Essays are a crucial step in the college admissions process for most students. Seniors completing the Common Application need to choose from one of seven different essay prompts. There are no good or bad essay prompts, but there are prompts that fit individual students better than others. Take the time to really read and understand the prompts before you make your choice. Use the prompt as the foundation of telling a compelling and effective story that will improve your odds of admissions. The Common Application prompts for the 2020-2021 season are listed below.
Strategies for 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: This is a fairly broad-sweeping and general prompt. 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 obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
Strategy: This prompt encourages students to look at obstacles and to be specific about the challenge, setback, or failure. Often students get the balance in this essay wrong. It is easy to get caught up in telling details of what, where, and how details in your story. What admissions is really looking for here is how students interpret their experiences and how they learn and grow from them. If all you can write about is a minor or common problem this is probably not the prompt for you. 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 questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
Strategy: In my experience this tends to be an unpopular choice for most applicants, but for the teen with the right story this prompt can lead to a compelling essay. Part of being successful in college is having an open mind and a willingness to think critically. This prompt can provide an opportunity to explore your thought processes and demonstrate you are capable of thinking critically and changing your mind. One thing that can be tricky about this essay is that most of us tend to adjust our beliefs or opinions a bit at a time. A dramatic “lightbulb moment” may seem like it would make for a better story, but if that’s not how it really happened it will sound fake. 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.
Strategy: This essay prompt may be especially well-suited to intellectually engaged and socially-minded students. One 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, especially a teenager, 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 believe you should do or will do someday.
Common Application Essay Choice 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Strategy: Again you’ll want to watch out for potential cliched interpretations here. Common topics include Eagle Scout project, Bar Mitzvah, Quinceañera and the day I got my driver’s license. The best essays on this topic will feature something more personal or 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 but in retrospect was meaningful. This prompt can be an excellent opportunity to give admissions a window into your thinking process and life history.
Common Application Essay Choice 6: Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
Strategy: 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 incredibly challenging, but it can take real talent to turn that into a captivating essay. Applicants selecting this prompt should think carefully about striking the balance of providing enough detail about their topic of interest to establish themselves as an authority, but not so much that their reader gets bored with technical details or tunes out. “What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?” is an opportunity for applicants to demonstrate that they aren’t just passive recipients or information, but instead they will actively seek out resources. Homeschool applicants should be aware this may be an opportunity to situate themselves as a learner in a social context such as in a classroom or discussion group.
Common Application Essay Choice 7: Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Strategy: This is the topic of choice prompt and students can really write about whatever they wish. The Coalition Application also includes a topic of choice so this prompt is worth consideration for students completing both applications.
COVID-19 Optional Question
Students also have an optional prompt available where they may write up to 250 words about how COVID-19 has affected them. “Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.”
This question is optional and students should only write on the topic if they feel they have something important to share. Colleges are interested in events that have led to academic changes or disruptions – such as moving from grades to a pass fail system, lack of access to testing, changes in academic schedules and so forth. Parents may also choose to write about these issues in their homeschool documents.
Common Application: One of Many Essays
While the Common Application is the standard application form for over 600 colleges, this single essay will not be the only essay most students write. Some colleges are not a member of the Common Application. Some colleges have joined the Coalition Application. Many state public colleges such as those in California and Texas have their own separate applications. Many colleges also assign additional supplemental essay topics.
While this main Common Application won’t be the only college admissions essay most students write, it is for many their most important essay. 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. Admissions officers are human beings and they get bored just like everybody else, so learn about what admissions officers are looking for. Put some time and effort into crafting an essay your audience will enjoy and you may improve your odds of admissions.
Rewrite and Proofread
A well-written essay usually takes multiple drafts. Teens sometimes want to believe that they write best under pressure so procrastination makes for a better essay. This really isn’t how it works. Quality 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. Students who take time for revisions end up with better essays.
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