Tips for Writing a 2020-2021 Common Application Essay

This Year the Common Application Essay Prompts are the Same but the World is Different

The Common Application Prompts for 2020-2021 take a page from Yogi Berra: It’s Deja Vu all over again. But it’s only deja vu when it comes to repeating last year’s essay prompts. When it comes to actually writing the 2021 Common Application essay to reflect the world around you (and your application reader), we are truly living in a different world than we were in the fall of 2019.

How to brainstorm ideas and start a winning Common Application Essay for 2020-2021, creating an essay that gets you accepted by reflecting who you are–

In this radically changed world, you need to make your essays reflect who you are as an individual. But if we are all in this together, as the advertisements and public announcements say, you will also want your essay to reflect what you have to offer to the “we,” to the society and world around you. Any college application that requires an essay is evaluating you holistically, so your essay should have a holistic approach to you and to how your education and goals fit into a big-picture future.

The Common App folks may not be changing their prompts this year, but to write a successful Common Application essay in 2021, your approach to the prompts should in some way take into account this historical moment, and how you see yourself playing a role in making a future that is better.

For more on how application essays are evaluted, see my classic postThe Secret of College Admissions.

Start Your Essay with Yourself

My first tip on writing a successful 2021 Common application essay: in order to talk about what you have to offer, you need to start with yourself, and where you want to go through your education. As long as all of that connects to the greater good. Hey, it’s 2020, not 2019.

Continuing from that point, as you turn to writing your essays, don’t think of the process as being simply about trying to get to some destination, from some point A to point Z. Instead, think of it more as a trial-and-error process. If art is your thing, it’s like making a sculpture out of clay–add stuff, tear stuff off, smash the whole thing flat and start again. Make a few trials to compare. One of them will finally “go.”

If you are a tech person or a builder, its like trying to create a complex device from scratch–a robotic car, or submarine, for example. An essay is a bit like a machine, with parts to build and integrate– an introduction, body and conclusion–and a purpose. There are certain things that need to happen at each stage, but you have to design the parts around your own experience. And just as you could come up with a chassis first, or develop a propulsions system first, then design the chassis, or hull, you don’t necessarily need to come up with your introduction as your first item. In fact, it’s often better to start with your concrete experiences. And if a design does not work, take it apart and try another design.

Begin the Thought Process by Picturing Yourself Ten Years from Now. Then Start Writing Down Concrete Experiences, Ideas, Values.

Only you can determine the specific interests and experiences that deal with your twin topics in this essay–who you are and who you want to become. But here’s an assist in writing that successful Common Application essay: keeping in mind that common good ideal, stop and think about where you see yourself in ten years. More specifically, how could your interests, your education, and the kind of work you might do be of value to others ten years from now? You are not just angling to make a six-figure income in a successful college application essay, though that’s a nice thing to have; you are trying to change the world for the better, even if incrementally.

After thinking about that, take a look at the Common Application Essay Prompts for 2020-2021, below, and put each at the top of a single page; then start writing ib response to one prompt at a time. You can brainstorm big ideas, but focus on scribbling down or typing out descriptions of any of your experiences and concrete ideas and values that come to mind that fit under a prompt.

The great idea for a hook to start your essay is always important, but it’s the rest of the essay that is hard to do. That long blank after your hook is where most of your work lies, and to fill in that space effectively, you need concrete material. That’s why it’s a good idea to see what you have in your real-world experiences and ideas, before launching a full essay draft.

To Start an Essay, Go to your Concrete Experiences

List and describe concrete examples of things you have done, experiences you have had, and even ideas and values that are important to you that seem to fit each prompt, quickly, without sweating about the paragraph form or grammar or spelling. Just get some stuff on the page under each prompt. When you run out of things to say, set the page off to the side and move on to the next prompt.

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, and it seems like it will allow you to show who you are and how you will use your (future) education to make a contribution, that is probably the one for you. Go ahead and write an essay draft. Figure out a hook to get the reader started, and you are on your way to a full draft. (If you have problems with hooks and getting started, I will be following up later with a general discussion of hooks and essay structure. Click to Follow my site to get updates when I post. )

Here They Are: The 2020-2021 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.

But do get started now.* 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.

I will be writing more about the Common App Essays soon, so come on back for more. Follow my site to get updates when I post.

*Write Your Essay Now, But Don’t Create a Common App Account Before August

A warning: start writing your essays now, but do not create an account or upload information on the Common Application itself. Yet. While the prompts I list above are live for 2020-2021, the Common App site is not.

Any information that is uploaded before the offical 2020-2021 application rollout in early August, 2020 will be deleted. 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 2020-2021 version on or around August 1st. At that point you can go online to select colleges and begin uploading essays and answering questions.

Contact Me for Essay Development and Detailed Editing Help

If you need help developing and editing your Common Application Essay, contact me.

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