New Common Application Prompts for 2017-18:
TOPIC OF CHOICE IS BACK!!
Great news for you college-bound juniors who are just starting to think about your college application essays.
If you need to write your personal statement essay for The Common Application, they just made it a lot easier.
Instead of having to pick one topic from their list of suggested 5 prompts, you can now write about ANYTHING YOU WANT.
College Application Essays: How to Answer Prompt 3 of the Common App.
Who or What Have You Confronted Lately?
When you read the five options for your Common Application essay, one prompt probably will appeal to you first off. Others you will skim and choose to ignore.
This is how I felt about the third prompt–“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
It just didn’t inspire any topic ideas for me, and I assumed it was less likely than the others to work for you, too.
But when I gave this question a little more thought, I realized that I challenged a belief while I was in my teens. And it was a very big deal.
I was raised in a religion that is considered relatively radical and unusual, and when I started to think for myself (sometime around junior high) I decided it wasn’t for me.
I was not popular with my parents, some of my friends or my parochial school at the time, and it was hard sticking to my guns. Although rejecting my religion was challenging, painful and lonely, the process truly defined who I was and what I believed. It would have made an excellent essay topic.
So there. I have to eat my negative words about that third essay question.
I wonder what other possible topics could be for that question, besides challenging a religion that has been imposed upon you.
How about a gender belief? Or racial or cultural one? Could you stretch the meaning of a “belief or idea” into an assumption, opinion or prejudice? I think so, especially if you indicate that you have done that in your essay.
I also think if you try to think of a time someone or something first challenged you on a certain “belief or idea,” and then you challenged back, you might find more real-life examples to write about.
For instance, someone tried to hold you back just because you were a girl, and what you did about that (the belief you challenged: girls are inferior to guys).
Or someone kept you out of an activity or group just because of your race or heritage, and what you did about that. I’m imaging some type of confrontation or speaking up or fighting back (peacefully, of course).
I like that the prompt asks you pointedly to also include “what prompted you to act,” so you include some action in your essay.
It’s always a good thing when something actually happens in these college application essays.
The last question in this prompt, “Would you make the same decision again,” is meant to encourage you to look back and reflect, analyze and evaluate that decision to challenge the belief or idea.
A Sample Outline for Prompt 3
If you want to answer this prompt, here’s one way you could structure your essay to engage the reader with your challenging action, and go on to explain why you did it:
1. Start with an anecdote that describes a moment or “time” when you challenged the belief or idea you are writing about. This could simply be the conversation where you confronted someone about it, or some action you took to protest or react to that belief or idea.
2. After a paragraph or two where you described an example of a specific “time” you challenged the belief or idea (or assumption, stereotype, opinion, prejudice, etc.), then go back and give us the back story about this time. What led up to it?
3. Then start to explain how that incident made you feel, what made you decide you didn’t accept it, “what prompted you to act,” how you responded to it, and what you learned in the process. And of course, would you do it again?
The most important part of writing about this prompt, I believe, is to bring some action to your essay. It could be dull and long-winded if you only talk about your beliefs or ideas. Focus on a specific example where something happened and your essay is sure to be compelling.
The larger lesson here, at least that I’ve learned, in reviewing the five options for writing your college admissions essays for these new Common Application prompts is to try your best to think about and brainstorm ideas for each one. Even if one jumps out at you, give the others a chance. I think I could have written a great essay if I had thought more about my own time I challenged a belief or idea!
If are you ready to tell your story, check out my Jumpstart Guide and posts about how to find a great topic, tell a story and write an anecdote.
My new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!, offers more complete steps and advice on how to write these types of “narrative,” or storytelling, essays, if you want more help:
If you are working on your Common Application, you have five prompts (or essay questions) to choose from for your essay.
The challenge is to pick the prompt that you can answer to write your best, most effective essay.
In previous years, you had the option to write about anything you wanted, called “Topic of Choice,” or number 6.
But that’s no longer an option. The new challenge is to find the prompt that gives you the most freedom to write about what you want—-in other words, make it your “topic of choice.”
This decision, however, can be like walking a tightrope.
It’s possible, but challenging, and above all, you must try hard not to fall off.
If you push your answer so far out there, and it no longer appears to actually “answer” or address the prompt, that’s not a good thing.
College admissions officers, especially those at the most competitive and elite schools, are often looking for reasons to bump your essay.
It’s not that they don’t want to be fair, but there are so many applicants and essays to read and everyone looks so equally attractive these days.
They only need one reason to make their pile smaller. So make sure not to give them one!
It’s a hard call. In order to standout from the crowd, you need to take some risks with your essay’s message, style or voice.
At the same time, you need to stay within the parameters of the prompts or you will be weeded out.
Here are my suggestions for how to stick the tightrope:
1. Spend enough time brainstorming ideas for each of the five prompts before you decide upon one.
If you can find the right prompt, which inspires you and you find a great topic to write about, then you are already closer to writing a standout essay that doesn’t cross the line.
2. Once you pick a prompt, try to find a creative way to respond to it.
Don’t just answer it directly, but use it as a springboard to develop other related ideas and express other ideas and opinions. Put your own spin on it.
This is how you expand your essay beyond the narrow margins of the prompt, and show how you are a creative, original, imaginative and resourceful thinker and writer.
This is how you standout. But if you push it too far, you risk sounding as though you have ignored them.
My suggestion is that no matter how far out you take your story, ideas or opinions, link them back to the prompt by using some of the prompt’s words or language.
This will flag the reader that you are still addressing the prompt, even if you have taken your essay in an inspired direction.
I have copied the new Common Application Prompts, and bolded key words in each one that you could include in your essay to keep it connected to the prompt:
Here are the new prompts for the Common App (click each prompt to find my post on how to respond to it!):
- Some students have a background, story, interest or talent 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.
- The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
- 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.
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
3. Once you are done with your essay, have a friend or parent read it and get their opinion on whether it’s clear that your essay answered the prompt you picked.
You could even have them read your essay and then see if they can pick which prompt you wrote about.
If they don’t think it’s evident, and you agree with them, try to work in some language that links it to the prompt.
If you want help finding a great topic, check out my Jumpstart Guide
. Best of luck!
Yesterday, I wrote about how you can answer Prompt #2 of The Common Application and write about recovering from a failure.
Coincidentally, our favorite motivator Oprah Winfrey stood up in front of the graduating class at Harvard University just last weekend and talked about the same topic.
As you see, failing has an upside.
If you decide to “recount an incident or time” when you experienced failure for your college application essay, I presented some ideas in my last post on how to find a compelling story.
I advised you to think in broad terms about failure, and how almost any problem you have faced could fall into that category.
But once you recount a story about a time you “failed” in some way in your essay, you will also need to address the second part of the prompt: How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Telling an engaging story at the beginning is important for a standout essay because it serves to grab your reader and hook their attention at the start.
But the second part of the essay, where you explain what that experience meant to you, is equally important. This is where you can show admissions officers how you think, what you care about and how you learn. (more…)
College Application Essays: Tell a Story to Answer Prompt 2
When Messing Up is a Good Thing
I almost like Prompt #2 as much as Prompt #1 of the new essay questions for The Common Application: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn.
This essay prompt is music to my storytelling ears!
Why? Because first it literally asks you to tell a story (“recount an incident or time”) in your essay, which I think creates the most engaging and meaningful essays!
And secondly, it wants you to tell a story about a time you “failed.”
I know you might think the last thing you want to tell your college about is a time you screwed up, but it’s actually perfect.
I’ve talked many times in this blog how problems make the best stories.
Well, a failure is a type of problem, and a terrific one at that.
Problems (including failures) are naturally interesting to read about—who doesn’t love a juicy problem?
It’s much more fun to read about things that go wrong than when they go smoothly.
Think about the news, or your favorite movie or T.V. show! (more…)