It asks you to write about a problem.
What’s so great about a problem?
It asks you to write about a problem.
What’s so great about a problem?
Students trying to submit their college applications–including their essays–to The Common Application are finding all sorts of glitches and problems this fall. Apparently, it’s a new system and some students have spent literally hours trying to make it work–and often without any luck. Some colleges have had to extend their deadlines.
The good news is that my friend, Lynn O’Shaughnessy, a renowned college expert from San Diego, has written a list of tips you can follow to try to avoid the nightmare–or at least find ways to deal with it. I love Lynn because she’s also a professional journalist who knows how to get the best inside scoop and communicate it well. (If you are trying to figure out how you are going to pay for your education, you should check out her web site, blog, books, workshops, and everything she offers that you can get your hands on!) (more…)
UPDATE: Most of this information is still helpful and relevant. However, please see the changes in the NEW Common Application Prompts for 2015-16!
If you are ready to brainstorm ideas for your Common Application essays, here’s a great place to start. I’ve written posts on each of the 5 new prompts–including how to focus your answer, to find unique angles and twists, to structure your essay, to tell a story with an anecdote, and topics to avoid, on and on.
Check out my posts on how to answer the two prompts for the University of California essays.
If you find these helpful, but still need more help in the actual writing of your narrative-style essay, consider buying a copy of my new book: Escape Essay Hell! You can order off my blog here or it’s now also available on Amazon via Kindle. luck!
When you read the five options for your Common Application essay, one prompt probably will appeal to you first off. Others you will skim and choose to ignore.
This is how I felt about the third prompt–“Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?”
It just didn’t inspire any topic ideas for me, and I assumed it was less likely than the others to work for you, too.
But when I gave this question a little more thought, I realized that I challenged a belief while I was in my teens. And it was a very big deal.
I was raised in a religion that is considered relatively radical and unusual, and when I started to think for myself (sometime around junior high) I decided it wasn’t for me.
I was not popular with my parents, some of my friends or my parochial school at the time, and it was hard sticking to my guns. Although rejecting my religion was challenging, painful and lonely, the process truly defined who I was and what I believed. It would have made an excellent essay topic.
So there. I have to eat my negative words about that third essay question.
I wonder what other possible topics could be for that question, besides challenging a religion that has been imposed upon you.
How about a gender belief? Or racial or cultural one? Could you stretch the meaning of a “belief or idea” into an assumption, opinion or prejudice? I think so, especially if you indicate that you have done that in your essay.
I also think if you try to think of a time someone or something first challenged you on a certain “belief or idea,” and then you challenged back, you might find more real-life examples to write about.
For instance, someone tried to hold you back just because you were a girl, and what you did about that (the belief you challenged: girls are inferior to guys).
Or someone kept you out of an activity or group just because of your race or heritage, and what you did about that. I’m imaging some type of confrontation or speaking up or fighting back (peacefully, of course).
I like that the prompt asks you pointedly to also include “what prompted you to act,” so you include some action in your essay.
It’s always a good thing when something actually happens in these college application essays.
The last question in this prompt, “Would you make the same decision again,” is meant to encourage you to look back and reflect, analyze and evaluate that decision to challenge the belief or idea.
If you want to answer this prompt, here’s one way you could structure your essay to engage the reader with your challenging action, and go on to explain why you did it:
1. Start with an anecdote that describes a moment or “time” when you challenged the belief or idea you are writing about. This could simply be the conversation where you confronted someone about it, or some action you took to protest or react to that belief or idea.
2. After a paragraph or two where you described an example of a specific “time” you challenged the belief or idea (or assumption, stereotype, opinion, prejudice, etc.), then go back and give us the back story about this time. What led up to it?
3. Then start to explain how that incident made you feel, what made you decide you didn’t accept it, “what prompted you to act,” how you responded to it, and what you learned in the process. And of course, would you do it again?
The most important part of writing about this prompt, I believe, is to bring some action to your essay. It could be dull and long-winded if you only talk about your beliefs or ideas. Focus on a specific example where something happened and your essay is sure to be compelling.
The larger lesson here, at least that I’ve learned, in reviewing the five options for writing your college admissions essays for these new Common Application prompts is to try your best to think about and brainstorm ideas for each one. Even if one jumps out at you, give the others a chance. I think I could have written a great essay if I had thought more about my own time I challenged a belief or idea!
My new ebook, Escape Essay Hell!, offers more complete steps and advice on how to write these types of “narrative,” or storytelling, essays, if you want more help:
If you are working on your Common Application, you have five prompts (or essay questions) to choose from for your essay.
The challenge is to pick the prompt that you can answer to write your best, most effective essay.
In previous years, you had the option to write about anything you wanted, called “Topic of Choice,” or number 6.
But that’s no longer an option. The new challenge is to find the prompt that gives you the most freedom to write about what you want—-in other words, make it your “topic of choice.”
This decision, however, can be like walking a tightrope.
It’s possible, but challenging, and above all, you must try hard not to fall off.
If you push your answer so far out there, and it no longer appears to actually “answer” or address the prompt, that’s not a good thing.
College admissions officers, especially those at the most competitive and elite schools, are often looking for reasons to bump your essay.
It’s not that they don’t want to be fair, but there are so many applicants and essays to read and everyone looks so equally attractive these days.
They only need one reason to make their pile smaller. So make sure not to give them one!
It’s a hard call. In order to standout from the crowd, you need to take some risks with your essay’s message, style or voice.
At the same time, you need to stay within the parameters of the prompts or you will be weeded out.
1. Spend enough time brainstorming ideas for each of the five prompts before you decide upon one.
If you can find the right prompt, which inspires you and you find a great topic to write about, then you are already closer to writing a standout essay that doesn’t cross the line.
2. Once you pick a prompt, try to find a creative way to respond to it.
Don’t just answer it directly, but use it as a springboard to develop other related ideas and express other ideas and opinions. Put your own spin on it.
This is how you expand your essay beyond the narrow margins of the prompt, and show how you are a creative, original, imaginative and resourceful thinker and writer.
This is how you standout. But if you push it too far, you risk sounding as though you have ignored them.
My suggestion is that no matter how far out you take your story, ideas or opinions, link them back to the prompt by using some of the prompt’s words or language.
This will flag the reader that you are still addressing the prompt, even if you have taken your essay in an inspired direction.
I have copied the new Common Application Prompts, and bolded key words in each one that you could include in your essay to keep it connected to the prompt:
PLEASE NOTE! This prompt has changed for 2017-18. This post is now obsolete, although you can still find helpful general information on how to think about prompts and write your essays.
The revised prompt 5 is: Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised]
I will be writing a new post on how to address this revised prompt in upcoming weeks…stay tuned.
I’ve been dragging my heels about writing on this last option of the new Common Application prompts.
It’s not the worst one (I’m saving Prompt 3 for last), but I think you could easily ensnare yourself on this essay option:
Prompt 5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.
The biggest pitfall could be if you choose a common accomplishment or event that could address this prompt, but not necessarily result in an interesting essay.
For example, some classic “transitions” into adulthood are graduations, birthdays (your big 16 or your quinceanera) or advancements within other groups, such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts, your church or volunteer organizations.
These are wonderful achievements, but they don’t necessarily translate into compelling essay topics.
Would you want to read about someone’s Eagle Scout project or their Bat Mitzvah?
To find an interesting mini-story (also called an anecdote) about “a time” that marked your transition into the adult world, I would start trolling your past for any type of problems you have faced in recent years.
If you confronted and dealt with a difficult problem, chances are you grew up a little bit when you wrestled with it. Read more about how problems come in many shapes and sizes.
Look for an incident, issue or experience where you faced a challenge, an obstacle or something that was difficult to deal with, and share how you handled it, and what you learned from it.
While expressing what you learned from that experience, just make sure to link the lessons you learned to the idea of growing up, of maturing, of becoming more like an adult.
What qualities did you develop?
For example, did you start being more responsible?
Examine yourself to see if you changed in anyway from before the problem to after–and develop the idea of personal growth.
That way it will be clear that you addressed the prompt.
If you don’t want to focus on past problems, see if you have any smaller examples that could illustrate the process of growing up–and then use that simple example to expand into the large life lessons.
For instance, maybe your grandmother always made tortillas, and then when she passed away, you set out to learn how to make them yourself.
You could start your essay by describing a moment you watched your grandmother make them, or describe the steps you took to figure out how to make them yourself, and then talk about the larger lesson of learning from others, valuing the past or growing more aware of what really matters.
(Actually, even this example does involve a “problem”: You didn’t know how to make tortillas!)
This example would fall under the idea in the prompt of relaying a life transition involving a “culture,” and if you are fortunate enough to have a rich cultural heritage, I would definitely explore stories within that world.
One last way to think about this prompt is to try to find any times you were surprised by an event, activity or experience where you suddenly had to express more “mature” qualities, or make more “adult-like” decisions–and what you learned from that.
If you can find a twist to your response–something that we wouldn’t necessarily think would be a transition into adulthood that turned out to be one–all the better!
So now that I have thought more about this prompt, I’m liking it more than when I first read it. As long as you can try to find smaller, more unique or unexpected examples of these life transitions, I bet you can write some terrific essays!
Also, here’s my recent post on how to respond to Prompt 2 of the Common Application and how to respond to Prompt 1.
Also, I just published an ebook that is a step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay. If want help focusing your topic, and finding and telling a compelling anecdote, this guide works perfectly with this prompt (as well as Prompts 1 and 2.). It costs <$10 and you can order using the button below.