2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts

February 26, 2021

The decision-makers at the Common Application have officially announced that the Common App essay prompt menu for the upcoming 2021-22 admissions cycle will be slightly different than in 2020-21. In the opinion of the College Transitions staff, the choice for nothing more than minor tinkering 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’s new in 2021-22?
  • The COVID-19 essay
  • A look at all 2021-22 Common App essay prompts
  • The most popular Common App prompts that students choose
  • Advice on brainstorming/writing your Common App essay

What’s New for 2021-22?

The Common App essay prompts will remain the same for 2021-2022 with one exception. The following prompt will be clearing out its desk and entering an early retirement:

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.

Replacing Ex-Prompt #4 will be New Prompt #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?

According to the folks at the Common App, this one was inspired by scientific research on gratitude and kindness, specifically the benefits of writing about the positive influence of other people in our lives.

The COVID-19 Optional Essay

The optional COVID-19 question will remain within the Additional Information section. For tips on whether to/how to best utilize this space, check out our blog on the topic — How to Answer the COVID-19 Question on the Common App.

All 2021-22 Common App Essay 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.

Which prompts are most popular?

In most recent cycle reported by the Common App, 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.

Advice on brainstorming/writing your essay

The basic rules for writing a stellar college essay vary little from the general guidelines for producing any strong piece of written work: be authentic, tell a story that is personal and compelling, and diligently edit, revise, and polish your product.

Writing an essay that is compelling doesn’t mean that you need to have wrestled a puma, grown up in a cult, or discovered a new galaxy at age seven.  A great college essay can take place on a grand stage but it can just as effectively take place in everyday life.  There is a ready supply of drama, tension, and conflict in the course of a typical day.  Over the course of your life you have undoubtedly had experiences that constitute worthy topics.  Think it over.  Talk to family and friends.  Your compelling story will emerge.

We also invite you to review the following resources to help with your college essay writing:

  • 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.
  • If you are also applying to a school in the University of California system, you’ll also need tips on answering the UC Personal Insight Questions.
  • Are you a transfer applicant? Don’t worry, we have advice for you too in our blog entitled How to Write a Winning Transfer Essay.