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The Common Application

After some member institutions of the Common Application had their major discussions, it was felt that some key changes were needed. At one point, the length limit for the essay was 1000 words or fewer, then it went down to 500 words which proved tricky for some keen writers! But it has now been raised to 650. The five questions to choose from are listed below. They are meant to draw depth of reflection and some self-analysis.

Option #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.

This essay allows you to really discuss what made you who you are today. A person's "background" can be about an influential place or your special family situation. Your backstory could also include one event or series of many. Just make sure you show a progression or evolution of your own development and attitude. This prompt also allows you to discuss a true passion of yours. Your "talent" or "interest" could be an intellectual, hobby, sports or music related activity. However, it can't just all be about the intricacy of the activity. It is as important to discuss and show how it reflects your personality and how it has shaped your perspective. This background and interest essay can also be redrafted to fit one of the University of California prompts.

Option #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?

This is a common essay that very much has a SAT essay flavor. Most students shy away about discussing any failures. There is always that concern about presenting oneself in the wrong light. However, if you've learn't something incredibly vital and if you have come a long way and are the better for it, this essay could work in your favour. A number of students write about an academic failure and how it made them research deeper and study longer. I would avoid such examples. This sounds too much like a Grade 9 type of essay. There will be other essays about failure in an unusual science project, failure in one's community or failure to live up to someone who for unique reasons had great faith in one. Such examples will still be more interesting than another essay about a failed exam. Whatever your story will be, it is equally vital to explain what was your unique response to failure and what did you get out of the experience? This essay can sound cliched just by nature of the plethora of failure themed stories in the fictional and non-fictional world. Be sure to show depth in your self-analysis and even in the nature of how failure is a rite of passage.

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

Many students ask what and whose belief or idea? This has been left up to the student. In other words, the "belief or idea" could even be yours, another person's, or a group's. Whether the belief or idea is yours or not yours, you will likely write about four parts of your evolution ie. A) How you developed your preconceived notion or how you came up against the belief attached to someone or some group. B) How something or a series of events made you question yourself or the status quo and how you realized your mistake or how someone else was wrong. C) What did you do to challenge the earlier notion and what was the outcome? It's vital to not show too much bravado but instead describe the difficulty of challenging the status quo. D) Finally when you answer the final question--would you make the same decision again? Most students feel compelled to say "yes". This is because their act often drew courage and determination from them, which are all very good outcomes. But there may be a situation where you have learned that the cost of your action was not worth the pain. Overall, you should always try to explain your key values. This prompt is the one chance to show your integrity and courage. It is not necessarily about an intellectual struggle as it is about ethics and your core beliefs.

Option #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.

This prompt allows for you to stretch your analytical skills with an "intellectual challenge or a research query". It also gives you a chance once again to reflect a part of your character with "an ethical dilemma". A number of students who have been Model U.N participants rather like this question. You aren't asked to come up with the perfect answer or solution. You can even explore problems that can only be properly solved in the future. Even if you tackled a pharmaceutical or a third world dilemma, try to reflect who you are as a compassionate human being and not just a thinking one. In other words, show your personal values and personality even as you are presenting an analytical breakdown of your solution. You can do this by allowing some of your motivation in providing a solution to come through.

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

This is challenging essay. Imagine trying to think of ONE key event or accomplishment that actually bridged that gap between childhood to young adulthood. Often it is the building of one's skill level that is transformative or a series of events culminating in one event. But some of you may have an event or achievement in mind that you feel is a clear transition point. I still think that even a winning touchdown or a win in a science competition stems from a steady building of skills. You can admit to this and still point out how one clear moment pooled or honed in all your experiences. Often this key moment would have tested your inner resources and you proved to yourself and others that you were able to overcome any self-doubts, deal with the pressure and/or meet the challenge. So again, you will reflect your personality and qualities such as courage and determination.

To conclude, do proper brainstorming before deciding on one prompt. Think of which personal account would sound interesting to an admissions counselor who has read thousands of other application essays. With the essay prompt you finally choose, make sure you reflect three things--your personal qualities such as determination and compassion, your intellectual ability to analyse a situation and your edge as innovator or leader. That said, you will have an opportunity to reflect all of these aspects in other personal statements. So if you wish to highlight your compassion in your common application, then show your prowess as a dynamic leader in your other admission essays. Do not repeat your themes for the same institution. Show the admissions readers all aspects of who you are.

There is enough room in all these five essay prompts to give you the ability to bring in some interesting accounts and reflect your innermost thoughts. The Common Application often allows students a wide enough array so that all students will be able to answer one of the prompts authentically and creatively.

Feel free to ask about college application advice

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