With school’s final bell now behind us, students entering their final year of high school are likely focused on more tantalizing summer plans than beginning work on their Common Application essay. And while earning some cash, sitting by the pool, and hanging out with friends are higher up on the docket at the moment, we encourage soon-to-be seniors to carve out a few moments during these laid back months to begin the surprisingly time-consuming topic selection/pre-writing portion of the essay process. Trust us – come fall, you’ll thank yourself, especially as senior year coursework and college applications begin to pile up.
The five Common App topics, revamped in 2013, will stay the same for the 2014-15 admissions cycle. Ultimately, you will have to choose one topic and compose a 650-word-or-less essay that wins the hearts and minds of college admissions officers. Below, we offer some thoughts about each prompt and how to decide which one will best enable you to share a meaningful and revealing story that will strengthen and personalize your application.
Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
Conflict is so often at the center of a great story. It is a chance for you to write a story where you are not the hero, at least in a traditional, conquering sense. In a world of flattering selfies, exaggerated resumes, and a top 20 hit that repeats the phrase “I’m the man” 38 times, it can be refreshing to hear someone willingly talk about their shortcomings and less proud moments. Subsequent growth in the wake of failure can give insight into your character, resilience, and depth. In brainstorming this one, reflect on your life’s setbacks and whether they led to maturation or enlightenment. Also try starting with periods of growth in your life, and work backward to what rejections/disappointment/failures led to your personal development.
Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
This one sounds rather grand as though colleges expect you to have led a movement of civil disobedience while bringing an imperialist colonial empire to its knees—all at the ripe age of eighteen! Fear not, in literary terms, this is the Society vs. The Individual type of conflict and it needn’t take place on a grand stage. Standing up to peer pressure, going against a family tradition, taking part in a local protest, or not following a directive you found to be immoral or unjust are just a few of the “real life” examples that can make for a gripping storyline.
Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
Contentment is not necessarily a great starting point for a story that will keep readers on the edge of their seats. Traditionally, stories that start out as seemingly Utopian only become interesting when the gilded surface is slowly chipped away and the darker core emerges (i.e. The Giver, The Truman Show, Brave New World, etc.). That being said, if this prompt strikes a chord with you, start prewriting to ensure that your story contains interesting layers and nuances, and is not just a blissful account of how much you enjoy killing zombies in Call of Duty.
Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
Details of your bar mitzvah, facial hair growth, or early romantic experiences should be left on the cutting room floor (if there happens to be a pun anywhere in there, it is unintended). Like the previous prompt about contentment, this isn’t one to force. If a meaningful story of your own metamorphosis from childhood to adulthood jumps out at you then delve right in. Otherwise, pass this one over.
Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
This is the most broad topic and the most direct remnant of the now defunct “your choice” essay. Identity is a wide-sweeping concept. If you have a great story to tell that doesn’t fit the other four prompts, our advice is to mold your tale to fit this category. Here you are essentially being asked to tell the admissions committee the story from your life that most defines you. Take advantage of this expansive umbrella!
We close with a bit of advice from our Simple Truths about the College Essay blog for tips on the writing process: Writing an essay that is compelling doesn’t mean that you need to have wrestled a puma, grown up in a cult, or discovered a new galaxy at age seven. A great college essay can take place on a grand stage but it can just as effectively take place in everyday life. There is a ready supply of drama, tension, and conflict in the course of a typical day. Over the course of your life you have undoubtedly had experiences that constitute worthy topics. Think it over. Talk to family and friends. Your compelling story will emerge.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent education consultant. He is a co-author of the book The Enlightened College Applicant: A New Approach to the Search and Admissions Process (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016).
1. The Chart Paper Brainstorm and Gallery Walk
This is a whole class, collaborative, brainstorming session. To prepare for this discussion, I take all of the desks and push them out into a large circle, leaving a large space in the middle of the classroom. I then take a massive piece of chart paper and lay this inside that large open space. As students enter the classroom, they each pick a Flair Pen or Sharpie. (I know that I am not the only teacher who has a massive selection of each, but a marker would work as well!) Then, I write “arguable topics” in the center of this chart paper. I ask students to use their writing utensil to write down as many ideas as they can. I explain that the goal of this exercise is to fill this large piece of paper with words, connections, lines, pictures, mind-maps, and lists. As an added incentive, I tell my students that the class with the most detailed and comprehensive brainstorming chart will get a reward the following day- this, as you may imagine, has been extremely effective!
Students can chat with their neighbors, add on to another topic idea, discuss with me, and/or draw a picture or visual representation. I ask them to draw large lines to connect similar ideas/issues/topics. I encourage them to mind-map similar ideas or issues. They may write down as many sides to an issue as they can find! They also have free access to their devices so they can research as needed. I often find that students’ passions begin to unfold right on this very paper. Conversations are lively and engaged, and all students feel safety in participating, as they need not share verbally with the class. My artists make visual representations, my concrete thinkers make lists, my abstract thinkers make maps, my social butterflies discuss first and write second, my quiet introverts research and then write independently. Every student is engaged, and all students are creating and building topics!
My role during this brainstorm is to facilitate conversations, either as a whole class, or with small groups as they collaborate. As all good teachers do on occasion, I may guide the topics as needed, or lead students into narrowing a topic further as they continue to brainstorm on the topics.
When this chart paper is full of student-generated ideas, we hang these in the classroom (and hallway) for students. Students can then take a gallery walk of all chart paper brainstorms to find a topic/issue/idea that resonates uniquely with them.
The Exit Ticket: as students leave the class for the day (or then next day, as the gallery walk is most effective when all chart paper brainstorms are hanging), I ask them to fill out an exit ticket with their initial topic ideas based on our discussion and gallery walk. This will allow me the opportunity to see where my students are at within the topic selection process, as well as pair students for the second – most important – prewriting activity!