Pro-tips to Complete Your 2017-2018 Common Application Essay


Ah, Common App essays. One piece of writing that you'll be pleased to finish and submit sooner, rather than later!

In case you missed it, Common Application announced this year's prompts. Here are my pro-tips for 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]

Opportunities: All admissions officers want to know the answer to the question: what makes you unique? This prompt is a safe choice to respond to the question about "what makes you unique" because you can highlight one quality of your personality, background or experiences that make you distinguishable from other candidates.

Dangers: There are a couple of dangers here. The first is that few teenagers truly understand what makes them unique. The second is that you could inadvertently focus too much on your awards and accomplishments, and not enough on your personal qualities.

Pro-tip: This essay choice is recommended for students that have truly unique circumstances within the elite college admissions context (e.g. first-generation college student, accomplished athlete, students who undertake part-time jobs).

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]

Opportunities: When my students write an essay, I always tell them to remember that Americans love a "Hollywood happy ending." In other words, you want to tell a great story, and end it on a high note. Through this essay, you can demonstrate your humility, maturity, and resilience in the face of adversity; how you came out stronger despite the obstacles you faced. If you can effectively tell this story, you are likely to be seen very positively by admissions officers.

Dangers: There are a couple of dangers here. The first is how to identify a failure or setback of yours. Many teenagers feel they have to be perfect all of the time. Other students just haven't had any major difficulties yet. If choosing this one, get feedback from non-parental adults (and if you're international, make sure at least one of these adults is an American - different cultures use different definitions for "failure") to ensure that what you are choosing as a failure is truly one (e.g. getting an "F" on one exam won't count as a failure - unless there's a deeper backstory beyond the grade itself).

Pro-tip: This essay choice is recommended for student leaders who can describe an organization-related failure or setback where the learning from the setback can be demonstrated. A good framework to write this essay is:

  • Situation: Describe the context/scene within which the failure/setback took place.
  • Task: What was necessary to accomplish within this context/scene? 
  • Action: What did you do, given the factors within this context/scene?
  • Result: What happened due to the actions you took?
  • Learning: What did you learn from this experience? 

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

Opportunities: This is a great prompt for students who tend to question norms and beliefs. If this sounds like you, use this prompt to describe one instance where you productively challenged a situation. For example, one student, identifying a need, was inspired to start a non-violent communication club so that students could discuss political issues compassionately.

Dangers: One danger of this prompt is you could very easily sound like you are someone who does not along well with others. Questioning established beliefs is okay for this prompt, but demonstrating disrespect toward others is not.

Pro-tip: This essay choice is another great one for student leaders to tell a story about how they filled a void or made an important change through their own initiative(s) at school or within their community. The topic you choose should demonstrate that you were motivated by a selfless pursuit toward the greater good in challenging the status quo.

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]

Opportunities: I'm a huge fan of this topic because it allows students to get into detail about their approach to problem-solving. This prompt provides a great opportunity to tell a memorable story and show humility, maturity, and resilience in the face of adversity.

Dangers: One danger is not being thorough or systematic enough for the reader to follow the problem and your solution to the problem. If choosing "what steps could be taken," then the problem should be larger than what you could feasibly solve during high school.

Pro-tip: This prompt works best for logically-minded students. Note that there is a trend among elite colleges to encourage undergraduate research, so writing about a research topic would be an excellent choice here. A framework to write this essay is:

  • Situation: Describe the problem or research question.
  • Task: What was necessary for you to do to solve the problem (or to research this particular topic)? 
  • Action: What did you decide to do to solve the problem (what methods did you use to research this particular topic)? 
  • Result: What happened in reference to what you did to solve the problem (what were the results/outcomes of your research)? 
  • Learning: What did you learn from this experience?

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

Opportunities: This revised prompt provides a great chance for students to demonstrate their unique culture, family circumstances, and personal qualities. Here, you might talk about what you learned from a confirmation, Quinceañera. or becoming an older sibling.

Dangers: Some students may write about a life event that is quite common to Americans, such as a graduation or the first day of high school. It is difficult to create a unique angle on these types of common experiences. Also, note that you can discuss an accomplishment here - but you need to have a unique take on the "I won, I won!" feeling you got from winning an award.

Pro-tip: As with the other prompts, make sure to display your depth of the emotion within these circumstances rather than wading into all the details surrounding the circumstance.

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]

Opportunities: This new prompt is perfect for students who get excited by a great book, a wonderful film, an incredible piece of music, or an amazing film. For this essay, discuss one intricate concept from one of these types of works, and tell a story about how that idea sparked your imagination. and what you did in responding to that spark. Another colleague, Alison Parker, suggested that students can use an intellectual idea like a theorem for math or physics. 

Dangers: This prompt seems limited to people who love art/music/film/literature or who have a passion for thinking about intellectual concepts. Also, depending on the reader (admissions is subjective, after all), you may turn off the reader if you talk about a work of art/music/film/literature/intellectual work that they find controversial or off-putting.

Pro-tip: This is a great prompt for someone who "geeks out" over arts or intellectual challenges.  In addition to describing the idea/concept that excites you, the prompt also wants you to disclose how you process your thoughts about your excitement; whether this is through journaling, discussing them with a friend, or debating them at the debate club. This prompt will help admissions officers learn about what's most important to you, and about how you think.

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 design. [New]

Opportunities: Boundless. This essay topic is best suited for students who are, by nature, creative writers.

Dangers: In most cases, I will discourage my students from answering this prompt. It is too open-ended, and won't necessarily allow students to tailor their messaging with the priorities of the college.

Pro-tip: If you do not like creative writing, avoid this topic completely.

Hope this helps!

Questions? Contact me at aviva at

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