Choosing a Common Application Personal Statement Topic and Prompt
Are you struggling to come up with writing topics? You’re not alone. Many students feel that their experiences are not as exciting as those they read about online, from peers, or in the news. This is particularly true when applying to college, where certain hardships and obstacles seem to be more valued than others. The addition of the COVID-19 prompt to the Common Application’s “Additional Information” section has only compounded this pressure over the past two years, as students try to make sense of the college application game’s calculus of chance.
The first thing I tell these students is that college application essays aren’t intended to determine who has the strongest ability to suffer and endure (that’s what 9am M-Th lectures are for). They’re intended for applicants to demonstrate the emotional and psychological maturity needed to navigate a social and academic environment that requires adaptability, openness, and self-discipline. They are, as I never tire of saying, a test of the Delphic maxim “know thyself:” how well a student can articulate their self-knowledge beyond the quantifiable numbers and grades that make up the rest of their application. If you think of each incoming college class as a communal soup, these essays are a way for students to show that they will contribute their own particular zest and seasoning to make a well-balanced and nutritious meal.
The second thing I tell these students is that they have a story worth telling. The Common Application Personal Statement (CAPS) is, first and foremost, a personal essay. In a personal essay, nearly anything can be a topic.
Here’s how to look at the CAPS prompts and decide on a topic.
The CAPS prompts not only give suggestions on what to write about, they tell you how to think – and write – about it. The topics inform the prompts. Here is a distilled version of the 7 CAPS prompts and questions that students can ask themselves to decide what to write.
1) A personally meaningful background, identity, interest, or talent. Share your story.
I’ve written about this prompt in-depth, so I don’t want to belabor my earlier points. The main thing is to share something that is personally meaningful. The “something” is less important than how it relates to you: what it says about you, how it affects you, why it matters to you, where it lives in your world and how it connects to, informs, reflects, or influences your values, your relationships, and your life.
2) A lesson you learned from the experience of encountering a challenge, setback, or failure.
This prompt is as much about resilience as it is about learning from encountering obstacles. Have you ever failed? Ever been afraid to do something? Ever thought something was impossible, but did it anyway? Ever suffered an injury?
Who were you before and during the challenge? How did it change you? What did it feel like during the challenge? Why did you embrace (or flee from) it? If you failed, what things would you do differently now? Most importantly, what did it teach you, and how have you applied those lessons to other obstacles?
3) A reflection on a time when you challenged a belief or idea, your thought process behind it, and the eventual outcome.
This is very similar to prompt 2. Many students immediately assume that the “belief or idea” needs to be external; that this prompt has to be about an interpersonal conflict. If you take that approach, it’s important to reflect on a desire to understand the other person’s belief or idea, not just demonstrate an ability to win a debate or confront a controversial or offensive belief. What was your aim in challenging the belief? How did you go about it? What was the outcome – the change, the lesson learned – and how did it affect you?
The other approach to this prompt is to reflect on a time when something or someone caused you to challenge one of your own long-held beliefs or ideas. That’s (well, hopefully) going to happen to you in college: you’ll start seeing more shades of gray. You’ll start realizing that the people with whom you disagree are just as human as you are. You’ll start asking yourself, “well, what if I’m actually wrong about this? What are some of the ways in which I could be wrong or missing parts of a bigger picture that I’m not quite seeing?” Chances are, you’ve already had an experience like that. This is an opportunity to reflect on and explore it: start with what you thought, what caused you to challenge it, and how it changed you… even if you ultimately didn’t change your belief or abandon your idea.
4) A reflection on gratitude for something someone has done for you. The lasting effects of your gratitude.
Like 2, 3, and 5, this prompt is asking you to reflect on your own maturity and growth, this time through the profoundly moving experience of gratitude. Has anyone ever done or said something to you that left you stunned by their kindness? When I was 16 years old, I was sitting alone in a near-empty diner one night, bitterly lonely and depressed, journaling in a notebook and drinking coffee. When I asked the server for the check, she said that someone else had taken care of the bill for me. It couldn’t have been more than a few dollars, but the sense of having been seen by another human being when I most needed it left me absolutely winded. Moreover, it impressed upon me the power that simple, anonymous kindness can have on other people: an impression that I have endeavored to pay forward in whatever little ways I can in the decades that have followed. How has gratitude affected the way you experience, see, and interact in the world?
5) An accomplishment, event, or realization that catalyzed personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Prompt 5 opens prompts 2, 3, and 4 to other experiences and you should feel free to reflect on your beliefs, challenges, and gratitude as they relate to whatever accomplishment, event, or realization that you choose. Win a contest or competition? Suffer a personal loss? Meet someone that changed your life? Those are all things to write about, but writing a good essay doesn’t require a huge event or a big win.
Even something as seemingly minor as watching a snowstorm, sitting on a beach, or having a conversation with a stranger can lead to a realization or an “a-ha” moment. Read a book or see a film that inspired you? Hear a song at a time when you most needed a certain message to keep you afloat in uncertainty? How did it affect you? How did you grow? How did it change your understanding of yourself or other people?
6) A topic, idea, or concept that inspires or consumes you. “Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”
Think of this as a distilled version of prompt 1. It’s especially effective when you’re discussing passions outside your academic interests. Whether you’re collecting rocks or losing yourself in an art museum or reading every book you can find about some obscure historical figure, this is your chance to talk about your obsessions. You want to dig deep, but don’t make this essay about the topic itself – they’re not asking for an essay about rocks, art museums, or historical figures – make it about how and why it inspires and captivates you. The “learn more” part of this prompt also provides an opportunity to talk about the discoveries you’ve made along the way: perhaps you found a new author, a new YouTube channel, or a new talent as you’ve sought to acquire knowledge and understanding.
7) Open topic.
Still think you have nothing to write about? Reflect on that – or anything else – here, but do so in a way that demonstrates the characteristics that the other prompts look for. Be creative. Be personal. Be candid. Be unafraid. But for Heaven’s sake, be organized. This is not free-writing. Look at the other prompts and what they look for. Demonstrate and articulate the unique qualities, abilities, and talents that you will bring to college.