Common App Essay 2013-14 Prompts For Writers


Common Application Personal Essay (2013-2014)  – New Topics


For the first time in many years, the Common Application has changed its topics and fixed a definite word limit of 650 words to the personal statement.  The short answer question—which at 150 words had become so short as to be almost meaningless—has been eliminated.


These are the Common Application topics and instructions for 2013-2014:


Instructions. The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores? Choose the option that best helps you answer that question and write an essay of no more than 650 words, using the prompt to inspire and structure your response. Remember: 650 words is your limit, not your goal. Use the full range if you need it, but don't feel obligated to do so. (The application won't accept a response shorter than 250 words.)


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.


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


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


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?


5.      Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from

            childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.




It is worth examining the instructions in close detail because there are some important but often-overlooked messages there.


The essay demonstrates your ability to write clearly and concisely on a selected topic and helps you distinguish yourself in your own voice. What do you want the readers of your application to know about you apart from courses, grades, and test scores?


Demonstrates your ability to write … in your own voice – the message here is that colleges want to see what your writing ability is at this stage of your life.  Success in college depends largely on writing ability, so a well-written essay can be an indicator of academic success.  Importantly, too, the application explicitly refers to YOUR ability—not to your tutor’s ability, your cousin’s ability, or a professional writer’s ability.  While colleges know and expect applicants get some help with their essays, and allow for a certain degree of grooming, they don’t want students to submit other people’s work, including utter frauds purchased on the internet from some unscrupulous hack.


Make no mistake: colleges are not dumb, and will smell a rat if an essay is “too good” or way too polished—especially when a student’s SAT Reading and Writing scores are comparatively low.  Don’t forget that colleges can also see the PDF of your handwritten SAT essay, and while it is true that work dashed off in 25 minutes during a stressful exam will be rougher than work polished over a course of months, there should still be a family resemblance between the two.  Though Leonardo da Vinci took months or even years to paint a canvas—and his paintings were therefore more finished than his sketches—he could still sketch like a virtuoso.  His paintings and sketches are plausibly—even obviously—from the same hand.


So please don’t be tempted to get “too much help” on your application essays.  An essay from a teenager should still sound like, more or less, the work of a teenager.  An intelligent teenager, of course, but still a teenager.  At College Essay Doctor, we will work with students one-on-one to teach elements of the art of writing so that a student can be empowered to write his or her own authentic and personal essay.  While we help brainstorm, edit, and review, we will not write an essay to order for any student—and this restraint, in addition to being ethical and wise, is also in the best interests of the student.  All applicants, after all, have to sign a statement avowing that they have been the author of the piece, and a student should not have to go off to college with his or her signature attached to a misrepresentation.  He or she should sign with a feeling of pride and ownership—and then go off to college with both a clear mind and enhanced writing skills.


To write clearly and concisely — the message here is simple: do not submit verbose, vague, and sloppy writing.  This instruction on clarity and succinctness is nothing new: no one likes to read puffy garbage, and unless one is a politician deliberately equivocating and obfuscating for tactical advantage, there is nothing to be gained from writing in any way other than clearly and concisely.  Clear writing gets the images and meaning across vividly; conciseness says more with less—and enables students say something reasonably meaningful in 650 words.


To distinguish yourself — here the Common Application makes explicit reference to one of the clichés—albeit a true cliché—of the entire application process: the need for an applicants “to stand out”—i.e., to distinguish themselves from the rest of the sweaty masses.  Standing out is increasingly important in the 21st century, when a huge number of students of comparable quality are competing for a limited number of admissions slots.  Standing out becomes particularly important for students vying for the last few hundred places in the freshman class.  The all-star shoo-ins are already in, the substandard applicants have been rejected, and what remains are several thousand students possessing more or less the same grades, the same test scores, and the same extracurricular profiles. When 5000 similar students are jockeying for 500 slots, how is a college to decide whom to select?  When all will do, but not all can be admitted, who actually gets in?


The answer lies in part in the memorability of the essay.  The essay is the one opportunity that a student has to make a personal impression on the committee by relating a narrative, a reflection, and a glimpse into the student’s mindstream and personality.  The essay is the equivalent of a video clip of the student amiably showing the viewer around some special places, moments, or memories in the student’s life.  The essay is a stage upon which personality can shine in a way that even a 2400 SAT score cannot.  Scores are just scores, but narratives—when they are well-made—have the breath of life in them.


By memorably touching the mind and heart of the reader, the essay enables the student to be remembered—and remembered in a good way.  If a reader likes an essay, then by extension she likes the applicant; if she likes the applicant, she is bound to protect the applicant’s file and find reasons to keep it alive while weeding out the thousand others as the final decision deadlines approach.

(n.b. The importance of the essay has increased even further since the time colleges began to phase out on-campus interviews and rely on alumni interviews, the weight of which—let’s face it—is considerably less than that of on-campus interviews conducted by actual decision makers.)


In your own voice – In addition to what is already written above about the need to compose the essay substantially by themselves, applicants should not overlook the need to write in a way that an individual voice comes out.  This voice is the personal touch, which is conveyed partially by the language—and in particular in a relaxed and clean vernacular language—but also in the quality of the insights. A student should not try too hard “to tell colleges what they want to hear,” because such a calculated approach invariably backfires by being phony, unconvincing, and manipulative.  Colleges don’t like to be snookered and swindled any more than you do.


For students who are weak writers, authentic “voice” is, unfortunately, an almost unattainable unicorn.  A student who doesn’t write has as nonexistent a voice as someone who doesn’t sing.  To attain an authentic writing voice, students need to consistently practice personal writing from as early an age as possible—ideally in grade school or middle school, but practically speaking, at any time: better late than never.  Even high school juniors can begin to work out the kinks of clumsy writing by keeping a journal for 45 minutes per day 6 days per week minimum.  Writing is a lot like instrumental music or athletics: improvement comes with deliberate and regular practice.  One cannot expect to become good singers without singing, good pitchers without throwing, or good artists without drawing.  An authentic personal style only emerges after a considerable apprenticeship getting together the basic skills.


Some students may be panicking now that they have read the above paragraph. OMG, they may be thinking, I haven’t written a single word in my life except for school—or a few thousand dopey LOL’s and smiley faces on the internet. I am so up the creek, I can’t write.


While it is true that it is always better to be a good writer than a weak writer, there is still hope for the student of limited ability.  Weaker writers will increase their chances of writing something decent if they keep their writing as pure and simple as possible.  It is not easy to write simply, as a matter of fact, but it is easier for a poor writer to accomplish passable simplicity than to accomplish passable complexity.  An unskillful writer who strains for effect will almost certainly fall on his face because he won’t have the chops to pull off the move.  (Novice skiers should not attempt moguls or triple black diamonds—they should stick with the bunny slopes.)  In writing, simplicity is good because it is clear and straightforward—in fact, it is much better than “fancy” writing. Both Ernest Hemingway and George Orwell wrote clearly and reasonably simply—and their prose remains fresh and shiningly readable.


What do you want readers to know about you?  This is the Common Application’s invitation to you to write something personal and comfortably revealing. You do not have to reveal any deep personal secrets or anything shockingly private, but you should not be afraid to take a chance to say something that actually means something to you.  Be frank and sincere.  Be personal, intimate.  Say as much as you are comfortable saying.  Too many essays are so phony, so sterile, so burdened with clichés—and so horribly homogenized by the paranoid pens of parents, tutors, and terrified students—that they have as much personality as industrially-processed cheese.  College admissions officers invariably complain of the shockingly boring and utterly hollow content of most essays and advise students to take a chance and say something that matters.  It is fair to say that if an experience has meant something to you, and you convey the experience clearly, it will also mean something to your reader.  It’s that simple.


And now for some quick comments on the prompts themselves.  I also provided thoughts and caveats about the older Common Application series of prompts—which I will keep posted because some of the CA questions may show up on supplements, still have relevance to the 2013 versions, and contain abundant writing tips.


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.


This prompt is an invitation to a story about personal and family backgrounds, formative experiences, transformative moments, and cultural reflections. Immigrant experiences may fall into this category, as they might also with question five.  This question is similar to the old CA prompt number one about an influential experience and covers virtually all the same territory.


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


This topic can yield some good essays, yes, but students must be warned to avoid all the usual clichés about failure, perseverance, and success that this prompt will almost certainly evoke.  All failure-to-success stories share a similar structural arc and will derive the same lessons about the dangers of overconfidence, complacency, and meekness, and of the virtues of humility, preparation, and confidence.  Dull essays will ploddingly recite how the student learned “the value of hard work,” “the importance of team work,” and will give “heartfelt tributes” to “inspiring” coaches and parents “who were always there” for them. (That last miserable formulation—“they were always there for me”—is the most gruesome and lame cliché of them all.  It is with almost existential despair that officers groan upon seeing it, and it is with almost righteous rage that editors cross it out.) Do not—I repeat, do not—ever intone that someone “was always there for you.”  You will make admissions officers break out in hives.


The key to a successful essay on this topic so imperiled by clichés is in the freshness of the language and details. Remember, a cliché is only a cliché because the language is worn out and stale.  The task of the writer is to convey the story with fresh and original language—or at the very least, with simple and non-clichéd language; if the writer can manage that, the story should succeed if the content is reasonably interesting and insightful.


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


This appears to be primarily a question about courage.  While the prompt leaves open whether the belief or idea challenged was a popular one or not, the key word “challenge” suggests that it was indeed a popular idea that was challenged and that the student took the unpopular and  minority point-of-view—with the attendant risk of disapproval by peers, parents, authorities, and prevailing opinion.  As with question two, this one can open a big old musty box of clichés (e.g., “I listened to my heart and decided to do the right thing,” “I realized wouldn’t be able to live with myself,” and “I finally took a stand—and never looked back”).  But as also with question two, these linguistic perils can be easily avoided by scrupulously avoiding all the usual formulas that come swarming in when one thinks about a common topic.


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?


A place or environment that inspires contentment—this essay needs to evoke that place or environment vividly and convincingly so that the reader can share the contentment that the student feels.  Regarding the word “environment,” students could plausibly stretch this essay to include time spent with friends, family, teammates, bandmates, parishioners, etc.—i.e., meaning that the “environment” need not be a specific place circumscribed by certain physical boundaries, but a non-physical environment determined by the people and their prevailing mood.


5.      Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from

childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.


This question is calling for a rite-of-passage story, a mini-Bildungsroman, an account of a ritual passage of some sort.  It could be as formal as a bat mitzvah or graduation and as informal as a fishing trip with the older men of a family.  It could be the act of stepping up to greater responsibility at the time of a family emergency or anything else that carried you over the threshold from childhood into the more complex and weighty world of adulthood.


In terms of “standing out,” it is fair to say that an account of a quirky family tradition will more readily grab the reader’s attention that would a story about a fairly common social ritual.  The idiosyncratic rite is definitely the way to go if you have such an experience in your family or niche community and culture.  If writing about a fairly common event—such as a bar mitzvah or graduation—a student should focus on overlooked details or interesting (and possibly humorous) moments that bring that memory to very particular life, and not on the more ordinary details that would probably doom the essay to predictable dullness.  Hackneyed descriptions must be avoided—e.g., “I had tears in my eyes and a lump in my throat”; “the more things change, the more they stay the same”; “it seemed like only yesterday that…”; and, of course, the miserably cloying “my mom and my dad were always there for me.”


Good luck with these prompts and do your best to avoid lame language.  Dare to say something interesting and do not try to outwit colleges by calculating “what they want to hear.”  What they want to hear cannot be predicted.  Readers wish to be pleasantly surprised, so by definition, surprise can only be triggered by something unpredictable.  That means you must take a chance.


On the word limits: the 2013 Common Application states a maximum of 650 words and a minimum of 250 words.  Students would almost certainly hurt themselves by submitting only 250 words, because 250 words barely amounts to a substantial paragraph.  650 is also very short—too short, really—but it is at least 25% more than last year’s stated limit of 500 words.  (The truth was, though, that in previous years, despite the stated limit, students could upload essays of any size.) The bottom line for 2013 is that there is a definite cap of 650, so we will just have to deal with it—and indeed, we will survive and prosper, so don’t worry.  Unless a story is indeed better very short, students would do well to go to the maximum—assuming of course that the writing is tight and economical with rich content. 


Everyone and your brother will offer you advice about how to write a great college essay -- me included. Below are five common-sense/no-nonsense/you-can't-go-wrong tips to make sure your essay is the best reflection of who you are. Follow this advice and you may just find yourself with lots of choices when it comes to deciding which college or university you are going to wind up attending.

1) Don't think too long or too hard about which prompt to answer. The list of prompts for the 2013-14 Common Application Essay is fairly comprehensive. But there is a topic for everyone! When applicants come to me to work on their essays they've been looking at those prompts until they're dizzy. I know that at least one of those prompts applies. The hard part for them is choosing which one. But maybe it isn't really all that hard.

I have them start out by process of elimination. There is always one prompt which doesn't "speak to the student" at all. They don't really love it, they have no story to tell to satisfy it, and we can now reduce that list of five by one. Another prompt could work but the student isn't crazy about. So I ask them, "If you did this one, what story would you tell?" The applicant then tells me stories they think would work. Some of those stories are good, but not great. Remember, whatever you write about has to be compelling for 650 words. Usually, the applicant comes to the conclusion that this prompt won't work either. And then there were three! Invariably one or two of the three are so vague no one could find themselves excited about it. And that leaves one. And nine out of 10 times that last prompt standing is the one for them. This is where we start to talk about stories which is where your time should be spent rather than ruminating over topic choices.

2) Think small. Often times applicants who I work with are excited about the stories they bring into our brainstorming sessions. These stories are usually a big trip overseas they took with their family which: "changed my life." Or they donated their time one previous summer to a group of underprivileged kids and that experience: "changed their life." See what I mean? All applicants have big stories about exciting things they did either alone or with their family. And while these are great tales to tell, trust me when I tell you, you're not the only one with a story like this. Put yourself in the shoes of the admissions counselor who sits and read these stories one after another? Sometimes the best stories, the kind with the most power, the ones which are most reflective of you are, are small in nature. Sometimes, small is not just good, but small is great. A vast majority of the time it's not what you write, but how you write it.

3) Think less. Thinking through how you are going to write an essay is good. Thinking too long and too hard that you don't really know how to start your essay is not. Many of the applicants I work with say the same thing over and over again: "I don't know how to start." So when you're sitting in front of your computer staring at a blank screen, just start writing. Don't worry what that first draft will look like because it most certainly will not be perfect. Writing is -- more than a few writers have pointed out -- just re-writing.

4) Don't look at the rewrite process as a chore. I liken it to standing in front of your closet trying on lots of different clothes to see what you look best in. And when you go through your essay and change this or change that, remember to read it all the way through. Look at the essay in its entirety because that is how it will be judged. Yes, it's part of the entire package you are presenting. But that essay should stand alone. Rewriting it should be fun as you see it evolve. If you truly enjoy the process, you will be so much happier with the results.

5) Everyone -- friends, parents, teachers -- is going to want to read your essay. They will be curious how it turned out. And while they want what you want -- a great essay -- letting everyone take a look could be trouble. Differing opinions are commonplace. Think of it like this: You go to see a movie with four friends. Afterwards, when discussing how good it was or how good is was not, is there ever really a consensus? So if you let everyone take a look at your essay you risk the opinions being so diverse you won't know which changes to make. So when it comes time to "put it out there," choose one person you trust -- a friend, a teacher -- and take only one or two opinions to read it and offer guidance. Your parents are going to want to read your essay and that's not a bad thing. But you might be faced with having to defend it to them and therein is the trouble. Opinions are great as long as there aren't too many of them.

Your Common Application essay really is your best shot to show the admissions committee who you are. Own it. Make it yours. And follow your instincts. If you do this, you are pretty much guaranteed a terrific essay.

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