(This is the first of two articles about The Common Application for college admissions. Part two, “Application Information,” will follow, so be sure to check back.)

The college admissions process can prove to be one of the most stressful times in life, especially when students are applying to multiple schools that each has its own set of application guidelines and stipulations. However, The Common Application has alleviated some of the stress by devising a standard application accepted by over 500 member colleges and universities. In this way, students can apply to multiple schools using one application and one essay.

The Common Application, started in the 1970s, is a not-for-profit organization that strives to “promote equity, access, and integrity in the college application process” (www.commonapp.org). To date, The Common Application serves more than a million students and school officials each year and represents a wide range of public and private colleges and universities.

The Common Application provides a comprehensive evaluation of students as they apply to participating membership secondary education institutions. For more information, including a directory of participating colleges and their admissions requirements, supplemental application requests, and application deadlines, please visit www.commonapp.org. The Common Application can only be completed and submitted online.

The Common College Application Essay Prompts and What They Are Asking

In August, 2013, The Common Application changed its application to the CA4; with that came modifications to the essay section. The number of prompts dropped from six to five, eliminating the “topic of your choice” prompt. The word count limit increased from 500 to 650 words, with the minimum response restricted to 250 words.

Although the questions seem straightforward, many students do not know what to focus on when writing their college admission essay responses. What is the school getting at? What do they want to know about me? Why are they asking this question?

Basically, colleges and universities look for reflective, strong, and independent thinkers capable of self-analysis, growth, and evolution. Therefore, the focus of the written response, no matter what prompt you choose, should be the extension or revelation that stems from the personal story you select to present. The moment you showcase should be worthy and well-developed, but your reaction and how you choose to move forward after your experience are most important to convey.

Here are some pointers on what colleges and universities are actually looking for in students’ responses to The Common Application essay prompts:

Prompt #1: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. Here, the key is development of the individual identity. How has the background or story you chose to present influenced and helped create who you are today? Who are you and how did this pivotal moment help define your identity? Don’t fall into the trap of showcasing the background or story; extend from there and focus on how it impacted your identity.

Prompt #2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? This highlights the common topic of how failures can turn into life’s lessons and success. The schools want to see how you cope, handle stress, and learn from your mistakes. Do not focus on the story of the failure, but rather on the lesson learned and how the failure impacted your life in a positive way moving forward. Present your failure incident, but be succinct and move the pace along here to allow plenty of space later on in the essay to illustrate what you learned and how you moved forward. The story is only the springboard to see your reaction and evolution.

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? This prompt focuses on a belief or idea that could be personal or rooted in a culture or group. For something to be challenging, it has to be, on one or several levels, difficult and not easy to do. The prompt should convey your convictions and reasons for stepping up to challenge the belief or idea. Be sure to adequately cover the belief or idea, why you decided to challenge it, how you faced the challenge, any resistance you met, the outcome of your action, and if you would decide to do it all over again in the same way. Personal values and self-reflection are key.

Prompt #4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? Here, you will again focus on your thoughts and perceptions. It is important to adequately describe the place or environment and your experience with vivid details, but the colleges are looking for insight into who you are as an individual. What defines you and what do you value? What is perfect contentment for you and how does this place or environment lead to your contentment? Be sure you know what it means to be content before you start writing this one.

Prompt #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family. Once you vividly describe the accomplishment or event using a good pace, focus the bulk of your attention and writing on your transition from child to adult. Becoming an adult can focus on maturing, learning to be a leader, accepting responsibility, being accountable for your actions, thinking for yourself, becoming independent, and/or taking care of yourself. The event should be worthy of being considered a milestone, not just anything that happened along the way. That being said, this prompt can be difficult to write about unless you have truly experienced one of those monumental moments that truly spurred your transition to leave childhood behind. Also, you should clearly share what you consider constitutes being an adult within your culture, community, or family; what defines adulthood and why?

The common thread between all five prompts is presenting yourself as a reflective, thoughtful, unique, and creative individual, infused with your own voice, reactions, outcomes, and experiences. Don’t fall into the trap of telling a story; interpret its meaning and its impact on your life.

This information provides colleges and universities with valuable information that is not disclosed on the application or in a student resume. Who are you personally? How are you unique? What are your beliefs? How do you handle life’s ups and downs? What has life taught you? In this way, they can determine if you will be a good fit for their school and if you will positively contribute to their academic and social environments.


Remember, All About Writing is here to assist with the college application essay process, from brainstorming your ideas through proofreading your final copy. Although we will help get you get started, suggest organization, pacing, and structural improvements, and polish your presentation once the final content is in place, All About Writing will not write content for any academic-related pieces, as it compromises integrity.

Learn more about All About Writing, Howell, NJ and owner Christa Riddle at www.allaboutwritingconsulting.com. Remember, with All About Writing, writing help is just a call or click away! Call us today to make life a bit easier!

-by Christa Riddle

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