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I Heart the College Admissions Essay Prompts on the New Common Application

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I know that the new Common Application website has had its share of troubles since launching on August 1, and I'm not sure they are all fixed by now. From all I've seen, one part of the new application that is a big success is the list of new essay prompts. It's definitely a case of "new and improved."

When the new prompts were posted last spring, I liked them right away. They seemed more personal, more probing, and more direct -- capable of eliciting better stories, information, and insights from students. Having spent the last two months working with students on essays using the new prompts, I feel even more enthusiastic about them now.

Three other big changes came to the Common App essays this year -- and I'm just as happy about them. 1. The essay can be longer -- between 250 and 650 words. 2. There is a precise limit on the 650 words, which clears up ambiguity ("Can I go over 650, even a little?" "No.") 3. The second essay, about a job or an extracurricular activity, has been ditched.

In years past, when brainstorming with students about topics for their central essay, I had the list of prompts and a secondary list of questions I developed, which were designed to elicit information that would help us get to the students' "material." The prompts themselves were so dry, we sometimes needed this other energy source to get students' juices flowing. I've kept the second list of questions, and I've brought it out twice recently, but for the great majority of students, it just hasn't been necessary.

I'm tempted to say which prompts are my favorites, but I'll refrain, because I don't want anyone to think that answering one question is better for an applicant than answering any of the others. The variety of prompts is there to try to speak to everyone, to give all applicants at least one question that will open them up to talking about themselves in a meaningful way.

As you go through the prompts, or as you go through them with your son or daughter, be sure to keep this in mind: This is the student's essay, not the parent's. Parents sometimes have ideas about what their children should write about and even what they should say. I can't emphasize this strongly enough: let the student choose. The essay will be better. The essay will be authentic. It will belong to the student.

And keep in mind that even though the questions are user friendly, even a little chatty, you are applying to an educational institution, for the position of "student." The questions want you to reflect more on how you think and process information, knowledge, and experience, rather than on your feelings, your friends, and/or your Netflix activity.

Prompt #1. Some students have a background or a story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. The first student I showed this to said, "This is the diversity question." It could be, if that's an essential feature of someone's identity, but the question is much more open-ended. It invites you to talk about anything from being a triplet to growing up in Alaska; from growing up on a farm to having a particular medical condition.

Prompt #2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn. Discussing "failure" is a tricky proposition. You don't want to seem like someone who fails regularly or spectacularly. But if, for instance, you have academic absence to explain (you flunked out of school and then returned and are now a great student), this might be a good place to tell that story, with the emphasis on "what you learned." There are other "failure stories" that are fine too.

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? I think this is a great question for students who are activists and others who have challenged policies promoted by church, school, government, or their families. The incident you describe could be speaking up at Thanksgiving dinner or organizing a campaign to promote sex education or LGBT tolerance. Be sure to keep the focus on what you did, and not the details of the issue. You're not trying to persuade the reader to take your side. You're describing your role in challenging an idea.

4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? This seems to be a popular question, and can encompass anyplace from a science lab to a swimming pool. I try to steer students away from places that are too comfortable. "I feel perfectly content in bed listening to my iPod and watching The Hunger Games'" is a topic I would avoid, unless there is a specific backstory that would make this set-up "meaningful." In other words, it might represent a triumph of some kind.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. Several weeks ago, I was surprised to see an essay counselor on-line say that since people don't become "adults" until they are older, this question seems misguided. I couldn't disagree more. At every age, we are always marking transitions, and there are rarely any clear lines. There are indeed specific moments when children feel more grown up and when teenagers feel more like adults than they did the day before. The question is an occasion to consider such a moment, experience, or accomplishment.

I'm happy for students that they have these bright, new questions this year, and happy they only have to answer one them. Good luck to all.

For news and ongoing advice about college essays, please visit my blog at Don't Sweat the Essay.