Changes to Common App Essay Prompts for 2017-18

February 9, 2017

This week, The Common Application essay prompts underwent their most substantive changes since 2013. While two prompts remained unchanged, three were revised, one was introduced, and one oldie-but-goodie was resurrected. The team at College Transitions will walk you through the changes and tell you what it means for current juniors who want to get a jump-start on the most important 650-word essay of their young lives.

Staying the Same

There are no revisions to the following prompts:

#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.

#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.


Three prompts were revised. Changes are italicized and our analysis follows:

#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 key change here is that “failure,” a harsh and perhaps off-putting term in the eyes of many applicants, is now softened to include the more sanitized “challenge” or “setback.” We are fans of this prompt and believe it can be refreshing for admissions officers to hear someone willingly talk about their shortcomings and less-proud moments. Subsequent growth in the wake of failure can give insight into your character, resilience, and depth. In brainstorming this one, reflect on your life’s setbacks and whether they led to maturation or enlightenment. Also try starting with periods of growth in your life, and work backward to what rejections/disappointment/failures led to your personal development.

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

This prompt now asks for the “outcome” of the situation. Don’t be enticed to enter the world of exaggeration and hyperbole when describing the consequences of your actions. Colleges do not expect you to have brought down a dictatorship, brokered peace in the Middle East, or single-handedly eliminated the gender pay gap. In literary terms, this is The Society vs. The Individual type of conflict and it needn’t take place on a grand stage.  Standing up to peer pressure, going against a family tradition, taking part in a local protest, or not following a directive you found to be immoral or unjust are just a few of the “real life” examples that can make for a gripping storyline.

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

Jettisoned are the phrases “transition to adulthood” and “culture, community, or family.” Perhaps colleges grew tired of slogging through tales of bar mitzvahs, facial hair growth, and awkward, early romantic experiences. This prompt is now conducive to the sharing of more meaningful growth that showcases your growing self-awareness and/or connection to large-scale human events. We do caution against using this prompt to talk about your trip to South America where you highlight obvious linguistic, cultural, or culinary differences. Remember not to write a travelogue—the essay should be revealing about you.

Brand New/Returning

The folks at The Common App generously gave us one newborn prompt and one brought back from the dead. We present them below along with our reaction:

#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?

This one is all about your greatest passion and the ways in which you pursue knowledge. Whether it’s aerospace engineering, classical guitar, British Monarchs, the French language, lacrosse, or vintage arcade machines, this newbie offers a solid platform for showing off your unique interests as well as what makes you tick. Elite colleges adore students whose love for learning extends well beyond the classroom. This is a tremendous opportunity to demonstrate your most lovable, nerdy obsessions and the verve with which you independently pursue them.

#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. 

It’s back—the college essay version of a free-write! Previously, we recommended that students who had a topic that was off the beaten path find a way to connect their idea to prompt #1. Now, applicants are free to mold their essays from a formless, lump of clay into, literally, whatever shape they desire. Just be sure to read our Five Essay Topics to Avoid before finalizing your topic.

College Transitions’ Quick Take

The revisions made to The Common Application raise the expectations for depth and substance for existing prompts and open the door to increased creativity and imagination through the introduction of brand new topics. With the return of the “topic of your choice” option, there is no reason to force yourself to answer one of the other prompts unless it is a 100% perfect launching-pad for your strongest, most revealing composition.