Which Prompt to Answer: Does It Matter?

30 Jan

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The Common Application will be keeping the same questions for this fall’s college applicants as it used in 2015-2016. The company says it will review prompts every two years, because that is how long it takes to process all the feedback.  So the announcement was not terribly newsworthy, but it did include some curious statistics on the the proportion of applicants who answered each of the five prompts last year:

Among the more than 800,000 unique applicants who have submitted a Common App so far during the 2015-2016 application cycle, 47 percent have chosen to write about their background, identity, interest, or talent – making it the most frequently selected prompt; 22 percent have chosen to write about an accomplishment, 17 percent about a lesson or failure, 10 percent about a problem solved, and four percent about an idea challenged.

I am not sure why it should matter to any individual writer how many other applicants might be responding to the same question he or she has chosen.

I encourage students to write the strongest essay they can, and actually figure out which question it best matches later. Some people may feel there is a strategic advantage to question-choosing by the mass numbers. They will need to decide  at what point a question becomes too popular, or too obscure, to send to an admissions committee. At what point, they will wonder, does the committee get tired of a particular question? Will a response to a rare question stand out, or seem too contrived? These might be interesting questions for a statistics seminar. But it’s a cynical approach to a writing problem; the process is really about digging deeply into yourself, and getting that self onto paper.

I would concur with what Yale advises on its website about application essays:

It doesn’t matter which topics you choose, as long as they are meaningful to you. We have read wonderful essays on common topics and weak essays on highly unusual ones. Your perspective – the lens through which you view your topic – is far more important than the specific topic itself. In the past, students have written about family situations, ethnicity or culture, school or community events to which they have had strong reactions, people who have influenced them, significant experiences, intellectual interests, personal aspirations, or – more generally – topics that spring from the life of the imagination.

For future reference, the Common App prompts are reprinted below:

2016-2017 Essay Prompts

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.
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?
3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
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.
5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.


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