Juniors and parents of juniors: The 2021-2022 college application season has officially begun. The list of essay prompts for the Common Application (www.commonapp.com), accepted by more than 900 colleges, has been released. Students must choose one of the prompts and answer it to fulfill the «Writing» section of the Common Application. The application doesn’t go live until August, but students can start working on their essay now. With more colleges being test optional or test blind, the essay has taken on a more important role in the holistic college admission process.

Getting Started

Admissions offices want students to reveal something about themselves that sets them apart from others. More bluntly, they want to know why they should choose one student over another. And they want to hear why in a student’s own voice.

The word count on the essays is 250-650 words. The application will not accept an essay that is over or under this number. While you don’t have to get to 650, aim to be closer to 650 words than 250.

Students who are working with International College Counselors will work directly with their counselors on the essay. Other students and their families who want help only on the essays are encouraged to work with the experts at our sister company www.editthework.com.

2021-22 Essay Prompts and Tips

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 question is broad and offers a lot of latitude. The prompt asks you to write about either a passion or something that defines you as a person. The challenge here is to present yourself as unique by centering the essay on something specific that defines you as an individual. The best essays include a story which needs to be told 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. More important than colorfully describing your background is describing how your background has affected who you are, what you value, and how you approach your life. If you choose to write about an interest or talent, make sure you not only describe how you got into it and developed your talent, but also reflect on how it shaped you on a deep level. Critically, you must reveal more than what you like to do or how good you are at doing it.

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?

For this question, what admissions really wants to know is how you handled a challenge or setback: how it affected you, what positive lessons you learned, and/or what good came out of this setback. For example, maybe you started a support group. 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 losing a soccer match. Also, do not draw attention to something you did that was illegal or dangerous. If you can’t write a positive essay, do not choose 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.  Show that you are open-minded and have respect for the beliefs and ideas of others. The admissions committee includes this prompt for 1) students who 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 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: 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 a new addition to the Common App essay prompts; it replaces a question that was rarely answered. Here is a chance for students to think about the good in their lives. The trick is to make this essay about yourself. Your grandmother, for example, may have done something great that helped you, but colleges aren’t looking to admit Grandma; they’re looking for what makes the student worthy of being admitted. The second part of the question reveals what admissions really wants to know; they want to know that the action of another helped the student grow in a positive way or that it motivated them to accomplish something. This part should be revealing and emotional, with description about how you felt, how the actions of another affected you, and what it inspired you to do. As with all the questions, we recommend students stay away from the trite and obvious, such as a coach encouraging a student to stick with a sport even though the student wanted to give up. Importantly, let the reader know what kind act motivated you, why it motivated you, how it motivated you, and what the outcome was.

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 directive includes everything from a formal event to an eye-opening thought. Remember that admissions 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, to embracing a cause or realizing you are gay (informal). 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 have found the right story when it has the element of transition and transformation. The heart of this essay is that the accomplishment, event, or realization helped you understand the world around you in a more adult way or forced you to «grow up.» Make sure admissions knows that 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?

This question offers students the chance to share their passion.  Students who choose this prompt must start with how they first connected with their passion. The response must also include what captivated them about the «topic, idea or concept» and made them curious about exploring it. Most importantly, students must describe how they learned more. This last part is what admissions wants to know. 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? Take a job related to your interest? Start a club, organization or a website? Make sure that the reader really feels your passion. Do not choose something you think will impress the committee if it’s not really your passion, unless you are a fantastic writer or working 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 and includes some kind of progressive, positive growth.

IMPORTANT SUMMARY NOTE:  The purpose of the essay is to show who you are beyond your grades, courses, and scores. This means 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. It will take longer than you think. The sooner you start, the better the result, and the prouder you will be of the final piece.

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