The Common Application essay is a crucial step in the college admissions process for most students. Applicants need to choose from one of five different essay prompts. Carefully selecting the right prompt to tell your story is a key step in a successful college application. Here are Homeschool Success’s top tips for selecting choosing an essay prompt and using this opportunity to create a compelling and effective story.
Strategies for 2015-2016 Common Application Essays
Common Application Essay Choice 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.
Strategy: Some students and counselors consider this prompt the “topic of your choice.” It is a broad-sweeping and general prompt which makes it appealing to students who don’t easily find a fit with the other prompts. In a survey of college admissions officers this was chosen as the prompt that was considered “most effective” in allowing students to tell a compelling story in their essay. Key words to note are “so meaningful” and “application would be incomplete without it.” In other words, this is not the place for a cute little story about something funny that happened one day – unless the story reveals something really meaningful about you. If you choose this prompt, be sure you are talking about something that has truly shaped who you are.
Common Application Essay Choice 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?
Strategy: This prompt has been slightly reworded from the last admissions cycle. It now includes a reference not just to failure but to “later success.” That’s a good sign students should emphasize the resolution of the problem and how it relates to their future success. Also, for this essay, students will want to make sure the problem they choose is actually a real and substantial problem. Writing about the time you got a bad grade or didn’t win the big game may make you sound indulged and fragile. If the problem came about as a result of your bad choices, make sure you put sufficient emphasis on the resolution and lessons learned. It is preferred if the resolution came about due to your actions rather than someone someone imposed on you. In most cases it is best to avoid anything that makes you look like a bad college candidate (drunk driving, shoplifting, cheating, etc.)
Common Application Essay Choice 3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Strategy: In my experience students tend to avoid this prompt, but for a student with the right story this can be a great choice. Part of being successful in college is having an open mind and a willingness to think critically. This topic can provide an opportunity to explore your thought processes and demonstrate you are willing to think critically and change your mind. One thing that can be tricky about this essay is that we change our minds a bit at a time. Dramatic “lightbulb moments” may seem like it would make for a better story, but in reality that’s not how change comes for most people. Be sure that the story you are telling is significant and authentic. Avoid the temptation to make up or embellish a story.
Common Application Essay Choice 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.
This prompt is new for the 2015-2016 application season and is an addition welcomed by many counselors. This essay may be especially well-suited to intellectually engaged and socially-minded students. One challenge with this prompt is that often intellectual work isn’t dramatic or exciting. Plodding away hour after hour at computer code or math proofs can be intellectually challenging, but it can take real work to turn that into a captivating essay. Another pitfall of this essay may be the temptation of some students to oversell their story in an misguided attempt to give admissions officers what they think they want to hear. Reality – no one person is going to cure cancer or solve climate change. A realistic and specific story of what you ARE doing is better than a promise of what you WILL.
Common Application Essay Choice 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Strategy: Again you’ll want to watch out for potential cliched interpretations here. Common topics include Eagle Scout project, Bar Mitzvah, Quiñceaera, and the day I got my driver’s license. The key words to note here are “formal or informal”. Not every essay has to be about an official milestone moment that was announced with written invitations. The best essays I’ve read this using prompt often focus on something more personal and more unique. It may be a smaller story or a special tradition in your family. It might even be a moment you did not recognize the significance of at the time it happened.
Common Application Essay One of Many Essays
While the Common Application is the standard application form for nearly 500 colleges, this single essay will not be the only essay most students write. Some colleges are not a member of the Common Application and many members also assign additional essay topics. While this essay won’t be the only college admissions essay most students write, it is most often the most important topic. Take time to really think through your plan and be prepared to try more than one topic before you settle on the one that fits you best. Remember that writing personal essays can be tough, so it is okay if you struggle. Hang in there and keep plugging along until you write an essay you can be proud of.
Additional Tips for College Essays
Remember that admissions officers are reading hundreds and hundreds of essays and your essay will be most successful if it is original. Often the first theme that comes to your mind may be the exact same one that comes to other students’ minds. That’s not to say a great essay can’t be written on winning the big game, learning to love engineering by playing with LEGO, feeling victory when you climb to the top of a mountain, or learning to care about the poor through service. Good essays have probably been written on all of these topics. But if you choose a topic that has been written about many times, before the bar will be higher for you.
Remember Your Audience
Think about who will be reading the essay and what they hope to learn about you. Learn more about what admissions officers are looking for. Admissions officers are human beings and they get bored just like everybody else. Put some effort into this essay and your effort will be appreciated.
Rewrite and Proofread
A good essay usually takes multiple drafts. Teens sometimes want to believe that procrastination makes better essays and they do their best work at the last minute. This really isn’t how it works. Good essays take time and revision. Giving an essay time to rest helps you avoid spelling and grammar mistakes. Consider having at least two people proofread your essay and listen with an open mind to their feedback. One nice thing with the Common Application prompts is they are available early, so you have plenty of time over the summer to work on your essay. Students who take time for revisions end up with better essays.
You may also be interested in
Tips for the Common Application Activities Section
Admissions Essay Tips: Think About Your Audience
College Essay Traps to Avoid
Admissions Essays: The Importance of Originality
Individual essay coaching services are also available.