Ah, July. When rising seniors everywhere realize that summer is going by a bit more quickly than they might have liked…and college application essays are coming out in droves.
College essays are generally a bit more eager beaver than the rest of their accompanying application forms. This is because they are typically the most time-consuming part of the college app, so schools often release them on their websites and email lists before the rest of the application is ready for the eyes of applicants, so lucky students like you can get a head start.
This is also true of the Common Application (an application form used by over 500 colleges and universities). This year’s Common App will be available for students to fill out online on August 1, but the essay questions are available RIGHT NOW, so now is the perfect time to start planning and drafting the perfect essay to show off your strengths.
We’re breaking down all of the essay options below with advice for approaching each of them, but first, a word to the wise:
The college application personal essay is an incredibly daunting task. How are you supposed to tell colleges everything about yourself in less than 650 words? The simple answer: you can’t. But this knowledge should actually lift a huge weight off your shoulders, rather than causing you to hang your head in defeat. You can’t possibly tell colleges everything they need to know about you under such constraints, so don’t even try. The trick is to write about just ONE aspect of yourself and make it a good story; make it mean something. That’s all they are looking for. No one is going to read your essay about playing the violin on a bus once, and think, “Great story, but all this kid can do is play a violin on a bus.” That’s ridiculous. If it’s a good essay, they are going to learn a lot about your character, your confidence, your wit, your analytical ability, and your talents in the process. And if they are sitting around a conference table talking about your application and say, “Oh right, that’s the bus violin girl,” that’s actually a really good thing. You’ve given them an identity, a way for you to stand out from the pack. And that is the absolute best thing you can hope for from your essay. And that won’t happen from an essay that does little more than list every possible accomplishment and talent you can possibly cram into the word limit.
Ok, now let’s talk about the prompts (and what’s new this year compared to last year), so you can figure out which one will allow you to tell YOUR best story.
Here are the questions you have to choose from:
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 prompt is a little different than last year’s version, but not much. It’s still the one that offers the most wiggle room for interpretation; the one that most screams “Topic of your choice.” Last year, the question just invited students to share their background or identity; this year, the Common App has broadened it to also include “interest” and “talent.” My guess is that this is to help students realize this prompt is not just for the “I come from a culturally-underrepresented group” crowd.
Interestingly, 62% of Common App members felt that this prompt elicited the most effective responses. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best prompt for you, but it is the most liberating. If you want to talk about something that doesn’t seem to fit in with the other prompts, chances are you can make it work with this one.
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 is also a repeat of last year’s prompt with the addition of the first sentence: “The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success.” I guess schools got too many essays of spectacular failures, without detail on how they led to future success. This has always been the key to questions like this one: don’t dwell on your failures but emphasize how you’ve overcome challenges and are now stronger, wiser, and better for them.
If you choose this prompt, you need to be very particular about the failure you decide to reveal. Don’t make it be anything that causes admissions offices to question your character, judgment, or integrity. I’ve always advised students that the best “failures” to talk about are the ones that are not really your fault. For example, you love singing but are completely tone deaf and couldn’t get a part in the school musical to save your life, so you decided to become a music critic for your local newspaper. No one can fault you for being a bad singer. But they can applaud your ability to turn lemons into lemonade.
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
This question is exactly the same as it was last year, and it’s a tough one to do well without ending up sounding too preachy or unintentionally offending someone who doesn’t believe the same thing as you. So be careful not to choose a topic that is too controversial. However, there is potential here for standing up for something you believe in, as long as it is something a wide audience would have trouble disagreeing with.
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.
This is a brand new prompt this year, and it replaces one from last year asking students to describe a “place or environment where you feel perfectly content.” 76% of Common App members asked for this prompt to be replaced, and my hunch is that schools received a lot of essays that were too much about the place and not enough about the author. But that is also the trick to this new prompt as well. Make sure that the essay says enough about YOU. Sure, you’d like to solve the problem of a global water shortage. But don’t just tell colleges why it’s a problem, tell them what you’ve done about it. But personally, I think the best essays for this prompt are not “save the world” kind of essays. Maybe you watched your friend in a wheelchair struggle with the supposedly accessible walkways and ramps at your school and lobbied for a solution. Or maybe you were frustrated with the cost of textbooks and instituted a book exchange program. Admissions offices are looking for your thought process, creativity, and determination here, not the scale of your problem or solution.
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
In my experience a lot of students shy away from this essay, but when they choose to embrace it, their essays often turn out to be some of the most poignant and thoughtful ones I have read. I think the trick to this essay is not to focus too much on the “childhood to adulthood” part, and just think about the moments or events in life that have caused you to fundamentally change as a person or to see the world differently. Be extra careful not to paint a picture of yourself as too childish or spend too much time reveling in the days of fingerpaint and footie PJs (as adorable as your parents might find an essay like that to be). Colleges want to picture you as a mature young adult ready for college.
Writing your Common App essay isn’t easy, but it doesn’t have to seem like an insurmountable task either. Tell a good story that reveals something about your character, show schools you know how to analyze yourself and the world around you, and stay away from controversy, and you are off to a great start!
And for more on how to write a killer Common App essay, check out our post College Admissions Essay: Top Tips for Making a Statement Colleges Will Remember (in a Good Way).