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.

How to Write the University of Pennsylania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019: Part 1 of a 2-Part Brief

Back in Blue (and Red): The U Penn prompts are out. Of all the Ivy League applications, UPenn has the most elaborate contextualizing, and their prompts explicitly demand a level of research and personal introspection that is unique, even in the Ivy League.

Yes, Cornell asks you to explore your major and puts up an annotated list for you to study and then do research from, (please note the date and look for this year’s update on these Cornell prompts) and other schools throw up quotes and context that you really should research (Princeton, Harvard, Yale) but Dean Furda, at Penn, has always done more–and asked for more.

This also means that Penn expects more in terms of time and school-specific knowledge. Furda was one of the first college admissions leaders to set up a blog, and he has continued to use it vigorously. The current iteration of Furda’s admission blog is a full-on multi-page website that bears the name Page 217, a title taken from a well-known app essay prompt in which you had to write page 217 of your 300-page biography.

They don’t use that Page 217 prompt anymore, but it does reveal the philosophy of their approach— to think of a biography  required you to think about the direction of yor own life, as well as to fit in something that indicated how Penn would fit in that biography. This Page 217 prompt demanded a sense of where your life was going and implied that you should have a sense of what Penn offers that would help you get to page 217.  This is still the spirit of their essay prompts.

So there needs to be a sense of your past, as well as of your vision for your future, along with a good  understanding of Penn, all rolled into one essay. But today,  Furda has gone way past the creative riffing of the original  Page 217 prompt. He has come up with a framework of things that he wants you to think about as you write an application essay.

This framework starts with his “5 I’s and 4 C’s.” Yep, nine  things to look at right away, involving both introspection (the I’s) and research on Penn (the C’s.)

This is all about Demonstrated Interest, (also known lately by the more scientific-sounding “Interest Quotient”).  Furda has found a way to roll D.I. into application essays. He wants it to be hard to reuse some boilerplate from other essays for the Penn app.  Demonstrated Interest is increasingly important to elite schools, because they have to find a way to choose among the thousands of similar looking 3.9-4.3 GPA students with high SAT/ACT scores, two pages of activities, and who swear their devotion to  . . . . fifteen different schools.  Or more.  If they offer you a seat, they want to have some certainty that you will accept the offer.

To meet their needs and to write a good Penn application for yourself, your essays have to show something about you personally, but also have to show your interest in Penn by dealing with Furda’s uniquely complex framework for writing.  So let’s take a look at it:

The 5 I’s

A very cute idea, the 5 I’s are focused on you.  Yes, in  the country that has made defining yourself a lifelong project, Penn wants you to define yourself now.  I list each of the I’s below, highlight the important buzzwords and phrases and discuss what the prompts are telegraphing in terms of content and focus.   Notice this as you read the explanation by Penn (and my commentary):  in their explanations, the good people at Penn are quite literally suggesting some areas–topics or subtopics–that an essay could focus on.  But before I look at the “I’s” individually, let’s look at the actual essay prompt that the “5 I’s” address:

University of Pennsylvania Supplemental Essay for 2018-2019:

How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying (College of Arts and Sciences, School of Nursing, The Wharton School, or Penn Engineering). The essay should be between 400-650 words.

Basically, the 5 I’s are the focus of the first sentence in this Keeping that prompt in mind, let’s take the 5 I’s one at a time; here they are, with Penn’s explanation, followed by my commentary and analysis; the bold font is mine, to identify key phrases and words:

Identity–To figure out this piece, you must ask yourself who you are as an individual. How do you see yourself and how do you think that others see you? How do you drill into–essentially, unpack–the definition you create for yourself? Forget putting a name to a college now–don’t say I have to get into Penn or any other school. That comes later. Think about who you are without connecting yourself to anything external, such as brands, people, grades, etc. Think about who you are at your core.

The explanation on this one is not super helpful. How can you know yourself  without connecting to anything external?  Of course, their point is that they don’t want you listing accomplishments, etc, but we all define who we are in a relative way by comparison to who and what is around us.    My suggestion:  shrug and return to this one after doing some work on the other I’s, below.  So let’s do that.

Intellect–How Do You Think and Approach the Acquisition of Knowledge?  The explanation here is a bit more helpful.  Again, I highlight the key phrases:

Part of your identity is your intellect. How do you think and how do you take in information? We want to know about your mind. Pretty simple, right? As educators, we know that all students have a unique intellect with different strengths and learning styles. Recognize that your intellect comes into play in a range of activities, not only while you are in class or doing homework. The problem solving skills that you utilize during club meeting, your perseverance during track practice, and the public speaking ability you employ while running for leadership positions are all positive manifestations of an intellect that is alive and growing.

This prompt seems to suggest that one of the more hackneyed topics, student government, could actually work here, but I think something else is better, as the typical high school leadership thing is now just a class, rather than being something you ran for and won.  Something like taking the lead in the robotics club as you redesign your submersible, troubleshooting the design through reading in theory while tweaking various paremeters, persevering as it sinks, malfunctions and swims in circles,  and almost drowns a teammate in the pool with it, and then, after an all-nighter of hands on problem-solving, fixing a leak and tracking down an electrical short while improvising with a butter knife due to   the fact that a teammate left all the philips head screwdrivers at the airport, and delivering your personal Saint Crispin’s Day Speech, at three a.m., as your team was ready to quit,  then winning that Navy competition (or placing third, or even competing at all–hey, it was a miracle your ‘bot even made it into the pool) –that might be better essay. subject.   

My message here is to look at everything you are doing for inspiraiton. It is not just okay to have a bit of overlap with your activities; if an activity is your passion, you actually need more space to talk about it.  Just don’t make your essay a pure recap or list of actities and accomplisments. The example above is probably for a person with engineering in mind, of course.

Note that my summary of a particularly interesting activity, focused on an example, shows a range of things, with hands-on learning, problem-solving skills and leadership. Also notice that if you put it in first person, you would have an essay subtopic of about 185 words, leaving hundreds more available in this Penn essay.

Ideas–We want to know what you think about and why. When you have time to hang out, what are your ideas? What do you think about big issues like global warming? What do you think about local issues right here in your backyard? What are your ideas and what has informed those ideas? Ideas are what make college communities really interesting. When diverse students with unique intellectual paths share their thoughts with one another, it results in a great synergy. Students who work together, crossing traditional academic boundaries, have the potential to make waves in their community and world. So yes, your ideas, even if at this point they don’t seem realistic, can help you get into college. We are interested in the intellectual innovation you will bring to campus. We are interested in your spark.

So this is great: what a wide field of ideas!   But my warning is to beware of the “Beauty Queen” essay, or the “Dude, have you every thought that the entire universe might be, like, an atom on the fingernail of a God” ramble.  Read my link on the Beauty Queen and click around to read more of my posts on the problem essay–the subjects may have changed, but the basic ideas are the same.  Warning:  be sure that these big ideas are things you have connected with at a deeper level than Pinto, in my link above.  The best ideas to discuss are ones that you have not just thought about in your spare time but that you have also done something about in your spare time, even if that just means chasing down more information on the idea.  Assuming you have spare time, of course.

Interests: What do you like to do? What do you like to do when someone is not telling you to do it? What are your hobbies? This is one way that I think about interests: If you could pick up three books or three magazines, what would they be? Sometimes we need to pick books or magazines up because they feed into the courses that we are taking; other times it is a reflection of our natural acclimations*  and interests. You can do the same exercise with films, or museums. When you walk into a museum, what is the first section that you go to? All these things are going to be interesting to you and they’re going to interesting to the community that you are looking to be part of in college. *(I think they meant to say inclinations here.  Hey, it’s a blog, not a dictionary . . . I guess.)

Quite a few schools ask you to write about things you read, mentioning books more often than magazines. However, when you write about books, you may feel you have to fall back on the literary analysis or argument format that you were taught to use in your English class.  This is more a first-person interest essay.  There are ways to work in some level of analysis however, and I have posted advice and analysis on writing about books a number of times–have a look at this as an example: How to Write about Books.   As always, the purpose in writing about books is to show what you are like, not to interpret what the river means in Huckelberry Finn.  So this is a bit like that old-fashioned art of choosing which books to put on the bookshelf in your living room, so that they make a statement about you.

Haven’t had time to do anything but the “required reading?  No time to start like the present, and since you are likely a super-connected post-millenial person, why limit yourself to paper?  There is such a thing as an online magazine or journal.  In the areas of literature, the arts and politics, you  could take a look as sites like n + 1 magazine (comes in printed form as well), or for a more purely literary slant, Tin House. There are, of course, still the old-school but excellent mags on culture, politics and art from the days of paper, like The New Yorker,  Harpers and The Atlantic, or for more political slant, the liberal Mother Jones, which also does quite a bit of investigative journalism, or The National Review for you young (but traditional) Republicans out there.  Breitbart–give it a  pass for this one, unless you are showing how you like to see what the lunatic fringe is thinking.  A couple of hourse of reading and looking around while taking notes can set your foundation as a budding intellectual–no time to start on that like the present.

As for visiting museums, well let’s just say that this really telegraphs more about the person who wrote the prompt than anything else, and conveys the assumption that you live in an urban core with parents who encourage museum-going, or that you are in an upper-middle class suburb, with access to a city, and ditto the parents.  Of course if you do like to visit museums–I have clients who are artists, or into paleontology, or like to visit the Tech Museum, etc, etc–go for it.

Next (and last up for this post):

Inspiration-What really motivates and inspires you? We can sit down for forty-five minutes and you might not be sure how you want to answer this question or you might be thinking too hard about it. But then, there is this point in the conversation where I ask you something and your eyes light up and your arms start to move about. You are inspired; something really moves you. Tap into this power source and build on it.

When in doubt, look at your responses to the I’s above.  If you have not talked about ideas and activities that inspire you above, then you need a do-over on those.  And any discussion of your passion needs to have some concrete stuff that you do to show it.  

As for who you are at the core, same thing:  your passions should tell you that, as should all the other “I’s.”.  But some broad questions may help–are you a thinker?  A doer?  Political or not?  Do you analyze and break down or does your mind leap to an answer?  Do you learn through the physical world or navigate the e-realm more?

Come back soon; I will post again about Penn, this time looking at The Four C’s, which means researching Penn in more detail

Demonstrated Interest, indeed.

You can follow my blog to see when I post on this again, or just contact me for help with college essays.  My editing and essay development is the best in the business.

 

 

 

The Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts for 2016-2017; Or, How to Write Your Harvard Application Essay, for the Class of 2021

Hello–As an FYI, Harvard has not posted its prompts for this year, as of this writing (July 13th).  This post is for the class of 2021; if you are applying this year, you will be entering school (barring a gap or spring enrollment) in the fall of 2018, making you the class of 2022.  It is possible that Harvard will keep everything the same, so feel free to read on in this post.  You might want to stick to Princeton and Yale, which have both posted their prompts for this year, however, when it comes to actually writing an essay.  Here’s a link to my discussion of the Princeton short responses, and to the Princeton Essays for the class of 2022.  These will prepare you to write for Princeton this year.  I add that it is worth reading the post below on Harvard for some general ideas for this year, and some aspects of the supplement will no doubt remain unchanged.  And finally, you may contact me if you need essay editing.  

So first things first: How long is the 500 kb limit imposed on the “optional” Harvard supplemental essay? Answer—Really, really long. Much longer than any essay you would want to write by a factor of magnitude; see here for more on just how long a 500 kb document would be: Discussion of 500kb.

I would suggest that you write an essay of 1-2 pages, or in word count, somewhere between 500 and 1,000 words. If in doubt: Write 1 page. Keep in mind your app reader or admissions officer—they have too much to do and too little time.  To use the full two pages, you really need to be saying something important on this “optional” Harvard supplemental essay.

Your takeaway:  Don’t abuse the app officer with a long essay and don’t repeat things they already know.

But do write the essay, unless you already have an offer to attend (Really, some people, most of them athletes, already know they can go if they want to.  Feel that’s unfair? Consider how much money such a person brings to a university via happy alumni at football tailgating parties, etc, etc.  It is as fair as life in general is . . . ).

Also remember that whatever you do in your essay, you do it in the spirit of sharing not of lecturing as you offer real insight into yourself, your goals, your values and your interests.

An interesting thought experiment to try before you write any of your college application essays is to consider how your college education might serve others, and how you might become more beneficial to society.  As cynical as the colleges may seem at times as they compete for status, I do believe most of them still have that central mission in mind, and are trying to pick students who will go on to change the world for the better.  Like the rest of us, colleges do have to earn a living and engage in somewhat less lofty behavior as they do, but still:  creating well-rounded citizens is in the DNA of the American university system.

Enough about that.  Let’s look at the Harvard prompts for this year.

I started my work on Harvard this year by comparing the Harvard prompts to the University of California Personal Insight Questions (the new name for the application essays for the U.C. system). If you have not seen that earlier post, here it is: U.C. Personal Insight vs. Harvard Supplemental.  It would be a good idea to compare prompts across a range of our application targets to see where you can double up,as I do in this post–unless writing 20 or more essays and polishing them in the next three months, on top of your classwork, sounds like fun.

So let’s look at the Harvard prompts for 2016-2017 and then I will link you to my discussion on the traditional prompts:

You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics:

– Unusual circumstances in your life

– Travel or living experiences in other countries

– What you would want your future college roommate to know about you

– An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you

– How you hope to use your college education

– A list of books you have read during the past twelve months

– The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

– The mission of Harvard College is to educate our students to be citizens and citizen-leaders for society. What would you do to contribute to the lives of your classmates in advancing this mission?

Please note: If you do not intend to provide a response to this optional question, you do not need to submit the writing supplement. If you encounter any problems submitting your application, please upload a document that says “Not Applicable” and hit submit.

Hint: File should be under 500 KB and one of these types: .pdf .doc .docx .rtf .txt.

 The most interesting thing about these Harvard Supplemental Essay prompts is this:  with two exceptions, they have not changed since 2013.  I will discuss those exceptions at more length in a moment.  

For the first six prompts, which are holdovers from the last couple of application years, please click here to get extensive commentary and links on the prompts: Harvard Supplemental Essay Prompts. Scroll down to #2 in this linked post, and start reading there.  Bonus for Princeton applicants:  this post also has a discussion of how to write about books, which you need . . . or might need, if you choose the book prompt for Princeton.  


 

Now let’s turn to the two more recent adds to the Harvard supplemental essay prompt list:   the Harvard Honor Code Prompt and the the Harvard Mission Prompt. I will reverse the order as I address them.

There is an overlap between the Honor Prompt  and the Mission Prompt in terms of intent, which I explain below when I discuss the drone student, below, but I think you can also see the connection between Harvard’s Mission prompt and the Princeton essay on Service, so let’s start there.

The Princeton Service essay has been around for a long time.    Harvard wants to create changemakers, too–why should they leave saving humanity to Princeton.  So they are getting into that game with Princeton, seeking the student on a mission to do something for humanity.

This could start in your neighborhood, by the way, so don’t feel the need to be grandiose  if this prompt calls to you, and have a look at my much more lengthy discussion on writing a service essay in my very long post on Princeton’s supplements–just use your browser to search for the word Service and you can skip the long intro to Princeton by clicking three times, down to Princeton’s prompt on service.  What I say there, outside of the stuff on Woodrow Wilson, also applies to Harvard’s prompt.

Warning:  if you are not at all interested in serving humanity, or just know that this prompt will turn you into a cliché machine, move on.  But have a look at my discussion on Princeton’s prompt on service first.  Maybe this will help you find your mission.

Enough on the mission:  Let’s have a look at . . . the Harvard Honor Code prompt: to write it or not to write it.  

First let’s look at why this prompt exists, in my opinion:  Bad P.R. and Too Many Drones Applying.  By drones, I mean that sleek, deadly airborne vehicle that can operate remotely but that is controlled from afar, a vehicle that can do all kinds of things, really, but cannot do anything outside of its programming or what its operators want it to do.  Of course what I really mean to discuss is the student that the drone analogy refers to: super high-achieving and sleek packaged, controlled at a distance by parents, and not really thinking for or examining themselves.  And doing whatever it takes to get to their target (schools).

And speaking of that bad P.R. doing whatever it takes seems to include cheating, on the way to the Ivy League ( or other elite schools) and apparently continuing to cheat or take the shortcut once there–and this has been a very specific problem at Harvard–take a look:  Harvard Cheating Scandal.  This has long been a problem that all schools struggle with, but it does seem to be becoming a bigger problem as everybody focuses on some kind of quantifiable outcome in education, like grades to get to the next level, or the diploma that will get you a job, or the job that leads to the next job and the next and . . . so on.

This kind of strategic climbing is not just understandable, it is necessary (to a degree,  pun intended), but on the other hand, the most important thing for income is getting a college education and degree–from any of the 500-800 really good four-year colleges in America.   The degree itself is, still, the most important thing.  Recent studies show that where you go does not matter that much for the income of many majors, especially the technical ones (and in this case, especially for women with technical majors).  I have demonstrated this in other posts, if you like, you know, data and empiricism as a proof.  I do find that the bright, shiny objects in the Ivy League tend to blind people, though, and make them unable to process the possibility of going elsewhere, so I resist the temptation to add a link here.

If you want to be a general business major, sure, having a  Harvard Business diploma is very useful, but after your first job, what matters most is what you did at your first job, and what matters most for pay is performance on the job and your network of support in your professional life–not your college dorm network, though yes, your best friends are likely to come from college.  And yes, at some point a college friend or connection could prove useful to your career–but that depends on what they do with their lives as well, doesn’t it?

If I sound preachy to you, go look at this  newest Harvard prompt again:

The Harvard College Honor code declares that we “hold honesty as the foundation of our community.” As you consider entering this community that is committed to honesty, please reflect on a time when you or someone you observed had to make a choice about whether to act with integrity and honesty.

This could be a dangerous prompt.  That might be why you would write about it.  If you think you will, then you should read closely the  Harvard Cheating Scandal article,  and see some of its impact–this is, after all, the clear sponsor for the Harvard Honor prompt.  How could they not address the problem?  Here’s more of the story:  Harvard students expelled for cheating.   More recently, Harvard students have been taking a pledge not to cheat–check it out:  Honor Pledge.

So now you know what Harvard is up to:  they want to change their culture.  Of course, the difficulty of getting into Harvard, and the very high value people place on that Harvard degree work against that new culture–you have to have the numbers to get in, don’t you?  And getting the best results can require a few corners to be cut, right?  Talk about a feedback loop.

How could you write this essay?  If you have experience with the problem.  The downside: looking like a cheater in the event you were involved, or looking to self-righteous or preachy or just writing a very predictable, clichéd essay.

How to solve the problem:  Think about your own experience and what kinds of pressures there are in your community.  Build from that picture.  You are almost certainly feeling some kind of pressure to excel in order to get ahead, or you would not be here.  And this can take extreme forms, going beyond cheating to things like the suicide cluster in Palo Alto California–see this article for a good discussion of that:  The Silicon Valley Suicides.   The evidence suggests that the pressure you see in this article is the same thing that drives students to cheat, at least in many cases.

The depressing thing is how this pressurized system has created young people who see nothing wrong with it.  In some cases you will no doubt find some extreme psychologies in these people–hey, every population has some sociopaths and psychopaths in it–but more of more concern is the kind of “so what” cynicism shown by many of the Harvard students who were caught–it was not cheating because everybody does it, it was not cheating, we were collaborating, it was not cheating, we were consulting other sources.  Personally, I have a problem with that. So does Harvard.  How could you address each of those three attitudes and examine the wider reasons they exist, as part of an essay built on your experience?  That is your challenge.

And a good essay about honor would likely use some specific example, or list of examples, from the author’s own experience.  I hasten to add, however, that if you were at the center of a cheating incident, you would have to really be able to show a change for this essay to work.  I would, in fact, advise you not to write this essay–unless the cheating incident was  prominent enough to register on social media.  In that case, you probably have to write this essay.

Whatever the case, I think a good essay on this starts with your experience of or observation of cheating around you, but it must pull back to look at the problem as part of a larger problem.  Sure, the irony is clear–you are also using this essay as leverage to get into one of the three or four most selective universities in the world.  But if it comes from the heart as well as the head, so be it:  you will write a good essay and hopefully bring that attitude to Harvard.  Use your personal experience, connect the cheating to pressure, connect that pressure to wider social problems–shrinking middle class, pressure on students to succeed, etc–and then show how you will act in an ethical way.  Without being preachy.  A tough task, but a worthy one.  If you touch the reader with your detail and authenticity, you will go far.

 

But wait, you ask–you are offering to edit my essay, for a fee:  is that not cheating?

No.  I do offer close advice, but you have to write it.  I am your guide, but yours are the feet walking down the path.  So to speak.  For sure I will give you detailed advice on how to write in general and specifically on this essay, and you will become a better writer after working with me.

If that doesn’t work for you, I will just close this way:  the moral world is full of gray with black and white on either side.  I would say that I am off-white.

Come back soon for more posts on writing your college essay.

 

 

 

 

 

The Harvard Application Essay for 2013-2014: Back to the Future

Or to the past, because Harvard’s prompts are a blast from the past, especially if the past is the old Common Application Prompts.

The prompts that Harvard has up this year are a mix of old Harvard prompts and the prompts that your older friends or siblings wrote for the Common Application if they applied in recent years.   I’ll analyze the prompts separately, in order, right after this message:

Editing Update, 12/26/13:  I have a few editing slots open going into the last weekend of December; if you have 1-3 essays that need editing for a final app, contact me by splicing this address into an e-mail, with the heading “editing request” and a brief description of what you need:  wordguild@gmail.com

Final requests taken on Sunday, 12/29/13.  

And now, here is my Harvard analysis: 

1. Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (Required, 150 word max, Paste in).

150 words is not much space, which reinforces that this “essay” prompt is meant as a chance either to elaborate on material you (hopefully) already listed for them, or to describe an interesting aspect of your life that merited essentially a footnote in your application or that is not visible at all.  Choose wisely, by which I mean, look first for ways to offset weaknesses and next for ways to play up strengths that may be apparent in your application, and choose a topic  that shows a person who truly  is curious instead of a person who is merely trying to look as if he or she is curious .

If you appear to be a stereotypical asocial math and computer whiz, try to find a way to talk about something else–your stats and classes should already show your prowess in these fields, supported by your transcript, so maybe you should talk about your love of windsurfing or (harmless) flash mob organizing.  If you are weaker in math, find a way to offset that–your love of philosophy and logic, through your sideline, studying Zeno’s paradoxes, or perhaps your organizing skills or ability to find your way in the dark without a compass.  Be creative.

It’s fine to repeat things that are prominent on your “resume” so long as you are truly and deeply enthusiastic about the topic you choose.  You can sneak in some other things by showing, for example, how your interest in Topic A lead you to Topic B, the subject of your essay here (or paragraph, probably).

As for essays on work, I wouldn’t necessarily say not to write about your job flipping burgers, but you might want to give it some heft.  Try reading or at least perusing Barbara Erenreich’s Nickled and Dimed for some ideas on how to add depth to an essay on your fast-food/entry-level side job.  Internships will hopefully also provide fodder for an intellectual experience essay.

Now let’s look at the remaining prompts as a group, with links to topics that can be used to address the prompts:

2. You may wish to include an additional essay if you feel that the college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about yourself or your accomplishments. You may write on a topic of your choice, or you may choose from one of the following topics (Optional, 1300 word Max, Paste In) 

Unusual circumstances in your life
– Travel or living experiences in other countries
– What you would want your future college roommate to know about you
– An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you
– How you hope to use your college education
– A list of books you have read during the past twelve months


My first advice is this:  You should, of course, write this extra, “suggested” essay.  You do want to avoid overlaps with whatever common app essay you choose to use.

Turning to new developments for this year, Harvard  has for the most part just  rearranged some words  from last year’s  prompts.  The prompt asking you to write a  letter to your future college roommate was introduced last year, and is either borrowed from recent Stanford supplements or great minds really do think alike.

This year’s prompt on an intellectual experience was added as a word change to a similar, earlier prompt and  is  much broader than that earlier prompt  on an academic experience, which it replaced in 2012.  Academic limits you to school and maybe that internship or research project you did.  Intellectual does not limit your topics as much. Music, film, rock climbing, almost any serious human endeavor or experience can have an intellectual aspect to it, if you look at it the right way.  Books, of course,  are an ancient source of intellectual experiences and these will be a specific focus in this post.

I will start you with  links to some of my earlier posts which specifically address Harvard or relate to the prompts for 2013 that relate to or could be topics for this years prompts.  These posts will help get you started as you generate ideas.

I  address the list of books essay  in a separate post–this essay can take various forms, but avoid just making it a list of book blurbs; find a way to tie the books together, based on some sort of shared idea or other connection.  The posts below should help you get started with a book, travel/experience or letter essay:

Writing About Books

Writing About Books II

Writing About Books III

Writing About Books I

Travel or Living Experiences

My main warning is to avoid the stereotypical “My Trip” essay, which takes three forms:  1) shallow travelogue 2) travel experience with a “life’s lesson” forced upon it 3) Patronizing description of people with odd habits living in an exotic place/poor people living in an exotic place.   It’s incredibly easy to sound patronizing when writing about other countries and peoples and you should never forget that, in writing about another place, the subject of an application essay is still you.  Be aware of what you are revealing about yourself.

How to Write About  a Trip While Not Tripping Over Stereotypes:  Evading the Cliche II

College Essay No-No’s

Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

Consider Your Audience Before Writing Anything:  So You Want to Write a College Essay

Stanford Essay 2011, including brief advice on Writing a Letter to Your Roommate

My full-package college application clients are all done with their apps, so I will have some space for new editing work from today on through the 28th of December, 2013.  You can e-mail me at wordguild@gmail.com to inquire.  Good luck and Good Writing.