Juniors, we have some good news to announce! Unlike in years past where the essay prompts were cloaked in secrecy well into the summer, the Common Application has revealed its essay prompts for the 2014-15 application cycle. Students who like to plan ahead can now choose from one of the five options below to write their essay for the Common Application.
For those families who are part of the International College Counselors family, your counselor will begin working with you on the essay during your next meeting. The prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. If the essay does not include some self-analysis, then the response to the prompt is not successful. All five essay choices have a word limit of 650 words, and the Common App is very strict on this. Here are the five prompts with some general tips for each:
Prompt 1: Some students have a background or story 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.
The word “identity” is key. Students are being asked for a story or something in their background that made them who they are today. Background can be a broad environmental factor such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. A “story” could be an event or series of events that had a profound impact on a student’s identity. Whatever way this prompt is approached, students need to reflect and explain how and why their identity was influenced by the background or story. In picking a topic to write about, students must think of something that they “believe their application would be incomplete without.” This means the background or story told absolutely needs to be unique to the individual.
Prompt 2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Students who choose to answer this question must show their ability to learn from their failures and mistakes. How a student describes his or her response to failure is the critical part of this essay. The answer should include what a student felt, learned, and how they grew from this experience. A good essay will have introspection, honesty, self-awareness, and strong critical thinking skills The recounting time of this essay is basically a plot summary. Students should use as few words as possible on this part – without sacrificing quality. Make sure the essay leaves the reader with a positive impression. If the essay does not show that the student is a better person because of the failure, then the response to this essay prompt is not successful. Schools are looking for students who do not blame others for their failure. They want to see that a student has assessed a failure, learned from it, and moved on.
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?
The “belief or idea” this prompt refers to could be a student’s own, someone else’s, or that of a group. The belief or idea can take many forms: a political or ethical belief; a theoretical or scientific idea; a personal conviction; an entrenched way of doing things (challenging the status quo); and so on. It is not important if the student’s challenge was successful. With this prompt colleges are looking for students to reveal one of their core personal values and show personal growth. The best essays will be honest and reflective as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief. The answer to the final part of the question does not have to be “yes.” Perhaps, with retrospection, the student has discovered that the cost of an action was too great. While colleges are looking for an issue that is important to a student’s identity, students should stay away from controversial topics. Colleges want students who will fit into a diverse campus community. This means the answer needs to show thoughtfulness, sensitivity, analysis and open-mindedness.
Prompt 4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Students have lots of options for a “place or environment” to describe. These can include a house, a barn, a classroom, a stadium, a stage, or even an imagined space. The main challenge isn’t the place that’s chosen but how the student analyzes “why” he or she is content in that place. What is it about the space that makes it special? To do this, a student needs to be introspective and share what it is he or she values. This question is not necessarily asking students for a place where they feel peaceful. The word “content” can mean more. It can also be interpreted as a state of satisfaction. An adrenaline junkie might be most content when skydiving, and a dancer might be most content when performing in the spotlight. The description part of this essay should be kept simple. Students should use as few words as possible on this part – without sacrificing quality. The end of the prompt is most important.
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
This prompt is good for students who want to explore a single event, accomplishment or achievement that marked a clear point in their personal development. Students must be careful to avoid the all-too-common “hero” essay like a season-winning touchdown or star turn in the school play. The essay is to show a student’s personal growth and analytical thinking. To identify the correct “accomplishment or event,” to write about, the discussion of growth needs to have enough material for self-analysis and deep thought. The best choice topics will be a significant moment in a student’s life that also gives admissions officers a peek at something the student values highly. The mention of “culture” in this prompt gives a student the opportunity to talk about personal culture and diversity. A student should feel free to connect the “accomplishment or event” to a context that is specific to their cultural heritage. Describing the accomplishment should take the least amount of words. A strong essay will show off the student’s ability to explore the significance of the event. A student will need to look inward and analyze how and why the event caused him or her to grow and mature.
End Notes Via the essay, the school is gaining a piece of information that it will use to judge the student as a whole person. In any essay, the student wants to come across as an intelligent, thoughtful person who will contribute to the community in a meaningful and positive way. Students must also demonstrate a strong writing ability. We encourage all Juniors to start thinking about their essays.