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7 High Impact Common App Essay Examples 2024

When applying to colleges, few things are more crucial than the strength of your Common App essay. Also known as a Personal Statement, this 650-word essay is meant to be a piece of reflective writing, revealing your personality and character beyond the grades, test scores, and activities that comprise most of the Common Application. 

Though many colleges require individual supplemental essays, these prompts are typically more targeted, asking why you want to attend their school, study a particular field, or how you’d contribute to the school community. In contrast, the Common Application essay is sent to all schools to which you apply, and allows for far more creativity in your approach. So, it’s critical that you nail this essay, as its goal of assessing applicants’ self-awareness and personal development demands keen insight into your identity and past experiences.

When you embark on writing your Common App essay, it can be challenging to begin — there is a large degree of freedom in choosing a topic, so developing an effective approach takes time.

In this blog, we’ll provide 7 strong Common App essay examples from students admitted to top colleges and universities, and walk through each one’s strengths and weaknesses. 

Note: For readability’s sake, only the first 150-200 words of each essay is included in the article; the full text of each essay is linked at the bottom of page.

Let’s dive into some strong examples to model!

1. Sikh identity

Responding to Prompt 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.

People love to ask why. Why do you wear a turban? Why do you have long hair? Why are you playing a guitar with only 3 strings and watching TV at 3 A.M. Where did you get that cat? Why won't you go back to your country, you terrorist? My answer is... uncomfortable. Many truths of the world are uncomfortable. A couple of examples are that an equal number of pets are euthanized as are adopted each year and that cats roam the streets at night because they are actually looking for owners with better food. One of those statements is a horrible truth and the other is a thought I had in the shower. Either way, the point still stands. Uncomfortable truths are just that, uncomfortable. The answer to 'Why won't you go back to your country, you terrorist?' is the most uncomfortable answer I can give, barring the current status of aboriginal street cats.

Sikhs like myself have borne the brunt of the backlash through our forced subjection to hate crimes, bullying, and job discrimination. In [Date], a misguided gunman took the lives of six Sikhs who were praying peacefully in their house of worship in Oak Creek, Wisconsin. Their families, through their tears, asked the nation, like I continue to ask myself, "Why?"

The first Common Application essay prompt is a popular choice, with responses often focusing on experiences of identity-based adversity. Though this can be an effective topic, many students have shortcomings in their approach. However, this essay both successfully avoids common missteps and shows the resilience and motivation of the applicant. 

Due to the frequency of identity-based essays, it’s essential to be unique, as generalized descriptions of hardships are rarely effective. Here, the author begins with a series of questions that not only serve as a “hook” to engage the reader but immediately provide a concise set of examples that summarize the stereotyping and hateful comments that they’ve experienced. They follow this up by broadening the scope, contextualizing how their experiences exist within a broader pattern of anti-Sikh discrimination. As a result, the student clearly establishes the unique challenges they’ve faced, while demonstrating consciousness of systems of oppression. 

This is an ideal way to set the stage for the rest of the essay — the author ultimately blends his personal experiences with their social context, discussing frustration with both his own discrimination and its political consequences. The author hones in on a specific issue — anti-Sikh policies in the US Army — and his tremendous efforts to combat it, including earning media attention for a 15,000-signatory petition to the Secretary of Defense. As a result, we see how the author’s religious identity is deeply meaningful to them, and their proactive mindset has led them to make meaningful change while still in high school. 

Peppering in humor and subtle snarky comments, the author adds personality to the essay and demonstrates that this adversity has not made him jaded, but motivated. 

The author of this essay was accepted to Princeton University. 

2. Heart attack

Responding to Prompt 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?

One in three victims of a heart attack doesn't show any symptoms before it happens. Ninety- five percent of cardiac arrests that occur outside a hospital are fatal. These are not merely statistics. A heart attack redefined my life on November 21st, [Date].

It was a warm autumn morning, and I was raking leaves with my Boy Scout Troop to fundraise for our high adventure patrol's 50-mile hike to summit Mt. Washington in New Hampshire. I had left my house on my bike early, without telling my mom-she was asleep, and my dad was at work.

About an hour into raking, I saw my mother park nearby, and braced myself for a lecture about how my absence had freaked her out. No part of me imagined why she was actually there. Two words, delivered with the force of a Mack truck, "Dad died." That morning on his routine break, his cardiac arteries became terminally obstructed. A heart attack and subsequent cardiac arrest ensued. That was it. No goodbye, no I love you, none of that.

The topic of this essay is a risky choice — colleges are often skeptical of essays centering on a family member, which often come at the expense of insight into the applicant themselves. However, this student’s response is incredibly personal, drawing from the event of his father’s death to reflect on his personal growth. 

This essay additionally stands out for avoiding a negative tone —  colleges don’t want to feel like you’re looking for pity. Though the topic of death can easily become depressing, the strength of the author’s reflection turns the tragic beginning into an inspirational piece. While the author doesn’t shy away from describing the heartbreak he felt at his father’s death, he places a greater emphasis on the philosophical questions it raised, the powerful memories it triggered, and the meaningful role of his father in his development into an adult.  

The author of this essay was accepted to Cornell University. 

3. Writing

Although I often mused over my belief that writers were an eccentric, ethereal few plucked from Apollo’s garden (or the local Barnes and Noble), what drew me to the art form was the ability to experience the joy of connection, enrich my understanding of humanity, and above all, leave a legacy of laughs, smiles and deep conversations.

Writing taught me that it was okay to not be perfect in the first draft, or the 17th. In a strict academic environment where success is measured by achievement, a blank Notes tab is my reprieve. Scribbling 5-minute responses to prompts like “How many licks does it take to get to the center of a tootsie pop?” and “When did you first let go of your mothers hand?”, writing became the gateway to my whimsical, introspective side.

Ever since I was seven, then a burgeoning poet who wrote Taylor Swift-Esque lyrics about ladybugs and second-grade relationship drama, I‘ve felt most empowered with a pen and college-ruled notebook. Nine years later, I’ve expanded my genres and vocabulary, but I still write with the intent to amplify, whether through spoken-word driven climate advocacy, to spine-tingling YA fantasies that question morality and materialism with a hint of romance.

Speaking about academic interests in the Common Application essay can be dangerous, as it can easily overlap with common supplemental prompts about one’s intended course of study. This example not only avoids this pitfall, but actively adds to their existing credentials. Since most supplements require a more “objective” discussion of academic strengths, this aspiring author takes advantage of the Common Application’s freedom to demonstrate her skill for creative writing in practice. Using engaging prose that shows off her abilities, the author takes a personal and often humorous tone to describe the evolution of this passion from childhood to the present. 

As a bonus, within the narrative, the author weaves in discussion of personal accomplishments and the dynamics of her queer and Russian-Jewish identities. As a result, this essay simultaneously emphasizes her personal connection to her writing and the skill she’s developed. 

4. Uniform

Responding to Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

It was a day like any other. Bright, the metal strap of my belt reflected the fine rays of sunlight permeating through my car's windshield; enveloping me in a sense of comfort as I drove to school. The pleasant morning was underscored with a fresh suit and a red tie, exclusive to prefects, affixed to my uniform. I took pride in wearing this attire to school, daily.

My arrival in school seemed no different to that of a salty chip in a jar of Nutella. The school's corridor, with an array of students in a vibrancy of colors, created a vista of identity. Meanwhile, I presented myself in sharp uniform; a clear rejection of the individuality on display before me. My classmates' necks turned toward the gate, where I awkwardly stood. Their eyes met mine and a growing sense of misery embraced me as their smiles narrowed at the sight of my suit and tie. Among students in jeans and t-shirts, I felt like popcorn in candy.

Recognizing that a mundane aspect in life has the ability to engrave its effect on my mind escorted my brain into a realm of query. I wanted to understand why I was the only student in uniform. I checked my school's e-mail and weekly newsletter, and mention of the non-uniform day did not exist. Managebac, the online portal that my academy uses to communicate school-based information to parents and students, failed to provide information for this event too. I recalled missing school on Wednesday that week. It was on this day in the whole-school assembly, that the student government communicated information about this event. If the government relayed this information online, folks who missed school like myself wouldn't be left uninformed.

Most students worry about choosing the most exciting or memorable story to frame their Common Application essay. However, this essay begins with an event that the author admits is mundane — accidentally attending school in-uniform on a non-uniform day. This topic could easily make for a mundane essay; were the author to keep the essay solely focused on his mistake, placing such high emphasis on an embarrassing but ultimately unimportant event could come off as immature.  

Thankfully, the essay shifts narratives, moving to a broader discussion of the author’s evolving approach to leadership. Demonstrating one of the most desirable traits in an applicant by colleges, the author expresses a highly personal engagement with leading others in his school community. Focusing on evolving perspectives, he shows a willingness to not only question traditions, but also beliefs and approaches of his own, reflecting on how “the ways things are” is not the way things should be. 

Through both opening with a slightly embarrassing moment and expressing openness to changing his own opinions and perspectives, the essay embraces vulnerability. As the Common Application should focus on personal growth and development, the author’s ability to laugh at himself, admit mistakes, and demonstrate improvement strengthens the value of his leadership abilities. 

The author of this essay was accepted to CalTech, Princeton, and UC Berkeley.

5. Money NYT

I was 6 years old.

Waltzing into my room, I had no room to dance. Looking at the floor, I would not be able to convince anyone it is hardwood. Clothes with price tags and unopened toys covered every inch of the ground. Mountains of freebies from convention centers engulfed me every time I entered the room. It was chaos.

Each day, these mountains became mountain ranges. As time passed by, I thought this accumulation would make me better. More items, more wealth and more friends. Having more meant a better life, right?

I waved to my dad at the screen door while I was yawning in jammies that were made authentically from Vietnam. He hopped into the only car to drive eight miles south to sharpen blades for lawn mowers as my mom cared for me, my brother and the house.

And every morning, my mom dropped me off at school on the next fastest transportation: the only electric scooter. Other days, my dad would pick me up and head to the doctor’s as the English-speaking parent before dozing off until his next shift. I cherished my parents’ efforts and actions for me.

This essay reflects on the author’s experience with financial hardship through a unique and complex lens. Growing up with limited resources, she initially perceives accumulating things — useful or not — as empowering. As her home begins to approach a state of hoarding, she reframes her perspective on possessions. 

Despite dwelling on difficult subject matter, the essay shows tremendous personal growth, as the author overcomes anxieties of being perceived as poor to support her family’s transition into a more “minimalist” lifestyle. Reflecting on the value of having fewer — but more meaningful — possessions, the author demonstrates her ability to navigate tricky financial situations at an early age and motivation to support her family’s well-being, overcoming anxieties of judgment from others.   

The author of this essay was accepted to Hamilton College.

6. Choose prompt

Responding to Prompt 7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you have already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Add wine dropwise to potassium dichromate and acidify with sulfuric acid. 7-8% ethanol for Riesling. 14% for Chateauneuf du Pape. Using simple titration data, I determined the identities of solutions containing German and French wine without labels.

Before drinking or eating anything, I would first look at the packaging to examine the list and proportionality of the constituents. Often, the ingredients intrigued me more than the taste itself. The composition of the cuisine provided information for me to assess the craft of what I was about to consume, beyond what I could detect with my senses. With this fascination towards cuisine, I became enraptured by a blind wine tasting problem where I distinguished between German Riesling and French Chateauneuf du Pape through their different ethanol concentrations. The simplicity of using potassium dichromate's change from orange to green to elucidate how the producers fermented their grape juice captivated my attention as a scientist.

While I could determine the difference between a German wine and a French wine by their chemistry, it was challenging to understand the human differences shaping the molecular compositions of these wines with science. Only through examining these wines using cultural and historical lenses was I able to understand the moulding of cuisine by the present act of creation and past social circumstances. Seeking to satisfy my desire to formulate a complete perspective integrated with both scientific and sociohistorical aspects rather than assessing cuisine through multiple individual fragments, I scoured online papers on French and German viticulture. I discovered that French wines were influenced by Renaissance trading while German wines were shaped by the balance between citrus and acid tastes in German cuisine.

This knowledge also provided a scientific channel to view these cultural differences by examining malic and tartaric acid concentrations in the wines of different cultures.

Even with the openness of Common App essay prompts, many students feel pressured to address a single topic, representing their broader identity through a narrower case study. While this author does keep the essay focused on the primary narrative of gastronomy, the topic is put into conversation with the author’s passions for chemistry and history, while reflecting on the nuances of their mixed Chinese and Italian cultural background. 

Despite frequently employing specific terminology that demonstrates HER wide-ranging knowledge of food and wine, the essay avoids coming off as a food criticism piece. Each example raised is directly linked to a personal experience or reflection — a difficult feat to accomplish when speaking of Rieslings and risotto. In sum, this essay integrates a wide array of the author’s personal and academic interests, while showing creativity through its successful approach to an unconventional topic.

The author of this essay was accepted to Washington University in Saint Louis.

7. Cosplaying 

“Join the school choir – it will boost your team spirit;  

Learn how to folk dance – it cultivates your femininity;  

Study abroad – you will have better chances of finding a profitable job…”  

Growing up, I have been bombarded by incessant preaching about what I should become, forced into paths carved by my parents’ expectations. Oftentimes, I felt frustrated and disoriented – it seemed that my destiny had been predetermined, and I was hell-bent on escaping from it. The two-dimensional animated world had long been my safe haven: Miku Hatsune sings and dances perfectly for her millions of fans with adorable emotions; Homura Akime fights crime with her magic power in order to save the world she loves; Victorica buries her head in books by day and moonlights as an assistant crime fighter. Impressed by their outfits, abilities, and adventures, I fell in love with cosplay – the act of forging new, exciting identities for myself.  

Hunting for gorgeous costumes online, designing accessories, and sporting colorful wigs, I began to fulfill my wildest imaginations: Miku always wears short skirts and fancy tops; Homura carries a sharp sword and magic diamond while fighting; Victoria dresses like an old-fashioned doll with fancy dresses and hats, always carrying heavy books. Soon I discovered these cute, vivacious teenage-girl characters enjoyed a tremendous popularity, as all the posts of my cosplay photos received countless “likes” on social media. Drunk off compliments, I clung to the belief that cosplayer had become my newfound identity.  

This essay neither shies away from many students’ fear of mentioning non-academic or traditionally “impressive pursuits” nor limits her discussion of “identity” to conventional definitions. On the contrary, she opens with a direct rebuttal of this approach — what she finds meaningful is not constrained by prestige or convention. 

Openly showing the excitement she finds in cosplay, the author opens the essay with a creative and energetic description of her favorite characters, costume design process, and online community. Though her energy doesn’t fade throughout the rest of the piece, the author shifts to a more reflective tone, addressing the process of “becoming” a character. Drawing comparisons between cosplay and the social roles we take on, she ends by synthesizing the myriad ways she explores and develops her identity and how they continue to evolve. 

The author of this essay was accepted to Dartmouth, UPenn, Columbia, and Brown. 

Links to full essays:

Essay Three (College Resources Repository, pgs. 52-53).

Essay Seven (Example 25)

One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you’d like to participate in 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. 

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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