The Common Application, used by nearly 700 colleges and universities in the United States and abroad for admissions, just announced its essay prompts for the 2017-2018 college admissions season — and there are some big changes from last year.
The Common App was developed in 1975 to help reduce the number of separate applications and essays a student applying to numerous colleges and universities would have to complete. Many colleges and universities, however, still request additional information, including extra essays. The Common App is believed to have sparked an increase in the number of colleges to which high school seniors apply, in turn increasing the number of applications that many schools receive.
Here is a guide to what’s new in the essay prompts for the 2017-2018 college admissions season from Jeff Knox, an educational counselor at PrepMatters, a test prep company with offices in Bethesda, McLean and Washington. Before joining PrepMatters, Knox worked in the University of Pittsburgh’s office of admissions and financial aid and was a high school teacher.
Breaking news! The Common App has yet again changed its application essay prompts — this time for the 2017-2018 application season. Last year, we saw no changes whatsoever and in 2015-2016 saw only minor tweaks with the introduction of a new prompt. This year brings more tweaks in the form of brand new wording in addition to two entirely new options. There is now a total of seven prompts (up from five), although the word limit remains 650.
In my view, these prompts mark a great evolution from the “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content” prompt introduced in 2013 that induced a nationwide eye-rolling epidemic and a multitude of essays on beaches, libraries and grandmas’ attics. It was replaced with a prompt on problem solving that remains unchanged for 2017-2018. Clearly, with these prompts, the Common App aims to give students a chance to reveal their thinking and capacity for analytical thought because that’s what colleges want to see.
Every year the Common App surveys teachers, students, counselors and colleges to see how they can improve the effectiveness of its essay prompts and provide equal access to all students, regardless of their background and experience (and “topic of your choice” prompts certainly take care of that).
So here they are (revisions appear in italics) …
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. [No change]
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? [Revised]
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
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. [No change]
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
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? [New]
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. [New]