The Common Application and the Coalition for College have released their essay prompts for the upcoming college admissions season. A look at what they are and how to choose the right prompt. 

By Anne Vaccaro Brady

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With my clients, I’m always looking for ways to take the stress out of the college admissions process. One way I do that is by reminding them that the application essay/personal statement is where they can finally communicate what they really want a college to know about them. It’s a place to explain how they’re more than just their grades and extracurricular activities. They get to shine a light on that part of themselves they’re most proud of, that makes them who they are, and/or illustrates how they view themselves and the world around them. It’s an opportunity to say, “This is why I belong on your campus.”

After working for so many years with my essay and admissions clients, I have a clear idea on what the various prompts are asking. See my insights below each prompt.

Common Application 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.

If your teen wants to elaborate on an extracurricular activity, they can do it here, but in sharing their passion for that activity, they have to do much more than brag about how many awards they’ve won. This is also a place to present what in their background or identity has shaped their views, their experiences and how they interact in the world.

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?

The response here should focus on how the applicant grew as a person from the obstacle they encountered. A too common answer for this is an injury a student-athlete or performer experienced. If your teen decides to go that route, the emphasis shouldn’t be on the backstory, i.e. the injury and how it happened. The bulk of the essay should deal with how that injury changed your teen beyond the physical. Maybe it sparked an interest in becoming a surgeon or a physical therapist, or a complete pivot to a totally unrelated hobby or career path.

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

This prompt is another that wants to see how an applicant thinks, how they develop their opinions and, just as important, what they do with their newly developed ideas. It’s important to address all three parts of this prompt.

  1. 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?

In a time when teens have faced so many challenges over the past few years, this is a welcome prompt for a student to look at the positives in their life. Again, more than recounting what that act was, the bulk of the essay should focus on the true impact of that act of kindness.

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

Though all the prompts are looking for examples of personal growth, this one is explicit in requesting the applicant show it. In some ways this prompt seems to be a compilation of the ones above it. But it’s not. The key words here are “a new understanding of yourself or others.” That’s what the answer must zero in on.

  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?

Some kids get lost in thought or obsessed with a topic or finding a solution to a problem. Here’s the opportunity to celebrate that and explain what they’ve been pondering and why. It should provide insight into their unique way of thinking, approaching a problem and/or their distinctive take on a concept. Also, don’t ignore the last question in this prompt which allows your teen to offer more insight into who they are.

  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.

Most essays can fit into one of the first six prompts. This prompt works best for an essay written for another purpose, like a scholarship application or for a college that uses an original question on their application. As long as it provides a view of who your teen is and how they’ve grown, it should work.  

COVID-19 has affected students in dramatically different ways. If you need it, the COVID-19 and natural disaster question in the Additional Information section is a place for you to describe the impact of these events.

The question is not intended to be an extra essay. There’s also no need to describe how your school responded to these events. Your counselor will have an opportunity to discuss impacts like closures, online instruction, and grading policies. Instead, consider how these events may have impacted you, your family, and your learning environment. Examples might include:

  • Illness or loss within your family or support network
  • Employment or housing disruptions within your family 
  • Food insecurity
  • Toll on mental and emotional health
  • New obligations such as part-time work or care for siblings or family members
  • Availability of computer or internet access required to continue your studies
  • Access to a safe and quiet study space
  • A new direction for your major or career interests

This is the place for a student to discuss how the pandemic impacted them and their family without having to sacrifice answering one of the required prompts that shows more about them. This is a good place to explain a dramatic dip in grades due to any of the myriad ways COVID-19 impacted a student and their family. 

Coalition for College Application

  1. Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.

Yes, this is a pretty straightforward prompt. But make sure the bulk of the essay reveals character and isn’t a simple retelling of a story without self-reflection. 

  1. What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?

A prompt like this allows a teen to present a closer look at who they are and to share something academic or non-academic that discloses a different side of themselves not easily found in the rest of the application. Here is an opportunity for your student to reveal to a college how they’ll enrich a campus. 

  1. Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?

In responding to this prompt, a teen can demonstrate that they’re aware the world doesn’t completely revolve around them. It also allows for a teen to reflect on the fact that doing good can be difficult but gratifying.

  1. Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?

Not to be confused with the Common Application prompt #3. Here a teen is asked about when their idea or belief was challenged. It’s a very different question. In their answer, your student will reveal how open they are to hearing views different than their own, what they do with new information and insights, and how they form their beliefs and opinions. 

  1. What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?

Here is where a student can easily display personal growth, especially when focusing on the advice they’d give a sibling or friend. 

  1. Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

See Common Application prompt #7. 

Those are the essay prompts for the 2022-2023 admissions season. Encourage your teen to take a positive spin on their application essay, to take the opportunity to tell a college who they really are.