Changes to the 2017-18 Common Application Essay Prompts: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

For the most part, the changes are great. There are only a couple of issues that I want to caution students and parents about.

No changes to #1 and #4. I’m happy to see they are both included as is.

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.

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. 

Revisions have been made for the better to #2, #3, #5 The wording now is much stronger than the wording on the original prompts.

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?

Now it’s not just about failure per se. However, I still caution students to not write, “I faced the challenge (or setback) by working harder.” That tactic becomes very cliché. “I failed the first AP test. I studied harder. Now I’m an A+ student.” “I tore my ACL. Worked hard in PT and now I’m the starting pitcher.” Your answer has to be much more than the cliché “I worked harder.” Did you have to leave your comfort zone to overcome the obstacle? Did you have to change your thinking or behavior to overcome it? What did you do well beyond “hard work?”

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

The revision here opens up many more possibilities. It’s no longer limited to actually challenging a belief. Have you questioned “news?” Is it “fake news” or spin or “alternative facts.” Who do you believe? What about rules or laws? Obviously you want to remain respectful toward authority so the college doesn’t think you’ll burn down the administration building if they don’t start serving vegan meals but it’s great that it’s about questioning and not just challenging it. Just make sure you have demonstrated experience. You can’t simply say you questioned an idea in your head and did nothing about it. What did you do? Who did you talk to? What happened after this epiphany?

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 

I love this question. This is no longer about the transition to adulthood which was problematic for several reasons. This is about YOU and your personal growth, whether a realization about yourself or someone else. I love this topic.

Wait…there are MORE…. Yup, they went from five to seven. #6 is totally new.

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? 

Be very, very careful with this one. You don’t want to get technical and start going on and on about… “performing nitric oxide synthase concentration assays in tandem with polymerase chain reactions while attempting transient transfection...dedicated towards modification of human endothelial progenitor stem cells.” I have no idea what any of that means. This comes from a first draft for another essay…obviously a problem there as well.

You also don’t want your essay to sound like every other biology, engineering, ore math student. I am not a big fan of this one if you don’t have guidance. This can be problematic if you take TOO MUCH of an academic approach. On the other hand, if it’s unique and you avoid being technical, it could be great. It can show your passion and excitement for your intellectual vitality.

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. 

With all due respect to the fine professionals at the Common App, I hate this question. I was thrilled when they tossed it out a couple of years ago. Too many students decided to become overly creative and write pretentious essays like, “My life is like the phases of the moon” or “Why These Essays are Meaningless” or “I can prove I am God.” Unless you wrote an essay that your teacher thought was absolutely brilliant and said something about YOU, this is a topic to avoid. Aside from the chance of being pretentious, you also run the risk of not living up to expectations. If they are giving you this much freedom, the result better be SPECTACULAR.