Hot Strategies for All Five of the New Common Application Prompts

College Application Essays

Which Prompt Will You Pick?


UPDATE: Most of this information is still helpful and relevant. However, please see the changes in the NEW Common Application Prompts for 2015-16

If you are ready to brainstorm ideas for your Common Application essays, here’s a great place to start. I’ve written posts on each of the 5 new prompts–including how to focus your answer, to find unique angles and twists,  to structure your essay, to tell a story with an anecdote, and topics to avoid, on and on.

Here are the new prompts for the 2013 Common Application essays
(click each prompt to find my post on how to respond to it!):


  1. Some students have a background or story or 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.
  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.

Check out my posts on how to answer the two prompts for the University of California essays.

If you find these helpful, but still need more help in the actual writing of your narrative-style essay, consider buying a copy of my new book: Escape Essay Hell! You can order off my blog here or it’s now also available on Amazon via Kindle. luck!

The Essay Tightrope: How Far to Push the New Common App Prompts


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!):
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!





Should You Choose Prompt 5 for Your Common App Essay? Maybe…

PLEASE NOTE! This prompt has changed for 2017-18. This post is now obsolete, although you can still find helpful general information on how to think about prompts and write your essays. 

The revised prompt 5 is: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

I will be writing a new post on how to address this revised prompt in upcoming weeks…stay tuned.

College Application Essays

Watch Out for Boy Scouts and Bar Mitzvahs in Prompt 5!


I’ve been dragging my heels about writing on this last option of the new Common Application prompts.

It’s not the worst one (I’m saving Prompt 3 for last), but I think you could easily ensnare yourself on this essay option:

Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

The biggest pitfall could be if you choose a common accomplishment or event that could address this prompt, but not necessarily result in an interesting essay.

For example, some classic “transitions” into adulthood are graduations, birthdays (your big 16 or your quinceanera) or advancements within other groups, such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, your church or volunteer organizations.

These are wonderful achievements, but they don’t necessarily translate into compelling essay topics.

Would you want to read about someone’s Eagle Scout project or their Bat Mitzvah?

Giant yawn!

 To find an interesting mini-story (also called an anecdote) about “a time” that marked your transition into the adult world, I would start trolling your past for any type of problems you have faced in recent years.

If you confronted and dealt with a difficult problem, chances are you grew up a little bit when you wrestled with it. Read more about how problems come in many shapes and sizes.

Look for an incident, issue or experience where you faced a challenge, an obstacle or something that was difficult to deal with, and share how you handled it, and what you learned from it.

While expressing what you learned from that experience, just make sure to link the lessons you learned to the idea of growing up, of maturing, of becoming more like an adult.

What qualities did you develop?

For example, did you start being more responsible?




Examine yourself to see if you changed in anyway from before the problem to after–and develop the idea of personal growth.

That way it will be clear that you addressed the prompt.

If you don’t want to focus on past problems, see if you have any smaller examples that could illustrate the process of growing up–and then use that simple example to expand into the large life lessons.

For instance, maybe your grandmother always made tortillas, and then when she passed away, you set out to learn how to make them yourself.

You could start your essay by describing a moment you watched your grandmother make them, or describe the steps you took to figure out how to make them yourself, and then talk about the larger lesson of learning from others, valuing the past or growing more aware of what really matters.

(Actually, even this example does involve a “problem”: You didn’t know how to make tortillas!)

This example would fall under the idea in the prompt of relaying a life transition involving a “culture,” and if you are fortunate enough to have a rich cultural heritage, I would definitely explore stories within that world.


One last way to think about this prompt is to try to find any times you were surprised by an event, activity or experience where you suddenly had to express more “mature” qualities, or make more “adult-like” decisions–and what you learned from that.

If you can find a twist to your response–something that we wouldn’t necessarily think would be a transition into adulthood that turned out to be one–all the better!

So now that I have thought more about this prompt, I’m liking it more than when I first read it. As long as you can try to find smaller, more unique or unexpected examples of these life transitions, I bet you can write some terrific essays!

Also, here’s my recent post on how to respond to Prompt 2 of the Common Application and how to respond to Prompt 1.

Also, I just published an ebook that is a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay. If want help  focusing your topic, and finding and telling a compelling anecdote, this guide works perfectly with this prompt (as well as Prompts 1 and 2.). It costs <$10 and you can order using the button below.


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