Hacking the Common App Essay Prompts, Pt. I

10/03/2013 06:53 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

One of Mark Twain's great apocryphal quotes is that students "shouldn't let school get in the way of their education." He could have said much the same for this year's Common Application essay prompts and the essays that must conform to them.

Previously, the Common Application--the online platform used by over 500 of the country's most selective colleges - had given applicants five essay prompts but also invited to write on a topic of their choice. The free-respond was, in my experience as a former college counselor, the most popular choice by far. Paradoxically, this year's Common App eliminates the free-response option, thus requiring applicants to contemplate one of five prescribed prompts.

I happen to find these prompts constraining at best, and I'll explain why in a future blog post. With that said, if they inspire genuine, heartfelt responses in some students, then so much the better. That's especially true for students who might feel unmoored by the lack of a prompt. What's certainly true is that the quality of an essay ultimately depends on the author: a thoughtful student can do wonders with the oddest prompt, and freedom can give others fits.

My chief concern is that students will feel beholden to the prompts rather than inspired by them. Fortunately, for writers who have strong, but seemingly nonconforming topics, there are plenty of ways for writers to push the prompts into the background while still responding to them faithfully. Even if doing so entails some nose-pinching. (Or a cheeky workaround; see No. 3 below.)

In this post, I've analyzed the first two of the five topics (with the other three to follow shortly) to consider what might work and what might not work. I discuss what I think are the most straightforward approaches for each response, I point out traps to avoid, and I offer a few "hacks" (for lack of a better word) to expand the range of responses.

No matter what, the students who have fun with these prompts and who allow themselves to explore their passions, convictions, and vulnerabilities will invariably produce the strongest essays - no matter what prompt they choose and what topic they conjure up.

1. Some students have a background or 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 Approach: Students determined to write the classic "personal" essay need look no further. This prompt's chief advantage is that it enables students to tell stories - on any topic - from their own lives. "Central" is vague enough that the response does not have to be earth-shattering or melodramatic. It's up to the writer to determine what "central" means and to explain the story's importance in the context of the student's life, passions, values, and intellect. The story can be anything from pyrotechnic to quietly important.

The inclusion of "background" creates more opportunities than would a prompt that permitted only first-person narratives. Students can choose any part of their backgrounds--family, religion, nationality, culture, or even location--and write about their role in, or relationship with, that background without requiring students to narrate a discrete story.

Traps: 1) Students may be tempted to imbue stories with more meaning than they deserve. They should avoid this temptation. A story about saving puppies might, on occasion, reflect a genuine dedication to animal rights or reverence for the philosopher Peter Singer; usually, though, it's just a cute story. 2) There's a long, inglorious tradition in which students write loving tales about their parents or grandparents; "background" should not be viewed as an invitation to do so here.

The Hack: An essay that focuses on a story can still include analysis and discussion of abstract ideas. Many of the best anecdotal essays include explanations that place the narrative in a larger context of the writer's life or of the world at large. For instance, a tale about running for class office could illustrate a student's thoughts on democracy. A story about a Boy Scout campout could lead to a discussion of nature. These larger themes are what connect a dispassionate reader to the otherwise irrelevant life of a faraway teenager.

2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

The Approach: A mainstay of business school applications, failure narratives rely on tension and uncertainty, and they're often naturally compelling narratives. They therefore can make great essays. Students shouldn't be afraid to be vulnerable and to honestly describe how and why they failed. Generally, readers will be more impressed by their candor than they will be turned off by whatever lack of skill, unfortunate circumstances, or poor judgment the student is describing.

Students should ensure, though, that their stories describe true failures. As a veteran college counselor recently told me, "disappointment is not the same thing as failure." Losing a soccer game or debate round may be disappointing, but they're rarely failures. (The same could be said for any other formal competition.) True failure revolves around deliberate bad choices when a solution may have been clear but an individual or a team chose not to cooperate or put forth sufficient effort. Disappointment can suggest arrogance -- as if you just expected to win the soccer game.

Traps: 1) The second sentence of this prompt invites melodrama and false sagacity. Students may be tempted to claim everything from devastation to unbridled inspiration from their "failures." They may also want to proclaim that they've learned how never to fail again. They should avoid doing so. One firm warning: never start a sentence with any version of, "The lesson I learned is..." or "I had never realized..."

2) There's a limit to candor: Students must be careful about failures of character. Some moral dilemmas make for incredible essays. But a student who admits to lying or cheating without airtight justification will not elicit a reader's sympathy.

The Hack: The prompt refers to an incident and the experience of failure. It does not mean that the writer must have caused or even participated in the failure. The writer could have simply witnessed failure - be it her dad's attempt at making meatloaf or his boss' meltdown upon losing an important customer - and have something intelligent to say about it.

Stay tuned for Prompts 3 - 5: failure, contentment, and adulthood. Heavy stuff, to be sure.