by j9robinson | Oct 26, 2016
24 More Commonly Asked Questions
about College Admissions Essays
- How far back should I go in tracing my background?
When writing about experiences from your past, it’s best to stick to your high school years in general (for Common Application and incoming freshmen). That way, you make sure that any moments, incidents, activities or “times” that you include are relevant and timely. It’s okay to mention details from earlier days to support points you want to make, but use those sparingly because that was a long time ago and not as powerful as more recent examples.
Learn more: How to Answer Prompt 1 for Common Application
- How much of the information already in my application should I repeat?
Ideally, try to include information and topics in your essay that college admissions officers would not have already learned about you in other parts of your application. This is your best opportunity to showcase something additional and meaningful that goes beyond your test scores, grades and lists of extracurricular activities. Why tell them something they already know?
However, you might need to mention specifics from your application if you are going to write your essay about a topic related to your extracurricular activities or academics, and that’s fine—just make sure your essay tells the reader a lot more than simply what you did.
Learn more: Write Your Essay in Three Easy Steps
- Should I include or explain negative experiences?
You should definitely consider writing about negative experiences from your past, because chances are these involved problems. Problems are essay gold because you can share something that happened to you that is interesting and engaging (bad stuff simply is more interesting to read about), and then explain what you learned from handling it.
If you do share a negative experience—and these often make the best essays—you must quickly include how you found something positive from handling or solving it. If you don’t include the upside, your essay will be downer, which you don’t want.
You must share the negative experience, however, so we know how far you came and what you learned by working through it.
Learn more: Tips on Topics to Avoid
- Should I call attention to a low (or high) G.P.A.?
Essays are often an excellent opportunity for students to explain blips in their academic record. In general, let high G.P.A.s stand for themselves—if you call attention to them you can slip into sounding full of yourself. It’s crucial to maintain a humble tone in your essay, no matter how brilliant you are.
If you had a dip in your grades, you could write your essay to explain what obstacles got in your way, but make sure to include how you handled or managed those and either recovered or are on your way.
Don’t waste your essay explaining average grades. Instead, focus on writing an essay that showcases your individuality and character, and leave your grades out of it. Only consider writing your essay about grades if they crashed at some point. You are not writing an excuse for your poor performance; just giving an explanation. Also, share your plan to keep them upward bound.
Learn more: 5 Tips for “Do This; Not That” in Topics
- How “personal” should I be?
The best college application essays are highly personal. Students who share their struggles, low-points and feelings connect with their readers, and are memorable.
However, there is a line. The best rule is: When in doubt, leave it out. The last thing you want to do in your essay is to offend your reader.
There’s no need to include things that are gross or offensive. Often it’s all about how you say it. The more sensational something is, the fewer details you need to get across your point. Red flag topics to handle with care are religion, politics, sex, illness and death.
Instead of saying, “The kid barfed green puke all over me.” Say something like, “The kid couldn’t keep down his dinner.”
If you can’t tell the difference, ask advice from someone you trust.
Learn more: TMI in College Application Essays
- How do you fit everything important in 650 words?
The reason essays have a word count is to help students focus their essay on making one central point about themselves. If you write your draft, and you exceed the count, go back and edit it down. Never go over!
Cut out the big chunks you don’t need to support your point first, then sentences and finally individual words. Look for parts that don’t support your larger point, or sentences you already said and don’t need. Shorter is almost always better.
Instead of aiming to include everything about yourself in the essay, pick one main point to showcase, such as one of your core defining qualities, characteristics or a core value.
Learn more: The Ultimate Editing Checklist
- What do college admissions officers say I should write about?
College admissions officers first want you to respond their prompts. After that, they are looking for essays that tell them something about your that they wouldn’t learn from other parts of your application.
They also are looking to put a face on your application. The essay is the only part of the application where you can share your personality (your individuality) and character (what you care about).
They are looking for essays that help them differentiate you from other applicants. So look for ways to show how you are different from other students, and why that matters.
Learn more: College Admissions Officers Want Stories
- How personal should the personal essay be?
The best essays are always highly personal. The best way to get personal is to share some type of problem you faced (mistake, challenge, obstacle, flaw, phobia, setback, life change, failure, etc.) and include how it affected you and made you feel.
When you are open and vulnerable in your essay, you will connect with your reader. They will feel your pain and be on your side. This does not mean you complain or whine. Instead, share some of your feelings when you wrestled or handled a problem. Include a sentence on what went through your head, or what inspired you to address a problem. Be honest and direct. We are all more likable when we share our low points rather than our high points.
Learn more: How to Get Personal in Your Essay
- Do college application essays need MIA format?
There is no set format for these essays, since most require students to copy and paste them into web site applications, which can often lose any special formatting.
In general, write them in the first-person and stick with the past tense. Indent paragraphs and use standard punctuation, grammar and other rules of the English language.
The style is less formal, however, so you can relax some of the rules if it helps you set a more familiar, conversational tone, such as using contractions or phrases. Write more like you talk, but don’t get sloppy.
More FAQS about College Application Essays
Learn more: Forget the 5-Paragraph Essay
30. Does a college application essay need a title?
You can include a title with your essay, but it’s not required. Only use one if it adds something to the piece. A snappy title can help an essay be more memorable or stand out. But if you can’t think of one, leave it out.
Learn more: Should You Title Your Essay?
- How to conclude college application essay?
These essays are more casual than academic essays that you wrote in English class. You do not need a formal conclusion that restates your main point, or to wrap it up in a neat bow at the end.
However, there are ways to give your essay a satisfying and memorable conclusion.
One of the best ways to give a narrative, slice-of-life essay a sense of continuity is to find a way to link back to what you started with in your introduction. If you started by sharing something that happened to you, touch back to that incident and bring the reader up to date.
Also, try to share how you intend to apply whatever you say you learned in your essay toward your future college and career goals. It never hurts to end with a broad, upbeat statement.
Learn more: How to End Your Essay
- How to organize college application essay?
These essays have a looser format than typical academic essays your wrote for English class. Do not use the old five-paragraph style if possible. Even though these personal essays are less structured, it still helps to have a simple outline to organize how you want to present your ideas.
One way to structure a personal essay is to decide what quality, characteristic about yourself you want to showcase. Then find examples from your life that illustrate it. Start by sharing a moment or experience that is an example of your quality, characteristic or value, and then spend the rest of the essay explaining what it meant to you—what you learned and how you changed in any way.
Learn more: How to Structure a College Application Essay
- How to make college application essay stand out?
The best way to stand out with your essay is to try to find a topic that is unusual or unexpected. Writing about things you have done to impress colleges does not work, and in fact backfires, since those essays are usually very boring and a turn-off.
Instead, look for topics that are everyday or “mundane,” and find real-life stories where something happened to you to engage your reader. Brainstorm moments or “times” related to your hobbies, passions, jobs, family, background and interests for topics.
It’s often not what you write about, but what you have to say about it that makes the most difference in these essays. Try to find a way to tell target schools something they wouldn’t learn about you in other parts of your application.
The best trick to finding a topic that is interesting and sets you apart is to share times you faced some type of problem, especially one that was highly personal or challenging or unusual.
Learn more: Podcast on How to Stand Out with Your Essay
- What should college application essay be about?
The essays needs to be about you. Period. You can include other people in your essay if they had an impact on your topic, but you must make sure that most of what you say and share is about you.
The best way to make sure your essay is about you is to choose a defining quality or characteristic about yourself to showcase in your essay.
Then share real-life moments or experiences that illustrate why you are that way, and what you learned about yourself and why it matters. If you stick to writing about one quality or characteristic, your topic can’t wander too far away from being all about you.
Learn more: How to Find a Killer Topic for Your College Application Essay
- Who reads college application essays?
Usually, a small group of adults who are part of a school’s admissions committee read college application essays. The committee is comprised of admissions officers, who are staff (usually from the admissions department), professors or current or former students.
They can come from all types of ages and background. It’s best to think of them as basic people who are tasked with finding students they believe will contribute to the college or university.
Most will tell you they are looking for the “right fit,” so it’s in your best interest to help them by writing an essay that helps them understand your personality and character.
Learn more: Watch an Admissions Committee in Action
- Which common app essay to write?
You can pick from five prompts (essay questions) to write about you’re the Common Application core essay for incoming freshmen. Read through all five and see if one grabs your interest or if you feel you have something to say about it.
Generally, the first prompt is considered the most open-ended and most personal essays that include anything about a student’s background, identity, interest or talent would work. Notice they are also asking for a story, which always make these essays more interesting and meaningful.
Prompts 2 and 4 both ask students to write about problems (a failure in Prompt 2 or any imaginable type of problem in Prompt 4), which are the easiest to craft into a personal essay. Share the problem, and then go onto how you handled it and what you learned and you will have a solid essay.
Remember, these are just prompts and intended to “prompt” ideas and you are not expected to directly answer them, but write an essay that responds to it.
Learn more: Strategies for All 5 Common App Prompts
- Which common app essay topic is best?
The best essay topic is the one that allows you to share something interesting and meaningful about yourself. There is no one topic that works for all students.
If you can find a topic that is unusual or unexpected, that could help make your essay more interesting and memorable. But the most important part of writing about any topic is what you have to say about it—what you learned, how you felt, what you thought and how you changed.
Learn more: Strategies for All 5 Common App Prompts
- Should I be specific in my essay?
Yes, you should be specific in key parts of your essay to give it both a strong focus and interest.
When deciding what to write about yourself in your essay, it helps to be specific about what part of yourself you want to showcase (as opposed to trying to cram in everything about yourself.) Instead of writing about all your accomplishment or talents, try to think of one of your defining qualities or characteristics and write your essay about that.
Also, when you make general points in your essay, back them up with specific examples to add interest and clarity.
Learn more: Defining Qualities Bring Focus to Essays
- College Applications: How do universities ensure that the essays they receive don’t have any kind of plagiarism?
College admissions officers have keen radar on essays that were not written by students. They have read hundreds and even thousands of essays, and can usually detect when someone else has written an essay for a student. Never buy essays since these are usually poorly written and colleges can tell they were not original.
When admissions officer suspect plagiarism, it’s not hard to use to Google to check the source.
If you don’t write your own essay or copy what others have written, you will only hurt yourself in the long run, since colleges use these essays to make sure they are the right place for you.
Learn more: Why You Shouldn’t Even Think of Cheating on Your Essay
40. Serious or Funny Essay?
Both serious and funny essay can be effective. It depends on your topic and what you want to say about yourself.
You can even be both serious and funny in the same essay. For instance, you can start your essay with an entertaining story about something that happened to you, but then explain what it meant and share serious insight, opinions and lessons learned.
What you don’t want is to try to write a funny essay, like a comedy sketch. Instead, share the funny thing that happened in a direct way and let the humor stand on its own.
In general, the subject of what you are talking about will determine whether your essay is serious or funny, or a little of both.
Learn more: 5 Ways to Blow Your Essay
41. What is most important part of an essay?
This is a hard question because an effective college application essays needs to accomplish several goals, and different parts have separate roles. First, the essay must engage the reader at the start, so it’s imperative that the introduction is compelling. Second, the essay must reveal something unique about the writer, so it must have a sharp focus and share something about the writer’s personality. Third, the essay needs to show the writer’s character, so it needs to express their values, how they learn and what they care about. The best way to do all three is to share a personal experience and then explain what it meant to you.
Learn more: https://www.essayhell.com/2014/04/what-makes-a-college-application-essay-great/
42. Should I write an analytical essay?
Your essay should be a personal essay, which typically also includes some type of analysis or examination of how you feel, think and learn. A stricly analytical essay has a more formal style and structure and would be too academic to work as an effective college application essay. The best personal essays are narrative (storytelling) in style, and start with students sharing a real-life experience and then explaining what it meant—through analysis of the event, what they learned, how they thought about it, what they valued and why it all mattered in the larger sense. The best college application essays also include personal reflection (sharing ideas, insights, realizations, questions, etc.).
Learn more: https://www.essayhell.com/2016/07/random-questions-answers-college-application-essays/
43. Should my essay be narrative?
The best style and format for an effective college application essay is narrative. This means the writer shares a personal experience and uses that to reveal something unique about themselves (their personality), as well as how they learn, what they care about and what the life lesson mattered (their character.) Narrative essays are not one, long story; rather, they take one moment or incident and use that to illustrate something about themselves that will help colleges differentiate them among other applicants. The single moment or incident is often used at the start (an “anecdote”) as the introduction and is only a paragraph or two long. The rest of the essay is used to explain what it meant to the writer.
Learn more: https://www.essayhell.com/2011/08/jumpstart-your-personal-statement-in-6-simple-steps/
44. How do I end my essay on a positive note?
It’s always best to leave the reader on an upbeat note, no matter how intense or negative other parts of the essay were up to that point. Many essays share experiences that were challenging or problematic, but it’s imperative that the student also quickly show how they handled those issues and turned them into learning experiences. The best way to leave on a positive note is to share how you intend to apply what you learned from an experience in your future goals. Use your last sentence or two to shift into the future and share how you intend to use your newfound knowledge toward your dreams.
Learn more: https://www.essayhell.com/2013/09/jumping-to-conclusions-how-to-end-your-essay/
Hope you found these FAQs about College Application Essays helpful. Read the first 20 Most Commonly Asked Questions about College Applications if you want to learn more.
If you have a burning question I haven’t answered here, please ask away in the comments section below and I will do my best to answer it.
by j9robinson | Oct 25, 2016
FAQ | College Application Essay
(These are the most commonly asked questions about college application essays,
along with my best advice and related posts.)
1. What are some tips to write college admission essays?
The list of essay-writing tips is long, but some of the best are: start early; include a real-life story, engage the reader at the start, focus on one-point about yourself, don’t try to impress, lose the 5-paragraph essay format, write in a more casual and familiar style, everyday topics work the best, don’t list accomplishments and activities, show your grit by sharing a problem you faced, and above all, make it personal and mainly about you.
Learn more: What Makes a College Application Essay Great?
2. How do I write college admission essays?
Start by reading the prompts to understand what they want you to write about. Then decide what you want to showcase about yourself in your response. Remember, the goal is to demonstrate your writing ability, but more than that to show your target schools something unique or unexpected about yourself that they would not have learned from other parts of your application. Try to find a topic that will help you stand out from other students. It doesn’t have to be impressive; just something interesting about yourself.
Learn more: How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps
3. How to start college application essay?
Always start by reviewing the prompts, or questions. But remember, these are mainly to help you find a topic you can use to showcase something about yourself, and what sets you apart from other applicants. Brainstorm ideas for topics, and look for real-life moments or mini-stories (“times”) from your recent past that you can share to illustrate a unique quality, characteristic, talent, or core value.
Learn more: How to Jumpstart Your College Application Essay
4. How bad is it to make up stuff for the college app essay?
Don’t waste your time making up things for your college application essay. First, this is totally unethical—it’s lying. Second, you will only hurt yourself since the whole point of these essays is to help colleges and universities decide if their school is the best place for you. If you give them phony information, they cannot help you find the best fit for your learning needs and goals. Third, college admissions folks have read hundreds of essays, and they have great radar at spotting bogus essays. Do yourself a favor and trust that writing in your most authentic teenage voice and words will be better than anything you could make up. Often, it the little imperfections, confessions and flaws that make you the most likable to schools. The truth always works the best. Trust it.
Learn more: Why You Shouldn’t Even Think of Cheating on Your College Application Essay
- Potential ways to address the “Why Major” essays?
One of the best ways to write about your selected field of study is to share one specific incident or moment that first inspired your interest in your intended major. Then continue by describing activities and experiences from high school (both academic and outside school; clubs, jobs, etc.) that furthered or deepened your interest in this major. Also, explain why you believe this major or field of study has meaning to you on a personal level, as well as value to the world in general.
Learn more: How to Write the UC Transfer Essay: Why This Major?
- Is using humor a good idea in the common App essays?
Some of the best college application essays include real-life stories that are entertaining or amusing, often because the student shared some type of problem or challenge they faced, and what happened included something on the funny side. Who doesn’t like a good laugh? However, don’t try to write something funny or a comedy sketch. There’s a big difference!
That usually backfires. If you share an incident or event that happened to you to showcase something specific about your personality or character, and it happens to be funny, go for it. (It’s often funny when we share times we messed up.) Just write it straight and let the story and humor speak for itself. Look for real-life incidents or problems that included something unexpected, and you will often find them comical.
Learn more: How to Find Your Essay Voice
7. Is talking about moving in your essay too cliche of a topic?
Students have written about moving quite a bit in these essays, mainly because the change in schools and friends affected them. However, like other often overdone topics, such as playing sports, going on mission trips and working with special needs students, writing about moving can be cliche because so many students have had these experiences.
You can still write about a move, but you need to look harder to make sure you include life lessons that aren’t predictable. It’s not what you write about, but what you have to say about it.
With a move, you need to say more than how it was hard making new friends and fitting in. There needs to be something else that challenged and changed you on some level. Look for something you never expected to happen or affect you from the move to help set your essay beyond the cliché.
Learn more: Hottest Topic Tips
8. Is it appropriate to write about religion in essays?
Like writing about other hot-button topics such as death, illness and politics, it can be tricky to write about religion in an essay. However, if your religion or something related to your spiritual beliefs has been defining for you, you could write a powerful essay.
Make sure the essay is not just about your religion, or a long explanation about the dogma, or uses too much religious jargon. Instead, consider writing about a personal challenge, and working in how your religion helped you handle it. Make sure the essay highlights something about your personality as well as what you believe. If you grew up in an extreme religion that you left, that could be an excellent topic since it shows how you learned to think for yourself.
Learn more: Cliché Essay Topics That Are Red-Flagged
9. Is an essay about politics a good topic?
Politics is often on the list of “red flag” topics not to write about. That doesn’t mean you can’t write an excellent essay that somehow involved politics, however.
Do not write an essay about only your political beliefs. The essay needs to be about you, not politics. If you have a specific experience, event or incident that happened that you want to share to showcase something about what makes you unique, and it happens to involve something political (like interning for a local politician or working on a campaign), that could make a great essay. No matter what you write about, never make partisan statements where you take a side because the last thing you want to do is offend or anger a college admissions officer who does not share your political beliefs. Example: “I love Obama” or “Trump is my hero.” You can include what you learned working in a political arena, but keep your political opinions neutral or far in the background.
Learn more: Find a Great Topic!
The next 10 most common questions about college application essays
10. Importance of stories in a college essay?
Stories are your best friend when writing a college application essay, especially a personal statement. There’s no better way to “show” the reader something about yourself than by sharing something that happened to you.
Above all, stories are interesting and make the best “grabbers” or “hooks” for the introduction of these essays. Nothing draws in a reader than “a time” something happened. If you start with a real-life story, your introduction will be specific and engaging, as opposed to a general opening statement that is dull.
Stories are the best way to share an example of a larger point you are making about yourself. For example, instead of explaining how you are creative (or any personal quality or characteristic) in your essay, share a real-life story about a moment, incident or “time” you did something creative. See the difference?
Learn more: Why Admissions Officials Want Stories in Essays
11. Is it ok to include expletives in the college essay?
Swearing is offensive. In general, you want to use real-life, everyday language in your essays. However, there’s no need to use actual expletives. If you share a story where someone swore, and it’s essential to conveying the power of the moment, find a different way to let the reader know.
Example: My dad was so angry with me that he let out a string of curse words under his breath.
You can use “mild” swear words, such as hell or damn if you are quoting someone, but only use them if it enhances what you have to say. Bottom line: if you think a word is offensive, don’t use it.
Learn more: TMI in College Application Essays
12. How to think of college essay topics?
The trick to a great topic is to find one that helps you showcase one of your defining qualities or characteristics. (This makes sure your essay is focused and interesting, and not too general and dull.)
Then brainstorm moments, incidents or experiences from your recent past that illustrates that quality or characteristic.
Another way to discover awesome topics is to look for “times” you faced any type of problem. These experiences often make ideal topics to showcase how you handle problems, what you learned and what that matters.
These problems don’t need to be catastrophes, although those can work, too. Problems come in many shapes and sizes, such as challenges, mistakes, failures, set-backs, changes, flaws, phobias, etc. Trust that “mundane” or everyday topics can make terrific topics—it’s all about what you have to say about them.
Sample topics: washing cars, obsession with karaoke, scooping ice-cream, riding public busses, having five older sisters, dealing with dad’s alcoholism, having big feet, etc.
Learn more: 5 Top Tips on Finding Topics for College Admissions Essays
- To write or not to write about disability?
Writing about a disability is a natural topic for a college application essay, because often these are highly defining. How could being blind, or using a wheelchair, or having severe dyslexia not shape who you are in some way?
The key to writing about a disability is to share how it has challenged you (and feature a moment or incident that helps the reader understand what it’s like to be you), but also spend most of essay talking about what you have learned about yourself, others and the world by dealing with it.
The key to making sure your essay is not cliché when writing about a potentially common topic is to look for life lessons that were unexpected.
Learn more: Essay Writing Topics to Avoid
- Contractions in a college essay?
When you write about yourself in your college essays, it’s natural to have contractions. The best college applications are not black and white. People (You!) are more complicated than that, and when you share your experiences and what you have learned, these lessons are often complicated and enter into the gray.
College and universities actually welcome students who have learned to think in deeper and more abstract terms, who know that not everything is all good or all bad. The point of these essays is to take a look at what you care about and why, and it’s normal to examine these ideas from many angles. No one expects you to have all the answers; they just want to hear how you think about things and what you value and why.
Learn more: Why Best Essays Have Touch of Gray
- What do colleges look for in an essay?
One of the main things colleges use essays for is to help the admissions officers differentiate students from each other. Without essays, they only have colorless test scores, grades and lists of activities to get a sense of the applicants. So you want to find something to write about yourself that will stand out from the crowd.
Above all, the colleges are trying to determine whether you are the right “fit” for their school, and to do that they need to get a picture of your personality and character. They want to see that you can write, that you are interesting, that you value thinking and learning (called “intellectual vitality”), that you have grit (raw determination), and above all, that you are likable.
Learn more: Learn What Admissions Officers Want in Essays
16, Is it okay to write a common app essay about a time I experienced failure because I slacked off?
You can write an essay about times that your grades slipped or you slacked off for a time in high school as long as you make it clear that you have recovered. These can make strong essays because they can help explain lower grades or other blips in your academic record.
However, you must not make excuses for your slacking, but instead provide an explanation (illness in the family, your own depression, bullying, a move, etc.). Spend the majority of your essay talking about how you got yourself back on track and what you learned from that experience that will make you all the stronger in the future.
Learn more: How to Write About Failure
17. Just how important are the application essays?
Most college and universities say these essays are very important in the admissions process, although it’s impossible on an individual level to know what part they played in acceptances and rejections.
Most admissions officers say the essays are often the only tool they have to get a sense of the applicant’s personality and character—to “put a face” on the application.
Especially at the most competitive schools, where almost all the applicants have near-perfect grades, test scores and extracurricular lists, these essays often end up as one of the deciding factors.
Students should not try to worry how much they matter, and instead write the best essay they can to help them differentiate themselves from the competition and give their target schools a clear sense of their individuality.
Learn more: Learn What Admissions Officers Want in Essays
- Can I write a college essay bluntly?
You should write your college application using a casual, familiar tone and voice. One tip is to try to write more like you talk, using everyday language as opposed to the more formal tone of academic essays (don’t try to force in long, SAT vocabulary words!).
Share your personal stories to illustrate what you want to showcase about yourself to your target schools, and then explain what you learned in the process. You can be direct and candid about your experiences and how you felt during them.
Steer clear of overly flowery writing or slipping into that “trying to sound smart” voice of typical English papers. Stick to the truth, be candid and get out your thoughts. Then go back and edit them to strike the right flow and tone.
Learn more: How to Find Your Essay Writing Voice
- Why [X college]? Essay Question
The prompt for essay supplements that asks about why you are a fit for their school, or why you want to go there, or anything that asks about why they should admit you, is one of the most common prompts colleges and universities ask students.
Don’t waste your time telling the school how great it is or how much you love it. The key to answering this prompt is to make a case for how that school can help you meet your educational and personal goals. To do that, do some research (scour their web sites) to learn specific details about what that school has to offer—such as courses, programs, internships, study abroad, clubs, professors, facilities—that will support your interests, field of study or major.
Learn more: How to Answer “Why College X”
- Writing about mental illness in college essay?
If you deal with a mental illness, such as depression, anxiety, OCD, anorexia, etc., you can write a powerful essay about this for your college application. However, you need to make sure that you make it clear that your mental illness has not stopped you from being a productive and balanced person.
You can share the challenges of your illness in your essay so the reader understands how hard it has been, but you need to spend most of your essay explaining how you have learned to handle it or manage it, and not let it stop you from your academic, social or other activities and goals. In fact, you most likely can include how dealing with this mental illness has made you even stronger and prepared you for college.
Learn more: Essay Writing Topics to Avoid
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