The New Common Application Essay Prompts

The new 2015-2016 Common Application essay prompts have been released. Here's the scoop, which includes some data points about feedback from their essay prompt survey, straight from the Common App site:We are pleased to share the 2015-2016 Essay Prompts with you. New language appears in italics:
  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.

The changes you see reflect the feedback and consensus of nearly 6000 individuals who responded to our recent survey. Among the survey highlights:

  • 197 individual Member responses representing 110 Member institutions
  • 5667 constituent responses (64% school counselors; 14% students; 11% independent educational consultants; 4% parents; 2% community based organizations; remainder = other)
  • 82% of Members and 90% of constituents agree or strongly agree that the current prompts generate effective essays on the whole
  • 62% of Members and 48% of constituents believe the “story/background" prompt is the most effective
  • 76% of Members and 44% of constituents would like to see the “place where you're content" prompt replaced
  • 35% of Members and 30% of constituents feel that analytical ability and intellectual curiosity (as a combined percentage) are most the difficult attributes to convey through the current prompts
  • 85% of Members and 82% of constituents feel the prompts should be left open to broad interpretation
  • 3% of Member respondents suggested Topic of Your Choice as a new prompt
  • 6% of constituent respondents suggested Topic of Your Choice as a new prompt, with the breakdown as follows: independent educational consultants (47%), community-based organizations (7%), school counselors (5%), parents (2%), other (2%), students (<1%)

Essays, perhaps next to the SAT, may be the most feared and stressed-over component of college applications. We've discussed the finer points of essay writing many times here. Before you start working on your Common Application essay and the associated Common Application supplements that colleges just love to throw your way, you need to start seeing yourself in the proper perspective in regards to being an applicant to your candidate colleges. This stratagem applies even if you're not aiming for the top, as with the Ivies and other elites. Knowing who you are and how you think, plus being able to express that in an articulate statement, will go a long way in advancing your admission chances, regardless of where you are applying.

I'd like to offer you some advice on approaching not only your Common Application essays but also those in your Common App supplements and even some scholarship statements. The approach is generally the same and even if you're doubtful about your ability to be “creative," this should help put you at ease enough to do a good job.

I'd like you to consider your application campaign in two categories: (1) “general" college applications (the Ivies, elites, and other selective schools) and, perhaps in your case, (2) “specific" applications (specialized programs such as BS/MD, Penn's Huntsman, Wharton, etc.). The Common Application essay, its related writing requirements, and those non-specialized-program-related college supplements fall into the general category. Obviously, the combo-med and other special supplements are in the specific category.

“So what should I write about, Dave?" you ask. Well, here's your challenge for coming up with an idea for your Common App essay, in order to maximize your profile marketing and to get Harvard, Stanford, and all the others, to take you to the cash register: Identify some thing, event, or thought process that sticks out in your mind that would reveal to your colleges who you are and how you think. One of my clients from years past wrote about her theories as to why certain classmates sat in the seats they did in certain classes. It was a fascinating glimpse into how this young woman observed the world around her. She went to Harvard.

Here's another exercise that can help you set yourself apart in your essay(s):

Look around your room and see if anything in there inspires you to write about an aspect of your life that colleges won't be able to discern from the rest of your application. Do you have any weird hobbies or habits (Making chess pieces out of Corn Flakes? Painting corporate logos on old car doors? Taking pictures chipmunks running from cats? Autographing yellow lines on the roads near your home? Get the idea here? [Of course, I'm exaggerating for effect here.]) that seem really crazy and that you may be too embarrassed to mention? These are the kinds of activities that make wonderful “anything else" essays!

My son, who went to Princeton, answered his Princeton “anything else" prompt by discussing his sense of humor and citing some of the crazy things he did with his friends. His essay started out something like this: “You have already seen that I place a high value on academics and meaningful extracurriculars. However, I want you to know that I'm not all work and no play. I love to laugh and sometimes do things with my friends that others may think are weird, but they appeal to my sense of humor . . ."

So, keeping all this in mind, construct a list of “little known habits, hobbies, and other weird stuff " about yourself. Then, work to shape an aspect (or aspects) of that list into a winning statement.

Try these approaches and see how they might bear fruit in light of the new Common App essay prompts cited above. You're probably a better writer than you realize!


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.