Personal Statement Essay Prompts

High school students rely on Common App—a user-friendly online application form—to apply to more than 1,000 member colleges worldwide. They populate their Common App profiles with everything from academic coursework to extracurriculars, adding colleges to their list, gathering requirements, and submitting applications from one centralized digital location. 


Each year, Common App provides a series of personal essay prompts that students can use to demonstrate their values, personality, and intellectual maturity; prove their ability to communicate complex ideas; and leave a lasting impression on the college admissions committee. 


Here are the Common App personal essay prompts for 2023-2024 and some ideas for how to start thinking about them:


Common App Personal Essay Prompts for 2023-2024 

While some of these prompts may seem more limiting than others, in truth, they are all fairly open to your interpretation. That said, don’t push it! Keep the broad topic in mind and don’t stray too far from it. Also, remember the purpose of your essay: you need to demonstrate some crucial aspects of your personality, maturity, and intellect while telling an interesting story about yourself.


Here are the Common App prompts for 2023-2024 and some ideas for how to start thinking about them:


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.

Is there something you mentioned on your application that is central to your identity, on which you would like to elaborate? Is there something that you want to tell admissions officers that did not fit anywhere else on your application? Here is your chance!


Is your identity strongly shaped by your family structure, a hobby, a sport, an illness, or a transition? What is the story and how did it affect you? Tell admissions officers about it in a way that shows your best self. How does it make you someone college admissions officers want on their campus?


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?

This prompt can be tricky, but don’t pass over it too quickly. We all experience obstacles, even if they don’t cause outright failure. But if you choose this prompt, you need to put a positive spin on it. Notice the reference to what you “learned from the experience.” Make sure that you explain how this experience made you a stronger, more thoughtful, compassionate, or insightful person.


Tell admissions officers that you learn from your past mistakes and failures and you’re a better person because of them. Notice that this prompt has three parts to it. You need to tell the story of:

  • when you experienced a challenge, setback, or failure
  • how it affected you
  • what you learned from it.


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

This prompt can be a great one for students who fight for human rights or who have made change in their schools through student government, but an excellent answer to this prompt can be on a smaller scale as well. Perhaps you stood up for someone who was being bullied. Or maybe you spoke up in class even though your views were different than those of your peers.


Finally, consider times you challenged your own beliefs or ideas; this could be an opportunity to show admissions officers that you have the ability to reflect on your own beliefs and change them as you grow and evolve. Notice, like the second prompt, this prompt has three parts. You need to:

  • tell the story of when you challenged a belief or idea
  • explain what prompted you to speak up, act, or change your mind
  • explain what happened after your questioned/challenged the belief or idea.


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?

This prompt gives you a chance to write about how gratitude plays a role in your life and how you demonstrate values like generosity and kindness. Reflect, be specific, and discuss how this act of kindness has changed your personal, academic, or professional trajectory in some way. And note how you repay or pay forward that kindness as well.


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

You may want to avoid writing about an obvious, common event for this essay. Many admissions officers have read countless essays about getting one’s driver’s license, having one’s Bat Mitzvah, or studying abroad. Unless your fairly common event has a unique twist, try to write about something more unusual.


For this prompt, you don’t have to write about something that marked some enormous transition in your life (though you can, of course). You can write about small things, too; it just has to be something that made you pause, reflect, and grow.


Finally, if answering this prompt, remember to show Admissions Officers that you do, in fact, have the ability to reflect and grow. This shows that you are self-aware, responsible, and a great addition to a college community. But also don’t shy away from acknowledging that you, like everyone else in the world, have more growing to do.


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?

Here’s a prompt that cuts to the heart of the matter: what are you obsessed with? Your answer to this prompt will show admissions officers what you are truly passionate about, why you find things engaging, and what you do when you want to learn something.


Pro tip: don’t write about your video game addiction or your obsession with a celebrity or TV show unless you can connect this pastime with something clearly productive, philosophical, or career-related. You don’t want to suggest that you will fail all of your college classes because you’ll be locked in your dorm room playing Call of Duty.


However, if your obsession with games like this stems from your interest in how stereotypes are spread and reinforced, narrative strategies, or the communities that form around multi-player games, then you’ll be telling the admissions office something insightful about yourself and your interests.


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 makes it easy for you to reuse something you’ve written for another type of application, but that doesn’t mean this is the easiest prompt to choose. Sometimes writing without limits is more challenging that writing a response to something specific.


If you do choose this prompt, make sure your resulting essay still achieves the purpose of the personal statement: it needs to convey something meaningful and specific about who you are. Don’t let yourself stray off topic; this is why organizing your message around a story or event is useful.


Once you’re ready to get writing, check out our Guide to the College Essay to help you draft and refine your personal statement.


If these musings here aren’t enough to get you started, you may want to reach out for help. Our writing experts have lots of tools and tricks to get you thinking and writing, and the sooner you start brainstorming, the better!

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Sheila A.

Sheila Akbar is President & COO of Signet Education. She holds a bachelor's degree and master's degree from Harvard University and two doctoral degrees from Indiana University. She joined the team in the summer of 2010, bringing with her a wealth of experience teaching SAT, ACT, GRE, literature, and composition in both one-on-one and classroom settings.

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