An Analysis of the Common App Personal Statement Prompts 2020-2021

Padya Paramita

An Analysis of the Common App Personal Statement Prompts 2020-2021

The Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021 give you a chance to tell your story. After months of research, weighing your options, and comparing acceptance rates, you’re finally settled on a college list that you’re happy with. Chances are, at least a couple of the schools among your choices use the Common Application. Aside from allowing you to fill out your personal and academic information once (instead of a dozen or so times!), the Common App is where your personal statement goes to help schools get to know you better. The personal statement is very crucial for your admissions success, so start familiarizing yourself with the Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021 now!

Writing about yourself can seem like an easy task at first glance, but when you sit down to actually brainstorm, you might reach a dead end. Where do you even begin? What experience is captivating enough to share with admissions officers? How do you narrow down your entire life story into 650 words? There’s a lot of pressure to find the right topic that will help you stand out. The Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021 can help you get started. To guide you through the essay questions for this year, I’ve outlined each of the prompts, how to tackle them, and strategic ways to take advantage of your freedom to write about a topic of your choice instead of selecting from the Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021.

Basics behind the The Common App Personal Statement Prompts 2020-2021

Let’s start with the basics. You only have to write about one of the prompts provided by the Common App. The word limit is 650 words, which is a scant number to narrate a powerful story without leaving out too many important details. Let’s take a closer look at each of the Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021 alongside some suggestions and ideas of how you might answer them.

The Common App Personal Statement Prompts 2020-2021

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 topic is the most open-ended from the pre-assigned questions in the Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021. You can pretty much go any direction with this question since it’s asking about your background, identity, or interests. You might want to write about how you hold certain beliefs that have defined the course of your life. You can choose to elaborate on about a cultural tradition that you look forward to and how the ways you’ve celebrated it changed with time. You can focus your essay on your career interest - for example, is there a compelling story that changed everything for you and developed your desire to pursue a career in politics after college? 

Take note of the second part of the question though, because you have to believe that your application would be incomplete without it. After you’ve written your first draft, ask yourself whether admissions officers could have evaluated your application just fine without knowing about what you’ve written. Colleges don’t need to know what your favorite television show is to decide whether you’re a top candidate - unless your connection to the show truly impacted your decision to pursue your passion.

Since you already have an activities list on the Common App, it’s important not to address topics that are already covered elsewhere. Your application shouldn’t already say the majority of what you write in your essay.

For a virtual walkthrough and guide to filling out the Common App, including your activities list and the personal statement, check out this video:

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?

You should be careful when answering a question about your greatest setback. Since top schools receive applications from students of all backgrounds, the definition of a “challenge” will vary from person to person. A setback is not one C on your report card in ninth grade after a lifetime of A’s. Admissions officers read essays from students who’ve experienced homelessness, debilitating illness, and domestic violence. Does your definition of a challenge seem relatively minor when you think about these issues? If so, choose a different topic.

It’s important that you don’t exaggerate adversity. Don’t write about a minor soccer injury you received that had few repercussions, but is really a way to talk about your awesome team travel experiences. Find a topic that speaks to the best sides of you. 

Prompt 3

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

There’s no definition in the Common App Personal statement prompts 2020-2021 about how grand the idea you’re challenging has to be. If you have a compelling story about arranging a protest in your neighborhood or school where you tried to change the authorities’ mind, that’s awesome, and definitely something you should write about. But even something less tangible - such as changing your parents’ minds on why the women’s national soccer team deserve equal pay - could also be spun into a powerful story about what drives you to act and policies you’re passionate about. 

Remember to answer the second and third questions within the prompt – don’t spend all 650 words describing the idea. Why are you passionate about this cause? Was there an incident that changed how you viewed the belief yourself? And when thinking about the outcome - you don’t always have to succeed. You can frame your essay in a way that shows you remain passionate and committed to pursuing your own understanding of truth, justice - whatever you have been inspired to challenge. Colleges appreciate students who are dedicated to their ideas, and aren’t afraid to speak up. If tackled right, this topic could lead to a stellar essay. 

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 most of the Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021, this prompt is less about the grandness of the problem, and more about getting to know what’s important to you and how you react when faced with one. Moreover, since it doesn’t have to examine a problem you’ve already solved, you can use this prompt to delve deeper into your academic interests. Is your dedication to preventing animal extinction directly connected to your desire to study biology at college? Do your experiences helping a refugee community fuel your desire to get involved with the Amnesty International group at your top choice school?

It’s understandable if you are hesitant to write about an ethical dilemma or controversial issue. If you’re not sure admissions officers will understand your viewpoint or if your stance might shed a negative light on you, avoid this prompt altogether. It’s definitely better to be safe than sorry, especially when your acceptance is on the line!

Prompt 5

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

Over your four years in high school, you meet a lot of new people and go through a lot of new experiences. It’s not unheard of for someone to feel like a completely different person by the end of those four years. This topic among the Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021 is the place to reflect on that kind of growth. 

Like the other prompts, there’s no one way to interpret what the question asks. You could have gone from the weakest link in your football team, or the member of your a capella group without solos. If you found yourself working hard to practice and improve, the end result may have been a happy one. 

Don’t forget to highlight what you understood about yourself through the experience. It could be about your own grit and never-give-up attitude. You could have learned who your true friends were in a time of struggle. Whatever it may be, make sure to exemplify how your actions have changed since the growth - is there anything different that you’ve noticed in your behavior or approach to matters? Colleges value students who demonstrate self-awareness.

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?

If you’ve got a niche interest that is more nuanced than most people realize - whether it’s the impact of teen girls on pop culture or the hidden meaning behind Gucci’s suits over the ages, tell admissions officers about it! Once you’ve explained the topic in a sentence or two, you should use the rest of the essay to talk about how you act on your interest and share it with others. 

The other good thing about this prompt is that nothing is too small. There’s no right answer - it’s what you think about and what you find interesting. Just be certain that you explain properly why you’re so intrigued by the topic. It really doesn’t have to be extremely deep like the history of the universe or how to find the cure to cancer. Explain why the topic matters to you - does it make you feel seen or represented in a way nothing else ever has? Does it inspire you to get out of bed every morning and drive towards change? Explore more than just the surface of the topic and show admissions officers your perspective. Who knows, you could teach them something new that makes them go, “that’s incredible!”

Prompt 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.

It’s important to note that the six essay prompts I have previously outlined exist simply to give you an idea of what you might possibly write about. You don’t have to religiously stick to any of them because there is this one last option among the Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021. Interestingly enough, the topic of choice was the most popular prompt of 2018-19, with 24.1% of students taking this route.

If you pick this option, make sure that the topic you’ve chosen doesn’t fall under any of the previous prompts. Yes, you may write about anything. Well, anything as long as it’s a story that is unique to you - you shouldn’t use your “personal” statement to talk about how proud you are of your best friend’s achievements as a basketball state champion. 

Don’t Let the Common App Personal Statement Prompts 2020-2021 Restrict You

Due to the final option allowing you to write on any topic, ultimately you have a lot of freedom when choosing from the Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021. While the suggested prompts serve as helpful brainstorming catalysts and provide you with ideas of what schools generally look for when thinking about the personal statement, if you don’t want to write about a time you encountered a challenge or a topic that makes you lose track of time, that is more than okay. If you thought you were writing an essay about a problem you’d like to solve, but the final product ends up being about how you realized you want to dedicate your life to helping animals and starting your own pet adoption center, and you feel that it fits none of the pre-assigned prompts, you can just change your topic selection. 

When you select which topic you’ve chosen on the Common App, you can change your selection as long as you haven’t sent it in.

Common App personal statement prompts 2019-2020

Regardless of which prompt you choose, it’s important to answer all of the questions. It can be very easy to get carried away with narrating the focal point of your story scene by scene, but remember to save some words for other parts of the prompt. As you’ve seen above, all of the Common Application personal statement prompts 2020-2021 have an analysis element. Once you’ve finished your first draft, re-read the prompt and make sure you’ve addressed each part of the question. If you’ve written on a topic of your choice, ensure that your essay hits on a bigger picture. How did the event help you grow? Why is the issue important to you? 

Your personal statement could be the “it factor” which demonstrates why you’re a candidate schools don’t want to pass up. While it is only one component of your application, a memorable personal statement can always help your case. It’s one of the things you can control at the time you’re filling out your application, so don’t underestimate the power of the right topic choice. The goal in your topic selection from the Common App personal statement prompts 2020-2021 is to produce a well-written, well-edited essay, and convincingly move admissions officers to send you that coveted acceptance letter. 

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