In this post, I offer Expedition College’s Common Application Essay Tips (www.commonapp.org). My previous post discusses the sorts of things that a college essay should aim to communicate while this one delves into the essay prompts themselves. https://expeditioncollege.com/2019/09/03/demystifying-the-college-essay-part-1/.
Since my last writing, a client mentioned to me that they understood that colleges are especially drawn to essays that address [fill-in-the-blank topic]. As a general rule, try not to think in terms of what colleges want to hear (and there are a lot of people out there who are POSITIVE they know what those things are)—just focus explaining who you are.
Here are my Common Application essay tips:
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.
A good way to think about this is as “the first date” prompt. Let’s say you are going out on a first date with someone who you really like. By the end of the date, you want them to have a basic grasp of what makes you “you.” Another way to think about it is: if a college were to read your application and never knew about this aspect of your personality, experiences or background, you would feel like they never got a sense of who you are.
Let’s say you love musical theatre, you are active in finding ways to help the environment, you get lost a lot but always have interesting experiences along the way, you are someone who likes to pull friends together and build a sense of community in creative ways, or your family is unusual or distinctive in some way. Often, as you write this essay, you will illuminate other aspects of your personality and interests.
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?
This topic is pretty straight-forward. Examples might be moving to a new high school for sophomore year, trying to introduce a new initiative at your school and, in hindsight, approaching it the wrong way, or building something for a robotics competition and having it epically fail. Showing that you are willing to stretch yourself, take risks, assess your efforts honestly, learn from your mistakes, find ways to grow, and maybe even laugh at yourself…that’s what this prompt is about.
Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Has there been a time when you went against the grain? Perhaps you questioned something about your family’s religious beliefs or practices, you respectfully challenged a teacher’s interpretation of a reading for class, or you challenged the political beliefs of friends or family? My clients seldom choose this prompt; they often struggle to think of an example that is significant enough to carry an essay. And, I think responding to this prompt can be a bit of a minefield. If you don’t sound as if you handled the issue diplomatically and with some humility—or that you learned the importance of doing so through failure—you can appear difficult to get along with or arrogant. I’m sure I’ll have a client write on this topic sometime, but a successful essay will require just the right circumstances and tone.
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.
This is a great prompt for students who love math or science. It offers an excellent opportunity to demonstrate a passion for and understanding of challenging abstract problems. As one of my clients did, you could write about how you reworked a solution to a math or science program so that it made more sense to you, or you could write about the steps in proving a specific scientific hypothesis. To answer the question, you may need to explain something that is difficult to understand so that it makes sense to the layman (and the ability to do this is impressive by itself).
I think responding to this prompt becomes much more difficult when approaching a political or social problem, as it would be hard to avoid general, overly idealistic or obvious steps toward a solution. As I think about this prompt, it occurs to me that you could write a funny and creative approach to a rather mundane problem that is a pet peeve. I don’t mention this as a specific suggestion, but rather as an example of how you can think outside the box when considering these any of these prompts. Everything doesn’t need to be on a grand scale or super-serious!
Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
According to the Common Application folks, this is a very popular prompt, and it has been for my students as well. (If you are thinking: “If this prompt is popular, I probably shouldn’t choose it because I want to stand out,” STOP! If you have a story that this question inspires you to tell, consider doing so. Don’t try to guess what admissions officers will like; just write something good and from the heart.) For some students it might be their Bah Mitzvah, or a visit to a concentration camp with their synagogue’s youth group. For others it might be a summer program they participated in or a community service activity that really had a personal impact.
There is a myth that service trips to other countries are never a good thing to write about. It is true that you need to avoid cliched realizations and interactions, but discussing a very personal reaction to an experience and perhaps going on to describe specific and significant ways your life has changed as a result can be effective.
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?
I think this Common Application essay prompt is pretty self-explanatory. The key to responding is remembering the part that asks “What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?” In other words, you can’t write about something that you ponder but never really pursue; we’re talking about an intellectual topic that you actively try to learn more about.
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.
If you want to say something about yourself that doesn’t quite fit under one of the prompts above, you can use this catch-all prompt. In my experience, however, the above prompts actually trap most of what students have to say. But you may have a really creative prompt of your own, and, if so, by all means consider using it. Do NOT use a prompt from a specific college’s application, and I would not simply submit a piece of creative writing you did for a class unless it really fits the spirit of what the Common Application is asking you to reveal about yourself. Also, be wary of something you wrote a year ago; your perspectives, writing style and voice have probably changed since then.
I hope these Common Application essay tips help you understand what each prompt is getting at and provides some ideas for getting started on your essay!