Preparing for College

The New Common Application Essay Prompts

Change is in the air. For those of you high schoolers who will be filling out your Common Application this fall, get ready to encounter the new essay prompts. There's good news and bad news, in my view. The good news is that the new prompts (I'll list them shortly) will likely give you a better opportunity to "market" both yourself and your writing talents. That's not to say that the old prompts could not have been advantageous for a decent writer.

However, the one prompt that disappeared is the old reliable "Any topic." That one allowed for some nice flexibility in case you wrote something particularly outstanding (in your view) for a non-Common App school. Or, as an aside, you may have written something along the way that is especially revealing about yourself for some non-college-related reason. Some high schoolers just write because they like to write and may have done some intriguing personal essay work. Think Andy Rooney or Dave Barry. (No, not Dave Berry, yours truly. I can't believe that people still confuse me with that hilarious, now-retired columnist from the Miami Herald.)

Anyway, I thought you might like to take a look at these new prompts now, in case you haven't seen them yet. Believe it or not, some high school juniors are already working on their essays, so it's good to know what to expect.

Without further ado, then, here are the new (and hopefully improved, in your eyes) Common Application essay prompts, along with a few tips from me. By the way, the maximum word length has increased to 650 words, 150 words more than the previous limit of 500 words. The minimum is 250 words. Don't get over-excited about this new length, though. Keep in mind that in many cases, less is more. Be concise and articulate. Don't bloviate. So, here you go:

• Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

Here's where one of those essays you may have written in days gone by could come in. Have you ever written anything that really talks about who you are and how you think? If you keep a diary, there may be some passages in it that you could cobble together to make a convincing presentation about what kind of a person is applying to college here.

• Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

This could be your opportunity to relate some Tales from The School of Hard Knocks. We have all failed at something along the way. This could also be your chance to write about silver linings. Just like the old saying goes, the darkest part of the night is just before dawn. As for all these prompts, this one might require you to set aside some quite time (turn off your iPhone!) and ponder how failure sometimes can be more rewarding than success.

• Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This one could be talking about when you "reached down" and took a stand about something. You know, "hard-swallow" time. Again, this one requires some introspection and soul searching. Maybe you challenged something in your school or an issue among your friends. Whatever it was, how did things turn out for you? If not well, then what do you thing went wrong with your approach and how would you have changed it, knowing what you know now?

• Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Caution: This is not the place to write about drugs (unless they are legal in your state). Do you have a a "retreat," where you can go to get away from it all (including your iPhone)? In my high school days, I used to hike up the slopes behind my house and go into a pine forest. There was a mountain stream running through that wooded area and I would sit on "my" log, beside the babbling brook, and do my heavy thinking. At that time in my life, "heavy thinking" consisted mainly of conjuring strategies to get dates. Perhaps your thinking is on a more exalted level.

• Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

This one is about "Right of Passage" time. If you want to try a "risk" essay here, you could possibly challenge the prompt by making your case that a 17-year-old sometimes may not have had "an accomplishment or event" that turned a teen into an adult. There's no shame in admitting this. In fact, I rather like the idea of (diplomatically) taking on the Common App's assumption that all high schoolers have made that transition. This approach could make for an interesting argument, in case you don't see yourself as an adult.


For the sake of completeness and contrast, here are the old Common App essay prompts. You may be able to find some inspiration from them and merge your thoughts into one of the new prompts.

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national or international concern and its importance to you.

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.

4. Describe a character in fiction, an historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

5. A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community, or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

6. Topic of your choice


Finally, if you're looking for some help in getting off the mark to write your essay, you may get some help from an article I wrote for College Confidential: Real-Life College Essay Lessons. In that tutorial you'll find:

> Real-Life Essay Lessons

> Yvonne's Sample Essay #1

> Yvonne's Sample Essay #2

> College Essay Workshop

> Humor in the College Essay

> College Essay: "What I Overcame"

> College Essay or Transfer Statement?

In any event, happy writing. Now go find a pine forest with a stream running through it!


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