How to Parse the New Common App Prompts

By Kim Lifton

Wow Writing Workshop will parse each of the five new Common App prompts for the 2013-14 college admission cycle in this blog so you can better understand what you need to do to stand out from the crowd.

Before you begin the application essay writing process, ask yourself, “What do I want the college to know about me beyond grades, activities and test scores?”

This blog focuses on Common App prompts #1 and #2.

Prompt #1: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

The key words in this prompt are “central to their identity.”

Ultimately, your essay is not about the experience; it’s about you. What did you learn about yourself? What did you gain from this experience?

Admissions officers read these essays to find out something they don’t already know about you. They can tell from your application that you are on the lacrosse team or in the school orchestra.

They know you worked as a researcher or a hospital aide or a bagger in a grocery store. And if your transcript says you took American Literature, they can assume you read books like A Raisin in the Sun, The Crucible or The Bluest Eye.

They don’t know how those experiences affected you, if you met someone who influenced your life along the way, or why a particular piece of music is so important to you. What’s more, they have no idea how you have changed and why you might be a good fit for their school.

The application essay is a good place to reflect on your life and offer some insight.

You could respond to this prompt by sharing any type of story. Your story could be a description of a meaningful conversation or a moment when you realized something important about yourself. The goal is to find a story that truly and vividly demonstrates who you are.

Your experience does not have to be particularly impressive. You do not have to write about climbing a mountain or rescuing three children from a burning building. You could write about babysitting or making meatballs with your grandmother, navigating an icy highway or playing basketball with friends. Just find a story that illustrates something meaningful to you. First choose a moment, and then explore it in detail.

Prompt #2 is more specific than #1: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

The key sentence is at the end of this prompt. Your readers are not going to judge you because you failed at something. Everyone experiences failure. They are asking you to reflect on the experience, to demonstrate how you grew or changed as a result.

What do you want readers to know about you? Perhaps you want to show you are resilient, or you have learned to be a leader. Do you have a story about experiencing failure that shows you are resilient, or demonstrates that you learned to be a leader? If you do, this may be a good question for you.

No matter what question you select, remember that what you have to say is far more important than the prompt or word count. Your job is to get the application reader to like you and make that person want to know more about you.

In our next blog, we’ll explain what questions #3, #4 and #5 mean.

Kim Lifton is president of Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches students how to write compelling college admissions essays using a proprietary 10-step Wow Method. Check out Wow Online – College Essay to learn more about the first comprehensive and self-guided tutorial for college application writing. Wow also teaches ACT/SAT writing prep courses.