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Welcome Changes to the 2015-2016 Common Application Essay

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Here it is, folks – the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The announcement of Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show! The appearance of Jay-Z’s new celebrity-hyped streaming music player! The release of brand new dancing FLOTUS and singing Rock videos!


Clearly we here at CEA have actually spent the last few days hovering over our computers with the rest of the admissions nerds of the world, gobbling up meditations on Frank Bruni’s incisive and insightful new book (and perhaps watching an occasional cat video) in anticipation of the release of the 2015-2016 Common Application essay questions. The prompts were finally confirmed this past Tuesday, March 30 and college counselors and admissions experts let out a collective sigh of relief. Let us be the first to tell you, 2015-2016 college applicants: these questions are your friends.

The Common Application essay is an assignment that has traditionally struck fear in the hearts of many a teenager; but since the Common App’s major overhaul in 2013, the updated questions have garnered overall positive reviews from applicants and admissions folks alike and thus, remained fairly consistent. This year the Common App decided to make some tweaks to the essay and essay submission process and most of the changes the Common App will be implementing are for the better, including some glorious (and long overdue) improvements to the online interface. Students will now be able to preview each individual page of their application, instead of wondering whether one wrong push of a preview button at the end of the process will preemptively send an application out to a hundred virtual inboxes. A recent announcement from the Common App also suggested that supplemental essay requirements from individual schools will be reflected in multiple areas of the application, offering solace to those of us who engaged in the Easter egg hunt required to find schools’ supplemental essays and short answers in previous years. The platform will allow unlimited editing on all essays at any time, a change from the three-edit maximum imposed on the personal statement last year.

In addition to these technical upgrades, the Common App has also changed their basic requirement rules, now allowing schools to decide whether or not they want to assign their applicants the App’s main essay. Students shouldn’t do a celebratory fist pump just yet – a request for the Common App essay from even one school will demand that applicants put their all into every one of those 650 words. Additionally, students can choose to submit this essay even if a school doesn’t require it (which is probably a good idea). That said, it is nice to see the Common Application adjusting to accommodate the needs and desires of a wide range of academic institutions. After all, the original purpose of the Common App was to make the admissions process easier and more streamlined for students and colleges – not to shackle them to a new set of immovable standards.

Changes were also made to three out of five of the prompts, including some simple clarifying edits and one complete replacement. As the Common App notes on their website, revisions appear in italics:

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.

While the preponderance of italics makes it seem as though this question has changed dramatically from last year’s, the meat of this prompt remains much the same. In its previous incarnation the question asked students for a “background story,” which has been changed to reflect the difference between “background” and “identity” and include “interest” and “talent” as areas for exploration. Applicants have been treating this prompt as the “Topic of Your Choice” (or what I call the “Choose Your Own Adventure” prompt) since it was issued, and the most recent changes makes it even easier to do so. No matter what story or quality a student wants to write about, it will likely be easily molded to fit this prompt.

2. 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?

For the past two years in my Common Application Essay Prompts: A Guide, I have stressed that a question about failure is, in fact, a question about success. This year’s amended prompt makes this point irrefutably clear. Students’ approach to this question should not change much from the strategy of applicants past and responses should aim to showcase resilience and a refusal to submit to life’s greatest challenges.

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

My feelings about this prompt have always been lukewarm and I was a little sad to find it had not changed since last year’s application. In my experience, students have a tendency to address this like an issue paper or debate response and the ultimate goal of opening a window into their larger thought processes is easily lost. Many students also gravitate towards controversial topics that have the potential to challenge an admissions officer’s personal beliefs and values, which is not always a bad thing; but it is certainly a risk. Unless a student feels passionately about addressing this prompt, I often steer him/her away from it.

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.

I’ll admit it. I am sad about the disappearance of the “Describe a place or environment in which you are perfectly content.” prompt (RIP). This was one of the only prompts from the 2013 revised Common App that easily facilitated unhindered exploration of a student’s life and passions in both subject and form. The question that has replaced it is similar in nature to prompt number two. While asking applicants to map out a problem, the prompt is really meant to tease out a student’s problem solving skills and provide a glimpse into an applicant’s frame of mind while dealing with challenges. In giving applicants the option to discuss a potential future issue, the question also opens the door for more imaginative approaches to the personal essay.

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

This the second prompt that will appear on the 2015-2016 app unchanged. In the past students have been naturally inspired by this question and I have always felt it was a strong addition to the mix. When you’re seventeen, what is life but a series of transitions from childhood to adulthood? While students often have the impulse to write about large-scale life events, they shouldn’t discount the power of informal moments given life through good storytelling. Small moments that are representative of larger personality traits often make for the best essay fodder.

Regardless of the Common App essay changes and the new challenges/advantages they may present, the release of this information in early April is good news for students. There is nothing more valuable in the essay writing process than a head start. While we don’t suggest students begin the actual writing process this early in the game, it often takes a time (and maybe another cat video or two) to unearth those magic ideas. Now students can begin to ponder (sans the inevitable, if unhealthy, pressure), which of their glittering, intangible elements they might want to reveal to admissions one carefully crafted word at a time.

Contact us to riff on the new prompts with one of our experts.

Check out Tips for Brainstorming Essay Topics.

About Stacey Brook

Stacey Brook is an accomplished writer and admissions expert who has spent the last decade helping students conceptualize, edit and refine their college essays.

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