The Common Application Prompts: Number 6

By Ryan Hickey + updated on December 10th, 2009

So you’ve read through the first five prompts on the Common App, considered each, and still don’t see anything that inspires or excites you. Depressed, you begin to worry that your essay won’t be any good. But wait… what’s that? One more prompt, short and barely noticeable at the bottom of the list after the lengthy prompt 5:

6. Topic of your choice.

Ah, the possibilities. Here you were thinking that the Common App narrowed your essay options to a small number of suggested topics when in reality, your options are limitless. Want to write an essay about why curling is a more physically demanding sport than rugby? Go for it! Wish you could argue that Pluto should still be a planet? Start typing! Sure, you may have been able to classify such topics as “issue[s] of personal, local, national, or international concern,” but with the “Topic of your choice” option, your essay can be about anything.

Now, such freedom is not without its drawbacks. In this case, the drawbacks of the prompt are that students who select this option often create poor essays in comparison to those who write on one of the more focused topics. There are many reasons that students struggle with this prompt, some of the most common of which I’ll run through now.

  1. Unless you have a clear idea of what you want to write about and why you want to write about it, I highly recommend writing on one of the first five prompts. Doing so will help you write an essay that has more of a “point” to it, and help you avoid rambling on without a clear message.
  2. Remember that this is not a free write. Just because there’s no specific question to answer does not mean that you can write about anything in any form (well, technically you can do so… you shouldn’t, though). Always remember that no matter what you write about, the purpose of your essay should be the same: to create a piece of writing that will help an admissions committee get to know you better and on a more intimate level than the other analytical portions of your application.
  3. There is still a prompt here, even though it’s extremely open ended: topic of your choice. This means that your essay needs to be written in response to something, or with the goal of providing specific information/insights.
  4. Just because this prompt allows you to write on a topic of your choice does not mean that it also allows you to write with a word limit of your choice. Again, technically there is no limit – just the standard 250-word minimum. If you want your essay to be taken seriously, though, you still need to keep it a reasonable length. I recommend 1 single-spaced page as a general guideline. For some reason, students who select this prompt often submit essays that are the size of small novels. Remember, even with an open-ended prompt, you still need to write in a clear, concise, and compelling manner.
  5. Perhaps above all, do not use this prompt as an opportunity to simply talk about all of your accomplishments. This should not be a resume in essay form.

Though this prompt is definitely more challenging than it may seem at first glance, it also offers applicants a degree of flexibility that many appreciate. This freedom can be quite helpful to some, particularly if you fall into one of the following categories:

  1. You know exactly what you want to write about, but your topic doesn’t really fit in one of the first five categories.
  2. You’ve already spent substantial time and effort writing an essay for a prompt on a different school’s application, and you are confident that essay will work when submitted to other schools via the Common App.

If either of these situations apply to you, essay prompt 6 on the Common App might be precisely what you’re looking for. While writing your essay, though, just be sure to watch out for the pitfalls described above. And if you decide to use an essay written for a prompt on a different school’s application, I recommend including that prompt at the beginning of your essay. Doing so will help the reader understand what inspired you to write the piece in the first place.

No matter which prompt you ultimately choose, EssayEdge is here to help you write the best possible Common App essay. Check out our full line of college essay editing services at

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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