Common App Essay 2017 - Application essay tips
Updated on Oct 26, 2016 - 12:07 p.m. IST by Shivani Bhatt
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Common Application Essay 2017 - There are a number of ways of applying for undergraduate admissions in US. Popular among them is the Common Application. A total of 690 schools are members of Common Application to facilitate admissions for their undergraduate programme for the year 2016–2017. This year 60 new schools have joined Common Applications.

While most of the schools (approx. 645) are American, the number of schools outside the US is increasing as well. Presently, 45 schools from around the world, predominently Europe and Asia, have joined Common Applications.

The Common Application this year consists of a set of five essays to be written by the applicant. The broad areas of the Common Application essays are diversity, failure, challenge, maturity and coming of age. Universities decide if they need a personal statement as an additional essay with the common application essays. Also, the essays are divided into mandatory, conditional and optional.

The word limit of the common app essay prompts are 250–650 words. Some universities have additional questions along with the Common Application essays.

Undergraduate applicants are fresh out of school and, therefore, the universities do not expect them to have an extensive project or work experience.  But they are expected to have a range of experiences to draw inspiration from. The universities look for aptitude as well as attitude in an applicant. Every applicant will have some or other qualities which set him /her apart from others. For example, a candidate is creative and introvert, another may be outgoing and compassionate or persistent. Each of these essays should showcase these very qualities.

 The common app essay prompts for 2017 admissions are:

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.

These essays are known as personal essays. Very simply put, they want to know about you as a person. The way you react to situations and the kind of background you come from. Also, the way you have been affected by the background, talent, interest and identity.  

Find a defining moment for yourself, when you started identifying with something or some incident which made you think otherwise. You do not need to be of a particular race, religion, culture or ethnicity to have the moment. Some students have been affected by an experience that another person is going through, what is important here is that how the incident has affected you. Stress on the word ‘Meaningful’ instead of background, identity, interest or talent. The latter words are there to help you write about the meaningful incident.


 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?

School time is about learning about you, learning what you are capable of and what you are not capable of. It is also the time of successes and failures which would help in building your future.   It is from a failure that we learn our true strengths and our capabilities of bouncing back. It also takes a lot of strength to acknowledge the fact that we have failed.

This Common Application Essays prompt is a three-part question.

  1. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.
    Mentioning the failure is just one of the three parts. The essay readers do not want to you to list your sob story. Mention the story in simple words with the least amount of emotions or in a matter of fact way with adequate detailing so that there is no confusion in the statements. Simply, what, where, when.

  2. How did it affect you
    This is what they want to know.  Did you suffer any setback? Were you hurt? What did you feel? Had you anticipated the failure or was it a shock? Mention your reaction to the incident, ashamed, shocked, hurt, etc.

  3. What did you learn from the experience
    This is the final crux in which the readers are interested. What did you learn? Learn about yourself, learn about someone, or about the project, situation etc. Along with the learning, mention a small incident where you have applied the lesson learnt in the previous incident. 

Avoid cliché. Do not mention how you failed in advanced maths and how you then improved your grades. This is not a number game, it is about character building. Rather, mention your attitude towards maths and what made you realize that you can improve and then what you did to improve and finally how did it affect you as a person. Also, did you use the same principles for other subjects and if you noticed any change.

3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

The third prompt of Common Application Essays is about passion and beliefs; a step forward to knowing you as a person.

This is also a three-part common app essay prompt and each part has to be given equal emphasis.

  1. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.
    It starts with ‘Reflect’. As opposed to the previous question which asked to ‘recount’ or narrate, ‘reflect’ means contemplate or think over. Here, you not only mention your belief, you also get to justify why. The Common Application essay should showcase your passion for the cause. Why did you think you were right? The belief can be your personal belief, your family belief, something that you learnt in school etc. Again, it is not about your belief, it is about you. It is about how you deal with the things with which you do not connect with or agree to. This could be bullying by your friends, misbehaviour, or an opinion etc. In your Common Application essay, mention how you challenged such events.

  2. What prompted you to act?
    This is where you have to justify your point of view. Why did you have to challenge the belief? What was wrong with the situation? Why did you not agree with the situation? What difference it would have made?

  3. Would you make the same decision again?
    In this section, you tell about your learning. Was it worth it? Did you learn something new, about people, about yourself?  And finally, if a situation arises, would you do it again? You do not have to succeed to mention it here. Not succeeding is also a lesson.

There are some ‘do not tread topics’ here. Avoid topics like drugs, radical religion, politics, self-pity, etc. While these do not make great Common Application essay topics, they can do more harm if mentioned as we do not know if the admission committee would agree to it or not.

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.

For a high school student, there are n numbers of problems with the world. Through a Common App essay, the admission committee wants to know if there are some that you have solved or have intended to solve.

The keywords in this prompt are ‘Problem’, ‘personal importance’, ‘no matter the scale’ and ‘solution’. Students are imaginative and often have some very logical or feasible approach to a problem. So, it does not have to be a global problem but, it has to be of personal importance. And most importantly, it does not have to be only something which you have tried to solve. It can be something which you would like to solve. Through this essay, the admission committee aims to learn about your problem-solving skills.


The three-part question in a Common Application essay intends to know your clarity in thinking.

  1. Describe a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve.
    Additionally, to help the applicant suggestions are provided such as, ‘It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, or an ethical dilemma - anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale’. It also gives you a clue, ‘personal importance’. In your Common App essay, focus on the problems which you face daily for e.g. gym equipment in the nearby park, beggars near the red lights, water logging due to uneven roads in your area, increasing your lunch break time, one-way only road  during morning and afternoon in front of your school to manage traffic congestion. It can be anything as long as it has a personal connection with you.

  2. Explain its significance to you
    Why is it important to you? How will it help? What is the current status and how does it affect you?

  3. What steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
    Finally, the application part of the question, the steps taken or could be taken. This is where you showcase you clarity of thought. It should be from your point of view. The essay should also showcase your quality or attribute. The essay should be about your thoughts. Mention your if you have done some background research on the issue and what has led you to the solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or accomplishment, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Growing up is a big deal for children. Transitions happen all the time. Toddlers transition to school age kids who in turn become adolescents and then teenagers to young adults and finally to adults. The Common Application essay intends you to elaborate that incident or event which marked your transition to adulthood. It may be a family event, birthday, or an incident in which you displayed your maturity to handle a difficult issue or took charge of the situation regardless of your age.  What happened then? Were you apprehensive? Was there support available? Was somebody giving you directions on what to do? How did the incident change you? Did you notice your family and friends attitude change after the incidence? What were the changes?

Incidences could be calling the emergency helpline to call for help or cooking your Mum’s favourite breakfast or learning your Grandmother’s cake recipe. This has to be an incident where you realise that you are not a child anymore and have become a responsible adult.


Stay tuned to for more news and updates on Common Application Essays

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