College Admissions, College Essays, Educators, English/ELA, Personal Statements, Students, Teachers

The New Prompts are Here!

That’s right. The Common App announced the 2021-2022 prompts this week, and this year there is a NEW option in the lineup.

Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

The Common App Blog

The new prompt replaces the problem-solving prompt for two reasons. First, the option to write about a problem you would solve was one of the least selected choices. And second, the Common App cites research demonstrating the benefits of writing about the positive influence of others on our lives. And who couldn’t use some positivity?!

The rest of the prompts remain the same as 2020-2021. The optional COVID-19 question remains in the Additional Information section, which makes sense since the pandemic is still having a significant impact on the planet.

To read more about the 2021-2022 Common App essay changes, click here.

College Essays, Personal Statements

Common App COVID-Specific Essay

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Offering support to students concerned about the effects of the pandemic on their college admissions journey, the Common App has added a COVID-19 question. As the Common App blog so eloquently puts it, “We want to provide colleges with the information they need, with the goal of having students answer COVID-19 questions only once while using the rest of the application as they would have before to share their interests and perspectives beyond COVID-19.”

The question will appear in the Additional Information section of the application and have a 250-word limit. The application will include a FAQ section to guide students in choosing which aspects of their COVID-19 experience they would like to share. 

The current Additional Information question with its 650-word limit will remain. In response to this question, students are invited to share any information they feel is not reflected in other sections of the application. 

Keep in mind that the COVID-19 question is optional. There are pros and cons to weigh in deciding to answer it. And just because you can doesn’t always mean you should

To help students discern how or even if they should write about their pandemic experience, College Essay Guy Ethan Sawyer has crafted an extensive guide titled “How to Write About Coronavirus/COVID-19 In Your College Essay & Application.” And when I say extensive, I mean that he gives the same level of insight into approaching this special question in his online guide as he does into approaching the personal statement in general in his book College Essay Essentials. It’s all kinds of helpful in planning a COVID-19 writing strategy across all your college admissions essays.

Before you get too far into writing any of your personal statements, I highly recommend you check out Ethan’s Coronavirus/COVID-19 guide. 

College Essays, Personal Statements

Best Admissions Essay Book Ever

If you could have only one resource for writing pretty much any college admissions essay, you should grab Ethan Sawyer’s College Essay Essentials.

The beauty of Sawyer’s approach is its simplicity. Students answer two questions with yes/no responses. Based on the combination of yeses and noes, you write in one of four structures. He gives students the tools to brainstorm, plan, draft, and revise deep and meaningful personal statements. And for those who are a little less interested in deep and meaningful and just want to get the thing done, Sawyer also has a section titled “How to Write Your Essay in Just One Night (Break Only in Case of Emergency).” 

Although I don’t personally know Sawyer, I have annotated his entire book, read most of the articles on his College Essay Guy website, watched his YouTube videos, and guided students in person through his free Personal Statement Workshop.

This method works. 

In College Essay Essentials, Sawyer includes a toolbox of exceptionally helpful prewriting exercises to guide students as they explore both the small details (Essence Objects Exercise) and the big picture (Values Exercise) of their lives. For students looking for intellectual or emotional depth in their essays, the section titled “How Do I Make My Essay, Like, Deep?” walks students through the Feelings and Needs Exercise. In my experience working with high school students as they develop their personal statements, I’ve seen the Feelings and Needs Exercise produce some spectacular essays. 

Beyond brainstorming, Sawyer’s approach also provides specific structures for personal statements that divide into two broad categories—narrative and montage. Narrative essays focus on one story and let the events unfold to reveal something about the writer. Montage essays center on one theme, allowing the writer to pull several examples to illustrate it. 

The narrative and montage structures are like gutter guards in bowling. They keep you in your lane. The structural charts in College Essay Essentials are just the right amount of support to send those beginning the process in the right direction. For those who are outstanding writers and already have clarity about what they want to say as well as how they want to say it, Sawyer gives room to run with it. 

“That’s nice,” you say, “but does he cover how to write each of the Common App prompts?” Actually, no. He doesn’t. He doesn’t need to. This method of writing the personal statement can generate essays that fit every prompt the Common App folks offer. It really does. Once you write your essay, the one that most authentically gives a picture of who you are, then you can choose one of the Common App prompts. You might have to tweak your essay a little, but you won’t have to start the whole process again. 

“Will College Essay Essentials help me write college-specific essays?” you ask. Why, yes. Yes, it will. The essay-writing techniques Sawyer teaches are applicable to virtually every personal statement essay I’ve encountered, whether it’s for college admissions, scholarships, graduate programs, or professional schools. The fundamentals are the same. 

If you want to check out school-specific or system-specific advice… actually, if you want to take a deeper dive into college essays and personal statements in general… jump over to the College Essay Guy blog, and get ready for a deep dive into information that will guide you to your best essay for wherever you hope to land. 

You’re going to find a plethora (COLLEGE ESSAY WORD) of outstanding guidance on writing personal statements on the College Essay Guy website and YouTube channel but still buy the book. It’s a handbook that will take you well beyond undergrad admissions. 

On the website, you will find an online course on writing personal statements that is literally the best available. It costs a bit of money. However, Sawyer has a strict pay-what-you-can policy, and he is sincere about that. 

Before your application deadlines get a whole lot closer, buy the book, scour the website and YouTube, dig into the workshops that are free, enroll in the ones behind the paywall, and if you need feedback on your draft, email me. Pricing and contact information is here

College Admissions, College Essays, Personal Statements

The Common App Essay Prompts Are the Same in 2020-2021

Photo by Christina Morillo from Pexels

Dear Common App Prompt Committee Folks,

OMG y’all are just the BEST!!! For the fourth year in a row, you are keeping the Common App essay writing prompts the same. THANK YOU! 

Do you have any idea how wonderful that is for English teachers, college admissions counselors, and college essay coaches throughout the land? After all, we’ve got a lot to deal with in light of the pandemic and being caught in the middle of a game of science versus politics. 

But really though, your prompts are pretty great. We’re thrilled the colleges say the prompts give them the information they look for. That’s especially helpful since so many of them are dropping their standardized testing requirements for this year’s applicants. IMHO standardized test scores are overrated anyway.

We’re out here betting that essays are going to get a bump in importance in the admissions process this fall. If your friends in the member schools are a little nervous about plagiarism, y’all can get together and add a little statement about how select students will receive video interviews based on their essay responses. Then you can figure out a random (or not random) way of selecting which students to interview about their essays. 

Do you have a plagiarism filter yet? (You don’t have to answer that right now in front of everybody, but just in case you don’t, you might want to get on that. What an AWESOME feature it would be for current and prospective member schools if you would help them filter out applicants who aren’t all that into honor codes.)

Back to us—the English teachers, college admissions counselors, and college essay coaches. For years, we’ve been working with students in school and out of school to help them write essays well. We have presentations and videos and assignments and coaching methods designed to make students, especially those without strong support systems away from school, comfortable in approaching college essays. And we hardly have words to tell you how grateful we are that all those resources and approaches can remain stable this year so that we can focus on making sure our students are doing OK in the middle of all this uncertainty. 

So, yeah. Thank you, Common App Prompt Committee. Y’all freakin’ rock. 


P.S. To anyone who is reading my thank-you note to the Common App Prompt Committee Folks but actually isn’t one of the Common App Prompt Committee Folks, for your convenience, I’m going to leave the 2020-2021 prompts right here. See the Common App blog for more information. 

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

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?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

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 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.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging 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?

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.