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Editing Common App Essay

Here it is, folks – the moment we’ve all been waiting for. The announcement of Jon Stewart’s replacement on The Daily Show! The appearance of Jay-Z’s new celebrity-hyped streaming music player! The release of brand new dancing FLOTUS and singing Rock videos!


Clearly we here at CEA have actually spent the last few days hovering over our computers with the rest of the admissions nerds of the world, gobbling up meditations on Frank Bruni’s incisive and insightful new book (and perhaps watching an occasional cat video) in anticipation of the release of the 2015-2016 Common Application essay questions. The prompts were finally confirmed this past Tuesday, March 30 and college counselors and admissions experts let out a collective sigh of relief. Let us be the first to tell you, 2015-2016 college applicants: these questions are your friends.

The Common Application essay is an assignment that has traditionally struck fear in the hearts of many a teenager; but since the Common App’s major overhaul in 2013, the updated questions have garnered overall positive reviews from applicants and admissions folks alike and thus, remained fairly consistent. This year the Common App decided to make some tweaks to the essay and essay submission process and most of the changes the Common App will be implementing are for the better, including some glorious (and long overdue) improvements to the online interface. Students will now be able to preview each individual page of their application, instead of wondering whether one wrong push of a preview button at the end of the process will preemptively send an application out to a hundred virtual inboxes. A recent announcement from the Common App also suggested that supplemental essay requirements from individual schools will be reflected in multiple areas of the application, offering solace to those of us who engaged in the Easter egg hunt required to find schools’ supplemental essays and short answers in previous years. The platform will allow unlimited editing on all essays at any time, a change from the three-edit maximum imposed on the personal statement last year.

In addition to these technical upgrades, the Common App has also changed their basic requirement rules, now allowing schools to decide whether or not they want to assign their applicants the App’s main essay. Students shouldn’t do a celebratory fist pump just yet – a request for the Common App essay from even one school will demand that applicants put their all into every one of those 650 words. Additionally, students can choose to submit this essay even if a school doesn’t require it (which is probably a good idea). That said, it is nice to see the Common Application adjusting to accommodate the needs and desires of a wide range of academic institutions. After all, the original purpose of the Common App was to make the admissions process easier and more streamlined for students and colleges – not to shackle them to a new set of immovable standards.

Changes were also made to three out of five of the prompts, including some simple clarifying edits and one complete replacement. As the Common App notes on their website, revisions appear in italics:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

While the preponderance of italics makes it seem as though this question has changed dramatically from last year’s, the meat of this prompt remains much the same. In its previous incarnation the question asked students for a “background story,” which has been changed to reflect the difference between “background” and “identity” and include “interest” and “talent” as areas for exploration. Applicants have been treating this prompt as the “Topic of Your Choice” (or what I call the “Choose Your Own Adventure” prompt) since it was issued, and the most recent changes makes it even easier to do so. No matter what story or quality a student wants to write about, it will likely be easily molded to fit this prompt.

2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success.Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

For the past two years in my Common Application Essay Prompts: A Guide, I have stressed that a question about failure is, in fact, a question about success. This year’s amended prompt makes this point irrefutably clear. Students’ approach to this question should not change much from the strategy of applicants past and responses should aim to showcase resilience and a refusal to submit to life’s greatest challenges.

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 feelings about this prompt have always been lukewarm and I was a little sad to find it had not changed since last year’s application. In my experience, students have a tendency to address this like an issue paper or debate response and the ultimate goal of opening a window into their larger thought processes is easily lost. Many students also gravitate towards controversial topics that have the potential to challenge an admissions officer’s personal beliefs and values, which is not always a bad thing; but it is certainly a risk. Unless a student feels passionately about addressing this prompt, I often steer him/her away from it.

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.

I’ll admit it. I am sad about the disappearance of the “Describe a place or environment in which you are perfectly content.” prompt (RIP). This was one of the only prompts from the 2013 revised Common App that easily facilitated unhindered exploration of a student’s life and passions in both subject and form. The question that has replaced it is similar in nature to prompt number two. While asking applicants to map out a problem, the prompt is really meant to tease out a student’s problem solving skills and provide a glimpse into an applicant’s frame of mind while dealing with challenges. In giving applicants the option to discuss a potential future issue, the question also opens the door for more imaginative approaches to the personal essay.

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

This the second prompt that will appear on the 2015-2016 app unchanged. In the past students have been naturally inspired by this question and I have always felt it was a strong addition to the mix. When you’re seventeen, what is life but a series of transitions from childhood to adulthood? While students often have the impulse to write about large-scale life events, they shouldn’t discount the power of informal moments given life through good storytelling. Small moments that are representative of larger personality traits often make for the best essay fodder.

Regardless of the Common App essay changes and the new challenges/advantages they may present, the release of this information in early April is good news for students. There is nothing more valuable in the essay writing process than a head start. While we don’t suggest students begin the actual writing process this early in the game, it often takes a time (and maybe another cat video or two) to unearth those magic ideas. Now students can begin to ponder (sans the inevitable, if unhealthy, pressure), which of their glittering, intangible elements they might want to reveal to admissions one carefully crafted word at a time.

Contact us to riff on the new prompts with one of our experts.

Check out Tips for Brainstorming Essay Topics.

About Stacey Brook

Stacey Brook is an accomplished writer and admissions expert who has spent the last decade helping students conceptualize, edit and refine their college essays.

View all posts by Stacey Brook » | Website

Editing Your Essay

Article Type: Checklist

You’ve put the finishing touches on your essay, and it feels oh-so-good. Now you want nothing more than to close your laptop, throw on a pair of flip-flops and head to the beach (or, if you live in the Midwest, throw on a pair of galoshes and head to the movie theater). Deep sigh… your work is done here.


Despite all the time and effort you’ve put into the thing, it’s only half done. There’s too much riding on this baby to stop now. It’s revision time. Ooh yeah.

You doth protest too much, we thinks. Yeah, it’s tempting to just hit that button that will send your essay hurtling into cyberspace as is, but turning in a sloppy essay communicates a clear lack of interest. Admissions officers will think that if you don’t put in the time to refine your essay, you don’t really care about going to their school. And… they’re kinda right.

Keep in mind how badly you want this. Don’t just talk a big game – if you really want to put your best brain forward, give it everything you have to give. Tackle the challenge like it’s fourth and goal with one second left on the clock. Or, if you’re not into sports analogies, like it just stole your wallet.

However… you are allowed to take a break after completing your first draft. Let it sit for a while. Step away from your desk. Shut down your computer. Go do something fun. Okay, so maybe you do have time to take in that movie/beach volleyball tournament.

Sleep on it. Wait a few days, even. Then, come back and hit those revisions like they talked smack about your mother.

Get Some Help

Seek the advice of a trusted friend, mentor, or teacher. Or, if you don’t have one of those, maybe talk to a pet fish who’s a really good listener.

Outside help is often the way to go. However, you have to remember to keep your own voice and stick to your ideas—it’s your essay, not theirs. So get feedback, but don’t channel anyone else in your essay. If you’re suddenly rattling off British colloquialisms and you’re not a teeny bit British… they’ll know something is afoot.

You can also turn to Shmoop for Essay help.

Read It Out Loud

Aw… it’s like you get to read a bedtime story to yourself! Go ahead… get all snuggly under the covers… maybe even bring a flashlight and make a fort. Whatever makes it fun for you.

If you find yourself cringing when you read your essay aloud because the tone is forced (did you use too many $5 words?) or the essay feels choppy, that’s a good thing—it means you’re catching your goof-ups now, rather than later. Or rather than… never.

If your essay sounds awkward when reading it aloud to yourself, that’s exactly how it’s going to sound to the reader. And they’re not as forgiving of your mistakes as you are. You’ll let yourself get away with practically anything.

On the other hand, once your final product flows as smoothly as Michael Jackson’s dance moves, even when put to the ultimate test of being read out loud, you can rest assured that your reader will give you brownie points for style and tone. If it’s spectacular enough, they may even give you actual brownies. You should probably let them know if you have a gluten allergy.

Five Steps To Beautifying Your Essay

1.     Craft an exquisite first sentence. Ms. Mary Admissions is on her 453rd application essay and fourth cup of coffee of the day. Her eyes are blurring. You need to leap off the page, across time and space, and grab her attention. How do you do that? Write a first sentence that makes her sit up and take notice.

2.     Craft an exquisite first paragraph. You don't have a lot of space in this essay to tell your story, which means you hit 'em fast and hard. By the time Ms. Mary Admissions reaches the end of your first paragraph, not only will she have experienced a mental reveille, but she'll know exactly where your essay is going to take her and why she should care about what you have to say.

3.     Show, don't tell. If we had a dollar for every time an English teacher threw this one at us, we'd be able to buy a steak dinner at Ruth's Chris. Don't slap your reader across the face with facts and feelings; draw them in and make them feel like they're right there, fighting malaria in Africa with you.

4.     Let your personality shine. This is your essay; this is your opportunity to show your dream school's admissions office who you are, beyond the test scores and your GPA and your litany of extracurricular activities.

5.     Aim for personal, but not casual. Your essay isn't a diary entry. You're not sharing an experience with a BFF. You're telling your story to a stranger...a stranger who's going to decide whether or not you get into Northwestern. So, keep it about you, but the classy, intelligent, adult you.

The Nitty-Gritty: Checklist

Did you do all of this stuff?

___ Spell-check your essay

___ Spell the college's name correctly

___ Stick below the character limit

___ Write in paragraphs instead of one huge block. Think ice cubes, not icebergs.

___ Vary your sentence length and structure

___ Use the active (not passive) voice

___ Avoid using big $5 SAT vocab words

___ Include a personal anecdote about yourself

___ Use specific details

___ Avoid clichés like the plague

___ Open with an engaging first sentence

___ Finish strong

We actually use the same checklist when we’re on a first date. Works like a charm.

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