Writing Prompts and Making the Choice: College Admissions Essay Help (page 2)
Many schools use quotations, both famous and obscure, as essay topics. While some provide a specific question to help direct your writing, others simply ask you to respond in any way you choose. For example, Amherst College does the latter, citing three separate quotes to choose from. One of them is the following:
"It seems to me incumbent upon this and other schools' graduates to recognize their responsibility to the public interest.. unless the graduates of this college... are willing to put back into our society those talents, the broad sympathy, the understanding, the compassion...then obviously the presuppositions upon which our democracy are based are bound to be fallible."
—John F. Kennedy, at the ground breaking for the Amherst College Frost Library, October 26,1963
Not all schools use heavyweight quotes. George Washington University, for example, provides:
"A table, a chair, a bowl of fruit and a violin; what else does a man need to be happy?"
The directions provided by Amherst College are great advice, no matter the quotation or the school: "It is not necessary to research, read, or refer to the texts from which these quotations are taken; we are looking for original, personal responses to these short excerpts. Remember that your essay should be personal in nature and not simply an argumentative essay."
Short Answer Prompts
Some schools ask you to write more than one essay in an attempt to elicit additional information about you. Second and even third essays are typically expected to be 250 words or fewer, and their topics are often wide-ranging. As with every essay, resist the temptation to get scholarly—these aren't meant to demonstrate your research or debate skills.
Here are a few other examples:
- University of Richmond: Tell us about an experience in which you left your comfort zone. How did this experience change you?
- Stetson University: If you had a million dollars today, what would you do with it?
- University of Virginia: What is your favorite word and why?
Many prompt types lend themselves to essay recycling; consider the time saving move of using an essay you've already written. Here are three ideas for making the most of existing essays:
- Submit the original copy of an essay you wrote for a class, with teacher comments. Be certain to use an essay that got you an A and is on an interest ing topic. There is an important advantage of this choice (other than the obvious saving of time and effort): it effectively gives you another teacher recommendation if the comments are positive and he or she didn't already write one of your other recommendations.
- Rewrite an essay composed for a class, improving it by incorporating teacher comments. This option allows you to take advantage of your teach er's editing abilities. There is no need to mention the grade the essay received, or the class or teacher it was required by.
- Use an essay written for another college application. If you use this option, just be sure your essay isn't geared specifically for another school. Carefully check the essay for any reference to a particular school before submitting it; more than one student has been caught extolling the virtues of school A on the application for school B. There's never an excuse for such sloppiness.
Making the Choice
Now that you're familiar with essay topics, you'll need to make a decision. The following steps will help you select a prompt that best works with the information you'd like to share:
- For each potential topic, use a separate sheet of paper and write it at the top.
- Write anything that comes to mind in response to that topic. Your ideas can be in the form of a neat list, moving from most to least important, or they can be random.
- Get out your personal inventory, and match information with the topics. Does your experience and background fit well with a particular topic? What about your creative interest? It could be narrowed down to a specific creative work or body of work (topic 4), or work well as a significant life experience (topic 1) if you write about your visit to New York to attend a seminar at the Fashion Institute of Technology.
Once you have prewriting notes on each topic, answer the following:
- Can I answer the question or address the topic completely?
- Does the topic let me highlight something about myself that wasn't evident on the rest of the application?
- Is the topic about something personally significant and important to my life?
- Can I make the essay unique, easily avoiding cliches?
- Will my essay on this topic tell the committee something they will like about me?
- Can I write about this topic without bragging or overstating my importance?
- Will my essay hold the interest of the reader?
- Will my essay avoid potentially offensive subjects?
Still Not Sure?
At this point, it may be clear which topic best suits your strengths and experiences, lending itself to a unique and insightful essay. However, if more than one topic seems like a good fit, here's another idea to help you make a choice. Go back to your personal inventory. Using a different colored highlighter for each topic, mark the information that could be used to write on that topic. To which topic can you bring the most actual experiences and concrete details? Still not sure? Consider outlining and writing rough drafts of two essays.
One student used a couple of Common Application topics to brainstorm two essays. She knew the information she wanted to share in the essay, but wasn't sure where she wanted to go with it. The prompts gave her some direction and helped her to craft an effective final essay, an excerpt of which follows:
Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
When my science teacher assigned a research paper on a scientist of our choice, r wasn't thrilled. I had no one in mind for the month-long project. I sat at the keyboard in the school library, looking for inspiration. Finally, I started a search for women scientists, I found a hit with a quote from Al Gore, calling the mystery person "an outstanding role model for women scientists across America.."
Who was she? The late Dr. Nancy Foster, former Assistant Administrator for Oceanic Services and Coastal Zone Management at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Director of the National Ocean Service. The more I read about this brilliant, dynamic woman, the more I became inspired. Not only did I feel impressed and proud of her many accomplishments, but her story made me think that I could take my love of the ocean and its creatures and make it into a career as a marine biologist.
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