Stuck on your common app essay? Forget the prompts!

college admissions Common Application personal statements writing

If you’re anything like many of the students I have tutored (or like me), you opened the Common App essay questions and became very overwhelmed very quickly. There are so many options! And how are they both so vague and so specific? You read: 

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

And, suddenly, you cannot remember a time when you ever have questioned anything in your whole life. Frankly, you can’t even think of a belief or an idea. 

If this is you, take a deep breath. You’ve come to the right place. We’re going to reframe the personal statement into something a bit more approachable.

1. Use the vagueness to your advantage

I’m going to say something controversial here: if you’re stuck, forget the prompts. Common app essay prompts are there to give structure to your ideas once you have them, not to tell you what those ideas should be. 

We want your personal statement to be, well, personal. You might even think of it as being about your personality. It should be about you and what you would add to a college community – not about how you can fit into the box of a prompt. 

Try answering some of these questions, and jot your answers down: 

  1. What is most important to you? (Yes, that’s vague on purpose!)
  2. What is something you love to do that you think you will keep doing for a very long time? Why does it bring you so much joy? (For example: do you play an instrument? A sport? Do you dance? Birdwatch? Garden? Write?)
  3. What is unique about the way you grew up? What are experiences you had that other people might not have had? 
  4. What do you most want to get out of college, and why? 

2. Reflect

Give yourself a little time away from your answers. When you come back, ask yourself: which of these am I most excited to write about, and feels most central to who I am? If you need help, get a second opinion from someone like a tutor or a teacher. 

3. Brainstorm stories

Your personal statement should have some personal anecdotes – stories are what your reader will remember most. What are some stories related to your answers? 

For example: say you wrote down, under question 2, “playing the piano.” What meaningful memories come to mind when you think about the piano? What was the first time you played piano like? How or why did you start? Did you watch any performances? Did you play competitively?

Jot these down, too! 

4. Now return to the prompts

Now that you have your topic and some anecdotes to go with it, the prompts can help focus you. Read them again, and circle the ones you think your ideas are related to.

Say your note sheet looked a bit like this: 

I love to play the piano. When I think about playing, I remember my dad playing and singing nursery rhymes to me. I also remember my piano teacher, who was really hard on me once in a lesson – she was so strict she made me cry! But that helped me to realize the value of practice and discipline in my instrument. I also love learning about music history, and how it ties into world history: especially how music helped to advance social movements, like racial equality. 

You could easily use any of these prompts (taken from the Common App website). Beside the prompts, I’ve noted the stories that are relevant to them, and some questions I might ask you to get you to expand and add to your narrative arc.


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.

All stories relevant here!

Why do you think piano is so meaningful to you? Is it because it helped you realize the value of practice and discipline in other areas of your life, not just music? 

Do you think music is part of your identity, or has changed who you are?

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? Focus on the story about your music teacher. How have you applied this lesson to other aspects of your life?
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?

Focus on the story about your music teacher, or the story about your father (or both!).

What did you feel in the moment your teacher scolded you, and what did you feel later on? How has this affected you? Do you think about it often? When? What about the moments with your father?

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. Focus on the story about your music teacher. Have you applied this lesson to other aspects of your life? How?
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? Focus on your story about learning music history. What is so interesting about it? How do you connect it to your own playing? Do you think this is a long term career interest or just a hobby? Why?


You can see in this chart that the prompts can help you focus your ideas, not just stump you! Congratulations: you’ve beaten Common App essay writer’s block!

Austin attended Harvard College, and graduated summa cum laude with a double major in Chemistry and English. She will start at Harvard Law in the fall of 2023, where she hopes to find a niche at the science-law interface.


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