The Common Application Essay Prompt

The Common Application is changing up its essay prompts for the 2017–2018 college admission cycle. That means current high school juniors will see the new(-ish) prompts when they apply for college in the fall of 2017. But what do these changes mean for you?

More than 700 colleges use the Common Application, a single form that helps students easily apply to multiple colleges and universities in one fell swoop. It features several essay prompts students can pick from, and every few years, the Common App changes those essay prompts up a little bit.

Any changes to the Common App are based on feedback from students, parents, high school counselors, educational consultants, and member colleges and universities following each admission cycle. For 2017–2018, the Common App has added two new prompts for the next group of college applicants. They also clarified some of the current questions.

What do these changes mean for high school juniors who are about to start the journey to college? Well, not much, really. The tasks are essentially the same, and even if a student had been preparing with an older version of the Common App, they wouldn’t encounter anything radically different. The purpose of the Common App is the same too. The only difference is that now some of the existing prompts are more specific, and the new questions simply provide a few more options for students.

I asked Scott Anderson, the Senior Director of Education and Partnerships for the Common Application, what kind of advice he would give students for navigating the new application essay prompts. In short, he says you should not overthink the changes! 

“The prompts have changed slightly, but the instructions remain the same: what do you want application readers to know about you?” Anderson says. “The prompts simply serve to help students approach that question from as many angles as possible, whether it be maturity, identity, curiosity, pastimes, aspirations, community, relationships, or anything else.”

Anderson adds, “Students should pick the prompt that supports and gets them excited about the story they want to tell about themselves.” That’s sound advice straight from the source. (You can read Anderson’s piece in the Huffington Post for more information about changes to the Common App.)

So, now that you know the changes to the Common Application essay prompts aren’t a big deal, which one should you pick for your college essay? Believe it or not, the answer is easy: the best prompt is always the one you like best.

No prompt is inherently better than any other. And, despite what you may have heard, or what you might hear in the coming months, colleges that use the Common App do not prefer any particular prompt.

Related: How to Write a Great College Application Essay 

I talk to college admission officers all the time; they confirm what Anderson said: colleges and universities are more interested in what a student has to say than which prompt the student chooses.

At its core, the college application essay is all about reflection. No matter what the prompt, you should approach it in the same way and make sure your essay answers these two questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why does it matter?

But always keep in mind that what happened (the experience, activity, person who influenced you, etc.) is less important than why it matters (your reflection).

Ready to get started? Here are all of the 2017–2018 Common Application essay prompts; revised and new prompts are noted:

  • 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. (No change)
  • The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? (Revised)
  • Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? (Revised)
  • 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. (No change)
  • Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (Revised)
  • Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? (New)
  • Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. (New)

Related: Which Common Application Essay Prompt is Right for You?

For more information and to download a free sheet with tips from the admission office, go to WowWritingWorkshop.

If you’re planning to apply to colleges in fall 2017/winter 2018, which Common Application essay prompt are you learning toward? One of the new ones? An old one? Let us know in the comments—and feel free to share any questions you might have too!

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