It’s not about the prompts.

Photo by Joshua Earle

Photo by Joshua Earle

So, they’re out—the five essay prompts in the 2015-16 Common Application. Click here to give them a glance and get the gist. But don’t hit PRINT. I mean, sure, go ahead if you want to, but don’t post them on the fridge next to the calendar of July/August college visits. Forget about the prompts (for now).

With all due respect to the folks who created them, the Common Application essay prompts are no great sparks to the imagination, which isn't very helpful to the student who's at a loss for what to write about. Where the Common App prompts do succeed is at conveying a message from colleges: We want to know about you—not a beloved grandmother or the role of class secretary or a summer spent building homes with Habitat. Those are fine topics, but unless the applicant is the subject of the essay, they won’t do.

It’s the writer’s job to drill down and find a topic that tells a story and also reveals something about who they are. And for an essay to stand out, it has to break what appear to be rules. Originality doesn’t come from following the letter of the prompt. It comes from starting in a very focused place, weaving a narrative, and taking the reader somewhere while holding her attention—no easy task considering some two million students annually use the Common Application and that most admissions officers read hundreds, possibly thousands of essays.

The essay matters. According to experts, from 30 to 50% of a college or university’s decision to accept or reject a candidate is based on the essay sections of his or her application. Thus, a weak essay can tip the scale against an otherwise great student, and a compelling, well-written essay can lift an average student onto the Accepted list.

So how’s an applicant to stand out? An effective prompt gets personal. It’s a starting point, a small swirl of inspiration that unlocks your mind and releases a series of ideas and, one hopes, insights. I often suggest to my students and private clients that they either create their own prompt or, and this is what most choose to do, find one that makes them feel something. A student engaged by what he's writing about is more likely to delve deeply into his subject and, ultimately, to engage his reader. A few prompts I like:

  • Name five objects that are important to you and explain why. What do they say about you?  (Your final essay might include only one.)
  • Describe a moment that (for better or worse) had an impact on you. The impact could come from a dialogue, a letter, your first thought on awakening one morning, a news bulletin.
  • Most of us have comfort zones. Describe one of yours and how you use it.

The Internet is full of prompts by writing coaches and English teachers and even other students. Compile a list that might inspire a thoughtful process. Don't worry about full sentences and composition. Start with ideas in bullet-point form. Help your student find the insights in those responses, opportunities to riff on and ultimately use in organizing a 650-word essay.

So what about those five Common Application essay prompts? Undoubtedly, with one sentence or phrase or literary brushstroke, a student will be able to anchor the essay he writes to at least one of them. Meanwhile, application readers will appreciate your student’s ability to launch a compelling narrative from one of the same five starting points two million other applicants are using.

— Written by Pat Berry

Pat Berry is an essay coach and founder of College Application Camp on the campus of Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. Visit for more information, or email Pat directly at