Option #1: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story

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Option #1: Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

"Identity" is at the heart of this prompt. What is it that makes you you? The prompt gives you a lot of latitude for answering the question since you can write about your "background or story." Your "background" can be a broad environmental factor that contributed to your development such as growing up in a military family, living in an interesting place, or dealing with an unusual family situation. Your "story" could be an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why your identity was influenced by your background or story.

This popular option appeals to a broad spectrum of applicants. After all, we all have a "story" to tell. We've all had events or circumstances that have been central to the development of our identities. Also, so many parts of the application -- test scores, grades, lists of awards and activities -- seem far removed from the actual features that make us the unique individuals that we are.

If you choose this option, spend some time thinking about what the prompt is really asking. On a certain level, the prompt is giving you permission to write about anything. The words "background" and "story" are wonderfully (horribly?) vague, so you have a lot of freedom to approach this question however you want.

That said, don't make the mistake of thinking that anything goes with option #1. The story you tell needs to be "central to [your] identity," and it needs to make your application more complete (the application "would be incomplete without it").

As you explore possible ways to approach this first essay option, keep these points in mind:

  • Think hard about what it is that makes you, you. If you end up telling a story that hundreds of other applicants could also tell, then you haven't fully succeeded in tackling the question of identity that stands at the heart of this prompt.

  • Your "story" or "background" isn't a single event. Being voted Prom Queen and scoring that winning goal may be impressive accomplishments, but by themselves they are not stories about the formation of your identity.

  • Your "story" or "background" can take a variety of forms. Did you grow up in a difficult domestic situation? Did you live in an usual place that had a significant impact on your childhood? Did you or someone in your family have significant challenges to overcome? Were you surrounded by people who had a major influence on your development? Did you move frequently? Did you have to hold a job from a young age? Do you have a particular obsession or passion that has been a driving force in your life for years?

  • Make sure your essay is adding a rich dimension to your application. You have 650 words to present yourself as an interesting and passionate individual who will be a positive addition to the campus community. If your essay is repeating information that can be found elsewhere in your application, then you're wasting this opportunity.

  • Keep "diversity" in mind as you write your essay. By diversity I'm not referring to the color of your skin or your ethnic background (although these can certainly be a part of your essay). Rather, if a college admits 2,000 students, the school wants to see 2,000 individuals who each has a unique story and background to bring to the campus environment. The strongest colleges and universities do not have homogenous student populations. These tips for an essay on diversity can help you think about this issue.

  • If you don't think you have a story to tell, you are wrong (at least I've never met a student who didn't have an interesting background). You don't need to have grown up in a yurt in the Himalayas to have a background that is worth narrating. A Connecticut suburb produces its own meaningful stories.

A final note: No matter which essay option you choose, keep in mind the purpose of the essay. The college to which you are applying uses the Common Application which means the school has holistic admissions. The college wants to get to know you as a person, not just as a list of SAT scores and grades. Make sure your essay captures YOU. The admissions folks should finish reading your essay with a much clearer sense of who you are and what it is that interests and motivates you. Also, make sure your essay paints a positive portrait. The admissions folks are considering inviting you to join their community. They will not want to extend an invitation to someone who comes across as insensitive, self-centered, boastful, narrow-minded, unimaginative or indifferent.

Last of all, pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is largely about you, but it is also about your writing ability.

Option #2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

This prompt may seem to go against everything that you've learned on your path to college. It's far more comfortable in an application to celebrate successes and accomplishments than it is to discuss failure. At the same time, you'll impress the college admissions folks greatly if you can show your ability to learn from your failures and mistakes. Be sure to devote significant space to the second half of the question--what was your response to failure, and how did you learn and grow from the experience? Introspection and honesty is key with this prompt.

Many college applicants will be uncomfortable with this question. After all, a college application should highlight your strengths and accomplishments, not draw attention to your failures. But before you shy away from this essay option, consider these points:

  • Growing and maturing is all about learning from our failures.

  • No college anywhere, ever, has admitted a student who hasn't failed at times.

  • It's easy to boast about our accomplishments. It takes a greater level of confidence and maturity to acknowledge and examine our failures.

  • A student who can learn from failure is a student who will be successful in college.

  • Every single one of the thousands of applications a college receives will highlight successes, awards, honors, and accomplishments. Very few will show the type of confidence and introspection required to explore failures.

If you can't tell, I'm a fan of this prompt. I would much rather read about an applicant's learning experience from failure than a catalog of triumphs. That said, know yourself. Prompt #2 is one of the more challenging options. If you aren't good at introspection and self analysis, and if you aren't comfortable with exposing a wart or two, then this may not be the best option for you.

Break Down the Question:

If you do choose this prompt, read the question carefully. Let's break it down into three parts:

  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. This is the exposition of your essay -- the description of the failure that you are going to analyze. Keep in mind that the action requested here -- "recount" -- is the easy part of your essay. Recounting doesn't require a lot of high-level thinking. This is the plot summary. You'll need clear, engaging language, but you want to make sure you do the "recounting" as efficiently as possible. The real meat of your essay that is going to impress the admissions officers comes later...

  • How did it affect you... This is the second most important part of your essay. You failed, so how did you respond? What emotions did failure evoke? Were you frustrated? Did you want to give up or did failure motivate you? Were you angry at yourself or did you project blame onto someone else? Were you surprised by your failure? Was this a new experience for you? Be honest as you assess your reaction to failure. Even if you were affected in a way that now seems inappropriate or an over-reaction, don't hold back as you explore the way that failure affected you.

  • what lessons did you learn? This is the heart of your essay, so make sure you give this part of the question significant emphasis. The question here -- "what did you learn?" -- is asking for higher level thinking skills than the rest of the prompt. Understanding what you learned requires self-analysis, introspection, self-awareness, and strong critical thinking skills. This is the one part of prompt #2 that is truly asking for college-level thinking. The best students are those who assess their failures, learn from them, and move on. Here is your chance to prove that you are capable of this type of thoughtfulness and personal growth.

What Counts as a "Failure"?

Another challenge with this prompt is deciding on your focus. What type of "failure" will lead to the best essay? Keep in mind that your failure does not need to be, as my son would phrase it, an epic fail. You don't need to have run a cruise ship aground or ignited a million-acre forest fire to choose this essay option.

Failures come in many flavors. Some possibilities include:

  • A failure to apply yourself. Did laziness or over-confidence make you under-perform academically or in an extra-curricular event?

  • A failure to behave appropriately. Did your conduct in a situation insult or hurt someone? How should you have behaved? Why did you behave the way you did?

  • A failure to act. Sometimes our greatest failures are those moments when we do nothing. In retrospect, what should you have done? Why did you do nothing?

  • Failing a friend or family member. Did you let down someone close to you? Disappointing others can be one of the most difficult failures to come to terms with.

  • A failure to listen. If you're like me, you think you're right 99% of the time. Many times, however, others have a lot to offer, but only if we listen.

  • Failure under pressure. Did you choke during your orchestra solo? Did you bobble the ball during an important play?

  • A lapse in judgment. Did you do something foolish or dangerous that had unfortunate consequences?

This list could go on and on -- there's no shortage of ways to fail. Whatever failure you write about, make sure your exploration of the failure reveals self-awareness and personal growth. If your essay doesn't show that you are a better person because of your failure, then you haven't succeeded in responding to this essay prompt.

A final note: Whether you are writing about failure or one of the other essay options, keep in mind the primary purpose of the essay: the college wants to get to know you better. On a certain level your essay isn't really about your failure. Rather, it is about your personality and character. In the long run, were you able to handle your failure in a positive way? Colleges that ask for an essay have holistic admissions, so they are looking at the whole applicant, not just SAT scores and grades. By the time they finish reading your essay, the admissions folks should feel that you are the type of person who will succeed in college and make a positive contribution to the campus community. So before you hit the submit button on the Common Application, make sure your essay paints a portrait of you that makes a positive impression. If you blame your failure on others, or if you seem to have learned nothing from your failure, the college may very well decide that you don't have a place in the campus community.

Last of all, pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is largely about you, but it is also about your writing ability.

Option #3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

Keep in mind how open-ended this prompt truly is. The "belief or idea" you explore could be your own, someone else's, or that of a group. The best essays will be honest as they explore the difficulty of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief, and the answer to the final question--would you make the same decision again--need not be "yes." Sometimes in retrospection we discover that the cost of an action was perhaps too great. However you approach this prompt, your essay needs to reveal one of your core personal values. If the belief you challenged doesn't give the admissions folks a window into your personality, then you haven't succeeded with this prompt.

The focus on a "belief or idea" makes this question wonderfully (and perhaps paralyzingly) broad. Indeed, you could write about almost anything that you've ever openly questioned, whether it be your school's daily recital of the Pledge of Allegiance, the color of your team uniforms, or the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing. Of course, some ideas and beliefs will lead to better essays than others.

Choosing an "Idea or Belief":

Step one in tackling this prompt is coming up with an "idea or belief" you have challenged that will lead to a good essay. Keep in mind that the belief could be your own, your family's, a peer's, a peer group's, or a larger social or cultural group's.

As you narrow down your options, don't lose sight of the purpose of the essay: the college to which you are applying has holistic admissions, so the admissions folks want to get to know you as a whole person, not just as a list of grades, test scores, and awards. Your essay should tell the admissions officers something about you that will make them want to invite you to join their campus community. Your essay needs to show that you are a thoughtful, analytical, and open-minded person, and it should also reveal something that you care about deeply. Thus, the idea or belief that you reflect upon shouldn't be something superficial; it should center on an issue that is central to your identity.

Keep this points in mind as you brainstorm your topic:

  • The belief can be your own. In fact, your own belief can be an excellent choice for this essay option. If you are able to reevaluate and challenge your own beliefs, you are demonstrating that you are a student who has the type of self-awareness, open-mindedness, and maturity that are essential ingredients for college success.

  • The belief or idea can take many forms: a political or ethical belief; a theoretical or scientific idea; a personal conviction; an entrenched way of doing things (challenging the status quo); and so on. Realize, however, that some beliefs can send your essay into controversial and potentially risky territory. Tread carefully if you plan to explore one of these ten bad essay topics.

  • Your challenge of the idea or belief need not have been successful. For example, if your community believes in the value of killing snakes on Whacking Day and you ran a campaign to stop this barbaric practice, you efforts could lead to a good essay whether or not you were successful (if you were not successful, your essay might also work for option #2 on learning from failure).

  • The best essays reveal something that the writer is passionate about. By the end of the essay, the admissions folks should feel that they have a much better grasp on what it is that motivates you. Be sure to explore an idea or belief that will allow you to present some of your interests and passions.

Break Down the Question:

If you choose this prompt, read the question carefully. The question has three distinct parts:

  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea; reflecitve writing is popular in higher education today, and to respond effectively to this prompt it is important to understand what reflection is and what it isn't. Reflection is far more than summarizing or reminiscing. Your task with this question isn't simply to describe a time when you challenged a belief. To "reflect" upon something you did is to analyze and contextualize your actions. What were you motives? Why did you do what you did? What were you thinking at the time, and in retrospect, were your thoughts at the time appropriate? How have your actions played a role in your personal growth?

  • What prompted you to act? If you did the first part of the question effectively ("reflect"), then you've already responded to this part of the question. Again, make sure you aren't just describing how you acted. Explain why you acted the way you did. How did your own beliefs and ideas motivate you to challenge some other belief or idea? What was the tipping point that spurred you into action?

  • Would you make the same decision again? This part of the prompt is also asking for reflection. Look back at the big picture and put your action in context. What were the results of challenging the belief or idea? Was your action worth the effort? Did good come of your action? Did you pay a heavy price for your challenge? Did you or someone else learn and grow from your efforts? Realize that your answer here need not be "yes." Sometimes we take action only to learn later that the outcome wasn't worth the cost. You don't need to present yourself as a hero who changed the world through your challenge of the status quo. Many excellent essays explore a challenge that didn't turn out as planned. Indeed, sometimes we grow more from missteps and failures than we do from triumph. 

A final note: College is all about challenging ideas and beliefs, so this essay prompt engages a key skill for college success. A good college education is not about being spoon fed information that you will regurgitate in papers and exams. Rather, it is about asking questions, probing assumptions, testing ideas, and engaging in thoughtful debate. If you choose essay option #3, make sure you demonstrate that you have these skills.

Last of all, pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is largely about you, but it is also about your writing ability.

Option #4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

Here again the Common Application gives you a lot of options for approaching the question. A "place or environment" could be many things--a house, a classroom, a tree top, a church, a stadium, a stage, a family, a country, an imagined space, a book, an internal place, and so on. Think about where and when you are most content, and then analyze the source of that contentedness. Keep in mind that the "why" at the end of the prompt is essential. This essay prompt, like all of the options, is asking you to be introspective and share with the admissions folks what it is that you value.

he prompt sounds simple enough. After all, if there's one subject you know something about, it's the surroundings in which you live. But don't be fooled by how accessible the question appears to be. Admission to the University of California system is remarkable competitive, especially for some of the more elite campuses, and you should think carefully about the subtleties of the prompt.

Before answering the question, consider the purpose of the essay. The admissions officers want to get to know you. The essays are the one place where you can truly present your passions and personality. Test scoresGPAs, and other quantitative data do not really tell the university who you are; instead, they show that you are a capable student. But what really makes you you? Each of the UC campuses receives far more applications than they can accept. Use the essay to show how you differ from all the other capable applicants.

The personal statement is, obviously, personal. It tells the admissions officers what you value, what gets you out of bed in the morning, what drives you to excel. Make sure your response to prompt #1 is specific and detailed, not broad and generic. To answer the prompt effectively, consider the following:

  • "World" is a versatile term. The prompt gives "your family, community and school" as examples of possible "worlds," but they are just three examples. Where is it that you truly live? What really makes up your "world"? Is it your team? The local animal shelter? Your grandmother's kitchen table? Your church? The pages of a book? Someplace where your imagination likes to wander?

  • Focus on that word "how." How has your world shaped you? The prompt is asking you to be analytical and introspective. It is asking you to connect your environment to your identity. It is asking you to project forward and imagine your future. The best responses to prompt #1 highlight your analytical abilities.

  • Avoid the obvious. If you write about your family or school, it's easy to focus on that teacher or parent who pushed you to excel. This isn't necessarily a bad approach to the essay, but make sure you provide enough specific details to paint a true portrait of yourself. Thousands of students could write an essay about how their supportive parents helped them succeed. Make sure your essay is about you and isn't something that thousands of other students could have written.

  • Your "world" doesn't have to be a pretty place. Adversity sometimes shapes us more than positive experiences. If your world has been filled with challenges, feel free to write about them. You never want to sound like you are whining or complaining, but a good essay can explore how negative environmental forces have defined who you are.

  • Stay on target. You have just 1,000 words with which to answer prompts #1 and #2. That's not much space. Make sure every word you write is necessary. Keep these 5 essay tips in mind, follow these suggestions for improving your essay's style, and cut anything in your essay that isn't defining your "world" and explaining "how" that world has defined you.

Option #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

This is probably my least favorite of the prompts for the simple reason that a single event or accomplishment is rarely so transformative that one becomes an adult overnight. Maturity comes as the result of a long train of events and accomplishments (and failures). That said, this prompt is an excellent choice if you want to explore a single event or achievement that marked a clear milestone in your personal development. Be careful to avoid the "hero" essay -- admissions offices are often overrun with essays about the season-winning touchdown or brilliant performance in the school play. These can certainly be fine topics for an essay, but make sure your essay is analyzing your personal growth process, not bragging about an accomplishment.

Some Final Thoughts: Whichever prompt you chose, make sure you are looking inward. What do you value? What has made you grow as a person? What makes you the unique individual the admissions folks will want to invite to join their campus community? The best essays spend significant time with self-analysis, and they don't spend a disproportionate amount of time merely describing a place or event. Analysis, not description, will reveal the critical thinking skills that are the hallmark of a promising college student.

If you find yourself grumbling about the loss of the "Topic of Your Choice" option for the essay, keep in mind that all five of the new prompts allow for great flexibility and creativity. The folks at The Common Application have cast a wide net with these questions, and nearly anything you want to write about could fit under at least one of the options.

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