Our choices in life matter. Perhaps signing up for the right English class at the right time helped you discover your passion for literature. Maybe you decided to eat a day-old burrito for lunch, only to rue the decision a few short hours later. Occasionally you may turn left when you normally turn right. The world is full of options, big and small, but perhaps the largest and most daunting choice staring you in the face is: OMG WHICH COMMON APP PROMPT DO I PICK?
Yes, your quivering cursor may feel like it is about to seal your fate, and maybe you don’t even have a clue which prompt to pick. Fortunately, all you need is one simple trick to discover the perfect prompt for you. We use this strategy with students every year, and it hasn’t failed us yet. But before we walk you through the prompt selection process, let’s quickly review the prompts themselves because half the battle is seeing through to the essential questions hiding behind the choices.
Prompt #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.
Translation: What, in your seventeen years on this earth, has helped shape the person you are today? This catch-all prompt will fit just about any subject that doesn’t fit within the confines of the other four Common App prompts. Experiences large and small are welcome, as long as they still resonate in your life to this day. Our only request is that you pick a subject and/or perspective that is dynamic; specific to who you are and no one else.
Prompt #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 did you learn from the experience?
Remember: a question about failure in the context of college admissions is, in fact, a question about success. Responses should aim to showcase resilience and determination. How do you deal with hardship? Try to keep these stories as positive as possible.
Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
In other words: When has your opinion been unpopular? This is perhaps the most challenging prompt of the Common App’s selection, as it requires you to speak passionately about beliefs and ideology. These are amorphous topics that can be difficult to mold into a compact stories, but if this prompt jumps out at you because you have a very specific story to tell or opinion to voice, run with it.
Prompt #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.
Even though this is another “Big Ideas” question, remember: the whole purpose of this exercise is to reveal something valuable about yourself to admissions. You could also consider this prompt from an aspirational perspective: How might you positively contribute to a cause that is important to you? If you had the power to make a lasting impact in any area at all, what would it be? It is important that the problem you choose is linked to your life and world in a meaningful way.
Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Keep in mind: “accomplishment” and “event,” are words that leave themselves open to interpretation. This prompt offers endless choices and flexibility, and an essay inspired by it can tackle anything from a formal event to a very small occurrence.
So what’s our trick for cracking these nuts?
Bury them like a squirrel. Forget them like a goldfish. That’s right: FORGET THEM. (For now.)
In our experience, the best way to write a stellar, original Common App essay is to work backwards. You’ve already uncovered what the prompts really mean, so once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you’ll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story. So go ahead and take some cursory inspiration from these questions – then focus on the information you want to reveal and the gleaming personality characteristics you want to highlight and fit your accompanying tale to the prompts later.
The Common Application has announced that the 2018-2019 personal essay writing prompts will be the same as the seven 2017-2018 essay prompts. By conducting a review process every other year, rather than annually, we can hear from admissions officers, as well as applicants, parents, and counselors, about the effectiveness of the essay prompts.
With the announcement of the essay prompts and the ability for applicants to roll over their Common App account each year, counselors can introduce their juniors to the Common App now to help them start thinking about the application process. For more information, go to Common App Ready, a series of ready-to-use resources, presentations, training videos, and handouts covering everything from account creation through submission. Last year, we expanded this free tool with Spanish language translations.
2018-2019 Common Application Essay Prompts
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 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?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
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?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
The most popular essay prompt of the 2017-2018 application year (through January 5, 2018) is "Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth..." (23.6%), followed by the topic of your choice option (22.5%), and "Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful..." (21.4%).
"Through the Common App essay prompts, we want to give all applicants - regardless of background or access to counseling - the opportunity to share their voice with colleges. Every applicant has a unique story. The essay helps bring that story to life," said Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director, Outreach and Education, for The Common Application.