Most Common Essay Prompts for College

Bonus Material: Download 50+ Real Supplemental Essays

If you’re gearing up for the college application process, you already know what you likely have ahead of you: not just a personal statement, but supplemental essays for most of the schools you’re applying to. 

These application essays are crucial and can tip the scales in your favor when admissions committees make the decision about whether to send you an acceptance letter. 

But did you know that many schools share extremely similar supplemental essays? By reading our guide below, you can know what to expect–and you can even save yourself time and effort by efficiently reusing your supplemental essays. 

Saving time and effort isn’t just a nice bonus: it lets you dedicate your resources to crafting better, more compelling, more successful essays. And, at the end of the day, it means better chances of admission to your dream school. 

Jump to section:
“Main essays:” the Common App essay prompts 
“Main essays:” The University of California PIQs
Why should you categorize the supplemental prompts?
The “Why us” essay
The Academic interest essay
The Extracurricular essay
The Community essay
The Diversity/Identity essay
The “Creative” essay
Next steps

“Main essays:” the Common App essay prompts 

For most of you, the Common App essay will be your “main essay,” meaning it’ll go to just about all of the schools on your list. The vast majority of schools accept the Common App for college admissions applications, so you’ll be writing one long personal statement in response to one of the Common App’s 7 prompts. 

In addition, you’ll have to write supplemental essays for each school, which is what most of this blog post will focus on. To skip straight there, you can click here: Why should you categorize the supplemental prompts?

Below are the 7 Common App prompts, which tend not to change from year to year: 

  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 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.

“Main essays:” The University of California PIQs

While there are a few scattered schools that don’t take the Common App, the biggest of these are the University of California schools, all of which share one application that’s totally different from the Common App. 

Instead of writing one “main essay” and then additional supplements, you’ll have to respond to four “Personal Insight Questions,” all with the same word counts (a max of 350 each) and importance. Your responses will go to all of the UC schools you apply to. 

We’ve also written a dedicated guide on how to answer all of the UC PIQs, with examples of real successful responses that you can check out here

The UC PIQ prompts from 2023-2024 are listed below.

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time. 
  2. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.  
  3. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?  
  4. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.
  5.  Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?
  6. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom. 
  7. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?  
  8. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

As you read on, you’ll notice that lots of these prompts actually overlap with common supplemental essay topics–meaning you can reuse your UC PIQ answers for other schools!

Why should you categorize the supplemental prompts?

Although two different schools’ essay prompts might be worded differently, you can often see that they’re basically asking the same kind of question. In reality, there are a few incredibly common kinds of supplemental prompts that recur frequently across different universities. 

This matters for two main reasons. 

The first is simple: if you can identify what kind of prompt each one is, you’ll be able to understand what the admissions officers are looking for. For example, let’s say you clearly identify that one of Dartmouth’s supplemental prompts falls into the “Community” category. Then, you’ll be in a better position to give them the kind of response they’re looking for. 

The second reason is simply that treating lots of these supplemental prompts as the same types of prompts will save you tons of time. How? If you’re smart, you can recycle the majority of your school-specific supplemental essays and use them for multiple schools without rewriting most of the essays. 

To be clear: you’ll still almost always have to tweak the essay, adding in some school-specific details or adjusting the word count. But by using our breakdown of common college essay prompt types, you can prepare a template for each one, using the same template across multiple applications. 

Read on below for a detailed list of what types of essay prompts commonly recur across universities. You can also click the button below to download a collection of the prompts provided last year by 50 of the top universities. 

Here are the most common types of supplemental essay prompts:

  1. The “Why us” essay
  2. The Academic interest essay
  3. The Extracurricular essay
  4. The Community essay
  5. The Diversity/Identity essay
  6. The “Creative” essay

The “Why us” essay

This is one of the most common types of supplemental college essay prompts. If you’ve started doing your research, you’ve probably seen that lots of colleges ask a question that basically boils down to: “Why do you want to come to our university specifically?” 

Below, take a look at a few prompts that all fall into this category so you can see what we mean about how commonly this one comes up: 

Please briefly describe why you are interested in attending Tulane University. This statement should be 500 words at most; however, it is neither necessary nor expected that you reach this maximum length. We strongly encourage you to focus on content and efficiency rather than word count. While submitting this prompt is optional, we recommend that all applicants do so. (500 words)

What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words)

Why are you interested in applying to and attending Swarthmore? (250 words)

Despite radically different word counts, these are clearly the same question: why us? The bad news is that although this question type is really, really common, many students approach it incorrectly.

The good news? We’ve actually written a detailed post that breaks down everything you need to do to answer the “Why us?” prompt perfectly here. 

If you want a detailed guide on how to approach that essay, check out that link. 

Here, we’ll cover briefly what admissions officers want to see from you when they ask “why us?”

  1. Specific elements of their school’s curriculum, programs, or culture that appeal to you. 
  2. How your values and experiences make you a good fit for those specific aspects of the school. 

In a nutshell, this essay is 50-50: it’s half about why you like the school, and half about why they ought to like you. 

You should create a standard template for this essay, then add specific details for each individual school on your list to ensure that the essay is tailored to every university. 

The Academic interest essay

This essay can come in one of two main forms, but the question is the same: what are you interested in, why, and how will you pursue that interest at college?

Take a look at a few different-looking examples below:

Most students choose their intended major or area of study based on a passion or inspiration that’s developed over time – what passion or inspiration led you to choose this area of study? (300 words, Carnegie Mellon University)

Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections. (Approximately 250 words)

Brooks School of Public Policy: Why are you drawn to studying public policy? Drawing on your experiences, tell us about why you are interested in your chosen major and how attending the Brooks School will help you achieve your life goals. (650 words, Cornell School of Public Policy)

The questions all look a little bit different, but don’t be fooled: they’re all the same. And here’s why it matters to keep it in mind: even though CMU, unlike USC and Cornell, doesn’t ask how you’ll pursue your major, they still want to know. 

Any time you’re asked about your major and/or your academic interest, the university is looking for you to provide three things: 

  1. A description of what specifically interests you. 
  2. An explanation (or better yet, a story!) for why it interests you. 
  3. A brief discussion of how you’ll pursue that interest/major at their university. 

The level of detail will vary depending on word count, but the objective is the same: answer what, why, and how. 

Not sure how to frame your intellectual interests in a way that’s appealing to admissions officers? Our college essay coaches are experts who can help you do just that: reach out to us now to get connected with a personalized mentor!

The Extracurricular essay

This one is straightforward, and, like the above, super common. In a nutshell, colleges will want to hear you describe in greater detail one of your extracurricular activities/experiences. Most students use this to go into more detail about one of the things listed on their Common App or UC activities sections, often choosing the activity that’s most unusual or most impressive. 

Here are a few sample prompts to help you identify what this looks like: 

Briefly elaborate on an activity, organization, work experience, or hobby that has been particularly meaningful to you. (150 words, Princeton)

Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities, a job you hold, or responsibilities you have for your family. (50 words, Stanford)

Briefly (approximately one-half page, single-spaced) discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved. (½ page, Georgetown)

As you can see, these tend to be shorter prompts, sometimes even being just short-answer questions, as in Stanford’s case. In any case, the goal is the same: describe something you’re involved with in an interesting and engaging way.

A word of advice: you really should pick something unusual and/or something in which you’ve attained notable success. Bonus points if this activity, whatever it is, is fundamentally altruistic. 

All these essays should contain the following components:

  1. A story or anecdote about the activity. 
  2. A discussion of why it matters. 

Don’t get too hung up on “what” here: college admissions officers don’t really want to hear the boring details about your exact role or club elections. They’d much rather hear an interesting story combined with a thoughtful reflection on why this activity is important to you. 

The Community essay

While academics are a huge part of college, so is the idea that you and your fellow students will form a cohesive, inclusive, and productive learning community. As a result, many colleges will present you with a supplemental essay prompt that asks you to reflect on community: what do you look for in one, what do you bring to one, what do you think one needs?

These essays should be taken seriously–often, the colleges that ask this question do so because they place a particular emphasis on building strong communities of students. Even students with jaw-dropping academics might find themselves rejected by elite universities if admissions officers don’t see those students as a good community fit. 

Take a look below for some examples of “Community” prompts from last year: 

Reflect on a time when you have worked to enhance a community to which you feel connected. Why have these efforts been meaningful to you? You may define community however you like. (400 words, Yale)

What is your sense of Duke as a university and a community, and why do you consider it a good match for you?  If there’s something in particular about our offerings that attracts you, feel free to share that as well. (250 words, Duke)

How will you explore community at Penn? Consider how Penn will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape Penn. (150-200 words, UPenn)

One thing you might notice from the above examples is that the “Community” prompt tends to be a staple of especially selective or elite universities. Which makes sense: these schools receive thousands of applications with amazing test scores and GPAs, so they’re really looking for something else to differentiate their applicants. 

A few quick pointers on this kind of prompt: 

  • Offer at least a brief definition of what “community” means to you. 
  • Use an anecdote/moment from your life to provide a specific example of how you’ve been an engaged community member in the past. 
  • Talk about how you’ll be an active member of the community to which you’re applying, including by referencing specific offerings/programs/organizations at that university.
    • You might want to check out our post on the “Why us?” prompt here, which also offers further guidance on how to research community offerings at universities. 

Last year, 25 of the top universities in the US asked some version of the Community prompt. For more examples of what those prompts looked like and what schools asked them, check out our free collection of last year’s essay prompts below. 

And, if you need someone to guide you through the process of writing this kind of essay, there’s nobody better than one of our college essay experts, who have all successfully navigated the college application process themselves. 

The Diversity/Identity essay

A similar essay prompt to the Community essay is one that asks about your identity and background, often through the lens of diversity. 

Quite often, this question is linked to ideas of community. What makes it different is its focus on you: where do you come from, and how has that shaped how you view the world?

Take a look below for a few samples of what this kind of prompt can look like: 

As Georgetown is a diverse community, the Admissions Committee would like to know more about you in your own words. Please submit a brief essay, either personal or creative, which you feel best describes you. (1 page, Georgetown)

The process of discovery is best advanced when people from diverse backgrounds come together to solve the greatest challenges in their fields. How do your past experiences and present-day perspectives inform who you have become and how you navigate the world? (200-250 words, California Institute of Technology)

We seek a diverse student body that embodies the wide range of human experience. In that context, we are interested in what you’d like to share about your lived experiences and how they’ve influenced how you think of yourself. (250 words max, optional, Duke)

As you can see, these essay prompts can have different angles. Some simply ask the terrifyingly broad question of “who are you?” Others focus on “lived experiences,” which is a way of asking about how your life has been shaped by your identity and what you’ve gone through. 

If you’re a student who strongly relates to a particular aspect of your identity–this might mean identifying as part of a marginalized or minority group, being a member of the LGBTQ+ community, or simply having any other identity that has profoundly shaped you–this is the perfect essay prompt for you to expound on why that identity is important to you and what it means for your worldview.

While this prompt can sometimes be an optional one, it often isn’t. Some students, especially those who don’t strongly identify with a particular identity or group, find this prompt especially intimidating. But you really shouldn’t: you are who you are, and you should interpret these prompts broadly so that you can write about an identity/worldview that is true to who you are. 

  • Interpret this prompt broadly, making it fit your understanding of “identity” or “diversity”
  • Absolutely use real moments from your life in your response to this prompt
  • Feel free to connect your identity to your views on community, social issues, or education more broadly. 

The “Creative” essay

While the majority of supplemental essay prompts you’ll see during the college application process will fall into one of the above categories, some schools will present you with odd, unusual, or creative prompts. 

Whether you view this as a fun opportunity to flex your creative writing skills or as a burden will really depend on how comfortable you are taking risks in your writing. The positive spin is that these essay prompts allow you to get outside the box a bit. The negative side is that these essays aren’t generally recyclable for other schools–you’ll have to write these from scratch. 

To see what we mean by the “Creative” supplemental essay, take a look at a few of the prompts below. Note that these tend to change each year, so the examples below are from the 2022-2023 application cycle. 

Was it a cat I saw? Yo-no-na-ka, ho-ka-ho-ka na-no-yo (Japanese for “the world is a warm place”). Moze jutro ta dama da tortu jezom (Polish for “maybe tomorrow that lady will give a cake to the hedgehogs”). Share a palindrome in any language, and give it a backstory. (UChicago, 1-2 pages)

What advice would a wisdom tooth have? (UChicago, 1-2 pages)

Write a short thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge. (We encourage you to share this note with that person, if possible, and reflect on the experience!) (UPenn, 150-200 words)

As you can see, these prompts don’t really fit into a category–the whole idea is that they’re unusual. UChicago in particular is famous for having these creative prompts, all of which change yearly. 

Because these essay prompts are by nature so different, it’s hard to give generalized advice on them. 

A few rules of thumb to keep in mind: 

  • Don’t try to reuse other supplemental essays if they don’t fit the prompt. It’ll be clear to admissions commissions that you’re not really answering the question.
  • Feel free to get creative and take risks. It’s what they’re asking for, after all. 

But, really, because these essays are so unusual and tough, the best way to be sure you’re handling them well is to work with an expert college essay editor. Reach out to us now to get paired with an essay coach who has not only helped students like you, but has successfully navigated the college application process themselves. 

Next Steps

Now, it’s time to check out the schools on your own list and start planning on how to tackle their supplemental prompts. 

Identify what schools you’re interested in, then put together a list of all the supplemental prompts. Then, categorize those prompts according to our guide above so that you can more efficiently address each one, reusing parts of your essay where it makes sense to do so. 

A great resource to start with is our spreadsheet of the Top 50 Supplemental Prompts asked by colleges. Although that list is from 2022-2023, the majority of these supplemental prompts don’t change much from year to year, so you can use these to predict what you’ll likely be asked this year. 

If you get started and realize you might need some extra support, reach out to our expert essay coaches–at PrepMaven, we’ve helped countless students get into schools like Princeton, Harvard, and UChicago. 

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Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.