The Common App recently announced its essay prompts for 2017-18. The number of prompts has increased from five to seven. Applicants will still respond to one prompt with a limit of 650 words.
While some students find a particular prompt inspiring, we often advise choosing a personally meaningful topic and then selecting a corresponding prompt. The CA prompts have always been broad enough to allow nearly any story to find a home. The new prompts are even more flexible.
Let’s take a look at what’s new, what remains the same, and our thoughts on each 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]
This has been the most open-ended prompt in recent years, and the most frequently used. We’ve viewed this as tantamount to “topic of choice” – but now that’s an actual option! (Prompt 7) In response to this prompt we’ve read compelling essays on everything from ethnic identity to a passion for engineering to the joy of baking. Everyone has a story, and this prompt will continue to be a popular choice for many students, partly because these essays can often be adapted for non-CA schools like Penn State.
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]
The revision replaces “failure” with the broader “obstacles,” “challenge [or] setback.” This should inspire students to think beyond literal academic and athletic failure – boring topics we discourage. The best “failure” essays we’ve read have detailed moral failure, such as not intervening in a bullying situation or not challenging an offensive statement. The new terms in this prompt may elicit reflection on personal obstacles and setbacks beyond one’s control, such as learning differences or family crises. The most important part of this prompt has always been, and remains, the last sentence. We will continue to encourage students to think about the terms broadly and creatively, and to focus on personal growth.
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
This prompt has been broadened to include the questioning (not only challenging) of a belief or idea. It now inquires what prompted the student’s “thinking,” rather than what prompted her “to act.” “Challenge” and “act” are strong words; while nearly everyone has “questioned” an idea, fewer have “acted” in response. Now, the prompt emphasizes “thinking” and recognizes that one may question an idea without acting on one’s thoughts. More stories will now be responsive to this prompt, and more students may choose it.
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]
Added two years ago, this prompt is underutilized. Responsive essays can be more practical, and showcase the applicant’s thoughtfulness, attention to detail, and problem solving skills. Of course, students must explain the problem’s significance to them, weaving in the personal reflection implicit in all CA prompts.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
This popular prompt formerly focused on an accomplishment or event that marked the transition from childhood to adulthood. The best responses focused on non-traditional coming-of-age experiences, such as increased responsibilities due to a parent’s disability. We encouraged students to avoid writing about traditional milestones in favor of more unique moments of growth. The revised prompt’s inclusion of “realization” expands the options beyond “accomplishment or event” and encourages such personal stories. Despite the old prompt’s single command to “discuss,” we pushed our students to emphasize what they learned and how they changed. The newly explicit invitation to reflect on personal growth is a welcome revision.
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]
Colleges want students with “passion,” and this prompt invites applicants to explore an intellectual passion, and thus indicate how they will contribute to intellectual life on campus. Students could previously do this in response to the first prompt about an “interest,” or the fourth about an “intellectual challenge” or “research query,” but this new prompt directly asks about a deeply inspiring, absorbing passion, and how a student likes to learn about it. It should inspire good stories about when a student lost track of time pursuing the “topic, idea, or concept.”
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]
Topic of choice is back! The most interesting feature here is the invitation to use a previously written essay or “one that responds to a different prompt.” While some students will be tempted to use an essay written for school, submitting an analysis of Lord of the Flies will not be effective. Students who have written a personal reflection at school, however, may find that the college application process just got easier. The invitation to submit an essay that responds to a different prompt will benefit students who apply to a mix of CA and non-CA colleges. The biggest beneficiaries may be University of California system applicants, because with UC’s introduction of Personal Insight Questions last year, it became less likely that a UC essay could perform “double duty” as a CA essay. Now, a student can easily use a PIQ response for the CA, perhaps taking advantage of the CA essay’s higher word limit with additional details and depth.
We look forward to helping our students navigate the new CA prompts.