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Countdown to college: More on the Common Application for 2020

By Lee Shulman Bierer, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in Education News

Last week I shared the first three of the seven Common Application prompts for 2020 and some tips on how to approach each essay. Today, I'll wrap up with the remaining four prompts and introduce the brand-new optional COVID-19 essay.

Here are essay prompts 4-7:

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.

Tip: Have you conducted STEM research? Have you spent hours tracing your family history in a local archive? This prompt is an excellent way to showcase your research experience. This is an especially good prompt for a student who has been involved in a big project outside of school assignments.

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

Tip: This prompt encourages self-discovery. Be careful to avoid cliche ideas here. This is not the time to talk about your NOLS trip or varsity soccer championship game. Instead, consider choosing a specific accomplishment or event that will help an admissions committee understand the important relationships in your life and your values.


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? Where do you turn to when you want to learn more?

Tip: This is a good prompt for students who want to share a specific passion - music, equestrian, reading or even an eccentric hobby. Talking about a hobby, students can demonstrate their personality, their values and even their vulnerabilities. It's also an excellent prompt for students who have engaged with research or learning beyond their regular coursework. This prompt allows you to showcase any academic enrichment that doesn't appear elsewhere in your application.

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.

Tip: This prompt offers the most flexibility, which can work to your advantage if you have an essay that doesn't neatly answer one of the prompts above. It's exciting for students who are good at creative writing to take advantage of this prompt. The overwhelming array of possibilities, however, can create writing paralysis. If you think you might struggle with too much freedom, perhaps this isn't the best prompt for you.


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