With the onset of fall and back-to-school comes the start of the stressful college admissions process for incoming high school seniors. However, the process can become much less stressful when you know what to expect and are in control.

Rather than letting the application essay and other written responses worry you, think of them as a forum to present your unique personality, point of view, life experiences, and plans for the future as a dynamic individual and part of society. Now is the opportunity to share your experiences and have your voice be heard!

For the 2015-2016 application year, The Common Application revealed a few important changes to its essay section that we address in this blog to keep you on top of your game in the college admissions arena. We also include tips for writing your best possible response to each of the five essay prompts The Common Application presents.

2015-2016 The Common Application Essay Changes:

  • New for this year, colleges accepting The Common Application can choose to require or not require an essay as part of their application; however, you can always elect to submit an essay, which we highly advise. If schools to which you are applying offer their own online application aside from The Common Application, the advice stays the same: always provide an essay response whenever possible, even if it is optional.
  • This year’s The Common Application also allows applicants to preview parts of the application before it is completed in full, at any time, which was not the case before this year. There is also no limit on essay edits, whereas previously, there used to be a limit of three. Be sure to check all parts of the application and complete each college’s specific application requirements in full. Follow application directions carefully and read over each section a few times to make sure you don’t miss anything that is required.

Remember, colleges participating in The Common Application may request additional writing samples under “Member Questions” or within the “Writing Supplement” section of the application. Check each section carefully for each college.

2015-2016 The Common Application Essay Prompts:

For the 2015-2016 The Common Application, here are the writing prompt choices, with the same word count of 250 to 650 words they have required since 2013.

The wording of some of the 2015-2016 application year’s prompts has changed, and one prompt (see #4 below) has had a complete overhaul. Here are the current essay prompts for The Common Application, along with our advice on how to put forth your best response for each.

  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.

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 only; introduce it in an interesting and detailed way, then extend from there and focus on how it impacted you, today and in the future.

  1. 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?

This popularly-chosen prompt highlights the common topic of how failures can turn into life lessons and successes. The schools want to see how you cope, handle stress, and learn from your mistakes, as these show how you will face the challenges of college and the future. 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 in an interesting, honest way, 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.

  1. 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. Share your internal struggle, values,  and strength.  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.

  1. 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 what the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

For this new question, you should identify a problem that is significant to you and explain why it is important to you, what you have done to solve (or, to try to solve, or to eventually solve) it, what you learned during your journey with this problem, and the outcome. Choose a topic that you are personally passionate about, either in your own life, in your community, or in society at large. The journey, struggle, outcome, and future application of what you learned need to be clear. Don’t get stuck in the typical essay trap of just telling about the problem, as the essential part of the essay is your proposed solution, your action towards this solution, and the outcome and its future implications.

  1. 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?

General Essay Writing Tips:

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, maturity, and evolution. Therefore, the focus of the written response, no matter what prompt you choose, should be the extension, evolution, and/ 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.

More Essay Help from All About Writing!

Be sure to check out our previous blogs for general assistance with college application essays, whether for a college’s own application or The Common Application: “Help with the College Admission Application Essay, Part 2, Effective College Application Essay Writing Tips” and “College Admission Essays: Ease the Anxiety with These Pointers.”


For assistance with the writing sections of The Common Application, visit “Completing the Writing Section,” a video on You Tube published by Common App Media.

All About Writing’s in-person application essay consultations are packed with information rooted in experience and expertise. Often, students miss the most important elements the school is looking for; they get caught up in telling the story rather than elaborating on its impact. All About Writing knows how to get you started and keep you on the right track so that your finished piece is polished and reflective of your personality and assets.

All About Writing is here to assist with the college application essay process, from brainstorming your ideas through proofreading your final copy. Visit our website’s “Academic Writing and College Application Essays” page to learn more about these specific services.

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… for students and parents!

-by Christa Riddle


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