How to Write the Common App Essay 2019-20

The Common App is the most widely used application platform for students applying to US universities. Our latest BridgeU guide enables your teachers and counselors to help students write a truly individual & original Common App essay.

If you have students who are looking to study at a university in the US, then there is a high probability they will submit some of their applications through the Common App.

The Common App is the most widely used admissions platform for US university applicants (though it’s also possible to apply to destinations outside the US). Over 800 higher education institutions accept applications through the Common App. This helps to speed up the admissions process, since students only have to submit relevant personal information once.

Bonus Resource – Download our free worksheet and template that will help your students plan and write a truly original and individual Common App essay. Click here to download

In addition to relevant high school transcripts, test scores, information on extra-curricular activities and parent/legal guardian information, all students applying to university through the Common App must submit a standard application essay.

Note: It’s important to bear in mind that some universities & colleges will ask your students to write additional supplementary essays, so it’s important that both counsellors and students are aware of the requirements of different institutions.

What are the Common App Essay Prompts 2019-20?

There are seven Common App essay prompts for 2019-20. Each is designed to give students the opportunity to explore who they are, what they want from a college education, and their core beliefs and values. 

Each of the Common App essay prompts will encourage students to explore a different facet of their background and their personality. The Common App Essay Prompts for the 2019/20 academic year have remained unchanged from the previous application cycle. 

Let’s explore each one in more detail. 

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.”

This is a wonderfully open Common App essay prompt. 

What’s it asking? In short, it’s inviting students to talk about any aspect of their culture, experiences or education that they feel is deeply meaningful to them. 

Specifically, college admissions committees want to know how a student’s experiences have shaped them and defined them. Let’s break up each component part of this essay prompt, and look at how students could approach them. 


In short, this is anything about a student’s background that they feel has shaped them. It could be something about their family history, background or lineage. It might be a sport, interest or talent they had when they were younger that has informed them as a teenager. 


This could be racial identity, sexual orientation, or even a religious belief. But students shouldn’t be afraid to expand their definition. Being a member of a sports team, a band, or even an online gamer could constitute an ‘identity’ for some of your students. 


Again, a student’s interests can cover all manner of things. What’s most important when writing about interests is that it has to be something without which their application would be incomplete

To use an example, you may have a student who is an avid bookworm. This is quite general interests, so it would be necessary for students to talk about something very specific. What have they learned from their favourite books? How has reading shaped their worldview, or their sense of themselves? 

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? 

This prompt, fundamentally, is trying to get students to think about how they overcome adversity and how they learn from mistakes. Can students prove that they confront setbacks without giving up? 

There are a number of ways students can approach this prompt. They could talk about one, big failure that completely redefined who they are, or a series of smaller, inter-connected failures that are somehow linked. 

Examples of ways that students could answer this question is by talking about a class they failed, or a subject at school they have continually failed to master. 

Alternatively, encourage students to think about a more social/emotional failure. Maybe they’ve had a falling out with a friend because they failed to consider the other person’s point of view or feelings, or maybe they’ve fallen out with a family member. 

Again, the key here is specificity. Students who opt for this prompt shouldn’t spend a lot of time sweating what failure they pick – they need to focus on the specificity of what they learned, and how it changed them as a person. 

Prompt 3: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea? What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” 

Some students might be put off by this prompt because they may (mistakenly) feel that they haven’t been sufficiently politically active or championed a particular social cause. 

But it’s important not to misunderstand this prompt. As with all of the Common App essay questions, this is an invitation for a student to talk about a more personal, singular worldview. 

There are arguably two ways a student could approach this prompt. 

  • By discussing a time they took a minority view against the majority opinion.
  • By reflecting on a time that their own deeply-held belief was challenged or placed under scrutiny. 

Again, you should encourage your students to look for very specific, real-world ways that they can answer this question. 

For example, it may be that they have done some voluntary or community work that has affected how they feel about political issue like homelessness or care for the elderly. They might have completed an internship that has taught them something about how to run/operate a business. They could even have run a social media campaign for a school event, and learned something about the power of marketing! 

In short, there’s probably a story in their recent past somewhere, they just need to know where to look! 

But here’s the most important thing to remember: this prompt is about the writer going on a journey. In a relatively short space of time, a student needs to tell a story of change, reflection and growth. 

Our advice? Don’t tackle this prompt unless there’s a good story in there somewhere! 

Prompt 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.”

As with all of the prompts we have discussed so far, the wording of this question means that students can draw their inspiration from anywhere. 

This prompt is designed to help the reader understand two basic things about a student. 

  • What does this student deeply care about? 
  • How does this applicant solve problems? 

However, once again, we come back to what are arguably the two pillars of a strong Common App essay – specificity and story. 

A student answering this question needs to think about a concrete, specific problem they’d like to solve. Whilst the problem does ask an applicant to tackle an ‘intellectual challenge, research query or ethical dilemma’, it’s important not to get carried away! 

 For example, writing about how they’d like to abolish world hunger probably isn’t a realistic problem to try to tackle within the space of such a limited word count. 

You’ll also notice that the prompt invites students to talk about ‘steps you took’, meaning that they can talk about a problem they’ve gone some way towards solving. 

But again, specificity and a good story are essential! 

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

Prompt 5 is designed to get students to talk about a key milestone in their life, and how it affected them. In short, this question is asking a student – “when and how have they grown as a person?” 

Again, situations that are as specific and meaningful as possible will really help an essay stand out. Some examples of some useful milestones students could write about for this prompt include: 

  • Voting for the first time. 
  • Passing an important test or exam. 
  • Becoming an older sibling. 
  • A religious ceremony or rite of passage, e.g. a baptism or Bar-Mitzvah. 

Prompt 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?”

This is a great prompt to encourage students to share their intellectual passions and interests. After all, it’s important to remember that US universities and colleges are interested in students who are intellectually engaged! 

For students interested in this topic, the world is their oyster! But it’s important that, if they choose to answer this prompt, they approach it from an intellectual perspective. A student could write about their love of the Star Wars universe if they want to – but they need to explain why they find this intellectually stimulating or engaging. 

For this prompt, it’s also important that students pick a topic that they are genuinely passionate about. It’s important they don’t choose this question because they want to show off! 

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.”

As you can see from this prompt, it gives students an inordinate amount of freedom to talk about whatever they want! 

If you are working with students who want to use this as a topic, then make sure that they are linking their essay back to them, their intellectual interests, personal achievements and background. 

It’s important to remember some of the secrets to success in Prompts 1-6. Students should keep their answers specific, personal to them and, most importantly, find a way to tell a good story. 

Tips for Brainstorming your Common App essay 

Before your students start their Common App essay, it’s worth encouraging them to make notes on how they can demonstrate the core qualities which admissions officers will look for in any application. Students need to think about how they can demonstrate the following.


The ability to collaborate, and demonstrate teamwork is something which university admissions staff will be looking for. Encourage your students to think about a moment where they learned the value of teamwork.

Work Experience & Extracurricular Activities

Ask your students to make a note of any extracurricular activities which may connect with their academic passions and interests. Extracurricular activities are a great way for students to demonstrate relevant leadership and organisational skills and reflect on any experiences or challenges which they have overcome.

Leadership & entrepreneurial activities

The Common App essay needs to be a truly individual piece of work, and the ability to demonstrate leadership, or entrepreneurial drive, will in turn help students to illustrate that they have the ability to be innovative and forward thinking. Ask students to make notes on the following:

  • Can they demonstrate the ability to put an idea into action?
  • Can they name a time when they’ve started something (a business venture, a club, a creative project), and/or pushed it to be bigger and better?
  • Have they achieved something noteworthy or unusual?

Community service 

Students should think about how they can demonstrate a care for the wider community and/or the welfare of others, whether it’s through volunteering or any of their other extracurricular activities. Community service is a great way to demonstrate citizenship and a sense of social responsibility.

Global perspective 

Students writing their Common App essay will be asked to demonstrate an understanding of other cultures, or the ability to speak another language. Encourage your students to think about any traveling or time abroad which may inform their  university application. 

Bonus Resource – Download our free worksheet and template that will help your students plan and write a truly original and individual Common App essay. Click here to download

How to write a Common App essay

Whilst students have a range of essay topics to choose from, it’s also worth remembering that all the Common App essay prompts are designed to encourage respondents to cover several important themes.

So, as your students prepare to to write their Common App essay, it’s important that they ask the following questions.

  • Which personal experience from my life will make an interesting story?
  • How can my essay tell a story and keep a reader interested?
  • How can I best illustrate moments in my life which have changed/defined me?
  • Will this story show me in my best light? 

These questions should inform every section of the Common App essay, and will allow students’ responses to be that much more structured and coherent.

How to get the opening line right 

The importance of the opening line in the Common App essay can’t be understated. It’s a chance for applicants to demonstrate flair, originality and wit, and to really grab the reader’s attention. That’s why brainstorming the opening line is an important exercise in itself.

Check out these powerful Common App opening lines from students at some of our BridgeU partner schools. These openers also come highly rated from US admissions staff.

“I almost didn’t live through September 11th, 2001 – Stanford University

I have a secret. Every day, after school, I come home late.” – Harvard University

Both these opening lines have short, sharp sentences which instantly grab the reader’s attention and offer intrigue as to the potential topic the essay could be covering. Both immediately offer the promise of an essay which will be story-driven and dramatic. Both openings also suggest a story which will be about a life-changing event in the writer’s life.

In short, these opening lines make the reader want to know more.

How to tell a vivid story 

Vivid storytelling, and the ability to hone a narrative is vital when writing the Common App essay. Here are some essential components of a great essay which are worth considering and practicing.

Descriptive language and vivid imagery

“Swinging open the door of my sheltered dorm room, I dashed through the corridor, veering towards the lounge. My sister, intermittently coherent, was acquainting me with the morning’s events. It was the 7th of July, and four suicide bombs had detonated in London. The city itself, typically a bustling, urban jungle, had been paralysed; tourists, office-workers, and residents were trapped like foxes in their holes.”

This is a sample from an essay that discusses the terrorist attack in London on July 7, 2005. Not only does this essay tell a compelling story of the applicant’s experience of what was a traumatic and newsworthy event, but its use of vivid imagery and descriptive language is very powerful.

For example, consider the description that London “had been paralysed”; personifying the city of London in this way helps to demonstrate the writer’s empathy and awareness. It’s also a much more effective use of imagery than simply saying something like “London was at a standstill”.

Getting personal – sharing passions/things that are important to the writer

Each day, I was used to reading and talking about current events. Understanding world events is my passion. Evaluating their importance is my responsibility. Today, however, these same events were threatening to tear my life apart.

I tried to imagine how any religion could not only condone but encourage these actions. I thought about how our Western culture had become irredeemably intertwined with other cultures, all of which seemed mutually uncomprehending. Wasn’t achieving a greater level of cross-culturalism meant to be a good thing?

These are two further excerpts from the same essay. In this extract, we gain an insight into the writer’s personal passions. These two extracts tell us about a time where the writer realised that something they were normally passionate about could, in their own words, tear their life apart.

The writer prides themself on their ability to make sense of world events – this was an event they struggled to make sense of, a moment when their status quo was challenged.

Storytelling techniques

Collapsed on the sofa, I realised that the mission I had chosen, to convince my school community to connect with the rest of the world, to some extent was no longer necessary. July 7th, like September 11th, would do the job for me. I got through that day, as did my family, physically unscathed, but emotionally charged. We all have a choice: to connect with the rest of the world or to cut it off. The events of that morning reaffirmed my choice. Non-interventionism is no alternative. Hell is not other people.

The writer uses powerful storytelling techniques to end their essay, and shows that they end their account of the July 7 having gone on a journey. Having faced a moment where their life was thrown into chaos, the writer reaffirms their decision to connect with the rest of the world.

So why is this Common App essay so successful?

Put simply, it creates a compelling picture of both the writer’s worldview, and their aspirations for the future. It effectively demonstrates the writer’s core values by dramatising a moment when those values were called into question.

Did You Know? – BridgeU has integrated with the Common App for the 2019/20 application cycle

For the 2019/20 application season, Common App are launching a new integration platform, and BridgeU will be one of the partners. Integration between the two platforms allows for an easier transfer of data, enabling counselors to more easily send supporting documents, via BridgeU, to Common App institutions. This will help to smooth the application journey for students wishing to study at a Common App university. 

If you’d like to know more about how this new integration could help your school, contact us at

Writing a Common App essay: final checklist

As your students prepare to submit their Common App essays, make sure that they are paying attention to the following checklist.

  • Is their Common App essay telling a compelling story about them?
  • Does their essay contain a powerful opening line?
  • Are they using descriptive language and vivid imagery?
  • Are they writing with passion?
  • Is the essay portraying them in the best possible light?

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