Common-Application-2015-300x99In preparation for a TV interview on Channel 3000 last summer, I researched the new Common Application Essay questions. Somehow I got it into my head that I had already written about them since I had researched them. But in actuality, I did not share these new topics on my blog! Now that it’s college application season, I am really and truly sharing the Common Application Essay Prompts for 2015-2016.

These new college essay prompts, on which I’ve commented below, were crafted based on survey results from almost 6,000 people who were members and constituents of the Common Application organization. The parts that changed from last year are in italics:

  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.
  • (Previous prompt: “Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it….”)

I like that “identity, interest, and talent” were added as options and that the words “so central to your identity” were replaced with “meaningful.” These changes open up the question to a broader range of possible responses, and frankly take some pressure off. Not every applicant has a background that they consider “so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it.” But just about everyone has something in their life that’s meaningful enough to be important to share with the admissions committee.

  1. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  • (First sentence was added to prompt.)

Honestly, I don’t love this addition. To me it’s too handholding and should be clear to any student writing an essay about failure. Perhaps schools were not getting enough essays that showed how students applied the lessons they learned from their failures? But I would think a student’s approach to this essay would be one of the aspects admissions officers would want to consider, without handing a directive to them on a silver platter.

  1. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • (No change.)

In my experience, this question proves challenging for most high school students. Few youngsters at that age have gone against the grain in a meaningful way. I recall in second grade challenging teachers who were talking during a fire drill, and, in high school, writing an editorial expressing my dislike of the student dress code. Neither was serious fodder for a college essay. Nevertheless, for those debaters and newspaper editors and political activists in the college application pool, answering this prompt might be just the right road to admission.

  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.
  • (Completely new prompt, replacing this previous one:Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”)

I like this change a lot! The previous question was fairly bland and presented a difficult writing challenge, with no obvious opportunity to show growth. The new question, in contrast, provides an exciting opportunity for students to display their intellectual prowess or emotional intelligence.

  1. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
  • (No change.)

This might be the prompt to go or be changed significantly in 2016-17. Can you imagine thousands of students struggling to find something “different” to say about their Bar Mitzvah or Eagle Scout project? However, the prompt does offer an opportunity to explore and describe a unique childhood-to-adulthood transition. I remember fondly, for instance, the essay of one of my clients who taught his sister how to ride a bike, going from being annoyed at her wimpiness to owning his teacher role and succeeding in his task. The challenge here is to steer clear of anything cliché.

That’s my take on the new College Application essays. As for other people’s opinions on these prompts, almost all of those surveyed agreed that the current prompts would generate effective essays on the whole. A slight majority believed the “story/background” prompt is the most effective, and I agree. In fact, most students could probably answer that question and submit a very effective essay; but there’s value in offering four more ways for students to approach thinking about their unique offerings and how to talk about their lives in 650 words.

Note that very few participants in the survey wanted the “Topic of Your Choice” topic back. This is understandable since a student could write about pretty much any topic of their choice that’s personal to them and fit it within one of the current essay choices.

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 they are. You might also enjoy some of my other articles about college essays and admissions.

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