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2023-2024's Common App Prompts - 7 Tips to Help You Give a Stellar Answer

Out of all the components of your college applications, the Common App essay is one of the most significant in your evaluation. Beyond the fact that this is the only writing sample that is required by every school you apply to, the personal statement holds a central position within the broader narrative of your application. Your academic interests and extracurricular pursuits will demonstrate your experience and talent, but the purpose of the Common App essay is to demonstrate your personality and character, providing a sense of the person behind your resume and statistics. 


To this end, a successful Common App essay must show a strong ability for self-reflection and a history of personal growth and development. In this blog, we’ll provide a list of all current Common App essay prompts, then discuss the most crucial tips to keep in mind for each prompt. 


Below are the 2023-2024 Common App 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. 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 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.


Prompt One: Be open to niche approaches

When addressing Prompt One, it's common to interpret the mention of identity and background in broad terms, encompassing categories such as race, gender, or socioeconomic status. While these traditional aspects remain valid subjects, this prompt allows for a more abstract or niche perspective, offering considerable freedom in topic selection. Despite the common misconception that one must ground the essay within a pre-existing background, identity, interest, or talent, successful submissions have explored deeply personal narratives, ranging from childhood obsessions like Finding Nemo to passions such as cosplaying or studying biology through decomposition. The key is to embrace a unique and personal angle, demonstrating creativity and individuality beyond conventional identity markers.


Prompt Two: Don’t search for pity

Approaching Prompt Two requires navigating the challenge of discussing a difficult or challenging moment without resorting to eliciting pity. Many students feel anxious about sharing such personal information or succumb to the temptation of portraying their struggles as sob stories to win over admissions officers. However, the most effective responses balance vulnerability and resilience. While honesty about challenges is crucial, the emphasis of the essay should not be solely on the obstacles faced. Instead, focus on showcasing personal growth and the strategies employed to overcome adversity. Remember, the purpose of this prompt is not to highlight the most intense suffering but to assess how individuals handle challenges, demonstrating strength, resilience, and self-awareness.


Prompt Three: Be honest but tactful

Addressing personal beliefs and opinions in response to Prompt Three requires a delicate balance between honesty and tactfulness. Exploring changes in perspective, especially if they involve previously held beliefs, demands careful consideration. It's essential to avoid either downplaying significant shifts or portraying them in a manner that reflects negatively on the author. The essay should delve into the nuanced process of evolving beliefs, allowing room for exploration of assumptions or convictions without resorting to shame or embarrassment. For instance, recounting a journey from a deeply religious upbringing to questioning beliefs in a secular environment can be powerful, while overcoming a history of misogyny and bullying may be less advantageous. Striking the right balance between authenticity and sensitivity is key to effectively addressing this prompt.


Prompt Four: Keep your essay personally-focused

While expressing gratitude and care for others is commendable, addressing Prompt Four necessitates maintaining a personal focus. The essay may center on a significant person in the author's life, but it's crucial to transition from narrating the inspiring story of that person to reflecting on personal experiences and values. Dividing the essay into sections, the initial portion can illuminate the impact of the influential figure, while the latter part should delve into the author's reactions, interpretations, and the lasting effects on their values. This approach ensures that the narrative not only highlights the value of the person but also emphasizes the author's individual qualities and identity, offering a well-rounded and compelling account.


Prompt Five: Avoid resume recaps

Prompt Five encourages applicants to move beyond mere resume recaps and delve into more personal and emotionally resonant experiences. While extracurricular achievements are tempting topics, relying solely on them can lead to a repetitive and disengaging narrative. Effective responses to this prompt involve exploring experiences with emotional depth, providing a unique perspective that goes beyond standard accomplishments. Whether the story is related to extracurriculars or not, the key is to convey a personal connection to the narrative, ensuring that the essay stands out as a genuine and insightful reflection of the applicant's character and growth.


Prompt Six: Save material for your “Why this major?” essays

While Prompt Six often leads students to discuss their intended field of study, caution is advised to avoid overlapping content with supplemental essays on major choices. As many schools require additional essays on this topic, duplicating material across applications can limit the depth and uniqueness of one's overall profile. Instead, consider exploring topics, ideas, or concepts related to but not explicitly linked to the chosen field of interest. This approach allows for a more comprehensive portrayal of the applicant's identity, passions, and experiences, demonstrating a well-defined sense of self that aligns with the academic pursuits and values of the chosen institution.


General Tip: Use the prompts as inspiration, not as strict rules

While the Common App prompts provide a starting point, it's essential to view them as sources of inspiration rather than strict rules. Admissions officers rarely focus on the specific prompt chosen for a personal statement, emphasizing the importance of meeting the overall goal of demonstrating self-insight and growth. The best approach is to brainstorm based on personal reactions to the prompts, selecting a topic that aligns with the essay's structure and purpose. Once a compelling topic is identified, the emphasis shifts from adhering to the prompt verbatim to crafting a powerful narrative that authentically reflects the applicant's character and journey. The ultimate goal is to submit an essay that resonates with the chosen prompt while effectively conveying the applicant's unique qualities and experiences.



One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’d like to recommend a rigorous research program open to high schoolers, you may want to consider the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students founded by researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here. You can also reach out to us at contact@lumiere.education to know more, or to have a chat about possible collaborations!


Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students. Last year, we had 150 students on full need-based financial aid!


Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a Ph.D. student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.


Image Source: Common App logo

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