2021 – 2022 Common App Essay Topics

common app essay graphic

The 2021 Common App opens August 1, which means it’s time to pick and begin writing your 2021-2022 Common App Essay! This year, there’s a new Common App essay topic that reflects the change the worlds experienced in the last year. In this post, we’re discussing this new essay topic as well as the existing topics, and how to pick which Common App Essay topic to write. 

2021 – 2022 Common App Essay Topics

There are seven 2021-2022 Common App Essay topics, of which you pick one to submit in your Common Application. There is no word limit, but Common App does not recommend exceeding 650 words.  

  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. NEW 2021: 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.

Your Guide to the 2021 Common Application

2021 – 2022 Common App Essay Topic Breakdown

Now that you’ve read all the essay topics, let’s break them down. What are they really asking?

  1. Tell us about you – your background is an important part of your story 
  2. Tell us about you – your ability to push past obstacles is an important part of your story
  3. Tell us about you – your belief system is an important part of your story
  4. Tell us about you – your ability to be grateful is an important part of your story
  5. Tell us about you – your ability to grow and recognize that growth is an important part of your story
  6. Tell us about you – your passions are an important part of your story
  7. Tell us about you – but you better think hard because if this essay actually answers one of the other questions, then that is no good for you!

Now it may sound obvious to say that what all the 2021-2022 Common App Essay topics have in common is an opportunity to talk about yourself, but if you look closer the topics provide an opportunity to talk about yourself in a manner that cannot be captured elsewhere in your application.  All your quantifiable information – grade, GPA, test scores, classes taken and not taken – does not capture why each of those numbers came to be.  

Did your background affect your successes and failures? Did you really struggle for that B in one of your AP classes and learn more about yourself because of the struggle? Did your beliefs or the questioning of your beliefs impact those numbers? Or maybe gratitude or personal growth cannot really be seen in those numbers and requires further explanation.  Or perhaps, lastly, can your passions not be truly understood by looking at the classes you took or a list of your extracurriculars?

Do you see how each topic provides you with a chance to talk about these ideas?

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How to Pick a Common App Essay Topic 

So how do you pick a Common App Essay topic? This is not an easy question to answer.  That’s why I recommend writing about all the essay topics before picking one to submit.

First, Write About All the Topics

Perhaps your life has not played out like a made-for-TV movie with more twists and turns than an episode of Riverdale.  Maybe you are not sure what exactly is “an important part of your story.”  Sitting down and pushing yourself to write on all topics allows you to examine your life from different perspectives.  As you write, you will probably notice some similar themes developing.  You might even write about the same event or experience for multiple topics.  

Perhaps your life is chock-full of adventures and interesting experiences.  If this is the case, then writing on all topics can help you determine which story you can articulate best.  Sometimes a moment or event can seem so significant, but it is a struggle to articulate the details or the impact.  Giving yourself the chance to write about several aspects of your life will help the “important part” bubble to the surface.

Yes – Write an Essay About All the Common App Essay Topics

So I can feel you asking, “when you say write on all topics, you don’t mean a full essay for each topic, right?” 

Oh, but I do!  I want you to write a beginning, middle, and end.  I want you to struggle.  I want you to be silly, be serious, be critical, be thoughtful, be hopeful.  Try some things. Then take a few days off. (P.S. This is why you need to start early!  An essay this personal takes time to develop.) 

How to Narrow Down Your Essays

After some time has passed, review the essays.  Note which essays feel like a little window into your story.  Find the topic or topics in which you were most honest and open.  Once you have narrowed it down to 1 or 2 topics, select two people you trust: someone who knows you well and someone who does not.  Show your essay to both of these individuals.  From the person who knows you well, you want to know if they “see you” in this essay – does it feel and sound like you?  From the person who knows less about you, you want to know if they learned something new about you – do they understand you and your story in a way they did not before?

Once you have found the topic that allows you to talk about what is the “important part of your story,”  you now must write, edit, write, edit, repeat, repeat! 

Gratitude: The New 2021 Common App Essay Topic 

Before discussing it, let’s hear that new essay topic again:

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? 

Why the Topic Changed

Sometimes it is really hard to talk about ourselves.  It feels easier to talk about other people and, perhaps, hint about ourselves. The Common App used to have a topic asking about a person who has inspired or influenced you.  I noticed that many students wrote too much about the other person and not enough about themselves.  I cannot say for sure whether this is why the topic was retired, but I was certainly glad to see it go!  

How to Write About the New Common App Essay Topic

The new topic does ask about a person’s impact on you, but you are to focus on your gratitude for the impact.  In other words, you are to write more about yourself than the other person.  

Additionally, you want to talk about how you recognized the act of kindness and/or why it was not something you expected. What were your expectations? How did you think the series of events was going to go? What about the situation or the person’s intervention surprised you? And most importantly, how have you changed as a result? Has your perspective changed, your response to similar situations, your willingness to help others?  Remember to be specific!  Try to avoid broad, vague language.  Dig deep.

The folks at Common App share on their website how reflecting on what you are grateful for is essential during times of struggle.  There is no question that the pandemic changed things for people.  Some people were deeply and negatively impacted.  When you focus on anger, frustration, loss, or hardship, you can find yourself talking about all the things you wanted, wished had happened, or lost opportunities – the past.  On the other hand, when you talk about strength, perseverance, and gratitude, you cannot help but talk about your plans, goals, and dreams – the future.  

Colleges want to know what you will bring to their school. Someone who is focused on the future, rather than the past, is a student they know will be resilient, help others, and strive to create a future they want to be a part of. That kind of student is a welcomed addition to a community.  

COVID-19’s Impact: Still Part of the Additional Information 

The Common App does not have an essay topic about the pandemic.  They do, however, have a question within the “Additional Information” section of the application.  

The “Additional Information” section has always been a place to include information that cannot be gleaned from the rest of the application.  Perhaps you had an injury and missed several days of school, or you experienced an event that impacted your performance in school.  This section is the place to share these details.  Consequently, this section is also the place to detail the impact that COVID-19 had on you.  

I do have a couple of caveats about this section.  You must be specific about what happened and the impact.  Everyone’s experience is different, and there will always be people in better and worse situations than yourself.  Having said that, I encourage you to be thoughtful before including something in this section.  

It must be clear that the effects are significant.  Be specific about the details of the event and how this changed your situation.  As you describe what happened, be careful not to complain.  It is perfectly reasonable to share the negatives but do not make excuses.  Accept the aspects that are your responsibility. 

I want to be clear that I’m not discouraging you from including a personal statement in this section. If you are considering including something, I recommend that you write a statement. Then share your statement with someone to get their perspective. Remember, the goal of including the personal statement is to allow the admission folks to better understand your academic profile. 

Pass/Fail Grading and College Admissions

2021 – 2022 Common App Essay Topics

When it comes time to sit down and write on a Common App Essay topic, remember that the goal is to tell the admissions officers about yourself. What can you tell them that is not obvious elsewhere in your application? Take your time with this process and give yourself space to think, write, and edit. You got this!

Further Reading:

20 Virtual College Tours
5 Free College Planning Resources
How to Ask for a College Recommendation Letter

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