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Common App Essay Prompts: Some Further Thoughts

Common AppEssay Prompts

In this blog post, I will be discussing the new Common App Essay Prompts for 2013-2014.

If you have not read my earlier blog post on the subject – which is entitled, “Common App Essay Questions” – you can do by clicking here.

In that article, I provided a general overview of the new essay prompts and suggested ways in which the essay prompts should and should not be approached.

In this article, I am going to drill deeper into each of the essay prompts and indicate how I would approach each of the prompts if I were writing a Common App Essay.


A Quick Review of Why They Are Called Essay “Prompts” and Not “Questions”

On August 1, 2013, the Common Application Board of Directors announced the 2013-14 essay prompts, officially kicking off the Common App Essay season, if you will. Below is the announcement:

The Common Application Board of Directors is pleased to announce the 2013-14 essay prompts. They are presented below along with the instructions that will accompany them. While not specified here, the online application will make clear that the word limit will be enforced.

The new prompts and the written guidance around them are the culmination of two years of discussion about the role writing plays in a holistic selection process. The Board relied heavily on the advice of the 15 counselors who serve on its Outreach Advisory Committee. Together, these colleagues have decades of experience advising students from every academic, social, cultural, and economic background. As they considered the topics our members suggested, they worked diligently to ensure that all applicants, regardless of background or access to counseling, would have the chance to tell their unique stories.

The Board of Directors thanks everyone who provided constructive and collegial feedback over the last several months. We are excited about the possibilities these prompts present for thoughtful and creative expression. The measure of their success will be how well they help our member institutions make informed decisions. We will revisit the essay prompts each year, and we will look to our members for input regarding their effectiveness.


Note that the announcement makes five references to the essay topics, and in each case the term “prompts” is used. The essay “prompts” are never referred to as anything other than “prompts” – even though the use of the term “prompts” five times in three paragraphs is bordering on repetitious.

The repetition is deliberate, of course – the Board of Directors wants you to understand that the goal of the essay is “thoughtful and creative expression” – and the prompts are provided to do just that – prompt you to be thoughtful and creative when writing your essay.

The use of the term “questions” would change the meaning entirely – a question is more limiting, and suggests that where there is a question, there is an answer – a right answer and, perhaps, many wrong answers.

The key is to see the “prompts” as freeing your imagination, rather than restricting it.

In short, the Board of Directors wants you to have as much creative latitude in writing your Common App Essay as possible.


¬†However – This Year’s Common App Essay Prompts Are More Specific

As I stated above, the Common App Essay prompts¬† are intended to stimulate “thoughtful and creative expression”.

The use of the term “thoughtful” is important here – don’t just write your Common App Essay off the top of your head.

You may have to come up with a number of possible topics before deciding upon the one to choose.

On a personal note, I have worked with many students whose choice of topic seemed to have been made without any thought or reflection whatsoever.

As I stated in my earlier article on this subject entitled, “Common App Essay Questions“, your choice of topic will make or break you.

Getting the topic right is fully 75% of the battle – a well-written essay on a weak topic will not help your cause at all, whereas a very strong topic written with average skill could help you immensely.

As I noted in my earlier blog post, as well, the most significant change in the essay prompts for 2013-14 is the elimination of the “topic of your choice” option.

In previous years, if you didn’t like any of the essay prompts that were provided, you could always come up with your own topic – and, based upon my experiences working with students, many people did.

This is no longer an option – you have to choose one of the five essay prompts – and tell the most compelling and unique story that you can in response to the prompt that you have chosen.

Let’s take another look at the essay prompts for 2013-14.


The 2013-14 Common App Essay Prompts

If you have not seen them elsewhere, here are the 2013-14 Common App Essay prompts:

  • 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 an 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.


Recall that in the announcement of the essay prompts for this year, the Board of Directors stated that the new prompts “are the culmination of two years of discussion”.

You better believe that every word in these prompts was chosen with care – and that means that you have to read each of the prompts one word at a time until it begins to reveal its secrets.

Let’s review each of the prompts and see which words seem to be “loaded” with meaning.


A Review of the Essay Prompts for 2013-14

  • the words in the first prompt that jump out at me are “background” and “story”. Do you have a unique background or story? And by “story”, they are not referring to something interesting that may have happened to you – they are looking for something that is “central to your identity”. That is a very high standard – and not one which many students are going to be able to achieve. If this prompt doesn’t sound like you, I would advise you to stay away from this topic.
  • in the second prompt, the two words that leap out at me are “failure” and “lessons”. Everybody experiences some kind of failure – but not everyone learns lessons from failure. Once again, if the lessons you learned are not profound, your essay will appear trite, and it will not serve your purposes at all.
  • in the third prompt, the significant words are “challenged”. and “act”. If you choose to write on this topic, you had better have “challenged” a belief or idea. Challenging an idea is not the same as rejecting it. Challenging an idea is “active” – you have to have taken some form of action. Have you done that? Not many people have. If you have, then this topic is for you, but I see a real trap for students who may think that “rejecting” an idea or belief is synonymous with “challenging” it – but the key is “action”. You have to have taken action to make this prompt work for you.
  • as I stated in my earlier blog post on this subject, I think that the fourth prompt represents the biggest challenge and danger. On first sight, it looks easy – describe a “place” or “environment” in which you are “perfectly content”. The danger in this essay prompt is that it appears to be the one that demands the least amount of insight into you – after all, it seems to be about a place. The challenge is to choose a place which reveals something unique about you – not about the place, itself. This is a very difficult topic to really pull off well, in my opinion – if you think you can do it, go for it, but it would be the one I would be least likely to choose because it requires a dual focus – the place or environment and you – both need to be explained and linked – and that is a tall order in 650 words.
  • if we look at the fifth essay prompt, you can see what I mean in my comments about the fourth prompt. This topic is about you – once again, there are significant terms here, “accomplishment” and “event” – so it has to be about something that happened in a relatively compressed time frame. This is not about a process – it is about something you did or something that you were part of – that not only marked your transition from childhood to adulthood, but which was recognized by others – either in your culture, community or family. Again, this is a very demanding topic. Many events or accomplishments change us on the inside, but no one notices. To make this topic work, you really need to demonstrate how the perception of you by others changed as a result of the accomplishment or event.


A Common App Essay Tutor May Be Needed Now More Than Ever

As I stated earlier, in past years, students could read through the essay prompts and if they didn’t find one that really jumped out at them they could simply write about whatever they wanted.

Not now.

For this year’s Common App Essay, you have to work with one of the five essay prompts provided, and as I have shown, not a single one of them is easy.

Choosing a topic and shaping your story to fulfill the expectations of that topic is crucial – and most students have little or no experience with this kind of creative-writing challenge.

The pitfall is always triteness – serving up an essay which is unoriginal, unimaginative and lacking in insight.

I help students at every stage of the Common App Essay process, but this year, I really believe that a lot of students are going to need help selecting a topic.

If I can help you in any way, I invite you to contact me for a FREE consultation via:

Telephone: 416-519-4427


Email: astransman@rogers.com


Skype: AlanStransman







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