How to approach the Common App essays (2017-2018)

The Common App recently released its prompts for the 2017-2018 personal statement.

There are some revisions, and even two new prompts.

Here are some analyses of the seven prompts from Ivy Experience Essayologists Eric Karlan, Karan Shah, and Jim Wismer.

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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. [No change]

Once upon a time, the Common App had a “Topic of Your Choice” prompt. Then, for the past several years, they eliminated it.

Now, this year, the “Topic of Your Choice” prompt has officially returned. (See Prompt #7 below.)

So even though the wording of this prompt has not changed since last year, the circumstances under which you select this prompt are different.

Be thoughtful if you choose this prompt. The story you share needs to be incredibly meaningful and integral to you – the type of essay that would really move the person reading it.

The stakes are higher now for this prompt. If your response does not meet that high bar – if the reader is wondering why your essay is so essential to you – choose a different prompt.

– Eric

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? [Revised]

This prompt used to focus solely on one word: failure. That was a pretty loaded word.

“Obstacles” softens it up. It allows flexibility and makes this prompt more accessible.

Nevertheless, the same pitfalls remain. You typically do not want your first introduction to someone to be about a failure. It is important to put your best foot forward, and discussing a ‘failure’ makes that difficult.

To write this prompt effectively, there need to be real stakes that led to substantive growth. Nothing trivial, like a hard class that cost you a good grade.

– Karan

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

I love this prompt. It invites some very personal and provoking stories.

The trap here is how students interpret the terms “belief” and “idea.” Some students get political or religious – two realms you generally want to stay away from since you never know the personal beliefs or biases of your admissions officers.

Other students get impersonal through philosophical rants. While that may make for a provoking piece, this is a PERSONAL statement. The focus needs to be on YOU.

Years ago, a student used this prompt to challenge the belief that comic books had no intellectually redeeming value. They reflected on their life experiences and how comic books had actually inspired so much intellectual exploration.

Needless to say, it was a memorable essay.

– Eric

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. [No change]

This was a new prompt last year, and it remains unchanged this year.

Like the “belief or idea” prompt, the word “problem” should not always be taken so seriously. A small problem can lead to profound reflection and significance.

Once again, remember to avoid ethical dilemmas unless you can make it about YOU.

– Jim

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

At last, Common App fixed this prompt – or attempted to, at least. They previously asked about a “transition from childhood to adulthood.”

This led to some boring answers…and other students recounting losing their virginity. In other words, this prompt did not yield much substance.

It is hard to see how this prompt is so distinguished from some of the other prompts. I worry that some students will default to sharing religious awakenings. Or that some responses will get too personal and self-indulgent.

Also remember that the college admissions officers mostly want to hear about your time in high school. “Growth” that happened before this time would most likely not be a good choice here. (There are always exceptions, but you really need to be careful and discerning.)

– Karan

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? [New]

There is a growing emphasis on intellectual engagement in application essays. This past year more than ever I heard that admissions officers, especially at the top universities and colleges, placed a high value on essays that captured intellectual vitality.

For students with unique intellectual interests and explorations – especially beyond the classroom – this is a perfect prompt and a refreshing opportunity to highlight individual pursuits of knowledge.

– Jim

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. [New]

It’s back!

I guess it’s an unsurprising development considering the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (the newly developed counterpart to the Common App – we’ll address this in another blog) chose to offer this prompt as an option for their personal essay.

This was by far and away the preferred Common App prompt for students for years.

Now that it’s back after a hiatus, though, I would issue these words of caution: do not choose this prompt unless you truly cannot fit your desired response into the other prompts.

If your essay is a natural response to another prompt, then the admissions officer may wonder if you even read the other prompts, at all.

Moreover, there is oftentimes greater creative potential within confines. The other prompts may seem limiting, but unique angles in responses can capture an admissions officer’s attention in a more powerful way.

– Eric


Planning your college visits

In the coming weeks and months, high school juniors and their families will take advantage of vacations and long weekends to visit college campuses around the country.

But how should students plan for these visits? How do they maximize a day on campus?

We spoke with Cigus Vanni – former admissions counselor at Swarthmore and guidance counselor in New Jersey, and accredited member of the National Association for College Admission Counseling – about college visits.

How should students choose what colleges to visit?

Many students approach the college search process ass-backwards. They look outside themselves. They see a college that looks attractive, prestigious, and reputable, and they change themselves to be a person for that college.

What students should really do is look inside first. What are your values, interests, and sensibilities? What is meaningful and important to you? Then it’s easy to find a college.

How should students plan a visit?

Before you visit a college, make sure you do your homework. Make sure you have an agenda.

Come prepared with questions and concerns you want addressed from your tour guide or an admissions officer.

Think of questions that cannot be found on a website. Do not ask if a college has a nursing program when you could have looked that up before. Ask them questions that directly relate to your personal goals and personality.

If you want to meet a coach or sit in on a class, plan ahead and contact people beforehand.

What is the significance of a campus tour?

It’s remarkable the influence a tour guide can have on the perception of a college. You say over and over that this is one student out of thousands – for good or bad.

Beyond the tour guide, you need to approach the tour critically. You cannot base a decision on the landscaping or other superficial characteristics.

How should you approach a tour or information session?

Bring a notebook. Remember the first impressions you had. Take notes on specific names of people you meet and buildings you tour on campus.

At end of the information session, introduce yourself to an admissions officer. They remember students if they leave an impression – they may even follow up if the student applies. And then remember to follow up with people you meet.

Beyond the tour and information session, how else can you spend quality time on campus?

Have academic and personal awareness. Read the bulletin boards to get a sense of the environment: are the bulletin posts political, boring, or confrontational? Even read the graffiti in bathroom stalls!

Notice the other students as you walk around campus. Are they engaging? Do they make eye contact? Do they smile?

Spend thirty minutes walking around on your own. Grab a meal on campus.

Do classes have to be in session?

Preferably yes, but if not it’s not bad. It’s like a family looking to buy a home and seeing an empty house – you at least get a feel. It’s better to go than not to go, even if not fully operational.

Some schools have summer sessions and it doesn’t look that different, anyways. The only not ideal time is maybe during vacations during the school year when campus can be fairly empty.

Do college track demonstrated interest?

It’s random and all over the board. For example – Emory used to track everything. Now, they do not track visitors at all. Meanwhile, Carnegie Mellon is totally obsessed.

Most schools ask that you register for a tour ahead of time and book your visit. That is one way they keep track of visitors.

Here is the general rule of thumb: if a campus is within 250 miles, you should visit. Especially the smaller schools will wonder how invested you are as an applicant if you do not visit.

Don’t bankrupt yourself, especially for faraway schools. You can take virtual tours and visit resembling schools more locally.

So is visiting colleges essential?

Not essential. It’s not as vitally important as people make it out to be in terms of demonstrating interest. It’s more for peace of mind.

Why work with Ivy Experience on essays?

With college essays and applications looming on the horizon, you may feel overwhelmed by what is ahead. What are colleges looking for? Where do you start? And why does every conversation about colleges turn into a fight?

This is where we come in. We can guide your student and family from start to finish throughout the college essay and application process, providing expert guidance and answering all of your questions.

Here are some reflections from other parents on working with Eric, Karan, and Jim on essays and applications:

  • “I had heard many horror stories about the application process from family and friends, but by using Ivy Experience, we managed to avoid all those tensions. Perhaps most amazing of all, the essays they worked on with my daughter completely retained her character and voice.”
  • Hiring you to help her with her essay and the application process was one of the best investments we’ve ever made. I didn’t have to nag her once and that made the process go smoothly.”
  • Our daughter was one of the few students who had all of her applications, essays, etc. submitted right at the start of school. She could then enjoy the school year, while others struggled to get through this process and deal with school.”
  • “Your advice, both generally, in terms of topic choices, and specifically, when editing her essays, was concrete, detailed, and, consistent. You continued to help guide her as to how to focus her writing, and provided constructive and specific feedback…You were always very accessible, over email, and the telephone, to her, and to us.
  • “We had already been through this process with our oldest child with another professional in your field. We can say without hesitation that your expertise and style is far superior.

If you like what they have to say and want to learn more about how we can work with you from start to finish throughout the application process, contact us or call 267-888-6489 today.