ic S/general/checkmark circled Thanks for subscribing! Be on the lookout for our next newsletter.
ic S/general/checkmark circled
Saved to My Favorites. View My Favorites
Articles / Applying to College / Rising Seniors: Your Common App Essay

Rising Seniors: Your Common App Essay

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | May 23, 2017

Some of you high school juniors may have already ended your school year. Others of you are in the midst of a hectic year-end series of tests and other wrapping-up details. Regardless, once you've had your last day of junior classes, you will be officially declared a "rising" senior. That will entitle you to face the coming challenges of the college admissions process this fall, assuming that you will be aspiring to head to a traditional four-year undergraduate institution in the fall of 2018.

Many, if not most, of you will be dealing with the Common Application. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of the Common App is its essay, which will serve to introduce your writing skills to all those admission committees at the schools that accept the Common App.

As you head into summer, it's time to start thinking about what you will write about in that essay. So, to help you begin your planning process, I thought I would give you some information and ideas about how to do just that. Okay, then, first things first ...

The 2016-2017 Common Application essay prompts have been released. They're the same as last year's. Here's the information, which includes data on how feedback from the Common App's previous essay-prompt survey influenced some changes:

The Common Application has announced that the 2016-2017 personal statement essay prompts will be the same as the 2015-2016 prompts. By conducting a review process every other year, rather than annually, we can hear from admissions officers, as well as students, parents, and counselors, about the effectiveness of the essay prompts.

These prompts are designed to elicit information that will strengthen the other components of the application. "We want to make sure that every applicant can find a home within the essay prompts, and that they can use the prompts as a starting point to write an essay that is authentic and distinguishing," said Scott Anderson, former school counselor and current Senior Director for Programs and Partnerships for The Common Application.

Among the more than 800,000 unique applicants who have submitted a Common App so far during the 2015-2016 application cycle, 47 percent have chosen to write about their background, identity, interest, or talent - making it the most frequently selected prompt; 22 percent have chosen to write about an accomplishment, 17 percent about a lesson or failure, 10 percent about a problem solved, and four percent about an idea challenged.

With the release of the essay prompts and the announcement that student accounts created now will roll over to 2016-2017, counselors can introduce their juniors to the Common App now, or whenever they are ready.

2016-2017 Essay Prompts

  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.
  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?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  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.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Two years ago, the Common Application reviewed feedback from nearly 6000 individuals who responded to the CA's survey about possible changes to the prompts. Here are some highlights from that survey:

  • 197 individual Member responses representing 110 Member institutions
  • 5667 constituent responses (64% school counselors; 14% students; 11% independent educational consultants; 4% parents; 2% community based organizations; remainder = other)
  • 82% of Members and 90% of constituents agree or strongly agree that the current prompts generate effective essays on the whole
  • 62% of Members and 48% of constituents believe the “story/background" prompt is the most effective
  • 76% of Members and 44% of constituents would like to see the “place where you're content" prompt replaced
  • 35% of Members and 30% of constituents feel that analytical ability and intellectual curiosity (as a combined percentage) are most the difficult attributes to convey through the current prompts
  • 85% of Members and 82% of constituents feel the prompts should be left open to broad interpretation
  • 3% of Member respondents suggested Topic of Your Choice as a new prompt
  • 6% of constituent respondents suggested Topic of Your Choice as a new prompt, with the breakdown as follows: independent educational consultants (47%), community-based organizations (7%), school counselors (5%), parents (2%), other (2%), students (<1%)

Now that you've seen some of the rationale behind these prompts, here's more than enough information to help you get started thinking about how and what to write. It's a list of articles and blog posts that I've written about application essays for College Confidential. This is a long list, so don't feel duty-bound to read all of them. Find several that appeal to you and then read and learn from them. (Some reference the old Common App prompts, but the info on approach is pertinent):

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/application-essays/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/great-common-application-essays/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/using-humor-in-your-college-essay/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/essays/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/thoughts-on-application-essays/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/assay-your-common-app-essay/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/more-on-essays/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/more-essay-insights/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/adventures-in-essayland/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/the-application-essay-think-about-it/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/essays-with-a-smile/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/application-essays/

- http://www.collegeconfidential.com/admit/applying-you-to-your-application-essays/

Essays, perhaps next to the SAT, may be the most fear-inspiring and stressed-over component of college applications. I've discussed the finer points of essay writing many times, as you can see from the above links. Before you start working on your Common Application essay and the associated Common Application supplements that colleges just love to throw your way, you need to start seeing yourself in the proper perspective in regards to being an applicant to your candidate colleges.

This stratagem applies even if you're not aiming for the "top" schools, such as the Ivies and other elites. Knowing who you are and how you think, plus being able to express that in an articulate statement, will go a long way in advancing your admission chances, regardless of where you are applying.

I'd like to offer you some advice on approaching not only your Common Application essays but also those in your Common App supplements and even some scholarship statements. The approach is generally the same and even if you're doubtful about your ability to be "creative," this should help put you at ease enough to do a good job.

Consider your application campaign in two categories:

(1) "General" college applications (the Ivies, elites, and other selective schools) and, perhaps in your case, and

(2) "Specific" applications (specialized programs such as BS/MD, Penn's Huntsman, Wharton, etc.).

The Common Application essay, its related writing requirements, and those non-specialized-program-related college supplements fall into the general category. Obviously, the combo-med and other special supplements are in the specific category.

"So what should I write about, Dave?" you ask. Well, here's your challenge for coming up with an idea for your Common App essay, in order to maximize your profile marketing and to get Harvard, Stanford, and all the others, to take you to the cash register:

Identify some thing, event, or thought process that sticks out in your mind that would reveal to your colleges who you are and how you think. One of my clients from years past wrote about her theories as to why certain classmates sat in the seats they did in certain classes. It was a fascinating glimpse into how this young woman observed the world around her. She went to Harvard.

Here's another exercise that can help you set yourself apart in your essay(s):

Look around your room and see if anything in there inspires you to write about an aspect of your life that colleges won't be able to discern from the rest of your application. Do you have any weird hobbies or habits (Making chess pieces out of Corn Flakes? Painting corporate logos on old car doors? Taking pictures chipmunks running from cats? Autographing the double yellow lines on the roads near your home? Get the idea here? [Of course, I'm exaggerating for effect here.]) that seem really crazy and that you may be too embarrassed to mention? These are the kinds of activities that make wonderful "anything else" essays!

As I've mentioned before, my son, who went to Princeton, answered his Princeton "anything else" prompt by discussing his sense of humor and citing some of the crazy things he did with his friends. His essay started out something like this: "You have already seen that I place a high value on academics and meaningful extracurriculars. However, I want you to know that I'm not all work and no play. I love to laugh and sometimes do things with my friends that others may think are weird, but they appeal to my sense of humor . . ."

So, keeping all this in mind, construct a list of "little known habits, hobbies, and other weird stuff " about yourself. Then, work to shape an aspect (or aspects) of that list into a winning statement. If you do, you may come to realize that you're a much more interesting person than you ever thought you were.


Be sure to check out all my college-related articles at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

More on Applying to College

See all
typing at computer- karolina-grabowska-6958506-resized

Authentic Voice in College Essays

That’s why you want to use your authentic voice when writing any college essay.

So what’s the problem? A student has shared an ess…


College Interview Prep Tips: Brainstorm, Research, Analyze, Generalize

I recently visited Washington University in Saint Louis and was lucky enough to set up an interview. By speaking with peers of mi…

campus gates

Academic Index Scores: Why They Matter and How They're Calculated

Note: Click here for 10 Summer Programs You Can Still Apply For or keep reading to learn more about academic index scores.

8 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

7 Podcasts for Students Going Through the Admissions Process

Podcasts can offer a wealth of information to busy students, particularly when it comes to the college admissions process. We…


Avoid College Application Regrets: Tips For Getting It Right the First Time

Decision Day occurs each year on May 1st and is the deadline for students to inform the college of their choice of their intent t…

Get a student loan that goes beyond tuition.

Ascent offers cosigned and non-cosigned student loans with exclusive benefits that set students up for success.

Explore Now!
Find Your Scholarship

Want to find money for school that doesn’t need to be paid back? Access insights and advice on how to search and apply for scholarships!

Search for Scholarship