Common Application Personal Essays: 2017 Edition

Every summer, the Common App reaches out to its member colleges and applicants to gather feedback about the essay prompts. This feedback helps shape the prompts for the next year and informs any changes that are made. Take a look at the latest prompts to see what’s changed (in italics). You’ll also find some helpful hints below each 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. [No change]

Common App prompts are meant to be broad and open to interpretation. This is perhaps one of the most broad! You can see that you could really address almost anything that’s meaningful to you. This is a great prompt to use if there’s something about you or something that you do that makes you unique. Many students talk about their ethnic heritage, hobbies, cultural identity, or special skills.  

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]

Notice that the prompt isn’t just about how you overcame an obstacle; instead, the focus is on how it affected you and what you learned from it. There are two things to avoid with this prompt: being vague about what the obstacle was and “making a mountain out of a molehill.” 

With respect to vague obstacles, don’t make your essay reader guess what the obstacle was. Be specific! Essay readers look at many essays. It can be frustrating when students make the reader play detective. 

As for the second point, try and have some perspective. Getting a B on a math test or having a restaurant get your order wrong isn’t an obstacle. Think about life events that have shaped who you are. 

Many students worry about this prompt because they feel they don’t have an obstacle to share. That’s OK! If that’s you, choose a different prompt.  

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

The “low-hanging fruit” for this prompt is often students discussing how they challenged their friends’ opinions or choices, their family’s religious or political beliefs, or school policies. These are definitely formative moments for students, but know that many students will discuss them. Also, don’t forget to address what the question is asking. What prompted you to question the belief or idea, and what happened after you addressed it?

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]

This is another broad prompt. It’s also a prompt that lends itself to students reusing essays they’ve submitted for classes in school. Avoid doing that! Often, class essays are contextual, meaning that they are addressing a specific issue that was discussed as part of a lesson plan. Those essays don’t always “fit” this prompt because they can be impersonal. This prompt is VERY personal and should be treated as such. On the other hand, I have found this prompt to be a good match for students who took part in summer internships. This is a perfect opportunity to discuss that exciting task that gave you a taste of the professional world!

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

This prompt is really more about effect than it is about the cause. Introspection is key here. Students that have had opportunities for significant self-discovery may find this prompt to be a great fit. However, it’s uncommon for students in high school to really know themselves well, but those that do should have a lot to share in this prompt.  

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]

This is a brand new prompt! Think about the pieces of your life that you find completely absorbing. However, note that while it’s easy to talk about your passions, it’s harder to articulate why they’re captivating to you. Harder still is writing engaging content about how you learn more about that aspect of your life. Saying, “I look it up on Wikipedia” isn’t going to be enough! 

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]

This one is back by popular demand. The “Topic Of Your Choice” prompt was previously a Common App essay prompt several years ago. Just like prompt 4, you need to be careful about submitting old work that’s impersonal. Ultimately, colleges want to get to know you better. If your essay feels detached, it’s not accomplishing what it should. It may seem counterintuitive, but this is actually one of the harder prompts to address – you really need to have a unique idea that is good enough to warrant bypassing all of the other options. 

Regardless of which topic you pick, the time to start writing this essay is TODAY! At the very least, get it all wrapped up before August 1, so you are ready to upload it into the Common Application that day and begin your supplemental essays.

Posted on February 23, 2017 pm28 8:32 pm

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