Common App Essays That Worked

By Eric Eng

By Eric Eng

A female student writing essay in her notebook outdoors.

Common App Essays That Worked

If you are preparing to apply to a number of schools, whether they are smaller liberal arts schools, large public universities, or prestigious and selective private programs, then there is little doubt that the Common Application is in your future.

The Common Application, or Common App as it is often called, is used by hundreds of thousands of high school students each year as they apply to their dream schools.

While the application itself is, of course, very important, perhaps the single most important aspect of the actual Common App are the essay prompts that students are expected to answer as part of their application.

A university student in casual clothes holding pencil and writing on paper.

And that is why so many students look for Common App essays that work to get a better idea of what is expected of them.

Even if you are not planning on applying to any school that accepts the Common App, you can still expect to answer a number of personal essay prompts that basically all ask the same question. That question is:

“Who are you, and what do you value?”

Ultimately, that is what the personal essay section of any college application is about. It is the opportunity for applying students to show who they are beyond their resume and list of experiences and accomplishments.

It is their chance to show to admissions officers and admission committees across the country what their values are, what their passions are, what their goals for the future are, and why they feel the school they are applying to is a fantastic fit!

For that reason, you are likely trying to find some Common App essays that work so that you can get a better idea of what is expected of you, the student. However, before we get into the specific Common App essay examples that we think best display what can truly be achieved in this section of a college application, we thought it would be useful to first break down both some basic information about the Common App itself as well as the importance of essay sections in the application process.

At AdmissionSight, we work with fantastic high school students every single application cycle to help them achieve their ultimate admissions goals and get into the schools of their dreams. As it turns out, one of the aspects of the application process that we work with students most is the essay section.

The reason for that is because even the most accomplished students do often feel underdeveloped and lack a certain amount of confidence when it comes to their writing ability. However, you do not have to be a wonderful writer to write wonderful personal essays. In many ways, it is more of an equation than a work of art!

So, without further ado, let’s get started on breaking all the important facts down.

What is the Common Application?

To put it simply, the Common App is the most popular online application system that is used by colleges and universities across the United States. The Common App has, overall, made the application process for high school students a lot simpler.

A student sitting and answering an exam question.

The primary reason for this is because large portions of the Common App can be sent to multiple schools at one time. That means that students no longer have to start from square one, allowing students the time they need to focus on the more important portions of the application process.

More than 900 schools work with the Common App, but it is really important to make sure that you know which schools that you are targeting do and do not use the Common App.

Overall benefits of the Common App:

The Common App offers a plethora of benefits for both schools and the students applying to them. For schools, the major benefit is that the inclusivity encourages a diverse selection of applicants. For students, the benefits include:

  • Applying more quickly to multiple schools
  • Avoiding filling out the same information many times
  • Receiving updates via email and mobile devices
  • Easily managing application requirements and important deadlines

What do I need to fill out the common app?

The Common App gathers information that is commonly required by most institutions. These include personal and parental information, financial data, extracurricular activities, and more. Students must also provide transcripts, test scores (depending on school requirements), along with their response to the essay prompts.

Take a look at the list of required documents for first-time applicants, below:

  • Parent/legal guardian information
  • Citizenship information
  • Military service information
  • High school transcript
  • Lists of your interest, hobbies, extracurriculars, clubs, community engagement, work experience
  • Standardized test scores (based on school requirements)
  • List of academic honors and achievements
  • List of up to 20 colleges/universities you want to apply to
  • Letters of recommendation from counselors, teachers, coaches, employers, mentors (based on school requirements)
  • Personal essay

Depending on the schools you are applying to, you may also need:

  • Additional essays or answers to prompts
  • A portfolio to show your work
  • A resume

Optional documents include:

  • Common App fee waiver form
  • College-specific fee waiver form

Why the personal essay section of your application is so important

Now that you know a bit more about the Common App and what you will need to have to complete it, you may be wondering who the personal essay section stands alone in a unique way.

That fact has become even more true in recent years.

The reason for that is because, along with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many schools – including many of the best schools in the country – have put a pause on standardized test scores being a requirement. That means thousands of students are applying to schools like Harvard, Princeton, Stanford and MIT without sending in SAT or ACT scores.

Row of students in the classroom taking exam.

For that reason, a student’s personal essays may even be the second-most important aspect of their application just behind a student’s high school grade point average. But why are they so important? Here are some of the reasons why:

They are reliable

As we just mentioned, a student’s GPA has taken on an inflated importance since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Still, while a low GPA can absolutely put a student out of the running for a spot at a very prestigious and selective school, it is not on its own enough to get a student in. That is where essays can come in and play a very important role!

A student’s essay has the ability to make a powerful and lasting impression on an admissions officer or committee. While thousands of students will likely have great point averages that are basically indiscernible from one another, no two personal essays are alike. That is why taking advantage of this opportunity is so important!

They are personalized and unique

Just like personal connections in the real world can lead to incredibly personal and professional opportunities, so too can a personal connection to a given school lead to opportunities.

Essays that allow the reader (IE admissions officer) on who the student is as a person will give the admissions officer a much better idea of whether or not that student would be a good fit at the school.

A girl in hijab writing essay while sitting on the grass.

Don’t believe us? Take a look at what Harvard has been looking for in applicants during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic:

“We also value forms of contribution that are unrelated to this pandemic, such as working to register voters, protect the environment, combat racial injustice and inequities or stop online harassment among peers,” the school announced in a statement. “Our interest is not in whether students created a new project or demonstrated leadership during this period.

We, emphatically, do not seek to create a competitive public service ‘Olympics’ in response to this pandemic. What matters to us is whether students’ contribution or service is authentic and meaningful to them and to others, whether that contribution is writing regular notes to frontline workers or checking in with neighbors who are isolated. We will assess these contributions and services in the context of the obstacles students are facing.”

Students who are able to take the fairly general prompts from the Common App and make them highly personal and unique will be giving themselves a great chance at getting into any school on their list.

They give students a chance to be introspective

So much of the college application process has to do with a student trying to prove that they are good enough for the schools that they are applying to.

Ultimately, it can end up feeling a bit boastful. Luckily, the personal essay section of the application gives students the chance to display humility and introspection.

The reason why this is so important for students to take advantage of is because it will allow them to display a level of maturity that admissions officers are always looking for in prospective students.

They allow students to display skills crucial to success now and in the future

Just like students invest time and money into the school that they end up going to, those schools are investing in the students that they accept. After all, the success and prestige of a school is dependent on what members of its alumni achieve.

Personal expression, self-advocacy and effective communication of goals are important skills that continue to serve people throughout their lives.

They will help people get dream jobs, achieve major professional accomplishments and much more. A great writer is a sign of a great thinker, and schools are always looking for great thinkers to fill their classrooms!

What are the Common App prompts?

For students using the Common App to apply to one or many schools, they will get to choose from one of seven Common App prompts. Students are expected to answer the prompt of their choosing with a 650-word essay.

When it comes to supplemental essays (which many schools ask students to send in along with their Common App essay response), the length of these often range from 150 words to 450 words.

Here are the seven Common App essay 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. 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?
  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 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.

Common App essay tips

When it comes to achieving what is expected of you in your essay, it really all has to do with making sure that you are giving admissions officers what they are looking for.

A man writing on his notebook.

Here are the three questions you should make sure anyone reading your essay can answer by the time they finish your essay, no matter which prompts your choose:

  1. Who is this person?
  2. Will this person contribute something of value to our campus?
  3. Can this person write?

Three more Common App essay tips include the three following things every student should make sure they are doing before they send in their final draft:

  1. Brainstorm (I think it’s the most important step).
  2. Structure your essay according to your topic.
  3. Draft. Revise. Repeat.

Common App essays that worked

So now that you have gotten this far, you are probably wanting to take a look at some college essays that worked for the Common App. Well, you don’t have to wait any longer because we’ve got you covered!

Take a look at some fantastic Common App essay examples, below:

Common App essay example No. 1


In eighth grade, I was asked to write my hobbies and career goals, but I hesitated. Should I just make something up? I was embarrassed to tell people that my hobby was collecting cosmetics and that I wanted to become a cosmetic chemist.

I worried others would judge me as too girlish and less competent compared to friends who wanted to work at the UN in foreign affairs or police the internet to crack down on hackers. The very fact that I was insecure about my “hobby” was perhaps proof that cosmetics were trivial, and I was a superficial girl for loving it.

But cosmetics was not just a pastime, it was an essential part of my daily life. In the morning I got up early for my skincare routine, using brightening skin tone and concealing blemishes, which gave me energy and confidence throughout the day.

At bedtime, I relaxed with a soothing cleansing ritual applying different textures and scents of liquids, creams, sprays, and gels. My cosmetic collection was a dependable companion – rather than hiding it away, I decided instead to learn more about cosmetics, and to explore.

However, cosmetic science wasn’t taught at school so I designed my own training. It began with the search for a local cosmetician to teach me the basics of cosmetics, and each Sunday I visited her lab to formulate organic products.

A year of lab practice taught me how little I knew about ingredients, so my training continued with independent research on toxins. I discovered that safety in cosmetics was a contested issue amongst scientists, policymakers, companies, and consumer groups, variously telling me there are toxic ingredients that may or may not be harmful.

I was frustrated by this uncertainty, yet motivated to find ways of sharing what I was learning with others.

Research spurred to action. I began writing articles on the history of toxic cosmetics, from lead in Elizabethan face powder to lead in today’s lipstick and communicated with a large readership online.

Positive feedback from hundreds of readers inspired me to step up my writing, to raise awareness with my peers, so I wrote a gamified survey for online distribution discussing the slack natural and organic labeling of cosmetics, which are neither regulated nor properly defined.

At school, I saw opportunities to affect real change and launched a series of green chemistry campaigns: the green agenda engaged the school community in something positive and was a magnet for creative student ideas, such as a recent project to donate handmade organic pet shampoo to local dog shelters. By senior year, I was pleased my exploration had gone well.

But on a recent holiday back home, I unpacked and noticed cosmetics had invaded much of my space over the years.

Dresser top and drawers were crammed with unused tubes and jars — once handpicked with loving care — had now become garbage. I sorted through each hardened face powder and discolored lotion, remembering what had excited me about the product and how I’d used it. Examining these mementos led me to a surprising realization: yes, I had been a superficial girl obsessed with clear and flawless skin.

But there was something more too.

My makeup had given me confidence and comfort, and that was okay. I am glad I didn’t abandon the superficial me, but instead acknowledged her, and stood by her to take her on an enlightening and rewarding journey.

Cosmetics led me to dig deeper into scientific inquiry, helped me develop an impassioned voice, and became a tool to connect me with others. Together, I’ve learned that the beauty of a meaningful journey lies in getting lost for it was in the meandering that I found myself.

Common App essay example No. 2

“The Instagram Post”

On “Silent Siege Day,” many students in my high school joined the Students for Life club and wore red armbands with “LIFE” on them. As a non-Catholic in a Catholic school, I knew I had to be cautious in expressing my opinion on the abortion debate. However, when I saw that all of the armband-bearing students were male, I could not stay silent.

I wrote on Instagram, “pro-choice does not necessarily imply pro-abortion; it means that we respect a woman’s fundamental right to make her own choice regarding her own body.”

Some of my peers expressed support but others responded by calling me a dumb bitch, among other names.

When I demanded an apology for the name-calling, I was told I needed to learn to take a joke: “you have a lot of anger, I think you need a boyfriend.” Another one of my peers apparently thought the post was sarcastic (?) and said “I didn’t know women knew how to use sarcasm.”

One by one, I responded. I was glad to have sparked discussion, but by midnight, I was mentally and emotionally exhausted.

Completely overwhelmed by the 140+ comments, I looked to my parents for comfort, assuming they would be proud of me for standing up for my beliefs. But instead, they told me to remove the post and to keep quiet, given the audience. I refused to remove the post but decided to stay silent.

For months, I heard students talking about “The Post,” and a new sense of self-consciousness felt like duct tape over my mouth. As I researched the history of Planned Parenthood (to respond to someone accusing it of “the genocide of black babies”), I became interested in the history of the feminist movement. At the same time, I was studying the Civil Rights Movement in my history class and researching my feminist critique of Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.

I gradually began to realize that refusing to conform to the conventions of society is what propels us toward equality. Martin Luther King was arrested nearly thirty times for ‘civil disobedience’ and Susan B. Anthony for ‘illegal voting.’ Letting the social media backlash silence my own fight for social justice seemed silly and unacceptable.

Before The Post, I naïvely thought that sexism was dead, but I came to see its ubiquity, whether it’s painfully conspicuous or seemingly innocuous. Knowing that young girls are especially vulnerable to constructing gender stereotypes, I Googled “girls empowerment programs” and called Girls on the Run to see how I could help.

As a junior coach, I spend my Monday and Thursday afternoons with middle school girls, running, singing Taylor Swift songs, discussing our daily achievements (I got 100 on my math test!), and setting goals for the next day. The girls celebrate their accomplishments and talk about themselves positively, fully expressing their self-esteem.

After The Post, I also Googled ‘how to be politically active,’ and signed petitions for the Medicare for All Act, the Raise the Wage Act, and the EACH Woman Act, among others.

In response to the transgender military ban, I called the White House (they hung up as soon as I said “as a human rights advocate…,” but I tried). It feels good to sign petitions, but I’m still not doing enough. I want to fight for social justice in the courtroom.

My role model Ruth Bader Ginsburg says, “dissent[ers] speak to a future age… they are writing not for today but for tomorrow.” Retrospectively, I realize that The Post was my voice of dissent―through it, I initiated a campus-wide discussion and openly challenged the majority opinion of my school for the first time.

As I aspire to become a civil rights attorney and the first Asian woman on the Supreme Court (I hope it doesn’t take that long!), I am confident that I will continue to write and speak out for justice ―for tomorrow.

Common App essay example No. 3

“Does Every Life Matter?”

Does every life matter? Because it seems like certain lives matter more than others, especially when it comes to money.

I was in eighth grade when a medical volunteer group that my dad had led to Northern Thailand faced a dilemma of choosing between treating a patient with MDR-TB or saving $5000 (the estimated treatment cost for this patient) for future patients. I remember overhearing intense conversations outside the headquarters tent.

My dad and his friend were arguing that we should treat the woman regardless of the treatment cost, whereas the others were arguing that it simply cost too much to treat her. Looking back, it was a conflict between ideals—one side argued that everyone should receive treatment whereas the other argued that interventions should be based on cost-effectiveness.

I was angry for two reasons. First, because my father lost the argument. Second, I couldn’t logically defend what I intuitively believed: that every human being has a right to good health. In short, every life matters.

Over the next four years, I read piles of books on social justice and global health equity in order to prove my intuitive belief in a logical manner. I even took online courses at the undergraduate and graduate levels. But I failed to find a clear, logical argument for why every life mattered.

I did, however, find sound arguments for the other side, supporting the idea that society should pursue the well-being of the greatest number, that interventions should mitigate the most death and disability per dollar spent. Essentially, my research screamed, “Kid, it’s all about the numbers.”

But I continued searching, even saving up pocket money to attend a summer course on global health at Brown University. It was there that I met Cate Oswald, a program director for Partners in Health (PIH), an organization that believed “the idea that some lives matter less is the root of all that is wrong with the world.” It was like finding a ray of light in the darkness.

Refueled with hope, I went back to find the answer, but this time I didn’t dive into piles of books or lectures. I searched my memories. Why was I convinced that every life mattered?

When the woman with MDR-TB came to our team, she brought along with her a boy that looked about my age. Six years have passed since I met him, but I still remember the gaze he gave me as he left with his mother. It wasn’t angry, nor was it sad. It was, in a way, serene. It was almost as if he knew this was coming.

That burdened me. Something inside me knew this wasn’t right. It just didn’t feel right. Perhaps it was because I, for a second, placed myself in his shoes, picturing what I’d feel if my mother was the woman with MDR-TB.

Upon reflection, I found that my answer didn’t exist in books or research, but somewhere very close from the beginning—my intuition. In other words, I didn’t need an elaborate and intricate reason to prove to myself that health is an inalienable right for every human being—I needed self-reflection.

So I ask again, “Does every life matter?” Yes. “Do I have solid, written proof?” No.

Paul Farmer once said, “The thing about rights is that in the end you can’t prove what is a right.” To me, global health is not merely a study. It’s an attitude—a lens I use to look at the world—and it’s a statement about my commitment to health as a fundamental quality of liberty and equity.

Common App essay example No. 4

“Growing Up in Lebanon”

I am [Student’s name]. I was named after my father and grandfather. I was born, raised, and currently reside in the Phoenician city of Sidon, a port city in the south of Lebanon along the Mediterranean. I was raised speaking Arabic and, at age 6, I began attending French Community School where the language of instruction is French. Thus, English is my third language.

While I have been fortunate in many ways, I have had my share of challenges growing up in Lebanon. In 2006, I witnessed my first war, which broke in the south of Lebanon and resulted in the displacement of thousands of people into my hometown.

Hearing the bombs and seeing the images of destruction around me certainly impacted me. However, the greater impact was working with my father to distribute basic aid to the refugees. I visited one site where three families were cramped up in one small room but still managed to make the best of the situation by playing cards and comforting each other.

Working with the refugees was very rewarding and their resilience was inspiring. The refugees returned home and the areas destroyed were largely rebuilt. This experience showed me the power of community and the importance of giving back.

I am blessed with a family who has supported my ambitious academic and social pursuits. My parents have always worked hard to provide me with interesting developmental opportunities, be it a ballet performance at the Met, a Scientific Fair at Beirut Hippodrome, or a tour of London’s Houses of Parliament.

Because of the value they placed on education, my parents placed me in a competitive Catholic school despite my family’s Muslim background. Today, my close friends consist of my classmates from various religious and social backgrounds.

In 2012 and 2013, I had the opportunity to attend summer programs at UCLA and Yale University. The programs were incredibly rewarding because they gave me a taste of the excellent quality and diversity of education available in the United States.

At Yale University, my roommate shared with me stories about the customs in his hometown of Shanghai. Other experiences, such as the mock board meeting of a technology company to which students from different backgrounds brought in divergent business strategies, affirmed my belief in the importance of working toward a more inclusive global community.

I believe the United States, more so than any other country, can offer a challenging, engaging and rewarding college education with opportunities for exposure to a diverse range of students from across the globe.

I intend to return to Lebanon upon graduation from college in order to carry on the legacy of my grandfather and father through developing our family business and investing in our community.

My grandfather, who never graduated from high school, started a small grocery store with limited resources. Through hard work, he grew his business into the largest grocery store in my hometown, Khan Supermarket. My father, who attended only one year of college, transformed it into a major shopping center.

Like my father, I grew up involved in the business and have a passion for it. I’ve worked in various roles at the store, and, in 2012, I worked on a project to implement an automated parking system, contacting vendors from around the globe and handling most of the project on my own from planning to organization and coordination. I enjoyed every bit of it, taking pride in challenging myself and helping my father.

My hard work has driven me to become the top-ranked student in my school, and I am confident that my ambition and desire to contribute to the community will ensure my success in your program.

I look forward to learning from the diverse experiences of my peers and sharing my story with them, thus enriching both our learning experiences. And I look forward to becoming the first man in my family to finish college.

Need help getting into top-tier colleges?

When it comes to getting into top-tier schools, acing the personal essay section is, quite simply, crucial. In order to separate yourself from the pack, writing extraordinary essays is something you must do. In fact, this need is why many students initially contact AdmissionSight.

Our admissions consultants give the students we work with the tools they need to represent themselves as best as possible in their Common App essays and supplemental essays.

If you want to learn more about what we can do to help, contact us today to set up a free consultation.

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