Essay Scoop: How to Answer the 2017-18 Common App Essay (Part I)

[fa icon="calendar"] 3/5/17 6:31 PM / by Lauren Ward

12th grade English lit teachers all across the country recently either gave cries of jubilation or horror when it was announced that the Common App had revised and expanded its essay questions. To their joy or dismay, they had two new essays to explain, deconstruct and reconstruct on top of the other five prompts students have been writing for years.

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Here are the first five. If you've seen these prompts before but notice something a little different, they have most likely been tweaked since you last saw them:

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

And here are the two new ones added this year:

  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?
  2. 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.

Alright, so none of these Common App essays should make anyone feel like a knuckle-dragger, but just because they're easy doesn't mean they shouldn't be taken seriously. Answer these questions with the same respect and caution as you would an SAT essay question.

This is a two-part series, folks. For this blog, we're only going to focus on the first three, so let's get going.

Common pitfalls of common app essays

Let's break these apart and examine them one at a time. It's not that whatever you would say right off the bat would be wrong (you can't get an open ended essay wrong unless you go out of your way to do so), but what you choose to say might just be the very same thing everyone else says, too. You don't want that. You want to stand out and be a diamond in the rough. Let everyone else rehash the same answers that have been said over and over again, ad nauseum, year after year. While they do, you can show the admissions office that you know how to spin a new beat.

Remember: Machines aren't reading these. People are, and they're reading hundreds a day. Needless to say, it can get VERY boring. Your job, then, is to change that for them, if even for but a moment.

Get comfy and turn your brain on. We're going to go through three Common App essay prompts one at a time.

  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."

The mistake that many seniors make with this essay is they use it to tell a tale of woe. Don't let your application be a sob fest. Yes, parents getting divorced is horrible, and of course getting mono during your junior year is a real drag. Whatever has hurt you in the past is a real shame, but a college application is not the time to try and inspire pity so you can get into your dream school. If a college is awesome and inspirational to you, you don't want to seem weak and vulnerable, do you? Your sad story is not going to get you in. Colleges want people who do things, and who are go-getters. They want people who refuse to accept that something is impossible to do. Regardless of where you are applying, endeavor to be the best thing they've ever seen walk around the corner.

Another common pitfall with this essay question that might cause you to bleed into the background is to talk about your love of sports or music. A lot of people love baseball, basketball, football and band. They are all great and fun, but if you choose to talk about them you need to be 100% positive that what you have to say has never been said before.

No joke.

Bottom line: If you want to write this essay, but have to think about what it is you'd say if you did, this essay isn't for you if you have a choice not to write it. If you do have to write it, meditate on your idea or talk to your parents or teachers about it. Sometimes only other people see the best things about us.

  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?"

This is very similar to Common App essay one in that a lot of people are going to see this as a chance to explain bad grades they got, etc. But what admissions officers want to read about is a challenge that you fought tooth and nail to overcome; that even if you didn't succeed, you didn't go down running from the enemy. You faced it head on and went down screaming and kicking until your last breath. Crazy metaphor, but that's the oomph and moxie they want to see. Portray yourself as a fighter, not a loser. That's the most important thing. Let them know you were no one's victim. In fact, you almost had 'em, and if you had the chance to do it again, you know exactly what you'd do.   

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

A lot of colleges only want a certain amount of essays from students, and, to be honest, not a lot of people even do this one; therefore, if you nail this one you're definitely going to stand out.

But, I have to play the role of the parent here for a moment and say the next part just in case: do not condone any type of violence, racism, bigotry, or hatred in this essay. Duh? OK, good. Let's move on.  

A good thing to do with this Common App essay is to highlight a world event that is going on and question that country's leader's motives. The outcome obviously doesn't have to be, "and I wrote him a letter, and he wrote me back apologizing for his actions." Maybe your change in mindset affected your politics. Maybe you scrutinize a politician's international policy beliefs before voting for him. You can take it any which way you choose. The end goal is to show you understand that America isn't the only country in the world.

Conclusion

Well, we're not done yet, but how do you feel after reading about the first three? Have you thought about how to stand out from a crowd? If not, click on part two. Hopefully, by the end you'll be good to go.

If you would like more college advice, check out our other articles in our blog at www.synocate.com/blog

More Related Posts from Synocate

Essay Scoop: How to Answer the 2017-18 Common App Essay (Part 2)  

3 Examples of Unique and Successful College Essays 

Easy Edits to Make to Your College Essay

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Topics: College Essays, College Application Process

Lauren Ward

Written by Lauren Ward

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