The 2016-17 Common Application platform went live last week, and in the ensuing weeks you will undoubtedly read a lot about the Common App’s personal essay. You will read about essays that worked and didn’t work. You will read about what each prompt means, which prompts are better than others, and what admissions officers are looking for in these 650-word representations of each applicant. The one thing you won’t read is that the Common App’s essay prompts don’t really matter.
I’ll say it again: The prompts don’t matter.
Here’s why. The admissions essay’s true purpose is to tell admissions officers something they don’t know about you and that isn’t represented anywhere else on the application. The essay should aim to reveal something about your true passions, interests, and goals while giving a taste of your personality. Reading your essay should give admissions officers insight into what it would be like to have a conversation with you. What makes you tick. What makes you, you.
While an essay prompt can serve as an inspirational launch point for a brilliant topic or story idea, over the years I have found many students get too caught up in trying to decide which prompt to tackle before they even understand which of their stories and characteristics they want to put on display. It’s like choosing the icing flavor before you decide you’re going to bake a cake (instead of, say, cooking spaghetti).
Decide what meal you are going to serve admissions first. What, of the many things you have to offer, will be the most satisfying tidbit you can lay down in front of someone who wants to know you better?
At College Essay Advisors, we call this approach to ignoring the prompt in favor of concentrating on the story, “The Backwards Brainstorm.” The Backwards Brainstorm involves four simple steps:
1. Take a cursory look at the Common Application’s essay prompts to get generally acquainted with them. (Hi prompts! You seem nice!)
2. Forget about the prompts. Forever. Okay, just for a while, but still: say goodbye. (Sayonara!)
3. Collect your best stories and ruminate on your defining characteristics. What doesn’t admissions know about you that you want them to know? What moments in your life have shaped you and made you the person you are today? Run through some exercises to find that magic topic. Nail down that central idea or, at the very least, a few frontrunners. (Gotta catch ‘em all.)
4. Dig those prompts out of cold storage. (Prompts! I missed you! Sort of.) Read each one with your essay topic in mind. Choose the prompt that most closely fits the tale you aim to tell. Eh, voilà! You are now telling a story that both serves you well and meets all of the Common App’s requirements. You are basically a genius.
The Common Application has announced that the 2018-2019 personal essay writing prompts will be the same as the seven 2017-2018 essay prompts. By conducting a review process every other year, rather than annually, we can hear from admissions officers, as well as applicants, parents, and counselors, about the effectiveness of the essay prompts.
With the announcement of the essay prompts and the ability for applicants to roll over their Common App account each year, counselors can introduce their juniors to the Common App now to help them start thinking about the application process. For more information, go to Common App Ready, a series of ready-to-use resources, presentations, training videos, and handouts covering everything from account creation through submission. Last year, we expanded this free tool with Spanish language translations.
2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts
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.
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?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
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?
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.
The most popular essay prompt of the 2017-2018 application year (through January 5, 2018) is "Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth..." (23.6%), followed by the topic of your choice option (22.5%), and "Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful..." (21.4%).
"Through the Common App essay prompts, we want to give all applicants - regardless of background or access to counseling - the opportunity to share their voice with colleges. Every applicant has a unique story. The essay helps bring that story to life," said Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director, Outreach and Education, for The Common Application.