College Application Essays

How To Answer the New Common App Questions

The best news about his year’s Common Application (2015-16) is that you can still write about almost any topic you want—these prompts are very open-ended. And they also added a new prompt (#4) that is perfect for helping you tell a great story!

Because the prompts present such broad questions, it’s up to you to focus the point of your essay. If you try to answer one of these questions with a broad, general essay, it  will end up dull, cliche and in the reject pile.



Here’s my attack plan for you. First, read all the questions (listed below). If any of them generate an idea for you, that’s great. Go for it. If not, my advice is to stick with prompt one, two or four of the five prompts.  To me, each of those prompts is trying to help you to write a personal narrative–that is a story-like essay that shows the reader something about what makes you tick, what you care about, what sets you apart from the crowd. This blog is packed with helpful posts on exactly how to find a relevant story, such as How to Write an Anecdote, and tell it in a compelling way.

One of my best tips is to try to remember something that happened to you (a story), then share it in a condensed, narrative, fiction-like style (called an anecdote), and then reflect upon what you learned from it. Voila–a great essay! Notice how Prompts 1 and 2, ask for a story or “a time,” which is perfect. To land an interesting story, make sure it involves some type of problem (What is literally what Prompt 4 asks for!).

 Be Especially Careful With Prompt 5!

Beware of the last one, number 5, too. Stay clear of writing about your becoming an Eagle Scout, your big 16 birthday or your Bat Mitzvah or Quinceranera. Big cliche danger with this one. Although these are impressive milestones, they can be mind-numbing to read about. I wrote this post on how to write about the transition to adulthood for Prompt 5 without falling into the common pitfalls.

Here are the new prompts for the Common App (click each prompt to find my post on how to respond to it!):
  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.
  2. 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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

My favorite change is the expanded word count. Instead of being limited to 500 words, you can expound up to 650. This just gives you some breathing room to relay your story or “anecdote” and have room to also analyze, reflect and explain what you learned from it.

If you are reading this before summer 2015, you have plenty of time to brainstorm ideas and work on finding a great story. Here is my favorite post to get you started: Find a Great Problem.

Also, I just published an ebook that is a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay. If you want help  focusing your topic, and finding and telling a compelling anecdote, this guide works perfectly with most of the Common App prompts. It’s available on Amazon as Kindle ebook or paperback, or a direct download here. It costs $9.98 and you can order using the button below.

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