By Ben Feuer, photo by Steven Lilley

The 2017-2018 common application questions have been released into the wild. This year they’re pretty consistent with other recent years, but there are a few new twists, so read carefully.

First, a few ground rules.  Your word count should be between 250 and 650 words for each question.  Don't feel obligated to use every word -- but don't go over, either.  Double and triple-check your spelling and grammar -- don't get dinged on a technicality!  Read all of the topics and consider each of them before choosing which one you will answer.  Don't choose based on what story about yourself you feel like telling, or what you think the committee 'ought to know' about you -- instead, select a story where you grew, changed or evolved as a person.

THE QUESTIONS

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.

Read this prompt carefully.  This is a standard 'diversity' prompt -- which means it asks students to share some distinctive element of their background or upbringing -- BUT the wording is very strong.  Only choose this prompt if your background is so integral to your life that you really can't imagine writing about anything else.

Note that this prompt also invites you to tell a story that is central to your identity -- that could be (for instance) a narrative about personal growth, or about an unexpected friendship or chance encounter -- again, so long as it is central to who you now are as a person, it's fair game.

2.  The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

The common App has softened this prompt, perhaps after a bunch of complaints of being triggered by even thinking about past failures … 😊  So now, you can write about a challenge, setback or failure. But guess what – you should still write about a failure. If you don’t feel up to it, or don’t think you have a strong failure to discuss, then call us. But seriously, if you don’t have a strong failure, you should pick another prompt, you certainly have plenty to choose between.

OTOH, if you're applying to a reach school, or if you're concerned about other areas of your application, this prompt is your chance to stand out from the crowd and make an impression.  Nothing grabs admissions officers' attention as quickly as a well-thought-out failure essay, particularly because most students run screaming from this kind of prompt.

So what makes a great failure essay?  We cover this at length in our MBA admissions book, but the fundamentals are this -- you need a singular, powerful failure narrative where you failed not just yourself, but others you cared about.  The failure must be absolute -- no saving the day at the last minute.  It must point to some underlying aspect of your character which you then identify (stubbornness, overcaution, arrogance).  You finish up the failure essay by telling a brief (50-100 word) anecdote about how you have changed as a result of this failure -- use concrete examples here! 

3.  Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome

The flipside of the failure essay, the challenge (or as we call it, the leadership) essay is one of the most commonly seen essays on the common application.  This, too, has been weasel-worded down to a softer “questioned or challenged”, but your story about that time you asked the teacher if you really had to sit at the front of the class all year is NOT good essay material, trust us.

If you have accomplished something that was exceptionally challenging for you and really shaped who you are as a person, this is your prompt.  If you are just looking to brag about your killer grade in that AP History class or your five goals in the championship bocce match, this is NOT your prompt.  Move along.

When thinking about challenges, students always want to focus on the external -- what happened and why it's impressive.  This is the wrong approach. The question-writers are giving you a very big clue when they ask you to describe what prompted your thinking – they want to understand how your mind works. The important story to tell is how you GOT to the impressive result -- and what you thought about, did and said that led to that result.

Finally, remember that these types of stories work best and are most impressive when you're motivating other kids (or adults!) to excel -- contrary to what your lovin' mother told you, it ain't all about you.

4.  Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma-anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

This prompt is a somewhat unusual spin on a common theme of transformation and growth.  There is an obvious STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) spin to this question -- after all, a laboratory experiment or a planned course of study fits into this prompt very neatly.  But resist the urge to get completely technical and step outside your own experience!  Remember that whatever prompt you choose for your essay, the central figure in the story is you -- your challenges, your growth, your maturity.

This prompt also might be a good choice for students who have been fortunate enough to have interesting experiences in unusual places and contexts.  Worked on a social issue overseas?  Spent eight months living with the Amish?  Shadowed a researcher at CERN?  This could be your prompt.

5.  Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

Rites of passage can be fascinating topics for essays -- if they're handled well.  No one wants to hear about how grandpa cried at your confirmation -- snoozefest!  Becoming an adult is about accepting the responsibilities, limitations and joys of being human, and so should your essay.

The focus on a particular event is important.  It's very easy when writing an essay to drift from one subject to another, but great essays have a singular focus -- they're about one thing and one thing only.  In this case, the event or accomplishment in question and why it became a period of maturation.

It’s also worth noting the emphasis on understanding others. Surprising or difficult events often deepen our ability to empathize with others’ struggles – if you have a story that involves learning to see the world in a new way, this could well be your prompt.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]

This is a brand new prompt, for those of you who are just 100 percent not comfortable talking about yourselves in any way, shape or form. Now, before you breathe a sigh of relief and rush off to write yet another paean to microbiomes or Martin Luther King, let us insert a caveat. This is usually the wrong kind of prompt to choose. For most people, most of the time, you’re going to get an essay that’s dry, technical, and reveals nothing about the candidate – in other words, a waste of word count.

In order to write a good essay about an idea or concept, you have to loop in … feelings!  Yours and others.  Talk about the people who share your passion, or the ones who inspired it. Talk about the key moments in the development of your favorite obsession – how did it all begin, where do you see it going?  Relate it back to larger themes in your life. How has this experience helped you to grow and mature?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]

This is what we call an open-ended prompt. You can do whatever you want with it, which most folks find utterly terrifying. Not to worry – this should really be a last resort prompt if you have a fantastic essay already written that just doesn’t seem to fit any of the other prompts.

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So there you have it!  Not so scary after all, huh?  Still, you probably have a lot of questions as yet unanswered.  Or maybe you have a draft all written up and you want some seasoned eyes to take a look?  If so, drop us a line -- we'd be happy to help!


By Ben Feuer, photo by Franck Mahon


If you never read past this point, you have already learned something vitally important.

What is it?

The first and last commodity, no matter whether you are writing an essay, a personal statement, a short article or the Great American Novel, is attention. If you don’t have a reader’s attention, you have nothing.

So why is it that so many people preparing to apply to college or graduate school seem to forget this basic fact, relying on bad ideas, safe, vague statements, or (worse still) quotes to begin their essays?

We get it. Writing is hard. Starting writing is even harder. So we wrote this article to help out!  Of course, there are the usual bits of advice that are helpful in any section of an essay: don’t fall back on clichés, write actively and with good grammar, make your points quickly and sharply. But the first sentence presents a unique set of challenges, and those challenges demand a specialized set of solutions. Here goes!

Hit hard. After reading a half-dozen essays or more in a row, it’s easy for a reader to fall into an unconscious rhythm. OK, here comes the part where he talks about his parents. And here’s the part where he talks about his work experience. Cookie cutter. Your opening sentence should break down those expectations. Let admissions know that you have something to say, and you’re dying to say it – get right to your toughest, most important point, right off the bat.

Don’t start at the beginning. This isn’t a fairy tale – once upon a time just won’t cut the mustard. You don’t have the word count to ramp up to what you’re planning to say, you don’t have the time to take it slow. Jump into the middle of the story. Start with the good part – the climax, the big realization, the surprising idea – and then work backwards from there. Or circle around. Or just turn the whole thing on its head. The unexpected is your friend.

Don’t start with something abstract. This is an essay about you – not your ideas, not someone you know, not ‘the world’ – you’re writing about yourself. So show the committee right away that you’re prepared to do just that. Make a bold statement that shows you know yourself, and you’re prepared to share.

Feel like we missed something vitally important?  Desperate to learn even more about the keys to good essays?  We’re happy to talk about it. Just make sure you come up with a snappy opening line for our first conversation. 


By Ben Feuer. Photo by Morgan Sherwood

Every year, a few students get into schools (and newspapers) by writing totally unconventional essays. Essays that break the mold, that reinvent the basics, and that often completely ignore the question asked and the school’s requirements. But, hey, essays are an art form, and art is all about breaking the rules – right?

Sure. But there’s a smart way and a dumb way to take risks. And if you’re planning to be this year’s Ziad Ahmed and write that crazy, bare-your-soul tone poem in place of an essay, check out this advice first.

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SOME GROUND RULES

Don’t write a risky essay for a match or safety school – you’re better off simply taking your chances with a strong, compelling conventional essay and seeing how it goes.  You only write a risky, hail-mary essay for a reach school. 

You should always seek the approval and agreement of coaches, counselors and family members before embarking on a strategy.  Note that I didn’t say they have to approve of all your choices or your final draft – if you’re choosing to take a risk, do so by your own rules – but you should at least make sure you’re not missing something important or obvious before making a bold move. 

Make sure the ‘risky’ essay you’re writing is actually risky. A lot of the time, people think they’re being daring and original when they’re really just being derivative or obnoxious. Again, use your lifelines on the risky essay – not so people can tell you what to write, but so that you can gauge their honest reactions to what you have written.  And don’t copycat what got a lot of press last year. That’s the complete opposite of risky.

Don’t make your first-ever essay a risky essay. If you’re new to the essay writing game, start with some of the easier ones, and work your way up to the crazy ones.  That way, you’ll be sure of who you are as a candidate and what you have to offer before going off the deep end.

HOW DO I WRITE A RISKY ESSAY?

The whole point of risky essays is that they are cheeky, original and daring. So you should already have a pretty good idea of what you want to write about. If you don’t have a strong concept, why are you even considering a risky essay in the first place?

Now that you have your concept, make sure it aligns with all the other aspects of your candidacy. Consider Ziad Ahmed again (linked above) – he considered himself first and foremost a provocateur and activist, so his provocative, activism-themed ‘essay’ fit his candidacy to a T.  The purpose of an essay is to reveal who you are, to give the committee a strong sense of who they’re considering admitting. If you’re going to break the rules, you have to be giving them twice as strong of a sense.

Write your first draft quickly. Don’t slow down or give yourself too much time to second guess. Remember that a draft is just that, a draft. If it doesn’t work, chuck it and do something new instead. But trust your instincts. They’re what drove you to make this decision in the first place, so stick with them, and they’ll stick with you.

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Writing an essay, any essay, is hard, but writing a risky essay is four times harder. Like the best modern art, it may look simple, but the simple exterior conceals a lot of truth and authenticity (and hard thinking) beneath the surface. The risky essay is not for everyone – remember, for every one student who gets in this way, 1000 are getting in the old-fashioned way, by doing the work and answering the question asked. But if you’re a risk-taker, you’re not about playing the odds anyway, are you?


By Ben Feuer, photo by Caleb Roenigk

Here we are again – at the high tide of anxiety for students on the verge of a law school application. A plunge into the unknown, safety-net-less; nothing but their wits and a dog-eared copy of the U.S. News Rankings to guide them.  But this year, one additional choice will await at least some of these future legal eagles; the choice between the LSAT and the GRE.

One thing you learn pretty fast while working (as I do) as an educational consultant is that one of your most important jobs is to dispel fear, ignorance and anxiety surrounding that bugbear that is America’s school application process. And boy, has there been a lot of FUD coming off the latest decision from HLS; allowing either test on their application.

For instance, a certain famous newspaper with a pretty strong anti-law-school bent is now dropping opinion-hints that maybe, just maybe, expanding access is a Bad Thing™.  Their argument (advanced by a late-night TV writer, speaking of absurdly pie-in-the-sky career choices) seems to be that expanding the pool of applicants will simply create more lousy, unmotivated lawyers.  Well, first of all, no, it won’t – the number of seats at any given law school won’t change. It’s possible the move might save a few lousy law schools from the scrap heap, but, if you haven’t figured out by now that any legal education outside the top 100 is a complete crap shoot, caveat emptor. Law school is a big purchase, and you should do your homework before slapping down the cash. This website’s a good place to start.

But more to the point, adding the GRE will actually give prospective students more options, not less. They’ll be able to choose not just between law schools, but between law schools and other degrees, applying to two or three types of program in one application cycle.  Then, once they know where they’ve been accepted, they can make a smart, well-thought-out choice between 2 or 3 very specific options. In the current model, it’s law school or bust, and that’s scaring away people I know who could be great lawyers, but aren’t able to devote a year of specialized education simply to the prospect of being one.

It allows schools to be more selective, weeding out low LSAT types with a low probability of success at law school and instead admitting high-GRE students with great natural ability and intellect.

It also saves students money – the great thing about the GRE is that it’s pretty comparable to the SAT in terms of subject matter and style, so you don’t have to re-learn how to test take all over again. And the fact is, logic games notwithstanding, there really isn’t anything about law school that requires highly specialized or technical knowledge before applying – after all, in many countries, law is an undergraduate degree. It’s a generalist degree. Many JDs don’t actually go on to practice law. And that’s OK too.

It limits the absurdly over-inflated power of standardized tests, which is a good thing no matter how you slice it. The fact that some schools have started to use these numbers as a crutch or a shorthand to save themselves the trouble of holistically evaluating every candidate is unfair and wasteful. Knowing how to game a test – any test, logic games and time restrictions or no – can only be one small slice of judging a student’s readiness to practice law.

As for the bogeyman fear that you might put a lot of effort into something only to find you don’t like it – that’s life! You try things and you learn. Liking the LSAT is not the same as liking Law School. Liking Law School is not the same as liking a law firm. Liking a law firm is not the same thing as liking the law. You have to find what you like. That’s the whole point of our big, unwieldy, messed up educational system.

There are no easy choices in admissions, for schools or students. But there are fair ones. Schools owe it to themselves to expand and not limit access, to make applying easier and better understood, not harder and more exclusive. And that has nothing to do with what kind of student ought to apply, and everything to do with the kind of student we ought to want.