College Essay Topics 2016-2017

Class of 2022 – it’s about that time. The first milestone in your college application journey has officially arrived.

Today the Common Application released their 2017-18 essay prompts. This reveal comes with a heaping helping of good news, most of which relates to the fact that the prompts have not changed all that much from last year’s selection. In addition, your options have expanded! We don’t want to keep you in too much suspense, so before we break things down, here are the prompts with notes from the Common App about any changes from last year’s prompts in brackets:

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]

Now that you know what you’re up against (not so bad, right?), here are three main things you need to know about the 2017-18 Common App essay prompts:

  1. There Are More Questions with Broader Boundaries: This year the Common App is offering students seven (yes, SEVEN!) prompt options. Many of this year’s prompts closely, if not exactly, reflect last year’s choices. Of the five prompts assigned to the 2016-2017 applicants, two questions are exactly the same as last year and three have been adjusted slightly to reflect feedback from counselors and admissions officers in an attempt to open up the interpretation of the questions and give students more freedom. There are also two completely new prompts, including the return of the “topic of your choice” option we are certain this year’s students will be happy to see.
  2. 650 is the magic number: The word limit for the personal statement remains at 650, which we love. We have found our students are able to tell a thoughtful and complete story within this space, and the Common App seems to continue to feel confident that the majority of applicants and admissions officers are satisfied with this length. Be prepared to come at admissions with a little over a page’s worth of self reflection and insight!
  3. The Stork Has Come Early: The Common App’s essay prompts have been delivered to us quite early in the year for this application cycle (thank you, Common App!). This means you can start wrapping your head around the prompts now, as opposed to over the summer or – gasp! – this coming September. We know it may feel overwhelming to begin sifting through essay prompts this early in the year, but trust us – preparation is the key to avoiding panic down the line. Read through these prompts and become familiar with what they’re asking. Take notes throughout the rest of your junior year as you recognize the themes popping up in your daily life, relationships and goals. You will be surprised how many scenarios and memories will illuminate that light bulb once you know what you’re looking for.

Overall, we could not be more thrilled with the 2017-18 prompt options. While we still maintain our philosophy that the prompts don’t really matter (what matters is that you find the right story to tell), this expansion of prompt selection should serve to ignite students’ creativity and reinforce the idea that there are many ways to arrive at a successful personal statement.

Be on the lookout for our comprehensive Guide to the 2017-18 Common App Essay Prompts, which will be released as soon as we can get our little elves to write it for us (luckily they take payment in leftover Superbowl nachos). In the meantime, take a peek at last year’s guide, which will undoubtedly prove useful, especially for the first five prompts. We’re here to support you on your college essay journey – so follow us on social media, check back with us frequently and get ready to write your winning essay!

Check out last year’s Guide to the Common App’s 2016-17 Prompts.

Get started with our self-paced video guide to writing a winning college essay!

The 2016-17 Common Application platform went live last week, and in the ensuing weeks you will undoubtedly read a lot about the Common App’s personal essay. You will read about essays that worked and didn’t work. You will read about what each prompt means, which prompts are better than others, and what admissions officers are looking for in these 650-word representations of each applicant. The one thing you won’t read is that the Common App’s essay prompts don’t really matter.

I’ll say it again: The prompts don’t matter.

Here’s why. The admissions essay’s true purpose is to tell admissions officers something they don’t know about you and that isn’t represented anywhere else on the application. The essay should aim to reveal something about your true passions, interests, and goals while giving a taste of your personality. Reading your essay should give admissions officers insight into what it would be like to have a conversation with you. What makes you tick. What makes you, you.

While an essay prompt can serve as an inspirational launch point for a brilliant topic or story idea, over the years I have found many students get too caught up in trying to decide which prompt to tackle before they even understand which of their stories and characteristics they want to put on display. It’s like choosing the icing flavor before you decide you’re going to bake a cake (instead of, say, cooking spaghetti).

Decide what meal you are going to serve admissions first. What, of the many things you have to offer, will be the most satisfying tidbit you can lay down in front of someone who wants to know you better?

At College Essay Advisors, we call this approach to ignoring the prompt in favor of concentrating on the story, “The Backwards Brainstorm.” The Backwards Brainstorm involves four simple steps:

1. Take a cursory look at the Common Application’s essay prompts to get generally acquainted with them. (Hi prompts! You seem nice!)

2. Forget about the prompts. Forever. Okay, just for a while, but still: say goodbye. (Sayonara!)

3. Collect your best stories and ruminate on your defining characteristics. What doesn’t admissions know about you that you want them to know? What moments in your life have shaped you and made you the person you are today? Run through some exercises to find that magic topic. Nail down that central idea or, at the very least, a few frontrunners. (Gotta catch ‘em all.)

4. Dig those prompts out of cold storage. (Prompts! I missed you! Sort of.) Read each one with your essay topic in mind. Choose the prompt that most closely fits the tale you aim to tell. Eh, voilà! You are now telling a story that both serves you well and meets all of the Common App’s requirements. You are basically a genius.

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