#College Essays and Applications

The Common App recently released the prompts for the 2018-2019 personal statement.

After making some tweaks for the past few years, the Common App elected not to change the prompts at all from their 2017-2018 versions.

Here are some analyses of the seven prompts from Ivy Experience Essayologists Eric Karlan, Karan Shah, and Jim Wismer, who worked with over 100 students on these very essays for this past admissions cycle.

Click here to learn how you can work with the Ivy Experience Essay Team on your college admissions essays.

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.

Once upon a time, the Common App had a “Topic of Your Choice” prompt. Then, for several years, they eliminated it.

Last year, the “Topic of Your Choice” prompt officially returned. (See Prompt #7 below.)

So even though the wording of this prompt has not changed, the circumstances under which you select this prompt are different than in years past.

Be thoughtful if you choose this prompt. The story you share needs to be incredibly meaningful and integral to you – the type of essay that would really move the person reading it.

The stakes are higher now for this prompt. If your response does not meet that high bar – if the reader is wondering why your essay is so essential to you – choose a different prompt.

– Eric

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?

This prompt used to focus solely on one word: failure. That was a pretty loaded word.

“Obstacles” softens it up. It allows flexibility and makes this prompt more accessible.

Nevertheless, the same pitfalls remain. You typically do not want your first introduction to someone to be about a failure. It is important to put your best foot forward, and discussing a ‘failure’ makes that difficult.

To write this prompt effectively, there need to be real stakes that led to substantive growth. Nothing trivial, like a hard class that cost you a good grade.

– Karan

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

I love this prompt. It invites some very personal and provoking stories.

The trap here is how students interpret the terms “belief” and “idea.” Some students get political or religious – two realms you generally want to stay away from since you never know the personal beliefs or biases of your admissions officers.

Other students get impersonal through philosophical rants. While that may make for a provoking piece, this is a PERSONAL statement. The focus needs to be on YOU.

Years ago, a student used this prompt to challenge the belief that comic books had no intellectually redeeming value. They reflected on their life experiences and how comic books had actually inspired so much intellectual exploration.

Needless to say, it was a memorable essay.

– Eric

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.

This was a new prompt last year, and it remains unchanged this year.

Like the “belief or idea” prompt, the word “problem” should not always be taken so seriously. A small problem can lead to profound reflection and significance.

Once again, remember to avoid ethical dilemmas unless you can make it about YOU.

– Jim

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

Last year, Common App fixed this prompt – or attempted to, at least. They previously asked about a “transition from childhood to adulthood.”

This led to some boring answers…and other students recounting losing their virginity. In other words, this prompt did not yield much substance.

It is hard to see how this prompt is so distinguished from some of the other prompts. I worry that some students will default to sharing religious awakenings. Or that some responses will get too personal and self-indulgent.

Also remember that the college admissions officers mostly want to hear about your time in high school. “Growth” that happened before this time would most likely not be a good choice here. (There are always exceptions, but you really need to be careful and discerning.)

– Karan

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?

There is a growing emphasis on intellectual engagement in application essays. These past two years more than ever I heard that admissions officers, especially at the top universities and colleges, placed a high value on essays that captured intellectual vitality.

For students with unique intellectual interests and explorations – especially beyond the classroom – this is a perfect prompt and a refreshing opportunity to highlight individual pursuits of knowledge.

– Jim

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.

It’s back!

I guess it’s an unsurprising development considering the Coalition for Access, Affordability, and Success (the newly developed counterpart to the Common App) chose to offer this prompt as an option for their personal essay.

This was by far and away the preferred Common App prompt for students for years.

Now that it’s back after a hiatus, though, I would issue these words of caution: do not choose this prompt unless you truly cannot fit your desired response into the other prompts.

If your essay is a natural response to another prompt, then the admissions officer may wonder if you even read the other prompts, at all.

Moreover, there is oftentimes greater creative potential within confines. The other prompts may seem limiting, but unique angles in responses can capture an admissions officer’s attention in a more powerful way.

– Eric