The people behind The Common Application have just released the new essay prompts (PDF link) for college applicants who apply in the 2013-2014 admissions season. As noted in The Common Application Board of Directors’ announcement, these new prompts are the result of two years of discussion about where essays fit in the overall college admissions process. This is the first big change to the essays in years (including to the word counts!), and it’s clear that the Common Application Board didn’t take the task of reworking these essays lightly.
Without further ado, here are the all-new Common Application essay prompts:
Common Application Essay Questions for 2013-2014
- Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their
application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
- Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons
did you learn?
- Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you
make the same decision again?
- Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience
there, and why is it meaningful to you?
- Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from
childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Which Essay Prompt Should You Choose?
To paraphrase the advice given in the announcement, you should choose the essay prompt that best allows you to tell the application readers something about you that they won’t get from your high transcripts and test scores. Note that these are all “touchy-feely” topics, not questions about your SAT scores or where you placed in the Math Olympics.
This type of reflection is often hard for young people to do well (the hardest topic to write about is usually you!), but just know that college admissions officers aren’t perfect, they know you’re not perfect, and you’re frankly more interesting when you show something other than how perfect you are. It’s okay to reveal a weakness or a fear, or to share something that seems silly, as long as it helps admissions officers feel like they got to know you better and it makes it easier for them to imagine you walking around their campus a year or two from now. Being real is better than simply being impressive.
Common Application Word Limits
You must submit only one essay, and it must be no more than 650 words. This is big news in its own right: The word limit was just 500 words last year! Trust us: Those extra 150 words can make all the difference in the world when you’re trying to whittle down your story. You don’t need to use all 650 words… As The Common Application folks say, “650 words is your limit, not your goal.” If you can tell your story in an impactful way in just 400 words, then great. Some of our all-time favorite admissions essays are also some of the shortest we have seen.
Note that there is actually also a minimum word limit: 250 words. The system won’t accept anything shorter than that, although we doubt many college applicants will end up with first drafts shorter than 250 words.
Update: Check out our most recent article including three tips you should follow to write a standout Common Application essay!
Plan on applying to college soon? Veritas Prep offers college admissions consulting to help you find the schools that best fit you, improve your applications, and land a significant financial aid package. Also, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google Plus, and follow us on Twitter!
By Scott Shrum
But Mr. Cranberg thumbed his nose at that convention, taking on the tremendous cost of the piles of mail schools send to potential students, and the waste that results from the effort. He figured that he received at least $200 worth of pitches in the past year or so.
“Why, in an era of record-high debt and unemployment, are colleges not reallocating these ludicrous funds to aid their own students instead of extending their arms far and wide to students they have never met?” he asked in the essay.
Antioch College seemed to think that was a perfectly reasonable question and accepted him, though he will attend Oberlin College instead, to which he did not submit the essay.
“It’s a bold move to critique the very institution he was applying to,” said Mr. Bauld, who also teaches English at in . “But here’s somebody who knows he can make it work with intelligence and humor.”
Indeed, Mr. Cranberg’s essay includes asides about applicants’ gullibility and the college that sent him a DHL “priority” envelope, noting inside that he was a priority to the college. “The humor here is not in the jokes,” Mr. Bauld added. “It originates in a critical habit of mind, and the kind of mind that is in this essay is going to play out extremely well in any class that he’s in.”
Admissions professionals often warn people not to think that they can write their way into the freshman class. “The essay is one document that, even in the best of circumstances, is written by an individual telling one story,” said Shawn Abbott, the assistant vice president for undergraduate admissions at . “I don’t believe that any one writing sample should trump what they did over four years.”
Still, he acknowledged that his staff had been taken with the story told by Lyle Li, a 19-year-old resident who applied this year. He wrote about his family’s restaurant and his mother, an immigrant from who once wanted to be a doctor and now works behind a cash register.
“When I visit my friends, I see the names of elite institutions adorning the living room walls,” wrote Mr. Li, a senior at Regis High School in . “I am conscious that these framed diplomas are testaments to the hard work and accomplishments of my friends’ parents and siblings. Nevertheless, the sight of them was an irritating reminder of the disparity between our households. I was not the upper-middle-class kid on Park Avenue. Truth be told, I am just some kid from Brooklyn. Instead of diplomas and accolades, my parents’ room emits a smell from the restaurant uniforms they wear seven days a week, all year round.”
Mr. Abbott said that N.Y.U. received plenty of essays about the immigrant experience. So Mr. Li risked writing one of many stories about long odds and hard work in an unfamiliar, unforgiving place.
But he did not fall into that trap and will be attending N.Y.U. this fall. “His essay brought his family’s circumstance and background into Technicolor,” Mr. Abbott said. “He paints a very vivid picture of what life is really like in his home. I think he’s proud of his accomplishments and work ethic, but there’s also a humility each day when he takes off his preppy blue blazer in front of his mom.”
The essay by Ana Castro, an 18-year-old senior at the Doane Stuart School in Rensselaer, N.Y., is about not quite arriving, in spite of having been born in the United States. And her essay for , which she will attend in the fall, centers on her desire to serve in the . It opens with a joke about her hating clowns and leeches and tells a sad story of a visit to the , where her father refused to let her play with the destitute boy next door. “My heart broke, not because I was now stuck eating plantains by myself in the stinging sun, but because that boy experienced a level of poor I never knew.”
Then she makes a startling statement that stopped both me and Mr. Bauld as we were reading it for the first time. “I have never seen the United States as my country,” Ms. Castro wrote. “I have never felt total patriotism to any country. I do not instantly think of staying here to help ‘my home,’ because I do not consider the United States my home. The Earth is ‘my home.’ ”
To Monica Inzer, Hamilton’s dean of admission and financial aid, bold declarations like this one are a strong sign of authenticity if nothing else. “Lots of essays have been doctored or written by other people,” she said. “You know that a parent didn’t write this. I don’t know how I know, but I do.”
Mr. Bauld knows how he knows. “There’s always an attempt in some of these college admissions factories to smooth out a student’s edges,” he said. “But what I loved about this piece is that there is no attempt to smooth out anything.”
As for Ms. Kumar, the 18-year-old Princeton applicant, her essay wasn’t so much smooth as it was slick, gliding effortlessly from her breakfast table to the manicured campus of Princeton to the “occidental bubble” of her school classroom. There’s a detour onto the city bus and then a quick trip to before coming back to the “towering turrets” of again.
Nevertheless, Princeton rejected her, and when I approached the university to find out if it had anything to do with her essay, it cited its policy of not commenting on any applicants or admissions decisions. I told its spokesman, Martin Mbugua, that other schools had commented on their own applicants once the students gave them permission, but he was unmoved.
Ms. Kumar suggested that her grades might not have been quite high enough, but Mr. Bauld contended that Princeton should have been swayed by her words.
“One of the things that makes this essay is her tone,” he said. “It could have been, ‘Princeton should be poorer,’ but she opens it as an inquiry. What she does is that she listens very carefully to what you have assigned her to do, and as a response to that, she says, ‘Well, let me ask you this!’ ”
Next week, Ms. Kumar will take the stage as Marty in the Science production of and she’ll collect her diploma on June 21. In the fall, she’ll attend , for which she wrote no essays about the university’s level of affluence.
To Mr. Bauld, that’s Princeton’s loss. “She is that person who is always going to give an interesting answer, even to the most boring question,” he said. “That’s my confidence in reading it, and I’d want that person in my class as a teacher.”Continue reading the main story