Tips for Making Wise Decisions with Common App Essay Prompts
Learn how to tackle one of the Common App's most popular essay prompts: "Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it." Our tips will help you make the most of this opportunity to showcase your unique perspective and experiences.
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1. HOW TO MAKE THE WISE DECISION TIPS: Y 5 Common Application 2014-2015 Essay Prompts
2. #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. #1 The Background Story
3. General Tips for Prompt # 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 : You are asked to address the fundamental nature of how you see yourself as a person. Who are you? What are you? What makes you, well, you? Admissions officers want to be able to say, hey, I understand who this kid is and where he came from, because the kid understands this about himself and is able to communicate it in a clear, compelling fashion. So, this essay must address your identity, however you define it. Background : College admissions people know that some people have an interesting background that is the source of their identity. This background can be cultural, ethnic, familial, medical, physical, economic, or just about any other set of circumstances that defines who you are as a person. Story : Some students have a story that helps define who they are. A story, by definition, is a narrative, an account of events in ones life that may help to shape your identity. A background is something that is not really fixed in time: its a circumstance. A story, on the other hand, exists in time, and has a beginning, middle, and end. Do you have a story that helps to explain the way you see yourself, that has helped to form you as a person? If so, this is the story at the core of this prompt.
4. #2:RECOUNT AN INCIDENT OR TIME WHEN YOU EXPERIENCED FAILURE. HOW DID IT AFFECT YOU, AND WHAT LESSONS DID YOU LEARN? #2 Failure
5. General Tips for Prompt #2: Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn? Incident or time : You are being asked for a specific event in time. Thus you will again tell a story to your reader. It should be a very concise story, but it should have a beginning, middle, and an end. You want to give enough detail that your reader can follow the narrative, but not so long that you get boringor worse, go over the word count limit. Affect : What was the impact of this failure? How did it make others see you? How did you see yourself after this incident? Be reflective. Examine your emotions. Did it make you angry, embarrassed, disappointed, secretly thrilled, or downright sad? What was the immediate impact of your failure? This is perhaps the hardest part of answering this prompt: you have to go into that mess of feelings that youve tried to put behind you. But the admissions office is asking you to share, so share you must. Lessons : This seems obvious, but these lessons can be hard to articulate. So begin with a list: how many things can you pinpoint that you learned from this mistake? Think about how you can learn things at different times, too. Sometimes we learn things from failure immediately. Other lessons take longer to sink in. Again, you have to be analytical. I recommend that you come up with three solid lessons for this essay. The ultimate direction of this essay should be positive and optimistic. You should not worry too much about the nature of the mistake: weve all made them, and admissions officers, frankly, have seen them all. The point of this is to allow you to demonstrate your maturity, your humility, and your ability to turn a bad experience into a good one.
6. #3 Belief or Idea #3:Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? (2 slides for General Tips)
7. General Tips for prompt#3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? Belief or idea . The pivot of this essay is some belief or idea that matters to you. Beliefs and ideas are abstractionsprinciples that inform your behavior and set your own standards for the behavior of others. So no matter what else this prompt addresses, at its core must be some ethical or moral value that you hold. Time . This word implies a chronology; therefore, you will be required to recount a story. This narrative has a beginning, a middle, and an end. We are looking for a specific incident or occurrence that you can relate in a very succinct, very dense manner. Challenged . Your idea or belief must have been tested in some way for this essay to work. Its not enough to hold an idea: you are being asked to relate an incident in which you had to defend this principle. Act . This is a critical word in this prompt: it asks for the action you took in response to the challenge. What concrete steps did you take to defend your idea or belief? For some students, it may actually be that the student took no actionbut later regretted it. Nevertheless, the prompt implies that some action was necessary for you to uphold your belief. What was that action? (cont next slide)
8. General Tips for prompt#3: Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again? Prompted . This may not seem like an important word, but it is related to the word time. The assumption here is that some particular event or happening was the tipping point in your defense of the idea or belief. This returns us back to the story you are being asked to construct. What was the pivotal moment that propelled you to act? The final question of the prompt is also important, even though no single word stands out in the sentence. This question is to make you evaluate your action in defense of your belief. How would you assess your decision, as well as your action? What were the positive outcomes from this incident, and what may have been the more negative aspects? I recommend that as you brainstorm, you try to come up with at least three evaluative statements about the outcome of this action you took in defense of your belief. Not all of these statements may end up in your essay, but because any essay is designed to help the reader understand how you think and feel, it makes sense to take some time to analyze your experience.
9. #4 A Place or Environment Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? (2 slides for General Tips)
10. General Tips for Prompt #4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? Place or environment . Unlike most of the other prompts that ask you about items fixed in time (an incident, an event, an occurrence), this prompt is anchored in space. A place or environment has a particular geography. It has a location. Generally this prompt will work best if you can identify a very specific location. But sometimes a more general environment might do quite nicely. More than one student will likely take a metaphorical tack on this prompt, identifying an abstract space or place around which they will build an essay. But a place or environment is fixed in space. Describe . Again, this is a word that is quite different from the other prompts in which you are asked to tell a story. Here, we want a description of the place you have identified. Again, the more specific the place, the more detailed description you might be able to provide. But just as you want a story to be interesting and vivid, you also want to paint a picture of this place that helps your reader to see it in her minds eye. Do or experience . Again, this prompt is not looking for a particular instance or event upon which you can construct a story or narrative. Instead, this prompt assumes that your relationship with this place is not fixed at one particular moment; rather, the prompt assumes that you return to this place again and again, and that you engage in particular activities or experience particular sensations or emotions. So just as you need to describe the place, you also need to describe yourself moving about and interacting with that space. (cont next slide)
11. General Tips for Prompt #4: Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you? Content . This is the core of the prompt: contentment. And what is contentment? Aha! This is the core of the core: you have to definefor yourselfwhat contentment means for you. Fortunately, you dont have to write a philosophical treatise on the qualities of happiness. But you do have to explain what you mean by contentment within the context of this place. Why do you continue to return to this place? What benefitsmaterial, spiritual, intellectual, social, and whatnotdo you derive from this particular place or environment. Dont limit yourself to just one aspect of your contentment in this place: break it down. As you brainstorm this prompt, see if you can come up with three solid aspects of your contentment in this place or environment. Meaningful . This word is related to contentment. This place, if you have chosen it correctly, has some sort of intrinsic meaning to you. It may not have much meaning at all for other people. But for you, this place or environment is a source of satisfaction, of ease, or of spiritual tranquility. It will not be enough to say that the place is meaningful: you need to come up with why it is meaningful. So going back to the idea of contentment, if you can come up with three reasons why this particular place has meaning to you, then youll be well on your way to writing a fantastic essay that addresses this prompt. This prompt is quite different from the others, both in terms of what it is asking you to write about, but also in the structure of our essay. You can tell a lot about a person by the spaces they inhabit. So what place makes you content?
12. #5 Transition to Adulthood #5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family. (2 slides for General Tips)
13. General Tips for Prompt#5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family. Transition . This is the pivot. The prompt is asking you to talk about a change from one state of being to another. Thus like most of the other prompts, you are fixing your essay in time. You are identifying something that marks the moment in which that change occurred. Childhood to adulthood . The entire process of going off to college marks your entry to adulthood, in some sense. But colleges are not looking to admit emotional toddlers. They want to populate their campus with young adults. Thus they are assuming that you already have made the transition to adulthood, at least in many important respects. So in what ways are you now an adult? Conversely, in what ways are you no longer a child? Accomplishment or event . In some ways these two words go together, but in some ways they are quite different. An accomplishment is some feat that you performed that would mark the transition. An event might be something that just happened to you, without any particular action or agency on your part. Either way, you are being asked to describe and discuss the think that marked your transition. What was the catalyst that moved you from one state of being to the other? (cont next slide )
14. General Tips for Prompt#5: Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community or family. Culture, community, or famil y. This part of the prompt asks you to further elaborate on the ways in which others now consider you to be an adult. In whose eyes are you now no longer a child? Who expects more from you, now that you have made this transition to adulthood? The reality is that some people probably still see you as a child. Heck, you might also still see yourself as a child sometimes. But in the context of this prompt, we assume that you have made strides toward adulthood. Who now regards you as and adult, and why? Because it is it fixed on a transition that takes place in time, you are being asked to relate a story. You want to recount this accomplishment or event that marks the transition, so you must construct a compelling narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. However, it is not enough to tell the story. This prompt (like all the rest) asks you to analyze and evaluate that experience, that event, that accomplishment in light of the definitions of childhood and adulthood. As the writer, you have the opportunity to provide your reader with your own definitions. And as a young adult, you have the opportunity to demonstrate your maturity, and to show your reader how you arrived at it.
15. Topics to Avoid Clichs: How many times do you think admissions committees have read the phrase, I want to become a physician because I like science and I want to help people? The narrative resume: Do not rehash all of your activities and achievements. Choose ONE or TWO significant and distinguishing experiences to elaborate upon. Anything potentially inflammatory or controversial: You dont know who will be reading your essay. it is advisable to avoid making any strong statements regarding politics, religion, and other polarizing topics. Be extremely cautious to avoid expressing any views that could be construed as derogatory to any group. Arrogance: Be careful to not put down the people and community you grew up around Illegal activity
16. Topics to Avoid Negativity : Colleges want candidates that are excited to be on campus and continuing their education! Excuses: If focusing on low grades/test scores, be sure to focus on what you have learned from those incidents and how your experiences have made you a stronger person. Never, ever blame anyone else for your mistakes. Lies: This includes information that may be factually accurate but is presented in a misleading way. I am a victim: Victims are never attractive candidates. If you have experienced difficulties, explain your experiences dispassionately and focus on how you overcame these difficulties, what you learned from your experiences, and how you are a stronger person because of your experiences. Oversharing: Essays on domestic abuse, death or personal depression often are too intimate of a story to tell
17. Strong Qualities to Portray Maturity Compassion and empathy Distance traveled/lessons learned Industriousness and persistence Ability to relate to diverse people Insight into the chosen profession Genuineness and sincerity Honesty and integrity Leadership Clarity of thought Strong written communication skills A realistic perspective Enthusiasm Logic Distinctiveness Commitment Self-awareness Reflectiveness Passion Humanity Individuality Insightfulness Positivity
18. 10 Opening Lines from Stanford Admission Essays I change my name each time I place an order at Starbucks. When I was in the eighth grade I couldn't read. While traveling through the daily path of life, have you ever stumbled upon a hidden pocket of the universe? I have old hands. I was paralyzed from the waist down. I would try to move my leg or even shift an ankle but I never got a response. This was the first time thoughts of death ever cross my mind. I almost didn't live through September 11th, 2001. The spaghetti burbled and slushed around the pan, and as I stirred it, the noises it gave off began to sound increasingly like bodily functions. I have been surfing Lake Michigan since I was 3 years old. I stand on the riverbank surveying this rippled range like some riparian cowboy -instead of chaps, I wear vinyl, thigh-high waders and a lasso of measuring tape and twine is slung over my arm. I had never seen anyone get so excited about mitochondria