Common App Essay Prompt #2

Get help writing your college application essays. Find this year's Common App writing prompts and popular essay questions used by individual colleges.

The college essay is your opportunity to show admissions officers who you are apart from your grades and test scores (and to distinguish yourself from the rest of a very talented applicant pool).

2018-19 Common App Essays

Nearly 700 colleges accept the The Common Application, which makes it easy to apply to multiple schools with just one form. If you are using the Common App to apply for college admission in 2017, you will have 250–650 words to respond to ONE of the following prompts:

  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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  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?
  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.

Tackling the Common App Essay Prompts

Prompt #1: Share your story.

Answer this prompt by reflecting on a hobby, facet of your personality, or experience that is genuinely meaningful and unique to you. Admissions officers want to feel connected to you and an honest, personal statement about who you are draws them in. Your love of superheroes, baking chops, or family history are all fair game if you can tie it back to who you are or what you believe in. Avoid a rehash of the accomplishments on your high school resume and choose something that the admissions committee will not discover when reading the rest of your application.

Prompt #2: Learning from obstacles.

You're trying to show colleges your best self, so it might seem counterintuitive to willingly acknowledge a time you struggled. But overcoming challenges demonstrates courage, grit, and perseverance! That’s why the last piece of this prompt is essential. The obstacle you write about can be large or small, but you must show the admissions committee how your perspective changed as a result.

Prompt #3: Challenging a belief.

Your answer to this question could focus on a time you stood up to others or an experience when your own preconceived view was challenged. Choose this prompt if you have a relevant—and specific!—experience to recount (and reflect on). A vague essay about a hot button issue doesn’t tell the admissions committee anything useful about YOU.

Prompt #4: Solving a problem.

This essay is designed to get at the heart of how you think and what makes you tick. Present a situation or quandary and show steps toward the solution. Admissions officers want insight into your thought process and the issues you grapple with, so explain how you became aware of the dilemma and how you tackled solving it. Don’t forget to explain why the problem is important to you!

Prompt #5: Personal growth.

Just like Prompt #2, the accomplishment or event you write about can be anything from a major milestone to a smaller "aha" moment. Describe the event or ccomplishment that shaped you but take care to also show what you learned or how you changed. Colleges are looking for a sense of maturity and introspection—pinpoint the transformation and demonstrate your personal growth. 

Prompt #6: What captivates you?

This prompt is an invitation to write about something you care about. (So avoid the pitfall of writing about what you think will impress the admission office versus what truly matters to you). Colleges are looking for curious students, who are thoughtful about the world around them. The "what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more” bit isn't an afterthought—it's a key piece of the prompt. Make sure you explain how you pursue your interest, as well.

Prompt #7: Topic of your choice.

This question might be for you if you have a dynamo personal essay from English class to share or were really inspired by a question from another college’s application. You can even write your own question! Whatever topic you land on, the essentials of a standout college essay still stand: 1.) Show the admissions committee who you are beyond grades and test scores  and 2.) Dig into your topic by asking yourself how and why. There isn’t a prompt to guide you, so you must ask yourself the questions that will get at the heart of the story you want to tell.

More College Essay Topics

Individual schools sometimes require supplemental essays. Here are a few popular application essay topics and some tips for how to approach them:

Describe a person you admire.

Avoid the urge to pen an ode to a beloved figure like Gandhi or Abraham Lincoln. The admissions committee doesn't need to be convinced they are influential people. Focus on yourself: Choose someone who has actually caused you to change your behavior or your worldview, and write about how this person influenced you .

Why do you want to attend this school?

Be honest and specific when you respond to this question. Avoid generalities like "to get a good liberal arts education” or “to develop career skills," and use details that show your interests: "I'm an aspiring doctor and your science department has a terrific reputation." Colleges are more likely to admit students who can articulate specific reasons why the school is a good fit for them beyond its reputation or ranking on any list. Use the college's website and literature to do your research about programs, professors, and other opportunities that appeal to you.

What is a book you love?

Your answer should not be a book report. Don't just summarize the plot; detail why you enjoyed this particular text and what it meant to you. What does your favorite book reveal about you? How do you identify with it, and how has it become personal to you?

Again, be honest in answering this question—don't choose a classic from your literature class or a piece of philosophy just because you think it will make you seem smarter. Writing fluently and passionately about a book close to you is always better than writing shakily or generally about a book that doesn't inspire you.

What is an extracurricular activity that has been meaningful to you?

Avoid slipping into clichés or generalities. Take this opportunity to really examine an experience that taught you something you didn't previously know about yourself, got you out of your comfort zone, or forced you to grow. Sometimes it's better to write about something that was hard for you because you learned something than it is to write about something that was easy for you because you think it sounds admirable. As with all essay questions, the most important thing is to tell a great story: how you discovered this activity, what drew you to it, and what it's shown you about yourself.


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Want to write about a challenge, setback or failure experience? The Common App Essay Prompt #2 is the one for you!

Common App Essay 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?

General Tips

This the go-to Common App essay prompt for most people. Based on many published college application essays, most people think the personal statement is synonymous with a story about overcoming a difficult past or a failure.

And, it’s a popular essay prompt for a reason! Choosing to write about a failure or a setback gives you the opportunity to demonstrate many aspects of your personality: perseverance, courage, or patience, to name a few.

So, what constitutes as a good “challenge, setback or failure”? This is where many applicants have difficulty. Many students feel as though they haven’t experienced enough failures to write a strong essay. It doesn’t take a life-threatening setback for you to write a winning application essay. You can write about a mental illness you’re suffering from, or about how you can’t ride a bike. Admissions officers aren’t there to judge how much you’ve been through. Truthfully, it’s not even about the challenge or failure you faced, it’s about how it affected in and what you learned from it.

The most common mistake you see students make when responding to this prompt is focusing too much on the details of the challenge or the failure. While it’s important to share what the issue is, there’s no need to spend paragraphs on what happened. The focus of the essay should be on how it influenced you. How did it make you feel? What did you do about it? Now, looking back, what did you learn from your experience? By using the challenge or setback as a framework for your personal statement, you can share your emotions, thought process and hopes for the future.

To help you better understand what I’m referring to, here are a few successful personal statement essays with the same essay topic. One talked about heavy difficult family issues, while another wrote about her hatred for eating vegetables. Again, regardless of the chosen setback or challenge, they were all able to provide insight into who they are as a person and as a student.

Essay Example 1: I Don’t Want to Ask for Help

Bluedevil25, Duke University ‘21

“I only realized my embarrassing mistake when I stood up and my pajamas were soaked. Although both the babysitter and my brother were home, I could not muster up the confidence to ask them for help with my drenched onesie.

Growing up, the same juvenile attitude about not asking for help would often manifest itself. Whether it was having to ask for rides because of my mom’s visual impairment forced her to stop driving or seek out my math teachers when I struggled, it always felt uncomfortable to impose on others for assistance.”

Unlock his full Duke successful college application file to read how he came to learn the virtue of help in his personal statement!

Essay Example 2: Building a HS Hackathon - StuyHacks

Sharon Lin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology ‘21

“A malfunctioning Parrot drone grazed the side of my face as I huddled over a broken Macbook Air, the sounds of overheated CPUs interlacing with the blaring EDM. Just as the volume in the room reached its peak, the elevator door opened to reveal yet another dozen attendees arriving with an armload of hardware and equipment.

The day had hardly even begun, and yet the hackathon was already a bevy of chaos.”

Unlock her full MIT successful college application profile to read how she overcame the challenges to form and lead a student hackathon.

Essay Example 3: Research Internship

Christina C, University of Southern California ‘19

“On the first day of summer, instead of sleeping in or playing at the beach with my friends, I drove for an hour to [internship place]. I sat in Dr.’s office where he explained my internship project. He sputtered terms like “GtgyjbH” which I would come to know as the string of letters representing the name of the bacterial protein under scrutiny; but, at the time it simply sounded like literal “gibberish”.”

Unlock her full USC successful college application profile to read how she dealt with a setback during her research internship.

Essay Example 4: Vegetables are My Enemies

Minierm92, Harvey Mudd College ‘19

“I had many enemies as a child.

Spiders, nail clippers, eye drops - such were the demons that set out to ruin my life. Btu none - not one single thing - did I despise as much as I did vegetables. My hatred toward vegetables wasn’t th eshallow, momentary fear of a child, nor was it a short-lived attempt to be rebellious.”

Unlock her full Harvey Mudd successful college application profile to see how what simple challenges can teach you in life.

Essay Example 5: Family Background

Marrs, Barnard College ‘20

“No matter what I did, it was as if I would never be good enough. Sure the word love was thrown around every now an then, but it was never shown. Emotional and physical abuse were daily aspects in my everyday life. He had no patience and always assumed he was right, so as a young child, it was as if my own voice was taken away from me. I became a shell of my former happy self, but no one took notice because of the smile I forced myself to on every time I life home, the place I dreaded returning to.”

Unlock her full Barnard successful college application profile to stepped out of the dark shadow casted by her family and took control of her own future.

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Hope this was helpful for those of you writing your Common Application personal statements. Want to read these common application essays? Unlock all of them in one go with our Challenge, Setbacks or Failures Package! 

Our premium plans offer different levels of profile access and data insights that can help you get into your dream school. Unlock any of our packages or search our undergraduate profile database to find specific profiles that can help you make an informed choice about where to apply! We have 60,000+ successful college application files uploaded by college students. See how they got in, and how you can too!

 

About The Author

Frances Wong

Frances was born in Hong Kong and received her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. She loves super sad drama television, cooking, and reading. Her favorite person on Earth isn’t actually a member of the AdmitSee team - it’s her dog Cooper.




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