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Tackling the College Application

college applications

Let’s be real: writing can be hard.

Writing can be frustrating, too, when there is a word limit that feels a couple hundred words too few, or even daunting when you know that your readers will be reading your writing solely to make judgments about your entire personality and seventeen years of existence. Above all, writing is an art, and like all other arts, requires practice to become good at. But as an art, writing is also a form of human expression, and the five essay prompts that the Common App oh-so-generously allows you to choose from are meant to facilitate this inherent purpose. Keep in mind however, that not all writing prompts were created equal: some are able to highlight hidden quirks in the writer, while others will only serve to further muddle these qualities. Your goal throughout the college application process, of course, should be the former. So without further ado, here is an examination of the 2014-15 Common App 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. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

This prompt serves to recognize that each individual is… well, an individual. What distinguishes yourself the most from the next applicant? What incident or circumstances have you experienced that fundamentally changed your identity? Maybe it’s a ritual as mundane as the chat you have with your mother each morning over breakfast at half past five that’s increased your empathy by helping you see your parents and other adults as real people, and not just stiff authority figures. Maybe it’s something as sudden and drastic as a move across the country, or even an ocean, which has developed your appreciation for foreign cultures. Or was it the Nutcracker production you attended as a six year old that set you off on your journey to eleven years of dancing? Regardless of what your story is, make sure it is something specific to just you and nobody else, and helps explain why you are the person you are today.

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure.  How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Even though the prompt is asking you to “recount an incident or time when you experienced failure,” try not to dwell on the failure aspect of the event too much. The person reading your essay knows that the incident must have affected you at least somewhat profoundly for you to have remembered it and considered it important enough to be mentioned in your application; there is no need to emphasize how miserable you were for days after you failed your first ever theatre audition. Instead, place the focus of the essay on how you recovered from the failure and became curious about the sheer amount of behind-the-scenes work that goes into a production, which later manifested in your current love for working on stage crew. Show the reader how you act when life gets tough, and what type of person you become in the face of failure.

Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea.  What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

This prompt requires you to clearly communicate your most important morals and values to the reader without coming across as too preachy and overbearing. How willing are you to stand up for these beliefs, and how do you do so? As you explore the challenges of working against the status quo or a firmly held belief, don’t forget to answer the ending question: would you make the same decision again? There’s no pressure to answer “yes”; sometimes, hindsight allows us to realize that the cost of an action was perhaps too much. Be reflective (without rambling!), and share with the admission folks what you value. Just be sure to carefully assess the risks of advocating potentially controversial beliefs.

Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content.  What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

While the first prompt allows for the greatest diversity of topics, this prompt allows for the greatest creativity. After all, what exactly is a place or environment? Feel free to take on a more original perspective. If you’re a musician, maybe your favorite place is the cadenza of your favorite concerto, which represents a single person being put under the spotlight. What do your actions in that place signify about how you act in other situations in your life where all eyes are on you? If you’re an athlete, maybe your favorite place is the state of mind deep in your thoughts that you enter right before the start of a meet. That said, it is perfectly acceptable to describe an actual physical location as long as you are able to explain why it holds a certain appeal to you. Be descriptive, and don’t forget to relate this environment back to its context and broader meaning in your life.

Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Formal events such as birthdays and achievements like earning an award are obvious choices for this prompt, but what about the smaller moments in your life? These informal events may be as simple as meeting a special person, taking a car ride, or even eating an especially meaningful meal. As with any of the other prompts, as long as you can answer with imagination and add a personal twist, all ideas, formal and informal, big and small, are suitable. What moments in life fundamentally changed you as a person? How did the accomplishment or event help you see the world from a more mature perspective? The most important thing to search for when brainstorming ideas is the theme of transition and transformation.

Why do you love what you love? How would you define yourself and what influences in your life led you down the path you took? What funny story do you tell friends and family over and over again and why do you think it always comes up? How are these stories and qualities representative of who you are at your core? Instead of seeing the college essay as simply another line on your application checklist, try to see it as an opportunity to answer to these questions, reflect on your growth throughout high school, and discover more about yourself. After all, life is one big learning curve, and the college application process and even college itself are just tiny parts of the big picture.

Written by the MoCo Student Staff Writer Juliana Lu-Yang of Blair High School  

Image by the MoCo Student Staff Graphic Artist Angel Wen of Blair High School

About The MoCo Student

In 2012, Student Member of the Board of Education John Mannes created a countywide press network to help build a conduit to share fresh and relevant information written by youth to the wider Montgomery County student body.

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