How to Answer the Common Application Essay for College Admissions

The Common Application has long been the hub for applications to U.S. colleges. Every year, more than half-a-million students seeking a place in the Ivy League and 600-plus other private and public colleges, log on to a portal that collects and distributes much of a student's application materials. The site is ground zero for the "Common App Essay," a 650-word essay personal statement that can make or break a college application.

The high stakes are not lost on college-bound students. Anxious to write an essay that will lead admissions committees to say "Admit," students struggle as they consider the five choices of prompts for their Common App essay. In this article, we propose a strategy for picking a prompt, a method that should relieve stress and lead to better essays.

The Problem

Anxiety about which prompt to choose is as old as the Common Application, which was conceived in 1975. Since then, students have spent countless hours wondering which prompt is the "right" prompt. Should I write about lessons from a failure or the transition from childhood? A challenge to a belief or a problem solved? An intellectual challenge? A cultural issue? Or maybe something that reveals the formation of my identity? What if I answer the wrong question?

The worrying is easy to understand. The odyssey of the college-bound student has already included navigating the rigors of high school, the pressure standardized tests, and the tyranny of personal and family expectations. The context makes it hard to blame a student for looking at the next step, the college essay, as more of a foe than a friend, or for fearing that the wrong choice might mean that years of work go down the drain.

The Solution

The quandary has a simple solution. Choose Prompt #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." Put simply, the question offers students the opportunity to tell admissions committees absolutely anything that might enhance or complete the portrait painted by the rest of their application. This prompt gives students the room to tell the personal story of their choosing. The freedom to choose any story with personal meaning tends to inspire students to write essays in which they reflect on themselves.

Think of Prompt #1 as an umbrella. Phrased to allow students to write anything that could complete an application, the question encompasses any of the other four prompts. In other words, if an application would be incomplete without the questions posed in the other prompts -- failures, transition to adulthood, challenged beliefs, and problems solved -- the student can use the specific prompt or the one that covers them all.

Sidestep Pitalls

Students who choose Prompt #1 also sidestep pitfalls. The other four prompts can get tricky, quickly, if a student does not have actually have a specific answer.

Take Prompt #5: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family." If the student does not have a life experience that "fits" the question, or is not able to convey a clear transition, the essay is likely to feel forced.

Another pitfall can be seen in the context of Prompt #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?" Here, students might go down the path of simply explaining a failure and not reflecting on the personal impact of the importance of the story.

The Solution Also Fits the Coalition Essays

The first prompt on the Common Application also it fits the essay requirements of the Coalition Application. That application includes the essay prompt: "Submit an essay on a topic of your choice." Like Prompt #1 on the Common Application, this question is open-ended. Students may choose any topic.

Nor word limit an issue. The Coalition Application notes that "most application readers find college essays are rarely improved when they are longer than 500 to 550 words." And while the Coalition strongly recommends staying within that limit, there is no mandated maximum number of words. Admissions committees accustomed to reading 650-word Common App essays will likely be unfazed by a Coalition essay of the same length.

Final Advice

Student should try not to see college essays as a test. There is no right or wrong answer. The better view, one that aligns with the intentions of admissions committees, is to view the essay as an opportunity to go beyond test scores and GPAs, and paint a portrait of a living, breathing student. Choosing Prompt #1 will reduce the waste of time and energy a question. That energy can then be channeled to the task that matters, writing a college essay that shows admissions officers who you are and why you deserve a spot on their campus.

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