The Newest Change for the Common Application


Earlier this week the Common Application organization released its new college essay prompts.

For months plenty of people (myself included) worried that the advisory board of 15 counselors in charge of revising the prompts were going to recommend killing off Option 6, which encourages applicants to write creatively.

Sure enough, Option 6 that allows applicants to write on the topic of their choice is unfortunately dead even though it has been the most popular essay prompt.

Here are the five new essay options for students who apply to the hundreds of colleges that use the Common Application:

common app

In December I wrote a long post about the prospects of ditching Option 6 and if you want to read my arguments against the ill-conceived move, here is my post:

Uh Oh! Messing With the Common Application Essay

Some people have suggested that the new No. 1 option is almost as good as Option 6, but I disagree. Students still must write about something “central to their identity.”  I think the new prompts are likely to encourage canned responses. I’d love to know what you think.

An  Explanation for the College Essay Change

crumpled paper 1So why the essay changes? I haven’t seen any clear-cut reasons for the changes. I speculate in my previous blog post if you’re interested.

Coincidentally, Chris White, my son Ben’s high school counselor, is on the Common Application’s board of directors and he was also one of the counselors on the essay committee. I emailed Chris, an excellent counselor who is more plugged in with colleges than any other counselor I know, to get an explanation. Here is what Chris wrote in an email to me yesterday:

Topic of your choice is helpful within the context of the current prompts because the remaining five may not be broad enough to allow students to tell the stories they are compelled to share.

At the same time, the open-ended nature of “topic of your choice” can be an obstacle for students since it forces them to write in the absence of a framework.  Therefore, the goal of the new prompts is to maximize the best of each approach: the flexibility that comes with broad questions and the focus that comes with specific prompts. 

The Outreach Advisory counselors and board–which currently includes 3 CBO counselors, 4 urban charter school counselors, and 2 rural public school counselor– feels that this goal has been reached.  The Outreach Advisory counselors have taken great care to ensure that all students will have significant flexibility in what and how they choose to write, regardless of background and interest. 

Recent articles from members of the school counseling community such as this one has reaffirmed that we’ve reached this goal.

In the Future

Here is my hope going forward:

Rather than censoring what students can write about in their college essays, I wish the folks at the Common Application would explore ways to educate teenagers across the country about how to write a proper college application essay. Now that would be extremely helpful.




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    1. Hi Michelle,

      I guess I have a different perspective on this.

      I think it would be a mistake to require students to pour their hearts out in their essay or to share profound thoughts. Many of them haven’t had any yet so they are just going to fake it!

      I find that the students who have had a hard time in childhood don’t want to share this information. I helped a poor teenager last year, for example, who lived in a neighborhood in St. Louis where he heard gunshots every day. He was scared every time he had to leave his house in the dark to walk to the bus stop each morning to go to school. He didn’t want to share any of this in an essay and had to be coaxed to write about what his life was like. His first stab at an essay made it seem like he was living the good life in the suburbs.

      I think colleges can learn something about a child just by letting them write about whatever interests them.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  1. Lynn, you raise a great point about these new essay prompts potentially leading to canned responses, without the truly open-ended “Topic of Your Choice” option to facilitate creativity.

    I do feel that these new prompts are an improvement over the previous prompts, because they facilitate storytelling that directly reveals a students character. Some of the previous prompts, such as talking about a historical or fictional character one admires and then somehow connecting that character’s qualities to one’s own in a roundabout, convoluted way, did not promote direct self-revelation. No wonder the “Topic of Your Choice” was the most popular prompt; it was certainly an easier way to directly communicate the qualities an applicant wanted to present than some of the other prompts.

    I think these new prompts are, by and large, better platforms for direct communication. But yes, canned responses are a cautionary possibility, which admissions readers will quickly recognize. The applicants will need to write essays in response to these prompts with fresh, creative approaches that reflect their unique experiences, personalities, and take on life.

  2. My son’s essay wouldn’t have fit into any of the new questions. It did a great job of telling about his participation in a baseball while showing that he was aware of current events and could socialize, especially important as a homeschooler. Basically, since he’s a baseball catcher, he wrote his essay on how people who talk about supreme court justices just calling balls and strikes and not making the rules have never watched or played baseball and used his experiences to prove his point. He had admission counselors emailing him about his essay.

    Why couldn’t they create more structured questions while leaving the open ended one available? No one was forcing students to do the topic of their choice.

    1. Michelle — I couldn’t agree with you more. One thing that I didn’t mention already is that I think this change could hurt boys more than girls. The boys I know have had a harder time sharing the sorts of feelings that the Common App is now requiring. It’s a darn shame.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  3. In an attempt to provide “framework” the Common App folks have built a solid box, in my opinion. These prompts leave me lukewarm at best as they seem to evoke expected responses. The true creativity will come from trying to fit the student’s essay into one of these boxes.

    1. i agree Paula. As I mentioned in the post, this will lead to more canned answers and far less creativity.

      Lynn O’Shaughnessy

  4. Lynn, good suggestion. What if the Common App organization put out curriculum on how to write application essays for high schools to use? The schools could hold special workshops during the school day or off hours. I realize that wouldn’t be adopted by all school districts all over the country, but it would be a start.

  5. I love your blog and I always I enjoy reading your perspective Lynn.

    I’ve blogged about this too and I’m in the camp that prompt one can function essentially as topic of choice. As I think through the “topic of choice” essays I’ve received from my students and I can see how they’d fit with the first prompt. Yes, it is asking students to be able to relate their story to something that is “central to their identity.” That seems reasonable to me because good essays reveal something really important about you. Even if the essay topic on the surface looks like something ordinary or every day it really should explore some central part of your identity or it probably wasn’t a story worth telling in an admissions essay.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what students make of these new essay prompts!