College Application Personal Statement Topics

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).

2018-19 Common App Essays

Nearly 700 colleges 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 admission in 2017, 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 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.

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 resume 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.

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: Solving a problem.

This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment 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.

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.

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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It’s time for kids to write great college application essays, The Common Application will go live soon with more than 600 colleges using it, and many public universities are opening up their applications as I write (Yeah, Kansas University and the Universal App, both of which opened July 1).

Yet so many kids get stuck just coming up with unique topics for their personal statements. That leaves so many admissions offices with general, uninteresting essays to read.

So here are some creative ways to help your high school seniors get started with writing active, engaging essays that truly communicate their stories to admissions officers.

  1. Write your resume. Include everything you can from high school. Categorize your activities, community service, work, internships, athletics, arts, and more. Include descriptions of your leadership and initiative. Maybe in writing the resume you will remember some key event or story that will turn into a great application essay. See my 10 tips for writing great college resumes at http://getmetocollege.org//application-essay-tips/resume-building-and-writing-tips.
  2. Start first with three short activity paragraphs. In writing them, make them as interesting and exciting as possible. Start with a story. Use my into, through, and beyond approach (See #10). Maybe one of these can turn into a long. Shorts are easier to throw away than longs and very useful for the Common Application and supplemental essays. None will ever go to waste.
  3. Write a list of your most quirky features. I love Stanford’s supplemental Letter to Your Future Roommate. These letters are often so much more interesting than the other essays. Makshya wrote about her fetish for making lists and provided her list. Every item from her list could turn into a great essay starter. Samples from her list include: “I have the ability to create and develop different fonts in my handwriting” and “One of my favorite words is “ubuntu,” which means humanity in Xhosa.” Start with a list of what makes you, you. Make that will spark an essay topic.
  4. Look at sample essays posted on actual college websites. Connecticut College (https://www.conncoll.edu/admission/apply/essays-that-worked/) offers great samples.Johns Hopkins(http://apply.jhu.edu/apply/essays.html) even provides admissions officers’ feedback after each sample essay. Reading these, you can see the huge range of topics. At least, you can see how they all begin with an amazing in the moment first paragraph. You can do the same.
  5. Read past and present supplemental essay topics from other colleges. The University of Chicago has great supplementary essay topics every year. This year their site links to all their prompts. My favorite topic is: “It Isn’t Easy Being Green” by Kermit the Frog. That turned into a great long essay for several kids I know who never applied to U Chicago. This year’s topics are great as well. https://collegeadmissions.uchicago.edu/apply/essays/
  6. Read sample essays from older kids at your school. But don’t copy. Just get ideas. You need to truly match your writing and style to the level of school. Admissions officers are begging for gripping, non-general stories. Give them a gift.
  7. Great, great essays can take us through an event and weave in core features. Do not feel confined by any rules other than to engage and stimulate the admissions officers to see you come to life before them. And yes, you must grammar edit your essays.
  8. Don’t be bound by five paragraph essays. Your story will guide the form of the essay. You can use dialogue, quotes, song lyrics, poetry. Let your story and message guide you.
  9. Follow Dr. J’s Into, Through, & Beyond Approach. Your essay needs to grab readers from the first word. You are competing for the fleeting attention of admissions officers who have dozens if not hundreds or thousands of essays and files to process. So don’t waste their precious time and tell them a story that no one else can tell. That will help you get admitted to the match college of your choice. See the approach below.

INTO: With your INTO, grab us into the story with a moment in time. That moment must reveal a core quality. The INTO can be a sentence, paragraph, or series of paragraphs.

THROUGH: Then go into two levels of THROUGH.  THROUGH 1 provides the immediate context of the event in the Into. THROUGH 2 provides the overall context of the overall experience.

BEYOND: End with a BEYOND that is not sappy but powerful. Think of a metaphor that guides you and weaves through your story and into your ending and ultimately what you offer a college.

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