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Comparing Essay Prompts: The Coalition Application & the Common App

Ian Fisher College Coach

Written by Ian Brook Fisheron May 3rd, 2016

I began my career in admissions by walking backwards as a student intern, giving guided tours, interviewing students, and reading applications for my alma mater, Reed College. After graduating, I began full-time work in admissions, reading thousands of applications primarily from the Western United States, especially Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico. (I got to eat the best food on my travel!) In my last three years at Reed, I directed admissions for the entire continent of Asia and served as the director of marketing and communications for the admission office, honing our official voice for web, print, and social media. This helped me to develop a sharp eye for what works (and what doesn’t) in college essays. While Reed is not known (at all!) for sports, I was able to find my competitive outlet with the ultimate Frisbee team as a player and, when I graduated, a coach. After nine wonderful years at Reed, I left Portland to pursue a M.A. at the Stanford Graduate School of Education. When I graduated and joined College Coach, I was living in Palo Alto, California, an experience that helped me learn so much about the UC and CSU system and high school programs all around the Bay Area. In the end, I missed the rain too much, and moved back to Portland in the summer of 2016.
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When news of a new Coalition application was introduced last fall, admissions counselors knew they would have to learn an entirely new application platform in order to help their students apply to college the following fall. As a college counselor, I was perhaps most interested in the way that the new application—and its essay requirements—might change the way my seniors were able to approach their work over the application season. Would students be able to engage in brainstorming in the same ways they had in the past? What sorts of essays would they need to produce? How much extra work would a new application require of them? Last week, the Coalition announced the release of its essay topics for the 2016/17 application year. After looking at the topics and discussing them with my colleagues here at College Coach, I have no reason to believe that these essay topics will be in any way disruptive to any senior’s college applications. While we have yet to see whether the actual application is different from the Common App, these essay prompts should give students confidence that the work they produce for their Common App essays can be effectively repurposed for their Coalition applications. Nothing Unusual Among the hundreds of supplemental essay prompts for colleges and universities all over the country, there are definitely some unusual questions. The “spider” question from the University of Richmond, the “outrage” question from Wake Forest, and the notorious University of Chicago essay prompts are just three examples of writing assignments that stretch applicants to think and write in unusual ways. The Coalition does nothing of the sort. Each of the four “original” prompts they’ve provided are fairly common topics in reflective writing, and should look similar to other kinds of reflective writing you’ve done in your academic career. As with the Common App, the prompts seem not to be the main event here; instead, it’s the content you produce that will draw the evaluation of admissions readers. Let the content you want to share drive the prompts you choose, rather than letting the prompts determine what you will write. Nearly Identical It’s worth noting two of the Coalition prompts are nearly identical to prompts used by the Common Application for the last couple of years. For example, the “challenged a belief or idea” prompt below: Common App: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? Coalition: Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs? If you had planned to write an essay responding to the Common App prompt above, there’s no reason you couldn’t use the exact same essay to respond to the Coalition prompt beneath it. There is nothing unfair or unethical in using the same essay for two different applications. In fact, it’s a smart way to save yourself time and energy! Always look for opportunities to share the fruits of your labor across multiple applications. Topic of Your Choice If you’re still not convinced that you can write one personal statement and submit it through both the Coalition Application and Common Application, look no further than option number five on the Coalition essay topics list: Submit an essay on a topic of your choice. To me, this doesn’t mean that you need to come up with some wild and creative topic (Is nothing something?) and respond to it. Instead, it means that you can use any essay that you’ve written for any part of your application process and submit it to the Coalition to complete their essay requirements. This prompt provides 100 percent flexibility to applicants, and that flexibility should be used to their advantage. What we’ve seen of the Coalition Application so far gives me confidence that, at least for this year, students will not see a major change in the application process from their older peers of the last three years. We will of course keep you posted if any breaking news changes that assessment. Essay-Pitfalls-CTA


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