Prompt #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

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PROMPT #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.

"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 a story about your "background, identity, interest, or talent." 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

You could write about an event or series of events that had a profound impact on your identity. Your "interest" or "talent" could be a passion that has driven you to become the person you are today. However you approach the prompt, make sure you are inward looking and explain how and why the story you tell is so meaningful.
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 or passions that have been central to the development of our identities. 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," "identity," "interest," and "talent" are wonderfully (horribly?) broad and 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 "so meaningful" that your application "would be incomplete without it." If you focus on something that isn't central to what it is that makes you uniquely you, then you haven't yet found the right focus for this essay option. As you explore the 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" most likely 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" 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?  

  • Because of the focus on "identity" in the prompt, 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. 

PROMPT #2: The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

A question about failure is, in fact, a question about success. This year’s second prompt, also slightly amended from its 2014-15 incarnation, makes this point irrefutably clear. Students should aim to showcase both a sense of humility and resilience. How do you deal with hardship? Are you the kind of person who can rebound – who turns every experience, good or bad, into one from which you can learn something? Applicants should be careful not to choose failures that may seem trite (failure to get an A on an exam and/or secure tickets to that Justin Bieber concert), or that illustrate a lapse in good judgment (that time you crashed your car or ate fifteen bags of Cheetos in one sitting). Still, if you can isolate an incident of trial in your life and how you learned from it, this can be a rewarding prompt to explore. Did your failed attempt to become a child actor introduce you screenwriting, your professional goal and biggest passion? Try to keep these stories as positive as possible. Remember, these essays are not really about losing the election, missing the big game and failing to meet your own academic expectations; they are about overcoming obstacles, and refusing to submit to life’s greatest challenges.

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. 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 four parts:

  • The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. This text was added to the prompt in 2015. We can conclude from this addition that the colleges and universities that use the Common Application really want you to show how the failure fits into the big picture of your personal growth and later accomplishments. 

  • 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 sum- mary. 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 did you learn from the experience? 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. 

Another challenge with this prompt is deciding what type of "failure" will lead to the best essay? It does not need to be 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 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. Did you fail to listen?

  • Failure under pressure. Did you choke during your orchestra solo?

  • 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:  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? 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.

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?

This is perhaps the most challenging prompt of the Common App’s selection and remains unchanged from last year’s question. It requires a student to speak passionately about beliefs and ideology, which are often onerous topics that can be difficult to mold into a compact stories. Hence, this is often one of the hardest prompts to steer in a positive, productive direction without traveling into preachy, overly didactic territory. That said, responses to this prompt can be incisive and deeply personal, as it was for a student who stood up to her parents’ old-fashioned outlook on feminism. They can also be quite controversial, and students need to carefully assess the risks of espousing beliefs that might be polarizing for the readers of their applications. If this prompt jumps out at you because you have a very specific story to tell or opinion to voice, run with it. When has your opinion been unpopular? Maybe you worked as an intern on a political campaign caught at the center of a scandal. How did you react? Are you openly gay in a strict Catholic school environment, and what has that meant for your self-esteem and personal relationships? Why are you the kind of person who is willing to stand up for what you believe in? What is important to you on a fundamental level of morals and values? These are some of the questions to which this prompt seeks answers and insight.

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.

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.

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 these 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.

  • 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 Prompt # 2 – Learning from a 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: 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. 

Option #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.

This prompt is quite similar to prompt #2 in that it is meant to tease out a student’s problem-solving skills and provide a glimpse into an applicant’s frame of mind when dealing with challenges. But this question provides a few bonus opportunities for creative expression, leaving both the scale and the time frame for setting up a problem/solution wide open. Students should think about everything from more traditional obstacles they have had to overcome to the small predicaments that have inspired them to think about what they really value. Think about the prompt in this way: "Explain how you grappled with a meaningful problem so that we can get to know you better." 

  • Has your love of nature inspired you to start a charity to help save local endangered species’?

  • Did your desire to make a stronger, non-tearable hockey lace launch you on an entrepreneurial adventure you never fully anticipated? 

Applicants can and should also consider this prompt from an aspirational perspective: What kind of change would you like to make in the world? How do you think you can positively contribute to a cause that is important to you?  If you had the power to make a lasting impact, what would it be? It is important that the problem you choose is linked to your life and world in a meaningful way. Remember, the whole purpose of this exercise is to reveal something valuable about yourself to admissions. And don’t forget to detail at least a few steps you would/could take to solve your chosen quandary. While this prompt may seem to have a lot of moving parts, it also opens the door for some incredibly imaginative approaches to the personal essay.

With the ability to write about an "intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma," you can essentially write about any issue that you find important. Note that you do not have to have solved the problem, and some of the best essays will explore problems that need to be solved in the future. Be careful with that opening word "describe"--you'll want to spend much more time analyzing the problem than describing it. 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.

We all have problems we'd like to see solved, so this question will be a viable option for a wide range of applicants. The tips below can help you break down the essay prompt and set your response on the right track:

Choosing a "Problem":

Step one in tackling this prompt is coming up with "a problem you've solved or a problem you'd like to solve." The wording gives you a lot of leeway in defining your problem. It can be an "intellectual challenge," a "research query" or an "ethical dilemma." It can be a huge problem or a small one ("no matter the scale"). And it can be a problem for which you've come up with a solution, or one for which you hope to come up with a solution in the future. As you brainstorm this essay prompt, think broadly about the types of problems that might lead to a good essay. Some options include:

  • A community issue: Do local kids need a safe place to play? Is poverty or hunger an issue in your area? Are their transportation issues such as a lack of bike lanes or public transportation? 

  • A design challenge: Did you (or do you hope to) design a product to make life easier for people? 

  • A personal problem: Did you have (or do you have) a personal problem that prevented you from achieving your goals? Anxiety, insecurity, hubris, laziness... All of these are problems that could be addressed.

  • A personal ethical dilemma: Have you ever found yourself in a seemingly lose-lose situation? Have you had to choose between supporting your friends and being honest? Have you had to decide whether to do what is right or what is easy? The way in which you handle a challenging ethical dilemma can make an excellent subject for an essay.

  • A health problem: There is no shortage of health issues that you could address in this prompt whether those issues are personal, familial, local, national, or global. From promoting sunscreen or bicycle helmet use in your community to curing cancer, you could explore an issue that you've addressed or one that you hope to address in the future.

  • A problem in your high school: Does your school have a problem with drug use, cheating, underage drinking, cliques, gangs, large classes, or some other issue? Does your school have policies that you find unreasonable or antithetical to a positive learning environment? Many of the issues you face in your school could be transformed into an illuminating essay.

  • A global problem: If you're someone who likes to think big, feel free to explore your dreams in your essay. You'll want to be careful with huge issues such as religious intolerance and world hunger, for such essays can easily be reductive and trivialize huge, seemingly unsolvable problems. That said, if these are the issues that you love to think about and that you hope to devote your life to solving, don't shy away from going after the big problems in your essay.

A Word on a "Problem You'd Like to Solve":

If you choose to write about a problem for which you don't yet have a solution, you have a perfect opportunity to discuss some of your academic and career goals. Are you going into a biological field because you hope to become a medical researcher and solve a challenging health problem? Do you want to become a materials scientist because you want to design cell phones that bend without breaking? Do you want to go into education because you want to address a problem that you've identified with the Common Core or other curriculum? By exploring a problem that you hope to solve in the future, you can reveal your interests and passions and help the college admissions officers get a clear sense of what drives you and makes you uniquely you. This look at your future aspirations can also help illustrate why a college is a good match for you and how it fits into your future plans.

What Is an "Intellectual Challenge"?

How do you deal with complicated issues and situations? A student who can grapple with difficult problems effectively is a student who will succeed in college. The mention of an "intellectual challenge" in this prompt signals your need to choose a problem that isn't simple. An intellectual challenge is a problem that requires the application of your reasoning and critical thinking skills to solve. The problem of dry skin can typically be solved with the simple application of moisturizer. The problem bird deaths caused by wind turbines requires extensive study, planning, and designing to even begin arriving at a solution, and any proposed solution is going to have pros and cons. If you want to write about an intellectual challenge, make sure it is more like the latter problem than dry skin.

What Is a "Research Query"?:

When the folks at the Common Application decided to included the phrase "research query" in this prompt, they opened the door to any issue that can studied in a methodical and academic way. A research query is nothing more than the type of question you might ask as you set out to write a research paper. It is a question that doesn't have a ready answer, one that requires investigation to solve. A research query can be in any academic field, and it can require archival study, field work, or laboratory experimentation to solve. Your query could focus on the frequent algae blooms at your local lake, the reasons why your family first immigrated to the United States, or the sources of high unemployment in your community. Most important here is to make sure your query addresses an issue for which you have passion--it needs to be "of personal importance."

What is a "Moral Dilemma"?:

Unlike a "research query," the solution to a moral dilemma is not likely to be found in a library or laboratory. By definition, a moral dilemma is a problem that is difficult to solve because it has no clear, ideal solution. The situation is a dilemma precisely because the different solutions to the problem have pros and cons. Our sense of right and wrong is challenged by a moral dilemma? Do you report illegal actions when doing so will create difficulties for you? When faced with behavior that offends you, is silence or confrontation the better option? We all face moral dilemmas in our day-to-day lives. If you choose to focus on one for your essay, make sure the dilemma and your resolution of the dilemma highlight both your problem solving skills and an important dimension of your character and personality.

Hold Back on that Word "Describe":

Prompt #4 begins with the word "describe": Be careful here. An essay that spends too much time "describing" is going to be weak. The primary purpose of the application essay is to tell the admissions folks more about yourself, and to show that you are self-aware and good at critical thinking. When you are merely describing something, you're demonstrating none of these key elements of a winning essay. Work to keep your essay balanced. Describe your problem quickly, and spend the bulk of the essay explaining why you care about the problem and how you solved it (or plan to solve it). 

"Personal Importance" and "Significance to You": These two phrases should be the heart of your essay. Why do you care about this problem? What does the problem mean to you? Your discussion of your chosen problem needs to be teaching the admissions folks something about you: What do you care about? How do you solve problems? What motivates you? What are your passions?

What if You Didn't Solve the Problem Alone? It's rare that anyone solves a significant problem alone. Perhaps you solved a problem as part of a robotics team or as a member of your student government. Don't try to hide help you received from others in your essay. Many challenges in both college and the professional world are solved by teams of people, not individuals. If your essay demonstrates that you have the generosity to acknowledge the contributions of others, and that you are good at collaboration, you'll be highlighting positive personal characteristics.

I especially love the part that emphasizes that this problem just needs to have “personal importance, no matter the scale.” To me, this means it does not need to be impressive, and even an everyday (mundane) problem could produce a terrific essay. And with any personal statement essay like these, the more “personal,” the better.  Focus on showing the reader what the problem is and why it’s worth solving.  The best essays will draw the reader in and make them want to read about your solution.  A lot of opportunity here for creativity, wit, and humor. Once you’ve done the hard work of describing the problem, make sure that your solution is equally engaging. What approach did you (or would you) take? The solution should have some personal significance; remember, this essay is really about you. To put it simply, a conflict is a problem. Problems come in all shapes and sizes. They do not need to be traumas or a crisis, although those can work, too.

(HINT: Basic, everyday problems work best! Here are other words for a conflict or problem: challenge, failure, obstacle, mistake, hang-up, issue, a change, dilemma, fears, obsessions, etc.

Examples of conflicts or problems: you are shy, competitive, stubborn, were bullied, are obsessed with Twilight, didn’t make the team, got injured, have big feet, frizzy red hair, smile too much, someone quit at your work, don’t have own car, can’t spell, adhd, ocd, don’t eat meat, perfectionist, slob, lazy, drunk driving, have a mean grandparent, no money, etc…

Once you remember a juicy problem, follow these steps:

1. Describe the time you had a problem or describe a strong example of your problem

(Include what happened and how it made you feel. Try to start at the moment it hit, or happened for the best impact!  Include the 5Ws–who, what, when, where and why! Stick to one or two paragraphs.) 2. Background the history of this problem (when did it start, why/how did it happen or get this way.) “It all started back when…” 3. Talk about how you dealt with that problem. What you did about it. Steps you took to handle it. 4. Reflect on that problem. How did you think about it? How did you feel? Did handling it change you in any way or how you think about things? Share your thoughts. 5. What did you learn from dealing with that problem–about yourself, others or life in general? Anything good come out of it? Did you develop or demonstrate a core quality–determination, problem-solving, creativity, passion, patience, respect…–in the process? Talk about that. 6. Conclusion: Discuss how you would/could use these qualities or characteristics, or what you learned, in your future endeavors.

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 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.

Prompt # 5 offers endless choices and flexibility, and can tackle anything from a formal event to a very small occurrence. Students should keep in mind that the words “accomplishment” and “event,” leave themselves open to interpretation. A formal event or accomplishment might encompass anything from obvious landmarks like birthdays and weddings, to achievements like earning an award or receiving a promotion. More informal examples might include something as simple as meeting a special person in your life, taking a car ride, or eating a particularly meaningful meal. Often the smaller, less formal events make for more surprising and memorable essays; but as with any of the other prompts, as long as you can answer with originality and put a unique twist on your subject matter, all ideas, formal and informal, big and small, are fair game.

What were the moments in life that fundamentally changed you as a person?

When did you learn something that made you feel more adult, more capable, more grown up? Maybe rescuing a child from the deep end of the community pool reminded you that you’re not a kid anymore. In what other ways have your lifeguarding duties shaped your sense of responsibility? 

When you got your license and started to drive to school on your own, did you miss those regular car rides after school with your mom? What did you learn about your desire for independence on that first ride alone? What from those everyday discussions with your mom stuck with you on that drive?

The most important thing to keep in mind when searching for these moments is that element of transition and transformation. The event or accomplishment you discuss should be something that helped you understand the world around you through a different, more mature lens.

We all have all had experiences that bring about growth and maturity, so essay option five will be a viable option for all applicants. The big challenges with this essay prompt will be identifying the correct "accomplishment or event," and then making sure the discussion of your growth has enough depth and self analysis to show you are a strong, thoughtful college applicant.

What defines a "transition from childhood to adulthood"?:

The question becomes more realistic and manageable if posed in these terms: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marks a moment of significant personal growth within your culture, community, or family." You're not done growing, but you certainly have had moments of significant growth.

What type of "accomplishment or event" is best?:

As you brainstorm ideas for this essay prompt, think broadly as you try to come up with a good choice for the "accomplishment or event." The best choices, of course, will be significant moments in your life. You want to introduce the admissions folks to something you value highly. Your options include, but are not limited to:

An Accomplishment:

  • You reach a goal that you have set for yourself such as performing a difficult piece of music.

  • You do something independently for the first time such as preparing a meal for the family, flying across the country, or house-sitting for a neighbor.

  • You overcome or learn to appreciate a disability or handicap.

  • You successfully launch your own business (a lawn-mowing service, babysitting business, web company, etc.)

  • You successfully navigate or extricate yourself from a dangerous or challenging situation (an abusive family, a problematic peer group, etc.)

  • You do something challenging like winter camping, white-water kayaking, or running a marathon.

  • You complete a meaningful service project such as creating a public garden or helping build a house with Habitat for Humanity.

An Event:

You have an interaction with someone (whether that be a friend, family member or stranger) that opens your awareness in a profound way. - --- You perform at an event; concert or competition, in which your hard work and perseverance finally pay off - --- You experience a traumatic event such as an accident or sudden loss that makes you reevaluate your behavior or beliefs.

How can "culture" fit into this essay prompt?:

How does your culture define the transition to adulthood? What developmental milestones does your culture emphasize? Because of the mention of "culture" in this prompt, you should feel free to connect the "accomplishment or event" to a context that is specific to your cultural heritage. A racial, religious or social group to which you belong can be worked into this essay option if you choose to approach it through that lens.

What about "community" and "family"?:

The end of prompt number five -- "within your culture, community, or family" -- is simply a recognition that "adulthood" is a social construct. In other words, you don't become an adult in isolation. The definition of "child" and "adult" is set by a group to which you belong -- your family, community, or culture. You become an adult when the people who surround you recognize your actions and behavior as adult-like. Different groups will define adulthood differently. Your essay, then, will need to set the terms for how your specific social or cultural group defines adulthood. Do you become an adult when you hunt and gut your first caribou? Your essay should at least briefly explain what it means to be an "adult" within your unique context.

What does "formal or informal" mean?:

The prompt is suggesting that the "achievement or event" can be something specific such as a solo com- petition, an achievement award, a 50-mile trek, or football game, or it can be something that is more personal and self-defined such as an effort to get over a fear of heights or a goal of giving up Facebook for a month.

Personal growth can stem from failure:

Keep in mind that the "accomplishment or event" doesn't have to be a triumphant moment in your life. An accomplishment can be learning to deal with setbacks or failure, and the event could be a losing game or an embarrassing solo in which you missed that high C. Part of becoming an adult is learning to accept our own shortcomings, and recognizing that failure is both inevitable and an opportunity to learn.

Most important of all: "Discuss"

When you "discuss" your event or accomplishment, make sure you push yourself to think analytically. Don't spend too much time merely describing and summarizing the event or accomplishment. A strong essay needs to show off your ability to explore the significance of the event you have chosen. You need to look inward and analyze how and why the event caused you to grow and mature. If the essay doesn't reveal some solid self-analysis, then you haven't fully succeeded in responding to the prompt.

Some Final Thoughts: 

Try to step back from your essay and ask yourself exactly what information it conveys to your reader. What will your reader learn about you? Does the essay succeed in revealing something that you care about deeply? Does it get at a central aspect of your personality? Remember, the application is asking for an essay because the college has holistic admissions -- the school is evaluating you as a whole person, not as a bunch of test scores and grades. The essay, then, needs to paint a portrait of an applicant the school will want to invite to join the campus community. In your essay, do you come across as an intelligent, thoughtful person who will contribute to the community in a meaningful and positive way? Use your essay to display your personality, interests and passions. To test out your essay, give it to an acquaintance or teacher who doesn't know you particularly well, and ask what that person learned about you from reading the essay. Ideally, the response will be exactly what you want the college to learn about you.

Ask yourself: What, in your seventeen years on this earth, has helped shape the person you are today? It can be something as small as seeing an episode of a television show, or as large as the struggle of moving to a foreign country. That said, your subject and/or perspective should be dynamic; specific to you and who you are and no one else. Did a Wednesday night family bowling tradition help shape the way you think about family, teamwork and the power of rituals? Does your crazy dyed-blue hair define you? Did going to a Picasso exhibit inspire you to start an art collection that has since expanded beyond the borders of your bedroom? What do you love and why do you love it? How would you define yourself and what influences in your life led you down your current path? What funny story do you tell friends and family over and over again and why do you think it always comes up? How are these stories and qualities representative of who you are at your core?
Whichever prompt you choose, 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. 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. 
Last of all, no matter which essay prompt you choose, pay attention to style, tone, and mechanics. The essay is first and foremost about you, but it also needs to demonstrate a strong writing ability. 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.

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