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Essay writing is mostly an unavoidable element in applying for undergraduate studies in universities in the USA and some other countries. The Common App has 7 essay prompts while Coalition has 5 prompts; however, both sets of prompts cover similar topics. In this blog post, I will focus on the Common App essays since they are the most popular among applicants. (attached is a list of prompts for both apps for 2020-21)



The straight forward answer to this question is that universities in the USA, in particular, are foremost concerned about how good you are academically. They are, however, equally keen on getting to know whether you are a good fit for their school. In other words, they search for students with values and qualities that align with those of their schools’. Also, the essays are a good way of ‘somewhat’ an attempt to ascertain your personality, unique perspective and experiences.

Note:  I refer to their assessment as “somewhat” because some applicants do get others, mostly older people or parents to write their essays for them, but a lot of admission officers do claim they can easily tell if an adult wrote an essay rather than a teenager. This objection to hiring someone to write your essay for you does not mean you cannot get an expert to read through for you and advice on the strengths and weaknesses of your writing and how to improve on it.


Another reason for writing your own essays is to keep your “voice” or perspective in the story authentic, original and personal. I always tell my students that everyone has a unique perspective in life: our experience of a single event is always different from others because of our varying backgrounds, training, upbringing, environment, interests, passions etc. 

More importantly, they want to know and understand the STORY behind your PASSIONS, GOALS, ASPIRATIONS, MOTIVATIONS, STRUGGLES, SUCCESSES, and IDENTITIES. According to Michelle A. Hernandez, former Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College,  the best kind of application essays are the “slice-of-life” essays: a “ small, seemingly insignificant incident that sheds lights on your personality or any factors in your background that have influenced what kind of person you are”.

Also, you would want your essay to show a different part of who you are other than what is predominant in the rest of your application packet. For example, a straight-A student with international or national academic awards with a 3.8 GPA has already proven her/his academic abilities but so do hundreds of other applicants.  Hence, a refreshing perspective for admission officers would be through the essay where you perhaps write about the story behind one of your extracurricular activities.  For instance, as a football fan and player, you fought for your school administration to allow you to start a girl’s football team in your high school. Your essay may describe the frustration and obstacles you faced. Such an essay shows determination and a strong sense of conviction and passion: qualities a lot of schools look out for in their students

What does each common app essay prompt require from your response?

Sometimes, when I read some essays, I see students make the fundamental error of writing a beautiful essay that does not answer the question all. Such an essay sends the wrong message: you are inattentive to detail and you submitted a rushed piece of work. Probably an essay you wrote the night before the deadline date. In any case, you did a poor job and that does not bode well for you.


PROMPT 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.

If you are an African applicant, this essay is a very good way to tell admission officers of the diversity you bring to their class. The essay requires you to tell them of a MEANINGFUL part of who are, where you come from or what you love to do. So, your unique environment in terms of your neighbourhood, like the slum you grew up in or the ethnically diverse community you hail from. This essay should show how it may have influenced who you are or your motivations. It could even be a unique aspect of your tribe or family, your hair as a biracial, or your experiences as a gay person living in Africa.

The essay should also connect emotionally to the reader. The admission officers must be able to relate with you as a human being in the essay. Allowing them to feel the emotions as you tell your story is important to help them remember you by your essay.

Finally, the essay must bring out the uniqueness of the perspective and experience you have which probably differs from most teenagers.


Prompt 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 challenge with this essay is that it could come out underwhelming. Most of the obstacles that students write about are things that most teenagers go through resulting in an and-so-what- we-have heard-it-before effect on the reader. An essay that just talks about how your football team was losing a tournament and you went for half-time, had a pep talk, and then came back to win is an example of that an ineffective essay.

This essay requires you to focus on the lessons you learned from that experience. Therefore, it is not a good idea to write 2 or 3 paragraphs talking about the problem or, worse, whine about it. A brief description of the challenge or obstacle is enough.  A majority of the essay should tell them how you overcame it and the lessons you learned from it, and how you went on to apply some of these lessons to other experiences. Altogether, this essay should demonstrate the impact the experience has had on you.


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

The essay for mavericks and iconoclasts. If you have a unique story of how you challenged, for instance, your family on subjecting you to genital mutilation as a right of passage or questioning the stereotypical gender roles of men, whose societal roles are not in the kitchen but doing macho work, then this is your essay. These beliefs could be DELETERIOUS, MARGINALIZING, DISPROPOTIONAL WITH REALITY, DEMEANING, ABUSIVE, OUTMODED ETC. In order to measure it come out with a good essay under this prompt you need to answer a few more questions:

Why was this situation important to you?

What did you actually do about it?

What/ who was your opposition and what did you learn from that challenge?

What have you gone on to do with this new change you have realized or brought about?

How does the future look for you?


 Prompt 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 that is 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

A strong show of curiosity is an important quality that schools want to see in members of each class. Yet, more important, is the quality of problem-solving. The problem could be external within your community or internal moral and ethical struggles and even prejudices. A key element of this essay that it must demonstrate its importance of this problem to you. An effective one will have a direct impact on you. For example, living in a community where an irregular supply of electricity is a challenge to doing homework so you ended up making touch lights with materials around you to sell to other school mates to use during blackouts to study.

Also, an essential element in this essay is what step you took to solve this problem and whether there are any new problems that cropped up and how you resolved them. Moreover, the essay could tell them what future you plan with the solution or problem.


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

This essay is one of a maturing experience of significance to you. A good tip to note in this type of essay is that the event which led to this new realization should be recent, probably the during your third or second year in high school. The reason is that a recent event shows some level of college readiness perhaps in terms of your independence, maturity and responsibility.

Moreover, the essay should take the reader on the journey you went through or the process you took to arrive at that epiphany. It must also tell them how you have applied this new mindset or person in different activities and what the outcomes were.

A note of caution here: this essay is not a regurgitation of your extracurricular activity. It is about getting to know you as the person behind the accomplishments and awards.


Prompt 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?

“This means a lot to me” is a story that this essay must tell. It is the dog with the bone type of scenario. You being the dog and the “topic”, “idea”, and “concept” being the bone. This essay is about passion, dedication, and persistence. It also tells of a curious mind and the will to learn more about your craft or passions. Your response must tell the reader why this idea or concept means a lot to you. Show your passion through what you have done and want to do about it. Importantly, when I read such an essay I want to see traces of your dedication to this topic or concept in your activities: hours, weeks, or even years you have spent on it.


Prompt 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.

Another note of caution here. Although the essay tells you to write on any topic, it does not mean you write about an academic topic. These essays are not designed to ascertain your academic brilliance but WHO YOU ARE. Therefore, if the topic you choose to write on removes you from the equation of the essay then it will be literally much you do about nothing. 


  1. How you write your essay could take away from the person you want to portray in the essay so keep it simple and heartfelt
  2. Let it be about you and demonstrate qualities like curiosity, resilience, maturity, responsibility, passion, and tenacity.
  3. Avoid essays that describe an event but not its significance to you as a person
  4. As an international student (African) your unique experiences or perspectives are very important to portray in your essay. 



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