college counselor with students

The Common App Essay Prompts for 2017-2018

It’s almost springtime! Good news in most, but not all, respects. If you’re a high school junior, that loud noise you hear is the starting gun signaling the beginning of the long application season for the Class of 2022. And if you’re a senior, especially one aspiring to attend a top-tier school, you should be running at top speed by now.

The most critical component of the race for admission is the Common Application. The Common App was introduced in 1975 to help reduce the number of separate applications and essays that students applying to multiple schools need to complete. It is administered by The Common Application, a not-for-profit organization based in Arlington, VA, with over 700 colleges and universities worldwide as members. Each year, more than 1 million students use the App to submit well over 4 million college applications.

The Common App has been highly successful in simplifying the demands on students who apply to multiple schools. However, in doing so, the App has had the predictable but unintended effect of making competition for admissions even more intense. This is a result of the significant increase in the number of colleges to which the average high school student applies, which increases the volume of applications submitted to schools. This additional volume allows colleges to be more selective in their admissions decisions and lessens the probability of admission to Ivy League and other top-tier schools for applicants with less-than-perfect qualifications.

A key element of the Common App is the required essay that’s written in response to one of several prompts. Two new prompts have been added for the 2017-2018 admissions year and some of the prompts from last year have been modified.

Before reviewing the changes to this year’s essay prompts, let’s review the most important part of the App’s essay section… the instructions:

“What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response.”

The prompts essentially allow you to write about whatever you want. They serve the limited purpose of guiding you in developing an essay that introduces you to colleges. Providing a sample of your ability to write at the college level is certainly an important aspect of the exercise, but the part of the instructions that asks, “What do you want the readers of your application to know about you”, should be taken literally. It’s not a throwaway suggestion. What you write about is, for the most part, up to you. Just be sure that you’re writing about yourself — what you love, where you’re from, what you hope to achieve, your experiences, what irks you, who’s important to you and why, or similar ideas.

It’s likely that the story you’ll eventually tell in your essay isn’t even fully formed yet. The prompts aren’t released in February of your junior year in order to make you start writing immediately. They’re released early to start your planning process… to get you to think about yourself and isolate those characteristics or experiences that will be most responsive to the real question in the instructions.

Below are the 2017-2018 essay prompts, noting the new questions and changes from last year’s prompts in italics:

  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]

It should be noted that many schools, especially among the more highly selective institutions, require that applicants submit supplemental materials, usually including additional essays written in response to their own set of prompts. These essays and the Common App essay can make the critical difference in an admission.

What would distinguish two students with identical GPA’s and SAT’s? If this data were all that was considered in admissions the answer would be… nothing! That’s why the background, talents, and interests of students become the tiebreaking factors. Perhaps the best way to reveal how you’re unique, how you’ll contribute to an institution, and why you’re worthy of admission to its diverse mix of students is through a compelling personal essay. If you form a visceral connection with the human being on the other end of your application — the admissions officer — you’ll have a big advantage over your competitors.

IvySelect, as a college admissions consulting firm, employs an essay writing process that consists of a number of stages and multiple drafts. We help you brainstorm essay ideas that you probably would not have thought of yourself.  We assist you in elevating your essays dramatically. The process can be daunting. IvySelect college admissions counselors are experts at assisting high-ability students craft essays that distinguish them from the competition. We’ll optimize your competitive stature through our comprehensive, one-on-one essay writing program.