common essay topics

Common Essay Topics & Questions

1. Common Application Essay Questions for 2020-2021
Tips: The folks behind the Common Application have released the essay prompts for the 2020-2021 admissions season. Select the prompt that resonates with you, inviting you to reveal who you are now and who you aspire to be.
Follow this link to review the Common App prompts.

2. Coalition App Essay Questions for 2020-2021
Tips: The folks at the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success have released the essay prompts for the 2020-2021 admissions season. Select the prompt that resonates with you, inviting you to reveal who you are now and who you aspire to be.
Follow this link to review the Coalition App prompts.

3. Questions Related to a Significant Experience and/or Achievement
Tips: Remember to balance pride and modesty. Do not repeat everything on your resumé. You may write about a modest achievement or a more significant one. Either one will work.
Follow this link to review some examples of this question type.

4. Questions Related to Important Issues or Current Affairs
Tips: Stay personal. Write about both sides of the issue. Avoid making sweeping generalizations.
Follow this link to review some examples of this question type.

5. Questions Related to an Influential Person, Role Model and/or Profound Influence
Tips: Consider the forces that have shaped you. Remember to direct your focus on how the person made an impression on you, not on the person making the impression.
Follow this link to review some examples of this question type.

6. Questions Related to Your Future Goals, Growth & Development, and/or Why You Are Interested in a Particular College or University
Tips: Remember to mention specific factors that tie in with your area of interest. Show a solid, well-researched knowledge of the school to which you are applying. Be honest, thorough and avoid clichés.
Follow this link to review some examples of this question type.

7. Questions Related to Cultural Diversity
Tips: As Thomas Friedman says, "the world is flat." Essay prompts about diversity and globalism are an opportunity for you to reveal your respect and appreciation of intellectual, social, and cultural differences.
Follow this link to review some examples of this question type.

8. Eclectic Questions
Tips: Often these quirky essay questions are off-putting, which is very likely intentional. Only those students who truly wish to gain admission will take the time to respond to the daunting essay prompts. In most instances, once you get past the creative wording, the essence of the question centers on identity and "who you are." By the way, sometimes these eclectic questions are labeled as "optional," but in nearly every case, they are not. Write the essay!
Follow this link to review some examples of this question type.

Common Application Essay Questions for 2020-2021

  • 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.
  • 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?
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • 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.
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • 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?
  • 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.

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    Coalition App Essay Questions for 2020-2021

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  • Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  • Has there been a time when you've had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What's the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

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    Example Questions Related to a Significant Experience and/or Achievement

  • Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you. (Common Application)
  • Describe a setback that you have faced. How did you resolve it? How did the outcome affect you? If something similar happened in the future, how would you react? (University of Michigan)
  • USC's speaker series "What Matters to Me and Why" asks faculty and staff to reflect on their values, beliefs, and motivations. Presenters talk about choices they have made, difficulties encountered, and commitments solidified. Write an essay about an event or experience that helped you learn what is important to you and why it is important. (University of Southern California)
  • Thomas Edison failed many times before successfully inventing the modern electric light bulb. He said, "If I find 10,000 ways something won't work, I haven't failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward." Reflect on a challenge you overcame through persistence. (University of Southern California)
  • Using the quotation below as a jumping off point, tell us about an event or experience that helped you define one of your values or changed how you approach the world. "Some questions cannot be answered./ They become familiar weights in the hand,/ Round stones pulled from the pocket, unyielding and cool." -Jane Hirshfield, poet, Princeton Class of 1973 (Princeton University)
  • First experiences can be defining. Cite a first experience that you have had and explain its impact on you. (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Tell us about a situation where you have not been successful and what you have learned from the experience. (William and Mary)
  • What has been your most profound or surprising intellectual experience? (Duke University)
  • Describe an intellectual experience of the past two years that has given you great satisfaction. (Amherst)
  • Describe your most important academic accomplishment or intellectual experience to date. We don't want to know about test scores or course grades, rather we want to know about your creativity, your willingness to take intellectual risks or your affinity for scholarly endeavors. (MIT)
  • Tell one story about yourself that would best provide us, either directly or indirectly, with an insight into the kind of person you are. For example, the story can simply relate a personal experience, or a humorous anecdote; it can tell about an especially significant academic encounter or about an unusual test of character. The possibilities are unlimited (well, almost so). You choose. Just relax and write it. (Princeton)

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    Example Questions Related to Important Issues or Current Affairs

  • Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you. (Common Application)
  • People face challenges every day. Some make decisions that force them beyond their comfort levels. Maybe you have a political, social or cultural viewpoint that is not shared by the rest of your school, family or community. Did you find the courage to create a better opportunity for yourself or others? Were you able to find the voice to stand up for something you passionately supported? How did you persevere when the odds were against you? (Tufts University)
  • Tell us what you think about a current scientific or social controversy. (William and Mary)
  • History has recorded the American Revolution, the Industrial Revolution, and the Sexual Revolution. Today we are witnessing a revolution in the way we receive information. What do you think will be the next great revolution, and what will be its impact on you and your society? (Northwestern)
  • If you were to protest something, for or against, what would it be and why? (University of Virginia)
  • If you were to develop a Mt. Rushmore representing the 20th century, whose faces would you select and why? (William and Mary)
  • What do you think has been the most important social or political movement of the twentieth century? Do you share a personal identification with this cause? (Trinity College)

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    Example Questions Related to an Influential Person, Role Model and/or Profound Influence

  • Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence. (Common Application)
  • Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence. (Common Application)
  • If you had the opportunity to spend one day in NYC with a famous New Yorker, who would it be and what would you do? (New York University)
  • Select a creative work: a novel, a film, a poem, a musical piece, a painting or other work of art that has influenced the way you view the world and the way you view yourself. Discuss the work and its effect on you. (University of Virginia/William and Mary/NYU)
  • Visions and Voices is a university-wide arts and humanities initiative that seeks to transform students' perspectives through presentations and performances by top artists, writers, and scholars. Tell us about a creative project, performance or other work of yours and how it reflects your vision or voice. (University of Southern California)
  • There is a Quaker saying: “Let your life speak.” Describe the environment in which you were raised—your family, home, neighborhood or community—and how it influenced the person you are today. (Tufts University)
  • The late-eighteenth-century popular philosopher and cultural critic George Lichtenberg wrote, "Just as we outgrow a pair of trousers, we outgrow acquaintances, libraries, principles, etc. at times before they're worn out and at times-and this is worst of all-before we have new ones." Write an essay about something you have outgrown, perhaps before you had a replacement – a friend, a political philosophy, a favorite author, or anything that has had an influence on you. What, if anything, has taken its place? (University of Chicago)
  • Tell us about an intellectual experience, project, class, or book that has influenced or inspired you. (Brown University)
  • What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has influenced your thinking, and in what way? (University of Virginia)
  • Discuss how a particular work of music, literature, or art has inspired your life. (William and Mary)
  • Tell us how a particular book, play, film, piece of music, dance performance, scientific theory or experiment or work of art has influenced you. If you choose a novel, film or play, assume we know the plot. (University of Notre Dame)
  • Consider the books you have read in the last year or two either for school or for leisure. Please discuss the way in which one of them changed your understanding of the world, other people, or yourself. (Duke University)
  • According to Stephen Carter, we can admire those with integrity even if we disagree with them. Are there people you admire even though you deeply disagree with them? What do you admire about them? How do you reconcile this apparent contradiction in your assessment? (Duke University)
  • What effect has any voluntary or independent research, reading or study, work in the arts, science project, etc. (outside of school), had on your intellectual and personal growth in recent years? Discuss what influence this involvement has had on your academic goals. (Northwestern)
  • Who is the secondary school teacher who has had the greatest positive impact on your development? Please describe the ways in which this teacher has influenced you. (Bowdoin College)
  • Discuss an important personal relationship you have had and explain how it has changed your life. (University of Virginia)
  • Discuss how something you have read has affected you or changed your mind about something. (University of Virginia)
  • Tell us about a conversation you've had that changed your perspective or was otherwise meaningful to you. (Stanford)
  • If you could hold a conversation with someone (living or deceased) you consider significant, who would you talk to and what would you talk about? Describe your conversation. (University of Oregon)

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    Example Questions Related to Your Future Goals, Growth & Development, and/or Why You Are Interested in a Particular College or University

  • Please select three words that describe you best and tell us how you will use these qualities/characteristics to contribute fully to the BU community. (Boston University)
  • In five or six sentences, tell us how you first became interested in BU and what steps you have taken to learn more about us. (Boston University)
  • How did you first hear about Franklin and Marshall and why did you choose to apply? (Franklin and Marshall)
  • What would be your greatest contribution to the Franklin and Marshall community? (Franklin and Marshall)
  • Please tell us something about yourself, your experiences, or activities that you believe would reflect positively on your ability to succeed at Penn State. This is your opportunity to tell us something about yourself that is not already reflected in your application or high school record (Penn State)
  • Who or what influenced you to apply to Syracuse University? (Syracuse University)
  • Our mission of Scholarship in Action extends beyond the classroom to include engagement opportunities with our campus community, the City of Syracuse, and locations across the globe. Based on your academic interests, tell us what real world experiences you might pursue during your education at Syracuse University as part of this mission. (Syracuse University)
  • The University values an educational environment that provides all members of the campus community with opportunities to grow and develop intellectually, personally, culturally and socially. In order to give us a more complete picture of you as an individual, please tell us about the particular life experiences, perspectives, talents, commitments and/or interests you will bring to our campus. In other words, how will your presence enrich our community? (University of Wisconsin)
  • Tell us about your academic goals, circumstances that may have had an impact on your academic performance, and, in general, anything else you would like us to know in making an admission decision. (University of Wisconsin)
  • What characteristics of Penn, and yourself, make the University a particularly good match for you? Briefly describe how you envision your first year in college. How will your presence be known on campus? (University of Pennsylvania)
  • Why do you consider Duke a good match for you? Is there something in particular you anticipate contributing to the Duke community? (Duke University)
  • If we could only admit one more student to the University of Pittsburgh, why should it be you? (University of Pittsburgh)
  • Of all the things you hope or expect to gain from your college experience, which two or three would you place at the top of your list? Explain what you want to gain and why these experiences are most important to you.(University of Pittsburgh)
  • If you could be a fly on the wall to observe any situation – historical, personal, or otherwise – describe what you would choose to observe and why. What would you hope to learn and how would it benefit you?(University of Pittsburgh)

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    Example Questions Related to Cultural Diversity

  • Share an experience through which you have gained respect for intellectual, social, or cultural differences. Comment on how your personal experiences and achievements would contribute to the diversity of the University of Michigan. (University of Michigan)
  • What can you contribute to a multi-cultural world? (William and Mary)
  • Northwestern is a community of individuals from diverse cultures and regions of the world and with a myriad of interests and talents. Is there a type of individual you have not had much contact with in your community whom you would like to meet on campus? What do you think would be the outcome of that meeting, and what would be its effect on you? (Northwestern)

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    Examples of Eclectic Questions

  • It’s 1781 and the American colonies were just defeated by the British at Yorktown. Imagine history without the United States as we know it. (Tufts University)
  • Are we alone? (Tufts University)
  • French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss observed “The scientist is not a person who gives the right answers he's one who asks the right questions.” Using your knowledge of scientific and/or mathematical principles, identify a question whose answer you seek and tell us how you might go about investigating it. (Tufts University)
  • Kermit the Frog famously lamented “It’s not easy being green.” Do you agree? (Tufts University)
  • OMG, LOL…Texting, cell phones, blogs and tweets are redefining the way we communicate. Facebook is the new playground while print newspapers are dying. As thumbs replace tongues, does this shift in human expression enhance or limit social interaction and dialogue? Why? (Tufts University)
  • How did you get caught? Or not caught, as the case may be. (University of Chicago)
  • "Any law that uplifts human personality is just. Any law that degrades human personality is unjust," wrote the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., in his "Letter from Birmingham Jail." What is "human personality?" Is it obvious what uplifts and what degrades it? Can law be justified on the basis of it? We want to hear your thoughts on justice as it relates to this "human personality." (University of Chicago)
  • From game theory to Ultimate Frisbee to the great Chicago Scavenger Hunt, we at the University of Chicago take games seriously. We bet you do, too. Even if "just a game," sport, play, and other kinds of games seem to share at the very least an insistence that we take seriously a set of rules entirely peculiar to the circumstance of the game. You might say, in order to play a game we must take it seriously. Think playfully – or play thoughtfully – about games: how they distract us or draw us into the world, create community and competition, tease us and test us with stakes both set apart from and meaningful to everyday life. Don't tell us about The Big Game; rather, tell us about players and games. (University of Chicago)
  • Recent developments in technology have revolutionized the way we gather information, communicate with one another, and even express ourselves as individuals. If there is a computer in your life, tell us how you use it. If there is not a computer in your life, tell us how you would. (William and Mary)