The 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompt #7 reads as follows:
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.
According to the Common Application, this was the second most popular prompt chosen by students last year. This prompt is the most open-ended, but with great freedom comes great responsibility. Students often struggle to brainstorm without a structured and narrow prompt, so if you choose this prompt, make sure that you have a good game plan for brainstorming. Here are some tips and advice to optimize your essay if you choose prompt #7:
1. Don't make it obvious that you just recycled another essay or prompt.
The prompt suggests that you could just share an essay that you've already written. Throughout the course of your college application season, you will write dozens of essays, both short and long, for various schools. Obviously, you want to be economical and smart about your essay-writing and not have to spend energy and creativity generating brand new content for every school that you apply to. Learning how and when to recycle essays is critical for your success during the admissions process. However, don't be fooled: just recycling another essay (or prompt) without making any modifications for the Common Application is a recipe for disaster.
Colleges are not dumb. They know what other schools are doing, and they often imitate each other. For example, when a prestigious school dumps or adds an admissions requirement, other schools often follow suit. Colleges are also aware of specific essays and prompts for particular schools. The University of Chicago is known for some of the quirkiest and most creative prompts (a great resource for brainstorming, by the way). Stanford University regularly asks students to write a note or letter to a future roommate. The list goes on. If you decide to just take a school-specific supplemental essay and copy and paste it into the section for your Common Application main essay, your admissions officer will know--I guarantee it. Recycling an essay is not the problem. The problem is giving off the impression that you spent no time or effort tailoring an essay for the Common Application main essay. If you just recycle an essay without modifying it, especially for an extremely important essay like the Common Application main essay, then you are giving the impression to your admissions officer that you are lazy, unmotivated, and uncreative.
Thus, even if you decide to recycle another essay or prompt, make sure that you spend a significant amount of time and effort modifying it and tailoring it to the Common Application. Make sure that the length of your recycled essay fits the length requirements of the Common Application. It is extremely obvious if you take a short supplemental essay for a particular school and just copy and paste it into the Common Application. Your main essay for the Common Application should ideally be at least 500-600 words (the maximum is 650 words). If you just copy and paste a 250-word supplemental essay into your main Common Application essay, your lack of effort will show conspicuously. Make sure that the prompt you're answering is not easily detectable as a school-specific prompt. Modify the substance of your essay--even if it's adding or editing a few things here and there--so that it appears that you generated a unique essay for the Common Application. Recycling is great--just do it subtly and tactfully so that no one can tell that your essay was recycled. The best recycled products look like brand new products; the best recycled essays look like brand new essays.
2. Be able to articulate your essay prompt.
Instead of just recycling another essay or prompt, you may be tempted to just generate a completely new essay on a new topic. That is fantastic! Just make sure that there is a clear focus to your essay. How do you know if your essay is focused enough? If you are able to articulate your essay prompt in a pithy manner. Can you summarize the core of your essay in one simple concise question? Or is your essay such a hodgepodge of different stories, thoughts, and ideas that it's difficult for you to explain what the main point or purpose of your essay is? For each college admissions that you write, whether it's a big essay like the main Common Application essay or a smaller essay like school-specific supplemental essays, make sure that there is one clear point that you are making about yourself. In each essay, you should be revealing one significant aspect of yourself that would be essential for your reader to know in evaluating you as an applicant.
Being able to articulate your essay prompt does not mean that you should brainstorm prompts first and then brainstorm the things in your life that fit that prompt second. Often, it is much more effective at the beginning of your brainstorming process just to create a long laundry list of your life experiences. Look back at your life, especially your most recent past, and think about the most significant moments. Be open to exploring both the highs and the lows--the vicissitudes of your life--that have shaped you into who you are today and who you want to be in the future. Your essay topic can be serious if you want it to be, but it can also be goofy too. The important thing is to choose an essay prompt that captures the essence of who you are--your personality, sense of humor, character, and curiosity.
If you choose Common Application prompt #7, you do not have to write out a specific prompt above your essay before you start writing your essay. But when you are just creating and revising your drafts, it might be good practice to write out a prompt for yourself and continue to refine it as you write your essay. This way, you can keep your essay focused and specific. Be open to revising your personal prompt as your essay continues to evolve. If you want some good ideas on how to create effective essay prompts, I strongly recommend that you explore the University of Chicago's essay prompt archives--you will get lots of great inspiration from reading previous essay topics. Your prompt does not need to be as provocative and sexy as these prompts--be true to yourself and choose a prompt that fits your needs and personality.
3. Demonstrate good judgment in your topic selection.
Ultimately, your essay in response to prompt #7 is about demonstrating good judgment in topic selection. Colleges want to see what you are able to come up with when you are given total freedom and flexibility in crafting your own essay. If you generate a mediocre essay even when given this extraordinary license to write whatever you want, then you will certainly disappoint your reader. If you are bad at coming up with topics on your own, then don't choose prompt #7. That is also part of exercising good judgment. If you are someone who needs structure and guidance in writing essays, then choose one of the first six prompts provided by the Common Application and work off of those. Many of those prompts are fantastic starting points for your essay.
Too many students try to be clever and unique when writing their essays for college admission. They want to be the next viral star whose essay will be published in the New York Times or aired on the evening news for its brilliance and humor. If your essay achieves that level of creativity and excellence, then fantastic. But you don't need to aim for a viral essay in order to write a strong personal statement. Don't try to be someone you're not in your essay. Authenticity and honesty are important, and people can tell when you are faking it. Too often, students come to the fall of senior year and think that one great creative essay can just change who they are in the eyes of admissions officers (i.e., reinvent themselves in 250-650 words). The problem is that the rest of your application may betray you. Admissions officers look for patterns and consistencies across your application. If there is incongruence between your quality essay and the rest of your application, then they will begin to wonder why. Your essay and the rest of your application need to tell a coherent story about who you are.
Not very often do you get an opportunity to be introspective and write a personal statement. In fact, for most high school seniors, this might be one of the first times in their lives that they are not writing academic essays. So the new format and content may be disorienting and challenging. Take this opportunity to get to know yourself better. Rely on people you trust--your friends, mentors, teachers, and family--to help you dig into your experiences and unearth your most important qualities. Ask yourself big questions and don't be afraid if you don't have all of the answers yet. What are your most important values? How do you spend your time, money, talent, and creativity? What are your greatest dreams and aspirations? How have you changed over time? What communities are you a part of? How have you found meaning and purpose in your life? What are your individual strengths and weaknesses? Beginning to tackle these questions honestly will empower you to write authentically, project your personality, and dazzle your college admissions officers.