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How to Answer Common App Prompts 2023-2024

How to Answer Common App Prompts 2023-2024

For this application season, while most of the prompts remain unchanged, the introduction of Prompt 4 allows students to explore a different aspect of their growth and development. Read more to know how to answer each common app prompt for this application season.

If you are looking for a general common app prompt guide regardless of the prompt, check out 4 Steps to Write Common Application Essays 2022-2023 (With Examples). In this article, we will jump straight into providing a guide on choosing the right prompt and how to write the essay for each one. In the end, you will be able to craft a meaningful and impactful response that will impress the next admission officer. Now, let’s dive right in!

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.
  • What is this prompt asking?

Background, identity, interest, talent, and meaning are the main 5 keywords you should use to brainstorm for. This prompt gives you the opportunity to discuss your background, your upbringing, and your personal interests that are worth highlighting to the admission officer. These don’t have to be unique, but they should tightly relate to your overall development, life philosophy, and your passions.

  • How can I brainstorm for this prompt?

We will dive deeper into each keyword mentioned in the prompt to give you guidance for brainstorming. Overall, the strategy here is to make sure your background and interests are unique to you, who you are perceived as in society, and how you have influenced and shaped your behavior and decisions.

Background: Where do you come from? What are your roots? How were you raised? Compare this to the upbringing of your friends or classmates. How is your background different? How did it impact you in a meaningful way? How is it impacting you today (in the way you live, do things, and react to things)? How will it impact your future?

The general strategy for the background is to think from small to big, from what your true inner self is to the environment you are living in.

Identity: Identity is a little bit different from background, because identity is what you identify as and relate yourself to. You can identify yourself with a specific community (culture, gender, race, sex, religion, etc.) and discuss how this reflects your growth.

Interest and Talents: Both are quite similar, because both discuss what you are interested in. If you decide to write about interests and talents, you should make sure that they are unique compared to other interests/activities you have done. For example, if you are applying as a football player in your college application and you have a burning passion for art and design, you can write about art and design in this section. This can directly link to how you have grown as a person.

  • What is an example of this prompt?

From Alone to Unique – Isabella (John Hopkins University)

Living in a predominantly white town and attending a school with a population of about 75% white students has had a huge impact on the way I view my Filipino self. While my friends ate turkey and cheese sandwiches at lunch, I would secretly pick at the traditional adobo chicken my mom had sent me that day. I stood by as my classmates made jokes stereotyping and generalizing Asians into one category, even though I knew there were vast differences in our cultures. During social studies classes, I noticed that I learned more about the ancestry of my friends, rather than my own. Consequently, I began to accept the notion that my heritage was of less importance and something to be ashamed of. I masked the pungent aromas of the Filipino delicacies my immigrant parents made with pasta and hamburgers when my friends came over, I laughed off incidents when parents or teachers would mistake me for the only other Filipino girl in my grade, and I recognized that learning solely about European and East Asian history in world history classes was the norm. I started to believe that assimilation was the only pathway to acceptance, along with the only way I could feel less alone within my community.

Translating My Story Into Words – Rachel (John Hopkins University)

My eyes widened. “It’s all Greek to me,” I whisper under my breath. Sure enough, The Apology by Plato is in Greek.

My eyes dart across the page, looking for a word or phrase to grasp onto. Unable to find a familiar word, I take a deep breath. The Greek letters jumble into incoherent words and I am left to the mercy of an incomplete translation. I shake my head, unsure of what to do next. My eyes drag from one word to another, heavy with defeat. Upon the sixth word, however, they stop. My initial scan of the text left me negligent of a simple word meaning “number.” Passion overwhelms my senses. “Number” becomes the most important word of the clause, providing context to the adjacent words. I turn to the lexicon and search for words that fit into a coherent translation. With the last word, I feel satisfaction and pride. The whirlwind of emotions repeats: Confusion, passion, satisfaction. Before the bell rings, I finish translating 20 lines of The Apology.

I was fifteen when I successfully translated The Apology, and soon after, I fell in love with translation. Through translation, I learned the value of perseverance and hard work; it even helped me convey ideas in different mediums such as figure skating.

On a bright January morning, cold wind slapped against my face, chastising me for falling again. I stood up and brushed thin sheets of ice off of my knees. A shock of pain went through my body as I lightly touched a new bruise. I contemplated defeat. In the midst of choreographing my next program, I speculated the translation of music into skating. I yearned to convey every pitch and emotion in a visual performance, so I listened to Chopin once again and closed my eyes. Upon hearing the cadenza, I went back on the ice, picked up speed and turned my body. Leaping from the ground, I wrapped my arms around my torso and spun one, two, three times. My body descended and a sharp skid sounded the air. I smiled, waiting in anticipation for the next jump. That day, I translated every note into a jump until my body understood the music.

Translation has become my frame for viewing life and now I am using it to translate passion into activism.

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?
  • What is this prompt asking?

Challenge, setback, failure, success are the four keywords for this prompt. The point of this prompt is that you have to find a challenge that is relevant to what you are doing and what you aspire to be. This challenge is the foundation for your success in the future. In this prompt, the admission officer is looking for a student’s discovery of vulnerability and maturity.

  • How can I brainstorm for this prompt?

In this prompt, you should think about the challenges you have faced in your life. Think beyond academics, school, and your GPA, but consider more about a personal challenge that has shaped your view of the world or your behavior. Regardless of the challenge, you should explain your thought process and development to highlight how your thinking was before and after encountering the issue. Admission officers appreciate a student’s ability to be resilient, never to give up and, to understand the lessons they learned from the issue.

Examples of challenges can be: your family moved to new cities constantly every 2 years so you don’t have the chance to develop a strong relationship with friends, or the challenge to fit in because you just moved to a new country all by yourself, or the challenge to have a normal life despite having a critical health condition, or the fight against your family’s expectation to marry at the age of 18 instead of going to college.

  • What is an example of this prompt?

And I stand up, my dark blue dress cascading down my legs, the last note still echoing in my ears.


Then, a thunderous applause rattles every bone in my body. I bow. It gets louder.

Carnegie Hall. This was supposed to be a dream, seemingly unattainable. Yet, here I am. Looking back at the piano, I see my reflection and wonder how many people have gazed through this window for expression. My mind is pulled back to times of uncertainty and apprehension.

Four years ago

“Jenny, you can do it. Stop shaking,” I mutter to myself. I am backstage, waiting for the announcer to call my name. My mind is consumed in dread and fear, emotions that have made a habit of inviting themselves every time before a performance.

Glancing sideways, I see the formidable stage: a 12-foot Steinway sits in the center and lights shine brightly on the performer.

“Please welcome Jenny Shu, performer number eight.”

Startled, I take a few steps toward the stage and stumble. The bench is only a few feet away, but it seems to take me a while to walk over. With each passing step, my throat gradually tightens, my knuckles start to lock up, and my heart involuntarily begins to race. As I look up, the audience is shrouded in black, like grim reapers ready to jump at every mistake I make.

Shuddering, I take a cautious seat on the bench and wait for my fingers to attack the almighty beast. Suddenly, as if I were in a dream, my eyes cloud over and I cannot find my first note.

Having practiced piano since the age of four, I was still unable to enjoy the art of performance. I realized that fear, brutal and relentless, inhibited my mind and buried all rational thought. Never once did I doubt its indomitable power until I discovered the truth: FEAR is nothing but “False Evidence Appearing Real.” Believing that I would perform poorly and appear incompetent, I planted this “False Evidence” inside my mind. It “Appeared” so “Real” that I diagnosed myself with performance-phobia, an obstacle that offered fear a chance to undermine the love and joy I poured into each piece.

But, I have built back the magic and beauty in my music and to even greater heights. For hours a day, the piano would have no peace as I laboriously carved each note and every melodic statement into my heart. Constantly reminding myself of my mastery and authority, I unhinged the parasitic fear leeching on my confidence. And seeking all opportunities to perform, the stage became a home as I slowly took control of my fear. The piano was tamed into a gentle creature, prepared to sing under my fingers. All the nuances emerged in a tender lullaby and each change in mood magnified. Now, I am the ringmaster and the piano is bent to my will.

Entirely aware of my surroundings, I bow one more time at these “grim reapers.” But, I have nothing to fear.

Anonymous Student. “Lessons from Failure Essay – “Piano”” StudyNotes.org. Study Notes, LLC., 11 Nov. 2015. Web. 12 Jul. 2021. <https://www.apstudynotes.org/common-app/lessons-from-failure-essay-piano/>.

PROMPT 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  • What is this prompt asking?

Question, challenge, belief, and idea are the four main keywords in this prompt. For this prompt, you should discuss the conflicts you have had or the pushback you experienced from a higher authority in standing up for and supporting what you believe in. Beliefs can be personal or religious ones, while ideas can range from anything as small as ideas for the school to as big as ideas for society.

  • How can I brainstorm for this prompt?

Some questions you can think about when brainstorming for this prompt are: What do you believe in? What is important to you? Why did you have those beliefs and ideas? What was the outcome of your ideas? Remember to focus on describing the process and the result, and what have you learned along the way.

Thinking about challenging a belief or idea, we immediately connect them to leadership personalities. Leaders are great visionary and planners. However, not all leaders’ ideas will be agreed upon by team members and stakeholders. Therefore, we will brainstorm ideas for this prompt based on the challenges leaders normally face.

You can challenge the status quo and desire for an innovative change through creation. An example of the status quo can be: There are a lot of vacant parking lots that are underutilized and under-monetized by their owners, while there are parking lots that cost up to $50/hour in some urban areas. You can challenge this ideology by developing an app to advertise vacant parking spaces for space owners, so people can come to the app and search for available spots.

You can also fight for a change through activism. If you are interested in human rights, environmental rights or any other rights, you can also specify what have you done in support of your beliefs, and how you have had setbacks by multiple forces.

You can fight for a change through personal transformation. An example can be how an LGBTQ student finds confidence and self-love in a society where people don’t accept you for who you are and sometimes you feel like an outcast compared to other people. Another example can be how a woman of color decides to enter a male-dominated field like manufacturing due to her love of cars.

  • What is an example of this prompt?

“One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.”

Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

The air is crisp and cool, nipping at my ears as I walk under a curtain of darkness that drapes over the sky, starless. It is a Friday night in downtown Corpus Christi, a rare moment of peace in my home city filled with the laughter of strangers and colorful lights of street vendors. But I cannot focus.

My feet stride quickly down the sidewalk, my hand grasps on to the pepper spray my parents gifted me for my sixteenth birthday. My eyes ignore the surrounding city life, focusing instead on a pair of tall figures walking in my direction. I mentally ask myself if they turned with me on the last street corner. I do not remember, so I pick up the pace again. All the while, my mind runs over stories of young women being assaulted, kidnapped, and raped on the street. I remember my mother’s voice reminding me to keep my chin up, back straight, eyes and ears alert.

At a young age, I learned that harassment is a part of daily life for women. I fell victim to period-shaming when I was thirteen, received my first catcall when I was fourteen, and was nonconsensually grabbed by a man soliciting on the street when I was fifteen. For women, assault does not just happen to us— its gory details leave an imprint in our lives, infecting the way we perceive the world. And while movements such as the Women’s March and #MeToo have given victims of sexual violence a voice, harassment still manifests itself in the lives of millions of women across the nation. Symbolic gestures are important in spreading awareness but, upon learning that a surprising number of men are oblivious to the frequent harassment that women experience, I now realize that addressing this complex issue requires a deeper level of activism within our local communities.

Frustrated with incessant cases of harassment against women, I understood at sixteen years old that change necessitates action. During my junior year, I became an intern with a judge whose campaign for office focused on a need for domestic violence reform. This experience enabled me to engage in constructive dialogue with middle and high school students on how to prevent domestic violence. As I listened to young men uneasily admit their ignorance and young women bravely share their experiences in an effort to spread awareness, I learned that breaking down systems of inequity requires changing an entire culture. I once believed that the problem of harassment would dissipate after politicians and celebrities denounce inappropriate behavior to their global audience. But today, I see that effecting large-scale change comes from the “small” lessons we teach at home and in schools. Concerning women’s empowerment, the effects of Hollywood activism do not trickle down enough. Activism must also trickle up and it depends on our willingness to fight complacency.

Finding the solution to the long-lasting problem of violence against women is a work-in-progress, but it is a process that is persistently moving. In my life, for every uncomfortable conversation that I bridge, I make the world a bit more sensitive to the unspoken struggle that it is to be a woman. I am no longer passively waiting for others to let me live in a world where I can stand alone under the expanse of darkness on a city street, utterly alone and at peace. I, too, deserve the night sky.

PROMPT 4: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? (NEW)
  • What is this prompt asking?

Gratitude and motivation are the main keywords for this prompt. In responding to the pandemic, Common App has introduced this prompt to help students express gratitude. This prompt is significantly different because while other prompts ask for what the students they have done, this prompt asks for what other people have done for the student. Though this prompt was inspired due to the pandemic, students can reflect on the feeling of gratitude during any time period in their lives, and how gratitude motivates and inspires them to be better.

You should think about times when you have felt acknowledged, heard, and seen. Moments when you have felt that swelling in their chest, as your heart seems like it grows three sizes. Think creatively about what you appreciate in your life. It can be a physical gift, an action, or even just a set of feelings projected in your direction. You can be intimately familiar with the person who has inspired your gratitude or reflect on the actions of a near stranger or even a public figure who has impacted your life for the better. Just remember this essay needs to focus on how you process, appreciate and draw inspiration from the actions of others, so make sure your response is focused on YOU. Ultimately, admissions officers want to know more about how you relate to others in the world, and how you repurpose good intentions.

  • How can I brainstorm for this prompt?

Despite being a simple question, this question allows you to dive deeper into who you are and what you are grateful for. There are two parts to this prompt: “something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way” and “how has this gratitude affected or motivated you?”

For the first part, you should pay close attention to the phrase “surprising way”. Take some time to think about something someone has done for you that you didn’t expect. “Something” doesn’t have to be a major life-changing event, but it has to be unexpected. “Someone” in this case is a living figure, someone who is close to you or someone who knows you, instead of historical figures. Some examples of something someone has done for you can be: a friend who went out of his way to help expand the club you’re leading, or a community that helped you get your first internship. While brainstorming for the event, you should ask yourself “If I told this story to a stranger, would they be surprised?”

The first part is the bridge to the most important part of your essay, “how has this affected or motivated you?” You should first discuss and explain the situation, then describe why this is important to you and how this has affected you. Even though the prompt is about what someone has done for you, you should focus the discussion on your reflection. Specifically, you should talk about how you acknowledge the help, express gratitude and channel your gratitude to help other people. Ultimately, the admission officer wants to know more about you, how you react to gratitude, and how you act after receiving such help.

Some questions to help you with the brainstorming process:

Something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way

  • What challenges have you faced in the past where you couldn’t figure out a solution?
  • How did the person/community/people help you solve the challenge?
  • What was the achievement you are most proud of so far? Who has helped you on the way to achieving that goal?
  • If you could change anything about the world, what would it be? How might you change it? Who would you ask for help? (Questions suggested by Transizion)

How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

  • How do you want to pay it forward in the future once you’re settled down?
  • If you can only do one thing for the rest of your life, what would you want to do?
  • What current issue do you care about the most?
  • How do you normally give back to people/community?

Since this prompt was just released this year, we currently don’t have writing samples. If you want to read a more detailed guide on the prompt, ThoughtCo has analyzed this prompt.

PROMPT 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  • What is this prompt asking?

Accomplishment, events, realization, personal growth and understanding are the main keywords for this prompt. While accomplishments are positive achievements like earning an award, events and realizations can be open to further interpretation. The main point of this prompt focuses on your personal growth and understanding of yourself or others. Therefore, accomplishments, events or realizations will be the transition into expressing and reflecting your personal change.

  • How can I brainstorm for this prompt?

There are two ways you can brainstorm for this prompt: describe a small event or a big event. While students think that small events can be more impactful and meaningful than big events; however, if you add enough detail and unique viewpoints on the topic, the size of the event does not matter as much.

Small and informal events give students space to express their personalities. An example can be learning to make fried rice through a recipe, a realization that life and creation don’t follow any recipe. A sample essay discussing this example is available below.

Big events give students opportunities to provide more significant reflection and personal growth, leading to a better understanding of themselves and others. An example of a big event is the author watching their visually impaired grandmother misstep, thus leading to the author’s understanding of people with different needs and wants. We also link to this example essay below.

Regardless of the events, the key to this prompt is to discover your growth throughout the years, then describe the root for this growth and reflect on your process from that time on. Another critical part students should remember is that the whole story does not have to be in the past, as the growth can continue if you are still improving today.

Some questions that can help you better brainstorm for this prompt is:

  • What events/moments have changed you as a person? How did you know that those have changed you?
  • Did you learn something new that made you feel more grown-up?
  • What is an example of this prompt?

Essay link

-3 tablespoons butter

-2 eggs, whisked

-2 medium carrots

-1 small white onion

-1/2 cup frozen peas

-3 cloves garlic

-salt and pepper

-4 cups cooked and chilled rice

-3-4 green onions

-soy sauce (to taste)

-2 teaspoons oyster sauce (optional)

-1/2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil

I bet you didn’t read those numbers.

I’ll let you in on a secret – I didn’t either.

The ingredients above were copied and pasted from the first Google search result for “fried rice recipe.” But, without any disrespect to the recipe’s owner, I can tell you it’s wrong.

The only true fried rice recipe is no recipe at all. There are no measurements, no exact instructions, no timer for how long something should sizzle in the pan. There are only smells and feelings and memories. I learned to cook fried rice on the rickety stool covered in Blues Clues stickers, surrounded by the scents of my nainai’s Minnie Mouse apron, my yéyé’s cashmere sweater, or my mama’s Pantene shampoo; in the comfort of our cozy condo and our sweltering Hángzhou apartment; by watching the eggs crack over delicate china bowls, tossed and stirred in woks using slanted wooden spatulas. We used however much leftover rice we had, however many eggs we found appropriate, and a combination of anything and everything or nothing sitting in the fridge.


I’ve always been more of a baker than a cook. I enjoy recipes – I enjoy the process of being exact and finding details, tweaking and leveling and weighing. Other people will have recipes passed down from their great-grandparents; I will have memories, held dear, but no way to pass anything on besides the recreation of childhood moments. From a young age, I found solace in the meticulous baking recipes found in Western cookbooks.

This coveting of all things exact doesn’t flow into the rest of my life. My mom will tell you my desk is a mess – I call it “room for creative license.” My mom will tell you my closet is also a mess – I call it “fashionably curious.” My mom will tell you my life is sometimes, you guessed it!, a mess. I call it MAPWIFOWISTBSIDMOTBOML, also known as “my-artistic-phase-where-I’m-figuring-out-who-I’m-supposed-to-be-so-I-dumped-myself-out-to-be-organized-much-later.” That’s a mouthful, so I shorten it, obviously.

On the flip side, I like measuring the liquid in my graduated cylinder from the exact bottom of the meniscus. If your text message has a typo in it, I feel the nagging urge to annoyingly correct you. If the origami swan I folded has an uneven tail, I will take it apart and start over. (This was certainly detrimental to my life during my middle school’s mission to fold 3,000 paper swans.)

But I understand the beauty of spontaneity and organic creation. There’s something special in realizing that no two recreations of my grandpa’s fried rice will ever be the same, and really, isn’t that what life is? Creation, without recipe?

It’s funny. This may contradict everything I’ve written thus far, but the more I bake, the more I realize perhaps baking is spontaneous too. I don’t always need to weigh my flour beforehand in order to get perfect cookies, nor do I really need to add the copious amounts of sugar the recipe calls for. My signature food is brownies, but I challenged myself to use a different recipe every time. You’d be surprised at how different brownies taste when you add an extra egg, and you’d be especially uncertain about my baking skills if you tried my brownies that had wayyy too much baking soda (trial and error…).

I’m learning to love improvisation. It’s not mutually exclusive with loving precision, and it’s such an integral part of my culture, I’d be missing out otherwise. Coming to terms with and embracing the unknown is scary and definitely a process, but I assure you: One day, I’ll master my own fried rice.

Admission Committee Comments: What we learn about Jess from her essay is a willingness to experiment, to take risks and find failure, and to learn from the past—whether it is from her parents and grandparents or just her own experiences. Her essay is clever and well written, but more importantly it shows us her willingness to try different things, to embrace the different interests and aspects of her own personality, and to approach different things with a positive attitude.

When I was a small girl, my grandmother was like my mother, my teacher and my confidante. Every morning, she woke me up with a gentle hit filled with love. Every afternoon, her hands guided me across the rowdy street to a famous ice cream vendor. Every evening, her voice softly lulled me to sleep. Although all of this seems simple, they are a miracle in considering that did all of this while being blind. Sometimes I would look at the wrinkles at the corner of her eyes and wonder how she had ever managed her life without sight. 

One unexpected afternoon when I was 11 years old, I was on my way out to play with my friends when Grandma stopped me at the door. She asked me to stay at home to have family dinner. Stubborn as I was, I refused and ran away from her. “Come and catch me if you can,” I said. She did try to catch me, and in a hurry, my grandma slipped and fell. I did not even see her fall; all I heard was a sudden yell and a painful thud behind me. When I turned back and looked, my grandmother was sprawling on the ground, blindly reaching out for the support that she could not see. At that time, she was already seventy eight years old.

 During the months that my grandmother was hospitalized, I rarely slept. When I thought about how I could have killed my grandmother, fright and regret engulfed me. One day, when the emotional pain became so intense that it was almost physical, I forced myself to really think over what had gone wrong. I then realized that when I asked her to catch me, I had thoughtlessly assumed that my grandmother was similar to everyone else. Even though she had never voiced a single complaint about her disability all her life, the fact remained that she had special needs. 

In fact, so many people in the world, handicapped or not, have their own specific need that should never be overlooked. There are people who, like my grandmother, are handicapped. There are people with special dietary requirements, be it for religious or health reasons. There are people with autism, a disorder that still remains fairly foreign to Vietnamese people. Before this incident, I was just too selfish and self-absorbed to realize this.

Since then, I have resolved to pay more attention to the people around me. I offered to tell my grandmother stories that her eyes could not witness. I became her legs and hands, going to Buddhist temples to pay respect in her stead. I discovered that my father had a herniated disk and could not walk or run fast, so I helped him carry heavy objects and offered to switch my bedroom on the first floor for his so he could avoid the flights of stair. I also noticed that my mother smiled a lot but tended to hide her troubles from people, which prompted me to vocalize my concern for her more so that she had a reason to vent her frustration. To see all these, I had to pay attention to the subtlest cues in someone’s tone or expression or body language. Perhaps that was how my blind grandmother had led her life thus far: looking for what was beyond mere sight.

Before this accident, I was never much interested in people. Now I understand that observing and understanding people is the first step to any success. The best world leaders always have a vision to serve. I want to be such a person, to dedicate my time to people beyond my little circle of life.

PROMPT 6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  • What is this prompt asking?

Compared to other prompts, this prompt focuses more on your professional pursuits and your passions on top of your personal growth. In this prompt, the admission committee wants to understand what intrigues you, how you develop from inspiration and how you seek out information to satisfy your curiosity.

  • How can I brainstorm for this prompt?

To get started with the brainstorming, there are several questions you can ask yourself:

  • What do you think about waking up in the morning?
  • What do you love doing? Why does this excite you?
  • If you find interest in a topic, how did you learn more/dive deeper into it?
  • If you can only do one job for the rest of your life, what would it be?

After answering these questions, you will find one or two things you are passionate about. An example could be the wilderness exploration you did with your parents when you were young. Next, you can expand the topic into discovering your love for the environment and appreciation for nature. The key to answering this question is to openly express your love for a topic and explain in detail the why and how. This is like a narrative essay, where you can describe your interest by leveraging sensory details. While brainstorming, remember to use the why, what, how, when, where to dig deeper into your topic of interest. You can use a mind map to branch out your thinking process and choose what direction you want your essay to go.

  • What is an example of this prompt?

Renner Kwittken ’23
Armonk, NY

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry’s “Cars and Trucks and Things That Go,” and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.

Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.

I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.

In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn’t allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).

I hadn’t expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find — with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials “RK-1” — thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.

A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB’s, and students’ apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody’s surprise). Ironically, it’s through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.

It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry’s book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I’m learning that it isn’t the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek — I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.

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.
  • What is this prompt asking?

This prompt is actually one of the hardest prompts. Even though the sky’s the limit for this prompt, many students don’t actually know what’s special enough to include here. Students have the freedom to create their own prompt about any topic they prefer. Regardless of the topic they choose, the Common App essay is the best way for admissions committees to get to know you. Therefore, everything you write should trace back to telling your personal story, your personal growth, your passion and your potential.

  • How can I brainstorm for this prompt

What is the most unique thing about you?

If there is only one thing you would be known for, what would it be?

What do you want the admission officer to know about you in addition to your academic performance?

These are some questions to help you get started with the brainstorming process. In the meantime, think about what topic, what direction you want to lead your essay to. If your content fits one of the six prompts, consider answering those questions instead of this. The most important aspect of this prompt is to write an unconventional essay that reflects you and you only. This is a high risk, high reward kind of prompt, because if you can nail it, you will stand out, or else you won’t leave a strong impression with the admission officer.

That’s everything we want to cover for this article! If you made it this far, congratulations!  You now have a strong understanding of each prompt and how you can further develop ideas for your prompt of choice. Writing a personal statement is a long process that requires personal reflection and discovery. If you hit a mental block while writing a personal statement, take a break, get some fresh air, then come back strong with persuasive ideas. Good luck!


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