The Common ApplicationCommon Application Form keeps a-changing! This admissions season we have both a new word limit (650, increased from 500) and new question choices. Here are the questions you will be asked to choose from if you are applying to college this fall:

  1. Some students have a background or a 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.
  2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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?
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.

As pointed out by the Huffington Post, these questions are designed for you to demonstrate what you would contribute to your college class. What is special about you? What character do you possess? What are your values? What’s important to you?

Do these questions seem daunting?

Said one of my clients, “These questions all seem so theoretical!” He did not know where to start.

Allow me to make a suggestion:

Consider that these questions are only theoretical if you don’t know what you want to say in your essay. Once you choose a topic, I’m willing to bet you can find a way to talk about it in response to one of the five Common App questions.

There’s a trick for interview preparation where you write a list of things you want to talk about, and then use whatever questions the interviewer asks to say what you wanted to say. It’s an art to succeed in this method, as you do need to answer the question (you can’t answer a different one).

Let’s look at an example as it applies to the Common App. Let’s say you want to talk about your love of music and what it’s like to perform. You could answer any one of the Common App essay questions and say what you want to say. Perhaps your musical abilities are central to who you are (#1). Perhaps you played a wrong note in a concert, or struggled in some other way as you learned (#2). Maybe your parents or teacher wanted one thing for you, and you wanted another (#3). Is the stage a place where you feel completely at peace? If so, maybe question #4 is for you. And certainly if music is important enough to you for an essay, you might have some accomplishment there that marked a transition to adulthood (#5).

As you consider how your topic might apply to each question, you might learn something about yourself you didn’t know before!

“OK,” you might be saying, “Now the questions seem less theoretical, but I’m still daunted: If I could write a great answer to every one of the questions, how do I possibly choose which one to answer?”

I would suggest outlining a response to as many of the questions as you think you might want to answer; then evaluate which question allows you to express yourself most fully. In which answer do the most aspects of yourself get revealed? And, perhaps most important, which answer is most interesting to read?

Important: The most interesting answer will not necessarily be the easiest to write. It might be less straightforward and take more thought and creativity—which is exactly what admissions committees are looking for!

What if I don’t have a topic in mind?

If you don’t have a topic you know you want to write about, try going through the questions one by one and having a conversation with someone (most likely someone other than your parents) about how you might answer each question. Brainstorm ideas and see what arises.

Give it some time. Sleep on it. Have conversations with more than one person. You might discover a topic you didn’t know could become an essay!

And of course, if you’re still stuck, it might be time to work with a professional essay coach. The Essay Expert would be happy to help!


    • I actually think creativity is often increased by shorter word limits. Regardless, a truly creative writer will be creative whether the limit is 500 or 1000. I do not specifically recommend using all the words. There is only an advantage to using all the words if you have a compelling story to tell and tell it well. A 500-word essay can be very powerful.

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