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A quick visit to the Common Application website reveals that over 800 colleges and universities now accept the Common App. From years in the teacher-trenches during college application season, I can attest that the Common App is one of the biggest timesavers to come along in… well, ever.
Along with the one-shot input of name, address, and other vital information comes the opportunity for students to put all their energy into writing one spectacular college essay. While many colleges and universities have additional essays to complete, the supplemental essays are focused on specifics the university wants to know. Quite often supplemental essays also help filter students for honors programs, scholarship consideration, or specific learning communities. As far as essays go, however, the Common App essay factors heaviest in helping admissions readers see the human being behind the stats and scores on the rest of the application.
By nature, the Common App essay is a personal narrative. On the bottom of the 2018-2019 essay prompts announcement page, the organization included the following paragraph:
“Through the Common App essay prompts, we want to give all applicants – regardless of background or access to counseling – the opportunity to share their voice with colleges. Every applicant has a unique story. The essay helps bring that story to life,” said Meredith Lombardi, Associate Director, Outreach and Education, for The Common Application.
Your voice. Your story. Personal Narrative.
Seven essay prompts appear on the Common App website again this year. Breaking it into broad categories, three lead students to reveal an area of passion, and three ask for examples of personal growth. The final prompt knocks the essay topic wide open and tells students to write absolutely anything. Below is a list of the prompts, broken down into their broad categories:
[Passion] 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.
[Growth] 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?
[Growth] 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
[Passion] 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.
[Growth] 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
[Passion] 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?
[Open] 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.
The Common App essay prompts for 2018-2019 remain the same as in 2017-2018, largely because they are well-written prompts that give excellent direction while preserving the student’s ability to share a unique story told in an authentic voice.
How does a student choose which prompt to write? Ideally, students select the prompt that “connects” with them the most. The prompt response should include a narrative element (a story, as in a chronological sequence of events). It should also have an analytical component that reveals self-awareness of the role of that particular area of passion or personal growth in the student’s life or development. The analytical component is where the readers hear the writer’s voice loudest. The prompt in which story and analysis come together strongest is the prompt a student should choose.
Before locking down the final Common App prompt selection, students should take a quick peek at the supplemental essays for the specific colleges on their list. If a supplemental essay for a top-choice school requires a student to write an essay that is the same or eerily similar to the Common App essay response, choose a different Common App essay prompt. Writing the same basic content for multiple essays going to one college or university is a surefire way to prove a lack of creativity, depth, and work ethic.
As college application season kicks into high gear, here are some action tips for students, educators, and parents to help everyone thrive:
Students – Choose wisely, and keep the big picture in mind. Use narrative and analysis. Tell your story; use your voice. A planner, personal journal, or Bullet Journal could come in handy when it’s time to brainstorm stories. This should go without saying, but students should not wait until the last minute to draft their Common App essay. Leave enough time to try and fail and adjust and try again. Try two or three different prompts to see where they lead you before deciding on “the one.” Time and reflection will be your best friends in finding your voice.
Educators – Give students plenty of practice writing personal narratives. High school English classes run deep in the ruts of literary analysis, research-based writing, and argumentative essays. But students struggle to write their own stories. Do not neglect narrative writing, especially personal narratives. To junior English teachers specifically: at the end of the year, consider a brief personal narrative unit. Keep the word count similar to the Common App (maximum of 650 words). Let your juniors leave school prepared for the college application season ahead.
Parents – Help your students carve out time to choose their Common App prompts wisely. The ideal time to begin drafting college essays is in July between junior and senior years. Most supplemental essay prompts are out by then. The Common App recently has announced prompts in the winter or spring before the next application season. They announced on January 12, 2018, the return of the prompts from 2017-2018 for the 2018-2019 college application season, so it would stand to reason that the Common App prompts will be readily available in July too. Encourage your students to start early. Once students return to school in August or September for the heavy academic and extracurricular load most college-bound seniors carry, they will be writing whatever comes to mind from a sleep-deprived state and settling for just getting something written instead of writing their unique story in their authentic voice.
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