Yes, folks, it’s time to get your essays started. If you think that this is premature because most universities haven’t yet released their applications for next year, I simply point to the Common Application prompts, which are unchanged–and most of you will be applying to at least a few Common App universities. Use this link and scroll down to find the essay prompts for this year: Common App 2012-2013.
I also encourage you to consider the fact that the Common App questions tend to overlap not only with other Common App questions, but also with the questions used by universities not in the Common App system. There will be some unusual prompts this year which do not fit into the categories I define below, but even some of these can be addressed using materials which you may have used first for other prompts, especially the intellectual experience prompts, from which a couple of my clients derived examples to deal with the University of Chicago prompts from last year, which are worth looking at as a thought experiment.
To see an example of more typical application essay prompts, see my earlier post here. Scroll down the post to find the list.
Once you’ve read through my earlier posts, you will see certain patterns emerging, which I will address below.
Essay Prompts: Four Basic Kinds
One way to simplify things is to look at how to put the various essay prompts into broader categories. You can then write essays ahead of time which fall into these categories, or you can simply start on your Common Application essays. Either way, if you start early, you will have material and essays that can be reworked to fit new prompts, and you will have more time and repetitions before you settle on the final drafts. This is a good thing. Even if early essays do not end up in your final package, they help you work through the process and refine your ideas–as they say, it’s a journey, though we do have a destination in mind: the college of your dreams, or at least the college that best suits both your budget and your dreams.
Here are four categories into which most prompts fall:
1. Autobiographical prompts asking for “additional” information not apparent in your grades, test scores, activities and recommendations. These want you to reveal yourself in some way.
2. Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences. These really want you to show what kind of person you are and how you became that person. This overlaps with the category below.
3. Intellectual experience prompts. This is an autobiographical essay category, of course, but with a focus outward in the sense that you need to be able to convey a solid understanding of the book or music or experiment or play or whatever else you reacted to and are describing.
4. Problem solving or puzzle prompts. This is a broad category, ranging from topics like the Common App discussion of a problem of international importance to the University of Chicago’s (in)famous prompt consisting entirely of: “Find x.” The more general problem-solution topics can be prepared for, but the true puzzle prompts require a very specific and creative response that you can’t really prepare for ahead of time.
You should consider these four categories and try to identify not only those which seem most applicable to you, but more importantly, those which are most interesting to you. If you think something is applicable but not very interesting, you will probably write an applicable but not very interesting essay. The game here is to do something you don’t necessarily want to be doing (writing a series of required essays, filling out forms and getting materials organized for your college applications) while finding a way to enjoy it.
If, for example, you can think of some experiences with a coach or a relative that might be easy to write about in response to an essay prompt about a person who has influenced you, but you are actually more interested in writing about books or about some theory which fascinates you, then you should write about books, or the theory, even if it means you might need to do some reading or research this summer. Keep in mind your audience (college admissions officers and readers) and what they are looking for (interesting and interested people who show intelligence and curiosity). Also keep in mind your own nature–are you comfortable talking about yourself, or would you rather analyze something, whether it be a book or a pressing social problem?
For those of you who want to focus on intellectual experiences, I will be suggesting some reading programs, including specific authors and titles, in a post that is coming soon, .
In a moment, I will address each of the four categories of prompts I outlined above and give you links that deal with specific examples from the recent past. I am going to start, however, with links to a couple of posts about what NOT to do in your college essays and how to think about your audience; for mistakes to avoid in your college essays, see this post: College Essay No-No’s. For some thoughts on your audience and how to persuade them, start here: So You Want To Write A College Essay.
Prompt Type 1: Autobiographical prompts asking for additional information/Tell us something you want us to know about yourself. Many universities use this kind of prompt. The Stanford letter to your roommate from last year is an example, as last year’s Yale supplement (specifically, Yale asked applicants to tell us something that you would like us to know about you that we might not get from the rest of your application – or something that you would like a chance to say more about). Consider carefully what you want to show your audience.
The three biggest risks to this prompt are, in order of frequency, boring your reader, annoying or offending your reader, and contradicting other aspects of your application. The Stanford Supplement Essays are a good example of the advantages and risks of this kind of prompt because, in encouraging a more personal and informal tone, Stanford both opens up an opportunity to be more relaxed and creative and gives you an opportunity to hang yourself (metaphorically, of course) by, like, sounding like a total slacker/slob/self absorbed lightweight, dude.
I wrote about the specific problems raised by this last year, in my Stanford Supplement post. You may also be tempted to create an essay emphasizing the more saintly aspects of your personality–this can lead to boredom or cliches, as I discuss here and in even more detail here.
Prompt Type 2: Autobiographical prompts asking about important or formative experiences. Several of the Common Application Prompts fit into this category, which can involve a range of autobiographical episodes from an important learning experience with a coach or mentor to. . . any experience which fits the description. The prompt asks you to reflect on your own experience and to make sense of it. This can lead to a number of problems, which I discuss in detail under specific prompts, such as the prompt asking you to write on an important influence or the Common App prompt on a significant experience. These links will help you get started and will help you avoid some common errors.
Prompt Type 3: Intellectual Experience Prompts. Obviously, an intellectual experience that is important to you also counts as a significant personal experience, but I create a separate category here because there are a number of universities that make a distinction by asking, in one prompt about personal experiences with others or in a situational setting and asking, in a separate prompt, that you write about a piece of music or books that influenced you. For more info on the ins-and-outs of this prompt type, try this link: my entry on the Harvard prompt about books. You will find other prompts about books by clicking the navigation arrows for posts before and after this Harvard prompt post.
Some universities will use prompts that throw a quote at you or that ask you to use a quote you like as a focus for an essay. The prompt about a quote usually evokes either an intellectual experience or an expression of personal values. While it’s possible to humorously go in an unexpected direction with a quote, any serious response will involve connecting your experience and knowledge to whatever larger principles or events the quote evokes. Have a look at my prompt on the Princeton supplement last year for further suggestions and information on the quote prompt.
Prompt Type 4: Problem and Puzzle prompts. As I noted above, it is not possible to prepare for puzzle prompts that offer challenges like “Find X.” U of Chicago is infamous for this kind of prompt–other U of C examples from last year were these: “Don’t write about reverse psychology” and a prompt that asked you to use Wikipedia to explain “What Does Play-Doh have to do with Plato.” You just have to make it up as you go along, though research can be involved. (Do I need to mention that it’s best to double check on anything Wikipedia offers? Start with the discussion tab for each Wikipedia entry to assess the information.)
If you specifically want insight in the Weltanschaung of U of C, you should have a look at the most recent New Yorker, which has an article on the U of C scavenger hunt. This article is only fully available to New Yorker subscribers, but this article is, like most New Yorker material, interesting and extremely well-written–and I strongly recommend a New Yorker subscription to any intellectually adventurous and curious anglophone. Think of it as an intellectual experience builder.
Many problem prompts can be researched. In one example, the Common Application’s prompt on an issue of national or international concern is something you can prepare for. Just remember that you need to start with a personal interest. Don’t invent a sudden interest in something you formerly did not care about simply to respond to an application essay prompt. See my post on the Common Application Prompt Two as well as this post for more ideas about this kind of problem prompt.
I will be writing a post on a specific problem that you might want to consider writing about soon, and I am also working on posts with more intellectual and book essay ideas and sources of information–be sure to check in during early July.