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The new Common Application – Prompt #1

By Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer
Lee Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.

The new and improved Common Application was officially released just one month ago. After a few years of discussion and input from guidance counselors, college admissions professionals, teachers and independent counselors, the folks at Common App listened and updated the essay prompts.

The new questions reflect the desire by colleges to know more about how students think and what they think about rather than what they’ve accomplished. That’s because there are other parts of the application that focus on a student’s achievements.

The new prompts allow students to focus more on their values and ethics. If you have attended any college information session you’re likely to hear college admissions professionals talk about the essay as a way for the colleges to get to know the applicants, and they often suggest that students write an essay that is “authentic” – explaining what makes them tick.

I believe it’s important for students to spend some time thinking about each of these new prompts and reinterpreting them to see which ones make the most sense, given their own personal life experiences.

When students complete the Common Application they have the opportunity to choose among five essay prompts.

Prompt 1: 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.

This prompt has been nicknamed “The ‘Breakfast Club’ Question.” At first glance, the typical student response is, “Wow, this is so broad and I’m not really sure I have anything that interesting to say about myself.” They usually think this prompt only applies to someone who has overcome a serious illness or a personal tragedy or has a unique family situation.

Things to think about as you try to understand this prompt:

What is central to your identity?

Think about “defining characteristics” – what are a few adjectives that people would use to describe you? Which ones are the most interesting?

Is there a good anecdote or story to illustrate one of these defining characteristics?

Are there stories you can share that demonstrate a lesson learned? Describe how something affected you or allowed you to be reflective.

This essay could be a good opportunity to share some of your values, but be sure to let them know how they came to be so important to you and why they are so central to who you are.

Do your best to “think small” – explore something in detail and don’t give a chronology of your life. Your essay will be much more intriguing and stronger if you focus on a single event, a conversation or a moment in time.

Next week: Thoughts on Common App prompts 2, 3, 4 and 5.

Bierer is an independent college adviser based in Charlotte.
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