At the end of January, the Common App announced the prompts for the 2020-2021 application season and — spoiler alert — they are the same as last year for first-year applicants. The seven prompts are listed below: 

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
  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 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, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
  6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
  7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Though the prompts are the “same old same old,” your personal statement doesn’t have to be — in fact, it shouldn’t be. We’ll be hosting several Galin Chats on writing essays in the coming weeks, and I especially encourage families of juniors to attend. But for now, here are seven tips for these seven prompts:

  • Start with you — not the prompt. Even though a student might have an idea for one of the prompts right away, that particular prompt might not lead to an essay that is truly representative of who the student is. That’s why when introducing students to the task of writing a Common App personal statement, I do not start with the prompts (as I did in this blogpost). I hold the prompts out of sight for a little while, making sure the student doesn’t let the prompt pick the story. In lieu of these distractions, I try to help students figure out how they’d like to introduce themselves — what they want to say to colleges — and then we return to the prompts to see which one might fit best. I find this approach helps students craft a more representative essay than if they let the prompt lead the way.

  • Brainstorm on your own and with others. The best essays start away from the page. Writers have to think deeply about what they are trying to accomplish and how they can get there. To get started, it helps to do some prewriting exercises. If you haven’t developed your own brainstorming process yet, try this on for size: before typing “Personal Statement” at the top of a freshly created Google Doc, power down your computer and pull out a good old fashioned piece of paper to do some brainstorming. Divide the paper into four quadrants: (1) things I like about myself, (2) things I’m most proud of, (3) important things that have happened in my life, and (4) things that matter to me. After you fill out the paper on your own, go around to those who know you best and gather some intel. What do they have to add to these four quadrants? Once you have that information, analyze what you’ve created. Is there anything on this sheet of paper that stands out? Is there anything missing? Are there any stories you can tell from your own life that would include something from all four quadrants? After thinking through some ideas, put together a few loose outlines of possible essay ideas. Talk through these ideas with someone you trust to help you through your thoughts. See where this takes you!

  • Draft early. Juniors are over 8 months away from the November 1st early decision deadline, meaning there is plenty of time to craft an excellent essay. That said, waiting until the last minute for a spark of inspiration to ignite a dynamite essay is just playing with fire. At Galin Education, we encourage students to begin drafting essays early in the summer before senior year. With the extra time and space summer affords, students are able to dive into this task and reflect on what they’ve learned, what they’ve done, and who they want to be. Additionally, if the first essay churned out doesn’t quite feel right, there is still time to change directions and even start a completely new essay. And don’t worry if your first essay isn’t “the one.” As someone who has helped many students through this process, writing rarely goes unused — plenty of “discarded” personal statements end up being repurposed for other supplemental essays down the line.

  • Revise often. You may not like the first draft you write of your personal statement. That is okay — in fact, it is expected. Don’t let that first draft discourage you, and don’t give up on your ideas too easily. I promise you that the vision you brought into your first draft was good and worthwhile, even if it didn’t turn out that way. Real talk: writing can be hard. Luckily, if you get started early enough (see above) you’ll have time to work at it. Be ready to write and rewrite in order to make a memorable personal statement.

  • Steal moves (but not words!) from your favorite writers. A famous cubist painter from years ago supposedly said: “Good artists borrow, great artists steal.” This is true for writers as well. I am not promoting plagiarism (warning: do not take other people’s writing as your own — this is a terrible idea!); instead, I am promoting learning the creative tricks writers pull off and then making them your own. As you are working through your essays, read a favorite author or book of yours. When you come across a good line or passage, analyze what makes it stand out — a particularly funny simile, alluring alliteration, a strange twist of words — and think about how you might make a similar move in your own essay.

  • Embrace tension and vulnerability. Many of the most memorable essays I’ve read include at least some tension and vulnerability. I think the Common App agrees, as a good number of the prompts above tee-up some sort of conflict for the writer to address: an obstacle you’ve overcome (prompt 2), an idea you challenged (prompt 3), a problem you want to solve (prompt 4). Lean into the tensions of your story and be ready to share your feelings.

  • Seek feedback (but not too much feedback). Feedback is absolutely critical for college essays. You want to make sure your ideas are getting across well, and the only way you can be sure of that is to let others read and respond to your writing. When you are ready for others to look at your essay, though, don’t shop it around to too many people. When you collect too many opinions, confusion and uncertainty inevitably arise. Your uncle’s favorite line in your essay is going to be the first one your best friend cuts. The conclusion that brought a tear to your mother’s eye will make your sister yawn. What are you supposed to do with those contradictory opinions? While it is impossible to write an essay that is going to please everyone, having others provide feedback will ultimately lead to you being confident that you wrote the best essay you could.