The New Common Application Essays: What Students Should Know by Debra Berger, M.Ed.

After several years of discussion and consultation with their 15 member advisory board, the Common Application decided to change the essays completely and eliminate the sixth prompt—“pick a topic of your choice.” The word count also was increased to 650 words (now strictly enforced) from 500 words (which many students complained was too limiting), and essays under 250 will no longer be accepted.

Here is a preview of the new essay prompts, their focus, and some possible topics:

Question #1: Some students have a background or 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.
Focus: What makes you unique? Is there a meaningful experience from your life that may help you to stand out? Were you born in another country, or had to learn English as a second language?

Question #2:Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Focus: What obstacles have you overcome? Did you lose out on a part in a play or were you defeated in a debate?

Question #3:Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Focus: What are your beliefs? Did you stand up for someone who was bullied or challenge the view of a teacher or other authority figure?

Question #4:Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful?
Focus: What is important to you? Are you most comfortable acting on stage, running on the track, or volunteering at a soup kitchen?

Question #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event — formal or informal — that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family?
Focus: How have you grown as a person? Did you teach tennis at a day camp after being a camper or get your first job?

To choose a question, ask yourself: “What do I want the college/university to know about me?” Your essay should reveal your strengths, talents, and highlight your writing ability. Next, decide which of your experiences, accomplishments, etc. would best answer this question. Pick carefully—this is not the place to reveal something that would reflect negatively upon your character.

Leave yourself plenty of time to think about what you are going to write before you start. Brainstorm ideas, map the essay, and/or make an outline; write several drafts; and get as much feedback as you can from parents, teachers, and friends before submitting it. If you are struggling, try another prompt. Your essay should be memorable. As Kelley Walters, Executive Director of Boston University Admissions points out, “Essays can be a significant tip factor in our final decisions.”

The final draft of your essay should be error-free and polished. Edit your essay by reading it several times, focusing on the different elements: Are the paragraphs in the correct, logical order? Have you left out important information that the reader needs to understand the context? Did you use the correct verb tense, subject-verb agreement throughout—and don’t forget to check spelling (a fatal mistake). Are there transitional words/sentences to help connect thoughts/paragraphs? Does your introduction capture the reader’s attention? Did you bring together all elements of your essay in the conclusion?Does your essay truly represent yourself? Is it written in your voice? Remember, your essay needs to stand out, but not for its bad grammar.