Common App looking for too uncommon of a student

September 11, 2017 — by Alex Yang

High school students can't all be expected to have won Nobel Prizes or saved villages from starving.

A 650-word essay doesn’t really seem like such a difficult task. But considering the result will be used as a key part of the college application process, the Common App essay is a much harder hill to climb than it may initially seem.

The problem? Common App prompts aren’t tailored for most high school students. They seem geared toward those who have made scientific breakthroughs or helped save villages from starving in the Bolivian countryside.

The main problem is the intimidating, vague and often contradictory wording of several Common App prompts. Here are some recent examples:

  • 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.

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

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

As you can see, the Common App prompts seem to think that all students have had some sort of massively profound and unique experience that has completely changed their lives. Unfortunately, not all of us have been lucky enough to been transformed overnight, especially at the ripe ages of 17 or 18.

As high school students, how would we have already experienced something that “sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others,” when most of us are struggling with other “basic” aspects of our applications like the SAT or maintaining high grades?

Even in the prompts that are considered more straightforward, the Common App rarely fails to overwhelm students.

One prompt initially asks for a story about a challenge the student has faced in the past, which seems simple enough. However, it then proceeds to give several examples, like “an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma — anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale.”

These three example categories they list seem to already have one harrowing similarity: They imply that the topic should show how unrealistically mature the student can be. A student could easily be discouraged from writing about a less extensive, but equally valid, challenge such as learning to drive or taking chores at home.

It becomes difficult to justify writing about more personal, yet less academically relevant, experiences. Experiences involving family and friends often times can be life-changing, yet they aren’t intellectual challenges, research queries or ethical dilemmas.

This is a real issue — the prompts themselves are worded in a way that may dissuade an applicant from writing about what they originally thought of. The point isn’t to display the student’s ability to stretch the truth — a student’s personal statement should serve as a vessel to show off individually significant experiences, traits and qualities, whether they’re related to academics or not.

While it’s totally understandable that the Common App prompts are trying to draw out deeper answers from applicants, it’s almost as if by trying to simplify the prompts, they’ve managed to complicate the brainstorming process even further.

Giving vague, unrelatable and seemingly generic examples for essay topics inside the prompts while also asking for a piece of writing that has unique importance to each writer simply isn’t helping anybody.

Admittedly, the Common App has started acting on this issue. Starting this year, the organization has begun offering a “choose your own prompt” style of essay. Although possibly challenging for students who work well with explicit guidelines, the new prompt gives ample breathing room to those of us who wish to write unrestrained by an intimidating prompt.

Still, to fix the issue as a whole, Common App will have to make even more changes. Things like rewording the existing prompts to seem less threatening and mixing in more free style prompts would go very far in the right direction. There needs to be a balance established between heat-seeking prompts and the ones that allow more autonomy.


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