What Students Need to Know About the New Common App Essays
The Common App announced some significant changes for the 2017-2018 college admissions cycle. Two essays have been added; increasing the essay selection from five to seven. Revisions have also been made to three of the five current choices.
The Common Application, used by nearly 700 universities worldwide, is the most widely used college application. Students select one essay prompt and craft a response that is up to 650 words. Each university the student applies, using the Common App, will see that essay. As you can imagine, this is one very important essay.
Now, the big question is: Which essay prompt is best?
Well, I do have my favorites.
But first, let's discuss the point of the essay.
The college wants to know: What can you offer? What makes you different from the other 30,000+ applicants applying?
This is where your essay comes in. The essay makes you three dimensional; more than a few sheets of paper. It is your chance to show the university how awesome you are, how you are one-of-a-kind, and how lucky they would be to have you at their college.
The essay must add something to your application.
Avoid reiterating things that can be found on your application; the essay must add a new element.
Avoid summing up all your extracurricular activities and accomplishments; this can easily be seen on your application.
Grab a cup of coffee because we are breaking down each essay: the good, the bad, and the pitfalls to keep an eye out for.
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.
This used to be my favorite prompt, but now it's tied with #5 and 7.
This prompt gives a student leeway to tell a story of their choosing. The topic selected should feel easy to write about and expresses something meaningful about who you are as a person.
Here are some questions to get the creative juices flowing:
What makes your family different from other families?
Does your family celebrate cultural holidays? Do any of these hold a great significance to you?
Do you have a special family tradition?
What single achievement are you most proud of?
What is the nicest thing you've done for someone?
What do you aspire to be? What have you done throughout high school to explore this career choice?
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?
The key here is to focus on what you learned. Too many students spend way too many precious words focusing on the failure. Briefly, describe the setback and spend the majority of your word count detailing what you learned, how you grew as a person, and why you are stronger because of the experience. Portray yourself as a fighter; a person who has resilience and determination.
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Don't fall for the bait here. Please, please, please do not discuss controversial topics. Hate Trump? Love Trump? Believe marijuana should be legalized? Doesn't matter; this is not the place for that type of discussion. If you are asking yourself: Is my topic controversial? The answer is probably yes.
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.
I call this the Miss America question. Hint: Your response should not include the words "world peace". The problem needs to be specific and personal to you. The trick to watch out for is the "or a problem you’d like to solve" part. Colleges like doers. The world is filled with planners and dreamers. Few people actually take initiative and make things happen. If you discuss a problem you'd like to solve, make sure to detail the steps you intend to take to improve the situation.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
One of my favs. See #1. Hard to go wrong with this question. This essay lends itself to an anecdote.
P.S. anecdotes are my favorite way to open an essay.
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?
This is your opportunity to show your love of learning. What are you passionate about? How have you cultivated this passion?
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.
What's not to love about this question; you can write anything you want. Heck, you can even reuse a previous essay. But, before you hit Ctrl c + Ctrl v and paste that school essay you received an A on, think for a minute. Does this essay portray who I am as a person? Provide insight into my values? Highlight the qualities I want the admissions staff, at my dream college, to pay attention to?
There you have it, the seven Common App essay prompts. As the school year is winding down and summer is about to kick off, give yourself a gift. A gift of time. Year after year, I hear the same story from my students and their parents. They are shocked how much time and energy goes into applying to college. The average student applies to 7-12 universities. Each application can take up to ten hours. Spend the summer strategically and complete the common app essay before senior rolls around. It will free up a great deal of time come fall. You can thank me later.