Dartmouth Former Admissions Officer on How to Tackle the New Common App Prompts

Dartmouth Former Admissions Officer on How to Tackle the New Common App Prompts

Now that the 2016-2017 admissions cycle has slowed down, we’ve all had a chance to reflect upon the past season. And now juniors in high school are able to look forward to the next admissions cycle! So what’s new? The Common App prompts.

The Common Application has announced several changes to the essay prompts for the 2017- 2018 cycle to make it easier for students to tell compelling personal stories. After surveying 108 Common App colleges and over 5000 Common App constituents, the Common App found that while over 90% of users were satisfied with the current prompts, there were areas where the questions fell short.

The result? The addition of two new prompts and language changes in three of the five former questions!

After working with students as an educational consultant at InGenius Prep and reading nearly 1000 applications as an Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College, I know what makes a good or a bad personal statement for college! Here are a few guidelines for tackling the new Common App prompts.

2017-2018 Common App 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. (No change)

How to Approach this prompt:

Think critically about the aspect of your identity that sets you apart from others. This is a question that you’ll need to plan in advance, as it can take some time to really identify what makes you stand out amongst other students applying. Once you’ve come up with a few topics, think carefully about the story that will depict you in the best light. Are you a caring individual? That’s fantastic, but most people will describe themselves as caring. What have you done to show that you exhibit this trait in a novel way? Remember to be somewhat vulnerable in this prompt, as admissions officers should walk away having learned about your inner value system and how that will play out on their campuses.

Pitfalls to avoid:

This is not the time to retell your life chronologically. It’s easy for essays that respond to this question to spiral into a mini biography, which is neither engaging nor substantive. Pick a theme and stick to it throughout the essay. Additionally, there are topics that should be off limits. If you wouldn’t feel comfortable telling the story in a room full of grandmothers, it’s a good idea for you to pick a different narrative.

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 approach this prompt:

For this question, work backwards. When beginning your essay, don’t start with the obstacle, start with the greatest lesson you learned and then think back to the failure that revealed this area where you needed to grow. The emphasis here should be on the process that you took once you realized that you needed to change and less about the success gained. Colleges want to understand how you respond to setbacks. This is your chance to show them that you come out swinging.

Pitfalls to Avoid:

The focus of this prompt will determine whether it’s a good or bad essay. If you focus too much on the failure, you’ll run the risk of sounding like a whiner. Conversely, if you focus too much on your success, then it will sound like you are gloating. Accordingly, tread the middle; focus on what happened in between your success and your failure. The key word here should be “growth”.

Another thing to mention is be mindful of the lesson that you’re revealing, as it will allow admissions officers to gauge your maturity and perspective. For instance, telling admissions officers that, as a senior, you now realize the importance of saying please and thank you, may suggest that you have poor manners and spent most of your life being inconsiderate. Needless to say, not quite the person they want to have on their campus.

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

How to approach this question:

Are you a free thinker? Do you march to the beat of your own drum? Of all the Common App prompts, this one gives you a chance to highlight an opinion that you’ve cultivated that defies what is held by the masses. This question requires substantial thought, as you not only have to consider an issue on which you disagree with the majority of people around you, but you also must think about how receptive your audience will be your towards your perspective.

Pitfalls to Avoid:

Another way for Admission Officers to gauge your maturity is the subject of the issue you choose. This isn’t the question to weigh in on the Superbowl MVP pick (Yay Brady!). If you pick a matter that is trite, that will likely impact how the admissions officer views your file. After you’ve selected an important topic, the next question to ask yourself is what side is your audience on? If you happen to be against gay marriage and you’re applying to a socially liberal-leaning school, telling the admissions office about the time you supported DOMA, when no one else in your town would, is not going to increase your admissions chances. While this point isn’t always true, you have to keep in mind that college admissions is a subjective process in which you are competing against tens-of thousands of applicants; accordingly, it’s in your best interest to not offend the person reading the file!

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 approach this question:

When answering this Common App question, keep it personal. You want to focus on a problem that is personally meaningful to you. To find the problem that you want to solve, it can be helpful to look at the activities and interests you have currently. Do you volunteer at an elderly home weekly? Ask yourself why. What do you accomplish by serving this organization? Colleges and universities are excited to see your motivation. Make sure to also explain anything you’ve done to tackle the challenge you identified.

Pitfalls to avoid:

For this question, a common mistake that I see students make is focusing too much on the problem and not their own individual stories. The goal of any of the personal statement prompts is to learn about the author. Some students will focus so much on the problem that they forget to talk about themselves. Another area of concern is making sure to highlight the actions you’ve taken to address the problem. One of the best predictors of the actions you’ll make in the future is what you’ve done in the past. Thus, showing colleges that you’re taking steps to solve the problem you’ve identified will give them a glimpse of what you’ll do on campus.

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

How to approach this question:

This Common App prompt invites students to think introspectively about a specific experience that caused them to change their understanding of self. Previously, this questions asked students to reflect on an experience that marked their transition into adulthood. This new wording takes away the need to contemplate what it means to be an adult, and solely focuses on a change you noticed in yourself.

If you choose this prompt, make sure that you’re focusing on the growth you’ve made. If you focus too much on who you were prior to the event or what you’re like now, Admissions officers will miss the interesting part of the story: the struggle you’ve undergone to become a better person. Here’s a great chance to show how you’ve grown.

Pitfalls to Avoid:

Like in question two, pick an experience that highlights growth that is notable and puts your best foot forward. While your mom is happy that you now see that making your bed is an important organizational step, the admissions office will be less impressed. In addition, don’t paint yourself as the hero. You should state your contribution, but don’t overstate your performance. Admissions Officers will read thousands of applications; they’ll be able to gauge how you stand amongst other applicants.

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)

How to approach this question:

This is one of the new Common App prompts, and this question is full of possibilities. Do you love physics, mathematics or Milton? How about the School-to-Prison pipeline, Aloe Vera as a treatment for chronic conditions, or musical therapy? This question is an intellectual wild card. You should genuinely love the topic you are writing about and that passion should pour over the page. Keep in mind, it’s not just the topic they want you to explain, it’s also imperative for you discuss what you do to explore this topic and why it’s important for you.

Pitfalls to avoid:

In this new Common App question, you want to strike a balance between describing the subject and allowing the admissions officer to see how this relates to your identity. Take the opportunity to plan out your essay. It is a common mistake to give great information but lack a structure and focus when writing about a passionate topic.

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)

How to approach this question:

Take a pause. Think about one important detail that an admissions officer should know about who you are as an individual and why they should admit you to their school. Now, think about an essay that will allow them to do that. If you’re creative let your creativity show.

Pitfalls to Avoid:

Plan this question wisely. Don’t simply pick an essay because you received rave reviews on it when you turned it in for Creative Writing. When a candidate is simply recycling an essay, it shows. It can tell colleges that you’re not invested in putting in the additional work needed to craft a new essay. It may also do you a disservice by not fully capturing the personal aspects of your candidacy. Remember: when writing any college essay, the audience is the admissions office. Chances are, most essays you’ve written personally or for school have a different audience. It’s important for you to tailor your work for the task at hand.

The new Common App prompts incorporate changes that will guide students to craft their most inventive and personal narrative yet. If you’re preparing to apply to colleges this fall, get started early and revise often. Good luck!

About the Author


I am a former Assistant Director of Admissions at Dartmouth College, my alma mater. As an Admissions Officer at Dartmouth, I traveled and read over 1000 applications of students from a wide variety of backgrounds, and was the Admissions office contact for states in New England, the Mid West, and the Mid Atlantic.

I have diverse experience advising students and families throughout all stages of the admissions process. For instance, I have hosted workshops for US high school guidance counselors and youth development organizations to deepen their understanding of the Admissions process.