Application deadlines loom, and it’s still not (all) about the prompts.

 Photo by Doug Robichaud/ Unsplash

Photo by Doug Robichaud/Unsplash

The standard due date for Early Action and Early Decision applications is typically November 1—two weeks from today. If your student plans to meet that deadline but has hit a wall with the writing sections, it may be time to find an alternate route.

During the last college application cycle, I wrote about the five 2015-16 Common Application essay prompts and how I didn't find them to be the consummate igniters of creative expression. The 2016-17 prompts aren't any more electrifying, which is no surprise seeing as they’re the same prompts as last year’s.

Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of the Common App. What's not to love about streamlining a process that is arguably one of the most stressful exercises in our children’s lives? But the prompts are fairly vanilla and broad. My message to clients: be open to alternate questions. In other words, if the Common App Five aren’t inspiring you, look for inspiration elsewhere. 

Where to find these magical entry points? I like this list of hundreds(!) of questions (and its .pdf version) from The Learning Network, The New York Times initiative that facilitates use of the newspaper in classrooms. Many (though not all) of these “500 Prompts for Narrative and Personal Writing” work perfectly as triggers for potential stories that reveal something about who you are.

Consider, for instance, No. 9, “What objects tell the story of your life?” One of my clients wrote about his earphones, how they never failed to transport him: in times of stress (tranquil music), to psyche himself up (sound with a heavy beat), or as a soundtrack when he did his artwork.

Then there’s question No. 25, “What’s your role in your family?” One of my students developed a humorous take on being the middle child. 

Or No. 472, “When have you spoken out about something you felt had to change?” A client discovered activism when she learned about several gay students who were forced to sit out their senior prom.

Help your student identify questions with the potential to elicit self-reflection, positivity, and (yes) self-promotion. It won't take much literary tissue to connect a 650-word personal narrative about something they care about to one of the standard prompts on the Common Application. 

— Written by Pat Berry

Do you know a student looking for application essay support? Pat Berry is a private essay coach and founder of College Application Camp, on the campus of Montclair State University in Montclair, NJ. To learn more about Pat’s programs and private coaching services, email her at, visit, or follow her on Facebook and Twitter (@essaycoachpat). Long distance coaching is available.