How to Answer the 2019-20 Common App Essay (Part 2)

Lauren Ward
Lauren Ward

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Hello again, and welcome back. We’re going through Common App’s 2019-20 essay prompts four through seven in this post, and will be addressing how to stand out for each one. For the first part of this two part-series see: How to Answer the 2019 -20 Common App Essay (Part 1).

Essays on college applications are nothing more than opportunities for you to set yourself apart from your peers. Admissions officers aren’t checking to see if you simply know how to string a few words together and make a paragraph (but if you don’t, it certainly won’t go unnoticed).

Without further ado, let’s get going.

  1. “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 number three, this is another one a lot of people avoid. If you talk about peace, don’t talk about world peace. Be specific. Talk about the two nations in question, what their disputes are, and what you think could be done, making sure you address how it is of personal importance you. Perhaps the most important thing is that you avoid sounding flighty, or like you only understand a tenth of what you’re talking about.

Cancer is another topic you should be careful with. A lot of you may want to tackle this (for valid personal reasons), so let’s address it. As stated before with previous questions, don’t seek anyone’s sympathy. You’re too good for it. Instead, talk about healthcare, or the after effects of treatments. Zero-in on an aspect of the disease so you sound as knowledgeable as you undoubtedly are.

Whatever you talk about, just make sure you don’t forget to talk about how it is personally significant to you.

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

      Believe it or not, this is a pretty safe essay topic, so good luck. Still, everyone’s unique, and  everyone’s got his or her own story to tell. The risk of multiple repeat responses to this is one is really low.

  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?”

Most people will probably think of their favorite class for this Common App essay, and then talk about a wonderful teacher they had. Their intro might run something like, “In other classes, five minutes can feel like thirty, but in Mr. Smith’s class it’s somehow over as soon as it’s begun.” It’s cute, it’s sweet, but it’s a wallflower response. Dig deeper. The key is to show intellectual curiosity that might one day propel a scholastic discipline even further. Forget about the losing track of time bit while brainstorming, and just focus on something that really interests you.

  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.”

Before you mosey on down to your My Documents folder and hit copy and paste, ask yourself if the essay is unique. Your common app essay needs to be more than just good. If you got an A+ on it, great. It probably is a wonderful essay. But does it display a deep, thoughtful analysis? Is it an essay that you were proud of before you even turned it in? Was writing it an enlightening experience? Was getting it back with a circled A at the top the least important part? If you answered yes to all of these questions, stop reading and find that essay! If you answered no to any of them, don’t submit it.

Instead, maybe write an essay that would do all of those things for you.

What’s a topic you have something to say about, that you know you could not only write well, but write really well? An essay you know you could knock out the park blindfolded.

But don’t, for the love of Pete, write about the legalization of marijuana. OK? Just don’t. Talking about drugs on your Common App essay is the worst thing you could ever do to improve your chances of getting in. Most colleges have enough problems with people who don’t even think about such things, let alone those that do.

Other than that, have fun with this one. It’s not often colleges give you a blank page and ask you to fill it any way you wish.

So knock it out of the park kid.


Feel ready to write some essays? Got something to say and know how you’re going to say it? Great! Here are a few last bits of advice before I leave you alone.

  1. Give yourself time to write– not just once, but twice. As with every other essay you wrote in high school, write a rough draft and then do a final edit. Write the drafts, sit on them for a week, and then go back to review.
  2. Regardless of how many essays your school requires, attempt all of them. Don’t submit all of them, but attempt all of them. Give each and every one of them your all. When you’re done, you can go back and see which ones are your favorites and submit those. Choose the ones that will make you stand out the most amongst your peers.
  3. Find a peer and proofread each other’s Common App essays. The main point isn’t to fix grammatical errors, but so you can know whether or not your essays are being echoed all across the US. In fact, do this as many times as you can. Make a party out of it with all your college bound friends, and then you can go see a movie afterwards. This helps ensure that your answers are truly unique.

Ready to write? Get to it!

Questions? Let us know!