How to Answer the 2023-2024 Common App Prompts

Dhanvi Mehta
Edited by Jordyn Banks
Published on
July 28, 2023

For those embarking on the journey to college in the academic year 2023 - 2024, the Common Application prompts are critical in capturing the essence of their experiences, passions, and plans. In this article, we will delve into the art of crafting compelling responses to the latest Common App prompts, empowering you to stand out in a sea of applicants and secure your spot in the institution of your dreams. 

  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 prompt invites you to share a significant aspect of your life that has profoundly shaped your identity and values. Admissions officers are eager to learn about the experiences and passions that have shaped you as a unique individual. The key here is to offer a compelling and authentic narrative that allows the admissions committee to understand your journey and this particular aspect's role in your life. 

Questions To Ask Yourself: 

  • What makes you, you? What factors of your identity are most important? 
  • What’s something you do that makes you feel the most like you? 
  • What in your seventeen years of life has helped shape you into who you are today?
  • Why are you personally passionate about your major? 


Establish a theme: A theme provides a central focus for your essay, helping you maintain a clear and coherent structure. It ensures that all aspects of your essay contribute to a unified message, making it easier for the admissions officer to follow and understand what defines you. Additionally, by centering your essay around a specific theme, you can weave together anecdotes, experiences, and reflections that support and reinforce the central message, creating a more memorable essay. 

It’s essential to showcase your values through vivid descriptions to evoke emotions in your reader. Rather than listing your values, showing them through personal stories demonstrates authenticity. You can demonstrate how your values have influenced your decisions and behaviors by showing them in action. This allows the admissions counselor to see your growth. 

  1. 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 explores your ability to handle adversity and demonstrates your resilience and maturity. Admissions officers want to see how you cope with setbacks and learn from difficult situations. 

Questions To Ask Yourself: 

  • How do you deal with hardship? 
  • What qualifies as a challenge or setback in your life and world? 
  • How did the challenge impact your daily life?
  • What personal growth did you experience? 


Begin with a great hook: Admissions officers usually spend about 15 minutes on your application. It’s important to keep your reader invested. A strong hook demonstrates your ability to craft compelling and creative writing. It showcases your writing skills and sets the tone for the essay. 

Speak your truth: It sounds cheesy, but being vulnerable shows you are willing to share your genuine thoughts, emotions, and experiences. A compelling essay should offer the reader profound insights into your motivations and interests, requiring openness. This doesn’t mean you must reveal every detail of your life story; instead, focus on your raw and honest emotions. You don’t need to talk about a tragic event to be vulnerable. Even if you haven’t been through something life-changing or traumatic, you still have many unique experiences to offer. 

  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

This prompt asks you to recount a specific instance of questioning or challenging a belief or idea. The goal is to reflect on the process of questioning, the factors that prompted you to do so, and the outcome of your contemplation. 

Questions to ask: 

  1. What were the doubts and uncertainties you encountered? 
  2. How did you grapple with conflicting viewpoints or emotions during this period of introspection? 
  3. Did you reaffirm your original belief with strengthened convictions, or did you experience a change in perspective? 
  4. How did this process impact your personal growth? 


Find uncommon connections: This technique, well known for creative writers, is a powerful tool I use when crafting new metaphors to captivate and surprise my readers. It’s common to find essays where individuals recount how a challenging experience taught them a valuable lesson, leading to a cliched narrative. Instead of falling into that trap, your goal should be to unveil unexpected connections between seemingly unrelated aspects of your life. For example, my passion for baking blossomed during my sophomore year when I participated in a Business Administration class project. Our task was establishing a business, and my team selected a bakery. Naturally, as the only girl, I was responsible for baking treats for our classmates. Initially, I felt a bit bitter since I didn’t know anything about baking, but to my surprise, I discovered genuine enjoyment. I could certainly write about the pleasure I find in baking and how it allowed me to express myself creatively, but a far more intriguing angle emerges when I delve into how this seemingly unrelated hobby empowered me to overcome my fear of public speaking. I won’t reveal my entire essay, but this approach's essence lies in defying expectations and revealing the hidden gems within our narratives. When crafting your essay, consider how the cliched version of your story might unfold and then explore the less-common connections you can make. 

Keep the focus on you: While this may seem like an obvious point, it’s a crucial one to make. Crafting a compelling personal statement requires keeping the focus on the protagonist - you. While it’s natural for others to play a role in your story, they shouldn’t overshadow your accomplishments. Considering the prompt, let’s say a class debate prompted you to question your belief. While it’s important to give background on what prompted you to challenge a pre-existing idea of yours, highlight how you confronted your thoughts and sought to understand the reality of the situation, the determination you displayed, and how you overcame obstacles to excel. While it’s important to acknowledge the influence of those important to you, your college essay should revolve around your actions, experiences, and personal growth. 

  1. 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?

This prompt invites you to reflect on an act of kindness or support from someone who has significantly impacted you. The focus is on expressing gratitude for this action and exploring how it has affected or motivated you. 

Questions to ask: 

  1. What are your favorite random acts of kindness? 
  2. Has anyone ever restored your faith in humanity? 
  3. Did someone’s act of kindness change your perspective on anything? 
  4. Has this experience influenced your behavior or actions in any way?


Embrace vulnerability and authenticity: While expressing gratitude and happiness is positive, consider sharing the vulnerable aspects of your emotions in the essay. Don’t be afraid to reveal moments of doubt, uncertainty, or even melancholy surrounding the experience. For example, when I was eleven, my world was upended when my four-year-old brother fell ill, requiring two weeks in the ICU due to a rare disease. At the time, I was too young to comprehend the whirlwind of emotions within me fully. It was a tumultuous period, filled with fear and anxiety, leaving me grappling to process such overwhelming circumstances. 

On top of that, my parents were too focused on my brother to attend to my emotions, and most days, I was home alone. Amidst this, my aunt, who had flown down from Canada to support our family, took me under her wing. She whisked me away to adventure parks and trips to the bookstore, and one evening, we were sitting in Panera, and she reintroduced me to the enchanting world of Harry Potter as we read the first book together. In that precious moment, wrapped in the magic of literature, my worries seemed to evaporate momentarily. For those cherished hours, I escaped into a fantasy realm, allowing me respite from the harsh reality that enveloped me. Through that experience, I learned the power of finding solace in stories and the ability to make small gestures to bring immense comfort during trying times. By sharing the highs and lows of this transformative journey, I could exemplify my emotional maturity and unwavering determination to find gratitude amid arduous circumstances.  

Pay it forward: As you reflect on the experience that made you happy or thankful, consider how it has inspired you to pay it forward and spread kindness to others. Discuss how this gratitude has motivated you to take actions that benefit others or your community. Colleges appreciate applicants who commit to making a positive impact in the world. For instance, if someone’s selfless support inspired you to become a mentor or volunteer for a cause that aligns with your interests, delve into the steps you have taken to make a difference. Explain how you have integrated this newfound gratitude into your life and how it influences your values and actions. 

  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

This prompt asks applicants to reflect on a specific accomplishment, event, or realization that led to a period of personal growth and a deeper understanding of themselves or others. It allows applicants to share transformative experiences that have shaped their character and perspectives. 

Questions to ask: 

  1. How did this experience initiate a period of personal growth for me? 
  2. Did this experience change my behavior, actions, or decision-making? 
  3. What specific details and context should I provide to make the experience clear to the reader?  


Reference the future: It’s not necessary to detail your plan in life; however, it is vital to connect your present experiences to what you want to do in the future. Doing this demonstrates your long-term goals and shows admissions counselors you have a clear sense of purpose and direction. It conveys that you are serious about your education and have thought about how college will play a role in achieving your ambitions. 

Follow a narrative structure: This is an example, of course, but a narrative structure allows you to engage readers. By presenting your essay as a story, you can capture the reader’s attention from the beginning and keep them interested. You can break it down to incorporate what happened, what you did about it, and what they learned from it. These three components offer the reader how a vital event/person shaped the person you are today. 

  1. 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 prompt asks applicants to explore a topic, idea, or concept that deeply fascinates them to the extent that they become completely engrossed and lose track of time. It encouraged applicants to discuss why this particular subject captivates them and what drives their curiosity to learn more about it. 

Questions to ask: 

  1. What lengths have you gone to learn everything you can about your related topic of interest? 
  2. How do you personally connect to this subject? 
  3. Recall a specific moment when you lost track of time exploring this topic. 
  4. What questions or mysteries about this subject keep me motivated to learn more? 


Take creative risks: Admissions counselors read hundreds of applications during college admissions season. It’s easy for all these personal statements to blend. By writing a non-traditional essay, you capture your reader's attention and immerse them in your narrative. You want your admissions counselor to read your essay and think, “Wow, this student belongs at this college.” You don’t have to write about a random topic you don’t care about to achieve this, either. For example, I read an essay about a student’s passion for soccer. There are probably thousands of sports-related essays; however, this student took an interesting approach by narrating in the voice of the soccer ball. This puts a creative twist on the essay and makes it memorable. 

Use ‘nerd’ language, when possible: Embracing ‘nerd’ language means incorporating words and phrases that only a true subject enthusiast would use. As someone deeply passionate about Greek mythology, I naturally use terms like ‘pantheon’ to refer to the collective gods and goddesses of ancient Greece or describe ancient Greek poems as ‘epics.’ This specialized language allows me to showcase the depth of my understanding and knowledge in the field, revealing my immersion in the intricacies of the topic. By employing this technique, I convey my passion and demonstrate my readiness for advanced academic pursuits. Nevertheless, stay mindful of your audience and ensure that you explain technical terms or jargon. 

  1. 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.

This prompt is intentionally open-ended, allowing applicants to explore any meaningful and relevant subject. It places no restrictions on the essay's topic, style, or theme. This prompt allows applicants to showcase their authentic voice, creativity, and individuality without specific guidelines. It invites them to share a piece of writing that truly reflects who they are as a person and writer. 

Questions to ask: 

  1. What story do I want to tell?
  2. What makes my perspective unique? 
  3. What emotions do I want to evoke?


Choose a topic you’re passionate about: It’s crucial not to choose a topic solely based on what you believe colleges want to hear. If you lack genuine interest in the subject, it will likely be evident in your essay. When selecting a topic, aim to showcase various aspects of your personality and abilities while remaining true to your authentic passions. 

Give us a glimpse into your world: A college essay is your opportunity to give colleges a glimpse into how your mind works and how you view the world. Even if it seems completely ridiculous - I have read essays about Costco and bird poop - it may tip the scales in your favor. This technique only works if you can connect your unique passion to your future aspirations and explain the lesson you have learned from exploring this topic. For this prompt, it’s important not to lose track of the point your essay is trying to make and start rambling. Spend some time figuring out how the prompt relates to your personal qualities, and write from a specific angle. 

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