Want to Ensure that Your Common App Essay is Anything But Common?

A lot of students worry they need to write their college application essay about a show-stopping personal interest, a life-changing business innovation, or a tale of overcoming major adversity to stand out from the applicant pool these days. Sure, getting into college is competitive. But an uncommon common app essay doesn’t have to be hard to write!

The Common Application updated its essay questions recently. Specifically, they modified three questions to be more substantive, and added two new prompts. When I read them, it struck me immediately that each prompt could be inspiration for a meaningful and unique essay on one of my favorite topics: travel.

Travel experiences convey to an admissions officer that you have a fresh perspective to add to the incoming class and that you have the potential to enrich the profile of the student body at their school. An educational trip you went on with a school teacher or even a summer adventure with your family can be chock full of stories that are simultaneously refreshing to read, substantive, and can support higher order thinking when compared and contrasted to your community at home.

Here are the revised Common App essay prompts and some starters that are inspired by travel:

  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. [No change]

This question invites students to share their unique cultural identities with the admissions panel. It could be made even more powerful in contrast to other cultures you’ve experienced while traveling. For example, I’m multi-racial and can write about what that means in various contexts and to different people. Similarly, I’m bilingual and have had unique destinations interactions and experiences as a result.

  1. 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? [Recently revised]

Imagine capturing an internal struggle and demonstrating the growth and maturity that results from committing to new experiences, even in the face of fear or uncertainty? For example, I’ve made a few cultural faux-pas along the way and have learned from them.

  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinkingWhat was the outcome? [Recently revised]

Within and between countries, varieties of cultures, norms, and practices allow people to reflect on beliefs and ideas to explore their meanings and origins. Few experiences are better than travel for prompting this innovative thinking! For example, travel has allowed me to experience various forms of government, to live with different gender expectations, and to worship across faith backgrounds around the world.

  1. 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. [No change]

This essay can be big and global, or small and personal, and pack a powerful punch either way! For example, maybe a trip abroad opened your eyes to a worldwide problem you long to solve. Tell the story and outline your dreams to conquer that problem! Or maybe an educational trip was your first time away from home without family. How did you address the challenge of time management, or self-reliance and accountability? How will that growth inform your success as a college student?

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

See above! Educational travel is full of ‘a-ha’ moments where classroom knowledge intersects with the real world. Consider life-changing moments as well as tiny instances of kindness. For me, travel has helped me to be aware of my own assumptions and has awakened me to appreciate things I had previously taken for granted.

  1. 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? [New]

When you want to learn, I think the best teacher to turn to is experience! Is there a topic you’ve explored through a travel experience? I know when I travel, I’m inspired by music, art, food, and fashion!

  1. 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. [New]

Consider submitting a travel journal entry or annotating selections from the journal that convey your reflections and insights while you traveled. An open essay like this one is an opportunity to invite the admissions officer into your “fresh eyes” thinking and detailed memories.

It is possible to create a well-thought out essay, richly informed by travel for any one of the seven Common App essays. Your experiences can be situated in contexts that are refreshing to read and substantive in their depth. Seeing the world can support higher order thinking when presented as compare/contrast with your home community or when you apply a new perspective to your previous understanding.

If you have traveled, you already have what you need to start writing.

Article written by Wendy Amato

Wendy Amato
Wendy leads education efforts across WorldStrides' family of brands, demonstrating to educators and students of all ages the transformative learning opportunities that come with travel. When she's not planning or presenting innovative professional development for teachers, writing online courses for students, or inspiring WorldStrides employees across the globe, she likes to spend time enjoying the company of her many friends and family. Follow Wendy on Instagram @wendy_education.
Categories: Education