The Common App Announces 2017-2018 Essay Prompts


Changes and additions to Common App Essay options

Although the Common Application does not officially open for the next admissions cycle until this summer, the Common Application has announced their revisions to their personal essay writing prompts, including the addition of two brand new options.

Take a look below (changes highlighted in italics):


2017-2018 Common Application Essay Prompts

  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. [No change]
  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? [Revised]
  3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised]
  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. [No change]
  5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realisation that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
  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? [New]
  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. [New]


Remember--it's always good to get an early start! Read more about how the Keys Admissions can help your University preparation here, and even sign up for a free consultation.

USC Alumni Connect: Recap

On Friday, 18 November, 2016, we welcomed alumni from the University of Southern California to speak with our students and families about their college experiences. The panelists included Monita Maeloa, Marshall School of Business Class of 1992, David Lim, Marshall School of Business Class of 1991, and Charles Ill, Viterbi School of Engineering Class of 2009. 

Although Marshall and Viterbi are two of USC’s most prominent undergraduate schools--both ranking in the national top 15 in their respective fields--USC is a large school, with 14 different undergraduate schools to enrol and almost 20,000 undergraduate students.

The panelists began by speaking, of course, about the near boundless academic opportunities they experienced during their undergraduate educations at this school.

“Personally," Monita began, “I felt that the curriculum and electives gave me the best fundamentals for business that I could have asked for”. She cited the very “hands-on” style of learning that USC emphasised. David also spoke to the practicality of a USC education. He noted that one of the professors he had in an introductory business course had a financial consultancy in downtown LA, and told his students that their marketing analysis they turned in would be put to the test in the real world. “Professors here are very industry linked,” he added, “not just here for research and publishing.” 

But beyond their respective majors, each speaker took time to note the classes they took in other disciplines and across other schools within the university. David recalled a Film Studies class he enrolled in, which required him to watch old Hollywood films in his dorm and get an informal education about Al Capone from his American roommate. The elective challenged him in ways his Finance courses, or as he put it “I was out of my comfort zone—way out.” Likewise, Monita spoke about how much she learned by studying Japanese language, as did Charles in his Gender & Sexualities class.

But above all, they circled back to USC’s school spirit. As Charles put it, “USC is all about the Trojan family…we are very loyal.” This loyalty is fuelled in large part by the university’s dominant sports teams. USC boasts an incredible athletic legacy, one so extensive that if USC were it’s own country, it would rank 6th in the number of olympians produced—indeed, a USC student or alumni has won a medal at every Summer Olympics since 1906. Athletics characterise a lot of the USC student, the panelists mentioned that even intramural sports teams are filled with regional champions. And no matter what major or extracurriculars you pursue at USC, the crosstown USC-UCLA rivalry football game will always be a big event.

That being said, pride in USC extends far beyond sporting events. Being a Trojan stays with you way beyond your undergraduate days. As David Lim declared, “You become proud of the achievements of the school and all its alumni—it’s very infectious.”

When asked about campus life, Monita and David admitted that upon their most recent visits, they found that USC’s area of Los Angeles had changed quite dramatically. The university has been one of the greatest investors in real estate in the region, and the campus’s infrastructure is in constant development. From new student dorms, to academic halls, to the 190,000 sq. ft., $50 million biomedical research center, there are several large scale buildings projected to be completed within the next year. The investments the university is making in its campus and students shouldn’t be undervalued, as Charles so rightly observed, “When you’re making a list of university’s to apply to, look at the school’s trajectory—ask yourself where is that school going to be 10 years down the line?”

With stellar programs and resources, in everything from theatre to mechanical engineering to finance, USC’s future looks as bright as ever.

We'd like to give a huge thank you to our panelists and guests who attended. If you have any more questions or would like to hear more about similar upcoming events, please contact our admissions mentors at

UPenn Alumni Connect: Recap

Couldn't make it to the event? Here's what you missed:

Our latest Alumni Connects event featured the University of Pennsylvania, one of the eight Ivy League universities. Our panelists, Aditi Abrol, Aditya Sood and Angelo Roxas, regaled our students with stories of their life at the prestigious university. Contrasting the stereotype of UPenn being a high pressure kind of place, our panelist laughingly told our students that while it was a competitive academic environment, it was still an incredibly social, lively place where students from all over the world people thrived. Aditi noted that one of the biggest struggles was, after excelling easily in high school, arriving at a university where she felt average compared to her classmates. “But I guess that’s expected when you’re a part of a university that is made up of smart, talented kids,” she added, “It puts a good work ethic in you.”

The University provides its students with a plethora of opportunities for activities outside of academics, from joining Greek Life and participating in numerous volunteer and philanthropic organisations. Students are not only able, but actively encouraged to start their own clubs and pursue specific interests, as Aditi did with poker, or as Angelo did when he accidentally start a hedge fund with his classmates at the age of 20.

The panelists spoke about their respective programs, giving our students a lot of information about the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and the exclusive Huntsman program, which admits only 50 students per year. While they all remarked about the quality of professors within their majors, they also appreciated the freedom UPenn gave them to take unique electives unrelated to what they were studying, from Samba Drumming to Shakespearean Literature.

While most people only know it in reference to Will Smith, West Philadelphia is a great college town that includes diverse, “underrated” restaurant and music scenes, an easily accessible downtown area where students socialize, and a beautiful campus built around the famous “Locust Walk” in Penn’s own University City neighborhood.

Reflecting on their years since they left Penn, the panelists all agreed that the greatest benefit of their Penn education is the vast network of friends and classmates that they forged over their four years. Penn leaves you with a community of engaging people with whom you can have conversations that you “would fly across the world for”. UPenn Alumni regularly network and link up multiple times a year, even decades after graduating. “After four years, you’ve made friends for life and you’ll never forget the years you spend there.”

We'd like to give a huge thank you to our panelists who attended. If you have any more questions or would like to here more about similar upcoming events, please contact our admissions mentors at

Deciding "Early Decision"

What it means to apply early 

As application season quickly approaches, you might be hearing more and more about Early Decision applications. At first pass, applying to a school early seems like a no-brainer: having to submit only one application with the added bonus of getting into university months before your classmates sounds like an easy shortcut. Unfortunately, however, the decision to do Early decision is not always so straightforward.

First off, Early Decision is only one of several options you have during the early admissions round of application. Depending on the university, you may have the option of applying by Early Action, Early Decision, or the less common Restrictive Early Action.

In an Early Action application, you have the benefit of applying and receiving your admissions decision early, but with one caveat: colleges will only see your high school grades through the end of 11th grade. If you've done consistently well throughout high school, applying EA might be the right choice. However, if you've performed weaker academically throughout high school, the better option would be to apply through Regular Decision, since an extra semester's worth of grades could boost your GPA and help your admissions chances. 

“Think twice about applying early if: you want to compare admissions offers and financial aids from different colleges, or if you’d benefit from another [semester] of high school work to show colleges” - College Board

Early Decision applications are due at the same time as EA applications--usually 1 November, but  ED comes with a binding contract. This means that if you are accepted into the university, you are legally bound to attend that school. You can only apply to one school ED, and if accepted you must withdraw your applications from all other universities. Therefore, students should only apply ED if they are 100% certain they want to attend that specific university, and have the financial means to attend. 

The final option is the Restrictive Early Action (REA). This is also known as the single-choice early action. With this option, you have all of the same benefits of an early action application, except you cannot apply to any other private institution early. However, unlike ED, it is not a legally binding application; if a student is accepted REA they have until May 1st to either accept or decline, (just like with EA).

REA is only for students who are, again, quite determined on attending that specific university, and have the financial means to attend.


EA/ED Tips from our Keys Mentors: 

  1. If you have any form of legacy, ED is the best possible way to maximize its use when applying to a university. -Logan
  2. Early applications are only successful if the student is unequivocally certain that the college they are applying to is the perfect fit for them.    - Vrijen
  3. Turning in a rushed application will only hurt you in the long run. It’s better to take the time to work on your application and apply during regular decision than submitting a half-baked application early just to get it over with. - Callie
  4. Research will go a long way: The importance of knowing the college you apply to early inside and out cannot be understated- they want to know that you understand what the college stands for. - Vrijen
  5. Make contact with the university, either by reaching out to a professor, student, visiting the campus or by enrolling in a camp at the university. This will put the odds in your favor by showing your interest in the university. - Logan
  6. Most importantly: don’t neglect your Regular Decision Applications! Don’t leave them till after you’ve heard back from your early applications.   -Logan

What happens if I don't get in Early?

As with any college application, applying early to a school comes with no guarantees. Many students will not be admitted to the school they applied to early. If you are not accepted, one of two things could happen: you could receive either a rejection or deferment.

A rejection is a straightforward denial of admission. This means that you cannot apply or be considered for admission to that university during the present application cycle (you will once again be eligible the following school year).

A deferment means that the admissions department liked your application, but did not feel strongly enough to offer you admission in the early round. They will defer that decision until the spring, during the regular admissions pool, to see how your profile matches up to the cohort of students applying in that round. 

For these reasons, it's especially important that you continue working on your regular decision applications after you've turned in your early decision one. With only a small window (about two weeks) between the early admissions decision date and the deadline for the rest of your applications, failing to stay on track would leave you with a significant amount of work to do in very little time.

Remember, while it's true that, statistically, even the most competitive universities admit a higher percentage of applicants from their early application pool than from the regular decision pool, it doesn't necessarily mean that an early application is right for your profile. Understand the benefits and drawbacks of an early application before you commit to one.



University of Cambridge: Alumni Connect

Thank you to all who came out to our University of Cambridge Alumni Connect event! We hope that it was informative and engaging for everyone who attended.

We’d also like to extend a special thanks to our panelists who were generous enough to join us for the evening:  

                        Kenneth Tan, St. Catherine's College, Economics                                                                                                      Nigel Na, Wolfson College, Economics                                                                                                                        Benuel Ganesan, Wolfson College, Economics                                                                                                          Gail Chua, Wolfson College, Medicine

From their seats on the panel, our four speakers gave us insight into how why they chose to apply to Cambridge, their admissions interviews, and their experiences living and studying in the United Kingdom.

One of our graduates, Gail Ganesan of the class of 2011 now a doctor, decided to apply to Cambridge because of her father’s stories from his time as a student at the University. Other’s applied after visiting the institution and falling in love with its gothic architecture and air of learning.

“One of the best things about Cambridge is the town...just being there makes you smart!” said Benuel Ganesan, class of 2011.

The graduates also went into depth about the dreaded interview--a requirement for any applicant whose being considered for admissions at Cambridge. Anyone who is granted an interview should be prepared to be quizzed on the spot about their knowledge of the course they’re applying to, be it economics or chemistry.

Our speakers closed their talk by discussing how to choose a college within the university, covering the personality and the merits of each college. Students applying to Cambridge should kow that there is a strategic component to choosing a college as well--Wolfson College, for instance, accepts only “mature students”, making it more accessible to Singaporeans who have completed NS.

Again, we thank everyone for joining us. If you missed the event or still have any questions about applying to UK universities, don’t hesitate to reach out to us at

Stay tuned for our upcoming events! Our next Alumni Connects event will be on Friday, August 5th and will be featuring speakers from New York University.



The New SAT: What to Expect

American test makers The CollegeBoard have recently rolled out a new, revamped version of the SAT. This is the largest overhaul that the test has received in over ten years, and though the changes were made in an effort to streamline the exam material with the type of work high school students complete in the classroom, the implications of how these changes will affect scoring are yet to be declared completely.

However, a side-by-side comparison of the two tests can tell us a lot about how students can prepare for this new exam:

Reading & Writing

Most students will be relieved to find that they can get rid of their SAT vocabulary lists, as that sort of rote memorisation will no longer be featured on this exam.

However, some of the changes come with new challenges. Specifically, one of the reading passages will provide excerpts from two different authors, and will then ask students to compare and contrast them. Another new feature is the evidence based question, which will look something like this: 

This type of interrelated question tests a student's critical reading skills in a more sophisticated way.

As shown in the example above, one passage will also source from a primary document in U.S. history--such as a foundational document like the constitution, or a record from a prominent statesman. Specific knowledge of this subject area is not required, but this does represent a divergence from the material covered on the old SAT.



The mathematics section has also been entirely revamped. Beyond the addition of a non-calculator section, the New SAT has also changed its focus on particular the subtopics within each section. 

For instance, though geometry counted for up to one third of the questions on the old SAT, it will now only count for 10% of the questions. In return, there is an increased focus on algebra, which now makes up more than half the questions asked. To account for this, students should focus on studying systems of equations, linear equations, analysing or graphing non-linear (i.e. quadratic) equations, and using systems of equations to solve word problems

In addition, the SAT has introduced Trigonometry to the Mathematics section. This change was not made to increase difficulty, but rather to keep students from attempting the SAT too early.



The old SAT essay was fairly short--only 25 minutes--and largely required you to speak only from personal experience on a contemporary issue. While this type of formatting had its merits, students will find that the redesigned essay falls much more in line with the type of analytical essays they're asked to complete in school.

You will be given a source text and 50 minutes with which to develop and write your argument. Rather than looking for how well you can articulate your own opinion, however, test makers are now looking for you to analyse and justify the strengths of the author's argument. 

You should be prepared to cite short but relevant quotes from the source text in order to back up your points. In addition, having a well-structured essay, complete with introduction, body paragraphs, and a conclusion will be necessary for a high score.



The new SAT is not designed to be more challenging, but more accessible to all high school students. That being said, students who are familiar with the format and content of the old SAT test may find these changes to be difficult. For more information about the SAT, or test preparation in general, contact a mentor at the Keys Launch! 

This new exam will impact students in the class of 2017 and beyond. 


Thank you to all who came to our Northwestern Alumni Connect!

On Friday, the Keys Launch kicked off the first of our Alumni Connect series, featuring speakers from Northwestern University. The students and parents in attendance learned about the academic atmosphere, life in Chicago, and how Northwestern prepared them for their careers after university. Afterwards, the students had the opportunity to speak one on one with the alumni.

In applications to US universities, it’s becoming more necessary to demonstrate an expressed interest in the schools you’re applying to. This event gives students the ability to give specific and confident answers about why they’d like to go to Northwestern University.

We’d like to extend a special thanks to the alumni who joined us at the event:

  Peter Tan, Kellogg School of Business                                                                                                        Asim Nassir, College of Arts and Sciences                                                                                         Weixuan Chan, Robert R. McCormick School of Engineering

The next university featured in our Alumni Connect series will be Yale University. Please stay tuned for more information!