Attention Juniors: The 2017-2018 college application season has officially begun. The CommonApplication, otherwise known as the Common App, released its list of essay prompts.


The application doesn’t go live until August, but this is so important that you should start thinking about answers to the prompts now.


Overall, admissions offices are looking for you to reveal something that distinguishes you or sets you apart from others in your own voice. The current word count on the essays is

250-650 words. You must stay within this length.


Families working with International College Counselors will work directly with their counselors on the essays, so there is no need to worry.  Other students and their families who only want help on the essays are encouraged to work with our experts via Edit The Work.


Which question you answer doesn’t matter.  What matters is the story you choose and how you choose to tell it.



PROMPT #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.

This first question is broad and gives you a lot of latitude. The prompt asks you to write about either a passion or something that defines you as a person.  This means write about something unique and specific to you and no one else. The best essays include a story you need to tell in order for people to understand you. A «background» central to your identity can include your religion or ethnicity, living in a foreign country, experiencing a challenging issue growing up, or a unique family situation. Make sure you describe how your background affected who you are, what you value, and how you approach your life.  If you choose to write about an «interest» or «talent,» (i.e. sports, the arts, speech and debate, stamp collecting, bird watching, performing magic tricks, etc.), make sure you reflect on how it shaped you on a deep level. It’s critical that you reveal more about you than what you like to do or how good you are at doing it. Make sure the story you choose is one you haven’t told elsewhere in your application.


PROMPT #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?

Admissions doesn’t really want to hear about failure, rather, they want to know how you handled a challenge or setback, how it affected you, and what positive lessons you learned.  A good answer to this question will reveal how you deal with and overcome hardship.  A great essay will show that you are the kind of person who can bounce back, learn from an experience and channel it into a personal victory.  Do not choose a trite obstacle like failing a test. Also, do not draw attention to something you did that was illegal or dangerous, like distracted driving. If you can’t keep your essay positive, do not choose to answer this question.


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

«Challenged a belief or idea» means that you took some kind of action either on your own behalf or on the behalf of someone or something else. In this essay then, you need to speak passionately about a belief or an idea, in a compact story with a beginning, middle and end. In the essay you also need to express what you learned from the experience. Responses are supposed to be personal, but make sure your idea or belief is not too controversial. You do not know who will be reading your essay and you certainly do not want to turn anyone off to you.  It is better to show that you are open-minded and have respect for the beliefs and ideas of others. And don’t preach. The admissions committee includes this prompt for 1) students who have challenged themselves to strongly reconsider the beliefs they grew up with 2) students who define themselves by what they believe in and/or what they are willing to stand up for.  Some ideas:  An essay about pursuing an activity even though an adult told you that you wouldn’t be successful in it; an essay about challenging a group of friends who told you to do something that you thought was wrong; an essay about standing up for someone you saw being treated unfairly — perhaps even yourself.


PROMPT #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.

If you choose to answer this essay, you need to identify a problem with meaning and importance to you. This can be any problem «no matter the scale.» One variation of this is a community service project. Other variations include not eating meat, bullying, not having money, school tests, science project, etc. So don’t stress about not having a significant issue to write about.  Even an everyday problem with significance to you can be turned into a great essay.Colleges like to see the thinking behind the problem or challenge, so include your decision-making process. It is also very important to choose a problem that is specific and meaningful and can end with you providing a solution – as the prompt asks. Do not choose a problem that is superficial or generic.  This essay should tell the colleges what you value and give them an idea of your outlook on life. If you elect to tackle this particular question, take advantage of the opportunity to demonstrate creative and critical thinking skills.


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

In this prompt, «accomplishment,» «event» and «realization» leave themselves open to interpretation. This means, you can write about anything, from a formal event to an eye-opening thought. However, remember that the admissions reader is looking for a moment in your life that really changed you as a person.  Everyone is different so an event, accomplishment or realization might encompass anything from the time you became a US citizen (formal), to achievements like earning an award, taking on a large responsibility, or winning an election (informal) to embracing a cause or realizing you are gay.  Other topics can be something as simple as working with a mentor, visiting a relative’s old neighborhood, or eating a particularly meaningful meal.  You know you found the right story when it has the element of transition and transformation. The event, accomplishment and realization you discuss should be something that helped you understand the world around you in a more adult way or forced you to «grow up.»  In other words, choose an event, challenge, or experience where you learned something that made you feel more capable, responsible and-or self-aware.


PROMPT #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? 


Here you are offered the chance to share your passion.  If you choose to answer this, you must start with how you first connected with your passion.  Make sure your response also includes what captivated you about the «topic, idea or concept» and made you curious about exploring it.  Most importantly, describe how you learned more.  This last part is what they’re really looking to find out about you.  Where did you look when you wanted to learn more?  How creative were you in exploring your passion and how far did you take it?  Did you find a mentor to help you?  Take a job related to your interest?  Did you start a club, organization or a website?  Make sure that the reader can really feel your passion.  Do not choose something you think will impress the committee reading this if it is not really your passion.  Unless you are a fantastic writer – or work with one.


PROMPT #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.


If you have a story to tell that does not fit one of the above prompts, then here is your chance to submit it.  Make sure whatever you write shows you in a great light.



IMPORANT SUMMARY NOTE:  The purpose of the essay is to show who you are beyond your grades, courses, and scores. So go deep, make sure your essay reveals something about you that admissions should really know. Provide a glimpse of your personality, your values, your interests and your passions. Exhibit the kind of attitude and energy you will bring to the classroom and campus. This essay, as with all the essays, is your chance to «sell» yourself to the school and let them know why they should accept you over someone with similar qualifications.

Do not wait to write your essay.  The sooner you start the better.




About International College Counselors

The college advisors at International College Counselors help students from all over the world find, apply to, and gain acceptance into the college of their dreams. The expert educational consultants at International College Counselors are dedicated to helping students and their families successfully navigate the college admission process.


For more information on answering the 2017-2018 Common App essay prompts or for information on college admissions, visit or call 954 414-9986.



Additional Resources

From Public School to the Ivy League: How to Get Into a Top School Without Top Dollar Resources by Mandee Heller Adler, Founder of International College Counselors



Apply for the International College Counselors Scholarship

All students in grades 9-11 are encouraged to apply and win $250. Write an essay that answers the question: «You have been invited to talk to the future U.S. Secretary of Education. What would you say?» Additional contest rules and submission information can be found here. The scholarship deadline is March 1, 2017.


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