College Essays Common Application Common Application Essay COVID-19

Common App Makes Changes for the 2021-2022 Essays

The Common Application released their essay prompts early this year. Usually, the prompts are an exact repeat from the previous year (as has been the case for four years) but this year they’re changing it up —just what you need this year, more change.  Thankfully, it’s not too much!


The following question, which they’ve had for years, is now gone:

  • “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.”

This is a bummer because we (and admissions officers) liked this one! For our students who are STEM researchers, this prompt was a terrific way to showcase their research experience noting what they’ve done outside of school assignments.

In its place, there is a new prompt 4 and it keeps with the pandemic’s theme of striving for kindness, being thankful for (and cognizant of) what you have, and showing you truly care about and respect others. It is:

  • “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?”

To us, it sounds like the Common Application has been reading the Coalition Application’s prompts, as they decided to keep theirs the same for 2021-2022.  Note prompt # 2, which is: “Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus.  Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.”


These two prompts align with the times. Colleges are urging students to consider their civic leadership, community activism, and how they care for others, remaining mindful of the greater good.

Also, the Common App is keeping the optional COVID-19 essay prompt from last year. It is:

  • 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.)

While everyone on the planet has been impacted by the global pandemic, the Common App’s COVID-19 optional essay is not something that all students should complete. It’s for unique circumstances only –and we can walk you through it, just let us know!

Common App 911

Having a difficult time with your application? Let us help.


All college applicants submitting a Common App WILL need to complete the main essay for the Common Application, and below is the full set of essay prompts for 2021-2022:

  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.

Essay Guidance Program

Need assistance with your essay? Try our personalized essay solution.


How do you keep it scholarly and memorable, pick the prompt that best works for you, and still relay who you are and what you’ll uniquely bring to a university? Let us assist! We’ve helped students who have written their Common App main essays on topics such as:

  • A research internship studying asylum in the United States
  • 3D visualization techniques used to recreate a grandfather’s antique clock collection
  • Experiencing how Black feminism impacts high school sports
  • Why studying the water we drink should be a priority for all (hint –there’s other stuff in there, you know)
  • How a violin’s bow speed links to wave studies and physics
  • Creating a robot that can teach coding to kids
  • How gender equity threads to juvenile justice

When we work with students, a main essay discussion starts with a dialogue on what you love, what intrigues you, what excites you, why you do it, and who it’s for. Check out our Common App 911 and Essay Guidance Program, work with us in our Application Boot Camp 2021, or consider TTA’s Private Counseling Program. We’re certain we can help you narrow down these 7 prompts to one that puts you, your work, and your accomplishments in the best possible light.  The prompts are out early, so start brainstorming early – we’re at the ready to help!

college admissions College Essays Common Application supplemental essays

Colleges Without Supplemental Essays: 2020

Back in 1975 when the Common App was first launched, it was truly a common application. Students filled out a form, wrote a short piece on a favorite extracurricular activity, and then their 650-word essay.

Over time, colleges started asking for supplemental essays as a way to get to know more about their applicants, make distinctions amongst a high-achieving applicant pool, and to better assess who was seriously interested in the school. Today, most colleges have two to four supplemental questions (long essays, short responses, lists) in addition to what’s being asked on the Common Application. So, applying to colleges is far from streamlined. We are almost back to where we were before the Common Application – different essays for different schools. But……

MOST but not ALL.


There are still nearly 400 schools that accept the Common Application who don’t have additional supplements. That’s many good schools that don’t require supplemental essays and rely solely on the Common Application. So why don’t they ask any supplemental questions? Most likely, the decision falls into one of the following:

  • A desire to increase accessibility and attract more applicants. An application with lots of additional essays will deter students who lack the time to work on them. Essentially – get more kids to apply!
  • A much-more straightforward admissions process that is based primarily on scores, class rank, and GPA. Data drives these schools vs getting to know the candidates.

Whatever your reason for seeking a school that doesn’t require additional supplemental essays, we’ve got you covered.




Whether your list of schools requires supplemental essays or not, or if you’re still working on your Common Application essay – we’re here to help you share your voice, your vision and your true scholarly selves to college admissions officers and can help you craft compelling essays.

“T was accepted early decision to Boston College! Thank you so, so much for all of the help and guidance that you provided us over the past 6 months. I can’t imagine there are many (if any!) people out there who are better than you at what you do! Thank you for your patience, prompt replies, and for keeping T on track! We are very grateful to have found you and worked with you!”

– D.M., Essay Guidance Program parent
college admissions College Application Secrets College Essays Common Application Ivy Admissions Ivy League Admissions supplemental essays

2020-2021 Supplemental Essay Prompts: Early Releases

The first day of summer has arrived and with it, a new application season has begun. Colleges across the country are beginning to release their supplemental essays, well in advance of the application deadlines, so that students can get a jump start on their materials. These essays complement the longer Main Essay and provide applicants with opportunities to share additional information about their leadership, meaningful activities, community engagement, and intellectual experiences.

As with last year’s supplements, there is a strong “Why Essay” trend this year. In order to gauge your genuine interest in a particular school, admissions officers want to see that you have done your homework and can make a case for why you would be a good fit. Brown, for instance, asks: “Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about an academic interest (or interests) that excites you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue it. (250 words)” Other schools, like Cornell, ask applicants to respond to the essay question that corresponds to the undergraduate college or school to which they are applying (i.e. the College of Arts and Sciences or one of the other six colleges on campus.) The University of Chicago, notorious for the most creative supplemental questions (written by the previous year’s incoming class), offers seven options for the extended supplemental essay. One of the more irreverent options asks, “What can actually be divided by zero?

If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your supplements, you are not alone. We are here to help! This summer is the perfect time to work on your supplemental essays, especially now that you have unexpected free time at home due to COVID.

Don’t delay. The more you can do NOW, the more you can focus on your senior year grades without the added stress of college applications. On August 1, the Common App, the most popular application platform, will officially “go live,” but there’s no reason to wait to start your essays until then. Work one-on-one with one of our senior counselors to craft unique, stand-out essays with our College Essay Program. Or enroll in our trademark Application Boot Camp ® , which takes place over the course of four days in August and has a few remaining seats as of today.


Note: Some schools, like Georgetown University, use their own application. Students interested in Georgetown must first complete and submit the Georgetown Application (a short form), which initiates the alumni interview and grants you access to the official application platform. The University of California likewise uses their own distinct application for their nine campuses.


We’ll continue to update this list as supplements are released. Feel free to note any schools we might’ve missed in the comments. We’d love to hear from you!

college admissions College Essays supplemental essays

2019-2020 Supplemental Essay Prompts: Early Releases **Updated**

We’ve had students, now at top colleges, write supplemental essays on topics including unicycling, robotics, drywall construction, feminist literature, squash, building playgrounds, working at a sandwich shop, baling hay, and Mexican baking. Many students come to us feeling unsure of what unique aspect of their lives would best fit which supplemental essay prompt and we love working with applicants to unpack that answer layer by layer.


Yet again UChicago gets the prize for the most creative supplemental essay prompt (so far): “Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why?”

As our students can attest, the best time to write college application essays is the summer before senior year, which is why we have run our trademark Application Boot Camp ® every August since 2005.

Current JUNIORS and SOPHOMORES, consider our Application Boot Camp 2020 AND 2021 to ensure you’re ready to tackle the ever-important senior year without the worry and stress of college applications!


2019-2020 Coalition App (is now online)

2019-2020 Universal College App (often called the UCA, is now online)

2019-2020 Common App (will launch 8/1/19, but the online platform is undergoing appearance changes in July)


Although the 2019-2020 Common App does not go live until August 1st (and bear in mind that this year more than ever before the Common App is rumored to delete anything you entered into your account pre-Aug 1st!), the above schools, and more every day, are allowing students to hit the ground running with supplements —or, if you’re applying to UChicago, start eating Pac-Man dots. We are here to help you brainstorm and craft your college essays.  Let’s get started in our College Essay Program.

college admissions College Application Secrets College Essays Early Decision Seniors

Is Early Decision Right for You?

For many students, the most fraught part of the admissions process is not writing essays or asking for letters of recommendation, but choosing an Early Decision school. Applying Early Decision allows students to submit an application to a single school during the fall and receive that school’s admissions decision shortly afterwards (usually in December). The catch: Early Decision is binding. If students are admitted to their ED school, they must attend.

For many students, this is a stressful premise. How can you identify the one school that is the best fit for you? Should you commit to a single school at the outset of your senior year, or should you wait to see the results of all of your applications? If you do decide to apply Early Decision, should you apply to a major reach school or aim for one more easily in range?

We know this is a major decision for many of our students, so we’ve provided some general guidelines below to help you make this choice. We recommend that you apply Early Decision if:

You have a clear top-choice school: If your favorite school offers Early Decision, it makes sense to apply in that round. After all, you’d be more than happy to commit to attending that school! As a bonus, if you are admitted in the Early Decision round, you’ll be done with the college admissions process before the end of winter break. No regular round stress for you.

You want to boost your odds of admission: As we’ve discussed before, applying to a school Early Decision can double your odds of admission in some cases. The Early Decision applicant pool is usually much smaller than the applicant pool in the regular round, which allows admissions officers to spend more time reviewing each application. What’s more, schools that offer Early Decision generally fill about half of the incoming class in the early round. As a result, your odds of admission are always higher in Early Decision than they would be in the regular round. Last year, for example, Columbia had an early admit rate of 14.57% and a Regular Decision admit rate of 4.04%. (For more on the early admit rates for some of the very top schools, take a look at the data we’ve collected here.)

The one caveat: your odds will only improve in the Early Decision round if that school is in range for you. While the Early Decision applicant pool may be smaller overall, it will still include lots of very qualified candidates. If your grades and test scores are well below average for a school, your application won’t make it through the admissions review process, even in the early round. 

You are a legacy: There’s no denying that being a legacy gives you an advantage at almost every school. (For more details on how this works, check out our recent blog post on legacy hooks.) In many cases, however, legacy status carries far more weight during the early round. Some schools, like Cornell, are very up-front about the importance of applying Early Decision for legacy applicants. Other schools may not say this outright, but they generally follow similar practices. This means that — if you are a legacy applicant at a school you love — applying Early Decision to that school will allow you to get the most out of your legacy status.

We hope this helps you to figure out if Early Decision is the right choice for you! If it is, take a look at the deadlines for some top Early Decision schools:


Amherst College – Nov. 1, 2019

Babson College – Nov. 1, 2019

Barnard College – Nov. 1, 2019

Bates College – Nov. 15, 2019

Bentley University – Nov. 15, 2019

Boston College – Nov. 1, 2019

Boston University – Nov. 1, 2019

Bowdoin College – Nov. 15, 2019

Brown University – Nov. 1, 2019

Bryn Mawr College – Nov. 15, 2019

Bucknell University – Nov. 15, 2019

Carnegie Mellon University – Nov. 1, 2019

Claremont McKenna College – Nov. 1, 2019

Colby College – Nov. 15, 2019

Colgate University – Nov. 15, 2019

Columbia University – Nov. 1, 2019

Connecticut College – Nov. 15, 2019

Cornell University – Nov. 1, 2019

Dartmouth University – Nov. 1, 2019

Dickinson College – Nov. 15, 2019

Duke University – Nov. 1, 2019

Emory University – Nov. 1, 2019

Harvey Mudd College – Nov. 15, 2019

Haverford College – Nov. 15, 2019

Johns Hopkins University – Nov. 1, 2019

Middlebury University – Nov. 1, 2019

New York University – Nov. 1, 2019

Northwestern University – Nov. 1, 2019

Pomona College – Nov. 1, 2019

Rice University – Nov. 1, 2019

Swarthmore College – Nov. 15, 2019

Tufts University – Nov. 1, 2019

Tulane University – Nov. 1, 2019

University of Chicago – Nov. 1, 2019

University of Pennsylvania – Nov. 1, 2019

University of Virginia – Oct. 15, 2019

Vanderbilt University – Nov. 1, 2019

Villanova University – Nov. 1, 2019

Washington University in St. Louis – Nov. 1, 2019

Williams College – Nov. 15, 2019