2020-2021 Common App Essay Prompts

UPDATE May 14, 2020

On May 12, the Common App announced a new COVID-19 question, which will appear on the 2020-2021 application. This optional essay will be located in the Additional Information section of the Common App.

The COVID-19 question will read as follows:

Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces (250 word limit)

  • Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
  • Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.

Students may wish to discuss shifting family obligations, education disruptions, ways they have helped others, or how they have used their time at home to pursue new interests. This question will not replace the preexisting Additional Information essay, which has a 650 word limit.

Within the recommendation system, there will also be a place for your school counselor to discuss how the pandemic has affected your school specifically. This optional question, located within the School Profile section, will appear as below:

Your school may have made adjustments due to community disruptions such as COVID–19 or natural disasters. If you have not already addressed those changes in your uploaded school profile or elsewhere, you can elaborate here. Colleges are especially interested in understanding changes to:

  • Grading scales and policies
  • Graduation requirements
  • Instructional methods
  • Schedules and course offerings
  • Testing requirements
  • Your academic calendar
  • Other extenuating circumstances


We have good news for students who like to plan ahead! The Common App has announced the 2020-2021 essay prompts, which will remain the same as last year.

After conducting a survey of over 10,000 people in December to gather feedback, the Common App determined that the seven current essay prompts successfully serve its students and member colleges. For the most part, we agree. As you begin to think about your Common App essay, however, be sure to read these prompts carefully and take time to brainstorm how you might answer each question effectively. Before you commit to a specific prompt, consider the key points you want to convey to an admissions committee and how each prompt would allow you to craft a compelling narrative that complements the rest of your application materials.

We are often asked which prompts lead to the best essays (and, indeed, we think some are MUCH better than others). For expert guidance as you navigate this and other essays, we offer College Application Essay Guidance, in either 5 or 10-hour blocks.  Work with one of our Senior Counselors to select a prompt and determine the best essay topic and strategy based on your background, interests, and target schools.


As you review the seven Common App prompts (below), we have a few quick tips!

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
    • TTA Tip: You don’t need to take this prompt literally and shouldn’t try to write a memoir in 650 words. In fact, that approach would lead to a weak essay by trying to cover too much ground. Avoid writing an overly personal story that offers too many intimate details. Your “story” could instead be about your evolving love of chemistry or longstanding interest in World War 2. In other words, remember your audience!
  1. 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?
    • TTA Tip: The key to this prompt is in the final phrase–what did you learn from the experience? Beware of focusing too much on your failure or wallowing in negativity. Use this essay as an opportunity to show the reader how you think and how you problem solve!
  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
    • TTA Tip: With this prompt, it’s important to use specific examples without alienating your reader. While it’s great to show your engagement with the news and current events, you want to ensure this essay is about YOU and not a specific political cause or proving someone wrong.
  1. 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 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.
    • TTA Tip: Have you conducted STEM research? Spent hours tracing your family history in a local archive? This prompt is an excellent way to showcase your research experience—especially anything you’ve done outside your school assignments!
  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
    • TTA Tip: Be careful to avoid cliché here. This is not the time to talk about your NOLS trip or varsity soccer championship game. Instead, consider choosing a specific accomplishment or event that will help an admissions committee understand your love of learning.
  1. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?
    • TTA Tip: This is an excellent prompt for students who have engaged with research or learning beyond their regular coursework. Did you use the time at home during COVID-19 to pursue a hobby or unique academic interest? This prompt allows you to showcase any academic enrichment that doesn’t appear elsewhere in your application.
  1. 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.
    • TTA Tip: This prompt gives you the most flexibility, which can work to your advantage if you have an essay that doesn’t neatly answer one of the prompts above. The overwhelming array of possibilities, however, can often cause paralysis when you sit down to begin writing. If you think you might struggle with too much freedom, perhaps this isn’t the best prompt for you!

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