Common App Wants You to Know: Essay Prompt Changes Don’t Matter

Scott Anderson of the Common App
Scott Anderson, The Common App

By Kim Lifton
Wow Writing Workshop

Every few years, the Common Application, a tool used by more than 700 colleges to help students apply seamlessly to multiple schools, makes noticeable changes to its essay prompts. The changes are based on feedback from students, parents, high school counselors, educational consultants and member schools following each admissions cycle.

This year, the Common App has added two new prompts for the next group of college applicants; they also clarified some of the current questions.

What does it all mean for high school juniors who are about to start the journey to college? Nothing, really. The task is the same. The purpose is the same, too. 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 he would advise students so they do 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 told me. “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 added, “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 the changes. (He says the changes don’t matter!)

The best prompt is always the one the college applicant prefers.

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

At Wow, we talk to admissions officers all the time; they confirm what Anderson told us: they are more interested in what a student has to say than which prompt the student chooses.

At its core, the college essay is all about reflection. No matter what the prompt, we approach every one the same way. We tell our students an effective essay will answer these two questions:

  • What happened?
  • Why does it matter?

Why it matters to a student (the reflection) is more important than what happened (the experience, the activity, or the person who influenced that student).

Here are the 2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts

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. [No change]

2. 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]

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

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. [No change]

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

6. 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]

7. 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]

Parents, find out how you can help your child respond to any prompt in our next monthly Parent Chat. It’s Feb, 21, and free. If you cannot make it, sign up anyway, and we’ll send you a recording.

Counselors and other professionals, our parent chats have been so popular we are offering free 30-minute sessions for you, too. Sign up here. Join us live or listen to the recording.