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Common App Essay: Choose Your Own Topic

perfect Common App essay

How do you choose the best Common App essay topic? I tell students that virtually any topic will work. However, a good Common Application essay has two critical elements.  First, it must tell an interesting story in which you are the main character (the protagonist!).  Second, you (the author!) must provide some reflection and analysis of what the story means to you.  So no matter whether you address one of the six other Common Application prompts or whether you choose this catch-all prompt, just makes sure your essay contains both elements.

The Most Flexible Common App Essay Topic

Here is the actual prompt on the Common Application.

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.

Now let’s take a few moments to dissect this prompt, phrase by phrase, word by word. This dissection will help you formulate your Common App essay topic.

Your Choice

The nice thing about this prompt is that the admissions folks leave the choice of topic entirely to you. And therein lies some of the danger of deviating from the other prompts. You are free—and encouraged—to go beyond the limitations of these other prompts. Nevertheless, you will want to consider the fundamental commonalities found in the above prompts.

Ideas and Concepts

Your college essay should represent you as a student and as a learner. Not every topic has to be entirely serious. However, you should consider whether your chosen topic has any intellectual or academic depth.


The heart of many of these prompts is some sort of change in your mindset, perspective, or understanding. Admissions folks are looking for young people who have made some sort of transition that demonstrates their maturity, depth of thought, or newfound ability to see the world in a new light.

A Story

To be successful, you must have some sort of anecdote animating your essay that helps your reader to see your point. This is where you will “show” your reader your fundamental point. You are the main character of this essay. Through this character, you can demonstrate aspects of your personality, your values, and your point of view.

Analysis and Reflection

Every other prompt requires you to dig underneath the surface. They ask you to go beyond superficialities and to uncover the important truths at the center of your story. It is not enough to tell your reader the story. You must also demonstrate the fundamental importance of the story to you. The story is the vehicle to convey a deeper understanding of you as a person. In a sense, then, your Common App essay topic rests on this analysis and reflection–and less on the “story” you tell.

Already Written

Some colleges encourage the submission of essays you have written as part of a class or other assignment. These essays may represent you very well as a student and demonstrate some of your intellectual abilities and academic depth. If you choose to submit an academic paper, it is sometimes best to do so as an additional or supplemental essay to your application. In some cases, you may have written some sort of personal essay or narrative as part of a creative writing assignment. If this personal memoir has most of the elements described above, it could be an excellent college essay.

Own Design

It is perfectly acceptable to experiment with the form of the essay. Admissions folks want to encourage your creativity, and they are looking for unique approaches. For example, some students write very successful poems in response to the prompts,. Others have written mini-plays or screenplays. You are welcome to experiment with the form. However, you will want to keep in mind the elements described above. While the form can be highly creative, it is important to keep the purpose of the college essay in mind. You must communicate to your reader something important, something fundamental about who you are as a person, as a citizen, and as a learner.

Need Help with the Common App Essay?

Need some help writing a great college essay for the Common Application?  Having difficulty finding a good Common App essay topic? Whether you’re aiming for the Ivy League or you just want to look your best when you apply to the college of your dreams, our team of experts can help you brainstorm, structure, and edit an excellent piece of writing that will help you stand out in the admissions process.  Give us a call.

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