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How to tackle the new college essays

Expert tips on tackling the new college essays.

Expert tips on tackling the new college essays. Credit: iStock

When Rebecca Gottesman heard that the essay questions on the Common Application -- used by hundreds of thousands of students applying to colleges -- were going to change in 2013, the Locust Valley High School assistant principal was initially "terrified" and "apprehensive."

But when she and her guidance staff saw the new, pointed questions released earlier this month -- the first change to the essays in more than a decade -- they were pleasantly surprised. "They're really much more thought provoking," Gottesman says.

High school juniors who will be applying to colleges in the coming year must answer new essay questions. Perhaps the biggest difference is the elimination of the open-ended "Topic of Your Choice" prompt, which invited students to write about anything. "A lot of students used that as the basis of their essays," says Sunil Samuel, director of admissions at Hofstra University in Hempstead, which uses the Common Application.

Matthew Whelan, associate provost of enrollment at Stony Brook University, which also employs the Common App, said he finds the new questions clearer. "I'm interested to see if we find more sharply focused essays," Whelan says.

Here, high school guidance counselors talk about how to best use each of the five new essay prompts.

Prompt 1

Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This "identity" question isn't limited to ethnic or cultural background; several counselors suggested this question could be used as a "topic of your choice." A student could write about how music or athletics makes him tick. "Let's say you had a dog, and the dog was the world to you. That's a topic of your choice," says Jill Vogel, director of guidance and chief information officer for the Valley Stream Central High School District.

Students have wide latitude, says James McCabe, guidance counselor at Harborfields High School. "I don't think they're looking for a bland, cookie-cutter essay," says McCabe, who worked for six years in admissions at Hofstra University.

Prompt 2

Recount an incident of time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Some students might be scared off by indicating vulnerability. "I'm surprised that they used the term failure," says Frank Muzio, director of guidance in the Wantagh School District. He would have preferred "adversity."

However, counselors say they love this question. "What you need to do is turn it into an essay of strength, of how you overcame," says Art Mandel, director of guidance for the Roslyn Public Schools. A student can show perseverance, creativity, problem solving, growth and what was learned. "These are qualities that make a successful college experience," Muzio says.

Prompt 3

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

"This is the one essay that would bother me," Muzio says. He recommends a student not be too controversial. McCabe agrees: "You don't want to go too over-the-top with that question, or you could set off some alarms."

However, done right, this essay can show how a student would contribute to a lively student body and classroom exchange of ideas. An essay could address something as simple as challenging a parent's restrictive curfew or belief that skiing is too dangerous, Vogel says. Or, perhaps a student started a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender club or a recycling program in his school. "That, in the mind of college admissions professionals, makes a great student body," McCabe says.

Prompt 4

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

"Boy, someone can really run with this. It can be a baseball diamond. It can be the chorus room," Muzio says. It could be a student is most content reading a book -- it doesn't need to be a physical place, counselors say.

Students should choose a place that applies to college life as well -- "on a beach" or "sleeping" wouldn't be the best choices, Vogel jokes.

Prompt 5

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

Students should show how they really had to step up, perhaps to take greater responsibility for younger siblings due to a divorce, or to care for an ill relative. Maybe they grew when they earned a driver's license or became an Eagle Scout. Perhaps it was a bar mitzvah.

"How did that mature you?" McCabe says. "They're really looking for the student to go a little bit further."

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