May 24, 2017

Changes to the 2017-2018 Common App Essays: What You Need to Know


The past couple of years have seen significant changes in the way higher education has sought to increase accessibility and diversity in schools. The College Board revamped the SAT, starting its new format in March 2016, and now, the Common Application has widened the scope of its essay prompts even further.

If you are applying this fall during the 2017–2018 admissions cycle, here’s what to expect from the recent changes to the Common App essays. You still have a 650-word limit, but you’ll now have seven choices for your main Common App essay topic. While most of these still focus on personal growth through first-hand experiences, one of the new prompts (technically reintroduced since the question was used before Common App changes in 2013) allows you to write about anything. You can even recycle a paper you might have written for another purpose!

Below is a list of the 2017–2018 admissions questions released by the Common Application. We highlighted the changes to any revised sections in blue and also provide some advice on how to respond to them.

2017–2018 Common Application Essay Prompts

No changes

#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. [No change]

  • How to answer: While you talk about your passions, explain how pursuing them have helped you to become a better person—one that can thrive in and act as a contributing member of a college environment. If you talk about a background or the way you identify yourself, again, think of ways in which these qualities have shaped how you think and act. (For additional advice, check out our infographic!)

#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. [No change]

  • How to answer: No story, including yours, is complete without an account of conflict and resolution. Remember, however, that this question is not about the problem itself. Rather, admissions officers want to know why this problem was so personally important that it compelled you to act. They want to see how you generally identify and tackle obstacles that may come your way. Also, you don’t have to show that you successfully solved the problem; sometimes our greatest lessons are learned through failure (see Revised Prompt 2 below). (For tips on how to write about this essay topic, click here.)
  • Caution: A common mistake is to talk about an issue in the abstract and not explore why the topic matters to you. Remember that admissions officers aren’t actually looking for you to tell them how global warming can be solved. Rather, they want to know why you care so much about it (your motivations) and why you, based on your personal experiences and knowledge, think the cause is worth addressing. Ultimately, your response to this prompt, just as in all of the Common App essays, should tell a story that reflects personal intellectual and emotional growth.

Revised topics

#2.  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? [Revised]

  • How to answer: Resilience and perseverance are the hallmarks of success. The best way to show your potential for success is by talking about a challenge you faced while pursuing something you cherish. You should explain why the issue mattered to you and what motivated you in trying to solve it. You don’t have to show that you were successful in solving the problem; rather, focus on the important “life lesson” you gained from the experience. In some cases, that might mean becoming aware of your own prejudices or shortcomings. Above all, you should be talking about how your viewpoint of the issue and life in the bigger picture was altered by this experience. How did this encounter expand your viewpoints of the world? How did this “setback” help you become a more well-rounded person? Would what you have learned help you thrive in a college environment where you’d assuredly meet people from diverse backgrounds and perspectives? (For more tips on this topic, click here!)

#3.  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

  • This question was revised to consider situations in which you might not have taken action but still felt conflicted about an issue. More importantly, the question seems to have shifted from asking why you acted the way you did to exploring how the dilemma arose in the first place. In other words, admissions officers want to hear about how a certain belief or idea prompted you to think critically and form your own opinion.
  • While what triggered your questioning is likely external, keep in mind you should be focusing on its impact on you as an independent thinker. That is, an appropriate answer would require that you explain (1) your values and perspectives, (2) the events that triggered your encounter with a conflicting belief (this may mean how you realized the limitations of your own values), and (3) how your perspective was affected by the experience.  (For additional advice on how to approach this essay, click here!)
  • Caution: We recommend avoiding discussions about religion or politically charged topics that could potentially offend admissions officers. With that said, if you feel compelled to talk about one of these topics, make sure to focus on your own personal development and avoid harshly criticizing someone else’s beliefs.

#5.  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

  • Like the revisions to the other questions listed above, we believe Prompt 5 was altered because admissions officers want you to focus on your emotional and intellectual growth. Again, focus on (1) briefly describing the context of the issue you discuss, (2) identifying the event or realization that compelled you to change, and (3) explaining how this experience shaped your personal development. Check out our guide for prompt #5 by clicking here.

New topics

#6.  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? [New]

  • This is a fun new addition to the Common App essay lineup. We believe the purpose behind this question is to encourage you to show admissions officers what really makes you tick. That is, by explaining what you love most, you can share with them a glimpse of who you really are, what you’re curious about, and the way you satisfy your inquisitive nature. Make sure to develop a well-rounded explanation of your passion. Nothing is completely rosy, after all. Some aspects you might think about include:
    • Are there any drawbacks to your high curiosity for this topic?
    • Have you ever hit any roadblocks while pursuing this topic? If so, how did you resolve them?
    • How do you restrain yourself when you feel you’re diving in too deep and losing all sense of time and engagement with the outside world? Or, does that not even matter to you?
    • If you’re so fascinated by a topic, to what extremes have you gone to pursue it? Have you had to make sacrifices along the way? How did those situations change you?
  • For more information about this new essay topic, check out our infographic!

#7. 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. [New]

  • Question Prompt 7 (the “pick anything you want to write about” topic) is not actually new. It was a standard question until its removal in 2013. Welcome back, Prompt 7!
  • As awesome as this category sounds, here, we would like to share some words of caution. It’s great to think you can recycle an older essay. Be careful, however, and understand that the purpose of admissions essays is to introduce yourself to the admissions committee. With that said, make sure the topic you choose highlights one of the following areas:
    • Your analytical abilities and intellectual curiosity. If you’re applying to schools that have supplemental essays that ask you more about who you are and why you want to apply to schools, then writing a purely academic Common App essay might be fine. However, if your target schools only require the Common App essay, you might want to choose another prompt so that you have the chance to actually talk about you!
    • Personal growth not already covered by Prompts 1–6. For example, you could explore a hypothetical situation.
  • Caution: Don’t talk about grades, test scores or other aspects already found in your admissions app. The essay is your opportunity to share a side of you that is otherwise difficult to assess from numbers on a sheet of paper. Similarly, if you recycle a paper you’ve previously written for another purpose, you may wish to revise it for improvement and add additional information that will give admissions officers a better sense of who you are as a critical-thinking individual.
  • Recommended topics: Survey some of the supplemental essays asked by schools. They may spark some inspiration. For example, some questions include:
    • What’s your favorite book, poem, author, movie, musician, etc.?
    • Who do you admire?
    • Imagine it’s 50 years from now. What would you be doing?
    • If you could speak with someone from the past, who would it be and what would you say?
    • Stanford: Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
    • University of Chicago: Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about. [Note: this school often chooses its supplemental essay topics from interesting essays written by prior students!]
    • Dartmouth asks: “It’s not easy being green” was a frequent lament of Kermit the Frog. Discuss.
  • For more tips on the “topic of your choice” essay prompt, click here.

No matter which essay topic you choose, remember that this is your opportunity to give admissions officers a peek into your mind and share with them who you are as a person. Are you someone interesting enough that they would want to spend time talking with on a long train ride? If so, prove it to them!