Dear College-Bound High School Seniors (and Other Interested Parties)

Below you’ll find the 2014-2015 Common Application Essay Prompts, followed by some further prompting by me. As you read over the topics, note thatwhile they differ in their wording and content, they’re each prodding you to be introspective and focus attention on your growth—as a scholar, as a friend, as a maker of grilled cheese sandwiches. Have fun.

  1. 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.

    My take: Students often find this topic most alluring.Everyone has a “story” or “background” of some sort, after all, and it’s tempting to jump at what at first glance seems like the “easiest” topic to address. But broadest does not always equate to easiest!

    If you choose this prompt, remember that you’re not being asked for your autobiography; you’re being asked to engage the reader in a specific story that illuminates something larger about your life and the way you see the world. Less successful essays fall into a trap of writing some variation of a long resume.

  2. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

    My take: Failure is a tender subject for us humans! Though we cringe to admit it, most of us fail—at something—daily. Tackling this prompt takes courage to pull off well. I think your best bet is to zoom in on a fairly quotidian failure – forgetting to pick your younger sibling up from soccer practice, trying to teach your cat to use the litter box, investing your bat mitzvah money in a questionable Internet start-up.

    Don’t feel obliged to reach a forced, clichéd “lesson” about what you learned from your failure. Be honest about the way an experience affected you (maybe you initially resented your younger sibling for playing soccer in the first place, or thought about getting rid of the cat and telling your family it had been hit by a car. That’s awful, I know. But be honest!)

  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

    My take: In my experience, not many students choose to address this prompt, but I think it has interesting potential. Have you ever debated with a teacher about an interpretation of a text offered in English class? Have you ever had an internal moment of reckoning, where you caught yourself thinking one thing about the world (“It always rains at the exact instant I have to change buildings between classes. The universe hates me!”) and then stopped yourself in the moment, and realized your limited perspective?

  4. Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

    My take: Get creative with your conceptualization of “place or environment.” Maybe it’s a state of mind. Maybe it’s a moment in the past in which you often catch your mind wandering. Maybe it’s “anywhere but here,” all the time. Elaborate.

  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

    My take: Again, the key here is to stick to something small. Rather than writing about your confirmation, or quinceañeraor debutante ball (hey, it could happen), why not focus on something more micro-level? Perhaps the first time you cooked dinner from scratch. Maybe the first time you set your own alarm clock, or the time you were stuck in an elevator with a young kid who needed to pee.

Whichever prompt with which you choose to engage, whatever story you choose to share, heed this tried and true advice: Lead with the heart. Your heart. You’ll likely encounter lots of well-intentioned opinions from family members, friends, teachers, and your own Internet prowls, but ultimately the essay is meant to be an authentic distillation of who you are and strive to become, not who you think—or who others think—an admissions counselor wants you to be.

Sincerely yours (and waiting with eager-to-read eyes at the ready),

Margrét Ann Thors