Below is a discussion of the Common Application Main Essay topics as they existed for many years
up to and including 2012. Even though the Common App has changed its questions for 2013 (see this site for 2013
changes), we are keeping these questions posted because (1) there is a large overlap between the old questions and the new;
(2) something resembling these questions may show up as supplementals; and (3) the writing principles contained herein
remain highly relevant.
The first several old Main Essay suggestions are essentially
the same as the ones for preceding two links, so please read those before proceeding to the next set of comments.
This topic often yields fine personal statements, for
the very simple and logical reason that an account of an intensely felt private experience will inevitably be—by definition—personal.
Nearly all the tips enumerated in the section of Essay Tips for Personal Statements and Common App Short Answer (e.g.,
the need for storytelling, sensory detail and sincerity, etc.) also apply to this topic, so please refer to those
2. Topic 2:
Issue of local, national, or international concern.
The weakness of Topic 2—or at least
of most student responses to Topic 2—is that so much space must be devoted to the (inevitably impersonal) facts and
details of the “issue of personal, local, national, or international concern” that not enough space is left over
to showcase the student’s involvement or concern with the issue.
However, that does not mean that you can’t write about this topic. You certainly
can—but you must not forget to include yourself in the narrative. You must be “in
the movie,” so to speak.
instance, an essay concerned about the 2010 oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico would be vastly improved if the student also writes
about how she volunteered for two weeks in Louisiana scrubbing pelicans or laying booms in the water to protect the estuaries;
an essay on with Native American education would be greatly
deepened by an account of relevant family history or time spent living on a reservation;
an essay about the potential hazards of rapidly proliferating modern technology would have much more impact
if anchored, say, in the student’s summer working with an uncle, the organic farmer and beekeeper, whose beehive populations
are collapsing because a nearby giant cell tower is disorienting and maddening the bees….
Bottom line: put yourself in the story..
As with Topic 2, it is possible that you could run into the same
problem of displaced essay attention with this one. Therefore, if you decide to write about an influential
person, you absolutely must put yourself prominently in the story. After all, it is YOU who will be applying to the college—not
your grandmother, big sister, or track coach (as much as we love them).
a good part of the essay will be about your significant person, but the rest of the story must be about you—will have
to be about you, in fact, because for you to prove that the person has been influential in your life, you have to be in
the story all along, receiving and being formed by that influence. To return to our movie analogy,
think of this essay is as a film with two big stars sharing the spotlight, neither overpowering the other.
In the simplest terms, this essay must contain You, the Person, and the
A character in fiction, a historical figure or creative work.
The weakness of some responses to
this topic is that they appear more as book reviews, biographical encomiums, or aesthetic discussions than as personal essays.
At root, they often fail to tell a personal story—and a personal story, again, is the whole point of
best responses to this topic—and I have seen fine ones—always include a personal narrative.
For instance, a former student’s essay about Death of a Salesman devoted at least half the space to
the season he had directed and acted in the play, so his essay was as much about his experience in the theatre as it was about
Arthur Miller’s drama.
Another student wrote about Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, but not simply as a music fan, but
as a violinist in a symphony orchestra, appearing onstage and performing the gloriously ecstatic music herself—again,
she delivered a personal experience, not just a music review.
5. Topic 5:
Importance of Diversity.
A weakness that many of my students have
perceived—and all of these students have been laudably “diverse” in one way or another—is that the
essay is too narrowly tied to the theme of diversity, and therefore all responses will arrive at the same foregone conclusion—i.e.,
that “diversity is important.”
is inevitable because the writer is forced to arrive at that conclusion by the question itself: “Describe…an
encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.” Ironically, then, it turns out that
many students find this topic does not permit responses that are diverse enough to be surprising or interesting.
With that said, I should add that you can
write very interesting responses to this topic, but the only way to do that is to tell—out of your own personal experience—a
very interesting story or anecdote that is so vivid and memorable in its originality and details that it will rescue your
essay from the predictable sameness that usually afflicts essays on this otherwise well-intended topic.
Note: You will find that many supplemental essays also address the theme of diversity, so it might
be wise to save your best stories about diversity for supplementals and tell a different story altogether in the personal
Topic of your choice
Topic 6 promises boundless freedom—or
terrifying paralysis—or, to some applicants, what looks like an easy way out. Some frazzled teens,
squeezed by deadline pressure, are tempted to pick Topic 6 and then upload any old thing from their hard drives—e.g.,
some tepid essay about the attractions of X College (school name changed of course); their sister’s old University of
Chicago essay (slightly altered); or some random history paper from 10th grade on the French Revolution.
But this kind of shortcut leads nowhere.
More than likely, this cut-and-paste job will be recognized for what it is: a recycled essay, a re-gifted present,
a week-old slice of pizza, and will create a very poor impression. This temptation must be avoided.
the other hand, if you have a brilliant idea for a truly original and engaging personal essay, and that essay will not fit
into any of the rather wide categories of Topics 1 though 5, then go for it, my friend.