Posted on: March 11, 2021
Almost nothing sparks fear in the heart of high school juniors as much as the words “College Essay.”
But perhaps there is hope on the horizon. The last couple of college admissions seasons have, without question, been tense, as students and parents negotiated unprecedented circumstances. Now, though, the Common Application and the Coalition Application, two main platforms for applying to college, are offering a ray of light into that shadowy corner of the admissions process.
In 2021, for the first time in four years, the Common App team updated the prompts for the main essays that students will send to admissions teams across the country. Similar updates typically happen every few years, in consultation with counselors and admissions leaders. That change seemed to speak precisely to the pandemic experience we have all gone through.
The Common App announced last year’s change with the following bold statement:
“An essay prompt can’t erase the loss and anxiety of the last 12 months, but it can validate the importance of gratitude and kindness. We hope students see the new prompt for what it is intended to be: an invitation to bring some joy into their application experience.”
Now, I suspect this idea is a bit of an overreach. There are about a thousand things that cause stress and anxiety in the college process, and I’m not sure I’m not sure a new 650-word essay topic is going to fix it all at once. But I do hope that students can read between the lines of this sentiment.
Colleges know. The Common App knows. Your teachers know. And now the Coalition Application has updated its prompts to show that they know, too. This process is hard. It’s stressful. It’s unpredictable. In some of these ways, it is different than just about every other academic task you have faced. And here’s how:
For every paper, test, or project you’ve tackled since kindergarten, the answers lie in academic skills. You’ve learned how to study, research, build, examine, and discuss. In each case, the goal was a test of these skills, strengthening them, and producing a moderately objective product.
The College Essay is different. Here, you are not being asked to describe what you know but rather who you are. The essay is designed to be your strongest vehicle to introduce yourself, as a human, person, roommate, athlete, artist, learner, to the admissions committee. The prompts are designed to help you do that.
The new Common App prompt reads: Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
The Common App announced that it wrote this prompt with an ear towards recent developments in the positive psychology movement that suggest we have a better experience when we view the world through reflection on gratitude, kindness, and other positive emotions.
The Coalition App has not only adjusted one of its prompts but also added an entirely new option so that students now have five choices instead of four to choose from. Each of these new additions focuses on similar positive experiences.
The two new prompts read: What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?
What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?
This new addition replaces a previous question asking students to share about a problem they have faced. So, we are truly being asked to shift our thinking from “Tell us about that hard thing” to “tell us about a good thing.” In part because of questions like the previous ‘problem’ prompt, one of the biggest worries I hear from juniors as they consider possible essay topics is a variation on the feeling that “nothing bad has ever happened to me so I won’t have an interesting or unique essay.” The flip side of this worry I hear is, “I have a powerful and difficult story to tell, but it feels very personal and vulnerable to share it with strangers.” Both sides of this “Good College Essays Reflect Pain” coin are incredibly challenging for students.
The new prompt is trying to help you introduce yourself in a way that encourages you to see your best self, to accentuate the gifts we give to one another, and to reflect on good things around you, even through the challenges of the last few years. In looking at the full set of prompts, students can now choose to reflect on kindness, proud accomplishments, cultural gifts, happiness, or personal understanding. Each new prompt gives students a slight nudge towards a deeper and more personal reflection. Colleges are not looking to learn about something that happened to you. They’re looking to learn about you.
So maybe, the Common App might be bringing a little joy into the mix after all. (Let’s just hope that the admissions teams are not quite as minimalist as Marie Kondo can be).
Below is the full set of Coalition Essay prompts for 2022- 2023
- Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
- What interests or excites you? How does it shape who you are now or who you might become in the future?
- Describe a time when you had a positive impact on others. What were the challenges? What were the rewards?
- Has there been a time when an idea or belief of yours was questioned? How did you respond? What did you learn?
- What success have you achieved or obstacle have you faced? What advice would you give a sibling or friend going through a similar experience?
- Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.
And… the full set of Common App Essay prompts for 2022- 2023
- 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 lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
- Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
- Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
- Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
- Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
- Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Originally published March 11, 2021; updated April 20, 2022