As of August 1st, the Common Application features a brand new set of personal essay prompts, and we think they’re all pretty juicy. There are a couple big differences we noticed right away, and thinking about them will help you shift into the right mindset to answer any of these questions with pith, candor, and verve (SAT vocab, anyone?!).
First of all, the prompts read a lot like grad school essay questions, which means that admissions committees are expecting a higher level of honesty and self-reflection than ever before. But don’t let that scare you! Instead, think of this as the best opportunity you’ve ever been given to share who you really are and what you really care about.
Secondly, and along those same lines, each of these statements allows you to really let your freak flag fly. There is nothing holding you back from sharing the most authentic and vulnerable stories you have about yourself and your life. So stop worrying about what to write and just share those things that are most important to you. What’s more, you now have a whole 650 words to do this in, so don’t shy away from telling all.
Let’s take a look at each of the prompts individually to see which will best support your application as a whole.
Option #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.
Is there one story you always share about yourself when you meet someone new? Why is that one story so central to who you are? What do you think this story says about you? Don’t seek out the grandiose, necessarily. The prompt isn’t asking about the most sensational thing that ever happened to you, it’s simply asking about what is most fundamental to who you are.
If you select this prompt, make sure you are especially sensitive to the way in which you tell the story or share your background. The specific narrative devices you choose to use (tone, voice, structure, context, etc.) will dictate how your story is received.
Option #2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
We’re officially (and ironically) dubbing this question “The Suzy Lee Weiss” because it completely demolishes the idea that you need to be the epitome of perfection to gain acceptance to your college of choice. The admissions committee wants to see that you are capable of the emotional honesty and fortitude that it takes to assess a challenge you faced and grow from the lessons that it taught you.
Some things to consider: How did experiencing failure change the way you viewed the world? How did you do things differently after that failure? How might you do things differently the next time you encounter a situation like this?
Option #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
The key to writing an excellent essay on this question is to write on an idea about which you are truly passionate. There’s nothing worse than a robotic, discursive regurgitation on an abstract idea that you encountered in a textbook and debated in class. Instead, think about the beliefs or ideas that really fire you up—what do you argue about most with friends and family?
The set up is important here: You must show us not only how you took action to challenge this belief or idea, but also why. There are no right or wrong answers. This one simply requires clear reflection and self-assessment.
Option #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?
This prompt will be a challenge to the poets and writers in the crowd: How can you select the most poignant details about a place so that it reveals something true about you? If you choose this essay, you’ll want to make sure you pick a locale that is emblematic of something reflective of yourself or your personality.
Although the place you select is relatively important here, the question is really asking you to bare yourself psychologically. What makes you content? What brings you a sense of peace? And then, of course, why? Having a firm grasp of why this place is important to you will guide the thematic thrust of your entire statement.
Option #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
We love this prompt because it brings a tribal flair to the Common App, asking you to contextualize your growth within the broader community of which you are a part. One way to approach this is to consider any rituals (something as small as a family dinner or as large as a quinceañera) that are important to you and your family. Then consider if any of these rituals hold a special place as markers of the transition to adulthood.
Although the prompt does ask about accomplishments, beware that the question is more about your maturing in relationship to the world around you—not about how great you felt when you ranked first at the state science symposium. Get bigger: Show how and why you became an adult by virtue of this unique event or achievement.
And remember, we’re always here to take your essay to the next level! Visit ivyeyesediting.com for more details on our services, or email us at email@example.com.
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