The personal statement of the Common App essay is our favorite part of the entire application. We think it’s one of the best opportunities for creativity in the college application process. That said, we know that students don’t feel the same way. They’re focused on writing “what the colleges want to hear” when in reality the colleges don’t want to hear anything specific. Internalize that: there is no right answer. There is no code. They just want to get to know you. To that end, the best college essays are those that say the most through a story. We learn more about people through compelling stories than anything else, so we always advise that our students illustrate their personalities through the lens of a small story.
This week the Common Application released the 2017-2018 essay prompts. Some of the prompts stayed the same, some were revised, and interestingly, there are two altogether new prompts. We’re going to break each of the prompts down based on our experience counseling students through this for many application seasons. Remember, and we can’t say this enough, the best essays are stories that have a clear narrative arc with a beginning, middle, and end.
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. [No change]
We think that this prompt is great for students who have a life story that is worth sharing. We find that topic-wise, this prompt gets stretched the most because students often want to sound more interesting or “diverse” than they really are. You’re being compared to your peers, so if you don’t come from an interesting background, don’t fake it. If this is the case, fear not. Everyone has so many stories to share, and another prompt might be more relevant to yours.
PROMPT 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]
Some of the phrasing has changed, but the main point of this prompt remains: write about failure. This essay is one of the most obvious ways to show growth. We love helping students write this essay because it gives them the ability to turn a dark time in their lives into a positive lesson. See our blog post on this prompt.
PROMPT 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
The phrasing of this question has changed but the theme is still the same. We find that most students have a hard time telling a story about when they challenged a belief. This is because it requires an explanation of how the belief came to be and can end up not having the impact they want. It is important to not spend half the essay on cliché revelations. If you decide to write a statement in response to this prompt, you need to remember that the point of this essay is less about the anecdote and more about the illustration of growth.
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. [No change]
We urge students to be wary of this prompt, too. We find it to be a tempting space to produce a statement that reads like a rant. Again,the purpose of the personal statement is to show the admissions committee something that isn’t represented anywhere else on the application. As such, if you spend your essay talking about how bad climate change is, you’ll have failed at the one goal. While your beliefs undoubtedly say things about you as a person, you need to personally connect to them. We tell our students to think smaller with this prompt. We discourage students from talking about curing cancer, fighting global poverty, or ending white supremacy. These topics are too big to come to a succinct and illustrative conclusion about. If you’re set on sticking with this prompt, think about a time when you felt uncomfortable about something that you felt was out of your control and revealing of a larger problem and what you did to solve it. For example, let’s say you noticed that only boys raised their hands when the teacher asked for opinions and you viewed this as an offshoot of systemic sexism, what did you do to address your concerns? In terms of the specific wording of the question, unless you’ve done structured research, don’t talk about research you’d like to do in the future. if you talk about an intellectual challenge there needs to be a tangible deliverable that you can discuss. Again, an ethical dilemma needs to actually hit home and have affected you in a significant way.
PROMPT 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
This question is only useful to write a statement in response to if you think super small. We discourage discussing significant cultural events, for example, your bat mitzvah or quinceanera, because those events are too big to tackle with this question and they’re not unique experiences. This should be a small “ah-ha!” moment. It doesn’t have to be symbolic, and we advise against painting false depth within a situation that didn’t have any. Additionally, the measurement of “personal growth” has to be reflective of your own perception of growth, not objective growth. Perhaps you had one conversation that changed the way you think forever—that’s a story you can tell. Again, think small, and then think even smaller. It’s more challenging to think critically and make someone care about an objectively un-momentous interaction. That said, it ends up being more impactful when you force the reader to see something in a new light. Big is easy, small is hard.
PROMPT 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]
This one is new. Newness is exciting. The problems that can arise from this question are similar to our cautions about Prompt 4 insofar as students often want to talk about things that don’t have to do with their experiences or life. If you are going to write on this topic, which we wouldn’t suggest unless you have to or it is exceedingly appropriate, you need to tell a story of a time where the topic, idea, or concept actually made you lose track of time. What happened when you lost track of time and what did you do? Bring us into the room with you where you go so invested in this topic that you forgot to eat or sleep for a day. You can’t make this topic up or dramatize an experience—the readers know when they’re reading a contrived story that romanticizes a moment.
PROMPT 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]
This is both our favorite and least favorite prompt. It’s our least favorite because we know that students view the Common App personal statement as the worst part of the application. We get it. It’s time consuming. There’s a lot of pressure around it because it really can make or break your application.
And there should be pressure. Your essay has to power to tip the scale in your favor. For that reason, we’re hesitant about the Common App’s inclusion of this prompt. Many students will look at it and be relieved because they might think that they can submit an English essay they got a 99 on. I know we’ve said this countless times, but we’re going to say it again: your personal statement needs to be a unique story about you that illustrates how you think and who you are. Even if you got an A+ on your analytical essay that you wrote about The Great Gatsby, don’t submit it. It won’t get you in. In fact, it might get you rejected. Your personal statement is the only part of the application that adds color, and a pre-written essay with a thesis you crafted 2 months ago does not add color. It’s unrelated to what you will bring to a college campus and does not shed light on the depth of your experiences. We have spoken to multiple Ivy League admissions counselors and they have all told us that the personal statement is their favorite part of the application to read. It’s the only part of the application that gives them an opportunity laugh, relate to, or empathize with the student. A pre-written essay deprives them of this.
Now let’s talk about why it’s our favorite. In the simplest terms, it allows for the most creativity. You can write about truly anything, particularly because there is no mention of form. There’s no reason for you not to write a series of poems about different experiences or a short story. If this calls to you, you’re probably a gifted writer. The only guideline here is to make sure this story allows the reader into your mind.
The personal statement is an incredibly exciting and dynamic part of your application. We work with our students to tease out the most compelling story that they have to tell and help them articulate that story in the best way possible. We hope that this breakdown helped shed some light on the complexities of the prompts and gave you some food for thought. We love to help our students tell their stories, so please don’t hesitate to get in contact with us if you want our help telling yours.