The Common App Prompts DON’T Matter (or Do They?)

In January, the Common Application announced that the essay prompts for the 2018-2019 admission year will remain unchanged. What does this mean for this fall’s applicants? 

The Common App continues to value the qualities it teases out of applicants with the 2017-2018 formulations.

Last year’s applicants gravitated toward essay prompts #1, #7, and #5.

Essay prompt #1 (background, identity, or interest) was chosen by 21.4 per cent of applicants, which is a significant drop from the 2015-2016 application season, in which #1 was chosen by 47 per cent of applicants. 

Perhaps it is due to the prompt’s overwhelming popularity in past years that the frequency at which #1 is chosen has gone down. Essay prompt #7 (topic of choice) got an edge on prompt #1 with 22.5 per cent of applicants choosing it over the other six prompts.

Most popular prompt

But the most popular essay prompt from the 2017-2018 application season was prompt #5, which was chosen by 23.6 per cent of applicants, perhaps due to its 2017-2018 revision.

In the 2015-2016 admission cycle, the prompt read as follows:

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

But in 2016-2017, the prompt was revised to:

Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Note the shift away from accomplishment and towards the transformative quality of an experience. The key terms “personal growth” and “a new understanding of others” urge you to self-reflect, while the word “realization” invites you to discuss negative experiences (that nonetheless had positive results).

Whereas the 2015-2016 formulation stressed “accomplishment” over “event,” the revised version pushes you away from discussing accomplishments. Why? Difficult times tend to be the most transformative.

The Common App doesn’t care if you fail

Essay prompt #5 is not the only prompt that teases out the theme of personal growth. Consider essay prompt #2, for instance.

In 2016-2017, prompt #2 read:

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 did you learn from the experience?

But was revised to the following in 2017-2018:

The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

Through its 2017-2018 reformulation, prompt #2 lures in responses reflecting personal growth. According to Stanford researcher Carol Dweck, language such as “Will I succeed or fail?” may be indicative of a fixed mindset. By de-emphasizing failure in the 2017-2018 formulation of prompt #2, the Common App encourages essays from applicants that exhibit a growth mindset.

The prompts DON’T matter, but…

The Common App prompts are continually tweaked, guiding applicants toward specific kinds of essays. You may have been told that the Common App prompts do not matter.

To an extent, this is true. The prompts themselves do not matter; only your responses to the prompts do. With the addition of prompt #7 (topic of choice) in 2017-2018, it seems as if you can (and should) write whatever you want.

But while you should strive to write an essay that is true to you, the assumption that you have total freedom in what to write in your admissions essay is misguided.

The Common App essay prompts seem broad, but are in fact narrowed by the types of qualities that the essay prompts tease out of applicants. 

We’ve discussed personal growth at length, but the prompts also nudge you towards discussing your passion and drive (prompts #1 and #6) and critical thinking ability (prompts #3 and #4).

Colleges value leadership, intellectual curiosity

And of course we know that colleges value leadership, community, and intellectual curiosity, which applicants are guided towards discussing with prompts such as:

Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

University of California, 2017-2018  

Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.  

University of Michigan, 2017-2018 

I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious. Celebrate your intellectual curiosity. 

Dartmouth College, 2017-2018

In conclusion

Since the Common App essay prompts remain unchanged for the upcoming admission season, we can conclude that colleges (continue to) value the following: personal growth and perseverancepassion and drive, critical thinking ability, intellectual curiosity, leadership, and community contribution.

So, does skillfully (*cough* sneakily) revealing your leadership potential, celebrating your intellectual curiosity, and emphasizing commitment to your community ensure a good admissions essay?

If only it were that simple. 

In addition to exhibiting the qualities discussed above, a great admissions essay retains your personal voice. But on what in the world that is and on how to ensure that your voice comes through in an admissions essay—join us for another post.

VIDEO: Free Ivy Global seminar on Getting into the Top Colleges

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