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Writing An Essay About An Important Influence

In Autobiographical College Essay, Autobiographical Essay, common application, Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on an Influence, Influential Experience Essay, Influential Person Essay on July 26, 2011 at 8:31 pm

Many applications ask for an essay on a person who influenced you or on an important experience.  There are wrinkles to this kind of question–in some cases, the “person” can be a fictional character and the influence can be a work of art, as in one of the prompts from the Common Application in recent years.  (Note–this is possible as an approach for prompts like the “person of influence” that begins tthe 2017-2018 Princeton application essays, but this is a reach; they really want insight into your personal experience, your world view and experiences, and living through a fictional character is a stretch–though I have had clients pull it off.  The key is to choose good books that have occupied a large place in your life and influenced your perspective, curiosity and interests.  On the other hand, if you are really into a specific character, why not just turn to an author who has influenced you–that might work.   Of course the same topic focus could work for a  different prompt, in this year’s Princeton essays, that could be anything from culture to the quote-from-a-book prompt.) 

This post will discuss this kind of prompt by specifically addressing prompts three and four of the Common Application for 2011-2012, but the discussion in general is useful for any essay about a personal influence, including those that will have that topic in 2017-2018.

Let’s start by looking at the old Common App prompts three and prompt four together, as they in some ways overlap, and they are similar to Princeton’s personal influence prompt for this year:

3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you and describe that influence.

4. 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 describe that influence

Like Prompt Four, Prompt Three is based on personal experience, but the intent of the prompters is that the essay on Prompt Three be about a person with whom you have direct, personal experience. This is the kind of autobiographical essay commonly taught in high school, and I see many of these essays written about coaches, teachers and other mentor figures. Your college admissions officers also see many essays like this. Keep that in mind. You might want to visit my earlier posts about audience and the rhetorical situation, beginning here.

Less commonly, I have seen essays on Prompt Three about the influence of, say, a younger sibling or of a person the writer has met only once but who made a profound impact on the writer. While most who address this prompt write about a positive experience or influence, some writers examine more ambiguous or even malevolent figures in their lives.

This post continues analyzing this essay prompt in detail and concludes with exercises to help you write a vivid and appealing essay.

To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing, put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

The fifteen-dollar subscription fee  gives you access to  all existing and future posts through 2018.  This includes 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2017-2018 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.

Writing The Essay On A Local Issue

In common application, Common Application Prompt 2, Common Application Prompt Two, Issue of Concern Essay on July 25, 2011 at 6:57 pm

This will be my final post on The Issue of Concern or Problem Essay, which has been Prompt Two of the Common Application in recent years.

In this post, I will focus on writing about a local problem.  I recommend that you read my three previous posts for in-depth discussion of other Prompt Two topic areas.

Let’s look again at the prompt: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

This topic lends itself more to narrative than do the the topics of national or international concern, though if you lived or traveled in a place with problems of hunger, for example, you could use a narrative strategy in addressing a problem of international importance.

This topic also lends itself more to humor than do the topics of national or international concern. I will handle the serious approach to this topic first, then deal with humor.

The famous advice given to fiction writers–write about what you know–applies here. I have had essays on a wide variety of topics which address this prompt in the last year, including essays on: teen suicide by a student involved with an outreach group and suicide hotline; restoration of a local creek by a student who had worked on the project; traffic safety and bicycle safety in a suburban setting by a student who was working on making his community more bike and pedestrian friendly; and an essay on urban forestry by a student who worked with an organization which planted and restored trees in human environments. You might think of this as the Eagle Scout Project topic.

Each of the essays above were successful because the writers were intimately familiar and involved with with the local problem which they addressed. Don’t expect to suddenly leap into a local issue now and come up with an essay next week.

On the other hand, I had a few very funny essays which were on topics such as Weeds in Local Lawns as a problem and Early Onset Senioritis as a problem. Being funny is great, but it is also a risky strategy. The weeds in lawns essay could made the writer sound like another suburban kid looking for a clue. However, the lad who wrote it presented it as a kind of quest and a scientific treatise and, instead of advocating the application of massive amounts of herbicide, he argued that our ideas about perfection were dangerous. He included good narrative and descriptions of weeds and of himself battling weeds under the hot sun for low pay–a very funny paragraph of description, which was followed by a seemingly ironic proposal that we let (many) weeds grow.  The irony slowly receded as this student made his argument that weeds are a class we create in order to destroy things we don’t like, often for misguided aesthetic reasons. The essay succeeded in being funny but serious at the same time.

Beware, however, of casting yourself in a negative light while attempting to get laughs, and use caution if writing what I call a metaessay, a college ap essay which is about writing the college app essay and which is usually tongue-in-cheek. More about metaessays later.

More Thoughts On The Problem Essay

In applying to college, common application, Common Application Prompt Two, Issue of Concern Essay on July 25, 2011 at 6:27 pm

The last couple of posts have dealt with strategy for Common App Prompt Two and have analyzed several topics in depth. I recommend that you have a look at them. I think of Prompt Two as the Big Problem prompt–though if you are involved in a local issue and well-versed in it, a “small” problem can be a brilliant choice.  I will address the local problem as a topic in my next post.

In this post, I will more briefly consider a number of additional topics which I have seen used recently to address Prompt Two.

Some global considerations for this prompt: first, remember that you are developing a form of argument which certainly includes an analysis of cause and effect and which should have a solution to the problem discussed. If you prefer narratives or don’t have an existing interest in and basic knowledge of a topic of local, national or international importance, move on to the other prompts. See my previous posts about other risks of this prompt, such as the “beauty queen” trap.

Remember that the prompt is one thing, the topic you choose another. The number of topics possible for an argument addressing Prompt Two is as large as the number of problems in the world. This is as good a thing for an essayist as it is a bad thing for the world at large. Therefore, try to be sensitive–you are writing about something that may be a very real source of suffering for others.

Below is  a list of essay topics addressing this prompt which I have seen in the last year, along with questions and considerations for these topics; keep in mind that Prompt Two more than any other Common App prompt demands knowledge, the marshaling of empirical facts and, most likely, some time spent researching:

1. The problem of food shortages and famine

Hunger, like poverty, has always been with humanity. Keep that in mind. Any solution you come up with can improve things but don’t try to end world hunger forever in a 500 word essay. There are always complicating factors to consider. In recent years the U.S, one of countries which is an important grain exporter, has devoted more and more corn to fuel production. The policies and economics of this are complicating food production around the world.

In addition, many food experts say that we are leaving an era of surplus for one of shortages. Political and economic disruptions and, more importantly, weather–or changes in climate–in the last few  years have caused regional crop failures. Russia, another country which exports grain, last year suffered a record-setting heat wave and fires which caused it to curtail exports.This year the grain belt of the United States is suffering under its own record-setting heat wave, and as I write this, corn is set to pollinate in several states but the heat lingering this weekend will severely hinder this process and possibly decimate this year’s corn crop. Some agricultural areas of the U.S. are facing a drought as bad and long as that of the Dust Bowl Era.

In short, we face a period in which agriculture will have to adjust rapidly. Don’t naively assert that simply making distribution more “fair” or tweaking a few genes will make everything better.  Starvation-driven migration and political instability is likely to become more common in the near future and hunger itself could complicate the problem of feeding the hungry as it disrupts social structures and distribution networks.    Sorry to be a bummer, folks, but it’s just so–so you don’t want to oversimplify.

2. Renewable Energy

It isn’t easy being green. All human energy production has negative consequences–weighing alternatives is a matter of assessing costs and benefits. Wind turbines, for example, consume no fuel as they produce electricity, but they do kill thousands of birds a year in the large installation at the Altamont Pass area of California, which, as it turns out, was built on a major migration for raptors. Oops. That’s the point: think critically and research possible problems–unintended consequences are those we don’t foresee or take seriously enough.

Know about your topics and subtopics. Solar power takes different forms–primarily, it can be dispersed (on rooftops, for example) or centralized (like the large solar installation near Barstow, CA). Each approach has advantages and disadvantages, though both will require that our power grid be restructured. In addition, some sort of production must occur independent of sun and wind for times when they don’t produce energy.

Don’t forget that all technology requires resources–batteries, for example, are a way to store electricity for windless times and nighttime, but lithium batteries require . . . lithium, among other relatively rare or difficult to produce elements. Check up on its availability. How big is the supply of materials needed for alternative energy technology? Think big but look at the details. I recommend the book Out of Gas for its brilliant discussion of our current energy conundrum, including the physics of various alternatives and of our environment. It is concise and brilliant.

3. Nuclear Energy Solves Our Problems

Tsunami in Japan. That’s what comes to mind, right? Up until a couple of years ago, nuclear was making a comeback as a Big Solution to Big Problems, but the toxic nature of nuclear fuel and the necessity to store waste for periods of time longer than human civilization has so far existed make nukes look a lot less attractive these days, especially  given the surprises that the universe has recently reminded us it can throw at us. Take Diablo Canyon, on the California coast, for example. It will be relicensed soon, having run through most of its originally planned life span, despite the fact that it lies within a few minutes drive–or sail–of multiple potentially dangerous earthquake faults, none of which you have ever heard of but any of which could damage this plant and the infrastucture around it. What, Mr. B, are you a no-nuker? Yes and no. What I am saying is that this is a difficult topic, at least for this year, unless you happen to be interested in nuclear physics or in engineering in the nuke field. This means that this could be an interesting challenge for you.   Maybe you even have some ideas for big changes or an idea that might crack the problem of cold nuclear fission. Great! Go for it. Do not be dismissive of those who disagree or fear this technology, though–they have a lot of evidence to justify their fears, at the moment.

4. Sovereign Debt, aka National Debt or Just Debt in General (Hello, Detroit)

A hot topic among the politically minded. In later posts, I will discuss the uses of analogies at more length, but I will point out some problems with tendency some have of comparing our national budget to a family budgetThe analogy makes the assumption that all families do balance their budgets every year.  Without even looking at whether the United States Government can be compared to a family, we can see that this analogy has problematic assumptions.  Many families in this country have had economic troubles lately, and many have used credit cards or borrowed money to get through the rough times as opposed to, say, automatically foreclosing on their house  because a breadwinner lost a job.

Looking at the other side of the analogy, what would a country with cap do if, or example, it were experiencing income problems like the family above and at the same time it were attacked by another country?  Should the country surrender instead of borrowing some money?     Unless you are very serious-minded, have studied this at length with someone who has  expertise (an excellent Gov or History teacher as well as a good Econ class would be advisable), and are committed to deep and nuanced thinking, stay away.

Find John Lanchester’s IOU: Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay–reviewed in this link–if you want to read up on this.  Then again, maybe that would turn this into an intellectual experience essay. . .

5. Immigration

This is a favorite of the louder voices on both sides of the opinion pages and in both camps of the land of talking heads, which should already be a warning to you. Who is your college reader going to be, anyway? Do you know what the political outlook of this person is? Unless you are well-versed and can present a very balanced discussion which looks at not both but the many sides of this issue, Stay Away.

6. Terrorism and Extremism

Terrorist acts are a result of extremism and, as the news this week from Norway shows,  both of these phenomenon are universals–that is, they appear across cultures and historical periods.  Anarchists in the 19th and early 20th Century  committed terrorist acts and assassinations in the United States, across Europe and in Russia.  The September 11th attacks had precursors in the decades leading up to this century, including an attack by nominally Christian American, in Oklahoma City.  The use of violence and the threat of violence to spread fear is as ancient as agriculture and the causes of this in the modern world are many.  Read up and think long if you want to tackle this topic.  The Proud Tower, by Barbara Tuchman, discusses the Anarchist movement of the 19th and early 20th Centuries (among many other things); The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright gives an excellent overview of so-called Islamic terrorism.  The content of these two books provide and interesting contrast between anarchy, an essentially areligious, even anti-religious movement which spawned terrorist acts and the ostensibly religious terrorism of Al Quaeda and groups like it.  Balance and a historical perspective are requirements for an attempt at an essay on this.

8. Social Justice Topics

Some of the topics above could fit under the umbrella of social justice, as could topics which I have discussed at length in earlier posts.  Social Justice is a recently coined phrase–justice is clear, but the idea in social justice is  to create a more just society.  This requires action by organizations and governments.  Social Justice curriculums are becoming common in high schools and have been established for years in many universities.

You can write an essay on a “social justice” topic without using the term social justice.  In fact, I recommend doing this for a number of reasons, one of which is tha common topics many social justice classes share and the common answers these classes tend to propose to these problems.  You want to show original thought and writing; you do not want to regurgitate a packaged answer to a problem you studied in class.

I have also found that these essays too often read like homilies and  don’t show enough critical thought.  They often take the form of “if only would be recognized, discussed, changed, then y would be resolved/solved and justice would reign.”

While it is more likely than not that a college essay reader would be sympathetic to a social justice argument, you need to do good research and show an understanding of complexityand the difficulty of change in a social justice essay.  Too often essays on social justice problems offer simplistic solutions to complex issues, most often as a result of assuming that individuals and groups can easily change their thinking through education (becoming more enlightened, confronting history, etc) or through some sort of legislation.  Change is difficult and slow, particularly in cultural shifts and remedying poverty and inequality.  See the history of African Americans for more . . .

9. Pollution and Environmental Degradation

Many kinds, many reasons, and we are all part of the problem.  Think of this as like an original sin of which we are all guilty and you will avoid the Soapbox of Self-Righteousness.  I think of an essay I read long ago by Alice Walker in which she described communing with trees.  The essay represented humanity, and specifically industry and technology  destructive of nature.  In the essay,  Alice recounted an attempt to commune with the trees, to show them that she was not part of all that. She loved trees, she felt with them, she became one with them.

I had a strong negative reaction to this essay which was written by a person who has been responsible for the murder of more trees than any anti-environmentalist politician.  She is a writer, after all, with most of her career in an age when books were printed.  Not only that, I suspect she was a passenger in or drove a car to visit this grove of trees she describes in the essay.  I tossed the book across the room and didn’t read more for a long time.

While Alice is one of our major 20th Century writers and a great battler for the environment–and for redwood trees specifically–her essay struck me as naive and self-righteous.  It’s nice to be aware of the dignity and value of trees as a class and of individual trees you know, but we all use paper made from trees.  We all use transportation which was built using and which propels itself with  fossil fuels, even if we plug in our cars.   So beware of your own sense of righteous indignation if you choose this topic, and be aware that solutions to environmental problems are usually complex.  Climage Change seems to have finally fueled (pun intended) a movement and, as of this summer, you could even show some commitment to this by going to a rally or event.  Check out 350.org if you have an interest . . .

10.  This is not a new topic, just a final thought:  you should care about the topic you choose.  Don’t suddenly decide you have an interest in justice,  hunger, environmental degradation, climate change, extremism, or any other of that devil’s alphabet of problems troubling our times.  If you read and keep up with such things and like analysis, this is a good prompt for you.  If not, move on to the others.  Good luck and Godspeed!

Consider This: The Problem Essay (Common Application Prompt 2)

In college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on July 18, 2011 at 7:55 pm

This post was originally written in the summer of 2011, but developments over the last year simply reinforce  my message about thinking critically and avoiding simplistic, bumper-sticker solutions to complex problems in this kind of essay.  

In this post, I will briefly discuss a couple of potential topics which address prompt two of the Common Application. Let’s start by restating the prompt: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

In my previous post, I discussed this topic in depth and distinguished between the prompt and choosing a good topic which addresses the prompt. I used an environmental problem/solution as my main focus in that blog post, with the electric car being the specific topic.

Our focus in this post will be on a pair of national and international topics and some things you should consider with each topic. For a broader discussion of the hazards and advantages of Prompt Two, please see my previous post. This prompt creates a particular problem that you will sound like a “beauty queen” if you don’t do your homework and think critically.

The topics I discuss below for Prompt Two will include: Sudan and specifically Darfur as an example of a topic on international conflict; and the problem of fresh water, both in a specific region of the United States and as an international concern. Despite the fact that my discussion will focus on these fairly narrow topics, the larger issue we are exploring is creating a good college essay; the questions I ask of and the approach I take to each topic are similar to those I would use with many topics. I hope to illustrate a way of thinking which will help you write better. If you share that goal, please read on.

This post goes on to describe in detail two topics for this essay, including background and reference links.  The next post will continue this discussion.  To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing, put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

The fifteen-dollar subscription fee  gives you access to  all existing and future posts through January of 2013.  This includes 2-4 new posts per month and will include detailed analysis on all new prompts for the Common Application in 2012-2013 as well as numerous Ivy League and other application prompts, including Stanford and other “elite” schools  for the 2012-13 application period.   I do write posts addressing specific prompts when multiple clients/subscribers express interest; feel free to contact me with your requests after subscribing.


The Issue Of Concern Essay; Also Known As The Problem Solution Essay

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, college essay, common application, personal statement on July 12, 2011 at 11:55 pm

2013-2014 update: A common approach on application essays is the Problem question, which asks you to discuss some issue of importance.  Because it sets up a discussion of a problem it also begs for a solution.  Here is how it was worded in recent years in the Common Application, Prompt Two: Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.  The Common App has now dropped this prompt, but it lives on in the Stanford Supplemental essays–one problem there will be the length: Stanford has a 250 word suggested length, but in recent years has cut you off  a bit under 300 words, so you need to write very efficiently to hit your marks on this.  Read on for my general suggestions for writing about a problem.

One of the important risks of this otherwise excellent prompt is its tendency to elicit what essay guru Harry Bauld calls “The Miss America” essay. While Miss America competitors are most often fine people and many have superb academic credentials, you do not want your essay to sound like something written by a person in a beauty contest who is pontificating while modeling a revealing gown. This is particularly true if you choose to write about issues of national or international concern, which is what this blog post will address.

If you aren’t sure whether to give an essay on a national or international problem a go, consider the phrase at the end: “its importance to you.” Now is not the time to discover a previously nonexistent passion for international affairs and world problems. If you are not a follower of world events and have never looked into international conflict or social and environmental problems, choose another topic. You should already have a level of awareness and an interest in the topic you choose for your personal statement.

Perhaps you feel like you pay attention to world events and care, but you aren’t sure where you rank on the scale of awareness and commitment. These things are hard to judge. Do you need to donate all your money to causes and work weekends and evenings for social justice to be able to write an authentic essay addressing topic two? Nah.

On the other hand, if your level of commitment extends only to something your history or science teacher said, or to a unit you enjoyed in a class, that may not be enough.

Consider this: the topics available to this kind of Big Problem essay should be based on fact. In a general sense, you might be starting with the facts that resources are under pressure–as everything from fuel and food prices to rare earth minerals attest–and the ecology which sustains us is under assault in areas from overfishing to pollution from agricultural and industrial production to decreasing supplies of clean fresh water at a time when demand is rising. We can all agree that these are large problems, even if there still seems to be a debate in this country about related topics, such as climate change. This is, therefore, a potentially rich subject area.

If we assume again that you have an ongoing interest in one or more of these matters and that you have, therefore, a working acquaintance with the basics of a topic such as overfishing or water pollution, we might also assume that you have done formal research in one or more of your classes and have produced a research paper, or that you have had a unit on and discussed one of these areas at length. This would all be a great place to start a college application essay on this subject area. Just don’t stop with your last research paper or your class unit.

Why is that? Because most of the competent essays which I receive in this area are still overly simplistic and many read like a somewhat to very dry analysis. An essay your wrote for a class last year is really a first attempt to grapple seriously with a big problem. The results, even in a competent effort, will be somewhat limited.

I strongly encourage my students and clients to use concrete detail and examples–to show more than tell–so let’s move on to an example. I will focus the rest of this post pretty narrowly, but even if you have no intention of writing on the topics I discuss below, you may get some ideas about creating a more comprehensive and persuasive essay in general by reading on.

I begin with pollution as a general topic and air pollution as a more specific topic. As I’m sure you know, air pollution takes many forms, from the “acid rain” resulting from sulfates produced by burning coal, in particular, to the carbon dioxide emitted by all fossil fuel consumption (I add here that acid rain, while still a major problem, is no longer as popular as an essay topic as carbon dioxide and global warming are these days).

Let’s say you take an approach which is pretty common here: you identify a problem, explain the cause of the problem and suggest, at least in a general way, a solution. For example, you might observe that transportation, specifically cars and trucks, is a major source of air pollution. You might then discuss this lucidly and provide empirical support for your analysis; then you might propose a solution: the electric car.

I have seen at least a dozen of these essays in the last year. They all fit prompt two well–do we all not breathe from the same atmosphere and does it not provide all of use with our rain and the temperate regions in which we grow our food? A few of the essays were superb. Some were too simplistic, most often in the solution they proposed, which usually ran to having everyone use an electric car: batteries produce no carbon emissions, so problem solved.

Except it isn’t that simple. Batteries don’t produce carbon emissions themselves, but all batteries require a charge, that charge requires electricity, the vast majority of electricity produced in the United States today comes from fossil fuels and the single largest source of fossil fuel energy is coal.

If you only propose plugging our cars in instead of filling them up, you are not really addressing the larger problem of pollution. Coal is a particularly dirty form of fossil fuel–sorry “clean coal” folks, but no coal is clean and the technology to “clean” coal emissions by capturing and reinjecting them into the ground is currently speculative and, even if it works, may not be effective in the geology under many plants. Like all big problems–and solutions–this one is complicated.

In simply advocating the electric car as a solution to our carbon emissions or other air pollution problems, you may be saying many true and fine things, but in not dealing with the bigger picture you are not really dealing with the problem in a realistic way. The resulting essay will seem simplistic or glib. Given the current buzz around technologies such as the electric vehicle, you can count on your essay readers seeing complex and thorough essays on this very topic this year.

To compete with the best essays on this topic, you will have to consider a number of questions. Can you foresee other sources of electricity for the electric car? Could a solar charging system be sold with each electric car? Could the government give a tax credit for this as it has for other solar installations? If your essay incorporated proposals like these, you would be thinking more thoroughly and innovatively, which is something universities like to see.

There are, of course, many other considerations to be dealt with in a good electric car essay–the batteries, for example, rely on lithium, which is a finite resource concentrated currently in a few countries who have serious supplies or who potentially could develop significant sources. How would infrastructure have to change to enable electric vehicles to be more practical? You can’t charge up everywhere in the same way you can fill up a car with gas or diesel nearly everywhere.

You don’t need to exhaustively study all the details, but if you show awareness of the complexity of your topic by at least accounting for related factors, you show good critical thinking skills and have a good essay strategy which are, again, things universities are looking for.

My message here is this: the more personal interest and awareness you bring to your subject initially and the more you learn as you write, the better your essay will be if you are working with prompt two. And if you can write a good, reasoned argument, this kind of essay–even this specific essay topic–will be a good one for you.  Keep in mind that the real point of the essay is your mind and voice–the reader wants to see you engaged in the problem and you might want to start the essay by explaining how you came to be involved or interested in it.  Hopefully this shows a real interest, not just a passing fancy or sudden fascination provoked by the need to write a college essay.

Note well:  if you are a better storyteller than analyst or if you have no strong interests in broad problems like pollution or social justice, you might want to move on to another essay prompt.

The Significant Experience Essay: More Ideas

In Essay on an Important Experience, Essay on Books, Essay on Intellectual Development, First Person Application Essay, personal statement, Significant Experience Essay on July 12, 2011 at 7:47 pm

In my last post, I discussed what is know as The Significant Experience Essay, which appeared, among other places, in Prompt 1 of the Common Application Personal Statement for 2011-2012. Possibly you’ve done the prewriting exercise I recommended in the last post, and you may even now have an essay in hand and are looking for further assistance. I do provide proofreading and editing services through Mr. B’s Flying Essay Service (rush jobs) and Wordguild Writing Services, both remotely (via e-mail) and in person within a limited geographical area. See the About section of this blog site for more information on those services.  In this post I will discuss how to continue developing ideas for this Significant Experience Essay and will suggest a couple of places to look for examples of Significant Experience essays or descriptions.

In this post, I will offer some suggestions for those who may want to write about a significant personal experience  but have trouble coming up with much when asked to list their achievements, risks or ethical dilemmas. Refer to the last post for the details of this exercise.

I will restate the prompt and then examine each area it defines:

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

These three areas could, of course, be discussed in a single essay. Perhaps you did face an ethical dilemma, took a risk to deal with it and achieved something worthy as a result. This would be a nice trifecta.

On the other hand, you might have struggled to get more than a few things listed in the prewriting exercise (e.g, made soccer team, learned to swim butterfly, reached level 10 of Kill Corps, read the Grapes of Wrath despite myself). Perhaps feel like you’ve never experienced something like a real ethical dilemma. If so, this post is for you.

You may feel that your experiences are pretty limited, but by the age of four or five, have something to say about each of the topic areas raised by this prompt. By the time you’ve even reached kindergarten, you’ve already had the important human experiences: you’ve had to decide whether to tell a lie or not (ethics), conquered many challenges (Learning how to tie your shoes and to float in a pool are both pretty big achievements) and taken many risks.

So start by considering yourself: what things in your life make up your strongest memories. What matters to you is what matters here.

For you, reading the novel Grapes of Wrath when your Junior English teacher inflicted it on you might be a great accomplishment. But surely, you say, this is not worthy of an essay.

Why not? Other writers have, in recent years, produced books about reading the French author Marcel Proust and the the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. You don’t even have to have read Proust or Tolstoy to enjoy these books (Find How Proust Can Change Your Life, by Alain de Botton, and Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading, by Nina Sankovitch, for examples of books about reading specific books).

But is this not an essay about books, then, you ask?  Of course it is, which makes it also suitable for something like the Harvard Supplemental Essay for 2011-2012, which asked for an essay about books, as did the Stanford 2011-2012 application.   Look for a post soon which examines how many different prompts overlap or can be addressed by the same essay–this is something you should note if you are applying to more than a few colleges.  One essay may be used to address several different prompts for different college applications, with little or no tinkering.  Of course, you will probably need several very different essays to start with–you should never turn in two essays on the same trip or the same readings, for example.

To continue with the Significant Experience essay prompt, risk topic:  perhaps you feel that you haven’t taken any real risks. The issue in this topic is defining what a risk is. Most people immediately think of physical risk, but psychological risks are everywhere, as you know if you’ve been turned down when you asked someone to a dance or you flubbed a line of a play in front of an audience. And any physically risky activity carries with it a psychological risk as well as the obvious chance of physical injury. Have you ever dropped an easy pass that would have won the game for your team and then had to deal with the disappointment–or anger–of teammates or coaches? Talk about a risk to your ego. In fact, your response to a defeat or an error you made when you took a risk is a good area for you to explore. Triumph is great, but tumbling into the pit of failure and climbing out again can be even more interesting and revealing in a college application essay.  Risk is everywhere.  Use it.

Another topic area is the ethical dilemma.  It should be relatively easy to come up with an experience for this one–ethical dilemmas present themselves every day. Ethics is a field of philosophy, but it is also a practical activity engaged in by every human living in a community. When have you had to decide between something you were taught–or felt instinctively–to be right or wrong? Small children know about this and make these decisions every time they are asked who made the mess or who broke the glass or who took the cookie. Not to mention the decisions students make about whether to study hard or to cheat on a test or assignment.

The trick in an essay on ethics is to discuss the matter with a sense of perspective and, hopefully, even humor. You may have chosen to do something unethical and then had to rectify it, which adds an element of drama to your narrative but which also adds an element of risk. You want to show, ultimately, that you are ethical. You also want to avoid appearing too uptight or self-righteous. Keep that in mind if you decide to write to this topic. A serious ethical breach may not be a wise topic here, unless you can show how you’ve changed.

Take some time to doodle on a piece of paper now if you were unable to work with the three column exercise in the last blog post and see what comes to mind when you explore your memories of risks, achievements and ethical dilemmas.

Essay Prompts vs. Essay Topics: A Discussion of the Significant Experience Essay

In Autobiographical College Essay, college essay, common application, Essay on an Important Experience, Significant Experience Essay on July 12, 2011 at 6:16 pm

Most college applications have a prompt which addresses a personal experience.  An example can be found in the Common Application essay prompts, which  have not changed in recent years; in the first prompt for the Common App essays for 2011-2012, you will find what I call the “Significant Experience” essay, which is broken down into some subtypes by the C.A. folks, including a risk you have taken or an ethical dilemma you have faced.  This is a set-up for a classic reflective essay, most often  based on an autobiographical incident. Note that the trip essay I discussed in recent posts could also fit this category–I will discuss the tendency of various prompts to overlap at more length later.   In addition to discussing the significant experience essay below, I will also discuss the difference between prompts and topics and how to create a topic which addresses a prompt like this.

The college essay is a kind of game. The universities or the Common Application folks come up with a list of prompts–or a single prompt, in some cases–and you choose a topic to address the prompt. No matter what the prompt is or what topic you choose, the fundamental subject of the essay is you–you are playing a game in which you demonstrate what kind of person you are, how intelligent and engaged you are. Your creative abilities are meant to be tested as you show things the rest of your college application cannot show.

In earlier posts, I discussed the rhetorical situation and explored the issues posed by your audience and your subject. This post will more narrowly focus on analyzing prompts and selecting topics. In future posts, I will discuss specific prompts and specific topics at length. Let’s look at the first prompt on the Common Application as an example.

Prompt one asks you to do the following: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

This is a very broad prompt. It tends to elicit first person narratives but some writers will adopt alternate strategies. I have had students and clients who speak of themselves in the third person and adopt formats not normally associated with the college essay. In an example of this from a few years ago, a client wrote in the form of an entry from the Biographical Dictionary, which is essentially an encyclopedia of significant persons. This writer had an excellent sense of humor and a good wit, so he pulled this off nicely. He also knew that his audience would–or should–know what the Biographical Dictionary is and would understand that his essay was a parody which conveyed certain truths about about the author–among other things, that the author is knowledgeable, creative and has a good sense of humor.

But let’s consider prompts versus topics before we look at narrative technique and rhetorical strategy.

This post goes on to describe exercises to get this essay started.  The next post will continue this discussion.  To get full access to this and all other posts by WordGuild related to college essays and application writing , put “subscription please” into an e-mail, along with your first and last name, and we will send you an invoice from Google Checkout/Wallet.  

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The Issue Of Concern Essay

In 2011-2012, Common Application Prompt 2, Issue of Concern Essay on July 11, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Many of my students and clients are the kind of people who are interested in and highly aware of problems in  the world around them, particularly regarding issues of social justice and conflict resolution, the impact of technology and the increasing environmental problems we face.  This prompt has been on the Common Application for years now, so if that sounds like you, give this prompt  a try.

Prompt two on the 2011-2012 Common Application  specifically challenges you to do the following:   Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

One of the important risks of this otherwise excellent prompt is its tendency to elicit what essay guru Harry Bauld calls “The Miss America” essay.   While Miss America competitors are most often fine people and many have superb academic credentials, you do not want your essay to sound like something written by  a person in a beauty contest who is pontificating while modeling a revealing gown.   This is particularly true if you choose to write about issues of national or international concern, which is what this blog post will address.  While any essay you write for a college application is about you, in the end, in an essay on this area, you are showing aspects of yourself by displaying your level of awareness and engagement with issues beyond your own, immediate concerns, and you are showing the ability to think and analyze.

If you  aren’t sure whether to give an essay on a national or international problem a go, consider the phrase at the end:  “its importance to you.”  Now is not the time to discover a previously nonexistent passion for international affairs and world problems.  If you are not a follower of world events and have never looked into international conflict or social and environmental problems, choose another topic. You should already have a level of awareness and an interest in the topic you choose for your personal statement.

Perhaps you feel like you pay attention to world events and care, but you aren’t sure where you rank on the scale of awareness and commitment.  These things are hard to judge.  Do you need to donate all your money to causes and work weekends and evenings for social justice to be able to write an authentic essay addressing topic two?  Nah.

On the other hand, if your level of commitment extends only to something your history or science teacher said, or to a unit you enjoyed in a class,  that may not be enough.

Consider this:  the topics available to this kind of Big Problem essay should be based on fact. In a general sense, you might be starting with the facts that  resources are under pressure–as everything from fuel and food prices to rare earth minerals attest–and the ecology which sustains us is under assault in areas from overfishing to pollution from agricultural and industrial production to decreasing supplies of clean fresh water at a time when demand is rising.  We can all agree that these are large problems, even if there still seems to be a debate in this country about related topics, such as climate change.  This is, therefore, a potentially rich subject area.

If we assume again that you have an ongoing interest in one or more of these matters and that you have, therefore, a working acquaintance with the basics of a topic such as overfishing or water pollution, we might also assume that  you have done formal research in one or more of your classes and have produced a research paper,  or that you have had a unit on and discussed one of these areas at length.  This would all be a great place to start a college application essay on this subject area.  Just don’t stop with your last research paper or your class unit.

Why is that?  Because most of the competent essays which I receive in this area are still overly simplistic and many read like a somewhat to very dry analysis, or they summarize the author’s deep feelings about a problem without ever talking about the problem in any detail.  Your essay should have elements of both, of analysis and feeling, but the focus should be outward, not inward (or down, as in focused on your own navel).  An essay your wrote for a class last year is really a first attempt to grapple seriously with a big problem.  The results, even in a competent effort, will be somewhat limited.

I strongly encourage my students and clients to use concrete detail and examples–to show more than tell–so let’s move on to an example.  I will focus the rest of this post pretty narrowly, but even if you have no intention of writing on the topics I discuss below, you may get some ideas about creating a more comprehensive and persuasive essay in general by reading on.

I begin with pollution as a general topic and air pollution as a more specific topic.  As I’m sure you know, air pollution takes many forms, from the “acid rain” resulting from sulfates produced by burning coal, in particular,  to the carbon dioxide emitted by all fossil fuel consumption (I add here that acid rain, while still a major problem, is no longer as popular as an essay topic as carbon dioxide and global warming are these days).

Let’s say you take an approach which is pretty common here:  you identify a problem,   explain the cause of the problem   and suggest, at least in a general way, a solution.  For example, you might observe that transportation, specifically cars and trucks, is a major source of air pollution. You might then discuss this lucidly and provide empirical support for your analysis; then you might propose a solution: the electric car.

I have seen at least a dozen of these essays in the last year. They all fit  prompt two well–do we all not breathe from the same atmosphere and does it not provide all of use with our rain and the temperate regions in which we grow our food?   A few of the essays were superb.  Some were too simplistic, most often in the solution they proposed, which usually ran to having everyone use an electric car:   batteries produce no carbon emissions, so problem solved.

Except it isn’t that simple.  Batteries don’t produce carbon emissions themselves, but all batteries require a charge, that charge requires electricity,  the vast majority of electricity produced in the United States today comes from fossil fuels and the single largest source of fossil fuel energy is coal.

If you only propose plugging our cars in instead of filling them up, you are not really addressing the larger problem of pollution.  Coal is a particularly dirty form of fossil fuel–sorry “clean coal” folks, but no coal is clean and the technology to “clean” coal emissions by capturing  and reinjecting them into the ground is currently speculative and, even if it works, may not be effective in the geology under many plants.  Like all big problems–and solutions–this one is complicated.

In simply advocating the electric car as a solution to our carbon emissions or other air pollution problems, you may be saying many true and fine things, but in not dealing with the bigger picture you are not really dealing with the problem in a realistic way.  The resulting essay will seem simplistic or glib.   Given the current buzz around technologies such as the electric vehicle, you can count on  your essay readers seeing  complex and thorough essays on this very topic this year.

To compete with the best essays on this topic, you will have to consider a number of questions.  Can you foresee other sources of electricity for the electric car? Could a solar charging system be sold with each electric car?  Could the government give a tax credit for this as it has for other solar installations?   If your essay incorporated proposals like these, you  would be thinking more thoroughly and innovatively, which is something universities like to see.

There are, of course, many other considerations to be dealt with in a good electric car essay–the batteries, for example, rely on lithium, which is a finite resource concentrated currently in a few countries who have serious supplies or who potentially could develop significant sources.  How would infrastructure have to change to enable electric vehicles to be more practical?  You can’t charge up everywhere in the same way you can fill up a car with gas or diesel nearly everywhere.

You don’t need to exhaustively study all the details, but if you show awareness of the complexity of your topic by at least accounting for related factors, you show good critical thinking skills and have a good essay strategy which are, again, things universities are looking for.

My message here is this:  the more personal interest and awareness you bring to your subject initially and  the more you learn as you write, the better your essay will be if you are working with prompt two. And if you can write a good, reasoned argument, this kind of essay–even this specific essay topic–will be a good one for you.

On the other hand, if you are a better storyteller than analyst or if you have no strong interests in broad problems like pollution or social justice, you might want to move on to another essay prompt.  See the link in my previous post for the Common Application site.

In future posts, I will address a series of specific essay topics which could work well for Personal Statement Prompt Two of the Common Application for 2012 and I will address the other prompts as well.


The Common Application for 2012

In applying to college, college admissions, college application, common application on July 5, 2011 at 6:43 pm

The big news for the Common Application of 2012 is:  no news.  The application itself is essentially the same application used last year.  The essay prompts are identical.

For those of you eager to get started, the Common Application site will be closed from July 15, 2011 to August 1st, 2011, for maintenance.  Currently a preview version of the app itself is posted on the Common Application site.   Sorry, nothing to fill in yet.

The most important development for the Common App is its continued growth.  The number of institutions accepting the common app has risen significantly again this year, adding 49 new members, for a new total of 463 members.  I will append a list of the new members to the end of this post.

The essay prompts are these:

1. Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
2. Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
3. Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
4.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 describe that influence.
5. 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 in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.
6. Topic of your choice.

My recommendation:    Write to two of the prompts.  I suggest not starting with topic six.  More about that on a later post.

Here are the additions to the Common Application pool for 2012:

  1. Caldwell College (NJ)
  2. Carroll University (WI)
  3. Castleton State College*
  4. Centenary College
  5. Christian Brothers University
  6. Christopher Newport University*
  7. Cogswell Polytechnical College
  8. DeSales University
  9. Drury University
  10. Eastern Connecticut State University*
  11. Flagler College
  12. Franklin College Switzerland
  13. Goshen College
  14. Howard University
  15. John Cabot University
  16. John F. Kennedy University
  17. Lipscomb University
  18. Long Island University Brooklyn Campus
  19. Lyndon State College*
  20. Ramapo College of New Jersey*
  21. Rhode Island College*
  22. Rockhurst University
  23. Saint Leo University
  24. Saint Martin’s University
  25. Salisbury University*
  26. Samford University
  27. Seton Hill University
  28. Sierra Nevada College
  29. St. Joseph’s College – Brooklyn Campus
  30. St. Joseph’s College – Long Island Campus
  31. St. Mary’s College of Maryland*
  32. SUNY College at Old Westbury*
  33. SUNY Institute of Technology*
  34. The American University of Paris
  35. The College of Saint Rose
  36. Towson University*
  37. University of Evansville
  38. University of Hartford
  39. University of Kentucky*
  40. University of Michigan – Flint*
  41. University of New Orleans*
  42. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill*
  43. University of North Carolina at Wilmington*
  44. University of Southern California
  45. University of St Andrews*
  46. University of the Sciences in Philadelphia
  47. Wartburg College
  48. Wheeling Jesuit University
  49. Whitworth University