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Last week, the Common Application announced that the essay prompts for the 2023-24 application season will remain the same as last year’s.
All students applying via the Common Application must write the personal statement (aka “the Common App essay»), and most every school to which a student applies using the Common App will see it. More than 1,000 member colleges, spanning all 50 U.S. states and 20 countries, use the Common App as part of their admissions process. Within the application, admission readers will see biographical information, data such as classes, grades, and (perhaps) test scores, as well as a student’s extracurricular activities. They’ll also read the student’s essay, and through it, the admission readers will start to understand who the student is as a person and how they might contribute to that college’s community. Thus, the essays (the personal statement and the college’s own supplemental questions) are a critical part of the application.
The Common App offers seven prompts from which to choose; students must answer one. Below are the seven 2023-24 Common App prompts with tips on how a student might approach each one. The prompt a student chooses doesn’t really matter; what matters is the story they choose, how they choose to tell it, and what the committee learns about the student from the essay.
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 offers a lot of leeway; the prompt asks you to write about something that defines you as a person. This means writing about something unique and specific to you. A “background” might include religion or ethnicity, living in a foreign country, or a unique family situation. Students need to describe how it affected who they are, contributed to what they value, and/or influenced how they approach life. When writing about an “interest or talent,” (e.g., sports, the arts, speech and debate, stamp collecting, astronomy, rappelling, etc.), students must make sure they reflect on how it shaped them on a deep level. No matter what story the student chooses to answer this prompt, they must make sure it reflects who they are. This is more important than describing what they’ve done. Make sure the story chosen isn’t told elsewhere in the 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 difficulties. 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 or a loss in sports unless it really led to growth and a significant change. Also, do not draw attention to something illegal or dangerous, like distracted driving. If this essay can’t be written in a positive way, students should 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?
What schools are looking for in this essay is how a student thinks critically and even creatively. At its essence, this is a problem/solution essay. Less important is the belief or idea that was challenged; more important is the reason the student chose to challenge or question the belief or idea. Most important is how a student investigated the belief/idea, evaluated it, and came to a resolution. Students must also describe what they learned from their investigation. Responses should be personal, but make sure the idea or belief is not too controversial. Students don’t know who will be reading their essay and they certainly don’t want to step on any toes.
The admissions committee includes this prompt for 1) students who may have challenged themselves to strongly reconsider the beliefs they grew up with; or 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 encouraged a student to do something they thought was wrong; an essay about standing up for someone being treated unfairly–perhaps even themselves.
PROMPT #4: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
This is the newest prompt among the options; it was added to “help students think about something positive and heartfelt in their lives.” For this essay, the student needs to think about someone who has influenced them in a positive way. Examples can be that the person helped to change the student’s mindset, motivated them to do something they didn’t think they were capable of doing, or inspired them to start a club or join a cause. The essay shouldn’t go into too much detail about the person who the student is happy or thankful for beyond how they connected with the person and what the person made the student happy and grateful for. The writer should then explain why they feel thankful (this is the reflection piece), and the bulk of the essay should concentrate on how the student was affected or motivated.
PROMPT #5: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
Many students have a steady growth. This prompt asks if there was a particular “accomplishment, event or realization” that led to a spike in growth. This means that a student can write about anything from a trip to a job to a rite of passage or a new revelation. The admission reader is looking for a life moment that really changed the student as a person. Examples: A student learns how a particular bird is becoming endangered and decides to do something to help. A student comes to the US and gains citizenship, which fuels their desire to help others become citizens. Topics can also be something as simple as visiting a relative’s old neighborhood, eating a particularly meaningful meal, or meeting a Holocaust survivor. The right story will demonstrate transition and transformation. In other words, the event, challenge, or experience chosen is one that propelled the student to be more capable, responsible, self-aware, and/or “adult.” Students must make sure to show (with evidence) how the accomplishment, event, or realization affected them.
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?
This prompt is for students with a passion, whether it’s coding, scientific research, composting, community service, writing, or restoring cars. In this essay, students need to explain how they first connected with their passion. The response should also include what captivates them about the “topic, idea or concept” and what makes them curious about exploring it. Most importantly, students must describe how they pursue this passion. Where did they look to learn more? How creative were they in exploring their passion, and how far did they take it? Did they find a mentor to help them? Take a job related to their interest? This essay also needs students to show how far they went with their passion. Did they start a club, organization, or a website?
When writing the essay, students must make sure that the reader can really feel the passion. If a student is authentic about their passion, it almost always shines through. Important note: if a student is not choosing to move forward with their passion in college, they should reconsider choosing this essay, or seek to connect it with a larger theme that can tie to other interests. Example: A student who loves solving logic puzzles becomes interested in studying medicine as a means to solve different problems.
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.
Get help starting and working on the essays. Families who only want help with the essays can work with our sister company, Edit the Work. For full-service college advising, including the essays, contact International College Counselors at 1-954-414-9986 or www.internationalcollegecounselors.com