Changes made in 2013 The Five Prompts One of the biggest changes to the new Common App is the essay section. The length limit for the essay has increased from 500 words to 650. Students now choose from five, not six prompts. 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. Option #1: appeals to a broad spectrum of applicants. Everyone has a "story" to tell - events or circumstances central to the development of our identities. So many parts of the application -- test scores, grades, lists of awards and activities -- seem far removed from the actual features that make us the unique individuals that we are. On a certain level, you have permission to write about anything. The words "background" and "story" are wonderfully (horribly?) vague, so you have a lot of freedom to approach this question however you want. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that anything goes with option #1. The story you tell needs to be "central to [your] identity," and it needs to make your application more complete (the application "would be incomplete without it"). Think hard about what it is that makes you, you. If you end up telling a story that hundreds of other applicants could also tell, then you haven't fully succeeded in tackling the question of identity that stands at the heart of this prompt. Your "story" or "background" isn't a single event. Being voted Prom Queen and scoring that winning goal may be impressive accomplishments, but by themselves they are not stories about the formation of your identity. Your "story" or "background" can take a variety of forms. Did you grow up in a difficult domestic situation? live in an unusual place that had a significant impact on your childhood? Or someone in your family have significant challenges to overcome? move frequently? have to hold a job from a young age? or do you have a particular obsession or passion that has been a driving force in your life for years? Keep "diversity" in mind as you write your essay. It is not necessarily referring to the color of your skin or your ethnic background (although these can certainly be a part of your essay). If a college admits 2,000 students, the school wants to see 2,000 unique individuals. The strongest colleges and universities do not have homogenous student populations. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? You might be uncomfortable with this question. Isn’t a college application meant to highlight your strengths and accomplishments, not draw attention to your failures? Growing and maturing is all about learning from our failures. No college anywhere, ever, has admitted a student who hasn't failed at times. It's easy to boast about our accomplishments. It takes a greater level of confidence and maturity to acknowledge and examine our failures. A student who can learn from failure is a student who will be successful in college. Every single one of the thousands of applications a college receives will highlight successes, awards, honors, and accomplishments. Very few will show the type of confidence and introspection required to explore failures. This prompt can be broken down into three parts. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. This is the story part of your essay -- the description of the failure that you are going to analyze. “Recount” is the easy part of your essay. This is the plot summary. Use clear, engaging language, but do the "recounting" as efficiently as possible. The real meat of your essay that is going to impress the admissions officers comes later... How did it affect you... This is the second most important part of your essay. How did you respond to failure? What emotions did failure evoke? Were you frustrated Did you want to give up or did failure motivate you? Were you angry at yourself or did you project blame onto someone else? Were you surprised by your failure? Was this a new experience for you? Make an honest assessment of your reaction to failure. what lessons did you learn? This is the heart of your essay! Give this part of the question significant emphasis. The question here -- "what did you learn?" -- is asking for higher level thinking skills than the rest of the prompt. It requires self-analysis, introspection, selfawareness, and strong critical thinking skills. This is the one part of prompt #2 that is truly asking for college-level thinking. The best students are those who assess their failures, learn from them, and move on and proves that you are capable of this type of thoughtfulness and personal growth. Some possibilities include: A failure to apply yourself. Did laziness or overconfidence make you under-perform academically or in an extra-curricular event? A failure to behave appropriately. Did your conduct in a situation insult or hurt someone? How should you have behaved? Why did you behave the way you did? A failure to act. Sometimes our greatest failures are those moments when we do nothing. In retrospect, what should you have done? Why did you do nothing? Some possibilities include: Failing a friend or family member. Did you let down someone close to you? Disappointing others can be one of the most difficult failures to come to terms with. A failure to listen. If you're like me, you think you're right 99% of the time. Many times, however, others have a lot to offer, but only if we listen. Failure under pressure. Did you choke during your orchestra solo? Did you bobble the ball during an important play? A lapse in judgment. Did you do something foolish or dangerous that had unfortunate consequences? This list could go on and on -- there's no shortage of ways to fail. Whatever failure you write about, make sure your exploration of the failure reveals self-awareness and personal growth. If your essay doesn't show that you are a better person because of your failure, then you haven't succeeded in responding to this essay prompt. Before you hit the submit button, make sure your essay paints a portrait of you that makes a positive impression. If you blame your failure on others, or if you seem to have learned nothing from your failure, the college may very well decide that you don't have a place in the campus community. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? The focus on a "belief or idea" makes this question wonderfully (and perhaps paralyzingly) broad. You could write about almost anything that you've ever openly questioned, whether it be your school's daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, the color of your team uniforms, or the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Some ideas and beliefs will lead to better essays than others. Step one in tackling this prompt is coming up with an "idea or belief" you have challenged that will lead to a good essay. Keep in mind that the belief could be your own, your family's, a peer's, a peer group's, or a larger social or cultural group's. Your essay needs to show that you are a thoughtful, analytical, and open-minded person, and it should also reveal something that you care about deeply. The idea or belief that you reflect upon shouldn't be something superficial; should center on an issue that is central to your identity. The belief can be your own. In fact, your own belief can be an excellent choice for this essay option. Being able to reevaluate and challenge your own beliefs, demonstrates that you are a student who has the type of self-awareness, open-mindedness, and maturity that are essential ingredients for college success. The belief or idea can take many forms: a political or ethical belief; a theoretical or scientific idea; a personal conviction; an entrenched way of doing things (challenging the status quo); and so on. Some beliefs can send your essay into controversial and potentially risky territory: Your drug use. Your sex life. Your time in jail. Your heroism – use this only if you can do it without seeming arrogant. One track social, political, or religious issues – you risk offending the reader. Woe is me or poor, poor pitiful me. Your travel journal – better to highlight a single, meaningful trip. A comedy routine – let your humor come through in your writing; don’t resort to jokes. Your challenge of the idea or belief need not have been successful. For example, if your community believes in the value of killing snakes on Whacking Day and you ran a campaign to stop this barbaric practice, you efforts could lead to a good essay whether or not you were successful. The best essays reveal something that the you are passionate about. By the end of the essay, the admissions readers should feel that they have a much better grasp on what it is that motivates you. Be sure to explore an idea or belief that will allow you to present some of your interests and passions. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea; reflective writing is popular in higher education today, and to respond effectively to this prompt it is important to understand what reflection is and what it isn't. Reflection is far more than summarizing or reminiscing. Your task isn't simply to describe a time when you challenged a belief. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea; To "reflect" upon something you did is to analyze and contextualize your actions. What were you motives? Why did you do what you did? What were you thinking at the time, and in retrospect, were your thoughts at the time appropriate? How have your actions played a role in your personal growth? What prompted you to act? If you did the first part of the question effectively ("reflect"), then you've already responded to this part of the question. Again, make sure you aren't just describing how you acted. Explain why you acted the way you did. How did your own beliefs and ideas motivate you to challenge some other belief or idea? What was the tipping point that spurred you into action? Would you make the same decision again? This part of the prompt is also asking for reflection. Look back at the big picture and put your action in context. What were the results of challenging the belief or idea? Was your action worth the effort? Did good come of your action? Did you pay a heavy price for your challenge? Did you or someone else learn and grow from your efforts? Realize that your answer here need not be "yes." Sometimes we take action only to learn later that the outcome wasn't worth the cost. You don't need to present yourself as a hero who changed the world through your challenge of the status quo. Many excellent essays explore a challenge that didn't turn out as planned. Indeed, sometimes we grow more from missteps and failures than we do from triumph. College is all about challenging ideas and beliefs, so this essay prompt engages a key skill for college success. A good college education is not about being spoon fed information that you will regurgitate in papers and exams. Rather, it is about asking questions, probing assumptions, testing ideas, and engaging in thoughtful debate. If you choose essay option #3, make sure you demonstrate that you have these skills. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? Except for the rare student who isn't content anywhere, this question will be a viable option for a wide range of applicants. Nearly everyone can identify a location that brings contentedness. But this doesn't mean the prompt isn't challenging. Applicants who choose this option will need to make sure they are presenting their chosen location effectively. Step one in tackling this prompt is coming up with "a place or environment where you are perfectly content." You have a lot of latitude here--you can write about any specific location on the globe ("a place"), or you can be less focused and discuss the type of surroundings ("environment") that brings you contentedness. The place can be small or large, inside or outside, commonplace or extraordinary. You could also bend the question to explore imagined places--locations accessible only through your imagination. As you brainstorm this essay prompt, think broadly about the place or environment you are going to discuss. Your options include: A building: Your house, church, school, tree fort, or grandma's home. A store, movie theater, café, restaurant, fitness club... An interior space: your bedroom, the secret room under the stairs, your science classroom, the locker room, your aunt's kitchen, the shower, the driver's seat of your favorite car... An exterior space: the woods, the ocean, the lake, a city street, a rooftop, a meadow in bloom, the dessert at night… A travel destination: Machu Picchu, the San Diego Zoo, the top of Mount Washington, the Avenue des Champs-Élysées, a food market in Shanghai, a tent in the Bad Lands... A performance or athletic venue: the stage of a concert hall, a tennis court, the football field, the shoulder of the road on a bike, the theater... An imagined place: the world portrayed in a painting, J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, Diagon Alley, the Star Ship Enterprise, Jane Austen's England, Downton Abbey... The list could be much, much longer, and please don't let these limited suggestions steer you away from your own place of contentedness. Many students have interpreted this question to be asking about a place where they are at peace. Indeed, that is one way to read the question, and being in a peaceful state is one type of content state. But the word "content" can mean much more than a state of peacefulness. It is also a state of satisfaction, and you don't need to be peaceful to be satisfied. An adrenaline junkie might be most content when skydiving, and a musician might be most content when performing a solo to a standing-room-only crowd. These high pressure situations can be magical, meaningful and "content" moments, but they are not peaceful. Keep in mind that the essay is a place for you to tell the admissions folks more about yourself, and for you to demonstrate that you are well prepared for college. The first task asked of you in prompt #4 -- "Describe a place or environment" -- is also the least challenging part of the question. Describing, unlike analyzing, is a pretty low level form of thinking. This part of the essay has no self-analysis or introspection, so it is not saying much about you, your passions, or how well your mind works. Because of this, don't spend too many of your 650 words describing. Be clear, concise, and engaging as you describe the place you have chosen, but then move on. The description should not be the bulk of your essay. The end of the prompt is most important. The question is asking you why you feel and act the way you do in your special place. Why is this place or environment meaningful to you? Dig deep. A shallow response isn't going to impress anyone. The student who writes "I'm most content on the soccer field because I've always loved soccer" hasn't really answered the question. Why do you love soccer? Are you a competitive person? Do you like the teamwork? Does soccer help you escape from other parts of your life? Does it make you a better person? How has your time on the soccer field made you grow? What exactly makes the soccer field so full of meaning for you? If you really explore the "why" of this question and go easy on the describing, your essay will be on track to succeed. It might help to rethink prompt #4 in these terms: "Tell us about a place that is meaningful to you so that we can get to know you better." Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. We all have all had experiences that bring about growth and maturity, so essay option five will be a viable option for all applicants. The big challenges with this essay prompt will be identifying the correct "accomplishment or event," and then making sure the discussion of your growth has enough depth and self analysis to show your are a strong, thoughtful college applicant. This part of the essay prompt can be a bit problematic because it suggests that we all cross a clear line with childhood on one side and adulthood on the other. The idea that a single event can make us adults is difficult to contemplate. Very few adults would point to a single moment of epiphany when, all of a sudden, they became adults. Maturity and adulthood come about over years, through hundreds of learning experiences. But if we put ourselves in the position of a college admissions officer, we can see that the label "adult" is an important one. By applying to college you are telling the admissions officers that you are ready for the next stage in your life: becoming an adult. You are prepared to take responsibility for your own actions, live away from home, manage your own time, and make the proper decisions to succeed in your endeavors. You're suggesting that you will be respectful of others, you'll work to negotiate differences with roommates and classmates, and you will be a contributing member of a campus community. In short, your essay for option five needs to reveal the type of personal growth that suggests you're ready for the next, more independent stage of your life. The question becomes more realistic and manageable if posed in these terms: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marks a moment of significant personal growth within your culture, community, or family." You're not done growing, but you certainly have had moments of significant growth. As you brainstorm ideas for this essay prompt, think broadly as you try to come up with a good choice for the "accomplishment or event." The best choices will be significant moments in your life. You want to introduce the admissions folks to something you value highly. You reach a goal that you have set for yourself such as earning a certain GPA or performing a difficult piece of music. do something independently for the first time such as preparing a meal for the family, flying across the country, or house-sitting for a neighbor. overcome or learn to appreciate a disability or handicap. win an award or recognition working by yourself or with a team. successfully launch your own business. You reach a goal that you have set for yourself such as earning a certain successfully navigate or extricate yourself from a dangerous or challenging situation (an abusive family, a problematic peer group, etc.) do something challenging like winter camping, white-water kayaking, or running a marathon. complete a meaningful service project such as creating a public garden or helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity. reach a goal that you have set for yourself such as earning a certain GPA or performing a difficult piece of music. You pass a milestone in your life such as the first day of high school or your first time driving by yourself. have an interaction with someone (whether that be a friend, family member or stranger) that opens your awareness in a profound way. perform at an event such as a concert or competition in which your hard work and perseverance finally pay off. You experience a traumatic event such as an accident or sudden loss that makes you reevaluate your behavior or beliefs. experience a moment of failure (much like Option #2) that causes you to grapple with and grow from the experience. are moved by a world event that makes you reflect upon what you most value and what your role in the world might be. The Common Application used to have a question about diversity. Mention of "culture" in prompt number five gives you an opportunity to talk about diversity. How does your culture define the transition to adulthood? What developmental milestones does your culture emphasize? Because of the mention of "culture" in this prompt, you should feel free to connect the "accomplishment or event" to a context that is specific to your cultural heritage. A racial, religious or social group to which you belong can be worked into this essay option if you choose to approach the question through that lens. The end of prompt number five -- "within your culture, community, or family" -- is simply a recognition that "adulthood" is a social construct. In other words, you don't become an adult in isolation. The definition of "child" and "adult" is set by a group to which you belong -- your family, community, or culture. You become an adult when the people who surround you recognize your actions and behavior as adult-like. Different groups will define adulthood differently. Your essay will need to set the terms for how your specific social or cultural group defines adulthood. Do you become an adult when you hunt and gut your first caribou, or are you an adult when your parents no longer need to schlep you to soccer practice? You don't need to spend a lot of space explaining how your family or community defines "adult" (but you can if this context has significant importance to your essay), but your essay should at least briefly explain what it means to be an "adult" within your unique context. The prompt is suggesting that the "achievement or event" can be something specific such as a solo competition, an achievement award, a 50-mile trek, or football game, or can be something that is more personal and self-defined such as an effort to get over a fear of heights or a goal of giving up Facebook for a month. Keep in mind that the "accomplishment or event" doesn't have to be a triumphant moment in your life. An accomplishment can be learning to deal with setbacks or failure. The event could be a losing game or an embarrassing solo in which you missed that high C. Part of becoming an adult is learning to accept our own shortcomings, and recognizing that failure is both inevitable and an opportunity to learn. When you "discuss" your event or accomplishment, make sure you push yourself to think analytically. Don't spend too much time merely describing and summarizing the event or accomplishment. A strong essay needs to show off your ability to explore the significance of the event you have chosen. You need to look inward and analyze how and why the event caused you to grow and mature. If the essay doesn't reveal some solid selfanalysis, then you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt. When you "discuss" your event or accomplishment, make sure you push yourself to think analytically. Don't spend too much time merely describing and summarizing the event or accomplishment. A strong essay needs to show off your ability to explore the significance of the event you have chosen. You need to look inward and analyze how and why the event caused you to grow and mature. If the essay doesn't reveal some solid selfanalysis, then you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt. The admissions officers want to get to know you as an individual, and the essay is one of the only places on your application where you can put forth your personality, interests and passions. To test out your essay, give it to an acquaintance or teacher who doesn't know you particularly well, and ask what that person learned about you from reading the essay. Ideally, the response will be exactly what you want the college to learn about you.