Last month, the Common Application Board of Directors announced its much anticipated new essay prompts for the 2013-2014 Common Application, which are designed to give students the opportunity to be ‘more insightful’ and ‘a little more self-reflective,” according to Board member Eric Furda. Along with the new essay prompts, other changes included the removal of the ‘topic of choice’ essay option and an increase in the essay word count from 500 to 650 words. Students will still need to write a minimum of 250 words (the system will not allow for smaller word counts), but the higher word count maximum will be strictly enforced, which is something that wasn’t done previously.
The new prompts focus more on a student’s values and ethics, which can help college admissions officials see the ‘real’ student, something that is difficult to glean from a student’s transcript and test scores. Students, however, should carefully consider all five topics before jumping in and starting their essays, as some topics are a little more precarious than others. Here’s a quick overview of each prompt and a few suggestions on how students may wish to focus their responses.
1. 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.
Students who may have preferred the more versatile ‘topic of choice’ option will find this question more to their liking, as it’s more like a personal statement. This may be a good choice for those who have triumphed over a serious illness, obstacle or a personal tragedy, but students should try not to dwell on the negative aspects and instead focus on how their stories have shaped them as people.
2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Students can learn a lot from failure, but for this prompt, the incident or experience should be one with depth and/or consequences; it will not impress the admissions committee if students recall a story about how they were failing a class and through hard work managed to improve their grade. Students may risk sounding shallow if they do not write on a topic illustrating personal growth and/or awareness.
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
This prompt provides students with an opportunity to demonstrate how they have handled conflicts or challenges to their core beliefs, but students should be careful not come off as though they are proselytizing or using the essay as their own personal soapbox. Instead, students should use this prompt to demonstrate how their ethical and moral beliefs shape them as people and how they may deal with people (or coursework) that will conflict with those beliefs in the future.
4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Students can really let their creativity shine with this prompt, if they don’t over think it. It’s important that students choose a place that really exemplifies who they are and not just some random spot they think will impress the admissions committee. Students should resist the urge to use a library or classroom, unless they really have a meaningful connection to these locations.
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
This prompt will likely elicit countless bar mitzvah and quinceañera tales, so those who want to stand out from the crowd will need to use creativity and perspective to hold their reader’s attention. Unless students have a unique story, they may want to consider one of the other options.
Over the next few months, juniors should be reviewing the prompts and gathering ideas. Although there are many options, students should carefully consider which prompt will best illustrate their strengths, character and passion, as the essay will serve as a written portrait, so to speak. It’s perfectly acceptable for students to also write about their weaknesses and fears, since these too will give the admissions staff a better understanding of who they are and what they may add to the campus. Those who use their time wisely, writing and tweaking their essays during the summer when there are fewer distractions, will more than likely have stellar essays ready by the start of the college application season.
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