I have also had the pleasure of training hundreds of teachers and counselors in the art of helping students tell their stories. And while prompts may change, as the Common App’s did in 2015, a student’s job is always the same — to find a story that helps the reader get to know you.
During a typical essay brainstorming meeting with a Collegewise student, we spend the entire hour listening to stories about her life, asking follow-up questions, and pointing out how much interesting material nearly every kid has to work with.
Out of all of those brainstormed stories, it’s impossible to think of one that would not have worked with at least one of the Common App’s three new essay prompts.
I think the best college essay prompts give students enough guidance to focus their stories — most kids I’ve met appreciate more direction than, “Write a 500-word essay on a topic of your choice.” But it’s also helpful when prompts leave enough leeway to allow every student to share something that helps the admissions committee get to know her better than the application alone would.
To find the story you want to share, ask the following questions:
Is there something so central to you that you feel your application would be missing an important component if you didn’t share it?
Have you ever failed at something, and, if so, did you learn anything from this experience?
Have you ever stood up for something you believed in, or gone against the grain in some way, even if it wasn’t popular or accepted?
Is there something you do or someplace you go that just makes you happy?
Have you done something that made you proud and, at the same time, made you feel like you were growing up?
Was there a real life or intellectual challenge that so engaged you that all these days, weeks, or months later, you still get a thrill thinking about how you solved it?
If you answer “yes” to one or more of those questions, you have a potential story in response to a Common App prompt, including one of these three new ones:
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.
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?
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.
Whether it’s teaching yourself to cook, deciding not to go into your family’s business, struggling through your first year on the water polo team, trying to drop an egg from the top of the science building without having it break, or immigrating to this country when you were 16 — everybody has a story to tell. And the 2015 Common App essay prompts will let you tell yours.