New Common App Essay Prompts Released: Get Your Pencils Ready!


With the release of the updated 2015-2016 Common App essay prompts, the new college application season has officially begun. Sure, it’s only April and you’ve still got junior year finals and your entire senior year before college – but the college application process waits for no student. For the absolute best chances for success, you should at least start thinking about writing your college application essays now.

First things first: What is the Common App and why should you care about its new essay prompts? The Common App is an online application used by more than 500 colleges and universities, including Harvard, Yale, and Stanford. Odds are good that at least one of the colleges you plan to apply to uses the Common App, which means you’ll need to use it, too. The Common App provides you with five essay prompts to choose from; you’ll write a response of no more than 650 words, which will be submitted to the colleges of your choice.

Why should you be worried about an essay that you don’t actually need to finish for another six months or more?

Well, to begin with, you’ll probably need more than one college admission essay. In addition to the primary Common App essay, many schools require one or more supplementary essays. If you apply to three schools, and each of them requires a supplementary essay, you’re looking at 4 essays.

In addition, your college application essays will be among the most important essays you’ve written. A majority of colleges say the essay is an important factor in admission decisions. As a general rule, the more selective the college, the more important the essay is. At very selective schools, most applicants have similarly awesome grades, test scores, extracurricular activities, and recommendations. The tie-breaker often comes down to the essay. The essay is the only part of your application that is truly and completely unique to you because it is the only part of your application where you get to help the admission officer get to know who you are as a person.

If that seems like a lot of pressure to put on a measly 650-word essay, you’re right. And that’s why it should take you months to finish writing it.

Without further ado, here are the updated essay prompts for the 2015-2016 Common App (new language appears in italics) and our thoughts on the changes:

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

It’s worth noting that in the Common App’s annual member survey, 62% of member colleges said that they felt that this prompt resulted in the most effective essays. This doesn’t mean colleges want you to pick this prompt; this simply means that the essays written in response to this prompt tended to be what colleges were looking for. And since the essays written in response to this prompt are almost always personal stories, that means that colleges want to hear your personal stories.

It’s also important to note that the additional phrasing – identity, interest, or talent – helps to broaden this essay prompt. This prompt is the closest thing to the old favorite, “topic of your choice.” That said, the prompt isn’t a free-for-all. Your essay still has to clearly, coherently, and effectively respond to the prompt.

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?

The big change to this essay prompt is the addition of that first sentence. This highlights a common problem among essays in response to this prompt in the past: Students often focused their stories on a failure without adequately explaining how they learned from the experience. The addition of that first sentence should help to clarify that the focus of the essay should be on the lessons learned, not on the failure itself.

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This prompt hasn’t changed from years past. This prompt allows for some truly unique essays, but it can also result in essays that toe the line of touchy subjects. Try to avoid the temptation to focus your essay on beliefs surrounding issues like race or religion – you never know who your reader will be or what might offend him or her.

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 prompt is entirely new. It replaces the old prompt that used to ask about the “place where you are most content.” 76% of member colleges wanted to see that prompt replaced, so this is the solution. Of particular importance in this new prompt is the phrase, “no matter the scale.” The inclusion of this phrase should be taken as a signal to be personal in this essay. In other words, an insightful essay that focuses on an issue that you’ve personally encountered or been affected by might work better than an overview of your plans to end world hunger.

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

This topic is often best for those students who come from challenging personal background that forced them to take on adult responsibilities at an early age.

Now that you know the prompts, it’s time to start thinking about which one you might respond to and which stories you might like to tell. You don’t need to put pencil to paper just yet, but you should be thinking about your essays so that you’ll be ready to start writing over the summer.