The Edge Our college admission blog

The 2016-17 Common Application Essay Prompts

by Katie Z, Ph.D February 5, 2016


Dear Readers – and particularly those of you who are currently high school juniors – The Common Application 2016-2017 Essay Prompts have been released! Don’t let this news stress you out. See it as an opportunity, knowing that if you start to think about* your college essays now that it will be that much easier a process submitting your college applications next fall and winter. First of all, the essay prompts are (drum roll please…) the same as the 2015-2016 prompts!


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.

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?

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

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.

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

Now, you have a decision to make – which essay prompt should you choose?



This depends on a few things. First of all, keep in mind that the essay is your chance to add new information to your application, and for admissions officers to hear your unique voice through your writing. This being the case, don’t use the essay to simply rehash information that is already in your application. Rather, your essay should tell a personal story, and that story should be told using the first person “I”. Read over the five essay prompt possibilities and think about which one will allow you to contribute the most to your existing application.

Furthermore, if you are applying to a top-tier school then your essay should show admissions officers that you have intellectual curiosity. As a starting point, think about a time when you were really excited about something you read about or experienced (and it doesn’t necessarily have to be something you learned in school), and then write about how you further pursued that intellectual passion or curiosity! Also, if you feel that any of these attributes apply to you, highlighting personal examples of leadershipgrit, and/or sustained community engagement is likely to impress admissions officers.

Some more food for thought? Well, you know how you keep hearing about how you should have your uniqueness shine through in your application (e.g. “That’s what I see, is that uniqueness is kind of the hidden currency of college admissions“)? Well, The Common Application very helpfully lets us know statistics for how many students have so far responded to each of the essay prompts during the 2015-2016 round of college admissions:

“Among the more than 800,000 unique applicants who have submitted a Common App so far during the 2015-2016 application cycle, 47% have chosen to write about their background, identity, interest, or talent – making it the most frequently selected prompt; 22% have chosen to write about an accomplishment, 17% about a lesson or failure, 10% about a problem solved, and 4% about an idea challenged.”

Hmmm, interesting.  Take a second to put yourself in the shoes of the admissions officers – if almost every other essay you’ve read is about a student’s “background, identity, interest, or talent”, wouldn’t it be a breath of fresh air to have in your hands an essay by a student writing about challenging a belief or idea? If these admissions trends hold true for the 2016-2017 admissions cycle, and if it were me submitting my college applications, I would think very carefully about whether I could write a great essay using prompt #3. I’m just saying…

Finally, this pearl of wisdom – no matter which of the essay prompts you decide to answer (and you should choose the one that works best for you, personally) BE SURE TO ANSWER THE QUESTION! When I worked in admissions I read many, many application essays, and I can tell you this: you’d be shocked to know how many students write brilliant essays but don’t answer the question being asked! It may sound obvious, but be sure to triple check, prior to submission, that the question being asked in the prompt has indeed been answered. It’s a mistake too-often-made, and one that is easily avoidable.

If you’d like to learn more about tips and strategies for writing a great college essay (including prompt-specific advice and guidance tailored for the specific schools to which you’re applying), and for invaluable overall guidance and feedback on your essay drafts, click here. Our experts work with you to ensure that your essay tells your unique story, is well organized and error-free, and that your writing is catered specifically to your specific situation. Happy writing!


* You’re a high school junior so there’s no need to actually start writing your college essay yet. However, some great advice from Rachel Katzman, Admitster’s Director of Education, is as follows:

“One thing I’ve been coaching my students towards is not necessarily working on writing their common application essay too early in the process, but rather finding a means of capturing or documenting stories or experiences they might want to share or explore now, so that they have material for later. For example, students could keep a journal of their experiences with a community service project or internship. Think of it as a ‘soft launching pad’ for ideas – developing an awareness of the experiences they’re having now and how they’re affected by them can be crucial information for students to have when they do sit down to write their first college essay drafts down the road.”  


The Gift of Admissions Advising

by Katie Z, Ph.D December 24, 2015



Dear Readers,


Happy Holidays


You’ve been busy with college applications – and for many of you the college admissions whirlwind is ongoing, casting a shadow over your holiday celebrations. I sincerely hope, however, that you’ll find some time over the coming days to just RELAX! Surround yourself with good people and set some time aside to NOT think about your applications, even if that’s only a few hours here and there. Then, once you’ve been thoroughly immersed in holiday goodness, take a deep breathe, know that you can do it, and work to cross that college application finish line – you’re almost there!

Furthermore, if you’d like some guidance and support along the way, you know where to find it. Our admissions advising and essay review services are a great gift (peace of mind!), whether for yourself or for someone you care about who’s in the midst of his/her journey to college. Working alongside our experts, students gain confidence and submit exceptional, well-written college applications. Know also that we are currently offering $50 off for new clients who purchase at least one hour of admissions advising. The offer expires at midnight on New Year’s Eve, and to take advantage of it all you need to do is click here and then enter the code “peaceofmind” when prompted. T’is the season…to submit all of your college applications!

Team Admitster wishes you Happy Holidays!

Expert Advice: Managing Your Supplemental Essays

by Rachel Katzman December 22, 2015


By now you’ve very likely narrowed down your college list and are in the midst of completing your applications. You’ve even written, reviewed, and finalized your Common Application college essay. As you log into your Common App Dashboard, you’ve seen which schools have writing supplements, and which ones don’t…or so you think. The reality is that lurking in the “Questions”, “Academics”,  and “Other” sections of the Common App, remains what I call Hidden Supplemental Questions.

Sometimes these require 100 word responses, for example, asking you to elaborate on an extracurricular activity. While you should write and proof-read these responses carefully, they seem manageable. Other supplemental essay requirements, however, can be more demanding. For instance, while Harvey Mudd College doesn’t list a writing supplement on its dashboard, in the “Questions” section, the college does ask prospective students to write two different 500 word essays. That’s like writing two more common application essays! For a student who is just now noticing this requirement, he/she may be feeling panicked about the upcoming January 5th deadline!

spiderBeyond sometimes “hidden” supplemental essays, others are notoriously quirky. For example, the University of Richmond prompts prospective students to “Tell us about spiders” (their mascot). The University of Southern California asks (engineering) students to tell the school about their browsing history. The University of Chicago even has an essay on the “oddity of odd numbers.” Why such topics? The schools are trying to better understand how you think, how you write, and how you will creatively and intellectually thrive at their school.

As admissions experts, we can confirm that your responses to the supplements do matter and, more importantly, that they can “wow” an admissions committee by helping you stand out among other candidates.

Here’s some advice for how to do them well:

Input all of your data up front. Sometimes, program-specific supplemental essays don’t appear until you input your intended major. The more carefully you input your data, the more quickly you can catch something that might otherwise go overlooked.

Have certain answers pre-prepared. For questions that ask you to elaborate on an extracurricular activity, your academic interests, or your personal background, you should develop clear, concise answers that you could both write about in 100 words and discuss in greater detail if you were having a longer interview with and admissions officer. You should use specific details to answer these questions, practice your responses with a friend or family member, and craft written explanations that you can use with multiple schools.

Do your research. There are two questions that always have to be customized:

  1. The question that asks you to explain your interest in your intended major – While you might be certain that you want to major in chemical engineering or English literature, schools distinguish themselves through the varying ways that they structure their programs. Bioengineering at Penn looks different than it does at UC Berkeley. Schools will often have cool interdisciplinary majors and minors that might help you to anchor your response. For example, Rice offers a minor in Global Health Technologies that can be paired with a variety of majors. One way to distinguish yourself as a candidate is to find each school’s unique approach to your intended major, and use this to help focus your essay.
  2. The question that asks “Why (insert school)?” – This is a question that you should NEVER cut and paste from one application to the next. It requires you to do some research up front. Scour the college’s website to learn more about academics, student organizations, research, news, study abroad activities, and campus life. Pair these online resources with any other experiences you’ve had with the school, for instance, a campus visit, interviews, and/or conversations with students and alumni. The more you can be specific and personalize your response, the more you will feel confident about why you’ve selected the school and, by extension, you will present yourself as a smart, informed, candidate.

Keep in mind that college admissions is a two-way street. You should of course provide details about your recent accomplishments and current interests. However, it is equally powerful to present what you want to do in the future. For instance, write about how you want to go into cyber security, start a business, document refugee crises, or design engineering solutions for developing countries – whatever you aspire to! Using specific examples about the school to which you’re applying, let admissions officers know why attending their institution would help you to reach your future goals. Be sure to also elaborate on how you will be an asset to the school during your time as an undergraduate there. Remember, college admissions is a two-way street!

Make a calendar for the next two weeks. While these essays can be brief, they are numerous and cannot be written in one sitting. Plan out your holiday break with well-paced deadlines, and share those deadlines with someone else (perhaps an expert at Admitster) so you hold yourself accountable and don’t write anything at the last minute.

It’s never too late to get help!

We can help you to make decisions, provide expert knowledge of your schools and their admissions processes, and plan and review your essays. You can use both our essay review service as well as personal admissions advising, thereby using your time efficiently to not only manage, but to optimize the potential opportunities that are offered by these supplemental essays.


Revisiting Your College List After EA/ED Notifications

by Katie Z, Ph.D December 8, 2015


I know that many of you reading this post have applied either early action or early decision to your dream school(s). I also know that the early action and early decision notification dates are just DAYS away! It’s an exciting time, but also a stressful time. What if you aren’t admitted to the schools to which you applied early? It would be the end of the world, right? ListWrong. I promise you, the sun will rise again and life will go on. How do I know? From experience, my dear readers! Your blogger, years ago, applied early decision to Williams College. I was deferred, and later rejected. It was terrible. I’d never felt so disappointed before. I was quite certain that I’d never be happy at any of the other schools on my college list. From this experience, however, I learned a valuable lesson – many of the moments in life that seem initially to be failures are often opportunities in disguise! Though I’m sure I would have loved studying at Williams, I went on to make some of my closest friends and to spend some of the happiest years of my life at Skidmore College, a school I wouldn’t have seriously considered had I not been rejected from my top-choice school. So, thank goodness for that rejection letter! Thank goodness I came to learn that there is not only one perfect school for each of us, but many possibilities of great schools to consider. Thank goodness I took the time to revisit my college list.

In the coming days some of you will receive notifications of acceptance – congratulations! Others of you, however, will not receive the news that you’re very much hoping for. Don’t despair! You may still get in during the regular admissions process, and you may also, along the way, discover more gems of schools that you hadn’t before seriously considered. Know also that Admitster is here to help as you continue on your journey to college. To begin with, you can register an account with us (it’s free!), thereby giving yourself access to our many powerful online admissions tools, including the awesome College List Builder. This tool can help you to further refine your current college list, letting you know your odds of admission at the schools you’ve listed and also offering suggestions of new schools to which you may consider applying in order to make your list more well-balanced (in terms of reach, target, and safety schools) and robust.

Secondly, beyond our free online tools, we also offer some very affordable college admissions services, including expert reviews of your personal statements and college essays, and personalized admissions advising. Our college admissions experts can help you with all or any combination of the following – College list building; Developing a personalized admissions plan; Completing an application planning calendar; Application and essay review; and help with navigating those choppy financial aid waters. Along these lines, there’s a great five hour advising package available – five little hours can really change your life, helping to boost your chances of admission to the schools on your college list!

In short, and as ever, we’re here to help. If you haven’t been admitted to your top-choice schools via early decision/early action, rest assured that there are still plenty of incredible opportunities out there. Take it from someone who had an early decision door slammed in her face – it wasn’t the end of my college journey, but the beginning of a great adventure.

Admitster & Adele

by Katie Z, Ph.D November 24, 2015


It’s that time of year again – Thanksgiving! While many of us are looking forward to the long weekend and to having time in the company of family and friends, high school seniors may be feeling a bit conflicted about the upcoming holiday. Yes, a feast with loved ones and some time off are both very good things BUT Thanksgiving also means that college application deadlines are quickly approaching! How should one’s Thanksgiving break be spent? Completely relaxed? In an application-induced panic? In reality, of course, the optimal state lies somewhere in between these two extremes. Yes, your college applications should definitely be on your mind, but you should also take some time to relax. As is the case with most things in life, finding the right balance is key.

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Admitster can help you to find that balance, and to stem any feelings of stress and panic that you may be experiencing with regard to your college applications. To begin with, if you haven’t yet seen SNL’s A Thanksgiving Miracle, I highly recommend taking four minutes out of your busy day to watch the clip – it’s hilarious! And now that you’ve had a good laugh, let’s turn to more serious matters, namely, your college applications. You shouldn’t be filling in your Common Application in the midst of your Thanksgiving meal…

apple pie


…however, there are some practical steps to take over the Thanksgiving holiday that will set your college applications merrily cruising along into December and January:

  • If you’re taking the SAT on December 5th or the ACT on December 12th, definitely set aside some time to study. Khan Academy offers great, free resources for SAT test-prep (click here), and The ACT also provides test-takers with some free revision resources, for instance, these sample questions.
  • You should really be working to finalize your college list now, ensuring that you have a great mix of reach, target, and safety schools. Admitster offers a free, online college list-building tool that is extremely helpful in terms of putting together a robust list of schools OR (if you think you already have a completed list) ensuring that your list of schools is, in fact, well-balanced. Click here to learn more!
  • Once you have a great college list, the next step is to ensure that you’re completely organized in terms of deadlines and application requirements – stay on top of your admissions game! If the whole process is feeling overwhelming and stressful, however, know that Admitster can help. For example, we offer a great deal on a five hour, personalized, admissions advising package, whereby you work with one of our experts to develop an application plan, create a calendar of upcoming deadlines, and have your essays and applications reviewed prior to submission. Investing in these five little hours can really help to boost your odds of admission at your top-choice schools!
  • Another thing you should be working on at the moment are drafts of your application essays. You may feel completely confident in tackling the writing for your college applications, but if you think that perhaps you could benefit from some guidance in terms of essay review (i.e. ensuring that your essay effectively tells your unique story and is error-free), just click here.
  • At this point, you should also be working to gather your recommendations – the earlier you ask your teachers and counselors for recommendation letters, the better!

We’re thankful for the opportunity to help you to own the journey to college – we’re here to support and guide you along the way. While Adele’s soulful voice may help to bring calm to the Thanksgiving dinner table (seriously, watch that SNL clip!), Admitster can bring calm to the stress and panic that may be setting in now that your college application deadlines are quickly approaching.

You can register for our free online tools (the College List Builder Tool, the Prediction Tool, and the What If? Engine) by clicking here, and you can reach out to us about our affordable expert services (essay reviews and admissions advising) by filling out the online form, calling 1-800-803-1541, or sending us an e-mail at

We’d love to hear from you and wish you all a very Happy Thanksgiving!

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