If you’re using the new Coalition for Access, Affordability and Success to apply to one or more colleges for 2016-17, you need to write a core essay that responds to one of their five prompts.
First, I encourage you to read through the five prompts and see if one appeals to you or sparks any ideas.
If so, give that one a go.
If you mainly want to find the strongest topic that would allow you to write your most effective personal statement, I would suggest you focus on the first and last prompts to start brainstorming. They are the most wide open.
Also, the first prompt encourages students find a story that illustrates something fundamental about their character. This is an excellent approach to a personal essay.
The last prompt is even more general. You can literally write about anything!
This can intimidate some students. But if you already have some ideas about what you want to write about, dive right in.
I’m partial to starting with that first prompt because I believe using real-life stories from your past to demonstrate key parts of yourself is a fail-proof method to writing a standout personal statement.
Let’s say, however, that Coalition prompt 2 spoke to you.
I’m going to share some ideas and tips on ways to respond to it here so your essay will be engaging and meaningful, and you avoid common pitfalls in writing personal essays about “giving back.”
Coalition Prompt 2: Helping Others
Coalition Prompt 2: Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
The University of California just changed its essay prompts for this coming year, and one of them asks something almost identical to this prompt.
To get ideas on this Coalition prompt 2, read UC Essay Prompt 7: Volunteer Your Best Story.
I love that this prompt starts specifically asking that you “describe a time” in your essay, since that will make sure you include something that happened, or a mini-story from your background.
Try to think of a specific moment, incident or experience where you volunteered or contributed to a project or activity that helped others.
If you can think of a “time” that involved some type of challenge or problem, it will be easy to continue with how you dealt with any obstacles, and then conclude with what you learned (your “reward”).
Try to start your essay by sharing the details of that “time,” and then go into the challenges and rewards. Make sure to work in how this experience made you feel to ensure that it has a personal voice and tone.
If you have gone on a mission trip, or volunteered at a hospital or worked with special needs kids, make sure you don’t write about those experiences in a general way for Coalition prompt 2.
Instead, dig deeper to recall something specific that happened on that mission trip, or with someone at that hospital or while working with one of the kids. Feature that moment or incident instead of explaining the general details of the larger volunteer mission. (Remember, try to remember when something went sideways or there was any type of problem. That will be your story!)
Also, when you go onto share what you learned through this experience, share something more meaningful than a line about how you learned you like to help people or love how you feel when you help others.
How did you feel and why?
Did the experience make you think about something in a new way?
Was there some type of life lesson that you never expected?
If the experience felt rewarding to you, ask yourself why, and include those details.
Did you change how you think or feel, or your future goals and dreams because of this experience?
I will warn you that this prompt flies a big red flag over it because so many students write about these “do-good” experiences and often write essays that end up cliche, overdone or boring.
You can write an excellent essay about one your experiences contributing to the good of others, just make sure that you include real-life stories or examples to make it interesting and memorable.
If you write about Coalition prompt 2, including a “problem” that related to your do-good experience is your ticket to avoiding the never-never land of cliche essays.