The Common Application has a set of 7 prompts from which you select any one to tell a compelling story to the Admissions Team. Most students feel that this is where you list all of your achievements. False: Colleges are not looking for duplication of your resume in your essay. On the contrary, the CAE is a personal, creative, and reflective essay meant to focus on your unique values and skills as an individual. No time is too soon, since it would take you a couple of weeks (or months) to perfect the essay that represents you best. The most effective essays are the ones that make you memorable as an applicant, and for the right reasons (you don’t want to bring in something scandalous or controversial that poses as a red flag to the Admissions Officers.)
The CAE has seen a change in one of its prompts, but the others remain the same this year as well. At Ivy Central, we get students started on the brainstorming in the second half of their junior year of high school. We find it is important to initiate this process at this time since students have faced few academic and personal moments of growth till now. Reflection, like meditation, is a slow process that takes time to convert memories into content that is apt for your essay.
Here’s how you can approach these prompts –
Prompt 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.
This prompt oozes with one underlying question – What’s absolutely unique about you?
You could be an aspiring computer scientist and choose to talk about how much you love to code, but this is unlikely to help you stand out. On the other hand, you could be an aspiring computer scientist who loves to perform slam poetry! Now, that is memorable. The one thing you need to remember is that your essay need not be about the major you wish to pursue. It could be about anything that has shaped you into the person you are today.
Further breaking down the prompt –
Background: where you/your family come from and how that has shaped you
Identity: could be cultural, racial, ethnic, gender, sexual orientation
Interest: digging old recipes passed down through generations in your family
Talent: e.g. can solve the rubric cube blindfolded?
Key word here is ‘unique’. If it’s unique to you, write about it. The possibilities are endless.
Prompt 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?
This is one of those prompts that does not apply to everyone, like the first one. The best way to approach this prompt is to introduce a significant incident and then shift the narrative focus to what you actually learned from it. Try to avoid situations where you’re showing yourself off as an overachiever or have perfectionist tendencies since these are mostly viewed negatively by colleges. Also, steer clear of everyday challenges such as missing your school bus. Your choice of ‘challenge’ has to be something that has genuinely impacted you and your life. For example, separation of parents, losing a sibling, an accident.
If you do opt for this prompt, remember this –
Pick a significant challenge/hurdle
Outline your personal growth/learning curve
State the Silver Lining
Make it a positive essay, not a sob story
Prompt 3: Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
This is a challenging prompt and again, not everyone can relate to it. However, if you do, it is probably because it speaks to the unconventional/unpopular values you hold in a certain situation/setting/group of people. For instance, are you a trans* activist or someone who challenges the notion of gender binary in a strict culture?
This essay is apt for you if you want to showcase something that is morally/ethically meaningful to you and you’ve demonstrated that through your actions.
FYI: your choice of topic need not be something earth-shattering, but it could be something that really meant something to you and you’ve stood up for it/been vocal about your opinions.
Avoid stating a series of anecdotes if you’re unable to link it to your growth.
Prompt 4: 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?
This is the new prompt Common App has introduced this year in place of the following prompt –
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.
While all of the remaining prompts ask you to talk about things you have done for others, this one focuses on how you feel when a stranger helps you or someone gives you something in your moment of need. One way to approach this essay would be to talk about how experiencing gratitude has shaped your own ways of being grateful. Remember to focus on yourself, how this moment impacted you and how you have paid it forward in kind or otherwise. If you intend to talk about charity, be mindful of how you present it.
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
This is the ‘Growth Essay’. Thanks to the addition of “realization” in 2016 by the Common App, applicants can also feel free to talk about an epiphany that turned out to a life-altering moment. After all, we do have our own eureka moments!
The keywords in this prompt are obviously open to interpretation, allowing a free reign to the choice of potential topics. The main thing is that no matter your choice of accomplishment/event/realization, you need to focus on the ‘then what?’ For instance, did a pat on your back from someone unexpected really turn things around for you? Or, did winning an award motivate you to do something for your community?
Talk about the seeds that were sown that allowed you to grow into the person you are today. Focus on your transformation, maturity, and takeaways.
Prompt 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?
Do you have a passion without which your application reads dull? This prompt is your opportunity to talk all about it. This is what many people call the ‘passion’ or ‘nerd’ essay. If you love to deep dive into something, talk about it. You could make your topic relevant to the major you are applying to, or not.
It could be about the million times you tried your Grandma’s recipe and failed but you learned something from each of those attempts. Focus on why was this so important to you?
Or you are an aspiring physicist and you love applying laws of physics to become a better swimmer?
Or you could talk about how you bring in the humanities to STEM through forming a club on Bioethics, something that has always intrigued you, yet never been done by others in your school. How far do you take your passion, is what you need to demonstrate should you choose this prompt.
Prompt 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.
This prompt provides you the freedom to choose anything that’s not been covered by any of the above prompts. We generally recommend students write their essay and then fit it into one of the prompts. This one helps assert Common App’s mission that no prompt should hinder any one from writing a story they wish to share with the Admissions.
What are you waiting for? Get brainstorming!