College and Common Application Essays: A Coach Looks Forward and Back

One frenzied application season is just over and another - take a deep breath - is about to begin.

By March 31st, college applicants around the world had heard from the colleges of their dreams, their so-so's and their safeties, including First Daughter, Malia Obama, who is said to be choosing from between Barnard (yay, my alma mater!) and NYU (another great NYC school). Most students have until May 1st to make up their minds, and then there's the Slow Dance of the Waiting List that goes on through the summer.

For high school juniors, the process is just beginning.

In this sea of uncertainty, there's one thing we know for sure now: the Common Application essay prompts from last year were so successful, they will be used this coming year. I couldn't be happier, as I've seen these prompts elicit fascinating personal reflections that enable admissions officers to learn a great deal about the applicants and give students a chance to "explain" themselves the way they might in a leisurely interview.

I was also delighted to see how popular the individual prompts are compared to one another. For the most part, the Common Application's numbers jive with my experience. And please keep in mind: you choose only one of these prompts, with a word limit of 650.

According to the Common Application website, among 800,000 unique applicants, as of January 2016, the prompt choices broke down as follows:

Prompt 1: Background, identity, interest or talent: 47 percent of the applicants selected this
Prompt 2: A lesson from failure: 17 percent selected
Prompt 3: Challenging an idea: 4 percent selected
Prompt 4: Solving a problem: 10 percent selected
Prompt 5: An accomplishment that marks adulthood: 22 percent selected

Take a look at the prompts in full, followed by my observations and an example or two:

1. 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.

It's not surprising that this is so popular. It invites every kind of life story: growing up as a triplet, growing up with a particular hardship or passion (reading, wilderness, music, juggling), or even a special responsibility you have in your household. As always, the essay should strike a balance between describing the experience or activity and revealing its value. Head for a 50/50 split - or at least 65/35, story vs. its meaning to you.

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

I generally don't direct students to one prompt or another. I prefer to let their story determine the best prompt, but if a student has a strong record, intense interests, or a special experience, I usually steer them away from this prompt. Yes, we all fail, and most of us learn from failure, but unless this is the predominant story a student has, I encourage them - in the words of a famous 1940s song - to "accentuate the positive."

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This is the least popular prompt of all for the Common App in general and in my work, too. Nearly everyone takes a quick pass on this. The two students who chose it both challenged religious beliefs while in religious settings. They were both terrific essays!

4. 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.

While only ten percent of Common App applicants did this prompt, among my students, the figure was higher. I think it can be a great way to reveal a student's interests, creativity, critical thinking skills, and initiative. One student who lived in a drought area wrote about his efforts to build a water desalination machine, another about wanting to solve the crumbling infrastructure problem in the U.S., and a third about how volunteering in a local school helped her resolve a difficult relationship with her father.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Another popular prompt! Quite often the story a student tells in this prompt is the same he or she tells in Prompt No. 1, with a different emphasis. This can be more challenging to write because you have to lay out "before and after" the big moment, which is tough to do in 650 words. But if that's the story that reveals what you want colleges to know, it can be done, and often is.

In my view, it's a bit early to begin writing the essay. When students try to get too much of a head start, three or four months later, they often have another essay that feels more appropriate. But it can helpful - and maybe even reduce stress - to see the questions, think about how you might answer them, and begin to think about what it is you want colleges to know about you as you look ahead.

Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and owner of Don't Sweat the Essay and author of its popular blog.

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