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Common App Essay Questions

Common App Essay Questions

Common App Essay Questions?

If you have found your way to this page on the internet by searching for information about the Common App Essay Questions for 2013-2014 – or, if you have already have the new essay topics and are about to tear your hair out like our friend in the picture above – welcome!

In this article, I will be discussing the new Common App Essay prompts for 2013-2014.

If you are not familiar with the Common Application, I explain what that is on the home page of this site.

Notice, that in the second sentence, I replaced the word “questions” with the word “prompts”.

As we will see in a moment, several of the essay prompts don’t have a question mark at the end, and are not questions at all.

This is an important point, because if you see the essay prompts as “questions”,  you may go seeking answers to those questions – and, like the fellow in the graphic above, feel like tearing your hair out when you can’t find any.

The fact is that there are no Common App Essay “questions” – and hence, there are no Common App Essay “answers” either.

There are only essays – good essays, bad essays and a whole lot of mediocre essays.


It Is Important Not To See The “Prompts” as Common App Essay Questions

On Aug. 1, 2013, the Common Application Board of Directors announced the new essay “prompts” for 2013-14. Let’s see what they came up with:

  • 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.

As noted above, the first and last prompts in the list do not have a question mark at all. And while the others do, the really important words in each of the prompts are “directives” – that is, authoritative instructions. Here is the a list of the “directives” that appear in the five essay prompts:

  • share
  • recount
  • reflect upon
  • describe
  • discuss

Remember – these words were all chosen with utmost care.

And what are they all intended to do?

Prompt you to tell a story.

Share, recount, reflect upon, describe and discuss.

These are not questions at all.

They are words that were carefully and deliberately chosen to prompt you to tell them – your readers – something about you that distinguishes you from all of the other applicants.

And remember – they don’t have any idea what that something that you want to tell them is – and because they don’t know what it is, there is no right or wrong answer.

So, don’t tear your hair out looking for one.

Just do exactly what you are being instructed to do – share, recount, reflect upon, describe or discuss.


How to Use the 2013-2014 Common App Essay Prompts

The five essay prompts listed above are designed to help you come up with a story or incident from your life experience which will distinguish you – and your admission application – from the tens of thousands of other applications.

The choice which you make as to what to write about – in response to the essay prompts – will make or break your essay and quite possibly, your application, as well.

If you get the topic wrong, it really doesn’t matter how well you write your essay – it will still be a weak essay.

Last year I worked with a young woman whose first attempt at a common app essay was about buying a golf hat.

It was a reasonably well-written essay, but the subject matter was so weak that it was virtually impossible for the essay to have any impact – and it didn’t – at least not for me.

After a bit of coaxing, she abandoned that topic and wrote about her role in helping her mother recover from a serious health challenge – and the result was an essay that was powerful and poignant.

The choice you make as to what to write about will make or break your essay.

Before you embark upon your essay, you might want to run your topic by a Common App Essay Tutor like me because that is the stage at which I can really help you.


Drilling Deeper Into the 2013-2014 Common App Essay Prompts

Let’s return to the subject of how to use the essay prompts to help you come up with the strongest topic you can.

The first step is to read them – not just once – several times.

Is there one that jumps out at you? Let’s consider them one by one:

  • If, for example, the first prompt calls out to you – a background or story that is so central to your identity that your application would be incomplete with out it – then you have experienced something life-altering – whatever it may have been. If you are one of those people whose very  identity has been shaped by an experience – then you know who you are, and that is the experience that you should write about. If you have not experienced something life-altering – and by” life-altering”, I am talking about the loss of a family member, an escape from a war-torn part of the world, a serious illness, something like that –  I would advise you to stay away from the first prompt, because writing about a trivial or mundane experience in response to that prompt will sink your essay, guaranteed.
  • The second prompt is very specific – it is about overcoming failure. Again, this isn’t a topic you can choose if you haven’t experienced a profound failure. If you trivialize this topic, you will experience failure – the failure of your Common App Essay and possibly your failure to get accepted into the college or colleges of your choice. On the other hand, triumphing over failure is a powerful topic, and if you do have an experience in your past that you can write about with real force, your essay can be memorable, and that is what you want.
  • The third essay prompt is, once again, very focused. It is about challenging a belief or idea – standing up for your principles and suffering the consequences. Have you ever done that? If you have, then this topic should be the one that immediately jumps out at you. Keep in mind – it is not just about challenging a belief or idea – it is about the consequences of your action. “Would you make the same decision again?” If your actions caused had some serious ramifications, then the answer to that question may not be so simple – but if they didn’t, then you probably didn’t have the kind of experience that can be turned into a powerful reponse to this essay prompt.
  • I will be very frank and state that I think that the fourth essay prompt is the trickiest of all. “Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.” I will bet that virtually every essay that is written on this topic will sound the same – some pastoral description of a place in the country – a cottage, summer camp, a farm – something like that. Don’t forget, the essay has to be about you. “What do you experience there and why is it meaningful to you?” If you think you can write a memorable essay on this topic, go ahead – but I invite you to run it by me if you want as my guess is that 99% of the essays written on this topic will fail to provide a compelling explanation of why the place described is meaningful. This is a very difficult topic, in my view.
  • The last essay prompt is also tricky – it would have been a lot easier if what was being prompted here was an experience that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood in terms of your own maturity – in other words, a simple “coming-of-age” story. But the experience has been qualified by this phrase – “within your culture, community, or family”. In other words, it is some kind of experience which is recognized by others – it is not a “personal” journey. The obvious choices for a topic like this are Bar and Mitzvahs, which, in the Jewish culture, mark the formal transition from childhood to adulthood, and other cultures and religions have similar “formal” events. If you choose to write about one of the more obvious choices for this topic, you run the risk of sounding like every other essay about a Bar or Bat Mitzvah or Confirmation ceremony. What would be really powerful would be an essay about a personal experience which was recognized within your family as marking your transition from childhood to adulthood because that would probably be unique – if you have something like that in your past, you could write a very impactful essay – but you need to have a very strong experience to relate.


A Very Significant Omission from the 2013-2014 Common App Essay Prompts

We have reviewed the five Common App Essay Prompts for 2013-2014, and we have seen that each one of them poses a significant challenge. What is most significant of all, in my opinion, is the essay prompt that was omitted this year – and which was included in previous years:

  • Topic of your choice

That prompt is gone for this year. In the past, if you didn’t like any of the essay prompts, you could always write your essay on anything at all – like the golf hat essay I mentioned earlier.

No longer.

There is no longer a prompt that allows you to write an the topic of your choice.

Which is why, in my opinion, the Common App Essay is more challenging than in the past.


How a Common App Essay Tutor Can Help You

As I have stated in this article, your choice of topic can make or break your essay, regardless of the level of writing skill that you can bring to it.

And it is not just about choosing the right topic to write about – it is about structuring the story and extracting the most meaning from it.

As a Common App Essay Tutor, I can help you at any stage of your essay – but none is more crucial than the beginning stage – before you have chosen your topic.

The right topic is fully 75% of the battle.

If you would like me to help you with your Common App Essay, I invite you to contact me for a FREE consultation via:

Telephone: 416-519-4427


Email: astransman@rogers.com


Skype: AlanStransman


 The Video Below Has Some Very Interesting Comments About the Essay Prompts

The essay prompts for 2013-2014 were announced less than a week ago, but already a video has been posted to YouTube with some very interesting comments. To view, click the arrow:









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