A Closer Look at the Common Application Essay Prompts

With students finishing up finals, many rising seniors are turning their attention towards college applications. Besides compiling a college list, the first step applicants typically take is to complete their personal statements. Luckily, The Common Application has already released the prompts for the 2018-19 application year. Below, we’ve provided insights into creative ways to interpret and approach these standard prompts.

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. 

Last year, this was the third most used prompt, with 21.4% of applicants responding to this question. Because of its popularity, this prompt, perhaps mores than others, requires a truly unique approach. Consider identities outside of the typical ethnicity/religion categories in favor of less commonly recognized “identities” such as middle child, red head, class clown, etc. Instead of choosing to write about an athletic or musical talent (which you will be able to provide ample evidence for in the activities section), consider if you have a gift that wouldn’t be found on your resume, such as speed reading, doing the limbo, or storytelling. When writing about a talent, even an unusual one, be very careful to not devolve into a litany of anecdotes about how impressive you are. If you do still wish to focus on a more literal interpretation of background or identity, don’t turn this into an autobiographical overview of your entire upbringing. Focus on the particulars to which you feel especially connected. For example, if being Italian is a large part of your identity, write about a specific tradition, such as making sauce with your grandmother, that you feel can be used to represent the identity as a whole. 

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? 

In our opinion, this is one of the trickiest response to get right. Failures that can seem drastic now, such as a receiving a terrible grade, not making varsity, or losing the student council election, most likely will not become defining moments of your life. Therefore, it’s difficult to write about these experiences in a way that reveals any fundamental insights about your character . The only case in which we would suggest choosing this prompt would be if you genuinely did a complete 180 in your actions or beliefs after having experienced the setback, and you can discuss the results of your new approach. 

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

Another tricky one. As with the “talent” piece of prompt #1, you want to avoid focusing on yourself as the hero of a situation. Furthermore, your essay will only be powerful if your challenge went beyond a one-off occurrence. Keep in mind also that this prompt will only work if you had a personal connection to the belief or idea you were challenging; under no circumstances will you be able to write an effective essay about a situation that you have only witnessed, read about, or seen in the media. The best response we’ve ever seen to this essay was a student who challenged the belief that she could not be a cheerleader and a feminist at the same time. It was personal, it was original, and it was insightful: everything admissions counselors want to read. 

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. 

A general rule of thumb for this essay is to avoid any topic that could be considered a stereotypical pageant queen response: basically, don’t try to tackle world peace, world hunger, racism, access to education, clean water, gender inequality, etc. Those topics are far too weighty to do any justice to in a 650-word essay. You could, however, write about something more minor in the grand scheme of the world that was in fact a very big deal in your world, such as sitting too much traffic in the student parking lot, never being able to get along with your siblings, not understanding why we always have to use “x” and “y” in math instead of the 24 other letters that weren’t chosen. Our best advice on this prompt would be to only choose it if you really do have a problem that’s been niggling at you for some time; don’t try to think of or create a problem just for the sake of the essay. Most likely, admissions officers will pick up on this lack of genuine significance in your life. 

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

This prompt was the most popular prompt of the 2017-18 admissions cycle, with almost a quarter  of applicants (23.6%) selecting it. We actually think that most responses to this would be better suited for a supplement, as many schools that require additional essays ask students to expand upon an activity of their choice. For the same reasons that we caution against discussing talents or beliefs, we also are hesitant to endorse accomplishment essays. Furthermore, we worry with this prompt that any personal growth you could discuss would really be synonymous with maturity, which is a process that nearly every student can claim to have undergone throughout high school. We will admit that last year we had a student write a powerful essay about being forced to cut a giant chunk of her hair out, and consequently confront gender norms that she never even knew she cared about. Because this situation was so incredibly specific, however, we’re hard pressed to come up with another instance that would match this, but if you can, then by all means go for it!

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? 

Of all the prompts, this is the one we actually wish more students would choose. If you have an obsession that you’ve always thought was silly, something that your parents have pleaded with you to spend less time on so you can focus more on homework, or even a fascination that you’ve never told anyone else about, this is the prompt for you. We love this question so much because it offers an incredible opportunity to discuss something that most likely would never stand a chance of showing up anywhere else on your application. It’s your opening to be surprising, entertaining, and endearing. We promise that no idea is too insignificant or simple, as long as you can prove that you have an honest enthrallment with the topic. 

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. 

Not surprisingly, this was the runner-up in the popularity contest with applicants last year. If you’re entirely uninspired by any of the above prompts, take advantage of this freebie and write about anything that helps you put your personality down on paper.

Despite having taken the time to individually break apart these prompts, we actually believe that the prompt is the least important piece of your essay. What really matters is that you leave admissions officers with a tangible sense of who you are–not as a student, athlete, musician, student council president, etc.–but as a person We cannot stress enough that the goal is not to prove anything to the reader, but rather to make them remember you because of how believable your voice and story were. 

Stay tuned for more essay writing advice throughout the summer!


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