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How to DeCode the Common App College Essay Prompts for 2018-19

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Here’s the deal: When it comes time to write your Common Application college personal essay, it’s not really about the prompt. It's what you do with it, and how deep you go. Each prompt is a doorway into a story you want to tell, something distinctive you want to share

You have to know a few things to pull this off: What the genre of personal essay requires of you generally (general purpose of the essay); what each Common Application prompt is asking for (decoding the question); what possible responses are available to you (your life experiences and what you’ve made of them).

You’ll find tips on the first two here and our tips on the writing process. Then, you’ll have to go inward. We can’t tell you what you’ve lived, and if we could, we’d be depriving you of the real work.

The Genre

When you write the college personal essay, the usual belabored question, “But what should I write about?” is actually not the best question to ask yourself. Instead ask, “What do I most want to say and how can I say it best?”

The personal essay requires you to say something meaningful about yourself in approximately 650 words. Because humans are compelled by stories, you want to do that in story form wherever possible. We all know a good story when we hear it, like we know a beautiful sunset or a great piece of buttered toast.

The Writing Process: The first time you’re ready to tackle the Common App, skim all the prompts, first.

Read them aloud once to yourself. Slowly.

And then without self-torture or mental gymnastics, jot down your immediate responses to each. Use the motto, “first thought best thought.” Trust your mind. Set a timer if it’s helpful. Write down anything and everything that prompt makes you think of in an essay free-write. Pay particular attention to all feelings, thoughts, memories and anecdotes that arise, and write them down indiscriminately and as quickly as possible.

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You can and must be picky about your content later, but you may be motivated by how much material was right there waiting for you to shape it.

Meanwhile, you should do the same as you read the advice about specific prompts below. If a thought, memory, or idea occurs to you, don’t wait! Write it down right away. The college essay muse doesn’t care about your convenience.

The Prompts

When you’re done reading this, you should feel (at least a little) excited about how each essay prompt offers you the distinctive chance to say something interesting, true and vital. We’ll point you to the critical words and “ask” of each Common App prompt.

As a college coach who has been helping students write their essays for years, I think the prompts are getting better and better. But the question remains, how can you make your response stand out? That is, how can you make it "deeply personal” and use it to tell the story you most want to tell? A story that lights you up, shows you as you?

Once you understand the question, you can go spelunking in your mind.

The 2018-19 Common App prompts appear in bold. My commentary and guidance are beneath.

  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.

This is a really broad question. Notice, the prompt ends with the word “story.” It’s asking you for a narrative, which means “something” should happen (a beginning, middle and end, main characters, and some kind of obstacle or dilemma), and you should show some change or learning over time.

This prompt is asking you to add content that makes your application “complete," this info appears nowhere else in your application. This is an excuse to tell a story about any aspect of your identity and history. But it also means you want to think hard about what you’ll show about yourself through the story.

For example, for this prompt you might explore your relationship to America as the child of non-American parents. Perhaps you were the only family in your neighborhood who had rice and meat instead of cereal for breakfast. You’d want to be sure to show some personal quality this helped shape: Are you good at navigating between different worlds? Do you have a high tolerance for people whose habits you don’t understand?

And, whatever you do, please don’t end with the line “And that’s how I became the person I am today.”

  1. 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?

This is tricky. You might think, wait, I can admit to college admissions that I have failed at something???

Yes. That’s right. No one holds this against you; instead, colleges assume how you deal with “challenge, setback and failure” (an inevitable part of life and risk) reveals a lot about who you are and your resilience.

So reflect on a failure or obstacle that had emotional impact on you but that allowed you, even forced you, to learn and grow. Failing and wallowing in it and feeling like a ball of crud is not going to win you admirers. You want you reader to think, “Wow, look at how this applicant dealt with disappointment! I want this person in my learning community!”

“What did you learn?” This part is so important, and your golden ticket. If you didn’t learn something valuable from it, it’s not a good topic. If you’re not sure you’ve fully learned from it yet, you may not be ready to write about it (try again for grad school essay?). If you’ve learned something, be sure to clarify how this prepares you for your (uncertain) future.

For example, for this prompt you might write about how you were never able to transcend your difficulties with spelling in class spelling bees, and how a teacher humiliated you for this. You might have carried shame for years; but then one day you were given the chance to be a Big Brother to a younger kid with similar difficulties, and you learned how you wanted to be treated by how you instinctively treated others.

And, whatever you do, please don’t end with the line “And that’s how I became the person I am today.”

  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

Note the word “a time,” which is another way of asking you for a moment, a mini-story or anecdote. Something happened that prompted a change. What happened? And so what?

This is all about writing scene and reflection. You want to keep the reader with you. You’ll do well if you start right at the moment of greatest heat or intensity, then add backstory, and finally let us know what is different now. The change is where we get a sense of how you roll with life. Changing a deeply held belief can be like trading in an old skeleton for a new one, like learning to walk all over again.

Be sure that we have a suspenseful sense of your old vs.new perspective, and how you changed your mind, or how you got up the guts to question. That is, we should be in the moment with you. To achieve this, include vivid detail, a sense of character, a sense of what is at stake: what relationships, what worldview, what sense of self.

For example, for this prompt you might write about how your family has a really strong belief that men should not cry, but you have always been an emotional kid. Let’s say you often had to cry alone in the bathroom with the water running. But when your cousin died, you stood up in church and did not say a word but cried in front of everyone for five straight minutes without apology. This began to change how your family perceived emotions, and how you expressed them.

And, whatever you do, please don’t end with the line “And that’s how I became the person I am today.”

  1. 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.

Problems comes in every size and shape. This “problem” doesn’t have to be something of tremendous import, like figuring out how to divert a water-source into a drought-affected nation. (If you did do that, do you even really need to go to college?) This problem could be anything of personal challenge to you.

Problems interest us as readers. Look at the gossip mags. But how you approach problems shows us your character, how you think, your attitude and your coping skills.

For those of you who just love love love the intellect, and want to show your thinking all over the page, this prompt is your white knight. Colleges want to see how you think, your strategies, and your creativity – what associations you make, what pathways you take – as you approach this problem. The size or scale of the problem is not as important as your specific approach to it (individualized thinking) and why it matters to you to solve it (your values, priorities).

Don’t forget outcomes! A problem you tried to solve but couldn’t is not a bad route either, so long as you explain what you were left with.

Be methodical and logical, and make sure the reader understands where you are now, and what you took away from this experience.

For example, for this prompt you might write about how when you were on crutches for a broken foot, you noticed how the subway system in NYC is very difficult for non-able-bodied people, the elderly, and those with strollers. Perhaps this sent you on exploration of transit system, on legal requirements, on architecture of access for all. Perhaps this sent you on an investigation into why politicians and special interest groups do or don’t speak up for those whose capacities and limited. What have you done and what do you hope to do about it?

(Though this prompt seems to merit fewer cliches, please, still, whatever you do, don’t end with the line “And that’s how I became the person I am today.”)

  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

“Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes ...Turn and face the strange!” crooned David Bowie. Well, that about sums it up. Good writing, like good living, hinges on a feeling of growth and discovery. So you are going to explore just that with this prompt.

A “period” can be any amount of time that is substantial, i.e. NOT something you thought about or felt for five minutes and then moved on from. What is most important here is that the reader get a sense of “what happened” (something can “happen” internally, too. Maybe you saw a commercial that revolutionized how you felt about the elderly); then, you MUST show the change or transformation clearly. Keep in mind the reader does not know you, who you were before, who you are now.

The “change” is the “impact,” and the answer to the question, “So what?”

This is NOT the time to just repeat what appears in another section of your application (actually, there is never a time for that!). If you want to elaborate on an award or recognition you already mentioned elsewhere, make sure it is from an angle that really adds to the admissions team’s understanding of who you are.

For example, for this prompt, you might write about how you realized that there were no administrators of color at your school when a teacher of color spoke up. This realization made you look at your own life and where else people of color played significant roles-- or were now obviously absent. This made you uncomfortable, and you started to really think about race for the first time, and ended up petitioning the school to increase recruitment for POC.

And, whatever you do, please don’t end with the line “And that’s how I became the person I am today.”

  1. 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?

This prompt is asking about your capacity for absorption and flow and … what really deeply matters to you, like your blood matters. What, specifically, gets your attention? Who are you while you are learning? What turns you on? Where you turn when you need to get to next level of understanding or accomplishment in a given area? This could literally be boiled down to: what kind of learner are you and what spellbinds you?

Colleges are curious here of course about academic “subjects” but you do NOT have to answer this with a school subject (if you can create a corollary, though, awesome). This question is all about how you find ways to learn more than what is required.

All of this reveals how you take on your passions. Passion passion passion. Or, at least care and engagement. The things that will make you a fascinated and productive student. Because….newsflash! You’re applying to A SCHOOL!

For example, for this prompt you might write about your obsession with maps and ZIP codes. How you hunt in thrift stores and bookstores for map collections, search archives, and have always loved playing the game “How do you get to…?” You have compared online mapping systems, nautical maps, and maps of space. Why do maps matter to you so much? Why is your room covered in floor to ceiling maps?

Though you’ll be less likely to reach for this cliched finale, whatever you do, please don’t end with the line “And that’s how I became the person I am today.”

  1. 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.

If none of the other prompts fit what you want to share or say, here’s where you, well, go crazy! Be sure the essay you pick and the topic you choose STILL do what the personal essay is for (if you’ve read to here, you know that perfectly). I’m pretty sure this prompt is a late addition, but this prompt is an example of the Common App being really generous and understanding that sometimes our best and most exemplary writing just happens to us unbidden.

And, they hope that you having a creative choice drives your engagement. which generates a passionate and powerful written product. And, honestly, all they want here is for you to show your best writing, which gives them the best (though not only) window into you. So, no excuses, friends. The common app has left the playing field wide open with this addition.

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Educator, writer, and college essay coach, Sara Nolan loves that she now hears on national news what she’s seen for decades: that teens aren’t taking any BS, and that they have something to say. Based in Brooklyn, N.Y., she teaches teens to write personal essays for college admissions and beyond (and feel good in the process) through Essay Intensive: Write the Essay of Your Life.

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