So, it’s official. You’ve decided it’s time to start working on your Common App. Good for you! Great even. You’re not procrastinating! That is, until you looked at the prompts and thought, “I have absolutely NO IDEA what to say, let alone guess what the colleges are even looking for.” This thought perhaps made you panicked, sick, ill, malaised (i.e. good SAT word, write it down), and forced you to have visions of working at a donut shop for the rest of your life, (not that there’s anything wrong with that). Perhaps you had plans though of potentially setting off for Harvard, Princeton, Yale, or some other picturesque U.S. school to watch football games, meet great life-long friends, STUDY and get an excellent education, and just do something incredibly solid and interesting with your life…but then messed it all up with the Common App and destroyed the dream. Done. OVER. Donut?
Well, stop worrying. We’re going to go through the prompts one by one, and if you take away my key points from each of the questions, you’re going to do more than fine.
Prompt #1: 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.
This essay is a great chance to show your uniqueness, your individuality, what makes you different, and college admissions officers LOVE different. Did you hear that? They read so many applications, that they truly gravitate towards those students who are unique and stand out. So, do you have something unique in your background? Have you done something unusual? Is there something different about your family that makes you interesting? Here is where you write about what makes you different from others in your school. What does make you different from your friends. Remember, different = interesting.
PROMPT #2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Make sure you answer each of the questions stated in this prompt and you’ll do fine. Mostly though, you want to pick a negative experience (a “failure”) that then has a positive spin — that shows your self-reflection and ability to pick yourself up and move forward stronger than before! This essay is a good choice if STRENGTH and FORTITUDE are two of your major traits.
PROMPT #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
This essay is here to show your character. What are you passionate about? What are you willing to stand up for, even in the face of adversity? As with prompt #2, make sure you address all of the questions within the question – that is part of what you are being tested on. This essay is a good choice if you have very strong morals and values and are willing to make a public stand. Always be aware of your audience though, and take into consideration how things will be perceived by the admissions committee. In other words, choose your battles wisely.
PROMPT #4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
I like this essay, as it is the most creative. Again, make sure you address all three points, and focus equally on description as well as self-reflection: why this is meaningful to YOU. I’ve read very lyrical essays that describe a place, only to not understand its significance for the student. Similarly, I’ve read very factual essays for this prompt that have no description or emotional feeling or language. Balance both, and do it in a creative way, and you’ll win by giving your reader insight into your world.
PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
What the admissions committee is looking for here, is growth. Your growth. That moment when your world changed. Pick an event that clearly shows how you were before, and then how you were different after. Again, as with the other essays, they are looking for self-reflection. This essay also allows for a lot of creativity and I have found sometimes the smaller, less formal and more personal events or moments in life make for the best, most moving essays – and that advice goes for all of the prompts, above.