A New World For College Applicants: The Common Application Releases New Prompts
For the first time in its recent history, the Common Application has changed its essay prompts for the 2013-2014 school year. More than 2 million high school seniors and 460 colleges use this college application platform; it enables students to send out the same application to member colleges. It requires one long essay, whose prompts have never changed.
Starting the upcoming 2013-2014 application year, the Common Applications plans to release new prompts each winter/spring. This change means we must share these prompts with all English teachers and counselors as students at many under-served schools will be at a great disadvantage if they don’t see all of the new prompts early in the college readiness cycle.
Now more than ever, we will have to keep abreast of these new prompts. The Common Application removed the formal topic of your choice prompt, which more than 60% of all previous applicants have used, yet we believe the new first prompt takes that place and provides a great chance for students to share unique stories. Thank goodness that the application still values the unique stories students may want to tell that may not fit neatly into the other four prompts.
The Common Application is also implementing a 250-650 word limit. That is new, and students will learn how they will submit their essays when the new version is released. That word length is certainly sufficient for most students. I do not know if the application will have an additional information section.
In the past, students could adapt their Common Application essay easily for many other universities that have their own applications, including the University of California, University of Texas, and Georgetown. With these prompts, those adaptations can still work but in different ways. Students, teachers, and counselors will need to be creative in developing strategies to help student write the fewest, most powerful essays.
Some ideas already come to mind: Students can use the fourth or fifth prompts and adapt it to their first University of California Essay about describing the world they come from. University of Texas applicants can adapt the third prompt for their second essay about an issue of great importance to them. And who knows, these new essays may prompt other universities to shift their essays, including the many colleges that require additional supplements. Keeping track of the major essays is already a challenge. This new world of essays will make for an interesting year, and potential challenges for under-represented students to keep track of the different prompts.
Teaching students how to work with essay prompts is a part of effective reading and writing development. Please encourage everyone you know who works with high school students to embed the new annual prompts into their ongoing work with students. These essays encourage students to share their voices through specific stories and to ground these stories in their present day meanings for students.
As the essay prompts will shift each year, students will not have prior examples to examine, and I have always been grateful for colleges that share essays they like. With the specific guiding questions for several prompts, I hope that the Common Application board members will provide some advice for students about how to structure their essays and continue to provide examples. The ending of several of the prompts could lead to didactic and artificial essays if taken literally. I am hoping that as in the past, students can embed these questions into their overall essay flow. I imagine some lively debates about the interpretation of these essays, especially their endings, in the upcoming months.
The only prompt that I worry about is the second one about an incident or time of failure. I don’t want students to wallow in that experience as the first part of the prompt may allow, but I want them to spend the majority of the essay focusing on the positive affects of the failure on the students and the powerful lessons learned. The University of Michigan used to have a similar prompt, and this led to many tales of unnecessary woe. That university removed that essay even before transitioning to the Common Application. We hope that students will use this prompt sparingly and turn their stories into evidence of who they are now: amazing students ready to offer unique qualities to their match colleges.
It’s a brand new world in college application essay writing. I hope that the process is equitable, and that all students get these new prompts in time to write great essays that truly communicate their unique voices and stories.
Make Your Stories Pop:
10 College Application Essay Guiding Questions
Working on the drafts of your personal statements for your college applications? The drafting process is critical and can help make your stories and messages clearer. Please be willing to draft and re-write to make your essays stronger.
Here are 10 questions to help guide you through the editing process. I hope they can help make your stories pop on the page and help you get admitted to your match colleges and receive lots of scholarship money.
- Does your essay start with a story that hooks us in from the first paragraph?
- If you start in the past, do you get to the present very quickly? Colleges want to know about the recent you. Great essays can start more recently and weave in past events.
- Do you write only in the first person and not spend too much time describing anyone or anything else? Use my one-third-two-third rule. You may not spend more than 1/3 of the essay describing anything other than your own activities and goals.
- If you are writing about your community or family, do you get to the present and your life and life works quickly? Can this description only connect to you and your story of who are you and how you are making a difference?
- Do you only tell one story and not try to tell your entire life story?
- If you are writing about an obstacle or challenge overcome, do you get to how you have responded and made a difference in the life of your community by the second or third paragraph of the essay? Admissions officers want to know who are you and how you make an impact drawing upon your obstacles or challenges.
- Do you have a metaphor that goes through the entire piece…does this metaphor reveal who you are and what you offer to potential colleges? You can embed this metaphor throughout out your piece.
- Can I close my eyes and picture your story? Does it make you sound unique and not like anyone else applying? Can I see your leadership and initiative and the power of what you will offer a college campus?
- Do you tell new stories and qualities in each separate essay your write? Do you make sure to reveal powerful information and core messages that colleges will need to know to admit you and give you money to attend?
- Endings-Do you end with a bang? Do you make it clear by the end you have goals and aspirations that drive you. Your endings must be specific for some prompts like the University of California and University of Texas, but can be more oblique and implied in Common Application and many supplementary essays. Do you end leaving the reader with the desire to get to know you more, to see you on his or her campus, and to share your essay with someone else?
- If you are responding to University of California Prompt 1, do you end with how your story has affected your dreams and aspirations—in terms of majors, life goals, and your community?
- If you are responding to University of California Prompt 2, do you make sure to connect whatever you writing about to a major activity or project you have done that makes you proud?
- If you responding to the Common Application long essay, do you end with a bang. You don’t have to have a formal ending like the UC applications. Do you clearly let us know that you understand the power of your story?
Follow Dr. J’s Into, Through, & Beyond Approach: Brainstorming Tip #8
Your essay needs to grab readers from the first word. You are competing for the fleeting attention of admissions officers who have dozens if not hundreds or thousands of essays and files to process. So don’t waste their precious time and tell them a story that no one else can tell. That will help you get admitted to the match college of your choice.
So follow my three pronged approach.
INTO: With your INTO, grab us into the story with a moment in time. That moment must reveal a core quality. The INTO can be a sentence, paragraph, or series of paragraphs.
THROUGH: Then go into two levels of THROUGH.
- THROUGH 1 provides the immediate context of the INTO.
- THROUGH 2 provides the overall context.
BEYOND: End with a BEYOND that is not sappy but powerful. Think of a metaphor that guides you and weaves through your story and into your ending.
Write a “Where I’m From” Poem: Brainstorming Tip #5
Think of where you are from.
Read the poem to get ideas to write your own and start an amazing essay.
College Application Essay Tip #9: Get Trusted People to Read Your Essays
Tip 9. Have trusted inside and impartial outside readers read your essays. Make sure you have no spelling or grammatical errors. Continue reading
“I really love the app (ALL COLLEGE APPLICATION ESSAYS) and use it as a go-to for a lot of different things. I notice it’s available through the Google Play store now (I’m an Android AND an Apple user — go figure!)
I took a screen shot of the Middlebury app and sent it to my colleague in Westchester NY and she bought the app, too. I also introduced it to our local public high school college programs coordinator.” —Janis Allen