I can’t pick!
College Application season is all about picking– not apples, not your nose, not lottery numbers, no: on top of picking schools and hoping they pick you, some students stress about picking which Common App prompt to answer. Unless you like having extra things to stress out about (and far be it from us to take that from you), let’s clear that up right now.
It’s actually simple– write your essay, then select the Common App prompt you think it matches most closely.
You’ll hear this same advice using slightly different terms: “massage” your essay (say those of us who love to make it physical) to fit the prompt, “tweak” your essay (say those of us who like to make it sound super easy).
Remember how Cinderella’s stepsisters cut off their toes to fit in the Prince’s shoes? Well, don’t do that– surgery is expensive, princes often turn out to be cheap. But do assume that whatever you write, if you make it good, true, and demonstrative of your winning qualities, will match up closely enough with a Common App prompt that you can use it.
As we’ve said elsewhere, the new Common App essay questions are now broad enough and better targeted to the hallmarks of the narrative personal essay–which generally involve a character–you!–facing a challenge and growing from it– that whatever you write is going to be massage-able or tweak-able to decently answer one of the five.
How to go about this?
At first, pretend the prompts don’t exist, and figure out what you really want to write your essay on. (We make that part sound easy– and sometimes it is. And sometimes it isn’t. And if it really isn’t, we love helping you probe around in the raw material of your life.)
After you have settled on your topic and have written a rough draft of your content, return to read the Common App prompts. Ask yourself which one your college essay currently BEST answers. It may even fit with more than one, but you don’t get brownie points for adaptability. Pick and commit.
Wait! You’re not done.
One purpose of the prompts is to see if you can do the very basic essential task (that, sorry, even your dog can do!) of responding to the question that you’ve been asked. So if you think your essay is most closely aligned with, for example, #4, “Describe a problem you’ve solved,” then you must go through your essay and highlight the place(s) where you have actually described a problem and solved it.
If you can’t find this information stated plainly enough–not buried, nor mysteriously hinted at, but clear to all readers– then you should insert it in a way that flows with the rest of your content. Do not plunk in an “answer” and think you’re done. The stepsisters may have cut off their toes but they still had to wrestle the shoe on and walk out to the royal carriage. I believe it was the trail of blood that gave them away. Your essay won’t have that. You, lucky to still have all your toes, just have to make sure no one trips over your essay because of awkwardly inserted material.
To sum up
To stress less
than everyone else, because we all know it’s a contest but still produce a strong college essay that skillfully answers a Common App prompt, we recommend taking this approach:
- Write your essay!
- Pick the Common App Prompt you think it best answers.
- Revise the essay to match smoothly.
If you start with the prompt instead, you MIGHT get a great essay anyway. But it’s possible– and we’ve seen it happen! Frequently!– you can get so mono-focused on addressing the prompt that your essay feels cramped, overwritten and a prisoner of the question.
How do you know if you’ve pulled it off?
Have someone read your essay, then ask that reader what Common App prompt she or he thinks you’ve answered. If the reader can’t figure it out, don’t roll your eyes and assume idiocy. Instead, assume you haven’t made it clear yet, and try again. Or contact us for instructions on Emergency Surgery, and to go apple picking, because you’ll soon have a stellar essay ready to send to your dream schools.