Jan   2016



Tips for Tackling the New Common App Essay Prompts

Essay Coach; Author
Last Updated: Jul 12, 2016

As if there isn’t enough tension connected to the college admission process, the folks over at the Common Application have decided to introduce a whole new set of essay prompts this year. That means that students, teachers, and, yes, essay coaches like myself are venturing into virgin territory. Let’s all take a deep breath and see what these new prompts are actually asking you to do:

  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 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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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 or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

These prompts are actually quite straightforward. For truly challenging assignments, you’ll have to wait for the supplemental essays from the colleges and universities, like the University of Chicago’s fabled Heisenberg essay (Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications) or UPenn’s prompt that references a quote from Benjamin Franklin (“All mankind is divided into three classes: those that are immovable, those that are movable, and those that move.” Which are you?)

As I see it, the biggest change in this year’s set of Common App essay prompts is that the option to “write on a topic of your choice” has been eliminated. It was nice to have that option in the batch, and many of my students chose that direction and created wonderful, free-spirited essays. The good news is that I think that’s still a possibility, once you analyze these new prompts.

So far, based on my experience working with these prompts this year, I suspect that many of my students will probably choose the first one, because that’s the most open-ended one (i.e., the closest to a “topic of your own choice”). Generally speaking, my philosophy with regard to this work is to create stories that surprise, not stories that fall into “types,” and that first essay prompt can lead you almost anywhere. And if you’re persuasive enough about establishing just how central your chosen story has been to the formation of your identity, who is going to argue with you? It’s your identity, after all.

The second prompt, about experiencing failure, could lead to a fine essay, but you would have to make sure not to wind up apologizing for some transgression or shortcoming. Equally fatal, as far as I’m concerned, would be to fall into predictable and, frankly, boring stuff about how you grew from that experience. Not that you didn’t grow from the experience, but I just want you to understand—and avoid—that kind of head-on/dead-on essay that feels wholly digested and lifeless.

As to the third prompt, about a time when you challenged a belief or idea, that’s a pretty narrow focus. So if you happen to have a great story about standing up to bullying or bias, you might try it . . . but it has to be something special. Otherwise, it’s going to feel narrow and can also lead you to that same static, lifeless place as a misplaced prompt #2.

With prompt #4, remember one of the goals of this essay is to show something significant about your inner life. The problems you've solved (or would like to solve) reflect not just on your ingenuity and creativity but your values.

The fifth prompt, about an event that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood, is also one that I could see many students choosing. However, I find that when students write about events from the somewhat distant past—let’s say, something that happened before the age of 14—then something gets lost in the essay. Keep in mind that the present “you” needs to come through in your personal statement. So if you’re telling a story about an event that happened when you were 11, you might want to get to that story by way of a present-day event, even a very small one that sparks that memory. For instance, if you want to write about your bar mitzvah, start with attending a bar mitzvah in the here and now and let that experience lead you back. With a 650 word count, you now have plenty of room to do that sort of thing.

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About Alan Gelb

Essay coach Alan Gelb is the author of the best-selling Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps, now in its second edition. He can be reached at his website.


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