Popular College Application Essay Topics (and How to Answer Them) (2024)

Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.

The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).

Popular College Application Essay Topics (and How to Answer Them) (1)

2023–24 Common App Essays

Nearly 700colleges accept the The Common Application , which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admissions, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following 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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when youquestionedor challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realizationthatsparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  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?
  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.

Read More: Get Expert Essay Advice From Former Admissions Officers!

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts

Prompt #1: Share your story.

Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby,facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school résumé and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.

Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.

You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.

Popular College Application Essay Topics (and How to Answer Them) (2)

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.

Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.

Prompt #4: Reflecting on gratitude.

Colleges are looking for students with unique experiences that can enhance their future campus community, and this is your chance to share that by recognizing what someone else has done for you. Even though this prompt requires you to reflect on the action of another person, make sure that the focus remains on how the act of kindness impacted you and the way you live your life. This essay should make you and the reader smile.

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just likePrompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or accomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth.

Prompt #6: What captivates you?

This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.

Read More: QUIZ: Test Your College Knowledge!

Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.

This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.

More College Essay Topics

Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:

Describe a person you admire.

Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .

Why do you want to attend this school?

Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.

Read More: 5 Ways College Application Essays and High School Essays Are Different

What is a book you love?

Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?

Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.

What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?

Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.

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Popular College Application Essay Topics (and How to Answer Them) (2024)

FAQs

How to best answer college application questions? ›

Here are some tips to help you ace your short answers:
  1. Don't repeat the question.
  2. Don't use unnecessarily large words. ...
  3. Answer honestly. ...
  4. Supplement your résumé. ...
  5. Always use details to bring even a short story to life.
  6. Don't be afraid of the word limit. ...
  7. Describe your personal growth. ...
  8. Be specific about each institution.

How do I choose a topic for my college application essay? ›

A strong essay topic sets you up to write a unique, memorable college application essay. Your topic should be personal, original, and specific. Take time to brainstorm the right topic for you. Some topics are easier to make work than others, but it's possible to write an exceptional essay from a common topic.

How do you stand out in a college application essay? ›

Tips for a Stellar College Application Essay
  1. Write about something that's important to you. ...
  2. Don't just recount—reflect! ...
  3. Being funny is tough. ...
  4. Start early and write several drafts. ...
  5. No repeats. ...
  6. Answer the question being asked. ...
  7. Have at least one other person edit your essay. ...
  8. Test Your College Knowledge.

What do colleges like to hear in essays? ›

Colleges look for three things in your admission essay: a unique perspective, strong writing, and an authentic voice.

What are cliche college essay topics? ›

What are cliché college essay topics?
  • Extracurriculars, especially sports.
  • Role models.
  • Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family.
  • Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents' divorce)
  • Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp.

What make an impressive college application essay? ›

However, there are some standard practices that will help elevate your essay:
  1. Directly address any questions the prompt asks. ...
  2. Use specific information. ...
  3. Create a narrative. ...
  4. Reuse material. ...
  5. Demonstrate fit. ...
  6. Put yourself in your reader's shoes. ...
  7. Go through multiple drafts–and do so early. ...
  8. Be vulnerable and show emotion.
Apr 3, 2024

What are good openings for a college essay? ›

Brainstorm an anecdote that can introduce the main point of your essay (like a game of Bananagrams introduced Merchant's love of words). If your essay is about an experience, you can open it by narrating a significant moment that was part of that experience.

How do I find a good common app essay topic? ›

When writing your Common App essay, choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story. No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development, insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

What type of essay is most used in college? ›

The vast majority of essays written at university are some sort of argumentative essay. Almost all academic writing involves building up an argument, though other types of essay might be assigned in composition classes. Essays can present arguments about all kinds of different topics.

What do most people write about in college essays? ›

You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses. Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.

What is the most popular type of essay? ›

The Argumentative Essay

THESE ARE BY FAR THE MOST COMMON ESSAYS YOU WILL FIND YOURSELF ASKED TO WRITE. They may be long; they may be short, but they all try to persuade the reader about the soundness of your argument about a given topic.

What is the best college essay opening? ›

Start with a vivid, specific image

If your topic doesn't lend itself to such a surprising opener, you can also start with a vivid, specific description. Many essays focus on a particular experience, and describing one moment from that experience can draw the reader in.

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