What do the 2020-21 Coalition Application essay prompts really mean, and how should you approach them? CEA's Chief Advisor, Stacey Brook, is here to break it all down.
Four years ago, applicants around the world became the first to experiment with a brand new college application platform. Intended to be a full-service competitor to the Common App, the Coalition Application provided students with a fresh, new interface and, of course, a new set of essay prompts to grapple with. It remains to be seen whether or not the Coalition App—whose participating schools include the University of Chicago, University of Maryland, and most of the Ivy League—will truly challenge the Common App’s long-term dominance in the admissions space, but what we do know is that the prompts the Coalition presented to previous applicants were quite similar in nature to those from the Common App each year. They are also, blessedly, remaining the same for the 2020-21 application cycle. (Whew!) Interestingly, the Coalition App’s “Topic of Your Choice” option in 2016 may have even influenced the Common App to add a similar choose-your-own-adventure style option to their repertoire of prompts in 2017. Whatever the case may be, the good news is that the prompts are confirmed nice and early in the admissions cycle. We know what we’re up against!
We here at CEA believe that a worthy subject for a personal essay can be backed into just about any prompt for the Coalition App (just as with the Common App). Still, we thought it would be valuable to break down each one, highlighting what these questions are really asking and how to use them as inspiration for an effective and memorable college essay that really hits home with admissions. So take a peek at the advice below. It’s never too early to begin mining for those stories that will show admissions what you’re made of.
As a launch point for an application essay, Prompt #1 leaves your options wide open. It should be a good fit for any tale you have to tell that “demonstrates your character,” which should be a base requirement of any personal statement you submit, regardless of the prompt you’re responding to. How do you define yourself? What characteristics form the foundation of your personality? Are you generous and thoughtful? Are you gutsy? Resilient? Funny? Think about some of the most memorable moments in your life—the stories that come up over and over again, the moments that make you feel most proud. Maybe your talkative approach to a science fair, and the warm reaction it elicited from the judges and even your competitors, made you realize the value of being unabashedly gregarious. Perhaps a particularly boring summer in your childhood inspired you to create a role-playing game that involved all the kids in the neighborhood. What do these stories say about you and the lens through which you see the world? One last thing to note in choosing this prompt is that, while it is broad in its overall inquiry, it does specifically ask you to describe an experience, so if the idea you have in your head is character-related but not tied to a specific event or occurrence, you might want to save it for a different prompt. (Don’t worry—more great options are coming.)
The most important things to keep in mind when responding to this prompt are originality and sincerity. There are many thoughtful, creative ways to write about your service trip to South Africa or the clothing drive you organized at your school, but there are even more tired and clichéd ways to address these kinds of efforts. Make sure your essay is highly personal in the details you include. Focus on the smaller moments within these larger experiences and initiatives to ensure the essay shines a light not only on how you made an impact, but also on how you were shaped by your contributions. Instead of talking about your after-school tutoring work in a general sense, maybe you can discuss your relationship with a single student and what motivated you to put in the effort required to really help another person learn. Highlighting these personal anecdotes will prevent your essay from going down a generic path and lead you toward a more sincere conclusion. Yes, giving back to people in need is rewarding, but what surprised you about the act of contributing? And what motivated you to act in the first place? Discussing the under-recognized elements of these experiences, the ones that perhaps only you have thought about, will show admissions the true value of your actions and how your caring might show itself on campus.
Additionally, make sure your contribution is meaningful. Yes, donating the $1,000 you made at a car wash you organized is awesome. But it is probably not what the Coalition is looking for when they talk about focusing on “the greater good.” When have you made a sacrifice for the sake of another person or a cause? What motivates you to go above and beyond? What causes are near and dear to your heart, and why do you care about them? You have already completed all of these amazing initiatives. Show admissions that your heart was really in it.
A question about having your beliefs challenged demands a great deal of introspection off the bat—and this kind of disarming honesty can make an essay incredibly sincere and compelling. Your willingness to examine your beliefs, whether they were taught to you by your parents, pursued through your own active interest, or simply absorbed as you went about your daily life, can convey a level of maturity and curiosity that is hugely valuable in the college environment. And the range of beliefs that can be challenged is as wide as you make it. Maybe a particularly adventurous meal you had while abroad in China made you reassess the boundaries you believed dictated your taste in food. You can discuss a belief that has been long cherished or simply accepted, which means you can discuss something that has been a part of the fabric of your values based on passionate feelings OR societal norms. When brainstorming topics for this question, keep in mind that staying away from polarizing subjects like politics is probably a good idea. You never know who will pick up your application, and you don’t want personal bias about hot button issues getting in the way of a fair assessment of your passion and qualifications.
Prompt #4 is the Coalition prompt that feels newest and freshest. What are some major misconceptions people have about modern student life? Can you shed some light on these misunderstandings? What does it mean to be an adolescent in this day and age, with the tools you have at your disposal? And what about being a student today is truly awesome in a way most people wouldn’t expect? Essays that respond to these questions are ripe for humorous responses (did the latest changes to the Instagram algorithm blow your mind?), as long as you also think critically and relate the topic to your life, passions, and goals. Although this can be an opportunity to get a little silly, it’s also a moment for you to gain some perspective and think about what struggling really means to you. What are some of the toughest challenges you have faced or that you know other students your age are facing? And what have you learned from dealing with these struggles along with triumphs? As with service essays, if you are going to address a potentially common subject like bullying or body image, make sure to approach it from a truly unique and highly personal perspective. In the end, the essay should not be about the High School student experience in general, but rather about an aspect of teenage-hood you’ve chosen to highlight because of the way it affects or represents YOU.
For many students, this catch-all prompt is a gift. Obviously, any essay you write will meet the requirement of this prompt, so if you have already begun brainstorming with the Common App topics in mind, fear not; this Coalition prompt has you covered. That said, if you are approaching the personal statement for the first time, trying to find a place to begin, the topic of your choice may not be the place you want to start. Having a wide-open runway for topic selection can be debilitating for some, so if your creativity flourishes under stricter parameters, by all means, use one of the other awesome prompts to guide your inspiration. No matter what, the thing that matters most is not the prompt you respond to, but instead the story you are trying to tell and what it will communicate to admissions.
Whichever Coalition prompt you decide to respond to, and whatever you discuss, your essay should reveal qualities and experiences that cannot be gleaned from your test scores, activity résumé, or any other element of your existing application. This is where an admissions officer gets to know what it would be like to have a conversation with you. It is, at least as far as we know, still one of the only opportunities the Coalition offers you to speak to admissions in your own voice. Take that opportunity and make the most of it.