The Common App Prompts

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
 appeals to a broad spectrum of applicants.
 Everyone has a "story" to tell - events or
circumstances central to the development of our
 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
 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
 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.
"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
 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
 Keep
"diversity" in mind as you write your
 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
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
student who can learn from failure
is a student who will be successful in
 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
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
 “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
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
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
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
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
 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
 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
 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
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
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
 Look back at the big picture and put your action
in context.
What were the results of challenging the belief or
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
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
 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.
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
 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
 The
end of the prompt is most
 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
 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
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
 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
 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
 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
 overcome or learn to appreciate a disability or
 win an award or recognition working by yourself
or with a team.
 successfully launch your own business.
 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.
 pass a milestone in your life such as the first day
of high school or your first time driving by
 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.
 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
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
Keep in mind that the "accomplishment or event"
doesn't have to be a triumphant moment in your
 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
 Part of becoming an adult is learning to accept
our own shortcomings, and recognizing that
failure is both inevitable and an opportunity to
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
 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
 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.

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