Feb 13, 2020

Common App essay prompts remain the same for 2020-21

In 2019-20, USC wanted to know an applicant’s favorite snack.

Based on a survey of over 10,000 stakeholders—students, counselors, teachers, admissions officers, the Common Application has decided to make no changes to essay prompts for 2020-21, keeping them essentially the same for the fourth consecutive year. 

And a collective sigh of relief could be heard from the multi million-dollar cottage industry that’s grown up to support college essay preparation.

According to the Common App, “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 admissions decisions.”

In some quarters, this is good news. The Common App announcement means essay advisers won’t have to retool or come up with innovative approaches to new prompts. They can simply add another year of feedback to advice accumulated over the past several years.

In its survey, the Common App found that over 50% of respondents in all groups identified as “effective” the prompt inviting students to share a story about a meaningful background, identity, interest or talent. When asked what prompt they would like to see removed or replaced, respondents were less in agreement with no single prompt getting more than 35% “thumbs down.”

And as usual, students really like “Topic of Your Choice.” Admissions offices and counselors weren’t so sure. But while students weren’t too enthusiastic about discussing “a time when they challenged a belief or idea,” colleges “appreciate what those essays reveal about the students who write them.”

Then again, these are the very same institutions also asking [if you have favorites from the 2019-20 application cycle, include them in the comments below]:

What is your favorite candy?” (Hendrix College)
“Imagine you had an extra hour in the day—how would you spend that time?” (Stanford University)
 “What song should we be listening to while reading your application?” (Chapman University)
“Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why? (University of Chicago)
 “If you could create a food truck, what type of food would you serve? Name the truck.” (Elon University)
“What piques your curiosity and why?” (Wake Forest University)
“Yes or No: Is a hot dog a sandwich? Be sure to defend your position on this important life question.” (Presbyterian College)
“You’ve invented a time machine in your living room—well done! When and where is your first destination and why?” (Scripps College)
“If asked to write a 150-word tweet to tell the world who you are, what would you say?” (Emory University)
“Defend an unpopular opinion you hold?” (University of Notre Dame)
“You are required to spend the next year in either the past or the future. To what year would you travel and why?” (University of Richmond)
“If you had a theme song—a piece of music that describes you, what would it be and why? Please include the name of the song and artist.” (Smith College)
“What is your favorite snack?” (University of Southern California)
“What fictional character would you choose as your college roommate and why?” (
Linfield College)

In its announcement, the Common App was quick to suggest that releasing the prompts so early can “send a tacit message that the application process starts now.” That’s evidently not their intent, especially given potential changes down the road. But knowing what to expect for the coming year does provide counselors and others an opportunity to get a head start on application workshops and other activities designed to support students and reduce some of the stress inherent in a process, some aspects of which aren’t particularly transparent.

For the record, the 2020-21 Common Application prompts will inspire essays on the following topics:
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.
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?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
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.
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
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? 
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.

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