The 2017-2018 Common App Essay Prompts

The changes are small, but benefit your college applicant.

 By Anne Vaccaro Brady

The Common Application recently released its 2017-2018 essay prompts for high school students applying to college in the fall of 2017. As a college essay coach, I welcome the minor adjustments to last year’s prompts and the addition of two more. The Common App has made it easier for applicants to find a way to tell their story, which is the goal of the college admissions essay, after all.

If this is your first time through the college admissions process, here’s a very short primer about “the essay.” All colleges, whether or not they use the Common Application (700 do), require a student to write an essay as part of the application, creating an opportunity for your teen to share more about herself than her grades, class rank, SAT/ACT scores, and a list of extra curricular activities, information she’s already included elsewhere on her application. You can read more about the essay in my previous posts, The 411 on the College Essay, How to Help Your Child Tackle the College Essay and Lessons from a College Essay Coach.


IMG_0012.JPGWith the latest set of Common App essay topics, three of the five original prompts received slight makeovers, allowing for a broader interpretation and enabling more students to take advantage of them.

The sixth prompt seeks to find out what engages applicants, what they want to spend their time learning about—an interesting opportunity for thinkers and dreamers and those who like to ponder the possibilities.

Number seven marks the return of the “topic of your choice” and I cannot be more grateful. I’ve worked with many seniors who’ve written their essay but can’t figure out where it fits among the prompts. Part of my job is to help them determine that and edit accordingly, but this addition offers them the freedom to think outside the box and really shine.

The free topic also works for a student who’s written an essay for a class and believes it expresses who he is better than anything he could compose responding to a specific prompt. It will help teens given an assignment to write a draft of their admissions essay by their junior year English teacher without the prompts (in my experience, this happens often). In the case of seniors applying to colleges that don’t use the Common App and have a specific prompt for their essay, that piece can then be used for prompt seven.

In a post for the Huffington Post, Scott Anderson, Senior Director for Access and Education at The Common Application, writes about the essay prompt changes, explaining why they were made and how they will impact your student.


As he points out, this isn’t the time for juniors to write their essays, but to begin thinking about what they might like to write about. I suggest you encourage your teen to make notes of experiences, become more aware of what grabs her interest, consider what she cares about and maybe even do a little self-reflection.


The 2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts are below, with notations from the Common App on which prompts were revised, added or remained the same. To see the changes, check out the Common Application 2016-2017 Essay Prompts.

  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]
  1. 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]
  1. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
  1. 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]
  1. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
  1. 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]
  1. 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]

Share your thoughts on the new Common App essay prompts in the comments section below.


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College Major: Anthropology

A degree in anthropology opens graduates to a variety of career paths.

 A few months ago I read an article in Fortune magazine that featured this caption in an article: “Hormel developed Rev, a new line of on-the-go-meals with input from its house anthropologist, who noticed that today’s students don’t put down their phones during meals.” The phrase “house anthropologist” jumped out at me.

This wasn’t the first time I’d read about anthropologists working for major corporations. Several years back, while on a beach vacation, I shared an article from the New York Times Magazine with my two teenagers about how cell phone companies were using anthropologists to help them design accessible devices for people in Third World countries. Ever since, I’ve found this college major fascinating for the knowledge it imparts, the skills it develops and the possibilities it avails in terms of career options.

marketWhat is anthropology? From the American Anthropological Association: “Anthropology is the study of what makes us human. Anthropologists take a broad approach to understanding the many different aspects of the human experience….”

Through its four main subfields, anthropology looks at our past, our biology, our social interactions, and the different ways we meet our human needs, communicate and even dress. Anthropology explores cultures and societies past and present.

What skill sets and interests do you need to major in anthropology and work as an anthropologist? It helps if a student enjoys research, writing and observing, core requirements in anthropology coursework, and is open-minded and shows a curiosity about people, places and cultures other than their own.

What should you study in high school to prepare for a major in anthropology? Classes in world history, geography, sociology, foreign language and biology will prove the most useful.

What are the main subfields of anthropology? There are four: archaeology, cultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology and biological anthropology.

stonehengeBy uncovering the objects of past societies and their cultures, archaeologists act as detectives, examining such objects as pottery and tools as well as human bones to understand the daily lives of people, figuring out how and what they ate, the diseases they contracted and use this research as a key to connect how humans lived and have changed over our long history.

Focusing on the cultural aspects of various human societies, learning how people around the globe live and react to the world around them, cultural anthropologists explore the differences and similarities between various societies. Anthropologists often travel to and live among different societies to conduct their research.

The key focus of linguistic anthropologists is human communication, studying how language influences the way people function and view the world, which explains how humans interact with and react to each other. They also investigate nonverbal communication, the evolution of language and the differences among languages.

In examining how humans and other primates have evolved and adapted to different environments in our history and throughout the world, biological anthropologists can provide answers to how we fight disease, human diversity and how we got here. This subfield is also known as physical anthropology.

What other subfields are there in anthropology? Forensic anthropology uses archaeological and biological anthropology skills to identify victims and find the cause of death in criminal cases and disasters. Medical anthropology focuses on the health and well being of people by studying the causes of illness and perceptions about acceptable forms of treatment in different cultures. museum2Business anthropology uses anthropological theories to solve business problems. Visual anthropology studies various forms of imagery to understand human behavior. Environmental anthropology looks at human interaction with the environment. Museum anthropology studies the role of museums in society, their history and how that role has evolved.

What career options are open to anthropologists? Research and academia are the traditional career paths for anthropologists, usually requiring an advanced degree. But outside of those areas, there are plenty of jobs in what is referred to applied anthropology. Graduates in anthropology possess the skills to work in journalism and communications, user experience, marketing, sales, business, child services, human resources, social work, government, public health, market research and more. To find out about all the career options in anthropology, visit job sites like and then search “anthropology” and see what comes up. You may be surprised.

Where to learn more about studying anthropology Go to the College Board’s Big Future site and click on the Explore Careers tab for information on colleges that offer anthropology degrees as well as some of the career options in this field. The American Anthropological Association lists colleges that award degrees in anthropology. Check out the anthropology pages on college websites to find more about the major, career options and review the course list.

Visit the sites below for more information on anthropology.
American Anthropological Society: this site covers everything you want to know about anthropology, including where to study it, the jobs available, information on fieldwork and research, and more.

Occupational Outlook Handbook: this government site provides info on median salary, job prospects, career requirements and more.

Share your thoughts and experiences about anthropology as a major and/or career in the comments section below.


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Take Advantage of FAFSA Changes

An earlier filing date, easier access to your tax info and more. 

By Anne Vaccaro Brady


The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, is required by almost all colleges to qualify for need-based financial aid including scholarships, grants, loans and work-study. Federal financial aid is funded by the government but distributed through the college.

Note that merit-based aid, awarded for academic and other achievements, does not require FAFSA.

For the 2017-2018 academic year, there are some important changes to the FAFSA, including an application release three months earlier.

What the changes mean:

High school seniors can know the real cost of college before they apply The original opening date for FAFSA was January 1. With the new October 1 release date, high school seniors will have their expected family contribution (EFC) information as they begin to apply to college. This is the amount the student and his family are responsible for in terms of paying for college. Check each college’s website to learn if it commits to meeting a student’s full financial need.

Current college students can figure out next year’s aid sooner Now, almost a year in advance, college kids and their families will know what portion of next year’s bill they’re responsible for. This information will help students figure out how much they need to earn from a summer job or internship, and whether to get a part-time job during the academic year. Parents can begin looking more closely at their finances now to determine what, if anything, they can afford to chip in next year.

You use an earlier tax year With the new FAFSA, families no longer have to rush to complete their tax returns so that they can meet a college’s financial aid application deadline. The new FAFSA uses the prior, prior year’s return. For instance, the 2017-2018 academic year FAFSA, which can be filed in the fall of 2016, takes information from the student’s and the family’s 2015 tax returns. There’s even an online tool that downloads tax information directly from the IRS to the FAFSA application. Note that you and your student will still need copies of your tax returns on hand to confirm your adjusted gross incomes.

More time to file Every college has its own FAFSA deadline. With some deadlines as early as February or March, future and current students now have several months in which to complete their application in order to receive the maximum amount of aid.

A better chance of meeting state financial aid deadlines Many students are eligible for aid directly from their state, but that requires completing the FAFSA by a specific date. The earlier release makes it easier to meet state deadlines. Visit the FAFSA site to find your state’s deadline.

Changes in your financial situation in the past year won’t be included There is no place on the FAFSA application to explain that a parent lost a job, had to stop working due to illness, etc. In that case, students should contact a college’s financial aid office directly and explain that what’s on the 2015 tax return does not represent the family’s current financial situation. This seems to be the one downside of the new application.

Easier to file early By filing sooner rather than later, your student has the best chance of receiving the largest amount of aid, before a college has committed all of its funds to other students.

Share your thoughts on the FAFSA changes in the comments section below.


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Summer Wrap-Up for High School and College Students

Transferring summer college credits, converting SAT scores and more.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

This week’s post covers some of those loose ends parents and students face before high school and college begin again.


For college students
Transfer summer credits A student who took a course(s) over the summer at another college will need an official transcript sent to his home school to get those credits transferred. If the information on how to do this isn’t readily available on the visiting college’s website, your student can contact that school’s registrar’s office. While your student will receive credit for those summer courses, the grades will not count toward his GPA, though they will become a permanent part of his official transcript.

Accept financial aid To find out the portion of the college tuition bill your student (or you) is responsible for, she’ll need to review and accept her financial aid on her student account. If that aid includes a federal loan which she plans to use, she must complete the online entrance counseling and provide references before the loan can be credited to her account. The processing of the loan takes a few business days once the online paperwork is completed, so to ensure the college bill can be paid on time, your student should accept and complete the requirements for all financial aid at least two weeks ahead of the payment deadline.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAConfirm graduation Your college senior is heading back to campus expecting to graduate next spring. Unfortunately, I’ve heard of college students who found out too late that they were short the credits or required courses they needed to earn their diploma as planned. Before your senior returns to college, review the requirements for his major and his transcript with him to see where he stands. He should also schedule an appointment with his adviser or the college’s graduation office (or both) for when he’s back on campus to make sure he’ll be wearing his cap and gown next spring.

A requirements and transcript review with your underclassmen is helpful, too. We did this with our son late in his freshman year, which he said helped him better manage his future class schedules. Understanding his prerequisites and seeing where he had flexibility made it easier for him to work with his adviser and stay on track to graduate in four years.

For high school students
Compare new and old SAT scores In March, the new SAT was launched and students who had taken both versions quickly learned that the scoring had changed, too. The old test was based on a 2400-point system, while the new one is out of 1600 points. The College Board, which issues the SAT, provides a score converter on its website. Colleges will continue to accept the old scores for a couple of years and convert them to determine a student’s best outcomes.

Request teacher recommendations Your senior’s guidance counselor must provide a recommendation for your teen for college, but your student will also need one from a teacher. Now is the time for her to reach out to one or two teachers via email or in-person requesting that recommendation. The most popular teachers receive the most requests, so your teen will want to get on those teachers’ lists now. If school isn’t in session, your student can try emailing her teacher(s), otherwise once school starts, she should ask in-person during the first week of classes. Once a teacher has agreed to write the letter, your student can put him on her recommender list on her Common App account and have the online form sent directly to the teacher.

IMG_0948Prepare for application season Hopefully your high school senior has finished the list of colleges where he plans to apply. Check out my post on finalizing the list for tips on how to do this if he’s still working on it.

Once the list is complete, he should check each college’s application deadline and which use the Common App, then gather the materials necessary to fill out the applications. His essay should be ready to go, too. He doesn’t have to start his applications right now, but keep in mind how much busier he’ll be once he’s back in school.

I find it helps to set a completion deadline for all applications, whether it’s really early, like Halloween, or a little later like Thanksgiving, or even New Year’s Day. Most students, and their parents, do best with a goal.

What did your high school or college student need to finish up before heading back to classes? Please share in the comments section below.


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Preparing Your Freshman for Life with a Roommate

The challenges of living with a stranger.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

A friend emailed me the other day worried about the fact that her soon-to-be college freshman appears to have nothing in common with the girl who will be her roommate. My friend is not alone. A normal concern among parents of resident college freshmen is whether their teen will get along with their roommate.

For some of us, we relive our own bad freshman roommate experience or recall the complaints we’ve heard from friends and family about their teens’ roommate conflicts. Sure, there’s always the risk of the roommate from hell, but it’s more likely that the two or four or six kids will find a way to live together, eventually. And that’s all they need to do.

Here’s how to help your student transition to life with a college roommate.

Lower expectations A college roommate doesn’t have to be your teen’s best friend, and probably won’t be. That said, your freshman wants someone she can share space with, who she can talk to, feel comfortable around and not want to leave the room as soon as she walks in.

No matter what the arrangement, college dorm rooms are small spaces and living with a complete stranger in such cramped conditions means everyone will need to learn to compromise, including your teen. This is not home and unfortunately, no one on campus really knows how she functions yet, like whether she needs to talk about her day or keep that between her and her journal.

Hopefully all parties involved were honest when they filled out their roommate questionnaires. I remember a friend complaining when her daughter, normally a slob, checked the box for “neat.” Her reasoning: she didn’t want to end up with a messy roommate.

Understanding how colleges pair roommates Some colleges allow freshmen to pick their roommates, even setting up Facebook groups or directing students to apps where they can “meet.” Teens also find roommates at orientation, where they get to know each other, although briefly, in-person.

Colleges that pair freshmen use the roommate questionnaire and the experience of the residence life staff, or a computer program, to put teens together. At some of these schools, freshmen may not have the option to choose whom they live with.

Roommate contract Customized by each college, this contract helps prevent misunderstandings between roommates, covering important issues like study styles, noise tolerance, sharing of personal property, cleaning, visitors, overnight guests, privacy and more.

Resident Advisers (RAs) usually review the contract with all the students on the floor in advance, presenting sample scenarios for freshmen to consider. Roommates usually have only a week or two before they must complete, sign and turn in the contract. Addressing the important issues up front and early on can avert problems down the road. Remind your student honesty matters on this form, too.

The advantages of not picking your best friend If your teen and a good friend are heading to the same college in the fall, they may want to room together. Besides preventing both teens from moving out of their comfort zone and meeting new people, it can hurt their friendship as they learn that living with someone 24/7 is a lot different than just hanging out together. By living separately, they have another dorm room to go to when they need space or want to see a familiar face, plus they get to know each other’s roommates and make more friends.

Dealing with the bumpy moments Your freshman shouldn’t anticipate that she and her roommate won’t get along, because it’s more likely they will. Sure, they’ll have moments when they get on each other’s nerves, but that happens normally to people who live together. It helps when both roommates are willing to be introduced to new things like going to a concert for a band one of them has never heard of or trying a different topping on their pizza.

If your freshman starts running into issues with her roommate, remind her of these opportunities:

  • Campus is filled with students, so go out and meet them: in her dorm, in her classes, by joining clubs or checking in with the teens she met at orientation.
  • Her RA was a freshman once and has received training in conflict resolution to help roommates work through problems as they arise. The RA is a resource.

Also reinforce the idea of picking your battles. Because no two people do everything exactly alike, she must decide what’s worth addressing—the wet towel regularly left on the floor or the smelly food in the roommate’s garbage pail that doesn’t get emptied for days.

The bottom line Your teenager is about to embark on a new experience, living with a complete stranger for a long period of time—almost a year. No doubt it’s scary, but it can also be exciting. Remind him that his roommate is in the same boat. Getting to know each other and surviving their first year of college may ultimately bond them together.

Share your thoughts and advice on freshman year roommates in the comments section below.

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College Major: Engineering

The first in an occasional series on college majors.  

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

With teachers, parents, corporate leaders and even the president encouraging teenagers to become engineers, a well-paying field with solid job prospects, it seems a good place to start this series that explores college majors. Read on to learn more about engineering and whether it’s right for your student.

IMG_0734What is engineering? From “Engineering is the application of scientific knowledge to solving problems in the real world. While science (physics, chemistry, biology, etc.) allows us to gain an understanding of the world and the universe, engineering enables this understanding to come to life through problem-solving, designing and building.”

We encouraged our son to study engineering because he learned by understanding instead of memorizing, had a problem-solving nature—he took things apart to figure out how they worked and, from an early age, showed no fear when touching random keys on a computer to see what they did. He studied computer science and engineering in college, and yes, he is working, using his engineering skills as a product developer.

What skill set and interests do you need to become an engineer? Along with good problem-solving skills, an engineering major should like math and science and possess competence in both. Creativity also helps, because solving problems involves original thinking.

Don’t let the math requirement freak you out. I once heard an engineer, in speaking to a class of high school physics students, explain that they didn’t need to memorize a bunch of formulas, but they needed know how to use them. Engineering departments/firms keep those formulas on hand (imagine a mythical binder filled with formulas).

Students who struggle with math or science need to be willing to put in extra effort and take advantage of their college’s tutoring center if they are serious about earning an engineering degree. Calculus is an essential piece of the engineering puzzle and most disciplines require more than Calc A & B. Choosing an engineering discipline that plays to your strengths rather than your weaknesses helps, too.

What should you study in high school to prepare for a major in engineering? The website recommends that students interested in engineering take accelerated courses in these areas: algebra II, biology, calculus, chemistry, computer science, language arts, precalculus, physics, a foreign language and trigonometry. Students who can’t take a course at the highest level offered should at least take the level that challenges them.

What are the most popular engineering majors? The Top 4 include chemical, civil, electrical and mechanical engineering.


  • Chemical engineering This field covers work on everything from pharmaceuticals to food products, from fuels to paper products, from fertilizer to household cleaners. Chemical engineers work in the lab and the field to create commercial products via chemistry.
  • Civil engineering Think roads, tunnels, bridges, dams and buildings. This broad area also covers applications relating to structural integrity, the environment, water resources and more.
  • Electrical engineering Almost everything you do today involves work by an electrical engineer—the computer or cell phone you’re reading this on, the program you watch on your television via the cable system that feeds it to your home. Electrical engineers work in various industries such as construction, manufacturing and design.
  • Mechanical engineering Considered the broadest of engineering disciplines, mechanical engineering overlaps with many of the other engineering fields. Professionals work on designing machines, systems, energy conversion devices and structures.

How many other engineering disciplines are there beyond the Top 4? Depending upon how specialized you view engineering, there are as many as 29 additional disciplines. These include but are not limited to audio, computer, aerospace, biomedical, environmental, mining/geological, automotive, manufacturing, nuclear, ocean, petroleum and software, among others. To learn about all the engineering disciplines, visit and

What career options are open to engineers? Engineering graduates can work directly in the field they studied or in a related area. Some would say engineers can work in almost any field they choose, even ones that appear unrelated, because of their problem-solving skills. Engineers do pursue careers in business, law and medicine. Various studies of the top CEOs have shown that anywhere from 20-30 percent hold degrees in engineering, equal to or more than those who earned business degrees.

IMG_0027.JPGHow do you pick an engineering discipline? Fortunately, good college engineering programs require freshmen to all take the same core engineering courses that cross disciplines, enabling students to find which areas meet their interests and fit their abilities in order to declare a major by sophomore year.

Why should girls and minorities consider engineering? Colleges and corporations have finally woken up to the fact that they need more diversity among their engineering students and employees and now offer scholarships and hiring incentives to young women and minorities in order to achieve their goals. Girls and minority teens who want to create, design, build and solve the world’s problems should take a closer look at majoring in engineering.

Where can you learn more about engineering majors and the colleges that offer them? Start with the sites below to find colleges with engineering programs. Then search online to see where schools rank using the terms “top engineering schools” or “top [pick discipline] engineering schools.” Look beyond the top 10; there are plenty of good programs that rank below that.

Educating Engineers—a guide to schools by state

Try Engineering–find a university worldwide

The College Board’s The Big Future

The Online Guide to Engineering Schools—a site created by engineers

Engineering Colleges – Niche

Share your thoughts on engineering degrees and careers in the comments section below.

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The 2016-2017 Coalition and Common App Essay Prompts

Both application platforms have released their five essay topic options.

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

IMG_0915You’re likely familiar with the Common Application (Common App), the online application used by more than 600 colleges. This year, the Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success (the Coalition) comprised of 90 colleges so far, has created another application, with 58 of its institutions accepting it for 2016-2017. Both applications require an essay. [More about the Coalition in a later post when the application goes live.]

A basic comparison The essay prompts for these two applications are different but aim to illicit similar responses. All admissions essays provide an opportunity for students to share a part of themselves not found anywhere else on the application. Essentially, it’s the place for your teen to show a college who he is beyond his grades, honors, awards and extra-curricular activities.

The Coalition strongly recommends applicants keep essays to less than 550 words. The Common App continues its 650 maximum word count and the prompts remain the same as last year because topics are reviewed every other year. Unlike the Coalition, each Common App prompt addresses a specific topic, meaning there is no “create your own” option.

A quick assessment As someone who works with high school seniors on their admissions essays, I can assure you that your teen can find a suitable prompt on both applications. Though the Coalition suggests that a student can complete a solid essay in only 300 words, in my experience, that’s rarely the case. Applicants should take advantage of the maximum word count.

Encourage your teen to review the prompts for both applications carefully before starting to type. Generally, it’s easier to write the essay working from a specific topic than trying to figure it out after the fact. Keep in mind that with Coalition prompt #5 being an open topic, a student can use her Common App essay for this prompt.

typingAnd the prompts are...

Coalition Essay

  1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  2. Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  3. Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  4. What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  5. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

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.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family.

To learn more about my work as a college essay coach, check out my Services page. 

Share your thoughts on the admissions essay prompts in the comments section below.

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