Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.
Earlier this morning, the Common Application was formally launched for the 2014-15 application cycle, and Admissions Hero’s essay team shared the following tips on how to tackle the all-important Common App essays for the upcoming application cycle.
Before discussing the specific prompts for the Common Application, first we should go over some general principles for the Common App essay. First and foremost, the Common App essay is about telling colleges why you are unique and/or what matters to you.
You have several avenues through which you can do this, including but not limited to highlighting a central theme of your application that is tied to one or several of your extracurricular activities, focusing on a specific personality trait or strength, or highlighting a particular challenge that you had to overcome.
That being said, there are distinct topics and strategies that each prompt lends itself to.
1. 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 prompt offers an excellent opportunity to engage with a particular extracurricular or academic area of passion, and it allows you to weave a narrative that displays personal growth in that subject or area. Particularly if you have an unconventional passion, such as blogging about South American soccer, or quilting, the combination of displaying your personality and the unique topic can be very eye-catching.
This prompt also represents an opportunity to consider questions of personal identity, whether that takes the form of racial identity, sexual orientation, gender, or simply one’s place within a specific community (even communities as unique as, say, players of World of Warcraft). With the topic of racial identity, it’s important to keep in mind the audience (college admissions counselors tend to be progressive politically), so this might not be the best place to make sweeping claims about reverse racism against Caucasian-Americans. However, careful consideration of intrinsic cultural elements (such as the effect that Chinese American culture’s prioritization of academics had on your personal development) is certainly a strong essay topic.
Also a quick note – while claiming to have experienced discrimination based on race or claiming to have a different sexual orientation or gender than heterosexual and male/female respectively can be an effective way to talk about your ability to overcome adversity, faked or exaggerated claims about said topic are often very easy to recognize and will result in a severe penalization.
2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
This prompt lends itself to consideration of what facets of your personality allow you to overcome adversity, as well as display your self-awareness. It’s okay to choose a relatively mundane “failure” such as failing to win an award at a Model United Nations conference despite putting in hours of research into the topics of your committee (and learning that you should focus on how you project yourself and interacting more cordially, even when debating and competing against your peers). However, you should be careful not to sound over-confident (as if you are incapable of any failure larger than this). You also want to avoid making the failure sound more devastating than it actually was.
Another (perhaps more powerful) tactic with this essay is to write about a more foundational failure and then assess its impact on your development thereafter. This allows you to tackle more meaty questions about ethics (perhaps you cheated on a test and felt horrible about it), morality (maybe you stole something, your parents berated you for it, and now you hate theft to such a degree that if you find money on the street your turn it in), or the human condition (perhaps you made an insensitive comment or were close-minded in a particular instance).
You want to be careful to balance the severity of the failure with its recentness; in general, choose a failure from before high school so that it doesn’t color the admissions counselor’s view of your high school career. Also, be sure that any failure you choose is within reason (so in general avoid talking about any felonies you’ve left behind you).
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
This prompt is a difficult one to answer, because most high school students haven’t participated in the types of iconoclastic protests against societal ills that lend themselves to an excellent response. However, a more tenable alternative here is to discuss a time that you went against social convention, whether it was becoming friends with someone who seemed like a social outcast and was ignored by most people but eventually became one of your best friends, by going against the popular opinion of your peers, or proudly showing off a geeky passion of yours. And if you ever participated in a situation in concert with adults and found some success (i.e. by blogging, starting a tutoring organization, or participating in political campaigns), you could discuss the stigma against young people without a college degree in professional and adult circles. The one thing to keep in mind when responding to this prompt is to avoid sounding morally superior (as if you are the only person who went against this social convention, or that you are better than your peers for doing so).
4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
This prompt is best tied to a particular extracurricular passion, or perhaps to an environment that you find enjoyable or relaxing. The key with this type of essay is twofold. First, avoid simply stating the different elements in terms of their visual appearance, and bring in all of the senses (sight, smell, touch, hearing, and taste [perhaps less frequently]), so as to provide a more rich descriptive style of writing (that also incorporates heavy use of advanced diction and literary devices). Second, embedded within the environment in question, certain items or environmental factors should be used as explicit or implicit symbols for a facet of your personality. Ideally, the essay should be weighted more towards explanations of why the environment appeals to you (speak to character strengths and intrinsic personality traits). The remainder of the essay (about one third) should be geared to the description of the environment (as outlined above).
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
This prompt is probably the most expansive in that you can choose any event that had a major impact on your life. One option is to discuss a cultural process (such as Bar Mitzvah or Upanayanam in Judaism and Hinduism respectively) that serves as a formal waypoint on a path to adulthood, but if you do so, make sure to discuss why the ritual made you “feel” like an adult, not just why you became one in practice. Informal events are probably easier to use because you can show more of your own personality and what makes you tick. A good way to assess whether an informal event demarcates a transition into adulthood is if it (1) gave you a new perspective or degree of self-awareness, (2) taught you that idealism can still play an important role in achieving goals, or conversely, (3) helped show you that the world doesn’t often conform today to idealistic realities (a time when you learned realism). For example, perhaps after growing up in a multi-cultural environment, you finally witness a racist encounter in a more restricted environment. This could serve as a powerful eye-opener about the state of some parts of the world, informally achieving an implicit state of adulthood.
However, your topic need not be so weighty when talking about your own growth, because when discussing personal development, almost any group can be massaged to form a “community,” which means you have a wide array of options to use as a point marking a transition to adulthood.
Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.
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Essays Students Can Get Started on Before Aug. 1 Open of Common Application
As the summer begins to wind down, and the college application season starts up, many colleges and universities across the US have released their essay prompts for the 2014-15 application season, allowing students the opportunity to get a head start.
Some applications are already open, including the Universal College Application, which includes member schools like Harvard, Princeton, UChicago, and Johns Hopkins, to name a few.
For those who are applying to schools that have prompts and applications readily available, it’s important to get a head start.
Here are some of the essays and applications available now, including the 2014-15 Common Application essay prompts.
The Common Application
Limit of 650 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.
Universal College Application
Please write an essay (500 words or fewer) that demonstrates your ability to develop and communicate your thoughts. Some ideas include: a person you admire; a life-changing experience; or your viewpoint on a particular current event.
Engineering: If you are applying to the Pratt School of Engineering as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you want to study engineering and why you would like to study at Duke. (No more than 150 words.)
Arts & Sciences:If you are applying to the Trinity College of Arts & Sciences as either a first-year or transfer applicant, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something particular about Duke that attracts you? (No more than 150 words.)
Optional Essays for All Applicants:
Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you'd like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you've had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.
Duke will learn about your extracurricular involvement through the Activities section of the Common or Universal College Application. If you wish to include a brief resume you may include it here.
All Applicants (Short): In the space available discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved.
All Applicants: As Georgetown is a diverse community, the Admissions Committee would like to know more about you in your own words. Please submit a brief essay, either personal or creative, which you feel best describes you.
Applicants to the McDonough School of Business: Discuss the factors that have inﬂuenced your interest in studying business
Applicants to the Walsh School of Foreign Service: Brieﬂy discuss a current global issue, indicating why you consider it important and what you suggest should be done to deal with it.
Applicants to the School of Nursing and Health Studies: Describe the factors that have inﬂuenced your interest in studying health care. Please speciﬁcally address your intended major (Health Care Management & Policy, Human Science, International Health, or Nursing).
Applicants to Georgetown College: Please relate your interest in studying at Georgetown University to your goals. How do these thoughts relate to your chosen course of study? (If you are applying to major in the FLL or in a Science, please speciﬁcally address those interests.)
Candidates respond to all three essay topics. (250 word limit for each essay.)
Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development.
Virtually all of Stanford's undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
What matters to you, and why?
University of Chicago
What's so odd about odd numbers?
In French, there is no difference between "conscience" and "consciousness". In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
Little pigs, french hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why? (Feel free to respond acidly! Do not be neutral, for that is base!)
A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?” (There are many potential values of "here", but we already know you're "here" to apply to the University of Chicago; pick any "here" besides that one).
In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose a question of your own. If your prompt is original and thoughtful, then you should have little trouble writing a great essay. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.
University of Michigan
Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it. (Required for all applicants. Approximately 250 words.)
Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests? (Required for all applicants. 500 words maximum.)
University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill
Choose one prompt and respond in an essay of 400-500 words.
Why do you do what you do?
You were just invited to speak at the White House. Write your speech.
What one thing should all students know before their high school graduation?
What concerns you about your world? What do you hope to do to make it better?
UNC Professor Barbara Fredrickson – an expert in positive emotions – has defined love as “micro-moments of connection between people, even strangers.” Tell us about a time when you experienced a “micro-moment of connection.” What did you learn?
University of Pennsylvania
The Admissions Committee would like to learn why you are a good fit for your undergraduate school choice (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). Please tell us about specific academic, service, and/or research opportunities at the University of Pennsylvania that resonate with your background, interests, and goals. (400-650 words)
University of Virginia
We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists. Answer the question that corresponds to the school/program to which you are applying in a half page or roughly 250 words.
College of Arts and Sciences - What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
School of Engineering and Applied Sciences - U.Va. engineers are working to solve problems that affect people around the world, from our long-term water purification project in South Africa to continuing to research more efficient applications of solar power. However, most students start small, by using engineering to make a difference in daily life. If you were given funding for a small engineering project that would make your everyday life better, what would you do?
School of Architecture - Describe an instance or place where you have been inspired by architecture or design.
School of Nursing - Discuss experiences that led you to choose the School of Nursing.
Kinesiology Program - Discuss experiences that led you to choose the kinesiology major.
Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words.
What’s your favorite word and why?
We are a community with quirks, both in language (we’ll welcome you to Grounds, not campus) and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.
Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the U.Va. culture. In her fourth year at U.Va., Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why?
While a student at U.Va., Fulbright Scholar Rowan Sprague conducted groundbreaking research aimed at protecting the complex structure of honeybee hives. We know that colonies include bees acting in a diverse range of roles, all equally important to the success of the hive. What role will you play in the U.Va. hive?
To tweet or not to tweet?
These are just a sample of the essay prompts that are available for students to begin working on now! Didn’t see one you were looking for? Tell us in the comments below and we’ll find it for you!