This is big news in the college application world. It's not quite landing on the moon or Beyoncé having a baby, but the twittosphere is aflame this morning. The Common Application organization has just released the essay prompts for the upcoming year. Though applications aren't due until late in the fall for most students, the arrival of the prompts marks the start of the season.
The good news is that there are few major changes from the past two years, and that the Common Application made what changes it did in response to thousands of reactions from members (the colleges and universities themselves) and the general public. Hats off to the Common App for inviting us to be part of the conversation!
The bad news -- though I may be alone in feeling this -- is that my favorite question fell by the wayside: Describe a place where you feel perfectly content. Some of the most engaging essays my clients ever wrote were in response to that prompt. One described his lifelong love of German opera, another his passion for being lost. I'm going to think positively about the very engaging replacement question about problem solving.
Now, for the winning prompts -- and my initial thoughts about them. As in previous years, students can write up to 650 words on just one of these.
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.
This is a slight revision from earlier years, with the addition of "talent" to the list. The question elicits all sorts of powerful stories. Were you a triplet, were you raised on a farm, did you have to take care of your siblings while your parent worked nights? My experience with students is that they often know right away whether this is their topic.
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?
Ah, yes, the difficulties of writing about failure without calling too much attention to it! This is also a slight revision from previous years, emphasizing the "lessons we take from failure" and how they connect to success. If students have strong inclinations toward writing other essays, I often think that's better than focusing on failure. And often the lesson from failure is: work hard and you'll succeed. That is vitally important, but perhaps not much of a surprise in an essay. Still, it's there for a reason, and there will be students who have meaningful stories to tell.
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
I love this question, but it is the least popular of all among students I've worked with. I'm always eager to hear how students challenge the status quo - and colleges are too.
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.
This is the biggest news in the list, an entirely new question to replace "describe a place where you feel perfectly content." Problem solving is indeed at the heart of everything we do that's meaningful, whether it's how to play a perfect note on an instrument or how to solve a math problem, and I imagine this question will be popular. I'm looking forward to the stories it brings out.
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
This is identical to previous years -- an excellent question, and a difficult one to write in 650 words. Check my blogpost from earlier this year, "Smart and Smarter," about how to answer this and other prompts.
With the prompts out, what's a student to do with them? Take a look at the questions and do some thinking about what you might write, what matters to you, and what you want colleges to know about you. But it's not necessary to start writing, though you might want to take notes if something occurs to you. Don't worry if it doesn't.
It is necessary to keep engaging with school work, extracurriculars, and life passions. And it is advisable to prepare to write your essays - for the Common Application and the many supplements - by doing some serious reading of well-written essays and/or books. Parents often ask what books, what essays, what magazines?
The best grammar and writing book around - full of surprises, insights and fabulous writing - is Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. She is a word genius!
Consider getting a subscription to The New Yorker magazine - hands down the most well-written weekly in our midst. Short form essays, long form, news and analysis on politics, art, culture, along aside humor, fiction, poetry and cartoons. It's great to read on paper, and aside from lessons it will give in good writing, the information and the perspective on many subjects, from food to image recognition software research, is genuinely illuminating.
Books to read: Where to begin? Let's keep it simple for the moment. It's a safe bet that two yearly collections of essays will entice and entertain high school juniors and seniors: The Best American Essays collection, and the companion volume, with pieces chosen by high school students, The Best American Nonrequired Reading, edited by Dave Eggers.
For the time being, don't worry about the essays. Check out the prompts, check in with your feelings about them, read a book you like, and engage with all you're doing.
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder/owner of Don't Sweat the Essay. Follow her on Twitter @ElizBenedict.