Common App Releases New Essay Prompts
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If you’re applying to college this fall, things just got a lot more real. The Common App has released their 2017-2018 essay prompts – which means all that’s standing between you and your college essays is, well, actually writing those essays.

Most of this year’s seven essay prompts are either unchanged or lightly revised from last year’s prompts. But there are two newcomers, including one that will have many applicants rejoicing (we’ll get to that in a minute).

The first new essay question has been met with less fanfare than the second, but for applicants who have an intellectual interest they’re passionate about, it could be a perfect opportunity to showcase this side of themselves:

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?

The phrasing of this question also gives applicants a chance to display their resourcefulness as well as to talk about what motivates them and makes them tick.

However, it’s the second new essay question that’s the biggest news of this year’s changes:

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.

Yes, that’s right. Starting this fall, you can submit an essay about whatever catches your fancy – although exercising good judgment is still recommended, of course!

As the prompt suggests, there are several different reasons you might choose to take this route. Maybe the information that you really want to convey about yourself, that you think will add the most to your application, doesn’t fall neatly into one of the other six essay questions.

Or maybe you’ve got a killer essay you already wrote for one of your classes at school that you want to show off to college admissions officers. Maybe you want to reuse a non-Common-App essay you wrote for another college application. Then again, maybe you’re just a creative type and you want to let your imagination run wild (but, again, preferably not too wild) while choosing your essay topic.

Whatever your reason for wanting to blaze your own college admissions trail, the folks over at the Common App are now giving you the green light to write about anything you want.

This idea actually isn’t as radical as it might seem. For starters, the application essay is intended to let applicants communicate something about who they are as individuals, so giving them the option of picking their own essay topic is a natural conclusion.

Plus, the “none of the above” Common App essay prompt isn’t even entirely new. Although this choice has been absent for a few years, the Common App has in fact given students the option of creating their own essay prompt before.

At this point, the astute observer might wonder: if the Common App had the “whatever you want” essay prompt in previous years and then removed it, why is it coming back now?

We don’t know the inner workings of why the Common App decided to reintroduce the student-favorite “make your own topic” essay choice. But there’s no reason we can’t speculate!

One thing to keep in mind is that for the first time, the Common App is facing some serious competition. Last year, a group of schools called the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success debuted the rival Coalition App.

One of the Coalition App’s selling points is flexibility. And, sure enough, when the Coalition’s five essay prompts hit the press, this was one of them:

Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

So can you really blame Common App for not wanting to be outdone with that? If the Coalition App is the nice parent who says “you can eat whatever you want for dinner,” maybe the Common App doesn’t want to be the bad guy who says “no, you have to eat your broccoli!”

Whatever the reason this essay prompt is reappearing now, the increased flexibility can only be good news for students. If one of the other essay topics gives you the focus and direction to create an effective essay, then great, more power to you. But if the new “customize your essay prompt” option is the chance you’ve been waiting for to share a side of yourself you previously weren’t sure how to work into your application, now you can take it and run with it!

In addition to the new essay questions on the block, there are five holdovers from last year, some of which have been tweaked. Here’s the complete list of essay topics from Common App:

  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]
  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]
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
  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]
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
  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]
  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]

The italicized words in the revised prompts represent changes from last year’s questions. For example, for the second essay topic, Common App rewrote “the lessons we take from failure” as “the lessons we take from obstacles we encounter.” Perhaps last year’s applicants were a little wary about discussing their capital-F Failures in their college applications! You can’t really blame them – at any rate, “obstacles” puts a much more positive spin on the whole thing.

Despite the two additional questions, you’ve probably noticed that this year’s and last year’s prompts have more similarities than differences. According to Common App, that’s because when it came down to it, most people were pretty happy with the essay topics last year. In fact, 91 percent of member schools said last year’s essay questions did the job. And a survey of students, college counselors and teachers came back with similar results: 90 percent said the essay prompts were effective.

In the grand scheme of college applications, then, the revisions aren’t so earth-shattering. For students, the approach to these questions will be familiar: figure out what you can say that will make your application more three-dimensional. The main difference is that with two new essay questions, including the option of creating a new essay topic, there are a couple new tools to work with!


By Niels V.