Common Application Topics: College Admissions Essay Help (page 2)
Admissions departments give great thought to the essay topics they include on their applications. They're designed to help you reveal something about yourself, and, in turn, to help them decide whom to accept. Chris Ajamian, CEO of Cates Tutoring, uses a roommate theory when helping students with their essays. "Look at the big picture," he stresses. "The purpose of the essay is to show colleges what kind of roommate you'll be. Who are you beyond the numbers, and what will you contribute to the community?"
Some essay topics have a different angle though. They're still personal, but are intended to disclose something called demonstrated interest. This is a relatively new concept in admissions essays, and its appearance coincided with the rise in the number of applications each school started receiving. Simply put, it's an attempt to gauge how enthusiastic you are about attending if you're accepted (since many students apply to seven or more schools, chances are they're only vaguely interested in some of them, and admissions officers would rather not bother with those who seem to have applied on a whim).
Many of these demonstrated interest topics are included in Common Application supplements (additional information required by some schools), and they also appear as prompts for required second short answer essays. While they vary from one application to another, these topics typically fall into one of two categories: asking you why you're applying, or getting you to connect with a specific issue of interest to the school.
In this article we'll explore the types of topics that appear on most applications. Although you're often able to write on any subject (many schools offer a version of "topic of your choice"), sometimes the parameters are much narrower, especially for supplemental essays. Whether you're choosing a topic or responding to a required one, it's important to first understand what each one is really asking for, and how best to approach it. If you've got a choice, this information can also help you determine which topic will best represent you on your application.
Common Application Topics
The Common Application, which is accepted by almost 400 colleges and universities across America, offers six essay topics. Since many other schools use similar prompts, it makes sense to begin with them. Each topic is explained with an emphasis on best approaches, what admissions officers are looking for, and what to avoid.
- Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced, and its impact on you. The last phrase is critical—whatever you choose to write about (the cause), you must show its impact upon you (the effect). Your experience need not be earth shattering; keeping it small can often work better. Remember, you are guaranteed to write a unique essay if you focus on something that you alone experienced or find meaning in.
- Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you. Be careful here, many experts caution against writing on this topic unless the issue has had a profound and highly personal effect on you. It lends itself to cliches (i.e. why I want world peace) and can steer you away from your task, which is to reveal something about yourself.
- Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence. At first thought, this topic looks like an easy way to write a unique essay. You might be thinking, "How many students were influenced by Mother Theresa the way I've been?" You'd be surprised. It's difficult to choose a famous person who hasn't already been the subject of thousands of admissions essays. And second on the list of overdone person of influence essays is relatives (parents and grandparents are the over whelming favorites), followed closely by coaches.
For example, writing an essay on what it felt like to drive a car alone for the first time, or why you enjoy preparing a favorite recipe, can showcase your creativity and ability to make connections with something larger than yourself. Perhaps the cooking experience showed you how a bunch of little steps can add up to something big, or how a simple recipe can connect you with your ethnic heritage.
In other words, they don't want to know about how you took first prize in the Mozart piano competition. If you want to write about piano playing, you could briefly mention the prize, but focus on explaining how the rigors of practice, the wisdom of your teacher, and the knowledge of musical composition have changed you for the better.
Another potential problem with this topic is that you can alienate your self from your reader. You don't know who your essay will be read by, so be careful not to dismiss or critique the other side of your argument while laying out your own.
Since this topic is not among the most popular (fewer than five percent of students choose it), you'll stand out simply by writing on it. But here's the balance you'll need to find—display your knowledge of the issue while keeping the focus highly personal.
If you do choose this topic, be fully aware of the cliche potential. Here's your focus—get highly creative in your explanation of how he or she influenced you. Be careful though, this can lead to more cliche possibilities. How unique is your par ent's guidance or your coach's leadership abilities? No matter who you write about, remember that the question is a catalyst for revealing information about you, not about your person of influence. Don't simply describe the person. Show evidence of your self throughout your essay by relating every thing back to you.
- Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence. This is the least popular Common Application topic—and for good reason. As with choice number three, you need to keep the focus on you, not the character or creative work. That's not easy to do, especially if you choose an obscure character or work that can't be explained in a short paragraph. Your choice of topic does disclose something about you, but you need to reveal even more by showing how she/he/it has influenced you. Remember to stay on task.
- A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity of a college community, or an encounter that has demonstrated the importance of diversity to you. Diversity is a key word in admissions today. While admissions offices have always sought to create classes in which there is a wide range of abilities, viewpoints, and back grounds (imagine if every freshman was a leader, or a gymnast, or a drummer), in recent years, schools are even more eager to tout the diversity of their student body. Just try finding a school website that doesn't feature pictures of different students engaged in a range of activities, along with a demographic breakdown showing the states, countries, races, and ethnicities those students represent.
- Topic of your choice. This question is found on many applications in various forms. One school asks "We want to get to know you as a person. Make up a question that is personally relevant to you, state it clearly, and answer it. Feel free to use your imagination, recognizing that those who read it will not mind being entertained." Another puts it this way: "The application lists several topic suggestions, but feel free to write about any subject that you feel is relevant and will enable us to get to know you."
The best way to approach this topic is to choose someone or something that the reader has probably heard of; too much description or background information is a waste of words that should be used to write about yourself. However, you also want to be original, so think about the choices other students will probably make, especially when it comes to historical figures. The more obvious the hero type, the more likely students have written about him or her.
Another potential problem with the choice of a subject is the possibility of being offensive. While it's good to be unique, it's also important to be appropriate. You don't want to put off your reader or give the impression that you aren't taking the essay seriously. Writing about an anti-hero (think Idi Amin or Charles Manson) or a foolish or rude character is not a smart gamble. There are two things you know definitively about your reader: he or she is older than you and gainfully employed in higher education. Anticipate that this reader may not share your sense of humor or taste.
Once you've chosen an appropriate subject that is neither too obscure nor too popular or offensive, zero in on the last three words of the prompt: explain that influence. If at least two thirds of your essay isn't explaining, you've missed the point of this topic. Your focus must be on you, rather than on the character or work of art.
That said, this topic is the most recent addition to the Common Application list, and many schools use something similar. (Notre Dame's is: "The Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C., President of the University of Notre Dame, said in his Inaugural Address that, 'If we are afraid to be different from the world, how can we make a difference in the world?' In what way do you feel you are different from your peers, and how will this shape your contribution to the Notre Dame community?") Notre Dame's prompt is a good one to keep in mind because it makes clear the fact that diversity is not just about race. Think of diversity not as a politically correct code word, but as another way to express uniqueness.
If you choose this topic, you'll need to focus on a viewpoint, an interest, a passion, a pastime—something about you that makes you stand out. And as with every essay, the focus should stay on you. That said, there are two major potential pitfalls: being generic and being offensive. The first recalls advice from admissions counselor Jonathan Gomez of Loyola Marymount University: describing the volunteer trip to a third world country (or New Orleans, Appalachia, or Mexico) can be cliched. Many students have taken trips like this, and your revelation may sound very familiar. "I learned that I don't need much to be happy," "I am much more privileged than I thought I was," or "Poverty will never mean the same thing to me;" while these are all well-intentioned observations, they're not unique—and they can easily move from cliched to offensive, which is the second major pitfall.
Admissions officers are themselves diverse. You don't know your reader. Descriptions can easily veer into the distasteful, without your even being aware of it. What one person thinks is an acceptable description can easily be read by another as stereotyping. Remember that the focus of the essay is on you, and the element(s) of diversity you will bring to campus. Using your essay to describe an encounter with diversity, whether through an acquaintance or on a journey, can easily divert your essay from its purpose and potentially offend your reader.
Any personal story, such as the one(s) you uncovered in chapter 2, will obviously work with this topic, so it's not surprising that about 40 percent of students who submit the Common Application choose it. However, as with the request for a writing sample, this topic also lends itself to essay recycling. If you already have a well-written, vivid piece on something of great significance to you, something you know well, and that has changed or had a great impact on you, you may use it here.
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