The Common Application makes it easy – you no longer have to write a separate application essay for each college you apply to.
The Common App has five essay prompts – you are expected to choose from one among them and write a 650-word essay on it.
Before selecting an essay, it’s important to keep in mind the purpose of the essay. Admission officers want to know who you are as a person. They already know your grades from your transcript and can view your SAT/ACT scores. They want to go beyond the numbers. The essay should show your personality, values, maturity level, and judgement. It is not necessary to list every accomplishment in your life. They can view your accomplishments on your activity list. Show who you are by painting a picture of a single event or experience that impacted your life.
Let’s take a look at each prompt.
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.
This is the most popular prompt, selected by 47% of 800,000 applicants during the 2015-16 admissions cycle. It is also my personal favorite.
This is the broadest of all the essay prompts. It is the one I most often recommend to my students, since almost any life experience could be used. It is so general that any life-changing story or experience could be narrated. While it undoubtedly makes for some fascinating reading, remember that it is still meant to go along with your college application – admissions officers are more interested in how it shaped you. So the influence it had upon your life should make up the bulk of your essay. Focus on the impact.
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?
This was selected by 17% of applicants.
Failure is tough enough on its own, and the lessons learnt from it can be harder. You should opt for this only if you have a compelling story to tell, the keyword being ‘compelling’. Getting an F on your test grade and then working harder to earn an A+ is not exactly compelling.
If you do select this essay prompt, make sure to focus on what you learned from your mistake and how it has helped shape you into a better, wiser person as a result. I find that too many students spend too much time focusing on the failure and not enough time stressing the lessons learned.
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or an idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
This is the least popular prompt and only 4% of students select it.
Many students who chose it wrote about challenging religious beliefs and in the context of religious settings. I always caution students when discussing religious or political views. I shy away from these topics in conversations and I recommend my students to avoid them in their essays. Why this may not exactly prove to be the best choice is that the admissions counselors who read it are also people, and they may follow the religious beliefs you challenged. Even if they don’t, it still might have an effect on your application because the United States is a multi-religious country where people of all faiths and backgrounds are welcome – someone who says aspects of a particular faith are wrong might rub an admission office the wrong way.
Keep controversial topics out of your essay. Make the essay about you as an individual. The best essays describe a moment in your life – a single experience – and they paint a picture the reader can envision. Don’t try to sum up your whole life or all your accomplishments. This is not the time to take a firm political or religious stand. Focus on a single life experience and make it come to life through your words.
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 have taken to identify a solution.
Only 10% of students chose this prompt. If selecting this prompt, there are a few things to watch out for. This can be a tricky essay to answer. Many students focus too much on the problem instead of the solution.
Problem solving is good, right? People who can solve problems are the types of individuals the admissions counselors in universities eagerly look forward to meeting. College graduates are expected to contribute positively to society, and if you already show traits of being able to do so, they want you. This prompt aims to bring out your problem-solving skills and initiative, two things that are highly valued in anyone. But, proceed with caution.
Students should focus on the impact of solving the problem. What was the result? Show how the result impacted others. I stress to all my students, “show, don’t tell.” If it’s a problem you want to solve (and have not done so yet), make sure to explain the steps you intend to take to achieve your goal of solving the dilemma. Show that you have already started and the steps are underway. Don’t just complain about the problem; show how you intend to fix it.
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
This prompt was chosen by 22% of applicants. Many students who select this prompt discuss their bar mitzvah if they are Jewish, or the Sacrament of Confirmation if they are a Catholic; or any coming-of-age ceremony happens when you enter into your teens. Don’t fall into the trap of writing elaborately about the ceremony; what admissions counselors are looking for is the difference it had upon you. Show the impact.