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Intimidated by the 2014-2015 Common App Essay Prompts?  Don't be.

By Ben Feuer

So the common app has been out for some time now, but we continue to get questions on how to attack these prompts.  We posted the prompts themselves awhile back -- check here if you don't remember -- but now we have taken the time to go over these questions and offer some guidance on how to answer them.  Hopefully it'll be helpful!
And 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.   

To some extent, this is a so-called diversity prompt -- it is asking you to explain how your background, your life experiences, made you the person you are today -- one life experience in particular.  You could answer this question very effectively, and very legitimately, by simply focusing on that.  But the prompt is crystal clear that it is not ONLY referring to your background -- any kind of story that really defined who you are would do.  A story about your mother or father, or your best friend, or your worst enemy.  The hardest thing you ever tried to do.  The most amazing place you ever visited.  Whatever it was that really defined you.
Whatever you choose to talk about, write about it in a fast moving, narrative style.  Talk not so much about what happened as how you felt about what happened, and what you think about it now.  And leave enough space to give examples of how you have changed as a result of this -- prove that it really was an influential moment in your life.

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

To write persuasively about learning from a failure is a deceptively simple AND difficult thing to do.  Why is it difficult?  Because the first step, the step that most people are unwilling to take, is ADMITTING YOU FAILED and explaining the nature of your failure.  After that, you must highlight the COST of your failure; who you hurt (you don't count).
Then, once all of that is done, you can talk about how you did better the next time you were faced with a similar problem.  But if you don't explain the failure first, it won't be of much use.  Remember, the more honest and direct you are when writing this kind of essay, the better off you will be.

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

Challenging a deeply held belief, yours or someone else's, shows character and leadership, and that is what you should focus on when you write about this topic.  Start by identifying what the idea was, then explain YOUR OWN thought process in understanding that the idea, whatever it was, was flawed.  After that comes the real meat of this kind of essay -- explaining how you went about challenging the idea.

Don't choose a topic where there was little or no conflict.  Avoid easy answers to easy questions.  I proved to my friend that racism is wrong.  Well, good for you, but everybody knows that.  Dig deeper.  Find a really challenging question and a really powerful answer -- or else choose another prompt.

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?

This prompt is a bit of a trap.  By inviting you to talk about a place, and a pleasant place, at that, it opens you up to waste 500 words rhapsodizing about how pretty Walden Pond is in the summer.  Don't fall into that trap.  This essay, like every essay, is a chance for admissions officers to get to know YOU, and that won't happen if you spend all your time talking about some place they can see just fine from Google Earth.

Focus instead on the experiences.  Use them as a springboard to discuss your own growth, evolution, and maturation.  The place is just a place -- its meaning for you could be tied up in a loved one, or a key moment in your life where everything changed in some important way.  Ask yourself this simple question -- why am I choosing to write about this instead of anything else?  What does it say about me?

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

There is a term, bildungsroman, which came to be translated into English as "coming of age".  Three quarters of the books you were forced to read in middle school are coming of age stories, in one way or another.  To Kill a Mockingbird.  Lord of the Flies.  A Separate Peace.  Catcher in the Rye.  When you think about this prompt, think about those books.  How did their protagonists change, grow and evolve?  When was the moment that it happened?

You have had moments like this in your life.  All of us have.  The moment when you first understood that the world is not fair.  The moment when you first fell in love (or out of it).  The moment you realized your parents were only human.  The pride you felt when you earned your first paycheck.  Take one such moment and write an essay about it.  Knock my socks off.

Hopefully this was helpful.  If you have more questions, email us!

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