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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

Common Application Essay Topics for 2015-2016

IMPORTANT UPDATE: CLICK HERE to access my guide to the new Common Application essay topics (for 2017-2018).

The Common Application essay prompts for the 2016-2017 admissions cycle are the same as the ones from last year.


ESSAY PROMPT #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.”

The Common App team did an excellent job revising the language of this prompt.

This was the original essay prompt: “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.”

The emphasis on “background or story” was confusing to many students. Your background or story (whatever that is) could definitely be a fascinating subject, but it’s not always clear to me why you’d want to share this information with admissions officers. In most cases, your background isn’t going to give you a competitive edge in the college admissions process. Many students mistakenly believe they need to focus on some sort of devastating personal experience or hardship.

Sometimes the media doesn’t help. Let’s consider the following video, which provides you with edited access to how the admissions committee at Amherst College “comes to a decision on who to admit and who to defer.”

At around 1:20, one of the admissions officers says, “the night before her AP Chemistry exam, she learned her father had an affair with a 23-year-old prostitute.” Afterwards, a member of the committee says, “How many would like to admit?”  Almost everyone raises their hands. The complexity of the decision is absent from the video. This student didn’t get into Amherst because her father had an affair. What’s probably going on is that the committee member is reading from a recommendation or something the student herself brought up (and probably not in her essay) to explain a low score on an AP test. The same kind of oversimplification is present in a number of the other decisions presented in the video.

However, there is value in this video. It shows you what one committee looks like. You see how your “fate” is usually not in one admissions officer’s hands. Your application often “goes to committee,” where multiple people discuss your candidacy and make a decision.

Just remember that you’re doing more than writing a personal narrative. You’re writing a personal narrative for a very specific audience-– admissions officers who are trying to decide whether or not to admit you.

Why do they need to know your background or story?  How will it help them understand why they should accept you? Explore these questions and make an informed decision about what to reveal about yourself.

Your interests, talents, and specific aspects of your identity are definitely things that admissions officers are very curious about. They’re looking to put together a class of fascinating, talented students who will contribute to the vibrant intellectual and social life of the college.

ESSAY 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?”

This was the original version of the topic: “Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?”

My guess is that too many students focused on the failure itself and not enough time on what they learned from the experience. The new wording clearly places a greater emphasis on the lessons.

CLICK HERE to get my tips on responding to the failure prompt.  Even though I shared them in relation to the original prompt, the advice is still effective.

ESSAY PROMPT #3: “Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”

This topic hasn’t changed.  CLICK HERE to get my tips on writing about challenging a belief or idea.

ESSAY PROMPT #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 is a new application essay prompt.

CLICK HERE to read my strategies for responding to the “problem” essay topic.

ESSAY PROMPT #5: “Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”

This question hasn’t changed.

The instructions for the Common Application essay topics have not changed.  I recommend that you read my post about how to interpret these instructions.

Blog post image used: ©karandaev/