If you are a rising high school senior ready to apply for colleges in the U.S., you probably know something about the Common Application platform. More than 800 colleges, including all ivy league schools and a vast majority of other elite colleges, accept the Common Application. On the Common Application platform, applicants fill out commonly required college application information once and may submit to up to 20 colleges that accept it. One of the critical components of the Common Application is an essay of up to 650 words, where applicants write something (hopefully reflecting their own characters) in response to one of the assigned prompts. Once the high school junior year is behind you, colleges begin to loom large above horizon. At this juncture, most of your college application materials, such as GPA, standard tests, in-school and out-of-school activities, and teacher recommendation letters, are already solidified or having limited room to improve. In fact, college application essays are the only important things that are still completely undone and under your control. Since most elite colleges adopt holistic admission processes, college admission officers try very hard to look beyond applicant’s high school profile and performance statistics. They want to evaluate applicants in terms of what kind of people they are, how much they fit in with college’s mission, and how well they contribute to the desired incoming student composition. Together with teacher recommendation letters, your college application essays are windows for college admission officers to observe your humanity, personality, and passion. Among all college application essays you are to submit, the Common Application essay is the most important. It’s not only among the longest in length, but also the one that you will send to almost all colleges you apply for (all other essays are college specific in nature). As a result, if you write a lousy Common Application essay, the negative impact will fall on every college you apply for. On the other hand, if you nail the essay, it will be a huge leg up on your chance to be admitted.
The prompts for the Common Application essay have been largely stable over years, with only occasional adjustments from time to time. The seven prompts for the new 2019 – 2020 college application year are the same as of the year before. College applicants may choose any one prompt to write their essay. They are even allowed to submit one they’ve written in the past. The different essay prompts are to help college applicants to find the best angle to reflect on their own humanity, personality, and passion. Although applicants are not required to compose essays that approach the length limit of 650 words, it’s always a good idea to fully utilize the allocated space.
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. The key phrase here is “their application would be incomplete without it”. This means that you essay should reflect on something that’s not revealed elsewhere in your college application materials. Maybe you are really into a sport, even though you are not a strong athlete, but you have poured your heart into the sport and you feel college admission officers should look at your GPA with that context in mind. Maybe you came from a non-English speaking immigrant family and feel admission officers should give more weight on your contribution to school newspaper. This prompt used to be very popular, but it fall out of the top three prompts last year. Asian applicants from upper-middle-class families and top school districts could hardly make impacts under this prompt. In fact, unless you have some seriously unconventional stuff that worth mentioning, it’s better off to work on one of the other prompts.
Prompt 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? (21.1% applicants chose this prompt last year) Asian high school students tend to have a relatively sheltered life. Their families are frequently dedicated to education. As a result, the “obstacles” Asian applicants encountered may not sound so much for large number of college admission officers, who may have suffered far worse situations in their own past. It’s hard to make an impact. The key phrase for this prompt is “what did you learn from the experience”. An one time illness may not give you much to learn other than cliches such as “life is precious” or “be kind to others”. Losing your championship final may not teach you much more than “work harder” or “accept failure”. On the other hand, for those boys who fumbled their 9th grade performance and turned around to ace at 11th grade, this prompt could be their golden opportunity to explain the transition from aimless also-run to academic powerhouse, and what they have learned during the process. It’d be a huge win if they manage to convince college admission officers to overlook their 9th grade GPA (it actually happens).
Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? This prompt aims squarely at those applicants who are fiercely independent and free thinking. Colleges love them. Unfortunately, when Asian applicants try this prompt, overwhelming majority of them end up complaining about the oppressive nature of their culture heritage as well as heavy handed parenting. It’s a hopeless situation. No matter what happened and how you felt, letting loose your bullets toward your own culture heritage and your parents wouldn’t win you any friends. It will totally backfire. If you intend to emphasize the independent and free thinking side of you to college admission officers, avoid large social issues (you have no idea what college admission officers believe on those issues) and focus on those with only local impacts, such as challenging high school lunch break policy or advocate a more relaxed dress code at school. However, if you are not already someone who stands up for what he/she believes, don’t pretend to be one now. You can do better with another prompt.
Prompt 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. This is not the nerdy prompt. If you are a nerdy person, it’s better to try the prompt 6. The key phrase here is “anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale”. The stuff you did or desire to do must have major impact on you at personal level. It’s not as simple as to describe a summer internship you did in a fancy university laboratory. If you built a tickle alarm clock to wake yourself up after all other kinds of alarm clocks failed. That’s personal. If you are dreaming of constructing a stair climbing wheelchair so your grandpa will be able to easily get out of his apartment to breath fresh air, that’s lovely and personal. You can have fun talking about your potential design of a dream machine. College admission officers love to see your can-do attitude and ingenuity in solving problems close to home. You really don’t have to volunteer in Africa in order to make a difference. However, you may want to avoid writing about “ethical dilemma”. It’s messy and you may inadvertently make a fool of yourself.
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. (23.7% applicants chose this prompt last year) College applicants obviously love this prompt. It’s a forever popular prompt. Among all prompts given, this one is the closest to everyday high school life. It’s true that everyone grow up a lot during high school years. Many accomplished a great deal. As a result, most applicants can find something to write about under this prompt. Yet the biggest danger here is for applicants to relist all their accomplishments for the last three years. It would be a huge waste of opportunity. Admission officers already recorded those accomplishments and expect to learn something fresh from essays. The key phrase here is “sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself”. You want to write a story about that one particular accomplishment or event during high school that (in hindsight) became a turning point in your life and ignited your latest rally. College admission officers love to know what fueled your personal drive. You have the potential to score big here. However, try not to base your story on “realization”. It’s too double-edged and could lead you into nasty sinkholes.
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? You may not be a sport star, a music ace, a debate champion, and a top GPA owner all at the same time. Yet you may be really into something that, every time you engage it, you are so immersed that you lose track of time. A lot of parents would immediately point out that most boys seem passionate about video games. If that’s the only thing you are really into and you know the inside and out of your game, why not write about it. This prompt is tailor made to give those applicants who may not have the best overall high school performance, yet are singularly great at something in particular. College admission officers love this kind of applicants. However, without you telling your story to them, they may not recognize it from rest of your college application materials. The key phrase of this prompt is “What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?”. Are you a self-starter? Can you pick up a book or watch a YouTube video to learn whatever you want to learn? Do you require your parents to hire expensive tutor or coach to teach you anything? You want to show admission officers that, even your academic records are not so stellar, you have enough passion and fuel to excel in college and beyond.
Prompt 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. (24.1% applicants chose this prompt last year) The popularity of this prompt is indeed quite alarming. It’s telling that so many college applicants have no clue whatsoever on essay writing. The existence of this catch-all prompt should have more to do with avoiding complaints than any real usefulness. It’s very hard to convince college admission officers that you actually have very little to say under all six previous prompts. By denying the first six prompts, you have raised the bar so high that it would be next to impossible for your essay to wow any admission officers. It’s better to go back to the drawing board and work on one of the first six prompts. You can do it! Although you could basically pick any prompt and write about whatever cool stuff, it’s better to keep practice but delay your decision until you settle on a solid strategy to market yourself to college admission officers. For any particular marketing strategy, some essay prompts would do well to further your agenda, while others may hamper your efforts. Applying for college is no different from convincing unconcerned customers to buy a new product. In college application, you are the new product and college admission officers are indifferent customers. Even if you are superb on all fronts comparing with your peers, you still won’t prevail without presenting yourself under the best light and having your marketing messages effectively delivered. It’s your job to put your best foot forward to convince admission officers that their colleges (not you!) would benefit from having you on their campus.
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