The current Common Application, CA4, launched on August 1st, 2013, but the essay prompts have been revised for the 2015-16 college application cycle. When CA4 launched, one of the biggest changes from the previous version was the essay section. Gone were the six essay prompts from the past decade, and college applicants no longer have the Topic of Your Choice option. With the 2015-16 udpates, the "describe a place" option has been replaced by #4 below on solving a problem.
College Admissions Tips
College Degree US
Best College in Vancouver
The current prompts are the result of much discussion and debate from the member institutions who use the Common Application. With CA4, the length limit for the essay was increased from 500 words to 650, and students will need to choose from the five options below. The new prompts are designed to encourage reflection and introspection. If your essay doesn't include some self-analysis, you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.
Below are the five options with some general tips for each:
Option #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.
"Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write a story about your "background, identity, interest, or talent." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation.
Your could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your "interest" or "talent" could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why the story you tell is so meaningful.
See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #1
Option #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?
This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question--what was your response to failure, and how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty is key with this prompt.
See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #2
Sample essay for option #2: "Striking Out"
Option #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief, and the answer to the final question--would you make the same decision again--need not be "yes." Sometimes in retrospection we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt.
See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #3
Option #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.
Here again the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question. With the ability to write about an "intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma," you can essentially write about any issue that you find important. Note that you do not have to have solved the problem, and some of the best essays will explore problems that need to be solved in the future. Be careful with that opening word "describe"--you'll want to spend much more time analyzing the problem than describing it. This essay prompt, like all of the options, is asking you to be introspective and share with the admissions folks what it is that you value.
See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #4
Option #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
I'm not a fan of the way this prompt is worded for it suggests that a single event or accomplishment can be so transformative that one becomes an adult overnight. Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). That said, this prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay -- admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play. These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment.
See more Tips and Strategies for Essay Option #5
Sample essay for option #5: "Buck Up"
Some Final Thoughts: Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis, and they don't spend a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student.
If you find yourself grumbling about the loss of the "Topic of Your Choice" option for the essay, keep in mind that all five of the new prompts allow for great flexibility and creativity. The folks at The Common Application have cast a wide net with these questions, and nearly anything you want to write about could fit under at least one of the options.
Striking Out - Sample Common Application Essay for Option #2
Read Richard's Essay on His Losing Baseball Game
By Allen Grove
College Admissions Expert The sample essay below comes from Richard in response to the new Common Application essay option #2: "Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?" Be sure to follow the link at the bottom to read a critique of the essay, and also check out these strategies and tips for essay option #2.
I've played baseball ever since I could remember, but somehow, at fourteen, I still wasn't very good at it.
You'd think that ten years of summer leagues and two older brothers who'd been the stars of their teams would have rubbed off on me, but you'd be wrong. I mean, I wasn't completely hopeless. I was pretty fast, and I could hit my oldest brother's fastball maybe three or four times out of ten, but I wasn't about to be scouted for college teams.
My team that summer, the Bengals, wasn't anything special, either. We had one or two pretty talented guys, but most, like me, were just barely what you could call decent. But somehow we'd almost scraped through the first round of playoffs, with only one game standing between us and semifinals. Predictably, the game had come down to the last inning, the Bengals had two outs and players on second and third base, and it was my turn at bat. It was like one of those moments you see in movies. The scrawny kid who no one really believed in hits a miraculous home run, winning the big game for his underdog team and becoming a local legend. Except my life wasn't The Sandlot, and any hopes my teammates or coach might've had for a last-minute rally to victory were crushed with my third swing-and-miss when the umpire sent me back to the dugout with a "strike three - you're out!"
I was inconsolably angry with myself. I spent the entire car ride home tuning out my parents' words of consolation, replaying my strike-out over and over in my head. For the next few days I was miserable thinking about how, if it hadn't been for me, the Bengals might have been on their way to a league victory, and nothing anyone said could convince me that the loss wasn't on my shoulders.
About a week later, some of my friends from the team got together at the park to hang out. When I arrived, I was a little surprised that no one seemed to be mad at me - after all, I'd lost us the game, and they had to be disappointed about not making it to the semifinals. It wasn't until we split into teams for an impromptu pickup game that I started to realize why no one was upset. Maybe it was the excitement of reaching the playoffs or the pressure of living up to my brothers' examples, but sometime during that game, I'd lost sight of why most of us played summer league baseball. It wasn't to win the championship, as cool as that would have been. It was because we all loved to play. I didn't need a trophy or a Hollywood come-from-behind win to have fun playing baseball with my friends, but maybe I needed to strike out to remember that.
Now read a critique of Richard's essay.
< Continued from page 1
Here I'll discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Richard's essay "Striking Out."
College admissions officers read lots of essays about sports. Indeed, many college applicants seem far more interested in playing sports than they do in getting a college education. In my article on 10 bad essay topics, I warn against the hero essay in which the applicant boasts about the winning goal that won the championship game.
However impressive the moment may have been, such essays tend to come across as self-absorbed, self-congratulatory, and detached from the actual qualities that make for a good college student.
From the opening sentence, Richard's essay has nothing to do with heroism. Richard is no star athlete, and he has no over-inflated sense of his abilities. The honesty of the essay is refreshing. And the focus of the essay is perfectly on target for Common Application option #2 ("Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?"). The essay presents a clear moment of failure, and Richard clearly learned a significant lesson from the experience. Richard has taken what could be a clichéd topic -- the athlete at bat in a position to win the important game -- and turns the topic on its head. The admissions folks will enjoy the novelty of the approach.
I love the tone or Richard's essay. It's self-deprecating, wonderfully honest, and a bit humorous.
At the same time, there's an underlying confidence to the essay. Sure, Richard isn't the world's best baseball player, but he is perfectly aware of this fact and is comfortable with it. He knows who he is and who he isn't. He obviously isn't boasting about his athletic skills, but he is managing to show off his self-confidence and his writing skills.
The Title: "Striking Out" isn't an overly clever title, but it gets the job done well. We immediately know that this will be an essay about both failure and baseball, and the idea of a dramatic strike-out sparks reader interest and makes us want to continue with the essay. You can check out these tips for titles, and I'd say Richard's title succeeds in focusing the essay and sparking reader interest.
The Writing: We're quickly invited into Richard's essay with informal phrases such as "I mean" and "you'd think." The language is conversational and friendly. We are immediately introduced to a speaker who doesn't quite measure up to his brothers and isn't going to impress anyone with his athletic prowess. Richard seems human, someone we can relate to.
At the same time, the language of the essay is tight and engaging. Every sentence says something, and Richard uses economical language to clearly convey the setting and situation. The college admissions folks are likely to respond positively to the clear "voice" of the essay, the humble self-deprecating humor, and the strong writing ability of the author.
The Audience: Richard's essay would not be appropriate in all situations. If he were applying to colleges where he is hoping to play on a competitive varsity team, this would be the wrong essay. This is not an essay that will impress an NCAA coach scouting out the winning team for the upcoming academic year. But if Richard is trying to impress his audience with his personality more than his baseball skills, he has done an excellent job. A college looking for a mature, self-aware applicant with a pleasing personality will be impressed by Richard's essay. And his love of baseball will be attractive to schools with intramural, club, or less competitive intercollegiate baseball teams.
A Final Word: Always keep in mind the purpose of the application essay. The college admissions folks want to get to know you as a person. Along with grades and test scores, they will be using more subjective and holistic information as they make their decision about whether to admit a student or not. Richard succeeds in making a good impression. He is a strong writer; his essay has an engaging voice; he seems mature and self-aware; and most important of all, he seems like the type of student who would be a positive addition to the campus community.
Jill wrote the essay "Buck Up" in response to essay option three on the the pre-2013 Common Application: "Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence." However, this essay would also work well for the current Common Application essay option #5: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture,
Read the essay below, and then continue to the second page to read a critique of the essay.
Susan Lewis is a woman that very few people would consider a role model for anything. A fifty-something high-school dropout, she has little more to her name than a beat-up truck, a Jack Russell Terrier and a ragtag herd of aging and/or neurotic horses with which she's run a largely unsuccessful riding lesson program for twenty years with no business plan to speak of and little hope of ever turning a profit. She curses like a sailor, is perpetually un-punctual, and has an erratic and often terrifying temper.
I've taken weekly riding lessons with Sue since middle school, often against my own better judgment. Because for all her seemingly unredeemable qualities, she inspires me - not necessarily as a person I'd strive to emulate, but simply for her unwavering perseverance. In the five years I've known her, I've never once seen her give up on anything. She would sooner go hungry (and sometimes does) than give up on her horses and her business.
She sticks to her guns on every issue, from political views to hay prices to her (frankly terrible) business model. Sue has never once given up on herself or her horses or her business, and she never gives up on her students.
My dad lost his job not long after I started high school, and horseback riding quickly became a luxury we couldn't afford. So I called Sue to tell her that I wouldn't be riding for a while, at least until my father was back on his feet.
I hadn't expected an outpouring of sympathy (Sue, as you may have guessed, isn't an overwhelmingly sympathetic person), but I certainly wasn't expecting her to yell at me, either. Which was exactly what happened. She told me in no uncertain terms that I was ridiculous for thinking that money should stop me from doing something I loved, and she would see me bright and early Saturday morning regardless, and if she had to drive me to the barn herself that she would, and I'd better be wearing a good pair of boots because I'd be working off my lessons until further notice.
Her refusal to give up on me said more than I could ever put into words. It would have been easy for her to just let me leave. But Sue was never a person to take the easy way out, and she showed me how to do the same. I worked harder in Sue's barn that year than I'd ever worked before, earning every minute of my riding time, and I'd never felt more proud of myself. In her own stubborn way, Sue had shared with me an invaluable lesson in perseverance. She may not be much of a role model in any other respect, but Susan Lewis does not give up, and I strive every day to live by her example.
Here I'll discuss some of the strengths and weaknesses of Jill's essay "Buck Up" that she wrote in response to pre-2013 Option #3 on the Common Application. This essay can also work well for option #5 on the current Common Application, for it clearly and engagingly presents a moment in Jill's life when her maturity grew significantly.
We'll begin with the first thing any reader will notice: the title. If you think titles don't matter, think again. A good title can immediately pique your readers' curiosity and grab their attention. The title frames and focuses the words that follow. A missing title is a lost opportunity and a weak title is an immediate handicap.
Unfortunately, coming up with a good title can be remarkably difficulty.
Jill's title "Buck Up" is good in some ways. For one, it's playful as Jill uses the phrase "buck up" in the idiomatic sense of showing some courage or backbone, but the word "buck" also relates to a bucking horse trying to throw its rider. Where the title falls a little short is with its clarity. We really don't know what the essay is about based on the title, and we can appreciate the title only after we have read the essay.
I love the focus of Jill's essay. So many essays on an influential person have a tone of hero worship as the writer tells us how wonderful Mom or Dad or dead Grandma or Coach or Uncle Harvey is.
Jill, however, focuses on someone who in many ways isn't even likable. Susan Lewis is unreliable, rude, poorly educated, and terrible at running a business. She is, as Jill points out, an unlikely person to choose for an essay on an influential person.
By focusing on Susan Lewis, Jill has accomplished two important things: she has crafted an essay that isn't typical, and she has shown us that she can recognize the positive in a person who has a lot of negatives going for her. Put into other words, Jill has shown that she is a creative and open-minded thinker, two qualities that will impress the college admissions folks.
Finally, Jill successfully does all that the prompt asks -- she doesn't just describe the influential person, but also explains the influence. We learn that through Susan Lewis's influence, Jill has grown to appreciate hard work and perseverance.
Striking the right tone can be a big challenge in an essay like Jill's. Jill has focused on a rather ridiculous woman, so it would be easy to come across as mocking or condescending. Indeed, Jill is quick to point out many of Susan Lewis's shortcomings. The essay's light and playful tone, however, comes across as loving and appreciative, not deprecating. Jill is clearly a skillful writer, and she has managed to provide just the right balance of levity and seriousness.
"Buck Up" is not a perfect essay, but the flaws are few. I'd get rid of a couple of the cliché or tired phrases such as "sticks to her guns" and "back on his feet." The phrase "curses like a sailor" is also a bit overused, but I thought it added a colorful touch to the description of Sue. In the first sentence of the essay, "that" should really be "who" since the relative pronoun refers to a person, and in the second paragraph, I find the logic of "because" in the second sentence confusing. These are all small issues, but the essay, like any essay, does have room for improvement.
In general, however, Jill has proven herself a talented writer. From the very first paragraph, the essay has a pleasing variety of sentence types ranging from short and punchy to long and complex. The language is playful and engaging, and Jill has done an admirable job painting a rich portrait of Susan Lewis in a few short paragraphs. Every sentence and paragraph adds important details to the essay, and the reader never gets the sense that Jill is wasting space with a bunch of unnecessary fluff. This is important, for with the 650-word limit on Common Application essays, there's no room for wasted words. At 478 words, Jill is safely within the length limit.
What I most admire about the writing is that Jill's personality comes through. We get a sense of her humor, her power of observation, and her generosity of spirit. A lot of applicants feel like they need to brag about their accomplishments in the essay, yet Jill shows how those accomplishments can be conveyed in a pleasingly understated way.
It's always important to keep in mind why colleges ask applicants to write essays. On a simple level, they want to make sure you can write well, something that Jill has demonstrated effectively with "Buck Up." But more significantly, the admissions folks want to get to know the students they are considering for admission. Test scores and grades don't tell a college what type of person you are other than one who works hard and tests well. What's your personality like? What do you truly care about? How do you communicate your ideas to others? And the big one--Are you the type of person we want to invite to become part of our campus community? The personal essay (along with the interview and letters or recommendation) is one of the few pieces of the application that helps the admissions folks get to know the person behind the grades and test scores.
Jill's essay, whether deliberately or not, answers these questions in ways that work in her favor. She shows that she is observant, caring, and funny. She demonstrates self-awareness as she narrates the ways in which she has grown as a person. She shows that she is generous and finds positive qualities in people who have a lot of negatives. And she reveals that she gets pleasure out of overcoming challenges and working hard to achieve her goals. In short, she comes across as the type of person who would enrich a campus community.