20 May AIM’s Ultimate Guide to 2020-2021 Common App Essay Prompts

For the past 3 application seasons, the Common App has kept up a tradition of no changes to the essay prompts. The same 7 essay prompts have been presented to hopeful applicants (to choose 1) since 2017, and we all assumed that this year would be no different… until COVID-19.

On May 12, the Common App announced a new COVID-19 related question to appear on the 2020-2021 application that’s set to open on August 1, 2020. The good news is that this essay is OPTIONAL and will not be included in the usual 7 essay prompts under the “Personal Essay” section. However, the Common App felt it necessary to provide an additional space on the application for students who need a “dedicated space to elaborate on the impact of the pandemic, both personally and academically.”


The point of this additional essay is so that students can dedicate the remainder of the application to sharing their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19. What does this mean then? Plain and simple – the Personal Essay should NOT focus on COVID-19. The Common App has created a space for students to express their thoughts and realities surrounding the 2020 coronavirus pandemic to encourage applicants to consider other aspects of their identity when writing the Personal Essay.

Below is the new COVID-19 question:

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.

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

The question will appear in the Additional Information section of the application and the response limited to 250 words.

We recommend that students use this space to discuss shifting family obligations, education disruptions, community service engaged in during this time, or how you’ve used this time at home to pursue new interests.

If you need assistance with any of your essays, whether your Personal Essay, COVID-19 Essay or Supplemental Essays, you can book a 1-hour Essay Consultation with us and one of our amazing Essay Gurus will guide you through the process.

The Common App will also introduce a place for your school counselor to discuss how the pandemic has affected your school specifically in their recommendation. They will be prompted to explain any changes that your high school has implemented in regards to:

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

Given that these issues should be addressed by your school counselor, it is not absolutely necessary for your response to the COVID-19 question to revolve around these topics (should you choose to answer it… and you should).

The Common App Personal Essay Prompts

After surveying over 10,000 people in December 2019, the Common App has concluded that the current 7 essay prompts sufficiently serve its applicants and member colleges. As such, they shall remain the same. Be sure to read each prompt carefully and take time to BRAINSTORM answers to each question.

Before committing to a specific prompt, think about the key points that you want to convey in an essay about YOU. Your goal here is to create a compelling narrative that complements the other aspects of your application. Remember that this is the only part of your application where you are able to truly show your personality (except your interview, if you are able to attend one). Always brainstorm these concepts first and then choose an essay prompt that will fit them best.

Take the time to review the 7 Common App prompts below, as well as our tips to approach each:

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.

Many students take this prompt too literally and try to write an autobiography in 650 words. Like any of these prompts, you want to aim for QUALITY over QUANTITY. Delving into too many personal details or moments of your life may translate to a very weak essay that skims only the surface of your personal development. College admissions officers don’t want to see your entire “story”. They really just want a significant snippet – one that displays significant growth in some way or another.

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?

The most important part of this prompt is the last few words: “what did you learn from the experience?” The theme of this essay is personal growth more than anything. Don’t spend too much time wallowing in sadness or focusing on the negativity of the challenge, setback or failure. Instead, show off your critical thinking and problem solving skills here!

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

This prompt easily gives way to discussing controversial topics, which is not necessarily a bad thing but it can be. Always remember that a human being will be reading your essay – one with opinions and beliefs just like you. Take care not to be offensive or rude, and if you do decide to tackle a controversial idea, ensure that you are using educated points to push your argument. It can also be incredibly easy to end up with an essay that isn’t about you when choosing this topic. It is always impressive to show off your engagement with current events but you want to ensure that the essay places YOU at the forefront.

4. 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 prompt gives the perfect chance to highlight your research experience. Did you conduct STEM research? Deeply explored a social issue for one of your IAs or Extended Essay topics? Spent hours tracing your family history in a local archive? Though it would be great to feature exciting research you’ve done in school, research done outside of the classroom is even more impressive! Again, remember YOU should remain at the forefront of this essay – not your research topic.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Beware – this prompt can produce some really cliché responses. The aim of this Personal Essay is for you to stand out. Yes, we know that your team might have one the National Swim Meet… but think about everyone else that may have been a part of a team that won a national competition in other countries all over the world. Unless you’re at a Usain Bolt level of accomplishment, it’s hard to ride on that and that alone to produce an impressionable essay. Consider choosing a specific accomplishment or event that would help an admissions committee understand something significant about you. Rather than focusing on the accomplishment, event or realization itself, focus on the personal growth you got from it.

6. 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?

This is another great prompt for students who have engaged with research or learning beyond your high school classroom. Do you find yourself constantly falling down similar YouTube holes? Do you daydream often about one particular thing? Have you ever spent hours, days or even weeks so fixated on something that you just had to learn more about just because of your personal curiosity? This prompt allows you to showcase any academic enrichment that doesn’t appear elsewhere in your application.

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.

This prompt gives you the most flexibility. It’s because of this prompt why we recommend brainstorming what you want to convey before choosing a prompt to follow. Simply put, if your final essay that shares a piece of your “life story” doesn’t fit into any of the 6 prompts above – choose this one. Choosing this prompt beforehand can result in an overwhelm of possibilities that may not assist you in your writing at all. So it’s important to get the essay out first and then decide which prompt suits it best.

If you think you need some assistance guiding you through the writing process – whether it’s brainstorming or essay editing, you can book a 1-hr Essay Consultation with one of our amazing Essay Readers today.