After years of relative consistency in their essay prompts, US colleges began shaking up their essay prompts in 2020—and this year, that trend has continued, with many schools introducing brand-new essay prompts for 2023. We’ve noticed a few trends in how colleges are changing their essay prompts; here’s our take on the new developments.
Diversity and Flexibility
This year’s essay changes tend to boil down to three themes: flexibility, diversity, and community engagement. Colleges are showing a greater interest than ever in how students’ life experiences have shaped what they’ll contribute to the class—and in the interest of learning that, they’re offering broader essay prompts that allow more room for creative topics.
Princeton is a great case study for this. This year, they’ve removed their essay prompt about difficult conversations and replaced it with this one:
Princeton values community and encourages students, faculty, staff and leadership to engage in respectful conversations that can expand their perspectives and challenge their ideas and beliefs. As a prospective member of this community, reflect on how your lived experiences will impact the conversations you will have in the classroom, the dining hall or other campus spaces. What lessons have you learned in life thus far? What will your classmates learn from you? In short, how has your lived experience shaped you? (500 words or fewer)
Provided the student frames their story correctly and pays attention to the second half of the prompt (what classmates will learn from them), there are very few topics that cannot be discussed for this question. We love that it gives students the freedom to share their favorite life experience or elaborate on the community they grew up in—and to do so in 500 words of detail. Choosing your best life experience (that you didn’t write about in the Common App personal statement) means you can draw on material from other applications, expanding your best essay from another school rather than writing a new one from scratch. This means the question may require less time to answer than its predecessor, even though the word count is longer.
Many other schools have introduced shorter versions of this prompt: For instance, UVA has added:
What about your background, perspective, or experience will serve as a source of strength for you or those around you at UVA? (300 words)
While these prompts are shorter than Princeton’s, they are fundamentally similar. You have a lot of freedom to tell your best story to admission officers, but you should also explicitly discuss how other students will benefit when you share your experience with them.
Another popular new essay topic is community engagement: Colleges seem particularly interested in students who are active in their communities and seek not just to succeed personally, but make a broader impact on society. This has been true for years, but many schools are now introducing essays on this topic (some mandatory). Here are some examples:
Tell us about a community that you have been part of where your participation helped to change or shape the community for the better. (Emory)
Reflect on a social or community issue that deeply resonates with you. Why is it important to you, and how have you been involved in addressing or raising awareness about it? (Boston University)
We recommend approaching this topic with a personal touch. Reflect on community issues that have touched you or someone close to you—for example, issues facing particular racial and cultural communities, genders, or sexual orientations. This gives you an opportunity to not just recap a service or activism activity, but also share a bit about your personal life outside of school and extracurriculars.
Don’t be afraid to define “social or community issue” broadly. Many students will focus on communities related to racial, cultural, or sexual identities, but workplaces, school clubs, religious congregations, towns, geographic regions, and families are also communities. You can also think bigger—issues like environmental sustainability affect the entire global community, and this is also a valid way to approach a community prompt. Having a story that’s interesting, original, and deeply reflective is the key to succeeding on these prompts—and that’s possible with any community.
With so many schools changing their requirements, this is a tumultuous year for college admissions, with many unknowns. However, one thing is certain: Essays will be more important than ever as schools stop looking at factors like SAT scores, race, and legacy status.
Reach out to us to discuss how we can help your essay shine!