Two new prompts for the college essay

The Common Application has added two new prompts for the 2017-18 school year from which students can choose for their college essays. The maximum word count remains at 650.

“The goal of these revisions is to help all applicants, regardless of background or access to counseling, see themselves and their stories within the prompts. They are designed to invite unencumbered discussions of character and community, identity, and aspiration. To this end, we will be creating new educational resources to help students both understand and approach the opportunities the essay presents for them.

2017-2018 Common Application Essay 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. [No change]

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? [Revised]

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]

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. [No change]

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that 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? [New]

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. [New]”

Source: The Common Application

If you’d like help brainstorming and refining your college application essay, contact the College Essay Confidante at

Why the college essay matters

The college essay gives you an opportunity to tell a college admissions officer what makes you unique and genuine. It gives you a chance to illustrate what gifts, talents, or specialties you can offer. Sometimes that quality is as simple as a good character or the ability to persevere. Other times it might be that you’ve overcome a significant challenge in your life.

The trick is to reach inside yourself, find a topic and write about it in a compelling style. The best way to do this is to think deeply through brainstorming and writing exercises, read sample essays, and give yourself enough time to revise, revise, revise.

Like ribbon around a flagpole

Six high school juniors attended my March 5-6 workshop in Westford, Massachusetts and each had unique and wonderful story ideas by the time the workshop ended.

One student was planning to write about how a serious health issue has affected her life. Another was planning to focus on how a sports injury led her to mentor and coach younger gymnasts. A third was recalling his experiences at a New Hampshire summer camp first as a camper and then as a counselor.

“Brainstorm Your College Essay,” is a workshop I run for high school juniors and rising seniors to help them find a topic for their 650 word essay. It’s one of the most anxiety-producing aspects of applying for college. The good news is that it doesn’t have to be.

I limit the number of students in each workshop to six. That allows me to really get to know you over the three hour session and help you realize there are many stories in life. Our goal is to find the topic about which you feel passionate.

Then we begin shaping the story.

The trick for all essay writers is to find a focal point — something you can wrap a story around like ribbon around a flagpole.

How do you find this? It helps to talk about it with family and friends, and then start writing. I encourage my students to jump in. Put words to paper because that will help you home your topic.

If you need help, I’m just an email away at

Here’s what your story would look like if you drew it

Anatomy of a story.

Understanding the elements of a story will help you write your college essay.

Here you can see that a well-written story:

1.) begins with a hook (lower left corner);

2.) includes facts (real ones, not alternatives :);

3.) adds tension by creating a mystery or raising a question to keep the reader engaged;

4.) puts things in context, such as a geographic location or a time frame;

5.) moves the story along by telling what happened, using action verbs and detail. Take the reader into the scene of the story.

6.) concludes with a powerful ending that resolves something.

Your first college essay brainstorming exercise

The College Essay Confidante can be reached at

UPCOMING WORKSHOP: Wednesday, March 15, 6 to 7:15 p.m. and Thursday, March 16, 6 to 7:15 p.m.; $150 per student for both nights. Location will be in Westford. Address provided to registrants. If these dates are not convenient for you, private sessions can be arranged.

As a high school junior you are at the beginning of the college application process. Determining how to present yourself in an essay will be one of your more challenging endeavors.

Most students, when they begin thinking of writing the college essay, wonder how to come up with a topic that highlights their traits, character, and talents.

This is where brainstorming comes in. You fine a topic by taking baby steps.

In my workshops, “Brainstorming Your College Essay,” I usually begin with a simple writing exercise, asking the students to describe their bedrooms. “Tell me what color are the walls,” I say. “Where is the room located inside the house?” What do you see when you look outside the window?”

This simple exercise takes students inside their heads and helps them to reflect on what is important to them. It teaches them to put things in context. A bedroom is the most personal space you occupy. It’s where you store your dreams and thoughts in the books you place on the bookshelf, the jewelry you leave on the dresser and the pictures you hang on the walls.

If you can reflect your bedroom, you can reflect a part of yourself.

From there we take time getting to know each other.

The workshop has a maximum of six students and runs for three hours.

This gives us the time we need to get to know each other and to discuss potential topics.

You’ll leave with a written paragraph and the option of emailing me your completed essay for editing, if you meet a reasonable deadline.


You’ve gone through a rough patch and lost some high school friends along the way. Things don’t feel right and you need an outlet to express your angst.

You can write about it in your college essay, you tell yourself. After all, one of the five prompts asks students to recount an incident or time when they experienced failure.

Wrong. Your college essay is not the place to write about how your friends left you high and dry. It’s not meant to be a cathartic exercise for releasing anxieties or a confessional for the things you did wrong. It’s meant to illustrate the part of you that positively sets you apart from the rest and makes you stand out in a flattering light.

Here’s a list of don’ts for your college essay:

  1. Don’t write about your heartbreak over a relationship that didn’t work out.
  2. Don’t discuss how you turned into a shoplifter in middle school until your parents caught you.
  3. Don’t talk about the day your English teacher sent you to detention because you and your best friend wouldn’t stop laughing in the back of the classroom.
  4. For heaven’s sake, don’t describe the time the narcotics dog sniffed marijuana in your car while it was parked on school grounds.
  5. Don’t write about how much you love basketball, football, baseball, lacrosse, etc. If you write about a sport, you’d better find an extraordinarily unique angle.
  6. Don’t write about the night you went out drinking and totaled your parents’ car.
  7. Don’t write about how you hate your mother/father/sister/brother.
  8. Don’t admit you put someone at physical risk by being reckless.
  9. Don’t write about how you walk through life pretending to fulfill a role decided by others. You should have some inkling by now of how you fit into society.
  10. Don’t write about your cute cat or dog, unless you really have no other story idea. But if that’s the case, you’re in need of a creativity boost.

There’s nothing wrong with writing about failure, or a mistake you made. But it’s important that you can show the experience taught you something or helped you to mature as a result.

Choose your topic wisely.

You have ideas locked inside you. The trick is to unlock the vault and let them flow.

If you’re still searching for an essay topic or want help with editing an essay draft, email the College Essay Confidantè at


10 Tips for finalizing your college essay


The early college application deadline of Nov. 1 is fast approaching. Is your essay ready for submission?

If not, it’s time to set aside a block of three hours on a Saturday or Sunday and write your heart out. Write one draft and then another, and another. Once you’ve written your final draft it’s time to chisel every sentence and word. First, make sure your essay is not more than 650 words and not less than 250. If so, you’re ready to apply the final touches.

Here are my tips for finalizing your essay:

  1. Read it once, read it twice, read it three times. Ask your family members to read it.
  2. Take notes on their feedback and give their comments consideration.
  3. Stay true to your own heart. Don’t allow anyone to sway you away from the story you’re burning to tell. If you feel emotionally attached to your story, so will your readers.
  4. Scour your essay for unnecessary words and delete them.
  5. Evaluate each verb and consider using a more descriptive one.
  6. Evaluate each sentence, one by one, to see if you can reconstruct it to be shorter and more precise.
  7. Check to make sure you’ve presented the best part of yourself. Don’t present yourself as someone who pretends to be someone you’re not just because of what others expect of you. On the other hand, don’t be afraid to reflect an inward struggle that shows a thoughtful and heartfelt effort to sort through things.
  8. Rethink the story. Did you explain it so that someone who knows nothing about you or the storyline will understand it quickly and effortlessly? If not, you may need to reorganize the paragraphs and revise them. Keep in mind that an admissions officer flips through hundreds of essays at this time of year. Yours needs to be immediately comprehensible and compelling.
  9. Rethink your conclusion. Was it serendipitous or did you struggle to find an ending? If you’re not completely satisfied with your last sentence, try something else. Play with the words. Sing it to yourself. Then go and meditate for 10 minutes and take your mind completely off it. When you come back to it, the right ending will pop into your brain. I promise.
  10. Most important, finish writing and editing your essay before Oct. 31. There’s nothing worse than working under last-minute pressure. You’re bound to make a typographical or grammatical mistake. Give yourself a gift by going gently into your deadline with confidence and grace.

Joyce Pellino Crane is the College Essay Confidantè. She is the multimedia news director at Westford Community Access Television and the former editor of the Westford Eagle and Littleton Independent, two community newspapers in Massachusetts. Crane was a Boston Globe correspondent for 10 years and her commentaries have appeared on the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper’s opinion page. She is the recipient of numerous journalism awards including recognition for editorial writing.

If you need help with your essay, email the College Essay Confidante at

Brainstorm • Write • Edit • Submit

The College Essay Confidante mantra


12 tips for writing your college essay

Your college application essay can be the ticket to the college of your choice. The essay gives you a chance to differentiate yourself and highlight assets that don’t show up elsewhere on your college application. This is your chance to shine so give it the necessary time to make it the best it can be.

1. Focus! You’ve got a total of only 650 words for the essay. That’s the equivalent of slightly less than one single-spaced page. Cut to the chase and keep it simple. Zero in on a specific event or happenstance that illustrates you learned something, gained insight, matured, or progressed in some other way.
2. Avoid chronology. You don’t have the luxury of endless space. Too often, I’ve seen students write beautiful stories that start from some beginning long ago. The essay grows to 1,200 words and now the writer is in trouble and the heart of the story must be cut. That’s a painful process and the essay inevitably turns into something unrecognizable to the author.
3. Mine your brain and everyone else’s. Finding a story topic that reflects something meaningful takes time and deep thought. The most effective process I’ve found for generating ideas is brainstorming. Bounce ideas off your family members and friends – look for people in your life who are deep thinkers, write for a living, or know you well. Each spring and summer I hold workshops for rising seniors for the sole purpose of getting to know them and helping them to know themselves. We sit around a conference table and share information. You’d be amazed at the stories the students have inside them without realizing it.
4. Use metaphors to depict life lessons. Show your readers what you want them to know about you instead of telling them. One student, who was planning to become a lawyer, started her second draft like this: “The girl on the bus was my best client. Whenever the driver reprimanded her, I would step up to her defense. That’s me, defender of the weak or the clueless.” Her first draft began like this: “In the second grade I decided that I was going to be the first women president of the United States. I wanted to be the President because I wanted to outlaw smoking, and I wanted to make shelters for black cats.” Do you see the difference?
5. Know your kernel of truth. This is the essence of all good essay writing. There is the outer you and then there’s that kernel inside you from which springs your emotions, beliefs, and philosophies. The most successful essays I’ve ever written have come from a scene or occurrence that stirred emotion inside me – an event or feeling I can’t forget. When you are compelled to write about a topic you will know you’ve found your kernel of truth. It’s the thing that makes you tick. It’s the stuff that makes your friends love you. It’s the engine that motivates you to reach further and try harder. Pay attention to your emotions and you’ll find it.
6. Choose a topic that truly interests you. The Common Application has five essay prompts. Look them over and decide whether you want to write a story about yourself or whether you want to make a persuasive argument. A personal story requires less research but more creativity. A persuasive story requires a lot of thought, research, and accuracy. Regardless of which, your story should stir passion or deep commitment in you. If it doesn’t, search for another topic because if your story doesn’t interest you, it won’t interest your readers and you will be forgotten in the pile of applicant rejects.
7. Just do it. There is no substitute for putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Every author will tell you that no book was ever written inside someone’s head. The process of writing helps you reach a deeper level of thinking. This is the area where your subconscious and conscious mind intersect – from where your best ideas gush. Like Dorothy and her red shoes, you have the means for going home, you just need someone to tell you how. Here’s how: write your first paragraph. Then write your second paragraph. Then your third and finally your fourth. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling or typographical mistakes. Don’t try to make it pretty. All of that can come later. For now, just get the story onto the page.
8. Use action verbs. The best writers eschew adjectives. If you do this, you’ll not only present a more vivid picture, but you’ll save space.
9. Revise! The process of revising and editing your essay will almost certainly spur insight that will improve your writing. Pay attention to grammar, syntax, and spelling.
10. Don’t force the ending. Remember when I said you want to find the intersection of your conscious and subconscious mind? That’s where your best conclusions come from, so if you don’t know how to end your story, turn off your brain for a while and let things percolate. Come back to the essay a day or two later and read it through. Sometimes the perfect ending will pop into your head and you’ll know you’ve nailed it.
11. Sculpt your essay. Now that you’ve got it in final format and you think it’s ready to submit, stop. This is when it’s time to see yourself as Michelangelo with the statue of David before you. Chisel away. Scrutinize every sentence. Are there extra words that can be eliminated without changing the meaning of the sentence? Are you using precise language? Have you chosen the best words? Are there redundancies?
12. Envision your story as a circle. Envision your essay as a story that ends where it starts and travels around the page as it unfolds. A story with a powerful conclusion often refers back to the beginning but shows resolution and growth.

Joyce Pellino Crane is the College Essay Confidantè. She is the multimedia news director at Westford Community Access Television and the former editor of the Westford Eagle and Littleton Independent, two community newspapers in Massachusetts. Crane was a Boston Globe correspondent for 10 years and her commentaries have appeared on the Pulitzer Prize-winning paper’s opinion page. She is the recipient of numerous journalism awards including recognition for editorial writing.