Originality is lost with the Common App

August 31, 2014 — by Jade Bisht and Arman Vaziri

Common App essay prompts are far from perfect. Prompts such as “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea” and “Recount an incident when you experienced failure” are too broad. 

After years of writing analysis-heavy essays in their English classes that allow little room for personal expression, many seniors hope to write an essay that lets them show off their creative  side. Finally, they can write an essay that isn’t about analyzing a character’s struggle against all odds and the morals gleaned from it.

Or not.

With college aps, students are suddenly the protagonists of their own stories. 

But Common App essay prompts are far from perfect. Prompts such as “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea” and “Recount an incident when you experienced failure” are too broad. Instead of allowing students to be creative, the Common App essays end up being stories of students finding a moral at the end of overcoming difficult life situations.

Seniors struggle more with finding a topic because the Common App doesn’t challenge applicants or provide specific requirements within the prompts. In fact, the five prompts are so broad that students can essentially take any event from their life, write a story about it and draw it back to a some sort life-changing lesson learned at the end. Without specificity in the prompt, anyone can whip up some “life meaning” from a participation award received as an 8-year-old or the devastating death of the family hamster.

This is not to say that personal anecdotes are worthless; some of the best essays originate from stories of personal growth. But essay writing proves is more enjoyable when the prompt is challenging. Simple, broad prompts offer no creativity and too much generalization. Topic originality is what the Common App lacks.

Individual school prompts are miles ahead when it comes to originality. For instance, the University of Chicago acknowledges the importance of giving students prompts that they will enjoy and be creative with. Moreover, Chicago’s prompts were made by students for students — Chicago students are given the chance to come up with prompts for future applicants and a few solid ones are then posted for the final cut.

Questions range from “Why are we here, and what is here?” to “Create a group of three and describe how they correlate.” Saratoga alumnus and Chicago class of 2016 student Joshua Harris inspired one of the five prompts for this year’s applicants, posing the question: “Were pH an expression of personality, what would be your pH and why?”

These options offer a lot more room for personal interpretation and provide more insight into each individual. With more specific prompts for applicants, admissions officers can learn better about a student’s perception of the world than they can with a generic essay response about a generic life-changing experience.

The essay prompts given by individual universities are like a breath of fresh air (or desk air, because who has enough time in senior year to smell the roses?) compared to the cliched and vague Common App prompts. A prompt that asks for a specific answer, rather than a prompt that asks for students’ life stories, can seem refreshing — or even fun — to write. 

The Common App should learn from the essay prompts from individual colleges in order to allow students to be creative and actually write about a meaningful experience in their lives, not just about the family hamster's demise.

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