How to Write College Essays with the New Common Application

More words, different prompts. Education expert Eric Karlan shares his insight for making the most out of the recent common app changes.

For years, when college applications were released in August, the Common App has represented a pillar of consistency in its essay topics. The suggested prompts never varied, and applicants always had the option to select “topic of your choice,” which allowed free reign for a maximum of 500 words.

The rules are about to change, however, for 2013’s body of college applicants. Here are my thoughts on the new word limit and each of the new personal statement prompts:

Word Limit increased from 500 to 650 words.

Many students will celebrate these extra 150 words, but few will successfully take advantage of them. High school students already have a tendency to ramble, rant or write with a whole lot of fluff. Six hundred and fifty invaluable, focused, quality words will prove difficult for a generation that has become conditioned to expressing itself in bouts of 140 characters or fewer.

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“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.”

This strikes me as the Common App’s compromise with students who yearn for the not-so-far-gone days of “topic of your choice.” I like this topic because, ultimately, the personal statement is like an introduction to a new person (in this case, an admissions officer). And if there is a specific story a student really wants to convey, this prompt allows them to talk about essentially anything.

“Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

This is a popular prompt on many college supplements, but oftentimes a student’s “failure” is either too weak or the “growth” comes across as hollow. If a student can walk that fine line, however, this prompt can convey amazing maturity.

“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”

This question will undoubtedly yield some fascinating and inspiring stories. But it will also attract an endless stack of essays that tell the same formulaic tale of how a student was drawn to a cause. If a student can avoid writing a cliché and preachy essay, this may prove to be one of the more empowering and enlightening prompts.

“Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?”

After sorting through essays about clearings in the forest and coves on the seaside, admissions officers will surely find some gems that address this prompt. There is a high risk for cliché, but a real opportunity to convey something deeply personal.

“Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”

If I am an admissions officer, I am already dreading the endless barrage of essays that embody unoriginality. The potential to tell a compelling and fantastic story is here, but creativity, humility, and perspective will prove pivotal to a successful response.

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