This fall, one of my tutoring students taught me a lesson about how cheating on these essays can backfire–even if you don’t get caught.
He wanted to write his essay for the Common App on a trip he took to Guatamala to work with poor children. At one point, he confessed that he had not gone on that trip, but that his father had gone.
When I looked at him as though I thought he was nuts, he told me, in his defense, “I helped him pack!”
What? Are you kidding me?
This student kept insisting that he had no other interesting experiences that he could write about. (If you have read anything on my blog, you know that everyone has umpteen topic possibilities, and that you don’t need to travel the globe to have them.)
I gave him a brief lecture about how this was completely unethical, but he only smiled and told me that “all my friends are doing this.” (If this situation weren’t more complicated than I’m describing here, I would have booted him out on the spot.)
You are finally finished with your essay. It’s time to copy it into the online application and send it off. You’ve worked hard. Why not make sure it’s fabulous? Follow this checklist to double check that it’s as good as it should be:
Read your prompt (the question) one more time. Often a prompt will ask you to answer more than one question, or address several points. Make sure you address or answer them all!
Did you make your point? (Yes, that’s the same thing as your “main point.”) You should be able to state it in a sentence or two. And it should be stated somewhere in your essay as well. If you can’t do this, chances are your essay is too broad, and too broad means boring.
Do you prove the (main) point you are making in your essay? Did you provide examples as “evidence”?
When you give examples in your essay, or describe something, are you specific? Use details!
I like titles. But they need to be good. A title should be short and witty. Not cutesy. The tone of the title and essay should match. The best ones don’t give away too much about the essay, and only hint at what’s to come. Do not use questions. And don’t even think about a title that sounds anything like “My College Admissions Essay.”
Now, how do you think of a title, a good title? Brainstorm ideas by playing off words that link to your theme, message or topic.
Example: A student wrote an essay about how he broke his wrist playing football, and how he learned more about the game sitting on the bench that season. Theme: How bad things can result in good things/How you can learn from a new perspective. (This “theme” is also a Universal Truth or “life lesson”. Check out this post on Universal Truths to see if you have one hidden in your essay.)
Make a quick list of words from the essay that you could play around with: break, benched, football, sports, view, injury, hurt, new perspective…Let yourself “free associate,” which means you list key words and sayings that come to mind when you say one of them, such as “break.” Try the word in different tenses, in common phrases, in pop culture phrases (titles of movies, books, songs, etc.) and even clichés can work. Also, skim your essay for catchy phrases that might work. Try mixing up a couple keys words to make your own phrase. You can also use the Internet to brainstorm ideas–just Google your keywords or phrases. Have fun with it.
UPDATE: The University of California announced NEW essay prompts for 2016-17. Read about how to answer them HERE.
This post is now outdated. The information is no longer relevant!!
College Admissions Essays
How to Answer Prompt #1 for the College Application Essay
for the University of California:
“Describe the World You Come From”
Only read this if you are applying to a UC (University of California school, such as UCLA, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, San Diego, Irvine, Santa Cruz, etc.).
There are two college essay prompts for their required personal statements for incoming freshmen.
Here is some advice regarding the first one:
Prompt #1 (freshman applicants)
Describe the world you come from — for example, your family, community or school — and tell us how your world has shaped your dreams and aspirations.
Read this closely. Note that it asks you to describe one thing and then tell about another–so there are two points you need to address in your essay.
When you describe the world you come from, think of this in a figurative sense.
Do not just write about your hometown.
Instead of the word “world,” try substituting it for the word “community” or “background.”
As a “community,” almost anything can be your world (a mini-community of shared activities, people, passions or places), from your yoga class to your bedroom to your job washing dishes to your grandmother’s kitchen making tortilla soup to your two moms.
It’s wide open. Just pick a topic.
Also, the examples they give, “family, community or school” are just that, examples.
Do not write a little about each of these.
And do not just write about “my family” or “my school.” Way too broad.
Write about your uncle’s magic shop in an underprivileged neighborhood, or the Scrabble club you started at your school even though you are the world’s worst speller, or the old movie theater in your town where you first fell in love with cinema and the power of a visual story.
(Check out the link at bottom of this post to my Tumbler blog with images and quotes to spark ideas for what makes your world.)
Quickie World-As-A-Community-Finder: What do you like/love to do? Where do you do it? Who do you do it with? Bingo! You have just landed on one of your worlds!
Another way to think about your world would be to show how your background has been challenging on some level–and how that has shaped and defined who you are.
In a way, your world is your life with its unique set of issues, obstacles or challenges.
Think of the saying: “Welcome to my world.”
If you have one piece of your life that shapes your “world” in a major way—something from your personal, cultural, educational, etc. background—and that colleges would understand you better if they knew what that was like, consider writing about it.
The world of living with two gay dads.
The world of living with an autistic sister.
The world of living with a bi-polar mom.
The world of living with immigrant grandparents.
The world of living on food stamps.
The world of living with perfectionists/slobs/religious nuts/alcoholics/seven siblings/foster home/military parents/home-schooling/white parents and you are asian/constant moving/famous mom, etc.
To write this type of “world” essay, pick a real-life example of a “time” in your life/world when that issue affected you, start your essay describing that specific incident or moment, then go into how dealing with that reality has affected you.
You might be surprised what comes out of you–and how it makes you feel.
I have had students who have written about almost all of these “life” issues.
Their essays have been intense and often soul-searching, but also memorable and meaningful.
Although I think the bulk of your college application essay should focus on this world, and how it has affected you, also address the second part about your dreams and aspirations.
This has the potential to be general and boring, so make sure to talk specifically about how you will apply the lessons (values, skills, ideas, insights, etc.) you have learned in your world to your future.
(Hint: It wouldn’t hurt if you can show how these dreams and aspirations link to your specific college goals. For example, if your “world” is hanging out in your parent’s garage fixing an old truck, mention how the problem-solving skills you learned there will help your aspirations to be some type of engineer one day.)
If you are one of those A-type overachievers (hey, it’s OK, these UCs are insanely competitive!) who still feels insecure about understanding the UC prompts, check out this 50-minute video of a counselor guru spelling it all out at a convention for college admissions folks.
Just don’t let her freak you out too much. Definitely good info here, but I say overkill.
MY MOST RECENT WORLD POST! Check out some of the comments from other students trying to figure out a “world” to write about in their UC essay in A Peek into the Many World of Prompt 1, where I share some of the questions students asked me to see if their world was interesting, or would make a great essay. Reading through these comments is a GREAT WAY TO FIND YOUR OWN WORLD TO WRITE ABOUT! (Yes, I was shouting at you!)
See if this video from the UC Admissions Department helps.
I think it might give you an idea of what they want from the two personal statements, but not a lot on how to deliver it. That part is left up to you, as far as I can tell.
(Tips from video: “Be thoughtful, clear, succinct and provide depth.” “Just be honest.” “Focus on a strength.” “Write about what makes you different.” “I wrote from my heart.” All great stuff—the only thing missing is any direction, instruction or support for students on how to do all this in 500 words.)
*Also, if you are still looking for a “world” to write about, there are lots of ideas in the comments. Definitely worth scrolling through to see what others are thinking of writing about. Thanks for sharing all your ideas!
I believe you can write these UC essays on your own. But if you feel like you would like my personal help with them or other college application essays, find details on my Services page.
Interesting post on the New York Times’ blog on college admissions, called The Choice.
The article was about whether to include your random interests–ranging from an obsession with Lady Gaga to riding 100 bus routes in Seattle to a collection of old National Geographic mags–in your college applications.
The post quotes college counselors advising students to include their “hidden extracurriculars” in the “interests” section, as though that’s really radical. Depending on the interest, I believe it could work best as an essay topic.
In my opinion, what you care about, and spend your time pursuing, tells more about you than recounting your mission trip to Costa Rica or the time you won the big cross country race.
If you write an essay about an offbeat topic (a passion, an obsession, a hobby…), chances are you not only will reveal a telling piece of your personality, but also show the reader how you think and what you value.
WARNING: Do not simply try to be cute, odd or quirky. Not matter how offbeat your topic, make sure your points remain serious and thoughtful. Show restraint.
It feels like a set-up. First, you are supposed to reveal how wonderful you are in 500 words–about the number you can cram onto a postcard in your teensiest handwriting. Second, you must sell yourself to the college of your dreams—setting yourself apart from the thousands of other equally wonderful students–but appear humble and likeable at the same time. Third, no one has ever taught you how to write this type of essay, called a personal narrative. No one. Ever!
I call this impossible challenge the Catch 22 of College Essays, at least the part about saying how great you are and staying meek at the same time. You know, make an impression but don’t dare try to impress anyone!! No wonder you are stressed out!!!
The best way to handle this challenge–and I have detailed how to do this all over my blog–is to stick with a story. And it doesn’t have to be a life-changing, mind-blowing event, either. In a weird way that I don’t quite understand, the less impressive the story—the more basic, simple, everyday, mundane it is—the better it will go over. (Learn more about the power of mundane topics.)
Here’s how it works: When you tell your story, you naturally show the reader about yourself. You can avoid that awkward tone of voice that sounds boastful when you describe yourself: I’m a really creative person. I’m really passionate. I’m really great at solving problems. For some reason, when you hear someone say something like that, your first reaction is to think, with great sarcasm, “Oh, you are, are you? Well, good for you!” Whereas, if you just describe the time you built a ten-foot sculpture out of driftwood, feathers, dryer lint and goat hair, the reader might think, without a hint of sarcasm, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. That girl sounds creative.” See the difference? More on Show, Don’t Tell.)
I know I’ve hammered on this, but find your anecdotes, your examples, interesting moments, and just describe what happened—and then examine what you learned from them. It’s hard to go wrong with a story.
Step 1: Write down 3-5 “defining qualities” about yourself.
Think of how one of your parents would sum you up to a stranger.
My Julie, why, she’s creative, ambitious, caring and has a mean stubborn streak. (You can use short phrases, too. “always tries hard,” “takes risks,” “is a fast study.”)
Step 2: Take one of those qualities and try to think of a time–it doesn’t have to be earth-shaking and probably only lasted about 5 minutes or so–when that quality was challenged, or formed, or tested, proven, or affected/changed.
HUGE HINT: Think about a problem, or an obstacle, conflict, challenge or some type of trouble, that involved you and that quality.
Step 3: If you can find an interesting moment, incident, experience or story to convey about a time when things went wrong for you, BINGO, you could have found a great topic!
ANOTHER HUGE HINT: The incident does not have to be when you fell off a cliff or were hit by a car.
Problems can take many forms, including a personal idiosyncrasy, or phobia, a challenge, or something (big or little, real or in your mind) that tried to stop you from doing something you wanted.
I will stop here. But in a nutshell, you can now relay the problem (in story form, called an “anecdote”) and then explain what you learned, and why, by dealing with it.
Ok, time is up. Well, almost. As long as you can quickly identify a couple of strong topics for your essays, there’s still time to pound out good ones.
Here’s the best advice I know on writing first drafts, from one of the best writers out there. A quirky woman named Anne Lamott (check out her picture at the bottom!). Ignore the weird hair. She’s THE BEST. Read on:
“For me and most of the writers I know, writing is not rapturous. In fact, the only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts.” Anne Lamott, from the best book on writing, called Bird by Bird.
“All good writers write them (shitty first drafts). This is how they end up with good second drafts and terrific third drafts. …” more from A.L. and Bird by Bird.
Okay. Do you love her? Despite the potty language–or because of it–she’s spot on. To move forward, you have to take a good idea, get a simple plan and sit down and write it out. It won’t be great at first. That’s just how it goes. Then all you do is go back, and fix it up.
My students have discovered some of their best topic ideas for their college application essays from their job experiences.
I’m not sure why they make great fodder for college essays, but I believe that simply working for others naturally reveals a complimentary set of qualities, skills and values—humility, determination, perseverance, responsibility, people skills, industriousness, dependability, and the good old work ethic.
It’s no coincidence that these are the same qualities and skills that you need to succeed in college—and what college admissions folks are looking for!
I also think work experiences often fall under the category of “mundane” or everyday topics—which is a good thing!
Former students have written lively essays out working at places like Circuit City, a shoe store, ushering at a playhouse, serving gelato, washing dishes at fancy restaurant, bagging groceries at Ralph’s, working at Dunkin Donuts, etc.
Most work places lack glamour, and that naturally makes them feel “real,” authentic and interesting.
And although we have all worked in our lives, it’s always fun to learn about what it’s like at those places we never worked, no matter how pedestrian they seem (so the essays are naturally interesting to read).
When you think of past jobs, explore them for those other features that make great essays:
Something happened. (Look for a little story or moment or example to tell)
There was a problem. (Something went wrong; you messed up; you couldn’t do it correctly; you were scared; someone was in your way; etc.)
The event or context was “mundane,” meaning simple and common in nature. (in this case, your job or the related problem: cleaning houses, serving burgers, etc.)
You learned a lesson. (How you turned something negative into a positive.)
It’s time to let go of the 5-paragraph essay format that most English teachers have pounded into your DNA by now.
College admissions essays are very different from the formal academic essays you wrote in high school.
Well, most are called “personal narratives,” which use the first-person to tell a story or explore a personal insight about yourself or something you value. The majority are written in a more casual style (tone, voice and structure).
Like the 5-paragraph essay, however, they still need to make a “main point,” and they require a structure, although one that is much looser.
Here is one simple technique that can give your essay a structural “spine,” yet keep it engaging and breezy in style.
It’s called Show and Tell (not to be confused with the writing axiom, “Show, don’t Tell.”)
It’s really a simplified version of another writing approach I outlined in an earlier post, called The Ladder of Abstraction.
This is how you do it:When you write, make sure to go back and forth between “showing” the reader your point to “telling” the reader what it means.
Write a Show paragraph, then write a Tell paragraph, then switch back to a Show paragraph, etc. (Most 5-paragraph essays start by Telling, whereas this approach starts with Showing.
When you Show, you are focused and specific, often by providing examples and supporting details.
* * *
When you Tell, you are broad and general, and explain the meaning.
* * *
How to SHOW:
Be specific. (Instead of saying, “The dog was cute.” Say, “The dog, a miniature poodle named Jack, rolled over when you commanded him to ‘Speak!’”)
Give details. Remember “concrete details”? That just means words that are specific. (Instead of saying, “The trip was awesome,” say “We dove for albacore, built a giant bonfire and road the zip-line ten times.”)
Use your senses to describe: What do you see, hear, taste, smell and feel?
Give examples. If you Tell about something, “Everyone was upset by the ruling,” Show them by giving examples of how upset they were, “First, women threw up their hands and screamed. Then, a couple children burst into tears. One man punched the wall.”
Use anecdotes or “mini-stories” to put the reader in the middle of the action.
Compare things to make your point. This is another way to Show more clearly what you mean. Instead of, “It was very hot outside.” Say, “It was as hot as a car roof in Arizona.” (Yes, the formal words for these are “similes,” “metaphors” and “analogies.”)
Zoom in. Like a zoom lens, take a closer look at what you are talking about, show/describe the little things close up.
How to TELL:.
Be broad and general.
Explain what something means.
Summarize a group of smaller ideas.
Reflect on the larger meaning of something. Look for “universal truths.”
Analyze what something means.
Interpret something you wrote.
Zoom out. Step back from your points and examine the Big Picture.
When you Tell, you are usually providing “meaning. “What does that mean?”
When you read other students’ sample essays, see if you can spot when they are Showing and when they are Telling. It might make more sense. Then, give it a shot with your own essay.
As a professional writing coach, I help students, parents, counselors, teachers and others from around the world on these dreaded essays!
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