The Common Application Essay Prompts for 2019-2020–and Tips on How to Write Them

The Common Application Prompts for 2019-2020 appear under the theme “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Yes, that’s right, the Common App folks are not changing their prompts this year. That does not mean, however, that it is a good idea to copy ideas verbatim from your elder sibling/friend’s Common Application essay from last year or the year before, or the year before that. Turnitin.com started turning its attention to college application essays way back in 2011, and by 2012, there was reporting on this anti-plagiarism wrinkle. This year many colleges will screen application essays. If I were you, I would assume that all of them will do this, to be on the safe side. It’s always better to keep it clean anyhow, People. For you and for the process.

So lesson one is pretty simple: my experience has been that the best essays develop when the kid applying to college to hammers away and completes first drafts without a lot of coaching in that early stage. Some guidance is fine, getting some pointers or some help with focus, great, but you, the applicant, have to find some inspiration in what matters to you to make a piece of writing work.

This advice may not seem helpful right now, so let me be more specific: take a look at the Common Application Essay Prompts for 2019-2020, below, and put each at the top of a page; then start writing: try to think of concrete examples of things you have done or experiences you have had that seem to fit each prompt, and list them, then describe them in blurb form, under the prompt. When you run out of things to say, set the page off to the side and move on to the next one. Eventually you will find that one of the Common App prompts allows you to write more. It just comes more easily. And if it feels lively, that is probably the one for you. Go ahead and write an essay draft.

After the fact, you can assess what that essay shows about you, and determine whether it should be your Common App main or not. If not, it may well work as a supplement–and at least you broke through the logjam and got started.

Or just choose the “pick your own topic” option and stare at the ceiling or up at the passing clouds until something happens.

Lesson two, go ahead and start your Common Application Essay, but do not create an account or upload information on the Common Application itself. (Yet. I am updating in late July)

All accounts and information currently on the Common Application site are linked to last year’s applications. In the last days of July the Common Application will go offline and then will reappear in its 2019-2020 version on or around August 1st. At that point you can go online to select colleges and begin uploading essays and answering questions.

Between now and August 1, what you can also do, of course is . . . start those essays.

As work with your early responses to develop a complete draft (or two), you should notice that these are not really speculative essays. They are mostly not looking for what you might do in the future, though it would help to bring that up at some point for most of these; but to begin with, they are looking for what you have done. Prompts 2, 3, 4 and 5 are at the heart of the list and pretty much define the ethos of these Common App prompts overall, which is based on things in your (hopefully recent) past that you have done or experienced that define you. Of course it is all the better if that time you challenged a belief (prompt 3) or overcame an obstacle (prompt 2) or that accomplishment or realization that sparked a period of growth (prompt 5) are also shown as influencing your future–say in that conclusion to yor essay where you talk about how you plan to continue working on the problem you solved or addressed locally via studying x in college to prepare to deal with that problem on a broader scale, or acting from that new understanding and period of growth by doing y (define factor y) . . . in and after college. . . . and so on.

A couple of other recommendations–Don’t write an argument or speech-style essay structure defined by the firstly, secondly, and thirdly of subtopics which you then develop (robotically) in the essay body as first, secondly thirdly . . . also avoid simply restating your intro in your conclusion. And if you must use that essay structure that starts with a you-are-there- narrative, then explains how you got there, then explains the life’s lesson learned . . . make sure you use good vivid detail, but don’t overdo the drama in the hook and opener.

For example: If I never see an essay that starts with a writer pinned down by enemy gunfire and running out of water and ammunition . . . only to find out this is a video game and the author got there by playing but plans to be a programmer . . . and video game designer. . . Or if I never have an author dangling by her fingertips from a hold thirty feet up a sheer rock face, and one foot pops off a hold . . . only to find that she is top-roped in a climbing gym . . . And that climbing taught her discipline and determination . . . . I will be happy. Happy never to see one of these attempts to pump up the drama again.

Consider just starting with a good hook and an expository opener, without the overdramatized narrative , just so see what happens. And if the whole thing seems too daunting, contact me for editing help.

2019-2020 Common Application Essay 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 you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

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.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked 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.

Here are some results from last year’s application process–

During the 2018-2019 application year, the most popular topic of choice was: “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.” (24.1%).

 The next most popular topics were: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” (23.7%),

followed by “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?” (21.1%).

Final notes–whether you apply to the Ivy League or hundreds of western, land-grant colleges, or hundreds more small, liberal-arts colleges, your Common Application essay is the lead essay for your application. Start early and be willing to try multiple essays and approaches.

And one more thing: in the aftermath of the Singer college-admissions bribery scandal, it seems like a good time to establish the basic ethical boundaries of college applications. Researching, seeking advice, getting detailed editing commentary are all considered legit, so long as the essays are in the deepest sense, yours. What that means is admittedly a gray area, but when it comes to cheating, examples are the best way to learn. Copying, for one: no, please. Asking somebody else to write your essays: also a big no-no.

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