite of the five for this simple reason: no drama. Think about it: we love movies with conflict. An arc. We want to see change. I’m not saying your essay has to read like an interesting movie, but...

No, strike that, I am saying that: your essay should read like an interesting movie.

And how many interesting films can you name in which someone was just sitting there for 100 minutes in a place or environment where he or she was perfectly content? Exactly. Unlike Prompts 2 and 3, this one has no built-in drama, so I’m guessing this will yield a lot of boring essays. And, if the Common App decides to change the prompts from year to year, I predict this will be first on the chopping block.

Prompt 5: Tell us about something awesome you did or experienced that helped you grow up

The fifth prompt is fine, but it doesn’t allow you the latitude that the first prompt does. (You could, in other words, choose the first prompt and discuss a coming-of-age moment in the context of your larger story.)


Here’s the main thing I want to say about prompts 2, 3 and 5. Each of these asks you to focus on a particular moment, and focusing on one moment can be great, but here’s the danger: you’re putting all your eggs in that basket. So it better be the moment. And it’s possible, but it’s risky.

I think your essay needs to go either deep (discussing a single moment) or wide (discussing a few different moments). If you have a defining moment that changed your life, you can go for 2, 3, or 5. But if you don’t, I’d go for 1.

And if you haven’t started writing, now is a great time to begin.


Written by Ethan Sawyer – In addition to being the College Essay Guy, Ethan is a writer, teacher, speaker, and voice actor. He has worked at Elite since 2003 is also the coordinator for the Elite Community Scholars Program, a program very close to his heart. You can email him at ethan.sawyer@eliteprep.com. The views expressed in this blog post are Ethan's and don't necessarily reflect those of Elite Educational Institute.

Posted on October 23, 2013 and filed under College Application, Resources.