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Writing supplements or member questions: How to find Common App essay prompts

Claremont McKenna College, CA
Claremont McKenna College, CA
Nancy Griesemer

Pixar is famous for sneaking insider references and jokes into movies. These hidden gems are known as “Easter Eggs” because they require a bit of “hunting” and attention to detail in order for viewers to be rewarded with a “find.”

Stanford clearly labels its essay prompts.
Nancy Griesemer

And as fans know, Pixar’s Easter Eggs aren’t always so easy to find. One of the best known eggs is the yellow Pizza Planet truck, which has appeared in every Pixar film since the first Toy Story installment. But for more obscure eggs, viewers need a little guidance and Pixar has developed an app for that.

So what does Pixar have to do with college admissions?

In what’s turned out to be the biggest and most controversial change in this year’s Common Application, developers have taken a page from the Pixar playbook and created their own version of Common App "Easter Eggs" by locating essay prompts in different areas of the online application.

Walking a fine line between “customization” and the original mission of the Common App, which emphasizes commonality over difference, interim CEO Paul Mott gave member colleges the opportunity to move their essay prompts out of writing supplements and into the main body of the application. This seemingly minor change represented a huge step toward allowing members to individualize or “tailor” their applications to meet their specific needs.

It also helped solve a huge problem with last year’s application by streamlining the mechanics of applying for colleges electing to do away with separate, and sometimes overlooked, writing supplements.

Stevenson is one of the schools that made the decision to move our short response questions from a writing supplement to the institution-specific ‘Questions’ section. It was our experience that more of our applicants were confused by the writing supplement last year than they ever had been by our pre-CA4 supplement. We had a higher incidence last year of students submitting everything except the supplement,” explained Kelly Farmer, Stevenson University’s director of freshman admission. “Adding our questions to the institution-specific question screen or what we colleges know as the ‘member screen’ was a good way for us to make sure students saw those questions and knew they were required. From my perspective, we were making a change that was intended to make the process more streamlined for the student.”

By locating essay prompts in the main body of the Common Application, colleges eliminate the need for two separate submissions—the Common App followed by an independent writing supplement. But although the process is simpler, admissions offices risk potential delays among students procrastinating essays and short answers. In addition, until an application is submitted, colleges cannot receive recommendations or other supporting documents though the electronic system, as the Common App does not release these materials before payment is provided.

Because some colleges don’t appreciate this delay and want to get the process rolling as soon as possible to open files or schedule interviews, many have stuck with the two-step plan—first the Common App with the boilerplate personal statement everyone receives, and then the customized writing supplement.

This seems clear enough. Either the college uses a writing supplement or it doesn’t. If there is no writing supplement, colleges may locate essay prompts among member-specific questions—provided they require writing beyond the personal statement. And for the record, many do not.

But the problem comes in when students can’t find or are surprised late in the process by unexpected writing requirements. At least for now, there is no consistency as to where these essay prompts may be found among member questions and there is no guide telling students where to look.

Enter the Easter Egg hunt.

Some colleges make the hunt easier than others. For example, Pomona places its essay prompt in a section labeled, “Pomona Supplemental Essay.” Boston University uses the label “Essay Questions;” Stanford has created two separate sections labeled “Short Questions” and “Short Answers;” and Cal Tech draws attention to its writing requirements in a section titled “Required Short Answers & Essay Prompts.”

Most Common App members, however, go the more generic route and tuck their writing requirements in the section labeled “Other Information.” But many use sections titled “Academics” or “General.”

And more creative colleges simply made up a name. Hendrix labels its writing requirements “Granola,” and Sweet Briar uses the title “About You.”

The trickiest essays to find are those using “triggers” to prompt additional questions. For example, a number of test-optional colleges present essay questions once the applicant has indicated scores will not be provided as part of the application. Others use answers to questions about majors, honors programs, and/or scholarships to make essays magically appear where previously there had been none.

So what’s the best way to make sure you find all of the essay Easter Eggs? Systematically go through the member questions and provide answers as you go along. This will alert you to easily identifiable writing requirements as well as unlock hidden questions which aren’t so easy to spot. Pay particular attention to test-optional or flexible colleges as well as to honors programs and scholarship opportunities.

And check with the individual websites. Often there are clear guidelines as to what the college needs and expects in the way of additional writing requirements.

To help applicants and those who advise them, the Common App has produced a general listing of where member colleges placed their writing requirements—writing supplement or member questions. Located on the Training Resources page and labeled “First-Year Writings Requirements Overview,” this PDF will give applicants a heads-up to start looking for additional prompts.

And similar to what Pixar developed for its fans, there are several apps on the market that sort out the various prompts and their locations.

But absent these aids, discovering where the Common App has placed writing requirements for each of the colleges on your list really isn’t that difficult. Simply think of them as Easter Eggs. And be sure to collect all your eggs (prompts) sooner rather than later to avoid unpleasant surprises down the road.