Common App essay examples with commentary

If you’re applying for college via the Common App, you’ll have to write an essay in response to one of seven prompts.

Here’s a brief overview of the Common App essay and seven examples of effective Common App essays, along with explanations of why they work.

What is the Common Application essay?

The Common Application, or Common App, is a college application portal that is accepted by more than 900 schools.

Within the Common App is your main essay, a primary writing sample that all your prospective schools will read to evaluate your critical thinking skills and value as a student. Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs. Instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Regardless of your prompt choice, admissions officers will look for an ability to clearly and creatively communicate your ideas based on the selected prompt.

We’ve provided seven essay examples, one for each of the Common App prompts. After each essay, we’ve provided a table with commentary on the essay’s narrative, writing style and tone, demonstrated traits, and self-reflection.

Prompt 1: Background, identity, interest, or talent

This essay explores the student’s emotional journey toward overcoming her father’s neglect through gymnastics discipline.

Example: Background, identity, interest, or talent

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.

When “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” began to play, it was my signal to lay out a winning floor routine. Round off. Back handspring. Double back layout. Stick!

Instead, I jolted off the floor, landing out of bounds. Over the past week, I hadn’t landed that pass once, and regionals were only seven days away. I heaved a heavy sigh and stomped over to the bench.

Coach Farkas saw my consternation. “Mona, get out of your head. You’re way too preoccupied with your tumbling passes. You could do them in your sleep!”

That was the problem. I was dreaming of tumbling and missing my landings, waking up in a cold sweat. The stress felt overwhelming.

“Stretch out. You’re done for tonight.”

I walked home from the gym that had been my second home since fourth grade. Yet my anxiety was increasing every time I practiced.

I startled my mom. “You’re home early! Wait! You walked? Mona, what’s going on?!”

I slumped down at the kitchen table. “Don’t know.”

She sat down across from me. “Does it have anything to do with your father texting you a couple of weeks ago about coming to see you at regionals?”

“So what?! Why does it matter anymore?” He walked out when I was 10 and never looked back. Still, dear ol’ Dad always had a way of resurfacing when I least expected him.

“It still matters because when you hear from him, you tend to crumble. Or have you not noticed?” She offered a knowing wink and a compassionate smile.

I started gymnastics right after Dad left. The coaches said I was a natural: short, muscular, and flexible. All I knew was that the more I improved, the more confident I felt. Gymnastics made me feel powerful, so I gave it my full energy and dedication.

The floor routine became my specialty, and my performances were soon elevating our team score. The mat, solid and stable, became a place to explore and express my internal struggles. Over the years, no matter how angry I felt, the floor mat was there to absorb my frustration.

The bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving because I knew I could fall. My performances in those events were respectable. But, the floor? Sometimes, I had wildly creative and beautiful routines, while other times were disastrous. Sadly, my floor routine had never been consistent.

That Saturday afternoon, I slipped into the empty gym and walked over to the mat. I sat down and touched its carpeted surface. After a few minutes, my cheeks were wet with the bitter disappointment of a dad who only showed up when it was convenient for him. I ruminated on the years of practices and meets where I had channeled my resentment into acrobatics and dance moves, resolved to rise higher than his indifference.

I saw then that my deepest wounds were inextricably entangled with my greatest passion. They needed to be permanently separated. While my anger had first served to launch me into gymnastics, before long, I had started serving my anger.

Anger is a cruel master. It corrupts everything it touches, even something as beautiful as a well-choreographed floor routine.

I changed my music days before regionals. “The Devil” no longer had a place in my routine. Instead, I chose an energetic cyberpunk soundtrack that inspired me to perform with passion and laser focus. Dad made an obligatory appearance at regionals, but he left before I could talk to him.

It didn’t matter this time. I stuck every landing in my routine. Anger no longer controlled me. I was finally free.

Word count: 601

College essay checklist
  • Clear and well-structured narrative that answers the prompt
The student makes a unique connection, showing how her troubled relationship with her floor routine is connected to her anger at her absent father. However, rather than focusing on her difficult past, she highlights a key moment when she overcame her anger and made peace with her relationships with her dad and with gymnastics.
  • Appropriate writing style and tone
The essay uses a conversational tone but selectively employs elevated language that fits the student’s vocabulary range. The student uses personification to illustrate her close relationship to anger and gymnastics, such as “anger is a cruel master” and “the bars, beam, and vault were less forgiving.”
  • Demonstrates positive traits and authenticity
Through showing, not telling, the student clearly demonstrates dedication, hard work, and resilience. She also displays her commitment to emotional growth and character.
  • Demonstrates self-reflection and insight
In the final paragraphs, the student contemplates her troubled relationship with her floor routine and realizes its connection to her absent father. She explains how this insight healed her and allowed her to freely perform without anger.

Prompt 2: Overcoming challenges

This essay shows how the challenges the student faced in caring for her autistic sister resulted in an unexpected path forward in her education.

Example: Overcoming challenges

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?

I never had a choice.

My baby sister was born severely autistic, which meant that every detail of our home life was repeatedly adjusted to manage her condition. I couldn’t go to bed without fearing that Mindy would wake up screaming with that hoarse little voice of hers. I couldn’t have friends over on weekends because we never knew if our entire family would need to shift into crisis mode to help Mindy regain control.

We couldn’t take a family vacation because Mindy would start hitting us during a long car ride when she didn’t want to sit there anymore. We couldn’t even celebrate Christmas like a normal family because Mindy would shriek and run away when we tried to give her presents.

I was five years old when Mindy was born. For the first ten years, I did everything I could to help my mom with Mindy. But Mom was depressed and would often stare out the window, as if transfixed by the view. Dad was no help either. He used his job as an excuse to be away from home. So, I tried to make up for both of them and rescue Mindy however I could whenever she needed it.

However, one day, when I was slowly driving Mindy around with the windows down, trying to lull her into a calmer state, we passed two of my former classmates from middle school. They heard Mindy growling her disapproval as the ride was getting long for her. One of them turned to the other and announced, “Oh my God! Marabeth brought her pet monster out for a drive!” They laughed hysterically and ran down the street.

After that day, I defied my parents at every turn. I also ignored Mindy. I even stopped doing homework. I purposely “got in with the wrong crowd” and did whatever they did.

My high school counselor Ms. Martinez saw through it all. She knew my family’s situation well. It didn’t take her long to guess what had probably happened.

“Marabeth, I get it. My brother has Down syndrome. It was really hard growing up with him as a brother. The other kids were pretty mean about it, especially in high school.”

I doubted she understood. “Yeah. So?”

“I’m guessing something happened that hurt or embarrassed you.”

“Maybe.”

“I’m so sorry. I can only imagine how you must have felt.”

It must have been the way she said it because I suddenly found myself sobbing into my trembling, cupped hands.

Ms. Martinez and I met every Friday after that for the rest of the year. Her stories of how she struggled to embrace living with and loving her brother created a bridge to my pain and then my healing. She explained that her challenges led her to pursue a degree in counseling so that she could offer other people what no one had given her.

I thought that Mindy was the end of my life, but, because of Ms. Martinez’s example and kindness, I can now see that Mindy is a gift, pointing me toward my future.

Now, I’m applying to study psychology so that I can go on to earn my master’s degree in counseling. I’m learning to forgive my parents for their mistakes, and I’m back in Mindy’s life again, but this time as a sister, not a savior. My choice.

Word Count: 553

College essay checklist
  • Clear and well-structured narrative that answers the prompt
The essay has a logical flow. It starts by explaining the student’s challenges as her sister’s caretaker, describes her breaking point, and then shows how her counselor pointed her toward a new perspective and career path. It also avoids dwelling on negative details and concludes with a positive outlook and action.
  • Appropriate writing style and tone
The student’s tone is appropriately conversational to illustrate her feelings with vulnerability.
  • Demonstrates positive traits and authenticity
The essay clearly shows the student’s commitment, resilience, and sacrifice through the narrative of her caring for her sister.
  • Demonstrates self-reflection and insight
The student reveals her honest thoughts and feelings. She also explains how her counselor helped her see her sister as a gift who motivated her to pursue a meaningful career path.

Prompt 3: Questioning a belief or idea

This essay illustrates a student’s courage in challenging his culture’s constructs of manhood and changing his course while positively affecting his father in the process.

Example: Questioning a belief or idea

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

“No son of mine is gonna march around a football field wearing tail feathers while all the real men are playing football!”

I took a step backward and tried not to appear as off-balance as I felt. In my excitement, I had blurted out more information than my father could handle:

“Dad! I made the marching band as a freshman! Nobody does that—I mean nobody!”

As soon as I had said it, I wished I could recall those words. How could I forget that 26 years earlier, he had been the starting wide receiver for the state-champion Tigers on the same field?!

Still, when I opened the email on that scorching hot August afternoon, I was thrilled that five months of practicing every possible major and harmonic minor scale—two octaves up and two octaves down—had made the difference. I had busted reed after reed, trying not to puff my cheeks while moving my fingers in a precise cadence.

I knew he had heard me continually practicing in my room, yet he seemed to ignore all the parts of me that were incongruous with his vision of manhood:

Ford F-150 4x4s. Pheasant hunting. The Nebraska Cornhuskers.

I never had to wonder what he valued. For years, I genuinely shared his interests. But, in the fall of eighth grade, I heard Kyle Wheeling play a saxophone solo during the homecoming marching band halftime show. My dad took me to every football game to teach me the plays, but that night, all I could think about was Kyle’s bluesy improv at halftime.

During Thanksgiving break, I got my mom to drive me into Omaha to rent my instrument at Dietze Music, and, soon after, I started private lessons with Mr. Ken. Before long, I was spending hours in my room, exploring each nuance of my shiny Yamaha alto sax, anticipating my audition for the Marching Tigers at the end of the spring semester.

During those months of practice, I realized that I couldn’t hide my newfound interest forever, especially not from the football players who were going to endlessly taunt me. But not all the guys played football. Some were in choir and theater. Quite a few guys were in the marching band. In fact, the Marching Tigers had won the grand prize in their division at last year’s state showdown in Lincoln.

I was excited! They were the champions, and I was about to become a part of their legacy.

Yet, that afternoon, a sense of anxiety brewed in my belly. I knew I had to talk to him.

“Dad?”

He was sweeping the grass clippings off of the sidewalk. He nodded.

“I need to tell you something.”

He looked up.

“I know that you know about my sax because you hear me practicing. I like it a lot, and I’m becoming pretty good at it. I still care about what you like, but I’m starting to like some other things more. I hope you’ll be proud of me whatever I choose.”

He studied the cracks in the driveway. “I am proud of you. I just figured you’d play football.”

We never talked about it again, but that fall, he was in the stands when our marching band won the state championship in Lincoln for the second time. In fact, for the next four years, he never left the stands during halftime until the marching band had performed. He was even in the audience for every performance of “Our Town” at the end of my junior year. I played the Stage Manager who reveals the show’s theme: everything changes gradually.

I know it’s true. Things do change over time, even out here in central Nebraska. I know because I’ve changed, and my dad has changed, too. I just needed the courage to go first.

Word count: 626

College essay checklist
  • Clear and well-structured narrative that answers the prompt
The essay starts with a picture of confrontation that directly reflects the prompt. It then paints a chronological narrative of the student’s journey toward change, while using the literary device of flashback in the middle to add background and clarity to the story.
  • Appropriate writing style and tone
The student uses a conversational yet respectful tone for a college essay. He effectively uses dialogue to highlight important moments of conflict and mutual understanding throughout the story.
  • Demonstrates positive traits and authenticity
The student clearly demonstrates the qualities of self-reflection, courage, and integrity without directly claiming to have them (show, don’t tell).
  • Demonstrates self-reflection and insight
The student offers an honest assessment of his culture’s traditional views of manhood, his reasons for challenging them, and his appreciation for his father’s acceptance of his choices.

Prompt 4: Appreciating an influential person

The student demonstrates how his teacher giving him an unexpected bad grade was the catalyst for his becoming a better writer.

Example: Appreciating an influential person

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?

I stared in disbelief at the big red letter at the top of my paper: D. 

Never in my entire high school career had I seen that letter at the top of any paper, unless it was at the beginning of my first name. 

I had a 4.796 GPA. I had taken every pre-AP and AP course offered. My teachers had praised my writing skills! However, Mr. Trimble didn’t think so, and he let me know it:

“Darwin, in the future, I believe you can do better if you fully apply yourself.” 

I furiously scanned the paper for corrections. Not even one! Grammar and syntax? Perfect. Spelling? Impeccable. Sentence and paragraph structure? Precise and indisputable, as always. 

Was he trying to ruin my GPA? Cooper was clearly his favorite, and we were neck and neck for valedictorian, which was only one year away. Maybe they were conspiring to take me down. 

Thankfully, AP Composition was my last class. I fled the room and ran to my car. Defiant tears stained my cheeks as I screeched my tires and roared out of the parking lot. When I got home, I shoved in my AirPods, flopped on my bed, and buried my head under the pillow. 

I awoke to my sister, Daria, gently shaking my arm. “I know what happened, D. Trimble stopped me in the hall after school.”

“I’m sure he did. He’s trying to ruin my life.”

“That’s not what he told me. You should talk to him, D.”

The next day, although I tried to avoid Mr. Trimble at all costs, I almost tripped over him as I was coming out of the bathroom.

“Darwin, can we talk?” 

He walked me down the hall to his room. “Do you know that you’re one of the best writers I’ve ever had in AP Comp?” 

“Then why’d you do it?” 

“Because you’re better than you know, Darwin. You impress with your perfect presentations, and your teachers reward you with A’s and praise. I do frequent the teacher’s lounge, you know.” 

“So?”

“So I know you’re not trying.”

I locked eyes with him and glared. 

“You’ve never had to try because you have a gift. And, in the midst of the acclaim, you’ve never pushed yourself to discover your true capabilities.”

“So you give me a D?!”

“It got your attention.”

“You’re not going to leave it, are you?”

“Oh, the D stands. You didn’t apply yourself. You’ll have to earn your way out with your other papers.” 

I gained a new understanding of the meaning of ambivalence. Part of me was furious at the injustice of the situation, but I also felt strangely challenged and intrigued. I joined a local writer’s co-op and studied K. M. Weiland’s artistic writing techniques. 

Multiple drafts, track changes, and constructive criticism became my new world. I stopped taking Mr. Trimble’s criticism personally and began to see it as a precious tool to bolster me, not break me down. 

Last week, the New York Public Library notified me that I was named one of five finalists for the Young Lions Fiction Award. They described my collection of short stories as “fresh, imaginative, and captivating.” 

I never thought I could be grateful for a D, but Mr. Trimble’s insightful courage was the catalyst that transformed my writing and my character. Just because other people applaud you for being the best doesn’t mean you’re doing your best

AP Composition is now recorded as an A on my high school transcript, and Cooper and I are still locked in a tight race for the finish line. But, thanks to Mr. Trimble, I have developed a different paradigm for evaluation: my best. And the more I apply myself, the better my best becomes. 

Word Count: 627

College essay checklist
  • Clear and well-structured narrative that answers the prompt
The essay begins with an attention-grabbing statement that immediately captures the essence of surprise requested in the prompt. The story then unfolds in a logical sequence, taking the reader on a journey of unexpected transformation.
  • Appropriate writing style and tone
The student uses an accessible, casual tone that works well in light of his expertise in writing. His use of dialogue with nicknames and colloquialism brings a conversational tone to the storyline.
  • Demonstrates positive traits and authenticity
The student openly shows his motivation for success and his feelings toward his peers and teacher. However, he demonstrates humility in accepting criticism, responding with a diligent attempt to improve his writing skills.
  • Demonstrates self-reflection and insight
The essay concludes with growth in the student’s character and self-discipline while his circumstances remained the same. He brings the prompt full circle, expressing his gratitude toward his teacher.

Prompt 5: Transformative event

This student narrates how she initially went to church for a boy but instead ended up confronting her selfishness by helping others.

Example: Transformative event

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

Originally, I went to church not because I was searching for Jesus but because I liked a boy.

Isaac Ono wasn’t the most athletic boy in our class, nor was he the cutest. But I was amazed by his unusual kindness toward everyone. If someone was alone or left out, he’d walk up to them and say hello or invite them to hang out with him and his friends.

I started waking up at 7:30 a.m. every Sunday morning to attend Grace Hills Presbyterian, where Isaac’s father was the pastor. I would strategically sit in a pew not too close but close enough to Isaac that when the entire congregation was instructed to say “Peace be with you,” I could “happen” to shake Isaac’s hand and make small talk.

One service, as I was staring at the back of Isaac’s head, pondering what to say to him, my hearing suddenly tuned in to his father’s sermon.

“There’s no such thing as a good or bad person.”

My eyes snapped onto Pastor Marcus.

“I used to think I was a good person who came from a respectable family and did nice things. But people aren’t inherently good or bad. They just make good or bad choices.”

My mind raced through a mental checklist of whether my past actions fell mostly into the former or latter category.

“As it says in Deuteronomy 30:15, ‘I have set before you today life and good, death and evil.’ Follow in the footsteps of Jesus and do good.”

I glanced to my left and saw Margaret, underlining passages in her study Bible and taking copious notes.

Months earlier, I had befriended Margaret. We had fourth-period Spanish together but hadn’t interacted much. She was friends with Isaac, so I started hanging out with her to get closer to him. But eventually, the two of us were spending hours in the Starbucks parking lot having intense discussions about religion, boys, and our futures until we had to return home before curfew.

After hearing the pastor’s sermon, I realized that what I had admired about Isaac was also present in Margaret and other people at church: a welcoming spirit. I’m pretty sure Margaret knew of my ulterior motives for befriending her, but she never called me out on it.

After that day, I started paying more attention to Pastor Marcus’s sermons and less attention to Isaac. One year, our youth group served Christmas Eve dinner to the homeless and ate with them. I sat across from a woman named Lila who told me how child services had taken away her four-year-old daughter because of her financial and living situation.

A few days later, as I sat curled up reading the book of James, my heart suddenly felt heavy.

“If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?”

I thought back to Pastor Marcus’s sermon on good and bad actions, Lila and her daughter, and the times I had passed people in need without even saying hello.

I decided to put my faith into action. The next week, I started volunteering at the front desk of a women’s shelter, helping women fill out forms or watching their kids while they talked with social workers.

From working for the past year at the women’s shelter, I now know I want to major in social work, caring for others instead of focusing on myself. I may not be a good person (or a bad one), but I can make good choices, helping others with every opportunity God gives me.

Word count: 622

College essay checklist
  • Clear and well-structured narrative that answers the prompt
The narrative begins by clearly identifying the prompt: the event of church attendance. It has a clear story arc, starting with the student’s church experiences, moving on to her self-examination, and concluding with the changes she made to her behavior and goals to serve others.
  • Appropriate writing style and tone
The student uses dialogue to highlight key moments of realization and transformation. The essay’s tone is casual, helping the reader feel comfortable in the student’s thoughts and memory.
  • Demonstrates positive traits and authenticity
The student displays an unusual level of self-awareness and maturity by revealing an ulterior motive, the ability to self-reflect, and a desire to authentically apply theoretical teachings in a real-world setting.
  • Demonstrates self-reflection and insight
While the topic of church and conversion is common, the student’s narrative weaves in unexpected elements to create interest while clearly answering the prompt.

Prompt 6: Interest or hobby that inspires learning

This essay shows how a student’s natural affinity for solving a Rubik’s cube developed her self-understanding, academic achievement, and inspiration for her future career.

Example: Interest or hobby

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?

The worst part about writing is putting down my Rubik’s cube so that I can use my hands to type. That’s usually the worst part of tackling my to-do list: setting aside my Rubik’s cube. My parents call it an obsession. But, for me, solving a Rubik’s cube challenges my brain as nothing else can.

It started on my ninth birthday. I invited three friends for a sleepover party, and I waited to open my presents right before bed. Wrapping paper, ribbons, and bows flew through the air as I oohed and aahed over each delightful gift! However, it was the last gift—a 3 x 3 x 3 cube of little squares covered in red, green, blue, yellow, white, and orange—that intrigued me.

I was horrified when Bekka ripped it out of my hands and messed it all up! I had no idea how to make all the sides match again. I waited until my friends were fast asleep. Then, I grabbed that cube and studied it under my blanket with a flashlight, determined to figure out how to restore it to its former pristine state.

Within a few weeks, I had discovered the secret. To practice, I’d take my cube with me to recess and let the other kids time me while I solved it in front of them. The better I became, the more they gathered around. But I soon realized that their attention didn’t matter all that much. I loved solving cubes for hours wherever I was: at lunch, riding in the car, or alone in my room.

Cross. White corners. Middle-layer edges. Yellow cross. Sune and anitsune. 

The sequential algorithms became second nature, and with the assistance of a little black digital timer, I strove to solve the cube faster, each time attempting to beat my previous record. I watched speed solvers on YouTube, like Australia’s Feliks Zemdegs and Max Park from Massachusetts, but I wasn’t motivated to compete as they did. I watched their videos to learn how to improve my time. I liked finding new, more efficient ways of mastering the essential 78 separate cube-solving algorithms.

Now, I understand why my passion for my Rubik’s cube has never waned. Learning and applying the various algorithms soothes my brain and centers my emotions, especially when I feel overwhelmed from being around other people. Don’t get me wrong: I like other people—just in doses.

While some people get recharged by spending time with others, I can finally breathe when I’m alone with my cube. Our psychology teacher says the difference between an extrovert and an introvert is the situations that trigger their brains to produce dopamine. For me, it’s time away, alone, flipping through cube patterns to set a new personal best.

Sometimes, the world doesn’t cooperate with introverts, requiring them to interact with many people throughout the day. That’s why you’ll often find me in the stairwell or a library corner attempting to master another one of the 42 quintillion ways to solve a cube. My parents tease me that when I’ve “had enough” of anything, my fingers get a Rubik’s itch, and I suddenly disappear. I’m usually occupied for a while, but when I finally emerge, I feel centered, prepared to tackle my next task.

Secretly, I credit my cube with helping me earn top marks in AP Calculus, Chemistry, and Physics. It’s also responsible for my interest in computer engineering. It seems I just can’t get enough of those algorithms, which is why I want to study the design and implementation of cybersecurity software—all thanks to my Rubik’s cube.

Just don’t tell my parents! It would ruin all the fun!

Word count: 607

College essay checklist
  • Clear and well-structured narrative that answers the prompt
The student immediately captures the reader’s attention with an unexpected statement that captures the prompt’s focus on captivation. Her writing clearly illustrates her love for the Rubik’s cube, showing how the cube has helped her emotionally and academically and inspired her choice of major.
  • Appropriate writing style and tone
The student uses a conversational tone while inserting elevated language and concepts that surround her field of interest. She also uses the first-person “I” pronoun to personalize her experience.
  • Demonstrates positive traits and authenticity
Through her detailed narrative of her Rubik’s cube hobby, the student demonstrates perseverance, focus, curiosity, and an uncanny ability to solve problems.
  • Demonstrates self-reflection and insight
The student shows awareness of her introversion by explaining how the Rubik’s cube helps her emotionally recharge. She also credits her hobby with helping her in her studies and inspiring her intended major.

Prompt 7: Free topic

In this free topic essay, the student uses a montage structure inspired by the TV show Iron Chef America to demonstrate his best leadership moments.

Example: Free topic

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.

Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition

The time has come to answer college’s most difficult question: Whose story shows glory?

This is … Iron Chef America: College Essay Edition!

Welcome to Kitchen Stadium! Today we have Chef Brett Lowell. Chef Brett will be put to the test to prove he has what it takes to attend university next fall.

And the secret ingredient is … leadership! He must include leadership in each of his dishes, which will later be evaluated by a panel of admissions judges.

So now, America, with a creative mind and empty paper, I say unto you in the words of my teacher: “Let’s write!”

Appetizer: My first leadership experience

A mountain of mismatched socks, wrinkled jeans, and my dad’s unironed dress shirts sat in front of me. Laundry was just one of many chores that welcomed me home once I returned from my after-school job at Baskin Robbins, a gig I had taken last year to help Dad pay the rent. A few years earlier, I wasn’t prepared to cook dinners, pay utility bills, or pick up and drop off my brothers. I thought those jobs were reserved for parents. However, when my father was working double shifts at the power plant and my mom was living in Tucson with her new husband, Bill, I stepped up and took care of the house and my two younger brothers.

Main course: My best leadership experience

Between waiting for the pasta water to boil and for the next laundry cycle to be finished, I squeezed in solving a few practice precalculus problems to prepare for the following week’s mathletics competition. I liked how the equations always had clear, clean answers, which calmed me among the mounting responsibilities of home life. After leading my team to the Minnesota State Finals for two years in a row, I was voted team captain. Although my home responsibilities often competed with my mathlete duties, I tried to be as productive as possible in my free time. On the bus ride home, I would often tackle 10 to 20 functions or budget the following week’s meals and corresponding grocery list. My junior year was rough, but both my home and my mathlete team needed me.

Dessert: My future leadership hopes 

The first thing I ever baked was a chocolate cake in middle school. This was around the time that Mom had just moved out and I was struggling with algebra. Troubles aside, one day my younger brother Simon needed a contribution for his school’s annual bake sale, and the PTA moms wouldn’t accept anything store-bought. So I carefully measured out the teaspoons and cups of various flours, powders, and oils, which resulted in a drooping, too-salty disaster.

Four years later, after a bakery’s worth of confections and many hours of study, I’ve perfected my German chocolate cake and am on my way to mastering Calculus AB. I’ve also thrown out the bitter-tasting parts of my past such as my resentment and anger toward my mom. I still miss having her at home, but whenever I have a baking question or want to update her on my mathlete team’s success, I call her or chat with her over text.

Whether in school or life, I see problems as opportunities, not obstacles, to find a better way to solve them more efficiently. I hope to continue improving my problem-solving skills next fall by majoring in mathematics and statistics.

Time’s up! 

We hope you’ve enjoyed this tasting of Chef Lowell’s leadership experiences. Next fall, tune in to see him craft new leadership adventures in college. He’s open to refining his technique and discovering new recipes.

Word count: 612

College essay checklist
  • Clear and well-structured narrative that answers the prompt
The student uses a popular TV cooking show as an unexpected concept to display his leadership abilities. Since the prompt is open-ended, the student has more room to craft his response.
  • Appropriate writing style and tone
The essay juxtaposes the contrived nature of a TV show’s script with a conversational narrative of the student’s leadership stories.
  • Demonstrates positive traits and authenticity
Each story effectively showcases the student’s leadership by showing, not telling. Rather than saying “I’m a great leader,” he provides specific instances of his best moments of demonstrated leadership.
  • Demonstrates self-reflection and insight
The student honestly shares his reservations about his mother’s new life but shows how he was able to reconcile aspects of their relationship as time passed.

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

What is the Common Application essay?

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.

Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Which Common App essay prompt should I choose?

When writing your Common App essay, choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.

No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development, insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

How do I find my college essay topic?

To decide on a good college essay topic, spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

What are the components of a great college admissions essay?

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
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Kirsten Courault

Kirsten studied political economy at U.C. Berkeley and has seven years of experience as a writer, editor, and English teacher. She cherishes helping students unearth their unique stories for college admissions essays.

1 comment

Kirsten Courault
Kirsten Courault (Scribbr Team)
November 19, 2021 at 12:46 PM

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