The Art of the Common App College Essay

06/04/2013 05:30 pm ET | Updated Aug 04, 2013

If brevity is the soul of wit, then recent changes to the Common Application essay could be the limbs and outward flourishes. Tedious? Yes. Impertinent? No.

Each year, tens of thousands of students turn to The Common Application (informally known as the Common App) to submit their college applications. It can be a time-consuming process. The 488 member schools, however, consider it a necessary one.

How necessary?

According to University of Pennsylvania admissions officer, "The Common App essay is the most important component in letting the admissions officers know who you are." Not surprising, this is largely echoed by top-tier schools across the country. Since its introduction in 1975, the essay has served as an outlet for students to express their uniqueness and give one more whack at the delicate art of self-promotion. And now, possibly stirring a tempest of anxiety amongst applicants and college counselors alike, the rules have changed.

To anxious applicants, I say to you: keep calm. The changes are modest. The word count, which was enforced at 250-500, has been changed to a firm 250-650, with all 249 and 651-word essays being immediately dismissed. Additionally, the "topic of your choice prompt" has been dropped, prompting (pardon the pun) some criticism from college counselors who claim that this will "limit the freedom of the essay." The Common Application organization has defended its decision, responding the "intention was to streamline the application, not limit creativity."

The final changes were to the prompts, themselves. The new prompts, taking effect August 1st, 2013, are as follows:
• 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.

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

• Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

• Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

• Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, which marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Why would Common Application change its hallmark component, especially considering how remarkably similar it has remained since its birth?

According to Valerie Strauss of the Washington Post, "admissions officers complained that the lack of a [defined word count] limit led to long, unfocused essays." Secondly, as Common App continues to hammer home, the prompts are ambiguous enough to encourage creativity and specific enough to prevent wildly irrelevant essays.

Thirdly, and most importantly: who cares about the "why." The only question that should be on applicants' minds is "how." How do I tackle these new essay prompts? Here are some suggestions:

• Prompt #1: This is debatably the most vague, wide-open prompt on the new list. Students may be turned away by the "If this sounds like you" portion, thinking (over thinking) that others may be more finely tuned to this question. If you don't have a unique, defining background, it is understandable. As a white male Jew from the Northeast, I certainly am with you. However, a self-defining "story?" I would bet the house that with the ambiguity of that word, a vast majority of applicants could respond with a decent essay. Write about how you responded to a death in the family, or how you helped raise awareness for a disease your relative may have, or how your family's dinner plans went awry (the current Upenn Dean of Admissions' favorite essay to date). For some further context, check out suggestions for prompts one and six on the old Common App essay.

• Prompt #2: Another wonderfully hazy topic. It is important for the student to note the three action words in the prompt: recount, how, and why. A complete answer would have to respond to each of these critically, and in detail. However, other than that, the question is extremely open. Failure can be defined in so many different ways, whether it be on your spelling bee in fourth grade or with your first date in seventh grade. Failure can also be measured figuratively: your failure to understand the nature of a given situation may have caused you to make poor decisions. Again, check out suggestions for prompts one and six for some additional context.

• Prompt #3: Once again, this question must be answered with a three-pronged effort. Reflect, what prompted, and would you make the same decision again. This prompt is a bit more specific than the previous two, because there is less leeway. However, you could talk about a time where you disagreed with your school's administration, or improvised in a performance of some sort. Admissions officers love "confessed failure" stories, but unless it was a genuine challenge of a belief or idea, I would stick to prompt #2.

• Prompt #4: Personally, I find this to be the most interesting prompt of the new lot. It is essential that applicants do not over look the "why is it meaningful" part, because this would give the most insight to the admissions officers about who you are. "Environment," though, is an inherently fuzzy word. This could be your house, the town you live in, the basketball court, or the stage, for instance. Conversely, this could also be something intangible, like "clutch situations," or "when meeting a new person." Be careful with the latter, though, because you may be walking a fine line between complexity and irrelevance.

• Prompt #5: This prompt would elicit your typical, "I-was-blind-but-now-I-can-see" stories. It allows for an extreme amount of leeway, given the fact that you could discuss any event, success or failure, "formal or informal," that moved you along in the maturation process. Students may be turned off by the "culture, community, or family," aspect; however, marginal critical thinking would show that these three options essentially cover everything. Talk about how you tore your ACL and how it led you to explore other opportunities, or how a failed club in your school led you to understand what it takes to succeed, or how a death in the family put your life in perspective.

The main suggestion: do not submit a cookie cutter essay. Unlike Shakespeare's Polonius, be original. Be yourself, and this essay will come as easy as the admissions officer's decision to let you in.