Gregg Prigerson & Benjamin P. Stern
Gregg Prigerson has served as Assistant Director of Admission at Stanford University, Auburn University, the University of Alabama, and the University of Miami. Benjamin P. Stern is the founder and CEO of IvyAchievement. Both have read thousands of Common App essays and helped hundreds of students with them.
The Common Application (“Common App”) is accepted by hundreds of undergraduate colleges, primarily in the United States, but also in Canada and the United Kingdom. A major part of the Common App, required by almost every school that accepts the Common App, is the 650-word essay. Each year the Common App has a set of prompts. The past two years (2015-2016 and 2016-2017) had the exact same set of five prompts.
This year, those five prompts remain in a slightly modified form, and two new prompts have been added. In this article we will analyze each one and explain why changes were made and what sorts of topics we recommend. IvyAchivement’s writing experts have reviewed thousands of essays through our essay review service and from our long-term clients; this has given us unique insight into what students write about. (The most popular topics will be the subject of another post.)
We want to preface our analysis by saying that many schools that have supplemental essays place more weight on their school specific prompts than they do on the Common App essay. Nonetheless, the Common App essay is the best way for you introduce yourself to an admissions officer and create a great first impression.
(No change to this prompt.) 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 is the most common prompt; over half of the applicants who submitted Common App essays to us chose it. It’s easy to understand why: the prompt allows applicants to discuss their passions or their defining characteristics like ethnicity, national origin. Teenagers have often given a lot of thought to these already, so it is usually the most natural to write. We don’t necessarily counsel our clients to avoid this prompt, but we try to prioritize the other prompts as possibilities when conducting our development and brainstorming sessions. (We specifically instruct our writing specialists to first explore the most interesting ideas, and only after it becomes clear what will work best in an essay, decide which prompt to follow.)
We are a little surprised that this prompt hasn’t been narrowed in some way, especially in light of Prompt 6 below, which seems to suggest speaking about some kind of interest or passion.
The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
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?
We have sometimes called this prompt a “trap” prompt, because students may be tempted to write about a type of failure that might leave the reader with a bad impression of them (for example, a severe moral lapse that led to cheating). It’s also a “trap” because the most common topics for this prompt are (a) some academic failure, or (b) a disappointing athletic or musical performance. There are two types of essays for the latter: either the applicant rebounded and achieved greatness in the sport or musical medium, or learned the lesson that not everything in life was about sports or music and found joy in other things. In fact, nearly half of the essays we received for Common App Essay Prompt 2 were on one of those topics. Although one can certainly write a great essay about rebounding from failing to qualify for a sports team to becoming a national champion, the sheer number of these types of essays makes it harder for an applicant to stand out.
The new prompt addresses some of these “traps” because it is broader and allows applicants to discuss certain travails that may not necessarily involved failure. Many high schoolers, in fact, have never really failed at anything, but almost all have been challenged by something. This prompt gives those applicants another option.
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This is the by far the least popular prompt—only 5% of applicants using our service for their Common App essay review selected it. The three changes here are major. The first is the “framing” of the prompt. Not every person is in a position where it is possible to challenge certain ideas without severely compromising social status or even safety. Some of the “beliefs” and “ideas” we’ve seen for this prompt include the Indian caste system, menstrual taboos in the Middle East and South Asia, and Orthodox Jewish views on homosexuality. One customer wrote about publishing an article that started a religious controversy. In some places, such actions might be met with severe consequences.
The addition of “questioned” to “challenged” as a possible frame to this prompt lets applicants who may not have had the courage or been in a position to challenge certain norms to opine on them. The use of “thinking” rather than “action” is a natural extension of this, as those who question ideas do not necessarily “act.” If an applicant writing this has acted, the response to the question “what prompted your thinking?” would most likely be the same as the response to “what prompted you to act?”
Finally, the second question in this prompt addresses another weakness: the answer to the original question, “would you make the same decision again?” is almost always “yes.” (Otherwise, an applicant would be writing an essay about a time when he or she exercised poor judgement.) Although this could make for an interesting essay, usually the belief or idea is something the applicant is passionately opposed to. The new question added to Common App Essay Prompt 3 may yield a more natural conclusion to the story, as it gives the applicant a chance to reflect on whether the outcome was desirable.
(No change to this prompt.) 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.
Essays on this prompt were the second-most common we received after Prompt 1. Similar prompts appear on other applications as well, so it lets applicants “kill two birds with one stone.” The prompt is sufficiently broad to cover a wide range of topics from a developing a new app to losing weight to improving education in Pakistan. We generally counsel applicants to choose to address either (a) a social issue that a reader is unlikely to be fully aware of, or (b) for international students, a problem especially prevalent in their country and somewhat unique to their country. This is consistent with our advice to pursue social service extracurricular activities that do the same thing.
Admissions officers read a lot of essays, and we find that this prompt gives applicants a chance to teach them something about the world. Some of the more interesting topics we’ve seen include promoting organ donation in India (this applicant was accepted to an Ivy League school), improving machine learning algorithms, and catching a locker-room thief.
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
This prompt gets a radical revision, which addresses two major issues with the original prompt:
First, one’s “transition from childhood to adulthood” is rarely marked by some particular “accomplishment, event, or realization;” it is a long process. Coming-of-age ceremonies like Bar Mitzvas, debutante balls, and quinceañeras do not usually make for interesting topics, nor are they truly “transitions to adulthood,” and applicants seem to be smart enough to avoid those as topics. (Although we did have one customer who wrote about his belief in Santa Claus! We weren’t quite sure that not believing in Santa Claus makes on an adult. [Spoiler: there is no Santa Claus.])
Second, for most in the United States and many western countries, the transition to adulthood does not take place until much later, in one’s 20s or even 30s, and this is no longer considered atypical. The authors of this prompt were aiming to open it up to a wider range of applicants, specifically those who feel they have not achieved adulthood. The most powerful stories we received as submissions (for example performing in Carnegie Hall, surviving a school shooting, being robbed at gunpoint, and coming face-to-face with a bear) would still fit this prompt, but applicants will no longer feel compelled to justify that certain experiences made them an “adult.” (Certainly, if that were the case, the applicant could include it.)
(New topic.) 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?
We really like this prompt. One of the key items admissions officers at elite schools such as Stanford are trained to look for is intellectual curiosity. We counsel applicants to not just show intellectual curiosity, but also intellectualism: the ability to appreciate and contemplate topics with complexity and depth. This prompt lets applicants “wax philosophical” and perhaps teach readers a thing or two, even helping them see things in a new light.
This prompt also gives applicants a chance to write about quirky interests that may not necessarily define them (as they would in Prompt 1). For example, we had a client who has several ant farms of different sizes. He observes how their behavior changes based on the dimensions of the container. This hobby is not “so meaningful that [his] application would be complete without it,” but it is still interesting and off-beat.
As counselors, we look forward to helping students craft essays in response to the new Common App essay Prompt 6. We anticipate that this prompt will serve as a nice balance to many supplemental essays, which ask more straightforward questions about applicants’ backgrounds and accomplishments. Common App essay Prompt 6 will provide a great opportunity for applicants to truly stand out as interesting and/or intellectual. Overall, a good response to this prompt, along with supplemental essays, will be conducive to giving admissions officers a “snapshot” that conveys breadth, depth, and uniqueness.
But the strength of the new Common App Essay Prompt 6 is also a major weakness: in the absence of supplemental essays addressing the applicant’s background and how “they got where they are,” it will be difficult to paint a complete picture. This won’t be impossible, but we will advise applicants to keep this in mind.
(New prompt.) 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.
This is a major addition to the Common App and brings it in line with the Coalition App, which similarly asks, “Submit an essay on the topic of your choice.”
Common App Essay Prompt 7 serves two functions: First, it gives applicants a chance to be creative and come up with outside-the-box ideas to demonstrate their creativity. Second, and we have a feeling this was the main impetus for this prompt. Is that it allows applicants who may not have the resources to get help with a college essay to use one they’ve already written and perfected.
We will likely caution clients on responding to Common App Essay Prompt 7 most of the time. Part of the admissions process is, of course, comparing students to one another. Being able to make an admissions officer think, “this is a really good ‘problem’ essay” or “this is a really good ‘belief or idea’ essay” can help a student stand out. Also, it may leave less space for a response: The Common App is not open for fall applications yet, but if an applicant responds to a “different prompt,” including the text of that different prompt will likely count against the Common App word limit.
We don’t anticipate that admissions officers will look too negatively on a choice of Common App Essay Prompt 7, and in fact we expect some really great, creative essays to come from it. However, selecting this prompt may convey a sense that the applicant couldn’t find a suitable topic in the very wide range afforded by the other prompts available, or didn’t put much effort into crafting an essay for the Common App. Again, we think the latter won’t be a problem for applicants who may not have resources for help with their essay, and for whom college applications are a severe burden. But for those with access to support and the luxury of time, Common App Essay Prompt 7 may seem like a “cop-out.”
Overall, we think the changes and additions to the Common App essay prompts are positive. Small changes in language open up a wider range of topics to a wider range of people. That is important to colleges, and we believe it is a noble goal. We look forward to helping short-term customers and long-term clients with their Common App essays.