Common App Overhauls Essay Prompts

04/01/2015 07:58 am ET | Updated May 31, 2015

The Common App released this week a long-anticipated new set of prompts for the main essay (also known as the "personal statement"). They replace prompts that were instituted as part of the 2013 redesign of the Common App.

The Common App claims that "the changes...reflect the feedback and consensus of nearly 6,000 individuals who responded to our recent survey." More than half of the respondents were college counselors at high schools. Oddly, only 197 of them represented the over 500 colleges that use the Common App.

Regardless of how the prompts were devised, it's now up to this year's applicants to make the most of them and, in some cases, figure out ways around them. Fortunately, they're going to find much more inspiration than did their counterparts this year.

As I did in my pair of blogs "Hacking the Common App Essay Prompts" (here and here), I offer some commentary on the prompts, with the caveat that my thoughts are just conversation starters. They should not be essay-starters. Today's juniors have many months to ponder, prepare, and seek inspiration.


The Common App offers five prompts. Two have been rephrased, one is brand-new, and two -- No. 3, about challenging a belief or idea, and No. 5, about the transition to adulthood -- remain unchanged.

Here are the new and updated prompts, with new parts italicized:

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.

I'd wager that this was the most popular prompt of the past two years if only because it was the only one that directly invited students to write a story. Stories can be entertaining, insightful, powerful, intellectual, and everything in between. But the old prompt referred only to "background or story," possibly implying that a student's background had to be unique for him or her to write this essay.

The inclusion of "identity, interest, or talent" opens up a welcome range of possibilities. Most importantly, it invites students to discuss their intellectual lives. This possibility had been criminally and ironically lacking in the old prompts. If they're interested in, say, 17th century Russian history, the evolution of Urdu, or the uses of graphene, they should have the chance to say so. They are applying to college, after all.

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?

The first sentence, as obvious a homily as there ever was, was added from scratch. I guess students got anxious (or overprotective adults feared that they would get anxious) just thinking about failure. If kids are really that fragile, I'm not sure how they're going to function in college.

While I like this prompt a lot, the revision has the potential to incite failure itself. The word "lesson" may inspire some students to try to write essays that are just too neat, with a saccharine moral at the end. Analysis is great. Morals are dicey. No adult reader wants to learn a life lesson from a 17-year-old, especially one who believes that failures must have happy endings.

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.

The new addition is the best of the bunch. It's broad, and the inclusion of "no matter the scale" invites students to write in detail on something specific - which is exactly what they should do in an essay that's only 650 words. As with No. 1, it includes a welcome, and more explicit, reference to intellectualism and academics. Ethical dilemmas are fascinating for students mature enough to write about them. (The dilemma need not have faced the writer directly; great essays can come from observation too.)

I just wish this prompt had ended at "significance." College essays are fascinating in part because of the freedom they offer. They are not five-paragraph essays or lab reports. No. 4 curtails that freedom unnecessarily. It is the first prompt I've seen that attempts to dictate the form of a student's essay. "Explain....what steps you took" implies that this essay has to be about process, with a linear progression from event to event or idea to idea. I don't think this is a bad approach. But if some students have other ideas, they should feel free to pursue them. I also worry that "could be taken" will lead to idle speculation.

Of course, ultimate freedom lies in ignoring prompts entirely. If a student can write something great that has nothing to do with stories, failures, challenges, problems, or transitions, he or she should do so. Admissions readers appreciate great writing and great ideas when they see them.


So much for the new material. Gone entirely is the unbearable, "Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content...." I am perfectly content with its demise.

Unfortunately, the Common App has not revived the open-ended prompt, the demise of which struck me as ironic for a process that is intended to enable students to express their true selves. The constraints on revisions remain, thus penalizing students who develop new ideas.

I'll have deeper thoughts in a future post. For now, I implore this years juniors not to start writing, outlining, pondering, or even acknowledging their application essays yet. They should spend the next few months working on their prose, developing their interests, appreciating their backgrounds, getting into (and, hopefully, out of) dilemmas, and looking forward to seeing what they think and how they feel--about themselves, school, and the world--in a few months.

If all goes well, next September they'll end up someplace where they're perfectly content.