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USACollegeChat Podcast

Mar 3, 2017

We are not sure that the topic of today’s episode qualifies as an “issue” in higher education, which is the name of our current series, but it is certainly something that will soak up a lot of the time of high school students who will be applying to college next fall and likely of their parents as well. The topic is The Common Application essay prompts. 

Now, I feel as though we just finished discussing college application essays a few weeks ago back in Episode 106, “The Nightmare of the Supplemental College Application Essays.” And today we are back to everyone’s favorite application essay discussion: The Common App prompts for the main essay, or personal statement. I couldn’t have predicted that we would return to this topic so soon, but news is news. The Common App people have recently released the updated prompts for use in 2017-2018, and we wanted to bring this news to your attention as soon as we could.

1. The Process

As it turns out, the Common App people asked for feedback about this year’s essay prompts from member colleges and individual users as they considered any changes for next fall’s/winter’s applications. The Common App website states that feedback was received from 108 member colleges (out of the “nearly 700 colleges” that accept the Common App, according to the website). Personally, I don’t think that is a great response rate, as we say in the evaluation business. Nonetheless, just over 100 colleges did let the Common App people know what they thought of the essay prompts, and my guess is that feedback came from someone in the admissions office that had a lot of experience looking at the essays written in response to those prompts. According to the website, 91 percent of those 108 member colleges agreed or strongly agreed that this year’s prompts were effective.

In addition, feedback was received from over 5,000 individual users—59 percent were students (the largest category of respondents), followed by 23 percent school counselors and 11 percent teachers. According to the website, 90 percent of those individual users of all types agreed or strongly agreed that this year’s prompts were effective.

Well, with that kind of endorsement, it hardly seems that changes needed to be made for next year. Nonetheless, some comments from those colleges and individual users did cause the Common App people to make a few changes--some quite minor, but actually some quite major. Let’s take a look now at how this year’s five essay prompts have become next year’s seven essay prompts.

And, by the way, the word limit for next year’s essays will remain at this year’s 650 words.

2. The Two Unchanged Prompts

Two of this year’s prompts--#1 and #4--will remain exactly the same for next year:

  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.
  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.

This decision makes good sense to me as I think back over the many essays I read and edited with kids last fall. I think that both of these prompts produced relevant and interesting essays and that kids seemed to have a relatively easy time understanding what each of these prompts was asking for and writing to it in a straightforward fashion.

For example, many students who came to the U.S. from another country or whose parents came to the U.S. from another country wrote reflective essays for prompt #1 about their background or their national or ethnic identity. For prompt #4, I read essays ranging from solving personal or family problems to solving widespread religious or political discrimination problems here and abroad, and I found many of these essays to be powerful and persuasive.

So, I guess that, if any of the Common App people had asked me my opinion, I would have concurred that these two prompts had worked well for students.

3. The Three Edited Prompts

The remaining three prompts from this year will be used again for next year--#2, #3, and #5--but in a slightly edited form (the italics show the editing):

  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?
  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 

These edited versions seem perfectly fine and might perhaps help students focus their thoughts better. The editing also broadens each prompt a bit, thus making it easier for students to find something in it to react to. For example, prompt #2 had previously discussed only “failure” and has now been broadened to include obstacles, challenges, and setbacks. I applaud that change because I found that too many kids thought they had “failed” when no adult with any perspective on life would have ever looked at those situations the kids were in and called them “failures.” So, I think that the editing makes this prompt broader and less negative sounding (even though I am sure that the original prompt was not meant to be as negative as many kids took it).

Again, if any of the Common App people had asked me my opinion, I would have agreed that these three prompts could benefit--though probably only slightly--from some broadening.

4. The Two New Prompts

That brings us to the first of the two new prompts for next year’s essays:

  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?

I think this is a fine prompt, and I can imagine a number of students who essentially wrote to this prompt last year, though in the guise of a different prompt. I think kids will find this one to be engaging and a natural fit. This prompt lends itself to the kid who gets lost in science research, in violin practice, in writing poems, in building LEGO models, and a hundred other things I can think of--and kids can, too.

And that brings us to the final new prompt for next year’s essays:

  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. 

What? Are you kidding, I said as I read it for the first time. I asked myself why the Common App people thought they had to go here: Essentially, write anything you want or turn in something you’ve already written for some other reason. While freeing, I wondered if it might be just too freeing.

5. Some Final Thoughts

Then, I read a piece online in The Huffington Post by Scott Anderson, Senior Director for Access and Education at The Common Application, entitled “The Common App Essay Prompts Are Changing. Here’s Why It Doesn’t Matter.” Here are some of Mr. Anderson’s remarks:

The Common App essay prompts have one purpose: to help you introduce yourself to your colleges. (Yes, showcasing your writing ability is part of the equation, but that’s the role of the essay itself, not the prompts.) That’s why the instructions are at least as important as the prompts themselves. Here’s what they say:

“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.”

In a sense, the entire essay exercise boils down to that one leading question: What do you want the readers of your application to know about you? This is not a trick question. The ball is fully in your court and always has been. What you write is entirely up to you. So write about yourself–about what you love, where you come from, what you aspire to, how you spend your time, what bugs you, what inspires you, who is important in your life.

In other words: Write an essay on a topic of your choice. (quoted from the article)

Interesting, I thought. Mr. Anderson goes on to say this:

. . . If the prompts afford so much flexibility, what’s the point in resurrecting Topic of your choice?

Simply put: you’re busy. Applying to college is no small undertaking, and for most of you, the essay--or essays, depending on where you apply--will be the most time consuming task. So use Topic of your choice to reduce your stress, not add to it. If you’ve already written something that you’re especially proud of, then share it. If a specific college uses an essay prompt that sings to you, then use it here. . . . But Topic of your choice doesn’t mean default choice. If the unfocused charge to simply “write anything” seems overwhelming, then let the prompts guide you when you’re ready to start writing.

I guess it would be great for a student to be able to use a short essay he or she had written in an English class or a history class or a biology class--something that reflected his or her values, beliefs, or original ideas; something that spoke to what the student is and said it in an interesting or revealing way. I am not sure how many such essays exist; but, if they do, all the better for the student.

Mr. Anderson concludes his article by suggesting that it is too early for high school juniors to start writing their essays. He believes that what they will likely write about “hasn’t even happened yet.” He thinks that kids should, however, start “thinking–about yourself, about what is important to you, about the interests and experiences and talents and relationships that reveal who you are” and about “what … you want the readers of your application to know about you, just as the instructions say.

With apologies to Mr. Anderson, my guess is that it is not too early to start writing and that anything so important to a high school student, anything that has so shaped his or her values and beliefs and interests and talents has likely already happened. Sure, something more could happen this spring or this summer, something that a student might rather write about, but my guess is that lots has already happened, especially when it comes to a student’s background or national, ethnic, racial, or gender identity. Families have already struggled or succeeded. Family members have already been lost or added. Talents and passions and values have already been born and nurtured. Academic interests have already been developed and encouraged.

What we know for sure is that high school juniors these days have a lot to think about. And college essays are now one more thing.

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