There is an upheaval in the world of college admissions. At least that’s what the members of the newly-formed Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success would have us believe as they prepare to launch a new mass application platform this summer. Since the announcement that over 80 elite colleges would be banding together to challenge the Common App’s dominance with an alternative application meant to level the admissions playing field, students, parents and admissions experts around the world have been wondering what they were in for. Rumors of “virtual lockers” and other new features began to trickle out; and, of course, we all began to speculate about the essay requirements. What would the Coalition ask of its students, and would it really help challenge an ailing system or simply pile more work on the plates of already-overworked applicants?
As of this week, at least one of those major questions has been answered. The 2016-17 Coalition Application essay prompts have finally been released and they are mercifully similar to the Common App prompts (with a few truly interesting additions). While we believe that a worthy subject for a personal essay can be backed into just about any prompt for the Coalition App (just as with the Common App) we still thought it would be valuable to break down each one, highlighting what these questions are really asking and how to best use them to guide you towards an effective and memorable college essay that really hits home with admissions.
When we read this first prompt, we immediately exhaled and said, “Okay, the Coalition App isn’t actually trying to kill applicants.” As a launch point for an application essay, Prompt #1 is wide open. It should be a good fit for any tale you have to tell that “demonstrates character,” which should be a base requirement of any personal statement you submit, regardless of the prompt you’re responding to. How do you define yourself? What characteristics form the foundation of your personality? Are you generous and thoughtful? Are you gutsy? Resilient? Funny? Think about some of the most memorable moments in your life – the stories that come up over and over again, the moments that make you feel most proud. Maybe your talkative approach to a science fair, and the warm reaction it elicited from the judges and even your competitors, made you realize the value of being unabashedly gregarious. Perhaps a particularly boring summer in your childhood inspired you to create a role-playing game that involved all the kids in the neighborhood. What do these stories say about you and the lens through which you see the world? One last thing to note in choosing this prompt is that, while it is broad in its overall inquiry, it does specifically ask you to describe an experience – so if the idea you have in your head is character-related, but not tied to a specific event or occurrence, you might want to save it for a different prompt (don’t worry – more great options are coming.)
Any responses to Common App Prompt #1 that involve the description of an event are likely to be a good fit for this first Coalition question, and thinking about some of the elements described in the Common App’s Prompt may help you think of additional angles for your Coalition essay.
Common App 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.
The most important things to keep in mind when responding to this prompt are originality and sincerity. There are many thoughtful, creative ways to write about your service trip to South Africa or the clothing drive you organized at your school, but there are even more tired and cliché ways to address these kinds of efforts. Make sure your essay is highly personal in the details you include. Focus on the smaller moments within these larger experiences and initiatives to ensure the essay shines a light not only on how you made an impact, but also on how you were shaped by your contributions. Instead of talking about your after school tutoring work in a general sense, maybe you can discuss your relationship with a single student and what motivated you to put in the effort required to really help another person learn. Highlighting these personal anecdotes will prevent your essay from going down a generic path and lead you towards a more sincere conclusion. Yes, giving back to people in need is rewarding, but what surprised you about the act of contributing? And what motivated you to act in the first place? Discussing the under-recognized elements of these experiences, the ones that perhaps only you have thought about, will show admissions the true value of your actions and how your caring might show itself on campus.
Additionally, make sure your contribution is meaningful. Yes, donating the $1,000 you made at a car wash you organized is awesome. But it is probably not what the Coalition is looking for when they talk about focusing on “the greater good.” When have you made a sacrifice for the sake of another person or a cause? What motivates you to go above and beyond? What causes are near and dear to your heart and WHY do you care about them? You have already completed all of these amazing initiatives. Show admissions that your heart was really in it.
Common App Prompt #4 does not specifically allude to service in its phrasing, but it offers applicants an opportunity to address some of the world’s largest issues, if they choose, and service or efforts that consider the world at large can often be involved in the solutions to these problems.
Common App 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.
A question about having your beliefs challenged demands a great deal of introspection off the bat – and this kind of disarming honesty can make an essay incredibly sincere and compelling. Your willingness to examine your beliefs, whether they were taught to you by your parents, pursued through your own active interest, or simply absorbed as you went about your daily life, can convey a level of maturity and curiosity that is hugely valuable in the college environment. And the range of beliefs that can be challenged is as wide as you make it. Maybe a particularly adventurous meal you had while abroad in China made you reassess the boundaries you believed dictated your taste in food. You can discuss a belief that has been long-cherished or simply accepted, which means you can discuss something that has been a part of the fabric of your values based on passionate feelings OR societal norms. When brainstorming topics for this question, keep in mind that staying away from controversial subjects like politics is probably a good idea. You never know who will pick up your application and you don’t want personal bias about hot button issues getting in the way of a fair assessment of your passion and qualifications.
Common App Prompt #3 asks about a time students “challenged a belief or idea.” In the Coalition version of the question, the tables are turned in that students are asking how their values have been challenged, which requires students to think about times their beliefs have been called into question, instead of incidents where they questioned the beliefs of others.
Common App Prompt #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
Prompt #4 is the Coalition prompt that feels the newest and the freshest. What are some major misconceptions people have about modern teenage life? Can you shed some light on these misunderstandings? What does it mean to be an adolescent in this day and age with the tools you have at your disposal? And what about being a teenager today is truly awesome in a way most people wouldn’t expect? Essays that respond to these questions are ripe for humorous responses (did the latest changes to the Instagram algorithm blow your mind?), as long as you also think critically and relate the topic to your life, passion and goals. Although this can be an opportunity to get a little silly, it’s also a moment for you to gain some perspective and think about what struggle really means to you. What are some of the toughest challenges that you have faced or that you know other people your age are facing? And what have you learned from dealing with these struggles and your triumphs? As with service essays, if you are going to address a potentially common subject like bullying or body image, make sure to approach it from a truly unique and highly personal perspective. In the end, the essay is not about teenage experience in general, but about an aspect of teenagehood you’ve chosen to highlight because of the way it affects or represents YOU.
This prompt can also be tied back to the Common App’s Prompt #1 (about your background story, talents and interests), or Common App Prompt #5, which asks applicants to discuss a transition from childhood to adulthood. The ability to dispense advice to someone younger than you are often hinges on your ability to reflect back on an earlier time in your life when you didn’t know things you know now. That sounds like a childhood to adulthood transition to us!
Common App Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Cue the trumpets and grab hold of a fistful of confetti! It’s time to celebrate! Topic of Your Choice has returned! Many students lamented the loss of this catch-all prompt when it vanished from the Common App a few years ago, but apparently the Coalition felt it was worth giving this choose-your-own-adventure style prompt a slot in the app’s incarnation. Especially in this introductory year, where the Coalition is actively courting students and asking the to step away from the Common App, a Topic of Your Choice option is a gift. Obviously, any essay you write will meet the requirement of this prompt, so if you have already begin brainstorming with the Common App topics in mind, fear not, this Coalition prompt has you covered. That said, if you are approaching the personal statement for the first time, trying to find a place to begin, the topic of your choice may not be the place you want to start. Having a wide-open runway for topic selection can be debilitating for some, so if your creativity flourishes under stricter parameters, by all means, use one of the other awesome prompts to guide your inspiration. No matter what, what matters is not the prompt you respond to, but the story you are trying to tell and what it will communicate to admissions.
It allows you to back all of those Common App prompts into the Coalition App, you lucky duck! For your reference, the Common App prompts are as follows:
Whichever Coalition prompt you decide to respond to, and whatever you discuss, your essay should reveal qualities and experiences that cannot be gleaned from your test scores, activity resume or any other element of your existing application. This is where an admissions officer gets to know what it would be like to have a conversation with you. It is, at least as far as we know, still one of the only opportunities the Coalition offers you to speak to admissions in your own voice. Take that opportunity and make the most of it.