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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

Dr. Bernstein’s Guide to Common Application Essay Topics (2020-2021)

The Common Application essay topics for the 2020-2021 admissions cycle are staying the same.

This guide gives you. . . .

  • An overview of each of the Common Application essay topics
  • Insight into the biggest problems I notice when reviewing essays on different topics
  • “Before and after” examples of actual Common App essays to show you how you can solve common problems
  • An explanation of why there are some Common Application essay topics I don’t recommend
  • Tips and next steps for you (including links to articles on specific Common Application essay topics)


Common Application Essay Topic #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.”

Writing about your “background, identity, interest, or talent” can be an excellent Common Application essay topic to choose.

The BIGGEST PROBLEM that I notice when reviewing my students’ essays on this topic is that they DON’T HAVE THE RIGHT SCOPE.

Sharing everything about your “background, identity, interest, or talent” in a 650-word essay isn’t possible.

A very broad scope forces you to keep readers on the surface; it prevents you from taking them deep into your experiences and perspectives.


BEFORE: One of my students wanted to talk about his Vietnamese heritage. The first draft he showed me read like a general family biography.

AFTER: Eventually, he narrowed his focus down to fruits.

Yes, that’s right.

His final essay was about the special role that fruit played in his family (especially in relation to his mother’s attempts to preserve their cultural values here in the United States), in the altars associated with his family’s spiritual practices, and in connection with his own (originally) conflicted relationship with Vietnamese culture.


Remember that you aren’t just writing a personal essay for yourself.

You’re writing a college application essay, and you need to be aware of your audience.

Why is it important that admissions officers know about this specific “background, identity, interest, or talent”?

CLICK HERE to watch my video–“Your Common App Essay: The Most Important Question.”

In this video, you will. . . .

  • Get more tips on this very important issue.
  • Gain access to case studies of my students who earned admission to Stanford and Yale, which will help you get your own creative juices flowing.

CLICK HERE to check out “Techniques Used in the Best College Application Essays.”

This article features. . .

  • A good example (from an actual student’s essay) of finding the right scope and sharing authentic insights that are also useful to admissions officers.

Common Application Essay Topic #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, setback, or failure” essay is a popular one. During the 2018-2019 admissions cycle, 21.1% of applicants chose this Common Application essay topic.

The BIGGEST PROBLEM that I notice when reviewing students’ essays on this topic is that they FOCUS TOO HEAVILY ON THE CHALLENGE, SETBACK, OR FAILURE.

I know that problem sounds strange.

Obviously, you have to set up the specific “challenge, setback, or failure,” but YOU NEED A NARRATIVE ARC. You need the before, during, and after. You need to connect the experience to who you are as a person and how this experience has shaped you in some way.


BEFORE: One student was writing about a challenge she faced related to conflicting evidence she found while conducting research for an independent project. She got so caught up in the challenge that she left herself very little room to tell admissions officers about her process of overcoming the challenge and how this experience shaped her perspective on uncertainty and conflict.

AFTER: I showed her ways to significantly tighten up the part focusing on the problem and how paralyzed she felt.

Then she added a section about how she worked her way through the challenge. It wasn’t any big triumph in the traditional sense, but she did figure out how to integrate conflicting evidence into her work.

Towards the end, she zoomed out into a philosophical reflection on her understanding of the valuable role of uncertainty and conflicting points of view. This reflection revealed more intellectual vitality than even her description of her research project, and it was definitely the most powerful and significant part of her essay.


Ultimately, admissions officers are less interested in the external “challenge, setback, or failure” than they are in the underlying things it reveals about your character and intellect.

Let’s face it.

Many students are going to write about similar external challenges, obstacles, and failures. It’s through vivid anecdotes and your reflection at the end that you can distinguish yourself.

If you choose to write an essay on this topic, it’s essential that you are clear about why it’s important for admissions officers to know about this experience, how it influenced you, and what you learned.

CLICK HERE to learn more about why colleges value students who are capable of handling obstacles, challenges, setbacks, and even failures.

This article will. . . .

  • Help you get super clear about why it might be useful for you to write about this topic.
  • Introduce you to more in-depth techniques for writing a great essay on this topic.

Common Application Essay Topic #3:

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

The BIGGEST PROBLEM I notice when reviewing these essays is that students DON’T SHOW ENOUGH OF THEIR PROCESS OF THINKING through the decision to question or challenge a “belief or idea.”


CLICK HERE to read an article on the “questioned or challenged a belief or idea” essay topic.

This article features:

  • Two actual student essay examples
    • One is an example of what not to do and one shows you the structure used by a student accepted to Cornell
  • Insight into why colleges are interested in Common Application essays on this topic.
    • These reasons can help you figure out what you might want to reveal about your character and habits of mind in your essay.

My article has been viewed over 42,000 times, and my YouTube video on this essay prompt has been viewed over 69,000 times.

Check it out! 🙂

Common Application Essay Topic #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.”

The BIGGEST PROBLEM I notice when reading “problem” essays that focus on a student’s intellectual interests isn’t with the essays themselves. Sometimes it’s better to talk about your research and other projects related to your intellectual life in your supplemental essays.

You don’t want to get into a situation where you are repeating yourself.

As Princeton points out in their instructions for the supplemental essay:

“Please do not repeat, in full or in part, the essay you wrote for the Common Application.”

You have to think about whether the range of essays that constitute your application package demonstrate sufficient depth and breadth.

CLICK HERE to read “Common Application `Problem’ Essay Topic.” I explain why colleges are interested in your responses to this question and give you tips on creative ways of coming up with good angles.

Common Application Essay Topic #5:

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

Are you ready for the challenges associated with mind-blowing personal growth and how they transform your perspectives on yourself and the world? I hope so. That’s what college is all about. If you’ve already had this kind of experience, you might want to consider writing about in your Common App essay.

Click here to read “Writing a Great Common App Essay on an Experience that `Sparked a Period of Personal Growth.” I share a case study of a student (now at Stanford) who wrote a powerful narrative about how an experience with a judge triggered major personal growth.

Common Application Essay Topic #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?”

Very few of my students wind up choosing to write in response to this Common Application essay topic.

It’s not exactly clear how this topic is different from the first one, other than the fact that it kind of forces you into talking about losing “track of time” and “what or who. . .you turn to when you want to learn more.” Drafts on this topic often wind up having a stiff, mechanical feel to them because of the wording of the prompt.

You can definitely write about a “topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging,” but you can easily make that work for the first essay prompt.

Common Application Essay Topic #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.” 

Not one of my students have chosen this option.

Listen to what the Common App says:

“Students love Topic of Your Choice. Members and counselors? Not so much.”

It isn’t a good idea to make colleges feel that you are submitting an essay “you’ve already written.”

With the addition of just one or two sentences or phrases, you can make your essay work for one of the other Common Application essay topics.


I almost never have my students start by trying to answer one of the existing Common Application essay topics!

Instead, we focus on an experience or perspective that is really important to them.

Then they work on developing anecdotes and analysis of them.

These anecdotes and reflections form the juicy heart of their essay.

We look at the anecdotes and reflections and figure out a possible structure.

Students they write their essay.

All the way at the end, we figure out which essay prompt it fits best.

This approach helps you write the most natural sounding essay. You actually don’t want admissions officers to feel like you’re just writing to the prompt.

Click here to read “How to Find a Unique Angle for Your Common Application Essay” to get tips on using an essay you’ve already written for some other purpose.


Click here to learn how to schedule a private consultation with Dr. Bernstein.

Click here to learn more about Dr. Bernstein’s ongoing private college preparation and college admissions support.

Click here to learn about the online Get Yourself Into College® program.

Blog post image used: ©Khakimullin/