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How to Write a Great College Application Essay: 2017-18 Common App Prompts

How to Write a Great College Application Essay: 2017-18 Common App Prompts

How to Write a Great College Application Essay: 2017-18 Common App PromptsAfter a year of stability, the Common Application essay prompts have changed again – I think for the better – based on surveys of 5000 teachers, students, counselors and colleges. This year brings some wording changes and a brand new prompt – and an old, previously discarded question that has been brought back to life. Significantly, the now “old” Common App prompts have not changed a lot – which makes sense since 90% of survey respondents reported that the prompts already worked well. Ideally, the new ones will work even better.

Let’s take a look at the 2017-18 Common App 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.This prompt has not changed, and I think that’s a good thing. Many college applicants have some aspect of their lives that’s meaningful and important enough to share with the admissions committee. This question provides a welcome opportunity to do so.
  1. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?“Obstacles we encounter” and “a challenge, setback or failure” replaced the previous “failures” and “failure.”Ah, this prompt is so much less confronting, and so much more welcoming, to students who do not consider that they have “failed” but certainly have faced challenges in their lives. Not everyone is too evolved to see failure as an opportunity. And why require a failure to give students the opportunity to write about lessons learned? I like this change.
  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?“Questioned” was added to “challenged”; “prompted you to act” was replaced with “your thinking”: and “Would you make the same decision again?” was replaced by “What was the outcome?”I like this change because, while few youngsters have gone against the grain in a meaningful way, many of them have had thoughts that go against a belief or idea. The new prompt does not require students to have taken huge risks or to be activists. It just requires them to have opinions. Furthermore, they do not have to answer a yes or no question about whether they would take the same action in the future. Why require students to fortune tell like that? Instead, they can talk about what happened and naturally examine their role in that outcome.
  1. 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 was a completely new prompt two years ago, and it provides an exciting opportunity for students to display their intellectual prowess or emotional intelligence. No changes for next year!
  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization, that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.This is a fairly old prompt with a fresh take. Interestingly, I predicted that it would be deleted or changed significantly last time I wrote about the Common App prompts, as I saw the danger of clichéd answers talking about Bar Mitzvahs and Eagle Scout projects.Here’s what changed: The words “formal or informal” were deleted, and the word “realization” was added. Even more significantly, instead of asking about something that “marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family,” the prompt now asks for students to delve into their own growth and understanding of themselves, their relationships and the world.

    Both changes reveal admissions committees’ clear preference for introspection and self-understanding. I’ve been saying for years that the committees want to see self-awareness and a focus on personal growth, and this preference could not be clearer than from the changes in this essay question.

  1. 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?This brand new prompt is another opportunity for applicants to explain how their brains work, what makes them tick, and how they explore their intellectual interests. I believe it’s a way for the admissions committee to discover how engaged a student would be in both intellectual and extra-curricular pursuits. It will be a great option for any students with passion and curiosity!
  1. 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.While there was a “topic of your choice” essay question in the past, it did not suggest submitting an essay the student has already written! This choice fascinates and scares me. With the emphasis in all the other questions on sharing so personally, why open things up to essays on Huckleberry Finn? Why give this easy out to students who can just slap an essay into the box that they wrote for an English class? I bet this question in its current form won’t last long.Also interestingly, when the “topic of your choice” question was eliminated, there was very little complaint. But after a couple of years, people want it back. We’ll see what the feedback is in the future. It doesn’t really seem necessary, as the instructions to the Common App encourage students to use the prompts to write about anything they want:

    “What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.”

As Scott Anderson, Senior Director for Access and Education at The Common Application, points out in The Common App Essay Prompts Are Changing. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Matter, there’s really only one question in the Common App: “Write an essay on a topic of your choice.” The Common App has provided you direction, and your job is to take it and create your story.


If your child is applying to college and wants support on writing a great response to the Common Application questions, contact The Essay Expert. Remember, approximately 26% of all college applicants hire an admissions consultant, and your child is in the same pool as they are. You might also enjoy some of my other articles about college essays and admissions.

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