How to Write The Dartmouth University Essay Prompts for 2019-2020

Dartmouth’s prompts for prospective members of the Class of 2024 are up and ready to write. I include the prompts in this post, below, with some early analysis, but before we get to them, the usual caveats: These prompts are ready to write, as are Stanford’s short essays, U Virginia and a range of other universities, linked here–(Prompts from Stanford to Urbana-Champaign that are Ready to Write, Right Now) , but that does not mean that the Common Application portal is ready. If you set up an account with the Common App before August 1st (or thereabouts), it will be deleted, along with any information you uploaded. The Common App will go offline for 2-3 days at the end of July, then come should come back online for 2019-2020 on August 1st.

So write as many of the confirmed 2019-2020 essays as you like, but upload nothing . . . yet. Also note that the essays I feature and link are those that I have personally confirmed are live for 2019-2020. However, most essays posted on university web sites today are those from last year and may change for this year. So come back to CollegeAppJungle to check for confirmed prompts. . . I am updating as I confirm them)

With that, Here are Dartmouth’s essay prompts for 2019-2020:

Writing supplement prompts included in Dartmouth’s application for admission to the Class of 2024

Updated June 25, 2019

Dartmouth’s writing supplement requires that applicants write brief responses to two supplemental essay prompts as follows:

1. Please respond in 100 words or less:

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2024, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest?

This is a standby prompt that has been featured on the Dartmouth application for years. One simple reason–Daniel Webster’s connections to Dartmouth. A second reason–it’s also a classic why you want to go to our college question. Sadly, you only have 100 words, so let’s call it a paragraph response. And the prompt suggests that you should do your due diligence before writing, looking at the programs and majors at Dartmouth to prepare, and say something specific about what you are going to do at Dartmouth that ties into your interests and goals. . . As an example, if you were interested in, oh, Political Science and government, how you plan to leverage your studies under Dr. Muirhead in the Department of Government, to examine the changing nature of political rhetoric and offer solutions to the problem of political dialogue today . . . . (Note my link . . . and try to find a link of your own that ties in to your own interests and that gives you that key sentence or three on specific things you might do at Dartmouth.

And for more on Mr. Daniel Webster, and some background on writing for Dartmouth, scroll down this old post, past the Yale prompt, to find my discussion of Webster and of Dartmouth: Daniel Webster fights for Dartmouth.

2. Please choose one of the following prompts and respond in 250-300 words:

A. The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself. 

Well, many legends are based on some kernel of truth, so if you want to be cheeky, perhaps you could write about yourself as a future legend.

Turning to some background for this prompt, history, of course, is not all that old compared to the vast scope of human history–it was pretty much invented by Herodotus as a kind of storytelling mixing what we call fact with other things we would call legend as well as myth–Herodotus wrote the foundational history of the Persian Wars between the ancient Greeks and the Persian empire under Darius and Xerxes. Of course, Herodotus also wrote of those interesting creatures he had heard lived in Libya, like the hoop snake, which bits its own tale and gets about by rolling, and let us not forget his description of the baselisk. Sadly, these animals have never been seen outside of folklore and the pages of Herodotus, who also discusses the geneology of rulers and passes on juicy tales that straddle legend, history and anecdote–like the story of Xerxes ordering that the sea be whipped for to punish it for destroying his pontoon bridge in a storm. So at its origins, History in the Greco-European sense shares a lot with the word mo’olelo. It started as a real mashup. Maybe your essay could take something from that example.

On the other hand, while you could be a creative and use some tongue-in-cheek legend-building about yourself and your family, humor is tricky. So more commonly for an essay like this, you would talk about family traditions and inheritance. Maybe you come from a family of public service-oriented lawyers and teachers and you have a sense of mission from them, for example, a tradition of changing the world for the better. Or maybe your family was scraping by in a rural village a generation ago, and you continue their tradition, supported by but grateful to them and working just as hard to advance the family as you advance yourself. What tradition are you continuing or planning to extend? If you have a good answer to that question, this prompt may be for you.
 

B. In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?

The danger of this Big Problem prompt is the risk of writing a “Miss America Essay,” which I discuss in earlier posts on the problem essay, like this one–How to Write the Problem Essay. I am planning an entire post on the Problem essay for the coming weeks, and end by pointing out that the passion essay, the second-to-last in this list, overlaps with this essay–if you have actually done something about the problem, which would make that a stronger prompt, therefore. Theory is one thing, acting on principle is another.
 

C. In The Painted Drum, author Louise Erdrich ‘76 wrote, “… what is beautiful that I make? What is elegant? What feeds the world?” Tell us about something beautiful you have made or hope to make.

It’s always a good idea, in my opinion, to know something about the source of a prompt. That in itself may give you some ideas for writing, and in this case, Erdrich writes from the perspective of an Ojibwa, also known as the Chippewa, Native Americans who ranged across what we now call the upper Midwest and the Dakotas into Canada. Now their traditional lands are limited to the reservations noted on this map–Ojibwa Land. So behind a quote like this is a specific life experience, a specific family experience, and the persecution and pain inflicted on a specific culture–in this case, a culture that our culture did its best to destroy for a long time. View the quote in that context, and you get a different shade of meaning.

Notice also that this quote does not ask, How can I leverage my startup idea to make as much money as possible?” Beauty and elegance are not being referenced here as something to monetize. Erdrich is coming from a much different place, and as her quote suggests, takes a view of value arising from community.

Note Erdrich’s family background: her grandfather was a tribal leader, and both of her parents were teachers. I’d like to add that her most recent novel is amazing–Future Home of the Living God-and that she also started and continues supporting a book store in Minneapolis. This is not a person who just goes with the flow.

And a final word on background would have to involve the novel that this quote comes from. It’s a great novel, and to introduce you to it, to the ideas in it, and to Erdrich’s other work and perspective, have a look at this discussion of Erdrich and this novel– NYT on The Painted Drum. And before you move on, have a look at my advice on How to Write about a Quote for U Chicago–the prompts are different, but the general idea is the same–Writing About a Quote.
 

D. “Yes, books are dangerous,” young people’s novelist Pete Hautman proclaimed. “They should be dangerous—they contain ideas.” What book or story captured your imagination through the ideas it revealed to you? Share how those ideas influenced you.

So one suggestion on this would be not to write about classroom standards, something like To Kill a Mockingbird, which is read by most sophomores in America, simply because it is a core (required) book across most of the country.

Of course, adding to that ubiquity problem of a required book, Mockingbird’s ideas are not really all that radical anyway, are they? (Notice that the hero is a super-noble white man, and that the innocent African American he defends is disposed of at the end of the book after the hero does his best. Then we move on to the problems of his too- white neighbor. Doesn’t read so well when you look at its basic elements, i.m.o.)

On the other hand, if a required reading book really did captivate you, that energy might be enough to overcome the ho-hum response of a reader who knows the books that are most commonly read in high school. For me, Catch-22 comes to mind as a required reading book that had dangerous ideas and captured my imagination. Though as I later learned, Heller was using his experiences as a bombardier stationed in southern Europe, and that setting, as platform for critiquing Cold War American and laissez faire capitalism, particularly as represented by the ad agencies for which Heller worked. Yep, he was an ad man. He also said that he had never had a bad officer in the Army Air Corps. Look at Major, Major, then, as a mid-level advertising executive, and consider Milo Minderbinder as a Tech Entrepreneur . . . instead of selling eggs for less than he what he bought them for, while still making a profit, a Milo of today would be telling you privacy is old fashioned and in fact does not exist, while making money off of a service he gives you for “free.” Sound familiar?

It’s by applying the dangerous ideas of a book from yesterday to the issues of today that will make your essay fly. So to speak. I have posted on writing about books before–take a look at this for more: How to Write About Books.
 

E. “I have no special talent,” Albert Einstein once observed. “I am only passionately curious.” Celebrate your curiosity.

First thought–Yeh, right Albert. Second thought is that this prompt writer was obviously using Albert as an easy way to come up with a prompt–using any gnomic quote by Einstein pretty much lends any prompt an air of respectability.

But Einstein’s curiosity indeed worth exploring, so the second thought is, Sure Albert. No special talent at all. One thing that aided Einstein’s curiosity was his stubbornness–and his youthful arrogance and certainty. Einstein struggled for a long time, and was working as a patent clerk in Bern, Switzerland (third class, no less) when he had his annus mirabilis. This is a pretty good explanation of that “wonder year” and what he came up with—Einstein’s 1905 and that Equation. His great biographer, Walter Isaacson credits Einstein’s stubbornness and rebellious streak as his greatest assets–along with a “childlike sense of wonder” which is pretty much what that quote describes. Well, those and the fact he was a genius. That stuff about him being slow learner is mostly hogwash. In particular, Albert was far ahead of his peers in math.

But you get the drift of this prompt–celebrate your curiosity here by showing either your unique way of looking at the world–again, see Einstein (and some more tasty quotes)–or the things you have explored through your curiosity. The key in the latter case is to create a narrative center, rather than presenting a laundry list of ideas or activities. This needs to be more a “compare” than a contrast essay, and your interests need to have some central drive that unites them. Oh, and they should be interesting in themselves as well, or you need to make them seem interesting. Which if they interest you should be doable.

The issue with making your curiosity itself interesting is in actually making yourself interesting as you do so, without obviously trying to present yourself as such. What you are doing through curiosity should in a sense speak for itself. And if you like physics and math, you could hitch your wagon to Albert, just be sure not to use his quotes quite as naively as this one is being used–you want to do more than write a cliche in your essay. Here are some other nice quotes by Albert, and if you feel like doing some reading, a great intro to Einstein and that miracle year is E=Mc2 : A Biography of the World’s Most Famous Equation.

If you can honestly say two things, this prompt is good for you: 1) That looking back, you can see how curiosity has shaped you and, 2) That it will be interesting to write about and to read.


 

F. Labor leader Dolores Huerta is a civil rights activist who co-founded the organization now known as United Farm Workers. She said, “We criticize and separate ourselves from the process. We’ve got to jump right in there with both feet.” Speak your truth: Talk about a time when your passion became action.

So this is a social justice prompt if I ever saw one. Your passion becoming action, therefore, should not be leading, oh, a rebellion against a teacher you thought was too hard a grader. Your passion should probably be a bit selfless. As usual, some background to those in a prompt can help frame the prompt: Dolores Huerta is, first, a labor activist–and a union organizer. It’s interesting to note that, in the late stages of their decline in the U.S.A., unions are having a bit of a moment as we head toward the 2020 election. Which is connected to that whole income inequality thing you may have been hearing about. If you have not been hearing about it, take this as an opportunity, and click to read: Why the Rich are so Much Richer. If your plan for dealing with that is to ignore it while also getting the right education solely, or mostly, to have the highest-paying job possible, then this prompt is not for you.

And my, there are a lot of things to get passionate about changing lately. The whole issue with our ongoing weather and its changes, for example–as discussed here.

As for this prompt’s background–Having grown up in California, and seen the labor movement at a time when workers had to fight just to keep from being poisoned by what they were required to apply to grapes, it makes some sense to know who Dolores is–and who her cofounder of the United Farmworkers was. You might start here: Dolores on PBS.

And for people who act on passion, you should know who this is: Greta Thunberg. I will be writing about her again soon, when I do more on the Problem Essay. But have a look now. Something to think about as you plan for your future. If you have taken a stand on a problem that really matters, then this is a good subject for you. But beware of preaching–describing what you have done, and using the right details, is the best way forward here. leave the soapbox in the garage.

I think that is a good place to leave this post. Think hard, write well. And it’s okay to simultaneously work for your own future while doing things that will make everybody’s future better.

Ladies and Gentleman: Start Your Essays. The Prompts for 2019-2020 are Rolling Out.

Below is a list of Prompts Available Now. The Common Application has just opened as I write this; I have been posting for weeks on prompts as they appeared in various locations from admissions blogs to the Coalition Application, which tends to post prompts earlier. All of the prompts below are ready to write, right now, and if you click on my links, I have written detailed analysis on most of the prompts below. Read on, and for World Class Essay Development and Editing Support: Contact Me.

And now, here they are:

2019-2020 College Application Essay Prompts: Ready to Write, Right Now

Stanford University–Same prompts as last year. It’s been a decade since Stanford did any serious tinkering with their supplemental essays. The short answers they do tinker with year-to-year.

Click here for your Stanford Supplementals for 2019-2020

And Here is A Discussion of The Stanford Roommate Essay

Also see my next post, Welcome to the Jungle, for more on the Stanford essays.

Princeton University–I have broken my discussion of the Princeton Supplemental Essays into two parts–click the link you need for the discussion you want:

Part 1–How to Write the Princeton Supplemental Essays for 2019-2020

Part 2–How to Write the Princeton Supplemental Engineering Essay for 2019-2020

How to Write the Yale University Essays:

Click here for Part 1 of 3 Parts: The Yale Short Responses, and the Application Portals, Explained.

How to Write the Harvard “Additional” Application Essays:

Harvard Supplement for 2019-2020

How to Write the Brown University Essays for 2019-2020–Click Here:

Brown Supplemental Essays for 2019-2020

Tips and Links for Writing the Dartmouth University Essays for 2019-2020: Click Here:

Dartmouth Supplemental Essays for 2019-2020

The University of Texas, Austin–definitely some changes from last year, the new prompts confirmed by a posting for counselors. UT uses its own Texas portal.

Prompts for 2019-2020 U Texas linked Here. More discussion and analysis on these coming soon, so y’all come on back in a week or two.

Boston College Essay Prompts–and How to Write Them–Linked Here:

BC 2020. This includes an extended discussion on writing about a book or work of art, as well as themes for Catholic and specifically Jesuit universities like B.C. and Georgetown.

The University of Virginia–up on their website as “they turn their attention” from those who have accepted to “current juniors,” known at this point as rising seniors. Congratulations, by the way, Rising Seniors. Uses the Common Application Portal. Click to check it out:

UV prompts for 2019-2020 linked Here.

The University of Chicago--continues to offer a menu of wild and whacky essay prompts for your second essay; the first essay is a pretty standard-issue why you want to go to school x essay. Uses the Common Application Portal. I analyze their two supplemental essays in separate links:

Click here for: University of Chicago Prompt 1, 2019-2020

Click here for: University of Chicago Prompt 2, 2019-2020

The University of California–confirmed in their admissions packet for counselors for 2019-2020. Uses its own UC portal, accessing all 8 UC campuses with one application.

UC Prompts linked Here.

Harvey Mudd College– Uses the Common Application portal as well as the Coalition Application.

HMC Prompts Linked Here.

Georgia Tech--Uses the Common Application portal. I start my analysis of GT’s prompts featuring an interview with G.T.’s excellent Dean of Admissions, Rick Scott.

GT Prompts and Rick Scott interview linked Here.

The University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign–confirmed by two counseling contacts at U-C. University of Illinois campuses uses its own application portal.

Urbana-Champaign Prompts linked Here.

The Common Application Essay Prompts are unchanged for 2019-2020.

Again, see my Welcome to the Jungle Post for links to the Common App and its Prompts

2019-2020 Coalition Application Essay Prompts–If you are not familiar with the Coalition Application, it is a competitor to the Common Application. Universities tend to offer both when they do use the Coalition Application portal, so it is worth looking at the Coalition essay prompts to see if they allow you to better leverage your topic ideas (usually looking for less overlap between essays).

The Coalition Essay Prompts are linked Here, along with a comparison of the two sites.

Go to the next post for more links-Welcome to the Jungle.

And Contact Me for World-Class Application Essay Development and Editing and Focused, Results-Oriented College Application Advising:

Contact Me.

How to Write the Stanford University Application Essay Prompts for 2019-2020: Ready or Not, Here They Are–

Who should read this post: Anybody who is applying to Stanford in 2019-2020, with a bonus focus on the Problem Essay which appears in multiple Ivy League and other elite college applications.

I confirmed with Stanford in mid-June that they will be using the same essay prompts as last year. And they have now posted them, as I show, below.

In addition to the three, 250-word supplemental essays, Stanford features a series of short answers, which I will also discuss below the 250-word essay prompts. In addition, I will offer a preliminary comparison of selected essay prompts from elite schools to suggest how you can begin reusing essays in whole or part–or reusing ideas.

Here are the Stanford supplemental essays for this year:

Stanford Short Essay Questions for 2019-2020

Please write a short essay in response to each of the below three essay topics. There is a 100-word minimum and a 250-word maximum for each essay.

  1. The Stanford community is deeply curious and driven to learn in and out of the classroom. Reflect on an idea or experience that makes you genuinely excited about learning.
  2. Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate—and us—know you better.
  3. Tell us about something that is meaningful to you, and why.

The first thing that I would point out is that these prompts have not really changed for years. To see what I mean, take a look at the Stanford shorts from seven years ago: Stanford Short Essays, 2012-2013.

This year’s “deeply curious” prompt 1 was in 2012 the prompt 1 “intellectual vitality” prompt, which asked for an idea or experience that fascinated you. The only real difference is in the wording. The roommate question has remained basically the same for a decade, the only change this year being that you are now writing a “note” rather than a letter (slightly less formal, for a prompt that already tended to pretty informal). The only change in prompt 3 has been to alter “what matters to you” to “something that is meaningful to you.” With that in mind, let me suggest that you read all of that post to the 2012-2013 prompt that I link above. Most of what I say there still applies.

I have another analysis of the Stanford prompts in the next link; scroll down this linked post to see additional links to ideas for approaching these prompts, including writing about intellectual interests: Stanford. But keep in mind that constrained, 250-word limit.

So little change over so much time–What does this mean? It means that Stanford feels it has found the best essay prompts possible. But I think it is also tied to the length of the Stanford essays. Having assisted with editing these for the last twenty years, I can say that this is a truly fiendish wordcount–just long enough to be an essay, but too short to allow for anything extraneous. Getting a good Stanford essay down to 250 words can be a hellish exercise in compressing meaning through changes in word choice and syntax pruning. Or just cutting a paragraph you thought was great but which is not necessary, comparatively speaking. In short, you can write an essay with a clear, bright “flavor” but not many layers. I add that the short essay and short answer prompts together do force you to respond in a personal way.

Speaking of short answers, in addition to the three, 250-word essays, Stanford also has a series of short responses most with a 50-word limit. Here is last year’s Stanford short answers, with word counts:

1) What is the most significant challenge that society faces today? (50 word limit)

2) How did you spend your last two summers? (50 word limit)

3) What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed? (50 word limit

4) What five words best describe you? (Max 10 words [!])

5) When the choice is yours, what do you read, listen to, or watch? (50 word limit)

6) Name one thing you are looking forward to experiencing at Stanford. (50 word limit)

7) Imagine you had an extra hour in the day — how would you spend that time? (50 word limit).

For this post, I am going to limit myself to looking at short response #1. Here’s why: a number of elite colleges will use longer essay prompts this year that allow you to focus on a problem you’d like to solve, or help solve, or that just concerns you. I address this basic kind of question under the idea of the “problem essay” which I have discussed in multiple posts in the past, and will be writing about again soon. Here is an earlier example: Writing the Problem Essay. Think of this short response as a chance to come up with a great hook for an essay of 300-500 words. If your Stanford 50-word response is well done, use it as the opener for a longer essay on another elite college application. Nothing wrong with doubling down, with one caveat–Turnitin.com will find it. But borrowing from yourself is not a crime, and I assume you will write a great essay that develops from that hook–which itself can also be expanded as you fit it to a different word count.

As I write this, I still await confirmation on Ivy League prompts, but from last year, here are some examples that tie in with the problem essay topic:

Dartmouth, 2018-2019

  • In the aftermath of World War II, Dartmouth President John Sloane Dickey, Class of 1929, proclaimed, “The world’s troubles are your troubles…and there is nothing wrong with the world that better human beings cannot fix.” Which of the world’s “troubles” inspires you to act? How might your course of study at Dartmouth prepare you to address it?

Georgetown, Walsh School of Foreign Service Question, 2018-2019

APPLICANTS TO THE WALSH SCHOOL OF FOREIGN SERVICE: Briefly discuss a current global issue, indicating why you consider it important and what you suggest should be done to deal with it.

While Princeton in 2018-2019 defines its problem essay as a social essay:

  • “One of the great challenges of our time is that the disparities we face today have more complex causes and point less straightforwardly to solutions.” Omar Wasow, assistant professor of politics, Princeton University; founder of Blackplanet.com. This quote is taken from Professor Wasow’s January 2014 speech at the Martin Luther King Day celebration at Princeton University.

Keep in mind that some of these prompts I list just above may change this year, but on the other hand, most won’t, and you can get started on a problem essay by writing a nice, 50-word definition that has plenty of “hook.” Also be aware that many colleges are using Turnitin.com and will notice not that you are plagiarizing but that you are reusing essays. This could impact how the view your Demonstrated Interest or Interest Quotient. More on that later.

That’s it for now. Among other things I will be posting about how to write a problem essay soon, so come back for that, if it applies. In the meantime, start writing your 250-word essays.

The Coalition Application versus the Common Application–Which One to Use? It Starts with a Look at the Essay Prompts

Who should read this: anybody applying to college in 2019-2020. Post Subjects: The Common Application versus the Coalition Application, A Comparison of Common Application and Coalition Application Essays and for financially challenged families, The Questbridge Application.

The Coalition and the Common Application are the most important college application portals. The Common Application is the Big Kahuna, with over one million students submitting over five million applications, and this year, it handles applications for more than 800 colleges. The only state that has no colleges accepting the Common Application is North Dakota (Why: Most of North Dakota’s colleges are public and use the state’s application portal. If this seems backward, both the University of California and the Cal State Universities use their own portals as well.)

In contrast, the Coalition Application lists 107 colleges for 2019-2020; however, this is a pretty elite list, which includes Stanford, the majority of Ivy League colleges, Cal Tech, Georgia Tech, Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Northeastern . . .

In previous years all of the Ivy League schools were listed as using the Coalition Application, but this year Cornell and Brown are not listed. Could be an error, of course. To which I add, the Coalition Application specifically identifies itself as being designed for students with fewer resources. Here is the full list for you to consult: Coalition Application Colleges

The obvious advantage of the Common Application lies in the number of colleges that use it, roughly 8 times the number of the Coalition Application, but it is also worth comparing the essay questions as you decide which to use, or perhaps if you want to selectively use both portals–so first here are The Coalition Application Essay Prompts for 2019-2020:

  • Tell a story from your life, describing an experience that either demonstrates your character or helped to shape it.
  • Describe a time when you made a meaningful contribution to others in which the greater good was your focus. Discuss the challenges and rewards of making your contribution.
  • Has there been a time when you’ve had a long-cherished or accepted belief challenged? How did you respond? How did the challenge affect your beliefs?
  • What is the hardest part of being a teenager now? What’s the best part? What advice would you give a younger sibling or friend (assuming they would listen to you)?
  • Submit an essay on a topic of your choice.

My initial observation is that the Coalition prompts are fewer in number (five, versus seven for the Common App) but also seem to define broader topics. I would agree that in these prompts you can see how the Coalition does, in fact, aim at “lower resourced” students in that way–several of the Common Application Prompts seem slightly better for a well-resourced suburban youth, but there is also a possible overlap in the sense that substance in one can be topic in another. For example, these prompts also do overlap with the Common Application–

Common App Prompt 1 asks about “background, identity or interest or talent” that is “so meaningful” that you need to write about it; there is no direct corollary with the Coalition prompts, but on the other hand the Coalition Application’s first prompt, “a story from your life . . . [that] demonstrates your character” could overlap if it involves an interest, talent or your background and shows something important about you through describing or narrating that. But you can see an interesting difference–the second Coalition App prompt , on making a “meaningful contribution to others,” has no direct corollary in the Common Application (Hmm, is the Common App “All about You?”), unless you could have contributed to others by questioning or challenging “a belief or idea” (Common App Prompt 3), which if you are working with a group like Black Lives Matter, would clearly apply. It’s really about what your examples and content are; keep in mind that you are not “answering a question” in the way you might if an English teacher asks you to write an essay on the theme of a novel or your history teacher asks you to explain the causes of a war. College essay prompts are really aimed at defining areas you write about, and you choose the content that fits the area of the prompt.

Here is a link to the Common Application Prompts if you would like to quickly compare them with the Coalition App: Common Application Essays for 2019-2020.

Another factor to consider is word count. The Common App allows up to 650 words; the Coalition App “strongly advises” no more than 550 words. I find that 100 words is huge if an essay of 650 words is well-written.

My overall take is to tilt toward the Common Application, due to its longer college list and more generous word count. Like the Coalition Application, it does allow you to submit an essay on a topic of your choice. But if you like prompts on the Coalition Application, and you want to emphasize that you are not well-resourced,* you can use both–setting up an account on both is free–and then you could always write a Coalition App essay, and if it is excellent, submit it for the open essay prompt on the Common App. Problem solved. With a bit of extra work to set up two accounts.

*One more thing–if you are not well resourced and are concerned about paying for school, the elite, private schools, like Harvard, do supply excellent financial aid, and you should also look at things like Questbridge to see if you qualify–see here for more: Who Qualifies for Questbridge. If you qualify, you should absolutely pursue a Questbridge application.

The 2019-2020 Essay Prompts for the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign-Freshman Essay Questions

Essay 1–Explain your interest in the major you selected and describe how you have recently explored or developed this interest inside and/or outside the classroom. You may also explain how this major relates to your future career goals. If you’re applying to the Division of General Studies, explain your academic interests and strengths or your future career goals. You may include any majors or areas of study you’re currently considering. Limit your response to 300 to 400 words.

For this question, there are two considerations: 1) Your own background, interests and experiences related to your major. Choose the stuff that matters and put it in there. A helpful opener or part of the essay body would show what motivates you to pursue these studies. The most dramatic examples of these I have seen in recent years have been for students aiming towards medicine who are motivated by illness in their own families, or who have done work somewhere that brought them into contact with the dire situations faced by many people–but warning: if you don’t have some big drama, don’t try to manufacture drama. If you just like to build stuff, go to that and try to show why.

Two considerations for information on any college essay are making it up-to-date or recent and showing long-term involvement with the activity discussed. Wait, is that a trick? Long-term involvement goes back to your days with a lego set, which is not up-to-date? Can you not discuss how you’ve had a passion for building and designing since, oh, four? Sure, you can. But the rule of thumb is to use old stuff as background, quickly described before you go into greater detail on more recent stuff.

I have posted on the thought processes and approach to writing this kind of essay in other posts; for a good example of how-to and for information on thinking about majors and minors, as well as understanding the academic structures of universities, including schools and colleges within universities (very important for knowing how to write about a major, folks), have a look here:

Writing About an Engineering Major at Princeton (and Elsewhere).

And here is a link to the academic structures and majors at UIUC to help you get started–click on the college of interest, and that college page will give you a dialogue box to click on majors:

Schools and Colleges at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign

And of course, don’t forget to go beyond majors and courses by looking at research at UIUC–

Research News and Webpages at UIUCEssay 2–If you select a second-choice major other than the Division of General Studies on your application, write a second essay explaining your interest in this major, too. Again, limit your response to 300 to 400 words.

This is just . . . more of the same from above, using that second major.

Best of luck on your essays, but if you want more than luck on your side, contact me for superior essay development and editing help:

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How to Apply to College in 2019-2020–Part 1

Who should read this post: anybody applying to college in the United States of America in 2019-2020. The first part of this post will be pretty California-centric, but I also look at some information on the Ivy League and more application data on Harvard specifically. We still await a full data set on applications for this year’s applicants, who will enter college in this coming fall of 2019. This tends to come after those accepted actually show up to enroll in the fall, at which point universities can confirm their application yield, so it will be another 4-6 months before we have a complete picture of this year’s application data.

Overall, the tendency is for GPA and SAT/ACT score numbers to edge up incrementally (for GPA at about a tenth of a percent or less per year over the last 10 years for the U.C. and over the last 15 years at most Ivies). Keep that in mind with data from the fall of 2018. That said, let’s get to the process of creating a list of target schools.

How to Start an Application Target List

When you sit down to make a list of target colleges, it’s all about the D words: Dreams and Data. The data you start with includes GPA and test scores. Other data like total applications, admit rate, etc., matters, as does the information on your school that is available via Naviance, if your school has it, but it’s best not to start by trying to plug in all the data. It can be overwhelming.

Instead, always start that list on an aspirational note, with your dream schools. Once you have done that, you can list schools you have heard of that seem appealing. We assume that your dream opportunities are reaches, and you can decide later if it’s really worth the application fee and perhaps writing some essays. As you move on to schools that are not perhaps as dreamy but that still are appealing, you want to use data and research to create a target list with two more tiers. And at that point, you need to look at the data.

As a rule, in creating three tiers, the top tier of reach schools are those for which your data is below the average for admits, or for which any applicant, including those with a perfect GPA. is iffy (e.g. Stanford, Princeton, Harvard); the next tier, the “fit” schools should have targets for which you fit the average data profile. In all cases, this includes both GPA and standardized test scores (SAT/ACT). The last tier is safety schools, those for whom 75% or more of the people with your data were admitted.

There are more variables and nuances to creating a good list, but if you follow that approach, and split your applications relatively evenly into each category, you will end up with multiple acceptances. Note that when it comes to sorting the variables, you also want to separate holistic from objective schools–if the school is objective, the GPA and SAT/ACT averages are slightly better predictors. For an explanation of holistic vs. objective applications, and for an overview of how your college application will be evaluated, please see my post The Secret of College Admissions.

Data has to dominate the discussion once you have a rough list of schools. I most often find that when I sit down with clients–let’s assume a typical suburban, Northern California student for this example–they vaguely understand that it’s become a lot more difficult to get into name-brand colleges, and they may understand that a school like U.C. Berkeley has a high GPA average, but they are usually surprised when I tell them that the average GPA for Berkeley has been over 3.9 for several years now. That is over 3.9 unweighted.

This is obviously also true of UCLA, which had over 100,000 freshman applications last year, but then I have to explain that the same is true of U.C. Davis–in fact, Davis had a higher average GPA than Berkeley a few years ago, at 3.92 unweighted, while Berkeley downgraded their final GPA to 3.9 when they updated their numbers for yield in October of 2017. The details of these adjustments can be hard to dig up, but Berkeley made that adjustment after they determined yield in the fall–that is, were able to see who actually showed up to school after being offered admissions and then accepted it and moved into the dorm (there are those who accept and go elsewhere . . . ). My inferences is that they used the GPA not just for those admitted, but for those who actually showed up–their yield.

But still–these numbers represent a high wall to climb over. More specifically, these numbers mean that a typical California student who gets, say, 3 “B’s” in the a-g U.C. college prep classes in 10th and 11th grades, (and so likely has a 3.8 unweighted GPA), sees their chance of admissions to the top three UC’s at about 1 in 4. So if your dream schools include Berkeley, UCLA and you see Davis as a safety, and you have less than a 3.9 GPA, Davis is not a safety school. In fact, that would suggest that Santa Cruz is more a “fit” and that U.C. Riverside is a safety–or an “easy” fit.

As another number here, Riverside had a 3.66-4.09 weighted GPA for the 25th to 75th percentile of admitted students in fall of 2018.

When you are compiling data, know that the UC has a centralized set of data, but how that data has been presented has varied over time. Currently, the central UC data set is showing averages based on the 25th-75th percentile, but a couple of years ago, most UC’s presented as simple average. In addition, the current data set uses a weighted average. This is for the class that entered UC campuses in fall of 2018.

For other schools, your best bet to find firm data is to seek their Common Data Set–I will plug Harvard’s CDS below, just to give you a snapshot of the elite on the East Coast. You can continue to look these up for yourself for any other school you wish. The down side of this . . . . many hours of your life gone, sorting through 10-15 pages of data and checked boxes. That sums up one of my functions as a college advisor–saving you time, as well as making sense of what is to be found in the data. I have already done the leg work on this stuff.

Here is Harvard’s most recent, confirmed data set: Harvard Common Data Set.

If you search Harvard’s CDS using the term “GPA, “you will discover that Harvard’s average weighted GPA for fall of 2018 was 4.18. And don’t forget that this includes cohorts with below-average GPA’s–some prodigies who are great at one thing but not so great at others; some athletes; some whose parents endowed the university with a bunch of money to get their kid on the “Z List” or the “Dean’s List.” You know, like Jared Kushner, whose father kicked a large chunk of money Harvard’s way, ahead of Jared’s admit. (Seems pretty unfair, I know, but when the money is not a bribe per se, and in effect puts up new buildings, funds scholarships and programs . . . the good of helping many outweighs the evil of a single mediocre student being admitted. Most of the time. Unlike, say, those families who bribed officials through Mr. Singer-a very different thing.

For those interested in more Ivy for this year, here is a link to early application data from the most recent application cycle–I will discuss creating an early app list in more detail later, but the date here is suggestive when considering who would be an early app from your dream tier of your target list: Early Ivy League Application Data for 2018-2019.

Returning to our California student, this all looks pretty discouraging, I know, but I would point out that what matters in the long term is a degree, and when it comes to your degree, the words “University of California” have more meaning than “Berkeley” or “Santa Cruz”–particularly to employers.

And continuing with our list, let us also assume this 3.8 range California student is interested in medicine. In addition to expanding this list from reach schools that include Berkeley, UCLA and Davis, I would add Santa Cruz and Riverside, and throw in Santa Barbara. With decent essays, I would expect at least two admits there. But I would also expand, if the budget allows it, out of state. Plan to add 15 thousand to your total costs, at a minimum, when you look out of state. That is per year. Most of that will be additional tuition costs.

So before looking out of state for my pre-med California applicant, I would add two-three Cal State campuses, then, if the ca. 45-60 thousand-dollar cost of going out of state is acceptable, look at the University of Washington, Arizona State (which would offer a tuition deal to most California students that would make tuition much cheaper), focusing on its Barrett Honors College and Polytechnic campus, and possibly add Oregon State and U Colorado. One or two smaller, private liberal arts campuses, inside California or outside, might round out the list–though we’d be bumping up to a ceiling at 14-15 applications.

At this point, you start looking at the application work load, including how many application essays are needed and how many of these can be reused in whole or part.

And then you should start writing essays. Now is better than August or September. Summer will be over in 8 weeks for many of you (It is June 20th as I write this), and high school coursework, athletics and activities together with doing applications can be truly overwhelming. Get some essays done sooner rather than later. I will be posting a set of the important prompts that are available now in a day or so.

Until then, be well and do good research.

How to Write the University of Virginia Application Essays in 2019-2020 (That’s You, high school class of 2020). Part 1 of 2 Parts

2019-2020 First-Year Application Essay Questions– 

1. We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists. Answer the question that corresponds to the school/program to which you are applying in a half page or roughly 250 words.

  • College of Arts and Sciences – What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
  • School of Engineering and Applied Sciences – If you were given funding for a small engineering project that would make everyday life better for one friend or family member, what would you design?
  • School of Architecture – Describe an instance or place where you have been inspired by architecture or design. 
  • School of Nursing – School of Nursing applicants may have experience shadowing, volunteering, or working in a health care environment. Tell us about a health care-related experience or another significant interaction that deepened your interest in studying Nursing
  • Kinesiology Program – Discuss experiences that led you to choose the kinesiology major. 

2. Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words.

  • What’s your favorite word and why?
  • We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.
  • Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the UVA culture. In her fourth year at UVA, Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why?
  • UVA students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message
  • UVA students are charged with living honorably and upholding a Community of Trust. Give us an example of a community that is important to you and how you worked to strengthen that community.

This post originally appeared on Notes from Peabody, the UVA admission blog at http://uvaapplication.blogspot.com/ .

I will be back in the next week with more detailed commentary on these essay topics individually. But to start with question one, they are offering a slant on the Why You Want to Go Here/What You Plan to Study and Why essay questions, which are featured in many college apps, from Cornell on the East Side to Harvey Mudd out Westbut note that here UV is looking for what you know about their programs and what inspires you rather than for a simple restatement of your activities. This means that you need to start clicking around and doing some research on UV and its specific programs. I have multiple posts on researching colleges for similar questions, under Cornell and Chicago, which can serve as examples for you to check out. Go to the website, click, read, then click some more, before writing about why you want to go to any university. There will be some overlap with activities, but this is your chance to reach out and touch someone with a heartfelt but not cheesy statement about what inspires you as well as showing what you know about them. And what you know about them can include specific classes, professors, research programs and results . . . .Anything you know after researching the essay is useful . . ..

Question two is aimed a range of possibilities in which you can express your ingenuity or integrity. More on those later.

The University of Chicago Admissions Essay for 2019-2020: How to Write for Prompt Two.

Next up: the Off-the-Wall, otherwise known as Chicago’s Essay Number Two. Below you will find all of the prompts, which includes new prompts for this year and a selection of golden oldies from years past that you may also write about. See my links for commentary and analysis on multiple prompts.I will also choose a couple of the new prompts to analyze in separate posts in the coming weeks, so come back soon.

With that, here they are:

University of Chicago Question 2 for 2019-2020–see below for the past question option, on which I offer detailed analysis:

Extended Essay (Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1

Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why?
—Inspired by Kedrick Shin, Class of 2019

Essay Option 2

If there’s a limited amount of matter in the universe, how can Olive Garden (along with other restaurants and their concepts of food infinity) offer truly unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks? Explain this using any method of analysis you wish—physics, biology, economics, history, theology… the options, as you can tell, are endless.
—Inspired by Yoonseo Lee, Class of 2023

Essay Option 3

A hot dog might be a sandwich, and cereal might be a soup, but is a ______ a ______?
—Inspired by Arya Muralidharan, Class of 2021 (and dozens of others who, this year and in past years, have submitted the question “Is a hot dog a sandwich,” to which we reply, “maybe”)

Essay Option 4

“Fiction reveals truth that reality obscures.” – Jessamyn West
—Inspired by Elizabeth Mansfield, Class of 2020

Essay Option 5

UChicago has international campus centers around the world, but we don’t have any interplanetary, interstellar, or interdimensional campuses… yet! Propose a spot in time or space, in this or any universe, for a new UChicago campus. What types of courses would be taught at this site? What cultural experiences await students who study there?
—Inspired by Peter Jasperse, Class of 2022

Essay Option 6

“Don’t be afraid to pick past prompts! I liked some of the ones from previous years more than those made newly available for my year. Also, don’t worry about the ‘correct’ way to interpret a question. If there exists a correct way to interpret the prompt I chose, it certainly was not my answer.”
—Matthew Lohrs, Class of 2023

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry (and with the encouragement of one of our current students!) choose one of our past prompts (or create a question of your own). Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun!


Some classic questions from previous years…


“Mind that does not stick.”
—Zen Master Shoitsu (1202–80)

What is the sound of one essay getting you into the U of Chicago? Up to you, but here is my post on this essay prompt, again from a few years back:

How to Write the University of Chicago Zen Essay

Vestigiality refers to genetically determined structures or attributes that have apparently lost most or all of their ancestral function, but have been retained during the process of evolution. In humans, for instance, the appendix is thought to be a vestigial structure. Describe something vestigial (real or imagined) and provide an explanation for its existence.
—Inspired by Tiffany Kim, Class of 2020

Here is my analysis on this essay from a couple of years ago; keep in mind that some references reflect events in that year, not this year: Vestigiality Essay Analysis


In French, there is no difference between “conscience” and “consciousness.” In Japanese, there is a word that specifically refers to the splittable wooden chopsticks you get at restaurants. The German word “fremdschämen” encapsulates the feeling you get when you’re embarrassed on behalf of someone else. All of these require explanation in order to properly communicate their meaning, and are, to varying degrees, untranslatable. Choose a word, tell us what it means, and then explain why it cannot (or should not) be translated from its original language.
—Inspired by Emily Driscoll, Class of 2018

Click on the link below for my analysis of this “translation” essay:

Lost in Translation Analysis


The mantis shrimp can perceive both polarized light and multispectral images; they have the most complex eyes in the animal kingdom. Human eyes have color receptors for three colors (red, green, and blue); the mantis shrimp has receptors for sixteen types of color, enabling them to see a spectrum far beyond the capacity of the human brain. Seriously, how cool is the mantis shrimp: mantisshrimp.uchicago.edu What might they be able to see that we cannot? What are we missing?
—Inspired by Tess Moran, AB’16

Ah, the Mantis Shrimp, most entertaining of pets. Here is my Analysis of this Mantis Shrimp prompt, from a few years back:

How to Write the Mantis Shrimp Essay


Heisenberg claims that you cannot know both the position and momentum of an electron with total certainty. Choose two other concepts that cannot be known simultaneously and discuss the implications. (Do not consider yourself limited to the field of physics).
—Inspired by Doran Bennett, AB’07

Ah, uncertainty–here is my analysis on the Uncertainty Principle and its applications from days past:

You Want a Schroedinger’s Cat? How to Write About Heisenberg


Susan Sontag, AB’51, wrote that “[s]ilence remains, inescapably, a form of speech.” Write about an issue or a situation when you remained silent, and explain how silence may speak in ways that you did or did not intend. The Aesthetics of Silence, 1967.
—Anonymous Suggestion

Susan Sontag appears with some frequency in the U Chicago prompts because A, she was a brilliant writer and who could do art, science, social topics, you name it and, B, she was a U Chicago grad. Here is my analysis of her for this topic:

The Dark Lady, Susan Sontag, Speaks


“…I [was] eager to escape backward again, to be off to invent a past for the present.” —The Rose Rabbi by Daniel Stern
Present: pres·ent
1. Something that is offered, presented, or given as a gift.
Let’s stick with this definition. Unusual presents, accidental presents, metaphorical presents, re-gifted presents, etc.—pick any present you have ever received and invent a past for it.
—Inspired by Jennifer Qin, AB’16

Nothing like rabbinical science fiction–here is my post on this Rose Rabbi prompt from a few years ago:

The Rose Rabbi–Back to the Future.



The word floccinaucinihilipilification is the act or habit of describing or regarding something as unimportant or of having no value. It originated in the mid-18th century from the Latin words “floccus,” “naucum,” “nihilum,” and “pilus”—all words meaning “of little use.” Coin your own word using parts from any language you choose, tell us its meaning, and describe the plausible (if only to you) scenarios in which it would be most appropriately used. 

-Inspired by Ben Zhang, Class of 2022 

If you are ready to coin a word, or just interested, here is my post on this essay prompt–

How to Write the U-Chicago New Word Essay


“Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there.“—Miles Davis (1926–91)
—Inspired by Jack Reeves

Click this link for how to play what is not there: Miles Davis.


“A man cannot be too careful in the choice of his enemies.” –Oscar Wilde. Othello and Iago. Dorothy and the Wicked Witch. Autobots and Decepticons. History and art are full of heroes and their enemies. Tell us about the relationship between you and your arch-nemesis (either real or imagined).
—Inspired by Martin Krzywy, AB’16

So where is Waldo, really?
—Inspired by Robin Ye, AB’16


How are apples and oranges supposed to be compared? Possible answers involve, but are not limited to, statistics, chemistry, physics, linguistics, and philosophy.
—Inspired by Florence Chan, AB’15


The ball is in your court—a penny for your thoughts, but say it, don’t spray it. So long as you don’t bite off more than you can chew, beat around the bush, or cut corners, writing this essay should be a piece of cake. Create your own idiom, and tell us its origin—you know, the whole nine yards. PS: A picture is worth a thousand words.
—Inspired by April Bell, AB’17, and Maya Shaked, Class of 2018 (It takes two to tango.)


Little pigs, French hens, a family of bears. Blind mice, musketeers, the Fates. Parts of an atom, laws of thought, a guideline for composition. Omne trium perfectum? Create your own group of threes, and describe why and how they fit together.
—Inspired by Zilin Cui, Class of 2018

Find x.
—Inspired by Benjamin Nuzzo, an admitted student from Eton College, UK


Dog and Cat. Coffee and Tea. Great Gatsby and Catcher in the Rye. Everyone knows there are two types of people in the world. What are they?
—Inspired by an anonymous alumna, AB’06


How did you get caught? (Or not caught, as the case may be.)
—Inspired by Kelly Kennedy, AB’10


Chicago author Nelson Algren said, “A writer does well if in his whole life he can tell the story of one street.” Chicagoans, but not just Chicagoans, have always found something instructive, and pleasing, and profound in the stories of their block, of Main Street, of Highway 61, of a farm lane, of the Celestial Highway. Tell us the story of a street, path, road—real or imagined or metaphorical.
—Anonymous Suggestion


UChicago professor W. J. T. Mitchell entitled his 2005 book What Do Pictures Want? Describe a picture, and explore what it wants.
—Inspired by Anna Andel


University of Chicago alumna and renowned author/critic Susan Sontag said, “The only interesting answers are those that destroy the questions.” We all have heard serious questions, absurd questions, and seriously absurd questions, some of which cannot be answered without obliterating the very question. Destroy a question with your answer.
—Inspired by Aleksandra Ciric


Superstring theory has revolutionized speculation about the physical world by suggesting that strings play a pivotal role in the universe. Strings, however, always have explained or enriched our lives, from Theseus’s escape route from the Labyrinth, to kittens playing with balls of yarn, to the single hair that held the sword above Damocles, to the Old Norse tradition that one’s life is a thread woven into a tapestry of fate, to the beautiful sounds of the finely tuned string of a violin, to the children’s game of cat’s cradle, to the concept of stringing someone along. Use the power of string to explain the biggest or the smallest phenomenon.
—Inspired by Adam Sobolweski


Have you ever walked through the aisles of a warehouse store like Costco or Sam’s Club and wondered who would buy a jar of mustard a foot and a half tall? We’ve bought it, but it didn’t stop us from wondering about other things, like absurd eating contests, impulse buys, excess, unimagined uses for mustard, storage, preservatives, notions of bigness…and dozens of other ideas both silly and serious. Write an essay somehow inspired by super-huge mustard.
—Inspired by Katherine Gold


People often think of language as a connector, something that brings people together by helping them share experiences, feelings, ideas, etc. We, however, are interested in how language sets people apart. Start with the peculiarities of your own personal language—the voice you use when speaking most intimately to yourself, the vocabulary that spills out when you’re startled, or special phrases and gestures that no one else seems to use or even understand—and tell us how your language makes you unique. You may want to think about subtle riffs or idiosyncrasies based on cadence, rhythm, rhyme, or (mis)pronunciation.
—Inspired by Kimberly Traube


In 2015, the city of Melbourne, Australia created a “tree-mail” service, in which all of the trees in the city received an email address so that residents could report any tree-related issues. As an unexpected result, people began to email their favorite trees sweet and occasionally humorous letters. Imagine this has been expanded to any object (tree or otherwise) in the world, and share with us the letter you’d send to your favorite.
-Inspired by Hannah Lu, Class of 2020 


You’re on a voyage in the thirteenth century, sailing across the tempestuous seas. What if, suddenly, you fell off the edge of the Earth?
-Inspired by Chandani Latey, AB’93 


Lost your keys? Alohomora. Noisy roommate? Quietus. Feel the need to shatter windows for some reason? Finestra. Create your own spell, charm, jinx, or other means for magical mayhem. How is it enacted? Is there an incantation? Does it involve a potion or other magical object? If so, what’s in it or what is it? What does it do? 
-Inspired by Emma Sorkin, Class of 2021 


Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
—Inspired by Drew Donaldson, AB’16


Alice falls down the rabbit hole. Milo drives through the tollbooth. Dorothy is swept up in the tornado. Neo takes the red pill. Don’t tell us about another world you’ve imagined, heard about, or created. Rather, tell us about its portal. Sure, some people think of the University of Chicago as a portal to their future, but please choose another portal to write about.
—Inspired by Raphael Hallerman, Class of 2020

Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here.
—Inspired by Josh Kaufman, AB’18



What’s so odd about odd numbers?
—Inspired by Mario Rosasco, AB’09


Imagine you’ve struck a deal with the Dean of Admissions himself, Dean Nondorf. It goes as follows: you’re guaranteed admission to the University of Chicago regardless of any circumstances that arise. This bond is grounded on the condition that you’ll obtain a blank, 8.5 x 11 piece of paper, and draw, write, sketch, shade, stencil, paint etc., anything and everything you want on it; your only limitations will be the boundaries of both sides on the single page. Now the catch… your submission, for the rest of your life, will always be the first thing anyone you meet for the first time will see. Whether it’s at a job interview, a blind date, arrival at your first Humanities class, before you even say, “hey,” they’ll already have seen your page, and formulated that first impression. Show us your page. What’s on it, and why? If your piece is largely or exclusively visual, please make sure to share a creator’s accompanying statement of at least 300 words, which we will happily allow to be on its own, separate page.
PS: This is a creative thought experiment, and selecting this essay prompt does not guarantee your admission to UChicago.
-Inspired by Amandeep Singh Ahluwalia, Class of 2022

How to Write The University of Chicago Supplemental Essays for 2019-2020–Question One, and How to Write About It

Yes, it’s that time again, as the mundane meets the off-the-wall in the University of Chicago questions for 2019-2020. The mundane comes first:

University of Chicago Question 1 for 2019-2020 (Required)

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Their first question is pretty typical for many schools–call it the “Why I want to go there” question. This comes in many guises, but always suggests that you need to do some due diligence and get to know U Chicago more. It’s okay to have some attitude, but the prompt suggests that you not just wing it by yacking about crazy times doing the scavenger hunt, etc, etc. You should be looking at bit at the programs and areas you might choose for study. You are going to find this question in many applications, some more tightly focused than others, such as Cornell’s perennial College Interest essay in which you identify your area of study and discuss it and what your plans at Cornell are. I would suggest that this essay demands the due diligence of a couple of hours of clicking and reading on U Chicago’s website, but also chasing down particular work of interest by particular people in particular areas, up to and including reading up on research and experimental programs and projects that are ongoing.

Obviously not all research opportunities are open to undergrads, but in showing awareness and an ambition to participate you sketch a picture of yourself while showing that you have a high level of interest. And Chicago does have a focus on undergraduate research. Here are a couple of places to start looking at Chicago as a place to study:

University of Chicago Undergraduate Research

Research News, The University of Chicago

Once you have looked through these, just keep looking around their website(s). Take the international opportunities: UChicago International

And let’s not forget the Humanities, Oh Humans: UChicago Humanities

And finally, the University of Chicago’s Admissions Blog, which is about much more than admissions and has quite a bit on campus life:

Uncommon Blog

And why not, here is the famous Scavenger Hunt–

Scavenger hunt:  Lore.   The hunt represents the University of Chicago’s world view, taken to an extreme, so it is worth knowing about.  You will get a broader look at the atmosphere and outlook of the university in a recent article  published in the New YorkerU of C Scavenger Hunt.  Like my website, the New Yorker has a paywall on some content; if you or your parents have a New Yorker subscription, you can read the full article; if not,  you may need to pay for access to it.    This article does give you some history and insight into Chicago’s essay prompts and school tradition as well as the scavenger hunt itself–I’d say it is worth the fee to learn more about the school.

And finally, I have posted on writing for the U Chicago Prompt 1 before; take a look here:

Additional Advice for U Chicago’s Prompt 1

That’s it for now. Take notes and start working on it. Go for a catchy hook and opener . . . .I can help with that and more ideas on where to find information for U Chicago if you want to work on essay development and editing–

Click Here to Contact Me for Essay Help

Next up: the Off-the-Wall, otherwise known as Chicago’s Essay Number Two, which allows you to write about one of this year’s new prompts or pick from a selection of past questions–I have posted extensively on some of these in the past and will provide links to my discussions on past questions. Check out my post on U Chicago’s 2019-2020 Question 2 for more.

The Common Application Essay Prompts for 2019-2020–and Tips on How to Write Them

The Common Application Prompts for 2019-2020 appear under the theme “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Yes, that’s right, the Common App folks are not changing their prompts this year. That does not mean, however, that it is a good idea to copy ideas verbatim from your elder sibling/friend’s Common Application essay from last year or the year before, or the year before that. Turnitin.com started turning its attention to college application essays way back in 2011, and by 2012, there was reporting on this anti-plagiarism wrinkle. This year many colleges will screen application essays. If I were you, I would assume that all of them will do this, to be on the safe side. It’s always better to keep it clean anyhow, People. For you and for the process.

So lesson one is pretty simple: my experience has been that the best essays develop when the kid applying to college to hammers away and completes first drafts without a lot of coaching in that early stage. Some guidance is fine, getting some pointers or some help with focus, great, but you, the applicant, have to find some inspiration in what matters to you to make a piece of writing work.

This advice may not seem helpful right now, so let me be more specific: take a look at the Common Application Essay Prompts for 2019-2020, below, and put each at the top of a page; then start writing: try to think of concrete examples of things you have done or experiences you have had that seem to fit each prompt, and list them, then describe them in blurb form, under the prompt. When you run out of things to say, set the page off to the side and move on to the next one. Eventually you will find that one of the Common App prompts allows you to write more. It just comes more easily. And if it feels lively, that is probably the one for you. Go ahead and write an essay draft.

After the fact, you can assess what that essay shows about you, and determine whether it should be your Common App main or not. If not, it may well work as a supplement–and at least you broke through the logjam and got started.

Or just choose the “pick your own topic” option and stare at the ceiling or up at the passing clouds until something happens.

Lesson two, go ahead and start your Common Application Essay, but do not create an account or upload information on the Common Application itself. (Yet. I am updating in late July)

All accounts and information currently on the Common Application site are linked to last year’s applications. In the last days of July the Common Application will go offline and then will reappear in its 2019-2020 version on or around August 1st. At that point you can go online to select colleges and begin uploading essays and answering questions.

Between now and August 1, what you can also do, of course is . . . start those essays.

As work with your early responses to develop a complete draft (or two), you should notice that these are not really speculative essays. They are mostly not looking for what you might do in the future, though it would help to bring that up at some point for most of these; but to begin with, they are looking for what you have done. Prompts 2, 3, 4 and 5 are at the heart of the list and pretty much define the ethos of these Common App prompts overall, which is based on things in your (hopefully recent) past that you have done or experienced that define you. Of course it is all the better if that time you challenged a belief (prompt 3) or overcame an obstacle (prompt 2) or that accomplishment or realization that sparked a period of growth (prompt 5) are also shown as influencing your future–say in that conclusion to yor essay where you talk about how you plan to continue working on the problem you solved or addressed locally via studying x in college to prepare to deal with that problem on a broader scale, or acting from that new understanding and period of growth by doing y (define factor y) . . . in and after college. . . . and so on.

A couple of other recommendations–Don’t write an argument or speech-style essay structure defined by the firstly, secondly, and thirdly of subtopics which you then develop (robotically) in the essay body as first, secondly thirdly . . . also avoid simply restating your intro in your conclusion. And if you must use that essay structure that starts with a you-are-there- narrative, then explains how you got there, then explains the life’s lesson learned . . . make sure you use good vivid detail, but don’t overdo the drama in the hook and opener.

For example: If I never see an essay that starts with a writer pinned down by enemy gunfire and running out of water and ammunition . . . only to find out this is a video game and the author got there by playing but plans to be a programmer . . . and video game designer. . . Or if I never have an author dangling by her fingertips from a hold thirty feet up a sheer rock face, and one foot pops off a hold . . . only to find that she is top-roped in a climbing gym . . . And that climbing taught her discipline and determination . . . . I will be happy. Happy never to see one of these attempts to pump up the drama again.

Consider just starting with a good hook and an expository opener, without the overdramatized narrative , just so see what happens. And if the whole thing seems too daunting, contact me for editing help.

2019-2020 Common Application Essay Prompts

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Here are some results from last year’s application process–

During the 2018-2019 application year, the most popular topic of choice was: “Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.” (24.1%).

 The next most popular topics were: “Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.” (23.7%),

followed by “The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?” (21.1%).

Final notes–whether you apply to the Ivy League or hundreds of western, land-grant colleges, or hundreds more small, liberal-arts colleges, your Common Application essay is the lead essay for your application. Start early and be willing to try multiple essays and approaches.

And one more thing: in the aftermath of the Singer college-admissions bribery scandal, it seems like a good time to establish the basic ethical boundaries of college applications. Researching, seeking advice, getting detailed editing commentary are all considered legit, so long as the essays are in the deepest sense, yours. What that means is admittedly a gray area, but when it comes to cheating, examples are the best way to learn. Copying, for one: no, please. Asking somebody else to write your essays: also a big no-no.