The Common App Essay Prompts Are Changing. Here's Why It Doesn't Matter.

02/07/2017 06:50 pm ET | Updated Feb 08, 2017

After a month-long survey that captured the feedback of over 5000 individuals–more than half of them students–The Common Application has released its 2017-2018 essay prompts. For those of you who will be applying to college next year, here’s a closer look at what’s changing—and, more importantly, what’s not.

For starters, the current prompts remain more or less intact. That’s intentional, for two reasons. First, over 90% of the survey respondents told us that the prompts work well. Second, we recognize that continuity is important. In the words of one school counselor we spoke to, “In a year when so much has changed, it would be nice to have something that stays the same.”

At the same time, we want to make sure that the prompts remain as effective as possible, and that means helping you see each one for the full opportunity it presents. To give an example, one of the current prompts asks you to describe a time when you’ve experienced failure. The intent of the prompt has always been to help you reflect on how you deal with unexpected complications and disappointments, since that insight can be incredibly revealing. But for too many of you, that word–failure–can freeze you in your tracks.

The solution turned out to be a slight rewording that asks you to think more broadly about challenges and setbacks, not just failure. We’ve taken this same approach with two other prompts, revising them to expand your thinking while still retaining their original spirit. (There’s also an argument to be made that getting cut from the soccer team isn’t really failure, but that’s a different article.)

The other two changes you’ll see are additions to the line-up. First, there’s a new prompt that invites you to discuss your curiosity, and the counselors and admission officers we’ve spoken to are excited to see where you take it. Second, you’ll find the return of an explicit invitation to write an essay on a topic of your choice, a change that may have some of you celebrating the freedom to write anything you want.

But here is what hasn’t changed: the instructions. Which essentially tell you to write anything you want.

The Common App essay prompts have one purpose: to help you introduce yourself to your colleges. (Yes, showcasing your writing ability is part of the equation, but that’s the role of the essay itself, not the prompts.) That’s why the instructions are at least as important as the prompts themselves. Here’s what they say:

“What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.”

In a sense, the entire essay exercise boils down to that one leading question: What do you want the readers of your application to know about you? This is not a trick question. The ball is fully in your court and always has been. What you write is entirely up to you. So write about yourself–about what you love, where you come from, what you aspire to, how you spend your time, what bugs you, what inspires you, who is important in your life.

In other words: Write an essay on a topic of your choice.

Back in 2013, the Common App introduced a brand new set of essay prompts for the first time in years. People knew the changes were coming because the organization had forecast them months in advance. As soon as the new prompts were published, counselors and writing coaches took to the internet to analyze and unpack and advise. It’s not a stretch to say that there may have been more articles written about college essays that year than there were college essays themselves.

Of all the advice published, one article stood above the rest. In it, Alice Kleeman, a college advisor from Menlo-Atherton High School in California, turned what was then five prompts into forty-five by posing nine guiding questions for each, using three lenses: academic, extracurricular, and personal. “These are just suggestions,” she explained, “designed to jumpstart your thinking, provide a gentle nudge if you feel stumped, and to help you decide which prompt might provide the best opportunity for you to show the admission office who you are.”

Ms. Kleeman’s article remains a master class in how to approach the Common App essay. She would argue that the prompts tell you how to write, not what to write. Without them, the charge is “Write whatever you want.” With them, it becomes “Write whatever you want, but go in this direction.”

And that brings us to a question: If the prompts afford so much flexibility, what’s the point in resurrecting Topic of your choice?

Simply put: you’re busy. Applying to college is no small undertaking, and for most of you, the essay–or essays, depending on where you apply–will be the most time consuming task. So use Topic of your choice to reduce your stress, not add to it. If you’ve already written something that you’re especially proud of, then share it. If a specific college uses an essay prompt that sings to you, then use it here. (As a LEED Platinum office, the Common App is a big believer in recycling.) But Topic of your choice doesn’t mean default choice. If the unfocused charge to simply “write anything” seems overwhelming, then let the prompts guide you when you’re ready to start writing.

Except you’re not ready to start writing.

It’s February of your junior year. The odds are high that the story you’ll eventually tell in your essay hasn’t even happened yet. The prompts weren’t released this early to get you writing. They were released to get you thinking–about yourself, about what is important to you, about the interests and experiences and talents and relationships that reveal who you are. So think as hard as you want. Maybe take some notes. But don’t write anything. Not yet.

As you think, don’t forget how much freedom and control you have over what you will eventually write. Remember that question from the instructions: what do you want the readers of of your application to know about you? The irony of essay prompts is that they are equally helpful and irrelevant. What truly matters is the story you want to tell about yourself.

Effective essay prompts don’t dictate the plotline. They inspire the storyteller.

Now go find your story.

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