Don't just apply to college… Position yourself.

How to Approach the Common Application Personal Statement Essay Prompts

“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you.”
― Maya Angelou.

What have I done!?We have recently learned of changes for the Common Application’s personal statement essay prompts for 2017-18. As stated on the Common App website, the changes reflect “the feedback of 108 Common App member colleges and more than 5,000 other Common App constituents, as well as consultation with our advisory committees and Board of Directors. Students represented the single largest share of constituent survey respondents (59%), followed by school counselors (23%), and teachers (11%).”

In 2017-18, there will be seven prompts, five of which were used previously (some with revisions), and two additional prompt choices. To clarify, the applicant only needs to respond to ONE prompt! It will continue to have a 250 word minimum and 650 word maximum.  I will discuss how to approach each prompt.

The Common Application Board of Trustees’ stated goal is to give each applicant an opportunity to express authentic authorship with a unique story that directly reveals who he or she is.  I have three general suggestions about approaching these prompts, consistent with my philosophy of essay-writing, for you to pass along to your student:

glassesgirlthinks1. Speak honestly in your own voice. As I wrote in my post, How Parents Can Help–Or Not–with College Essays, admissions people can smell parental word-smithing a mile away: “If it sounds like it was written by a forty-five year old attorney, it probably was.” They want to hear what the student has to say, not the parent; it is the student that they are deciding whether or not to accept. As mentioned in How Important Is the College Essay, Anyway?, the personal statement is just that, personal; it offers a rare opportunity in this crazy process for a student to control the application product, to genuinely speak for oneself. As master of one’s destiny in this journey of self-discovery, it is not only desirable, but also imperative, that the young adult speaks for oneself.

laptopbeardboy2. Emphasize your positive qualities (while being honest about your vulnerabilities and opportunities for growth). In Confessional College Essays, I cautioned not to use the essay process as psychotherapy or attempt to cry victimhood as a way of getting into college. Colleges are not rehabilitation centers; they want young people who can constructively contribute to the college community. Conversely, do not be so concerned with presenting a perfect picture that you come off as phony; tonality is a key element in a college essay. Present a balanced portrait of the real human being you are. 

Video: The College Essay

collegegirlinfront3. Remember to suggest qualities that will translate into contributions to the college and the world. A college application is like a job interview. If they “hire” you, what you will do for them? Will you sit alone in your room and study all day, without ever joining a student organization, conducting undergraduate research, or giving back to the community surrounding campus? Self-actualization is noble, but it must be balanced with the humility to offer one’s talents to serve college and society.

Below are suggestions for addressing the seven prompts:

cellogirl11. 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. [No change] According to Common App, among 800,000 unique applicants during the 2015-2016 cycle (information not yet available for 2016-17), 47 percent chose this prompt, making it the most frequently selected. Unless there is no question that this prompt is the absolute right one for you, it might be worthwhile to consider a more unusual prompt that will be fresher for admission officers to read.

Female Vet Examining Horse In Field With OwnerIf you do choose it, emphasize how your unique story will help you contribute to the college community. If you are an underrepresented minority or first generation college applicant, such “hooks” will be noted in your application. But how will you use your cultural, ethnic or socioeconomic background or gender identity to enrich the student body? Interest or talent allows you to write about a specific defining activity in your life, such as animals, sports, music, or social action, which will be an asset in your college career and in the future. If your story is about conquering adversity, clarify the character strengths that helped you overcome obstacles and how your distinctive strengths will translate into success, empathy, or sense of mission in college and beyond.

coachplayer2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised] 17 percent of 2015-16 college applicants chose this topic. It has not been popular in my experience either, since it walks a fine line between sounding phony (i.e.,”my only weakness is working too hard”) or sounding like a victim or a failure (rather than a winner who experienced vulnerability).

In the past, I recommended this topic only if: “You are an achiever who could be otherwise viewed as a ‘water walker’ lacking empathy for mere mortals; you can point to a specific positive change that came from the experience; and you are a talented enough writer to address a delicate topic with finesse.” This prompt has now been broadened to include not just “failure” but also obstacles, challenges, or setbacks; it will probably result in more applicants identifying an experience that “rings true” for them in this category.

youngmanspeaker3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised] With only four percent of 2015-16 applicants choosing this prompt, it offers a window to write about a fresh and novel topic. Its revision may lead to more applicants identifying a relevant experience for this category, because it is clearer that it involves discussion as well as action.

In the past, I advised focusing on constructive challenges. As a humorous example, I cautioned not to write about the time you broke into your high school to prove that they had inadequate security. Instead, I advised writing about the time you developed a bill to address a social issue in Youth in Government that later was considered by your “real” state legislature. These action challenges are, however, rare for high school students. This year’s revision now allows writing about questioning the status quo in an academic setting, to which many more applicants will be able to relate.

doctorbrain4. 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. [No change] Only ten percent of applicants chose this prompt. I believe that this is one of the greatest essay opportunities, not only because it is rare to find, but because the writer can use it to provide dramatic, real-life evidence that he or she is an innovative, curious agent of change who will make a difference. Combined with excellent academic credentials, this essay can highlight a quality that makes an applicant truly a standout that an elite institution will find desirable. With my encouragement, a number of my clients have chosen this topic, leading to extraordinary essays. I am not surprised that this prompt will be used in 2017-18 with no revisions. 

asiangirlwriting5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised] This prompt has been changed significantly from its previous version, when it was (in my view) too similar to the first prompt, with a “rite of passage” flavor, referencing transition from childhood to adulthood. 22 percent of 2015-16 applicants chose this prompt. Now it has been broadened to include any kind of personal growth or realization, not just coming of age per se. The revised prompt offers rich opportunities for self-revelation, such as an LGBTQ student addressing coming out. This essay allows one to demonstrate awareness, courage, and initiative, which will clearly be of value in college and life.

chemformula6. 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? [New] This new prompt is an improved version of an older one replaced several years ago. The Washington Post commented on that replacement: “…the ‘Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content’ prompt…induced a nationwide eye-rolling epidemic and a multitude of essays on beaches, libraries and grandmas’ attics.” This new prompt appears to be its reincarnation, suggesting that applicants write about creative or analytical endeavors, rather than sleeping or sunbathing.

boywithguiatr7. 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. [New] Years ago, there was a “topic of your choice” prompt, and it has always been missed. Some students simply have something to say that none of the prompts cover; this prompt offers the opportunity to speak.

If you live in New Jersey or New York and desire guidance for writing essays this year, contact Position U 4 College.