common app essay

Mastering the 2017-2018 Common App Essay

Don’t worry, juniors. No one is asking you to write your college application essays just yet. After all, you still need to focus on final exams (they’ll be here before you know it!), end of the year research papers, and everyone’s favorite standardized tests…the SAT or ACT. But sometime over the summer, when inspiration strikes you or (let’s face it) your parents have laid down an ultimatum, insisting you make serious progress on those essays “or else,” you will breathe a sigh of relief. Why? The good folks over at the Common Application have made some pretty terrific changes to the new essay prompts, all with the goal of making it that much easier for you to share your story with admissions readers.

Based on feedback from current high school students, Common App member institutions, school counselors, and teachers, three of last year’s essay prompts (out of five) have been revised while two new questions have joined the lineup. That brings this year’s application essay options to the staggering total of seven. Mind-blowing, isn’t it? If you’ve ever found yourself stymied when faced with a single essay prompt, just imagine how you’ll feel when you have seven equally viable options at your fingertips! Each of the seven questions was designed to elicit a student’s voice, encouraging him or her to transcribe a meaningful element of their character or identity. As you read through each of the prompts, rest assured there is no one “best” or “right” option. It’s all a function of which essay question speaks to you and provides the creative springboard you need to write a compelling narrative.

Question 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.

No changes were made to question 1 and for good reason. In the 2015-16 application cycle, over 45% of Common Application users selected this question—the most popular essay option by a landslide. For many students, this essay is the perfect “catch-all” prompt; if you’re writing about something personal and important, chances are this prompt will work for you.

New Question 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?

Old Question 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?

Last year’s “failure” question only asked about one defining (and rather negative) experience: failure. Thanks to the changes in this year’s Common App, students have the opportunity to write about any challenging circumstance and reflect on how that experience has positively influenced who they are today. A note of caution for students who select this prompt: aim to keep the tone of this essay upbeat and optimistic. You only have 650 words to make a good impression; it’s difficult to accomplish that if you primarily dwell on the negative.

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

Old Question 3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Fewer than 4% of applicants elected to write about this prompt in 2015-16. Is that because high school students are rarely presented with views or beliefs that are different from their own? Or perhaps because the old prompt assumed students took physical steps to “act” upon that “challenge?” Despite the unpopularity of this question, the themes it raises are excellent ones for college applicants to consider. Given the incredible diversity present on college campuses today, it’s highly probable that first year students will interact with those who hold drastically different points of view. Colleges aren’t looking for students who have immersed themselves in a bubble. By tackling this question, students can show admissions officers they have made an effort to go beyond their comfort zone and respectfully engage with those who espouse varying beliefs.

Question 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.

No changes here. Question 4 was actually introduced to the Common App in 2016, and it was in response to a desire from member institutions to see a prompt that encouraged students to more effectively display their analytical ability and intellectual curiosity. Students with an entrepreneurial or creative spirit may be especially well-suited to tackle this question.

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

Old Question 5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Some members of the College Coach team literally cheered upon learning that the phrase “transition from childhood to adulthood” had been stricken from this year’s slate of options. Rather than feeling forced to identifying a singular and momentous occasion that (in reality) rather few high schoolers have experienced, students can now think more broadly about their evolution and development over time. Some of the strongest essays I’ve read have highlighted a student’s self-discovery or the realization that the person they are today is different than the high school freshmen they once were. Writing about personal growth can be a tremendous way to show colleges your thoughtful and reflective side.

New Question 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?

Drum roll please! Introducing our favorite new prompt of 2017. Oftentimes when I’m helping a student brainstorm potential essay topics, I ask them to tell me about a subject they can’t stop talking about—a hobby or interest that utterly fascinates them. As you might imagine, if a student can write passionately about a topic or idea that excites them, chances are good that admissions officers will be able to share in their enthusiasm, too.

New Question 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.

Welcome back, “topic of your choice!” This question was a mainstay on the Common Application for years, and it allowed students incredible freedom to write about any story they felt would both compliment and complete their applications. While Scott Anderson, Senior Director for Access and Education at the Common Application, insists that question 7 was resurrected to make the essay portion of the application less stressful (after all, if you can write about anything, writer’s block kind of becomes a moot point), it’s important to remember the purpose of the Common App essay. This is your chance to let colleges know who you are beyond grades and test scores. In just 650 words, what do you want colleges to know about you? So if you’re tempted to choose question 7 and take the easy way out by recycling an essay you wrote about The Grapes of Wrath for English class, think again. An essay devoid of your own personal insights and character will not score you any points with the admissions committee.

In a recent article written for the Huffington Post, Scott Anderson quips, “The irony of essay prompts is that they are equally helpful and irrelevant. What truly matters is the story you want to tell about yourself.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

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Written by Elyse Krantz
Elyse Krantz is a member of College Coach’s team of college admissions experts. Elyse received her BA in linguistics from Dartmouth College and her MA from Teachers College, Columbia University. Prior to joining College Coach, Elyse worked as an admissions officer at Barnard College and Bennington College.