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    How to Answer the 2012-13 Common Application Prompts

    Posted January 21, 2014, 3:14 pm by Rebecca Joseph
    How to Answer New College Application Prompts

    For the first time in its recent history, the Common Application has changed its essay prompts for the 2013-2014 school year.

    More than 2 million high school seniors and 460 colleges use this college application platform; it enables students to send out the same application to member colleges. It requires one long essay, whose prompts have never changed. Until now.


    Starting the upcoming 2013-2014 application year, the Common Applications plans to release new prompts each winter/spring. This change means we must share these prompts with everyone who works with current high school juniors as students will be at a great disadvantage if they don't see all of the new prompts early in the college readiness cycle.

    Now more than ever, we will have to keep abreast of these new prompts. The Common Application removed the formal topic of your choice prompt, which more than 60% of all previous applicants have used, yet we believe the new first prompt takes that place and provides a great chance for students to share unique stories. Thank goodness that the application still values the unique stories students may want to tell that may not fit neatly into the other four prompts.

    The Common Application is also implementing a 250-650 word limit. That is new, and students will learn how they will submit their essays when the new version is released. That word length is certainly sufficient for most students. I do not know if the application will have an additional information section.

    In the past, students could adapt their Common Application essay easily for many other universities that have their own applications, including the University of California, University of Texas, and Georgetown. With these prompts, those adaptations can still work but in different ways. Students, teachers, and counselors will need to be creative in developing strategies to help student write the fewest, most powerful essays.

    Some ideas already come to mind: Students can use the fourth or fifth prompts and adapt it to their first University of California Essay about describing the world they come from. University of Texas applicants can adapt the third prompt for their second essay about an issue of great importance to them. And who knows, these new essays may prompt other universities to shift their essays, including the many colleges that require additional supplements. Keeping track of the major essays is already a challenge. This new world of essays will make for an interesting year, and potential challenges for under-represented students to keep track of the different prompts.

    Teaching students how to work with essay prompts is a part of effective reading and writing development. Please encourage everyone you know who works with high school students to embed the new annual prompts into their ongoing work with students. These essays encourage students to share their voices through specific stories and to ground these stories in their present day meanings for students.

    As the essay prompts will shift each year, students will not have prior examples to examine, and I have always been grateful for colleges that share essays they like. With the specific guiding questions for several prompts, I hope that the Common Application board members will provide some advice for students about how to structure their essays and continue to provide examples. The ending of several of the prompts could lead to didactic and artificial essays if taken literally. I am hoping that as in the past, students can embed these questions into their overall essay flow. I imagine some lively debates about the interpretation of these essays, especially their endings, in the upcoming months.

    The only prompt that I worry about is the second one about an incident or time of failure. I don't want students to wallow in that experience as the first part of the prompt may allow, but I want them to spend the majority of the essay focusing on the positive affects of the failure on the students and the powerful lessons learned. The University of Michigan used to have a similar prompt, and this led to many tales of unnecessary woe. That university removed that essay even before transitioning to the Common Application. We hope that students will use this prompt sparingly and turn their stories into evidence of who they are now: amazing students ready to offer unique qualities to their match colleges.

    It's a brand new world in college application essay writing. I hope that the process is equitable, and that all students get these new prompts in time to write great essays that truly communicate their unique voices and stories.

    2013-2014 Common Application Instructions and Prompts

    Instructions: The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)

    • 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.
    • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
    • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
    • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
    • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.]
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    Rebecca Joseph

    Rebecca Joseph

    Dr. Joseph is a college access and admissions expert. A tenured professor at a public university, she believes that all students should have the option of a college education and does everything she can to help students, communities, and schools empower their students to make it to and through college.