The College Application Essay

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The College Application Essay

Choose one of the following 4 prompts about which to write.

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.

Length: - no more than 2 typed pages

- 12pt. Font / Times New Roman or Ariel Style

- MLA format


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.

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.

  • 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.

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.

Break Down the Question:

  • 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.

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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

Option #4: "Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marks a moment of significant personal growth within your culture, community, or family."

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.

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 your are a strong, thoughtful college applicant.

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

The idea that a single event can make us adults is simplistic at best. Very few adults would point to a single moment of epiphany when, all of a sudden, they became adults. Maturity and adulthood come about over years, through hundreds of learning experiences.

Many adults would also argue that a 17- or 18-year-old applying to college is not yet an adult, or that a lot of maturing still occurs between being a "young adult" and an older adult. Fair enough, but if we put ourselves in the position of a college admissions officer, I think we can see that the label "adult" is an important one. Are you done growing and maturing? Of course not. If you were, why bother going to college at all. However, by applying to college you are telling the admissions officers that you are ready for the next stage in your life. You are prepared to take responsibility for your own actions, live away from home, manage your own time, and make the proper decisions to succeed in your endeavors. You're suggesting that you will be respectful of others, you'll work to negotiate differences with roommates and classmates, and that you will be a contributing member of a campus community. In short, your essay for option five needs to reveal the type of personal growth that suggests you're ready for the next, more independent stage of your life.

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 earning a certain GPA or 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.

    • Working alone or with a team, you win an award or recognition (a gold medal in a music competition, a strong showing in Odyssey of the Mind, a successful fundraising campaign, etc.)

    • 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 pass a milestone in your life such as the first day of high school or your first time driving by yourself.

  • 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 such as a 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.

  • You experience a moment of failure that causes you to grapple with and grow from the experience.

  • You are moved by a world event that makes you reflect upon what you most value and what your role in the world might be.

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.

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