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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

Dr. Bernstein’s Guide to Common Application Essay Topics (2019-2020)

The Common Application essay topics for the 2019-2020 admissions cycle are the same as they were for 2017-2018 and 2018-2019. I’ve created a guide to the topics to help you start writing a vivid, compelling, and authentic college application essay.

Common App Essay Topics (2019-2020) & Tips

The first Common App essay topic for (2019-2020):

“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” Common App essay prompt:

Finding the right scope for your college application essay is essential.

Sharing everything about your “background, identity, interest, or talent” in a 650-word essay isn’t possible. A very broad scope often results in superficial essays that prevent you from taking admissions officers deep into your experience.

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. 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 aren’t just writing a personal essay for yourself. You’re 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”?

Click here to 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.

Click here to check out “Techniques Used in the Best College Application Essays” for a good example (from an actual student’s essay) of finding the right scope and sharing authentic insights that are also useful to admissions officers.

The second Common App essay topic for 2018-2019 isn’t 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?”

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

Click here to learn more about what makes your college application essay unlike the ones you usually have to write. 

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.  You want admissions officers 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.

The third Common App essay topic for 2019-2020 isn’t just about challenging a belief. It encourages you to provide more insight into your thinking process. 

“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:

Click here for my tips on “The `Challenge a Belief or Idea’ Option.” 

Click here to watch my video “Great Common App Essay on Challenging a Belief or Idea.” I share a case study of a student who was accepted to an Ivy League engineering program.

The fourth Common Application essay topic for 2019-2020 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:

Click here to read “Common Application `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.

The fifth Common App essay topic for 2019-2020 asks you to:

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

Are you ready for the challenges associated with mind-blowing personal growth and how they transform your perspectives on yourself and the world? I hope so. 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.

Click here to read “Writing a Great Common App Essay on an Experience that `Sparked a Period of Personal Growth.” I share a case study of a student (now at Stanford) who wrote a powerful narrative about how an experience with a judge triggered major personal growth.

The sixth Common Application essay prompt for 2019-2020 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?”


The seventh Common App essay topic for 2019-2020 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.” 

Click here to read “How to Find a Unique Angle for Your Common Application Essay” to get tips on using an essay you’ve already written for some other purpose.



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