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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

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Dr. Bernstein’s Guide to Common Application Essay Topics (2018-2019)

The Common Application essay topics for the 2018-2019 admissions cycle have just been released. The essay prompts are the same as they were for 2017-2018. This article is a guide to the topics that is designed to help you start writing a vivid, compelling, and authentic college application essay.


1. The first Common Application essay topic for 2018-2019 is: “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.”

Tips on the “background, identity, interest, or talent” essay prompt:

You need to find just the right scope for your application essay.

It’s unlikely that you’ll be able to share everything about your “background, identity, interest, or talent” in a 650-word essay. If you do try to cover everything, your essay will probably wind up being very superficial, and that’s problematic because admissions officers really want to be taken deep into your experience so that they feel like they’re really getting to know you.

Start by thinking about the most meaningful or intriguing aspect of your “background, identity, interest, or talent.” What you share can be meaningful in all sorts of ways. For instance, you can zoom in on one particular aspect of your background and identity and how it informs the way you look at and approach certain things. Instead of just telling a general story about a meaningful interest, you can concentrate on a specific project or experience related to it.

Remember that you are not just writing a personal essay for yourself. You are writing a college application essay, and you need to be aware of your audience.

Look at the language of the prompt. The Common App is telling you to consider sharing something that is so meaningful that you feel your “application would be incomplete without it.” Why is it important that admissions officers know about this specific “background, identity, interest, or talent”?

Watch my video–“Your Common App Essay: The Most Important Question”– to get more tips on this very important issue. It also includes case studies of my students who earned admission to Stanford and Yale, which will help you get your own creative juices flowing.

The article on techniques for writing the best college application essays has a really good example (from an actual student’s essay) of finding the right scope and sharing authentic insights that are also useful to admissions officers.

Techniques Used in the Best College Application Essays


2. The second Common App essay topic for 2018-2019 is not just about failure: “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?”

The old Common Application essay prompt was: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” I found that a lot of students wound up coming up with a fairly limited range of failures.

Remember that the Common App gives you creative license. In the instructions, you’re told to use “the prompt to inspire and structure your response.”

Tips on the “lessons we take from obstacles we encounter” topic:

It’s really useful to share anecdotes that shed light on the external and internal details. In other words, you want admissions officers to be able to see the external situation and feel like they’re inside your mind as you’re facing this obstacle.

The process of your experience is very important. You don’t just want to focus on the obstacle, challenge, setback, or failure itself. You also want to connect it to who you are as a person and how this experience has shaped you in some way.

Head over to my post on “Why You Should Write About Failure in Your Application Essay” to learn why colleges value students who are capable of handling obstacles, challenges, setbacks, and even failures and get tips on what to avoid in this kind of application essay.

Writing About a Challenge, Setback, or Failure in Your College Application Essay

3. The third Common App essay topic for 2018-2019 is not just about challenging a belief. It encourages you to provide more insight into your thinking process. This is the new topic: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?” 

Tips on the “time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea” prompt:

Check out my post on “The `Challenge a Belief or Idea’ Option” and watch this video.

I was advising my students to take creative license and write about questioning (not just challenging) beliefs or ideas, to help admissions officers understand the thinking process behind their decision, and to describe the outcome even before the Common App changed the wording, so the video is still relevant. Also, I share with you a case study of a student who was accepted to an Ivy League engineering program.

4. The fourth Common Application essay topic for 2018-2019 is: “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.”

Tips on the “describe a problem” college application essay topic:

Check out the detailed post I wrote about the “problem” essay topic. I explain why colleges are interested in your responses to this question and give you tips on creative ways of coming up with good angles.

Common Application “Problem” Essay Topic

5. The fifth Common App essay topic for 2018-2019 asks you to “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Read “Writing a Great Common App Essay on an Experience that `Sparked a Period of Personal Growth.” Are you ready for the challenges associated with mind-blowing personal growth that changes the way you understand yourself and the world around you? I hope so, because that’s what college is all about. If you’ve already had this kind of experience, you might want to consider writing about in your Common App essay. In this article, I also share a case study of a student (now at Stanford) who was originally going to write her essay on a failure and how we transformed it into a powerful narrative about how an experience with a judge triggered major personal growth.

Experience that “Sparked a Period of Personal Growth”

6. The sixth Common Application essay prompt for 2018-2019 is: “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?”

I’m going to create a separate post and video on this topic in early March.

7. The seventh Common App essay topic for 2018-2019 is: “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.” 

Check out this blog post for some tips on using an essay “you’ve already written” for some other purpose.

How to Find a Unique Angle for Your Common Application Essay


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