2020-2021 Common App Essay Prompts

January 30, 2020

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

This well-worn idiom captures the mindset of the decision-makers at the Common Application who announced this January that the essay prompts for the upcoming 2020-21 admissions cycle will be the same as they were in 2019-20. In the opinion of the College Transitions staff, the choice not to tinker was a wise one. A quick look at the data shows that the prompts, as presently constituted, received rave reviews across the board—more than 95% of admissions officers, guidance counselors, parents, and students rated the selections positively.

In this blog we will review:

  • What are the 2020-21 Common Application Prompts?
  • The most popular Common App prompts that students choose
  • Advice on brainstorming/writing your Common App essay

The 2020-21 Common Application Prompts are…

#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

Which prompts are most popular?

In 2018-19, the most frequently selected topic was #7, the “topic of your choice” essay. This prompt was chosen by 24.1% of applicants. Prompt #5, the “discuss an accomplishment” essay was a close second, attracting 23.7% of seniors. The bronze medal went to prompt #2, the “challenge, setback, or failure” themed essay, which netted 21.1% of Common App filers. Overall, the three most popular prompts accounted for 68.9% of applicants.

These rankings changed slightly from the 2017-18 cycle, when prompt #5 held a slight advantage over prompt #7 for the top spot and the third place finisher was actually #1—the “background, identity, interest, or talent” prompt.

Advice on brainstorming/writing your essay

  • At College Transitions, we offer advice for each stage of the writing process and invite you to revisit previous posts on Common App essay related topics.
  • Our Simple Truths about the College Essay will give you a broad overview of what you are hoping to accomplish with your 650-word opportunity to express a compelling and original aspect of yourself.
  • Even if you are only a junior finishing up your first semester, it is never too early to begin thinking about your Common App essay. In fact, getting an early start can relieve stress during the hectic admissions frenzy of your senior year and result in a superior and more polished product. Visit our Brainstorming the Common Application Essay to learn where you should start.
  • If you’re still stuck in neutral, consult Part I and Part II of our tips for “Getting those words on that page.”
  • Advice on what to do is useful, but tips on what not to do are of equal importance. Check out our Five Essay Topics to Avoid to discover what topics admissions officers are sure to find unappealing, off-putting, or downright gross.
  • If you are a real go-getter, you may also wish to get a start on the most prevalent Common App supplement required by colleges—the “Why this College Essay.” Reference our guide for mastering the “Why this College” essay.