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Connect to your story - zoom in and focus.

Which prompt inspires you to tell your story?

Note - The Six-Step Guide refers to the Common App,  but you can apply the steps to most personal statement prompts. Always check college websites for specific guidelines and advice.

Decide which Common App essay prompt resonates with you. Imagine possible
topics that will illuminate your life experiences.

Each prompt is different in its own way. Once you make a choice, break it down. Make note of the essential elements. Notice when there are follow-up points to the main idea, and include them in your story outline. Here’s an example from the 2019-20 Common App:

Common App Essay Prompt 1

“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.”  


(See below for complete list of Common App prompts.)

DIRECTIONS: In your own words, describe what this prompt is asking you to do. Use "I"language. Talk-it-out, as if you were pitching the idea to a friendly mentor.



You: I am going to write about my interest in creative entrepreneurship.


Mentor: Why?


You: Because that really gets to the heart of who I am. It works as an essay topic because I can share my passion for business and  fashion design. I can go into some detail about how I collaborate with a diverse community in a creative space. The prompt asks me to share my story, so I'll use a story structure as a guide.

Now you begin to connect to your story on a personal level. The prompt is no longer general. Instead, it is specific to you.  


Note - Do not rephrase or repeat the prompt in your essay. 

Structure the Essay. The Common App recommends you “use the prompt to inspire and structure your response.” Create an outline.

Basic Story Structure. What makes a compelling story? Author Steven Pressfield simplifies story structure with three words: Hook. Build. Payoff.

1. Hook (What's it about?)

2. Build (What happens?)

3. Payoff (What's the significance?)

Personal statements have a unique structure and purpose. 

Hook the reader with a premise that you'll expand on in your narrative. Think about your set-up. How are you going to activate your writing?

In the body paragraphs, follow up on your premise in specific ways. What did you promise to write about in your opener? Think about the story of your essay and include essential details.

Sum up the vision of your story. Does it lead to an epiphany, breakthrough or insight?

Create a structure that inspires you. 

Are you a rebel who resists the status quo? If so, there's a good chance the traditional essay format is not for you.  Don't despair! You have options.


Maybe you identify as an artist, creative empath, social justice warrior, eco-feminist -- the possibilities are infinite. You can re-imagine the personal statement to reflect your unique perspective. 


What structural format allows you to connect to a zone of creative expression? See what happens when you're true to the structure that you decide to establish. Feel free to go all-out. You can write a letter to your inner-artist, a speech to the members of the jury in your mind, a mission statement for your ideal company. 


Trust your mind/heart/soul. That's your treasure. Don't cut yourself off from the gift of your insights. Once you've got a draft, examine it for consistency. (Rambling, unfocused writing isn't going to work.) The goal is to produce a piece of writing that adheres to a consistent structure, the one that allows your authentic self to shine through.

The Common App prompts for 2019-20:

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.  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.

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.

Review. Essay prompts allow you to zoom in and focus on a particular aspect of your life. You’ve done the background work. Now it’s time to write a personal statement with a clear sense of purpose.

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