common application prompt 6


Big Red Flag on this New
Common Application Prompt 6!

The Common Application added two new prompts for 2017-18.

Now students can choose from seven prompts (instead of five) to inspire their personal statement “Common App” essay.

The seventh new Common Application prompt basically allows you to write about anything you want, and you can learn more about it and the new prompts in New Common Application Prompts for 2017-18.

The other prompt, the new Common Application Prompt 6, essentially asks you to write about one of your intellectual passions.

The New Common Application Prompt 6

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? 

I like Common Application prompt 6 because it gives you a chance to highlight your heady side (how you think).

Because it has a more concept-related theme and is new, I believe many students will be attracted to it.

However, I believe there could be a potential pitfall in writing an essay about one of your intellectual passions.

No matter how much you love any “topic, idea or concept,” it can still be challenging to write about in a way that is interesting and compelling.

It’s not impossible, but can be tricky.

First, there’s the trap of writing an essay that is more like an academic essay instead of a personal statement because the topic itself is “intellectual.”

It’s critical that whatever “topic, idea or concept” you write about for Common Application prompt 6 allows you to make most of the essay about YOU—as opposed to a report-like essay simply about whatever “topic, idea or concept” you decide to write about.

For example, if you want to write about the “topic” of climate change (because you feel passionately about that topic), try not to make your essay a piece only about what that is, why it’s a concern and why it fascinates you.

Instead, search for a way to make the topic more personal in your essay; to personalize your topic. The goal is to use your “topic, idea or concept” to showcase your “intellectual curiosity.”

“Intellectual curiosity” is a fancy way of saying how you think and learn.

common application prompt 6

How to Personalize Common Application Essay Prompt 6

Two Hot Tips for Common Application prompt 6: Include a story and a problem (usually these go together anyway).

Look for a personal story to illustrate the main point you want to make about whatever “topic, idea or concept” you write about.

(Don’t believe the Common Application folks are looking for real-life stories in these essays? They stated it directly on their web site announcing the new essay prompts for 2017: The goal of these (essay prompt) revisions is to help all applicants, regardless of background or access to counseling, see themselves and their stories within the prompts.)

Find a real-life experience or moment to illustrate what inspired your interest or something related to your interest in this topic. That way, the essay naturally shifts to being more about you than simply the topic.

One idea would be to start your essay recreating one of the moments when you “lost track of time”  or were “captivated” by your “topic, idea or concept.”

Then you can go onto explain why it “captivates” you so much (ie, why you love it so much), and then share how you sought to learn more.

common application prompt 6

Here’s another Red Flag
for Common Application Essay prompt 6:

If you simply answer each of the questions in this prompt, you will have a potentially bland explanation of why the “topic, idea or concept” excites you.

You will only “tell” us about it and how you learned more about it. Good chance this won’t reveal a lot about you and how you think (reason, analyze, etc.) and what you value—your “intellectual curiosity.”

That is why it’s helpful to work in some type of challenge/problem/obstacle related to your “topic, idea or concept” so you create a platform in your essay to share your intellectual curiosity beyond a general explanation.

Ideally, you want to show your critical thinking, reasoning, analytical ability and insights in action in a personal statement and your essay for Common Application prompt 6.

Just because whatever topic, idea or concept you chose to write about is fascinating, both on its own and to you personally, does not necessarily mean your essay will be equally compelling.

It’s up to you to find a way to feature your own personality as it relates to the “topic, idea or concept” to make your essay meaningful.

common application prompt 6

How to Inject Interest in Common Application Prompt 6
to Create Interest

Another way to inject interest into an essay about what turns you on intellectually is to think of a “time” that you faced any type of obstacle (which is a type of problem) learning more about the “topic, concept or idea” you are writing about.

Or any “time” where your passion or pursuit of learning more caused you some type of problem or challenge.

By introducing a problem or obstacle related to your passion or curiosity in a certain “topic, concept or idea,” you can then go onto explain how you handled that issue and what you learned from it.

(When you share what happened with that problem or obstacle, you will naturally tell a little story. Bingo! You will have both an engaging personal story and an interesting problem to feature in your essay.)

I know this sounds hard, but I guarantee that using some type of problem related to your “topic, idea or concept” will juice up your essay in a natural way, and help you work in more about yourself and how you think, feel and learn.

What you don’t want is an essay that goes…

When I learned about the concept of quantum physics in high school, I was hooked. It was so complex and interesting, and made me think in ways I never did before. I went home and read as much as I could on the Internet and checked out books from the library to learn as much as I could….

Your fascination for quantum physics could be a good topic, but you would need to make it personal. The writing above was too general, and didn’t reveal anything about the writer’s personality or character.

Notice how there was nothing personal or specific. No story and no problem. Dullsville,

Quantum physics is fascinating, but why did it hook YOU? That’s where you need to inject something about your background or experience that shows the reader more about your interest.

After you include a story the relates to the “topic, idea or concept” you are passionate about, and how you pursued learning more about it, don’t stop there.

Shift into what you learned from that pursuit to dig deeper into your intellectual curiosity.

Here are a few questions you could ask related to your “topic, idea or concept”:

  • Did you learn anything you never expected to learn about it, or YOURSELF?
  • Share both the good and the bad about what you learned. (Nothing is black and white.)
  • Did you learn any life lessons from delving into your “topic, concept or idea” (something you learned about YOURSELF)?
  • Why does what YOU learned about your “topic, idea or concept” matter–to you, to others and to the world?
  • Did learning about this topic, concept or idea lead you to other ideas or passions in your life?
  • While trying to learn more about your topic, concept or idea, what did you learn about YOURSELF and how you think and learn?
  • Looking back at your exploration of this topic, concept or idea, what did you learn about what YOU value most in your life?
  • Are you still learning about this topic, idea or concept? Is so, why is that good, too?

For college admission counselors, English teachers, parents and educational counselors who have worked with the Common Application prompts in the past:

This new Common Application prompt 6 reminds me of the old Common App prompt: “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.”

It was ditched by The Common Application folks last year, purportedly because it failed to inspire strong personal statements.

Word on the street among admissions counselors and college application essay wonks like myself (and based on what I saw with my students) was that it prompted dull and often sappy essays.

I believe this new Common Application prompt 6 has the same potential pitfalls.

Instead of describing a place, it asks about a “topic, idea or concept.” Instead of being “perfectly content” there, it should make you “lose all track of time.” Same ideas. Same pitfall.

People like to say, oh yay, a positive prompt like this Common Application prompt 6 because it doesn’t directly ask the students to include some type of problem or “bad thing”.

But there’s a good reason for soliciting problems in essays. (Notice almost all the other prompts include some type of problem, in the form of obstacles, stories, setback, challenge, failure, problem, question, etc.)

There’s good reason for this: When students wrote about their blissful places, the essays were often terrible because they were boring.


It’s hard to write an essay about what you love if nothing happens. I love the library, or I love visiting my grandparents or I love hiking in the woods. Those are great things to love, but if all you write about is how much you love them and why, chances are the essay isn’t all that compelling.

What makes essays interesting are stories. Something has to happen. And for something to happen, something has to go sideways—a problem.

If you knocked over a shelf of books onto the head librarian, or your grandparents home flooded during a hurricane or you came face-to-face with a mama bear on your hike, then your essay could be interesting.

Why? Because we suddenly feel for you and want to know how you handled the problem and what happened. This is why real-life stories are so powerful and the best college admissions essays include them.

My guess is that Common Application prompt 6 will inspire a lot of dull essays for the same reason as the old “perfectly content” one: It asks students to write about something they love.

It will be up to counselors, teachers and parents to help students push themselves with this essay prompt to make sure something happens, that it includes not only reflection and thinking but an experience or moment.

This is a generalization, but I believe the very students who will want to write about Common Application prompt 6 are the same ones who will need to be encouraged and coached to make sure to not let it get too scientific or weighed down in esoteric or technical language or theme.

These are often the same students (those who are interested in chemistry, gaming, engineering, technology, physics, computer science, etc.) who need that extra push to find ways to make their essay readable, personal and non-academic.

The magic bullet?

Find a juicy problem (a personal experience) that related to whatever “topic, idea or concept” you write about!

Once you have a little story, you are on your way to an excellent essay.

Here’s a sample outline that is intended to help you get started and make sure to address the questions in the prompt. There are many ways to approach your essay, so use this if it makes sense and feel free to take it in any direction you want.

Here’s a Sample Outline for Common Application Essay Prompt 6

  1. Start by sharing a moment, incident or experience that illustrates something about (or is related to, or an example of) the topic, idea or concept you are writing about. Try to include some type of problem (an obstacle, challenge, mistake, setback, etc.) This is called an “anecdote.” (1 to 2 paragraphs)
  2. Back story: Now provide some background or context for that moment, incident or experience and explain more about your topic, idea or concept. Include your main point: Why you love it so much.
  3. Share more about your experience with this topic, idea or concept using other real-life examples that further support your main point (Why you love it so much). If you included some type of “problem” related to your topic, idea of concept, explain how you handled it.
  4. Go onto share the steps you took to learn more about your topic, idea or concept. If you included a problem, this is where you can go into the step you took to deal with it—and then share what you learned. Include how you thought about it, how you felt, who you worked with, etc.
  5. MOST IMPORTANT: Reflect (look back) on this experience related to your topic, idea or concept and describe what you learned—not just about the topic, idea or concept–but what you learned about yourself (how you learn, what you value, etc.)
  6. Link back to the start of your essay and give a status update on that problem or moment you described at the start of your essay. Then restate the main point that you learned about your topic,idea or concept and about YOURSELF. End with how you expect to apply what you learned in your future dream and goals.

Please don’t let all my warning scare you off this prompt if it speaks to you.

More Brainstorming Tips for Common App Prompt 6

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Good luck!