Let’s not bury the lead: the Common App first-year essay prompts will remain the same for 2020-2021.
As part of our commitment to making sure the essay prompts continue to serve students and Common App member colleges well, we invited feedback through a survey. Over the course of three weeks in December, over 10,000 people--two-thirds of them students--shared their thoughts. Here’s what we learned:
The current prompts do their job well.
Over 95% of every group who responded to the survey--students, counselors, teachers, admission officers--agree that the current prompts spark effective essays. That’s a testament to you. Over the last 8 years, based on your feedback and the indispensable counsel of our advisory committees, we’ve revised and refined the prompts so they guide students toward stories that will help Common App members make informed admission decisions.
Opinions about individual prompts are as diverse as the people who write and read the essays they inspire.
Aside from the agreement about general effectiveness, there was only one other area of consensus: people value the prompt inviting students to share a story about a meaningful background, identity, interest, or talent. Over 50% of respondents in each group identified this prompt as effective. And the rest? When asked what prompt they would like to see removed or replaced, respondents were all over the map, with no one prompt getting more than 35% thumbs down. Moreover, the groups didn’t agree with one another. Students love Topic of Your Choice. Members and counselors? Not so much. And while students aren’t inclined to discuss a time when they challenged a belief or idea, members appreciate what those essays reveal about the students who write them. What this feedback suggests is that no one likes everything, but everyone likes something. And that has been our goal since day one: making sure that all students can find a home in the prompts.
There’s always room for improvement, even if the prompts stay the same.
As we were reviewing the survey results with our counselor advisory committee, it became clear that how students approach an essay is just as important as what prompt they choose, if not more so. We have an opportunity to guide students, not in what they write but in how they think about what they write. To this end, we will develop new resources to support students through this part of the application.
Transfer essay prompts need some love too.
While the majority of feedback we received pertained to the first-year prompts, many of you also shared valuable insights about the transfer essays--feedback about both content and process. We continue to look for ways to improve the transfer application process, and we will have more to share about the transfer essay in the coming months.
Sharing the essay prompts so far in advance of the next application year is always a tricky dance. On the one hand, people are curious. Rising seniors want to know what they’ll be asked to write about, and counselors and teachers want to make sure they are prepared to guide their students. On the other hand, releasing the prompts can send a tacit message that the college application process starts now. That’s not our intent. Everyone approaches this experience from their own angle and at their own pace, and we’ll be there to support you along the way.
By Scott Anderson