Early this February the Common Application concluded a survey measuring feedback on the Common Application main essay prompts across a sample of 5,000, half of whom were students.
According to Scott Anderson, Senior Director of Access and Education at the Common Application, ‘over 90%’ of respondents said the prompts work well as they are. Yet, never complacent, the Common Application sought to improve on the status quo and better position the prompts to stimulate the creative juices of the applicants.
Altogether two of the existing prompts were revised for clarity and two new prompts were added, allowing applicants to choose among seven. The new prompts along with the revised prompts can be found here. One of the new prompts encourages applicants to explore a subject or topic that completely enthralls them. To a degree, it is like Stanford’s intellectual curiosity essay.
The other new prompt allows the student to select any topic he or she wishes. I have, till now, advocated that prompt #1 served this very purpose: “Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it.”
Mr. Anderson, in his article, goes on to explain the purpose of the prompts, which is all about ‘what do you want the reader of your essay to know about you?’ The exercise boils down to how best you unfold yourself and expose your deep interests and unique observations.
Even when there were 5 prompts to select among, Mr. Anderson notes that these prompts covered an almost unlimited number of topics. He refers to an article about how best to analyze and address the five by Alice Kleeman, a high school counselor from Atherton/Menlo Park high school in the bay area. In her analysis of Common Application prompt #1 she notes the keywords: “background,” “story,” “identity,” “incomplete without.” Then she explores potential topics from an academic, extracurricular, and personal perspective.
In a way, she reduces the prompts to their bare elements constantly challenging how best to weave them into a story about you, the applicant. This all leads to the next question, which prompt is the best one for you to respond to? I join Mr. Anderson’s response in that it doesn’t matter. The prompt exists merely to provoke the applicant to open up and reveal something that will provide admissions with a compelling reason to accept him or her.
By no means does this have to be a one and done essay. I have worked with applicants who are now unfettered by older rules that once did not allow for adjusting or re-editing essays once the Common Application was submitted. Now, if you like, you may customize each Common Application essay to the specific school to which you’re applying. In recent years I have had applicants write three to four separate Common Application essays to mix and match and bounce off a variety of readers.
While I admire such industriousness, I also recognize that there is just so much time in the day to go to such ends, but sometimes great effort is required in producing a piece that reflects the applicant’s capabilities, skills, and offerings just right.
Keep in mind the entire process is about you and how you present yourself. If you’re applying to a highly selective college, you’re going to want to give your first reader something to advocate for in your application. A Common Application essay needs a story or anecdote to capture the reader’s interest and convince him or her to proceed further. Then, explain the backstory to your narrative, and finish by making the points contained in your story clear and cogent to the prompt.
Be original, be bold, but mostly be yourself. Don’t be constrained by the Common Application prompts because that is not what they are intended to do. They are more a point of release and a catalyst to personal discovery, to unveil your most uncommon story. Select, indulge, write, and reveal: there are colleges dying to know the real you.
Ralph Becker, is founder of Ivy College Prep, LLC (www.ivycollegeprep.net) and a resident of Long Beach. He has been counseling students for 11 years. He has a certificate in college counseling from the UCLA Extension, and has published "SAT* Vocab 800." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.