2021-2022 Common App Essay Prompts Uncovered and Dissected (Part 1)

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In today’s episode of “College Admissions Real Talk”, Dr. Legatt discusses the new common app essay prompts in her first two-parter.

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VO: Welcome to College Admissions Real Talk with Dr. Aviva Legatt, a podcast for students seeking to get admitted to top-tier colleges. Each episode will feature an important tip for your college admission success, delivered with candor and love. If you’ve ever wanted to take a peek inside the mind of a college admissions officer, this is your chance. Have a question? Text Dr. Legatt at 610-222-5762. So, what’s your dream school? 

AL: Welcome to College Admissions Real Talk. This is Dr. Aviva Legatt, founder and Elite Admissions Expert at Ivy Insight and author of “Get Real and Get In”. Today, we’re going to be discussing the 2021-2022 common application essay prompts. These essay prompts were just released on February 16th in the past week, and you may be surprised to know that some students do get started on their college essays this early, even if they’re just juniors. One favor that’s done for you in this college application process is getting these prompts early. The truth is, your College process is going to sneak up on you and starting your process in February or March will be really, really helpful because then you’ll be able to get yourself organized when things get really busy in the summer and the fall. So, for the common application essay prompt for this year, the prompts are remaining mostly the same. With one exception: The common application is planning on retiring what they say is their seldom used option about solving a problem and replacing it with the following question: “Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you”? The common application is also planning on keeping their optional COVID-19 question within the additional information section. As you may know, there’s also another space in common app where you can write additional information that’s not COVID-19 related, and that section is generally dedicated to your activities and expanding upon any information provided in the common app that you were unable to explain previously. So regarding the new prompt, the Common App says that it’s grounded in scientific research on gratitude and kindness and the benefit about writing about the good things happening in our lives as opposed to focusing on the bad things. As I’ve shared with you in our previous episode, The college admissions offices always want to see some kind of happy ending or lemonade that you’ve been able to make out of a difficult situation. This prompt is really giving voice to that positivity that you’ve been able to experience or generate even in these challenging times. So, I’m going to go over all the prompts for this year so you have a sense of how to approach them. But I definitely want to encourage you to give this one a thought, and I’ll go into a little bit more depth about what exactly I think they’re asking in this prompt. I have to say, I don’t love the wording of this prompt. I don’t think it’s very clear, but I’m going to try to explain it for you as best as I can. So the full set of as a prompt for 2021-2022 are as follows: the first one is 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. So, this prompt is a great option for students who can really speak to a personal, in-depth experience, whether it is something that they have done outside of the school environment. For example, if they’ve experienced a move or a loss or divorce something like that goals. That would be a great prompt for you to pick if you have a personal story like that. If you’re going to just describe something that you’ve been working on for a lot of years, like playing the piano, your karate, or going to your religious house of worship every week, that may or may not be the best choice here. It really depends on how you explain your learning and your growth from whatever experience you choose to talk about. I would recommend this prompt for students who can be very self-reflective about their life experiences and how they’ve shaped their goals for the future. The second prompt is “the lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you face a challenge, setback or failure. How did it affect you and what did you learn”? This is another example of a prompt where it’s really important to focus on the learning and the growth as opposed to the obstacles that you’ve encountered. The prompt can be a little bit tricky for folks because the first sentence talks about obstacles and so the trap that many people fall into is they spend too much time talking about the obstacles and not enough about the lessons that they’ve taken. So again, the question is, how did it affect you? What did you learn from the experience? So here it’s all about talking about how this experience has shaped your character and your goals for the future. Number three: “Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or ideas. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome”? So, this is a great prompt for somebody who is politically-inclined, religiously-inclined, has opinions and ideas about the world and is somebody who is not so stubborn or steadfast in them that they can’t grow or learn from an alternate perspective. So, I would suggest this as a prompt for anyone who is looking at a liberal arts, humanities major because it is a great chance to showcase your critical thinking skills as an applicant in this area. Again, I would only recommend this prompt to people who are willing and able to have their ideas and beliefs challenged because that is the ultimate goal is not to talk about your beliefs but to talk about how they can be changed and reshaped and reformed based on new information that you gain. Number four: “Reflect on something that someone has done for you has made you happy or thankful and a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you”? So as promised, this is a new prompt and I want to spend a little bit of time on this because it is a prompt that no one has ever done before on the common application, so it’s going to require some extra thought and care and attention. I also want to shout out this prompt a little bit more than the others because my read into the Common Application’s press release is that they actually want to encourage students to answer this prompt. They spend a lot of time and money researching the effects of gratitude, and they want to use that research by finding out how you respond to this prompt. That’s my slightly cynical view, so forgive me here. But I do want to encourage you to at least give this prompt consideration, even if you decide ultimately that’s not the best fit for you. So, reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. Happiness is subjective. If I was going to edit this prompt, I would take out the word “happy”, and I would just use the word “thankful”. If you look at the research that the Common App site, they talk all about gratitude. “Gratitude” and “thankfulness” are synonyms of each other. So, when you are thankful and grateful, you can be happy, but that’s not always the outcome. So, for me to you, I would say edit out the word happy because it is a little bit of an extra word. It makes the prompt a little bit more confusing so let’s reread that. “Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you thankful in a surprising way”. I think that in this pandemic, of course, we’ve all gone through our own challenges. A lot of us have experienced gratefulness in places that we didn’t expect to. For example, for my own life. I am thankful that my son was able to be home with us for the first few months of pandemic. My son is three. He normally would have gone to daycare every single day, and over the last year we’ve had a ton more extra time with him because we have some extra help that we use around the house instead of sending him out. So as a family, we’ve been grateful to spend more time together, even though it’s been under a difficult circumstance. Now you may have a completely different story. Maybe your story is something like one of my students where that person was able to start their own publication online and felt motivated to connect with students from all over the world, not just from his school, to found and propel this publication into some degree of notoriety. Actually, the publication was acquired by a larger publication, so it was an incredibly productive endeavor and a really enriching one as well and certainly not one that he set out to do or expected to do but the opportunity was made available because of this challenging circumstance that we’ve been in. So, in my mind, that’s the surprise is you know that the rug has been pulled out from you in some way but there’s been something special that you’ve been able to make out of the situation or to gain from the situation.

VO: College Admissions Real Talk is hosted by Aviva Legatt, edited by Stephanie Carlin, and produced by Incontrera Consulting. I’m Caroline Stokes and this has been your daily boost of college admissions insight. Have a question? Text Dr. Legatt at 610-222-5762. For more information on Dr. Legatt and Ivy Insight visit www.ivyinsight.com. And you can pick up Dr. Legatt’s book, “Get Real and Get In”, at major retail outlets across the world. Insight out.